Talking With Hank

“I am dying here,”  he said with a quiet fury, sitting across from his pretty wife in their small, Brooklyn apartment.  He looked into her deep, brown eyes and hated her calm composure as he tried to express the sense that his world was caving in around him.  The tears that streamed down her cheeks were the only evidence that she too could feel his despair.

“How could you possibly understand?” he railed. “You emigrate from India and in five years are vice president of R and D for a telecom giant.  I went to Columbia, earned a degree in literature, and I have reached the lofty position of being a chief claims adjuster for an insurance conglomerate.  My boss is a fucking gecko!

“I literally do nothing for a living, and you’re working for the people who are going to be ruling the fucking world.  Hell, they probably already are.  You are a part of the storm troopers that are going to ruin everything.”

He got like this at times.  She breathed deeply and vowed to let him finish venting.  She knew he wanted her to give him advice he could reject, and she refused to do anything other than listen, lovingly, attentively.

“That’s it?” he yelled at her. “You’ve got nothing for me?”  He looked wildly about the room, as if there were an escape hatch somewhere, before he rushed down the hall and disappeared into their bedroom.

She could hear him slamming open the closet and rummaging through his drawers.  He carried a bag into the bathroom, threw in some toiletries and came back to the living room, packed and wearing his camping jacket. He moved toward the door, and she came to him and put her hand on his arm.

“Jack, I wish you wouldn’t.” Her voice always sounded like liquid caramel.

“I have to get out of here.”

“But where will you go?”

“I-I don’t know.  I just have to do something–go somewhere.”

***********************

It was 3 AM when he finally pulled into the empty parking lot of the Walden Pond State Reserve in Concord, Massachusetts. As a student, he had always admired the writings of Thoreau and his decision to abandon civilization for the simple living he hoped to find by withdrawing to cabin that he had built from scrap here on the pond, growing his own food, living a solitary life, and writing volumes of journals that later became his book about his two years here at the tiny lake.

He climbed over the gate and made his way along the shore by the light of the moon, to the stone pillars that marked where Thoreau had built the cabin.  Nearby was a pile of rocks where pilgrims like him left a token of their visit.  Jack sank down on the ground and rested against one of the pillars, turned up his collar and vowed to sort out just what he was going to do with his life while he waited for the sun to rise.

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when he heard the click of a single rock hitting the top of the pile.  He looked up into the dim grey of the moonlight and saw a portly man dressed in a worn winter coat and wool cap.

“Oh, sorry, buddy.  Didn’t even see you there.  Not many folks here this early.  I don’t sleep much these days and kind of like visiting this old pile of rocks every morning.  Nice place to watch the sunrise, if you don’t mind me joining you.”  He circled around next to Jack and perched on a nearby tree stump.

“No, it’s fine.  I’m Jack, by the way.”

“Hank.  Nice to meet you Jack-by-the-way. Ha!”

The fog in Jack’s brain started to clear and he stared at the grey-bearded stranger.

“Hank, as in Henry?’

“Yes sir, Hank Thoreau, at your service.”

“You are Henry David Thoreau?”

“Afraid so.  And yes, this pile of rocks is right about where I built that damn cabin a few years back.”

“I’ve read everything you wrote about that damn cabin and the years you spent out here.”

“Oh, Lord, you’re not an acolyte I hope.  I wrote a lot of bullshit back then.”

I recited from memory, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not…”

“…when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” Hank interrupted. “Yes, that part–that’s not half bad.“

“Well, I’ve utterly failed to live a meaningful life. It’s why I came here.  I was looking for some kind of answer. I work in all day in a cubicle, talking on the phone to people suffering through tragic circumstances, trying to figure out ways to help them as little as I possibly can because that’s what my bosses expect of me.”

“Sounds bad,” he said, chewing on a reed he had plucked from the ground.  “Not exactly sucking the marrow out of life are you lad?”

“I’m an asshole is what I am.  I’m angry all the time because I feel like I’ve wasted my life.  I have an amazing, beautiful wife, who I left crying at home when I said a lot of stupid things and then stormed out of the house to come here.  I…”

“Stop, please.  Look.  You can see the pond now.”

Jack looked up, and sure enough there was a pink tinge around the surrounding hillside and he could just make out the grey shadows of the loons beginning to scoot across the pond.

