Wrong Day, Wrong Place

I signed up for the MS 150 about six weeks ago. The MS 150 is a fundraising bicycling event for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I received a notice that I was supposed to pick up my packet which contains my rider number, among other things, at a designated time and location. For the past 15 months my social calendar has been a little sparse so I’ve been able to rely on my memory for appointment dates and locations. I’ve been logging things to my Outlook and Google calendars (annoying that they don’t seem to sync) but often don’t look at them, instead relying on my youthful cognitive powers to get me where I need to be when I need to be there.

Yesterday I walked into the building at 600 South Broadway for my 2:30 pm appointment to pick up my materials and the receptionist had no idea what I was talking about. When I mentioned the Multiple Sclerosis Society she looked it up and told me it was located at 900 South Broadway, about .6 miles down the street. I felt foolish but off I trudged, thinking I would prefer a brisk walk in the 85-degree heat over going back to my car and finding another parking place. Fifteen minutes later I entered a spacious, empty lobby save for a resting security guard who failed to acknowledge my presence. I walked past him to the the elevators and saw the the MS Society was on the second floor. I pressed the button labeled ‘2’ several times with no response. I got out and walked up the stairs to the second floor only to find the door locked. When I got back to the lobby I had to disturb the security guard from his rest to ask if he knew where I could pick up my packet for the MS 150 and after he asked me to repeat myself several times he told me that he was a Vietnam vet, was deaf and crazy, and could not hear me through my COVID-19 mask.

I removed my mask and shouted the purpose of my visit at him once again. He told me that the entire building had been off limits to visitors since the beginning of the pandemic. He made a couple of phone calls, reaching only voicemail boxes, while I checked my information and discovered that I was a day early. My packet pickup was scheduled for Saturday. This was Friday. If I had felt foolish 20 minutes earlier I now knew what complete self humiliation was all about.

During the course of our interaction he for some reason mentioned that he had grown up in rural Pennsylvania. “What part of Pennsylvania?” I asked. “I lived there until I was fifteen.”

“Just outside of Norristown.”

“My father grew up in Norristown,” I told him.

“I went to Norristown High School. Graduated in 1963 and enlisted in the Marines. They sent me to Camp Lejeune.”

“My father graduated in, I would guess, 1940 or so. He started college but enlisted in the Marines when World War II broke out and was stationed on a cruiser in the Pacific.”

“How about that,” he said. “No college for me. I joined the Marines right away. Did two tours. I came back after the first one and thought I’d surprise my girlfriend. I surprised her alright. Caught her in bed with two guys. I went right back to the recruiter and said send me over there again. I gotta kill someone and it’d be a lot better if it was a Commie than her. He surprised me, though. He sad, ‘I don’t care about what rank you had before, you’re going right back into ground combat.’ I might have surprised her, but he surprised the hell out of me. But I loved it. I had the time of my life over there. Got to do all kind of shit I never would have gotten away with back here. Hell, they’d have locked me up here for what we did there. You can’t blow up bridges here. We exploded the shit out of bridges. You can’t burn down houses here. We burned down houses everywhere. You can’t kill people here. ” He began firing an imaginary rifle around the lobby.

“I had a student deferment,” I said, “and then got a high lottery number.”

“Well, like I said, no college for me. I’m just a deaf, crazy Vietnam vet. This here’s the perfect job for me. Been doing it for six years, but I’m 75 now, gonna retire in a few months. The past year I’ve just been sitting here in an empty building.” I wondered what he did before taking on this job, but didn’t ask.

“Well I guess I’ll see you tomorrow when I come back on the right day,” I said.

“I don’t work on weekends,” he replied. “You have a good one.”

I walked fifteen minutes back to my car, thinking about the different paths our lives had taken, in spite of our somewhat similar roots and fairly close ages. While I was playing guitar, listening to the Beach Boys and Beatles, learning to surf along Southern California beaches, cruising the streets in my friend’s ’55 Chevy and learning to unhook my girlfriend’s bra strap with one hand, he was witnessing and executing unimaginable horrors and having to convince himself they were being done in the service of some greater good. And now, more than 50 years later, he was still talking about it to perfect strangers, and discussing it as though it was fun. I didn’t believe him for a second when he said it was the time of his life. My guess is those memories have been haunting him his entire adult life.

As individuals we all live with memories that haunt us. Most can be dismissed or repressed sufficiently that we can lead normal lives, but some people have some memories that are too great and too horrible to allow them to function normally. When I think of the United States as a country, and our history of atrocities and massacres weighed against our heroic efforts in both World Wars, I don’t know where the balance lies. It is difficult after a conversation like the one I had with the security guard to not think about the dark side of American history, starting with the treatment by European settlers of Native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans by the British, Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese, the Civil War, the treatment of immigrants, the oppression of working class people by mining and industrial bosses, the Vietnam War (and others), the continued discrimination of non-whites, and continuing through the injustices that prevail today. Given our history, it’s a wonder we’ve been able to delude ourselves into ever believing we really were the ‘United’ States. But I believe most people in this country hope for and work toward uniting us, and their efforts will succeed.

Some Thoughts on Freedom this Memorial Day

Freedom is a word I rarely use without thinking . . . of the time . . . when I’ve been loved. (Donovan Leitch)

He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame, his orders come from far away no more. (Buffy Saint Marie)

Dozens of times over the past several days I’ve been reminded on social media, the radio, and TV news to take a moment to honor our fallen heroes who have sacrificed their lives to protect our freedom. None of us wants to ever forget the loved ones we’ve lost, especially those taken at a young age, and especially those who have given their lives answering what they believed, and is generally accepted to be a higher calling to serve the greater good. My father enlisted in the Marines at the start of World War II and came back to the United States as a hero in the eyes of virtually every one in this country. Few would disagree that Nazi Germany and the Axis powers it formed with Italy and Japan needed to be defeated, and the greatest strategic minds at the time could come up with no better way to do so than through war. Although my father did not like talking about his WWII experience, and I’m sure he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy as a result of injuries he sustained, I was proud to show my friends his pictures in uniform, and he was most assuredly pleased that he had served. We are all exceedingly grateful that Hitler was defeated and that the world is mostly rid of Fascism and Nazism.

The freedom that was protected and ultimately preserved through the Allied victory in World War II was clearly understood. Today the word “freedom” is tossed about as though everyone in America knows what it is and agrees as to its meaning. In reality, I think there is little consensus around its definition anymore. Many people are able to maintain their sense of freedom only by keeping others less free. Powerful people use the term to manipulate those they control to carry out their will toward an end that only serves the interests of the powerful. The freedom our young men and women have sacrificed to protect through military service since 1945 has become increasingly vague.

I don’t know much about the Korean War, but I was of draft age during the height of the Vietnam War. Initially I had a student deferment, but when my college credits dropped below the minimum requirement I was called for a physical. Because I’d had knee surgery two years earlier and was in need or a second surgery I received a temporary medical deferment. This was a little confusing to me since I was able to surf, hike, ride a bike, and do most other things without difficulty. But my knee did click when I bent it and it was unstable at times. By the time my deferment was up the lottery had been instituted and I received a high enough number that I was never called up. Even today when I talk to friends and acquaintances who were drafted I feel a little guilty for not having served, although I was firmly convinced the war was immoral and I don’t know what I would have done if I had actually been drafted. Many friends at the time who were facing the draft enlisted in either the Air Force or the Navy because they thought their chances of being forced into direct combat would be lower. This was such a contrast to World War II, where, as I have been led to believe, every able young man was eager to put on a uniform, grab a gun, and join the cause.

Sadly, Vietnam veterans returning to the United States after serving did not receive the hero’s welcome that greeted returning WWII vets. The anger and resentment toward the government for the perpetuation and escalation of a war that much of the public saw as unjustified to begin with was mistakenly directed at the returning soldiers. News accounts of events such as the My Lai Massacre and the indiscriminate napalm bombing of civilian villages helped to vilify soldiers in the public eye, but in reality, if the Vietnam war was unjust, then teenaged boys forced to fight that war were victims, just as were the citizens of North and South Vietnam. I’m told soldiers who did not carry out orders in the field could be executed on the spot. The war was hugely unpopular and divided our country along political lines, largely due to how well (and accurately, I believe) it was covered by the media. Every night we saw what was going on, and unlike Hitler, there was no clear cut enemy, only a remote, poorly understood country loosely divided over differing economic, political, and religious views.

