When Monkeys Fly

21 10 2016


It is very easy to get sucked into other people’s drama. It can come of an honest desire to help. It is someone you care about. It is an opportunity to do some good in the world, to ease the tension and suffering. These are healthy impulses which can lead to happy, life-affirming results.

But they can also lead you down a rabbit hole. Before you know it, you are the victim of emotional vampirism. Your attempts to help come to naught, and the demands for more drain you until you have nothing left to give to anyone else. That’s when it’s time to dig out to sunlight and leave the rabbits to fight it out among themselves.

Volunteering for an organization can be that way. It’s a worthy cause, and you do your best for it. Good feelings all around. Sensible organizations work that way. Fanatical organizations keep demanding more, then lay a guilt trip on you when you reach your limit, whether it be donations of time, money, or labor. They cry, “How can you let down the people depending on you? Don’t you care? Or are you too selfish to give of yourself to this important cause?”

Politics did this to me. I got all enthused and worked hard for the organization, gave money, even pushed myself way beyond my comfort zone to canvass door-to-door. My efforts failed, but never mind, I and my fellows did our best. Now I am expected to continue my efforts. The telephone doesn’t stop ringing and my Facebook feed is packed with exhortations. I am told repeatedly that I must continue to be active even though my enthusiasm is gone. The fate of the world depends on it. Don’t I care? Or am I too selfish to support this vital cause?

And then there are the appeals for donations: heart disease, breast cancer, various handicaps and disabilities, the police chiefs, the firefighters, child abuse, domestic violence, civil rights. The list goes on and on. Each one thinks their cause is special and can’t I even afford a $15 donation? No, I am breathlessly waiting to see if I will be able to pay the mortgage this month.

Wisdom is knowing the difference.

Wisdom is knowing the difference.

It can happen with friends and relatives. Occasionally it is a direct appeal (or assault) and I feel obliged. Usually, though, it’s just me seeing someone in trouble and wanting to help. Because we do have an obligation in this life to look after one another and not ignore suffering when we are able to do something about it. Again, I do my best, but there are times when I see the rabbit hole closing over my head.

I have to take a deep breath, back away, and do some calculations. How much is my help really helping? Do the people involved truly appreciate it, or are they just sucking me in to play a part in their drama? Do I see shades of Machiavelli when I shine a light on their behavior?

It may well be time to invoke that wise old Polish proverb, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Reflecting on the Sitcom

9 10 2016


For the past few weeks I have been galloping to keep up with the changes and challenges in my life. I’ve had lots of practice since the collapse of my marriage, when the steady-state of misery exploded into a nova. My chief occupation has been trying to figure out who I am and what I do as this freshly-minted single person with a dizzying array of new responsibilities. Plus, I am not as young as I used to be. This has the advantage of equipping me with more than half a century of experience and wisdom. This has the disadvantage of having to cope with reduced strength, stamina, and mental flexibility.

I’ll be turning sixty this December. Most folks my age are thinking ahead to retirement. I am not. I won’t be retiring for a good long time. Quite the opposite.

Now, the most recent episode in this sitcom that my household has become, is the arrival of a new character. She is a sweet girl, intelligent and energetic, but crashing from a collapsed relationship and conflicts with her mother. Come in, I said, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.

She is the best friend of my son’s live-in girlfriend, and comes with a 1-year-old yellow lab who is fairly well-trained, but is still a 1-year-old yellow lab, and behaves accordingly. She arrived with all her belongings, the contents of her apartment, at 11 pm the other night. I am leaving it to the kids to figure out where she is going to sleep and to keep the dog from the destroying the place. I have my room upstairs where I and my cats hang out. I can do my work in peace. My younger son is just starting a new job. My older son just got laid off from his job. Both girls are working. Rent will be paid, plus the new arrival has promised to do house-cleaning. And oh yes, Angi, the artist living our spare room, just had her car totaled and is dealing with the fall-out from that. Interesting times.

On top of all that, yesterday was the big Town-Wide Yard Sale, which I joined in an effort to get rid of some of my excess clutter and earn a little desperately needed cash. Organizing for the Yard Sale was a monumental stress-inducer. I cleaned out the basement, the garage, the garage attic, and the shed out back in an effort to organize and segregate the trash, the surplus, the to-be-used, to-be-stored, and to-be-sold.

The Yard Sale itself was not as successful as I’d hoped, but not a complete failure, either. I got rid of some truck, but not nearly as much as I wanted to. Now I have to figure out alternatives—Craig’s List, charities, swap shop, dump—to move it on. More hassles. Ugh.

