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.

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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.

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It’s Not My Problem Anymore, It’s Yours

Dear NRA Members and Sympathizers:

If the Las Vegas massacre has a message for you, it’s that the incredible number of dead and injured are your responsibility, not mine.  Be sure to read all of the names of the dead as soon as they are published and consider memorizing them.  Then carve at least 59 notches (as of this morning) in the handle or stock of your favorite gun, reciting their names aloud as you do.  To the extent American society can have an impact on mass killings, their fate is on your conscience, not mine.

Oh, I will mourn each of the Las Vegas dead for at least as long as you will – most likely longer, if my suspicions are correct.  You and your colleagues in Congress and the White House will offer a heart-felt there-but-for-fortune-go-you-and-not-I moment of silence, and then, satisfied you’ve done all you can for the dead, you’ll promptly forget their names. But if you follow my suggestion, you’ll at least have the notches on your weapon to remember them by.

Why are they your victims and not mine?  Because I’ve spoken up repeatedly in favor of responsible gun regulation (NB, not confiscation) and contributed money to the cause.  It’s gotten my side of the discussion nowhere because the entire system is rigged in your favor. No matter what I or my fellow believers might do, nothing whatsoever will happen as a result of the Las Vegas (or any other) massacre, and you take pride in the fact that the system is rigged that way.

So it’s your hands that are bloody this morning whether you were 1 or 10,000 miles away from Las Vegas at the time of the shooting.  Why?  Because you no longer have any excuse for not doing something, whether that excuse is real or imagined. There are no more bogey men, white or black, with sufficient power to take your guns, much less to have any effective say in the debate over responsible gun regulation.  The White House is solidly yours, as is Congress and the Supreme Court. You own all of the devices of American government – the whole shebang.  I no longer have any effective say in the matter – not that I’m likely to shut up about it as I’m certain you wish I would.

You no longer want to hear from me on this subject because you don’t wish to be reminded of the blood on your hands.  You have chosen to play the lottery of life and keep your head down in hopes that you and your guilt won’t be noticed.  For the odds are that you won’t be noticed in any effective way either by the next gunman or by society.  The odds are solidly in your favor that the next set of inevitable victims will not include you, your spouse, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings, mother, father, grandparents, friends, neighbors, or what have you.  So when the next set of victims is announced by gunfire, you’ll most likely rest easy as soon as it is culturally and religiously possible to do so because, hey, it didn’t happen to you and yours and the odds will still be heavily in your favor that it won’t happen to you and yours the next time, either.  Or the time after that.  Or the time… –  oh never mind, since you probably don’t give a damn anyway.

Just know that you now own all of the mass shootings that will take place in the US for as long as you own Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court.  You’ve rendered the rest of us useless, and thereby freed us from further blame – at least in the short term.  But you do have a choice.  You can choose to celebrate your victory (yes, you own that too), or you can decide that now is the time for your side to enact responsible gun legislation because you own all of the mechanisms necessary to do so and can control the final result.

The rest of us will still help however we can in whatever way you allow, but we cannot initiate anything.   Only you can.  So we’ll wait to hear from you, and so far the silence has proved deafening.

For clarity as to my expectations, be aware that I don’t expect you to act other than irrationally.  Recent history assures me that you won’t.  I’m as certain as I can be that Congress will in fact pass the presently pending bill to ease the restrictions on the use of silencers and that you will happily swallow all of the nonsense uttered in favor of its passage.  I am equally certain that the president will sign the act into law, while uttering even more outrageous nonsense that you will find satisfying.

Be aware that for you and your ilk the time is similar to 1920s Germany, and you are following the will of a perceived majority down the road to your own personal Hell.  Enjoy it while you can.  You will be judged for your inaction.

Even though you haven’t asked, I ought to explain what I mean by “sympathizers.”  It’s important that you understand my usage.  By “sympathizers” I mean all of you gun owners or gun favorers who either don’t belong to the NRA or who do but are in favor of some form of gun regulation (a reputed 72% of NRA membership according to the last poll I can find reference to).  You own the means of acting now while you can write the rules to your complete satisfaction because you’re a far greater number than the NRA’s lunatic fringe led by Wayne LaPierre.  In fact, your hands are the bloodiest because you represent the majority of NRA membership and possibly of the voting public, the system is under your complete control, and you are rational, thoughtful citizens.

