307. Mr. Scratch Off

I just noticed him again, sitting in the alleyway outside my office. Early morning, bent over a lottery scratch off sheet, methodically rubbing a coin across the silver filmed boxes under which fortune awaits him. “Oh Luck!  Strike me. Fulfill me”,  I imagine him saying to the goddess Fortuna. He’s older, maybe 70’s with a cool ball cap on his head. Alone, very alone.

Now maybe it’s because earlier this morning I heard Otis Redding singing “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay”, but the lyric … “and this loneliness won’t leave me alone” floats across my consciousness. Lonely and alone are not equivalents. Lonely is a qualitative state versus alone which is a quantitative measure.  As I walk by him again, I am not lonely though I am alone. I just left my monthly peer group breakfast book share. The six of us old guys had a lovely time and talk together, discussing David Brooks’ book The Road to Character. Good stuff. Good community, like a good cup of coffee, is so rare among men, regardless of the content covered, becomes awesome when layered over with the cream of a good book.Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

My peer group is composed of retired therapists– one MD/PhD, three PhDs, and two MS guys. Average age is mid sixties. I’m the only one still working and barely still in my fifties, (okay, 59) and they thank me for paying toward their Social Security and Medicare programs. And you know what?  I find it a privilege to keep these old geezers going. There is a lot of experience and wisdom in those other five noggins that is freely shared because of their gracious spirits. I deeply enjoy the camaraderie and know we share a mutual appreciation. (And I’m not sucking up since they don’t read my blog, okay? Why you gotta be like that? Sshheeesh!!)

One thing I am sure of– these men are not lonely nor are they putting their hopes in lottery tickets or some other unlikely probability. They have been delayers of gratification, putting off the pleasure of the moment for the greater good in the distance. All served others professionally with disciplined grace. On top of all that they managed to make a decent living in the human services. That’s a pretty big deal by itself, but what is more impressive in my book is that these dudes are retired yet still sharpening their wits and expanding their horizons. Who does that? Only rare birds. I want to be like that when I grow up and out of the buzziness of the working world.

In his book Brooks proposes two states of man or Adam. Adam I, the resume man; and Adam II, the eulogy man. Achievement and competition come from Adam 1. Character comes from the second Adam as he soldiers through suffering. As Greg said, “There are so many pithy comments in these pages… here’s another.”  Page 15, “Adam 1 aims for happiness, but Adam 2 knows happiness is insufficient.” The Adam 2 folks Brooks describes learned to quiet themselves in the valley of humility. That’s a big valley, but as I recall my trek through Sabino Canyon, it was a humbling experience feeling like I was in between God’s majestic fingers. Yeah, humility came over me like a storm cloud raining torrents of gratitude.

My prayer was not for more or a lightning bolt of happiness to hit me. No. I was in the moment of joy, connected to the Creator via His creation. Luck had nothing to do with it as I sat in the shade of a mesquite tree with hummingbirds flitting over me. Not luck but blessings showered over me so much that the molecules buzzed like minute grateful cicadas. Blessings do not leave one lonely since they come from a relationship. Luck on the other hand is a piece of cold statistical probability.  Mr. Scratchoff could be a winner if 12 million other players lose. At the end of the day he will remain alone and outside a relationship with his material winnings.
“I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time”

Perhaps more tragic is when someone like Mr. Scratchoff does hit it big, like the big game hunter who knocks down a rare lion only to have it devoured by hyenas as he stands by helplessly, he winds up emptier than when he began. What is not earned is lost almost as soon as it appears, my blogerras. So scratch it now– all or nothing– or wait on faith to get somewhere incrementally, no, sacramentally.

242. One crisp fall day

Some days call your name with a different slant of sunlight or a final cricket chirp as you close the windows to your bedroom for the summer’s end. We humans notice sensory changes through the bodily inputs of smell, sound, sight, touch, and taste. Even the subtle ones like lowered humidity or wind direction can trigger our minds toward preparing for the winter or pull on emotional strings of past losses and grief. As I mowed the grass this past weekend I bumped my head against a winesap apple, strode under a Bartlett pear, pushed around sleeping butternut squashes, and came out alongside a heavy grape vine pregnant with zesty purple fruit. Glorious, glorious abundance from little past efforts on my part. But the devilish deal is this: to eat of this fruit is to simultaneously accept the end of the growing season. It’s not bittersweet, but the moment is tangy and crisp, poignant. The older I get, the more I feel the silent sting of these days. I pause just shy of melancholy. Then again, I could be overthinking this experience.

