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Maps and Experiments

It never occurred to me that I would be traveling without a map.

I wish I had met Al Adrisi.  Maybe he could have helped.  Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily in the mid-eleventh century, invited him to his court to produce an up-to-date “world map”.  He made a huge planisphere in silver for the king, and described the geographical world he had compiled in a comprehensive encyclopedia of the time, containing information not only on Asia and Africa, but also Western countries (and worlds unknown at that time).  It is said that Columbus himself used a map derived from the ancient Al Adrisi’s when he sailed Westward.

I have never been sick.  Not seriously.  I have no prior experience with recovery from disease.  Maybe that says something good about my immune system, but nevertheless it is true.  Once I had a serious occurrence of ulcerative colitis that cleared up eventually,  Perhaps that does say something, in fact positive, about my immune system since this disease is chronic and I’ve never had a recurrence.  But I have been attacked recently…virtually without symptoms…by a comparatively rare form of cancer.  Now what?  Who should I believe?  What is the map for beating this monster?

Unlike most women, for example, I have no real knowledge of how my body works when under attack.  I could only participate vicariously when my wife, Valerie, had babies  She had her gall bladder attack and surgery many years ago.  The after effects were so powerfully painful and debilitating she was afraid she had cancer.  When her body eventually healed, she tried unsuccessfully to describe what had happened to her.  The other night at dinner we discussed these events and I was able to contribute examples from my recent disease that resonated with her.  The same was true with my daughter, Leslie, as she described the radical hysterectomy she had when they discovered her entire uterus needed to be removed because of uterine fibrosis and a large tumor.  I began to relate even though I am an unlikely candidate for either giving birth or having my uterus removed.  Nobody can really understand an illness or giving birth unless you have traveled that road…but the process of healing can be shared.

One way to look at this dilemma is that I have no map to help me when my body is assaulted by disease.  While every sickness has its own peculiarities and attributes, my wife and daughter seem to sense what to do…as if they had been there before.  I, on the other hand, am more like Christopher Columbus…his map was what he looked at over his shoulder.  His map was where he had been. The world map he took with him was certainly wrong, but he started his journey with energy and assurance based on his journeys behind him .  Every day I add to my knowledge of how my body is working for me.  I am beginning to develop instincts of how to meander with these tumors, what to eat and what not to eat, what vitamins to take, when to sleep.  I imagine my body telling me, “Shut up and sleep.  Let me do the work.”

Another way to view this journey is as a lab experiment.  In a way, since this is uncharted territory and my particular form of cancer they think it started in my bile duct and the “mother” is no longer alive, the children (metastasized) are in charge…even the chemotherapy is an experiment.  After two more treatments they will give me a CAT Scan to see the progress and adjust the mixture to more specific objectives.

Of all these observations, the splendid dialogue I had with my wife and daughter was a most amazing discovery.  I am, no doubt, in a small way closer to them now than I was.

Get Real Elizabethan Ballads

LeRoy, I was thinking about our classes at St. Mary’s College when we were both literature majors.  You may recall that at the time  I fell in love with Elizabethan ballads like “Barbara Allen” and “Dinah and Villikins”.  In some of my recent research I have found that there are Appalachian versions that survive to this day.

Anyway, I accepted the lyrics of these lovely songs without much question when I was 18 years old.  Considerable living experience has forced me to reevaluate some of them for credibility.

Take Barbara Allen, for example.  It seems a young man named “Sweet William” is dying of a broken heart.  He sends his butler to fetch Barbara, the apparent cause of his affliction.  She takes her own sweet time getting there, but when she sees him, she confirms to this lovesick young man that he, indeed, looks like crap. He makes a huge strategic blunder.  He tells her that it is her fault he is sick.

If William is considering some kind of reconciliation, this approach is not calculated to be one of the top three.  Sweet William doesn’t know his ass from his elbow about women.  Women like fancy talk, especially in Elizabethan England.  Barbara wants to hear something like “Wherefore the sweet nectar of thy ululations, you saucy wench,” rip off his tunic and perform all manner of gymnastics on her exquisite body.

Instead, with all his whining, she of course looks at him as if he were road kill in Arkansas.  Her eyes narrow and she reminds him that he toasted all the girls in the pub and “slighted” her.  We never know the real reason for Barbara’s animosity, but given the nature of Queen Elizabeth’s time, he probably nailed every fair maiden in the pub except her.   He says that he can only get well if she will take him back. She is thinking “spineless, groveling weasel.” She probably tells him to do something anatomically impossible, but in the expurgated version of the song, she says, “Young, man I’ll not have you,” and leaves.  Sweet William continues to whine and weep as she walks out the door, posterior swinging to a secret tune she is internally whistling.  William isn’t so Sweet now.  He wails, “Adieu to me, Adieu to all and Adieu to Barbara Allen.” One suspected all along that he was a French fop, probably wearing lacy shirt cuffs, and this confirms it.  Though the song doesn’t say so, I am sure that Barbara sashayed down the walkway and headed home in a very upbeat frame of mind.

On the way she hears the church bells signaling that Sweet William is dead and the chiming seems to say that she is “hard hearted,” that she should have forgiven him.  The lyrics say that she tells her mother that she feels really bad about that whimpering simp, William, somehow concludes that she is a rotten bitch and mom should get her coffin ready because she is going to kill herself.  The final stanza says she dies and is buried next to Sweet William. A rose comes out of his nerdy little grave and a briar out of hers and they tie a lover’s knot at the top of the church steeple.

Pleeeeeeeeeease!

There is no way in the world that this babe is going to kill herself.  She skipped and whistled all the way home, had a good life and never again gave Sweet William a second thought except to smile a secret smile whenever his name came up in the pub.  She knew that he actually died of advanced syphilis from his orgy at the tavern the night he “toasted all the ladies fair and slighted Barbara Allen.”

“Villikins and Dinah” is a ballad where the lovely damsel also kills herself.  As you can plainly see, women don’t fare very well in these songs.  She does this because her father wants her to marry a rich jerk, but she looooooves a guy named Villikins, a “lazy young lout” according to her father.  But she knows he is a really good kisser and says she will give up her fortune if she can remain single for awhile.  She kills herself over love of this guy.  The moral of the ballad is that it is “better by far to die and grow cold than marry a suitor for silver or gold.”

Again, pleeeeeeeeeease!

Do you think in a thousand years I would offer this advice to any of my daughters?  Do you think they would take this advice if I offered it?  The real story goes something like this: Dinah marries the rich guy who, being “gallant and gay,” goes off in search of adventure, jousting and merry making, gone all the time.  So Dinah gives Vilikins the key to her back door.  End of story.  Everybody wins.  Hubby frolics with pub wenches, probably often with Ms Allen, and brags about slaying a dragon or two. Dinah and Villikins frolic whenever they please.

I have come to the conclusion that should have lived in Elizabethan times.  With my get-real lyrics, women would have loved me.

Best Friend’s Passing

Back from New Zealand, so taking some time to recover, pay bills and pay income tax.  You mentioned your best friend, Clyde,  your dog and companion of ten years, passing and sadness.  I have had a similar experience….these beloved creatures become members of the family, as special as children in a way.  Here is my Saki story.

So Long, Saki

I was reading the Sunday Miami Herald on the back porch.  Pretty much of a rag, but enough comics to keep my subscription alive.  We lived on the sixth hole of a fine golf course in southern Florida, a par five well over five hundred yards long, not really much of a challenge in spite of its length, a straight, narrow fairway between our Spanish style town house and the creek.

My wife came in from the front room.  I looked up and saw tears streaming from her eyes.  “I think Saki’s gone,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Go check,” she said, sniffling, as she went out on the fairway to mourn.