So it’s your time to act, not mine. I’ve said and done all I can. And I’ll even help with both my time and my money, if you do act responsibly. But you won’t will you?  I know, I know, the odds are still in your favor.

Good luck with those beliefs.  Lots of it.  You’ll need all you can get from the standpoint of how history and the afterlife judges you.


P.S.: By the way, if you’re going to argue with me, please don’t fall back on the old, tired dodge that no one can control a madman in order to exonerate yourselves from responsibility.  That wheeze may be true to a very limited extent, but certainly the majority of American  society has the right, and the obligation, to limit a madman’s opportunity to use weapons when they go off the rails.  And, since madmen don’t come with labels, we have to act on behalf of all society, regardless of political leanings.  Since most sympathizers argue that gun ownership is as much or more a matter of personal safety as it is of hunting rights, please think about the inanity of not demanding safer gun ownership and use in our society in general before arguing with me.

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Fairy Tales Can Come True (Even If Only For Awhile)

Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you
If you’re young at heart.

Young at Heart, Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh

Once upon a time, probably in the early 1990s, I walked into a small bookshop in Seattle tucked underneath the street and around the corner from my reality.  This was the Seattle Mystery Bookshop – an entire shop dedicated to the enjoyment of the art of mystery writing.

There was something illicit about reading mysteries in that era – many people indulged in the habit secretively as if they would be labelled a complete eccentric if they were to be caught reading any form of mystery. My law school employer, a nationally known constitutional law professor, once admitted to me somewhat sheepishly that he “wasted” a good deal of time reading mysteries and wished he could break the habit.   He quickly admonished me to keep his secret, obviously regretting that he had let it slip out.  His admission came on the heels of finding me holding a new mystery I’d just purchased to read after the conclusion of finals that semester, and it was uttered in the tone of “don’t follow me down this dark path or you, too, may become forever ensnared.”  You would have thought he’d admitted to opium addiction.

I was well ensnared by the time I met Bill Farley, the founder of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, and his henchman, future successor and friend, J B Dickey.  Bill made me and every mystery reader who ever came across him understand that we were reputable and honest readers of literature.  Whenever I left the shop after a visit (and there were many; I’m certain that I paid the shop’s rent for at least a few months), I was filled with the joy of having mixed with fellow enthusiasts and the prospect of several days of good reading.  I began to recognize my fellow customers, many of whom are local legal community luminaries; they acknowledged me as equally addicted as they hustled out the shop’s door with their purchases clutched firmly and furtively under one arm. The only difference between me and most of them is that I usually walked out that same door carrying at least one bag full of books (if not two) and walked proudly down the street with my addiction on full display.

Bill was unapologetic about his life’s mission.  In fact he took great pride in having built his shop from nothing into a local institution with a national and even international reach. I met James Ellroy there one day long ago and offered him a mis-bound copy of one of his books, White Jazz, for signing.  It had been bound upside down.  He took it, told me I had the cover on upside down, took the cover off and “fixed” it, opened it for signing and uttered “what the hell?”  After a good laugh, I bought a properly bound copy from Bill and Mr. Ellroy inscribed both to me, urging me to read one upside down and the other right side up.  The two copies sit together on my bookshelves today.

But, you reply, James Ellroy is an LA writer, so how can you claim an international reputation for the shop? Pshaw, I respond.   Ian Rankin taught me the correct pronunciation of “slainte” in the shop one afternoon when I dropped in purposely to meet him (and I met his wife in the bargain), and I was thoroughly enchanted by Ellis Peters who inscribed a book for me one day when we both happened to drop in the shop simply because we wanted to.  Ms. Peters (Edith Pargeter in real life) was a charming woman – a short, elderly sprite with a wide smile and a lovely English accent.   Within moments of meeting you, she made you feel like an old houseguest of hers whom she remembered with great pleasure.  Since she had dropped in unannounced, neither Bill nor I knew how she found the shop, but find it she did.   She obviously knew the value of such a shop and gave it her unhesitating, unasked for support.