But look on the bright side, I did make a little grocery money, and I got several problem areas cleaned and organized. Now there is more room for my tenants to store their stuff. And I have a better handle on what is there (dear god, the stuff my ex saved!). Was it worth the grief and hassle? I suppose. Would I do it again? Not likely.

So after all this sturm und drang I was an exhausted wreck. Last night Angi and I broke into the vodka and cranberry juice. I got nicely silly. My younger son does an online gaming stream on Saturday nights, but because of technical difficulties (which he has been plagued with—yes, there’s been that, too) he had to cancel the stream. Five of us ended up doing digital Card Against Humanity on our laptops. It was a riot. I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard, which was in part at least, stress release.

I can remember at one point looking at Angi (after two or three drinks) and exclaiming, “My word! I feel relaxed! This is wonderful!” It was. And the truly grand thing is that I did not drink too much; I drank just enough. I was outrageous (I won two of the rounds) and buoyant, but still in control. I remember everything, and I was not hung over this morning. It took no great act of willpower to shut myself off; I just thought, I feel really good and I don’t want another drink. I’ll pour myself a seltzer.

It is Sunday morning, grey and rainy. I slept in, made myself coffee and had a muffin and a slice of coffee cake for breakfast, sat in bed and did a crossword puzzle and an online jigsaw puzzle, all my cats snoozing contentedly in the bed with me. It’s one o’clock, and I believe I will get dressed and go out for some groceries, perhaps do a few chores. I am enjoying this lovely window of calm in the Bedlam.

This is me, my new life, and I must say that overall, despite its chaos and challenges, I’m quite happy with it.

When Fear Replaces Reason

5 10 2016

trumphitlerA commenter on my last blog had this to say: “‘I have reached this conclusion: One must choose one’s battles, and I choose not to waste my energy on this one,’” said the Jews before Hitler took power.

The commenter took my closing statement out of context and used it to shame me. At first I did not consider it worth replying to. Then I added a quick response to illustrate how little I thought of it. But upon reflection, I have decided I need to address it more comprehensively, since it is a small example of how political discussion has sunk to the abysmal depth that it has.

First of all, it is not a logical rebuttal of anything I said. It is an appeal to emotion. It is conjuring a terrible event in history and implying that this horror will be revisited if I do not choose to engage in the present political farce. Allow me to deconstruct this:
a.) I am not a Jew in 1930s Germany.
b.) Neither of the candidates is Hitler.
c.) Although the parallels in the social situation of pre-WWII Germany and present day US have been extensively cited, there are also many, many differences.
Therefore this is a false analogy. It serves only to terrify, not to rationally make a point.
obamahitlerd.) It is also implied that, conversely, my continued engagement in this soul-draining travesty of an election will somehow change the country’s course. Nonsense, for all the reasons I have already addressed in the blog.

Second, Godwin’s Law. Comparisons to Hitler and Nazism are an overused, hyperbolic, discussion-killer. Obama, Trump, Bush, and countless others have been compared to Hitler by one group or another. It accomplishes nothing except to express the extreme loathing that particular individual has for the person being discussed. Granted, both Hitler and Stalin (another popular bugbear) are mentioned in one of the illustrations I posted with the blog, but they are merely being used to represent the end result of the process of lesser-evil voting, that is, two truly terrible candidates. One could just as easily say Ted Bundy and Charles Manson and the same point would be made. The writer merely chose two terrible world leaders since the analogy was more appropriate.

Finally, I am thoroughly disgusted with the way the national conversation about this election has fled rational debate and plunged headlong into Fear. Our brains are wired to react strongly to threats. We instinctively scramble to avoid a dangerous situation. Warnings of imminent disaster if we do not take the recommended course of action have been used to sell everything from presidential candidates to laundry detergent. It’s a strategy that works very well, playing on our basic human aversions.

But there is a huge difference between a warning of the danger of cancer on a pack of cigarettes and an exhortation that we must actively support and vote for a particular candidate or the country will collapse into Fascism.

Science and reason are the ways we avoid fooling ourselves. I am not advocating the elimination of emotion in our lives; far from it. Compassion and empathy are critical to judging the best course of action when one has first acquired all the facts available. Anger and fear are not helpful. Evoking those emotions tends to short-circuit our ability to think rationally.

And goodness knows we need to think rationally right now.

