Rearview Mirrors

“The things that matter are those that lie ahead – rocks, hurricanes, pirates. Behind there is only a wake which rapidly becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the limitless sea.”

Mark Haddon, The Porpoise

“He dislikes all reunions and is a reluctant attendee of this, his fiftieth high school reunion.  His apathy for the weekend’s events causes him to consider anew his dislike of living life in rear view mirrors.  In his experience, they reflect only misperceived echoes distorted by the passage of time as if a mirage seen through the heat of an August Valley noon.  But Derek is aware that not all reflections seen in rear view mirrors are of times past: some are self-images wrought according to personal judgments composed of equal parts experience, amnesia, and imagination, self-images whose content is not entirely factual due to having been honed to a fine, thin edge by means of refining repetition uttered over the long years.  He is also aware that this form of amnesia is a temporary state of forgetfulness subject to the prodding and poking of others which could well awaken the beast of accurate remembrance.  Memories can always be trumped by the sudden recollection of inconvenient truths or unexpected falsehoods.”

Stephen Ellis. The Leaves Are Full of Children

Physical rearview mirrors have a valid place in society – on vehicles, equipment, and other mobile mechanical devices.  Backing them up without the use, or the inclination to use, a physical rear view mirror is hazardous. The use of mental rearview mirrors is also hazardous, as they are susceptible to distortion due to a myriad of reasons. These mental distortions, being inherently untrustworthy, are akin to opioids – capable of much more harm than benefit if not used with careful, thoughtful caution.

One must always be wary of memory, given its ineluctable capacity to deceive and the fact that harmful events and occasions are first among its lodestars. Visiting any harmful lodestar on a single occasion will likely cause secondary harm and doing so with any frequency may well engender an enduring sense of victimhood.  And perennially viewing life through the rancid lens of victimhood is a sure way to blunt the challenge of opportunity, thereby ruining the joy of being.

Too much visitation of the past may also engender an unnecessary and needless sense of loss.  Humanity is much too prone to consider options untaken. and is perhaps the only species to care about them at all.  The rest of the animal kingdom is too stoic to care.  Why humanity is so persistent in this regard is a mystery to me, as doing so is a complete waste of time in the face of the intractable future.  Why not celebrate one’s past decisions instead of lamenting what can no longer be?  Remember well the wise words of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And at least so far, all roads chosen by humanity lead, in the end, to the same, exact conclusion.

Bemoaning what cannot be is to wallow in self-pity, and nothing is less attractive or more personally devastating than doing so.  If the wallowing goes on too long, eventually all your friends, even the most stalwart, will desert you since self-pity is an unattractive whirlpool of vanity from which there is little chance of escape.  In my limited experience of swimming in such waters, the only real possibility of escape is to jam a log into the whirlpool’s eye, but to be able to do so requires a sense of abiding self-worth and resolute resolve that true depressives have long since lost. And the longer one remains in the whirlpool, the less self-worth and the less resolve one possesses. 

It is no wonder then that the rest of the animal kingdom has embraced stoicism; it’s much more consistent with the reality of our shared universe.  

That is not to say that revisiting the past hasn’t any utility.  For example, in my case I find such visits useful for:

  1. Learning lessons from past events, especially from errors I have personally committed;
  2. Honoring, at all appropriate times, those who are heroes in their own right or who have played a significant, positive role in my life;
  3. Searching for good music; or,
  4. Searching for good books to read or collect.

Make your own list of good reasons to visit the past.  These are mine and I am sticking to them with all the fortitude I possess.  Otherwise, I continue to avoid the past.  I have no wish for it to overtake me as I am having too much fun in the present avoiding as many of life’s shoals as I can.

Posted in 'Tis a Puzzlement, Friendship | Leave a comment

A Beacon in the Mists of Time

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“We all make stupid, critical mistakes – some of them real corkers.  But none of us ever thinks there’s an end to our personal journey until it’s too late.  We survive as best we can, and everyone – you and I included – always thinks there is time enough to make amends for all the bad stuff we’ve ever done or ever will do.  And none of us, not one stinking one of us, ever hears our last call until it’s much too late.  But at least some people try to make amends as they go along, and a few of those – a very select few – choose to celebrate mankind’s creativity as well: singing into the teeth of the wind as bravely and as often as they can, never caring where their words are carried, only trusting that they might be heard and be of some benefit to someone, somewhere.”  Her words pounded out like fists demanding immediate entry through a barred oak door. “You’re one of them.  Never, never regret the choice to be one of them; it’s the essence of whatever distinction humanity might enjoy whenever the bones are finally tallied.”

Stephen C Ellis, The Leaves Are Full of Children

There were four of us, the children of Don and Betty Ellis, all born on the western side of the Cascade Mountains. All but me were children of the coast, interlopers in the sere and dun hills of eastern Washington. I was the odd one, the youngest by 6 years who came, at age 2, to the isolated valley in which I grew up.  The valley, therefore, was my only known universe. Not so for the other three.  They were transfers from the coast. While that fact affected each of them differently given different ages and temperaments, each of them must have wondered how they had arrived in a land that definitely wasn’t Oz.

Barbara was 12 at the time of the move to the desert, the oldest of us. Therefore, she had the most memory of our coastal past as well as having the distinction of being dispossessed of the most vigorous external support network. She could have been bitter about her transition from green to brown, but bitterness was not in her nature. Instead, she soon had a new coterie of friends, making connections easily and without conscious effort.  For she was filled with joie de vivre and laughter, always making the best of any new circumstance in which she found herself.

Occasionally, I find myself looking backward at those formative years, trying to discern the truth of them. For I have strongly fixed impressions of them that have long fueled the arc of my existence.  I am certain that I am beyond the apogee of that arc, but my impressions of that time still guide me in descent. On the other hand, I am fully aware that memory is fallible. I am convinced that everyone’s personal life story, as told to friends and family, is either a lie, an ineptly abridged version of the truth, or some form of fantastic alternate reality.

Barbara MacLean passed away this week, the second of the four of us to do so. Mike left us first.  From now on I must rely upon memory to see and hear her, to laugh with her, but I will have no trouble doing so. I have vivid recent and ancient memories to guide me. For example. the last time I saw her at her hospice. I told her that she was the best older sister I’d ever had.  That sally earned me a big sister glare, the assertion that she was my only big sister, and a laugh from somewhere within the pain in which she was then cocooned.  I’ll remember that last laugh together the longest. We always teased one another unmercifully, thereby demonstrating our mutual love.  She heard my underlying message that day, despite her pain.

Despite my misgivings about memory, I will have no trouble whatsoever seeing Barbara through the mists of time. For she remains a beacon; her internal fire was much too strong for a mere quibble like death to quench.  Her strength and love continue to burn in both story and memory; in ancient stories of requested contracts folded into paper airplanes and flown over the wall of her boss’s office cubicle to land on his desk blotter, of a pinwheel of fireworks tacked onto a back pew of a holy roller church sparking a moment of great congregational ecstasy, of blind fishing through a hole cut in the floor of her sorority room’s closet for tins of food locked in the chef’s larder just underneath, of her joy in each of her children’s birth, growth, and maturity, of game nights in both the Ellis and MacLean households distinguished solely by decades and the identity of the participants, the MacLean versions persisting into her nursing home room even after her Parkinson’s disease became too much for in home care, of her singular, magical, lifelong love for her husband, Bob, that never wavered in the slightest even when she was annoyed at him for some small thing; and in myriad memories of her laugh – a laugh somewhere between a full-throated cackle and a girlish giggle, a laugh that persisted throughout her life and sustained her until the end.

Bon voyage, Barb.  I know you are on a voyage to somewhere new. I will follow as best I can, so keep the light on.