Both her then-current book and Mr. Rankin’s sit on my shelves, never to be sold or given away during my lifetime.

Then came a day when Bill told me he was selling the shop to JB.  With Bill’s permission and encouragement, I immediately went to JB and offered my services to review the contract.  When he responded that he couldn’t afford to pay me, I offered him my special “book shop changing hands rate” – lunch at a restaurant of my choice. When we met at a local Vietnamese restaurant to go over the contract, he was pleased when the bill barely came to $20.  Bill later told me that he wished he’d found me first because his lawyer had charged him full freight – then he put his hand on my shoulder and thanked me for helping JB.

To the extent JB needed a lawyer thereafter, I maintained my special rate.  We only shared two or three sandwiches in his back office over the years as he never needed much legal assistance.  Most of my visits to the shop were as a customer.  My wife and youngest son sometimes came with me, and both Helen and Peter added their own selections to the piles of books I managed to buy there two or three times a month.  The shop became a destination of choice for me; I would either come at noon on a workday when I needed a break from lawyering and a dose of friendship to buck me up before returning to the fray, or on a weekend when Helen and Peter (and eventually just Helen after Peter left for college) and I needed something satisfying to supplement our weekend’s rest from everyday affairs.

In short, I was enchanted by the shop.  It was my Neverland.  My love affair with it was enduring, not a mere dalliance.  The shop returned my love with the staff’s smiles and snappy lines whenever I came in.  They would chat with me for a few moments after my arrival and then leave me alone when the allure of the well-stocked shelves overcame me.  When I thought I was done shopping, they would look at my pile of books, shake their heads at its paucity, and augment it with their own suggestions.  They would then cheerfully ring up the resulting damage and add it to my credit card balance.

Eventually Sandy began, and JB continued, to publish the shop’s quarterly “newszine” which offered pages and pages of upcoming releases.  Upon its receipt, I would eagerly read it, mark it up, and deliver it to JB so that I could be met on the occasion of each visit with an armful of preselected books – an armful which I would personally gather from my designated place on a shelf in the back of the shop and take to the till before perusing the shelves to see if something might have been missed.

I’ve been all over the world with the shop – France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, Eastern Europe, Spain, Australia, China, England, Shanghai, Iceland, Finland, Russia, the Baltic states, Germany, Ireland and almost every state in the good old U S  of A come readily to mind as places I have been with and because of it.  And I have visited some of those places in widely differing eras thanks to the time machines created by the shop’s assorted authors.

It has been one hell of a great ride.  But the fairy tale is over now.

It never occurred to me on my visit to the shop in early December 2016 that it would be the last I’d ever make.  Oh, I knew JB was facing difficult times.  I had played a minor role in a fund-raising effort to keep its doors open during what proved to be its final year.  And when a stroke temporarily felled me just before Christmas, I continued to buy books from the shop by mail.  But it wasn’t the same as a real visit; I missed seeing my real live friends even though my imaginary ones kept arriving by post.

As I recuperated and relearned how to walk, I kept imagining a triumphal return to the shop, but it was not to be.  The Seattle Mystery Bookshop closed its doors last weekend – a victim of changing reading habits, the greed, vice, and monopoly power of on-line sellers, the lack of responsibility shown by my fellow mystery readers (use it or lose it is not just a slogan), and the uncaring attitude toward small businesses perennially evidenced by the City of Seattle (I can only hope that for their sins the Mayor and all of the city council members once frequented the shop and, like me, will never to again be able to do so).  I wanted to visit one last time during the shop’s final week of operation, but circumstances forbade it.  I wanted to shake the hand of each staff member and thank them for years of joy and the last several years of constant struggle to keep the shop’s doors open.

Fairy tales are supposed to end in “they lived happily ever after,” but this one hasn’t.  This one has ended for me in a hug of fond memories and lots and lots of books from the shop still remaining in my “to read” pile.  Each time I read one of them, the joy of the fairy tale will come back to me and I will feel good yet again – even as I am learning new ways to feed my habit in the absence of a shop that knew me well and always took exquisite care of my habit’s needs.