Since Vietnam the United States has engaged in the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan. The Gulf War lasted barely more than a month, and ended when a coalition of US, Saudi, Egyptian, and British troops decisively expelled invading Iraqi troops from Kuwait. The Iraq War was initiated in March, 2003 after George W. Bush was misled (by his Secretary of State Dick Cheney, among others) into believing that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and the false belief that Iraq was harboring and supporting Al Qaeda, the group responsible for the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. In May of 2003 George W. Bush, perhaps a bit arrogant over the easy accomplishment of military objectives in the Gulf War, declared mission accomplished in the Iraq War, but in reality, after no weapons of mass destruction were found, after Saddam Hussein was executed, and after chaos erupted in Iraq, the war dragged on with primary United States involvement until Barack Obama completed a troop withdrawal eight years later in December of 2011. The War in Afghanistan began in 2001, predating the Iraq War, and continues today. It began as a United States-led effort to drive the Taliban, who were believed to be providing Al Qaeda a safe base of operations, from Afghanistan. Since then American troops have supported the Afghan Armed Forces and their allies in holding Taliban insurgents at bay.

We praise soldiers, and especially fallen soldiers, for sacrificing to defend our freedom. This was clearly true in World War II. They were not only defending our freedom but England and France had been invaded and millions of Jews across Europe were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. We don’t need to look very far to see an unambiguous definition of freedom. Since then things have gotten a little more cloudy. I have become fond of repeating the cliche, “One person’s freedom is another’s oppression.” I don’t know where I first heard it, but I can think of many examples where it is true. Southern plantation owners were free to enjoy a life of wealth and leisure because of slavery. Corporate executives receive salaries in the top 1/10 of the top 1% because they support politicians who enact legislation against unions and won’t increase the minimum wage. Those who own shares in medical insurance companies see their investments continue to rise because the people covered under the plans they own part of have to pay out of pocket for treatments and procedures that would be benefits under a single payer system. People lucky enough to own investment properties benefit from being able to collect rent from those not wealthy enough to own their own homes. The right to own firearms for sport and protection on the one hand leads to preventable murders and mass shootings on the other. These are only a few examples.

I was told as an elementary school student that communism was evil because the Soviet Union did not respect freedom of religion (they were Godless) and there was only one source of news which was controlled by the government, and it was called propaganda. There was no freedom of the press. So growing up I believed that freedom meant knowing that news sources were honest and independent, and I could believe and practice my own beliefs, and the the government would not be associated with or interfere with the public’s diverse beliefs. We needed to fight communism to defend freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Of course, free enterprise went without saying, since a communistic government controlled the means of production and distribution, preventing ambitious and imaginative people from starting their own businesses or making money in ways they devised for themselves.

I think there is evidence now that the freedom our government wants our young women and men to defend is the freedom to drive fossil fuel powered cars as cheaply as possible. Lurking behind the cultural and religious conflicts in the middle east is a struggle for control of petroleum resources. The fact that Muslims control the greatest petroleum deposits in the world makes it easy to bring religion into the conflict, and the fact that Jerusalem is a sacred site to evangelicals, and Jerusalem sits in Israel, which is in conflict with the Arab world, makes it convenient for clever right wing United States political leaders to manipulate evangelicals to support their economic interests, leading them to think that it is a righteous predestined Biblical calling. Bringing in a sophisticated misinformation network that understands this relationship to feed the beliefs of the evangelicals while discrediting the legitimate, independent, reputable news sources creates a perfect triumvirate of greed, superstition, and deception within my own United States of America that replicates all that I was warned about regarding the Soviet Union when I was in elementary school. Add the fact that free enterprise has been suppressed by a handful of giant monopolies in the United States and the result is that the freedoms of religion, the press, and open markets that we enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s are severely threatened today.

So, I want to offer a deep and heart-felt thank you to all the veterans who have served to protect my, your, and their freedom, no matter how each of us might define it. And just as as my heart breaks every day for those I have loved and lost, my heart goes out to all who have lost loved ones in service to our country, recognizing that we all serve our country in one way or another. But just as important as military service is, we must always think about what freedom really means. If we use that word without understanding it, then we are using it in vain. And if we are serving our country without peace being our ultimate goal, then we are not defending anybody’s freedom. We are all heroes when we work to ensure that all Americans have the right to vote, the right to be free from religion as well as the right to practice the religion of our choice, the right to receive information from a free, honest and open press, and the right to enjoy economic opportunity free from the oppressive influences of giant corporations.

We Were Being Watched

I don’t remember where I first read or heard of this notion, or who deserves credit for it, but with the recent release of government UFO footage, the escalating conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the political divide in the United States driven partly by the evangelical trend, I thought I would try to paraphrase something I think I came across a long time ago. Maybe it was from an episode of the Twilight Zone, but I’m not sure.

It is almost certain that other forms of intelligent life exist in the universe, and our imaginations are severely limited by our own dull minds when it comes to describing intelligence. Perhaps the Earth has been under surveillance by creatures from other galaxies for as long as humans have walked this planet, but we haven’t noticed them because they carry on in a different dimension of time. Yet they can observe us. To them, our 10,000 years pass in what seems to them to be a year. They have no interest in being worshipped or intervening in the daily lives of humans. They do not administer justice, punish evil, reward good, or otherwise pass judgment on the behaviors of we inferior human creatures on Earth. But they do act in one godlike way.

Just like ten year olds who keep pet lizards in glass cages as pets and feed them crickets while making observations of their actions, when these extraterrestrials came upon Earth and found it inhabited by lower forms of life, they thought they could amuse themselves by conducting a short (in their timeframe) experiment, and watch for a year or so (10,000 years or so in Earth time) to see what happened. Using their superior powers, they decided to invent religion, and came up with several dozen slight variations to be introduced discretely in different regions to different peoples around the globe. They thought it would be fun to hang out hovering above the planet as the human population grew, and as people with different religious views came into contact with each other to watch how they dealt with their religious differences. The extraterrestrials intentionally designed all the religious variations with a common core but for each had twists on the mythical stories of how the Earth began, the number and names of deities, the details of certain miracles and where they may or may not have taken place, and what the nature of existence after death was. But fundamental to each and every religion was the concept of kindness, generosity, and reason. To the extraterrestrials, the other details were entertaining but ultimately trivial.

From their spacecraft the creatures from another galaxy placed wagers. Some hypothesized that as humans became more civilized and cultures intermingled, they would recognize and celebrate the common core of their different religions, and form bonds around that core. Others bet that humans would become obsessed with and cling to the trivial differences, make them matters of life and death, allow them to divide the planet, and keep them forever in conflict.

From the very start it looked like those betting on disunity were right. But the others argued that humans deserved credit for being able to learn, and it would take time for them to recognize that basically all their religions were founded on the same principles. But the extraterrestrials had other solar systems in other galaxies to explore and many, they hoped, would be populated by wiser, more interesting creatures to observe. How much time should they give these Earthlings? And did they really want to hover around and watch humans destroy each other over these trivial differences?

The extraterrestrials were also becoming concerned with the degradation of the planet, and worried that before they could witness the final outcome of their experiment the planet might not be able to continue to support life. They were also shocked to view the Earth through their megaverdian lenses, which displayed the extreme imbalance of the distribution of resource consumption around the planet. Ultimately those betting that humans would learn to live in unity conceded that, although a final conclusion hadn’t been reached, it did not look good for Earth, and it was time to resign from the wager and move on to more interesting worlds.

The Summer of 1963

We were the offspring of men who belonged to what a television journalist would later call the greatest generation.  But to us they were simply common veterans of their own generational war, just as their fathers had fought in a different war of their own, and we would likely be handed one for our generation.  We did not really understand the place World War II held in history.  And the greatness that is the temporary esteem with which little boys regard their fathers had long since withered.  In 1963, before the presidential assassination, at the beginning of a popular music upheaval, during a rising civil rights movement, and with hints of a sexual revolution yet to come, three best friends were witness to small town scandals and personal trauma brought on by their fathers’ separate behaviors. 

