Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blue Christmas

It’s just me, the two Sergei’s, and a couple of musicians out here in the shack this morning. I’m writing while Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s notes are filling my shack through the magic of digital recording. The musicians are Yo Yo Ma on cello and Emanuel Ax on piano. It’s amazing how much music you can get out of just a cello and piano. They’re playing Prokofiev’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major Opus 119, and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor Opus 19. The CD cover has the rapturous faces of Yo Yo (did his Mom and Dad have a sense of humor or what?) and Emanuel playing merrily away. My question, which should get top billing, the composer or the musicians?

Musicians tend to hog the credit. Lots of people can play the cello and piano, and those guys do a fine job, but who can write the kind of inspired music that emerges from their instruments, into to some gizmo or other, and later out the shack speakers into my ears this morning? It’s beautiful stuff. My vote is for the composers. These guys, Prokofiev born in the Ukraine in 1891 and Rachmaninoff in Russia in 1873, wrote music their whole lives, beginning when they were pre-schoolers. I imagine the notes in these sonatas taking shape in their heads, them hearing and seeing with no noise the sound of them, playing the notes perhaps, stringing them together, feeling the notes of one instrument complement the other, then writing it all down. I love the flow of these pieces, the beauty, the tenderness, the energy. I’d call them geniuses. They had a gift they shared with us, the Sergei’s. If they weren’t dead I’d thank them. Maybe I just did.

It started out overcast but the sun has broken through on this morning after Christmas Day. I don’t know what’s up with the squirrels in this neighborhood but five of them are chasing each other all over the place. From time to time they scamper on a dead run past the big window in the shack. Just a while ago they ran across my roof, jumped on a tree, and disappeared into the ravine. That must be where the expression “squirrelly” originated. Animals lead such simple lives, each day the same as their last. At times I envy them.

I’m quietly enjoying a new cast iron teapot, a Christmas present from my wife, and some high mountain green tea, yet another gift from Julie, my daughter’s friend in Taiwan. The best part of Christmas is the people we connect with. It’s them that make Christmas I think.

So what happens if Christmas Day comes and goes and the tension and anxiety you‘ve been feeling does not? What if you do everything; put up the tree, bake the cookies, buy the presents, cook the meal, attend the church service, greet the guests-and no Christmas miracle happens? What do you do then?

Sadly or not, I think we fake it, trying not to ruin everyone else’s Christmas. We certainly don’t talk about it. It’s kept inside. Blue Christmas is real for many people. And really, how can we expect one day, however well orchestrated, to cure our sorrows? How can we pin all our hopes, desperate as they might be, on the back of one little infant child, no matter how holy? Is it fair? Is it realistic?

If Christmas didn’t happen for you, if you found yourself silently in despair, you’re not alone. We’re deep in winter. The ground is frozen and the nights are long and dark. It’s okay if you weren’t touched by joy. We have each other and we have the rest of our lives. Most importantly we have today and the days ahead. Take it slow. Do what you can to make each day better. Don’t allow small defeats to weigh you down. Find peace in small things. And above all don’t be hard on yourself, or you’ll miss comfort and joy when it does happen in your life. It’s like not hearing the music when it plays.

Today’s Christmas has evolved into a single day but in the church it’s a season. In the liturgical calendar Christmas has twelve days, ending on January 5th. Even if you’re not religious you should take this concept and run with it. Today is only the second day of Christmas. You have time. Wait for it and be patient so you feel it whenever it arrives. Listen closely.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Jail, Bail, and Christmas

It’s never made sense to me that Sunday starts the week but three hours into this one I was wakened by a cell phone call. I answered it by reflex. Calls in the middle of the night were always about work. I forgot . On the phone was a young man I’ve known his whole life, which represents about one third of mine. He’s no longer a minor but he’s still a kid. I had a hard time figuring out what he was saying. He was loud, talking fast, and not letting me into the conversation. I kept saying

“Where are you?”

But he ignored me. Someone was yelling in the background, telling him to get off the phone. He yelled back. Before he hung up he said

“Call the police department!”

Five hours into the first day of this week I woke up, checked my cell phone, and found the same unknown number had called me three times, leaving three voice mails. I listened to the first one. It was a recording telling me how to accept a collect call. I called the police department and inquired about the young man who had called me earlier.

“He was here, we held him for a while, but all those kids are gone. Call the county jail.”

I called. He was there. I identified myself and ask what he was charged with. It wasn’t a bad charge in the world of law breaking, fairly minor in fact. Then I inquired as to the amount of bail required to get him out of jail. I weighed my connection with him against the dollar amount.

“I’ll be there in half an hour,” I said.

Sunday was bitter cold. The parking lot was largely empty and the jail was quiet. I found the second entry door locked. I looked into the brightly lit lobby and it was absolutely empty, save for a metal detector, a desk, and a stained cloth office chair. Dark windows covered most of the wall opposite me. I didn’t know how to get in. Then I saw a sign directing me to push the buzzer on my right. Before I could talk on the intercom the door buzzed, the electronic lock clacked open, and I entered the county jail. It was going on 5:30 a.m..

I didn’t know whether to go through the metal detector or not. I went around it, hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble for doing so. I couldn’t see anyone behind the dark glass. It was thick. Bulletproof. I could see the bank of video surveillance monitors with scenes flashing on and off; the front door, the lobby, the hallway, something else, repeat. Then a face, disembodied, really just the eyes and mouth, appeared behind the glass. A voice came through a speaker
.
“Can I help you?”

I identified myself again, identified the person I was there to bail out.

“Do I pay you?”

“See the unit on the wall? Looks like an ATM? Follow the instructions. When your payment is approved an officer will talk to you.”

It was touch screen. Enter this, enter that, hit next. The amount of bail appeared. I’d brought cash. There was a slot for inserting cash but in large letters was a notice “ANY BILLS INSERTED HERE WILL BE RETAINED. THIS MACHINE DOES NOT GIVE CHANGE.”

My Dad kept a small wad of cash on the farm in case, as he once told me “I have to bail one of you kids out of jail.”

He smiled as he said that. It was just he and I in the basement.

“You think I’m going to get thrown in jail?” I asked, smiling back.

“You’d know that better than me,” he said.

I always thought bail had to be made in cash, that’s why I brought it. Clearly this machine preferred my VISA card. Five minutes after the machine spit out a receipt a door opened and a real person appeared in the lobby. The first whole person I’d encountered since I arrived.

“Are you here for Jones?” (Not his real last name.)

“Yeah.”

“Do you have any clothing for him? He’s here without a coat, and I came in not long ago and know how cold it is out there.”

“My car is close.” I thought it was thoughtful of him to be concerned about my friend being warm.

“Has he been cooperative?” I asked.

“Yeah. He’s been quiet.”

“It’s just the one charge, the trespassing?”

“Yeah. Just that. Housing encourages local law enforcement to make those charges you know. Helps them control their properties better.”

“I know. I’m familiar with it. Are there other warrants out on him?” I asked. “Like in other states?”

“We only check locally on a small charge like this. If there was something outside the area we wouldn’t know. I have something for you to sign. I want to show you the paperwork for court. You’ll want to make sure he shows up.”

“He will.”

“OK. He’ll be out in a few minutes. I have to check out his belongings.”

He went back through the door. It shut hard and locked. I looked at the control room but saw nothing but the glow of the video monitors. I looked around the stark lobby. Walled off, with the doors locked all around me, I felt a bit like I was in jail too.

My young friend walked through the door where the guard had exited. He looked skinny, and tired. He was wearing a thin hoodie and a T shirt. His pants sagged. His eyes were bleary. He walked up and hugged me. He smelled like beer.

“I’m so sorry you had to come here. Thank you so much.” He was carrying a big sheet of cardboard. On it was everything he had on him when he came to jail, laminated in see through plastic to the cardboard. Keys. Cell phone. Three lighters. A wallet.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Someone buzzed the door as we approached it. In the space between the first door and the outside door my friend realized he didn’t have his hat.

“My hat. It’s gone. I just got that hat.”

“You can get another one. You might have lost it in the squad car or on the street. Let’s keep going.”

The cold air hit us hard when we walked outside. He clutched his hoodie to his neck and bent down into the wind. When we got in the Buick he was shivering.

I’m going to court with you. It’s January 15th. You have to be there. You understand?”
“Yeah. I have to be there cause you’re responsible.”

“That’s right. But not because I’m responsible but because you want to stay out of trouble yourself. You should plead guilty and take your fine. I’m not going to apply the bail money to the fine. You’ll have to pay that.”

“Yeah. A guy in the jail said you can pay it a little at a time.”

“You want to pay it off as soon as you can. It’s a pain for everyone-judges, court staff, you. They can’t dismiss the charge till you pay that fine.” As I was saying that, I had no idea where he would get the money.

“Did you call your aunt?” His aunt was about the only family he had.

“No. She doesn’t have any money. She couldn’t have bailed me out.”

“Where you been staying?”

“With my girl friend. She got arrested too. I don’t know where she is. I can’t go there.”

“So where am I taking you?”

“I guess to my aunt’s.”

“Does she have a place now?”

Yeah.”

“Will she let you in?”

“I think so.”

“Are you on the do not admit list at the shelter?”

“No. Not that I know of. My aunt is I think.”

“Well you can always go there.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Then call your aunt.”

He fumbled around tearing the plastic from the cardboard to free his phone. When he got it out he powered it up and started to push in the numbers.

“I’m out of minutes.” He dropped the phone into his lap and looked out the window. “I feel so pathetic.”

“Look, you didn’t kill anybody. You got thrown in jail on a misdemeanor and now you’re out. Your future is all about work. Until you get work and some money nothing is going to change, nothing is going to get better.”

As I said that I looked at him. Scrawny kid, too old for youth programs, GED (he says), no work history, bad clothes, scraggly beard. Dishwashing maybe? I just don’t know. He doesn’t follow up on everything I suggest. But he tries. He hasn’t known much else for a long time.