“Look, Jack.  I don’t have the answers for you.  I wrote a lot of stuff a long time ago.  I was true to some of it and some turned out to be utter nonsense.  This whole living in isolation thing?  It was a lonely life.  Why don’t you get back home, make up with your amazing and beautiful wife and then quit that horrible job.  You feel trapped by it, yes?  You can’t even see how very young that you are.“ He got up from his perch and stood directly in front of the younger man.  “You have time.  Time to start again.”

He sighed.  “And I am out of time.  I think I might be able to sleep a bit now.” He reached out and shook Jack’s hand.  “It was nice talking with you, son.”  He began to walk away but then turned.  “Jack!  One thing.  Read less, and do more.”  And with that he walked away into the morning mist.

Jack watched as Hank strolled down the path that would take him the rest of the way around the pond.  He got up, dusted himself off and walked in the opposite direction, back to the parking lot and his car.  He climbed inside, pulled out his phone and called his wife.

“Jack? I’ve been worried.  Where are you?”

“I took a long drive.  I’m about four hours away. I had some time to think. I-I met someone.  We talked a while.”

“Are you OK?

“I’ve been such an idiot.”

“Yes, I agree completely.”

He smiled, “I think I can do better.”

“Why don’t I take the day off and you can try to show me just how much better you can do.”

“You can take a day?”

“We storm troopers have excellent benefits.”

“I’ll be home by 10.”

“Make it 9:30.  I promise to pay all of your speeding tickets.”

To Do: Revise Bucket List

“It won’t be long now,” the pilot shouted over the roar of the rattletrap plane’s single engine.  His voice had a macabre cheerfulness direct at me and the three other fools who were dressed in heavy jumpsuits and harnessed tightly to one of the experienced jumpers.  We were so tightly bound together that I wondered if he would want to share a smoke with me afterward or if he expected dinner out maybe.

The plane reeked of sweat from past and present as the whine of the engine increased and the plane nosed ever higher.

My God, I thought.  What on earth inspired me to pay $150 to purchase three minutes of sheer terror–much less than three if the chute never opened.  Three minutes of plummeting toward the earth at an ungodly speed.  I mean, why not just jump off a cliff for free?

How did this ever make my bucket list?  My heart was pounding, and I wondered if people ever actually died on the way down, heart just bursting from the full realization of one’s cowardice–a cowardice you knew darn well had been there your whole life and yet you waited nearly 70 years to confront it.

Confront it?? I’m not confronting anything.  I just can’t bear the shame of backing out at this late moment. Death by embarrassment, like that day as a kid at the pool when I got to the edge of the high dive and stared and stared at the water so very far below and had to make my way back down the ladder past the eight kids who were already eagerly climbing up because I couldn’t bear the thought of taking the plunge that day.

The plane is level now, the pilot picking out the perfect spot for the leap of death.  My partner can feel my tension through the harness apparently and pats me on the shoulder.  “It’ll be a great ride, buddy, I promise.”  Buddy, my ass, I think.  It’s his job to push me out the door if I hesitate, even for a moment, to contemplate my imminent death.

It’s my turn now, and I’m feeling the brisk fall air as I make my way toward the exit.  I’m struck by the cruel irony of having decided to do this during the fall as my partner and I leap into the abyss.

Note:  The author has not yet completed his first parachute jump, but it is still on his bucket list and he is looking forward to accomplishing it in the fall of 2019–or not.

Danger Everywhere

I know too much.

I can’t stop reading NYT and scouring my newsfeed on my phone for clickable articles that seem important for me to know MORE about.  I’ve started watching TRMS almost every night because I feel smarter after Rachel explains stuff to me.  I can unplug for short periods of time, but inevitably someone says, “Hey did you hear the latest about…” and I’m right down the rabbit hole again.

Doctors have drilled into me the need to take a daily aspirin “as a man of my age.”  It’s essential.  And then a couple of days ago, I read that now it’s not recommended, that the risks actually outweigh the rewards.  That is, unless you have a previous heart condition which I kinda sorta have had now and then but not currently.  I am beset by uncertainty.

And knowing that I needed to stop drinking, I sought out healthy alternatives and now I enjoy a hot cup of tea in the evening.  I really like having that tea.  But I’m going to enjoy it a little less after reading this morning that if one drinks their tea above a certain temperature, you DOUBLE the risk of esophageal cancer.  I mean, who makes tea or coffee (I’m sure the hot coffee study will follow close behind) and then says, “I’m going to give it ten minutes, so it’s nice and tepid while I drink it and so I can enjoy the last few sips as a cold beverage.”  Of course, if my actual chances of getting esophageal cancer are .0001% then I can afford to double it.  Yeah, I’ll put that on my list of things to get checked out.

