The Evolution of the American Concept of Life

  • Life begins at birth
  • No, life begins when a fetus is viable outside the womb
  • No, life begins at the detection of a fetal heartbeat
  • No, life begins at natural biological conception
  • No, life begins with in vitro fertilization
  • Since we know (many believe, anyway) that sex is only for reproduction, we must also consider these concepts:
  • No, life begins at contact between sperm and ovum (regardless of fertilization)
  • No, life begins at coital penetration (regardless of ejaculation)
  • No, life begins at genital contact (manual, oral, mechanical, or otherwise)
  • No, life begins with heavy petting.
  • No, life begins at arousal
  • No, life begins at feelings of attraction
  • No, life begins at the passing of notes across the aisle in fifth grade

Any argument can be taken to absurd extremes, and it appears that many of our nation’s courts are willing to do just that for political purposes, or perhaps to try to gain favor with their personal concept of a deity.

I Took An Oath Before God!

I’ve been listening to a radio broadcast about Mitt Romney on which Romney said his actions as a Senator were motivated by “an oath I took before God.” When I heard him say this I had to admire him for being true to his values. Unlike most Republicans today, I don’t think Romney is a hypocrite. But at the same time, his statement implies that he acts the way he does because in the end he believes his life and his actions will be judged by God. But our actions and our decisions have immediate consequences. Do religious people really base all their decisions on the promise of an eternal reward in paradise? Don’t honesty, justice, kindness, and charity exist independent of a supreme being? Don’t humans have enough common sense to know how to act in ways that serve the greater good here on Earth while we’re alive, without consideration of a payoff in the afterlife?

According to Exodus, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments to share with the Israelites after God had helped them escape from Pharaoh and the Egyptians (subsequent to God’s hardening Pharoah’s heart and sending plagues upon the Egyptians). But only Moses was permitted to meet with God, who promised death to any who set eyes on his face, or even ventured above the boundary he had set at the foot of Mt. Sinai. This is strange behavior for a loving and benevolent God, and forced Moses’ followers to trust him that the words he was sharing were actually the words of God. This isn’t so different from Evangelical preachers today who tell their congregations that God speaks directly to them, telling them what he wants the congregants to know, to believe, and to do. Perhaps Moses used his own judgment to devise the rules he wanted the Israelites to follow, but didn’t trust that they would be adhered to without the threat of divine punishment. Maybe Moses made up the whole story about God on the top of Mt. Sinai for this purpose. I know I am skeptical when I hear tele-evangelists relate the messages they have heard directly from God.

The Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai might be divided into three groups. Four of them – Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, and don’t wish for what belongs to others – are practical rules that allow people to live in a peaceful, orderly society. I’ll call these the “Ethical Laws.” Three of them – I’m you’re only God, don’t create idols to worship, and don’t use my name in vain (this one is open to interpretation and will be discussed later) – don’t seem to have much to do with a civil society, but rather seem to cater to an egotistical, anthropomorphic deity. I’ll call these the “Loyalty Laws.” The final three – Don’t commit adultery, honor your parents, and remember the sabbath – could be interpreted as having more to do with culture, customs, and ceremony. I’ll call these the “Customs Laws.” To the extent that the last three overlap with the concepts of honesty, justice, kindness, or charity, or facilitate a peaceful orderly society, I would argue that the first four already have these covered.

I don’t think we need the threat of God’s judgment to know that we all make the world a better place when we refrain from killing, stealing, lying, and acting in an envious manner. Religious and non-religious people alike value high ethical and moral standards, and the actions of people like Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Goetz, Jim Jordan, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, Josh Harder, Mike Johnson, and Tommy Tuberville demonstrate that proclaiming a religious devotion does not exempt one from dishonesty and hypocrisy. Please feel free to add your own hypocrites to this list.

Today’s evangelical Christians in positions of power seem to violate the “Ethical Laws” so frequently and publicly that I was wondering if, unlike Romney, they either never took an oath with God or else don’t take that oath seriously. But lately I’ve come to realize that for them the “Ethical Laws” don’t really matter as long as they adhere to the “Loyalty Laws.” If one declares religious faith loudly enough, publicly enough, and often enough, then honesty, justice, kindness, and charity don’t matter. God will be flattered, forgive ethical sins, and reward those who praise him with admission to Heaven.

My maternal grandfather was a fundamentalist Lutheran minister in rural Pennsylvania. He and my grandmother taught my sisters, my cousins and me that the spirit of Jesus was always present and knew our every thought and action. I was six years old in 1956 when my four-year-old sister died from influenza. I remember my grandmother trying to comfort me by saying that she was so special that Jesus had called her up to Heaven to be by his side. I resented this nonsensical rationalization of death, and wondered if my grandmother really believed it. I know my mother did not. My mother later left the Lutheran church and became a Unitarian, where the “Ethical Laws” were all important but the “Loyalty Laws” mattered not at all to the clergy and the congregation. My father remained active in the men’s Bible study group at the Lutheran church, and later had me go through Catechism class and confirmation, but my path toward agnosticism had been set many years earlier. I remember being reprimanded in Catechism class for my less-than-serious attitude. My father and I never joined a church again after we moved to California when I was fifteen.

One cannot think about today’s practicing Christians without wondering about the various forms of worship and celebration there might be, the ways in which people people find strength from their faith, and the things that inspire them to believe. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers three definitions of the word “faith”: 1 – allegiance to duty or a person; 2 – belief and trust in and loyalty to God; and 3 – firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Since atheists and agnostics don’t see any proof of the existence of God, they would see no difference between definition #2 and definition #3. So without empirical evidence of God, belief itself must provide strength and inspiration for the religious. When we see a sunrise we know that there is no golden orb tethered to the hand of God that he mystically lifts above the horizon, yet the faithful see the handiwork of God in every movement of nature. When some of us get news from the doctor that our potentially terminal disease has gone into remission, we are grateful to medical science, the efforts or our medical team, and our good luck. Others will declare that they have been blessed by God and praise his goodness and mercy. These people probably are not thinking of why their God has forsaken someone else who just saw the same doctor for the same condition and was told they only had a matter of weeks to live. Or they might simply say, “God works in mysterious ways.” Saying that God works in mysterious ways is the line that always emerges in the face of contradictory evidence for faith.

Faith in Christianity and the expression of that faith comes in many forms. People like our new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, is said to be a Creationist, which means he takes the account of God’s creating Heaven and Earth, day and night, etc. in six days and resting on the seventh, literally. Others consider the stories in the bible to be nice parables, and gain inspiration from the words of Jesus, without having to believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, or the promise of eternal life. Still others enjoy a lively, emotional celebration or simply enjoy the comfort of belonging to a congregation, hearing music on Sunday, singing in a choir, or listening to an intelligent, thoughtful, inspiring sermon. I assume that the majority of practicing Christians fall somewhere in between, not believing the literal creationist stories, but believing that there is salvation through believe in Jesus Christ and following his teachings. But honestly, I have no way of knowing this for sure, and I think it would be hard to honestly survey a representative sample of Americans to find out their true religious beliefs. I suspect that many individual’s beliefs are not fixed, either, but can change from day to day. Suffering and grief are powerful factors that keep people tied to a belief in Heaven. If one has lived an impoverished life or experienced chronic illness and pain, why not hope for a reward beyond Earth. And if one has suffered the loss of a loved one, the thought of being reunited with that person beyond the grave can be comforting. On the other hand, there are people who have died before us who have made our lives miserable on Earth. Will we have to suffer them when we encounter them again after we die? The thought of life everlasting itself can be frightening. I imagine a cartoon of a soul in Heaven sitting on a curb with his head in his hands and a choir of angels and a band of trumpeters behind him as he says, “Dear God, is there no end to this eternal basking in glory?”

If God does work in mysterious ways, who are we to assume that our good fortune, or bad fortune, have anything to do with those mysterious ways? My disbelieving self until recently was content to let the religious hang on to their faith unchallenged. When my non- belief was confronted by one of the faithful, my response was usually, “I’m glad you have your faith, but it just doesn’t work for me.” But lately I’m more likely to push back a little harder, depending on why someone might be wanting to interrogate me on religion. As an increasing number of politicians propose and even pass legislation that imposes Biblical law that has nothing to do with “Ethical Laws” on the American people, I believe it is time for people like me, who have politely kept their doubtful views to themselves, to speak up. If we were all more outspoken, I think we’d find that there are a lot more people than we assume who don’t buy into the Christian point of view (or any other fundamentalist view).

If closet non-religious people are more prevalent than the general public thinks, we should ponder why they remain closeted. People who run for office must believe that, unless they come from the most progressive of districts, they can’t get elected if they don’t have some kind of religious affiliation. Other religious skeptics fear that many Christians equate religiosity with morality, and fear that they will be viewed suspiciously, even thought to be immoral, if they deny religion. Others may hold on to the slightest superstition, thinking that even though the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection, and the promise of life everlasting don’t make much sense, just in case the threat of Hell is real they will not declare their doubts. Still others may say they don’t believe in any conventional religion, but they just can’t comprehend nothingness. Of course agnosticism and atheism are not synonymous with nothingness. Religious skeptics are open to the infinite mysteries of the universe. The more science learns about the origins of the universe, the solar system, our planet, and life on our planet, the more we realize how much greater the mystery really is. If there were a deity responsible for creating all this, it would be an insult to conceive of him as the anthropomorphic being described in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Etc. In some ways, I like the approach Iris DeMent has taking in her song, “Let The Mystery Be,” of which there are many recorded versions. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should suspend our scientific inquiries, but we need to refrain from imposing simplistic, superstitious, disproven explanations on the American people.

I said I would discuss more about God imploring Moses to forbid the Israelites from taking his name in vain. Exodus 20:7 says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in Vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” I was raised to believe that this meant using the word “God” in a curse, such as saying “God Damn It,” a frequent utterance from my father. Now I believe that to be a trivial interpretation of that commandment, and I think that most conservative Christian politicians and Christian nationalists violate this commandment all the time. My interpretation is that to use God’s name in vain is to say you are speaking or acting on behalf of God when in fact you are acting in pure self interest, or using God’s name to deceive, manipulate, mislead, scare, or anger people. When these people tout their own righteousness, assert the godlessness of their opponents, tell you what God wants for our country, or that their actions are motivated by a deep faith, they are using God’s name in vain. They do not exist any closer to God, or have any greater insight into God’s will than you or I do when we ask ourselves how an honest, just, kind, and generous person should act. And since their behavior leads me to believe that honesty, justice, kindness, and generosity are not values they honor, I believe their every actions are acts of vanity. And yes, I am talking about the likes of Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Goetz, Jim Jordan, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Cruz, Paul Gosar, Josh Harder, Mike Johnson, and Tommy Tuberville. It would be easy to add another fifty or sixty names to this list.