Posted in Humptulips County, Ponderings on the Meaning of Things | Leave a comment

The Immensity of Shrinking Horizons

When I was a boy growing up in an isolated valley in eastern Washington in the days before the Internet, I was restless despite the vastness of the sky I lived under. Even though the horizons were far away, I felt trapped by circumstance and the expectations local culture held for me. My family, having no wealth other than our love for one another, hadn’t the means to let me pursue my dreams of living elsewhere and becoming something the local society schemed to deny me. But I had a good brain, abundant willpower, and excessive drive, and I knew the way of escape resided within me. So I began working at steady jobs when I was 13 and saved my wages with the goal of going to college somewhere other than the valley. As I rode various pieces of farm equipment on my road to and beyond the valley’s horizons, I often sang Volare aloud under the cover of ill-greased bearings, setting my imagination, if not myself, free to wander the distant promises those horizons implied.

I long ago escaped from the valley given time and experience.  It tried its best to hold on to me, but the depth of my desire was greater than the strength of its grip. Now, after nearly a lifetime away, I no longer feel resident in a claustrophobic petri dish even though my present horizons are much closer than those of the valley. While I now live in a world encircled by mountain chains and the skyscraping products of unrelenting human endeavor, I was freed by the stroke that tried, but failed, to fell me. I may be too wobbly to navigate on my own much beyond the boundaries of the acreage we own north of Seattle, but I am now free to explore all of its mysteries.

All those I can find, anyway.

I’ve had my fill of the great wide world. No, I haven’t seen most of it even though I’ve seen a great deal and communicated with much more of it due to my education, the needs of my clients, and the wonders of modern technology. But I no longer feel trapped by circumstance and the expectations of others, even though I’m limited by the aches and pains of an aging body 

But a wonderous, magical thing has happened in my reduced circumstance. Even as my physical horizons have shrunk, my mental horizons have melted away. I can now detect and engage in the infinite from any place in my shrunken world.   It isn’t the proximity of death that is responsible for my entry into these uncharted waters; it is the fulsomeness of the time I have to explore the nooks and crannies of my cloistered world. In each nook and cranny lies a mystery, a mystery we cannot see while speeding over and through the hurdles of daily toil. Unlike those on that journey, I have the time to find these nooks and cranniess, the wisdom gained from experience to explore them, and the inclination to wonder at and seek the promises that they offer rather than pursuing those I made to myself as a younger, stronger man.

While walking the narrow lanes surrounding our property during in the daylight , I am as open to the infinite as when standing under a starlit sky unencumbered by the light pollution of civilization. For in the minuteness of nature there is as much mystery as in the vastness of space, as much wonder as can be found in a portrait of the Crab Nebula, and a close proximity that allows for investigation without the need for expensive tools designed for use only by experts. All I need for exploration is my cane and my imagination; for I am not seeking scientific fact, I am exploring side roads – all the side roads I can find, all the side roads I couldn’t see speeding by on my way to work, all the side roads that beckon to me from entrances hidden in forests, hedges, and grass, all the side roads revealed to me in the richness of the time I now have on my hands.

I have come to appreciate the curiosity and wisdom of Emerson and Thoreau, the value of personal exploration and discovery rather than routine travel along the constraining paths of scientific knowledge, the value of curiosity rather than the meek acceptance of conventional wisdom. I am not seeking to convince others of my own crackpot theories; I am seeking to appreciate, firsthand, the abundant and sometimes conflicting mysteries of life, of creation, of being, of the meaning of it all.

In the time remaining to me, I am striving to appreciate the miniscule role I’ve played in time’s great stage play. For the tiny mysteries resident in the side roads I’ve discovered remind me that they, in their accumulation, are greater than all that humanity will ever become. We are nothing more than a recent sprig of life yet to prove itself, while they, in their accumulation, are the ancient strands of its web.

Who knows what I’ll find down each of these side roads other than the wonder and enjoyment of my clumsy searching. I know all too well what I’ve found down humanity’s side road, and I’ve had my fill of it. I am as ready as I was in my boyhood for something new, for more magic, for the lure of a likely leprechaun hidden somewhere in the reach of a newfound side road.

Thank god for the wisdom to appreciate the vastness of nearby horizons and for the help of canes that support and sustain my ability to engage in my search. I am all the richer for the experiences that these side roads provide, since life’s rarest jewels lie hidden there, free of the pollution of mainstream cliché – which is why the things mined there are so rich, so rare, so precious, so worthwhile of my endeavors.

Posted in 'Tis a Puzzlement, Our Place in the Firmament, Ponderings on the Meaning of Things | Leave a comment

Legitimate Thoughts and Prayers

In light of the onslaught of thoughts and prayers from people who do nothing whatever to halt gun violence, it occurred to me to consider who, if anyone, has a legitimate right to send them to victims and families killed, injured or otherwise damaged by mass shootings. After much thought, here is my list of those I consider to have earned an exclusive, legitimate right to send their thoughts and prayers in such circumstances. This list is for the Modern Era only (I hope and trust the reader can glean the reason for the capitalization on his or her own).

The list consists of all victims (defined broadly) and their families who have been affected by the following events (or similar events omitted from this list by my ignorance):

The Columbine High School shootings, April 20, 1999;

The Heritage High School shooting, May 20, 1999;

The Chicago area shootings, July 2-4, 1999;

The Day Trader shootings, July 27-29, 1999;

The Los Angeles Jewish Community Center shootings, August 10, 1999;

The Wedgwood Baptist Church shooting, September 15, 1999;

The Xerox shootings, November 2, 1999;

The Carnegie, Pennsylvania shootings, April 28, 2000;

The Wendy’s Hamburger shootings, May 24, 2000;

The Wakefield shootings, December 26, 2000;

The Nevada County shootings, January 10, 2001;

The Santana High School shootings, March 5, 2001;

The Appalachian School of Law shootings, January 16, 2002;

The Los Angeles International Airport shootings, July 4, 2002;

The DC sniper shootings, February 16-October 23, 2002;

The John McDonogh High School shootings, April 14, 2003;

The Ennis shootings, June 13, 2003;

The Lockheed Martin shootings, July 8, 2003;

The Wesson family shootings, March 12, 2004;

The Wisconsin hunting trip shootings, November 21, 2004;

The Columbus night club shootings, December 8, 2004;

The Living Church of God shootings, March 12, 2005;

The Red Lake Indian Reservation shootings, March 21, 2005;

The Tacoma Mall shootings, November 20, 2005;

The Goleta post office shootings, January 30, 2006;

The Capitol Hill shootings, March 25, 2006;

The Seattle Jewish Federation shootings, July 28, 2006;

The West Nickel Mines School shootings, October 2, 2006;

The Trolley Square shootings, February 12, 2007;

The Virginia Tech shootings, April 16, 2007;

The Crandon duplex shootings, October 7, 2007;

The Westroads Mall shootings, December 5, 2007;

The Youth With A Mission and New Life Church shootings, December 9, 2007;

The Kirkwood City Council shootings, February 7, 2008;

The Northern Illinois University shootings, February 14, 2008;

The Skagit County shootings, September 2, 2008;

The Covina shootings, December 24, 2008;

The Geneva County shootings, March 10, 2009;

The Carthage Nursing Home shootings, March 29, 2009;

The New York immigration center shootings, April 3, 2009;

The Pittsburgh police officer shootings, April 4, 2009;

The Collier County shootings, August 4, 2009;

The Fort Hood shootings, November 5, 2009;

The ABB plant shootings, January 7, 2010;

The Appomattox shootings, January 19-20, 2010;
The University of Alabama, Huntsville shootings, February 12, 2010;

The Delisle shootings, April 14, 2010;

The Hartford Beer Distributors shootings, August 3 2010;

The Safeway shootings, January 8, 2011;

The Grand Rapids shootings, July 7, 2011;

The Copley Township shootings, August 7, 2011;

The IHOP shootings, September 6, 2011;

The Seal Beach shootings, October 12, 2011;

The Southern California Edison shootings, December 16, 2011;

The Chardon High School shootings, February 27, 2012;

The Oikos University shootings, April 2, 2012;

The Seattle cafe shootings, May 30, 2012;

