Fiction, Non-Fiction, Essays on Life, Travel, Politics, and More …
All posts by hillpoet
About the Author
Gene Scott, a retired English and reading teacher, was born and raised on the prairie of Western Illinois, and has lived in Johnson City, Tennessee for thirty years with his much better half, Lana.
Motorcycling is a genetic thread running through my family’s history.
Grandfather Lawrence “Goofy” Scott delivered moonshine during Prohibition on a 1920 Harley Model J, bragging he could ride standing on the seat with both arms extended horizontally for balance — with the throttle tied off.
He earned the nickname “Goofy” after a teacher slapped him for disobedience and he made a face that cracked up the class, even the teacher.
He somehow didn’t graduate from high school after “accidentally” dropping a quart jar of skunk oil on the marble floor in front of the principal’s office.
A gifted mechanic, he was assigned to building tanks at R. G. LeTourneau’s (predecessor to Caterpillar) in Peoria, Illinois during WWII.
My dad – a tenant farmer – wasn’t long on cash, so my brother and I grew up in the 1960s riding inexpensive motorcycles, mostly Japanese. Our first ride was a Sears Benelli, followed by a 200cc Triumph Tiger Cub, a 305 Honda Dream, a chrome-tank Hodaka Ace 100, and a Yamaha RD 350 that easily burned down rich kids’ hot rods in the quarter-mile.
One day it overheated and started dieseling while parked and dad pulled the gas line as the tachometer pegged out at 13,000 RPM.
Covering our heads with our arms, we knew it would fly apart, but it hung together. If a motorcycle ever overheats and begins to diesel (exploding the carbureted gasoline without the need of a spark), simply cover the exhaust with a gloved hand. My cousin Tom, a trials-bike enthusiast, and life-long motorcycle mechanic taught me this nifty trick.
Brother Jim and I wore out more bikes than I can recall – there was a shed stuffed full of broken frames and parts when I left for college – but our pride was a single-cylinder 1967 Ducati 350 Sebring that handled better than anything I’d ever ridden before. That classic would bring nearly $10,000 today.
Fast forward five decades and I’m now riding a 2011 Can-Am Spyder while my son Andrew pilots a 2006 R1200 BMW GS.
Rode one myself for ten years and still consider it the best motorcycle I ever possessed, especially for long-distance two-up riding.
The 1200 GS will go virtually anywhere, and I was dumb enough to try that idea. Luckily, my lonely corpse isn’t rotting unattended on a mountainous fire road in the middle of the Cherokee National Forest where I almost bit the dust two decades ago. Happily, my son is a firefighter and trained in accident avoidance, and smart enough to learn from another’s experience.
We’ve talked about visiting the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum for years, and we recently rode through the pine tunnel (Interstate 59) to Birmingham, rented a nice old house for two days, sucked down a couple of dozen oysters two nights in a row, and gawked at motorcycles until our eyeballs squeaked.
Spending $33 each on a guided tour was a no-brainer. Our guide “Coffee” knew Mr. George Barber personally and could answer any question we threw at him, along with stories to illustrate his points.
When I told him I thought T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) died on a Vincent, he corrected me and pointed to a 1935 Brough Superior SS100.
Ironically, my wife and I visited the UK in 2015 to witness Eric Clapton’s 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall and happened to be sitting on a park bench in Hyde Park when two elderly sisters sat down next to us and revealed they were Lawrence’s neighbors — and young children — in 1935 when he crashed in Dorset.
This massive museum — expanded in 2016 — now has 230,000 square feet of display space and hosts more than 1,400 motorcycles spanning 100 years of production and sits on 880 acres boasting a full race track that can accommodate F1 and Indy race cars.
Each October they host a Vintage Motorcycle Festival, and we’ll do our best to head back down the pine tree tunnel to the land of fresh raw oysters and vintage motorcycles.
Lawrence Scott and Lawrence of Arabia would be jealous on both counts.
One of our church pastors – we’re blessed with a tag-team, a hard-working couple with big hearts, and vivacious children – decided to make a video on biblical justice for a sermon series, and asked me to contribute due to my involvement in a prison ministry. Here’s the original script with details that hit the cutting room floor. The video turned out well, and it’s included here, but the context always helps.
Tampa Heights, Florida: 1980
The concept of biblical justice is so broad and detailed that I can’t cover it in three minutes. But I can tell a couple of stories that illustrate the idea.
In 1980 I worked at Tampa Heights Hospital in Florida, a psychiatric facility eerily resembling the novel/movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The gloomy, unclean building was a dark stage for constant drama. My pay was $3.20 per hour for wrestling unhinged people to the ground while nurses shot them up with Thorazine.
On my first day at work, a woman in her eighties struggling with severe dementia arrived in an ambulance. She’d been living at home with eight dogs, eating fido-food out of their dishes, sleeping with them in piles of rags, and defecating on the kitchen floor. Suddenly I was the only aide left standing there during her intake. I wondered why the others melted away. Looks like you get to clean her up, said the doctor. I donned three layers of plastic and tossed her into a hot tub filled with suds. On the third bath, fleas still jumped off as she giggled like a three-year-old.
A few months later the federal government decided to cut off financial aid to all those seeking psychiatric hospitalization, but couldn’t pay for it themselves. The ink was still fresh on President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act – which supported and financed community mental health support systems – but newly elected Ronald Reagan killed it with the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981, sending people to the streets.
President Reagan never understood mental illness. Like Richard Nixon, he was a product of the Southern California culture that associated psychiatry with Communism. Two months after taking office, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, a young man with untreated schizophrenia. Two years later, Reagan called Dr. Roger Peele, then director of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where Hinckley was being treated, and tried to arrange to meet with Hinckley, so that Reagan could forgive him. Peele tactfully told the president that this was not a good idea. Reagan was also exposed to the consequences of untreated mental illness through the two sons of Roy Miller, his personal tax advisor. Both sons developed schizophrenia; one committed suicide in 1981, and the other killed his mother in 1983. Despite such personal exposure, Reagan never exhibited any interest in the need for research or better treatment for serious mental illness. -- Wikipedia
Patients were told they could re-enter the now “private” facility if they forked over $250 cash.
No one had the cash.
They didn’t have their wits, must less the cash.
We dumped everyone onto the street. To my perpetual shame.
I looked up Tampa Heights Hospital to see if it still existed. Using an address I found for the old location, I discovered an article saying investors bought the place and turned it into a high-dollar drug rehab facility for rich customers. Ka-Ching.
Fast forward forty-one years and now I’m a Kairos volunteer.
Kairos is an organization that carries the knowledge of the saving grace of Jesus Christ to people in prison. It’s extremely successful because those who come to Christ change their lives in a positive direction, as shown in recidivism rates.
I visit the prison four times a month, teaching creative writing and attending Prayer and Share Tuesday night services with Kairos Weekend alumni.
When we’re in the prison on a Kairos Weekend twice a year, we view the medicine line, where prisoners are dispensed their psychiatric drugs. The line wraps around the building. Lately, thugs from gangs are beating up people in wheelchairs so they can get to the head of the line.
People inside tell us that uncountable inmates suffer psychiatric problems. Here are the official statistics:
The numbers are even more stark when parsed by gender: 55 percent of male inmates in state prisons are mentally ill, but 73 percent of female inmates are. Meanwhile, the think-tank writes, "only one in three state prisoners and one in six jail inmates who suffer from mental-health problems report having received mental-health treatment since admission." -- The Atlantic
Those hurting folks we dumped onto the streets during the 80’s – and those we’ve denied psychiatric treatment since – often live nightmarish prison lives.
From 2001 to 2018, the number of people who have died of drug or alcohol intoxication instateprisons increased by more than 600%, according to an analysis of newly-released data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In county jails, overdose deaths increased by over 200%. -- The Marshal Project
This is a biblical justice issue.
I really enjoy teaching creative writing at the prison because most of the writers are lifers. That means they will be in jail for life. They will never be set free.
Because of that, they’ve all been set free.
Why? They are believers in Christ Jesus.
They tried everything else in the world, and none of that worked. I mean everything.
And now that they’ve found grace, they are free to be what they were meant to be in the first place. And who offers grace? Our Lord and God.
No other substance, travel destination, guru, or religion can afford its cost.
Only one person in the history of the world could afford, pay for, and offer free to all of earth’s inhabitants the path to salvation through grace.
Freedom, in its purest form.
I’ve lost track of how many inmates have told me that they’re thankful for ending up in prison because they never would have met Jesus in the free world.
The “free world” of drugs, alcohol, prostitution, internet pornography, political disunity, ad infinitum.
They were saved by prison.
Because you sent in volunteers.
Because you baked cookies.
Because you prayed as the Body of Christ for four straight days 24/7 when lost souls needed it most: when they were at the crossroads of their lives on a Kairos Weekend.
That’s not his real name. But “DeWayne” is from Middle Tennessee and was fifteen when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.
He will never be set free.
I didn’t know this when I first met him when he joined our creative writing class two years ago.
After watching him interact with others, seeing how he takes care of everyone else but himself, after reading his excellent prose, after admiring his work with the Lifer’s Club, which uses its prison-earned money to buy backpacks and lunches for needy kids, I had to ask him.
What are you doing here? I can’t imagine you pulling off a crime.
DeWayne said he was fifteen and had just walked in the door after baseball practice and found his drunken step-father beating his mother with his fists. Again.
He’d witnessed these beatings over and over and it made him sick to his stomach.
This time he was holding a baseball bat.
DeWayne told me he’d been in prison for two years before he realized what he did was wrong. Then he gained two hundred pounds and weighed in at 380. Three-hundred-eighty-pounds.
This is a common side-effect of guilt.
Then he met Jesus on a Kairos Weekend and he’s been selfless ever since.
Lost one-hundred-fifty pounds. Weighs about 230 now.
DeWayne grows daily from reading, writing, praying, singing lead in the prison gospel band, and helping others.
Here’s the latest cut, inspired by a motorcycle ride through lovely Western North Carolina. Thanks for listening, praying, and washing your hands!
Jesus and Germs
My buddy and I
Took a long motorcycle ride
Through North Carolina one day.
When we stopped for a bite
The front door was locked tight.
But through a window
They offered take-away.
While we waited to be fed,
I saw a big sign overhead,
Its message shouted out to me.
It said: please pray and wash your hands.
If you don’t, we can’t understand.
Jesus and germs are everywhere.
Germs and Jesus.
Germs and Jesus.
We’re supposed to love our neighbor.
Is that now out of favor?
It’s not your right to sneeze all over me.
The Big Guy formed the oceans
The Big Girl made the seas.
Big minds think scientifically.
Germs and Jesus.
Does the thought make you squeamish?
Germs and Jesus are everywhere.
Jesus and germs
Maybe inside little worms,
Jesus and germs
Are in your hair.
Big Guy made the oceans.
Big Girl made the seas.
Big minds tend to think scientifically.
Germs and Jesus.
(Copyright, Alarice Multimedia, LLC.)
We complain, blame God for
Forget to give thanks for
We suffer floods, curse His name,
Forget to praise the sprouting
Our world seethes in Yin,
While gushing gracious Yang,
Equal parts solace,
Equal parts stain.
His work, our dalliance:
The Cross Road,
Where eternal fortunes
Giorgia – a graduate school girlfriend – elevated her quiet nature into an imminent road hazard whenever we strolled down the sidewalk. Male drivers – necks straining, eyeballs bulging—often smashed into telephone poles or clipped fire hydrants as we sauntered down the avenue, heads up for automotive danger.
Living on the same dormitory floor— we knew each other by sight — but never talked until the night I got blind drunk after breaking up with another undergraduate, an artist who drove race cars.
Can you drive me home? I asked Giorgia, dangling keys in front of a nearly-flawless face slightly smudged by a deviated septum, a casualty of early Cocaine Wars. She sat talking to girlfriends at the last bar I stumbled into and laughed a yes with smiling eyes before leading me to the car.
I thought you were never going to talk to me, she said, after I blurted a lame excuse to lay the back of my head down on her lap while she drove.
Too forward for a sober man, but acknowledging my condition, she laughed and acquiesced, giggling as I looked skyward, vision blotted out by anti-gravity projectiles. I’d grown up on a dairy farm and remained unimpressed with mammaries, perhaps making me attractive to such fine specimens.
Giorgia made extra money tutoring “special needs” college students, so I knew there was a beating heart under the quivering mamilla.
We enjoyed each other in countless ways, but then I drove off to Chicago to try out my new degree, and she stayed behind, three years younger and needing attention.
Then Christmas arrived.
Her parents, working-class Italian immigrants with World War Two in the rearview, lived in the suburbs, so we met there, six months of my neglect shading the day. I drove out from the city and she drove up four hours from the school. She didn’t need to announce the new attitude sparked by my six-month absence. The slumped shoulders, the sad turn at the corner of her mouth, and the failure to meet my eye screamed infidelity.
I sorely missed my own family during this precious holiday – turkey, gravy, red wine, brother, parents – as I sat down to a Christmas dinner of spaghetti and meatballs. Pizza.
And when her mother bent over to retrieve a box of frozen shrimp sweating under the icebox – it says right on the cover, keep under refrigeration! – darkness turned to light.
Varicose veins, yellow smoker’s teeth, boobs running over knees, forty-five extra pounds. Unassisted grease farts lifting a faded house dress in a hot kitchen.
When we kissed goodbye and Giorgia swished back to whomever now shared her collegiate bed, I felt the weight lift, the spirit rise. A window opened.
Glowing skin, radiant eyes, gravity-defying bazookas. Under refrigeration, crammed into bras, or blowing in the wind, they could not defy gravity. Forever.
May they attract a better man while they can, while they stand — a man who can go the distance — I prayed.
Someone who neither contemplates expiration dates, nor the continuous emotional support of a sad-and-saggy princess.
Travel may be the one expense that makes us richer. Although it is often fraught with short-term displeasure, the long-term effect – if you survive – is brain enhancing, life-rewarding.
Thirty-five years ago, my bride-of-one-day and I climbed aboard a used 1979 Honda Goldwing GL, a wedding gift from my parents, and rode up the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive to the middle of Maine and back.
