161. First Day of School

Back to school feels eerie this year. It’s unusually cool. This chilly air may actually help the kids accept going back into the warehouses of education, which are starting to resemble super-sized box stores. But honestly, these crisp sunny days are the choicest fruits of summer, far superior to the hazy days of June and July that oozed fat sweat drops of humidity which collected in fleshy creases and overlaps. No, days like these are brisk, sharply defined, cool and brilliant… and precious.

Heather downstairs was late coming across the parking lot, and I pretended that it mattered to me, tapping my left wrist as if I had a watch, which I don’t.

Flustered as usual, Heather gushed, “First day of school and I had to take the kids in…and my daughter’s soccer coach murdered his wife and killed himself last night. And I had to break that to my daughter this morning. She loved her coach and his two sons. She cried. I said it was an accident. Some other day we’ll say what it really was. Can you believe that? Have a nice first day, Sweetie.” Disturbing as a snake in a bird’s nest, gulping down hatching eggs whole.

Whoa! How do you do that? Kill your wife and then yourself as your two innocent sons sleep? The lady at the coffee shop had been mumbling about this murder/suicide twenty minutes earlier. “I would have just left,” she offered. Another patron reading the morning paper suggested that at 3:30 a.m. the wife may have been asleep. Single gunshot to the head. Boom. Over. The how and when are covered, but why? No reason can justify killing the mother of your two sons, leaving them orphaned. It smells like a guy who was out of control and tried to regain control with a gun. We may never know all the details since he killed the only other witness, himself. And yet, we think somehow that sense can be sifted from the ashes of senselessness. You may as well burn the newspaper and then try to read its ashes.

These sorts of stories are becoming ordinary events. When we moved out of the D.C. beltway madness in 1980, my wife and I rarely heard or read of a local killing in our rural Franklin County. Someone would be killed while hunting, perhaps mistaken for a turkey, but cold or hot blooded murder was pretty rare. Now, it happens with regularity. I don’t blame guns; they do not fire themselves in the night at point blank range. However, I am perplexed by a lack of emotional regulation, mostly by men who feel threatened by a wife or girl friend who is leaving. Not that women haven’t done the same thing. There was the lady at the mall a few years ago who shot at her husband repeatedly but was a bad shot, killing some glass and a couple of mannequins at J.C. Penney. How is it that a person gets so completely overwhelmed by rage or jealousy that killing their loved one seems like a logical choice? In that moment the loved one becomes a coiled rattlesnake with super toxic venom; it’s kill or be killed at some reptilian level of consciousness. Blogitzers, we need to stay out of that reptile zone or risk becoming a rattlesnake that strikes and eats its mate.

And school, somehow schools and school children keep coming up as preferred targets for out of control young men with arsenals at hand. How is it that so many disconnected young men seem to all arrive at the same conclusion– go to a public school and kill as many folks as possible. Why not rush a nursing home or hospital? Why a school? I don’t blame videogames either. Even though they seem to be training grounds for extreme violence. The fact remains: millions play them obsessively but few of the players offend. I don’t like the obsession with videogames, but folks always find something to obsess over.

Here’s the sad fact: Human life is not sacred to humans. Not even little kids’ lives. If it were, what would our world look like? Unimaginable grace would flow from one to another in all our relationships, husband to wife, parent to child, neighbor to neighbor, teacher to student, provider to customer, employer to employee. Utopia would be someplace near instead of nowhere. If I treated you as holy and you treated me as holy, wow. We’d both be holy and honor one another with words and deeds. We’d spend a lot more time thinking and praying than running around doing and competing. Holiness requires a lot more meditation, I think. We’d have to live in smaller units because of the demands of holiness (which means “set apart” for starters); and then the practical application of holiness would limit group sizes, don’t you think? How many holy men does it take to change a light bulb? None, they don’t need light; they are light bearers, radiating truth like neon angels in the desert darkness. Oddly though, they seem to be born in or live in deserts.