The Aurora shootings, July 20, 2012;

The Sikh temple shootings, August 5, 2012;

The College Station shootings, August 13, 2012;

The Empire State Building shootings, August 24, 2012;

The Accent Signage System shootings, September 27, 2012;

The Azana Spa shootings, October 21, 2012;

The Clackamas Town Center shootings, December 11, 2012;

The Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, December 14, 2012;

The Webster shootings, December 24, 2012;

The South Valley shootings, January 19, 2013;

The Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside Counties shootings, February 3-12, 2013;

The Santa Monica shootings, June 7, 2013;

The Hialea shootings, July 26, 2013;

The Ross Township Municipal Building shootings, August 5, 2013;

The Washington Navy Yard shooting, September 16, 2013;

The Los Angeles International Airport shootings, November 1, 2013;

The Fort Hood shootings, April 2, 2014;

The Overland Park Jewish Community Center shootings, April 13, 2014;

The Isla Vista shootings, May 23, 2014;

The Harris County shootings, July 9, 2014;

The Marysville Pilchuck High School shootings, October 24, 2014;

The Rosemary Anderson High School shootings, December 12, 2014;

The Montgomery County shootings, December 15, 2014;

The Tyrone shootings, February 26, 2015;

The Waco shootings, May 17, 2015;

The Charleston Church shootings, June 17, 2015;

The Chattanooga shootings, July 16, 2015;

The Lafayette shootings, July 23, 2015;

The Harris County shootings, August 8, 2015;

The Umpqua Community College shootings, October 1, 2015;

The Black Lives Matter protest shootings, November 23, 2015;

The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shootings, November 29, 2015;

The San Bernardino shootings, December 2, 2015;

The Kalamazoo shootings, February 20, 2016;

The Hesston shootings, February 25, 2016;

The Kansas City shootings, March 7-8, 2016;

The Wilkinsburg shootings, March 9, 2016;

The Pike County shootings, April 21-22, 2016;

The Maryland shootings, May 5-6, 2016;

The Orlando nightclub shootings, June 12, 2016;

The Dallas police officer shootings, July 7, 2016;

The St Joseph Courthouse shootings, July 11, 2016;

The Baton Rouge police officer shootings, July 17, 2016;

The Mukilteo shootings, July 30, 2016;

The Citronelle shootings, August 20, 2016;

The Cascade Mall shootings, September 23, 2016;

The Townville Elementary School shootings, September 28, 2016;

The Fort Lauderdale Airport shootings, January 6, 2017;

The Schofield/Rothschild shootings, March 22, 2017;

The Cincinnati nightclub shootings, March 22, 2017;

The North Park Elementary School shootings, April 10, 2017;

The Fresno shootings, April 13-18, 2017;

The Kirkersville shootings, May 12, 2017;

The Lincoln County shootings, May 27, 2017;

The Orlando factory shootings, June 5, 2017;

The Sandy shootings, June 6, 2017;

The Eaton Township Weis Market shootings, June 8, 2017;

The Congressional baseball shootings, June 14, 2017;

The San Francisco UPS shootings, June 14, 2017;

The Bronx-Lebanon Hospital shootings, June 30, 2017;

The Little Rock nightclub shootings, July 1, 2017;

The Clovis Library shootings, August 28, 2017;

The Plano shootings, September 10, 2017;

The Burnette Chapel shootings, September 24, 2017;

The Las Vegas shootings, October 1, 2017;

The Sutherland Springs Church shootings, November 5, 2017;

The Rancho Tehama Reserve shootings, November 13, 2017;

The Aztec High School shootings, December 7, 2017;

The Copper Canyon Apartment Homes shootings, December 31, 2017;

The Marshall County High School shootings, January 23, 2018;

The Melcroft shootings, January 28, 2018;

The Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, February 14, 2018;

The Yountville shootings, March 9, 2018;

The YouTube headquarters shootings, April 3, 2018;

The Nashville Waffle House shootings, April 22, 2018;

The Santa Fe High School shootings, May 18, 2018;

The Scottsdale spree shootings, May 30-June 4, 2018;

The Art all Night shootings, June 17, 2018;

The Capital Gazette shootings, June 28, 2018;

The Jacksonville Landing shootings, August 26, 2018;

The Fifth Third Center shootings, September 6, 2018;

The Aberdeen shootings, September 20, 2018;

The Florence shootings, October 3, 2018;

The Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, October 27, 2018;

The Tallahassee shootings, November 2, 2018;

The Thousand Oaks shootings, November 7, 2018;

The Robbins shootings, November 11, 2018;

The Mercy Hospital shootings, November 19, 2018;

The Sebring shootings, January 23, 2019;

The Louisiana shootings, January 26, 2019;

The Pecan Park shootings, January 28, 2019;

The Aurora, Illinois shootings, February 15, 2019;

The Poway synagogue shootings, Apt27, 2019;

The UNCC shootings, April 30, 2019;

The STEM School Highland Ranch shootings, May 7, 2019;

The Virginia Beach shootings, May 31, 2019;

The Gilroy Garlic Festival shootings, July 29, 2019;

The Cielo Vista Mall shootings, August 3, 2019;

The Dayton shootings, August 4, 2019;

And the uncounted number of individuals of all ages, creeds, color, or political viewpoints  killed or injured in criminal shootings, negligent shootings, and accidental shootings (and/or any other category you care to name).

In my opinion, the rest of us haven’t the right to offer thoughts and prayers unless we have actively done something, anything, constructive to prevent this continuing slaughter.  My conclusion is based on the undeniable fact that the offering of thoughts and prayers by anyone not on this list, especially by members of the United States Congress, has become a cynical excuse to do nothing about gun violence, while appearing to care about those who have suffered.  At the very least, members of Congress seem to care only about themselves and their personal treasuries, and the hypocrisy of their public offerings of concern does not suit the dignity of their assumed offices.

WARNING: This piece will no doubt be outdated before a month lapses from its original date of publication.  The author asks that the reader perform his or her own updates as it took him forever and a morning to type and enter the above list.

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Our Brother, Mike

We have considered writing this piece every single day since our brother, Michael Donald Ellis, died on January 24, 2019. It wasn’t the dread of a chore which kept us from it; it was the magnitude and complexity of describing the outlines of a man who always shied away from the limelight he so often deserved, while respecting his fervent wish to go unnoticed at all times.

In every family with multiple children, there is always one sibling who handles the family chores and duties without complaint, who holds the structure together as best he or she can while the passage of time and the growth of individual experience threatens to bring it down. In the case of the Ellis family of 802 Boyer Avenue, Walla Walla, Washington, that person was Mike.

Mike was the middle child of Don and Betty Ellis, outranked in age by his sister Barbara and brother Frank and elder brother to Steve. He always played his role well, whichever it was meant to be in the eyes of the individual family member who was the audience of the moment. He played it with a quiet integrity that downplayed his own importance in sustaining and improving the sense of self worth of the rest of us. For Mike was a boon companion to each of us, always in the manner that best suited our individual needs as a member of the family: to Don, the hard-pressed father, Mike was his companion in mischief and pranks; to Betty, the often overworked family chatelaine, he was the dutiful and obedient performer of a myriad of common chores and the mainstay of her ability to remain independent as she grew old; to Barbara, he was the source of laughter, bad but funny jokes, and a constant reminder that life was not to be taken too seriously; to Frank he was the little brother who shared the foibles, fantasies, and fun of growing to manhood together; to Steve he was the older brother who was there to console him, keep him company when he became old enough to become a thorough nuisance to all of his older siblings (Mike included), and protect him from the worst perils of childhood. That each of us saw him, in some manner, as his or her closest family friend speaks volumes about the love of family that he brought to the task of keeping us together.