Robert’s father, an art professor, kept a private studio where he spent most of his time when he wasn’t teaching classes or holding office hours at the local, small college.  When the college president found out that the private painting lessons he gave to female students involved sex he lost his job and his wife, and fled our curious little civil war tourist town for his native England.  William’s father was so busy selling insurance to his golfing buddies and chasing their wives that he didn’t ever suspect that his own wife had fallen in love and was discretely sleeping with the celebrity son of a famous politician and World War II hero who had retired to our south-central Pennsylvania community.  My father, highly regarded by most as an adult men’s Sunday school teacher, former coach, mentor to aspiring college graduates, and one to be relied upon in crises and emergencies, had spent the past several summers pursuing a PhD at Columbia University while secretly sharing an apartment and his bed with a female graduate student.

When my mother learned of my father’s NYC affair this, on top of his years of manipulation, physical threats, emotional outbursts, and jealousy toward any male friendships she developed, led her to apply for and subsequently accept a job as a social worker in New Jersey.  She also filed for divorce.  Robert’s mother had decided to send Robert off to boarding school to start ninth grade, and William’s mother was moving with her children to upstate New York to escape the small town gossip and protect the reputation of her (at this point former) celebrity lover.  Knowing that my two best friends would be gone made it easier to accept the idea of beginning ninth grade at a new school.

I was not really surprised when my mother said she was divorcing my father, but I hated her for telling me, nonetheless, and I hated her for indirectly forcing me to admit that they were not happy together.  A year or two earlier, when my mother’s college roommate, Grace, left her husband, my mother asked me if that changed the way I felt about Grace, and if I understood why married couples sometimes got divorced.  A similar conversation took place between us when William’s mother made her decision to leave William’s father public, several months before my mother told me she was leaving Dad.  I remember more than once coming home from school to find my mother weeping and when pressed for an explanation told me, “Oh, Michael, I married the wrong man.”  There were nights in the year or so leading up to that summer when I would lie in bed and hear my parents in the living room discussing something with an elevated intensity.  These discussions often escalated into sobs from my mother and loud profanities from my father.  One night the cries and curses were worse than most, punctuated by the sound of broken glass, followed by a car driving off.  The next morning my father’s forearm was wrapped from wrist to elbow and the sliding glass shower door in the master bathroom was shattered.  My parents would each, months later, relate to me separately the details of that night.

We’d moved into that modern ranch-style house on a small hill three years ago from a modest two-story brick home on the other side of town, perhaps in the hopes that my parents could make a new start.  The old house was one of three that were identical and were the last three houses on the north side of town before development gave way to cornfields, woods, creeks, and rolling hills.  From my earliest memories until the second or third grade my best friend Stevie lived in the last of the three houses, while we lived in the first.  In between were Mr. and Mrs. Trexel.  He was a quiet, gentle man, but all the kids in the neighborhood regarded Mrs. Trexel as mean and evil.  We were not permitted to walk across her lawn, even though it was the most direct route between my house and Stevie’s.  Instead, we had to go the extra twenty or thirty yards out to the sidewalk that bordered the main street to circumnavigate her delicate grass.  Naturally a rule like this was made for five and six-year-old boys to disobey, and Mrs. Trexel must have spent her hours waiting by the window just to catch us in the act so she could run out her front door and scold us.  She always followed up her tongue lashings with a report to our parents, but we got away with the violation often enough that the challenge was worth the risk.

I liked living on the edge of town.  Rock Creek flowed along the northern edge of Stevie’s yard.  In the summer we looked for tadpoles, turtles, minnows, and crayfish in the slowly flowing stream.  In the winter we could pick our way through the exposed rocks on ice skates and work our way east upstream for miles.  The Jacobs family owned a field across the alley behind our back yard.  One summer they planted wheat and when it grew to overhead height we made trails leading to clearings we created and hung out in for hours.  The field served as a baseball diamond when it wasn’t growing crops, and when my father wasn’t in New York he called together any willing parent, along with all the neighborhood kids, for regular after-dinner baseball games that lasted until it got too dark to play.  My father loved to pitch. Mr. Glenny, the State Game Protector who lived just to the south of us, was the regular catcher, and the kids took turns at bat and rotating through all the field positions.  I got a lot of practice hitting against my father when he was pitcher, and I became pretty good.  When I became old enough to play Little League I was used to how fast he pitched, which was a lot faster than kids my age could throw.  This would have been an advantage, except that I knew my father had enough control that he would never hit me with a pitched ball.  When it came to batting against a pitcher my own age, I did not have that confidence.  I developed an irrational fear of being struck by a pitch, and started the habit of “putting my foot in the bucket.”  It’s a habit I never overcame and this disappointed my father.  In fact, I’m sure my father went to his grave regretting that I never met his expectations for me as an athlete.

When my father wasn’t in town during the summer no other father took the reponsibility of organizing these nightly games.  We were left to our own devices to entertain ourselves without adult supervision.  We typically played hide-and-seek after dinner and we liked to run behind the mosquito sprayer when it came around.  We loved the smell of that kersosene and thought it cool that we could hide in the cloud it produced.  Even the adults trusted that something designed to poison insects would not harm humans.

Stevie’s father was a football coach at the local college, where my father had also coached before moving into administration.  Their friendship dated back to their days as college students, and Stevie’s mother and my mother were also best friends.  Stevie’s mother contracted cancer during the time we were neighbors, and when she became sick enough that she couldn’t care for Stevie and his sister they were sent off to live with Stevie’s father’s mother.  When Stevie’s mother died less than a year later, his father moved to a nicer house a few blocks away.  We remained for a few more years in the same house where we were living when my younger sister Beth died from influenza a few years earlier. 

The country suffered an epidemic of the Asian flu in 1957, but Beth died the previous year.  I remember leaving for school in the morning when the doctor was at our house.  The last thing I saw was his lifting the tongue depressor from her mouth as she lay on the living room sofa.  He wiped a long strand of phlegm and mucous off the depressor as it was still attached to her throat.  Later that day, around mid afternoon, my father walked silently into my first grade classroom, came over to my desk, picked me up, and carried me out of the school building, across the playground, into the car, and drove me home without speaking a word.  At home I looked past my weeping mother who was surrounded by consoling friends, trying to spot my little sister.  I asked where she was but got no answer.  Not until my grandparents arrived several hours later did I receive an explanation for what I already knew was true.

I guess my mother hoped moving to a new, nicer home that was not associated with the double tragedies of the other side of town might help her feel closer to my father, too.  I don’t know when or how she learned of my father’s other woman in New York, but he had since stopped his pursuit of a PhD short of a dissertation, been promoted to Dean of Students, and presumably no longer had contact with his NYC lover.  Still, her knowledge of the ongoing affair, summer after summer, could not be forgotten, and his other behaviors continued to push her away.  She spent several unhappy years in the new house listening to Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Felicia Sanders on her new stereo and discussing literature with English professors from the college.  She took two part-time jobs – one at the college library and one recording passages from text books for a blind student.

I don’t remember my parents spending another night under the same roof after my mother announced they were divorcing.  My father was gone for weeks at a time, sometimes staying with friends in town, sometimes with his parents in eastern Pennsylvania, sometimes visiting old friends in other parts of the country.  He would come back to the house when my mother went to New Jersey to make plans for her move – finding an apartment, meeting with her new employer, making arrangements for my sister and I to get registered for school.  During those periods when I was with my father he started telling me about vague health concerns he had, hinting that he might have to have surgery.  He also began telling me about my mother’s unstable mental condition, a condition that only he and a psychiatrist in Baltimore that he had referred my mother to knew about.  He also told me about confidential conversations he’d had recently with some of my mother’s childhood friends who knew her father when he was the minister/superintendent of an orphanage, and had a reputation for cruelty.  His need to tell me these things, over and over again, and his impatience with me when I became restless after hearing the same information from him hour after hour, started me looking forward to moving to New Jersey.  Knowing that my two best friends would be gone also made the thought easier, as was the desire to avoid having to tell anybody about any change in my family circumstances.