But human life is sacred to God, so the more we choose to honor and seek out God, the more we must treat human life as sacred. This opens a huge can of worms from abortion to euthanasia and cloning and war and famine and immigration and poverty. The easiest way to deal with the clamoring of all these issues is to get rid of God, but that just gets one back into chasing his own tail or shooting his loved ones. I wish it were simpler, like finding limes fought off scurvy. Simple. Or the world is round not flat. Simple. God values all life; and if we value God, then we must also value all life. Hard.

Perhaps if that were the first lesson taught on this first day of school, we would have some small holy tile moments that comprise the universal mosaic of sacred life.

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160. Yusef’s Mellifluous Wisdom

After my favorite aunt’s funeral a black taxi waited patiently for me to step toward the curb. Inside the cavernous old St. Peter’s church, I had imagined a wall of beer and liquor teetering over the assembled mourners. My mother’s family grew up in this church and had issues with alcohol. I tried to picture all the alcohol the family had consumed over Molly’s 93 years. It would require the Hoover Dam to hold it back from drowning the mourners. Such waste.

[Where is it?  The flow of joyous heartbeats that

Follow without anxiety attached.

Where is the peace beyond understanding?

All I have is an ache in my spine

And darkness on the horizon

I know what the Lord has promised

But I don’t see or feel it

Blessing me

Still I can bless others and wait

For the funeral organ to play “Danny Boy”

In a jazz arrangement for me

Vague, too vague to call it suffering

Just an expectation of more than is

It is up to me to change the game

Jazz it up, fizz, percolate

Is it too late?  Never

Still it’s hard to dismiss

The mouth that has not been kissed

Just the presence of a breeze

Would ease the built up weight

Of stultifying humidity

Just a kiss of wind

Just a touch

And off I’d go]

The Middle Eastern driver walked over to me and called my name politely, nudging me out of my reverie.

How did he know? I look like all these other Irish men. How long had he been waiting?

“I did not wish to disturb you,” he said gently. I got in. Pleasantly confused. Taxis aren’t usually gentle.

Moroccan, actually, from Casablanca, so he said.

“Of all the gin joints you had to walk into mine”

Ran through my head only it was taxis this time not airplanes and Nazis and French collaborators at the piano…”As Time Goes By”.

Bogey and Ingrid Bergman, what a pair! “Play it again, Sam.”

What breathless tragic sweet despair, clutching at the almost dust of love. “Here’s looking at you, Kid.”

Lots of folks asked him, but he had never seen the movie. No.

“Logan Airport, can we make it in 30 minutes?”

“No problem”, he assured me as we sat in snarled traffic at Harvard Square. I wasn’t so sure. Airports make me anxious.

I wondered if he were Moslem but didn’t ask.

“Death”, he said, “is inescapable yet we do not prepare for it.”

And I knew I had a philosopher behind the wheel, waiting for an opening to merge into the clotted Mass. Ave. and the segue into deeper conversation.

“Yes”, I agreed, “we prefer to look at what is and ignore what is next.”

We meshed on some plain of understanding. His smile was big, honest and pure. I was connected somehow, hungry for the next words he spoke.

“My grandmother in Paris sends me honey sometimes. That is why I drove to D.C. once

To get a package from a cousin kinsman.  I believe in honey as medicine, you see.

I take some for a sore throat or when I am not well. It cures me in a natural way.

The bees eat of the nectar and bring the health of flowers to the hive. It’s a circle that I partake of. God puts the medicine in the flowers.”

“Yes, Yusef, I see you are healthy and happy, I can see. [We’ll always have Paris, Kid.]What of your family?”

“I was married once for a week. I knew after one day that it was wrong for us, but I could not tell my bride. It is hard for the woman to be rejected. I just knew all along that it would not work. I want children too. My friend who married at the same time has two now. I would want one, I think, to give it all that I could.”

“It seems that too many children suffer from not enough. You know in olden times people practiced control by avoiding the woman when she was fertile and breastfeeding the child. Once the child was weaned, well, then it was time to have another.”

“Yes, but my third child is a treasure. Should I put her back because she took from her older sisters?”

“Oh, I see. God controls all now doesn’t he?  If you are a believer.”

“I am and all we can do is obey and bring glory to God.”

“Yes, when we choose, we must listen to our hearts and pray. The right way will be clear.