I wish it was different. I wish he had grown up here and we could have served him at YSB. I wish he could have found some kind of success in our local schools. But he didn’t. He starts from where he is, and he’s not in a good place.

He directed me to his aunt’s new place as the sky was getting light.

“I’ll stay here till I see you get in.”

“OK.”

“Thanks again, I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“I do. You would have stayed in jail. I can’t do this many times you know. You have to take care of yourself.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“Get some minutes on that phone or call me from someone else’s after the first of the year. You’re going to make that court date, and I’m going with you. January 15. 9:00 in the monring.”
“Don’t worry about that. When’s Christmas?”

“Next Wednesday.”

“Have a good one Dave.”

“You too.”

He went up the stairs and knocked on the door. The door opened. He turned and waved, then disappeared inside.

It’s my first Christmas on a fixed income and my first Christmas away from YSB since 1978. I thought maybe I would cut back a little on my Holiday giving but I haven’t. If anything, I want to give more. Since I’ve left social work I realize how low on the radar kids like my young friend fall. Puppies and kittens in America get more sympathy than children growing up in poverty. The agencies that have the ability, and the initiative, to help families with kids liked the one I bailed out of jail when it counts, when they are young, need our help more than ever.

I’ve become something of my own United Way. I give to those organizations I know need the money and do the most good. Tops on my list is YSB. I hope you remember to write them a check this Christmas. By doing so, you help young people who are the casualties of families who live in poverty, suffer family dysfunction, and fall to the bottom of the heap. The kids YSB serves find few friends and even less support. We somehow blame them for their problems. Agencies like YSB, however, are there for them. Please be there for YSB.

Merry Christmas to you and your family. Hold one another tight. You make each other strong.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Artifical Calamari

Sometimes I figure out what I’m feeling by listening to what I say. I’m not forced to talk nearly as much as when I was working. On some days, when I get to the shack early and work all morning, I don’t utter a word till almost noon. I tend to remember what I say now, because I say fairly little compared to when I was directing a social service agency. When I do talk to people they sometimes ask me something like this:

“So do you miss work?” And I reply along these lines:

“Funny, but I worried for years that I would miss work terribly. I’d done it for so long. I didn’t know how it would feel. But when I quit working, I liked it right away and thought of work very little. It surprised me. So no, I don’t miss it. Really.”

What I don’t miss most is the intrusion of painful reality, unimaginable happenings, into my thoughts. I have even found that I can go back to instances where I was interrupted by the reality of work, just as I was beginning to think something through, and pick it up where I left off.

That’s where I got the idea for this week’s story. While still employed I was driving somewhere, listening to an intriguing episode of This American Life on National Public Radio, when I got a call on my cell phone. It was a call I had to take. I looked at my cell phone, saw who was calling, and knew I had to have a frank discussion, probably a long one. I hit mute on my car radio. I figured I could always look up the story later. Later arrived this week. I rediscovered a trivial story too good to pass up.

I recalled this whole thing a month ago while buying Pacific Cod at Kroger. I’d never heard of Pacific Cod. I thought maybe it was a name made up to capitalize on the solid reputation of Atlantic Cod, the standard tasty fish of Friday night fish fries in the Midwest. You can get it broiled now, but the old time aficionados go for the battered deep fried kind with fries. Add hand battered deep fried onion rings as an appetizer and you have some serious grease going on. At least there’s the salad bar.

But there it was in the fish case, Pacific Cod. I baked it and found it not as firm, not as tasty, as Atlantic Cod but not bad. I looked up Pacific Cod on the Internet. Turns out no one agrees on the name of this fish. Some call that species grey cod, certainly not Alaskan black cod or ling cod, while others just call it Pollock. There must be tons of Pollock out there, along with Whiting, and someone in the fish industry must be dying to call it something else so it sells better. Whatever Pacific Cod is, in the end it is cheap protein with hardly any fat, and while it cries out for some sort of sauce to give it zing there’s no cause to turn your nose up over it.

Turns out this whole labeling shiftiness is nothing new. They even have a name for it. Surimi, the fine art of disguising one fish as another, dates back to 12th-century Japan. Basically, Surimi makers grind up cheaper fish and craft the resulting paste to mimic the look, taste, and texture of more expensive fish. I imagine it as fish sticks on a much higher level. Surimi took a giant and profitable leap forward in 1993 when Oregon State University’s Jae Park, a food-science professor and the creator of fake crab or crabstick (Park’s preferred term), began leading the Surimi School, an annual short format seminar in Astoria. Since then, he’s trained more than 4,500 people to twist, color, and mold lesser fish into fancy forgeries. Last year, Seafood Executive magazine named the professor one of the 100 most powerful leaders in the global seafood industry. Why? Crabstick sells for $3-$4 a pound. Dungeness Crab sells for $30-$35 a pound. And while crabstick is a processed food that contains lots of sodium along with cryoprotectants, artificial flavoring, and coloring all added to the base of ground Whiting or Pollock, it has less cholesterol than natural crab (before the garlic butter) and it’s sustainable. We, the bulging we of all us humans on the planet, can eat Snow Crabs and King Crabs into extinction but we’ll never, they say, run out of Pollock and Whiting.

What caught my ear that day before I muted the radio because of pressing work, which turned out to be January 11th of this year, was artificial calamari made from some kind of pork product. Calamari is Italian plural for calamaro, which is a squid. The Italians claim they made calamari famous by slicing it into rings, deep frying it, squeezing lemon over it, and serving it with marinara sauce. Truth is calamari, or squid, is served all over the world. But where ever and however it is served it has always seemed to me to have a distinctive texture and taste. How, I thought, could you possibly create a passable equivalent to calamari? I was intrigued.

This was an episode of This American Life that seemed somehow whimsical. Lots of background music building fake tension. But my mind was on much more important things and I missed it. I went to the This American Life website and listened to the whole podcast yesterday. You can do that too by going to and registering at their site and going to the archives. I borrowed heavily from NPR’s script to write this piece. Whether you listen to the podcast or read the rest of the story you have to take this in. It’s a food science horror story.

A reporter for This American Life (TAL), Ben Calhoun, got a tip about a farmer "with some standing in the pork industry" who is in charge of "a pork producing operation that spans several states." One fine day this farmer was visiting a pork processing plant in Oklahoma, and noticed boxes stacked on the floor labeled "artificial calamari." Asked what that meant, Ron Meek, the plant's extremely talkative and credible sounding manager, and friend of the nameless farmer not willing to go on the record, replied "Bung. It's hog rectum." For clarity, Calhoun adds "Rectum that would be sliced into rings, deep fried, and boom, there you have it."

Rectum is of course a nicer word for asshole. An individual piece of bung, hog rectum, or asshole would be a ten to twelve inch length of large intestine leading to the actual rectum end point, a pink wrinkly looking pear sort of thing on the one end. Ron Meek described them as soft tubes resembling noodles.

The farmer, who confirmed the story but chose to remain nameless, declined to go on record with the reporter about the incident because his girlfriend warned him about his name being forever linked to pig rectum in Google searches. Smart man. But manager Ron Meek did agree to speak on the record. He claimed he never personally saw the label "artificial calamari" but that's what he was told by the people he worked for, and he believed them. And in an interview, his bosses backed the assertion that pig rectum was being sold for use as imitation calamari. They just couldn't say where.

I know this sounds bad. This might be easier for me because I grew up on a farm, but consider this: if you eat sausage you’re eating various meats packed in diligently washed and cleaned intestine which lives just up the street, so to speak, from the bung in question. Bung just gets a little thicker at the end there. As for the calamari question, the plant manager wouldn't say what happened to the bung once it got out the door, but confirmed that they ship a lot of it to Asia, particularly China. Everyone assumes it primarily ends up in the sausage, most of which is after all “whole hog.” Now that’s a two edged sword. To get the hams you have to take the asshole too. Obviously it would be illegal in America to serve pork rectum and call it calamari, and the USDA says they've never heard of anyone trying to pass pork bung as squid. Officially they say that.

However one food industry attorney told TAL "the regulation we have is not designed to catch an offense like this. It's aimed mostly at sanitation and food safety. If someone wanted to do it, chances are they'd get away with it." Given the fact that pork bung is sold at less than half the cost of calamari, the financial incentive is enormous.

What sealed the deal for me after listening to the podcast, what made me believe the unconfirmed story, was the taste test. The reporter, having run into a brick wall of no solid informant he could quote, turns instead to plausibility. At that point he becomes less a journalist and more of a creative soul. He appeals to his sister, a chef, to cook pork bung side by side with calamari and conduct a taste test with his friends at the radio station. As she prepared the two products for deep frying she was doubtful. While the squid retained its ring shape the pork bung twisted into something that looked mangled. Appearance aside, she believed the bung, having been marinated for the life of the pig in its own shit, could not shake that taste. To counteract that possibility she brined half of it, soaking it in salt water for a full day, while preparing the remainder simply as fresh clean pork bung. She breaded the squid and bung the same, fried it the same, and served it blindly in three batches at her restaurant to a group of volunteers willing to help the reporter with his story.

Especially poignant was the story of a young Italian man who had just started working at the station. His family ate Calamari regularly both at family dinners and at restaurants. His grandmother used to buy her own squid and make it herself. His fear was that he would not be able to tell the difference and be forever jinxed from eating calamari again owing simply to the possibility that he could be chewing a pig’s ass.

As she was frying the bung, the reporter’s sister was amazed to see the twisted form smooth out into a presentable ring during frying. In baskets side by side in the hot oil she saw little or no difference. She figured the taste would give it away or if not the taste the texture. To her, texture is the wild card in food recognition. She believes we love the feel as much as the taste of our favorite foods. She brought the plates to the table. Standard calamari made from squid, pork bung brined in order to neutralize any bad taste, and straight up fresh pork bung sliced, breaded and fried. The tasting began.

Absolutely no difference. As many thought the calamari was pork bung as believed the pork bung was sliced fried squid. Texture, taste appearance-nothing was different from one plate to the other. It was amazing, and devastating to the Italian man. He left the restaurant early, mourning the perhaps lifetime loss of calamari and wondering what he could ever tell his family. Simply knowing he might possibly be eating a pig’s asshole led him to vow never to take that chance again.