In vain attempts to lengthen summer my wife and I have scheduled warm southern fall trips in October. Last year it was the Gulf Coast of Florida. Wonderful, yes, but it felt like a magic trick to fly two hours and gain a month of growing season, like a rabbit came out of a magician’s top hat and hopped away. This year it’s out to Arizona. I know it will feel fantastic to recapture the heat and feel my body relax in the Arizona desert warmth. The catch is coming back to instant chilly weather, dampness, and dreary low sunlight days. What would you rather do: leave Baltimore or come back to it? Springsteen wrote a song about it, Hungry Heart. What’s an old guy to do?  I can’t stop time or ignore the delicious fruits of the moment I am in. Do I eat and die, or fast like a fanatical anorexic who fears death so much and thereby only prolongs a slow version of it? I suppose the longer I reside in the desert, the more change I’ll come to see. The desert is subtle, blogalinas.  However, no land can be immune to time’s relentless march. No rabbit will hop from a sombrero in Tucson, nosirree. More like a gila monster will crawl out of a boot, to be culturally and geographically correct.
So, as this day warms up into an early autumn gem, I’m confused. My body knows the sunlight is lower octane now; it’s welcome but not celebrated.  I suppose I’d celebrate this  very same day in the early spring, but no. This day promises less not more. So I resign to pull up the squash plants, and yank up the late beans and peppers. I remember one last hill of red potatoes that need to be exhumed. Soon enough even the green grass will fade to muddy brown and then a frosty white. It’s time to draw in the frivolous furniture of summer days and the fragile potted plants on the deck.  Wind up the hoses and drain them in the process. We’ll babysit all of these seasonal items for another six months and do it all again on the other side in April. Yet I find myself pausing longer at these changeover moments. How many times will I repeat these mundane tasks? Not to be morbid, my bloggerators, but to be realistic I count 20 years of life expectancy in my expected assets accounting column.
As I see it, I’ll have about 15 years of retired life if I die on time. That’s an appropriate book end to my life. My first 15 years were spent in pre-tirement, I suppose, with the middle 48 spent entirely in tirement. No wonder I’m tired.  In my first 15 years I learned how to be a functional adult, although there is still some debate about that claim.  So figuratively speaking, my life will be a fat book of 48 years secured by two fifteen year old bronze book ends. On my life’s tome I’d like a nice leather binding with gold lettering, “Burrito Special Vol. 1” deeply tooled into the cowhide. Wait. I think I’m overthinking this thing. Left unsupervised, Irish people tend toward melancholia, tragedy, and the morbid. Halt!!
I actually ate that winesap apple. It was shockingly delicious. I insisted that my wife take a bite…forget the Garden of Eden allusion. Her name is not Eve. Later she made a butt kicking roasted butternut squash soup. And I’m considering harvesting all those grapes for juice or jelly. The pears don’t soften up till October.  Perhaps that’s the answer to my unechoing silence:  enjoy the harvest now. Live abundantly and gloriously. Laugh at death. He is simply doing his job, scything away daily without benefits, days off or any retirement plan.  Death is merely a UPS delivery guy in black, minus the truck. Just sign for the package and he’ll be on his way.
Then there’s that other thing called eternity. I can’t get into that right now, my little chinchillas. I have to do some billing and  then vacuum. Also, there’s someone at my door with a package.

228. thirty five years of bliss and blisters

It must be said, blog sparrows, from every hill and dale: my bride and I are celebrating 35 years of continuous, uninterrupted, matrimonious existence together this July, (next month for the calendar challenged). Let it be written; let it be done.  In our present day and age it’s approaching the nearly unimaginable that ordinary married people can survive the institution of marriage for three and a half decades. Consider this:  Jimmy Carter was president in 1979 when we wed. For political junkies that’s pre-Reagan 1 & 2, Bush the first solo, Clinton 1 & 2, Bush the second 1 & 2, and Obama 1 & 1/2. Over these decades our fearless leaders told us, “Just say no.” “Just don’t ask.” “Just don’t ask me. Ask Dick Cheney or my dad.” “Just do it but don’t tell me about it.”  But along our private path my wife and I had three kids. Two and a half foreign exchange students. A mortgage, refinanced three times. Two undergraduate degrees and two masters degrees. Four distinctly different jobs. Hair loss. Weight gain. Ten cars. Two dogs, two cats, a pile of lizards, a clutch of birds, fish, bunnies, guinea pigs, and an albino frog. Yes, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

It has not been easy. Anyone who has tried to just be a sibling or a friend for most of a life can tell you that. But add on marriage partner and parent to that load, and it’s entirely in another league, like flying a jet off an aircraft carrier is to flying a kite from a sandy beach. Complicated, scary, dangerous, thrilling, burdensome, rewarding, and much more. But we have plodded along the slow and steady path of delayed gratification. Yep. We have read books on communication and marriage, purpose and meaning, novels, psych books, and spiritual books together. We’ve listened to speakers on the radio and cd’s. Went to church together and prayed together.  Did small groups together. We did a marriage retreat or two.