“So many people want to chase things, you know, the Lexus and the big house. And that is their reward for hard work with what you see. But they don’t look beyond this life to their eternal reward. The house will crumble and the Lexus rust, but eternity never ends or deteriorates.

“Work is always good unless you do crime. But why work without benefits and retirement, you know?  I drive a taxi. I get no retirement, so I look for other work with benefits and retirement.  That is only natural. Even unbelievers do this. It makes sense without thinking to want better in this life.  But I want to retire with God, so I work for His benefit and His plan for eternity.”

We drove through Boston’s tunnels effortlessly and arrived early at Logan.

I enjoyed the trip, I told him in several ways.  He is a holy man and God put us together today.

“Yusef, thank you. You are wise, my friend. You were the best part of my day.”

Without any fog or Nazis in towncars, I boarded my plane for home.

And I still think of him now and again eight years later. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

159. A Night in La Ceiba

After an evening devotional at the United Brethren compound in LaCeiba, three of us wandered toward the imposing soccer stadium across the street. There was a carnival atmosphere outside as folks too poor to buy a ticket milled about trying to make a buck or a Lempira or just have some cheap entertainment to break up the monotony of hungry days.

One of the school teachers at the compound told us to pay for good seats to get away from the rowdies, so we headed over to that ticket booth. Though the game was well past half over, the folks in the ticket booth still wanted full price, 395 Lempiras for three seats, about $7.00 for each of us. I struggled to negotiate with minimal Spanish. It didn’t matter. We did not have Lempiras and they would not accept dollars. Funny, they would not accept the stronger currency that would be worth more in a day or two.  People and whole countries can stay stuck in their past by doing the same thing over and over.

Meanwhile our trio with money in hand attracted a bit of attention from the crowd. One loud drunk offered to help us as he eyed the money in my hand. I tried to figure out plan B. Did we have enough Lempiras to get in the general admission entrance on the other side? It probably was not the best place to count money.

Out of nowhere came an English speaking voice, “Do you need help?  I can help you.”  A friendly little lady named Heather appeared on a bike with a basket on the handlebars. Her eyes twinkled with joy. “Do you know me? Everyone knows me.”   I assured her that we did not know her, but somehow she knew that we were Gringo missionaries from the compound across the street. She introduced the 13 year old boy next to her as her son Joshua. It was weird yet comfortable at the same time. Heather just appeared to help us solve a simple problem of our own making, a simple want to experience a Central American soccer game.

I told her our predicament. She promptly pulled out a wad of Lempiras and said that she could exchange money for us. I tried to remember how much it cost at the other side and decided that together we had enough. That annoying drunk jumped in and said in a loud, coarse voice, “I help you, I help you.!”  He saw an opportunity for gain and worked his angle.

Heather handed me 280 Lempira, saying, “You can pay me back at church tomorrow.”

I was flabbergasted. “But, but…”

“I live right around the corner. I’ll see you at church tomorrow. Come on now.”

“Okay”, and we began to walk around the stadium on a broken sidewalk…Dave, Marci, Heather, Joshua, me and the drunk. He was not giving up. He mentioned something excitedly about rushing the gate. “I help you. I help you!” he buzzed like a mosquito around us.

Heather asked me more about our group. Then she asked me if I knew Francis.

“Francis who?”, I asked. “Hummelsine, Francis Hummelsine. She is the reason that I am a teacher today.” Why, I did know Francis from my last trip to LaCeiba in 2003 and I described her to Heather. “Yes, yes. She is my mentor.”   My brain crumpled again. Here was another unbelievable small world story. Like the night before when we had dinner with a former student of mine from Waynesboro! How are these chance meetings possible!?

As we approached the ticket booth, we saw that it was closed, but the gate was wide open. Vendors were rolling their carts out because the game was nearly over. We didn’t need to rush it; we just walked in to the brightly lit inner world of the stadium for free. The drunk celebrated, “See, I got you in. I help you, now you help me!” He was going to cash in on something that was free for all of us. What a con man. Heather gave him 10 Lempiras to go away and he promptly left. He had his liquor money for the moment; he didn’t need to learn how to live for tomorrow.