People we met on that journey still live in our memories – John Belushi’s doppelgänger (bugs in teeth, leather football helmet, and an ancient black BMW R60/2 ridden only at night), and a couple in a canoe tossing-and-catching a newborn baby high into the air while rowing across a lake. Dad ran anti-drug program; mom was a headless woman in a circus act.
You can’t make that up.
This spring we reprised a section of the route – from Mount Pisgah, North Carolina to Waynesboro, Virginia – with a twist.
Friends Eric and Judy Middlemas joined the expedition with Eric leading my 2011 Can Am on his Honda 500, and Judy riding shotgun next to Lana in the car. We helped each other carry bags into hotels each night, and enjoyed meals together. Now and then we’d cross paths on the Blue Ridge Parkway, when the women weren’t “researching winery tours”.
The Mount Pisgah Inn
Our first stop, after a ninety-mile ride through gorgeous Western North Carolina mountain scenery – GPS set on Avoid Major Highways – was the wonderful Pisgah Inn.
The views from the dining room are spectacular, but the cuisine is even better. Where else can you get “Trail Mix Encrusted Mountain Trout”? I chose the pastry-fresh Chicken Pot Pie – not indigenous to the Southeast – but perfected by Pisgah Inn’s chef, who briefly transported me to Wisconsin via taste bud memories.
We enjoyed the easterly views from our hotel balconies before turning in, and although black clouds were pouring in, I decided to go outside and look west one more time. The sunset’s beauty mixed with ominous rain clouds predicted the next day’s adventure.
The next morning beamed warm and beautiful, but five minutes after we headed north the rain poured down and never quit. I’ve been soaked on rides before, but not to the bone. I hesitate to show this photograph (for obvious fat reasons) but the rain was so intense it soaked through my thick raincoat, an electric jacket, and three layers of tee shirts. I thought the tingling was a little intense, but I had no idea it was burning the skin. I’ve since recovered and the scars are gone, but I won’t forget to plan better next time.
As glorious as the Blue Ridge Parkway may be, there is nowhere to hide from rain. We saw two motorcyclists standing in one of the many tunnels we drove through, accidents waiting to happen on a dark rainy day with low visibility. We just kept riding.
When we arrived at Blowing Rock and checked into the motel, I immediately jumped into a hot shower to raise my body temperature. Eric – even more exposed with no handlebar or seat heaters plus a smaller windshield – felt hypothermic.
When planning to head out on the open road, consider torrential downpours. I’ve motorcycled for 50 years (age 15 to 65) and have covered much of the United States, but was never soaked to the bone and beyond. A heavy raincoat, two tee-shirts, and an electric-jacket didn’t do the job. Like an idiot, I’d left my motorcycle suit at home due to the high spring temperatures.
But an Aerostich suit will eliminate that threat if you soak it in TX-Direct Wash-In. If you get hot, open all the zippers and add ice to the pockets as needed.
I’ll never ride a long distance without it again.
Blowing Rock, North Carolina
One-hundred-ten miles north of Mount Pisgah lies Blowing Rock, famous in literary circles for Jan Karon’s “Mitford Novel Series” as Karon lived there many years and details in the novels point to local landmarks and inhabitants. Flocking tourists enjoy “At Home in Mitford Walking Tours”, lectures by local historians, “Mitford Days” and exhibits in the wonderful downtown park. These books aren’t for everyone, but they do offer escape from our present situation into a world many still desire.
What Kirkus Reviews in 1996 called Karon's "literary equivalent of comfort food" would seem to appeal primarily to middle-aged women who don't care to hear about sex or violence or to read any swear words, not even "damn." (Karon says that at the age of ten she got a whipping from her grandmother after she wrote a story containing "a word that Rhett Butler used.") -- The Atlantic, January 2002
The name “Blowing Rock” is born of Indian legend.
The Blowing Rock. Photo by Todd Bush.
It is said that a Chickasaw chieftain, fearful of a white man’s admiration for his lovely daughter, journeyed far from the plains to bring her to The Blowing Rock and the care of a squaw mother. One day the maiden, daydreaming on the craggy cliff, spied a Cherokee brave wandering in the wilderness far below and playfully shot an arrow in his direction. The flirtation worked because soon he appeared before her wigwam, courted her with songs of his land and they became lovers, wandering the pathless woodlands and along the crystal streams. One day a strange reddening of the sky brought the brave and the maiden to The Blowing Rock. To him it was a sign of trouble commanding his return to his tribe in the plains. With the maiden’s entreaties not to leave her, the brave, torn by conflict of duty and heart, leaped from The Rock into the wilderness far below. The grief-stricken maiden prayed daily to the Great Spirit until one evening with a reddening sky, a gust of wind blew her lover back onto The Rock and into her arms. From that day a perpetual wind has blown up onto The Rock from the valley below. For people of other days, at least, this was explanation enough for The Blowing Rock’s mysterious winds causing even the snow to fall upside down. -- The Legend of Blowing Rock
Over the years we’ve enjoyed visits to “The Republic of Floyd”, a quaint little village with a hippy lifestyle theme offering lots of good food, music, art, and recreation. The Hotel Floyd is a treasure, each room appointed differently from local sponsors.
Hotel Floyd sponsors a Floyd Center for the Arts Gallery located across from the front desk. When checking in, out, or just exploring the hotel, take a peek at some of the displayed artwork created by local artists.
At the Floyd Country Store, you can enjoy performances from some of the finest musicians in the country. Friday nights feature gospel music and dance bands. Saturdays include an eclectic group of performers. And, Sundays feature bluegrass bands.
The next morning Eric and I stopped for lunch at this icon, enjoying a good meal and greeting the women as they pulled up and began exploring the mill before we rode ahead.
The historic Mabry Mill is perhaps the most iconic structure on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. Experience live milling demonstrations, as this gristmill still grinds flour more than a century since its original construction! See the nearby Matthews Cabin, blacksmith shop and interpretive area. Here, National Park Service staff conducts demonstrations on blacksmithing, carding, spinning, basket making and other traditional Appalachian crafts. -- Mabry Mill Restaurant
The Peaks of Otter
If you’re ever in the vicinity of Bedford, Virginia, visit the National D-Day Memorial commemorating those who perished securing Normandy beaches. Soldiers from across the nation sacrificed their lives on this day for America’s freedom, but Bedford took the biggest hit:
By day’s end, nineteen of the company’s Bedford soldiers were dead. Two more Bedford soldiers died later in the Normandy campaign, as did yet another two assigned to other 116th Infantry companies. Bedford’s population in 1944 was about 3,200. Proportionally this community suffered the nation’s severest D-Day losses. Recognizing Bedford as emblematic of all communities, large and small, whose citizen-soldiers served on D-Day, Congress warranted the establishment of the National D-Day Memorial here. -- National D-Day Memorial
If a quiet picturesque rest spot is required after visiting Bedford, The Peaks of Otter fills the bill. Right off the parkway, this lovely spot offers hiking, rowing, and tasty meals. They were just up and running after the pandemic when we arrived, and friendly service and gracious hosts out-dueled newly implemented software clogging the computers. The local hospitality often outweighs inefficient government when tourism is key to economic survival.
Virginia Route 42
We finished the parkway and rode up to the gate of the Skyline Drive, which ventures another 105 miles north into Maryland, but pressing business at home turned us south to spend the night in the burgeoning village of Waynesboro, which offers a variety of excellent restaurants.
Riding home with the Alleghenies and West Virginia beside us, we tooled down scenic Route 42 – a superb motorcycle route – although covered with TRUMP 2020 signs pushing The Big Lie.
Just as I was pondering (philosophically, mind you) how to pull my pistol and eliminate some of that trash, we were stopped by a fallen tree lying across the road.
Had we arrived thirty seconds earlier: splat.
Eric, a retired Ph.D. holding several patents in the field of chemistry, dismounted along with his Type A attitude from the Honda and loudly asked: “Anyone gotta a chain saw? We need a chain saw!”
A minute later an old gentleman oozing work ethic and a lifetime of labor sauntered up with an ancient mid-sized Stihl and several of us pitched in to clear the scene in just a few minutes.
Which is emblematic of our culture these days: as long as there’s a mutual problem to solve, we work together like beavers.
But give us some free time – like a year sitting around during a pandemic – and we prefer to stab each other in the butt. The search for grace continues while un-grace blocks the way.
Ironically, I’m currently reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing about Grace? which delves into the age-old question: why do Christian’s hate so much?
“C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics. Politics, which always runs by the rules of un-grace, allures us to trade away grace for power, a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.” ― Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?
And it appears we’re right back in history’s saddle of un-grace, riding beside Henry the VIII, Oliver Cromwell, and seven wicked popes. Power for the sake of power never works out in the long run. History.
So we’ll take a lesson from volunteer tree cutters and stay in the saddle of grace as long as we can.
Long motorcycle adventures calm the spirit. If one is lucky enough to to enjoy the history and beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it will raise awareness of our mutual blessings, and our need to share God’s unending grace with those we encounter along life’s way.
Our way of life — our egalitarian society based on open democracy — depends on it.
A letter and booklet arrived in the mail this morning from the little Midwestern town where I grew up, the village mortician reminding me that a year has passed since my mother’s death.
I did not need reminding.
This mailing did not upset me – quite the opposite. The mortician had already buried my brother and cremated my mom and dad – I am now the only remaining remnant of our small brood, up next for the treatment. One of the benefits of growing up in a small town is that everyone knows everyone quite well. And that may be one of its limitations.
But this particular funeral director is a jovial, authentic person who’s always treated our family and friends with dignity, and we’re lucky to have him. His booklet Hope and Renewal explains the grieving process and how to combat negative feelings.
“Sometimes well-meaning people will encourage you to ‘get over it.’ Please ignore them. Even though you have come a long way toward healing, the road you are on is your own. Friends can walk along with you for a while, but they can’t make the trip for you. It will take as long as it takes.”
Tips are offered on how to move forward, how to reach out to others who also grieve for your loved one, and letting the tears flow as they may.
“Focus on rebuilding your life, taking time to re-organize and re-energize,” it instructs. “The point isn’t to replace your loved one, but to find new people or activities for the feelings you used to give your loved one.”
We cannot hide from memories, good or bad.
My greatest hurdle this year was dealing with mistakes I made during mom’s passing. Overall, things went well. After hearing the bombshell diagnosis – lung cancer has spread to bones and brain – she languished in a nearby nursing home for three weeks under COVID restrictions.
But we were able to bring her home for the last month of her life and she was comfortable with hospice, whom she’d praised and admired during my dad’s death in the fall of 2015 to colon cancer. We even had a few laughs with the hospice staff. One middle-aged female was British, and I asked her if she had any trouble acclimating.
“One lady asked if I could speak American,” she said. “I didn’t say anything, but I considered ramming a white-hot poker into my ear and dashing out half of my brains to accomplish the task,” she giggled.
Mom passed with my wife and I by her side – along with her minister – who visited nearly every day and became a godsend when we needed to draw on his spiritual strength.
But my mom and I are much alike – born to debate – and we could have been kinder to each other over that last month. Some of the old bugaboos flared up at the end, aggravating us both.
We never let them fester and we loved each other as much as a mother-son can love – but the fact that they existed at all tormented me over the months until I finally sat down this morning almost a year later and wrote her a letter, leaving all the regrets on the page before I lit the paper and sent it to heaven via black smoke signals.
An hour later the mail arrived with her answer in the mortician’s booklet.
“Your memories of your loved one will be both happy and painful. If some of your memories are still very painful, let yourself experience them anyway. You can’t run away from them. The best way to take the sting out is to recognize, accept, and express them. At the same time, try to tap into happier memories. Remember birthdays, holidays, vacations, celebrations, and milestones. Sharing memories can multiply the healing. The more you share happy memories, the more power they will have, and the more healing you will gain.”
Here’s the way the Big Guy works:
My wife and I “just happen” to be reading Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing about Grace? for a devotional. This is what he had to say about the lack of grace this very morning:
“Ungrace does its work quietly and lethally, like a poisonous, undetectable gas. A father dies unforgiven. A mother who once carried a child in her own body does not speak to that child for half its life. The toxin steals on, from generation to generation.”
-- Philip Yancey
You’ve seen ungrace in your friends’ families, maybe even your own, and you know the accompanying pain.
But if you believe in a Higher Power, you may also be familiar with grace.
“The proof of spiritual maturity is not how pure you are but awareness of your impurity. That very awareness opens the door to grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.”
-- Philip Yancey
Thank you, Mom, for reading my letter and sending your answer within an hour. I know you believed in grace, too, and are experiencing it now. Forever.
“One who has been touched by grace will no longer look on those who stray as ‘those evil people’ or ‘those poor people who need our help.’ Nor must we search for signs of ‘love worthiness.’ Grace teaches us that God loves because of who God is, not because of who we are.”
-- Philip Yancey
As the only remaining family member, I can honestly say that going forward with life on earth is impossible without grace.
At least for me, it isn’t.
Please don’t wait until a graceful mortician mails that idea home to you.
In 2017, 1.7 million Americans had substance use disorders with an addiction to prescription opioid pain killers. A little over 650,000 Americans had a heroin addiction (with some overlap between the two).
In 2017, approximately 47,000 Americans lost their lives due to opioid overdoses.
National opioid prescribing rates started increasing in 2006 and peaked in 2012 at 255 million with a dispensing rate of 81.3 prescriptions per 100 Americans. In 2019, the dispensing rate had fallen to 46.7 per 100 persons with over 153 million opioid prescriptions dispensed. However, some counties had rates that were 6 times higher than the national average.
Opioid overdose deaths increased from around 21,000 in 2010 to nearly 50,000 in 2019.
Roughly 21-29% of people given prescriptions for opioid pain relievers misuse the medications. Up to 12% of people who use opioids to treat chronic pain treatment go on to develop opioid use disorder.
Around 4-6% of people who misuse prescription opioids later go on to abusing heroin.
8 out of 10 heroin users started out by first using prescription opioid pain pills.
OPIOID ABUSE STATISTICS IN THE UNITED STATES
1.6 million Americans have an opioid use disorder.
10.1 million people report misusing opioids at least once in the past 12 months.
Among opioid abusers, 9.7 million people misuse prescription pain pills, 745,000 abuse heroin, and 404,000 abuse both prescription pain pills and heroin.