This is not a nailed down story. It couldn’t be published in a newspaper. Some would ask why it ran on radio. I’d say its because that’s the way life is many times. You can’t prove things are true but you know in your heart they are. This American Life did not prove that pork bung is being sold as calamari. But it raised the possibility. That’s where good stories often start. Stores aren’t fact. But they are great aren’t they? From the day I heard the basics of this story on the radio I imagined a meeting where the idea, the concept of artificial calamari, was developed. And having heard the pod cast, it’s now sort of busting out of me onto this computer screen.

A small but established food distribution company holds its regular weekly meeting. It is chaired by Bob, the company president, but the agenda rarely changes. The meeting is designed by and large as a vehicle for supervising his staff, which is the management team. At the table is Art, a food scientist in charge of product development; Gary, Chief Financial Officer, and Stephanie, newest member of the team and the company’s marketing director. Alice, Bob’s secretary, takes notes. The meeting starts with a report from Art, the food scientist.

“Well it’s no secret that my staff and I have been working on developing an exciting new product, and I’m happy to say I have solid information to share with you about it. I think this is a terrific opportunity for our company. We’re at a point where I need your input and frankly, your help. It has endless financial potential but there is considerable risk involved.”

“What is it Art?” said Stephanie. “Rumor around the plant is that it could be the next crabstick.”

“I know, I’ve heard that rumor too and I’m flattered by the comparison. It’s like crabstick but with some important differences. It’s an artificial calamari. It can be sold as a frozen product, pre breaded ready for deep frying, or it can be sold fresh and uncooked with an even longer shelf life than real calamari.”

“What’s the production cost?” asked Gary. Gary had been through these ideas before with Art and found them financially unfeasible. He wished they would come to him sooner on these things so they didn’t have to waste their time on dead losers.

“Less than half the cost of calamari,” Art said. He gave Gary a steady smile, as if to shut him up. “Half.”

“That sounds too good to be true,” Gary replied.

“But what is it really? Stephanie asked. “Some kind of cheap ground fish mixed with egg whites and starch? What’s in it?”

“That’s the beauty of it and the challenge. It is not a seafood product. We can get all of it we want right here in the Midwest.”

“It’s not that freshwater Asian Carp everyone’s trying to sell us out of the Illinois River I hope.”

“No, it’s even more basic. It’s a pork product. No one would have ever imagined this. It’s a pork product and it’s so perfect, so similar in every way to calamari that you can’t believe it.”

“Pork?” Gary and Stephanie spoke at the same time. “How can a pork product even resemble a sea food product?”

Bob cut in for the first time, having been beaming since the start of Art’s presentation. “That’s what I thought too Gary. When Art first came to me with this breakthrough idea I thought it was absolutely crazy but it grows on you. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. So please, both of you. Hear Art out on this. Show them the pictures Art.”

Art brought out glossy color photos of unbreaded calamari side by side with his artificial calamari. They appeared to be of the same size and have the same color. The artificial calamari was twisted.

“The artificial calamari needs no processing. Unlike Surimi, where similar products are ground and reconstituted with other ingredients to resemble the original, this product is a single tissue, a single body part, that when sliced and cooked is virtually indistinguishable from calamari.”

“It doesn’t look wrinkly?” Gary asked.

“Miraculously, the wrinkles smooth out when it cooks. Takes on the exact shape as the squid.” Art said. He flashed two more pictures of identical plates of round, breaded, cooked appetizers, the real next to the fake.

Gary looked closely at the picture of the artificial calamari. He’d been in the food industry for a long time. “I’ve never seen a pig part like this. What part of the pig is it from?”

Art was quick to say “It’s akin to sausage casing.”

"Sausage casing is intestines. What’s akin to intestine?” He looked up at Bob and Art with a puzzled look
.
“I’m warning you, this is the hard part,” Bob said. “This is where I first balked at the concept.”

“It’s bung. Pork bung.” Art said. The room went quiet.

“Bung as in bunghole?” Stephanie said. There was a pause.

“Yes,” Art said.

“You’re proposing that this company… and I as its marketing director….try to sell a pig’s ass as an Italian seafood appetizer.”

“Stephanie you won’t believe how it tastes. It’s uncanny how much it tastes like calamari. And it’s cheap. We can undercut calamari by twenty percent and still take a huge profit on this artificial stuff. I’m telling you, this can work.”

“You’re nuts! You can’t honestly believe that people will sit down to a plate of deep fried pork ass and eat it like it was just taken out of the Mediterranean by a cute Italian fisherman. It’s asshole! You would be asking people to eat asshole. And I would be asking them to buy it with a straight face. It’s not going to happen. Alice would you eat a pig's ass as if it were seafood and enjoy it?”

Bob, usually calm and in control at these meetings, erupted. “Alice stop taking notes.”

“Stephanie do you want this company to be successful? Or do you want the Chinese to make all the money? Do you think Qingdao International isn’t looking at this very thing right now? How long do you think this will stay a secret? Calamari is a billion dollar industry for Christ's sake. With a B. If we capture even ten percent of that market…OK, maybe it doesn’t sell well in the U.S.. But if we can boost sales overseas to get a ten percent share, that’s a $100 million dollars. $100 million. Do you want to add $100 million to this company’s sales? Do you think that might result in some bigger salaries around here? Well I’ll tell you what, I do want that kind of success and so do our stockholders. I want to this company to be successful and I know we can because I’ve got one of the best management teams in the business. Now if we just stay positive and work together, we can overcome the image difficulties this product presents and meet this challenge.”

Stephanie sat back in her chair and folded her arms in silence. Gary looked at Art, then Bob. The silence was becoming uncomfortable. He turned and spoke to Stephanie.

“He’s right about the money you know.”

Art followed closely with a suggestion for Stephanie. “We’re counting on you to come up with a better name.”

“Than pork bung?” she said.

“Yes.”

Bob smiled broadly at her, putting his hand on hers. “You’re probably the key to making this work Stephanie. We’re all counting on you.”

And thus is born, maybe, a new product to feed the world. See what you can do when you think about the trivial? When you go soft on the facts and instead make up a story? God is it fun. Shut off your phone and turn up the radio. Merry Christmas.




Thursday, December 5, 2013

Short Days

On good days, I walk from the house to the shack in the dark. When it’s cold like today I build a fire first thing. The little steel stove is so cold I try not to touch it. I use the lid lifter with my gloves on to open the stove top. If I remember I open up the control on the side, a wheel with empty wedges, to give it more air. When the fire gets hot I will close off some air to make the wood burn longer.

I start with a piece of brown paper bag. On it I pile thin pine, cut up pieces of lattice from a neighbor’s deck project. On that, one piece of 2 x 4 pine. I strike a wooden farmer match on the arc of the hole that holds the stove lid. One match starts the fire. I tip the match head down. When it’s burning well, I reach into the stove and hold the lit match against a brown paper edge. When the paper begins to flame, I let the match drop.

The fire is fairly quiet at first. There are a few crackles from the thin pine but the paper burns silently. I feel no heat. Inside the stove the flames burn bright. I leave the stove lid off and shut off the overhead light to enjoy the firelight. I sit directly in front of the stove in my chair, my gloved hands folded in my lap, waiting for the heat. Outside the sky begins to brighten, showing the trees. I sit quietly. I try to think of just one thing at a time, until I’m done with that one thing. Then I go on to the next. Sometimes it’s people represented by a face, sometimes it’s a problem, and sometimes they’re the same. When I'm done with those things I try to think of nothing at all. I close my eyes. When I find real quiet, I pray. It works best when I leave words behind altogether.

Here at our latitude we’re in the very short days. Ottawa is at about 41 degrees north. The sun comes up behind the trees and I can’t tell when it rises. Using the tables in The Old Farmer’s Almanac, I figure it breaks the horizon at about 6:59 in the morning and sets at 4:22 in the afternoon. I like to use a pencil and the almanac to calculate this, though I’m sure the Internet would give me the exact answer in a flash. Habit I guess.

Today we’ll have but nine hours and 23 minutes of daylight. Hard to warm up much in that little time, plus the sun’s not strong. This time of year the sun stays low in the sky and further away. Each day we lose a couple minutes of that weakened sun till the 21st of December when it is in the sky barely nine hours. Then it slowly adds a minute or two each day. On June 21st, when we max out on day light, we’ll have 17 hours and 14 minutes of sun. That’s six months from now. From the shortest day on it gets colder yet, the ground freezing, and snow. I can feel it coming.

When I feel the heat from the stove on my face, I add wood and replace the stove lid. There comes a time when the stove is so hot and with such a bed of coals you can add as big and as many pieces of wood as you want. But when the fire is new you can add too much and choke it out. I add but two more pieces of scrap pine and a single chunk of oak to this early morning fledgling fire. I turn my chair from the stove to the desk, switch from gloves with fingers to gloves without, open the laptop and switch it on along with the keyboard and mouse. Beside me, to my right, the little stove is roaring. I feel the heat radiating from it, first on my right ear, right shoulder, right thigh. The air in the shack is hotter now, yet still colder on my left. I open up the Word program, click on the file that holds the story, and stand up to take off my coat, scarf, and hat. I put them on a hook on the door. On the very cold days I just hang up my coat.

I read what I wrote the day before. Yesterday was a good day, 2100 words. If I can chain days like that together I can get somewhere. I like what I’m reading. I remember my place, what I was trying to say, and I know where the story is going next. I smile. I love it when a story comes together. It's like building a fire. I begin to imagine the words I’ll start with today. But first coffee.

