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.

Well-Funded Opposition to Public Healthcare Option

This morning while I was watching CBS Sunday Morning an ad came on urging viewers to contact Colorado state officials and tell them to oppose a state option to provide healthcare. The ad made assertions that the state option would increase costs, hurt jobs and the economy, and threaten access to quality care. No sources were cited for these conclusions, nor any information provided on the names nor faces behind the funding of this ad. Nationally, CBS can be somewhat proud of its journalistic integrity, airing fine programs like CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes. Locally, I have less confidence in the investigative thoroughness of the reporting team. They appear to be less focused on informing the public than in attracting and maintaining viewers through sensational headlines (murders, traffic accidents, fires, and other crimes). They do not make their top priority keeping the community up to date on current affairs or issues for which their knowledge might influence their behavior. So it is particularly disturbing, but not surprising, when the local affiliate places a highly biased and self-serving ad in the middle of a legitimate national news program, an ad that is intended to deliberately sway public opinion against an important piece of proposed legislation. I think it is unethical for our local CBS affiliate to accept huge amounts of ad revenue to air a slick piece of disinformation without vetting it or providing a disclaimer or making an effort to air an opposing point of view. The ad is funded by Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, along with its subsidiary, Colorado’s Health Care Future. I have contacted the news department at CBS Channel 4 Denver to let them know they should be investigating Colorado’s Health Care Future, not accepting ad money from them.

On the Eighth Day God Created Free Enterprise

Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:21-24).

And he (Jesus) looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor woman hath cast in more than they all: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Luke 21: 1-7).

And Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the money changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise (John 2: 13-16).

For conservative American Christians there appears to be no greater virtue than wealth. Every political campaign that appeals to right-wing voters focuses on the economy; those individuals most admired by them are the obscenely rich; the long-term health interests of the environment and family members are sacrificed in favor of affluence; those groups most detested by Republicans are the homeless, the impoverished, and the downtrodden. This is in direct contrast the the Christian values that this present-day atheist was taught to believe as a child by my rural, traditional, Lutheran minister grandfather: charity, humility, generosity, thrift, and above all, the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12). I’ve come to understand that people use religion to justify whatever selfish position they want to maintain, and to rationalize whatever happens to them. But it is curious how clear the above passages from the New Testament are with regard to wealth, and how strongly the teachings of evangelicals and television preachers contradict what Jesus was supposed to have said about the rich.

Those who preach the prosperity gospel tell their followers that they deserve their riches because God has blessed them; their wealth is confirmation from the Lord that they are virtuous in his eyes. On the other hand, Christian preachers in low income communities talk of the virtues of sacrifice. They tell their congregations that life on Earth is meant for suffering, and the more pleasure and material goods one does without on Earth, the more one will be rewarded in Heaven. When people die prematurely their loved ones rationalize that those who died have been chosen by God to join their loved ones who died before them in heavenly paradise. People who survive natural disasters that kill many around them often say things like, “God was surely watching out for me.” Although in both these cases, I suspect that survivors’ guilt creeps in to test their faith from time to time, just as the fabulously wealthy must often doubt whether they truly deserve their good fortune, and those who live in poverty must at times question why they have been forsaken. Still, they would deny that they ever question the existence of God.

Using religion to justify wealth, or excuse suffering, or rationalize grief, or explain tragedy all prevent us from dealing honestly with our own emotions, or identifying with the emotions of those around us, or understanding how our own share of the world’s resources affects the rest of the planet. Economics and religion are entangled in bizarre and confusing ways. Consider the Puritan work ethic (associated with frugality, interestingly enough, not luxury), slavery, colonialism and religious missions, the association of communism with atheism and capitalism with Christianity, and the numerous mystical practices where productivity is not a central part of religious practice. Consider Hedonism – the belief that pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life. Perhaps Hedonism has certain commonalities with the prosperity gospel, but Hedonists might argue that the nature of the pleasures they pursue make victims of no one, while in a world of limited resources no one can accumulate vast wealth without denying others of essential needs.