I can only hope that JB, Fran, and Amber will come, in time, to feel the same way as I do and realize that the shop’s closing was due to circumstances far beyond their control.  Each of them has been a true soldier for Bill’s cause during the last few difficult years.  I wish them the peace that ought to come to them from having fostered the reading habits of so many readers over the long years – readers who came in all ages, shapes, and forms to be enriched by their offerings, advice, and suggestions.

I am as certain as I can be that somewhere Bill Farley and Ellis Peters are nodding their heads in agreement with me and wishing all of the troops well.

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Lazing About On An August Morning

I am sitting on our front porch enjoying the quiet of a late August Sunday morning.  I just returned from getting our Sunday papers and stopped here to enjoy the hush I interrupted with uneven steps and the staccato thudding of my cane.

A lone single-engine airplane toils somewhere above me, and birds call out at random on a scale ranging from near croak to full song.  Hummingbirds click their beaks and hum with their wings as they chase each other from our feeders.  Doves coo somewhere down the lane to tell their mate about the luck they’re having in the always solitary work of survival; their calls echo across the lonely distances between them like land-inflected whalesong.

These few sounds are embroidery on the morning’s hush.  Without them, summer would stand naked in the spotlight of Act One with only a soliloquy to give it cover.  Prudence demands that summer be at least minimally clothed in the morning hours of a hot day.  It is allowed run around naked only in Act Three – only at day’s end when the heat is unbearable and nudity is to be expected.

A soft breeze just whispered something to me about elsewhere.  Breezes speak only in hints, preferring to utter generalities and leave specifics to the imagination of the listener.  This breeze gave off a faint aroma of travel and foreign intrigue, but I am much too content here on my porch to give its whisperings any credence.


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I Never Walk Alone

I walked to our mailbox and back yesterday twice (two tenths of a mile per trip) – once with my rollator (a walker with wheels) and once with a quad cane (a cane with four prongs).  Other than being tired from exercise and the prior trip with my quad cane, the rollator trip was no big deal as I have been using it for the purpose every nice day for the last two months.  The quad cane attempt was a big deal, however, since it was a first.  While I’d already traveled the terrain I was about to attempt with the cane before and after the stroke which felled me last December, it was the first time I’d tried to do it with minimal support.  Each new implement of support comes equipped with its own challenges such that once familiar terrains become new worlds whenever it is employed, new worlds replete with unknown perils unique to the implement’s design and capabilities.

On the day before I made the trip, I’d promised Alicia, my physical therapist, that I would not make the attempt for a while longer because I am still considered as being at high risk for falling despite my progress since my stroke.  I confess to feeling guilty about violating my promise to her.  But I had damned good reason to ignore it.  I’ve found that there is a state of mental readiness about these things that, once achieved, cannot and should not be ignored.  I had gone outside meaning to do nothing more than practice walking with only the cane on the well-known uneven surfaces of the asphalt near the house, only to find myself perched at the top of the hill Alicia was concerned about and staring down its length while listening to an inner voice saying: “It’s no big deal; go for it.”

So I did and it wasn’t.

But the trip was very hard work.  I had to overcome my own concerns about going down the hill (down is always the hard part; up is easy by comparison), so every hillside step was harder than those taken on flat ground due to the inherent difficulty of the slope and my accompanying mental caution about traversing it. But the moment to attempt it had come and I was helpless to resist; I was perched at the top of the hill like a fledgling in his nest considering his first flight.  It was high time to begin the process of casting aside the comfort of the rollator in favor of increasingly minimal support.  It was now or never – or so it seemed at the time.