We sat on the concrete bleachers unsure of what to do. Heather sat with us. “I live across the street, but I have never been to a soccer game. I lived there when I met Francis. She taught me to fish. I told her I didn’t want a fish; I asked her to teach me to fish. And Francis helped me to go to school. Now I am a teacher.  I was just praying this morning to be able to tell her how much she means to me. And here you are.”

We did not and still do not know which team was which. There was no scoreboard and no announcer. Instead there were rag-tag boys running about selling fried juka and other treats. Mostly they ran around. Men clung to the tall fence between the field and the crowd. They drank beer and wine and looked sauced up. I was surprised that the stadium was not even a third full. This was supposed to be a big game. The stadium I guessed could seat 12,000.  Part of me wanted to see a packed stadium, and part of me was glad that it was not. We did not cheer for fear of a Central American soccer frenzy breaking out. There were a half dozen riot police on the field to protect the referees. When the game ended, we figured out that our side lost. They dejectedly filed out without incident. Oh well, it was an experience, but nothing like what we expected.

Heather invited us back to her house and we accepted. She said she would not keep us long. We trudged through the crowd and into the overcrowded street. She directed us about a half a block away from the stadium and unlocked a steel gate. We walked past several dogs, through some communal laundry and past a family eating dinner in their kitchen, three feet to the right. She unlocked her tiny two room house and told us to sit in the three folding lawn chairs in her front room. Joshua busied himself on his computer. Heather ran out to a tienda (store) to buy soda, cups and ice. She came back in a few minutes and stood to tell us about her life.

In short, it was a powerful testimony of how God’s love transformed her life and the life of her son. She told us of walking into the tall mountains to pick coffee beans. “Some trees bend and yield their beans in plenty. But others are rigid and break when you bend them.” She said some Christians were like this: they reluctantly gave of themselves. And Heather was all about giving. She talked about ministering to the homeless and drug addicted of La Ceiba.  She would report to pastors of local churches, “Jesus is hungry” or “Jesus is cold”, knowing that no one could say no to a request phrased that way. She showed us pictures of her father and his Bible. It was so real and surreal at the same time. Instant intimacy.

We left her tiny house past the laundry, the dogs, the locked gate, and felt rather small in our little efforts, burdened by our abundance. She gave freely like the widow from her little while our hands were stuck beneath the weight of our abundance. So that was one night in La Ceiba.

158. Totalitarian penguins

With a title like that what would anyone expect?  I have no idea either, I just like the odd juxtaposition. I also like the word juxtaposition. It makes the user of it seem smart, whether he is or not. Juxta means beside. I’m going to try “rapper styling” this line with my wife, “I just wanna get juxta you, Baby .” I wonder how far I’ll be slapped. Across the room? Across the street? Into next week?  But penguins? They are universally loved and esteemed. Why, there was a lovely movie made about them years back, The March of the Penguins. I saw it and oohed and awwwed at those big birds and how they huddle together sacrificially to survive in the brutal Antarctic climate. They are just wholesome and good and clean and well dressed in their perma-tuxes. Who does not love penguins? Let’s see, their predators. South Polar bears and kangaroos, separated by continental drift in the Second Ice Age, but in their collective unconscious kangaroos and the beige South Pole bears slaver over mythical penguin jerky strips that were once regular menu items in Old Australia. Please fact check me on these assertions. I could be wrong. I might be confusing history with an episode of the cooking show Chopped.

Image result for rebel emperor penguin pictures

But just for a moment, imagine if a single (or married) penguin began to talk or squawk smack about their awful conditions and how the seals and sharks had forced them to live on ice and krill. And this Alpha penguin developed great oratory skill over time, always focusing on the pain at hand… or at wing, or flapper, you know what I mean. If this Emperor of Emperor penguins stood on a little squinty-eyed sycophant (another smart sounding word) and railed against the cultural oppression and poor financial situation the flock faced, well, stuff could happen. Then if he, let’s call him Flappin, focused the hate on walruses, how they had so much blubber and were responsible for global warming and overfishing, you see where this would naturally go. Since penguins are the bird equivalent of sheep, they would get in line behind “Slappin’ Flappin” and elect him Emperor of the Third Ice Age. Zeig Heil!!!