How did we reach the point where many in our country believe that the richer you are, the more God loves you? Anthropology tells us that early humans were hunters and gatherers. In my mind, they did not likely have any concept of private property other than whatever personal belongings they could take with them as they traveled from place to place looking for available food and shelter. I imagine they wandered in small groups and when they found a food source – perhaps a stand of wild fruit trees or a deer carcass that they had killed – they stayed until they had either eaten their fill, until another group came and drove them off, the weather changed, or until for some other reason it became disadvantageous for them to remain. So who was the first “entrepreneur” to lay claim to a parcel of land for her or his own profit? What did it look like? Did one individual discover a wild apple orchard alone, and not tell anyone about it until extracting a bribe from the others? Did she or he somehow block access to the orchard and only allow others to eventually share in exchange for special favors? Was this person seen as someone to be admired or scorned? Was this person serving the rest of the tribe or betraying them?

Perhaps it was the invention of a medium of exchange that made the accumulation of wealth possible – a likely unintended consequence of a practical solution for making trade more equitable. I imagine the tribes in the hills had goods that the people along the coast were interested in, and vice versa. Instead of traveling long distances from the hills to the shore, the hill people could meet with people in the valley in between the hills and the shore who could act as intermediary traders, and who also had different goods to exchange. Since availability of some products could vary by season or other factors, the tribes agreed on some objects that had no intrinsic value, but by consensus could be held until the actual products of desire were available. For example, a man from the mountains might have been interested in oysters, but oysters were out of season. So he gave pieces of quartz (using quartz as an agreed upon medium, like gold or silver or turquoise or wampum or puka shells) to a trader in the valley to let the trader know that the quartz represented pine nuts that would be available to the person from the coast in exchange for oysters when oysters were in season. As long as the process was agreed upon and honored, it worked fine. But the use of quartz or some other symbolic medium of exchange set up the potential for someone to horde this material that otherwise had no intrinsic value. (Consider gold. It has no intrinsic worth other than its appearance, and the fact that we have agreed to use it as a medium of exchange and a value standard. Yet throughout history people have killed and been killed for it.) This suddenly gave the horder power over others, upset the balance of wealth, and began a cultural transformation. Was this the birth of capitalism, wherein money could be used to make money, freeing people from having to engage in actual productive work?

By the time history began to be written, and also according to archeological evidence, human culture has been shaped by an imbalance of wealth. Aristocracy, royal families, wars, and the rise and fall of nations can partly be attributed to nature but also are caused by and and a cause of the quest for and the lopsided accumulation of wealth. Earlier I made the association between colonialism and religious proselytism. One wonders if religion was not an excuse, or perhaps a rationalization, for one culture to overrun another in order to gain access to natural resources that could be exploited for the further accumulation of wealth. The western hemisphere and Africa are examples of how western European countries with ocean access used the military, the clergy, and the entrepreneurs in collusion to overrun continents and destroy cultures in the interest of exploiting their people and natural resources for the purpose of amassing wealth.

Amassing wealth perhaps creates a distinction between two different views of free enterprise. Free enterprise is a concept synonymous with American culture, and many argue that one of the main motivating forces behind the American Revolution was to establish a nation founded on a free enterprise economic system. I cannot hear the words without thinking of the line from Bob Dylan’s song “My Back Pages”:

Equality, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow, Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

I believe Dylan is talking about a word being used so much that it has lost its meaning, but it is unacceptable to step back and question what the word actually means, and what your commitment to the ideal really means, and if there really is an ideal to begin with. Free enterprise as defined by those who advocate for low taxes, few regulations on businesses, relaxed government oversight of mergers, monopolies, and markets, has actually destroyed free enterprise for the average American, while allowing a very few to accumulate untold wealth. It’s extremely difficult, for example, for anyone to start a small business anymore in an environment where they would have to compete with a giant corporation. When I was a child Mrs. Smith had a small grocery store on the corner. Many afternoons in the summer we’d visit her to drink the lemonade she made and eat the cupcakes she baked. There are few such corner grocery stores now. We all know of similar examples. When I need a plumber, an electrician, or an HVAC service I seek out what looks like a local, individually owned business, but there are fewer and fewer of them. There are a handful of giant plumbing organizations in Denver, for example, that dominate the market, and even some of the outfits that appear to be family owned are subsidiaries of these giant organizations.

