Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Very Unitarian Universalist Christmas

Fade In


Father and two sons are decorating the Christmas tree. A fire is lit in the fireplace and Christmas music plays. The father has just finished putting the string of lights on tree and turns them on.


Yeah, not bad if I do say so. Now that we have the tree up and with lights, we can put up the ornaments

Adam, the older son, takes ornaments out of a large box, and examines them, one at a time, then hands them, alternately to the younger son, his brother, Bryan, and to their father.

Yeah! I want to put the angel on top.

No, you did it last year.

Na-ha, you did!

No way! You did!

How do you remember that?

You always get to put the angel up

No, sometimes Dad does because he’s tallest, but anyway I called it first.

No fair!

Guys, let’s just focus on the other ornaments and worry about the angel later

Silence. And the three go about putting ornaments on the tree. After a few moments, Bryan starts to talk.

Dad, who invented Christmas.

The Christians.

Who’s that?

Well, those are people who believe Jesus Christ is the son of God. And, well, part of God.

Do you believe that?

I believe that Jesus was a great man who brought an important message about love to all of us.

Like Ghandi or Martin Luther King?

Sort of.

But why did they invent Christmas?

[Sighs] Really? It’s the day he was born. It’s his birthday. Geesh.

Well I didn’t know.

Adam, be nice. [To Bryan] Well, he is right. Christians believe that Christmas day is the day that Jesus was born. So we celebrate that day like a birthday.



Dad, so, but, so why is his birthday such a big deal? I mean why can’t we have Christmas for other famous people?

[Dramatically] Because Jesus was killed. [Points his fingers like a gun] Bang! Bang! Bang!


Yes, it’s true, but, um, not with a gun. He was crucified. By the Romans a long time ago.

Why'd they do that?

Well, basically, the Romans were afraid of Jesus. Jesus said a lot of things about love and peace that, believe it or not, made the Romans nervous. Many thought Jesus would challenge the Romans so they put him to death.


But because he was God it took him three whole days for the Romans to kill him.

Well, he actually died that first day, but on the third day he rose from the dead and up to heaven. At least that is what Christians believe.

Wow! Really?

Yeah, it’s totally true. Jesus rose up from the dead and became a Zombie.

Really? Dad is that true? Is Jesus really a Zombie?

[exasperated] Yes it’s true. I mean no! What I mean is, Jesus is not a Zombie. But the Christians believe, well, that he is not a Zombie but that he did rise from the dead as a miracle. Anyway, that is the Easter story, not the Christmas story. We can talk about Easter in April.

Let’s get these ornaments up.

The three go back to decorating the tree. After a quiet moment the younger son starts with another question.

Dad? So, is Santa Claus also Jesus?

No. Santa is different.

So, where did Santa come from?

Santa is creepy!

What? Nuh-uh.

Yeah-huh! Think about it. He is a stalker. What does the song say? He knows when your sleeping and when you are awake.


Yeah. It’s totally true. It’s like he is following us around wherever we go. It’s weird.

Adam, that’s about enough.

Bryan stops for a moment, takes the next ornament and stares at it. Father and Adam continue decorating.



Dad, does that mean Santa can he see me when I get out of the shower?

Fade Out

Monday, December 16, 2013

Woolworth Madonna

I discovered this little gem in a book I recently checked out of the library:

Shopping in Woolworth's, in the turbulent days, we saw a little boy put his hand inquiringly on a ten-cent Christ child, part of a creche. "What is this?" he asked his mother, who had him by the hand. "C'mon, C'mon," replied the harassed woman, "you don't want that!" She dragged him grimly away - a Woolworth Madonna, her mind dark with gift-thoughts, following a star of her own devising.

E. B. White - Writings from the New Yorker 1927 - 1976. Editor: Rebecca M. Dale. Harper Collins Publishers 1990.

Monday, November 25, 2013

In a Shopping Mall Parking Lot

In a shopping mall parking lot the carts await
with shoppers, their plastic money, and lists. Their burdened fates
weighted under what they buy. The hope of shopping impulses sated like a mayfly
for now ‘til President’s Day and Super Bowls and the Next Great Sale.

We are the consumer. And short years ago
would have spent this day with loved ones we know
yet christmas has breached Thanksgiving’s Maginot
and sent my Pilgrim’s Pride to its lonesome death ‘neath the asphalt below.

I close my weary eyes and inhale the last cinnamon scented cider and
in warm embrace, assume the final turkey leg and a last purchase
of rest along with that noble holiday. In a catacomb space,
my tomb, under the parking lot by a shopping mall.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Heather Mizeur for Governor of Maryland

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was sometime in the summer of 2003 when I first met Heather. She was running for our Ward 2 City Council seat in our little town of Takoma Park. Heather had sent out an email inviting folks to meet with her. Amy and I, being somewhat politically minded, decided to invite her over. We ordered pizza and with our then 1+ year old Adam causing trouble over the course of almost 2 hours, Heather won us over. We grilled her on traffic calming, urban planning (Amy’s degree), taxes, crime, the environment, and even mosquitos, a particularly “red-meat” issue for Amy who seemed to attract the pests like no one else. Sure it was a small town local election, but Heather really took the time to listen.

Fast forward a few years and our Heather had become a State Delegate in Annapolis. And this time she was fighting for new causes. In the intervening years a confluence of economics and health insurance changes led to the closing of the nearby midwife led birth centers including the one where Amy gave birth to our two sons while I attended. Beyond the emotional loss that came with the closing of where our sons were born came a level of anger with “the system” that moved Amy into action. It was then that she decided she would do what should could to change this part of our world. Among the many barriers to moving forward were state regulations for midwives. Amy became very active with Birth Options Alliance and the American College of Nurse Midwives who, in 2010, along with Heather, championed Maryland's HB 1407: The Birth Options Preservation Study.  HB 1407 changed how Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) could practice in the state of Maryland. It was only weeks after its passage, and just before a victory party celebration that Amy helped organize, that she was killed. That was April 29, 2010.

I share that story because of what it means for me today. I know Heather will continue to fight for women and children's health issues and by supporting Heather I can, in a small way, continue supporting Amy’s dream.

But that is just a part of it. Whether it is education or protecting the Chesapeake and the rest of the environment, by standing up to harmful fracking interests and the interests of big carbon-energy companies, or expanding wind power for Maryland, or even no-nonsense marijuana decriminalization, more than any other candidate, Heather’s values are aligned with mine.

Independently of all this, Lori met Heather not long after Amy and I did when Heather was running for state delegate. Once again, Heather was in a private home in Takoma Park, getting to know her constituents. Lori was impressed. Fast forward a few years and Lori met Heather once again when Heather was graduating from the Rawlings Center for Public Leadership at the University of Maryland and Lori was the event producer. A few years later, in 2012, when Lori, the boys and I were all living under one roof, Lori and I saw Heather for the first time as a couple. We were at the annual Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s annual Keep Winter Cold Polar Bear Plunge, an event that Lori has participated in since 2007. Lori and Heather were both plunging. I was there to take pictures. Lori and I both reminded Heather of how we knew her. Until then Lori and I didn’t realize that we both knew Heather.

“You know Heather? I didn’t know you know Heather.”
“Of course I know Heather! I produced the graduation event at Maryland.”
“Well, I know her from the work she did for midwives that Amy was working on.”
“Yeah?” Now with hands on her hips, “Well I met her when she came over to a friend’s house in Takoma Park when she was running for State Delegate!”
“I guess that counts. But she was at my house when she was running for City Council!”