We bought Saki in a little pet store in Kobe, Japan when our  children were small.  My wife thought it important for the kids to have a pet, but we traveled so much it needed to be small and not too noisy.  So it was, we bought a three week old white Maltese named “Gin of Spindle Tree,” her official pedigree title.  We quickly changed that to “Sakurabana,”  or “Cherry Blossom” in Japanese.  Saki for short.

We took her around the world with us.  First to New York where she was run over by an eighteen-wheeler truck.  She survived with a fractured hip which made her walk with a cute little wiggle that “Sam” our neighbor’s mongrel couldn’t resist.  I managed to keep Sam at bay for two years until the day we moved.  Saki was missing.  We searched frantically in the forest, yelling her name, almost gave up when she came wandering out of the overgrown brush near our neighbor’s hedge.  Sam was right behind her with what can only be described as a “s**t eating grin.”  Saki had finally been nailed by the local bad boy.

Moving to Rome, Italy, Saki had false pregnancy symptoms.  She learned to disobey orders in Italian, adding to her growing repertoire of commands she would ignore.  Next came Paris where she proceeded to ignore requests in French for sitting, rolling over, walking with a leash, and other simple activities every other dog in the world would do.  Finally we moved to Florida where she adamantly refused to obey “southern” commands.  She wouldn’t do what she was told in five languages.

So I folded my paper, got up, walked to the bedroom.  Saki was on top of her favorite blanket.  I touched her.  Cold, stiff.  Very dead.  I sat there for a time.  This little white animal, looking like a toy sheep dog with hair over her eyes and a coal black button nose, had been with us for seventeen years.  She was family.

We had taken her to the vet two days before,  She had a large tumor in her belly, was blind….with her bad hip, we explained to people,  it was a good time for her to be blind since she couldn’t walk fast enough to hurt herself.  The vet told us she might not last the weekend.  He explained to me that if we decided to bury her on our property to make it a deep hole.  Otherwise, he said, other animals would try to dig her up.

So I mourned for a few minutes recalling some of the amusing stories about the little thing over the years.  One time she fearlessly chased a horse down the beach convinced that it was a big dog infringing upon her territory.  Being spooked by my daughter’s little parakeet, Spot, was hilarious.  Spot was a very aggressive little bird who would march down the hallway after Saki, terrifying her.  Whenever she was taken for a walk on a leash Saki would defiantly sit down; not even dragging her would get her to comply with local laws.  Eventually we all became adept at reading her thoughts.  She had two of them.  One was “food.”  All other activities were of secondary importance to her.  When commanded, pleaded or politely asked to do something, her thought would be the same as the expression made famous by Bartleby, Herman Melville’s Scrivener.  “I would prefer not.”

Beloved Saki, always giving me problems.

Finally, remembering the admonition of the veterinarian, and being an engineer by trade, I decided that no animal on the planet would dig up my deceased friend.  So I headed to Home Depot.  I bought long screws and water resistant wood, took it back to the house and began constructing a little coffin.  Then I went into the bedroom, tenderly picked Saki up, wrapped her in her favorite blanket, put her gently into the box, placed an open can of “Mighty Dog” next to her, her favorite food, so that she wouldn’t go hungry on her way to doggie heaven, and screwed in the last piece of wood on her final little wooden house.

To the front yard I went, equipped with shovel and pick.  The vet said dig a deep hole.  Again, following perfect engineering logic, I did as I was told.  I dug a hole three by four feet wide and six feet deep.

Then, standing at the rim of this gaping cavern, tears streaming down my face, holding the tiny wooden box containing our beloved family member, the edge of the hole began to crumble.  I had forgotten that southern Florida has no soil…it is all sand, and it was beginning to sift into the hole as I stood transfixed with grief.

What happened next, in retrospect, made perfect sense.  Had I been Spock, the unerringly logical Vulcan of Star Trek, my brain would have said, “The dog’s dead.  Save yourself and drop the box.”  Unfortunately I am human.  My human brain malfunctioned.  It said “Save the dog.”   Clutching the box to my bosom, I slid slowly, inexorably, and stupidly into a six foot deep chasm, one foot finally on the bottom, the other stretched upward in the opposite direction above my head.

As I extricated myself, not without significant effort, after gently placing the small Saki box on the bottom, I started to refill the gulch I had made.  It became immediately apparent that my unfortunate, though entirely understandable human reaction, had caused all the cartilage in my left knee to tear loose from the bone whence it normally resided.

I took a last look at the box at the bottom of the crevasse, holding my injured and very painful knee with one hand, and shoveling with the other.

“So long, Saki,” I mumbled.  “I hope you learn to roll over or sit in the doggie great beyond.”  As I said that, I wondered what she might be thinking.

Probably, “I would prefer not,” I decided.

The Supreme Court Decision…. and the future

The Supreme Court decision recently ruled that corporations have the very same rights under the Constitution that people have. That is amazing. It raises some important issues I hope the Justices have carefully considered. For example, how long will it be before corporations are allowed to bear arms? Surely all gay corporations will be allowed to intermingle and adopt baby corporations. Corporations that make alcoholic beverages will now be required to go to rehab and join CA: Corpraholics Anonymous. Will a corporations that kills another corporation, that is it is judged to be a monopoly, be subject to the death penalty? Do they have the right of habeas corpus? Will corporations and unions be allowed to vote now? The mind boggles.

I’m not sure if religious organizations are corporations or not, but if they are surely, in context, The government will conjugate a syntax upon all communicants who go to confession. Mortal sins will be assessed at a much larger rate than venial ones. For example, cursing or little white lies would be taxed at $100 per infraction while murder would be assessed a tax of at least $1,000. and so on. I think badly sung Palestrina would be considered a Lethal Sin and be subject to a $10,000 syntax.

Speaking of syn, I have found a way to quantify the opposite of syn, namely sanctity. My wife and I hike up to the chapel on the hill in Ajijic two or three times a week. Those who go the same trail know that on the way are the Stations of the Cross, traditional depictions of events on the way to crucifixion by Jesus. There are fourteen such stations. It takes about 20 minutes to climb to the top where the chapel, the fourteenth station, awaits. Fourteen stations on the way, fourteen more on the way down. If I give “holiness” a point count of, say, 10 for each rapid meditation, that is a total of 280 holiness points in less than an hour. At three times a week, 52 weeks, I earn a total of 43,680 sanctity points a year. Of course you get negative points for the above mentioned syns, but if I pay my syntax I presume the bad numbers go to zero. Therefore, I still get nearly fifty thousand holiness points. I would assume it is a done deal with me and heaven.

Invasions


LeRoy,

With my recent hospital incursions, I decided to describe my current health pattern.

From Webster, “Invasion….an act or instance of entering as an enemy.”

I have personally been involved in many invasions. Most people think of invasions in light of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, the beaches of Normandy and so forth. But as it turns out, invasions are waaaay more complex than running roughshod through somebody else’s country.

For example, poor, sad faced Lawrence Talbot played by Lon Cheney Jr. in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman” gets invaded by some mysterious full moon phenomenon and turns into a beast that wants to rip out your throat. Get bitten by the Dracula and something invades your psyche to make you want to bite necks of good looking babes.