I take my ibrik, the little brass pot for making Turkish coffee with the handle slanting up, from its hook by the stove and get coffee and sugar from the shelf. I put two tablespoons of finely ground coffee and a sugar cube in the ibrik, fill it with water from the bottle in the corner, then set it aside and put more wood in the fire. I load the stove up now, arranging the burned pieces so I can pack the stove box full of oak chunks, taking care not to burn my fingers on the hot steel. I throttle down the air to the stove, turning the wheel back. I put the ibrik on to boil. The water heats quickly so I stand with a yellow cotton work glove in my hand as a hot pad to grab the ibrik when the coffee boils to the top. As I wait I look out the big window behind the stove. It is brighter now and where I stand facing the stove I can see across the ravine. Squirrels chase each other on bare branches. Even with the leaves fallen from the branches I see nothing but trees from this window. I hear a bird but don’t see him.

Coffee boils over the top of the ibrik, sputtering and steaming, drops dancing on the hot stove lid. I lift it quickly with my glove and pour it in a small clay cup on my desk. There is a trace of whiskey in the cup still from yesterday’s nightcap. That’s OK. I stir the mix with a little spoon, take a sip, sit down, and begin tapping on the keyboard. It is now 7:16, the day is getting on, and I only have so much time.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanks

For several years I wrote, as director of YSB, a piece at this time of the year which thanked all those who made it possible for YSB to help children and their families succeed: our staff, foster parents, volunteers, board members, donors, funders, collaborating agencies, and the kids and families themselves. It requires so much work, dedication, and support from everyone involved to accomplish the difficult task of protecting children and keeping families together. It was easy to work right past the simple act of telling people you appreciate what they did to help both me and the organization. I know I did so plenty of times. So at least at Thanksgiving, if not throughout the year, I made a conscious effort to simply say thanks. I want to say that again. For the first six months of this year I enjoyed the support and hard work of all those around me at YSB, and it meant a lot to me. Thanks for everything you did to support both me as the director of YSB, and the children and families we served.

But this year I want to add another note of thanks. Thank you for letting me go. Thank you for not calling me, relying on me, involving me further in the work I did so long and wished to leave. I miss many of you, but I appreciate the distance. I hope you understand.

Beginning July 1st, I began to realize slowly, and more clearly, that there is a whole universe of people outside of work who have made and continue to make a difference in my life. It starts with my family, who realized I was going through a big change by retiring and supported me in doing so. My wife led the way, getting me to the finish line, over the finish line, and off to the sideline. My kids check in on me more often these days. I’m very thankful I have them in my life.

My extended family, especially my siblings, are there for me as they have been all along, and as the last among them to retire I’ve learned a lot from them. My brother from California is moving home to Illinois at the end of the year and I look forward to spending more time with him. I’m thankful we’re close to one another.

People and organizations that may not always realize their importance to others have grown to be very important to me. I’m thankful for my church in many ways. I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve as a volunteer there, as a member of the choir, as a member of one of the boards that will shape its future, as part of the Wednesday night book group, and simply as a member of the church community. I thank my pastor, my choir director, those I serve with on trustees, and those in the congregation that count me among their friends. It means very much to me. I think my life would be much poorer without church.

I‘m part of an organization called I Care International which conducts optometry and vision clinics in Latin America where eye care is scarce or non-existent. They’ve allowed me to become more active in helping plan a mission in February to Trujillo, Honduras. I’m thankful for that opportunity. I am thankful for the old friendships, the new acquaintances, and the camaraderie we enjoy as we put this clinic trip together. It’s great to be part of something where no one is paid a dime yet give so freely of their time.

I’m thankful to old friends and old friendships I neglected for so many years. I’m thankful for their forgiveness and generosity.

I’m thankful for this shack I’m in right now. I’m thankful for everyone who helped me build it. I’m thankful for the quiet, the ravine outside the window that separates me from my neighbors, the trees that surround me. Did I say I’m thankful grateful for the quiet? Let me say that again. I’m thankful for the time and the quiet to think, to not think, to simply live and breathe, eat and sleep.

I’m thankful for living in a country that maintains a social security system which makes it possible for me to quit working , earn nothing from my labors, or labor not at all, and still have sufficient money to live in community. I would be remiss if I was not equally thankful for reliable and trustworthy financial advisors, stable banks, and investment companies that took care of savings that I forgot I had, could not have cared less about, and yet created further support for me now that I’m earning nothing. I’m thankful to live in a country where retirement is allowed and possible.

I hope one day everyone experiences life in a community that knows you. That’s what I experience when I leave the place here on Caton Road. I’m thankful to everyone who wishes me well. They ask me how I like retirement. That question is less frequent as the months go on, but I appreciate everyone’s concern and good wishes just the same. Thankfully I’ve made the adjustment to sloth and idleness rather easily, thank you, and am happy to report I’m enjoying every minute of it.

I’m thankful for those of you who read this blog. Each comment I get inspires me to keep writing, and reinforces my hope that you may one day read a book I put together. I’m on that. It’s a challenge, its slower than I thought it would be, but it’s coming along.

I have a lot to be thankful for and I’m trying to express it. Thank you. I hope your blessings are many and you feel supported and thankful this Thanksgiving. The way to make sure everyone experiences that? Go be part of a community. Support those around you. It has a way of coming back around.

And finally, I’m thankful you read this piece all the way to the end.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Like Everyone in America

Like everyone in America, it seemed, I saw The Exorcist in 1973. I went to Chicago to see it when it first came out. I had read William Blatty’s novel in 1971, which was scary enough. But seeing that little girl’s head spin around (it was a puppet), and her body rise from the bed (wires and a harness), and the green projectile vomiting (pea soup) were so vivid that although I knew the story the impact of those scenes absolutely blew me away. My date and I were scared to death. We ran to the car when we left the theater. That’s what most of us know about exorcism. We know the movie.

We understand exorcism as a little used religious rite but the concept rarely enters public discourse these days. That’s because it’s medieval. It is an antidote to demonic possession and we don’t often frame problems in terms of demonic possession these days. I have not encountered it, nor suspected it come to think, in my entire life. I’m talking about demons jumping in and taking over some unsuspecting human being like the little girl in the movie living with her mother in Georgetown, making her life a living hell. We see people living what we imagine as a living hell but we now attribute such misfortune to mental illness or horrible coincidence and not Beelzebub, Prince of Darkness. Am I wrong here? Has demonic possession been popping up in your neighborhood?

So I was quite surprised when the Bishop of the Springfield Catholic Dioceses, Thomas Paprocki, announced plans for, in words taken from his press release "Prayers of Supplication and Exorcism in Reparation for the Sin of Same-Sex Marriage.” He certainly created a buzz by choosing to invoke the rite of exorcism on the day that the Governor of Illinois signed the Marriage Equality Act which will allow same sex marriage throughout the state in June of this year. It got people’s attention in Illinois and beyond. In researching reaction to his plans I realized once again that the Catholic Church is a big institution. It harbors within it a wide range of opinion and thought.

Thomas Villareal, something of a renegade Catholic monk writing in the Los Angeles Times, said this about the Springfield Bishop’s service at the ornate Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception church a few blocks from the state Capitol:

“(As) outrageous –and perhaps even a bit comical –as many might find the use of the rite of exorcism to make a political statement in the culture wars, the entire body of U.S. Catholic bishops has, in fact, implemented a far less theatrical, yet ever more serious plan in their attempt to sully the love and commitment of same-sex couples, along with their civil marriage equality, in the minds and hearts of lay Catholics. This is no laughing matter.”

On the other end of the spectrum is CatholicCulture.org, a non-profit with a web site run by Trinity Communications. The board and officers of Trinity Communications are Catholic laymen faithful to the Magisterium of the Church who seek to enrich faith, strengthen the Church, and form Catholic culture according to the mind of the Church. They claim to “draw special inspiration from the outstanding Catholic vision and wisdom of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and continue to follow the lead and guidance of Pope Francis.” Here’s what they say about Wednesday afternoon’s exorcism.

“Trained as a canon lawyer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki understands the prudence of working within the system of Church law. He is not by nature a “lone ranger”—not the sort of prelate who would ignore the rules and rubrics to make his point. Still, while other American bishops have reacted to the legal recognition of same-sex marriage with protests and press statements, Bishop Paprocki has taken one long stride further, announcing plans to lead prayers of exorcism in the cathedral of his Springfield, Illinois diocese. Exorcism isn’t something the Church takes lightly. Priests are strongly discouraged from using the ritual unless there is strong evidence of demonic activity. So Bishop Paprocki is telling us that he regards the acceptance of same-sex marriage as something far more serious than a matter of mistaken judgment; he sees it as evidence that Satan is twisting the thoughts of legislators, and presumably of the people they represent.

Satan, twisting the thoughts of legislators and the people they represent? The people they represent? That’s us, for God’s sake. Satan, at work in us? Have you felt funny lately? I feel fairly normal and in control.

As an English major I love words and I take them seriously. I think speakers and writers deserve to have their words read and understood. I read most all the newspaper accounts of Wednesday’s exorcism but more important to me is the Bishop’s Homily, which you can find printed in its entirety if you work at it. I don’t have time to give you the link. In his own words Paprocki denied he was exorcising demons from individuals. Let me quote him directly. These are excerpts, taken from his address to the faithful, with omissions indicated by three periods. I know that you know it’s always better to read the whole thing for context, but it’s long.

“God is calling me to speak out and conduct these prayers.... Our prayers at this time are prompted by the fact that the Governor of Illinois today is signing into Illinois law the redefinition of civil marriage, introducing not only an unprecedented novelty into our state law, but also institutionalizing an objectively sinful reality.

... the meaning of the term ‘exorcism’ in the title of this prayer service is not so readily apparent and requires some explanation. ...It should also be noted that the bill that the Governor is signing today is called the ‘Religious Freedom and Marriage Fairness Act,’ which purportedly provides that ‘the Act does not interfere with any religious beliefs about marriage.’ Perhaps a large part of the negative reaction is because most people don't know what the Church teaches about exorcism, since they get their misleading information and sensational ideas on this mainly from Hollywood. The fact is that a ‘minor exorcism’ takes place in every Baptism and Confirmation ceremony when we renounce Satan and all his works and empty promises. This prayer service will be along those lines. I'm not saying that anyone involved in the redefinition of marriage is possessed by the devil, which, if that were the case, would require the remedy of a ‘Major Exorcism,’ but all of us are certainly subject to the devil's evil influences and in need of protection and deliverance from evil. Our prayer service today and my words are not meant to demonize anyone, but are intended to call attention to the diabolical influences of the devil that have penetrated our culture, both in the state and in the Church. These demonic influences are not readily apparent to the undiscerning eye, which is why they are so deceptive.