Counseling helped also when it didn’t suck. Mostly it sucked, which is how I got into the business. I think my bride told me once, “You could do a better job than that.” Hey, ringing endorsement or not; I ran with it into my second career. Now that I think about it, my wife’s advice also started me in my first career of teaching. She told me I was a people person not a paper person back when I was a proofreader for a Big 8 accounting firm in D.C. She saved my eternal soul if not my mortal life. I quit the proofreading job that very day and left this note behind…

“How do you get a one-armed proofreader out of a tree? Wave at him. Goodbye.” I was home before the rush hour, unemployed but invigorated.  Rather than setting up like concrete, Life became an adventure again.

Over our forty year relationship we have argued and resolved hundreds of issues. Okay, my wife has and I later agreed with her wisdom. But it comes out to the same thing a few years down the road if you don’t overanalyze everything, alright? I have learned how not to pack a suitcase. How not to do laundry. How not to eat. As a single guy I could just throw my wrinkled clothes into any old bag and be on my way. Likewise I could wash shirts, gym shorts, socks and sneakers in the same load. No worries there. I could also wolf, gobble, slurp, gorge, smack, lick whatever I chose. Life was simple if crude, like a coyote in its natural habitat eating feral cats. Now I am more like a collie dog who occasionally sleeps on the couch but gets wheat free, all natural dog food twice daily. Domestication is not so bad. Shed no tears for me. I could be this homeless guy living on the street. Single and desperate.

I am a fairly classic extrovert married, of course, to a fairly classic introvert. I used to think this was a good thing until I recently read Quiet, by Susan Cain, which elevates the tortoise introverts to hallowed heroes and deflates extroverted hares like me to zeroes. The problem I have with her book is that it’s true and resonates through me on every page. I look over my shoulder now as I shower. It’s creepy how she seems to know my faults.  Slow, methodical approaches to problems win the day in science or buying and selling stocks, she asserts. Extroverts are impatient risk takers. Okay, true. More scholars and researchers are introverts, which makes sense, but it does not make for much of a party. Remember the Far Side cartoon scientists? There’s a dormant party looking to go viral. Just add fun and personality.  I would take offense to her claim that the 1% sexy extroverts get credit for the efforts of the 99% hard working introverts, except I have no ground to stand on there. Dang it!

My bride and I met 40 years ago. I was instantly attracted to her, but that alone is not unusual for 18 year old males who are just larger versions of mosquitoes, I’m afraid, seeking pleasing females doused in clouds of cloying pheromones. What was unusual was that she was attracted to me. My record with attracting girls was pretty weak to that point, and then I retired from that field early on. We struggled in our dating. We struggled as married partners. We struggled as parents. And somehow we survived it all. We are not 51% married and 49% other. It’s not like that. Overall, victory has its share of losses and failures. Ours is not a fantasy marriage. She still hates how I drive and I can’t stand how she drives. She has gotten better at making coffee, however.

No matter the exposition of flaws and disappointments in one another. That is just negative space that enhances all the good and great qualities that remain, like a statue that is exquisitely carved from a clumsy block of stone.  I know my wife thoroughly yet still incompletely after 40 years of intimate life. I like the wonder of love that is never exhausted or fully known. Joy-filled summer breezes still blow through our relationship, scented with honeysuckle and lilacs, roses and peonies, and promises of more years ahead. All my loving… I will give to you.

 

 

 

225. Five kilometers to go

Runners and walkers of all ages will enjoy the Footrace FrenzyI am going to run again in the annual 5K Race Against Poverty through our downtown streets on the first Friday in June. It’s a fundraiser for a community action program called Circles. My wife mentors a single woman in that program, helping her to see the way out of poverty by working and saving, and stewarding her earnings. It’s refreshing to see a program that actually works in the here and now without a government bureaucracy overseeing and wasting millions of dollars on another pipe dream that only works on graph paper. I have new sneakers and a bright orange t-shirt to impress the many fashionistas in our Wal Mart town. Looking good actually reduces your race time. It’s similar to golf; the best dressed golfer wins.