The point is, I want to establish the fact that invasions come in different flavors. Of course there are alien intrusions: disembodied spirits, extraterrestrial demons, breaking and entering, amoebas, various growths, germs and Biblical plagues. My invasions, the ones I wish to disclose herein, are of the human variety, much of them involving implements probably having origins during the Inquisition by Torquemada himself. I’m talking about invasions, inexplicably voluntary on my part, involving large amounts of money actually freely given to the perpetrators, commonly referred to as doctors and dentists, henceforth delineated as Assault Vehicle Operators with Invasive Devices, or “AVOIDs”, for brevity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful to most AVOIDs. They are, in effect, invaders that destroy previous invaders, much like the Allies of World War II. You can’t avoid AVOIDers if you are sick and want to be invasion free.

Let me explain. There are six main apertures leading to the insides of the human body, three having to do with sensation (eyes, ears and nose), one primarily dealing with fuel intake and communication (mouth) and two involving elimination of one sort or another. Within the last year, all of these entry and exit points on my body have been thoroughly AVOIDed. To spare the delicate sensibilities of the reader, I shall be careful how I describe my personal invasions, try to depersonalize the alien strategies and objectives as best I can.

Let’s start with hearing devices called “ears.” It is a common occurrence among human beings to somehow acquire large deposits of wax deep within these sound detectors. If not attended to by an Aural AVOID, one’s hearing can be impaired or lead to some diabolical infection. The devices used to extract the candle-like material are known as “forceps,” an apparatus also used in the birth process and obtaining useful information from spies. I now have been thoroughly de-waxed, my hearing, such that it is at my age, fully restored to its pristine, though admittedly attenuated, condition.

Colds and other common infestations require an AVOID to invade the oral cavity with sticks used for forcing the tongue to remain motionless and small sticks with cotton to swab whole areas with vile concoctions. A Tooth AVOID is required to assault the incisor area with picks, shovels, needles and drills, much like a person repairing a road. Fangs are occasionally ripped from their normal resting places and replaced with man-made equivalents, much like the street repair person who I might now refer to as a Street AVOID. The only major difference between these two is simply the size of the weapons utilized.

Now comes the hard part. The sight mechanisms called “eyes” can sometimes deteriorate with age. Mine have something called Age Related Macular Degeneration. If the little veins behind the retina start to leak, the eye goes into a state referred to as “wet.” This is not good. An Eyeball AVOID is immediately needed. He or she can inject a radioactive material into my body, then whack my eye with a laser to dry up the little vessels. At first, I hoped to be like Spiderman but, alas, no super powers come with this particular invasion.

Finally there are the two elimination orifices. The one involving solids, requires occasional examination with a submarine-like periscope looking up the posterior access, for bad things. This procedure, administered by a Col-AVOID, is not pleasant, but at my age one should not avoid this AVOID for more than two years.

That’s invasive enough, but my other mechanism, specializing in waste depletion and preservation of the human species, is a marvel of design if nothing goes wrong. If, however, there is a malfunction of a serious nature, a Urol-AVOID is needed to inspect the causation of concern. I am here to testify that the Creator did not design this particular masculine device to be invaded by anything, much less a telescopic crank of some sort.

So there you have it. The complete textbook articulation of all possible human body opening invasions has been presented for your amazement and edification. Women seem to know everything about their insides, but men generally don’t know squat. I now know plenty of squat, more squat than I ever wanted to know. It still amazes me that we voluntarily, no, plead with AVOIDs and bribe them with vast sums of our money time and time again to vanquish our interior Darth In-Vader Dark Side.

So, LeRoy….may the AVOID Force be with you.

Milagros

Miracle:…(n)…an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause.

I often utter the Spanish word, “milagro!!!” miracle!!!”…exclamation marks included in my verbal astonishment. I am sure milagros are part of the living experience in Mexico because they occur very rarely in the United States. A good example of an American milagro would be agreement on anything in Congress.

But Mexican milagros abound. For example, last night while we were sleeping, something happened to the electricity in our house. I am not sure what because not all the electrical outlets and lights were off. Just some of them. One wall receptacle worked in our downstairs bathroom, but the lights were very dim: a “brownout.” The water pump in our kitchen died, so no water. But the refrigerator and the overhead lights worked just fine. There is no way to explain this. The last time it happened different plugs, different devices and different lights worked or didn’t. The only plausible answer to these random electrical happenings is milagro!!! Then around 10:00 AM everything worked. Milagro again. A two-fer.

Of course, there is the matter of change. When I offer a $500 peso note to pay my grocery bill because it is all I have, inevitably there is either a huge eyeball roll on the part of the cashier lady or there is a polite momentito, por favor. She disappears to some upstairs secret place or a dungeon where the cash stash is kept, the line getting longer and longer with her absence, grumbling customers all hurling angry mental expletives in my direction. When she comes back with change, probably only enough for me and will be repeated with the next customer, I always say “milagro” to her. She is never amused. But God has a way of helping people get even. One day I was standing in line to pay $364.35 pesos. I pulled out my wallet, reached in my pocket, and handed the young lady the exact change and smiled. The girl shouted “milagro!!!” loud enough for the traffic outside on the Carratera to hear.

Guadalajara traffic milagros still astonish me. A Mexican offered to take me into Guadalajara, so I accepted the gracious offer. Then the fun began, swerving around two trucks, cutting in front of a hurtling bus, threading through a crowd of people trying to cross the street against traffic. I had sworn never, NEVER, to ride in Guad with a Mexican man at the helm. I now have evidence that getting to any destination safely with such a driver in a city crammed to bursting with identical, maniacal drivers is, without question, a milagro. There must be tens of thousands each day in Guadalajara. I wonder if God is amused by the sheer abundance of milagros?

Last week I saw first hand another one. My friend Jeanne who lives in Chapala, suddenly was unable to log onto the Internet. No problem, I thought, bringing all my computer geek talents into focus. The most likely culprit is the connection. Right? Maybe the telephone jack was corroded or the Ethernet cord was loose. Wrong. I tried everything, rebooted, turned off the power. Nothing. All the lights on the modem were green. It should be connected. Apparently even though everyone else in the universe was on the Internet, Jeanne wasn’t and couldn’t. I checked, knocking on neighbor’s doors. They were all Googling their asses off. So I began to plot the appropriate engineering methodology. I would take her computer to my house and hook it up to my network…if it works, it is her modem that is the culprit, then I would…..and so on. The next morning, Jeanne tried again, all green lights on just like when I worked on it, and voila….up came Google. There is no logical explanation for this happening. It must have been a milagro. I’m in the process of documenting this one and will send it to the Vatican for official recognition.

Milagros come in many flavors here in Mexico. The best weather in the world is our lakeside area. Even with summer rains and the largest lake in Mexico, it still is a dry climate. Clear, cool and wonderful all the time: the daily milagro. My daughter’s feral, coal black cat, Golum, got out of our yard one night. He won’t let anybody get near him except my daughter. We searched all day in the neighborhood, stayed guard all night with the street door open in case he would sneak in, to no avail. Then a friend happened to walk past an uninhabited, fenced-in house nearby, heard a plaintive yowl off in the distance. How Golum got there is still a mystery, but finding him was definitely a cat milagro. Our construction maestro can fix and build anything. His hands are milagros.

I can hardly wait for the next one. It might be the splash of an avocado in our pool rather than the cement. Since we have a mosaic of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the bottom of our pool I always attribute the avocado-in-the-water milagro to her.

Wait! This just in! Oh, my!!! An American milagro. Apparently Congress just agreed to something. God is definitely amused.

The Ilk Party


Recently I was sent an article that on first blush seemed fairly balanced. The subject, as always these days, was “healthcare reform.” After a fine jaunt through how state governments have determined the shape, objectives and nature of the health care industry since World War II, calling it a “classic government-sponsored cartel,” the author finally got down to business. Apparently I am an “ilk.” He says, “None of this justifies what President Obama and his ilk call healthcare ‘reform.’” Additionally I am a demagogue, sanctimonious and rail against things.
The person who sent the article to me suggested that I think outside the mental box I have apparently crept into. So, in the spirit of tri-partisan compromise, I have given this some serious thought.