... . Let us not be naive: it is not a simple political struggle; it is an intention [which is] destructive of the plan of God. It is not a mere legislative project (this is a mere instrument), but rather a 'move' of the father of lies who wishes to confuse and deceive the children of God.’ The ...’father of lies’ comes from the Gospel of John (8:44), where Jesus refers to the devil as "a liar and the father of lies."

... Since the legal redefinition of marriage is contrary to God's plan, those who contract civil same-sex marriage are culpable of serious sin. Politicians responsible for enacting civil same-sex marriage legislation are morally complicit as co-operators in facilitating this grave sin. We must pray for forgiveness of these sins and deliverance from this evil which has penetrated our state and our Church. The Church stands ready to extend God's mercy to those who confess their sins with true repentance and a firm purpose of amendment in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We must also affirm the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.’ The Church loves homosexual persons and looks upon them with compassion, offering assistance ...to live in accord with the virtue of chastity.”

No need to elaborate further on what the Bishop was all about on Wednesday except to say that although he may not be saying Michael Madigan is possessed by the devil if he did he would not be the first to do so. But all in all, I think his words speak for themselves.

Far and away the best words to come out of the whole deal are the words that hardly anyone understood. After delivering the homily in English, Bishop Paprocki read the rite of exorcism in Latin. I also looked that up. It’s no small deal. But if you’re doing an exorcism in the Catholic Church, it demands being done properly. Too bad they didn’t provide the English translation, although maybe they did. I wasn’t there. The English translation of the Rite of Exorcism is a treasure trove of words, quotable as hell, forgive the pun. I read it side by side with the Latin. The Latin says it in less words than the English. But it's the rich language in the rite that so strikes me. Let me give you the highlights of that piece, issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 18th 1890. Pope Leo recommended the exorcism, a prayer, be delivered standing. Get ready. It’s a doozy.

(Can’t you just see Max Van Sydow in the movie, playing the heavy weight priest they brought in from a dig in Iraq to do battle with Lucifer? It was like a religious Rocky movie at that point. There he was, standing by Regan’s bed, commanding Satan, tossing holy water that burned her skin, invoking the power of God. What a scene. Picture if you can Bishop Paprocki saying these words in Latin. Is there video?) What follows are excerpts again, same deal with the periods and omissions. Here goes.

O most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Armies, St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle and in our wrestling against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places…

Fight the battles of the Lord today with the Army of the Blessed Angels, as once thou didst fight against Lucifer, the first in pride…But that great dragon was cast out, the old serpent, who is called the devil and satan, who seduces the whole world. …

On men depraved in mind and corrupt in heart the wicked dragon pours out like a most foul river, the poison of his villainy, a spirit of lying, impiety and blasphemy, and the deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices…

His most crafty enemies have engulfed the Church, the Spouse of the Immaculate Lamb, with sorrows; they have drenched her with wormwood; on all her desirable things they have laid their wicked hands…

Offer our prayers in the sight of the Most High, so that the mercies of the Lord may quickly come to our aid, that thou mayest seize the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and satan and that having bound him, thou mayest cast him into the bottomless pit, so that he may no more seduce the nations…

We cast you out, every unclean spirit, every satanic power, every onslaught of the infernal adversary, every legion, every diabolical group and sect, in the name and by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. …No longer dare, cunning serpent, to deceive the human race, to persecute God's Church, to strike God's elect and to sift them as wheat. For the Most High God commands you …God the Father commands you. The Son of God commands you. God the Holy Ghost commands you. Christ, the Eternal Word of God made flesh, commands you, … The exalted Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, commands you, who in her lowliness crushed your proud head from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception… The blood of martyrs and the devout prayers of all holy men and women command you...

Thus, cursed dragon, and you, diabolical legions, we adjure you by the living God, …cease deceiving human creatures and pouring out to them the poison of eternal damnation; cease harming the Church and hindering her liberty.

Begone, Satan, inventor and master of all deceit…Stoop beneath the all-powerful Hand of God; tremble and flee when we invoke the Holy and terrible Name of Jesus…we beseech Thee to deliver us by Thy power from all the tyranny of the infernal spirits, from their snares, their lies and their furious wickedness...

From the snares of the devil…Deliver us, O Lord…That Thou may crush down all enemies of Thy Church…

Wow. Begone, Satan. Stoop…tremble and flee when we invoke the terrible Name of Jesus. That is the language, the words, the core of exorcism. It is just not the Jesus I’m familiar with.

And it is still not clear whom the Bishop was driving the demon from on Wednesday. Was it Illinois, its legislature, its citizens? I can’t tell. Suffice to say some Catholic leaders such as Paprocki are very upset with Illinois lawmakers, and in turn us who support this law, while other church leaders and the majority of Catholic Church members remain supportive of those they love and all who are gay, and wish for them the same opportunity for love, family and acceptance as heterosexuals enjoy.

What do they think will happen come June when the law takes effect? I think I know what will happen. Gay people will marry one another and have their relationship blessed by God and a church community. Joy will break out on those occasions, as it does at all weddings. Other gay people will choose to enter into civil unions, while many gay people will continue to simply live together. Still other gay people will seek love and relationship or they will choose to live alone. They will choose what is best for them among all those options. Take the adjective “gay” out of those statements and come June the same will be true for every adult in Illinois.

Some of those gay marriages will take place in my church, First United Church of Christ in Ottawa, an open and affirming congregation which worked for and welcomes this new law in Illinois, just as we welcome gay people, and everyone, to be members of our church. If they don’t want to use our church basement for the reception the couples will find a hall (probably not the Knights of Columbus), a florist, a bakery, a caterer to help them. If you’re lucky you may be invited. Quite possibly a member of your family is gay and longs to one day marry. Perhaps it will be a neighbor or close friend. As the stigma continues to fall from being gay we realize how many individuals we know and love that are positively affected by this inclusive piece of legislation. I think it is something to celebrate.

This same phenomena, weddings between people who love one another regardless of gender, has been taking place in Massachusetts for ten years. In Iowa for four. The sky has not fallen. Family has not deteriorated. In fact, family has been created. Gay marriage will come to Illinois and you will not be threatened. You may not notice. We can bring the rhetoric down any time now. Cunning serpent, cursed dragon, diabolical legion? The deadly breath of lust and of all iniquities and vices? Come on. It’s going to be OK.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Listening

A guy I’ve known for years told me a story this past week. That is not unusual. It seems as if people have been telling me stories, or trying to, my whole life. I wish I had found the time to listen to them all but I just didn’t. For a long time there I thought I was too busy to keep my own mouth shut and sit quietly as someone talked and I took it in. Nowadays I find myself becoming, I hope, the curious and patient listener I remember myself being before I worked so much. This railroad story was told to me by a man who worked in LaSalle as a switchman while going to LPO junior college in the sixties. He went on to accomplish many other things. It took place in 1963, which was fifty years ago. I can’t quite comprehend that.

As he started I remarked “I don’t hear many railroad stories these days, or know many people working on the railroad. They must have automated a lot of the tasks that used to be done by people. You think that’s so?”

The guy telling the story seems to have left the present, preferring to talk almost exclusively about the past. He ignored my remark as if he hadn’t heard it. Maybe he didn’t. As he talked it seemed as if he was far away. He’d mention a person and pause, looking away, as if picturing him or hearing his voice. When he began to describe the night this story took place his voice took on a different tone. He was I think less in the restaurant hunched over a cup of coffee and a piece of peach pie and more in a train yard fifty years younger.

Here’s his story.

We made up trains at night, usually pushing empty cars on the spur to the cement plant and bringing loaded cars back. There was a hill we could roll them down. They’d bang together when coupling and make an assembled string of cars that would go out the next day. We’d work till the middle of the night, go home, and then at daybreak the engineers showed up, hooked on to those strings of cars we put together, and start out.

The office left index cards for us with lists of numbers on them that corresponded to the numbers chalked on the freight cars, and with that as our guide we’d make up trains. My supervisor, about my age and more friend than boss, trained me the first day while walking from the freight station to the yard. It took about ten minutes. If you didn’t catch on to the system they’d fire you. But if you got it you could keep that job as long as you wanted, if you did not exceed their limit of demerits. They had s system of demerits, or marks made against you for errors and accidents, and sort of kept a book on you. No credits, just demerits. But they wiped your slate clean every year and started over. It was a great job.

My supervisor and three of us were rolling cars loaded with bags of cement, hooking them together, when we got caught in a cold rain. A storm came up quickly. It had been hot as hell that day and then a cold wind hit us. A bank of big clouds rolled in and in no time huge drops of rain began to pelt us. It was amazingly cold, and then hail hit us. It bounced white on the ground around us.

The super yelled ‘Run for an empty!’ We ran between the tracks up the hill toward the empty freight cars. By the time we piled into a car and closed the door we were soaked and shivering. That only happens in Illinois right? Sweating your ass off one minute and hunched up in the cold the next. So we’re in this freight car, shivering and wet, and the super says ‘let’s build a fire.’

There were pallets in the car. We busted them up and started a fire. Cracked the doors to get some cross ventilation. In those wooden cars at that time there was a metal plate in the middle section of the car by the doors. They put steel there so the forklift trucks didn’t wear out the planks. We stood close to the fire to dry out. The rain was beating the roof and sides of that freight car like a drum. Outside the thunder and wind continued loud and hard. But we were safe and dry, a little group of men in a freight car, our faces lit up by the fire. The guys that smoked lit up. We laughed and wished we had something to drink to celebrate having beat the weather. Before long the rain stopped and we returned to work. As we rolled the door of the freight car back wide the cold wind hit us again.