In Denver one exception to my generalization (and I’m sure there are others) is the brewing business. It has been exciting to see small brew pubs springing up all over my neighborhood ever since I moved in ten years ago. But there is a twist to this. Some of the more successful ones are bought up by larger international beer companies that are themselves such complicated conglomerates that when one drinks a beer with a certain label these days it is nearly impossible to know what shareholders reap the eventual profits. So microbreweries now have several paths to success (complicated by the pandemic, which I will not address right now). Some have chosen to remain small and local, banking on the success of attracting regular local customers on a steady basis. Others have expanded their facilities and beer production, marketing their bottled and canned beers beyond the communities, with the hopes of eventually being purchased by an international brewery. For example Lagunitas out of Petaluma, CA was purchased by Heineken, Dogfish Head out of Milton, Delaware was purchased by Sam Adams, New Belgium out of Ft. Collins, CO was purchased by Kirin, Firestone Walker out of Paso Robles was purchased by Duvel Moortgat, a well-established Belgian brewery. Still, there are five or six small, locally owned brew pubs within walking distance of my house that I believe are independent, and I hope stay that way. I will also be watching with curiosity what happens with local distilleries, since Colorado also has many great local whiskeys that may or may not remain independent.

Ultimately, what motivates international companies to buy out local breweries? It is clear that Coors, Budweiser, and Miller have made millions by convincing Americans to buy cheap, flavorless beer that you can guzzle for a quick buzz without competing with that cheeseburger to enhance the fat belly. Do they now want to stifle the competition that is making rich, diverse, interesting beer that should be consumed slowly and enjoyed for the flavor? Or do they want to learn from the young entrepreneurs who have infused American business with a new sense of creativity? Time will tell, but I can say that during the spring, summer and fall I ride my bicycle from my home near downtown Denver out to Golden, past the Coors brewery, and the smell of stale hops and rotting malt in unappealing. When I go back toward my home past Hogshead Brew Pub on 29th Avenue and Joy Ride in Edgewater I love the fresh scent, the atmosphere, and the crowds. I just hope these places stay local and independent.

There clearly are some products and services that are best provided by single entities, but maybe these should be tightly regulated, or better yet, public entities, as in owned by the taxpayers and regulated by elected representatives. Do you really want a certain hidden percentage of your utility bill to line the pockets of shareholders who sit on the board to make sure that operating costs are kept low at the expense of meeting the needs of customers? Wouldn’t you prefer to be the one, as a ratepayer and a consumer and a voter, to make those decisions? And on the other end of the spectrum, as convenient as Amazon is, do you have friends, relatives, or friends of friends who have struggled to keep open their bookstores, clothing shops, bike shops, and music stores in the face of online shopping? I know this has been complicated by the pandemic, but if these traditional entrepreneurial opportunities are closed to young people from now on, where will they focus their creative, independent, ambitious energy?

And of course there are many reasons why large corporations need to be tightly regulated. When I was studying business in graduate school we were taught that a company’s first obligation was to its shareholders. This contradicted what I had learned as a high school student in business classes – that those business that succeeded made customers their top priority. If a business places shareholder interests first then they will sacrifice long-term goals for immediate returns. Cost cutting will pre-empt infrastructure investment. Worker concerns like salaries and benefits will always be secondary to the ratio of revenue over operating costs. And if no one is making you clean up your air pollution or you toxic waste, you are simply going to ignore them.

The business world uses two other mantras religiously, but then fails to adhere to their own dogmatic preaching in practice. The first is competition. Capitalists continually use this to argue against communism and socialism, and especially recently against government-run health care. It is competition, they argue, that keeps businesses lean and efficient, forces them to innovate and strive for flawless customer service, and avoid complacency. Why then is our capitalistic culture dominated by mergers and acquisitions, where competition is stifled and competitors are successfully squashed by being bought out? So many American industries and services are now dominated by fewer than a handful of corporations who are really free to arbitrarily raise prices and change products and services at will, leaving customers with no recourse. The other mantra is economies of scale, the flip side of competition. It is argued that the larger a business is, the more it can reduce costs through increased production, buying power, etc. While for-profit monopolies will cite this to justify their market advantage, they argument ceases when it might be applied to government-run services such as healthcare, utilities, or waste management. In these cases it is fashionable to claim waste and inefficiency in government without acknowledging the contradiction.