But to emphasize this trait of maintaining the family’s integrity runs the risk of denying him his due as an individual. Finding Mike the individual is difficult because he wanted it that way. Mike was a chameleon, desiring and able to blend into the background of our family, his own family, his work, and his community. He was always present in each, always performing his role and his duties with caring, humor, faithfulness and without serious complaint, always shining a light on someone else and always doing his best to remain in the shadows and not to be seen, always striving to appear as just an insignificant part of a much larger whole. He was self effacing to a fault. He hated the limelight and would always shrug his way out of it at a speed faster than the very light shining upon him. He always played the quintessential rube – Art Carney’s Norton to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph. In reality, he was much closer to being a P G Wodehouse character – Jeeves the butler who served the flighty and inept Bertie Wooster well by always giving Bertie the credit for his, Jeeves’, own innate common sense and practical solutions to whatever problematic scenario was at hand.

He was this way by disposition as much as due to a sense of inferiority. He was intelligent but never a good student. He was never a good student because he grew up dyslexic in an era that did not understand the term much less know it, an era when the prevailing culture was fond of labels, an era that was prone to use those selfsame labels to imprison individuals and entire populations in tightly sealed coffins for the purpose of the jailers’ convenience and shorthand reference. They did so to Mike and, unfortunately, he took the labeling as gospel. Despite his dyslexia, he became a voracious reader of history and detective novels and always shared his latest enthusiasm with us. We each acquired the acquaintance of many good books from his recommendations.

He was the only one of the family siblings without the benefit of college, and, being intellectually curious himself, was embarrassed by the lack. He needn’t have been. According to the record to date, he is the only one of us to ever be mentioned in an article in The New York Times, and to be on a first name basis, and to breakfast occasionally, with a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, accomplishments that he never spoke about unless he made a mistake of some sort that hinted of them and one of us yanked the subject matter out of him as if we were trying to pull a bad tooth with a rusty set of pliers.

But these accomplishments meant nothing at all to Mike. While the average person might preen at, and tell stories about, what are, after all, mere peripheral successes, Mike forgot all about them the day after they happened. He reserved his feelings of accomplishment (in the sense of giving to others and to his community) for:

  1. Assisting older men in maintaining their independence for as long as possible by helping them with shopping, repairs, doctor and dental appointments, and whatever else he could do;
  2. Reading to patients at the Veterans Hospital on many an evening;
  3. Assisting older folks with necessary home repairs and on more than one occasion paying for the parts himself if the homeowner couldn’t afford them;
  4. Mentoring and straightening out young men who came to the Y in some sort of difficulty or legal problem, and giving each effective, thoughtful tough love advice which was palatable to the recipients only because they knew Mike cared for them and truly believed that his advice was the only route for them to achieve success. His advice, while always about a specific problem, was, as well, always about how best to move forward in the world in general;
  5. Giving whatever he could, including cash he could ill afford, when someone (perhaps a perfect stranger, but most often a friend, even if only of ten minutes standing) was in need;
  6. Being Exalted Ruler of the Walla Walla Elks Club, but, more importantly to him, an active member of its ritual competition team for many years;
  7. Doing chores around the Y or for a Y project that needed doing even though they weren’t his responsibility; because they were there to be done and he had the necessary skills. And, if we know him at all, never asking for overtime. It simply never would have occurred to him to do so. In his mind, he wasn’t a Y employee; he was a senior contributing member of the Walla Walla Y family who labored exhaustively for its success.

The simple truth is that Mike cared. About everyone and about everything. While he never tilted at windmills, if there was something practical he could do for someone in need, something within his experience and capabilities, he always pitched in to help as best he could. And if he needed help, he’d drag someone along with him, most often one of his long suffering family members.

There was joy in Mike’s life. He never made large sums of money, but that wasn’t important to him. He inherited his mother’s sense of fairness – an ill-defined standard of care and justice determined only by the beholder (either our mother or Mike) that somehow demanded a response of the beholder or of someone else they never hesitated to identify. And in making whatever response that he felt was demanded of him, Mike found happiness and joy. You could hear it in his laugh, an always present sort of high pitched giggle, whenever he was telling the story of the event in question in which someone else always figured more prominently than he did.

If it sounds like we miss him, you are correct. If you’re wondering why none of us are here, it’s because we are all in ill health of one sort or another and not fit to travel, all of us having achieved the same status of Old Fart that Mike did (he told us to say that). We’re here in spirit. We’ll always be near Mike in spirit. Mike was our pilot light and our brother – our brother in every conceivable meaning that word possesses or implies. While we miss his physical presence, he is an essential part of our respective memory’s DNA.

Barbara MacLean
Frank Ellis
Steve Ellis

To be read at the celebration of Mike’s life in Walla Walla on May 1, 2019, his birthday.

Posted in Friendship, Our Place in the Firmament | Leave a comment

Burl Dreams

Due to a recent stroke, I’ve had to relearn how to sit, stand, and walk.  I have sitting and standing down pat, but staying upright is still a challenge so my walking remains wobbly.  Around the house, I walk without aids of any kind.  But I promised my physical therapist that I would use a cane whenever I walk outdoors to avoid falling when rough ground or awkward moments inevitably appear, so I use a cane whenever I do so. 

I have long had a fascination with canes and walking sticks.  My first staff was a driftwood stick found on a beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.  Helen and I were walking along the tide line and I picked up the sea-weathered stick on a whim.  Soon after finding it, we discovered a plastic sole – all that remained of a long disintegrated shoe.  It had a convenient hole near the heel where the driftwood stick fit neatly.  As we walked, the staff walked with us leaving a single row of prints.  And so Helen and I became a five legged beast, and Helen named the staff our Walking Stick.  It came home with us and we still have it nearly 40 years later. 

Following the completion of my physical therapy, I began my outdoor walks using my aluminum quad cane.  But, since I really detest the notion of being disabled and not wanting to appear so to others out of, I suppose, an excess of vanity, I quickly started looking for a substitute. I had previously purchased a couple of canes due to a knee injury, but one of them resides in my car in case of need and the other, having been purchased before I understood the importance of length, was too long for me.  Besides, neither was a thing of beauty, and if I had to use a cane I felt that it ought to have style. 

So I went looking on line for a new cane and kept finding myself drawn to canes made by Shawn Gillis.  They were practical, functional canes; they were also things of beauty made from a wide variety of exotic and domestic hardwoods.  I am no artist, but I am an avid appreciator of art, having gone so far as to marry an artist who loves color even more than I do.  Shawn’s canes come in many natural and unenhanced colors, and he has the gift of knowing which colors are complementary and which handle shapes suit which shafts. 

And so it is that I now own six of Shawn’s canes: two “off the shelf” canes I found in his Etsy shop called Walking With Wood, and four custom-made ones. The first custom-made cane was merely a variant of one his standards.  I liked the wood he used throughout (black and white ebony) but didn’t like his choice of handle, so I asked if I could substitute another of his designs.  This simple change taught me that he was easy to work with and non-judgmental.  The second custom-made cane was the result of a challenge I issued to him: to make the cane he had always wanted to make, but never had.  That challenge produced a beautiful redheart travel cane with an ebony handle and taught me that he could handle my sardonic criticism with good humor.  I hadn’t liked his preferred shape for a travel cane, likening it to a chair leg.  He laughed instead of getting angry. 

It was the third custom-made cane, however, that really amazed me. It, too, was the result of a challenge: to make a complete cane from a wood he’d never used for the purpose, but would like to. His choice was amboyna, a rare, expensive Indonesian red and yellow burl that he’d have to source from Vietnam.  As soon as I saw examples of amboyna, I said yes. When finished, it is brightly colored and has outstanding depth and richness. I left the design of the cane to Shawn with only a few stated preferences that he was free to disregard should he wish. The result was a fantastically beautiful travel cane that is a true work of art. 

It is a truly wonderful thing.  While heavy, it has an intensity of color and detail that enthralls me. The mystique of its burl has captured my and Shawn’s imagination. Where I see figures in twisting in a smoky den, Shawn sees rocks after a rain has washed away the dirt accumulated between them.  It doesn’t really matter what either of us sees as long as we look as deep into the burl as we can and let our imaginations roam free. 