I intend to form a new, third political party. It will be called the “Ilk Party” and will, like all parties, have a motto: “The Ilk of Human Kindness.” The Ilks will have many objectives, but it will begin campaigning for healthcare for all citizens, Ilks and non-Ilks alike. We will have as our vision, items definitively contained in the Constitution: “All Ilks are created equal” and “We the Ilks,… will provide for the common welfare,” and so on.

Parties need clubs, so I expect that along side Rotarians and Moose, there will be an Ilks Club whose charitable objectives will be in line with our new Party. We Ilks have counterparts: the Bilks. For example, Bilks seem to think that healthcare should be a free market industry, in other words the status quo.

Bilks don’t want governmental bureaucracy. They evidently prefer unfair business practice bilking instead. When a legitimate claim is rejected or stonewalled on some small print technicality, the insured gets Bilked. Bilking is well known in the free trade business. Being poor is a result of bad decisions, as the mantra goes, so their ilk can’t be bilked. They are simply being punished for not choosing a non-bilking insurance company. We Ilks know,however, the only unBilkable insurance would be the Public Option.

And so, fellow Ilks, let’s un-Bilk, cut the imbilkical cord and march forward. For our Bilking friends: please get help. There is a cure for you, a twelve step program called Bilkaholics Anonymous.

Brilliant Insights from Mexico

Let me begin by saying I have come upon one of the most startling and curious observations in the course of human history: all songs are cha-cha’s. All of them.

You think I’m mistaken or exaggerating? I shall illuminate your bewildered ignorance. Let us start with an easy one: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

“This Land is your land, (cha-cha) This land is my land (cha-cha)
From California (cha-cha) to the New York islands (cha-cha).”….and so on.

Bob Dylan? Surely not, you would say. Picking one at random: “North Country.”

”Well, if you’re travelin’ (cha-cha) in the north country fair (cha-cha),
Where the winds hit heavy (cha-cha) on the borderline (cha-cha),
Remember me (cha-cha) to one who lives there (cha-cha).
She once was (cha-cha) a true love of mine. (cha-cha-cha).”

If you’re still not convinced, play the songs and keep cha-cha time. So is Sweet Adeline, the barbershop favorite.

“Sweet (cha-cha) A- (cha-cha) deline” (cha-cha-cha). I need go no further.

The Star Spangled Banner? Definitely a cha-cha. “Ohhhhh say (cha-cha) can (cha-cha) you see (cha-cha-cha) by the dawn’s (cha-cha) early light (cha-cha-cha)?”

Waltzes? Polkas? Definitely cha-cha’s. They just gave them different names in Vienna and Warsaw. Country Western? Hawaiian war chants? Elizabethan ballads? Bach two part Inventions? Gregorian Chants? All cha-cha’s.

And graceless and clueless men who can’t dance a lick can thank me for this universal rule. Clearly if all songs are cha-cha’s, all dances are cha-cha’s too. Any fool can learn to dance the cha-cha, but beware: you will be mobbed by beautiful women at La Tasca on Tall Boys’ nights. Anyway, if you need help, I am an expert cha-cha dancer. Ask my wife.

Speaking of music, I am puzzled by another amazing phenomenon I have discovered while living in Mexico. No Mexican singer can sing on key. Believe me, I have a more than casual experience in making this pronouncement.

We live near the Charro, the stadium just off the Tienguis on Calle Revolution. At least twice a month I am able to test my hypothesis. The bands start warming up around 2:00 PM for the evening show. The tuba player oompahs his base notes, the trumpets blaaaaat their melodies and then the lead singer begins, at the top of his/her lungs, completely off key. It sounds as if trying to correct the discord, they sing louder, choosing sheer volume to correct the blatant disregard for the melody intended by the composer. But since nobody in the crowd can sing on key either, it seems to the fans to be the best they have ever heard.

In closing, since this is an article extolling my brilliance, I take full credit for the following observations, virtually unpublicized, though undeniably true.

1. All intersections in Mexico have signs pointing where you want to go but not posted in the direction you are going. The sign is always on the other side of the intersection for cars going in the opposite direction, never on the side in the direction you are going.

For example, you are driving from the Lake Chapala area and your destination is the beautiful colonial city of Pazquaro. On the way you come to the small village of Quiroga, there is a sign saying “Pazquaro 10 km.” No problem, you say to yourself, smug in your amazing ability to translate kilometers to miles. As you go through the main plaza of Quiroga, there are many signs, but none signifying the direction to Pazquaro, so you logically continue past the intersection. If you are lucky…and stupid, endangering both you and other passengers in your vehicle…and turn around you will see a sign for Pazquaro which cars traveling in the opposite direction can read. If you don’t turn around, you are Morelia bound about an hour out of your way.

So I have a bit of advice to all automobile manufacturers in Mexico. Put submarine turrets with periscope on all vehicles. Someone in the car should always look backwards when passing a key intersection so that the sign that is never in the direction you were going can be seen.

2. All directional signs in Guadalajara point to distant places you don’t want to go to instead of some local area. For example, if all I want to do is drive to Costco, the sign inevitably tells me I am going to Juarez or Mexico City. Since I am directionally challenged, I really don’t want a quick stopover in Tijuana or Guatamala. Thus, I never get to Costco.

3. All Mexican doctors are required to have at least one of their names be Garcia. I know this to be a fact. My general practitioner is Dr. Garcia, my ophthalmologist is Garcia and my heart doctor is, I presume just to be certain of full compliance, Dr. Garcia Garcia. QED.

4. Now that I can speak a fair amount of Spanish, I wish to impart some rudimentary wisdom to those who are beginners. When you go to the store to buy charcoal briquettes for your barbeque, it is essential you ask for carbón, not cabrón. A cabrón is a very bad word person. The store owner told me politely that he did not sell cabrónes but I could try next door, a high priced liquor store run by his brother.

5. All Mexican songs have three words in them: Corazon (heart), amor (love) and lo siento (I’m sorry). Any song without at least one of these three words is not authentically Mexican. If the words somehow became illegal, all Mexican songs would be prohibited.

Oh. I almost forgot: all Mexican songs are cha-cha’s.

Miracles

Occasionally I have been asked by various people whether or not I believe in miracles. I usually say I believe in preposterously unlikely events. If pressed, I will sometimes say that there are phenomena that can’t be explained. Here is an example.

Picture this. A young man leaves the monastery at the age of 20. He has never dated, learned to dance, kissed a girl. He is as socially naïve and inexperienced as it is possible to be at that age in the 1950s American culture. And shy, painfully shy.

That summer he gets a job as a lifeguard. Talk about an experience an ex-monk dreams about. He is a lifeguard. Girls like lifeguards. He likes girls and is a lifeguard. End of story? Well, no…it turns out this young man looks like he’s around 13 years old and all the teeny-boppers love him. Girls his own age think he’s in Junior High. This does not enhance his experience with girls at all since he has a conscience and won’t mess around with little girlies. In any case, they still write him at college for over a year. Bummer.

So he goes to a little college a continent away. This school studies weird stuff. They don’t have text books. They go to the original sources. For math they go to Euclid and Ptolemy. They study ancient Greek and translate Euripides, Aristophanes and Herodotus. They read plays, history and philosophy from the Greeks who wrote them. This does not trouble the young man at all. He’s already had much of this material at a nice Catholic college when he was a monastic guy. He had taken five years of Latin. He was good at math. He already knew how to prove the Pythagorean Theorem.