And really, it doesn't matter who knows Heather first or best, we are a full-on Heather Mizeur family. Our faith teaches of of the interconnected web of life and, as stewards of the Earth, that we have an obligation to our creator to protect it. Thus our family values include a unflagging commitment to doing everything we can to ensure that future generations have the same or better access as we do to clean air, clean water, and an environment in which humans can thrive. For our family, that means supporting Heather however we can.

Obviously, you are free to make your own choice. Be informed. Read about the other candidates. And if you do, I think you just might come to a similar conclusion.

Vote for Heather Mizeur for Governor.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Wet leaves on a sidewalk in Ann Arbor

After breakfast at Victor’s, in the Campus Inn, I took a walk around the block. Cold and drizzly. Typical early November, right? You used to say this was just cold enough to be “sweater weather.”

Petite, shoulder length brown hair and a beret, blue jeans and boots, she walks towards me and for the merest moment it is you, here. I know it is not but let the fantasy play out just a little longer. Could there be some strange cosmic conjunction of time and space on this cold drizzly day in this cold drizzly place that conjures you as a young co-ed walking to me like a character from my own personal Brigadoon? Then her facial features come into view and the shape of her hips and it’s someone else. We walk towards each other on our own sides of the sidewalk. I wonder: Will she look at me? Will she at least make eye contact so I can say “good morning?” But she is in a hurry on this cold drizzly morning and barely lets her eyes glance sideways as we pass.

I stop to tie my shoe and notice the mosaic of leaves, yellow and red, pressed into the cold and drizzly sidewalk by the shoes and boots of others passing each other by.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The greatest expression

I think we can all generally agree that modern life, or maybe we should call it post-modern life, in much of the world, gives us access to all sorts of amazing inventions. It’s to the point we are hardly amazed anymore. I have images in my mind's eye, probably put there by television, of early aviators barnstorming from town to town. They’d land in a field somewhere and all the town's folk would rush around to gawk at the amazing technology. Some brave soul or two would go for a ride. People were awed and afraid of that areo-plane back then. More recently, perhaps, was sending men to the moon. I’m barely old enough to remember the later Apollo moon-shots. But those captivated much of the world. They were amazing.

Sometimes some new gadget excites me, but I’m not amazed. As in, this is revolutionary. 3-D printing seems really cool. But I don’t know of examples where the city elders and towns folk are gathering around the new 3-D printer in the community to gaze at its wonder. People line up for new Apple products but that isn’t because of amazing technology. More like amazing marketing.

I work at a university and the young students coming in today have never been amazed. They carry their own computers and portable communication devices and have grown up in a world of hyper-connected technology, video everywhere, and so on. I was in a conversation recently about this and about the lack of amazement we have with what ought to be pretty amazing technology. We concluded that we have become so accustomed to radical technology advances over the past 20 years or so that we have come to expect that as normal. And the only true innovations or discoveries that would fill us with awe would be things like time travel or teleportation or confirmation of extraterrestrials. We’ve become a bit jaded.

Yet, with all this amazing technology, I still hear people say that some such gizmo is “the greatest thing since sliced bread.”

Sliced bread? Sure, it’s just an expression, and I use it from time to time in conversation. But given how fast and far technology has advanced, ought not we innovate common expressions?

Sure, sliced bread is convenient, but how did it become the benchmark after which all else is compared? What must life have been like before sliced bread? And did sliced bread usher in some golden age of modern convenience?  Thanks to another innovation, crowd sourced knowledge; I found out that sliced bread, as we moderns know it, came into being in 1928. You can read about it yourself here at Wikipedia. You can also learn there was a ban on sliced bread during World War II! That’s how great it was.

The last, greatest thing
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “John, it’s just an expression and its actually meant to be used somewhat ironically or as hyperbole. Don’t be such a literalist.” Ok, fine. But given the advances since 1928 I wonder if the ironic affect is lost on us now. And maybe we need something other than sliced bread to demark the modern era from our pre-modern simplicity.
And consider this: I was at a local upscale grocery store the other day. I don’t want to say which one for obvious reasons but it rhymes with Mole Moods. In the bakery section I noticed that the really good breads were all un-sliced, full loaves. Multi-grains and olive and nuts and figs. Yummy! And then it occurred to me: Of course! The greatest thing since sliced bread is unsliced bread.

And there is another expression I wonder about. I was in a meeting not to long ago and someone chimed in “hey, now let’s not re-invent the wheel.” Yes, we all nodded. We don’t want to do that. And it got me thinking about wheels and what must have been going on for someone to first say that. Was there a problem with wheel inventions? This must have been before patent laws existed so probably numerous inventors were claiming their new wheel as the wheel.

“Hey, Bob, check out what I just invented!”
“Uh, Chuck, It’s a wheel.”
“Yeah, yeah, but this one is better.”
“It’s still just a wheel.”
“Bob, you just don’t get it do you.”
*sigh* “Whatever.”

I can see where this would become a problem with all these alleged wheel inventions. Everyone was working on inventing wheels and ignoring other important problems. It must have reached some crises and then the king or pharaoh or whoever must have issued some decree that there be no more wheel inventions. The current design works good enough.

“And, from this day forward, there shall be no more wheel inventions. We are good with what we have.” And all the subjects in the land went back to there mud huts to contemplate something other than wheel inventions. And before long we wound up with sliced bread.

But this got me thinking. I wonder who really holds that first, true wheel patent. So I went to the US Government Patent and Trademark Office website and did a search on patents with titles containing “wheel” to find out. Well guess what? As of October 29, there are 20,873 patents with the word wheel in the title. Since 1976! Lots of wheels! Sure, there are steering wheels and inline skate wheels and mechanical devices with wheels in them. Not just that original chariot wheel or cart wheel or whatever. But still, that’s lots and lots of wheels!

So it would seem that wheel re-invention is happening a lot. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. Now I know what you must be thinking, “John, fer cryin’ out loud, it’s just an expression intended to communicate the concern for repeating or duplicating work already done. Don’t be such a literalist.”

Ok, fine! Still, I think there is room to clean up some dated and misleading expressions. You know, maybe instead of wheels we should try not to “reinvent the bread slicing machine.” Or maybe we should measure future innovations against something more transformative and say that something is “the greatest invention since the wheel.” That might be more accurate, if not easier to say.

In the end, I guess I would just like a new comparative common phrase. One that is really clever and meaningful and right for our post-modern sensibility. Then I could say that this new expression “is the greatest expression since the one that was about sliced bread.”

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In a box

I remember an article I read in the Roanoke Times back in the late 1980s. I was in grad school and working for my university, Virginia Tech, as a software programmer. The article was about Generation X. Apathetic, MTV-watching, Generation X. Up until then I’m not sure I had heard of Generation X. Maybe I had. Maybe it had been mentioned on my primary news source, MTV, but it was this article that got me. Turns out, I read, we were apathetic, self-absorbed, in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. Not really amounting to too much. What had we accomplished? Not much, it turned out. We hadn’t been protesting Vietnam or pushing any real social agenda like Civil Rights. We really weren't doing much of anything, unlike the Boomers. We were in our early 20s and had little to show on our generational resume. Needless to say I was miffed. All at once I was now part of some group with a label with a set of attributes. And I had already failed.

Recently there has been much written about the Millennial generation or Generation Y. And thanks to Google, I know my kids, born in the 2000s, are Generation Z. I wonder what generation comes next? Do we loop back to Generation A, or start using Greek letters? Or maybe names like hurricanes. That would be cool. Look out for Generation Alberta!

Thanks to Tom Brokaw I also know the generation before the Boomers is the “Greatest” and allegedly, according to Wikipedia, there is a "Lost" generation (they fought in WWI) and a "Lucky" generation (nestled between the Greatest and the Boomers).