The knowledge that my attempt would be difficult played no role in it other than to slow my usual pace and produce some mental molasses. For anyone who, like me, has lost their sense of balance, each movement has to be made by hand (so to speak) until learned as an entire sequence by a new sector of the brain. Make no mistake: this process is hard work.  Any notion that one ought to avoid hard work is foreign to our state of being. If we wish to regain full freedom of movement (and by that I mean going where we want when we want on our own by means of only our own effort), we have no choice but to work extremely hard as that is our sole means of moving forward. Each and every movement requires conscious mental effort and conscious mental sequencing of the involved muscles.   Each unknown bump or flaw in the surface upon which we intend to walk is a logistical challenge that we must solve at the risk of serious injury; a problem requiring our full concentration even though other, more menacing perils may lurk nearby. Until we accumulate enough repetitions of any movement (whether it be sitting, standing, walking, rolling over, etc.) sufficient for it to become controlled without conscious thought by a new part of our brain not previously tasked with the job of balancing us and coordinating our muscles, we must intentionally cause every single involved muscle to fire in its proper sequence at our command.  And as hard as that is to imagine, it is much, much harder to accomplish.

I don’t believe that as an adult I’ve ever worked so hard for so little or for so much.  Each movement I struggle to accomplish is insignificant from a healthy person’s viewpoint.  But I am working for freedom – mine and Helen’s.  I need to know that eventually (1) I will be able to go where I want on my own whenever I choose to make the trip, and (2) Helen will be free from the obligation to take me there.  All freedoms come with a high price, and the freedom from my particular disability only comes from conquering constant, grinding pain through the use of immense quantities of willpower and the taking of daily risks that healthy people cannot possibly appreciate.  And all of this effort is for the achievement of tiny, incremental gains that can never be seen and appreciated for their own individual importance, but only for their collective importance as part of an entire work product seen weeks after their occurrence.

I have a new appreciation for toddlers since relearning to walk is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  Retaking the bar exam would be a cakewalk by comparison.  Every attaboy I’ve earned for making an inch of accomplishment in this process is sincerely appreciated, and I return the favor of each one by moving forward yet another inch.  Every congratulation over an achievement I make is special since it means yet one more milestone on the road to full independence has been surpassed. While toddlers are exhilarated by their first taste of freedom, I have known and lost its sweetness.  I have experienced its fullness as well as the consequences of its loss.

So each hurrah I earn is critical to my success.  While learning to walk is the toddler’s defining trait, those who once knew how to do it but no longer can have a much harder road to travel due to brittle bones and the weariness accumulated over the years.  But we savor our remembrance of freedom’s intoxicating sweetness and travel on.  While toddlers are conscious of possibility, we understand the immensity of loss.  But toddlers and former walkers alike need the encouragement of others to succeed in the present; encouragement is our only visible measure of immediate success.  Otherwise, we must resort to rear view mirrors at future times to see how far we’ve gotten since the last time we checked.

So when I published a short piece on Facebook about yesterday’s success with the quad cane, I was overwhelmed, amazed, and gratified by a surfeit of heartfelt responses.  I’d hit the post button for my piece with some reluctance for fear that I might be seen as boasting about nothing very much in the wide, wide world.  But those that commented and liked the post realized its importance and appreciated my need to do a little shuffle since real dancing is still beyond my capabilities.  I thank them for their understanding and their encouragement, and I hope this post will give them a greater understanding of what their support really means to me.

While, of necessity, I travel my side road alone but for the therapists who guide my overall progress and my soul mate who watches over every single minute of each one of the twenty-four hours of every day, the encouragement I receive from my guardians and other friends and family is the stuff that will surely fuel my return to the main highway.  Please be advised that I fully intend to merge onto that main highway sooner rather than later, and watch out for me when I do.  I’ll be the old guy coming up the on-ramp unaided by any piece of equipment who will do an Irish jig on the highway’s tarmac as soon as he reaches it for the sheer joy of having gotten there.  He will be drunk on the sweet liquor of freedom once lost but now regained, and he won’t give a fig for anyone who objects.