This morning at Starbucks, they asked if I wanted a little stopper in my cup and I really did want that sucker because I get my very hot coffee with “no room” because I need all 20 ounces of caffeine first thing in the morning.  But I say “no” because I’ve just read about the dead whale who was discovered to have consumed 88 pounds of plastic when autopsied, and I’m sure that 80 pounds of it were Starbucks lids with little green stoppers in them. And I’ve also read that most of our plastic isn’t getting recycled anyway and that many cities are close to giving up on curbside recycling because they just can’t find takers for all the crap we produce.

And now I’ve started to notice just how much paper, plastic and cardboard comes wrapped around every item that I buy.  I’m noticing EVERYthing.

And so since I know that the kitchen sponge is the germiest item in our house, I dispose of them regularly and I’m fully aware that they are 100% non-recyclable.  I researched an eco-friendly replacement and discovered there is dish scrubber made out of coconut husks that reviews said was completely worthless.  And these were reviews by people who really WANTED the damn thing to work.

Plastic poisoning, aspirin, hot tea, kitchen sponge–take your pick.  The world is just a fucking dangerous place.

I Am A Moron

Before I sat down to write this I pulled on a pair of sweatpants.  Backwards.

I could just stop there, but there’s more.  Anyone can make a simple mistake.  Recently I have been on a quest for more thoughtful and sophisticated ways to screw up–like two months back when I was doing the bills, and following my system, I wrote down the amounts for all of the bills I pay on-line carefully in my checkbook.  Somehow though, I never made it over to the computer to actually get into the “bill pay” page and get the payments sent out.  I sussed it all out when “past due” notices began to sprout from my mailbox like an unwelcome weed infestation.  There are also some months where I pay all my bills twice.  It just helps to round things out.

I know what you are thinking.  He’s losing it.  Dementia.

Normally, I’d go straight for that diagnosis also.  That and brain tumor are my go-to thoughts if I get anything worse than a hangnail.

But at the time all of this happened, I was struggling with chronic dizziness (probably a brain tumor, right?).  It isn’t incapacitating, but I can feel kind of “foggy” at times.  It’s one reason I haven’t been writing of late.  I first went to see my doctor about it in April, but I’d been having problems for at least a month before.  It’s not the first time I’ve had this issue, but it was being so persistent that I decided to get my doctor involved.

That started a marathon round of appointments.  He checked me over and sent me to a head and neck specialist and recommended I see a vestibular physical therapist (yeah, who knew there was such a thing).

The head and neck specialist did a couple of tests and deemed that whatever was causing it was probably cardiovascular or neurological.  The physical therapist spent two sessions making me do a series of bizarre exercises trying to make me dizzy (or more dizzy than I was at the moment) and failed miserably.  Shrug.

Went back to my primary care doctor who thought I should go see a head and neck specialist (wait, didn’t I already do that?).  I ended up seeing exactly the same woman, who did exactly the same test, and came to exactly the same conclusions. I decided to check in with my neurologist.  He suggested I go to the head and neck department.

I sought help from my acupuncturist who concluded there were clouds of smoke in my brain and that I needed to stay away from television, politics, basically, the world.

My local health provider held a small ceremony for me where I was given a certificate of achievement for my tenacity in unsuccessfully trying to find the cause of the problem.  There was cake and everything (I’m making that part up).

Finally, I decided to quit listening to everyone and pulled down the box where I keep my daily meds and started looking at everything I was taking to see if there was anything I could eliminate, anything that might be the culprit.

Most of my meds are “old dude” regulars for blood pressure, cholesterol, and a couple more exotic ones.  I take some Chinese herbs from my acupuncturist also, you know, for the whole “smoke in the brain” thing.

Oh, and I’d been taking Melatonin.  When I stopped drinking nearly a year ago, I had trouble sleeping though the night.  I was waking up more and more often at odd hours and finding it impossible to get back to sleep.  Two in the morning is just not a fun time to find yourself awake and yet still groggy and exhausted.