As beautiful as it is, the amboyna cane is a functional working cane should I choose to use it as such – as are all of Shawn’s canes. I now use Shawn’s canes regularly and exclusively on my walks about the Farm and the country lanes surrounding it. After all, I promised my physical therapist to use a cane whenever I go outside, and I’d much rather use a thing of beauty to keep my promise than a bland aluminum quad cane.  

Walking is the most important thing I can do to regain full balance, and the farther and faster I go the better. While I have always enjoyed walking around the Farm and down our lanes, my current, almost-daily walks are really full-on physical workouts. Relearning how to walk is hard, lonely work. I usually return to the house exhausted and sweating heavily, wondering whether I can make the last few yards to our front door.  

I have become a boxer. While I have a large team supporting and urging me on, whenever I exit our front door to take a walk I am really entering a boxing  ring where I stand alone on my own two feet.  Punches begin to rain down immediately, and it is solely up to me to withstand them – no matter how much assistance awaits nearby. Every step I take is an effort of will, concentration, and newly minted memory. Mind you, I couldn’t do much of anything without my supporters – especially Helen who will always be there whenever I need help – but when I walk I am alone even when someone walks with me.  Only I can find my lost balance; only I can train a new part of my brain to keep me upright, my old center of balance having been irrevocably lost to the stroke. 

Using Shawn’s canes minimizes the workout aspect of my walks.  Being functional art, they remind me to smell the liquor of the wind, to listen to the unbridled joy of birdsong, to immerse myself in nature’s bounty. They help transform my walks into things of joy rather than solitary struggles.  They whisper to me that my supporters are walking with me in spirit even when I am by myself, and remind me that there is great joy and comfort in the company of friends – especially when we struggle. 

But I don’t use the amboyna cane very often simply because it is so much more a work of art than a cane.  Instead, I keep it by my side whenever I sit in our living room to avoid damaging it and to stare into its depths whenever I feel the need.  Helen has come to call it my scepter.  I love to immerse myself in the depths of its burl.  There, I can return to the summers of my youth and lie in green grass to study the clouds.  In my burl dreams my body is young, my sense of balance is strong and secure, and I walk again with grace and swagger. And these few moments of freedom from the cares and the work of my old age given to me by the amboyna cane are as valuable as the incremental improvements to my balance made each time I take one of Shawn’s other canes out for a walk. 


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Musings On A Domestic War

Perhaps it is right or even necessary to forget accidents, and wars are surely accidents to which our species seems prone.  If we could learn from our accidents it might be well to keep the memories alive, but we do not learn.  In ancient Greece it was said that there had to be a war at least every twenty years because every generation of men had to know what it was like.  With us, we must forget, or we could never indulge in the murderous nonsense again.”

John Steinbeck, Once There Was A War

“The debate over Vietnam became bitter because it challenged my generation’s most important assumption of World War II: that American power was an unwavering instrument of moral good.  That’s why it split the country as much by generation as by ideology.”

Walter Cronkite, American Chronicles: The Vietnam War, National Public Radio CD

There’s a wall in Washington
and it’s made of cold black granite
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it
in that wall in Washington

Iris Dement, There’s a Wall in Washington

If there was one thing in common across the entire strata of late 1960s American culture, it was that America was mobilizing.  The armed services were mobilizing in Vietnam pursuant to orders; those opposed to the abuse of authority were mobilizing domestically pursuant to an organic outgrowth of distrust resulting from persistent authoritorial abuse.  Both were at war.  The major distinction between the treatment of the ground troops in each war was this: the leadership of our armed services failed, due to a ‘because you must’ parental arrogance fed by the relative ease of recruitment by conscription, to create a coherent, clear explanation for why US troops were in Vietnam, leaving those troops mentally at sea; those protesting anything domestically shared a clearly focused distrust of all those in authority, having come together to face down a common evil wearing many faces.

The number and size of protesting domestic crowds increased as the decade wore on.  These crowds protested a myriad of matters, chief among them civil rights violations, the Vietnam War, the draft, and, eventually, civil rights violations, the War, and the draft all rolled into one big package.  This combination was made possible by an increasing belief among many younger Americans that these issues were related by the common denominator of those in authority abusing the trust granted to them at the ballot box, by their sneering lack of regard – sometimes even to the point of murder – for vast segments of society.  Many in authority had committed the greatest sin possible: they forgot how they came to be in charge and what they were in charge of.  All in authority came under the microscope due to the consequences of their own actions, some of which were violent and far too many of which were self-serving.  Too many of the cultures smeared on the resulting slides prepared for the microscopic analysis demanded by the marchers exhibited a significant inflammation of misanthropy informed by hubris.  As a result, generalized authority – Authority, if you will – became the enemy, a common enemy whose individual constituents were to be railed against by the marchers regardless of their position, place, or aspect of power.

A similar anthropomorphic aggregation happened to the War itself, as it escalated rapidly from the date in 1959 when less than 1,000 American soldiers were stationed in Vietnam and the first four died, to the War’s peak of 543,000 in mid-1969.  This, the original surge, was accompanied by ever-increasing casualties among American military personnel.  Total casualties increased with excruciating regularity, day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year.  Casualty figures became a mundane item of regular reportage in bulletins issued by the military’s command: a process which transformed each of the individual dead into nothing more than an unassigned number within an aggregated sum; a process by which Authority denied the dead their inherent dignity as an individual corpse, a denial lasting until their reconfirmation as human remains by family, friends, and neighbors at American funerals, at American gravesides.  Eventually, the War achieved a total of 58,000 undifferentiated dead, not to be given specific name, voice, or position in the national memory until construction of The Vietnam Memorial Wall some decades later.

And while the algae bloom of dead were returning to America, the word ‘crowd’ was becoming a domestic media buzzword.  Crowds surged through American streets in increasing numbers: in riots over living conditions; in marches for peace; in marches for civil rights.  These crowds were representative of the New America, and the New America was on the march: it marched in Washington, DC; it marched in Chicago; it marched at Berkley; it marched in New York City; it marched in Selma; it marched from Selma to Montgomery and then on to other points south, east, west, and north; it marched in backwaters.  And while the 1960s opponents of the marchers (and, in truth, there were many more of them than the marchers themselves) always said that ‘they marched’ or ‘those hippies marched’ or ‘those coloreds marched’, in truth it was American ideals on the march – not to a different drummer, but to the twin, organically American heartbeats of ‘liberty and justice for all’.

If this blog were electronically activated, a scrolling banner at the top of this page would continuously announce marches and protests:

  • Washington, DC on August 28, 1963: 250,000 listen to Dr. King’s dreams;
  • Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965: 50 marchers hospitalized by police brutality;
  • Montgomery, Alabama on March 16, 1965: 600 march;
  • Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965: Dr. King leads 25,000 marchers;
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan on March 24, 1965: the first Anti-Vietnam teach-in, 3,000 attend;
  • Washington, DC on April 17, 1965: 25,000 anti-war protestors march in the first such event in the capital;
  • Across the country on October 16, 1965:  100,000 march against the war;
  • New York City, March 25, 1966: 25,000 march against the war down Fifth Avenue;
  • Washington, DC on May 15, 1966: 10,000 march against the war;
  • New York City on April 15, 1967: 400,000, led by Dr. King, march from Central Park to the UN, protesting the denial of civil rights, protesting the War;
  • Washington, DC on October 21-22, 1967: 35,000 anti-war protestors storm the Pentagon as NPR begins its first-ever day of operations, broadcasting events live.

The scrolling would go ever on, featuring the likes of Dr. King, Eugene Carson Blake, Julian Bond, Walter Cronkite, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and other now-familiar names, names that now stand for courage, but which were then frequently denigrated as treasonous – for they dared to question.