So how can the United States break up large monopolies that are not accountable to the consumer and rob individual entrepreneurs of opportunities? How can America educate itself economically to better understand what goods and services can best be provided by small businesses vs. large corporations vs. public entities such as local, state, and federal governments? Colorado is considering a state healthcare option. Huge dollars have been invested to wage a campaign against this initiative, a large part of which is in the form of advertisements telling the public that the state plan will raise costs, limit choices, and reduce quality. The ads do not disclose who is paying for these claims, not where the information comes from, but chances are it is misinformation that will be successful in defeating the measure. How can progress toward the greater public interest be made when part of the money that we pay for products and services goes to feeding us misinformation about how alternatives to these goods and services are not good for us?

And how to we transform ourselves into a fair and just society when religious leaders, who are seen as the voices of truth and ethics, are telling us that God loves the selfish, and that the poor, the sick, and the victims of natural disasters are simply suffering the fate that God has chosen for them? I don’t have an ultimate answer but I believe we start by making sure that all Americans receive a free and appropriate education, and that public education is funded in a way that does not slight poor communities while rewarding affluent communities (who are likely to send their children to private schools anyway). I wonder if the trend we have seen in my lifetime toward monopolistic corporations and a turn away from a charitable ethic in religion is tied to a devaluing of education? Surely they are correlated. Is there a cause and effect?

Comet Dust, Meteor Showers, and Memories

I enjoy listening to “Science Friday” on NPR when I have a chance. Today I heard an interview with a scientist from the Stewart Observatory at the University of Arizona about a giant telescope mirror that he was in charge of polishing – a process that requires several years to complete. I listened with special interest because as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in 1975 and 1976 I had a work/study job with the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Arizona processing photographs of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn taken from the Mt. Lemmon Observatory in the Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson. At first I listened for the name of the man being interviewed, wondering if he might be someone I had encountered while there. The lab where I worked was in the same building where they polished telescope mirrors back then, and on rare occasions I was able to observe the process. I remember an operator sitting in an elevated chair looking much like someone managing a carnival ride while huge rotating buffers circulated around a giant concave piece of glass. It didn’t take me long to realize that, being retired myself, there had probably been a complete turnover in faculty and staff in the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Department and the Steward Observatory since I had been there. Still, the story started me to reflect on my tenure there.

I enjoyed that work as much as any I have ever done, and was disappointed when I graduated and had to give it up in search of real employment. At the time, just before satellites began to fly into the solar system to photograph the planets, some of the best Earth-based photos of Jupiter were coming from Mt. Lemmon (at least this is what I was led to believe). Because the pictures were both magnified and photographically enlarged single images were grainy. But the telescope was able to get multiple exposers of the same orientation of the planet. My job was to take multiple color exposures and enlarge them onto a single piece of photographic print paper, thereby eliminating the graininess of the final product. At the time I believed that the different exposures were taken on different nights, when the rotation and revolution of the Earth, in conjunction with the rotation and revolution of Jupiter allowed for a nearly identical photograph of the planet. The Mt. Lemmon telescope, being fixed on top of a mountain, meant it could be pointed to different locations in the sky, but the pictures always had to be taken from the same place. I don’t know if I ever asked for clarification of my assumption, but it seems more likely to me now that the different exposures I was working with were taken within very short moments of each other. However poetic it is to think that I was aligning photos of Jupiter taken months or years apart when there was an exact alignment, I don’t think I can tie that in as a metaphor for my following ideas.

I did learn a related fact about meteor showers while working there. Meteors are space debris that enters the Earth’s atmosphere and catches fire from the friction as it heats up against air particles. The debris is often in clusters in the path of the Earth’s revolution around the sun, left as a remnant of the tail of a comet. Each year as we pass through the same cluster of debris we enjoy a predictable, annual meteor shower. This got me thinking about anniversaries. Some we make a point of celebrating as happy occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, while others we mark as sad days of remembrance. Sometimes they pull us down from behind like a stealth predator. Over the past six years I have experienced rare days of melancholy for no apparent reason. On one of these occasions I happened to reminded late in the day that it was the date Leslie received here diagnosis of Glioblastoma. On another I finally realized it was the anniversary of the day I had to admit her to a hospice facility. It is easy to think metaphorically of bad memories sitting in space like comet dust, fixed, waiting for our planet to pass through them on the same date each year, allowing them to take over our perspective for that brief period.