When Mary suggested Melatonin, I thought, sure!  It’s over-the-counter and therefore “safe”.  It worked great!  Magic!  Later, when she mentioned that maybe I wasn’t supposed to  take it continuously, I dismissed the suggestion.  Pssssh.  After all, I bought it at Sprouts. It was doing exactly what I wanted it to do.  I didn’t even read the label until the day I began to examine all my meds.

Yes, the label that stated “If any adverse reactions occur, immediately stop using this product and consult a doctor” and “Limit use to two months with a break of one week.”  I was checking out this information, written clearly on the bottle, after taking it every night for, oh, ten months straight.

It gets worse.  I googled Melatonin and looked up possible drug interactions.  Under “serious interactions” I found one of my daily medications.  Possible side effects–dizziness.  And the timeline fit.  The dizziness had begun shortly after I started taking it.  I just never made the connection.

MOTHERFORKING MORON!

So I quit taking it right away and the dizziness did not go away immediately, but at least the insomnia returned.  It actually took three weeks before I was symptom free.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t do any permanent brain damage or anything although, you never know.  I enjoyed 4-5 weeks of mental clarity without the low-grade sense that my brain was slowly rocking or spinning occasionally.  I was quite proud of myself for chasing down my own stupidity.

And then the dizziness came back (“heavy sigh”).  What are you gonna do?  I’m just going to enjoy the ride for now.  I’ll go through the pill box and see if I’ve got something else I can toss out.  Maybe I can put my yard blower up against one ear and see if I can blow out some of that smoke on my brain.

Fussy

I don’t think of myself as a fussy person, but I’m pretty sure that I’m perceived that way by people around me.  I think that perception comes from the fact that I develop habits and preferences and, in the absence of other options, better options, I will stick to those established habits and preferences.

For example, once I secure my cup of Starbucks coffee for the morning, I sit down to read the paper.  When I get to a certain part of the front page, I get up and toast an English muffin which I slather with almond butter and blackberry jam.  I like certain brands of the almond butter and jam so I stock up on them when they are on sale.  That means I’m thrifty, right?  Hardly fussy.  Not even close to being OCD.

However, I find I’m really weighed down when anything around me isn’t working as it should.  If a faucet is dripping, or a door is binding up, I struggle.  I feel this immense weight until I can address the problem.  I literally feel lighter and happier when I’m able to tighten the right valve or smooth the side of the door properly.

So when the “check engine” light started glowing on my dashboard, I immediately began to feel this unreasonable sense of dread.  I’d like to put a piece of black tape over it so I just can’t see it, but it’s like the dripping faucet–I HAVE to take care of the problem because all peace and happiness has left me and will stay away until it is repaired.

I’ve owned cars for long enough that I should be able to deal with it calmly. For example, I know with this particular light:

1. It’s not an emergency.

2. I will have to take it to the dealer.

3. Whatever this non-emergency repair is, it’s going to cost me about $1000.

4. I have the $1000 in the bank for problems just like this.

I got the appointment at the dealer, got the car dropped off and went home to wait for the expensive phone call.  The service representative finally called me to explain that a fuel sensor inside the gas tank needed to be replaced which would involve the mechanics pulling out the backseat so they could access the gas tank and replace the sensor.  Oh, and by the way it was impossible to do the repair without some gas being spilled on the outside of the tank. Not to worry–they’d clean up everything nice and tidy for me by the time I picked it up.

So, when I showed up to pick up the car, I payed my $1000 and was very happy to see that the “check engine” light had been retired as I started it up.   But as I began to drive home, I was almost overcome by wave after wave of a gasoline smell coming from the backseat of the car.  I turned around and wheeled the car back to the dealer where the service rep reassured me that the excess gas would burn off within a couple of days.  Totally normal.

A week later I was still getting whiffs of the gaseous odor and returned the car to the rep to have it checked out.  After he and a mechanic took it for a spin, I was informed that they couldn’t smell any gas at all.  As I walked out the the lot to retrieve my car, I could smell the reek from 5 feet away.

I’m fussy, right?  I dragged the rep from out of his cubicle and made him stand with me and enjoy the fumes emanating from my vehicle. He looked puzzled and thoughtful.  “Oh, that smell.  I guess that could be gas.”  We decided he would keep it for another day and have the mechanics rip the seats back out and double check to be sure everything was properly sealed and he agreed to have the back half of the car shampooed just in case the odor was now coming from the seats.

The next day, he called and assured me all was well, and I could come and retrieve my vehicle once again.  And, believe me, I wanted nothing more than to believe that all was well, that they had fixed the problem, and that hey, maybe the whole thing was just in my head.