And Authority, as Authority tends to do in such times, increased its attempts to stop the questioning of its right to wield power, to stop the marchers – attempts which failed as the ranks of marchers increased beyond its capacity to control.  When physical violence failed in Selma, failed in Montgomery, failed at the Pentagon, failed in Chicago, and failed everywhere else, Authority began criminalizing acts of free speech and free assembly, rights deemed so basic by our Founders that they were enshrined in the first of the ten constitutional amendments which make up America’s Bill of Rights.  As for the associated right also found in the First Amendment – the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances – Authority proved so deaf that the crowds came to the doors of Authority’s many lairs to roar and to scream their defiance.  All that was missing for Authority to listen, for Authority to hear the crowds’ message, was the necessary ear-trumpet.

When force not only failed to stem the crowds but proved an instigator of yet larger crowds instead, Authority turned next to its courts.  This was a failed strategy from inception.  Given their ingrained notions of due process, courts could not possibly manage the ever-increasing civil disobedience with anything remotely resembling efficiency, could not manage at all when overwhelmed by volume.  And many judges – possibly a majority – were not keen to play the requested role and treated Authority’s demands to stop the questioning with frank and open hostility.

When all else failed to achieve Authority’s purpose, Authority finally resorted to the draft as its featured control device.  For this domestic war was mainly of and by the young, and young males were subject to conscription and young women were subject to the terrors of conscription.  Draft deferments were eliminated in October, 1967, for those in violation of draft laws (including burning draft cards or other overt forms of disagreement) or for interfering with military recruitment.  Why not make these agitators soldiers, reasoned Authority, especially when they needed a good dose of discipline to set them straight and cannon fodder was at such a premium?

And so it was that the country gradually became at war with itself; the generations in violent disagreement due to vastly differing perspectives of right and wrong.  The domestic war became as violent, as passionate as the Vietnam War – the principal difference between the two being that death played only a bit part on the domestic scene while enjoying a starring role in Vietnam.  There were no more lazy Sunday afternoons in America.  They were replaced by flower power, LSD, hippies, the Chicago 7, the Birmingham jail, Haight-Ashbury, SNCC, SCLC, The Beatles, The Stones, teach-ins, love-ins, happenings, the Summer of Love.  This New America was crowned in the mud and drugs of Woodstock, 200,000 in attendance; it was further defined and nearly derailed a mere matter of months later by the free concert at Altamont, by the moronic oxymoron of hiring Hell’s Angels to provide security.

The domestic war unfolded to music, to every genre from folk to rock-and-roll played by groups and solo acts.  Bob Dylan single-handedly began things in 1962 by asking: “How many times must the cannon balls fly before they’re forever banned?” and noting that “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind.” (Blowin’ In The Wind, Bob Dylan).  For music had become the collective Voice of America’s young and young at heart, soldiers and stay at homes alike.  Music had become adult – no more doggies in the window, no more ‘come onna my house’, no more hot ziggity dogs, no more doo wop.  Music had matured and acquired a starring role as Voice, as Narrator as in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as the principal means of collective youthful reflection on sex, on war, on drugs, on the often violent denigration of the human condition.  Music not only became the Voice, music became an instigator.  Music was no longer simply entertainment for the sake of entertainment; music had acquired a mission.

And just as the enjoyment of its music was fueled by the passion of the young generation to express itself in its own, singular voice, the domestic war was fueled by the Voice’s passion against authoritorial abuse.  The Voice shouted and yelled and screamed that passion throughout its tenure at center stage.  And the Voice acquired an anthem for the age.  In 1965, P. F. Sloan wrote (and destroyed his career in so doing) The Eve of Destruction, consisting of declamations set to music, powerful music, which Barry McGuire, in appropriately gravelish tones, growled aloud on air and in person to anyone who’d listen:

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

As the domestic war matured, its passions began to spread across the lines that divided generations. They spread to the older generation first in 1967, when the Dreamer, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., began to speak out against the War in the same measured tones he’d invoked to decry the lack of civil rights for non-whites in America.  Then, in 1968, Walter Cronkite, the speaking voice for the after-dubbed Greatest Generation, visited Vietnam and returned to change his status from one of supporter to one of questioner, speaking his mind after being appalled by injury, by death, by a lack of defined purpose in the face of such sustained suffering.  And with Dr. King’s and Mr. Cronkite’s leadership, other leaders of the older generation began, gradually but in ever-increasing numbers, to add their voices to the cries for the War to be stopped, and to march along with the young.

Whatever this domestic war was about – destruction or necessary change, depending upon your point of view – America was clearly on the eve of something momentous.  For America was mobilized in a manner only hinted at in the Great Depression, in a way only those who experienced the Revolutionary War or the Civil War, had they survived long enough to experience the 1960s, might have appreciated.  This was nothing less than revolution.  This was the beginning of the end of an Army of conscripts, and the catalyst for an all-volunteer Army – a terrifying result in retrospect, in prospect, and in fact.  This was the beginning of a more tolerant society, a society engaging in less violent practices in aid of its continuing discriminatory needs and desires – only subtleties need apply.  This was the beginning of a mixed race society, where all colors often live together in common – except those destined for the darkest ghettos remaining to America.  This was beginning of the end of Authority’s open, public enslavement of women as to cultural and sexual matters – a process beginning with the FDA’s 1960 approval of the sale of birth control pills, a seemingly never-ending process in a society controlled by males (whatever their color or nationality), a process chronically in need of renewal, of revival, of vigilance.


The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of radical, revolutionary change, its people as yet unaware of the consequences their passions would induce.  The country was a tea kettle on full boil, and consequences were merely steam to those impatient to drink their fill of the resulting brew.

When the Vietnam War finally ended in 1975, so did the domestic war.  Our collective passions began to wind down from the fire of their unsustainable intensity.  And when the passions were played out, exhaustion and indifference took charge, the collective strength of the resulting ennui measured by the litany of lessons from the Vietnam War which we refused to learn then and which we refuse to remember now:  Why think about the meaning of the estimated 800,000 to 3,100,000 Vietnamese lives lost in the War, since who ever mentions them?  Why think about the impact of the massacre at Mai Lai upon a generation, upon the country, for who wishes to consider anew the morality of sending heavily armed, immature young men off to fight a purposeless War?  Why reconsider the truth of the ‘facts’ that inspired the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, when new resolutions may be required for new wars and passage of anything by Congress is difficult enough as it is?  Why reflect that carefully considered presidential lies were the basis for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, when new carefully considered presidential lies may be needed to induce future wars?  Why think about the vileness of the treatment many Vietnam War veterans received upon their return home, for we were done with the War then and why shouldn’t they have been?

When the kettle boiled dry, passion was reduced to a blackened coating of sarcasm covering its bottom plate.  The Vietnam Generation did not hang on to its anger long enough to make a difference, despite a damned good start.  To our lasting detriment, we turned out to be sprinters rather than long distance runners.


For readers, especially you who were not yet born in the 1960s and are looking at those times through the lens of preconceptions developed in the rearview mirror, these will likely seem pages in a well-thumbed, well-worn book: a book full of aged theses and conclusions ready for the kind of major revision always demanded by the altered passions and changing imperatives of future history and culture.  Perhaps a manga – for those were times in which cartoon-worthy heroes were created and torn apart with dramatic style appropriate to the medium.  Perhaps a retread gothic thriller – for those times have become akin to compilations of once-youthful rock-and-roll songs in vogue at the birth of the genre, too tired now from their endless repetition to pack the punch of first impact.

Unless you were there; unless you have your own story to tell.


Posted in Civics, Politicians and Other Lower Life Forms, Words and Music | Leave a comment

Missing SMB

First, a confession: I am a book collector and assess bookshops with a jaundiced eye. I’ve been in every variety of bookstore from the well-heeled, inefficiently designed rare book shop that is a book shy designer’s idea of a library, to the tatty, dusty, work-of-love, paperback-only shop that can only subside due to free rent while the landlord waits for a real tenant to amble in. I collect first editions of various literary genres, but especially mysteries. My wife and I are passionate about books, so much so that when we paid off our original mortgage we took out another to build the library we’d always wanted in order to house our substantial book collection. Or at least part of it, since books are everywhere in our home and may be the only things keeping it upright.