STATISTICS ON OPIOID-RELATED DEATHS IN THE U.S.
Every day, 136 people die from an opioid overdose in the United States, including prescription and illicit opioid drugs.
Overdose deaths in the U.S. involving prescription opioids (including methadone and semi-synthetic opioids) numbered around 3,500 in 1999 and increased to over 17,000 in 2017.
From 2012 to 2015, there was a 264% increase in deaths related to synthetic opioids.
In 2019, more than 71,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Of these, over 70% (roughly 50,000 deaths) were overdoses involving opioids, including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
From 2018 to 2019, the overall opioid-involved death rate increased by over 6%. While prescription opioid-involved deaths and heroin-involved deaths declined by 6-7%, the synthetic opioid-involved death rate increased by more than 15%.
Between 1999 and 2019, nearly 500,000 Americans have died from an overdose involving an opioid drug.
STATISTICS ON COST OF OPIOID ABUSE IN THE U.S.
Misuse of prescription opioids alone costs the U.S. more than $78 billion a year, including healthcare costs, lost productivity, criminal justice costs, and addiction treatment.
My first album will be released Friday 12 March. Available at the outlets below. Had no intention of doing this, but two factors led to its creation: 1) the closing of libraries that thwarted the novel I was working on; and, 2) An old friend planted a bug in my ear. I’d written a couple of songs and he said might as well do an album. Arg. Spotify links arriving on release day.
Have you ever noticed how everything is political now? Even Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. So let’s focus on what’s important! Plastic! Tater heads!
Mr. Tater Head.
He’s in the news.
Mr. Tater Head.Mrs. Tater Head
Mrs. Tater Head.Doesn’t matter
How many died
Of the Covid.It’s Mr. Tater Head.
He’s the Man.
He’s political.So let's focus
On what’s important:
Plastic Tater Heads.Mr. Tater Head.
Lost his sex.
He’s a eunuch now. Mrs. Tater Head
Lost all her parts.
She is barren now.Baby Taters
Come from somewhere.
From the plastic patch?Mr. Tater Head.
He’s lost his sex.
He’s a eunuch now. So let's focus
On what’s important:
Plastic Tater Heads.
Where are we now?Where has America gone?Where are we now?Is this the swan song?Where have the morals gone?Taught from above?Where are the morals now?Where are truth and love?Where are the Christians now?Since lies are King?Where are the Christians now?Does money mean everything?Where are the brains now?That death and ignorance reign?Where are the brains now?They took the chump train.They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
They took the chump train.
People sat on their hands in ’16. Didn’t care much for the Democratic Queen. But now their eyes are open once again.
(Turn Around) And they turned out in droves to defend. What makes America the greatest land. Egalitarian law. We are a beacon. Once again.
When 2024 rolls around, They won’t send in another clown. No, the next guy won’t fool around.
(Turn Around) A death grip will choke out the truth. Hate and fear will again rule the roost. He’ll invent a new Jim Crow and crew. Imprison anyone who won’t eat the stew. Once again.
Freedom is never really free. Takes vigilance from people like you and me. We can’t wait around or we’ll be sacked.
(Turn Around) Got to keep the Boogey Men off our backs. Keep lights shining on science and facts. Justice will only prevail. If we join hands: Female and male. Black and white. Yellow and red. Once again.
When I was twenty-three, I found myself unemployed and living in my girlfriend’s room in her parents’ beautiful brick home on the South Side of Chicago in an affluent white neighborhood slipping into descent after the M.L.K. riots of 1968.
They kept me upstairs in her room and visible, with girlfriend sadly relegated to the basement.
Wonderful folks, actually, and I am thankful for them.
I remember wandering the streets day-after-day-week-after-week begging for work, sliding in and out of tawdry bars – sticky-floor flyblown dives I’d never venture into for a drink on my own — but places I now prayed would hire me because I’d just spent $250 attending Professional Bartender’s School and earning a Professional Bartender’s Certificate after wasting a week pouring colored water out of fake liquor bottles into appropriate glasses.
Armed with this “certificate”, I wandered into dozens of Chicagoland watering holes, but no one would hire me.
Sheila’s Puke Shack owner S. Hardnutter threw me the stink eye the second I dangled the Professional Bartender Certificate in front of her narrowing eyes; then she pointed me toward the door.
Each night I’d limp home on sore feet and sit on my girlfriend’s bed and despair.
I remember a lone tear running down my cheek one night, followed in a few seconds by spontaneous laughter.
My mind ran to Iron Eyes Cody – a pure-blood Italian, we found out later – who made an environmental television advertisement as an American Indian saddened by the rape of the land, a single tear running down his cheek, which miraculously prodded Americans into picking up roadside trash.
For a while.
Swinging for the fence the next morning, I took a train downtown and hit all the major bars on Michigan Avenue, earning a ubiquitous thumbs down.
Fingering the last $10 in my pocket, I stood at the corner of Walton and Michigan Avenue, eyeballing The Drake, where visiting Queen Elizabeth bedded down.
Too classy for my zero experience, I reckoned.
Looking southeast — across the street at the old Palmolive Building — I saw the Playboy Club‘s flashing siren-lights.
Shrugging off the gut instinct to stop wasting my time, I walked inside and told the smiling Bunny at the door that I needed to see the human relations rep.
Who turned out to be my girlfriend’s sister’s best friend.
“You’re in luck!” she smiled.
“We need a bartender pronto, and you can start Monday morning!
“Get here at ten for an orientation on lunch, which starts at eleven.”
One night, only two months after donning the brown polyester Playboy bartender outfit, I was working that same back bar, where they keep rookies out of sight from the general public.
Bunnies, bottles, glasses, and drinks were the only objects in my vision when we heard a sudden commotion in the banquet room.
“Lynyrd Skynyrd just walked in,” said Nina, a six-foot-two-inch black beauty South Sider with popping biceps and a bunch of older brothers. I’m six-four and she looked down at me from those heels. Her biceps sprung while her lips snarled.
“Rednecks from hell,” she added.
The partying immediately intensified and I slung drinks like a three-arm robot. About twenty minutes later, a scream filled the air:
“Get your hands out of there! I’ve already got one asshole in there!” Nina shouted.
I prayed she didn’t backhand whichever idiot made the move.
The other Bunnies told me the band fell silent, rose slowly on wobbly legs, and trudged up the stairs to the Red Room while patrons observed how scrawny they looked.
I’d seen them live at the RKO Orpheium in Davenport, Iowa in 1974 and they were absolutely wonderful, playing Free Bird before it was released.
Aerosmith opened that show and played Dream On before it hit the airwaves.
Knocked us out of our bell bottoms.
Ed King was in Skynyrd back then, a stocky blonde dude from California, but this was 1979 and these greasy-looking rockers weaving on their feet in stained denim had a sad feel about them two years after the fateful airplane crash that cored their creative apple.
Good thing Nina didn’t knock their teeth out and retire them for good.
Another bartender — an American Indian named Warren — told me The Who was playing at the Stockyards the next weekend.
So my brother Jim, girlfriend Kim — a nursing student at Northwestern — Warren, and I piled into my blue 1952 Chevrolet.
City buses actually moved over to avoid that giant hunk of straight-six powered steel.
As we walked up to the ticket counter, we noticed Warren was missing.
While we stood in the lobby waiting to enter, Warren arrived, nervously chattering:
“Here, eat this fast!”
Warren’s outstretched palm revealed three large lozenges.
What’s that? asked Jim.
Quaaludes, said Warren.
We don’t need any Quaaludes, said Kim.
The cops watched me buy them, and if they find them on you you’ll go to jail, said Warren.
Idiot, I cursed as we choked down the large pills.
Except for Warren.
Suddenly three undercover cops surrounded us, frisked our pockets, found the Lude on Warren, and cuffed him.
I never saw him again and suspect he had outstanding warrants in other states, having just slipped into Chicago from Las Vegas.
If you’re lucky, you learn from such mistakes and take a little time to get to know folks before befriending them so hastily.
The concert sucked. Big time.
The International Amphitheater — on the South Side next to the infamous Stock Yards where my great great grandfather rustled cattle after he rounded them up from Canada to Mexico — was a giant cement box.
The only musical chords you could make out were the first and last of each song.
Everything in between attacked your ears like a swirling vortex of vulture screams.
Townsend leaped, Daltrey pinwheeled, Jones tried to keep up, and Entwistle glowed. Fans directly in front of him showered him with roses all night long.
Before the concert, a friend named Pat who dated English-major Bunny “Mary” — they married forty years ago right after they graduated — said he was driving Entwistle to the concert.
Meet us in the parking lot after the show, he said.
Pat earned an MS from Northwestern and retired decades later from East Stroudsburg University as a full professor and plays weekend gigs in NYC with folks like Woody Herman (now deceased) and Phil Hill.
But at that moment in his life, Pat paid for his education by driving a limousine, wearing the black leather gloves, black tie, short coat, and little black hat while discovering local celebs like Phil Donahue were tightwads at tip-time.
Furthermore, the limo’s garage was on the West side of Cabrini-Green, a notorious housing project where electricity often failed and residents peed down elevator shafts in frustration.
Pat’s only avenue to the parking garage ran in front of this public housing nightmare — completely razed in 2011— and he ducked down in the seat returning to the garage as bullets previously shattered two passenger windows on his watch.
During the middle of the farting elephant contest inside the concert hall, I looked over to see both Kim’s and Jim’s chins resting on their chests, drool leaking out the sides of their mouths.
They appeared to be paralyzed from the face back.
Once that Quaalude ignited, the sensation resembled drinking a gallon of beer in five minutes. I’ve never done that, but that’s the best description I can come up with. Super drunk super fast with sleep on the near horizon.
Perhaps you saw the Jeff Goldblum Quaalude scene in The Big Chill. That’s how it works. One minute you’re having an engaging conversation. The next?
When the cacophony finally subsided, I led my stumbling charges to the parking lot, and there was Pat in the driver’s seat and John Entwistle in the backseat, waiting.
One of my musical heroes, ten feet away, his signature about to grace my autograph book.
Then Kim and Jim began to sway.
Spinning slowly like two tops on their final rotations.
Suddenly, they stopped swaying and stood at attention.
A pregnant moment elapsed.
Then they fell — simultaneously — onto their faces.
Pat covered his countenance with his hands. John Entwistle smiled and waved like he’d seen this all before.
I waved back, rolled them over, wiped gravel from their mouths, and dragged them by their coat collars back to the rusty-blue 1952 Chevrolet with the big dent in the roof.
Our shadows long and lean in the limo lights.
My first trip abroad (I was twenty-eight, on summer break from a suburban Chicago high school) found me walking through Hyde Park in London, on my way to a train to Camden where my old next-door-neighbor Jim Ringenberg was playing the Electric Ballroom with his bandJason and the Scorchers on the Fourth of July.
Even 27 years later, I still think 4 July 1985, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, was one of the most thrilling performances I've ever seen. The lead singer wore a western suit; the bass player looked like a punk riverboat gambler, with black trousers and waistcoat, and bootlace tie; the guitarist was a metaller, with long hair and leathers; the drummer, spiky-haired and ratty looking, had a confederate flag flying where one of his toms should have been.
The park bustled with activity and all at once a vivacious young woman dressed in a stylish white top, white shorts, white socks, black rollerblades, and a black Sony Walkman strapped to her side charged directly at me, so I side-stepped into the grass as she twirled around, smiled, caught her breath, and then took off again.
As I turned to watch her skate away, three bodyguards dressed in black jogged by, giving her thirty yards.
A fan magazine later wrote she’d been listening to a particular Dire Straits song that week, as they were about to Skateaway at Wembley.
The President of Bangladesh
In 1999 I spent the month of February in Bangladesh, touring the nation and living in rich folks’ homes on a Rotary International assignment.
Rotary helps people all over the world, and are at the brink of eradicating polio on the planet. We were there to tour Rotary-built hospitals and wells they’d dug before acid leaching out of the Himalayas poisoned them.
At the end of our stay, we returned to Dhaka, a city so sprawling and crawling with human life that the exact population is unknown.
Then the nation went on strike for three days. The air cleared, revealing what some believe to be the exact location of the Garden of Eden.
Soft breezes. Palm trees. Perpetual 78-82 degrees. The sweet smell of bougainvillea filling the air.
Suddenly, the strike broke up and hundreds of thousands of two-stroke motors fired back up.
By three in the afternoon, I could not see my hand clearly in front of my face.
When I returned to the US, I spit up black tar for three weeks.
At the end of our stay, we visited the government palace and met the President, a figurehead position in Bangladesh.
Like America needs.
Seriously, the executive branch has gained way too much power in recent years, and a single person isn’t up to the job.
So I propose we create an executive cabinet split among political parties (50/50 at the moment), twelve men/women with talent, courage, vision, and clean records to run the nation.
A team dedicated to preserving and extending American values of truth and dignity — not the deep purses of special interests, major corporations, or foreign nations — an honest executive branch taking the heat for failures, and the credit for wins.
While a “figurehead” president flies around kissing babies, breaking champagne bottles on new ships, and slapping backs at Rotary Club meetings.
Golfing with other big wigs. Tweeting pleasantries to all fifty stars on the flag about how we’re working together and solving problems like the virus, global warming, education, and childhood hunger.
Bringing folks from disparate backgrounds together, healing wounds, and modeling the advantages of unity.
What a concept.
The grey-bent toddlers currently throwing hissy fits over vote counting have one foot in the grave and the other on the banana peel of history. Perhaps their selfishness will one day magically disappear?
So as we’re sitting in the anteroom, I’m wondering what this Bangladeshi president looks like. Oman Sharif?
Then we’re called into his office. We sit and wait. Suddenly …
In walks Groucho Marx.
A dead ringer.
We casually sip tea and eat shortbread biscuits while exchanging small talk.
I snort loudly into my tea when Groucho lifts his eyebrows several times making a remark.
We say goodbye, the President shakes our hands and smiles, we leave.
Your lower lip is bleeding, said a college outside the palace.
Had to bite them, I said.
Me too! she laughed as we doubled up, shook hysterically, and stomped our feet on the palace steps.