If T. S. Eliot were to write “The Waste Land” today he might have to malign March instead of April, due to climate change’s shortening effects on winter. I can’t avoid remembering March of 2015 anymore. Leslie and I were sure up until late February of that year that she was going to be the rare individual who lived successfully with Glioblastoma for five or more years. Then one clear, warm day as we were walking around Sloan’s Lake she remarked on how she had never noticed how many times the front range was repeatedly reflected in the lake waters, and likewise the lake waters were reflected above the front range. It was clear to me, but not to her, that she was experiencing visual disturbances. In the following days her balance and strength failed rapidly. She died on March 31st, after eight days in a hospice facility.

So maybe the planet is just passing through that cluster of memories I left out in space six years ago. It seems as though March is the month that I keep adding to that cluster. A year ago this week I stopped seeing a woman that I had become quite fond of, and even though we had different approaches to our relationship and probably both knew our logical fate, our breakup left me sadder than I really want to admit. Although we continued a phone relationship for a few weeks after we went into quarantine, the romance had essentially ended. And, of course, A year ago COVID-19 overwhelmed our country. Now, just this week, a very good friend told me he will be ending his treatment for lung cancer and entering hospice care.

That cluster also contains the memory of the love of Leslie’s friends and family as they spent precious time with her, and not only her joy of time with them, but also what a pleasure each day with her was. And I am happy for the platonic friendship that I continue to have with my romantic partner from a year ago, and the value that mature adults like us continue to place on bonds that have been made. It is difficult to write about seeing the “positive” side of things without sounding trite, so I will just say that COVID-19 and the declining health of myself and those around me have shown me the deeper meaning of phrases that I would have otherwise dismissed as cliched and trite.

As I remember my days in the photo lab at the University of Arizona I recall placing my forehead against the viewfinder of the photographic enlarger and adjusting the knob to align a new image of Jupiter over an existing one, and watching the grainy image be transformed in a smooth one. And I think about the multi-year process of polishing a telescope mirror to perfection so that upon completion it could be aimed at San Francisco from Washington D. C. and distinguish an apple from the arm that was holding it. So let March’s memories be deposited in space for me to pass through along with the revolving Earth so that the graininess can be smoothed out and life’s tiny, remote offerings can be seen for what they really are.

Patterns in the Surf

When I was around three years old my father was still a coach at Gettysburg College, as I recall, although by then he might have already accepted a job in the admissions department. As a coach he worked with many different teams at different times: men’s swimming; men’s wrestling; women’s basketball; and his first loves – baseball and football. He acknowledged that he didn’t know much about either swimming or basketball, but did his duty to fill in where needed with those teams. He also knew how important it was for kids to learn to swim at an early an age. As a coach he had the privilege of a universal key to all the college athletic facilities and knew when the swimming pool was closed. I recall many Saturdays and Sundays in the winter being escorted across campus to that dark, musty, echoey, chlorine-smelling old aquatic center with my sister when it was empty so that we could ultimately be the youngest children ever in south-central Pennsylvania to swim 20 yards unassisted. Dad’s instruction techniques were raw but effective. While one of us would watch from the edge of the pool he would clutch the other securely and walk out to the middle of the shallow end of the pool. “Swim to me,” he would encourage, while releasing whichever one of us was the unwilling student, and taking one step backwards. As I recall, and I’m sure it was no different for my sister, as I made the single doggy paddle stroke to his waiting hands, expecting to be picked up and brought tightly to his congratulating chest, he took a step backward and I was forced to gasp for air, put my face back in the water, and struggle for another several feet until I reached him again. He would repeat this pattern as many times as he determined safe, working his way up to the point where we could each swim from the middle of the pool to the edge without assistance. Since I was younger I got to observe my sister reaching this milestone at least a full season, probably two, before I did. But by the time I was four I could easily swim the entire length of the pool without assistance, and my sister, by then a first grader, was the equivalent of a four-gaited horse, having mastered the crawl, the backstroke, the breaststroke, and the butterfly. She was also fearless off of the three meter diving board, but I would not climb those scary steps until the following season.