[This response addresses the comment only, and is not a personal attack on the individual who posted the comment.  Differing opinions are valid.  I welcome criticism as a challenge to clarify my views.  If mutual agreement cannot be reached, I am happy to agree to disagree, and to respectfully end the conversation without prejudice.]

The Lesser Evil is Still Evil

2 10 2016


Just saw a post on FB: “The American political system is broken when the only reason to vote for one is to prevent the other from winning.”

That sums it up nicely. And it has been the case in the majority of elections that I have participated in. Occasionally a candidate pops up that I can feel truly confident endorsing. Most often this happens in local elections, but now and then I have the opportunity to vote for someone in a major election that I feel truly represents my convictions. Usually in a primary. Usually, because politics in my town, state, and nation seems to be marching steadily to the Right, my candidate loses. And I am stuck having to choose between lesser evils.

“Well, that’s just politics,” a friend says with a shrug. “You never get everything you want.”

I don’t want everything. I know that’s unreasonable. But in a representative form of government, I think I can reasonably want to have someone who represents the most fundamental values that I believe in, and addresses the issues that I think are critically important. It would be helpful if that candidate were also experienced and capable.


Instead I am faced with voting for someone who does not represent me, who I do not trust to effectively address critical issues even if they claim they will, just because the other candidate is even more detestable. I feel utterly disenfranchised. No matter who I vote for, my voice is not going to be heard.

All my life I have been an activist. I have marched, demonstrated, and rallied. I have voted faithfully in every election. I have canvassed and written articles and fought in whatever small way I could for causes I believe in. For a while, it seemed like progress was being made. Then it began to unravel. Yes, a few things have gone well. Gay marriage rights is huge, I’ll admit. But income inequality and erosion of civil liberties continue to grow worse. Climate change is ignored. Environmental policy continues to be dictated by corporations. And the electoral process has become a corrupt farce.

The 2016 election has torn it. I am so utterly disappointed in the choices made both by voters and by the political machine, heaped upon the ludicrous horror show of Congress, spiced with the antics of various elected officials in states around the country, that I am ready to wash my hands of the whole disgusting mess. If my most sincere efforts have accomplished so little, continuing to beat my head against the wall makes no sense. The vast majority of my fellow Americans refuse to add their voices to mine and those like me, so our outraged squeaks are drowned out by the demagogues’ red glare and media bombs bursting in air.

Until I see a sign of hope, a powerful movement for good that I can add my weight to, I will quietly go about the business of living my life, doing what good I can for the people around me. I don’t need the noise of politics; I have plenty of problems demanding my attention. I have articles and books to write, gardens to tend and critters to look after. I will vote in November for someone, it hardly matters who, and whoever gets elected is the business of the rest of the nation. I wash my hands of it. Whatever fall-out drifts down to me I will deal with.

If my readers feel the need to respond with urgent exhortations about the importance of continuing to care, do so. I know your motives are sincere. Believe me, I have heard it all and even said it myself from time to time. You aren’t wrong. However, having thought long and hard about this, I have reached this conclusion: One must choose one’s battles, and I choose not to waste my energy on this one.


23 09 2016


It’s today. And it’s always today. Usually I’m so busy planning, coping, doing damage control, and just being busy, that realizing it’s today is like picking my head up out of the debris and blinking at the bright sunlight in confused wonder. I look back at the long, wild journey behind me, and at the long, wild journey yet to come. It’ll keep going, today after today, now after now, until I run out and they cast my ashes to the winds of Agiochook. And still I’ll be traveling, bits of me scattering in a million different directions to become a part of something else.

Those ashes are not really “me” of course. The whole idea of “me” is mysterious. There’s something here feeling, thinking, acting. Cogito ergo sum. But what is it? The “I” that experiences the world does so via this meat-mobile that I drive around. I rely on its senses, its ability to manipulate and cogitate. I could lose an arm or suffer brain damage. There would still be a “me” in here, experiencing the world, albeit not in the same way.

Folks pretty much seem to agree that when the person they’ve known vanishes, as with a radical change in mental state, inability to remember or function, they say that person is “gone”. One can wind up totally incapacitated, bedridden and deprived of one or more senses, but as long as one can still think and communicate, as long as the personality survives, one is still recognized. So at least to the outside world, who I am is a manifestation of the meat-mobile: mostly the brain, but the whole body can contribute to mood and personality. So when this organic vehicle I’m driving breaks down badly enough to destroy all manifestations of my personality, or ceases to run altogether, totally and irrevocably, then I’m gone. Dead. Deceased. Shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, joined the choir invisible and so forth.