This all got me thinking: What’s up with this generational labeling, and, can I blame the Baby Boomers for it? Is this something we worried about before 1900? Or is this a reflection of the rapid pace of social and technology change over the past 100 years or so?  Thus to describe the different experiences of our lives over time it's just easier to assign a group of people born in a range of years to a generational bucket. As if there is some big difference between someone born in 1964 and someone born in 1965.

Long gone are our comfortable tribal affiliations: There was My Clan, and everyone else. I knew My Clan because we spoke the same dialect of the same language, lived in the same valley together, and worshipped the same right local god. We may trade with the Other Clan, the one in the other valley, and sometimes there would be a inter-clan marriage to ensure ongoing peace, but we knew who was who. I suspect there was not so much of a generational delineation other than elder, adult, and child.

Our Generation Z cats fit in their own box.
Today that family-geography clan identity doesn’t work like it used to but we still need the comfort of our in-groups. So we create them. Democrat, Republican, Tea-party Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats. I guess there are still some calling themselves Independents and who cling tightly to that group for comfort. In my life I’ve belonged to several groups: Nerdy/smart kids, frat boy, computer guy, married, divorced, married, married with children, young widow(er), remarried widow(er).  I was Catholic then Agnostic, maybe Atheist for a moment, then Unitarian Universalist. I’ve actually voted for Republicans in the past, but have always thought of myself a Democrat or Green, when I can find one. I used to think I was Independent but Independents can’t vote in primaries in my state so I had to choose a side. And I’m a heterosexual white male Gen Xer. I don’t watch MTV anymore but do love Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey: Now that is a group with generational problems and lots of convenient in-groups and out-groups.

Last spring I watched all three seasons on HuluPlus and Amazon Prime. I had just had minor “guy” surgery (putting me in another group: Done Having Kids). I decided to find out what all the fuss was about so I started watching and was hooked within the first 5 minutes of the first episode. I plowed through all three seasons and am now watching it again with my wife and two boys. And what fun to share a pop culture experience with my two Generation Z’ers!

I haven’t watched any of Breaking Bad so I’m not in that group. And they seem like a cool group with their Periodic Table Chemical Symbol Facebook Profile Pictures. I'd like to be cool like that too, but I'm not. And that’s okay. One series is enough for me. And since I cancelled Netflix a year ago or so, I can't be part of the House of Cards group either. I'm completely shut out of that group. That makes me a little sad since I really love Kevin Spacey. But Downton Abbey I can share across the generations. What I know of Breaking Bad is that it would require more explaining to an 8-year-old Generation Z kid than I can muster. Though Downton Abbey has some difficult scenes it also has great "teaching" moments and lessons about people and history.

Which is good. Because kids these days need all the lessons they can get if they ever plan to put down their iPodTouches and X-Box controllers and hope to measure up to Generation X.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Mums the word

Now that we are past this most recent political crisis I can have some comfort in knowing that someday I will die.

Okay, I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’ve got years of living I hope to live. I have two boys I need to help become men, though they seem to need less and less each day. I have a new bride and plan to spend many years with her. We are in our mid (or is it late?) 40s. Hopefully we have 30 or so more with good health and stamina. I still want to hike the Appalachian Trial, bottom to top, and, with luck, meet my grandchildren. So I’m not planning on leaving this planet, not just yet.

I don’t dwell on death as much these days as I did after Amy died. I think that is a good thing, mostly. I can’t say I’m “cured” of my existential spirals and occasional wonderings about “what is the point of it all.” Especially these past couple weeks listening to the oratory from what count as our Nation's Statesmen (aside: it is mostly men and they are NOT helping advance our gender's cause at all). Anyway, this past politica-pocalypse was enough to start me spiraling again. As much anguish we just went through, will it really matter in a year? 10 years? How about 1000? In 3013 will historians, assuming there are historians, study this month and draw the great arch of that future civilization from here? Or will it even register a footnote in a multi-volume analysis of post Cold-War America.  I guess a footnote would be nice.

But does it even matter if we get a footnote or not? Baring some amazing medical miracle I’ll be dead, as will you, dear reader. Sorry for the downer. And writing these last 3 sentences is exactly how I get pulled past the event horizon into one of my existential black holes.

Not today! I’m not going to let the specter of my future death get me down. Forget about death – I’m
not going to let the reality defeat me that the same jokers who passed for statesmen three weeks ago are still there. No!

I’m looking out the back window of my home office. The white mums I bought yesterday from the hardware store on sale for $4.99 are glowing with the dawn’s first light. The muggy, cloudy rain from last night has passed on to somewhere else and the fragrance of fall floats in the crisp coolness of today. Tonight my new bride returns from a week away at a workshop. This is the day that God, or Love, or the Buddha, or Neil deGrasse Tyson has granted me. This array of atoms, called John, is still alive and self-aware. That seems pretty amazing when I think about it.

What’s not to love about life?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Caring for a sick child. And congress.

Last night, Bryan woke up crying. It was a different sort of crying than the crying that comes with a bad dream, which, thankfully, isn’t all that common. This one came with a different tone. It was that tone that a parent hears and knows something for real not good is happening. And you out there with children or have been around young ones, you know there are different cries. Angry, sad, frustrated. There is the cry that comes after a loud noise. There is a loud bang, then a second or two later out comes the first long, loud cry then another pause as the injured child takes in a large breath, and then the second cry, even louder. I think there is a good reason for that first pause. The lurking guardian has just enough time after the loud bang to mentally run through all the possible scenarios, outcomes, and contingencies, conclude if there are enough large bandages in the medicine cabinet, before leaping to action. All these different types of cries remind me of the saying about Eskimos having 50 words for snow. Maybe we should have more than one word for cry. Rather we describe the cry by the type of tears that come from our eyes, as if there is some chemical difference: Tears of joy. Angry tears. Crocodile tears. Where does that one even come from? Crocodile tears. I’ll have to look it up later. And I need to confirm the Eskimo thing about snow before I say it again. I’m learning more that stuff I learned, as a child, isn’t right. Like Christopher Columbus being an awesome dude or that you can’t swim for an hour after eating.

But last night’s tears were not Crocodile. Bryan has had a fever since Thursday evening. I’ve come to not freak out over fevers like I used to.

John: Hi Doctor Feldman, thanks for taking my call.
Dr. Feldman: Of course, and you say Bryan’s temperature is, what, 99.9?
John: That’s right. When can we bring him in?
Dr. Feldman: Any other symptoms? Coughing, Achiness?
John: No just the fever.
Dr. Feldman: I see. Well, I can tell you are concerned, but you know, kids just get these viruses from time to time and there is not much we can do but make them as comfortable as we can. If he gets hungry let him eat what he wants. Push the fluids if possible. If the fever gets a little higher, maybe give him some Ibuprofen before bed to help him sleep. You know, we don’t even really count it as a “fever” unless it gets over 100.4 and fevers between 101 and 104 are normal for so called “cold” viruses. He’ll be fine. But do call us if other symptoms, like a cough, or achiness, develop.
John: Oh.

Though his fever started low, yesterday it graduated crept up to 104.6 by late evening. So now I had crossed that threshold to "high fever" but thankfully with no other symptoms. And I’ve also come to learn that in this case to give the Ibuprofen and if the fever comes down soon-ish with that treatment, not to panic.

Right. Don't panic.

As soon as I saw the reading on the ear thermometer my mind’s eye conjured up an old scene from Little House on the Prairie: Ma’s got a fever and Pa has rushed over in the rain to Doc’s house. He stands there with rain dripping off his hat pleading, "isn't there something, Doc, you can do?"