While teaching at a junior college in East Tennessee, I spent one day a month in Nashville as president of the faculty, meeting with the governing board, and Maya Angelou happened to be in town one evening I was there.
A newspaper article said she’d receive $50,000 for a one-hour performance.
No one is worth $50k an hour, I thought to myself. After the show, where she’d sung (made us all cry), danced (made us all laugh), told her story (tears upon tears), and read poetry (enlarging our souls), I thought:
That was worth $150,000. She got ripped off.
Then I walked across the street into a bookstore where I browsed for twenty minutes when all of a sudden I felt a spiritual presence by my side.
When I turned, Maya Angelou looked me in the eyes, smiled, and said hello. I mentioned how much I enjoyed the show. We talked for ten minutes.
After five or six questions concerning my background, how I used my time, mission work, church, and family life, her eyes saw straight into me, and she spoke of things about myself that I knew were there, but feared. Because if I acknowledged those gifts from God, I’d have to act on them.
So tears drip onto the paper today as I scribble these notes.
Furthermore, the caged-bird sang once again on Tuesday.
And the entire world applauded, then danced in the streets.
My buddy in Reno is a medical doctor (psychiatry) and believes we are a virus, ourselves. This is not a new idea:
I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals.
Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not.
You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area.
There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus.
Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.
You’re a plague.
-- Agent Smith (Matrix, 1999)
During our conversation, it occurred to me that humans have taught this viral concept to their offspring throughout the ages:
Unsurprising, if God is truly Omnipotent. One of our Methodist ministers over the years, Larry Owsley, tells this wonderful story.
He’s a pretty bright guy, and was an advanced reader for his age when he climbed up into his grandmother’s lap and asked:
Can God do anything?
Oh yes, he can do anything, she said.
Can God seed the universe using comets containing DNA particles?
Her face turned red. She thought for a moment. Then said:
No, he certainly cannot do that!
My wife and I have avoided the fray, but we’ve heard about runs on toilet paper, guns, and especially ammunition. Do you think all our bullets are produced in the U.S.? That would be a logical assumption, but it’s a global business.
Send Lawyers Guns and Money …
The mayor of Champaign, Illinois recently signed an executive order banning alcohol and gun sales.
Back when Obama was first elected, I happened to be in a gun/vacuum-cleaner store — customers called it The Suck and Shoot — and the owner, a short fat man, climbed up on the counter and screamed: “Get your guns now! This bastard is taking your guns! Better get your guns now!”
I live in East Tennessee, and that wasn’t surprising. Having grown up in the Midwestern gun culture myself, I was not alarmed to see racks of machine-guns (semi-autos easily reconfigured) lining Mahoney’s Outfitters when I first moved to town. Dan Mahoney, an Irish tenor with a beautiful voice, has soloed in our church choir for decades. He doesn’t have to stand on the counter and scream.
The church I attend is extremely generous with its time, talent, and resources, but it wasn’t always this way. When my wife and I joined in 1990, many of the congregants were “intellectuals” from the university (myself included) who thought highly of the impoverished, but didn’t do much to help them physically. We threw money at them, mostly. Kept our distance.
After catching up on REM’s for a couple of years during blah blah blah sermons, I told my wife I was bored.
“Maybe if you got off your butt and DID something, things would get better,” she said.
Uh. This is why I love her. No one else stands up to me this way.
So I joined a group in our Pathfinders Sunday School class working the Appalachia Service Project, and that first year we repaired the Ferguson family home in Sneedville, Tennessee. Mom worked at Hardee’s, Dad fixed cars out of the garage next to the house, and two male children attended elementary school.
Hank and AJ.
Our crew — and others throughout the summer — upgraded their home, which was in sad shape. The Fergusons made just enough cash to put food on the table and clothes on the kids’ backs, but home repair fell outside the budget. Appalachia Service Project’s motto is warmer, safer, drier.
The first day I removed a ceiling tile and about two gallons of dead bugs poured out onto the white kitchen table cloth.
Fast forward thirty years.
My wife and I happened to be in Sneedville a few weeks ago, visiting relatives. We asked about the Fergusons.
“Both AJ and Hank work for Mahle in Morristown,” they said. “Making specialty parts for NASCAR racing.”
These types of jobs require engineering knowledge and pull in good money. AJ has already purchased a farm and home outside Sneedville. He’s married and has a son in high school.
A freshman standing 6’6″ weighing 240 pounds.
Our crew was just a tiny piece of that success, but it still brings tears to our eyes. That was the firstof our fourteen ASP years, each with a story like the Fergusons. Since then I’ve been a part of local, national, and international service projects.
But it’s not about me. I’m just a tiny cog in the vast machinery of Christians working together, heads down, mouths shut, hearts open, wallets ready.
Three weeks ago I attended a Kairos One-Day Retreat with sixty-six residents of NECX, a maximum-security prison near Mountain City, Tennessee housing 1,800 inmates. I sat next to two gentlemen, Harold and Larry. Both had attended Kairos Weekends — similar to Emmaus Walks — earlier in their prison lives.
Harold’s old prison name was Thumper. Why? If anyone looked at him funny — or if he thought you looked funny at him — you got thumped. Inmates asked permission to cross the threshold of his jail cell. One fledgling guard actually quit his job after Thumper threatened to kill him and all of his family.
Incarcerated three times, Thumper’s last conviction was for homicide. After decades of trying everything that doesn’t work (drugs, alcohol, several world religions, violence, gang life) he eventually came to a Kairos Weekend, met Jesus, and felt he could not turn his back on Him any longer.
Reclaiming his given name, Harold cast Thumper into the dust bin of history. Then went to the phone and called the prison guard.
While telling me this story, Harold whistled and a young dewy-eyed officer came over.
“Yeah, I quit when Thumper said he would kill me,” he said. “But now I’m back at work feeding my family.”
“Because Thumper no longer exists. “
Larry is also a lifer — a euphemism for those serving a life sentence — and he told me he helped organize The Lifers’ Club.
Then he told me what they do: a) publish a monthly newsletter supporting each other and the community; b) build a positive reputation with the local and regional citizens by giving back through public and community service; c) strengthen public awareness about truth in sentencing, uniform sentencing, and appropriate parole guidelines. And the final plank?
Lifers pool their limited resources to help others.
They’ve purchased wheelchairs for handicapped kids. Clothed and fed the homeless. Purchased backpacks and sent money to impoverished kids trying to attend school. Larry rattled off all they’ve done the last six months, but I couldn’t write them down fast enough to enter them all here.
Furthermore, they’ve put together a correspondence course — outside of any help from the state — to help each other cope with life in prison.
I read through the course as two of my creative writing students contributed chapters, and it’s extremely well-written with excellent advice on how to improve yourself once you know you’re spending the rest of your life behind bars.
One of the amazing aspects of the Kairos Ministry is getting to know inmates and Lifers who are actually freer— we’re talking between the ears here — than half the folks you meet on the street who eternally lock themselves into personal self-constructed hells — anger, unforgiveness, bad finances, bad relationships, drugs, alcohol, dead-end careers, poor diet, no exercise, insufficient sleep, ad infinitum.
Since I’m at the prison a lot — two creative writing classes and four Kairos prayer-and-shares a month — I’m getting to know what kind of homes produce Lifers. And that’s ugly.
To my amazement, Lifers I’ve met remain positive, even hopeful. Here’s an example from one of my creative writing students who grew up in a home that most of us would not survive. Yet, through Christ, he has gained another view over twenty years of incarceration:
I don’t know about you, but when I read stuff like that, my own problems are diminished, and my faith is strengthened.
We may be free, but do we cherish it?
Do we free-world folks increase the value of our freedom by taking time to help others not-so-lucky? You don’t have to go into a prison to do that. There’s more than enough work to do, as folks in need appear almost everywhere we look — often on the same block where we live.
We are designed to think outside of ourselves, according to our Creator:
We all can lift ourselves. By simply lifting others.
While living up to the standards of the Lifers’ Club.
A certified rock star, whose stage apparel and song lists hang in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame, graced Johnson City’s Down Home Saturday night on February 8th to promote Stand Tall, an homage to Jason and the Scorcher’s 1996 release Still Standing.
The owner of this famous pickin’ parlor – Ed Snodderly – is also honored inside the CMHOF, lyrics to his “Diamond Stream” hanging prominently near the rock star’s regalia. Don’t know Ed? Perhaps you saw him at the movies playing the “crazy fiddler” in the Cohen Brother’s classic O Brother, Where Art Thou?
“Jason” – his middle name – wandered up and down the Rock Island Line south of his home, jawing Bob Dylan tunes on the harmonica to the beat of ground-shaking freight trains, getting the music down into his DNA … while the rest of us drank beer and drove too fast.
After strumming a guitar and singing a self-penned valedictory “speech” to his high school classmates, Jason slipped down to Carbondale, Illinois to earn a bachelor’s degree (with a minor in history) and to soak up the punk vibe sweeping small clubs in the late ’70s.
In 1981, Ringenberg moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he soon formed Jason and the Scorchers with Warner Hodges, Jeff Johnson, and Perry Baggs. Their potent mix of punk rock and country gained them fans around the world. In the words of Rolling Stone they "singlehandedly re-wrote the history of rock'n'roll in the South". They won critical approval with the release of successful albums and energetic live performances. -- Wikipedia
Seriously, there’s a reason for such longevity.
Way back in 1985 I enjoyed my first international trip to the British Isles — I’d paid for college myself through a series of part-time jobs — and was finally debt-free at age twenty-eight and able to travel. Luckily, Jason and the Scorchers were playing an Independence Day bill at the Electric Ballroom in London while I was there.
So I witnessed several hundred British youth bouncing off the walls and waving Rebel flags to “Harvest Moon” – a song recalling our Midwestern youth.
Harvest Moon, shine on down The chill of the air wakes the ghosts of the ground. Northern wind, I hear your voice, But killing frost takes all hope of choice.
The sight of all those kids inflamed and jamming to the boy next door raised my hackles, as the memory still does. Here’s an article claiming Jason and the Scorchers to be the greatest rock band in the world at the time I saw them.
Ironically, my first jet flight may have been my last.
While researching this story I discovered the 1985 Air India ticket that got me there. The plane behind us went down killing 329. Terrorists tried to put the bomb on our plane, but couldn’t get it done. They succeeded the following week. We happened to be in Ireland then, riding bicycles￼￼ near Dingle and hearing depth charges going off as workers tried to locate the 747 on the bottom of the Irish Sea.
At the same time Jason rocked the Electric Ballroom, Bruce Springsteen enjoyed seeing his image – the iconic Telecaster draped across his back for the Born in the USA album – draped upon buildings in Piccadilly Circus, while Dire Straits filled Wembley Stadium.
I went backstage, met the band, shook Jason’s hand, and noticed Ringenberg had no interest in partying like his bandmates, obvious professionals. Jason — the eternal designated driver — kept the guys together as long as possible. The last tour (2010) featured two original members — Jason and Warner Hodges — still standing.
The last time we talked was at a classmate’s memorial, and although Jason had aged like the rest of us, the family genetics, a harmonious healthy lifestyle, and calm domestic life revealed a wrinkle-free face marked only by laugh lines and a perpetual grin.
Jason and I aren’t close, and honestly, I’m not a huge fan of the music, though I’m fond of O Lonesome Prairie, as corny as it is. Golden Ball and Chain is a killer rock and roll thunder bomb, indeed. But Bonnie Raitt, Mark Knopfler, Robbie Robertson, Eric Clapton, and the mailman from Crystal Lake, Illinois – John Prine – do it for me.
"Imagine introducing into this atmosphere a lanky hick from an Illinois pig farm who wore a goofy faux-leopard cowboy hat and shiny fringed shirts that made him look like Porter Wagoner on mescaline, a guy who whipped his body around as furiously as he did his microphone cord," wrote Mansfield. "Back him with three of the town's most notorious rockers," and that was Jason & the Scorchers. -- Index of American Biographies
I saw Porter Wagoner once, hosting the Opry to a packed show at the Ryman, and witnessed a bus-load of Japanese pressing the stage, looking directly up into the stage lights.
“How do my nose hairs look tonight, folks?” he cackled. “Long enough for ye?”
Jason’s three years younger than I, and hog farmers usually don’t hang out with hog farmers due to the smell. Two nice-looking farm girls living south of us were good friends, but they resided on the Hog Farm from Hell with thousands of confined porkers. Made our two-hundred-fifty outdoor rangers smell like roses, so I never went over much. When I did, we’d laugh at rich Chicago folks driving by with handkerchiefs draped over their faces.
Olfactory fatigue is God’s gift to the hog farmer.
One of my favorite images of Jason was on a summer day in my sixteenth year after I bought a Gibson SG Junior and a Fender Princeton amp. Exactly two minutes after I hit the first power chord, there he was, standing in front of me asking about the guitar – his house a half-mile away.
I certainly admire Jason’s genuineness, his exceptional energy – if we could harness that left leg, whole cities could remain off the power grid – the truth inside his lyrics, and the passion he brings to every show, no matter the size or location.
There were about thirty at the Down Home Saturday night, all rabid fans. They asked him to play obscure songs only true admirers would recall. At the break, Jason sat down at our table to swap news. A polite word for gossip.
“The word is your mom is driving around town twenty miles an hour while reading the Bible,” I said, sheepishly. Felt the blood leap up into my face.
Passing fake news is a Mark of the Devil these days.
A true hero of Sheffield, Jason earned it by exemplifying Midwestern values, kindness, humility and a perpetually positive attitude. His mother, ninety-one this year, still drives to town for groceries and warms your heart with friendly hugs every time you see her. The intelligence flashing in her eyes mirrors Jason’s, smiling eyes perpetually admiring God’s handiwork, grateful eyes pondering the blessings and grace that make this life possible to navigate.
“That’s a rumor,” said Jason. “She got picked up for driving too slowly and not knowing what to say, she held up a Bible that was lying on the passenger seat.”
Long pause. Then wife Lana cut in, trying to save my trash face:
“I grew up on a small farm near Sneedville, Tennessee. If nothing’s happening, folks make stuff up to fill the void. Exaggeration is the name of the game. Storytelling never ends.”
Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping.