On this particular night our sleepy downtown will be teeming with people. Hundreds of folks come out to walk or run the course. Other stationary hundreds cheer on the racers as they go by. Even as we jog through the public housing section at the south end of town, folks clap and encourage us… though I never visit that section of town at any other time… they are kind. It’s nice all around. The very officious Fire Police direct traffic around the runners and walkers with great authority and vigor in their temporary power. Businesses are jacked up with customers. They are usually closed by 6 p.m. Cars and trucks are rerouted so pedestrians can lollygag in the streets for a couple of hours.

There is a different feeling, a more inviting one, when the traffic disappears. I’d like to keep it that way all year round. A simple rerouting could make our four prime blocks around the center square park-like and very calm while crushing the rest of our town with traffic. There’s the rub, dang it. Why couldn’t Turtle Town just have started out with a nice sheep meadow in the center and then built around that? Because of all the sheep poop, I guess. Why not a village green or a commons area?  We do have a trout stream that runs through the center of town which has not been poisoned yet. That’s a nice touch to any urban area.

So I’ve been jogging in preparation for the race. I of course will not race. My goal is to not stop and to feel good about merely completing the 3.1 miles. Last year the young gun Jana talked some pre-race smack to me about how she was going to dust me off like some old stuffed pheasant on a bookshelf in an English library on a cruise ship far away. Well, she is half my age and should dust me; however, she had not prepared for the run and was mostly full of young brash talk. As we ran off from the start line, she left me behind. No surprise. However, I caught up to her farther up the course, where legs and lungs began to ache. We chatted in little bursts of breath as we jogged next to one another. About a third of a mile from the end I said, “I guess this is where you dust me.” She laughed and started to run faster, leaving me behind… just as I had calculated. I watched as she slowed down after about fifty yards ahead of me. I started running on her outside shoulder so that she could not see me sneaking up on her. As we turned the final corner of the race, Jana looked behind over her right shoulder as I passed  her on her left side. She did not see me beat her to the finish line. But the computer chips on our shoes told the sad tale:  she was smoked by a 57 year old stuffed bird. I had no time to celebrate as my lungs burst and dissolved in the humid summer air. Whew! It took about an hour for my body to return to equilibrium. Which again is why I am jogging now in preparation for the race.

In an earlier post I told the tale of Pastor Kyle “Losing His Lasagna” in the same race three years ago. Unlike sneaking past Jana, there was no satisfaction in passing the hurling Pastor Kyle on King Street bridge, chumming for trout with his regurgitated lasagna dinner. “What was I thinking?” he cried out to me as I handed him my blue hanker chief to wipe the tomatoey vomitus off his chin. So it goes. One man’s personal sermon:  never eat and run, my sheep.

Today I was chatting with Corey, who is in my ballroom dance classes on Friday evenings. (With his wife. We are not a couple. You know what I mean!!!) He smokes in the alley outside my office building. A couple of weeks ago he told me that he was going to run in the Race Against Poverty. I asked if he was going to smoke and if he needed an ashtray for the race. He said no, he’d be  quitting soon and then training. Well, he was smoking a cigarette today. I told him I was worried about him dying on the course, which I don’t think is fair for all the nonsmokers who would have to hurdle his lifeless carcass. He assured me that he was quitting the nasty nicotine and would train soon. But we are running out of time here. The race is three weeks away. He told me that he used to run seven minute miles, and he has short legs, so that’s saying something for a guy who is built more for wrestling than running. He went on to reference a scene from the t.v. show Scrubs in which one of the characters remembers his glory race days during which he smoked and sprinted. Only on t.v. my blog puffs. I am not going to stop and defibrillate him as he reaches for another Marlboro.  It’s only five kilometers, man. Not kill-o-meters. Suck it up, man. Go.

 

182. The Great White Hunter Cometh

Tomorrow night I return to the woods in pursuit of the venison I did not shoot last year due to a pair of small oversights– no bullet in the chamber and no doe tag. This year I am fully ready to slay a buck and a doe. I have ammo and will load in the light. I have had a year to ponder my errors, like the St. Louis Cardinals. I have my doe tag and I will not be denied again. It’s time to detach from the modern clock-driven world and re-attach to nature. So I’m packing my boots and socks and sweater and gloves. Bullets. Coffee. Okay, I’m good. A book to read in the evenings. And an attitude of reverence.

My buddy Clark got me into this business. I had been perfectly content not to hunt all my life. Then he got on me like a used vacuum cleaner salesman on an aborigine cave dweller. He persuaded me that I had to hunt or die missing one of the wonders of life. So I had to have this experience that had evaded me for 55 years. I ran the sweeper in my mental cave and had to have one. After I was successful and killed a fat doe two years ago, I became drunk with success.