As I drove off, the toxic shampoo they had used in the back of the car was almost as bad as the gas fumes had been, and I drove through the night with the windows down.  Sure enough, before I had made it home, the gas smell was back.

At this point, I’m not angry–just indecisive.  I’m not sure whether to call the dealer back for the fourth time or just to have a nervous breakdown.  I can no longer tell if my car has a problem, or if I have a problem.  I’ve made four trips to the dealer, consumed hours with this problem preying on my mind, and by now, I’m starting to think that maybe I’m defective.

Then I remember this older gentleman who owned a little car shop called The Little Car Shoppe nearby.  He specializes in BMWs, but had done some work for me years before on my daughter’s Acura.  I called him and explained my situation and he seemed intrigued.  “Bring it down,” was all he said and then hung up.

This guy is the guy you always hope you will find to work on your vehicle.  He’s quiet and thorough and doesn’t bullshit you about the cost.  I usually don’t even ask because I trust his expertise, and I know he will warn me if it’s going to be extraordinarily expensive. I’ve never heard music being played in his shop.  He always keeps the radio tuned to NPR.  Gotta love that.

By the end of the afternoon he’d found the seal that the guys at the dealership had failed to replace properly.  He had to chase down a new one and asked me to give him one more day to see if he could find me the best deal on one.  By the next afternoon, he called to say he was done.  When I got there, he showed me the dirty and pitted seal that the dealer had tried to get by with and which had allowed the fumes to escape.

“But now, it’s sealed up tight, right?  No leaks.  We’re all good,” I questioned, seeking reassurance.

With a smile, he let me know the problem was fixed in the nicest possible way when he said, “I sure don’t want to see you back here with it.”

This adventure is the kind of thing that sucks the soul out of me.  It makes me question both my judgement and my sanity.  When I let it, it consumes me.  I can’t stop thinking about this “tragic” development in my life when actually it is mostly just a simple, but annoying, bump in the road.

At some point, I did manage to step back from it and get some perspective.  I told myself, “It’s a car problem.  It’s unusual, but there’s got to be an explanation.  In a few days this will get sorted out and I won’t have to think about it at all.”  Why it was so hard to get that perspective quickly and easily after all of these years, I’m not sure.  Maybe it was all the gas fumes that were scrambling my brain.

Secret Self

Sure, sometimes I feel under-appreciated.  Who doesn’t?  The many thankless tasks that I complete that go unnoticed and unthanked–it happens.

But most recently, I’ve noticed how much credit I get for things that I just don’t deserve.  I feel like an imposter.  The general consensus is that I’m generous, “a nice guy.”  But I know my darkness.  I feel like the character William, from the film Almost Famous who explodes when the character Penny Lane declares him to be “sweet.”  “Where do you get sweet? I am dark and mysterious, and pissed off! And I could be very dangerous to all of you. You should know that about me.”

Yeah, that’s me.  Dark, mysterious, pissed off.  Just this week I purposely drove 50 yards or so down a one-way street the wrong way just to to avoid going around the block.  Dangerous.

Most recently I got way too much praise for something I did out of sheer impatience.  I was standing in line at a Kaiser pharmacy behind a young man who had to be at least 18 years old, but appeared to have no clue about the process for ordering or paying for medication that he apparently needed right away.  He showed up to get the prescription with no money and no credit card.  The attendant let him use the phone to call his parents thinking they could give a credit card number over the phone to cover the co-pay.  For some reason this was no longer (if it ever had been) allowed.  There was a lot of shrugging and “well, I don’t know what to tell you” going on and they were about to let him make another phone call while the line continued to build when I called out loudly to the cashier, “Is this about a $10.00 co-pay?”

She looked up at me, startled, unsure if she could share such privileged information, and so I asked her again speaking more slowly and more clearly.  She finally answered in the affirmative, and I leaned forward and slapped a $10 bill on the counter and said to the kid, “I got you covered on this one.”

What appears to be naked and unexpected generosity is often confusing, so it took a second for her and the boy to realize that I was willing, without question, to pay the toll for the kid’s medicine.  Finally, the boy thanked me profusely, and the cashier told me repeatedly what a nice person I was for doing this.  The guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder.  “You paying for him, man?  You’re like, paying it forward.  Man, that is really cool.”