As a result of my affliction, I loved the Seattle Mystery Bookshop (SMB). When I say that I loved the shop, I loved everything about it, everything that had taken so long for the owners (Bill Farley, then JB Dickey) to compile: the knowledgeable and affable staff; the efficient attention to customers’ needs and wants; the broad assortment of inventory composed of new and used books displayed for comfortable, lazy browsing; the monthly newszine focused on upcoming publications that allowed me to send a list to the staff so that they could have my published choices ready for me during my next visit; my own space on their back shelves where I could first see some of the new books I was about to buy; their locked shelves of rarer books where I might, and often did, find a treasure.

But I also loved the composite whole, an institution much greater than the sum of its parts that was a retreat from daily concerns where I could get lost in the possibilities and implicit joys of future reading.

So when SMB finally closed, I was bereft. I had a system that I had worked out with SMB’s staff to ensure that I would never miss a favorite author’s newest work. I had staff backup in case I did miss a favored new work since the staff would always question me about my error. And the staff always made certain to tell me about new authors that I’d never heard of that fell within my range of interests, either spontaneously in a statement of enthusiasm beginning “you just have to read this” or in response to my oft asked question at the conclusion of each visit: “What have I missed?”

It finally became apparent to me that I could no longer argue with JB that he ought to keep the store open. I came to understand the stress he endured from so many pressures: competition from low-priced on line retailers; rude so-called “customers” who came to sample books they were about to buy on line for less money; trying to operate a retail shop in a city hostile to smaller businesses; the constant lack of nearby parking spaces; the constant construction and street closures that adversely affected business; the steadily falling income due to the deadly combination of fewer walk in customers, rising hardback prices, and the steadily increasing portion of new books which were lower priced (and, therefore, less profitable) paperbacks; the rise of the e-book; and on and on. JB was stressed by this storm of ill luck and needed a break, so I had to learn to shut my mouth and, as a friend, help him extricate himself from the lifelong dream that had gradually become a nightmare.

But what was I, the now-former customer, to do after SMB closed?  I approached this problem with my customary optimism. I have been a professional problem solver all my life, so I just knew I’d find a way. And I tried. Boy, how I tried! But like any other good thing, even I who loved the SMB institution didn’t know how good I’d had it until the institution was gone; I didn’t understand how bad the alternatives could be. I confess to failing to find a good, or even a marginally acceptable, alternative – at least so far. I am still searching.

Since SMB closed, I have tried many things to feed my passion for mysteries. I have subscribed to on line mystery lists to see what is upcoming, but they are nowhere close to being as comprehensive as SMB’s newszine which was blind to categorized favoritism and a major publication in and of itself. I’ve tried to deal with other storied mystery retail institutions only to find flaw after flaw in their operations. (One well known New York store never updates its listings of rare books, such that out of the six rare books I have attempted to buy from them only one has been delivered as the others were already sold. I no longer even bother to look at their on line inventory of rare books on the presumption that if a book is listed there it must be gone. Why waste my time?) I’ve haunted the mystery sections of local booksellers, but none have the breadth of collection that SMB had, and the only one that comes close has no attentive staff dedicated to making my day’s selections as complete or as interesting as they could be. And there is no one there to ask what I might have missed before I go out their door. And even if there were, they wouldn’t know me well enough to advise me effectively.

No, nothing has worked well for me. I’ve made do since SMB closed its doors, but just making do is never very satisfying to a passionate collector. The pleasure in my monthly purchases of mysteries has been reduced from a sigh of contentment to a sigh of regret. I have to make my own lists of wants without help from a knowledgeable staff – lists I either forget to make or forget to take. There is no one who, when I become too ill to visit, will take my orders by email and lovingly wrap and mail them to me as SMB uncomplainingly did. There is no one to make each visit to their store both bookishly satisfying as well as a pleasant reunion with old and dear friends of both the quick and the tome varieties.

I’m about ready to scream my frustration. Hell, I can’t find anyone I can deal with who is even remotely efficient; I’d settle for adequate if I could ever stumble upon it. My frustration is probably Bill’s and JB’s fault for setting the bar so high. If only Bill, JB, Fran, and Amber hadn’t created something so perfect, I could have, in my ignorance, settled for so much less.



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The Accidental President

In the final analysis, the long term success of all organizations depends upon the quality of its employees and agents and how well they are managed.  This is true whether the organization manufactures the latest and hottest new gadget for which there is seemingly unrelenting demand, or whether the organization is focused upon the delivery, at no cost to the recipient, of necessary humanitarian services.  People are the only asset of any organization that will ensure its long term success in the teeth of constant winds of change.

People not only come in all sizes, shapes, and colors; they also come with all sorts of temperaments.  While many organizations focus on the former attributes when they hire, few focus upon temperament in their questioning.  This is foolish because temperament is the only thing that matters in an employee or agent other than his or her ability.

Even the most able employee or agent at a particular task may have a debilitating temperament, and management must handle  any unfortunate consequences if the employee or agent is to be maintained in place rather than fired.  Firing employees with poor temperaments is the easiest but most expensive way to solve the problem they represent, and does the organization no good whatsoever if they are a key employee and their temperament is otherwise manageable.  The best solution is to fit those employees with poor temperaments in where they do the least damage and provide appropriate oversight of them in order to manage the resulting deficiencies they yield, whatever those deficiencies may prove to be.

In my managerial experience, perennial naysayers have the potential to do the greatest damage to an otherwise tight-knit organization.  Naysayers always find fault with everything, but are usually  incapable of offering a single positive solution to the proposal they are faulting.  In fact, it doesn’t occur to them that they ought to offer an alternative because, for them, a negative put down is the sole purpose of their speaking up.  They see a negative put down as evidence of their intelligence and cleverness, and, in their opinion, they need offer nothing more.  Chronic naysayers tend to be show-offs who delight in putting others down in order to raise themselves up.  Rising by climbing over a pile of bodies slain by their own cleverness is their chosen means of attaining what they see as success.

Anyone with extensive management experience has had to deal with perennial naysayers.  Good managers both understand and fear the type, even if they are adept at handling them.  The trick to managing them successfully is to keep them focused on nonessential topics and away from things that are truly essential to the success of the  organization.  After all, who really cares whether they go on and on about the new office paint color; their constant complaint may be tedious and somewhat maddening, but the truth is that the paint is already on the wall and there’s nothing to be done about it until it’s time to paint again.

The chronic naysayer, by instinct, has little idea about how to accomplish something, only about how to find fault in the manner he or she finds the most delicious.  They are best employed constructively, if at all, when business plan initiatives are being developed since, if the naysayer has any common sense, his or her constant fault-finding will  highlight risks inherent in proposed plans of action, allowing the manager to be certain that the risks being complained of by the naysayer have been taken into account.

What no rational manager would ever do is put a chronic naysayer in charge of a vital segment of the business plan.  If the manager did so, at best nothing would likely ever get done on the matter; at worst the naysayer would make a complete hash of it and cripple the company.  Naysayers don’t know how to cross a finish line; they just know how to tell everyone else involved, including the inevitable champion in charge of the segment, why they will be unable to cross one.  And when the champion does succeed, the naysayer will continue to criticize the style and mannerisms the champion used in doing so long after the champion has achieved success and everyone else has moved on.

What should be patently obvious by now to anyone not wearing a blindfold of hyper partisanship is that Donald Trump is a classic perennial naysayer.  He has no positive ideas of his own about solving any problem no matter how important or trivial it may be as shown by his constant floundering about and his habit of borrowing ideas from the last Trumpian minion through the door before he seizes upon his next opportunity to speak out and gain attention.  He delights in finding fault and seems to take no joy from anything else except assaulting women.  As president, he has a vast array of problems to resolve and plenty of people and subjects to snipe at when answers to the problems go begging.