"I'm afraid not Charles. Not this time."

This episode is not going to end well, I can tell.

So I took a deep breath and convinced myself that Bryan did not have meningitis, or tetanus like Ma did, but just some normal but nasty virus. He is, after all, an otherwise healthy 8-year-old running around 5 days per week in that petri dish we call elementary school. I gave him the Ibuprofen and an hour later his temp was down to 102.6. I moved him from the couch in front of the TV to his bed. And we all went to sleep.

Oh and before I go on, those instant read ear thermometers are worth their weight in gold. They are not the cheapest, but they are fast and convenient. Get one from your local drug store or pharmacy.

But back to last night . . .

Here is something to know, before Amy died, she was the primary caretaker. No surprise there. She was the one who had some innate sense about the children and would take notice the moment just before one of the kids started to cry. I could never quite understand how it worked. There were plenty of nights I wouldn’t even be aware of trouble until the next morning unless I received a gentle elbow or knee letting me know it was my turn. Now I am the one with that ability. I still don't know how it works but last night I was getting up out of bed right as Bryan started to cry. I hustled to his room and on the short trip down the hall had some sense what might be going on. I sat down on the edge of Bryan’s bed and put my hand to his forehead. He was cool and soaking wet. I reached under his blanket and he was soaking wet, head to toe. His fever had broken. I covered his eyes and turned on the bedside lamp. Slowly he woke up from his fever dream. I replaced his damp pillow with a fresh one and swapped comforters with a spare. It probably would have been best to completely change his bed but he was too rung-out and I didn’t want him to get up.  He slowly stopped crying, I turned off the light, rubbed his back and he fell back to sleep.

And during this most tender father-son moment the thought running through my head was: Thank god the federal government is closed. 

Every year, you see, out church has an annual weekend retreat to Catoctin Mountain Park. Catoctin is perfectly gorgeous in the Autumn. We stay in cabins in the woods and gather in a main hall for meals and games. We play sports and hike and just have a lot of fun together. I like to volunteer to coordinate the Saturday morning breakfast, usually for about 120-140 people. Catoctin Mountain Park is right next to Camp David and is federal land and therefore: Closed. This week the church has scrambled and Plan B is a big outdoor gathering, grill out, games, sports, etc., at our minister’s home. And through whatever Unitarian Universalist miracle we can conjure, it will become Catoctin. At least for one day.

But that isn’t what I was thinking about. I was thinking about what I would have done had the feds been open. I had all this food to purchase, bring up to Catoctin, and then prep for breakfast plus all the normal packing. But it would have been with a sick child. Lori probably would have drawn the short straw and stayed with Bryan. Bryan probably would have been upset to not go. There would have been complex logistics issues since I would have to drive the minivan up with all the gear and food and left the VW behind, which is a manual transmission. Lori doesn’t drive a manual. She’d be essentially without a car. Catoctin isn’t too far away, maybe 90 minutes, but I imagined possibly two trips back and forth. I’m sure we would have worked it out and others in our church would have helped. They always do.

But thanks to the intransigence on Capitol Hill I had one less thing to worry about. As I tried to go back to sleep it occurred to me that, like Bryan’s fever, this too shall pass. Congress has us crying in our sleep and each night we wake up soaking wet hallucinating colors and shapes that attack us. We just seem unable to quit the bug that has infected us. But hopefully, soon, we will get up one morning, like Bryan did today, feeling much better. We won't completely out of the woods. Bryan, for example, still has a 99.6 fever but his appetite has returned. I don’t know if the Congressional physician has taken Congress’s temperature yet. And for that, by the way, I’d recommend rectal, rather than ear. But tt feels we are past due for a little care for those sad, sick politicians. Maybe they should rest, load up on fluids, and take some Ibuprofen. This fever too shall break. I hope soon.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Willow Oak

We have a willow oak in our front yard. It was already full-grown when Amy moved in 15 years ago and the same when I joined her 2 years later. I wasn’t familiar with willow oaks before I moved in. Maybe I had seen them before and just not paid any attention to them, but when I thought of an oak tree I thought of a white oak or red oak. An oak tree with that classic oak tree leaf and acorns the size of a good-sized cherry.

Leaves on my front walk
signal autumn
If you know the willow oak then you know its leaves are different. Its leaves are long and thin, not at all like a white oak’s leaves. And we do have white oaks too. They are in the backyard. And while the long and thin willow oak leaves are not at all like the white oak’s they are like their namesake’s, the willow tree. Though confusing a willow tree with a willow oak seems unlikely even for the least of the arborist among us.

I love our willow oak, but I didn’t always. I guess you could say it grew on me. Our willow oak is a large willow oak – very large with a canopy stretching over the street and back over nearly our entire house. In the summer its leaves shade our shingles and the house is cooler as a result. But in the fall, which the several thin brown leaves on my front walk tells me is starting, my willow oak drops those thin leaves over a wide area with significant deposits in my gutters. Its acorns are also smaller. More like blueberries than cherries.  The acorns fall too, of course, and mix in with the leaves on the ground and gutters. Should we ever grow an apple tree we could sprinkle on a balsamic vinegar and toss in a little blue cheese and we’d have a perfect waldorf salad. At least perfect for the happy squirrels with whom we share our yard.

I’ve gone through a couple rakes in my decade or so here. Before moving in with Amy, I had mostly been a townhouse, condo or apartment dweller.  As a child I grew up in the country with a yard and lots of trees and I did my fair share of leaf raking. I also did my fair share of leaf pile jumping and I imagine if you asked my parents they’d have a different recollection of my raking to jumping ratio. As a teen-ager I had summer and after school jobs working for a nearby farm. After the summer peaches ended and the autumn apples slowed, our boss, Mr. Heritage, would pay us minimum wage to rake leaves at the Methodist Church down the road. We’d rake huge piles onto a giant canvas then hoist the canvas onto a flatbed pulled by a tractor. We’d drive the leaves into the orchards and spread them out for mulch. All of this is to say I came to my current residence with a resume containing practical and advanced raking experience.

And like many life and work experiences, including some on my resume, there is a difference between the content and the context. Though I had raking experience I had no willow oak raking experience. Only white and red oak, along with sycamore, perhaps a little maple, and tulip tree. These are good rake training trees with their large leaves that rest loosely on the ground. They are happily gathered with the tines of the average rake. The willow oak is a different kind of thing. Its narrow leaves prefer, insist on really, the comfort of the ground. After only the first heavy fall dew, forget about a gentle rain, any willow oak leaves take that moisture, nestle down in the grass and embrace the earth. I use the word “embrace” in an attempt to be poetic, but those goddamned leaves, to be more precise, stick to the grass and earth like week-old dog shit. A rake is practically useless. It takes several passes over the same patch of earth, with increasing pressure, to relieve those leaves from my yard. And given their shape and size, the rake tines tend to mostly realign the leaves in a parallel direction so the next pass of the rake has zero affect at all other than to better arrange them in the same direction. I have learned, over the dozen autumns, to alternate each pass or so at a 30-45 degree angle so as to confuse the leaves. This seems to help though it is no perfect solution. And any of those leaves left behind, I have learned, will eventually decompose but only after taking my hard fought grass with it. That’s another story.