“Don’t Tread On Me” has become the pet slogan of the 2nd Amendment zealots. In my neck of the woods I see lots of pickup trucks with this phrase printed on a yellow decal with a coiled rattlesnake. This is often next to another sticker that says something like, “When you come for mine, you better have yours.” The right wing has done a good job of convincing its followers inaccurately that sensible gun laws would mean all guns would be outlawed. But is America now facing a real, and quite different threat from the Christian Nationalist movement? Women are losing the right to control their own reproductive organs. Books in our libraries and schools are being banned. Scientific subjects that contradict biblical accounts of creation are being called into question. Funding for secular public schools is being cut. Laws are being proposed that would make it a crime for two consenting adults to engage in a loving relationship. These changes are based on a misunderstanding and misreading of a single book compiled from many writings over a long, long time to which divine origins are wrongly attributed. As a non-religious person with progressive political views, I feel as though a new wave of conservative politicians are treading on me, and sadly, people like me are too naive, trusting, and polite to recognize it, admit it, and speak out against it. We are not doing enough to ensure that in a democratic way, it goes no further than it already has.

The “God” that these Christian Nationalists claim to bow to, and the one of which I am declaring my skepticism, is the one that has many contradictory profiles in the Bible. But even the most confirmed atheist must concede that we are governed by higher powers. If we think of these powers as godlike, then, speaking for myself, I took an oath before a concept of god on the day I was born. In accepting life I accepted the gravity that keeps me tethered to my planet. I accepted the oxygen that fuels my muscles and my brain. I accepted the cycles of seasons and days, of rain and sunshine, of bounty and famine. I accepted the need for water and nutrition, and I accepted the temperature limits outside of which I could not survive. I did not have to acknowledge these things, for by simply living I was making good on this oath. There is no promise that our Earth will sustain life forever. We know it won’t. But human behavior is increasing the odds that the Earth will be less able to sustain life in a matter of generations, rather than in a matter of ages, epochs, or periods of time.

I hope that people who share a concern for our planet’s ability to sustain life recognize the unspoken oath we have taken, and the responsibility that places on us. We have to oppose laws and values that don’t recognize, and in fact even deny this responsibility. We must support each other in standing for the values of honesty, justice, kindness, and charity, and oppose those who want to govern us based on an archaic vision of God. If fundamentalists want to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, let them do so. But they do not have the right to transform our country into one that conforms to their views, or oppressively subjects America’s citizens to their views.

Giving Up Driving for Three Months

Walking Through the Neighborhood in Mid October

Today in Denver on October 17th at 3:00 pm the temperature is 82 degrees. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, and I just finished a two-mile round trip walk to the grocery store. I haven’t been driving since September 9th due to a medical condition. This has given me the chance to do a lot of walking around my neighborhood, making observations as I wander and wonder, and reflecting on those observations. First, I’ll offer some background on my medical condition.

I wonder, when I tell people that I can’t drive for three months due to a medical condition, if they don’t suspect that I have actually had my license suspended for driving under the influence. This is not the case. You might have seen a report in the news of Mitch McConnell having a brief spell of perhaps thirty seconds when he was addressing the senate and became unresponsive. When I saw this I speculated that he was having an absence seizure, or what my doctors later called a complex partial seizure. I see these also referred to as focal impaired awareness seizures or focal onset impaired awareness seizures. Neurologists are less poetic than we are. We call this behavior spacing out. My first episode happened in March of 2017, when I was playing music with a friend. We had agreed that we were going to cover a handful of songs, including Greg Allman’s “Melissa.” When I told her I thought we should do that song next, she told me that we just finished it, and that for twenty or thirty seconds after we finished she could not get me to respond to her. When she told me this, I thought maybe I remembered doing the song, but I wasn’t sure. It was concerning enough that I called my doctor who said if it happened again I would undergo a neurological evaluation. Sure enough, in September, while out to breakfast with a friend, she told me that I experienced another similar episode. After a battery of tests including CT scans and MRIs which found nothing, I was prescribed anti-epileptic medication that successfully kept me seizure-free for six years. When I started that regimen I was told to avoid driving and other potentially dangerous situations for three months to ensure that the medication was effective.

In the late spring of 2023 after asking my neurologist about some side effect to the medication, he decided to reduce my dosage. I was already on a low dose of Zonisamide (150 mg per day) which was lowered gradually to 100 mg per day. I have read that a more typical dose is 300 to 400 mg per day. Regardless, on September 9th I was at a music party where some of us were performing live sets of music. I apparently had another event, my only one in over six years, after doing my second of four planned songs. I didn’t know this had happened until my female friend said she had to reorient me after the second song to “restart” me on my third song. When I told my neurologist about this he put me back on the higher dose and told me not to drive for three months to make sure the higher dose was sufficient to keep me seizure free.

On Saturday, October 21st it will have been (was) six weeks since I returned to the higher dose, and so far, so good. I had some strange side effects for the first two or three weeks after going back to the higher dose, but now I don’t really notice anything. I might try to describe those in a separate post, since they do make me wonder about the workings of the human mind. But I really want to write about what life’s been like without driving.

My woman friend, Ruth, and I had been planning for a year, since we made the trip last September, to go to the Walnut Valley Music Festival in Winfield, Kansas starting on September 13th. I decided to cancel this trip after talking to Ruth. Neither of us thought it a good idea to have her do all the driving, or to have me be away from home while adjusting to a change in medication. This was a big disappointment since there were several performers we looked forward to seeing, and we had hoped to meet up with good friends from New Mexico. I took advantage of staying in town during that time to take the bus to a local Kaiser medical office to get a flu shot. I checked out the route and saw that it was a short bus ride on one line going south and then another short ride on a different line going west. I assumed that any westbound bus that came along Alameda would be one that would pass the medical office, so I took the first one. It diverted south a few blocks after I got on and kept going, taking me several miles out of my way. By the time I got off I was facing a long walk to get back to a point where I could catch a different line that would get me close to my destination. Upon closer inspection, I saw that Google Maps shows the bus line numbers that take you where you want to go. I had not made note of these numbers, but did so on my return home. All in all, I kind of enjoyed the adventure of taking the bus, and had to laugh at myself for not planning better. This experience did make me realize how much less independence people have who must rely on public transportation. In Denver, which probably has better service than many cities, routes are limited, buses and trains don’t always run on schedule, and there can be long waits for vehicles to show up. Those of us with automobiles are spoiled by the luxury of being able to come and go as we please.

Although the doctor did not mention cycling, common sense says that if one should not drive due to the risk of a seizure, one should also refrain from riding a bike in traffic. But, as I sat on my indoor trainer for the fourth or fifth time in less than two weeks, I began to rationalize that a driver who has a seizure is a danger to others as well as himself, whereas a cyclist who has a seizure is likely only a danger to himself. I concluded that I could pick routes to ride along bike trails and on back streets that were not heavily travelled and resume riding outside. This has helped my mental health, since I now allow myself to resume my outdoor rides.

Taking a Break in the Mountains

Ruth is like I am in that she loves the mountains, the outdoors in general, and simply getting out and walking. She picked me up one day and drove us to Staunton Ranch State Park southwest on Denver for a six or seven mile hike amidst the changing aspen leaves. We’ve also taken some long, directionless walks through my very interesting neighborhood. I won’t write any more about our hike, but below this picture is a link to some other photos I took.

An early October view looking southwest from Staunton Ranch State Park.

My Changing Neighborhood

My neighborhood is in northwest Denver, near the intersection of 23rd Avenue and Federal Boulevard. My sense is that it is a part of the city that has always been changing, but I’ve seen a lot of transition in the more than twelve years I’ve lived here. The area is often referred to as the Highlands, with smaller sections some call Lo Hi (Lower Highlands) and Slo Hi (Sloan’s Lake Highlands). Adjacent neighborhoods include Berkeley and Jefferson Park. A few blocks have been designated the Witter-Cofield Historical District. City of Denver documentation describes the area thusly:

The Witter-Cofield neighborhood, once in the town of Highlands, is a streetcar suburb with an eclectic mixture of homes built predominantly from 1880 through the early 1940s. To a greater extent than other residential areas of its time, Witter-Cofield housed a mixture of Denver’s wealthy, upper middle and working class citizens. It’s not uncommon to see a large, ornate Queen Anne style residence adjacent to a cluster of simple Victorian, pyramidal cottages and early 20th century row homes. Queen Anne is the predominant style of architectural; however, scattered examples of Denver Square and bungalow homes are found, often with Classical or Craftsman detailing. Dutch colonial style and other early 20th century revival styles are also found in the district.

The above description applies accurately to the area bounded by 25th Avenue to the north, 21st Avenue to the South, Irving Avenue to the west, and Federal Blvd. to the east. This district falls under regulations intended to preserve the period character of the structures as much as possible. The further one strays from these boundaries, especially to the south and to the west, the less one sees Queen Anne and Victorian architecture, and the more one sees new duplexes and multiplexes having been built on lots where Denver Squares and bungalows have been cleared from expensive real estate.

Below are two examples of Queen Anne- / Victorian-style homes in the blocks near where I live.

This is one of dozens of Queen Anne-style homes in the Witter-Cofield Historical District of northwest Denver. It is better preserved on the exterior than many.
Another well-preserved Queen-Anne style home in northwest Denver.

Many of the Queen Anne and Victorian homes are well preserved and maintained, while others are in need of repair, and still others are no longer structurally sound. I’m not sure what mandates are placed on property owners whose structures are unstable. In my walks around the neighborhood I see some abandoned homes that appear to be near collapse, and others in various stages of restoration. Outside of the designated historical district, I don’t think there are any regulations preventing the sale and demolition of older Denver Square, bungalow, cottage, and row homes, but between 21st and 25th Avenues I haven’t noticed the demolition of any Queen Anne- or Victorian-style homes. It would be a tragedy to see any of them brought down, but at the same time I can only imagine the expense required to maintain them at modern standards of comfort, safety, and efficiency.

I’m not sure how the architectural style of this house would be classified, but it is typical of the older, but not quite so ornate homes in the Witter-Cofield District.
Amidst the Queen Anne and Victorian homes are Denver Squares, bungalows, and row homes such as these.
Further south and west of Witter-Cofield, it’s common to see older bungalows in the shadow of new construction sites, where duplexes and multiplexes are going up.
Modest homes like this one have traditionally been either owned and maintained by residents, or rented out. One by one they are being sold either as the owners/residents age and move out, or as the landlords evict the tenants and sell the property for exorbitant profits. In both cases, the structures are destined for demolition.
Increasingly the blocks between Federal Blvd. and Sloan’s Lake that aren’t within the Historical District are being converted to homes that look like this.

In early 2011, when I first moved into this part of town, the area east of Irving and south of 20th avenue bordered by Colfax Ave. on the south and Federal Blvd. on the east was almost all bungalows and row houses. My assumption is that they were owned by people who did not live in the neighborhood, but they were affordable to working class renters. In 2011 there was still a housing slump, but that rapidly changed, and within a few years property values doubled and even tripled in the area. Since I’ve lived here I’ve watched the bungalows and row houses get scraped from their lots as the properties are sold to developers for the price on the land. In place of the former affordable rental properties multiplexes have sprung up. Some call these structures slot apartments because of the way they’re places over alleyways with carports or single garages on the ground floor and six or more two- or three-story units lined up in a long, narrow row. North of 20th avenue, based on what I observe, the zoning allows for single homes and duplexes, but virtually all the new construction consists of duplexes like the structure pictured above. South of 20th avenue almost all the new construction consists of multiplexes of six or more units in a single structure.