To make matters worse, he also doesn’t understand that his leadership is central to the solving of these problems, as evidenced by his habit of always blaming someone or something else for the failure to do so.  Frankly, I suspect that the concept of leadership is as foreign to him as the notion of how to catch the Roadrunner was to Wile E. Coyote.

In a corporate world not owned by Mr. Trump, he would have been fired long ago – assuming the organization had made the mistake of hiring him in the first place.  As I noted above, naysayers possess too much risk of upsetting corporate progress if they are loud enough, and are only kept on the payroll if they possess a key skill that no other employee possesses.

Mr. Trump lacks any of the key skills demanded by the presidency.  The only one he even makes a somewhat credible case for is negotiation.  He loudly and repeatedly asserts that he is a good negotiator, but negotiation demands a certain minimum level of trust among those negotiating – trust that is rarely achieved when a negotiator is committed solely to bluster as his or her primary method of negotiation.  Pounding on the table has a very limited role in good negotiation and should be reserved for the rare occasions where the goal of the negotiations has been forgotten by the other side.  Good negotiators possess good humor, the ability to listen carefully, and the ability to resolve not only their own problems or those of their clients, but those of the opposing negotiators and their clients as well.

Mr. Trump rarely offers solutions, and when he does it is from a paper placed in his hands by the trusted subordinate of the moment.  Left to his own devices, he offers only bluster and condemnation.  These are the only things that bring him satisfaction in the context of a deal.  His sole negotiating tactic is the shout, and he treats each shout as a victory in and of itself even though the underlying issue at hand remains unresolved.  From his vantage point – that of a bully whose will must be imposed to avoid losing face – resolution of the actual problem involved is much less important than scoring a good putdown.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Lloyd Bentsen addressed to Dan Quayle in the 1988 Vice Presidential debate: “Mr. President, I’ve negotiated hundreds of contracts.  I know and understand good negotiation tactics.  I’ve negotiated with the best of the best.  Mr. President, you’re not in their league.  In fact, you are a poor negotiator, and the proof of that assertion can be found in your all too frequent assertions to the contrary.  Real negotiators haven’t any need to brag.  They are known by the consistent quality of the results they produce.”

Given his inability to come up with solutions to obvious problems, it beggars belief that Mr. Trump has any ability to plan with respect to an assault on a complicated problem – such as an election strategy to become president of the United States.  You might well argue that he had others to do the planning for him as shown by the fact that he won; but he went through so many different campaign managers with such astounding rapidity that to argue he followed a consistent logical electoral path to the presidency is to overlook all the paths he started down only to abandon when the latest campaign manager left town.

No, Mr. Trump is an accidental president, as evidenced by the total popular vote and by his own surprise and that of his family when he was pronounced the victor on election night.  No reasonable, sane electorate would ever have elected him president given a true choice and absent the bitter divisions fragmenting our society and the very fertile soil in which those divisions have been allowed to grow in cancerous spurts.

So here we are, saddled with an accidental president – a chronic naysayer who has never heeded Thumper’s advice even once in his life.  Admittedly, I am also not heeding Thumper in this piece, but I have a reason: the emperor truly has no clothes on and someone needs to point out that it’s well past time for every thinking person in this country, regardless of their place on the political spectrum or their party loyalties, to recognize that fact and begin to plan as a community for how we will move forward when his term ends.

One thing is certain.  He won’t be helping us do the planning, and he needs to be put in a corner while the rest of us do it; a corner where his ongoing negativity and naysaying will do the least harm to our country.

Oh, and a dunce cap wouldn’t be amiss.

Posted in Civics, Politicians and Other Lower Life Forms | Leave a comment

It’s Late October And All Is Well

It’s late October, 2017.  I have nearly completed my seventy-second October, twenty-six of which have been spent here on the Farm amid our fields.  All Octobers are watercolor landscapes, but no two are alike.  As with any watercolor of a similar view painted from a slightly different perspective by another master artist with a keen eye, this one has its own unique feel and message.  Each October is as different and as good as a piece of any one pumpkin pie taken from among an array of them on a holiday sideboard will be from that of another.

This one is somber, but joyful nonetheless.  It is the first October in which my mortality has played a central role.  Until this one, my mortality has been an inconvenient fact to be worried about some day or other, but not today.  But, following my stroke, I realize that someday has come.  Once death’s hovering presence reached out to affect my balance and ability to walk, I could no longer ignore it.  Death has given me a none too subtle poke in the ribs to suggest it will no longer countenance a blasé attitude toward itself.  It’s no longer an elephant in the room; it’s a full participant in the conversation.

I get it.  Really I do.  I am fully aware that I am much closer to facing death than ever I was, and not just at sometime in the distant future.  It’s hovering around some bend in the road that I can at least sense, if not see.  If the long years I’ve lived weren’t enough of a clue, the stroke surely was.  It’s time to contemplate what it all has meant.

But don’t worry readers.  While my subject may be somber, my reaction to it is not.

I’ve always told my sons that a man must like what he sees when he looks in the mirror on his last day.  In this regard, the stroke was fortuitous.  It has allowed me to spend many hours contemplating the subject when I only thought I’d have seconds.  And generally I am happy with what I see.  I am pleased that I’ve lived with my foot on the gas pedal, giving life all I had, chasing my dreams, and accepting the consequences of my follies with relative equanimity.  I intend to keep on doing the same during my final leg, stroke and death be damned alike.

Yes, I have regrets.  Many in fact.  But apart from complete narcissists, who  doesn’t?  I won’t go into specific regrets about failing specific people other than to say that I’m keenly conscious and embarrassed by the failures I’ve yet to rectify.  I had hoped my intellect and courage were strong enough to correct my embarrassments, whether big or small, as I went along or whenever an opportunity occurred, but I’ve come to understand that it is a condition of humanity to be unable to correct them all despite the best of intentions.  So I will just have to utter prayers for forgiveness into the aether in hopes that some of them will be heard by the affected parties.

As for one great overarching regret, it is the time I’ve failed to spend with my immediate family – sons and Helen.  As with all failed good intentions, there is an explanation.  I was raised in an isolated eastern Washington valley in a time when communication was both difficult and expensive.  To generate the necessary escape velocity from that valley I had to focus and charge ahead as furiously as I could, seeking a path among the obstacles I could see or anticipate and bouncing off of those I couldn’t or didn’t.  This mode of acting became my lifestyle; one that took many years to overcome (assuming I have), and it left insufficient time for family since I had to provide for myself and for them while knowing only one speed.  Starting with nothing other than genetically donated brainpower, I had a long way to run.  I knew I could never quit running.

My family can decide about the sufficiency of that excuse.  Like any excuse, it is both true and untrue.  I know that.  I always have.  But at least I’ve always held true to form.  I’ve been a long distance runner.  I do realize that who I rejoice in being is the obverse side of my overarching regret.  But every choice has a cost.  I can only pray that Helen, Don, and Peter know that I wouldn’t be who I’ve become but for them and for their love, support, and involvement in my life.  They are the essential elements of my storyline.  The run would have been for nothing without them.

Many others, including  my parents and siblings, have helped me at critical times and played important roles in my life.  I’ve tried to repay all of those who helped me by passing what I’ve learned along the way on to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whenever I could.  I hope I’ve done enough to satisfy my promise to Professor Paul Kauper all those years ago to mentor others when I knew enough and had the experience to do so, but, if I haven’t, there is still time to do more.   If I keep trying, I might make at least a dent in my collective debt to those who helped and watched out for me as I passed through their lives.

Any single October’s summation of life’s bounty is nothing more than a tableau of those unique lives, large and small, available to it whenever its annual turn on the wheel comes around.  I eagerly await yet a few more turnings.  I won’t be running through each tableau quite as fast as before, but I’ll be trying as hard as I can.  Look for me.  I’ll wave.

And I promise to spare Helen from rabbit ears for the rest of my run.

Posted in Humptulips County, Ponderings on the Meaning of Things | Leave a comment