And the gutters are another story too, but one I’ll include here. Normal oak leaves – and by normal I’m referring to those red and white oak leaves – are large enough to mostly cover over the gutter in clumps. To be sure, plenty do get into the gutter itself and some into the downspout, but mostly two or three of the first fallen leaves will cooperate, overlap and cover the downspout so the others rest on top. Over the course of the fall, even though the gutter structure becomes completely overlaid with leaves, the overlapping and broad structure still leaves enough room for an average autumn rain to collect and discharge through the downspouts. Willow oak leaves have a different plan. Then conspire with a small stick or two and lodge themselves well down the downspout and create a foot or two-leaf plug column.  After this first vanguard of leaves has settled in, their reinforcements quickly fill up the gutter rendering the whole contrivance useless to guttering rain. Even now, on this chilled sunny October, I can see a November rain lipping over the edge of my gutters. A wet homage to the waterfall. All this is to say, the only real strategy to the willow oak in the autumn is to stay ahead as best I can. I can’t wait until all the leaves have fallen then dedicate a crisp Saturday afternoon to their removal. I have to plan ahead a bit more. If there is rain forecast for a day or two away, I better do spend some time, even if its an hour, to rake up what willow oak leaves I can before they imbed into my lawn. Which is exactly what I will do. I will do it in some fantasy future where I sit on my front porch with a cup of coffee in one hand and rake in the other waiting to dispatch each leaf as it falls.

But that isn’t what is going to happen. The forecast for the next few days calls for rain and I haven’t the time to be raking which means the willow oak leaves with the head start will become laminated to whatever they land on.

My willow oak as seen from my neighbor's yard
I say I love my willow oak yet have given scarce evidence for that emotion. I did mention the shade it offers. And that is nice. But I get shade from other trees too. I don’t know how old the tree is but it must be original to this neighborhood. My house was built in 1940 – probably one of the last before the war. There is a time gap in our little development of when homes were built and one can almost draw a line on a map based on when construction stopped and war making started. I imagine someone; maybe a young girl or boy, mentored by a father leaning on a shovel, planting my willow oak as a sapling that year of looming war. An oak of any sort would have been a good choice. It’s strength and future size a good symbol during those days. It is possible my willow oak was already there and the builders kept it while the house was built, but that seems unlikely. It would have been a young tree, not sturdy and mature enough to be worth saving and incur the inconvenience of excavating and building around. And there are no other willow oaks nearby to leave an acorn behind. But I can never know. So I choose the image in my mind’s eye of the child planting the tree with an approving father’s oversight.

Over the years families and individuals walked passed my slowly maturing willow oak as they went off to whatever it is they did. And along with the tree, each person grew a little older. Eventually each person moved on leaving my willow oak to greet the next temporary inhabitant. Then the day came and my once future bride, Amy, arrived, walked up our front steps, past the willow oak, and settled in. Then she invited me in. Then two young boys. And too soon after, Amy left us behind along with my willow oak which sheltered us through the worst of storms. Eventually Lori and a small menagerie of loving pets walked past the tree and joined us in our home.

Through our human storms and meteorological storms with human names my willow oak has lost a few branches here and there. A knothole is growing about 15 feet up that is a home for squirrels. I had to have a large limb removed a year or so ago as it had grown too big and too close to the roof for my home insurance agent’s checklist. And some day my willow oak will die like we all must. I don’t know if I want to go before it goes, or if I want to stand witness to its demise. Some day may come when a terrific gust blows part or all of it down. Such a calamity will cause quite a mess of electric and telephone wires, possibly break a car or two, and maybe require another visit from my home insurance agent, or worse, a neighbor’s. And given that risk I know I will likely face a test administered by a well-meaning arborist who’ll force me to admit my willow oak’s death sentence. Some will see my decision as a merciful thing. But to me it will be a crime most foul. I do not look forward to that day in the least, but cannot imagine anyone else committing this premeditated murder for hire.

Like all things we love our minds sometimes drift to dark fantasies of when that thing must die. We hear something on the radio or someone says something and our mind drifts to that scary place where a loved one is no longer with us. I suppose it is essential to our human nature and is an evolved strategy to prepare ourselves, inadequately, for that certainty. I fear that future day, after the storm named for a person, when a large branch has taken out my and my neighbors electricity and perhaps worse. The gaping wound left on my willow oak’s trunk reveals a terminal rot. The decision I will be forced into will be both obvious and impossible. And that is how I know I love my willow oak. I love it because I fear the day I no longer rake its leaves.

Today though, when I walk out my front door, it will be there. Standing to my right as I walk out to do whatever it is I will do.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Politician's Dilemma

Political oriented essays will also be published on my Daily Kos blog 

Here is a question my good friend Jim and I posed as we were driving back from a camping trip: What does it mean if all the individual people (actors) in a system act completely rationally and make rational decisions but the sum of those rational decisions is irrational? What does that mean about the system that contains those individuals?  It’s an interesting question somewhere in the overlap of economics and social psychology. Game theory might describe it with the classic problem known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Rather than trying to explain it, you can read it on wikipedia.

We were talking about the current congressional budget impasse, of course. But the prisoner’s dilemma only really describes the rationale for the actors’ decisions and the economic motives behind them. It says little about the system that would encourage or lead to individuals not acting in a way that is contrary to their better self-interests.

And yet, for the group of republican congressional representatives we refer to as the Tea Party, this seems to be exactly what is going on.

Like it or not, thanks to decades of gerrymandering we have a high percentage of very safe districts for both liberals and conservatives. If the primary reward for a congressional representative is re-election, then making decisions and voting in the way that best ensures re-election is the rationale thing to do. And thanks to citizen anger in parts of the land to Obamacare (nee: the Affordable Care Act), those Tea Party activist congressional representatives are acting in a way to ensure re-election.

I’m not going to argue the validity of the citizenry’s anger nor the representative blood-lust embodied within the Tea Party. There is plenty of analysis regarding the mis-information, subtle and not-so-subtle racial antagonism towards anything Obama. That’s for another day.

In Federalist Number 10, James Madison warns of the perils of factions and argues that the republican form of government, rather than a direct democracy, and shared powers between federal and state, would prevent fractious disruptions to the proper running of a government.

He was wrong.

The seeds of a civil war were sown in the hallowed constitution. And in addition to that war we have a history of factions disrupting the civil functioning of the government including the most recent Tea Party movement. Perhaps our founding fathers, as great as they were, were naïve to human behavior and believed too much in an Enlightenment Age view of civilization. Their high-minded ideals and philosophies assumed a level of compassion and working for the greater good, and that rational debate and science would lead us to greater knowledge. But those concepts are assumed, not well codified in the Constitution itself. The separation of powers was seen as sufficient (and revolutionary at the time) yet it has not successfully dealt with the recent passions of humankind and our descent back to superstitions and fears of science.

Now we have a minority opposed to a law passed by both houses of congress, signed by the President, and affirmed by the Supreme Court. This minority’s strategy to change the law is to shut down the government, throw people out of work, and end necessary services for the citizens they represent. If this were happening elsewhere in the world we would be debating whether to name it a coup or not.

And yet, this collection of individuals is acting rationally. Each is acting in the way most likely to achieve re-election. So when we start hearing reports that Republican congressmen secretly wish this would all just go away and pass the so-called “Clean Continuing Resolution” I can only conclude a “Prisoner’s Dilemma” like situation is in play. The best outcome for all would be for all Congressional Representatives to vote for the Clean CR and then get on with whatever they want to do to change Obamacare. But for that to happen, no one can balk and vote against it. As soon as the Tea Party wing suspects one will balk, they all must to show fealty to their constituents. And then, in fear, the rest of the Republicans do the same: Acting as rationally as the two prisoners in their dilemma.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Profiles in Cowardice

I'm sure someone has the data, but if the past informs the present, and about 2000 die from guns per month, then there have been about 16,000 (give or take) gun deaths (murder, suicide, accident) since Newtown.