What I was paying for was convenience and my own impatience.  It was well worth the ten bucks to get to the front of the line and not have to wait any longer for the Kaiser people to figure out what to do with this kid. but the people who witnessed the transaction were left with the impression that I was just an exemplary guy.  Extra credit, see?

After keeping the same eyeglass frames for 8 years, I changed them up recently.  One friend told me they made me look “edgy”–my true self becoming more apparent.

I also jaywalk–frequently.

For now, I’ll stick with the generally false impression I’ve created.  It helps me to navigate the world with a good reputation.  Only you, my 12 faithful readers, will know the real truth.

Trumpocalypse: An Open Letter To Mike Pompeo

Dear Mr. Pompeo,

You should not be surprised that after your recent meetings with North Korea, your demands were characterized as having a “gangster” quality to them.  Clearly, the North Koreans were nice to you while you were there, made vague promises to try to fulfill the U.S. demands, and then blasted you once they stopped laughing among themselves.

It’s hard to know which label to put on the most recent U.S. government interactions because we lurch from claiming to be victims of other greedy countries to making demands of sovereign nations that they have no incentive to agree to in an attempt to look strong.  We have pulled out of the Paris climate accords and reneged on the nuclear deal with Iran, one in which Iran is doing everything it said it would do–it’s just doing things that Mr. Donald (gansta-in-chief) doesn’t like but that were never part of the agreement.

Our trade policies are incomprehensible as we veer in and out of the imposition of tariffs that all seem to be hurting American businesses more than helping them.  When Harley- Davidson motorcycles (can a company be any more MAGA than H-D?) shrugs their shoulders and claims that they will need to move their operations overseas to avoid the tariffs, the gangsta-in-chief claims that they are weak and are declaring surrender.  Rather than punish our rivals and hostile countries, we have alienated our closest allies and we are becoming increasingly isolated in the world.  The “America First” attitude is turning us into “Gangsta-Nation” because we have no respect for the treaties we have signed and no respect for the norms of diplomacy. Our word means nothing to the nations of the world.

Just within the past few days this “bully-first” attitude came to light at the United Nations as reports began to surface that the U.S. had tried to undermine a resolution promoting, of all things, breast-feeding that was being introduced by the country of Ecuador.  Despite all of the scientific evidence that breastfeeding is beneficial for infants in both developed and developing countries, we tried to sabotage the resolution to “protect the infant-formula industry.”  Our team went so far as to threaten Ecuador with trade sanctions and got them to withdraw the resolution.  At least a dozen other countries also refused to submit the resolution fearing retaliation.

It took the Russians and Uncle Vlad to save the day and put forward the proposal.  Not surprisingly, the American team stood down as soon as the Russians got involved.  The resolution was passed on a vote of 118-1 with the United States being the only dissenting vote.  Talk about isolation.

Once source said, “There is no scientific evidence behind the U.S. position.  It simply reflects the fact that corporate sales are more important to the U.S. administration that the well-being of women and children.”

So, Mr. Pompeo, get used to the characterization of yourself as a gangster for as long as you represent this rogue administration.  You can’t see it now, but every day you stay in this job you are creating a stain on your reputation that will never go away.  I know you can’t see it, but you are living in the low point of your career.

Death By Cliche´

Even though I lived my adult life as an English teacher, I’m not usually picky about how other people use or misuse language.  I never correct people’s grammar and truth be told, was never much of a grammarian.

However, I’ve started to notice that the use of certain cliches´ has begun to wear on me, especially those that come up in political speech.

If I hear one more congressman or woman say, “We’re not going to be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ here ya’ know” that I may have to cancel all of my newspaper subscriptions.  Again.

First of all, I’m not sure why they are picking on “Kumbaya.”  I was going to write something here about it’s history and how it has come to be a political punching bag, but discovered that Linton Weeks of NPR already wrote a spirited history and defense of the song called “When did ‘Kumbaya’ Become Such a Bad Thing?” for the NPR website on January 13, 2012.  You should read it.

Needless to say, it is used to express a contempt for things like kindness, compassion, and compromise–certainly not the type of values that we want to encourage anymore.  We used to think that such ideas were a good thing–you know, before we elected Voldemort as our president.