These two homes represent what the area between 20th, Colfax, Federal, and Lowell used to look like. They are becoming increasingly rare as the properties are being sold and the structures are being demolished.
This duplex is another example of an older structure (perhaps build before World War II?) that is probably destined to be demolished. It is attractive, well maintained, and once provided modest, comfortable, affordable shelter for hard-working individuals. Now, annual property taxes might be higher than the original mortgage payments.
As the neighborhood transitions there are many scenes like this, were an old structure, usually a bungalow, old duplex or row house, sits in the shadow of a new, looming multiplex.

After seeing all the changes taking place in my neighborhood I wrote a song about them, which I was lucky enough to perform, along with Ruth Price, at the Walnut Valley Music Festival several years ago.

My East Bay Subdivision

The subdivision I live in doesn’t conform to any of the characteristics I’ve described so far. It’s called East Bay, and was developed in 1995 on the property that once housed the Jewish National Home for Asthmatic Children at Denver. This center was later renamed simply the National Asthma Center, and was a national residential treatment facility for children with intractable asthma, as well as a research facility. The campus where East Bay now sits was sold in 1981, so I’m not sure of the history of the the property between then and 1995 when the houses were completed.

The development consists of five or six blocks of probably 75 to 100 individual homes, all built in a similar style. Each home has a pitched roof, front porch, rear garage with alley access, basement, and a main and second second floor. All the homes have wood siding and might remind some of New England architecture. Casual observation from the outside would lead one to believe that there are four or five basic floor plan variations, with at least three plans somewhat derivative (at least with regard to the interior) of the Denver Square, but lacking the little window peeking out from the center of a pyramid-shaped roof, as well as other external characteristics.

When my wife and I moved to Denver we rented an apartment in the southeast part of town while we looked for a home. In 2010 there was a housing slump which meant we listed our home in Albuquerque for less than we had paid for it about six year previously. We didn’t want to buy a house in Denver for more than we were going get for the Albuquerque house, and even though Denver was also in a slump, we were prepared to downsize. One day we rode our bicycles from our apartment to Confluence Park along the Cherry Creek Trail, and as we were wondering where to go next someone suggested taking the short incline up 23rd avenue and heading west to Sloan’s Lake. We had no idea that there was a lake there, but the ride took us just two blocks north of the upper edge of East Bay, and we decided we wanted to explore home options in this part of town. It didn’t take us long, though, to decide that we didn’t want to pay that much for a home, even though we looked at one that we really liked in East Bay.

We spent another few weeks looking at homes in the suburbs and were ready to close on a house in a newer development in the northeast part of town, but discovered some plumbing issues on our final walkthrough. We told ourselves we didn’t want that house anyway, and immediately made an offer on a house we’d been looking at in East Bay. That’s where I’m living now by myself as a widower of more than eight years.

From my house it’s a five minute walk to the east side of Sloan’s Lake – a great destination at the end of a day. I’m also only ten to fifteen miles from the foothills and can easily reach the roads behind Golden or Morrison for beautiful, challenging climbs on the bicycle. Although I’ve greatly reduced my alcohol consumption since my latest epilepsy event, there are at least six small brew pubs within walking distance of my house, and another half dozen within a fifteen-minute drive. I also have a great selection of restaurants, pastry shops, and cafes nearby.

Sloan’s Lake looking west at sunset.

Some photos captured while walking around Sloan’s Lake.

Some photos captured while out cycling.

The Other Side of Life in Northwest Denver

Since I’ve been walking or taking the bus to my destinations the past weeks I’ve encountered people I wouldn’t have otherwise run into. On one of my first pedestrian journeys to the grocery store I met a young man of not more than 25 years of age who approached me in the aisle and asked me in Spanish if I could help him with the purchase of food. He apparently didn’t speak any English and was taking a chance that I either understood enough Spanish to know what he wanted or could just deduce his needs. With my meager Spanish I told him I didn’t have any extra cash but I would get some when I checked out. I found him waiting outside as I exited the store with a backpack filled with the goods I had purchased for myself. We stood together at the edge of the parking lot, where we had a short conversation.

He told me that he and his family had recently fled Venezuela due to economic and political conditions there. After crossing the border in Texas they were bussed to Denver, where they were led to believe they would be able to find work. In the meantime, his daughter had become sick and was in the hospital, where his wife was waiting for him. He wondered if I could give him a ride, but I was on foot, and under a driving restriction, so I could not help him. He let me know that he had a work permit and was not in danger of being deported.

A few days later Ruth had intended to drive us to the mountains for a hike, but we changed our minds and instead decided to see how much of the neighborhood around Sloan’s Lake and the Lower Highlands we could cover on foot. Somewhere near 25th and Perry we were approached by a young adult man who spoke only Spanish, asking us if we had any work for him. He explained that he, too, was from Venezuela and had been bussed from Texas. He hoped to make money any honest way he could, by painting, landscaping, cleaning, doing small construction work, or any kind of labor anyone would hire him to do. He did not ask for money. We apologized and said we could not help.

A day later as I was walking to the bus stop on the way to get a flu shot a young woman asked me in Spanish if I needed a housekeeper, or knew anyone who could use her services. Like the others I had recently met, she was a Venezuelan, bussed up to Denver from the Texas border. I was heartbroken to think about the vulnerability of this young woman, the conditions she must have been living with in her homeland that led her and the others to flee, and the anxiety they must be feeling about their futures. I wondered if they had encountered much hostility and contempt since they’d arrived in Denver, and I wondered what our city was doing to make things as comfortable as possible for them, realizing that Denver has it’s own substantial population of unsheltered people that it fails to help.

I wondered if the recent arrivals from Venezuela were viewed suspiciously by law enforcement? They were non-white, did not speak enough English to account for themselves to people who didn’t understand Spanish, were out on the streets in neighborhoods where residents did not recognize them, were clearly poor, and were forced to confront strangers to ask for help. It seemed a ripe circumstance for a tragic misunderstanding. I thought about the extreme contrasts in wealth and living conditions which perhaps exist in the country today to an extent that has never been greater in my lifetime. Within a two mile radius of my home there are beautiful, multi-million-dollar homes a stone’s throw from Sloan’s Lake, while just west of Sheridan Boulevard and south of 17th avenue lies the most run-down, crumbling mobile home park I have ever seen. I suspect it is one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the Denver metro area, if not in the entire state. Although it has not been subject to any recent natural disasters, it looks like photographs one sees of communities that have been devastated by hurricanes or tornadoes. Yet these derelict trailers are the permanent homes to many families.

According to the 2021 U.S. census, the median household income was $75,000, with only 15.5% of Americans earning between $100,000 and $149,000. At the same time, 11.6% of Americans lived below the poverty line, considered to be $28,000 for a family of four and $14,000 for an individual. Elon Musk’s estimated wealth is $225.2 billion, Jeff Bezos’ is $148 billion, and Bill Gates’ is 108.5 billion. Given these numbers, three million average American households could live for a year if Musk’s worth were divided among them. Nearly six and one half million average American households could live for a year if the wealth of the these three richest American men were divided among them. I cannot comprehend wealth in the billions, nor do I want to imagine what day-to-day life is like for someone who is chronically unsheltered. Unsheltered, by the way, seems to be how many are now referring to individuals who are homeless. It seems that any neutral, useful, descriptive term, when used long enough, becomes associated with stigma, and ends up falling out of favor.

The View From the Bus

Denver has a fairly extensive network of bus routes and is constantly expanding its light rail system, but I’ve learned over the past month how inconvenient it would be to always rely on the bus to get where I need to go. I assumed that they ran more frequently headed north on Federal blvd than they do, so I simply left the house at my own convenience to head to a medical appointment not long ago. It was a hot day, and I ended up waiting for nearly half an hour to be picked up. I was naive in not checking the schedule before making the ten minute walk to the stop. I was able to make the transfer to the correct bus this time, but missed the stop where I needed to get off. When I realized the clinic was not visible from the street where the bus ran, I was several blocks past my destination, so I ended up walking along a street that was not pedestrian friendly. By the time I reached the clinic I had been ninety minutes in transit – a trip that would have been twenty minutes if I had been driving myself. After my appointment I took Lyft home so that I would get there before dark. This was a luxury not available to most who depend on public transportation.

I can only speak for myself, but I assume that what I say is true for others like me as well. I have a middle class income and live in a middle class community, and unless something unusual happens, such as being forced to use public transportation, I am not regularly exposed to the world of those of lesser economic privilege. This allows me to live under the impression that poverty is not widespread, and where it exists there are services and programs to ensure that the needs of the poor are met. While I was never naive enough to really believe this was true, just a few days of taking the bus to get around makes it apparent how widespread poverty is in my community, and how much suffering it causes.

As I waited for a connecting bus on my way to my appointment a man approached me and told me that he hadn’t eaten in three days. Of course he asked if I could spare any money to help him out. Even if he was exaggerating his state of hunger, it was clear he was not doing well, and had to humble himself to ask for help. A day or two earlier an elderly, toothless man stumbled off the bus and began complaining to me about “those damn kids” who didn’t know anything but would find out some day. He reeked of urine and other foul-smelling bodily odors, and most of what he said to me was incoherent, but I assumed that he was the subject of harassment from youngsters on the bus due to his lack of hygiene. Surely if he had the means to keep himself clean he would have used them. Who knows where he slept or how he found meals. These were extreme cases of people who were down and out but nearly all the passengers I rode the bus with were non-white and seemed to be of meager economic means. Most of the words I heard spoken were not English.

For someone who needs to be punctual, either to show up for work on time or keep an appointment, buses present a challenge. I started thinking about someone seeking employment and having to take the bus to get to various locations at specific times. One can only be as reliable as the bus schedules are, and twenty or thirty minutes from one bus to the next can make it hard to be on time for anything. Would anyone be hired if they showed up late for an interview and blamed it on the bus?

Most of the time when I got on a bus it was full, and I had to stand for the first few stops. The further the bus traveled from the center of town, the less crowded it became. By the time I reached the medical clinic in Wheat Ridge I was only one of two passengers. The other passenger was asking the driver if there was any way he could get to the casino in Black Hawk. I had seen a side of my city that I would not have seen if I hadn’t had to depend on public transportation to take care of my flu and Covid vaccines. I was reminded of a song “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell. The setting and the details are different but the sentiment is the same: a side of the city and the lives of individuals that are overlooked or ignored by many of us, but the people are just as much a part of our community as our next door neighbors and the young couples we smile at as they play with their children in the local park.

That Might Have To Wait

Ruth and I talked about going to the Desert Nights Acoustic Music Camp’s Southwest Mandolin Camp several months ago. When I found out I couldn’t drive Ruth said she would be willing to do all the driving from Denver to Kingston, NM, where the camp was to take place. So we headed south on October 24th for the six hundred mile one-way trip, with an overnight stop in Cedar Crest, NM to stay with my friends Janet and Joseph. Ruth did all the driving without complaining, and I had the luxury of enjoying the New Mexico fall colors without having to pay attention to the road. I can be an uneasy passenger when someone else is driving but Ruth is a steady, competent driver and I was completely relaxed the entire way.