“What about the fire?” I asked. Looking back in the car there was a small pile of coals glowing red on the steel.

“It’ll go out on its own,” the supervisor said. We worked another hour or so and all went home.

I was asleep when my Mom woke me up. It was early morning. Too early.

“Phone’s for you. It’s your supervisor at the railroad.”

My supervisor never called. I knew something was wrong.

“Hello?”

“It’s me. You know that empty we were in last night during the storm?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s nothing left of it but the wheels. Damned thing burned up during the night.”

“Oh oh.”

“Oh oh is right. We’re in trouble. Turns out it was a car that had been carrying sulphur for the zinc plant. Sulphur powder must have got hot under that steel and kept burning after we left, then spread. We’re damn lucky it was off by itself and was the only car that burned.”

“What do you think we should do?”

“I don’t know. What do you think?”

“I think we should blame the hobos.”

It was easy to blame things on the hobos. There weren’t as many hobos as there used to be in the train yard but there were enough that when tools went missing, or things got broken, we suggested to the big bosses that the hobos were causing those problems. Actually, they did cause a few problems but not nearly as many as were attributed to them. I was scared. I knew we could lose our jobs over this.

“I don’t think we can blame the hobos, not this time. I think we have to tell the truth,” he said.

“But we’ll get fired. I can get another job but you’ve got kids. Can you afford to lose your job?”

“No. But I can’t afford to lie either. Stealing a crowbar and blaming the hobos is one thing. Burning down a freight car and blaming someone else is another. I think if we tell the truth they may let us off. But if they find out we lied we’re for sure done. We didn’t mean any harm.”

My stomach was turning over.

“I’m calling the rest of the guys and tell them the same thing. We’re telling the truth.”

“OK.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind going with the truth. I just have to know what our story is gonna be.” I thought to myself my short railroad career, and his, was over.

The railroad had its own system of justice. They set up a hearing date, called in the union reps, and held what seemed like court in a few weeks right there in the freight station in LaSalle. They brought down a railroad guy from Chicago wearing a white shirt and tie and carrying a brief case. He looked official. It was hot again. Blistering hot and no air conditioning. They had all the doors and windows in the station open to get air. They moved tables and had us sitting before this guy like an inquisition. Felt like a firing squad. The guy in charge looked hot and uncomfortable. Beet red, veins standing out on his face. Should have loosened his collar but didn’t.

As luck would have it they were moving cattle on the Rock Island line at that time. Most cattle now are moved by trucks on the interstate but in those days we’d move cattle up to the stockyards in Chicago on the railroad. Just about the time the guy started asking us questions a string of cattle cars rolled up and stopped by the station. With all those doors and windows open you could smell ‘em. Hot summer day, bunch of cows packed together in a train car, it stunk big time. As the guy asked me my name and age one of the cows let out with this low bellow ‘Mmmmmooooaaaw. Mmmmmooooaaaw.’ We had a hard time not laughing. The guy conducting the hearing didn’t like it one bit. I’m not sure the day shift fellas didn’t roll that train up there on purpose. Maybe riled up the cows too so they made noise.

Anyway they all seemed flummoxed that we told the truth. We overdid the amount of hail that hit us a tad, and the size of it too, but other than that told the same story, each of us, which was easy because it was exactly what happened. The inquisitor with the too tight collar asked us some questions. Then the union guys huddled with each other and after doing so conferred with the hearing officer while the cattle continued to bawl and the stink and the heat rose. We fanned ourselves with the papers they’d given us detailing our infractions. The super mopped his brow. We didn’t talk to each other. But I caught his eye and he winked.

After a while the hearing officer sat back down and began to speak loudly in a stern tone. In a complicated arrangement, following the rules in only a convoluted and marginal way, he forgave a number of previous demerits we had earned in the current year earlier than was customary, making room for the whopping number of demerits handed down for unintentionally destroying railroad property. When it was all over each of us involved remained on the edge, just a few demerits short of termination, dangling by a thread, but still employed at the railroad. It made us think the fix was somehow in.

“That experience served me well,” my friend said, now back in the diner. “I always felt bad I wanted to blame the hobos, but thought it was the only way out. I didn’t believe enough in the power of honesty.”

Our coffee had grown cold during his telling of the story. I realized what I’d missed during the years I’d been too busy, convinced whatever I was doing or thinking was more important than listening to the tales of others. The waitress came by and poured a warm up in our mugs.

“So do you think that whole deal actually changed you?” I asked.

“I think it did. I think everyone in charge would have preferred we lied. It would have made their job easier. But when we told the truth they sure didn’t want to fire us. I can’t say I lived the entire rest of my life entirely truthfully, but seeing the truth win out made it a lot easier to be honest from then on.”

Life, even life lived fifty years ago, can teach your things if you let it. Stopping to pay attention is the trick.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Growth

I tilled my garden this week. Before I turned over the dirt I took the trash, old tomato vines, pepper plants, tomatillos, weeds, horseradish tops, herbs gone to seed, and hauled them to my compost pile where I put them on the side. I’ll add them in slowly over the winter. My compost pile is surrounded by a woven wire cage. It was the cheapest of all the alternatives ten years ago, and it works fine. I slide long wires, which thread their way through loops in the front wire mesh panel and two sides of the square, up and out of the cage to get access to the compost inside. I take the fresh stuff off the top with a pitchfork-the insides of the pumpkins that became jack o’lanterns, banana peels, manure from my dog, the skins of the cucumbers that became bread and butter pickles, apple cores, coffee grounds from the stove top Bialetta and press pot, bad peppers, outside leaves from a head of lettuce, the skin of a rutabaga I ate two days ago-to get to the good stuff below. The good stuff below is everything I just listed from months ago and more, now rotted, resembling dirt, inhabited by worms: decomposed kitchen scraps, some leaves and twigs from the yard, an occasional red or blue twist tie or rubber band that ended up in the compost bucket under the sink. I pick out those foreign objects, and fill my wheelbarrow with pure, rich compost. It steams in the cold air.

I spread it on the end of the garden that I’ve extended over the years. When I first created the garden, in full sun by the garage, I added sand and mushroom compost to the soil. Each year for the first five years or so I put in one or the other to loosen up the ground, enrich it, fluff it up, make it better. We live on a hill where the soil is sort of timber clay. It doesn’t drain very well. Adding to the soil only makes it better, loamier, more porous, richer.

I put the compost on the end of the garden that didn’t get sand and compost originally. That’s where I’ve been planting the garlic. Garlic does better in loose rich soil. The garlic bulbs can expand better in compost enriched dirt than in straight clay, I think. I don’t exactly know. But it makes sense to me. I know I’m turning my kitchen scraps into soil, and putting it to good use where I’ll grow next year’s vegetables, and there is not a hint of chemical fertilizer involved. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and old vegetables feeding new ones. I like it.

After I plant the garlic, each clove planted around Halloween turning like magic into an entire bulb by the 4th of July, I’ll cover it with straw and throw the steel mesh over it. My friend who owns the tiller doesn’t do this, says it’s unnecessary. I do it anyway. Another friend gave me panels of rigid steel mesh, reinforcing rod for concrete projects I think, to use as a trellis for tomatoes. I stand it up and wire it to steel posts. It stands up better with tomato vines tied to it and weighing it down than the round wire cages I used in the past. I’ll lay cakes of straw over the soil that contains the garlic and throw the steel mesh over it, which will hold it down through the winter. I’ll take it off in spring when all danger of frost is past, and let the garlic sprout and grow. I ordered seed garlic to plant this year instead of saving my own. Couldn’t resist eating it I guess, and thought maybe I should give it a fresh start. I’d been growing and replanting the same garlic for a few years. I bought a hard neck spicy garlic with a purple tint and a bigger, whiter, more mellow soft neck garlic to get two kinds next summer. The white kind is better in buttery garlic mashed potatoes. The purple is better for everything else.

After that I’ll seed the rest of the garden with winter rye. I mentioned this once before on Face Book and someone asked me what I do with the rye. It never gets to be rye. In the spring before it forms a head of grain I till it under, with the help of a friend and his tiller, to act as green manure. It grows green during the winter and early spring, and then it’s gone. Nice stuff. If I was out on a farm and owned a still, and possessed both the knowledge of distilling and the courage to break the law, I’d make rye whiskey. But this rye is a whole different deal. It’s made to be plowed under.

I have a lemon grass plant I need to take down before the frost gets it all. I use the white insides of the biggest stalks as an ingredient in a sort of Thai style chili paste I make. The asparagus plants, which front the garden to the South in a long line, are tall and starting to yellow. I’ll let them stand all winter and burn them off in the spring around Easter, if it’s not too late, as my Mom did. I have a nice little volunteer oak growing up in the asparagus, which I want to transplant in the spring.

I have a big old oak in the yard that died. It’s OK, I need the firewood, but I tell you it’s hard to lose one of those old oaks. We’ve lived here with that beautiful big oak since 1987. It’s like a friend dying. When I first saw a branch dying out on the top years ago I felt real alarm, palpable fear. I didn’t tell anyone for a while hoping that one dead branch was an aberration, sort of like a pain in your own body that you keep to yourself hoping it goes away. My alarm turned to grief as the dead branches spread and I realized our oak was going to die. I was sick about it. It might have been hit by lightning. In addition to dead branches the trunk started to weep sap in the summer and the bark began to shrivel. Mushrooms sprouted at the base of the trunk. It has died slowly over years but it’s time for it to come down. Maybe I’m ready for it to come down now and needed this time to say good bye.

I’ll plant that young volunteer oak in the asparagus near the site of the dead one. Might add a ginko tree somewhere, and maybe a pine near the shack. Our trees are getting old, like us. We need to replace them both for us and the next people.