The summer that I turned six, 1956, my father took a job as a water safety instructor and baseball coach at Camp Susquehannock in Brackney, PA, just across the state line from Binghamton NY, on the shores of Tripp Lake. As I recall it was a wonder-filled summer for me, but many years later my mother, who was caring for an infant daughter, confessed it was less than pleasant for her. I loved the rustic, rural setting. We stayed in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing. We could use either the outhouse or the chemical toilet, our refrigerator was kept cool with a block of ice that was cut from the frozen lake the winter before, and if we weren’t in bed by dark we relied on battery-powered lanterns and flashlights. I don’t remember how my mother cooked, or if she cooked, but I think the stove simply burned wood and vented the smoke through a stovepipe. Most if not all of our hot meals were enjoyed in the camp’s mess hall. She did, however, take delight in walking with her friend on several occasions up the stream bed that fed the lake to a pool created by a beaver dam. There she would sit for as long as her infant daughter would remain still to read and watch for beavers as they appeared from time to time above the surface of the water. I spent the first week of that summer in crafts classes making lanyards out of gimp string, wandering through the expanses of forests with my younger sister (we loved thinking we were lost in the wilderness on those trails through the woods, when in fact we were probably always within shouting distance of responsible adults), watching the campers play baseball (baseball and water sports were main features of the camp) or hanging out at the lakeside docks watching the campers learn to paddle canoes and row boats. I wanted badly to take a canoe or rowboat out on the lake by myself, but was told in no uncertain terms that I would have to wait several years before I could. Before anyone could solo in a boat he or she had to swim across the 1/2 mile lake unassisted. No one under the age of eight had ever done this. I was still a month shy of six years old.

As the water safety instructor my father got to proctor campers as they underwent the test to prove they were worthy of piloting a canoe or rowboat by themselves. This entailed accompanying them in a rowboat as they swam the length of the lake. To keep me entertained my father let me ride with him in the rowboat for several of these tests. From the perspective of the rowboat the lake didn’t seem that long, so I began pestering my father to let me try to swim it. He, of course, declined repeatedly, until one of the college-age lifeguards working at the camp for the summer bet my father (I don’t know if there was an actual wager) that if he let me try I would be able to do it). So the next morning with my father in a rowboat to one side of me and a college student lifeguard in a rowboat on the other side I began my challenge of doggy paddling the entire length of Tripp Lake. I don’t really remember if the effort seemed hard or not, whether I needed encouragement or not, or how I felt at the end, but I do know that I completed the swim in very unstylish form without any assistance. According to my father I was recognized that night at the mess hall dinner as the youngest person to ever swim the length of the lake unassisted. My older sister, a much better swimmer than I, swam the lake the next day, probably in half the time it took me. We both enjoyed rowing and canoeing around the lake by ourselves for the rest of the summer. As an aside, my father told of how they held swimming competitions at the camp and back then Susquehannock was for boys only. My father signed my sister up for several freestyle and backstroke races against boys her own age and she won every one. My father was the star of one faculty baseball game when Susquehannock played the staff of another nearby camp and he hit a home run late in the game for a come-from-behind victory. It was a ground ball home run that managed to squirt between first and second base, between the right and center fielder, and roll down a hill into the weeds and the trees at the far edge of the outfield.

Younger sister Beth a few months before her death

We returned to Camp Susquehannock the following summer but without my younger sister Beth, who had died from the flu the previous November. Whereas the previous summer we had been a happy family gaining attention for noteworthy achievements, people who knew us from the year before might have wondered if we were the same individuals. My mother had become reclusive, barely venturing out of our cabin, with one sad exception. When not busy with his instructor’s duties my father retreated to our late model Oldsmobile trying to catch as many baseball broadcasts as he could through the static on the car radio. I hardly remember by older sister that summer – I can’t even say for sure that she was with us then. I was lucky to have been taken under the wing of the camp doctor, who was also an amateur ornithologist and astronomer. He made me aware of the North Star, the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and a comet that appeared in the sky the week we were leaving to go back home. He also loved the birds that were native to the area, and could identify them by song, by flight pattern, and by silhouette. My mother’s single anticipated joy that summer was to revisit the beaver dam where she has spent such pleasant hours the year before. Hiking up there again with her youngest daughter, who was now a toddler, she found the site had been cleared for development and had been reduced to mud, felled trees, and bulldozed earth beside an exposed creek bed. There was nothing that remained of the beavers, their dam, or the pristine pool that had formed behind the dam. I recall that she wrote a touching story recounting the year of her child’s death, culminating with her discovering of the destruction of her site of refuge. My only memory of the lake from that year is of my other young sister, who still bears the scars on her chin and below her bottom lip, taking a fall off the dock overlooking the shallow water at the edge of the lake and the rocks below. I’m not sure how a toddler managed to wander out there unnoticed.