I’ve played guitar for many years but have only picked up the mandolin occasionally and don’t know the instrument well and don’t play it well. I thought this camp would help me decide if I wanted to devote time to becoming an accomplished mandolin player. It was humbling and inspiring to be one of the least skilled players at camp, but I felt as though it would not be too difficult to apply what I know about the guitar to the mandolin with a little dedication. Besides being one of least skilled players, I found that my mandolin was a cheaper make than those that most of the other campers had. It had a flaw in the neck near the body that caused notes played above the seventh fret to buzz, and be completed muted above the ninth fret. This would require more than just a truss rod adjustment to fix, so I started to think about a trip to The Pickin’ Parlor in Olde Town Arvada or the Folklore Center in Denver to both discuss repairs and sample some more expensive mandolins.

Thinking about repairing my mandolin started me thinking about many things that would have to be put on hold until I could drive again. I could not just hop in the car and take myself up to Arvada. I wanted to replace the filter in my furnace, but a trip to the hardware store would have to wait. There were open mics taking place are various spots around town I could not drive myself to on the spur of the moment, or drive to a restaurant if I was restless come dinner time. When we left for Kingston, Denver was still enjoying summer-like weather, but we returned to snow and freezing temperatures. A week ago walking to the grocery store or taking care of other errands on foot was fun, and being out in the elements for several hours at a time was pleasant. Now, when it’s windy, overcast, and twenty-five degrees, some things will just not get done if they require a long walk. Swallow Hill, a music school and performance space to which I belong, is having a members-only gathering on November 10th. I will probably have to miss it this year.

Up until now I’ve enjoyed the challenge and change in routine that the driving restriction has presented. I’ve appreciated the generosity and friendship of Ruth, Carl, JoAnna, Glenn, Jenny, and others in keeping me company and helping me get around. But with less routine tasks now presenting themselves I will have to be patient and a little more creative these last five weeks until I can drive again. Until then I will have more experiences to write about, the mandolin to master, new virtual cycling routes in Zwift to explore, and generally good health to be grateful for.

Thoughts on Popular American Music

In 1963, just after my parents were divorced and I lived alone with my father, he regularly drove me to school in the morning and picked me up in the afternoon. The British invasion was in full swing, and besides the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits and so forth on the radio, Motown music was also popular, with groups like the Chiffons, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Miracles. Even though Dad complained about the popular music of the time, he let me control the car radio, and I kept it tuned to WSBA that served Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster, PA. It was an exciting time for music. Now, several events and conversations over the past few days have caused me to reflect on my early musical influences and my father’s reaction to them, and put them into the larger context of changing tastes in popular music within and across generations and subcultures.

It started when my friend Ruth and I were listening to one of our favorite podcasters commenting on how right-wing politicians have “appropriated” the term “woke” for their own purposes. The podcaster (David Pakman) was explaining how “woke” was a term popular during the civil rights movement to denote an awareness of social injustice, racism, and the need to work to overcome them. People on the left still use the term in a similar way, while politicians on the right seem to use it in a derogatory sense to imply that liberals who are “woke” are trying to corrupt America with vaguely defined progressive trends that are in opposition to fundamental Christian values. Ruth said she had heard that one of the first documented uses of the word was from the folksinger Lead Belly, as a spoken comment after he performed the song, “Scottsboro Boys.” In that instance he was warning young Black youth to be constantly alert to the threat posed to them by racists. This led to a discussion about cultural appropriation, and the irony of Lead Belly’s influence on folk music, along with his having been an early user of the word “woke.”

I believe cultures advance through the blending and sharing of art, science, technology, and other innovations. The influence that African Americans have had on popular American music is undeniable. Bela Fleck documented that the banjo came from Africa. We know that many woodwind and percussion instruments came with slaves from Africa as well. African Americans also brought many rhythmic and harmonic innovations to traditional European instruments and vocal stylings. Would we have blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll as we know it without the influence of African Americans? But I think it is important to distinguish between being inspired by, influenced by, borrowing from, and building on art from another culture on the one hand, and appropriating it on the other. The former happens when there is respect and sharing between and among cultures. The second happens when the contributions of one culture are denied or repressed by another, and when the art, science, technology, and/or other innovations are exploited for profit. I know that Lead Belly had tremendous influence on the American folk music scene. I don’t know how much recognition he got during his career, but I suspect he was highly respected by those he influenced, although I’m sure racism limited his opportunities to perform and earn a living doing so.

Elvis Presley is often accused of taking influences from the Black musicians in and around Memphis without given them credit. He clearly capitalized on their creativity, but did he give them their due? Did he recognize that he would not have been who he was without them? I do think that Elvis inadvertently made mainstream America aware of the amazing Black musicians that until then were making great music, but were out of the view of the music-consuming public. Similarly, there were so many great blues musicians who were not recognized by the general music-consuming American public, but who greatly influenced the music of British musicians like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Jimmy Page, and others. The list includes B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, and many others. These blues musicians had careers that took off after British guitarists made young White Americans aware of the brilliant Black musicians who had been playing music in their own country for decades. My sense is that the British blues musicians always recognized, honored, and gave credit to their American inspirations.

I’m grateful that in my late teens I was able to hear the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and others who broke through racial barriers to have their songs reach White listeners, albeit not until after they had been playing for many years while being forced to earn livings outside of music. I hope my friends and I who tried to imitate their brilliance would not be thought of as appropriators. I didn’t set out to write a piece on cultural appropriation, but it seems important to consider it when talking about popular music in America.

This past Sunday morning, CBS presented a piece on the Everly Brothers in which it was mentioned that when they first emerged, the popular thinking was that Rock ‘n’ Roll was a passing fad. Maybe the Everly Brothers had something to do with its endurance, smoothing the edges of Elvis’ rebelliousness, appealing to a country audience, and adding tight, accessible harmonies that Americans could relate to. Later that Sunday afternoon three friends and I got together in my living room with guitars (and one mandolin) to share songs, including at least one Everly Brothers song, as well as songs from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and beyond. When we get together our eclectic tastes are apparent. We enjoy listening to and playing traditional Irish music, American folk music, music of the sixties and seventies we came of age to, country music, and anything else that we become aware of that we are challenged to learn to play. When our gathering was finished three of us went down to a local brew pub to listen to a bluegrass jam.

Bluegrass is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today, similar to what happened when my generation was introduced to it in the early 1970s. Bill Monroe gets credit for developing the style in the 1930s and 1940s, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, by evolving it out of more traditional southern acoustic music. In his early career Monroe was influenced by his association with Arnold Shultz, a fiddler, guitarist, and son of a slave who developed what is today known as the “Travis picking” style of guitar playing. Bluegrass has always appealed to a largely White audience, although its roots drew from music that was not the exclusive domain of White performers.

The crowd at the brew pub was almost exclusively White that afternoon, as had been the crowd at the Midwinter Bluegrass Festival in suburban Denver a few weeks earlier. I had remarked at that festival how the crowd was mostly older and not very ethnically diverse. Traditional bluegrass musicians might be assumed to be conservative, but those recording and performing currently write songs with progressive political themes and appeal to a more liberal, urban audience. Still, my sense is that their fans are mostly White. How ironic that Bill Monroe cites the son of a slave as an influence on his playing. Regardless, bluegrass is energetic, personal, acoustic, participatory, and often available live. Today, if there is discrimination associated with it, I suspect that people of color hold it in distain for its old association with the racist south, even though today’s fans and practitioners are nothing like that with regard to their politics or their attitudes.

After playing our own music for over two hours and then listening to another hour of live music, Ruth and I were energized and hungry. We walked several blocks through dropping temperatures and increasing winds until we found a restaurant that had opened a few years ago in a redeveloped area on the southern edge of Sloan’s Lake where St. Anthony’s Hospital had previously stood. Ten years ago the hospital had been surrounded by old bungalows, duplexes and single-story apartments built in the thirties and forties. When the hospital was razed the residences were cleared as well, and replaced with condominiums in structures ranging from six to twelve stories high. The condos were sold to or rented, apparently, to young singles, who also were the primary patrons of the restaurant in which we found ourselves. Young women sat together at the bar talking excitedly to each other. Couples at the bar leaned into each other intimately. Other young couples sat at tables or in booths talking as if on a first date, trying to get to know each other better. The menu featured craft beers from local breweries, creatively named cocktails, and a trendy mix of Mexican, Asian, and burger offerings.

As Ruth and I sat down and tried to converse I found myself asking her to repeat almost everything she said. Speakers embedded above us, behind us, and apparently all around us broadcast a constant thumping bass that might have been part of a larger musical arrangement, but if there were any vocals, guitars, keyboards, horns, or strings, they were inaudible due to the imbalance of the mix. The longer we sat there the more irritated I became, and the more I wondered who was responsible for the environment created within the restaurant, and who would choose to be in that environment if given a choice.

There was a time not too long ago when hotels, restaurants, and stores all played soothing mood music constantly in the background. Some criticized this as subtle form of brainwashing, dulling the senses and numbing the public to the world around them. Was what Ruth and I were hearing something similar, but rather than attempting to numb us, trying to keep us in a state of excited agitation? I don’t know, but I thought about what I would play if it were up to me. With an almost infinite selection of streaming music to choose from, why select a booming bass at a volume that drowns out conversation? Why not put on a playlist of chamber music, or swing jazz, or fifties doo-wop, or disco, or blues? I also wondered how many patrons of the restaurant were paying attention or even cared. Were my old ears really the problem? This was not the first restaurant we’d been in recently where the music was so loud that it discouraged conversation and the bass overshadowed all the other tracks. Had research been done that determined that young patrons preferred this? Did new restaurant owners say to themselves, “I want to open an establishment that pipes in constant, loud, booming bass sounds”? And who is producing this music?

The next morning I turned on the radio and heard an interview with Ricardo Valdez Valentine, Jr., who records and performs under the name 6LACK. The interview made him sound like an interesting singer/songwriter. I had never heard of him, so I thought I’d look up his music. I expected it to be sensitive and personal, based on what he revealed about himself in the interview. An internet search revealed that he is signed to the record label Love Renaissance, whose creations are distributed by Interscope Records, which falls under the umbrella of Interscope Geffen A&M. When I heard 6LACK’s music I was disappointed. There was nothing about it that allowed me to connect personally with the songwriter or the singer. While I’m sure the musicians on the recordings were outstanding and the singing was amazing, what stood out was the engineering. The music was highly digitized. 6LACK’s voice had so many electronic effects applied to it that he sounded robotic. The instrumental tracks were all synthesized with pulsating volumes and rhythms. I don’t want to take anything away from the production and the engineering of the recording. It was amazing, but it hid who Ricardo was, in my opinion, and what he had to communicate. I wondered how much control he had over the production. I listened to some other artists signed to Love Renaissance and the few that I sampled had production values similar to 6BLACK’s. The same holds true for their live performances. Most rely on pre-recorded tracks, sound effects, elaborate light shows, moving stages, and exotic costumes.

I’m not the target demographic of the artists signed to Love Renaissance. They are an extremely successful company founded by a small group of students at Georgia State University in 2012. They have probably found many talented artists and made them successful, but I do wonder how much creative control their artists have to give up in the process, and how different the popular music scene would be without the control of recording companies and their promotion and distribution mechanisms. Maybe there wouldn’t be a popular music scene. If not, would it be so bad if we just had live performers in coffee houses, bars, brew pubs and street corners, who posted their performances on YouTube? Certainly no one would be getting rich off of music.