There was this girl in all of his classes. ALL of his classes. She was pretty and smart, but she was clueless when it came to Herodotus and Euclid. Even though she was right out of high school, she knew the ropes when it came to the boy/girl business. One day she asked him if he would help her with her math. Another day she asked him if he would help her translate Herodotus. During one of their study sessions, she said she had to go get a coke. Two hours later he was still waiting. So while he walked back to his dorm, he saw her talking to a guy in a cozy alcove. She called the next day to apologize, but he was having none of it. Right. That night they were studying Ptolemy and Aristophanes again.

This turned out to be a regular thing. He was good at math and language, she was a good kisser. Each brought skills to the relationship. He fell in love and as hard as that is to believe, so did she.

A year passed. He stayed for the summer, got a job with a big electronics company called Westinghouse, became an “apprentice electrical engineer.” That is a code word for ‘gopher’. The girl went home, got a summer job, made some money and came back in the fall. They decided to get married. They had no money, so their friends helped out with food and decorations; it was a great wedding attended by friends from their former college and work. To save some money, they chose a date near Christmas so that the church would already be decorated. The minister’s wife played the organ, a gift since they couldn’t afford to hire musicians. Afterwards, the young man invited the entire entourage to their apartment to have a snack and a drink. Picture this: fifty people in the bride and groom’s tiny apartment with no bedroom a pullout couch. The bride apparently still loved him in spite of his excessive dumbness, but there was probably a lot of eyeball rolling.

Oh, yes. I forgot to mention that the wedding took place on December 21, the looooooongest night of the year. Good deal for the groom. Poor bride.

Fast forward. It is fifty-two years later. They are still married. They’ve lived in six countries, traveled around the world, had adventures and produced four children.

And they still love each other.

So what do you think? The very first girl the young, ex-monk dated turned out to be the love of his life. That has got to be more than luck, more than a preposterously unlikely event.

A Miracle? Maybe.

Belize if you please

Valerie and I spent ten days in Belize. Daughter Leslie was going, but couldn’t due to surgery and an amoebic infection. Valerie’s little sister, Judy, whom I have known since she was in the third grade, went with us. And I should not forget our Scottish friend, Liz, who went with us last year to the Peruvian Andes. “If it isn’t Scottish, it’s Crrrrrrrrrap!!!” as the skit on SNL used to do.

To begin with, it will stretch credibility to know that the fastest way from central Mexico to Belize is to go from Guadalajara to “W” airport in Houston, two hours flight time north, then to Belize City, three hours south. All other options involve three changes of planes, overnight stay in some godforsaken place or expensive. Against my natural disinclination to have anything whatsoever to do with anything “W”, I booked the flight.

Arriving, we stayed in a hotel for a day, boated to an island, Caye Caulker, where young folk hang out. It would be great for a month of lolling, partying and sleeping. We were picked up the next day by Israel, a driver sometimes employed by MET, Mountain Equestrian Trails, our hosts for the week. The lodge is large, thatched roof, big bar, nice lounge area, no electricity, no TV. Ahhhhhhh! The huts we stayed in, also thatched, were large and comfortable. We lit kerosene lamps each night, there was a full moon while we were there. The proprietors were living off the land, next to a large Mennonite farm, a interesting and courageous young couple with three wonderful small children. Daniel, a friend helping out, is an artist and Chicano originally from East LA, moving to Belize to pursue his artist ambitions.

The next day another couple showed up, Bob, a retired paper factory owner in his seventies and his younger, fiftyish, bride, Cindy. Over cocktails, Bob expressed his belief that Valerie was intellectually challenged because she voted for Obama. As it turned out, all others both staff and trekkers including the Scottish one, were un-American too, being Obama fans. This provided a challenge to Bob and Cindy when it came to conversation. You are in pretty close quarters on a trek like this, so we decided to limit our discussions to non-political issues when talking to them.

Later, on a protracted horseback ride through the jungle, he sidled up to me and whispered like an old spy movie, lest my wife overhear his question. “Psssst,” he hissed in my bad ear, “What do you think of people who go overboard on the environmental issues?” I looked around furtively lest my wife be listening, and hissed back: “Not much. I think wackos on all sides are basically wacko. Like the Right Wing Nuts who insist on making gay marriages a constitutional issue and justify their position on some scriptural quote taken out of context.” I didn’t have many conversations with Bob the rest of our trip, try as I might to discuss off-shore drilling, torture and the supply-side economic principles involving the availability of cheap labor in Mexico.

We went to limestone caves, once inhabited by Mayans, caused by what was once an inland sea. Drawings on ceilings, caused by man or nature, who knows for sure, were everywhere. We swam in pools below lovely waterfalls, cool but refreshing. My horse, Mariposa (butterfly in Spanish), was impervious to any of my commands, verbal or otherwise. She did what the horse in front did. Most of the time that was walking or trotting but once or twice a real canter. This was a learning experience for me. I basically have no ass and it is difficult for me to get the rhythm the horse makes….so my posterior and the horse’s back are in direct conflict most of the time. I learned, though, so no further removal of substance from my backside occurred.

We went to three Mayan ruins, the most spectacular of which was Tikal in Guatemala. It was once a 35 square mile metropolis inhabited by around two million people. Our guide said that there seemed to be consensus on the ‘disappearance’ of Mayans. It seems they needed huge amounts of wood to bake the soft limestone that made up their temples. So over a period of a couple of hundred years they deforested their place of habitation, built amazing structures, some of them ten stories high. Eventually this caused a climate change: much less rain, drought, famine…so they moved on to repeat the process. Our guide, a young man named Luis, was a native of the region, spoke English, Spanish and Creole fluently, apparently knew a few bad words in Mayan too. He is going to the University of Texas as well as making a living as a guide. I asked him what he thought when he took people on tours here (he tended to be a little condescending in some of his explanations, perhaps justified by experience, I don’t know). He looked at me for a long moment and said slowly, “Immense pride.”

I confess I immediately thought of that night in Blessington, Ireland, July 21, 3:00 AM there, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I had been a part of the Apollo project….IBM had both the guidance computer on the Saturn V booster and the moon landing navigation computer. I thought President Kennedy was full of it when he announced a moon landing before the decade was out, but this stupendous feat was not only a miracle of technology for the time, but a miracle of cooperative management: hundreds of companies, dozens of countries, uncountable governmental agencies, underappreciated (by me) brilliance of the astronauts….I felt, like our guide, immense pride that morning. Just after the “One small step for a man, one giant stride for mankind” comment, the doors to the common room in that little hotel burst open and a handful of Irish well wishers came in with beer and Irish whiskey, slapping us on the back and congratulating us as if we had somehow done it too. Amazing.

On our last day, we went to a cave owned by a young man, Bol, who had bought several acres some years before. He had accidentally discovered the cave which was covered by a large boulder, while walking on a hill one evening. He found many artifacts, bones, pottery, drawings. I asked him the same question and he got misty eyed. “My ancestors lived here,” he said.