Flappin’s press agent would arrange to have him arrested for inciting chaos (actually, cross dressing will do it) and crowd surfing (felonies in penguin colonies), and then publish his autobiography, Mine Cough, in which he would continue his conspiracy theories and megalomaniacal (There is a whopping smart word, folks.) schemes as well as offering home remedies for respiratory ailments.  Then, when Flappin was released from his brief stint in the walrus jail to the strains of I Am the Walrus, he would be welcomed as a hero, the return of the phoenix, and other such mythological drivel. He would go around Antarctica, wearing John Lennon granny glasses, speaking at penguin beer halls and stadiums, building even bigger audiences that would pitch their feathered heads back and cluck straight up, “Flappin, Flappin, Flappin” until they were hoarse and needed one of his home remedies for irritated avian throats.

Over time Flappin would organize a new Penguin Nationalist Party and get elected to the Parliament, or Diet as it is called in the Southern Hemisphere. He would have such a strong majority that his squawk would be law. Loan sharks and Navy seals, gay polar bears, and especially intellectual walruses would be rounded up and tortured, their food and property expropriated for the Nationalist Party. They would be thrown together in igloo gulags (which I challenge you to say three times fast) surrounded by razor-edged barbed wire, forced to wear Mickey Mouse ears. Abject humiliation has never been known at such levels. Meanwhile the rest of the civilized world would cry out, “What has happened to the penguins? They were so calm and cute. Guess that movie went to their heads.”

Flappin would delve deep into the penguin psyche, maybe five millimeters, and play on old symbols, associating kangaroos with giant squid, in order to justify the necessary conquest of Australia. Crack teams of penguins would work undercover at zoos around the world and send coded messages back to Villa Las Estrellas and Flappin via carrier penguins on refrigerated UPS next day delivery with zip drives built into their frosty beaks. Meanwhile, back at base camp, Flappin would appoint evil henchmen to run his air force and secret police– Hurtmann and Blud. The PP, penguin patrol, would teach all penguins to goose step and flap salute the Emperor in parades, as the low rumble of war built up in the sunless Antarctic winter. (Wow, I like that last sentence. Re-read it in movie trailer voice.) And there is nothing more sinister than a sunless secret. Just ask Kim Young Fool of North Korea or Robert Dumbass Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

The attack would begin in late August, the end of winter in the upside down Antarctic monosphere. The Norwegian slice of Antarctica would be the first target. First of all and primarily, what is Norway doing there? Did they get into the colonization business after the bubble burst? It’s as absurd as the British owning the Falkland Islands, don’t you think? Did they not have enough snow and ice and bleakness at home? Holy Flippin’ Fjords! So you see, Flappin would fire up his big birds with a visceral hatred of all things Norwegian– mostly dried fish products and cheese– and then attack in darkness. By the Antarctic spring (also known as November) they would have overrun the Norwegian wedge and the four drunken security guards left to defend it. Then the rest of the civilized world, not wanting to start up the engines of war again, would concede that slice of ice to the Emperor Flappin.

Sadly, the rest of the March of the Penguins would look like a slow motion domino nation domination. They would swarm across the Australian slice of Antarctica on their bellies while wearing white ski jackets, virtually invisible to the naked Aussie eyes, or the eyes of naked Aussies. They would form flying belly wedges and break through unsuspecting Australian defenses. From there it would be a short hop, skip, and a jump to the tip of Chile and Argentina, up the Amazon tributaries to the banks of Bermuda, and world conquest. And, most tragically of all tragedies, this strange totalitarian penguin juxtaposition could have been avoided if the world had only listened to an old white guy with an obscure blog whose wife makes him shave. Sadly, those who learn to fail from history (and good hygiene tips) are doomed to repeat it.