One day you’re a teen power-chording a new amp on the front porch, the next day you’re watching the neighbor in his heyday wowing London, and then suddenly you’re receiving social security checks and the graying troubadour from across Route 6 croons to your wife in a small room of adoring fans while she marvels at human connections transcending space and time, connections threading through us from cradle to grave.
Which is something to acknowledge and cherish.
While we’re still standing.
Videos from The Down Home, 8 February 2020, Jason Ringenberg, Stand Tall tour.
My son and his fiancé asked us over for a tasty mid-morning outdoor breakfast –– her parents were visiting on their way to Texas –– so we enjoyed smoked bacon, mixed fresh fruit, and recently-gathered eggs next to a large lavender bush. A monster.
Which reminded me of an ancient National Geographic special I’d seen thirty-some years ago, featuring an African pygmy village built around a giant marijuana bush.
The men either stood before the patch red-eyed swaying back and forth between bong hits, intermittently tending to plants, or sat in the community shed eating grasshoppers –– they popped the heads off first –– between bong hits.
All the physical labor and child care fell upon the women (imagine that) while the village population dwindled in the same downward trajectory as sperm health.
The military drove the Pygmies out of the Congo’s national parks in 1991 –– indigenous lands since time immemorial –– so now they’re clinging to the fringe of those parks, hiding small pot fields here and there, selling weed illegally, and barely eking out a living while constantly dodging “authorities”.
This week’s local paper reported that although opioid prescriptions are down thirty-percent, the death rate holds firm. Folks simply switch over to street heroin or fentanyl and die just the same.
The global village is now built around the Big Pharma Bush
Although recently discovered to be a significant part of human culture since 500 BC, weed carries health risks that cannot be ignored as injecting smoke into your lungs is always risky.
Positive effects are legion, but the only canary-in-the-coal-mine on current public display is Willie Nelson, who recently said that weed saved his life and kept him vital, avoiding the alcohol/tobacco-reaper that gathered so many of his Outlaw buddies.
However, if marijuana separates the user from family duties, job responsibilities, friends, or personal growth, then those negatives must be confronted.
Which is true of all drugs and obsessions.
Big Pharma, however, is about to gobble up the fledgling legal marijuana industry –– the same way corporations have gobbled up agriculture –– and dominate a legal market valued at nearly five billion.
Similarities between the pygmy pot-bush and Big Pharma’s Mega Bush abound. Blazed Americans –– minds awhirl on opioid-alcohol mixes –– stare at television screens (ironically showing other people exercising for outrageous amounts of money ) while blowing themselves up on refined sugars, alcohol, and processed food.
Simultaneously, their befuddled brains absorb self-prescribed “news” squirting from CNN or FOX, twisted fabrications of the truth sharing the same genetic code: keep the gullible gulping.
And like weed-soaked pygmy sperm, American spunk is losing its pop as birth rates plummet to forty-year lows.
At the same time white male suicide is off the chart: 69.6% of the total. Reports link this atrocity to increasing numbers of women graduating from college, superseding their male counterparts in the workplace, and subsequently earning higher wages and filling essential jobs while leading corporations in higher numbers.
As a male teacher comfortable with strong women in leadership roles – my favorite principal, and her evil opposite – were both female, teaching me that people are people. You take them one at a time.
Big Pharma owns innumerable super branches reaching out to dangle dozens of pills –– including sleep-aids –– in front of the eyes of the overworked and weary. A popular small business owner in our region has trouble shutting of his mind at night, so his doctor prescribed Ambien.
A month or so later his wife found him in the garage sitting in the driver’s seat of his running truck –– at 2:30 AM with the garage door closed –– loading a pistol with live ammo.
“I was asleep the whole time” he told me.
Like any fast-growing yard-dominating plant, the real work goes on underground, evil spreading in all directions unseen by the human eye, trillion dollar roots which won’t perish with legalization.
Chopping down the bush is a pipe (stuffed-with-weed) dream. Ain’t going to happen.
A capitalistic nation is never going to abandon tons of tantalizing cash held high in the hands of its citizens, even addict-citizens seeking rehabilitation. When this much money is involved, death rates will increase into a dark future.
Packing up the truck and moving sober Clampets away from The Big Pharma Bush may appear to be prima-facie practical, but in reality, it’s a world-wide-phenomenon, pills waiting for all Clampets in both Beverly and Beijing — the only escape being internal, self-generated discipline.
We see people all around us avoiding unnecessary medicines, pills, tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceuticals thrust at them every commercial break, people who exercise regularly, eat right, stay hydrated, and live vigorously through their 80’s and early 90’s. As I typed the first draft of this piece a 101-year-old runner made national news.
However, a sad majority live in a global village built around the Big Pharma Bush. Seven-in-ten Americans swallow over-prescribed prescription drugs on a daily basis. That soma-drenched brave new world predicted by Aldous Huxley arrived as expected with only a few self-discipled-sweat-soaked naturals remaining unscathed.
And waiting for the majority of macho American males to summon enough inner strength to reach as high as an …
The visual world — shared through photographs since its invention in the mid-1820’s — affords free travel for all to locations and perspectives previously unimagined.
And because we’ve been awarded an ever-changing visual display of diversity — if there’s anything God loves, it’s diversity — we need to note and share it, which is one more way to spread the peace and love of our Creator.
Unlike Francis Collins, the renowned American scientist who came to faith from an atheistic background, I was an early convert. A one-banana monkey.
At age seven I found myself alone in the woods where every branch was encrusted with a quarter-inch of fresh ice, the result of a slow, freezing, overnight rain. Lying on my back upon encrusted snow, I witnessed the clouds parting, the sun arriving, the most wondrous light show appearing, the wind nudging branches in slow kaleidoscopic circles while my young brain popped with sensory overload.
This spectacle could not have created itself, any more than all the other spectacles to follow, witnessed by seven billion different ways through seven billion different perspectives, all changing each half-second.
Francis Collins had to map the human genome to “get it”. But this simple country boy was poleaxed by a simple ice storm.
My paternal grandmother put a camera in my hand when I went to college — a 60’s era Leica — and I wore it out, along with dozens of digital models over the years. Several file drawers now bulge with negatives and prints, and the safe is stacked with hard drives instead of cash.
Because there is no end to the ever-changing display of visual bounty He’s gifted the world.
One doesn’t need to be a photographer to enjoy the show, but one should notice, and share the experience — conversation works — and to feel a little gratitude for the gift.
Lots of bluster and fear mongering from the White House these days over immigration while the nation passes the potato chips and gazes mindlessly at videos of kids in cages, a few possibly sold to white slavers after their paperwork was lost under the current administration’s “supervision.”
Ironically, a natural event at our house recently spun a new perspective on this issue.
Squirrels are diurnal, but one interrupted us last week after dinner, retrieving nuts from the attic, we thought.
Completing a house project a couple of years ago, workers stepped all over the aluminum ventilation slats, so now they don’t fit the triangular space at the roof-crown where the air circulates. So we called the local rodent-remover, a friendly guy who put up a tube-trap after covering all the vents with wire.
I noticed a fat squirrel sitting in the yard watching the entire operation, so I wasn’t surprised to see the trigger torn off the next morning while the apparent perpetrator smiled from the bushes.
But a little nighttime noise turned into dismantle-the-house cacophony.
Sounded like a three-man wrecking crew with pry bars out there, and the morning light revealed all the aluminum around the wire torn up or off, and a hole bitten through.
Furthermore, several pieces of siding were torn free from the side of the house, and a hole dug through insulation.
“Looks like she got the babies out,” said my wife, her pinched face revealing battle fatigue after a sleepless night worrying about the innocent.
I wondered what kind of nuclear-powered squirrel could accomplish this?
Was it raised atop the transformer on the pole behind the house and unknowingly gene-altered into a super-charged Electro-Squirrel?
The mystery uncloaked the following evening when a 20+ pound matronly raccoon climbed the porch pole, lumbered onto the roof, and headed straight to the entry hole where the wire was destroyed.
As it happens, my Anheuser-Busch-fueled paternal grandfather owned a blue clay farm in the 1960’s that became Mark Twain State Park (Florida, Missouri), and he took my brother and I on midnight hunts. Those indelible images include:
A raccoon family -- back-lit by a full moon -- bawling at the top of an ancient oak. Baying blue tic hounds swarming under the tree, howls piercing my eardrums. Spurious white male "buddies" in holey overalls spitting tobacco juice and fingering triggers on loaded rifles while taking frequent hits off Mason jars.
The old Missouri law prescribing the death penalty for the proven killing of a man’s coon dog was recently replaced by large monetary settlements.
After retrieving my .410 pistol from the safe, loading it, chasing off mom raccoon with two scatter shots from forty-feet that didn’t appear to harm her much, and chasing her into the bushes, I heard the neighbor yell:
“What the hell you doing out there! Coon hunting?”
We reside in the center of a mid-sized East Tennessee city. Thirty-three years ago, when we moved in, I took a photograph of a black bear in the driveway. It crossed a double railroad track and a two-lane highway to get there.
How can anyone stop millions of mothers from doing whatever it takes to protect their children?
Oddly, many of these migrant haters are pro-lifers; for example, one of our local state representatives — who poses with his AR15 rifle on his web site — recently drafted a “heartbeat bill” that will effectively end legal abortions in the state.
I hate abortion as much as anyone, but simultaneously wonder what’s to become of all the crack, heroin, alcohol-fetal-syndrome, and opioid addicted babies?
When I asked my right-wing friends this question, a few went dark in the face, snarled, then defamed me as a baby killer. For simply wondering what their plan may be. After making clear to them that abortion is abhorrent.
Perhaps people migrate for reasons we won’t admit, or care to comprehend. I read a wonderfully-written piece in the New Yorker a few years ago that explained how scientists took core samples from the bottom of the Red Sea, analyzed the sediment and matched them to migration timelines, and discovered that mass migrations occur during droughts.
Previously, scientists and historians believed invasions by outside forces (think Mongols), wars, or pestilence caused massive populations shifts. But this new evidence showed that people don’t stick around long when there’s no water.
Saw this first-hand during camping trips out West at places like Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon, where human life flourished from 1020 to 1090 A.D. before drought hit.
After hiking down to the river, we found several dozen school kids happily splashing. Four hours later we began to ascend the trail back to the car and they were still swimming.
“Don’t they want to see the rest of this fabulous scenery?” I asked their teacher.
“We’re from southern New Mexico,” he said. “We drive two hours just to see ‘The Tree’. They will be in the river all afternoon and the driver and I will have to drag them onto the bus.”
Looking back at the raccoon attack, I now realize that we'd just spent an outrageous sum eliminating huge trees in our yard -- trees threatening the safety of our house -- but simultaneously holding the livelihoods and homes of our squirrel and raccoon friends. Stumped?
So it turns out I shot a migrant mother for looking after her babies … one week after cutting down her home and grinding it into sawdust.
The realization that I’m just as careless and stupid as President Trump is a bitter pill to swallow, indeed.
In fact, I feel like dying my hair orange, golfing four days a week, eating cheeseburgers for breakfast, then spending my little remaining “executive time” tweeting unfiltered brain-poop to gullible semi-literates happily spooning it down with silver (the winking super rich) or plastic (the gullible poor).
We refuse to view the whole picture because then we’d have to change our behavior.
We watch white cops on the nightly news thrusting knees onto Hispanic necks, but refuse to acknowledge the boardroom boys thrusting coke up their noses. They created the pusher, and sacrifice one now and then to keep their noses sharp.
We avert our eyes from whale bellies bursting with plastic while grabbing a handful of straws to toss out the window on the way home from work so our families will never know we’re gnawing burgers between meals.
We avert our eyes from caged kids while cashing government vouchers enabling us to wall off our children from those smelly Puerto Ricans with the gall to want electricity, or those nasty Flint-water folks.
We avert our eyes from brown children torn from their mothers’ arms while penning heartbeat bills to “protect” the unborn.
We avert our eyes from the poor and hungry living in our midst, while pouring wrath upon mothers leading children to better, more secure lives.
There is no end to the raccoon parable; she’ll follow my dreams into the child-fraught future, images of her kids chilling my spine, exposing my thoughtlessness, shining light upon my shame, for God-knows how long.
Raccoons migrate when we destroy their environment and threaten their babies.
People migrate when we destroy their livelihoods, deaden croplands, and divert their water.
The president’s moral inability to stand for all Americans — as he swore to do upon taking the office — magnifies the need for better screening at the border. The rich and the powerful appear to be his only concern when it comes to aid. The constant fear mongering serves no other purpose but to keep the lightly-educated agitated.
Send criminals and drug purveyors back where they came from, permanently.
I’m all for it, and perhaps more conservative about eliminating them than you are. But the major cause of mass migration is climate change and lost jobs.
I’m now teaching a creative writing class to an interesting group of folk who spend large portions of their day reading and scribbling, so they’re better writers than I am.
No surprise there.
After thirty years in the classroom, I admit that I’ve never been the smartest guy in the room, even when left alone with the kindergarten for twenty minutes when I was a computer repairman at the local elementary school.
Five minutes later, they were everywhere, lips on everything, fingers poking everywhere, pencils heading for electrical outlets, grins on every face. They knew lack of authority when they smelled it.
This new creative writing class wants to work on both fiction and non-fiction, so I started with something short and challenging:
Write a love story that includes a plumber and a marshmallow.
After hearing what they’ve already written, I know a doozy or six will emerge, and perhaps I’ll publish one in this space. We’ll see. In the meantime, you can’t lead from the back. Here’s my flash-fiction piece:
Staring sadly at the grey gruel on the tan prison plate, Stan falls back into his habitual daytime reverie: green marshmallowly Fruit Loops floating in a blue enamel bowl, a sweating glass of orange juice, a black English bulldog with a Winston Churchill grimace rubbing its red butt on the Oriental rug, back and forth, back and forth.
A plumber in another life before imprisonment, Stan spent
years looking at the world from dog-level.
That’s what attracted him to Margaret.
Stan, on his back with his upper torso jammed under Margaret’s sink, notices her slim ankles, which lead to shapely legs when she walks up to the sink and asks how the work is going.