That afternoon and evening was spent with cocktails, exchanging views on our trip, the Mayan ruins, our horsemanship or lack thereof…except for a verbal assault by Bob and Cindy over dinner. We had avoided political issues since they seemed to have volatile reacts over any difference of opinion, even minor ones. But when the subject of travels came up, Valerie told a story about a time when someone asked a group what they most loved and what they most hated. Most, she said, mentioned people or places. Valerie said she had answered, “My passport….I love it because it allows me to travel and I hate it because the government decides where I can go and not go.” It was not meant to be a political statement, just an observation about our original passports when we lived in Europe. Bob stormed up from the table saying, “Oh, great, there’s an intelligent observation: everyone can go anyplace. The world would be in chaos!” He wouldn’t talk to us the rest of the evening and there was an embarrassing silence in the room at his overreaction. Cindy remained at the table to declare we were not only un-American since we live in Mexico but pagans as well since we didn’t openly profess Jesus as our personal savior. I was fed up and went to bed early. Bob had been so openly rude to Valerie, it was either that or knock him on his ass….which is normally not a reaction calculated to promote good feelings at the end of a week long adventure.

So it was back to Houston, then to Guadalajara, arriving at midnight. A good trip in spite of Bob and Cindy, not as spectacular as the one to the Andes and Machu Picchu in Peru last year, but good nevertheless. Judy and I have always been close and had a lot of fun together. Liz, the six foot Scottish lady (she definitely isn’t crrrrrrrrrrrapp!) talked non stop, splendid company. There were three children of the proprietors hanging around and we both had a lot of fun with them, precocious kids and home educated. I helped Katlin with her math, built Leggo structures with Logan and teased the 18 month Cyan unmercifully…she apparently liked it since she giggled all the time.

I presume Mariposa was indifferent to my absence, but you never know.

The Mexican Driver’s License Caper

It became obvious that we were in trouble. Our Georgia driver’s licenses were about to expire, and there was no way we were able to get to the DMV in Atlanta easily or inexpensively. Besides, we were not residents of Georgia now.

We talked to our friends. They all rolled their eyeballs at our intention to get a Mexican driver’s license. No discussion, no information, nothing except eyeball rolls.

But we are experienced in the multiplicity of eccentricities of foreign countries we said to each other. We’ve lived in five, six if you count California. As you have rightly described, LeRoy, the DMV in California is strange and nefarious. They deliberately make you look as if you have been using drugs for decades. They try to make you look old. They give you tests, for God’s sake.

So we went to the police station. There was a man there with a well fed protruding stomach. His name was Alberto. Alberto is known far and wide as the gringo pescador…the foreigner fisherman. Alberto waits in his big Ford police truck, behind billboards. Remember the old cartoons in the USA where the motorcycle cop with the goggles and boots did the same thing? Alberto is the Mexican equivalent. He is probably a rich man.

His scam goes like this. You are going west on the Carratera and make a left turn into La Floresta, a nice area in Ajijic. You’ve done it hundreds of times. This time, a big Ford 150 with red and green stripes on the side flashes lights at you. You know it is a police truck. You gasp in surprise when Fat Alberto waddles up to your window. Alberto speaks English quite well. No surprise there, he learned the ropes in San Diego and besides, he spends so much time chasing down gringos, he has plenty of practice.

Alberto wants to see all your documents, drivers license, copies of your FM-3 visa, copies of ownership of your vehicle. This takes around ten minutes. He bellies up to the window finally and informs you that you made a forbidden left turn. A long argument ensues, but you know you have lost it. There is, if you look very closely, a “glorieta,” a semicircle from the lateral road on the right. By law you are supposed to make a RIGHT turn into the semicircle and wait, perpendicular to traffic until there is a sufficient break in both directions to scamper across. This could take a half hour during the middle of the day. It makes no sense, you tell him. He explains the law again. He can give you a ticket and you can stand in line in the municipal building in Chapala. They will probably charge you 1000 pesos, he explains, for such a grievous infraction. Or you can pay now.

So you pay your negotiated 200 pesos, down from five hundred with a stern warning through a half smile that says it all: “Got you again, tonto…dummy…!”

But I digress. Back in the police station in search of the procedure for obtaining a driver’s license, we ask Alberto what we must do to get one. He can hardly suppress a smile of glee. He says you must pass a written test in Spanish, take an eye test, go on an extended road test and pay the fee. You ask for the driver’s manual so that you can take the test. “Manual?” he giggles. “You want a manual?” he says. “There is no (“stinking”) manual.” I remember the bandito in The Treasure of Sierra Madre who says something similar. “Badge? You want to see my badge? I don’t need no stinking badge.” Alberto is probably thinking the same thing, and I am sure he has seen the movie. He is hugely amused. “And I will be proud to be with you during the road test.”

We thank him, and depart, telling him we will make an appointment soon. “An appointment?” he almost falls over laughing. “Sure. Good idea. Make an appointment.” He is slapping his thigh in absolute mirth.

So I went to Veronica. Veronica runs a house rental and services business here. We have used her many times for a plumber, a painter, a gardener, some electrical work. She is very reliable. I told her my sad tale of woe. She smiled sympathetically. “Maria here will go with you,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

So a week later, back to the police station we went with Maria. She is a very pretty girl around 20 years old I would guess. Alberto recognizes us immediately, comes up and shakes our hand. My other hand is firmly on my wallet. He tells us to sit down and wait our turn. Maria goes over to one of the other policemen, talks with him for a few minutes, comes back and sits with us, flashing a big smile.

Twenty minutes later we are asked to go to the side room for our picture. Ten minutes later we sign our drivers license and pay our fee. No written test, no road test, no eye test. Maria takes us back to the car. I have been here long enough to know not to ask questions. I paid Veronica 200 pesos for “services.”

So I have a Mexican drivers license. My picture looking back at me appears to be at least one hundred years old and no doubt a user of many stupefying drugs for many years. It is good through 2010. I don’t know what I will do then, since the local driver’s license scam has been terminated by the new mayor.

Too bad. It was a damn good scam, especially if your Spanish isn’t so hot, you are half blind and don’t have a clue about the subtleties of driving regulations that seem to change from village to village.

The Perfect Computer

LeRoy,

Who would have expected profundity about the perfect dining room table? Now that you bring it up, we never had it. The Perfect Dining Table, that is. Our first was, as you describe, a hand-me-down that barely fit in our 54’ Chevy, our first car. After that we just had tables. A black one we bought in Italy, an oblong one we bought in Atlanta. A glass one now with wicker underpinnings that will seat 6 comfortably. So I don’t know what the perfect dining room table for us would be. Our family is relatively small, even with grandchildren, at most 9. We could jam three more chairs at the corners of our present table and make do.

But you had me thinking about what might be a symbol of my life. It isn’t furniture of any kind…I just don’t care much about furniture and Valerie is a genius when it comes to decoration. Even the few antiques I’ve inherited from ancestors don’t reflect anything much about me symbolically. Cars? I couldn’t care less about cars. The only one I really liked was a ’57 Chevy, and that was destroyed in an automobile accident. Probably because of our joint peculiar teenage lives in a Roman Catholic “Junior Novitiate,” I never got into cars. To me, cars are tools….good if they work, bad if they don’t.

So what could be a symbol reflective of me? It took me some time to come up with something plausible. Probably the “Perfect Computer.” All my adult life I’ve been involved with these relatively stupid electronic devices. I’ll try to explain.

My dalliance with computers began a year after I left the Brothers. A modest experiment at St. Johns College in the physics lab got me interested in computing. We actually constructed a slide rule using an Archimedean spiral projected onto a linear surface.