157. August Snow: Mistaken Identity

So Grace has been home this last week visiting with little Leah, the one and only grandchild, spider monkey, and boo boo bear. Her husband, Leah’s Daddy, is in survival school for helicopter pilots in Alabama, eating snakes and grass for a week while trying to avoid capture by fellow soldiers pretending to be the enemy. Go Stu! Grace is a really good mom, highly patient and attentive. Over the weekend I felt like a sixth string quarterback in the NFL, however. I could get some baby reps only if Grandma or Erin or Mom or Jess or Johnny the dog was finished playing with the baby. I went to church alone. All of them stayed home to maximize Leah time. The path of the maternal grandpa is a lonely and twisted one. Grace tells me, “You are a good man, Dad, but a strange man.” She does not approve of my kitchen booty dances (“No child should ever be subjected to that sort of writhing by their father.”) or my slightly obtuse sense of humor. My odds got better by Monday when Erin went back to NYC and Grandma went back to work. Unfortunately I had to go back to work as well, and Grace called up Grandma Theresa for some fun time. Hmmmm. Is there no justice? Or at least vengeance.

In an attempt to give solo baby time to Grandma Theresa, some exercise to herself, and a thank you to us, Grace decided to mow our front yard. However, she has been gone in marriage for four years and sort of forgotten where things are in the garage and how they work. So she called me for directions on how to start the lawnmower. I explained how to prime the push mower, attach the bagger, and pull start. It all sounded good over the phone. She was going to cut the front yard and bag the clippings.

When I got home at 7:30 p.m. I immediately noticed that the yard had been mowed neatly. We started to go for a family walk at my wife’s insistence. “But I just got home”, I protested. “You’ll live” she corrected. “I’m hungry.” “You’re not gonna die.” We walked down the street with Leah in her stroller. Grace began her confession after I commented on how nice the yard looked.

“Dad, you know our conversation about the mower and gas and everything?”

“Sure.”

“Well, I followed them with that other machine in the garage, what I thought was the third lawnmower. ”

“You mean the snow blower?”

“Yeah, it kind of looks like a yard machine and it’s the same color and brand as the push mower.”

“So what did you do?” I could not imagine mowing anything but snow with the snow blower.

“I primed it and pulled on the cord. It started right up.”

“Fantastic, cuz it never does in the winter time.”

“So I didn’t know any better. We never had a snow blower when I lived at home, and no one has one in Atlanta or Tucson or Alabama. ”

“Okay, blame us and various Southerners. When did you realize you were pushing a snow blower?”

“Well, I started trying to cut the grass at the corner, where that divot is. I ran a row and then looked at where I’d been. I thought, ‘This thing isn’t cutting at all; it’s just scuffing up the grass like a golf club’. So I turned it off and put it back.”

“Nice work, Gracie, tenderizing our sod. If you have ever doubted that you are your mother’s child, doubt no more.”

We were laughing and strolling down the street.

“So I eventually figured out that the other machine was the push mower, and I got it going while Theresa played with Leah.”

“Great story, Grace. But I’m not sure I’d tell anyone else about it unless you’re in a dumb and dumber contest and you need to top someone else’s stupid pinnacle. Didn’t you just graduate from law school?”

Every time I think of that episode I imagine Grace jumping up with the “mower” as it rototilled our grass and how she desperately tried to will that snow blower into a lawn mower. It just had to be… it was the right brand and color, and it was in the same garage. Heck, it even started up and sounded like a lawn mower. I’ll smile this winter when I’m at the frozen helm and feel a touch of summer’s joy then.

Most, if not all, of my favorite memories are unscripted. The time I bought apple cider vinegar for my wife when she had her wisdom teeth extracted and asked me to run and get some apple juice. Actually, her mouth was stuffed with gauze and she was a little loopy from the medication. I lovingly poured her a tall glass of vinegar which she swallowed with anticipation, and then gagged and spit it all up along with nine feet of used, rolled up gauze. Looking back, I think the vinegar probably worked as a nice solvent and antiseptic, but she didn’t see it that way. Anyway, she has a lovely smile today and I can take a little credit for that, very little.