The day before my mother, my sisters and I were set to move to New Jersey the son of a friend of my father’s came by the house on his bicycle and told me he was sent to take me to his house where my father was waiting to talk to me.  When I got there my father handed me a note telling me he needed surgery to removing a growth from his lung and that he and my mother agreed that I was to stay with him for one school semester while he recovered.

But first a warning, some of what we are about to show is disturbing.

I got little in this world, I’ve give honestly, without regret, $100 for that picture. I remember taking a picture . . . (Voices of Old People, Bookends, Simon and Garfunkel, 1968)

I can’t remember when I began noticing, but for months now many national news broadcasts include at least one story that has video preceded with a warning to viewers about the gruesome nature of what is about to be shown. Usually the footage is from police body cameras or citizen cell phones. It is rarely the product of professional journalism. When I hear the warnings I think of both liability and ratings. If a viewer might claim to be traumatized by having seen “disturbing” footage on the news, the disclaimer might offer some legal protection for the networks. I can imagine counsel to NBC, CBS, and ABC requiring the news anchors to make these statements before airing the videos. I suspect advertisers like it too. Can you imagine someone preparing dinner in the kitchen with the TV on, only paying half attention until hearing those words? Most would stop what they were doing to look at the screen. More disturbing videos could lead to more viewers in the end.

There is little doubt in my mind that the proliferation of digital video serves the public interest and the cause of justice. Recently the Peloton corporation recalled its home treadmill after a personal video recorded a child getting caught underneath an active machine while playing on it. Without the video evidence and the resulting publicity it’s doubtful the safety of these machines would have been called to the public’s attention. In 2015 Mother Jones magazine published a list of 13 police killings captured on video in the past year. According the the article, “. . . More such incidents appear to be getting captured on video than ever before, due in part to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. The footage – not only from cellphones, but also surveillance cameras, dashboard cameras in police cars, and police-worn body cameras – has caused a tectonic shift in public awareness.”

There is no need for me to go into detail about the murder of George Floyd or the countless other instances of police killings that would never have reached public awareness without video evidence, and without the evidence being shown by the broadcast news. Perhaps it has brought us to a point in history where it can no longer be denied that systemic hostility, cruelty, brutality, and injustice exists in the way police regard and treat the black community and black men in particular, and we might finally be starting to deal with it appropriately. But we should also be concerned about a potential backlash, similar to the right wing reaction to the election of Joe Biden, and their attempt to restrict voting rights in Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and practically every other Republican-controlled state in the country. Will we see legislation introduced to ban police dashboard cameras and body cameras, and intimidate citizens from recording police behavior? Will legislators attempt to restrict the use of recorded evidence in the courtroom?

Today digital footage is demonstrating to white, middle-class Americans what urban, poor, black Americans face on their streets and in their neighborhoods. In a similar way, television brought foreign war into the living rooms of comfortable Americans in the 1960s, when we saw nightly footage of the horrors of the Vietnam War. We saw actual wounded and dead soldiers. We saw blood and bandages and missing limbs. We saw burning jungles, crashing helicopters, screaming mothers and children running from pursuing armed men in uniforms. We heard first-hand accounts from our brothers, cousins, neighbors and classmates (those of us not over there ourselves) that there was no clear distinction between ally and enemy. We came to learn that what we were told by our leaders at home was going on over there, and what was actually happening were in direct contradiction, based on first-hand accounts from those witnessing and recording the truth.

The war in Afghanistan is the longest running war in American history by ten years. It has been argued that this war has persisted in part due to its taking place far from the consciousness of the American public. We don’t see nightly news stories or videos, we don’t hear much from reporters who have been sent there to cover the action. Somewhere along the line it must have been determined that the effort was going to take place quietly, with little controversy, banking on America’s contempt for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. We hear accounts of soldiers reenlisting, and “thank you for your service” is a common refrain repeated whenever we’re in the presence of someone in uniform. But we also hear many stories of men and women coming back with PTSD, of widespread sexual assault among our troops, and of questionable success in a remote country that most Americans could not pinpoint on a map. Now that President Biden has announced his plan to end the U.S. involvement in the war, there will be much controversy, second guessing, and conflicting information on what has taken place there since 2001. How would things have been different if we’d had the media coverage of that war that we had in Vietnam, or if the troops wore body cameras?

Simon and Garfunkel recorded and released “Bookends” in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war, and at a time when the country was sharply divided over our involvement in that war. The album contained a two minute and seven second track called “Voices of Old People” that started with an elderly man remembering an old photo that he would pay a lot of money to have in his possession again. Listening to that voice more than fifty years after it was recorded makes me think about how abundant digital images are today and how casually we use our phones to take snapshots that we will never look at again. On the other hand, for every photograph that man had of a loved one who might have died, I probably have 200 or 300 digital images of a person I loved and lost to cancer, and each once is priceless to me. Likewise, in considering the George Floyd case, there is no way to place a monetary amount on the way those dashboard camera, body camera, and cell phone videos are helping us understand the value of a human life.


The rules of Flitzyball allowed Rick to rest his left forearm against the trunk of an aspen tree to steady his right hand as he aimed the soft rubber pistol, loaded with a single ping pong ball, at the bird house with the three-inch round opening, suspended from an a-frame five feet away. If his next squeeze of the pistol accelerated the ball directly into the standard cedar bird house, after fourteen days of intense competition in this rugged Colorado forest, he would be the next international Flitzyball champion. The long trailing shadows cast by the trees betrayed the late hour. He moved his head to the side to use a tree trunk to shade his eyes from the sinking western sun as he assessed the speed and direction of the breeze. Par for each Flitzyball bird house was determined not only by distance from perch to house, but also by wind speed and direction. Scoring was extremely complicated and involved an official’s employing an anemometer with each shot. Two competitors on the same bird house could potentially be assigned different pars as conditions might change by the second.

Commentators from the major networks whispered into their microphones while throngs of fans stood among the forest trees, swaying to line up views between the obstructing aspens, firs, and pines. Rick’s mother, father, and younger sister held their hands to their mouths nervously. The official assigned to Rick lifted the anemometer just as a gust of wind appeared and Rick lowered his right hand. The air calmed and he took aim again. An encouraging shout arose from the crowd and Rick appeared to lose his composure. He stepped away in seeming irritation, then reassumed his pose against the aspen tree. The competitors who had already completed the course waited in front of him. Those who had yet to finish waited behind him. Now all were silent. Rick quickly and forcefully squeezed the soft rubber gun and the ping pong ball burst forth with a satisfying pop and in an instant rattled inside the cedar bird house which constituted the 18th and final target of the fourteenth and final day of this year’s international Flitzyball championship. Rick could not be caught. He would be crowned this year’s champion.

Dozens of competitors were yet to finish, with second and third place yet to be determined, but all the attention was now focused on Rick as he walked toward the trailhead parking lot which served as the tournament headquarters. His family rushed to his side and reached him just as the ESPN commentator placed her microphone in front of him.

“Rick, can you tell the world what this victory means to you.”

“Oh, it means everything,” he said. “For as long as I can remember I’ve thought about nothing else but this day.” He spread his arms wide and opened his palms to the sky. “Nothing has mattered to me since my first steps, since my first words, than to become the Flitzyball champion of the world. It is literally the fulfillment of a lifetime goal. My family has sacrificed everything to get me here.”

“Well, speaking of your family,” the reporter said, “since we have them here, let’s find out how they feel. Rick’s parents, what’s going through your minds right now?”

“We were afraid this day would never come,” Rick’s mother replied. “We’ve waited, we’ve hoped, we’ve begged for our dream to come true.” She looked first to her husband, then to her son. “We were given a promise, and the older Rick became, the more we began to worry that after all we gave up we were not going to be requited. He’s almost thirty, you know. But here we are.”

“Yes,” Rick’s father added as he stepped in front of his wife. “we’re just grateful to the powers that be for allowing this to happen.”

The reporter turned to Rick. “Tell me more about how you have devoted your life to reaching this moment, and the sacrifices you’ve made. I think the American people would like to know what it takes to become an international champion.”

“It was really my parents, I guess.” They decided when I was born this is what they wanted and that they would give up everything for it – friends, school, fun, vacation, I mean everything, trusting that I would be given this day before I reached my thirtieth birthday.”

“So,” the commentator said, “it sounds like they are people of deep faith. They must be very thankful to the Lord for your success.”