The summer following that year at St. Johns, I needed a job. I heard of an internship program at Westinghouse in Baltimore. To my amazement, I managed to pass an aptitude test…I say amazingly, since Brother Vincent had told me in high school that I had no talent for mathematics and should avoid it when I went to college. So I would up working for Westinghouse in their aerospace division near “Friendship Airport” as it was called in the ‘50s, just outside of Baltimore on the way to Washington DC. I was assigned to be a technician on a project that was the prototype of what is now the AWACS radar system, used the world over. Most computers in those days took an entire room with air and water cooling, wires and pipes under the flooring. Ours consisted of only two racks of electronics because we used the brand new devices invented at Bell Labs…transistors…and an analog computer box which directed the antenna. That was my responsibility, lots of gadgets that calculated the position of the aircraft carrying the radar and kept it pointing towards the target no matter what maneuvers the plane and target took. Great if you are good at trigonometry. Amazingly again, I was a whiz at trig. I was good at analytic geometry…Rene Descartes would have been proud of me. I was good at calculus and complex variables. Not only was I good at mathematics, I liked it too. I carried around an Aristo “log-log, decitrig, hyperbolic function” slide rule that made my earlier physics lab experiment look like child’s play. I could use it too. I still have the damn thing somewhere. I named it “Clyde,” shown here. Clyde was, and is, a damn fine slide rule, but it wasn’t the Perfect Computer. You could compute to about three decimal places at most.

My next adventure was with computers was with a subsidiary of ITT, but it wasn’t very interesting. The project was the world wide communication system for the Strategic Air Command and they used all kinds of computing things including a “Military Computer” designed by IBM. I wasn’t impressed. It still took up a whole room. I designed a computer which could theoretically “talk” or translate messages between SAGE, SAC, the Air Defense Command, NORAD and almost any communication system It was never to the best of my knowledge, but it would have worked. Maybe that is why it wasn’t used. I didn’t give it a name, though, because it was only a paper design.

Then back to California, I worked for Northrop Space Laboratory in Los Angeles. I designed and built my own computer this time using “solid state logic,” the very first chips. It was intended to process information from scanning devices in the visible spectrum, infra red, ultra violet. The devices were going to be used to detect missile launches and feed information to military intelligence, much as radar does. I helped solder wires, tested the thing and it worked the very first time we powered it up. I was so proud of it, I named it “Earl.” But it wasn’t perfect. Earl was designed for a very specific purpose and it wasn’t movable. This is Earl at his best, wires combed, circuits impeccably manicured.

Then I participated in the Apollo program. I had begun work for IBM and we designed the guidance computer for the Saturn V booster rocket that propelled the astronauts to the Moon. But it wasn’t very interesting, bolted to the side of a huge cylinder, and it was also designed for a very specific, though important purpose.

That ended my computer design and building career. After that I began to work on commercial projects, on-line teller systems for European banks, then data base systems for Japanese banks, then reservation systems for the airlines. I worked for the San Jose division which invented the hard file. The first one, on display in the lobby of the plant, had disks 3 feet in diameter and spun on spindles. Interesting, scientific breakthroughs, but hardly cuddly. I wasn’t about to name any of these computing behemoths…they calculated alright, but they were incredibly boring. There were tapes, drums, disks, enormous mainframe computers still with water and air to cool them and programmed with cards with holes in them.

Then I went to Florida in search of the Perfect Computer. It looked good for awhile. IBM was going into the little computer business. At that time Apple, Atari and Commodore were the only small machines available, so IBM got into the act. My first IBM computer was a PC Junior. The only problem was the stupid operating system we got from a geek in Washington, this guy named Bill Gates who dropped out of Harvard. DOS was the worst operating system ever…EVER…invented. I hated it. Even the huge mainframes had decent operating systems, cards with holes or not. So Earl remained my only computer with a name.

Finally, after some years, Windows caught up with Apple more or less and Microsoft came out with a half decent operating system, Windows XP Professional. The computer itself was put together by the company I worked for, VirtuCom, a small family business that made and serviced computers for the K-12 school market. After a time it performed so well I decided to name it. At the time it was a killer computer with all the whiz bang stuff, latest software, a ton of RAM. But, sadly, Farley, shown here, is now almost 6 years old…around 82 in computer years…and while a little slow…well, so am I for that matter….it is now like an old friend, my trusted sidekick like Tonto.

I recently had a new one built for me. It is a killer computer, with all the latest software, a ton and a half of RAM, a huge LED display. It has more computing power than all the computers in the world put together when Clyde was born. Melvin (shown to the right with his cousin, Clyde) might well be the Perfect Computer.

Or not.

Good Mexico Stuff

LeRoy,

First, Feliz Navidad. As in all adventures, there are pros and cons here in Mexico, but on the whole I think living in Mexico is a wonderful adventure. How can you not love a country whose milk is made in LaLa Land (the brand name of milk here), the bread is baked by a Bimbo (Mexico’s equivalent of Wonder Bread) and every single clerk, as the cash register goes “ka-ching” says, “Que la vaya bien”….May your way go well.

Part of the adventure, of course, is the language. One must always be careful in dialogue to watch for unintentional mistakes with words which sound similar. Sometimes I still ask for my Thursdays over easy for breakfast and I really didn’t want my onions cut just above the ears at the barber shop. “Cebollas,” (onions) and “cabellos,” (hair) just look too much alike. So, I switched to “pelos,” another word for hair so my onions would remain long. Still, I must have some kind of linguistic deformity when it comes to the subject of hair. When I lived in France I wanted the barber to cut my horses short: “cheveux” instead of “chevaux.” My most embarrassing mistake here was at the closing of our house. I insisted on two lawyers. I arrived to find two avocadoes on the desk in front of me instead of two abogados.

But I’m learning. I never say mande? (pardon me?) on Tuesday.

I love Mexican children, the best behaved in the world. Last night at a restaurant a family of six small children showed up. In Atlanta I would just pay my bill and leave, anticipating the total chaos to come. Here the little ones would go in the back yard and play soundlessly. Two girls, probably twins, around five years old, made some motions to run around and got “the look” from their mother. The rest of the evening they sat quietly on chairs and whispered back and forth.

The year-end fandangos here are great entertainment. The festival of San Andrés, spelled for some reason “Andreas” in California, takes nine days, the time of the novena. Each night the church bells ring forever accompanied by rockets forever. I am forever fond of saying that San Andreas, as holy as he was, still had his faults….but they were mostly in northern California.

Just as the two week rocket brigade is finished, then comes the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The procession is one grand event. It starts at the main church in the Ajijic plaza and travels to the church of the Virgin at Six Corners. The guys dressed as faux-Aztecs get to lead it, followed by a blaring mariachi band, followed by the pilgrims, many of whom carry small children on their backs: the little girls with small cages on their backs, the boys all dressed like miniature Juan Diegos. Finally the large picture of the Virgin comes borne by several men, the whole phalanx of folk weaving their way to Six Corners and into the church….but without the poor phony Aztecs who have to stay outside….pagans you know…and drink beer while everyone else is inside singing hymns. They don’t look like they mind much.

One of my favorite things is the balanced view Mexicans have about spiritual things. For example, on the Day of the Dead, ancestors are honored. Families go to the cemetery, bring drink and food, pray, play music. Serious and fun together, and the hot skeleton babes, Catarinas, at first a nose thumbing of the dictator a century ago, now fully invooved in the Night of the Dead celebrations.

And speaking of balanced views of religion, last Christmas in the courtyard of the church in San Antonio Tlayacapán, there were paper maché replicas of scenes of the Bible. The first in line was Genesis. On top of a mountain were Adam and Eve. Down below, Cain was stabbing Abel. An angel was hanging out. Animals roamed over the terrain. I looked more closely at Adam and Eve. They were portrayed by Ken and Barbie dolls. Ken was Ken, macho and cool. But Barbie….she was a real babe dressed to kill. This whimsy would not be possible in the US, I think. I can see hoards of serious religion people with pitchforks and torches like in the Frankenstein movies. Here everyone, gringo and Mexican alike, laugh at the goofyness of Eve being hot stuff.