When I was a teenager, 17 or 18 I think, I decided to cut the big branch off my parents’ elm tree. It was in the front yard and had grown out over the power lines above the curb. I rented a chain saw and got to work on a hot summer Saturday. The problem was and remains that I am a mechanical idiot. Rather than cutting the long branch in 1/3’s or 1/4’s, or even a 1/2, I decided to simply cut it at the point of outgrowth from the trunk. When I did this maneuver, the branch fell down on the power line and kicked back against the trunk, stuck in place just as if it had grown that way. In the mean time an arc of electric vengeance struck the dry summer grass up and down Dorset Drive, starting a thin fire line an inch wide and about two feet from the curb. I put down the chainsaw and ran on this thin fire line to smother the little flames that erupted. My heart was pounding like a snow blower in August. I gasped for air like I had sucked up a pint of vinegar. I finally stomped out all the flames and returned to the branch from Hell. I was not sure if it was conducting electricity, but I knew that I had to cut it free this time. Which I did, but like the vinegar and snow blower experiences above, it was a much better story because of the stupidity. I feel sorry for folks who do things the right way all the time. They have no stories to tell.

156. Opiated neural pathways and coal mine ponies

Wow, lately my brain has been fuzzed and fogged over. It’s hard to write in a fog, so the pace of posts has slowed down, regrettably, because when I have fun writing, I know my mind is in a good place, my spirit is buoyant, and my body is okay. Let me be clear, I have only taken one opiate in my life. I had back pain and I took a very old Darvon that had been on the medicine shelf for years after a surgery or something for my wife. Let’s see, that was five years ago. Well, it knocked out my back pain like Joe Frazier and kept on swinging beyond the boxing ring of physical pain. That Darvon jumped into the audience and began crowd surfing. A big grin came over me and I had my own little party going on in my brain. It was nice, a little too nice, I thought. I see how folks get onto this runaway opiate coal train and can’t jump off. It’s too comfy and you just roll along, spectating as the world zooms by. Why go to PT or the chiropractor if you can get your prescription refilled? The train is nice though a little sulfurous, like a swing at the playground near the power plant, all day swinging and swaying and nothing else. Nice gig if you can get it, but for innumerable reasons you can’t keep it.

I’ve known a few opiate addicts. They “chase the dragon”, that first fire-breathing experience of a dopamine rush which blew them away like a locomotive smoking down the Rocky Mountains. The problem is that the dragon won’t come out to play at the same dosage, so the addict has to up the dosage or the method of ingestion. Snorting or cooking and shooting the drug jacks up the power of the powder, but what the addict fails to realize is that he/she has entered the lair of the dragon. It did not come out of the cave; they went in– into darkness, into constriction, into bondage as sure as a coal mine pony.

My buddy Clark told me about his experience in a house coal mine back in his hometown of Patton, Pennsylvania. Oh my OSHA!  A coal mine just off the kitchen pantry. As a way to supplement their meager subsistence wages, some hardy Central PA. folks would mine the hillside behind their houses. They just dug into the mountain until they hit a seam of coal. It was sort of legal and likely lethal. One fellow was a friend of Clark’s, so he wound up in the mine one day, hauling up loads of coal pulled by a one-eyed pony that lived in the mine. He told me about it years ago.

“I was never allowed to go down a house coal mine.  The Old Man told me he’d kill me if I ever set foot in a house mine, too dangerous.  Now, sure they were.  The company mines had inspectors and a reason for safety measures.  But many a family that lived on the hillside had a private family coal mine where the back of their house just went right into the mountainside.  My one buddy Jerry Baker’s family had a private coal mine. His Old Man would dynamite the coal loose and then haul it out of that mine after putting a full day of work in at Barnes Coal Mine.  I’d go over and help him sometimes after school.  They had a sorry ass one-eyed pony; I mean to tell you that thing was pathetic.  It pulled a loaded coal cart up from the mine, and by the time it got to the top it was covered in its own slather.  And heaving and gasping for breath.  Oh, it was unbelievable.  Drink a five gallon bucket of water all at once. And gasping the whole time like it was dying.