That's about all I have to say today. Please share as you wish.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Syria *sigh*

Let’s be honest. We are not going to bomb Syria because the use of chemical weapons is an abomination and we must, ethically and morally, enforce the UN ban on such horrible agents of war. We are going to bomb Syria to send a message to Iran and North Korea and any other rogue nations and groups (yes, that’s you Al Qaeda and Taliban). And maybe also to let Mr. Putin know we are still in charge no matter how awesome he is catching fish and hunting tigers.

Sorry, I’m not on board.

But it looks like the debate is about over in congress. What now? Here is the best outcome I can conceive of:

Obama uses his Congressional authorization to go back to the international community with a bit more oomph and say:

“Dudes, WTF? We’ve got a madman gassing people in the middle of the most volatile region on the planet and you are just gonna sit there with your arms crossed? Well that is just bullshit. Get off your comfy butts and do something. Say something. Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anyone home?”

I feel like we are playing a version of chess that everyone else is playing but with a slightly different set of rules and not cluing us in. And we are being outmaneuvered. I don’t like it. And this isn’t just Obama. This is the result of 30-some years of poorly executed international affairs, especially in the Middle East, maybe going back to Beirut. I just do not think we get it over there, yet we keep trying.  You may call this my hindsight bias. I’ll just say I’m trying to learn from history.

Obama’s charm is running thin even for those, like me, who voted for him. And 48% of the country thinks he was born on the moon. His ability to sell this at home is limited. But maybe the grass-roots campaigner has enough of his lawyer negotiating mojo to bring this back to the UN. Call for a cease-fire. Send in humanitarian aid to the sorry Syrian citizens. Somehow we need to create a third option so we can get off the horns of this dilemma.

For what it’s worth, here is what I just sent my Congressman and two Senators:

Syria: Don't do it.

I understand the President's point about enforcing international law, and Assad's use of chemical weapons is an abomination against humanity, but I see little the U.S. stands to gain from acting unilaterally. We didn't punish Saddam Hussein when he gassed his citizens, so we have precedent of doing nothing when it suits our needs (as distasteful as that is too).

Please push for more support from the international community (UN, Arab nations). Our ability to be a world leader is on the ropes and while punishing someone for using chemical weapons is something that should be done, I don't think we are in a good position to be the ones to do it. Not this time.

And here is what I posted on my Congressman’s Facebook page:

We take this action at our peril. The international world sees that we pick and choose when to enforce international law and when we don't. You cited Iraq's use of chemical weapons. Yes, it was reprehensible, yet, we looked the other way then. It looks like this train has left the station in our rush to support the president. But you have to know we are weary of this. We have unwittingly boxed ourselves into a corner and have created a false choice: Punish Assad, or let chemical weapons proliferate. Why not go back to the UN and lobby hard for more support. Sure Russia and China will block action against Syria. So let them and let them take the fall in the international community for letting atrocities continue. (Registered Democrat (for now) and voted for Obama twice).

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Another trip around

I’m 47 years old today.

The big Four Seven.

Happy Birthday to me!

And today started at about 5 a.m. when the younger son couldn’t sleep and woke me up. I tucked him back in and he went to sleep right away and then, well, I didn’t. I just lied in bed for an hour before the dog came to the door and began her pity growl. I have to give her credit. She knows not to bark and wake up everyone. She knows how to do this kind of under the breath mini growl sound that just wakes up Lori and me. I was starting to feel myself almost be able to fall back to sleep but I knew I wouldn’t so I told Lori I’d get up so Dolly the dog could curl up on the bed with Lori. Which they both like.

So, I’m going to be tired for my birthday. Which I guess is another way that being 47 years old feels like being 46 years and 364 years old. Tired.

Let me stop right here because I know this sounds like I’m complaining. It sounds like a good set up for an “I can’t believe I’m really this old and tired essay.” And while there is some truth to that, what is more true is how full my life is. I say “full” because it’s hard for me to use the word “blessed” or “wonderful.” And even hearing the "happy" in happy birthday gives me pause. Those of you who have been reading along for the past several years know why. Three years ago I “celebrated” my 44th birthday; the first one after Amy died the previous April. I was rolling through the heavy rumbling of grief aftershocks and was very much unsure where my life was leading.

And yet here I am. With a full life.

I have to say it starts with my two boys. I’ve mentioned this to several people – had I not had those two boys I don’t know what I would have done after Amy died. It wasn’t like I ever made a conscious decision, it just happened. Instinctively I had to dust myself off quickly enough so I could continue to be a present father to them. It wasn’t overnight, and plenty of scotch ran through me that first year. But we made it through. And now I have a guitar playing middle school-er and a baseball playing 3rd grader. This past week was their first week back to school and, well, so far so good! They continue to amaze me in so many ways.

Then there are my in-laws. Amy’s family, that is. We could have chosen to lean away from each other. To let our grief and anger be directed towards each other. I’ve heard those stories. But that isn’t what happened. It was mostly, exactly the opposite and now I have what I have to believe is a rare thing: an amazing and loving relationship with my in-laws.

And of course my family and my extensive network of friends from all over. I can so easily remember middle school and high school and wondering if people liked me or not. Trying to fit in. Be cool. All that stuff. That was a long time ago and the shadow of that insecure adolescents has faded but still lingers and shows up from time to time. Objectively, though, I am rich with family and friends.

Then there is Lori. When I put myself out there to start dating again I really had no idea what to expect. It was all online and I felt nervous and guilty and excited and really very unsure of myself. I think I would tell people I felt “wobbly.” But I told myself I would find someone to date through the holidays. It would be good to have someone to be with since the holidays could be tough and after that we’d break up and then in the spring time or so maybe I’d start dating for real. That was the story I told myself.

Well, like a lot of stories I tell myself, that one didn’t go as planned. Instead Lori and I fell in love. There is more to this story, of course. Like how she and the kids got to know each other, how she brought dogs and cats into our lives. How she got to know my in-laws and how they welcomed each other into each other’s lives. How she joined a family still very much off-balance and accepted it for what it was and embraced it. Embraced us.

After we had been together for a few months and it was pretty clear my plan to break up with my holiday date was coming apart. I told Lori that I was waiting for her to come to her senses and go back to her life. Yes, of course I would be sad if she did, but I wouldn’t be surprised. And then more time passed and I would tell her that she must either A) really, really love me (us), or B) be crazy because no sane person would choose this life.

She kept saying it was A and whatever evidence I could find for B was not that strong and probably not as valid as the evidence she found for me to be crazy. And that was good, because I really, really love her too. Which is why I married her in June. And that puts me in yet another demographic: Widowed-Remarried. And yes, there is a Facebook group for us.

I could go on and on about ways my life is full: my amazing work colleagues, my church, the new venture Lori and I are creating. But I’ll stop and sum it all up with one concept. One philosophy that is becoming my religion: The enduring and healing power of Love. I view it not just as a human emotion but also as a natural force. Almost like gravity or the weak nuclear force. I fantasize that someday in the future some clever scientist will be able to show how subatomic particles bombarded with the love force behave differently and convey advantages to the host and then we’ll have certain proof of our singular purpose as a species. The one thing we can do that no other in the universe can: Love.

So, it is a happy birthday. I can say that. Though today I’m tired and have a slight fatigue head-ache, I feel pretty good. My life is full. Filled with love.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Twerk Respect

Dear readers,

Particularly you younger, Generation Y readers: Using my “blogger pulpit” I feel compelled to respond to the “Twerk-tastrophy” that has gripped the nation the past few days. Unless you are living in a cave, or are approaching 47 in a couple days, you know exactly what I am talking about.