“No problem. Outta here in twenty minutes,” echoes Stan’s
A few minutes earlier, Margaret seemed unspectacular. Dressed in a brown corduroy work suit, she appeared at the door like a banker demanding identification before a large withdrawal, but now she’s changed into tennis clothes before a light lunch of breakfast cereal, and the transformation bewilders Stan so much he bangs his head on the cabinet frame while rising to turn the water back on.
“That must have hurt,” she said.
“Sometimes I think I’m too big for this job,” he said.
They stood together looking out the kitchen window into the backyard.
Margaret’s second dog, a beagle, was hiking up a leg to pee on Stan’s truck
“Why a beagle?” asked Stan. “Too stinky for the house.”
“True,” said Margaret, “but we hunt rabbits on the grounds
here, and he runs them right past you.”
“Ya’ll like guns?” asked Stan.
Margaret’s eyes flash, a crooked smile exposing her dark
soul, and she takes his rough hand into hers and leads him deeper into the
mansion, down into the basement, where the arsenal spreads across the entire
wall in gleaming walnut racks, touting every kind of firearm, legal or illegal,
Stan could imagine.
They both turned to look at each other, blood rising.
Staring back into the dark plate of greasy gruel, Stan daydreams
of Margaret, her bright incarceration on that tiny pink-sand-beach Caribbean
island, a slave to motorized sailboats and critical monthly shipments of steak,
gin, and coke from Key West. A skinny brown plumber under her sink now, he
Stan ponders that shimmering blue water inside his head, gigantic cumulus clouds floating by like fat white pigs as the cacophony of a hundred prisoners rises to the cement ceiling, echoing in circles, but failing to alarm the unperturbed cockroach, who slowly breast-strokes out of the center, clears his eyes with a few blinks, rolls over onto his back, and glides across the plate in a lazy backstroke.
My energetic wife and I retired years ago, and we’re good at being together. A big house helps, and we both like holing up in our own space for long periods.
We genuinely like being together, debating current events, comparing books, taking long walks, traveling, riding bikes, and motorcycling.
She hikes at least twice a week, scaling Appalachian mountains with a close group of friends, and I work out daily and jaw-jack down at the gym and pool. We volunteer frequently and love working outdoors while the sun shines.
And we’ve been cooped up far too long.
But this February, darkness clouds the soul as rain continues to fall in sheets. Lakes and rivers are out, and it’s dangerous to travel country roads through low-lying areas.
The canary in the coal mine is Angeline, a British short hair female alley cat rescued fourteen years ago and named after the petulant female in James McMurtry’s sad lament about East Texas.
Angeline, even more ancient then we at seventy-two, gets wound up like a clock spring after days of indoor living, rocketing through the den, springing up on the stereo speakers, diving behind the TV stand, ripping out electrical cords, gnawing on live wires, jumping up onto cane furniture and clawing the seats, climbing into wastebaskets, and splashing water out of the toilet.
My wife runs frantically around the house – cleaning, cooking, ironing, scooping poop out of the cat box, chopping vegetables, whipping up brownies, unloading mousetraps, all that fun maintenance stuff – but after an hour or so her blood gets up and she’s perspiring, and she walks into the den where I’m reading comfortably, peers at the thermostat, pivots like an NBA point guard, jumps up and down theatrically, and screams: “It’s seventy-five degrees in here!”
The gas logs are looping a small flame and my mind instinctively turns to melting Montana glaciers that won’t exist in ten years, and I get up and walk to the kitchen, placing the fireplace remote in a large brown artisan-hand-crafted pottery mug sitting on its lonely shelf. I’d mindlessly chipped it a couple of years ago and was lambasted into cup-phobia; I now use my dead uncle’s sacred brown clay-baked coffee mug. Will break my own heart, and spare my wife’s, when I chip this one.
The benefits of cabin fever are legion.
Most days it takes effort to pry myself out of the chair and jump into gelid over-chlorinated greenish community center pool “water” filled with obese wrinkly-sausage-like septuagenarians, but now I can’t wait to smell those nose-hair-burning locker-room chemicals scorching the soles of my feet as I pad toward the odoriferous urinal. Other benefits of cabin fever include:
• endless cheese sandwiches chased with cups of tomato soup • books, books, books, magazines, books • basketball, basketball, basketball • making up with the wife means … you guessed it. Smile. • drawing
Grape-land never made our bucket list. We assumed it was hot, humid, dirty, overrun with tourists, smelly, and rife with Gypsies rifling pockets.
All that’s true …
Then a life-long friend retired, snagged a timeshare in Cortona, Tuscany, and invited the old gang over for a June holiday. Within hours of our arrival, the people, history, food, wine, and physical beauty of this travelers’ paradise won us over.
Lana and I arrived in Rome and immediately broke European travel guru Rick Steves‘ taxi rule: “If you can, get a taxi from an official taxi rank. It lowers the chance that you’ll wind up in unregistered taxis, which are notorious for not playing by the rules.”
After the ten-hour flight and twenty-hour day torched our brains, we stumbled into Roman sunlight, and a portly middle-aged driver — smiling ear-to-ear so happy to see us — uncloaked at the airport curb, tossed our bags into the back of his grimy black unregistered car, drove twenty minutes in circles, then deposited us in front of our hotel for 20 Euros. We wondered why his happiness doubled with a small tip until we caught a taxi ride for the same destination eighteen days later: 10 Euros.
The gregarious hospitality of the happy swindler story was worth the 15 Euros, we figured, and then we got nailed again a few days later in Florence.
Walking down a lightly populated boulevard, we were approached by a well-dressed middle-aged man asking for change. Within two minutes he had his fingers in Lana’s pocketbook playing the I’ll trade-this-two-Euro-piece for two singles … and when we asked him what he needed the change for, he replied: the telephone.
Although it took reserve to keep my Keen-clad foot out of his Gucci-covered posterior, I laughed at Lana when she said later: “I’d give him another Euro just to show me how he got his hands in my pocketbook.”
Rome at First Glance
We spent the first day walking around the Trevi Fountain , enjoying the shops and restaurants vibrating with international students, noticing Napoleon’s statue in disrepair and disregard, spying armed guards holding military-grade weapons in front of banks and government buildings, dodging ubiquitous motor-scooters swarming around stoplights — Vespas racing wide open from green to red by suited professionals of both sexes — watching homeless folk washing feet in public fountains laced with exquisite statues, seeing graffiti sprayed on architecturally perfect limestone buildings throughout the city, ogling grandiose Vatican wealth walled next to Muslim immigrants selling shawls to bare-shouldered-naked-kneed tourists not minding Guru Steve’s advice:
Entry to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Gardens is permitted only to appropriately dressed visitors. Low cut or sleeveless clothing, shorts, miniskirts and hats are not allowed.
Once lusty shoulder knobs and bony knees are tastefully hidden, one may enter St. Peter’s Basilica and view roughly 50,000 portraits of naked folk. We discovered this at the end our our adventure. The second day we bused to Sorrento via Naples.
The bus driver stopped and let us stretch our legs at an overlook for ten minutes and then hustled us back inside and barreled through town as though a plague lay in wait.
We didn’t understand his motive as the view out the window was astounding, but days later when our wine tour sommelier told us Naples held the reputation as the drug and crime capital of Europe. Like East St. Louis, West Oakland, and the South Side of Chicago, I reckon Naples contains streets to avoid.
The ocean-hugging romantic getaway across the Bay of Naples was abuzz with tramping tourists, but its lovely weather and cleanliness relative to Rome led to a wonderful stay with unending photographic possibilities, gourmet food, shopping, museums, architecturally unique churches, beautifully maintained walkways, and seaside-views that attract honeymooners from around the globe.
Our friends Mike and Chris — gang of ten members — were in Sorrento with their daughters Bridgette and Cami, so we dined on fresh seafood and pasta and headed back to our respective hotel rooms to gather energy for Capri and Pompeii.
The Pompeii exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum blew my mind back in 2005, but the actual setting places one smack dab in A.D. 79 in one of the prettiest places on earth, and quite modern in its day with running wells, cisterns, toilets, bath houses, shops with “hot plates“, brothels, and a drainage system that cleansed the streets during a rain.
Pompeians — enjoying the ultimate in culture and high living at that moment in history, living on a seacoast and hosting trade from the known world while enjoying the amenities of balmy weather and a robust citizenry — had no idea the hammer was coming down. They didn’t even know that the nearby Vesuvius was volcanic.
On August 23rd A.D. 79 the city celebrated Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
He rewarded them with a hammer blow the next day,burying the city in six meters of volcanic ash.
The size and scope of the Pompeii site — plus its history and high culture that catch you unaware — make it a must-see, and British friends tell us that nearby Herculaneum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site lying in the virtual shadow of Vesuvius, is even more impressive.
It must be duly noted that Lana spent countless hours planning this trip, picking out the best bus tours based on customer ratings and comments on a half-dozen web sites, coordinating hotels, museums, trains, and airline tickets. She read / compared / looked up / analyzed and put together a vacation that unfolded perfectly with few unpleasant surprises, as she has so many times before. All I do is take pictures, write up the story, and admire her ability.
Waking to rainfall, we feared Capri — just a twenty-minutes from Sorrento via the Tyrrhenian Sea– would be a wasted day, but the sun came out on the voyage over, perfect conditions because only 5,000 tourist scampered around the island instead of the usual 10,000 that swarm the island daily.
Sasha, our red-haired tour guide boasting Italian-Russian parentage, met us at the dock and kept us thoroughly amused with historical anecdotes and insights throughout the day, pointing out an Italian Fascist redoubt from the WWII built on a jutting cliff side, and noting that the Greeks believed Capri was the end-of-the-earth. A siren still sits above the rocks luring vessels to her open embrace.
Capri’s known around the world for its blue grotto, a limestone cave that intrepid tourists take turns entering and enjoying the way sunlight reflects off the white stone.
The day –starting with rain and high seas — negated the blue grotto, but our boat driver poked into several other grottoes-not-so-deep-and-famous and gave us the grand tour of the island.
Another highlight was the tram ride up to Alta Capri (alta = above) where the views not only took my breath away but jolted me with vertigo, a sign of age perhaps.
The Tyrrhenian Sea continuously cycled through different shades of blue as the sun filtered in and out of the clouds. Few people chose the path below, but folks of all ages rode the tram to the top and rubbernecked a 360 degree view that startles the senses with its beauty via changeable light and islands winking in and out of the horizon.
We took the bullet train to this famous hill-town, but beware boarding trains in Rome. The schedule displayed for passengers shows trains arriving at certain sidings. But in reality, high speed trains arrive so quickly they usually beat arrival times, then sit idle on the tracks outside the city while the station assigns them a last-minute arrival siding not listed correctly on the schedule board in Rome. Which means unaware Americans must run like like O.J.’s leaping luggage to the correct boarding spot at the last second. Not so much fun for geriatrics with metal knees.
The word Tuscany is derived from the Etruscan culture, which flourished in mid-Italy from 700 BC until Roman assimilation virtually erased it in 400 BC.
During the Middle Ages, [Tuscany] saw many invasions, but in the Renaissance period it helped lead Europe back to civilization. Later, it settled down as a grand duchy. It was conquered by Napoleonic France in the late 18th century and became part of the Italian Republic in the 19th century.
Orvieto, like Cortona, is a hill town in Tuscany. At first glance, the military advantage of the high ground is obvious, but many of these villages also avoided the swamps covering the low ground, and this is why the region grows such luscious fruit: the bogs were drained a mere 200 years ago.
The city had a love-hate relationship with the Papacy during the Middle Ages, when it reached a population of 30,000. However, five Popes lived here for a time for “political and strategic purposes.”
In other words, they were run out of Rome and had to wait for the heat to die down before they could re-assume the Vatican.
Major Orvieto attractions include: the Duomo di Orvieto 14th century Roman Catholic cathedral is one of the most spectacular in Italy; the Orvieto Underground leads you through subterranean medieval caves, tunnels and Etruscan wells; the Torre del Moro 13th-Century clock tower chimes on the hour, half and quarter hours; and, Pozzo di San Patrizio (St. Patrick’s Well). Dating to 1537, this well is 62-meters-deep and features two spiral staircases.
Is naturally associated with famous homeboy Francis, a.k.a. Francesco Bernardone, who lived here around 1200 AD. This simple friar bridged the gap between Jesus and Martin Luther, calling attention to the materialism of the times and the decadence of the Catholic Church during one of its darker periods.
Today, eight-thousand permanent residents occupy Assisi … while six million tourists stampede through the streets each year. The commercial aspect is a bit daunting, especially when a Saint Francis “statue” springs to life and thanks you for tips.
During his day similar throngs of buyers, sellers, and endless sinners seeking penance crowded the streets and wore out poor Francis. However — like Jesus rowing to the far side of the Sea of Galilee — Francis would walk forty-two miles through the country to Cortona and relax, meditate, and write at Le Celle (The Cell).
Lana didn’t like Assisi due to its intense commercialism, and heavy crowds. But once she understood it was always this way, and beheld the actual monastery near Cortona where Francis retreated into nature, well.
It all came clear.
Tears flood the eyes and hair stands on the back of your neck when you enter Le Celle.
I’m not a jealous person by nature, but Skip mentioned that he often hikes up to Le Celle to read and contemplate. What a blessing!
This vibrant city is best viewed in the late fall as June is rife with tourists. At one point a hundred-plus Mexican students paraded by lustily celebrating their soccer victory over Germany, and every restaurant and cafe hummed with activity late into the night.
Jammed with architecture, sculptures, marching bands, entertainers, the best steaks you’ve ever melted in your mouth, and much more, Florence is a must-visit.
Besides the mandatory hackle-raising view of Michelangelo’s David at the Medici family’s Galleria dell’Accademia, check out the Uffizi Gallery (housing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man.
We loved walking the city at night, watching couples enjoying the romantic atmosphere, seeing the architecture in street light, reveling in the gourmet cuisine, and listening to the street musicians earning their keep into the early hours of the morning.
This ancient hill-town reaching back to 700 BC Etruscans is a jewel in any visitor’s travelogue-memory.
Fetchingly portrayed in Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, the town’s vibrancy, history, architecture, museums, gourmet restaurants, geography, and kaleidoscopic light combine to hold you spellbound for the entire length of your visit.