“On the day Rick was born,” Rick’s mother offered, “it seems we sold his soul to the Devil on the promise that the Devil would deliver this moment. And here we are. And now Rick, and Rick’s father, and Rick’s sister, and all of us are grateful to the Devil for making good on his word.” She cleared her throat, took a step forward, clasped her hands behind her back, lifted her head, and said, “But I want to tell America now that our bargain with the Devil has been fulfilled.”

The woman from ESPN stepped back and with hesitation said, “Well this must be a first for our viewing audience. I’ve done hundreds of interviews with champions who thank God, or Jesus, or Allah for victory, but no one has ever given the Devil credit for winning before. I can’t imagine what it must be like to sell your son’s soul to Satan.”

Rick’s father addressed his wife. “You know we agreed we weren’t going to go into this, but since you brought it up . . .” He turned to the commentator. “To be honest, it happens all the time. We’re just admitting it, that’s all. And you really just have to let it happen, that’s all. The offer is always there. We all accept it, all of us, unless we actively refuse it.”

“Now you’ve got me confused,” the woman from ESPN said. “You can’t tell me that the great athletes I see praying for victory are actually bargaining with the Devil before each game.”

“It’s not like that,” Rick’s mother said. “But we’ve all made a bargain with the Devil by default unless we resist it. When we make our life’s ambition to achieve meaningless goals that serve no other purpose than self glorification, when we believe superstitions and hoard wealth and luxury while denying others of the basic necessities of life, when we speak so loudly and so often that we don’t hear what others are saying, when we are so busy chasing our material interests that we miss out on the simple pleasures of life, we are complicit in the Devil’s bargain.”

“Wait,” Rick said. “I’m the one whose soul was sold. Now I’m the international Flitzyball champion. I’m not sure my mother knows what she’s talking about. But I think I’m smarter than the Devil. I won the tournament. You can’t take that away from me, and I don’t know what the Devil has done with my soul, but my heart belongs to me, so I’m going to give it to Jesus from this day forward. Yes, I’ll accept Jesus into my heart. My parents sold my soul to the Devil when I was born, but now I’ll be born again with Jesus in my heart. And I’m the Flitzyball champion of the world.”

“How would that change anything?” the commentator asked.

“What would change is that I’d be choosing Jesus over the Devil. I’d be a Christian, born again in Jesus’ name. I’d still be champion. I wouldn’t have to change anything. It’s what you say you have in your heart that matters.”

Rick’s family all looked at each other and shook their heads in sorrow. “It’s taken us to this point to understand the many years that have been wasted,” his sister said. “The dream for my parents was once to experience the satisfaction of seeing their son win a world championship. But for years they have secretly longed for his victory to come so they could be freed from the binds of this meaningless obligation. Now our family is divided, but my parents shall be free. I think my brother Rick is more deeply trapped than ever.”

Other competitors continued to take their shots at the final bird house as Rick furthered his walk up to the tournament headquarters amidst the cheers of the admiring crowd. He stopped to provide blood samples to confirm he had not taken any performance enhancing drugs and that his DNA and gender identity were in agreement. He signed his score card while being witnessed by two tournament officials, and granted interviews to five more broadcast professionals while declaring his newfound faith in Jesus Christ. He was approached by nearly a dozen representatives of corporations with products for which he was asked to offer endorsements in exchange for lucrative contracts. As the sky darkened at the end of the day storm clouds gathered over the mountain ridge to the west, and thunder could be heard in the distance.

In the weeks that followed both Rick and his parents made appearances on talk shows, but never together. Their comments became the subject of blogs and podcasts, inspiring arguments over the role of religion in sports, the existence of the Devil, the struggle between good and evil, whether salvation depended simply on belief and faith or whether good deeds were required to get one into Heaven, and whether a life devoted to sport was a life of virtue to begin with. Still others did not condemn a life devoted to sport in general, but did deride Flitzyball in particular. More sophisticated moderators asked Rick’s parents if they hadn’t meant the notion of selling Rick’s soul figuratively to begin with, while Evangelicals took and related every detail of Rick’s narrative literally and celebrated its revelation. Some sports fans and competitors held that his title was tainted having been won through cheating due to evil influences. Others believed any claim to divine or evil intervention in athletic competition was nonsense, and that Rick was delusional.

Rick went on to become an evangelical spokesperson, endorsing religious products on radio and television and lending support to conservative political candidates. Otherwise his behavior post victory was unchanged from that before renouncing the Devil. He continued to make Flitzyball his life’s purpose, while taking advantage of his victory and subsequent notoriety to enrich himself. He held fast to his belief that behavioral change was not required for eternal life in Heaven; it was that which was in his heart that mattered. Although he continued to compete he never placed above tenth in another tournament. After his international victory rumors surfaced that his soft rubber gun had been equipped with an illegal gas accelerant, but the gun was never found and inspected. He never publicly addressed the accusations.

Rick’s parents always maintained that they were proud of their son’s athletic ability and his accomplishments in Flitzyball, but their advice to other parents was to not encourage their children to pursue a career in professional sports if it meant neglecting friends, education, recreation, and service to others. After Rick’s championship they, along with their physician daughter and their daughter’s physician husband, moved to a Caribbean island where they devoted their lives to fighting disease and poverty.

I Didn’t Mean Anything By It

Several weeks ago a good friend called me out for a flippant comment I made. I imagine most of us have heard people say things to us that were insulting but that were not intended as insults, and most of us have inadvertently insulted others while saying something we believed to be completely innocuous. We’ve heard people say, “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by it, you shouldn’t be so sensitive.” And we’ve also heard people say, “You need to be more sensitive to the feelings of others before you speak.” In my case, my friend and I were talking about a bicycling training app that calculated speed based on the ratio of power to rider weight. The trainer connected to the app accurately measures power output, but it is up to the user to enter an honest weight. She said that her weight fluctuated by quite a bit, so that on any given day it might be off by 5 or 6%. I made some stupid remark that the same was true for me, but I could not blame it on a menstrual cycle. “That’s sexist!” she told me. I was surprised that she said so, and told her so as I apologized. She kindly let me know that she didn’t think I was sexist, but my remark would be insulting to a lot of women. As I thought about it I realized she did me a favor by pointing this out. I was lucky that she knew me well enough to not be offended, but if I had said something similar to someone I was just getting to know it could potentially create a bad first impression that would be very difficult to overcome.

It is common for those of us who unknowingly or inadvertently insult someone to try to make light of it by declaring that we meant nothing by it and were misunderstood. But, just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, offense is in the mind of the one who perceives they have been offended. I am not saying that we as a culture are not too easily offended these days. I think we are, and I think too many of us take pride in being offended. But, it is not the role of the speaker of an offending remark to explain away the offense. The best possible response is to accept that what you have said was legitimately perceived as hurtful or insensitive, learn from it, and be grateful that the person who heard you chose to point it out. If you are good enough friends, the topic could be discussed objectively at a later date. That so many of us are so easy to take offense these days is more of a cultural phenomenon than a personal one. There are historical injustices that lie behind a lot of this, and they won’t be dealt with by telling each other not to be so sensitive.

Offense is in the mind of the one who perceives they have been offended, regardless of what the speaker says or thinks was intended. Ethnic slurs, as we know, represent a bond when spoken between and among those of a similar race and culture, but represent an act of hatred when hurled across those lines. And to those who might say this phenomenon is a modern affectation, I would disagree. My mother, born in 1929 and raised in rural, white protestant Pennsylvania, raised us to consider the typical curses having to due with bodily functions, sex, and the eternal consequences of a life of sin as crude and vulgar, but to her there was no greater profanity than an ethnic slur. We would be reprimanded for repeating any of the former, but physically punished for ever uttering the latter.