After I get this garlic planted, the straw put down, and the rye seeded in that’s it for the garden till spring. When it gets warm we’ll start over. My wife plants the flowers and I plant the food. In gardening you get a new start every year. Next year I’ll be fully retired at planting time for the first year and able to be more thoughtful, planning better, instead of just slamming plants in the ground before June. Each year I vow to keep up better on the weeds, and most years I fail to live up to my own expectations. Next year will be different. I’m confident.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Spooks and Neighbors

I don’t know when this happened. If I was more thoughtful I would have written dates down. But on Halloween of some year I noticed, beyond my front stoop, where costumed kids were standing between my Jack O’ lanterns under a porch light, parents lurking in the darkness behind them. They were looking at me and their kids, overseeing the exchange taking place between my bowl of individually wrapped little Snickers and small bags of Whopper malted milk balls and their treat bags. And these were not little kids. I would guess their ages at ten and up. I couldn’t help but wonder what the parents were trying to see. Sometimes I would wave, and they would wave back. Odd, I thought.

That was back in the day when you could take your kids’ candy to the hospital and have it X rayed to check for razor blades and needles and such. That had to be the silliest duty ever for the X ray technicians, to say nothing about overtime pay or the costs of using the technology to take an in depth picture of an assortment of candy bars. It was probably seen by someone in the hospital as good public relations. And that can only be so because parents appreciated it. I think that’s faded out, at least in our area. I’m pretty sure the kids were not worried about biting into a foreign object and being maimed for life. The trip to the hospital must have been an agonizing delay in the inevitable sugar rush. If they were like me as a kid, all they wanted was to eat the candy. They’d been eating it all night between houses. They wanted to take it home, spread it out on the floor, look at the loot all in one glorious display, and tear into it.

My Mom started dropping me off by myself at a young age in Danvers, a town of 800 laid out in a big rectangle, long streets running East to West, shorter streets North to South. The school was on one end, so I asked Mom to drop me off at the other. My friends and I would make our way weaving back and forth, hitting all the houses. I was the youngest so I got all the old ideas for home made costumes tried out by my brothers and sisters. I was a scarecrow one year, as all of us once were. They found the little wooden cross, two flat sticks of lath, with yellow cotton work gloves tacked on the arms. Hold it in front of you, put a shirt over it, tack a straw hat on top, and look through holes between the shirt pockets. Pretty low visibility costume. Good thing there wasn’t a lot of traffic in Danvers.

We knew the best houses. Mrs. Oehler, whose husband repaired shoes and spoke more German than English, made homemade taffy apples. She would drop them, covered in wax paper, with a thud in your pillow case, smashing the popcorn balls. She was a big smiling woman, happy to have kids come to her door. Virginia Martin gave dimes. She was the school secretary. She was always dressed up and painted a mole on her cheek as a beauty mark amidst lots of make up. Once when I was the last kid on her porch, the rest having run to the next house, she dropped an extra dime in my bag while winking at me, her husband smiling behind her. I always thought they liked me.

We ended up at the school where they had cider for us. We marched in circles for costume judging. I don’t remember what adults were there. The adults were minor players in my trick or treating days. The kids owned the streets. I never encountered trouble on Halloween. Later when I was too old for trick or treating I caused some trouble, but that’s another story. In Danvers, if you were big enough and had the stamina, you could hit every house. When we were older we got giant bags of candy, calling on everyone in town who had their lights on. They’d try to guess what our costume was, and then who we were as real people. In Danvers I was then, and continue to be among the old people, Dean and Catherine’s youngest boy.

As a parent I approached Halloween the same way with my kids. When they were old enough to navigate the streets safely we let them go out on their own, in our neighborhood, with their friends. We gave out candy at the house while our kids went out and got candy at the neighbors. You could buy candy for your own kids, give it to them, and it would all come out even, but the kids would miss the fun. They would miss the interaction of ringing the neighbors’ door bells, and the neighbors, we in turn, would miss the joy of having kids in costumes smiling on the porch. Halloween is an event that creates community.

When the party at the school was over I would go downtown and call Mom to pick me up at the restaurant. On the way home in the car she would ask me in detail about the evening.

“Did you go to Aunt Dorothy’s and Uncle Harry’s?”

“Yes.”

“What did they give you?”

“Slow Pokes.” Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Harry ran the grocery stores. They had candy to burn. I always thought they gave out the stuff that didn’t sell well. The Slow Pokes were rock hard.

“Did you go to Aunt Carrie’s house?.” Aunt Carries big brick farmhouse was on the way out of town, up and past the school, their barn and silo right across the street from new houses. It was out of the way.

“Didn’t make it there Mom.”

“Oh David, why not?” she said. “She would have liked to have seen you.” It was hard not to disappoint my Mom.

My kids knew who in the neighborhood gave out the best stuff, but the days of homemade popcorn balls and taffy apples were over. For my kids it was the houses that gave out full size candy bars. Mrs. Halterman gave out giant snickers, which made the bite size stuff we bought look tiny. Kids flocked to their house. When the kids came home they’d dump their candy on the living room rug and sort tit all out by type, counting it and seeing who got more. They liked the new stuff best, Nerds and War Heads, and some sour stuff that popped and fizzed in your mouth, but still treasured the Skittles and peanut butter cups. I’d examine it with them.

“You don’t really like these Almond Joys do you Dean?”

“Yea, I think I do Dad. But you can have these Smarties.” The kids gave me their less desirable stuff. I liked it all.

Dean’s best friend had to go to the hospital with his parents to X Ray his candy while we were already eating ours. Dean couldn't understand.

“What are they afraid of Dad? Monsters? The people who give us this stuff are our neighbors.” Dean was a deep thinker even at age eight.

“I know Dean. They feel differently than us.” I tried to downplay the whole fear thing associated with Halloween, but didn’t want to question his friend’s parental concerns. In other words, I thought it was nuts but I didn’t say so.

Raise your hand or reply to this e mail if you have ever seen a Gillette blue blade or any other kind of razor embedded in an apple or anything else that came out of your kids Halloween treat bag. Same for needles. Anyone personally witnessed a needle buried in a Baby Ruth? Has anyone among your family or friends experienced that? We change our behavior based on awful stories that are barely credible. They are urban myths. We live in reaction to rumor and emotion not data and experience. In the Tribune there was a story of a church which organized a trick or treating event with non scary costumes in a parking lot where church members, all known to one another, could open the backs of their mini vans and distribute candy to kids walking by them. It’s Halloween in a paranoid bubble.

Halloween is a community event. I know America isn't the same as it was in my small farm town in 1962 but Halloween is one of the few remaining ways we visit and interact as neighbors. How many people actually come to your door these days? Heck, how many people answer their phone? We so control our contact with others that the act of meeting someone new, or talking with someone we don’t know, is a very rare event. We can’t afford to lose Halloween. We can’t teach our kids to fear their neighbors. What will become of us when we’re all alone?

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Difference Between Him and Me

They were layering up at the homeless shelter in Ottawa as they headed out the door Monday morning. Summer is over. The rules say shelter residents must leave by nine but most are gone by the time nine rolls around. First to go was the woman who works as a maid at one of our local hotels. She had brought her bike inside for safe keeping. I thought of the hotel up by Route 80 where she was heading, the shelter’s location downtown, and the long way up our big river bluff that separates them. I don’t ride my bike up that big hill.

“You going to be warm enough?” I asked as she pulled on her stocking hat and gloves.

“After I start pedaling hard I sort of make my own heat,” she said. “Unless there’s a lot of wind, then I stay cold the whole way.”

She was, I’d guess, about forty. Forty, living in a homeless shelter, working as a maid.

“Monday’s our biggest day, after the weekend. I don’t get as many hours during the week cause not as many rooms get used. But Sunday morning and Monday are usually big.”

She seemed to relish the prospect of working a long day. More hours mean more money. I held the door as she picked up her bike and walked out.

A woman on the street recently complained to me that she’d been asked to leave the homeless shelter because she was on Social Security Disability and made too much money. People still talk to me as if I’m working in social services and have some say over how people in the local community are helped. It makes me smile. It’s all part of my shift to retirement, which equates to unemployment, which takes me out of influential spheres. I’m glad to be gone.

“Look into that will you Dave?” she said.

I don’t have to look into it. The shelter is always available to people on an emergency basis, but a long term stay includes an assessment of each person’s situation. A person on social security disability typically has the means to buy their own shelter. If they do not or cannot manage that resource, there are agencies to help them, like Bridges Senior Center, or shelter staff. But a person with means, even limited means, who uses the shelter as a long term resource takes a bed away from a person for whom this country provides no resources. That’s why there are few senior citizens in the shelter.

I try to imagine waking up in one of the bunk beds, stumbling my way on stiff joints across the dorm area, basically a big open room for the men, into a group bathroom, and then making my way to the counter for coffee and breakfast. It would be like waking up in a public place-an airport, a bus station-with others seeing you at your worst, your groggiest, your sloppiest. Wait, it is a public place. It’s the total lack of privacy that I think would be the hardest thing to endure in a shelter. Always on display.

I worked the seven to nine shift. After eight I took a walk back towards the washing machines to see if everyone was out of bed. The women have a smaller enclosed space that I avoid. A few men were still sleeping, one curled against the wall in a lower bunk with his back towards me. Another lay on his back on a top bunk, snoring softly, his hair a mess, his beard stubbly.

“It’s going on nine fellas.”

The guy’s snoring stopped. I couldn’t tell if the guy facing the wall heard me or not.

To their credit the PADS organization, which has done a good job raising funds with a second hand store, is expanding the Ottawa shelter by adding three family rooms where parents with young children can live privately. They worked out an arrangement with the city to expand their lease and occupy an unused adjoining space. Through volunteer labor and a minimum of professional paid help, electricians mostly and the heating and air conditioning folks, they are close to completing those rooms. I helped with the demolition right after I retired. Now new interior walls are ready for drywall. I always love seeing an empty space refigured, newly imagined, and put to use. They believe that old part of the building was once a stable. It’s solid. They raised the floor, put in a new exit, closed off an old door, created a play area for kids. I can’t wait to see families there, living more like families were intended to live rather than in a communal dormitory space.