I won’t be able to help myself, so please don’t hit me.*

*A special thanks to La Fonte Nesbitt for the title to this piece

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Navigating The Shallow Facebook Seas

I first met Danny at my friend Bob’s funeral last year.  Danny is Bob’s nephew and bears more than a passing resemblance to him both in appearance and demeanor.  We talked a bit, but funerals do not promote an atmosphere that favors deep, searching conversations so neither of us learned to a great deal about the other.  All that I learned of Danny for certain is that he also believes Bob was a true hero despite Bob’s wish to be seen as nothing more than a citizen soldier who did the job he was assigned well.  But I sat with Danny at enough meals and side bar conversations to know that I liked him in his own right – not just as a Bob simulacrum – and wanted to know him better. 

After the funeral I sent Danny two pieces I’d written about Bob’s journey to Arlington National Cemetery to give to his mother (Bob’s sister), and one thing led to another.  We became friends on Facebook. I haven’t seen him face-to-face since Bob’s funeral; we’ve had to be content with reading each other’s Facebook posts and occasionally  sharing commentary.  

Facebook posts are communications of information so spare that they often provoke undeserved pique and rash rejoinder.  Since Danny and I both have strong personalities and no fear of saying whatever we wish, we’ve had to be careful talking to one another on Facebook.  While our personalities mesh well, our politics are very different.  Fortunately, we had the gift of face-to-face meetings prior to becoming Facebook friends to rely upon; neither of us wants our relationship to founder on the shoals of social media sound bites. So when one of us posts something that annoys the other, we’ve been careful to disagree with respect and restraint.  And each time we disagree in this public forum we’ve tried to find a point of common interest or belief to fall back upon to preserve our nascent friendship.  We’ve gone so far on line as to wish that we could meet over a good meal to explore our differences in depth.  It is clear that we share certain basic beliefs; it is equally clear that we are on different ends of a spectrum that uses these shared beliefs as a fulcrum.  Each of us is interested in what has caused the other to take a different direction from our shared starting point – me to the left and Danny to the right. 

Facebook is no substitute for a searching, one-on-one discussion over a shared meal.  Facebook posts only reveal flashes of a discrete portion of someone’s personality. Facebookers tend to react only to another’s post by high level agreement or disagreement, often with the push of a single button.  And many times – if not most of the time – they fail to read anything more than the headline of an article the other posted before reacting to it.  In other words, Facebook is nothing more than a visceral world lacking any depth whatsoever.  It is pidgin language rather than true intellectual conversation.  This is so true  that when the term “social media” is applied to Facebook, it becomes an oxymoron.  Facebook exchanges are nothing more than the thin gruel Oliver Twist hesitantly requested more of.  They are not the wholesome ingredients of a good, satisfying, three course meal of deep thoughts and well-prepared food; rather, they are little more than leftovers that don’t merit refrigeration. 

So why do I maintain a Facebook account?  I do so because it is a way of staying in touch with far-flung family and with those folks I once knew well enough to call “friend” but with whom I may never share another great meal of ideas because of time and/or distance.  As to family members, Facebook serves to keep me up to date between meals.  As to old friends,  the snapshots of self which it displays prompt fond memories of someone I knew well when we last interacted in person.  I am wholly aware that our Facebook friendship will survive only as long as I remember that I am ignorant of who they became following that last meeting or that they might have escaped long ago from the boxes in which I’ve chosen to file my memories of them.

If I were to choose to go beyond this pool of family and old friends on Facebook I would stumble into the depths of the social media sea that are populated by sharks and trolls.   So I limit my Facebook friendships to those with whom I share some sort of history.  No strangers need apply!  I don’t need or wish to communicate with scarecrows, sharks, trolls, or ‘toons. 

But Danny is different – he’s not only the right stuff, but is a member of a group I think of as my extended family.  And even if our history is brief, it is long enough for him to have piqued my interest.   Bob’s death brought us together and each of us has enough trust in Bob to know that a stronger relationship would be enjoyable. 

So until we can meet in person again, our friendship will just have to muddle through on a diet of measly Facebook gruel until we’re finally able to share a real meal of good food and in-depth discussion  I’m looking forward to it.