We have all sorts of theories and fables about where one goes when one dies. Obviously the physical self is defunct, although many cultures place sacred reverence on the remains, even trying to preserve them as much as possible. Futility. We borrowed all the parts temporarily from the natural world, and when the lease is up, the natural world reclaims and recycles them. Eventually the lease will be up on the planet itself, and the whole shootin’ match will get recycled into drifting star stuff.

But many stubbornly cling to the notion that something else survives–a “soul” that get reincarnated, or goes to heaven–or less pleasant places. There’s no way to prove this isn’t so, and considering the amount of comfort it gives folks, I see no point in trying. Unfortunately, it does lead some believers to make terrible sacrifices in this life in hopes of rewards in the next. I think that’s a shame, but it’s their own business. Unless they use their religious convictions to terrorize others, especially children, with threats of Hell and the like. They can claim that I’ve got no right to interfere with their beliefs, but that sort of abuse is a violation of my beliefs, and I’ll speak out against it every chance I get.

It seems to me that anything you could possibly call a “soul” can’t possibly exist without a physical vehical to support it. This “me” that is aware, that thinks and feels, is utterly dependent on my organic parts. In fact, every day for several hours I become totally divorced from reality. I experience things that aren’t real (at least as I define reality) and have little control over what’s going on. There’s still a “me” having these dreams, and I suppose, when I’m not dreaming I am completely unconscious. I can’t say, since by definition, I’m not aware. My brain ceases to manifest a “me” that can be aware. Seems to me that when the body does its ultimate shut-down, no reboot possible, there can’t be a “me” anymore, either. It’s like asking where the picture went when the projector shuts off.

I’ve been asked how I can stand the idea of death being the absolute end. What’s to worry about? I won’t feel anything–no pain, no suffering–I won’t care or know. This has the effect of making each of these todays that I have at my disposal all the more precious. There’s a limited number of them. Got to make the best use I can of them.

And since only thing that will survive me are the effects I’ve had on the world, I do as much as I can to be a force for good. Every kindness, every accomplishment, has a ripple effect. The more positive stuff I can get rolling, the better. It’s easy for an atheist to live in a world without the reward of Heaven or the threat of Hell. One simply needs to embrace each day as an opportunity, and choose one’s actions based on wisdom and compassion.

Of course, if it should turn out that I’m mistaken and there is an afterlife, I’ll just have to trust that a life based on wisdom and compassion is sufficient to any God or dharma that judges me. If not, then they aren’t worth my worship anyway. I’ve lived a good life and no regrets.

So it’s today. It’s now. What is the best way to make use of it?

With Mt. Rainier watching over me

16 09 2016


Thursday, my friend Laura and I caught a Southwest flight out of Manchester heading for the west coast. Laura is about as experienced a traveler as one can be. I just followed her and did as I was told, and all went smoothly. Because she flies frequently, and has all her life, she has an astronomical number of points, so I traveled free. She also paid for the hotel room because, she figured, she would have had to anyway, and having company was a bonus. I felt like the family dog who was told she could go, too. I was the golden retriever with her head out the car window.

We were on our way to Seattle/Tacoma for a quick visit to Laura’s son Paul who is in his last year at the University of Puget Sound. The UPS campus is gorgeous, lovely buildings and gardens, and a magnificent number of trees. The Big Tree, as it is referred to, is a Sequoia, and yes it is big. I marveled at it, remembering books I’d read about the complex ecology supported by these giants. Solitary as it was, this Sequoia was a mere museum piece, a fraction of the whole it was meant to be a part of. Like an Indian isolated on a cramped reservation, doing traditional dances for the tourists.

No I did not visit the Space Needle. We had only two full days there and I had other priorities, like admiring the natural beauty the place had to offer. The man-made stuff not so much. Although I have to admit, the glass art that dominates (including amazing works by Dale Chihuly) blew my mind. There was so much art there. It was like Tacoma abhorred a vacuum—every blank wall had to be decorated, every available space had to be filled. I was enchanted. I do believe that in my next life, I want to be born in Tacoma. It has such a wonderful, diverse, joyful atmosphere. Not to mention green. After the awful brown, dry summer we’ve had, I breathed in the moist, clean air with delight.