The guys I woke up had made their way to the tables. They sat there, slouched over coffee cups, saying little. I sat with them. “Good Morning America”, the TV show with the bouncy well dressed actors posing as journalists, played in the background. Little of the on air discussion related to the morning that lay before the Americans in Ottawa’s homeless shelter. They ignored it.

Finally the previously snoring guy spoke to the now sitting lower bunk man.

“What you got going today Carl?”

“I got an appointment at the clinic at 2:00, and other than that not a god damned thing.”

I chuckled to myself. Being retired and being homeless are not so different. That man’s schedule sounded identical to mine. The difference between him and me is that I have a home, privacy, and means. He does not. In America that’s just the way it goes.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Davion Navar Henry Only


You might not think retired guys have busy weeks but it happens. Rather than slap out an update in an hour or so I decided to pass on this story that appeared in the Huffington Post. It began, I think, in the Tampa Bay Times and also was written up in Newsweek. I subscribe to a virtual clipping service that e mails me articles about child welfare and juvenile justice in the Midwest and beyond. This one caught my eye. There are so many more kids like this boy out there. Few of us are aware of them, and almost none of them are able to communicate their plight, let alone see it make national news. This boy was lucky. It could save his life I think. Make sure you read this one.


“I'll take anyone," came the heartbreaking plea of 15-year-old orphan Davion Navar Henry Only, who stood in front of a St. Petersburg, Fla., congregation last month in a last-ditch effort to find an adoptive family. The story of his search for a mom and dad is both terribly sad and indicative of the problem facing so many older orphans who may spend years in foster care without ever finding a permanent home.

For Only, who was born in prison, life has consisted of a constant shuffle through the foster care system, reports the Tampa Bay Times. He knew little about his mother, a drug addict and a convicted thief, and has himself grappled with academic, rage and weight issues.
When Only recently mustered the courage to look up his mother, he discovered that she had died on June 5, 2013, at the age of 55, per Newsweek. At her funeral, he met relatives who, while perhaps were not suitable as guardians, cared about him.

“One of the things they told Davion was that he was loved,” Connie Going, Only's caseworker and an adoption specialist for Florida-based agency Eckerd Community Alternatives, told Newsweek. “He got in the car and said, ‘I didn’t know I was loved, Miss Connie.’ That began the turning point.”

With Going's help, Only began to get serious about his schoolwork and worked on controlling his emotions and leading a healthier lifestyle, per Newsweek.

"He's come a long way," Floyd Watkins, program manager at Only's current group home, told the Tampa Bay Times. "He's starting to put himself out there, which is hard when you've been rejected so many times."

The church appearance, Only's idea, was one way of "putting himself out there." The Times described how the boy wore an ill-fitting black suit and gripped a Bible as he stood before the 300 or so members St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church. "Without looking up," writes the Times, "Davion wiped his palms on his pants, cleared his throat, and said: ‘My name is Davion, and I’ve been in foster care since I was born. ... I know God hasn’t given up on me. So I’m not giving up either.'"

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that around 400,000 children were in foster care in the U.S. last year. Though this number has declined significantly in the past 10 years, the department's Administration for Children and Families notes that the average age of children waiting to be adopted from foster care is still 8.5 years old.

The North American Council on Adoptable Children released a report in 2009 that noted how "younger foster children have a much better chance of finding a permanent family." The report also said, "Every day that a waiting child remains in foster care, his chances of being adopted decrease."

HLN spoke about Only with Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Tennessee mother whose adoption of a homeless young man named Michael Oher inspired the Oscar-winning film “The Blind Side." Tuohy said that like Oher, who later went on to become a professional football player, Only needs unconditional love and a chance to shine.

"How do we know if someone doesn't offer Davion hope and love and opportunity that he would not become the next greatest teacher or airplane pilot of police office," Tuohy told HLN. "It's just not acceptable that we are out building animal shelters ... and we have kids that are walking on the street and they just want is a forever family. ... This kid just wants to be loved, he wants to wake up in the morning and know that there's somebody who loves him."

The Tampa Bay Times reported this week that two couples from St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church have asked about Only, but that no one has offered to adopt him.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sharing the Truth We Discover

A guy visited the shack recently and asked me a great question.

“What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? Why are you doing it?”

When you don’t have a quick answer don’t you sometimes just wish people would keep their mouth shut? I’ve been thinking of this question for weeks now and I think I have an answer. I’m not a quick thinker. That’s why writing appeals to me. I have to think before I respond and writing matches that speed. I’ve always admired people with witty and snappy answers who engage readily in verbal repartee. But I’ve never been one of those people.

I hope to connect with people through my writing as others have connected with me. I’ve been enriched beyond measure by writers. When I have felt most alone, most isolated, most stranded I have read the words of others and realized I indeed had a tie with the rest of the human race. That can be infinitely important. Is infinitely the right adjective? Let’s go on.

I quit my teaching job, an occupation I had both prepared and been educated for, and struck out on my own. I left everyone I knew and loved for a hazy set of reasons unclear even to me and found myself terribly alone. By chance I picked up a copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and read these opening lines:

“I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased, although I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me.”

I don’t even know now what so struck me, pulled me in, captivated me by these words. Maybe it was the directness of the first person narrative. Maybe it was his honesty. But I know I was touched, there in a cheap hostel in Aberdeen Scotland, engrossed in the thoughts and the written words of a nineteenth century Russian whose work miraculously found its way into print for me to read and appreciate there by the North Sea. Dostoevsky helped me understand life. I read that book in a matter of days, and his longer novel Crime and Punishment which I stole, ironically, from the Aberdeen Public library, going without sleep to finish it, and by doing so made my way, mostly by myself, through the confusing Scottish winter of 1974. What did Dostoevsky hope to accomplish with his writing? Did he imagine helping me?

I am nourished by writers all the time. As much as I yearn to write, I also live to read. There is so much to take in. I can only choose from among an embarrassment of riches. There’s a guy named Thomas McGuane who talks to me through his writing. I’m sure he doesn’t know it. The musings of his characters, like Berl Pickett the Montana doctor practicing in his hometown, speak of what happens inside my own head. I feel as if he and I are friends, thinking and understanding life the same way. Here the middle aged doctor tends his own dying father.

I laced my fingers over the top of one of the bedposts and just kind of hung there watching him sleep, unable to tell why my heart ached. I’d gotten into the habit sailing through moments like this and I thought if I could get it right, I wouldn’t do that anymore. I’d stay right there with it until it was clear.
- from Driving the Rim, Knopf 2010

We can talk , we can talk , we can talk all we want. We can yadda yada yadda; we can blah, blah, blah; we can say what first pops into our head but if we slow down and think, and then write, looking closely at what we’ve written, we improve both our thoughts and our message. By slowly saying and listening to what we’ve written, choosing our words carefully to mean what we think, we communicate so much better, don’t you agree? Don’t you appreciate when people measure what they think in written words, making sure they mean what they write without qualification? Without hedging? Do you appreciate those who take the time to read their words and think them through before they give them to you? I do. I value that greatly. That’s why I read. That’s what I try to do when I when I write.

I think we all need stores that contain truth. I think we need truth just like we need vegetables, and bread, and fruit, and all that sustains us. I write in the hope I can connect with someone who can learn from the life I’ve lived. We are so much alike and yet we are so separate. So divided. We lose people who are lost one to another. We lose people to despair, to sadness, and to loneliness. Writing, and taking the time to read, can remind us we are alike. By sharing our thoughts, our fears, our lives with one another we can help each other. Silence does nothing but keep us apart. We need to share our lives with one another. Sharing life does not have to be tragic and heavy, just as it may not always be happy and bright. But I think we have an obligation to talk to one another about what we’re experiencing. I picture our accumulated body of literature, from the Bible to the last Face Book post on your smart phone, as just that. A record of lives outside our own. It gives us a common basis for living. It lets us know we’re not alone.

Let me share a basic truth. It’s a small one, comic, and not altogether pleasant. Here’s how it developed.

I got dressed for work. My wife asked me to walk the dog before I left. Because I wanted to avoid the unpleasant tasks I knew lay before me at work for as long as possible, I walked the dog gladly. It took a while. I put the dog in the house, yelled good bye to my wife, and walked to my car, parked in our garage. The smell of shit became apparent to me as I opened my car door. Could some animal have shit in my garage? I looked around. I had not the time to search.

I sat in the driver’s seat, put my Buick into reverse, and continued to smell shit as my car went backwards out of the garage. Could something have shit in my car? I’d left the windows open. Maybe the neighbor’s cat snuck in my garage, jumped into my car, and shit in it. At that moment I hated that cat. As I made my way in my car down the hill to my office, a short trip, I searched around and under me in the driver’s side for the source of the smell, looked carefully at the carpet on the passenger side, and craned my neck to look into the back seat. No turds, cat or other, were evident yet the smell of shit persisted.

I parked near the office, walked to the back door, and entered my office building. My own office, with a single desk and a door that closed and made it private, was near the back door. I went immediately to my chair and sat down. Damned if my own office didn’t smell like shit. This is incredible, I thought.

And then it dawned on me. I’ve been in my garage, my car, and my office all the while smelling shit. I came to an unshakeable conclusion, a life lesson. It was as if a bright light had been turned on in a dark room. I sighed, an older guy alone in an ordinary office, and smiled. I’d learned this as a kid on the farm. How could I have forgotten?

If the smell of shit follows you, it’s probably on your shoes.

I put my ankle on my knee, looked closely at my upturned shoe, and found there, as I knew I would, caked behind the heel, the source of the smell. To add insult to injury I realized it was most likely my own dog’s shit from a previous walk. Everything became clear. It was a moment when truth, albeit an old one once learned but forgotten, was rediscovered. Life is like that. It confuses you and then everything became clear. We’re never too old to learn, just as we’re never too young to discover truth on our own. I know it’s a stinking story, but I felt absolutely obligated to share it with you.

There you have it. I admit it’s not yet Dostoevsky, but I’m working at it. I write to bring you things that are true. I think you’ll know if and when it hits home. Good writing brings us together. It seems worth doing. That’s what I’m about out here in the shack. Wish me luck.