Our hosts Skip and Virginia propelled themselves into international-living via elbow grease, perseverance, and brains (is there another legitimate path?) and reside on the northwest side of the city facing sunsets, near the Etruscan wall, on a Roman road overlooking the Cimitero della Misericordia (cemetery). The Roman road leads south to city center, or north through an ancient arch down a quarter-mile stroll to our hotel overlooking the Val di Chiana, or Chiana Valley, where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army in the Battle of Trasimene in June 217 BC.
Here’s a ten-second video taken at dusk with bats scavenging mosquitoes on the pink horizon, Lake Trasimino shining in the background, and the gang-of-ten enjoying a gourmet meal at Ristorante Tonino, which featured a series of post-dinner solos by inspired opera singers.
Three couples bunked at the timeshare, while Mike, Chris, Lana and I vacationed at the Locanda i Grifi, a sweet hotel just a quarter-mile down the Roman road, an inn we highly recommend due to the nice rooms, great views of the valley, and the hospitality of chef Cristiano, who held a cooking class for us one mid-morning.
Warning: If you really want to enjoy these Tuscan hill-towns, make sure you’re physically up to the challenge of walking up and down 14% grades. Actually, this applies to any kind of foreign travel as the unexpected always occurs, usually involving a physical challenge. Furthermore, driving isn’t feasible in town center due to the inclines, and there’s little room to park. Only the the intrepid locals attempt it.
We enjoyed a leisurely lap around town one sunny morning, passing by Francis Maye’s famous home and the Roman road next to it that’s a shortcut to city-center, all-of-which overlooks the Chiana Valley.
The Piazza della Repubblica is the heart of town, where we lunched and people-watched while discussing the length of the trip between gnawing on our mother’s ankles under the kitchen table in the late 1950’s … to this spot where Saint Francis hung out for recreation and Hannibal slaughtered the Romans.
Cortona is so packed with delights that it would take a decade of living there to search them all out. We jammed in as much as possible, however, and never lost the idea that we were on parade as well.
Living in a small Italian hill-town, and having lived in a small town in south Georgia, I understand that you can recognize a family gene pool by the lift of an eyebrow, or the length of a neck, or a way of walking.
-- Francis Mayes
The Villa S. Anna
We visited several Tuscan wineries and all were unique, but Villa S. Anna Winery — owned for nearly two hundred years by Simona Ruggeri Fabroni’s family near Montepulciano — tops the list due to Simona’s wonderful personality, storytelling ability, and deep knowledge of the business from five decades of managing all aspects of the enterprise.
After serving a wonderful lunch, Simona lead us through the grounds and cellars, sharing insights other wineries lacked — e.g., instead of removing cellar wall mold, it’s maintained at a certain humidity so the wine ages at a steadier rate. Newer wineries avoid this hassle, but the results are less predictable.
Sometimes the Scottish blood is an inconvenience. For example, sane people toss out most of their wine while sip-sip sipping throughout a day-long wine tour.
But if pinching pennies and looking for dimes on city streets is a natural inclination, then drinking all the wine poured out at wine-tastings is elemental.
Our dream days in Cortona ended with a wonderful lasagna dinner at Skip and Virginia’s followed by several hours of joyful banter, video-making, and wine-tasting. Then it was time to plan for the next gang-of-ten rendezvous, followed by hugs and farewells. The blessing we have in each other is lost on none of us, and a week together in Cortona deepened the bonds even further.
We returned to Rome for the last two days, viewing the Vatican, walking as much as possible for photos, and loving the seaport at Fiumicino, next to the airport.
The Vatican is so vast and full of unending surprises that no blog of this size could explain it. The picture above captures the average reaction upon entering The Papal Basilica of St. Peter, the main hall reaching a height of 448 feet.
Our university-art-school-trained guide lead us through a maze of huge rooms and hallways filled with artwork, spilling thousands of interesting tidbits that my mind couldn’t fully process, but I do remember that during Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II was plagued by some minor official’s poor behavior, so when Michelangelo asked Julius who needed to fill the hell space in the bottom right corner, the Pope suggested the same minor official — and then added that this guy needed a viper attached to his scrotum for all eternity. The sort of thing males remember from art museums.
We spent the last two days strolling arm-in-arm through the streets of Rome and across the beaches of Fiumicino, watching women jostle over sale items, enjoying one last gang-of-eight meal, and watching the fishing boats arrive and unload the day’s catch.
Don’t underestimate this sleepy little city next to the airport as it jumps alive to the sound of fishing boats returning — reminding me of the Hannibal, Missouri of Mark Twain’s youth — and there are dozens of excellent street-side cafés, restaurants, and bars to explore while public beaches allow blue-collar travelers a gander at the blue-collar locals.
Don’t let preconceived notions keep you from enjoying Italy as its pleasures far outweigh the hassles for 52.4 million visitors per year, but go physically prepared for international travel.
Italy provides more to do than several lifetimes of exploration could cover, and the mix of ancient history and current vibrancy intoxicates the senses beyond the legendary food and drink. Enjoy it with old buds if possible, then savor those times together whenever you reunite.
An old friend never can be found, and nature has provided that he cannot easily be lost.Samuel Johnson
When I was twenty-three, I found myself unemployed, and living in my girlfriend’s room in her parents’ beautiful brick house on the South Side of Chicago in an affluent white neighborhood slipping into descent after the M.L.K. riots of 1968. They kept me upstairs and visible, with girlfriend relegated to the basement.
I remember wandering the streets day-after-day-week-after-week begging for work, sliding in and out of tawdry bars – sticky-floor flyblown dives I’d never venture into for a drink on my own – but places I now prayed would hire me because I’d just spent my last $250 attending “Professional Bartender’s School” and earning a “Professional Bartender’s Certificate” after spending a week pouring colored water out of fake liquor bottles into appropriate glasses.
Armed with this “certificate”, I wandered into dozens of Chicagoland watering holes, but no one would hire me. Sheila’s Puke Shack owner S. Hardnutter threw me the stink eye when I dangled the Professional Bartender Certificate in front of her narrow eyes, then pointed toward the door.
Each night I’d limp home on sore feet and sit on my girlfriend’s bed and despair. I remember a lone tear running down my cheek one night, followed in a few seconds by spontaneous laughter because Iron Eyes Cody – a pure-blood Italian, we found out later – currently starred in an environmental television ad as an American Indian saddened by the rape of the land, a single tear running down his cheek, which miraculously prodded Americans into picking up trash.
Swinging for the fence the next morning, I took a train downtown and hit all the major bars on Michigan Avenue, earning a ubiquitous thumbs down. Fingering the last $10 in my pocket, I stood at the corner of Walton and Michigan Avenue, eyeballing The Drake, where visiting Queen Elizabeth bedded down.
Too classy for my zero experience.
Looking southeast — across the street at the old Palmolive Building — I saw the Playboy Club‘s flashing siren lights. Shrugging off the gut instinct to stop wasting time, I walked inside and told the smiling bunny at the door that I needed to see the human relations rep.
Who turned out to be my girlfriend’s sister’s best friend.
“You’re in luck!” she smiled. “We need a bartender pronto, and you can start Monday morning. Get here at ten for an orientation on lunch, which starts at eleven.”
The Playboy Club turned out to be a mixed blessing. Although I was able to rent my own place and start saving, the nature of the business fired up already simmering jealousies.
I’d graduated from college the previous December with an English degree and accepted the only job I could find – once again through nepotism – when Future-Mother-In-Law told me about a job opening at her school, a junior high in Chicago Ridge.
The permanent teacher was taking a year off after giving birth, and a succession of substitutes tried and failed to make a stand with her students, kids from blue collar families with moms and dads who worked long hours and didn’t have much time to spend with their offspring, so they threw money at them instead. Blue collar kids accustomed to bullying each other in the absence of parental guidance.
At six-foot-four-two-hundred-twenty-pounds I became substitute number seven immediately following Christmas break. That semester – my first in a classroom by myself – gave me the confidence to carry through the rest of life.
Years later I chatted with a man at the airport as we waited for a plane, and during the conversation we uncovered the fact we’d both taught junior high English on the South Side of Chicago.
“How long did you last?” I asked.
“One year,” he said.
“What did you do after that?”
“I quit, joined the Marines, and went to Vietnam for a vacation,” he said.
That semester I taught English to kids with names like “Toots” and “Doobie” and was required to coach 7th grade girls’ basketball; unfortunately, the 8th grade girls’ basketball coach was a conniving blonde bombshell who sensed the unease in Future-Mother-In-Law and went right to driving her nuts by sitting next to me during games, flirting whenever FMIL was in eyesight, and wearing a string bikini to the Indiana Dunes when the three of us accompanied a busload of kids at the end of the school year.
FMIL hadn’t really taught long, this being her second attempt. She’d left the profession in her early twenties to raise four children through high school while her husband, a prince, worked at US Steel.
During her free time all those years she soaked up daytime television, eventually becoming brainwashed by sexy-soap-opera-actors teaching her to trust no one – especially me – while the hot blonde simultaneously poked out of a white see-through hand-crocheted bathing suit on blazing Indiana beach while Little Richard sang Tutti Frutti from the top of a telephone pole.
When the junior high job ended and the bartender’s school landed me in the Playboy den of iniquity, my days with girlfriend dwindled.
A clean-cut Iranian floor manager named Sami started me off in a service bar out of sight from the public with liquor bottles in overhead racks, a double-sink, an ice machine, mixers, and a cash register at the end of the stainless-steel counter. The bus boys were Palestinian, the cooks Mexican. If you learned early on to treat the women right, all worked smoothly.
Bunnies would approach this portal with drink orders, and I’d pile beverages on trays before they sashayed on high heels and kidney-pinching bunny suits back to thirsty Joes elevated to Playboy Key Holders with an annual credit card fee.
The bunnies were kids like me, trying to eat under roof while putting themselves through school, putting together a stash to make a move in life, trying to survive the dollar-draining nature of the big city. There were long ones, tall ones, big ones, brown ones, black ones, round ones … crazy ones.
And although I stayed true, my girlfriend came to visit during lunch one day — at my request — and stood in the doorway of the little service bar as I mixed drinks and piled them on bunny trays. As each female appeared, we talked business, and I often called them by name. The window I pushed drinks through revealed bunnies from their waists to their chins. Neither girlfriend nor I could see hip-tags or faces.
“How do you remember their names?” asked girlfriend as she gazed open-mouthed at the exposed set of breasts arching into the bar window.
“See that mole?” I said as “Carla” arrived with an empty tray. Having grown up on a hog farm in Western Illinois, I was not especially enamored with big breasts, though I admired their magnetic ability on the average Joe’s iron head.
Blood boiled up the chin of girlfriend’s face, onto her cheeks, then up her forehead, and with a turn of her heel I was suddenly alone in the Windy City, bereft of my only reason for being there in the first place.
Several months later, I’d worked my way up to the “night shift” at the main bar and enjoyed meeting out-of-town folks in the midst of convention bacchanals, though many of the women — upon reaching alcoholic euphoria — lashed out with tongues more lascivious than any deranged Roto-Rooter man ever wagged.
One night, just after midnight on a slow shift with few people at the bar, management uncloaked in their black suits and fired every bartender on the floor.
“You were the only one not stealing,” said Sami. “We’d been sending in people to sit at the bar and observe for two weeks now. What these dirt bags do is ring up a lower amount than they sold, then put the remainder in their pockets. Oldest trick in the book.”
One of those rounded up and kicked out of the revolving door was Howie Wong, the first bartender Hugh Hefner picked for the original Chicago Playboy Club on Walton, not far from his mansion on North State Parkway. Howie was taciturn and unfriendly, so I never knew him well.
But three months later I was walking down a side street and above a newly-painted door an electric sign flashed: Howie’s. Taken aback, I stepped inside and there were the six recently-fired bartenders, along with Howie at the cash register, preparing to open their new digs. Turns out they’d pooled their purloined cash – Howie dipped for decades – and opened this business. Together.
“How’s this going to work?” I asked. They just smiled and shrugged their shoulders. Six months later Howie’s was history, naturally.
Which brings me to the point of this essay.
Prisons would be more effective if we piled like-minded criminals atop one another.
As the world lurches toward nationalism and the rule of authoritarians, we need a way to deal effectively with run-away dictators.
Imagine islands – the Aleutian archipelago comes to mind with its Alaskan fresh air breeziness – islands exclusively housing like-minded criminals. Redneck Racist Island harboring Dylann Roof wannabes. Female Redneck Racist Island next door, ten thousand Rosanne Barrs separated by churning seas and hungry flesh-eating fish.
Black Racist Island covered with Al Sharpton wannabes. Criminal Mexican Island. Catholic Priest Pedophile Island. White Collar Embezzler Island. White Collar Crook Island. Rapist Island. Man-Trapping-Liar-About-Rape Island.
The unending torture of individuals imprisoned under these conditions would test the “cruel and unusual” clause under the Eighth Amendment, but this treatment would be justified due to its effectiveness and ultimate benefit to society.
Can you imagine a self-aggrandizing, constantly lying, narcissistic blowhard in a green parka – absent makeup – wielding a hand-ax, a book of matches, and some fishing gear, and marooned for life on a frozen slag heap in the middle of an ocean with hundreds of other convicted narcissistic blowhards and a few Kodiak bears on Russia Money Laundering Island? A pleasing and peaceful thought, indeed.
Perhaps the perfect prison doles out the perfect punishment.
For those of you who bless your children by reading to them, check out “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf” by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s the story of a girl who loves pulling the wings off of insects, but her bullying comes to a bad end:
An evil spirit soon took possession of Inge, and carried her to a still worse place, in which she saw crowds of unhappy people, waiting in a state of agony for the gates of mercy to be opened to them, and in every heart was a miserable and eternal feeling of unrest. It would take too much time to describe the various tortures these people suffered, but Inge's punishment consisted in standing there as a statue, with her foot fastened to the loaf. She could move her eyes about, and see all the misery around her, but she could not turn her head; and when she saw the people looking at her she thought they were admiring her pretty face and fine clothes, for she was still vain and proud. But she had forgotten how soiled her clothes had become while in the Marsh Woman's brewery, and that they were covered with mud; a snake had also fastened itself in her hair, and hung down her back, while from each fold in her dress a great toad peeped out and croaked like an asthmatic poodle. Worse than all was the terrible hunger that tormented her, and she could not stoop to break off a piece of the loaf on which she stood. No; her back was too stiff, and her whole body like a pillar of stone. And then came creeping over her face and eyes flies without wings; she winked and blinked, but they could not fly away, for their wings had been pulled off; this, added to the hunger she felt, was horrible torture."If this lasts much longer," she said, "I shall not be able to bear it." But it did last, and she had to bear it, without being able to help herself.