Laura and I pose with a whale skeleton in the science building of UPS (no, not the parcel service). Photo by Paul Goudarzi-Fry

Laura and I pose with a whale skeleton in the science building of UPS (no, not the parcel service). Photo by Paul Goudarzi-Fry

One afternoon was taken up with exploring Point Defiance. We walked through the botanical gardens and admired the varieties of dahlias and roses. Yes, the roses were lovely, but I judge a rose with my nose, and these fancy modern prima donnas have no scent. Fully half of the sensual delight of a rose is cradling the blossom in one’s hand, feeling the softness of the petals, and lowering your face to it to take in the delicate, delicious scent. You might as well have a wine with a lovely color and no taste.

Neither Laura nor I are big on zoos, so we avoided that and instead walked along the shore. I had wanted to splash my face with water from the Pacific, but had to be content with the waters of the Sound. Close enough. After enjoying my baptism and collecting a few interesting pebbles for my rock garden at home, we explored some of the trails. The woods of the Pacific Northwest are so different from our own in New England. The trees have a different character. The weather is so much kinder and the plant life thrives accordingly. We wandered the maze of trails aided by a map—which confused us as much as enlightening us—and found our way out to the point. It was a sparkling, warm, clear day, so untypical of what one has been told to expect of this region. In fact, we had nary a cloud nor drop of rain our entire trip. We admired the the sun on the water and looked for harbor seals, but saw only gulls. We were disappointed until the raccoons showed up.

point-defiance-raccoonWe saw one, and then another. Laura was quickly snapping photos, expecting them to duck away into the foliage any second. But no, the coons had other plans. A whole family emerged and performed for us, bold as brass, looking up expectantly as if to say, “Hey, human, whatcha got for eats? Don’t pay any attention to that stupid sign about feeding wildlife. Look how cute we are! Don’t we deserve a tasty treat?” Alas, we had nothing to give them, and eventually they gave up and wandered back into the forest grumbling to themselves.

So much was packed into those two days. It was like a banquet, and I took it all in until my senses were full to bursting. We visited Pike Place Market and wandered through the crowds, surrounded by flowers, fresh fish, arts and crafts, jewelry and leather work, homemade soaps and creams with rich herbal and fruity scents, spicy jerky, dried cherries, soft fabrics and bright colors. I bought a lovely skirt imported from Nepal while Laura chatted with the Tibetan woman who ran the shop. We ate roasted corn on the cob and ice cream for lunch, wandering through the historic district with sticky sweet dripping onto our fingers.

Paul and me with a Mt. Rainier photobomb.

Paul and me with a Mt. Rainier photobomb.

We went out for breakfast and dinner, and I did my best to sample as many unfamiliar dishes as possible. Of course I did have to have salmon, and it was every bit as savory as I had hoped. We sampled exotic desserts and tried all the local wines. I got to meet Laura’s cousin, who also lives out there, and visited with Paul, whose company and antics I enjoy enormously. By the time we boarded the plane in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, I was nearly comatose from the combination of jet lag, short nights, and the wild kaleidoscope of experiences ricocheting through my head.

But I was fully awake to appreciate the glorious spectacle of Mt. Rainier rising above the fluffy clouds lit by the morning sun as we passed in out airplane. Rainier dominates the Seattle/Tacoma area. I kept looking up and seeing the snowy peak floating almost mythic in the distance. Before I had taken this trip, my hiking buddy Mary had sent me photos of Rainier, including the one at the top of this article. Most folks would think of museums and urban attractions (like the Space Needle) when going to Seattle. Mary thinks of mountains and trails and places to camp. Someday I want to go back when I have more time to explore those trails and campsites. And get closer to Rainier than just waving from a distance. I love my mountains, the ancient and venerable White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mt. Washington boasts the worst weather in the world, and Backpacker Magazine counts it in the top 10 most dangerous hikes in America. It is not to be sneered at. It is old and scarred, crafty and curmudgeonly. The mountains of the west are young, vigorous and still growing. They are high and haughty and full of themselves.

And I think I have fallen in love with that bold, youthful appeal. Thank you Laura for making it happen. (And for taking these wonderful photos!)

Live Free or Ride!

2 09 2016


At last, the long-awaited, next installment in New Hampshire Pulp’s campy and incredible anthologies has gone to the printers. Look for Live Free or Ride, coming soon to a bookstore near you!

Edited by Elaine Isaak, this rip-roaring, wild and woolly collection features stories by the awesome Dan Szczesny, the extraordinary William Ivers, the multi-talented Judi Ann Calhoun, the delightful Margery Harrison, the remarkable Jim Breyfogle, the astute Troy Ehlers, and more, including yours truly. Yee haw!