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The Momentary Stewardship Of Gods And Daisies

Take your place on The Great Mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

Peter Yarrow, The Great Mandala

Each May and June here on our Farm in Humptulips County the humble long-stemmed daisies growing in our fields and along our drive become anointed as God; in July, that God suffers its annual death ritual and returns to root and seed to assure Her resurrection the following year.  It is July as I write and there are still daisies here, but their appearance is ragged and the Daisy God’s condition has been reduced to that of needy mendicant. Many daisies have already died and been cut back, and the few that remain are writhing in the death throes that will turn them into the wilted antithesis of the collectivized beauty that gave the God form and power in the first instance.

The Daisy God’s physical presence on our Farm has grown each year of our residence, and may soon rival Her emotional hold over it.  Her expanding physical presence has been due to her foremost acolyte, Helen; while the devotion that the Daisy God demands is strong indeed, Her physical prowess is insufficient to have allowed her to demonstrate her teachings in as many great swathes of our fields as She now does in the absence of Helen’s annual refusal to cut Her down while in bloom.  After all, gods, being the intellectual manifestations of humanity’s doubts and insecurities over their basic right to exist, require human hands and voices to spread their respective messages – in the case of the Daisy God, Her annual insistence that every life should be celebrated as exuberantly and vividly as possible whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself.  The artist in Helen understood Her message from the instant of Her initial manifestation following our assumption of stewardship duties here.

I use the term  “our Farm” to describe this  small patch of ground, but the truth is that it isn’t.  It is only because of the peculiarly human concept of possession that I am able to make that statement.  None of the other residents of this small place would assert ownership over it; the birds, rabbits, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, field mice, plants, trees, snakes, slugs, snails, insects, and other sundry forms of life – and yes, even the great Daisy God Herself – do not feel the need to make such an outlandish claim.  A simple co-existence on this place whereby each feeds and serves another is sufficient for them.  They understand the essence of life better than we humans, and face it without fear; they lack the insecurities and hubris that cause humanity to assert primacy over all other forms of life that share the great mandala and to lay claim to minute portions of the wheel of life as if it possessed the attribute of physicality.

The Daisy God is finished with Her public rebuke of human insecurities for this year, and has returned to Her hibernation.  As a result of my December stroke, I am better attuned now to Her message that all lives, even those of humans, should blossom as vividly as possible while remaining humble in the presence of the ineffable; that each life form, regardless of its shape or its ability to exercise power over other life forms, is but a temporary placeholder in a grander scheme that each is too puny to see, that each, by and through the use of its own devices and own means of comprehension, can only sense without any true understanding.

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Old Friends

Old friends,
memory brushes the same years,
Silently sharing the same fears

Paul Simon, Old Friends

We talk a lot about illness now – ours, theirs, and others’.  But while the subject has become a conversational staple, we refuse to allow it to dominate our evenings together. Whenever we become obsessed by the topic, one of us scolds the group gently with self-deprecating laughter and we move on to brighter topics.

Our meetings are still dominated by current events rather than memories, even though our decades-long friendship has produced an abundance of the latter that we often use to illustrate our assertions.  And while we sometimes regret the loss of former cultural norms remembered by one or all, we retain enough stamina to embrace those of the present – even if our acceptance is usually somewhat reluctant and often accompanied by a head shake or two.

We have grown older and wiser together among the tears and laughter of entwined lives. Mutual friends and even family members have left us, but we move on together to create yet more pleasant memories.  Walks, discussions, laughter, and good food dominate each meeting, our friendship becoming even more firm over each meal served with ample helpings of mutual love and respect.

All of our meetings begin and end with the same round of handshakes and hugs, the two events differentiated only by the fervency of our promises at each parting to get together again soon.  None of us can imagine a time when we won’t meet again; the concept is simply unacceptable.

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Summer is Here

My walk to our mailbox yesterday was under a cloudless sky down an asphalt ribbon of driveway stencilled with a frieze of silhouettes cast by pines, alders, blackberry vines, and long-stemmed daisies and grasses.  The heat shimmered from the paving on only the third official day of summer.  The birds were too loud and the hum of insects too quiet to make it the perfect mid-summer afternoon, but time will cure these defects.  We have set sail on the summer sea here in Humptulips County, and lush, hushed, sun-baked days loom ahead of us like uncharted rocks along an unmapped coast.

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