My father, born in 1922 and raised in a working class neighborhood not far from Philadelphia, would never outwardly disagree with my mother, but differed from her quite a bit in practice. He freely expressed himself with all the common four letter words except “fuck” (It’s curious how in the 1950s and early 1960s this was such a forbidden word, and now it’s used like a punctuation mark.) which I only heard him say a few times when he was drunk and I was already a teenager, but he also used slurs to “affectionately” refer to the eastern European and Italian kids he grew up with. I think he was proud of his neighborhood and the sports prowess of his high school, and often spoke admiringly his ethnic friends who played baseball and football with him and came by to visit our home when I was a kid growing up. Still, I wonder if they cringed when they were referred to as they were by my father as a teenager and their other WASP classmates? Surely they felt it was demeaning, and set them apart socially. And in a way, even if my father declared that he used these terms to honor their backgrounds and their cultures, wasn’t he really teasing them for being different, even if he didn’t think their being different was of any consequence? And if we’re being honest, we know in the 1930s and later being Catholic, and being Italian, and being eastern European had huge consequences in America.

I held a job in the Planning and Research Department of the Albuquerque Public Schools in the mid 1980s. Estimating the coming year’s student enrollment by school and by class was an important job, since the allocation of teachers and financial resources was based on it. I developed an experimental algorithm that I built into a computer program to help with this process. Since the program was experimental, and since guinea pigs used to be a slang term for subjects of experiments, when I saved the program I called it “guinea.” A graduate student of Italian descent was assigned to work with me on the enrollment projection project. We developed a pretty good rapport the first week of his assignment until I showed him my program. It took him several days to decide to confront me on the name of my algorithm, and I don’t think he ever completely accepted my explanation. I had to admit that I knew at one time the term “guinea” was used as a slur against Italians, but had not given it any thought when I named the program and secondarily was surprised to hear that Italian Americans still felt the lingering pangs, and perhaps continuing acute affects of persecution. I’m sure from that point on he wrote me off as just another prejudiced middle class white young man. Often these first impressions are difficult to reverse, and attempts to explain them away only deepen mistaken impressions.

A loosely related topic has to do with the comparison some are making between the popularity of Cardi B’s song WAP and the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to cease licensing and publishing six titles of Dr. Seuss books from among their collection of the fifty that were examined. Cardi B’s song celebrates female sexual pleasure in extremely descriptive detail, and was named the #1 song of 2020 by a panel of NPR music critics who said of it, “To no one’s surprise, a pair of women honoring their own ladyparts and the pleasures they dish out and expect returned in spades drew the ire of the insecure, of zealots and of moral grandstanders. The backlash, however inseparable from the song’s cultural narrative, only bolsters the argument for its politics of pleasure.” Some have claimed that WAP won several major music awards. I haven’t found this to be true, but it has been wildly popular and critically praised. Some have claimed that Dr. Seuss has been banned. This is absolutely not true. Dr. Seuss Enterprises decided to cease the licensing and publication of only six out of fifty titles due to derogatory characterizations of certain ethnicities in those books. This is a far cry from censorship. Having written what I did earlier in this article it would be hypocritical of me to question those who might be offended by Cardi B’s song. I hope they don’t get exposed to the song inadvertently. However, I personally seek out lots of different kinds of music but until today, when I intentionally looked online for WAP, I had never heard it. I doubt if many people who don’t want to hear it ever have either. While I think there have been more beautiful descriptions and portrayals of lovemaking and nudity in art and music than that created by Cardi B, I cannot condemn an open celebration of either nudity or lovemaking. Regarding the Dr. Seuss books, critics of the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises are creating the impression that The Cat In The Hat has been banned, which is an outright mistruth. In light of growing anti-sentiment against Asians and Asian Americans I believe it is wise to discontinue licensing and publishing the six books that misrepresent them, and it is totally within the authority of the organization that holds the rights to them to do so. Those who defend the Bill of Rights but condemn Cardi B, and those who defend free enterprise but condemn Dr. Seuss Enterprises, embody the very definition of hypocrisy.

Some Thoughts on Pets, Euthanasia, and End-of-Life Choices

A few years ago I adopted two cats from my daughter and son in law when they put their house on the market and were advised by their real estate agent to get rid of them while the house was being shown. Atticus was a male, the older of the two, and in poorer health. For the first several days after my son in law dropped off the cats he went into hiding. When I finally found him, crouched behind books on a shelf in the basement, I extended a hand to pet him and was attacked. For weeks he only came out to eat after I went to bed. Up until he died just about a year ago I was the only human he would allow to touch him. We developed a routine in the evening when I would go up to my loft and turn on the television. After a while he would tentatively wander upstairs and sit on my lap for a few minutes and allow me to gently pet him, but then would suddenly bite me and scamper off. Every visitor was afraid to get near him.

Daisy has survived Atticus by a year now. She was always much friendlier toward humans, but a bully toward Atticus. When I got her she was obese but is now pretty thin except for lots of loose abdominal skin. Over the past few months she has started wandering around the house making demands on me. I interpret these as insisting on being fed, but lately she just stares at the food I place before her. The veterinarian has started her on medication for hyperthyroidism which he thinks will help her relax a bit. I wonder how sick she actually is, whether she is in discomfort, and if I will know when it is time to euthanize her, if at all. This has caused me to remember other pets I have had to put down, those I have lost to death in other ways or have had to give up for other reasons, and how humans deal with our own death.

Very early in our marriage my wife, Ellen, and I were students at Colorado State University, living in a rented house near the campus with a large back yard. Another student, Alex, had grown up with Ellen in California. His parents and Ellen’s parents had been best friends. Alex’s parents had recently moved to Colorado, along with their elderly, blind and senile standard poodle Louie, when Alex enrolled at CSU. Sadly, Alex’s father suffered a heart attack and died not long after moving to Colorado. I think his mother moved back to California after that. Alex was living in a dorm, so Louie ended up with Ellen and me.

I, like many, am haunted by memories of events that I could have and should have handled differently. Certainly this is one of them. Alex seemed to be very stoic over the death of his father, but several months after his death it became clear that Louie had no quality of life. Ellen, her sisters, her parents and I agreed that Alex should take him to the vet and have him euthanized, but Alex quietly pleaded that he not be the one to do it. A great deal of pressure was put on Alex to accept his adult responsibility for Louie, and he finally succumbed, with my younger sister going with him to the veterinary clinic for support. According to her he was emotionally devastated by what he had to do, and it was clear to me, and at least to Ellen, that the flow of emotions was more for his father, and the symbol Louie was for his father, than for Louie himself. I’m sure Alex never forgave any of us for not having the sympathy and compassion to realize what a trauma this would be for Alex. It must have felt to him as though he were extinguishing the last vestiges of his father’s spirit. I could have easily relieved him of this burden, but I didn’t.

The ordeal with Louie came less than two years after an episode with a beautiful gordon setter whose name I cannot remember, but I’ll call him Earl. A professor at CSU had raised Earl from the time he was weaned until he was nine or ten months old, at which point he no longer felt he could keep it. Ralph, a good friend of ours, asked if we could take him, and of course we said yes. We’d only had the dog for a few weeks when it became clear he was not in good health. He was losing weight, could not keep food down, shied away from touch, and didn’t seem to have very good balance. On top of this, our lease prohibited us from having pets, so we were evicted. At the time I was working full-time waiting to establish residency in Colorado so that I would qualify for in-state college tuition. A few days after we moved into our new tiny house Ralph and Ellen took Earl to the veterinarian. When I came home from work I found them both in tears. They told me the vet told them Earl had severe damage to his kidneys and had to be euthanized. We never knew for sure the cause of the internal injuries, and tried not to speculate.

Ellen’s youngest sister remembered my speaking of a beagle I owned as a young teenager in Pennsylvania. I suppose as a gesture to help us deal with our grief over Earl she gave us a beagle puppy the following Christmas. We named him Salud and kept him while Ellen finished her degree at CSU and took a job in Puerto Rico, took him with us a year later as I continued my studies in Tucson at the University of Arizona, and lugged him along to Albuquerque where I took a job with the public schools after finishing my master’s degree. He was with us for the birth of both our children, Alison in Tucson and Jeffrey in Albuquerque, but at some point in Tucson he had contracted valley fever, and infection with the fungus coccidioides, which had disseminated to his brain. For several years we had kept him on meds to suppress his symptoms, but after moving to Albuquerque and the birth of our son we stopped treatment, and he quickly deteriorated to the point we had him euthanized. There were a few weeks between our stopping his treatment and the decision to put him down where he probably suffered unnecessarily, which I regret, and to which I should have been more cognizant. Salud was so central to our lives until our children were born, after which he no longer got the attention he required or deserved.