The other night I watched “Hallelujah,” a documentary about Leonard Cohen, his career, and perhaps his best-known song. The film documents that Columbia records rejected Cohen’s album “Various Positions” for release in the United States in 1984. That album contained the single “Hallelujah,” and sent Cohen and his team on a search for an independent label to release it a year later. Cohen already had a well-established career by this time, and the album had been released in England, but had he been struggling to establish himself and been rejected, he might never have had a music career and his beautiful, influential song might never have been known. How many brilliant, deserving performers and songwriters have had their careers thwarted due to the fickle, unfounded whims of record company executives? And how many boring, tasteless, untalented groups have made the airwaves because these same executives thought they could push them onto the public?

I want to believe that my tastes in music are eclectic – that they are not bound by eras or genres or languages or cultures – but I’m probably wrong. I’ve probably proven that I’m wrong by what I’ve written here. I started this piece by related how my father would listen to the Beatles but complain about how the music made him tense and irritable. Now I hear myself sounding like him when I discuss the music that’s being recorded and released today. At the same time, I wonder why I don’t see a connection between the music the artists signed to Love Renaissance perform and the music that has shaped the popular music that appeals to me. If the first bluegrass musicians were influenced by Arnold Shultz, why does bluegrass only appeal to White audiences? Many say jazz is the greatest American form of music, born from the blues when Black musicians moved to the cities and applied the blues to keyboards and horns. So why are people born in 1990 and later rejecting it in favor or hip hop, rap, and highly-produced electronic music? If the folk music scene of the early 1960s was spawned by Lead Belly, Josh White, Big Mama Thornton, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Odetta and Elizabeth Cotton, I ask the same question.

My only conclusions are that I could listen to Jaco Pastorius, Tal Wilkenfeld, Victor Wooten, Charlie Haden, Stanley Clarke, and Charlie Mingus forever, but I don’t want a thumping bass drowning out my conversations over dinner. I wonder what Ricardo Valdez Valentine Jr. would sound like if he presented his lyrics simply with just his voice and a guitar? I think bluegrass music has something for everyone. It’s easier for me to appreciate my father’s music than for him to appreciate mine. It’s easier for my son to appreciate my music than for me to appreciate his.

Knee Surgery Update

Yesterday, Thursday, January 12th, marked five weeks since my total knee replacement surgery. The surgeon told told me that at six weeks I would be recovered to the point that any pain or disability I experienced would be no worse than the state I was in before the surgery. I don’t think this will be true across the board but it is already true in some regards. Before surgery, whenever I stood up, especially getting out of bed, the first step on my right leg was painful and immediately caused me to shift my weight to my left leg. Now, when I get up, I stand slowly and carefully, expecting the same pain I used to feel, but it is no longer there. This still surprises me and it seems too good to believe that it will last, but I know that it will. For years I have protected my right leg, using my left to bear most of my weight when I stood. I don’t need to do this anymore, and I’m consciously trying to stand evenly on both feet. My right leg used to be slightly misshapen, with my knee unnaturally bent inward. That has been straightened, and when I start cycling again I will probably find that I don’t need the shim that I wore beneath the cleat in my right shoe to adjust for the leg length discrepancy.

The physical therapists judge recovery progress by how much range of motion I have, and I have been at or ahead of goals with each visit, although it is not comfortable when they force my knee to achieve maximum flexion. The knee is still swollen and stiff, though, and not close to being able to bend as far as it could before surgery. They have been reluctant to tell me how active I should be, other than emphasizing the importance of the strengthening exercises they prescribe. They just say I should do as much as I can tolerate. At my three-week visit I was still hobbling around with a cane but was feeling pretty good about getting out and taking a walk around the block. The therapist said that was great, and then went on to tell me about a patient that, although he said was an extreme case, was only a few weeks past his surgery and was walking ten miles a day. He said he had others who were still barely able to walk across a room, and that recovery was an individual thing and everyone had to set their own pace.

The physical therapy sessions have been very helpful. On my own I’d been hesitant to do things like walk stairs normally or get on the stationary bike when it hurt. I’d been afraid I could do damage. But they had me try climbing and descending stairs using alternate steps, and even though it hurt, I could do it and was told I would not do myself any harm, and in fact would strengthen my leg and increase flexibility. So, even though it isn’t comfortable at this point to walk down stairs, I try to do it normally. Going up is easier than coming down. The stationary bike has been great. I knew I wouldn’t be able to use my smart trainer for a long time (it uses software to simulate outdoor rides, including long, steep climbs), so I found a fairly inexpensive spin bike on line, and set it up about two weeks after my surgery. At first I could not do a full rotation, but would go as far as I could in one direction and hold that position, forcing it as much as I could tolerate. Then I would reverse the direction. At one of my therapy visits the therapist suggested raising the seat to see if I could make a full rotation without having to bend the leg so much. Voila! It really hurt at first but after a few pedal strokes the knee started to loosen up and I could even increase the cadence. Since then I’ve been slowly lowering the seat, increasing the resistance, and staying on the bike for longer periods of time. Now I can work up a sweat and get my heart rate into the aerobic zone.

But I expect that in another week my knee will still be stiff and sore, and my leg will still feel weak. I don’t trust it completely, although I think this is mostly in my mind. But before surgery I didn’t have any limitations with regard to cycling. I think I’m months away from being able to go out and ride forty miles at a fifteen-mile-per-hour pace, but that is one of my goals. Walking and hiking were where my knee damage really showed up. It’s been several years since I could hike steep terrain without a lot of pain on descents. My physical therapist said I should be able to do some moderate hiking this summer, but he recommended using trekking poles. That would be fine with me. This past summer even long walks on flat ground got to be painful after fifteen or twenty minutes. When I walk outside now I am slow and careful, and there is some discomfort. I don’t think this will change over the next week, but maybe in a month or so I’ll be able to take a fast-paced walk around Sloan’s Lake without wincing.

The week before my surgery I had a consultation with a surgical nurse practitioner. She wanted to make sure I knew what to expect during my recovery, and give me a final chance to confirm that I wanted to go through with the operation. She told me that since my right knee was having the procedure I should not expect to drive for six weeks. I’m hoping I am cleared to drive next week, and I certainly feel as though I can drive. Besides the lack of physical mobility as a result of the surgery, not being able to drive and the subsequent isolation have resulted in a great deal of restlessness and even depression. I’m going to mention to the surgeon next Thursday that the psychological aspects of recovery, though not as significant as the physical aspects, are still very real and should be considered when putting together a recovery plan. I think at a minimum it would help to be able to join an online group of people who were in the same stage of recovery as I am to talk about progress and coping strategies. Before my surgery I met with a friend of a friend who had undergone surgery several months earlier and she offered me some great strategies for how to prepare my house and what to expect that weren’t specifically covered in the materials that Kaiser and St. Joseph provided.

Generally I’m encouraged and I see small progress day to day, but I am very eager to reach the point where I can start doing more normal physical activities, and especially regain the independence that will come with driving. It doesn’t help that until earlier this week the streets and sidewalks had been frozen and sketchy for someone to walk on who wasn’t completely confident of a new knee. But spring isn’t far off, and I still expect to be able to repeat what I’ve heard so many others say, “I don’t know why I waited to long to have this done.”

A View From The Couch – December 16th, and 17th, 2022

“I don’t know why I waited so long.” “It’s the best decision I ever made.” “I wish I had done this years sooner.”

These are quotes from people who underwent total knee replacement surgery before I did, knowing that I was considering it. As I lie on the couch eight days after my procedure with my knee elevated and on ice, I doubt any of these people were saying these things a week after leaving the hospital. I told my surgeon an hour before they wheeled me into the operating room that I wasn’t sure my knee was bad enough to warrant the intervention.

“This is the perfect time to have it done,” he told me then, just as he had told me a month earlier. “You’re not yet in serious pain, and you’re not yet severely limited in your activities. But you’ve suffered some trauma, your x-rays show deterioration compared to three years ago, and it will only get worse.”

I had known for years that a visit to an orthopedic surgeon would mean a recommendation for knee replacement surgery. I had been told twenty years ago that my right knee was shot, but as long as I could cycle and hike with only moderate discomfort I wanted to avoid the weeks of pain and disability that come with surgery. But for the past three years the pleasure of a long uphill hike was tempered by increasing pain coming back down, and last winter I found myself unable to hold a turn on a descent while cross country skiing. One day this summer I had to apply a little too much force to free my right foot from my bicycle pedal and a sharp pain shot from my thigh to my ankle. For three days I could barely put any weight on that leg. At that point knew I had to see the orthopedist.

My knee problems started over winter break my senior year of high school, when some friends and I got together for a pick-up football game. As I caught a pass over my right shoulder a defender dove into my right leg, pinning my foot to the ground as he rolled his body across my leg. I felt something tear in my knee, and when I tried to stand and walk my leg was unstable. After a few days the swelling and soreness went down and I didn’t think about it until one afternoon when I was throwing a baseball with my father. As I stepped to pitch my best left-handed curve ball, I planted my weight on my right leg and twisted, and the knee locked. Two days after Christmas my meniscus was removed through a three-inch horizontal incision on the inside of my knee.

From that point on my knee popped and clicked with every step, but was generally stable until one day ten years later when it collapsed on me while I was playing racquetball. The surgeon who examined me said there was an additional meniscus tear and I was lucky, he had just purchased an arthroscope and could repair the tear with a new, less invasive procedure. But in the recovery room I learned that there was a new three-inch vertical incision on the outside of my knee. The tear had been more extensive than he thought, so he had to resort to an open procedure. Since 1977 I’ve been going around with very little soft tissue in my knee.

After this most recent surgery, Oxycodone helped me ignore my pain from Thursday afternoon, when I was sent home, until Sunday morning, when I was finally able to tolerate a straight leg raise with only a reasonable amount of agony. I put away the strong pain pills at that point, and have been able to hobble around with a cane since then. My instructions are to spend most of my time with my foot elevated above my heart, knee straight, ice bag on the affected joint, and take it easy. But, I’m supposed to be up and around for fifteen minutes of every hour, bearing weight on the affected leg as much as I can tolerate, and do light physical therapy to improve the flexibility in the joint. At first getting off the couch was hard, but it gets easier every day. My sisters were here for a week, and I could not have managed the first three or four days without them. Now I feel pretty independent on my own, although I will not be able to drive until I am six weeks post surgery. I’m grateful that King Soopers delivers and that I have friends to drive me to appointments.

In my mind I believe all who tell me I will be glad to have had the procedure, but right now, as slow as it is to get around, how awkward it is to take care of even the simplest of tasks, and how much my knee aches, it just doesn’t seem possible that I could be back on the bike in two months and hiking by the summer. My pain is temporary, and the most severe part lasted only for a few days. I am still put out by the inconvenience of it all, but it will pass. I have been thinking throughout this whole experience of people who are permanently disabled, living with chronic pain, have suffered disfiguring, crippling injuries, and otherwise suffer their whole lives physically, emotionally, and socially. I have felt sorry for myself this past week, have been frustrated, discouraged, and depressed. But I have a full recovery to look forward to, and each day I can see progress toward that recovery. The most courageous people on Earth are those who manage to face life each day permanently coping with such obstacles, and still find reasons to live and help others likewise find their own reasons to live and serve others. They have my complete admiration.