The following summer my family and another rented a house on a remote beach in Rhode Island. My memories of that summer are not as vivid, but I recall being more withdrawn, having lost my desire to take on challenges or seek new thrills. I wanted to study the sea but I didn’t care so much about being in it. I listened to some of the local men talking about wave patterns. They explained how waves tended to come is sets of three large waves, then there would be a lull of six small waves, then another set of three. If you watched the big set, usually the third wave of the set was the biggest, and it broke the farthest out. I recall one day some boys a few years older than I were playing in the waves, enjoying being tossed around and splashing each other. My father encouraged me at first to do the same, but I wasn’t interested. I preferred watching the waves, the sea gulls, and seeing what the fishermen were catching with their lines cast out over the breaking waves. After a while he became annoyed with me and seemed to give up. I was scared of the bays behind the sand dunes from where we watched the waves. The other family we vacationed with had an older boy and an older girl. Both were closer to my sister than to me. The boy and his father took their dinghy into the bay to fish and because the water was shallow sometimes ended up wading. They talked of crabs and lobsters in the bay, and came back with cuts on their feet from crab pinches. I wanted no part of that. It reminded me of a small cove on Tripp Lake at Camp Susquehannock where it was said a snapping turtle lived. It was a spot to be avoided at all costs. The turtle was alleged to be at least three feet long and known to have taken toes off campers. For a short time in my life I was afraid of these creatures, along with the copperhead snakes that were supposed to infest the tainted soil and the haunted battle fields of Gettysburg.

There was a piano in the house we rented on the beach in Rhode Island, and I remember my sister and the daughter from the other family singing “Barbara Allen” while playing that old upright over and over again. It really made me want to learn a musical instrument. Later in life, as a young teenager, I did take up the guitar, much to my father’s disappointment and objections.

The cottage had a clay tennis court on the property, and my father and the father in the other family were both excellent tennis players. The court was a primary reason for choosing this site. When everybody wasn’t by the water my father and the other father were playing tennis. I never understood, as much as my father loved tennis, and as much time as he devoted to it, why he never took the time to share his love of the game with me. From the time I could walk he was trying to mold me into the next switch-hitting Mickey Mantle, or teach me how to hold my arms to take a football hand off, or how to properly tackle a ball carrier, but he never wanted to share his interest in tennis with me.

While we were in Rhode Island a hurricane formed off the Atlantic coast and generated rough storm surf along the New England shore. We all walked down to the beach the morning that the waves were predicted to hit, just to witness the amazing natural spectacle. Several young men were out swimming in the breakers. I recall one with swim fins on who was quite skilled at swimming toward shore as a wave reached him when it was cresting but before it had broken. He was able to slide down the face of the wave and angle to the side and outrace the breaking part of the wave for several seconds before diving down and seaward as the entire wave closed out in one huge explosion of white water. Others seemed to be trying to do the same thing but most were not able to get up enough speed to slide down the face, and the wave passed them by. One poor guy got caught at the top of a wave just as it broke and he got thrown out and down what must have been a twelve foot face along with tons of white water, onto shallow water and sand below. He staggered from the water and walked past us on the beach, looking like someone who had just walked away from a head on collision. My father said something to him and he replied, “Man, I had no business being out there.” The next instant, my father saw another swimmer in the water who appeared to be in trouble. My father threw off his sweatshirt and sandals and charged into the manic surf, only to struggle out of the water five minutes later on hands and knees at the edge of the shore, barely able to catch a breath. While none of us on the shore ever thought he was in serious trouble, he later confessed that he did not think he was going to make it out of the water alive that day.