While still living in Arizona and before becoming parents Ellen and I lived in a small, run-down duplex with black widow spiders inhabiting the corners in the closets, earwigs in the stained carpet, and a variety of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes in the patchy bermuda and caliche back yard. We only lived there for a semester but became good friends with Bob and Betty, the elderly couple that lived on the corner, and their beautiful silver shepherd mix, Shadow. The details of their relationship are a little foggy but I think they were both either widowed or divorced and had only been together for a few years. Shadow had been Bob’s pet before he met Betty. We got together with them on Friday evenings to drink cheap wine and play poker until Bob suddenly died. In her grief Betty could not deal with Shadow, but told me she also could not accept the idea of Shadow belong to anyone besides Bob. So, she asked me to have him euthanized, and made me promise I would not give him away, adopt him myself, or give him up for adoption by anyone else. I resisted at first. Shadow was a healthy, beautiful, well-trained, well-behaved, and affectionate dog that would have made a wonderful pet for someone, but I had to respect her wishes, I reasoned at the time. I later wondered if her religious beliefs didn’t cause her to think she was sending Shadow’s spirit off to be with Bob. I never asked her, but I think this is probably true. When I took Shadow to the veterinary clinic the waiting room was full, and everybody there heard me tell the clerk at the check-in desk why I was bringing Shadow in.

When we were living in Albuquerque and Alison and Jeffrey were around nine and seven we had a cat named Socrates (So Crates, named for the way Bill and Ted mispronounced the philosopher’s name in the movie). She was a playful indoor/outdoor cat who could occasionally draw a little blood if she too-enthusiastically entertained herself with your hand. One night she was struck by a car. I found her in the street appearing to be near death with an obvious closed fracture of her hind leg. I scraped her off the pavement, placed her in a box, and announced to the kids that I was off to the vet, thinking for sure that the was the end of Socrates. I’m not sure why but the kids ended up going with me, and when they heard the vet say the cat was fine but for an easily treatable clean hind leg fracture I could hardly refuse the $2,000 it would cost to restore her to health. I lost contact with Socrates when Ellen and I divorced but I understand she lived to a ripe old age.

Growing up my family had two different pet dogs at two different times for short periods, both of which we had to give up. When I was 6 or 7 years old my mother’s best friend from college, Grace, and her husband and daughter got a great dane puppy, Thor. My father was quite envious, but my mother much less so. Four or five months after Grace and her family got Thor my father found out that there was one dog left from Thor’s litter – one dog that no one wanted because it had a broken tail, a limp ear, and was well-beyond the ideal age for adopting a puppy. My father might have consulted my mother, and perhaps he did not, but one day he came home with this by now nearly full-grown but untrained fawn-colored great dane that had been named Bandit due to a dark mask around his eyes. As much as my father loved the dog, the burden of training and caring for it fell upon my mother, a burden which she passively refused to carry. After months of wet carpets, piles of feces in the basement and back yard, escapes through the neighborhood, and mice in the bags of kibble, Bandit was given to an orphanage out in the country where he was free to roam the countryside and receive the love of dozens of affectionate kids. My older sister, as I recall, was heartbroken, my mother was relieved, my father was resigned, and I guess I was indifferent.

A few years later I got a dog that meant much more to me. When my parents divorced I was 13 and my father and I moved to a tiny bungalow a few miles northwest of Gettysburg. An impoverished family living next door gave us a beagle puppy as a thanks for my father helping them out in many ways (I am proud of how generous he could be at times.). I named him Ringo and he provided me with great comfort and companionship for nearly two years until my father gave him to the family of a former girlfriend of his in a rural part of the state known for rabbit hunting after he decided we’d be moving to California.

When Leslie and I got together in 1999 we picked up Nikki, a three-month old Australian shepherd mix, from a shelter. She was the smartest dog I’ve ever owned, and at the time we lived in the mountains east of Albuquerque with close to an acre of land for her to run on. Within a year or so a friend at work was giving away retriever pups, so we picked up Sadie, whose mother was a chocolate lab and whose father was a golden retriever. Sadie herself looked like a flat coat retriever. Nikki always treated Sadie like a sheep, and since Sadie was docile she gladly took orders from domineering Nikki. When we moved from Cedar Crest to Four Hills in Albuquerque we gave up some yard space, but we were within a 5 minute walk to open space, and once in the open space we could climb another 10 minutes and be past the point where we ever saw any other people. At this point we could let the dogs off the leashes and let them run. They were older by the time we moved to Denver so they didn’t mind too much (not that we asked them) that we moved into a house with a pretty small patio. We were pretty good about taking them for long walks around Sloan’s Lake, and it didn’t take long before we started noticing both of them losing their pep about 3/4 of the way around the 3-mile trek. This was truer for Sadie, being a retriever and subject to life-shortening disease, than for Nikki. True to her genetics, she developed cancer of the spleen a few years after we arrived in Denver. We took her to the vet after she’d appeared uncomfortable for several days, but the day we took her in she seemed perky and in good spirits. The vet diagnosed her, and told us that her period of apparent good health could last another week or two, but that it was likely her spleen would eventually hemorrhage, and that would be fatal. As predicted, after about ten days of seeming normal, Sadie died one night. We found her in the morning on the kitchen floor. A few months later when Nikki lost her appetite, lost weight, and didn’t want to move, Leslie felt strongly that it was time to have her euthanized. I was a little surprised at how strongly she felt about this, but I didn’t disagree. The house suddenly felt awfully strange, quiet, and lonely with both dogs gone. They relate to humans in such a different way than cats.

Tomorrow will mark six years since Leslie died, after spending 10 days in a hospice facility. She had wanted die at home, and we were both prepared to have that happen until I could no longer manage her pain with the tools the home hospice support people had given me. On December 16, 2016, Proposition 106, Colorado’s End of Life Options Act, went into effect, more than 18 months after Leslie died. The law requires that the patient be able to self-administer and ingest the prescribed life-ending medication, and acknowledges that if the disease has progressed to coma or the patient is experiencing severe and increased confusion or lost the capacity to understand or make decisions they would be unable to take the medication, meaning they would have to let the disease continue to progress. If the law had been in effect for Leslie, based on many conversation we had, I’m certain she would have chosen to exercise the options the law would have made available to her. Ironically, due to the lengths the law goes to in order to prevent decisions or actions being taken by anyone other than the terminally ill, I’m not sure she would have still qualified by the time she would have wanted to take the medication. On the last weekend she was home, between the two of us we were managing her pain well, and she enjoyed visits from her brothers, their spouses, and her son. They all left on Sunday around noon, and Leslie decided to take a nap. When she woke up late that afternoon she had taken a dramatic turn for the worse, was nearly incoherent, and was in obvious pain. Working with the strongest medication I had, and obtaining more during the night, I was unable to make her comfortable or explain to her that against her wishes I was going to have to get her to the hospice facility. Up until the time she went to sleep earlier in the day I’m sure she would not have wanted to end her life. By the time she woke up she was not capable to administering the medication to herself, as is required by the law.

Once at the hospice facility on Monday morning the caregivers worked for hours to relieve her agitation and bring her pain under control. At one point they asked for my permission to sedate her if necessary, which I gave, not completely understanding the difference between sedation and pain management. Luckily they did not have to ultimately sedate her, but I have since learned that it is not clear how much pain a sedated patient continues to feel. Finally by the late evening hours Leslie fell into a relaxed, deep sleep from which she did not awaken but for a brief moment when Lukas, her son, entered the room after coming up from Denver a day later. Several of us in the room saw her turn her head, flutter her eyes, move her lips, then fall still again.

I suppose the superstitious religious beliefs of humans keep us from relieving human suffering in so many ways, perhaps thinking that the agony associated with the end of life is God’s will. I don’t know, but why else would the End of Life Options Act have taken so long to pass, why is it still controversial, why is it still enacted in only a few states, and why does it contain such conservative, defensive language? Reasonable humans do not hesitate to assist animals to avoid pain, and we take action to relieve them of their suffering when we can. In fact, most of us feel we have an obligation to keep animals from suffering. yet when it comes to humans, many who have the power to make decision for us defer or refuse, instead believing that the fate of human suffering is in the hands of a silent and invisible God. These same people will claim when they are coincidentally spared from disaster, suffering, pain, or tragedy in the midst of so many who have not been spared that it is a sign from God. I think my beagles had more sense than they do.