Besides, if you want to bash a song with kind intentions you could always pick on the iconic 1971 jingle from the Coke commercial named “I Want To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” which may deserve mockery just because of the absurd length of the title.  If you should look up the original commercial just for fun, you may cringe a bit at the collection of Stepford-like teens that they collected on a hilltop in Italy to sing that catchy little piece.  You might also accidentally stumble across a creepy anti-sugary-drink parody that shows sickly people using the same tune put to different words that try to make the link between soda and its many potentially harmful side effects.

Also, I have wondered when did everything bad become an “existential threat”?  Certainly Al Qaeda, ISIS, North Korea, and Iran have been deemed to be our enemies and they do present a threat to do bad things to our country, but having studied existentialism, I couldn’t make the bridge to the emerging use of that adjective.  When I looked it up, one scholar suggested that this new usage implies that something (or some country, or some country’s leader) presents an “existential threat” if it threatens the very existence of our country, of our way of life.  That means the phrase is being horribly overused since none of the above, while they may wish us harm, has the wherewithal to end our way of life. Hey, I watch Homeland too, I get it. But in fact, our military budget is so huge that it dwarfs the budget of the next seven closest countries combined.  Combined. There are more serious threats to worry about.

Truly, the only existential threat that I see to the United States of America is Scott Pruitt.  This is a cabinet member so corrupt and so deeply in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry that he has taken a wrecking ball to every environmental protection that he can find.  I fully expect that if he hangs around much longer the EPA will propose that the US should be doing everything possible to encourage pollution, global warming, and climate change, and that we will be be immersed in Orwellian-style propaganda that insists that melting ice caps, costal flooding, increased droughts, increasingly violent hurricanes are things we should embrace. After all, all of those disasters do create good jobs for people.

Scott Pruitt, not ISIS, is the definition of an existential threat.

Finally, it has been an inspirational ray of hope that the country seems to have turned on gun makers and the NRA.  People now openly mock the “thoughts and prayers” response that most politicians give to the latest mass shooting–lip service being given to this epidemic with no effort to make even the most common sense changes in the law.  These horrific acts are happening with such frequency that I sense that politicians who have long supported the gun industry are afraid to utter the words “thoughts and prayers” as an offer of support to devastated communities because they now know that everyone else knows that offering “thoughts and prayers” is code for “I don’t really give a shit about you and your community.  As long as no one I know personally gets hurt, I have no intention of alienating my donors.”  Or something like that.

Actually, I don’t mind a good cliche´ now and then.  It’s the ones that drip with hypocrisy and deceit that start to grind on me after a while.  I think we just need to keep an eye out for the leaders who depend on these timeworn phrases as if they were wisdom and, please, stop electing them to office.

My Community Service Project: The Trash Man Cometh

Before

Being retired not only gives me more time to become irritated over fairly mundane things (see Grumpy Old Man), but it also provides me the time and opportunity to do something about them.

So, day after day, when I saw a small, dilapidated RV parked along the frontage road that leads to the road that leads to my house, I became convinced that this eyesore was either abandoned or that even worse, someone was using it as a residence.  I contacted the local sheriffs who told me to contact the Highway Patrol whose non-emergency number is always busy.  Somehow, though, when I wasn’t paying attention, the eyesore disappeared.

However, the owners left behind a pile of refuse, and as I looked up and down the frontage road, I realized just how trashy the 150 yards or so that I drive past several times a day had become.  The dirt pathway along a fence that parallels a freeway entrance is a walkway for many middle school kids who frequent the local Starbucks and the convenience store on the corner and leads to two or three apartment buildings down the way.

Initially, I thought I was just going to clean up after the RV dwellers so I grabbed a couple of trash bags, a rake, a pair of gloves and went down to survey the damage.  What I found was that they had jettisoned two wooden valances and an enormous pile of trimmed cactus.  I’m not kidding.  Huge chunks of cacti, all cut and cleaned, were dumped in a muddy pile.  I loaded the mess into the back of my SUV and carted it home  to my trash bins.

But that wasn’t enough for me.  Spending some time down by the fence made me notice just how awful all of that trash looked and how badly it needed to be cleaned up.

I became a man on a mission.  I bought a fresh box of trash bags, spread some plastic down in the back of my vehicle and decided to go to work on the problem. It felt fun to have a project like this.  Smelly, but fun.  I spent about an hour a day for four days to get the area cleaned to my satisfaction.  The typical haul on each day was 2-3 bags of weeds and trash.