Over the next seven years my life changed in many ways. After my parent divorced I stayed with my father in Gettysburg while my sisters and mother moved to New Jersey. My father arranged for me to work out with the Gettysburg College swim team after school for two consecutive winters to keep me out of trouble when I wasn’t playing football or baseball. I became a much better swimmer than I was a football player or baseball player. My father became somewhat of a womanizer in our small town, and when he wasn’t with one the widows, divorcees, or single women in Gettysburg he was hanging out at the Peace Light Inn, a classy bar, with his single coaching friends, me in tow (usually on a school night). I also spent a lot of time alone during this period, and had purchased a Silvertone guitar and was learning a few chords so I could play a few rock ‘n’ roll and folk songs. This seemed to aggravate my father to no end. By this time he was Dean of Students at the college, but he had fallen out of grace with the college President, so we eventually moved to Southern California to live with his sister and her husband while he waited to find work and recover from spine surgery. This was 1965. The Watts Riots were happing, the Viet Nam War was escalating, the Beatles had taken over American radio air waves, and Bob Dylan had gone electric.

One day in September a few weeks after we had arrived, my uncle decided we should all go to Newport Beach. My father was in a back brace and walked with a cane, still in quite a bit of discomfort from his surgery. I had not yet seen the Pacific Ocean. The radio reported a strong south swell from storms off southern Mexico, but the weather in Orange County could not have been more perfect. I had seen photos and videos of the Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, but had never seen big ocean waves other than the choppy, white capped, formless waves in Rhode Island many years ago. When we got to the beach that day I saw line after line of waves coming in from the sea, and when they approached the beach each one formed a series of peaks up and down the beach. As these peaks broke each one tossed a mane of whitewater curling out in front that peeled off in both directions like a woman’s hair being released from a curler. The water, other than the waves, was as smooth as the surface of a mirror. There were some surfers in the water, but it wasn’t overly crowded. I had no idea this was a very rare event for Newport Beach, and would not likely occur again for years. I said nothing to my father, my aunt, nor my uncle, but dropped all my belongings next to theirs and headed across the sand, running into the water and those perfect eight to ten foot waves to take my chances as a body without an apparatus in the water with board surfers and belly boarders.

Two things worked to my advantage that day. I had learned a lot watching the waves in Rhode Island and listening to the men on the beach, and I had become a strong swimmer after two years of working out with the college swim team. I didn’t know at the time how much consternation I was causing my father, who felt helpless in his condition, worrying that I might be drowning in a violent sea while he was disabled and helpless on the shore. My father, about whom my mother used to say had a hero complex. I had the time of my life during that hour in the water, catching wave after wave, feeling myself moving with the sea, feeling like I was harnessing the energy of the waves, feeling like the waves wanted me to be a part of them. I was not prepared for the anger I encountered when I got out of the water. I was not prepared to have to begin thinking about the person my father had made me after my sister had died, and how he blamed me for the worry I caused him whenever I did things that normal adolescent boys did. I began to see that there was a pattern in my father’s approach to me, just as there is a pattern to the waves in the ocean. Sometimes the seas are stormy, sometimes the swells are big. Sometimes they bring pure joy, sometimes they take you to the edge of death. Until you understand, you don’t know how to ride.

There is much more to be said about my father and me. Perhaps I will devote other posts to the subject, perhaps not. I am fortunate that in spite some very difficult years during my adolescence and early adulthood we spent the last thirty or so years of his life on good terms, never really resolving the earlier times but able to leave them behind.

Starting Something New

I’m inspired to open this website for three, maybe four reasons. First, I created a website several years ago as a memorial to my deceased wife, Leslie. I updated it fairly regularly at first, but have not tended to so as much lately. My last two posts have really been about me more than about my memories of Leslie, and that is not in keeping with my intentions for the website. So, a separate site is better suited for posting many things that are on my mind these days. And speaking of things on my my mind, lately I’ve found myself posting condescending replies to others’ posts and comments on Facebook with which I take issue. I don’t think that’s a good forum for meaningful political debate. Those who disagree with me have probably already “unfriended” me, and those who aren’t my friends but who read my posts that are contrary to their views probably just think I’m a jerk. This is a better place to express myself. Third, yesterday I read a piece written my someone whom I have come to regard quite highly about her father and her memories of his teaching her how to float on her back. It was quite literal and full of touching memories, but also a beautiful metaphor, as you can imagine. How do we learn not to sink, after all, when all the elements around us are trying to submerge and drown us? Anyway, reading her piece brought back lots of memories of my own father, many of which are associated with water and swimming. I wanted to write a piece of my own to capture in much less poetic words than she did my own water-immersed memories of my father. Finally, I received my second COVID-19 vaccine four days ago and I’m ready to begin a new phase of my life. Starting a blog might be one element of that phase.