The Month of March and Mortality

Remembering David Alan Steffen, 12/25/1961 – 3/20/2021

I found out yesterday that a very good friend finally succumbed to lung cancer on Saturday. I had spent about ninety minutes with him a week and a half earlier, and I was afraid, that afternoon, that it might be the last time I’d see him. We had worked together for about six years and had become good friends during that time based upon our common interests in music, politics, cycling, soccer, and beer. When my wife Leslie died from a brain tumor in March of 2015 David was a quiet and welcome source of strength, never offering sentimental platitudes nor words meant to inspire strength or courage. He simply allowed me to gradually work my way back to what would become my new normal on my own terms, and accepted the eccentric role I had settled into. If I remember correctly he told me of his diagnosis at the Red Rock Amphitheater the night we were at a concert where Hot Tuna, the Wood Brothers, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band performed.

David and I worked on a team that created automated health status questionnaires, research surveys, appointment reminders, and other electronic interactive communication methods for members of a Colorado healthcare system. I was the team’s project manager, and David was an application developer/programmer. Throughout my professional career I’ve been lucky to work with a handful of rare individuals whose competence was such that they could perform excellent work while maintaining a sense of humor, enthusiasm for their work, proper perspective on deadlines and others’ perceptions of stressful circumstances, and overall make it a pleasure to be part of a team. In addition to being a good friend, David was a valued colleague. We were also among a small group at the Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Research that often commuted to work by bicycle, and on nice days several of us would meet for noon rides around the Cherry Creek Reservoir. On many Fridays we retreated late in the afternoon to Comrade Brewing Company on Iliff, just down the road from our offices, where we both found that their award-winning IPA, Super Power, was our favorite beer. After he was diagnosed David cut his work hours back to 24 hours a week, taking Mondays and Tuesdays off. After I retired we occasionally got together on these “free” days for hikes at places not far from Denver, including Meyers Ranch, Staunton State Park, Golden Gate Canyon State Park, Mt. Falcon, and White Ranch Park.

When David was younger he was a fan of Frank Zappa, and had a small group of friends, including his brother Jeff, who in middle age had continued to get together for occasional concerts. Back when Zappa was alive and popular I was in awe of Zappa’s music but did not ever see him in concert or buy any of his records, so I did not have the level of Zappa sophistication that these people did. But David knew I played guitar and appreciated Zappa’s music, so he included me on several occasions when he organized concert events with these friends. Over a four year period we saw Dweezil Zappa, Frank’s son, three different times: once at the Boulder Theater, once at the Arvada Center, and once at the Ogden Theater on Colfax Ave. For the most part Dweezil covered his father’s well-known pieces. Our shared love of music took us to other concerts as well, including the Tedeschi Trucks Band twice at Red Rocks, Mark Knofler at Red Rocks, Keller Williams at the Ogden Theater, local bluegrass bands Turkey Foot, Chain Station, and Lonesome Days at Swallow Hill, and free summer concerts at the Levitt Pavilion in Ruby Hill Park.

Before I knew David he had competed in cyclocross, an intense, often muddy, off-road bicycle competition involving jumps, obstacles, and sections where riders must dismount, pick up their bikes, and carry them while running before remounting. By the time we met he had settled into the more sedate past time of road cycling, but was still a strong rider. As humbling as it was to try to keep up with him on a road bike, it didn’t compare to the challenge of skiing with him. I went cross country skiing with him last February. David grew up in Vermont and his high school had a cross country ski team. I didn’t expect to be able to keep up with him on skis, but I didn’t expect him to be as amazingly fast as he was, especially since this was three plus years after his cancer diagnosis. He told me on our drive back to Denver that his high school team had won two state championships, to which he was a major contributor. Of course this was just mentioned as an aside.

David’s lung cancer was non-small cell, and he told me when I was informed of his diagnosis that with the state-of-the art treatment he was on he could expect three years of good health, after which he might be able to switch to a different treatment which could give him another few years of good health. I met him once over this past summer when pandemic restrictions were relaxed a bit and more than three years after learning of his diagnosis, and he told me that his most recent scans had found spots on his brain and liver, but there was hope that radiation could keep these in check. I was concerned, though, when he said he couldn’t enjoy beer anymore, and didn’t have much of an appetite. We traded a few emails and text messages over the next several months, but the pandemic kept us from doing anything social.

Sometime around early February I received a call from David. He said he and his wife Nichole were taking a walk around Sloan’s Lake, just a few blocks from my house, and I should meet them there. He had a little trouble describing where they were, and I had a little trouble following his directions, but after a while I made my way to the parking lot on the northeast side of the lake, near where I had watched the city build a breakwater and put in a sculpture of a pelican head the first year I’d lived in the neighborhood. When I finally saw them along the path that circumnavigates the lake Nichole was pushing David in a wheelchair, and he was looking quite frail. My heart broke to see that his condition had declined to that point, and it was also such a reminder of Leslie’s last weeks before she entered hospice care.

One morning in early March, 2015 Leslie and I were walking down to Sloan’s Lake, still thinking that she was going to be that one in one thousand glioblastoma patients that lived a satisfying five plus years following diagnosis. So on this day, barely 13 months after her diagnosis, when she asked me if I thought it was strange how the mountains were reflected both on the lake and again above the mountains in the sky, I suspected things for her had taken a turn for the worse. Her visual disturbances continued to progress throughout the day, and it turned out to be the last day she was able to spend any time away from the house without being in a wheelchair. Although we visited Sloan’s Lake together several times over the next two weeks, I always had to push her in a wheelchair from that point on.

As it turns out that was the second to last time I would see David, and my memory of him that day is so similar to my final memories of Leslie at a spot she loved the final days before I could no longer care for her at home. As painful as it is to lose people we love – and there is nothing more valuable or meaningful in life than those we love and care about – I think about what the dead have lost, and I think about Leslie each time I take pleasure in some little thing, and how much she loved being alive. Now I will be thinking of David, too, every time I get on the bike, or sip an IPA, or hear a great guitar lick, or hike a mountain trail. He, like Leslie, valued his life more than most, and did not take it for granted, or let himself be frustrated by the little things that others allow to rob them of pleasure. I owe it to their memories to continue to be mindful of the pleasures of life as I enjoy them, and remind others of those pleasures, and to do my best to enhance the lives of those I am around while I am alive. I have heard others say they don’t deserve to live on when their loved ones are gone, or that they should have been to ones to die, or that their lives no longer have meaning now that they are alone. My intellectual answer, although it is not always heartfelt, is that my life has taken on additional meaning as I find purpose in enjoying and taking notice of the life that is left for me, a life that those who are gone have been denied.

American White Evangelicals and Sex Addiction

Yesterday the New York Times published an article with the headline, “Atlanta Suspect’s Fixation on Sex Is Familiar Thorn for Evangelicals” in which Ruth Graham discusses the ongoing theme in contemporary conservative evangelicalism of combating “improper sexual desire.” Quoting this article, “Robert Aaron Long, the suspect in the massacres that left eight people dead, told police this week that he had a ‘sexual addiction,’ . . .” The article also quotes Dr. Brad Onishi, an associate professor of religious studies at Skidmore College, as saying the religious culture in which he was raised, “teaches women to hate their bodies, as the source of temptation, and it teaches men to hate their minds, which lead them into lust and sexual immorality.” Of course, the religious culture has it wrong. For men, it is not the mind, but the gonads which lead to lust and sexual immorality. If lust and sexuality are immoral (which of course I do to accept) then the logical solution is to castrate all white evangelical males as soon as they reach puberty. But, for rational, educated, free-thinking citizens of the world the moral position is to accept sexual desire as a natural and beautiful aspect of being human, and to teach our children as they approach sexual maturity how to respect their bodies and their sexuality, how to respect the bodies and sexuality of others, and how to engage in safe and appropriate sexual practices. Somehow evangelicals have lost site of the true sins of humanity – those attitudes, beliefs and actions which cause emotional and physical pain and suffering to humans and other living creatures on this planet. Often these are perpetuated by religions.