I was given a spinal to numb me from the waist down, and a drug called Versed to induce what they call “conscious sedation.” While I may have appeared conscious to the surgical team, I have no memory of the procedure. A friend who underwent a hip arthroplasty tells me she asked the surgeon to show her her hip joint as he removed it from her body. I certainly don’t remember interacting with anyone while on the operating table, and was told not to expect to remember any of it. But apparently patients on Versed can be pretty chatty. I was given the drug once before when I dislocated my thumb in a snowboarding accident, and as with this case, I did not remember their resetting my thumb, but afterward the nurses joked with me about some of the things (quite embarrassing, actually) I must have said while I was sedated. I wonder what confessions and narratives OR nurses, anesthesiologists, and surgeons are privy to that ethical considerations prevent them from revealing? If Versed relaxed any filters one might apply when more fully conscious, things might be said under its influence that could be offensive to some. I imagined as I sat in the recovery room a scenario where I began spouting my political views just as the surgeon, who might have had opposite views, was in the middle of a delicate and critical part of the operation. What if I had said something insulting about people with views opposite mine? Would it cause him to slip and make a mistake? Of course, this would never happen, I knew.

Versed had placed me in a deep, relaxed state where I imagined myself on stage with Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gaby Moreno, and Nick Forster, singing Ry Cooder’s “Across the Border Line.” It was from this wonderful fantasy that I was thrown into the reality of feeling nothing from the waste down except the pain of an overfilled bladder, and no ability to do anything about it one way or another. I guess it’s not the most embarrassing moment of my life, and surely not the last time as I age that I’ll share the experiences of a three-year old learning to get along without diapers.

As I lay in the hospital awaiting discharge instructions I got emotional thinking about all the people who had cared for me throughout the day. I had arrived at 5:00 am, and it was now after 3:00 pm. Education and healthcare are two fields where it is difficult to recruit and retain employees, and there is a need for people of all levels of education, training, and expertise. What is common to both fields and all positions within them is the need for compassion, kindness, and a desire to serve humanity. I was treated very well across the board during my stay. The world is full of self-serving, selfish jerks, but the people who dedicate themselves to education and healthcare do it because they care about people, and care about making the lives of people better. I thought about this constantly during my hours at the hospital, and am so appreciative of the care I received. What could matter more than having a smart and healthy society?

Most of the things I worried about before surgery have not been as bad as I had feared. I worried that I would not be able to cope around the house after my sisters left. It has been easier than I thought it would be. Sleeping is a challenge, since my knee aches at night and I can’t find a comfortable position in bed, but I know this will pass. I cannot yet bend my knee enough to get a sock on my right foot, and I worry that it will be very cold on January 22nd when I go to my surgical follow-up visit. Maybe I’ll have achieved that goal of a 90-degree bend by then. And six weeks is a long time to depend on others for transportation. My front porch steps don’t have a railing, so I’m going to wait a few days before making my way out to the mailbox, and there are certain other activities I’m advised to refrain from for several more weeks (drinking beer and wine) and other physical pleasures for even longer (not sure exactly why). I thought I’d have lots of time to play guitar during my recovery, but it is not yet comfortable to rest my guitar on my right thigh, so the guitar remains in the case. I’m grateful for New York Times word games.

I’ll close by telling myself that I should do an update in a few weeks when I’m getting around without the cane so that I can note the point at which my recovery has me back to the level of functioning I had right before the surgery. These memories become less reliable as time goes by, so if I write them down as they are happening they are more likely to be accurate – only subject to my self-deception, rationalization, and denial. So, for now, I will stop writing.

A New CEO for the Faithful

Jealous of Elon Musk, Donald Trump has made an offer of an undisclosed amount to purchase the Catholic Religion. Sources say the transaction has already been approved. The Pope, when asked to confirm, replied, “Yes, I’m sad to say it’s true. But honestly, I don’t think a purchase was necessary, since we’d mostly sold out already. When asked for details of the deal, Trump said, “Jesus Christ. We worked them down to such a low price that it was literally a steal. I mean, God, you wouldn’t believe what we got it for. It was criminal.”

Trump said he plans to make The Ten Commandments the law of the land, and added these additional stipulations. “I will see that my profile is mounted above every alter of every church, next to the crucifix, and the revised Communion service will now include the distribution of golden threads to be worn around the wrist, which, through transubstantiation, will become actual strands of my hair. I swear to God!” He went on. “I will encourage Sunday afternoons to be devoted to ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies and promotions for ‘My Pillow’ products. “I will encourage children to recognize the role of the New Catholic Church, and to reject their mothers and fathers if their parents do not also recognize the values so central to ‘Make America Great Again.’ “

When pressed for further details Trump was glad to elaborate, “We’re working to revise the Apostle’s Creed to include language attesting to the theft of the 2020 election, and confirming that RINOs and Democrats are led by the Devil.”

“Finally,” Trump concluded, “we shall hold all those who do not convert to the New Catholicism in absolute contempt, especially those who live in close proximity to us. Our neighbors who don’t agree are the worst. Furthermore, we declare that to not follow the Ten Commandments will be considered a capital offense, punishable by death. We shall place adherence to the Ten Commandments above all else.” When asked about adultery he said he would have an assistant look that word up in the dictionary and get back to the questioner at a later date.

At this time comments from other world leaders were not available, but Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, and Mitch McConnell made assurances that Trump’s purchase would be met with enthusiasm by the international community.

George, and the Songs We Go Out On

It’s been six weeks since George died after a little over a week in the hospital and two or three days in hospice. I’ve put together several pages of videos and songs in his memory, but I’m writing this now to explore my reaction to his dying and his death, and to reflect on how he chose to live out his final few months. I hope it will serve to also remind me that the way I choose to handle my dying, if I have a choice, affects others.

My mother died at the age of 84 in late November of 2012. She let everyone she was close to know that she had cancer of the esophagus soon after she was diagnosed, and when she knew her death was imminent, she wanted my sisters and me to be with her for her final weeks. In her last six months she enjoyed as much time as she could with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and enjoyed travels and other activities as her health allowed. In this way she celebrated her life with those around her, and together they reflected on it in a way which helped make it complete.

My father died barely a year later. His dementia sometimes prevented him from knowing where he was. I had moved him from California to a memory care unit in Denver where my wife and I visited him almost daily in his last few months, and his daughters and grandchildren were able to visit during that time. He usually recognized us, but was often disoriented otherwise. The time we spent with him allowed us to come to terms with his passing, but his compromised cognitive state robbed him of the chance to acknowledge the ending of his life in a way that was meaningful to him. It seems a great tragedy to not know who we are or who we have been as our lives are coming to a close.

My wife, Leslie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor less than three months after my father died. She immediately reached out to her brothers, friends from high school, college, nursing school, previous jobs, and many other people who had meant something to her at different stages in her life. Her response to treatment was positive and we were sure she would be one of the rare people who survived many years with a glioblastoma, but sadly she took a turn for the worse a year after surgery and died on March 31, 2015. Up until then we traveled to New York, New Mexico, and California, and welcomed many visitors into our home. She ran foot races with her son, step daughter, and daughter-in-law, rode a bicycle through the Colorado and New Mexico mountains, swam in the Pacific Ocean, and sang songs with her friends. She died after spending her last year visiting and sharing good times with the people she loved, and allowing them to love her in return. Leslie wanted to die at home and I did all could to make this happen, but we reached a point where I was not able to manage her pain. Many friends were with her in a local hospice facility during her final week. Lukas, her son, had been with us at home the week before in Denver, but had to return to Albuquerque. When he got word that she was in hospice he rushed back to Denver, but by the time he arrived she had been comatose for nearly two days. There were a handful of us in the room when he entered. We all observed a visible reaction on Leslie’s face at that moment. I’ve related this event often, as I think about the power of love, the nature of consciousness, and how we should not make assumptions about things we can never understand. I’m reminded of it now, thinking of how George spent his final days.

I’m not sure of the timeline, but I think it was less than two years later, at a concert at Red Rocks, when my good friend David told me that he had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He said there were treatments that could probably keep him relatively symptom free for several years, but the disease would ultimately prove fatal. From that date until Covid-19 forced us all into isolation, we enjoyed bike rides, hikes, and concerts together. One especially fun event was a cabbage-chopping party Nichole, his wife, organized as part of her preparing a large batch of sauerkraut. This event brought together friends, neighbors, and relatives. David loved the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and the jam bands and other groups that carried on their traditions. He and a group of his friends would get together for dinner, beer, and concerts to see Phish, Dead and Company, Phil Lesh and Friends, Dweezil Zappa, and other artists. When Covid-19 hit David had developed a chronic cough but still was strong and feeling healthy, but we didn’t see each other. A year and a half later I got a call from David asking me to meet him outdoors at Sloan’s Lake. When I got to the agreed-upon meeting spot I found him in a wheelchair, looking frail, and dependent on Nichole for mobility. It brought back memories of Leslie’s final days before she went into hospice. Tragically, Covid-19 had robbed David of the comfort of sharing time with those he cared about and those who cared for him. Like my mother and Leslie, and to some extent my father, he wanted the time between his diagnosis and his death to be enriched by sharing it with the people he cared about, and doing the things he loved.

Of the four people with whom I had been close between 2012 and 2022 that I had accompanied up until their deaths, Obviously I was closest to Leslie. I was privileged to let her show me and the others around her how much life meant to her, and how much the people in her life meant to her. She freely allowed us to tell her and show her how much she meant to us. Not only did she demonstrate and express her love for life itself, but also how much she valued the life she had lived and those who had shared her life with her. The experience of having lived is different in some ways from the essence of being alive, and I watched this play out in hearing her recount, sometimes in the presence of and sometimes not, those who had shared those experiences. In a sense, knowing that she was losing her life gave her the chance to enrich the lives of those who would survive her.

I just heard that Peter Schjeldahl, a long-time art critic for New Yorker magazine, has died. In 2019, when he learned of his diagnosis of lung cancer, he wrote an essay called The Art of Dying. In fact, it was much more than an essay. It was a memoir – a reflection on his life. I started writing this piece about George several days ago and was about to give up on it when I started reading Schjeldahl’s piece from 2019. I have read many of his articles in the New Yorker in the past and often found his writing irritating. I wondered if it annoyed me because as an art critic, he did not consider me, a naive reader, to be his intended audience. I would read his articles hoping to learn more about modern art, but found that he was writing for people who were already there, people who knew the world of modern art very well. But his writing was also very clever – so clever that I thought he was showing off – not so much trying to communicate as he was trying to impress. The truth was probably that his writing was so brilliant that it was too challenging for me. I struggled to make sense of his metaphors, similes, and analogies. The Art of Dying is, in contrast, an honest, touching, amusing reflection on his regrets, achievements, insights, and other personal observations that one might be expected to have upon learning of a terminal illness. Reading it has further helped me to understand why George’s dying and his choice in dealing with it has left me, six weeks later, still coming to terms with it.