But for you cave dwellers and late 40-somethings, I am talking about the VMAs, better known as the MTV Video Music Awards: the program where Peter Gabriel won 10 awards in 1987 for Sledgehammer. Yeah!

That was back in the day when MTV still showed real music videos.

And at this year’s “VMA” Billy Ray Cyrus’s little girl porno-danced something called “The Twerk.”

Ok, fine, so I had to google “twerk” to find out what it is. And I didn’t even know the VMAs were on until I started seeing other blog posts, and news articles, and Facebook statuses referencing this most recent Crime Against Humanity. And I didn’t even know what the VMAs were until I asked my wife, Lori, and she told me it’s the MTV awards show. Aha! MTV!

I wasn't even sure MTV is still on. I guess I skip right past it surfing from HGTV to ESPN. Whatever.

Of course wanting to feel connected to whatever it is that is pop culture these days I sat in front of my google machine and starting searching:  “VMA Twerk”, “Miley Cyrus Twerk”, and so on. And when I was sure no one was looking, I watched a YouTube of her performance.

Wow. And I mean wow!

All I can say is, “what is up with all the giant plushies? That seems kind of creepy.”

But also, this thing they call Twerk or Twerking - when did this all start? According to Wikipedia, it’s been around a while, about 15 years or so, growing up in the hip hop culture, which makes me wonder: Is it just because a white girl is doing this that we are all upset? Hmm. Maybe, or maybe that’s too simple. That’s for another essay.

What twerking used to look like!
But my real objection is this: There seems to be no respect or recognition whatsoever of the elders of twerking. The current generation of Millennials could at least acknowledge the heritage of their art form. And you know whom I’m talking about. The proto-twerkers from back in my day: Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray. And it was called Dirty Dancing then which is a far more accurate descriptor than The Twerk.

So, from the original slacker GenXers to the current slacker Millennials, give your elders the props they deserve.

I said that right, yes? Props?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Goddamned Liberal Solar Panels!

Heeeere we go again! Another failed liberal president is trying to placate his liberal base. Everyone knows that Obama’s liberal energy conspiracy and these so-called "solar panels" are just a smoke screen to draw our attention away from Benghazi-gate, Snowden-gate, and Holder-gate.

Let’s review:

  1. Carter put solar panels on the White House, the economy tanked and American hostages were taken. 
  2. Reagan removed the solar panels, the hostages were freed, the economy became a juggernaut, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed!
  3. Now Obama re-installs those failed solar panels. What next? I bet by 2016 we’ll all be speaking Mandarin! And what is Obama’s next trick? Rain barrels?

I rest my case.

Sorry. I couldn’t help myself.

Let me get to my question: When did solar power become a polarized liberal/conservative issue? Why is "alternative" energy something only blue-state people favor? The technology seems, well, a-political and could be a useful innovation to get us further away from despotically controlled oil. No? And solar panels are not really a new thing (see prior reference to 1970’s president Jimmy Carter). Its not like we aren't sure if they work or not. And when did we start having red states and blue states anyway? When I was growing up America had a rainbow of state colors: purples, greens, oranges, pinks. My home state, New Jersey, was yellow. Canada and Mexico were typically a pale shade of beige so we weren’t confused.

But we aren’t like that anymore. We are either one side or the other. And one side says wind and solar will save us from ourselves and one side says drill-baby-drill. And I don’t think either is actually the way.

But what really bothers me more than what I already hear from the red-state side yapping about Obama and his "mis-guided solar panel fiasco" and the blue-state side feeling all superior and smug about this is Obama’s lack of conviction on this. This should be big-time press conference stuff, but instead it just sort of slowly leaks out the side of the White House, like tar-sand from a pipeline, in the middle of the slowest Washington month, August, while Obama wraps up his Martha’s Vineyard vacation. Yawn.

But he could have used this to create a moment. He could have waited a month until 9-11, unveiled this little stunt, stood up and said something like:

"After 9-11 we had a moment. We had a moment when the whole country was one. We had been knocked down hard. We were sad and scared. . . and angry. I know I was. I remember it well. And I also remember we were ready to do whatever was needed. There was no red or blue America then. Just America and we had a moment when we could have said, 

'we are going to chase down and kill that sonnofabitch Osama bin Laden and we’ll stop at nothing to get him so you better not get in the way. But that’s not all. We are going to also say ‘forget about it’ Middle East. Just forget about it. You can keep your stinky oil and we’ll keep just keep our dollars and use it to convert our economy to one that runs on wind and solar and nuclear. We have spent trillions on our military to keep the free flow of your precious crude to the world. It may not have been perfect arrangement, but many have received the great benefits of that cheap oil and you, Middle East, have gotten filthy rich from selling us your stinky oil. Well, we are calling it quits. We will use our abundant gas and coal to convert over - you heard me liberals: gas and coal - but we’ll do it quickly so we don’t destroy our environment. It’s a big job, but we’ve created railroads, and airplanes, set men to the moon, and invented the internet. You think we can’t do this too? If you do, then you are sorely mistaken. For this is not your moment, this is our moment. This is our moment and we will seize it and we get the last laugh, not you, so thank you very much! And that goes for you too, Venezuela!'

We could have said that 12 years ago, but we said something different. But now, this day, I’m going to say it. And that’s why I am standing here while behind me technicians install solar panels on our house, the White House. Not because I believe these solar panels alone will solve our problems, but because they are a symbol. Just like the flag we pledge allegiance to is a symbol of our patriotism and our collective belief, as 50 states, in the un-dying American spirit, these solar panels symbolize American engineering, know-how, and innovation. We’ll not stand and wait any longer. We are rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Thank you and God bless America.

That’s what I would like the President to say -- and it also scratches my speechwriter fantasy itch, or maybe it's my HBO drama-writer fantasy itch. But I don’t think he’ll say that. I’m afraid Mr. Obama will say little about it.  And I don’t know why, really. Is he afraid of pissing off John Boehner? Or the oil industry? Hell, give them the money to invent the kick-ass batteries we’ll need. Incentive them to leave oil in the ground like we did with tobacco farmers and their stinky weed. Toss money at the auto-industry like we did the banking industry to convert our transportation infrastructure to electric. We know how to do this and he has little to loose. He is a lame duck and it’s not like Congress is doing anything anyway.

Instead of getting bold we get blah.

At least the weather is nice. For August. I think I’ll have some ice cream.

Friday, August 9, 2013

On an Island

Sitting on the back deck of our vacation rental in Nantucket, I hear two birds in call and response:



A moment or two passes.


At one point the first calls out and there is no response. And he cheeps again. And again. Then finally after a curious several moments his mate responds.

Are they holding some conversation? Recounting last night’s events? Planning their day? Flirting? Or is it an instinctual signal to let them each know the other is near by. Safety in numbers.

What kind of bird is it? I have to know. I want to know. I should know. Even though I live in the inner suburbs, I pride myself with being in touch with nature. I have 4 bird feeders in the yard and can name off a number of our regular winged friends. I like to go hiking and camping. And I am a life member of the Sierra Club for crying out loud.

But I don’t know these birds. They are probably common on the island and anyone with any island cred would know what the bird is by sound only.

“Ah, yes, that’s probably a Bay-breasted Warbler,” the local would say.

“Wahblah,” would be how it’s pronounced. Bay-breasted Wahblah.

At least that’s what I imagine would be the conversation of the old-timer passing on his years of local knowledge to me, the outsider, trying to fit in and fit in by knowing just enough local knowledge and lore to sound intelligent and that I belong. Belong here on this island I’ve never been to before.