And talk about mean. That coal pony lived most of its life in a coal mine and it knew what the harness meant.  You couldn’t put the harness on by yourself. It took two of us or else Jerry’s dad would do it. Just to get the harness on it we had to kick that pony and knock the wind out of it. That would bring the pony to its knees, and we’d harness it quickly while it recovered from the blow. Later, when the pony was drinking after hauling the coal cart, that’s when we’d unharness it and not get kicked or bitten.  You can’t blame a poor tortured animal for getting mean.  At least I didn’t.”

Addicts are like coal ponies, come to think of it. They go into the dragon’s lair to survive or just for a bucket of oats. And they lose their souls in the one way process. Like Pinocchio on Pleasure Island, he smoked cigars and played pool and slowly metamorphed into a little donkey, ready for the mines of bondage. No one sets out to become a slave to a job or a substance or a relationship. But if instant gain or pleasure is the target, then the larger picture of life remains out of focus. And one day when you wake up, you are braying with a long tail and furry ears… but worst of all is the harness of Hell pulled tight against your belly. You are hitched to the coal train now till the end of the line.

155. Neither

It’s neither hot nor cool today, slightly humid and gray, not inviting nor repulsive, just there. It’s past mid summer and kids are doing back-to-school shopping, which is a sure sign that summer is coming to an end. Similar to when migratory birds flock and fly south. Only the birds have something pleasant to look forward to. Neither summer nor fall, and the birds are staying put for the moment. The birds, the kids, and the weather are in search of a season to call their own.

This year our local school district officials are trying to impose a dress code on the several thousand students that attend school. As if they don’t have enough real problems and public black eyes already, the District leaders are out shopping for another black eye at Target, aisle 14 shoe polish and insoles. I imagine First Amendment arguments by kids. “Hey, it’s not a private academy, but even those kids can wear speech shirts on Happy Fridays.” What better way to teach kids about the First Amendment than by infringing on theirs? Think of the colorful and checkered Civics class discussions from boys and girls in solid color polo shirts and khakis pants. No words or images allowed. “Well, it’s a right that you are not fully allowed to exercise because we said so.” That’s neither victory nor defeat. It’s a standoff, a Vietnam, a demilitarized zone; it’s beige because you and your wife could not agree on tangerine or Arcadian moss for the living room walls…. But it is not solution.

Is color speech? And how about odor? If a kid wears the same solid color polo shirt 47 days in a row without laundering it, is he saying something? Why start a fight you cannot win? Ummmm, because, maybe, could it be, you’re stupid! The British redcoats had a dress code; it made them easier to shoot.

Lots of neithers these days. Sometimes neithers lead to boths. Like a tangelo: it’s neither a tangerine nor an orange; it is both and all the better for being both. My peer group recently finished reading Spiritual Evolution by George Vaillant. It’s an attempt to hold science and spirituality in the same basket. Some of his examples used science to confirm spirit. I believe we concluded that spirituality needs religion, and religion needs spirituality metaphorically like oxygen needs lungs and vice versa. The inspirational divine breath needs a structure or organism to process it. It’s a both and neither.  All hard things seem to boil down to paradoxes like this. If you want to be first in the kingdom of God, make yourself last. If you want to live, die to self. If you want to be free, surrender to another.

Most folks like simple answers, A or B. They have no tolerance for C or D or E or an infinite menu of answers. I think it’s about control. If you only offer two choices, burgers or hot dogs, cooking is easy if dull. Such joints don’t serve vegans or gluten free or cholesterol threatened people. It’s simple: take it or leave it. Another neither has popped up from a hole and I am fixing it in the crosshairs of my scope. Pow!!! Be gone nuisance neither. You are not either welcome nor tolerable.

Being neither is a tough thing for an immigrant kid. I’ve known a few. The parents speak their native language and hold fast to their native culture at home and church. It doesn’t matter if they’re Greek, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Guatemalan, Mexican, or Armenian. Their kids have one foot in the USA and one foot in their land of origin. The threshold at their house is a thousand miles wide. The Hispanic kid switches from “Goodbye” to her Anglo friends outside to “Hola” to her mother inside. And the two worlds move apart in some sort of sociological continental drift.

The Americanized immigrant is both and neither. He/she needs to be strong and stretchy. Living has to focus on the best of both worlds and away from the losses inherent in being the last one to the party.