Now I’m a drunk hunter with a vacuum cleaner salesman in a cabin, figuratively speaking. I have venison visions– deer approach furtively while I scope them from a tree stand 300 yards away. I site in the 10 point buck and KABOOOOOM, the 270 rifle report echoes across the hills as the buck drops. I run over the scrub and fences into the field to claim my fallen stag. Adrenaline pumps through every pore of my being as the animal’s heart ceases beating. It’s a strangely spiritual experience watching the life force leave one animal so that another may live. It’s brutal, grisly, and messy. And then it gets worse with the gutting and butchering that comes later. Through it all I want to honor the animal that has been slain. I think of the Indians and how they used all of a deer out of reverence and need. That’s not practical today. Besides, what do you do with a deer leg? My dog did enjoy the last one I gave him. But four legs? I could give them as Christmas presents to folks with dogs. “Something small and funky for your dog, Marilyn.”
“Ewww!!!!”

We leave the carcass for the coyotes to fight over. It must be like winning the lottery for them when a huge unearned meal drops mysteriously out of the blue in the middle of their woods. Other animals that winter outside will take what they need from the carrion we leave. The life cycle continues and death plays a critical part. Birds, bears, rats, or bobcats can all drop in for a bite. I don’t think they take turns like humans at a deli counter. No, for animals it’s the quick and the dead in the woods. For humans it’s the patient and armed who survive to blog about it all.

And blog I will. Compared to killing wild animals, it’s so much more civilized to hygienically write about hunting. Like the cave men who scribbled on walls before zealous vacuum cleaner salesmen converted them to new religions. Those were the forerunners of hunting blogs. I know smart aleck archeologists claim that the artists tried to gain power over the spirit of their prey by drawing pictures on cave walls, but how silly an idea is that. Some of the scrawlings have recently been translated by hip anthropologists. One such sketch was found to translate, “Thad miss bison. He suck.” Another seemed to say simply, “OOps” as a hunter was gored by a rhinogiraffeasaurus. It has been theorized that the cave scribe was not actually a hunter. Careful handwriting analysis determined that he was one armed, apparently, and had a seizure disorder that caused him to fall into the fire pit frequently, which is how he discovered the medium of charcoal. He was half shaman, half artist, and half ambidextrously mad. Don’t you believe a word of this.

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Two days later… I have returned from the cabin in the mountains where Clark resides sometimes. Day one was not a good time for the GWH. I saw only one deer the entire day, and I was out from 5:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. with a break for lunch. As dusk was coming over the ridge, a large doe dashed across the dirt road I was walking down. I drew up on her but decided not to pull the trigger since I could not get a good angle on her left shoulder. Twelve hours of nothing does not prepare you for the five second rush that is rifle hunting. I was cold, surprised, and on foot. Not the best combination for success.

Meanwhile Clark was farther down the road, deeper in the woods. He had only seen three deer all day, and those were in the last hour. He showed me his tree stand and suggested that I sit in it come the next morning.

So this morning I did just that. I watched the woods come to light again, like watching a very slow Polaroid picture develop from nearly total black into rusty leaves below India ink tree silhouettes that rise up to a pale blue sky streaked with early morning orange cloudstreams. The squirrels got busy in the dry leaves and made a ruckus, enough thrashing noise to be confused with the approach of deer. After a while I heard the stronger, longer thrashing that signified several deer were behind me. Unfortunately they were directly behind me, and I could not turn with my gun without spooking them. So I sat and waited for them to come to me. They played little reindeer games and left before I could get one of them in my scope.

Now I began to wonder if these would be the only deer I’d see today. I determined to take my next shot, even if it was not an ideal angle. Maybe twenty minutes later I heard a single deer treading slowly through the leaves about 50 yards over to my right. It appeared to be a decent sized single doe weaving between trees in no particular hurry. I scoped her and then waited for her to walk from behind an oak tree and into my crosshairs. When she did, I fired and down she went. ‘Well that was easy’, I thought to myself. I jumped down from the stand, reloaded just in case, and walked over to the fallen animal.

I called Clark to let him know I had one. He said I should sit tight and he’d bring the truck over at 8:00 a.m. Great.
After I hung up my phone, I began dragging the deer over for a cell phone picture, when horrors, two spindly spikes appeared between her ears!!! She was a he, a spike buck. I had an illegal deer on my hands and Lou Reed singing “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” in my brain. “Doot doot doot, dootadoot doot doot doot dootadoot doot…”

Whatever shall I do? I know, I’ll continue this blog post to #183.