We are here with friends (family of 4) who rented a house for the week along with his sister and her family of 4. We were graciously invited and with our 4 we have 12 in the house (and at one time 16 when other friends visited for the day). It’s interesting, and sometimes amusing, and sometimes infuriating, watching the 6 kids (or 8) – ages 8 to 13 – negotiate on, well, just about everything. What to dig in the sand, who gets the shovel first, who is ‘it,’ who gets to deal the cards first, and so on. Then new games are created and there is the lengthy debate on the rules, and then new rules to the original rules, and how to apply a new rule and what is fair or not fair. It will be a real shame if none of these children become lawyers or judges. But with their game playing is the constant inner-battle of being included in the game or not, getting to set the rules or not, and being in position to be successful or not.

When I look back at my own childhood I don’t remember any of that. At least I don’t remember it the way I see it in my children and with the children they play with. But I’m certain that if I asked my parents, “was I REALLY like that?” they’d just shake their heads and roll their eyes in disbelief. And none of us became lawyers either.

Fareness. Rules. Fitting in. None of that really changes. Not much. I’m almost 47 and still aware of where I fit in and don’t. Whether on this island, at work, church, in my neighborhood, and so on. I remember after Amy died suddenly being aware, very aware, that I was no longer part of a married couple. My self-identity as a married person was taken away and there were times, in social situations, when I’d be the only person without a mate. In addition to feeling the terror and grief of her death, I was confronted with an additional question – did I still belong?  My identify as a “husband” had disappeared. What did that mean?

My older son is entering middle school. He seems socially adept. At least more so than I was at his age.  Or maybe it’s just a father’s wishful thinking that he’ll both a) worry less about fitting in, and b) fit in better. For me, it was the time when I first remembered having to figure out the social rules for inclusion. It wasn’t easy.

I have the advantage of 35 years of hindsight and the awareness that middle school and high school is awkward for most of us. It wasn’t just me. Strangely we all fit in in our collective desires to be part of the group. That’s my grown-up interpretation that I now file alongside the memories of that socially awkward time. And I probably fit in better than I thought. For now, here, on this island, I’ll just listen to the birds, whatever they are. Sounds like they have it all figured out.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

No Control

I have no control. I need a control. Not, I need control, but I need A control. That is, a ‘Control John.’ You know, another me that isn’t exposed to the same stimuli that I am so that I have a way to develop a ‘Baseline John.’  And to develop a baseline me I need a control me. ‘Control John‘ is the one that didn’t go to that party in high school or didn’t meet that girl in college. ‘Control John’ probably went to Penn State instead of Virginia Tech because Penn State would have corrected their admissions snafu before I accepted to Tech.

Occasionally ‘Control John’ and I would each fill out surveys on our attitudes about certain things. It would be interesting, for example, to know ‘Control John’s’ attitude towards guilt and responsibility since he was raised Mainline Protestant, not Catholic, and didn’t blow off that girl in college to go on that spontaneous road trip to Myrtle Beach. ‘Control John’ would have regularly attended his Linear Algebra class, and paid attention too, and gotten a ‘C’ not blown in off and gotten an ‘F.’ ‘Control John’ might have stuck with engineering longer.

With cloning technology advancing as it is, having another, biologically identical, ‘Control Self’ should be possible. Or maybe I could have a whole set of biologically identical ‘selfs’ randomly assigned different life decisions. I’d still have my ‘Control John’ but would also have other John’s randomly assigned to different decisions and events: John who got drunk at that party, John who didn’t. John who went on that trip, John who didn’t. John who didn’t ask her out, John who did. Then choosing the best outcome would become scientifically possible!

But I don’t have a control. It’s just the one, non-cloned, me figuring it out as I go. At least as far as I know.

But what if, maybe, I am the ‘Control John’ and Earth is a giant petri dish for some cosmic experiment being conducted on another planet? Or what if I’m one of the randomly assigned Johns. You know, the one that was assigned all these life events I've had?

Regardless, I’m curious what’s next in this experiment.

Monday, July 29, 2013

For Real This Time!

Today I’m going to clean my home office. I mean it this time. I really am. Really. I’m going to go through that stack of mail that is starting to lean to the right, pay what bills are there and recycle all the junk mail. I’m going to file all the old bills and receipts and I’m really going to go through the pile of kids art and assignments from the last school year, you know, that box of papers and assignments and art projects that I set aside almost a year ago and labeled “ kids stuff to be scanned and filed?” I’m going to go through that whole box, recycle what we don’t need and scan the rest to finally create that online archive of all their great work. I’m also going to go through the wooden box on my desk with the pens and clips and scraps of papers and coupons. I’m going to go through that box and get rid of everything I don’t need. Actually, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to get rid of the box too. I don’t think I even use anything in that box of stuff. I’m going to get rid of everything in that box, then get rid of the box so my desk is nice and clear. No more clutter.

And then I’m going to sort through that pile of books -- the one on the floor that the cats knocked over. I’m going to really go through all of them and donate those books I don’t need anymore. Then I’m going to take the remaining books, the ones I really plan to read but just haven’t gotten to yet. I’m going to sort through them and put them in the order of how I will read them, then place them on the bookshelf next to my desk. But first I will take the other books and pile of papers from work that are on that shelf and get rid of them. I’ll donate those books too and either file, scan, or recycle the work papers. And I swear I will not buy any more books until I go through that tipped over stack on the floor. Well I guess its more of a pile than a stack. Whatever. But no new books! That’s the point. And that includes no new books on my Kindle, and no new ‘used’ books from the Friends of the County Library used bookstore where I’ll donate my old books. And also I won’t grab anymore books off the book share shelf at our community pool.

For real!

I know, I know, I said this last week too and somehow my office is even worse than last week. And yes, yes, yes, I know I said I had this new system: My new system where everything that came into my office I would deal with right away. No more just putting it on top of a pile. Each item would go to either the recycling bin, the scan bin, or I would deal with it right then: pay the bill or whatever, then file the bill. And it worked too. Worked like a charm and my office was clean and neat and organized. But the following day I had other stuff to deal with and so the piles just started. It just happened!

But today is different. I’m really going to clean my office and develop a new system so this will never happen again.

I’m serious this time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Epic Fail

I found myself watching with guilty pleasure a set of YouTube videos of the Epic Fail genre. Mindlessly laughing at the foolishness and idiocy as they played. Such pleasure. And with a superior nod I subconsciously told myself, “I am not one of them.”

The Germans, with their masterful art of word creation, call this Schadenfreude: Deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. You can look it up here on Merriam Webster.

Of course the Germans would have a single word for experiencing pleasure from others pain, but “Epic Fail” knows now boundaries. For kicks I did a YouTube search of “Epic Fail” and there are over 1 million results (Google returns 46 Million videos!). Skateboard accidents, drunk college girls, news anchors, soccer players, compilations of all sorts. And according to this site, the median duration of the more popular YouTube videos is 2 minutes, 1 second. That’s over 2 million minutes of Epic Fail. I'm not even counting all the video time devoted to Less-Than-Epic Fail, and the Epic Fail compilations are much longer than 2 minutes.

I wonder if Andy Warhol factored Epic Fail time into his 15-minute allocation of fame?

Let me suggest that the Epic Fail genre is really an evolutionary progression from Jack Ass the Movie(s) and American’s Funniest Home Videos. Sure there are some tender and heart warming home videos, mostly involving babies and cats, but we certainly enjoy witnessing the real-life slapstick of cousin Eddie getting wacked in the nuts with a wiffle ball bat, or Aunt Freda’s drunk dance at the reception when she fell over the cake table.

What’s my point? No point really, other than it would be nice to find a word in a language that means “deriving pleasure from someone else’s success.” And it would be nice if the YouTube search of “Epic Success” returned more than 4290 results.