I met George in late 2015 or early 2016, when I decided that joining the Acoustic Music Community and taking part in open microphone events would be a way to help me cope with my own grief. For those who might not know, an open mic is an event where musicians, comedians, and storytellers, who for the most part are amateurs, can sign up to sing a few songs or otherwise perform in front of a crowd at a coffee house, library, church, or brew pub. The first one I attended was at a brew pub where I sang a song I wrote and also sang an old Bob Dylan song. George approached me afterward and said he liked my guitar playing and my choice of songs, and thought perhaps I could back him up in the future on some songs he’d like to sing. Through George I met nearly a dozen other amateur musicians who have come to be good friends, and I give George credit for helping me find a new focus for my music. Together we worked out a half dozen or so songs that we performed at various venues and events over the next several years.

The way George and I met was the way George had met everybody else that I came to know through him. As far as I know, the only friends George had were friends he had met through his interest in music, which centered on folk singer/songwriters on the 1960s and 1970s. George was opinionated. If he liked a song, he liked it very much. If he didn’t like a song, he didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to consider singing it, and didn’t want to hear anybody else sing it. There were aspects of the singing and playing of each of his friends that he appreciated, but he was very specific about each of our shortcomings, as well. If he asked one of us to play guitar or piano for him on a song he wanted to sing, he was quick to tell us when he didn’t like how we played it, although he couldn’t always articulate what we should do differently. Although he was a good enough guitar player that he could accompany himself on most songs he liked to sing, he preferred not to play when he sang.

George said at least once that it was impossible to play a song too slowly. He preferred ballads by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson, Lennon and McCartney, Phil Oaks, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt that allowed him to show off his ability to reach high notes, and he liked to slide into those notes, then hold them in long, drawn-out hums. Not everyone appreciated his style but it was distinct and some – many, I think – found his singing very moving.

Some of George’s opinions were fixed and firmly held. He and I agreed that we liked Bob Dylan songs from the mid 1960s, especially from the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. But there were times when I would bring up a song that I liked, expecting him to agree with me, and he would tell me in no uncertain terms how wrong I was. It was just as likely that if I criticized the same song he would defend it. These exchanges didn’t consist of debates, but rather George’s matter-of-factly expressing what was the correct position to hold on the merits of the song.

Several of us worked with George to put together performances of three hours each. George selected the music and had the most input into the arrangements, and for the most part they went well. There was one that was different. I was working with him on another performance about a year ago but backed out when rehearsals became contentious and time consuming. It was partly an issue of his not liking the way I played an accompaniment. He would stop me midway through the song, saying it wasn’t right, but he wasn’t able to explain what he didn’t like. And he started expanding the scope of the performance. Not only was I expected to back George up on guitar and add harmony where possible, but I was to provide the sound system and make adjustments to the balance, volume, and equalization with each number. As he brainstormed other performers he wanted to include in the event, I realized I would not be able to manage everything. What I thought was going to be a simple evening of George and me together had turned into a rotating list of five or six different acts over a three-hour time period. I don’t think he ever forgave me for backing out. But now I think I understand what was going on in him mind, even though he never explained it to me. He probably never understood his unconscious motives himself. The others George intended to include were people whose talents he had come to love, and I think he wanted to, in his way, let them know how much he appreciated them, and also give himself the gift of having them perform for him. Although I didn’t know he was dying, he did. He was planning a celebration for himself. I believe he was more accepting then of his mortality than he came to be months later.

More than two years earlier, when the pandemic first hit and we stopped meeting in person to play music, I began hosting song circles on Zoom. George joined enthusiastically and helped me pick a list of people to invite to participate on a weekly basis. For over a year we shared songs every Wednesday evening from 7:00 pm until 10:00 pm. After that we decided to only get together once a month. Looking back now, I can see that George had a reason for picking the songs that he chose to sing week after week. It wasn’t so apparent at the time.

One of his favorites was Carrickfergus, a song written by Dominic Behan that was popularized by the Chieftains, and includes the lyrics:

But I'll sing no more now til I get a drink.
I'm drunk today and I'm rarely sober, 
A handsome rover from town to town, 
Ah but I'm sick and my days are numbered, 
So come all ye young men and lay me down.

He also liked to sing Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Talk To Me of Mendocino:

. . . and let the sun set over the ocean,
I will watch it from the shore,
Let the sun rise over the redwoods,
I'll rise with it til I rise no more.

I was not familiar with Sandy Denny’s song, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, when he sang it one night, but it, too, contains lyrics hinting at death (or perhaps immortality):

How I'd love to remain
With the silver refrain
Of an old fashioned waltz,
As they dance round the floor,
And there's no one else there,
And the world is no more.

On a different night he sang a song by Danny Flowers, James Hooker, and Nanci Griffith called Gulf Coast Highway with the lyrics:

And when we die we say we'll catch some blackbird's wing
And we will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring.

And George was always game for singing a Bob Dylan song. Forever Young was his favorite, but he surprised us one night with Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues with these lyrics:

I don't have the strength to get up and take another shot,
And my best friend, the doctor, won't even say what it is I've got.

Toward late 2021, George started joining less frequently. He had undergoing bypass surgery a few years previously and suffered from COPD, and cited breathing difficulties sometimes as a reason for not joining. I was surprised one night in June when I reminded him of a scheduled Zoom meeting, only to hear from him that he was in the hospital. I went to visit him the next day and he told me that another friend, Lonny, whom he had known since the 1970s when he lived in Cincinnati, had been keeping in close contact with him and when George had stopped answering his phone Lonny had the police make a welfare check on him. They found him nearly unresponsive in his apartment and had him taken to the emergency room. It was during this visit in the hospital that George told me that he had metastatic prostate cancer (it turns out he had been diagnosed many years earlier), but made me promise not to tell anyone. He said that Lonny and I were the only ones who knew. He intended, he said, to let the rest of our circle of friends know in person when the time was right.

Two weeks later George was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where they hoped to get him well enough to return home. I tried to visit him there but because I had been exposed to someone with Covid I was not allowed in. More than a week later, when he was transported home, he asked me to meet him at his apartment because he didn’t think he would be able to negotiate stairs. He told me then that he thought he had between six weeks and three months to live. I was still asked to keep his condition to myself. In the mean time, he hoped to put together a list of all his friends he had heard perform or who had performed with him, and note the songs that he thought they performed the best. He intended to share this list. He never did. Again, he told me that he planned to tell everybody in person his his condition when the time was right. I urged him to change his mind and tell people immediately. I knew people would want to know and would want the opportunity to visit with him, and that he would benefit from their company. He never did.

I had been dismayed at the condition of his apartment. It had been nearly a month since he had been there, and clearly he had not been able to manage for a long time before being taken to the hospital. I offered to pay for a professional cleaning but he assured me he would be hiring someone to get it back into shape. He never did.

Another week went by, and I received a call from George. He had a prescription for pain medication that he wanted me to pick up for him. He was barely able to rise from his chair, so driving was out of the question. I could hear voices in the background. He told me that a home health team was making a visit. Several hours later I delivered his pills. The apartment was in even worse condition than before. He told me the home health team would be back in a few hours to take him to the hospital. I was relieved, and asked him to contact me when he was admitted. Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, I called the hospital and they had no record of his being there. I called his doctor’s office and they would not give me any information on his condition or status, but apparently my call triggered a welfare check to his apartment. He was found nearly unresponsive again, and taken to the hospital. I found out later that the team that was at his apartment when he called me was there to take him to the hospital, but he refused to let them take him.

The following day I received a call from the hospital social worker who was hoping I might have some information on George’s next of kin, power of attorney, and end-of-life wishes. It seems he was being combative, insisting that he didn’t need to be in the hospital, and expressing anger with me for making the call that resulted in his being there. He wanted to be discharged. I knew George had no siblings or children, and he never talked of any other living relatives. At one point the social worker and his attending physician got me on the phone with George where I was encouraged to talk sense into him, but he became angry with me, so we ended the call. I thought perhaps this would be the last contact I had with him.

The next morning I was several miles into a bicycle ride when my phone, mounted on my handlebars, rang. The caller ID said it was George. As angry with me as he had been the day before, and as disoriented as he had been, I did not think he’d be calling me. I expected it to be a hospital professional calling on George’s phone to inform me of a crisis, or worse. Instead it was a calm, lucid George sounding like his old self, taking his time finding the right words, slow to get to the point, repeating himself, getting distracted and asking questions off topic, but sounding like the George I had known these past six years. When I realized the call was going to go on for a while I moved out of traffic into a shady, secluded spot and listened to him ask me to help him invite all his musician friends into his hospital room that evening to play for him.

Amazingly, ten of us were able to mobilize on short notice and take guitars, autoharps, mandolins, and a bass ukulele into his hospital room and play whatever songs he requested of us from 6:00 pm until 9:00 pm. George was happy that night, but not well enough to play or sing himself. I kept think that if he’d have let people know months ago that he wasn’t well we could have had dozens of events like this. As it was, most of the people there that night didn’t know he wasn’t going to get better. The following Saturday he was admitted into hospice. Several of us visited him the next day. As my friend and I approached his room we could hear him groaning in pain. The nurse told us his dose of medication had just been administered. We sat with him as he tried to speak but was unable to make himself understood. As the medication took effect he became still and quiet. We left when it appeared as though he had fallen asleep. He died the next day, September 5, 2022.

His healthcare providers had asked him if he had designated anyone to have power of attorney. On the first day of his second hospitalization he told St. Joseph Hospital that Alan, a friend in New York from many years ago, had power of attorney. Alan was contacted and said that although he was willing to accept the responsibility, no documents had ever been signed. Then George said Lonny was actually his power of attorney. This, too, was not correct but the following Wednesday the necessary documents were executed to make it so, although George had trouble accepting that it needed to be done.

George would not say what he wanted done with his remains. Lonny tried to get him to express his wishes several times, but his unwillingness to answer seemed consistent with his denial that his death was imminent. This was similar to his thinking that the right time would come later on to tell people of his condition. When he died without having made a decision his body became the responsibility of the state. This means there is no grave or other memorial site.

My mother gave her body to the University of Minnesota for research, but we were given her cremated remains eventually. My sisters and I, along with our spouses, held a ceremony at Solana Beach in California, a favorite vacation spot of Mother’s, where we sent her ashes floating out to sea. My father was also cremated. We held a small ceremony at Seal Beach to offer his ashes to the Pacific Ocean. Leslie, too, was cremated. One third of her ashes were buried at the base of a memorial tree in her hometown of Voorheesville, New York, one third at the base of a memorial tree by Sloan’s Lake in Denver, and one third at the top of Lookout Mountain, one of her favorite cycling destinations. I can think of my parents when I think of or visit the west coast of the US. I often ride to the spot where I distributed Leslie’s ashes on Lookout Mountain, and I end most of my bike rides by stopping at Leslie’s memorial tree by Sloan’s Lake. George has no spot that holds any physical remnant of him, where any of us can go to remember him.

I’ve tried different explanations for George’s handling of his own terminal illness. One is to tell myself that, although he kept up the appearance of a rational person through most of it, he wasn’t really rational. Maybe he thought, in some unconscious or unstated way, that if he didn’t tell anyone he was dying, then he wouldn’t be giving nature permission to take his life. Telling people you were dying was letting nature know it was true, but keeping it quiet was to keep the fact at bay. Likewise, nature couldn’t have its way with you if you stayed out of the hospital. Nature couldn’t shut down your organs if you didn’t put your initials on a piece of paper expressing your wishes for what to have done with your no-longer-functioning body.