The perfect ending for a bully’s sad life.
Similar to an immortal history book full of verifiable facts, I reckon.
Whenever my life begins to feel too “cushy” – which is often since I’m a spoiled American Baby Booming corpulent white male with a loving/doting wife, a squared-away son, a reasonably functional family, early retirement, and a supportive church family – I sign up for a mission trip, foreign or domestic.
Which cures the spoiled-brat syndrome pronto.
If you embark on such an adventure, expect: crushed legs on long flights, strange food clogging the septic system, strange water unplugging the septic system, flat-hard hotel beds, endless oversize bags full to maximum 49.9 pounds of cement-grade calcium carried up and down steps via human chain, sleepless nights filled with the cacophony of poultry crowing contests and spontaneous dog fights, mission beds made of burlap and two-by-fours, water-less showers until Angel Plumbers work their magic, twelve-hour days spent mostly on the feet, the ringing sound of eighty voices banging around the cement walls of the clinic, three languages bouncing in a Babel of towering intensity.
So, why do we subject ourselves to that?
Probably for the same reason soldiers return to Afghanistan seven-or-eight times. Why firefighters rush into burning buildings. Why doctors continue to practice medicine into their eighties, serving a network of friends they’ve made over a lifetime.
They do it for the tribe.
Opinion: we are designed by the Creator to function in small groups, say twenty-to-sixty people – all carrying different abilities (spiritual gifts) – a tribe where everyone has a job, everyone is respected for their contribution, and everyone is connected to a purpose outside their own agenda.
“In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend about a curious phenomenon in the American west. White prisoners rescued from Native American tribes were seizing the first chance they could to flee into the wilderness and rejoin their captors. There were no reports of native warriors migrating in the opposite direction. Perplexed, Franklin concluded that the errant whites must have become ‘disgusted with our manner of life’ despite being shown ‘all imaginable tenderness’ on their return.” (Source).
Sebastian Junger, author of Restrepo and The Perfect Storm, recently penned a book titled Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, which focuses on the War in Afghanistan and veterans’ mental health. Junger writes: “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.”
Instead of focusing on job training and social re-conditioning, we treat vets like pariahs and load them up on drugs while ignoring the root cause of their distress and side-stepping psychiatric care, which is expensive and time consuming. We treat veterans as if they aren’t worth our time and effort after they return with lost limbs and shattered psyches. The suicide rates for white males over sixty-five, many of whom are Vietnam vets, bears witness to these unresolved issues.
“In 2008 active duty and veteran military personnel abused prescription drugs at a rate that was more than twice the rate for the civilian population. In 2009, the VA estimated that around 13,000 vets from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from alcohol dependence syndrome and require veteran mental health treatment for this problem.” (Source)
After listening to Junger’s podcast, it occurred to me that we are indeed better beings when connected to a well-functioning small group, which is why churches, synagogues, mosques, Boy Scouts, Rotary, Lions Clubs, Crips, Bloods, and Hell Angels exist.
The last three will probably lead to harm, but the call of the tribe is embedded into our nature, and that is why making a conscious decision to serve on a positive team is a healthy choice.
The March 2018 medical mission I joined to Ixtepec, Tatoxcac, and Xochiapulco, Mexico offered unending examples of a high-functioning tribe than I can list (starting with the angel who swapped her airline aisle seat twicefor my leg-killing window view); furthermore, this team comes together bi-annually to bring medical care to under-served residents in the rugged mountains northeast of Puebla, Mexico. Nearly half of the folks treated were indigenous, speaking Totonaca, a native language “not closely related to other native languages in Mexico.”
Which required three levels of translation: English – Spanish – Totonaca — and back again.
This year I was the “optometrist” which meant that I helped 320 folks find workable reading glasses over four days using two Bibles (the KJV, and a Totonaca New Testament), a spool of thread, a needle, a flashlight, and a pocket knife to cut plastic. The spectacles were donated by the generous Lion’s Club Tribe.
My Spanish interpreter – Fany (pronounced Fanny), from the Methodist College in Puebla – was coming off a semester of concentrated French, so the combination of suddenly switching to English while simultaneously deciphering an unknown indigenous tongue wore on her along with all the physical challenges, yet she hung on to gain a second wind and finish the week admirably.
Local teens connected to the Ixtepec Methodist Church also saved the week by giving fully of themselves, obviously loving and cherishing their elderly by listening carefully to their needs, then translating them into Spanish, where Fany would pass it to me, and then back again. Three hundred twenty times in four days.
Multiply that by the entire cohort of volunteers (approximately 120), and you begin to perceive the amount of coordination it takes to make this mission work.
Plus eleven months of planning and preparation up front.
Sebastian Junger claims that we need three essentials to live healthily and harmoniously: 1) we need to feel competent at what we do; 2) we need to feel authentic in our lives; and, 3) we need to feel connected to others.
Looking back at the suicide statistics, it must be noted that the Hispanic males take their own lives in much fewer numbers than Caucasian males.
“White men over the age of 65 commit suicide at almost triple that overall rate. These men are also eight times more likely to kill themselves than are women of the same age group, and have almost twice the rate of all other groups of male contemporaries.
Disparities along ethnic lines for elderly males are also substantial. Compared with white males ages 65 and older, African American males (9.2 suicides per 100,000), Hispanic or Latino males (15.6), and Asian or Pacific Islander males (17.5) in the same age range had significantly lower suicide rates.” (Source)
Research on the “why” is thin, but after spending a week in Ixtepec, casual observation of the culture exposed a deep connection to family, community, nature, and God: all characteristics of a healthy tribe.
In contrast, the phenomenon of disconnected angry white American males sitting in dark rooms drinking alcohol and absorbing CNN or FOX is ending badly.
Our Mexican patients exhibited a wide range of physical needs – missing teeth, scabies, parasites, allergies, an entire gamut of untreated ailments testing the knowledge and experience of the mission doctors, nurses, and pharmacists – but the local populations’ connectedness to the spirit, energy, patience, and genuine good nature lifted the hearts of all servants, Mexicans and Americans alike.
Pablo, a minister from another province, traveled to Ixtepec with his teenage son, both patiently washing, drying, and treating foot ailments. Ricardo and LuLu traveled from Nicaragua to lead the translating team, and three other college students traveled with Fany from Puebla to sacrifice their free time and comfort to serve their country.
The exact ratio of Mexican-to-American servants on this mission is unknown, but it seemed like 3:1 as local teens, the church pastor’s family, and other Mexican missionaries – plus half the congregation – pitched in to make it work. Villagers lined the street to tote heavy bags down to the church the minute we arrived, and waited patiently for hours on end — often in the rain and wind – to receive their annual medical care.
The Ixtepec-Tatoxcac-Xochiapulco clinics succeeds because everyone has a job – or three – everyone is valued for their contribution, and all are connected through Jesus Christ.
No matter where our travels take us – Johnson City, Ixtepec, Tasmania, wherever– if two-or-more are gathered in His name, we are connected. We are also connected by our willingness to serve, to share that last full measure of devotion that propels The Tribe.
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Romans 12:1 NASB
My two previous mission trips to this beautiful mountainscape northeast of Puebla occurred in the late Nineties, and I must say there is a noticeable improvement in infrastructure – the highway from Puebla to the mountains is new and modern – plus the thirty-two years of medical mission work is revealed in the faces of the people, who look much healthier. Even the dogs show fewer ribs.
The visiting team stood in awe of these patient, hard-working, community-loving, God-present, spiritually connected folk – The Tribe – functioning as it’s meant to be.
Meanwhile, reality-show Americans continue to back-stab each other on social media, ignore common values, highlight differences, suck down opioids and alcohol in record volumes, endlessly eyeball the latest fear-mongering headlines slanted to feed personal preferences, and commit suicide in record numbers.
"How do you become an adult in a society that doesn't ask for sacrifice? How do you become a man in a world that doesn't require courage?" -- Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Those who serve rely on the tribe: church family, Sunday school classes, spouses, and relatives, all connected through Christ – who finance our way, who donate medicine, eyeglasses and crutches, who pray for and bless our service with their love.
We certainly relied on the tribe in Mexico who fed, housed, worked diligently beside us, and have served faithfully for over thirty years.
From desert wanderers seeking the Promised Land … to disciples sharing the Good News … to medical missions serving the needy in foreign lands … The Tribe functions with efficiency through its unselfish connection to The One.
I don’t know about you, but I’m sticking with The Tribe.
Obama picked Janet Yellen to lead the nation out of the an economic depression caused primarily by greed, which the present Orange Tweeter drinks with a ladle.
Regulations continue to die by the handfuls as we drive the economy right back into the 2008 hole hedge fund managers drove us into, a hole now ready for a second suck since we’ve already forgotten the purpose those regulations had in the first place.
Janet Yellen, first female federal reserve director and the leader of the rebound, lost her title to a Trump appointee despite the fact that previous presidents — who exhibited realpatriotism — retained successful federal reserve chairman regardless of party. She’s declining her seat on the reserve now that a sacred white male wears the crown. If it ain’t broke, Trump’s bound to fix it.
Trash talkers assailed Michele Obama because she’s healthy and eats well, yanking veggies from school cafeterias in a fit of misplaced revenge — who needs health care? — while their corpulent spawn returned to the trough, happily sucking pizza and inhaling grease to their diseased hearts’ content. At least they can’t talk trash with their mouths full.
Trash talkers so lazy and greedy they couldn’t drive to their fabulous oaisis, paying Amtrak to haul their sorry butts over to the Greenbrier, lying just a day’s drive from Washington, all transportation and lavish opulence foisted onto the backs of Everyman tax payers.
Enter trash truck.
Note: it was nice to see Republican office holders attempting to revive (unionized?) trash truck employees forking over payroll taxes for fully-subsidized Congressional health care and luxury trips.
This writer salutes all manual laborers across America run over by the government train in uncountable ways each and every day, just as I mourn those lost in the tragedy.
Which is one more reason this monstrous irony requires a spotlight.
You have to hand it to the Grand Old Popinjays.
Democrats remain rudderless because they lack a true leader.
Democratic Congressmen make “suggestions.”
Here's how weak Democrats are at the root level: one of the first things President Obama did after his inauguration was speak to all the school children of America. At the time I taught black and Hispanic high schoolers, so I projected the speech on the big screen and said when it was over:
"I know it's not a level playing field yet, but this has to be encouraging."
After a short pause, one of the black males in the back yelled in reply:
"He ain't black!"
The reason Republicans dominate? They have a simple plan and they are entirely unified around it.
Destroy anything Obama ever did.
(Regardless of the needs of fellow citizens).
It’s something small, and completely contrary to their own perception of patriotism, but at least it’s a semblance of organization, a mighty weapon in the face of none.
Following a two-month visit to Western Illinois this fall – helping my active mother recuperate from hip surgery – my wife Lana and I were free to drive back to Tennessee any way we chose.
Pumped up on Jim Harrison’s “Brown Dog” novellas set in Upper Peninsula Michigan, we needed to lay eyes on this special place, and as always, interesting characters popped up along the way. Even Brown Dog uncloaked in Paradise, Michigan.
Furthermore, Lana’s college friend Donna and her husband Phil enjoy a condo jutting out off a basalt platform overlooking Lake Superior at Two Harbors, Minnesota, and they had previously invited us for a weekend, so we wandered home across America’s stunningly beautiful heartland lake country.
31 August 17
The drive from Sheffield, Illinois to Galena – where U.S. Grant briefly resided – is usually delightful: endless cornfields rolling north in static undulations of unglaciated hills snaking beside the Mississippi River.
But this time drifting Canadian wildfire smoke hung trapped above the ground in the ghostly-still air, reminding us that California simultaneously roiled in flames, and that Grant loved big cigars.
Normally we take time to wander the streets of the Galena – lowercase galena in science textbooks – with its wonderful shops and picturesque hillside quaintness, but we decided to turn in early. The next morning we rolled into Wisconsin, emboldened with sunshine and covered with breweries.
1 September 17
Meandering north through corn-beans-corn, we arrived at the Potosi Brewery, home of Snake Hollow IPA, a wonderful beer if you like yours hoppy. Then the Great River Road north sent us toward Pepin as we enjoying seeing the well-decorated laid-back small towns along the way.
Our 1950’s era Pepin hotel lacked everything except two sleep-able beds and a bathroom, but a walk down to the dockside found us at the Harbor View Café where the motto is best from scratch. While dining we overheard customers say they drove down from Minneapolis twice a month to enjoy the always-changing but consistently-good fare. The spicy lamb cassoulet was tasty, indeed, washed down with the mandatory local craft beer.
Lake Pepin, a man-made reservoir on the Mississippi River west off Wisconsin’s Route 35, provided a lovely backdrop as we after-dinner strolled the top of the levee surrounding a harbor filled with people cooking and drinking on sailboats while the hardier rolled out into the sunset with fishing poles lashed to down-riggers.
3 September 17
We stopped at Duluth on our way north to Two Harbors, and the old downtown manufacturing center was covered with tourists strolling the promenade, enjoying the Portland-ish rose gardens, dozens of thriving restaurants and shops sporting sunny views of the lake. One gentlemen mentioned that locals were soaking it up because they knew what lay ahead. Short-sleeved walkers all around us belied the coming white season, the majesty of Lake Superior’s shining blue soon turning to the leaden-grey gales of November.
A couple of hours up the Bob Dylan Way (Highway Sixty One) we arrived in Two Harbors, Minnesota, a quaint village on the western shores of Lake Superior where our friends Phil, Donna, and Moses – a charming three-year-old cocker spaniel – accepted us graciously into their spacious condo filled with glass facing the ever-changing “Gitche Gumee” (the great sea in Ojibwa).