The variety of trash was impressive.  I found the kinds of things you’d expect–lots of drink containers, fast food packaging, cigarette butts, and plastic crap of all kinds.  In addition there was clothing, a pillow, many small liquor bottles, and one used condom.  My neighbors are clearly not intimidated by the single sign that threatens them with a $1000 fine for littering.  All in all, I ended up with about 10 bags of trash.

As menial as it was, the work was incredibly satisfying.  Every day as I drive by, I survey the work I have accomplished and take note of any new litter that has begun to accumulate.  I suspect I will become like the guy who purportedly used to spend his days painting the Golden Gate Bridge from one end to the other and back year after year.

And while this may be a Sisyphean task, it feels good to see the neighborhood look a little cleaner.  Today, as I was finishing up, two different strangers stopped to introduce themselves and thank me for the work that I was doing.  It was not important to me to get the recognition, but it did let me know that others had seen the problem and appreciated that someone took some action.

While it will take some continued effort to keep it clean, I now feel a sense of ownership.  I’ve started to keep my eye out for other areas nearby that are showing signs of neglect that may need a little love and attention.  If I keep this up, I may need to get a cape and a secret identity–maybe take to cleaning up only under the cover of darkness.

People will wake up in the morning to marvel and whisper, “Trash Man has been here!”

After

Paying Off The House

I thought there should have been fireworks.

Six weeks ago, my wife and I walked into our credit union late in the afternoon, waited patiently for a teller, and then told her we wanted to pay off the balance of our mortgage loan.

It was not a spontaneous decision.  I had begun planning, over a year ago, to begin making double payments and make a push to get the final payment made in November, thirty-seven years (almost to the day) after taking out our original loan.

I guess the confetti canons and bubble machines were in storage because rather than celebration what we got mostly was confusion.  The young teller had to call over a supervisor.

“He wants to pay off his mortgage.  How do we even do that?”  She was staring diligently at her computer looking for the “paying off the mortgage” icon.  It wasn’t there.

The supervisor only knew that they needed to call the loan servicing department to ask them what to do.  Apparently, this happens so seldom, they just aren’t very familiar with the process.  We finally jumped through all of the hoops and settled up with them.  They were very happy for us and offered their congratulations.  I just had one question.

“Don’t I get something that says that I now own the house–sort of like the pink slip on a car?”

There was a hesitation.  The supervisor jumped in with, “Yes. The loan department will send you something official in a few weeks.  I’m pretty sure.”

I chose not to worry about the details. I had an expensive bottle of champagne chilling at home and was anxious to get back and sip it slowly with my wife and savor the moment.  There was a feeling of satisfaction, something akin to the feeling I had in seeing each of our kids graduate from college knowing that my wife and I had found a way to make that possible without sinking them or ourselves into debt.

Our home is a modest 3-bedroom house in a suburb of San Diego.  We bought it in 1980, a spec home that was immaculate on the inside and barren of any kind of landscaping on the outside.  Getting the yard fully landscaped has been a 37-year pain in my ass that still goes on today as I tackle previously untouched areas and try to revitalize parts that need re-landscaping.

However, every day I can enjoy my three towering pine trees planted early on from one-gallon containers, mere twigs that I stuck in the soil some 35 years ago.

And there are 20 relatively new iceberg rose bushes that now rim our lawn, the same lawn that provided room for softball and soccer practice for so many years.  I visit my vegetable garden every morning, which produces year-round now that I’m retired, and marvel at the beauty of home-grown food.

The inside of the house seemed firm enough when we bought the place but turned out to have a certain elasticity to it that I could not have imagined back in 1980 when Mary and I moved in.  It seemed huge at the time–3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living, dining and family room with a two-car garage just for the two of us?  Are you kidding me?!

Then in ’82 when Nico was born, it got a little smaller, shrunk a little, now having this tiny person sleeping across the hall from us.  When Emily came along in ’87 our study evaporated and the house continued to contract as the kids grew bigger and simply sucked more air and space out of the house.  We nearly reached critical mass and thought long and hard about moving to a bigger place, but decided to sit tight and wait for the kid’s planned exits to college to give us more space again.

And the magic happened.  Nico headed off to UCSB in 2000 and Emily departed for UCLA in 2005, and late in the night I could actually hear the house give off a sigh as it stretched and once again grew to the size it had been when we first moved in.

So yesterday, when I sat down to do the bills, for the first time since I moved out of my parents’ house in July of 1973, I had no one to whom I needed to give money so that I could continue to live in my place.  It truly was my place for the very first time.