This sort of made sense with regard to his behavior in his last few months of life, but looking back at the songs he chose to sing a year or two before that, he seemed to be more accepting of his mortality. Maybe knowing that he still had several years to live made the prospect of death easier to accept. I don’t know how long he had been on pain medication, but the prescription I picked up for him was a strong narcotic. Who knows how that might have been affecting his cognition and reasoning.

When we tried to get George to give Lonny permission to take responsibility for his car, at this point five days before he died, he asked three of us individually if we thought he would every drive again, and when we said no he argued with us. The Sunday before that, when I was advised by his caregivers that anyone who wished to visit with him might only have several days left to do so, George was arguing that it was being in the hospital that was keeping him from hearing live music, driving around town, and attending fun events. In reality, he hadn’t had the strength to walk across his living room. I wonder if this kind of thinking hadn’t taking over his mind months before.

Why had George been so different from my mother, my wife, and Peter Schjeldahl, who, knowing they were dying, wanted to relish every remaining moment with friends and loved ones, and reflect on the lives they had lived, honoring both the blunders and moments of pride? Unlike David, who had the opportunity to do so robbed by the pandemic, or my father, whose dementia kept him from being aware of how his life was ending, George could have celebrated himself and allowed those who cared about him to join in that celebration. Now he’s gone and he’s left many of us feeling we didn’t help him through the end of his life properly. I have friends who have lost spouses or loved ones suddenly, to heart attacks, strokes, or accidents. They didn’t have time to prepare for this loss. I suppose going suddenly is a blessing in that there is little or no suffering, but those who are left never have a chance to say proper goodbyes, settle unresolved issues, apologize, ask for forgiveness, forgive, or say “I love you” one final time.

George had to opportunity to let the people close to him know how he felt about them, and for them to let him know how they felt. Instead he died angry with those who tried to help him, and he left them feeling angry with him for not letting them help, and for not letting them be close to him as he was losing his life. It was his life. It was his choice and his absolute right to make that choice, but unlike the other deaths of people I’ve loved, his is an unsettled one. There is no summary or conclusion to be reached. George’s behavior dealing with both music and illness is easy to describe, but hard to understand. Was he private and aloof because he didn’t want people to truly get to know him, or is the George we saw all there was to him? Was he sometimes disagreeable and contentious because it was a way he could flatter himself, or was he just confused and inconsistent? Maybe beyond the way people made him feel when they sang and played instruments, he had no feelings for others. Maybe his friendships went no further than asking someone to play a few guitar chords behind him when he sang, or no further than feeling special if asked to sing some harmony. Many of us are left to wonder.

Cold Snaps, Climate, and Evolution

I’m going to try to connect two different discussions I’ve heard recently using climate change as the bridge. I heard last week from someone living in rural Idaho that they experienced a record cold snap the week of April 10th through the 16th, providing evidence that God and Mother Nature, rather than humans, were in charge of temperatures on Earth, counter to what global warming alarmists contend. Then, on Saturday (April 23rd), Colorado Public Radio rebroadcast a production of RadioLab that originally aired in March on which the hosts discussed a study conducted in the 1970s by Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Simberloff, David Raup, and Thomas Schopf that raised questions about Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest.

I’ll begin by making the point that has been made repeatedly, and should not ever have to be made. Day-to-day, week-to-week, and even month-to-month variations in weather cannot lead to inferences about climate unless they are trended over many years. Furthermore, climate includes other elements of weather besides temperature, including wind, moisture, ultraviolet radiation, cloud cover, and snow pack, year after year.

Nonetheless, I was curious to see how the week of week of April 10th through April 16, 2022 in Coeur D’Alene compared to the previous 25 years. Using the website, I was able to look up the high and low temperatures for each of the dates in this range for the past 26 years. For comparison purposes, I looked up the same data for Fairbanks, Alaska, since I had heard that climate change was more extreme closer to the Arctic Circle. Though still nearly 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, I thought Fairbanks might offer some insight.

I was then challenged with how to summarize the data to provide some useful information. I decided that for each of the twenty-six years in question I would average the seven daily high temperatures for the week and the seven daily low temperatures for the week for both cities. When I plotted the data I ended up with a busy and rather inconclusive graph.

The mean high temperatures for Coeur D’Alene show a slight downward trend, while the opposite is true for Fairbanks. Both cities show a downward trend for mean low temperatures. Interestingly, the week in question was unusually warm in Fairbanks in 2012, and unusually cold the following year. 2022 showed the lowest mean high temperature for the week in question for Coeur D’Alene, but had been preceded by two fairly warm years. The mean low for the week in question in 2022 in Coeur D’Alene (24.4) was about 2 1/2 degrees colder than the second coldest mean low temperature recorded in 1999 ( 26.9). If nothing else, the graph shows that for the week of April 10th through April 16th, year-to-year since 1997, for both Fairbanks and Coeur D’Alene, the average high and low temperatures vary quite a bit. No single year is a good predictor of what will happen the following year.

I’m told by climate experts that these seasonal variations are to be expected, but more stable indicators of climate change can be found in shrinking polar ice caps, rising sea temperatures, chronic drought conditions in some regions and chronic flooding in others, changing migratory patterns of birds and mammals, and changes to floral habitat. Those who think that God and Mother Nature control daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly weather events must also think these changes, clearly documented over the past fifty years, fit into the plan.

When I hear friends argue that God is in charge of weather, I wonder what they imagine. Do they see God looking down on Earth as he files his fingernails and clips his toenails, trying to decide whether to inflict meteorological pleasure or pain on the creatures below that day? Perhaps he suddenly sees Ricky Gervais and decides he will cause a blizzard while blowing Ricky’s furnace pilot light out. Regarding climate, maybe God is just bored with polar ice caps and wants to change the shape of the continents by raising sea levels.

To counter the evidence of human-caused climate change, skeptics point to Earth’s history of repeated ice ages followed by spells of exceptional heat. But these arguments overlook the known fact that carbon dioxide and methane are heat-trapping gasses and their increased concentration in the atmosphere over the past century can be measured. They also overlook how quickly the climate is changing now compared to the historical record, and how we have fashioned civilization to make life for humans comfortable in the climate the existed before the human-caused acceleration began. If the acceleration continues at this pace we will not be able to move our cities and adapt out technology to accommodate it.

This brings me to the RadioLab segment entitled “Life In a Barrel.” In a computer simulation of evolution conducted by Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Simberloff, David Raup, and Thomas Schopf, they discovered that, rather than survival of a species turning out to be a reward to those most “fit,” extinction seemed to happen at random. The broadcasters also pointed out, independent of this research, that 99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct.

I haven’t read a lot of Darwin’s original work but I have been taught it and have heard his theories discussed and repeated. Most people I have heard who talk about evolution explain it as a process that results in continuously improving species on the planet – both within the species and in the creation of new species. Some people think of this as akin to a divine process, and think of “survival of the fittest” as meaning that the creatures which survive are meant to survive, because they are more suited for survival, or more “fit.” They attach a qualitative value to the term “fit.” But it is important to think of “fit” more in terms of a match to the environmental conditions that exist on Earth, and to consider that conditions on Earth are constantly changing. Most of the changes take place too slowly to be observed by a single generation, although there are exceptions. Floods, volcanoes, tidal waves, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can change the natural environment in an instant. A creature that is “fit” to survive on a dry shoreline one day is no longer “fit” to survive in the same spot after a flood. The waterfowl that were “fit” to live in a bayou would give way to scorpions and tarantulas after years of prolonged drought.

I wonder if the Gould computer simulation found randomness in extinction due to the random fluctuations in Earth’s environment? It is widely accepted that dinosaurs died out suddenly after a meteor hit the Earth. They were probably quite “fit” to survive until that happened. Most natural disasters are huge but don’t affect the entire planet. They kill many creatures locally, but are not widespread enough to cause extinction. Apparently the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was an exception. However much Earth has changed since humans came into existence, these changes have happened slowly enough, or been confined geographically enough, that humans have continued to be “fit” enough to survive. However, I do question our fitness in one regard. Unlike most other species, we don’t seem to be able to survive on Earth the way it is. We have to modify the environment in order to live comfortably on Earth. Ironically, these very modifications are what now threaten our “fitness” for survival, due to the way they are affecting our climate at such a rapid pace – a pace that does not appear to be giving us a chance to adapt. And the changes we are bringing about are happening on a global scale.

These changes are harming other species more quickly than they are harming humans, too. We only have to consider the animals that have gone extinct in the past 100 years to recognize how humans are changing Earth in a way that threatens all species. These include the paradise parrot, the passenger pigeon, the Sicilian wolf, the Japanese sea lion, the Bubal antelope, the Tasmanian tiger, the heath hen, the golden toad, the Carolina parakeet, the Caspian tiger, and the Guam flying fox. Besides these recent extinctions, nearly twenty species are considered critically endangered currently, all due to environmental changes that are human caused.

It is widely held that our large brains are what set us apart from and make us superior to other creatures on the planet, and that the mutations that led to our having more sophisticated language, speech, and other forms of communication were part of an ever-improving process. Walking upright and having opposable thumbs also set us apart from all but a dozen or so other species on the planet. But what if what we call evolution isn’t really part of an ever-improving process. Mutations happen randomly in species all the time – most are too subtle to detect, while others are considered deformities and often are incompatible with life. If humans have survived so well for so many eons due to “fitness,” would we need to use our opposable thumbs in conjunction with our tongues and oversized brains to modify our environment to make it “fit” us? It is these thumbs, after all, that allow us to grip the tools that we use to so drastically alter our environment. Here I must also say that thumbs allow us to play musical instruments, which, as far as I’m concerned, demonstrates what beautiful creatures humans can be.

I know this next idea contradicts the genetic, chronological, and paleontological evidence, but why don’t we amuse ourselves for a moment and consider that the great apes might have evolved from humans to be a better “fit” for the natural world. Gorillas, bonobos, chimps, and other primates can live in the natural world as it is, without having to modify it and make it less survivable for other species. Doesn’t that make them superior to us? On the other hand, we do believe we have the ability to study, learn, teach each other, and collaborate. But the evidence is that we rarely practice these skills in a way that enhances human survival in the long run, especially now, when faced with such existential threats.

Planet Earth will only continue to support human life for so long. Barring some some disaster such as a meteor strike or a seismic or volcanic event releasing toxic gas across the entire planet, it might take eons for conditions to change enough that humans and other mammals could no longer survive. And if changes to the environment on Earth happen slowly enough, random mutations to some humans might produce a new species of human-like creatures who can adapt to these changes. But the struggle to maintain our quality of life in the midst of rapidly occurring human-caused climate change is a different challenge. It would be hyperbolic to suggest we’re facing imminent human extinction due to our continued burning of fossil fuels. But the threat of economic collapse, the demise of commerce as we know it, crop failures and resulting food shortages, and new pandemics are real. I wish I could believe that one cold week in Idaho meant we didn’t have to do anything to prepare for all this.