Then there’s Los Eventos. The Events are in my front yard, more or less. The Charro, the stadium, is one block away with no sound control in our bedroom. One day I decided to go to one.

The crowd was predominantly very young. Of course, most people on the planet are younger than I am now, but couples, groups of teenage girls, some parents, a few older people were all dancing to the music, and they seemed to be just jumping up and down to my undisciplined dancing eyes. Dancing? I could do that, I thought.

I made my way to the top of the stadium. Some young lady was singing at the top of her lungs on the stage. As I got to the top, a young man with his girlfriend made room for me, each giving me a giant “Hola!!!” as if to welcome a stranger to their home. After that they paid me no further attention except when I yelled or whistled to a song I liked. At one point, I get a high five from the young lady, whacking my open hand. I mused how cultures export their products. By now this is a universal sign of approval from my native country.

While the groups were singing I looked down on the stadium floor. There were men on horses which were prancing to the music. At the end of the song, the horses reared, riders waving a sombrero to the crowd, everyone going nuts applauding, me too, high fives to the young lady and her boyfriend.

Then a door opened at the bottom of the arena, and out came a bull, I mean a big damn bull, horns and all, snorting and charging. Was this going to be a tragic ending to a wonderful evening, would it hit a horse or knock a rider off? Was there going to be a bullfight after all?

No chance of any of that….this poor bull was part of the act. It did what it was trained to do, dancing with the horses. A bull dancing? Talk about an act against God and nature. Bulls are supposed to at least try to knock bull fighters on their asses, fighting to the last minute the inevitable ending. This one had lassoes around its neck just in case, but I wondered as he pirouetted if perhaps it was thinking of the good ol’ days when bulls were fearsome creatures, terrorizing toreros. Unlikely. This Ferdinand ran around having a good time, bouncing up and down, clowning with the caballos (not the onions).

So there are many things I like about living in Mexico. The sick and elderly are taken care of. I see no homeless here. Perhaps in the big cities, but not here. Mexican workers can fix anything. My friend, Efrain, also our contractor, has magical hands that designs, repairs and builds.

Oh, I almost forgot….at El Evento, I learned a great new way to dance. This is how it goes. A guy and a girl face each other. They get close enough to touch from forehead to toes. Then they jump up and down in time with the music. I can do that. This is the best dancing I’ve ever seen or heard about.

Right. As if the world population isn’t sufficient as it is, for God’s sake.

Beats Me

LeRoy

I took your last post as a personal challenge. How to describe what wine tastes like? I began to wonder if there is a simple answer since I have had some splendid wines and some I wouldn’t wish on a goat.

The most expensive wine I have ever tasted, and it was a splendid wine indeed, was a Cheval Blanc merlo bottled in 1943 and obviously hidden from the German occupation. The case had been bought by a colleague at an auction while I lived in Paris. I did him a favor, shipped it with my goods to California when I moved. I waited for two years and never heard from him. So I figured I had the right and privilege of drinking a bottle. Dry. Crisp. Buttery. Mild aftertaste of oak. Floral, meaty with a full bodied bouquet. Plump and fleshy. Lush and leafy. Mmmmmm. I have my nostril in the bottle as I write this and the wine was gone 25 years ago.

Ok, so I’m a talented adjective creator, but being at best an amateur at the wine business, I decided to check out the great writers of antiquity. Surely they would know what wine tastes like. The Bible is always talking about wine, so I went to Ecclesiastes.

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.”

Well, ok….so God likes me and my works. But what does it taste like? Surely Solomon would know. He knows everything.

Like the best wine . . . that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.”

Yeah, yeah. Sweetly. BFD. How about good old Homer? The Greeks should know everything there is to know about wine.

A man, not old, but mellow, like good wine.”

Uh-huh. Mellow. I guess Ulysses wasn’t all that good with words after all. I did better than that. What about the wine makers? Surely they know what it tastes like.

Come quickly! I am tasting stars!”

Better. Dom Perignon is metaphorically into this thing. How about an American writer of note?

Wine is bottled poetry.”

So Robert Louis Stevenson says, but I’ve read some really bad poetry. Not acceptable description. I’ll go to my all time favorite saint who lived it up a bit before he got religion. I’m sure he knows more about wine than anybody.

Poetry is devil’s wine.”

Oh, Pleeeeeeeeease, St. Augustine. At least you have good sense about bad poetry, but you don’t know squat about wine. The devil has the best wine in history, no doubt about that.

Well, I give up, LeRoy. Nobody in history is good at describing what it tastes like. One presumes if God knew, there would be something in Leviticus or Deuteronomy about it and I checked them out thoroughly.

I’m not sure that even Jesus knew very much about wine. Everyone knows good wine comes from the best grapes and it takes a long time for it to age properly. Wine needs oak casks and tannin and stuff like that. Miracles about wine would be a stopgap and might not have had anything to do with taste at all. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the wine at the marriage feast of Cana was watery, given its origin, lacked crispness and didn’t have the age needed to make it a fine beverage. I’ll bet the story about the head waiter thinking this wine was the best is completely apocryphal and was rewritten by the head waiter himself. The truth is probably more like: he was polite, because after all it was a wedding, and Jesus gave it his best shot…but as Jesus himself said to his mom, “my time has not yet come.” Perhaps later on in his ministry a prime time vintner miracle might have been achievable, for example at the last supper, but at this early stage in his career he was still experimenting with the miracle business. I think the unexpurgated version had the waiter, probably a wine snob of the highest order, rolling his eyeballs in disbelief at the Mogan David the wedding couple served their guests. Then he edited the unexpurgated version of the gospel text to make it sound better.

Then there were the good Ancients at Mont la Salle. They never drank the bilge that was sold in stores. They drank the good stuff.

Well I tried. I guess for me wine is like art. I don’t know much about it, but I know what I like.

In Memoriam…Brother Sixtus Robert Smith, F.S.C. 1910-2006

Your tribute to Sister Maria, LeRoy, prompted me to complete something similar to my mentor and friend, Brother Robert. I started it right after his death, but for some reason I kept putting it off. I think, in retrospect, it was my speculation about his long term relationship with St. Johns College that gave me trouble, not wanting to impute something to him that wasn’t true or that he would violently disagree with and could not defend now. In any case, here is my effort.

I first met Brother Robert as a high school boarding student at Mont la Salle. High in the Napa, California hills, the Mont, a series of loosely connected buildings, colonial Spanish architecture, was the residence for three groups. A Roman Catholic boarding high school called the Junior Novitiate or “Juniorate” for short…children who thought they might want to become Christian Brothers; a training boot camp for young men who really thought they wanted to be Christian Brothers, called the Novitiate; and the final resting place for old monks and those who ran the winery, we affectionately called “The Ancients.”

To understate it, he was not formidable in stature. I always thought of him as round. Five foot two, round in all respects: round, bald head atop a round body, round little fingers. I imagined his feet….round little toes. He had a ready, almost giddy laugh when amused. While visiting the Mont, he decided to attend a rare showing of a movie, a happening granted by the institutional director and dictator, Brother Michael Quinn, only on special feast days.

I didn’t say much to him that evening. He was busy talking to one of the older students who knew him. I remember one thing, though. When asked about my reading interest, I proudly told him I was currently reading Frank Norris’ novel, “The Octopus,” a story about the west, the railroad barons. He looked at me with an amused smile. “Why don’t you read a real novel?” he asked.

Soon I was reading “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was a “real” novel, alright. And way more real than my sixteen year old brain could manage at the time, but I read the whole damn, indecipherable tome from beginning to end. And I made sure it was resting squarely on my desk during study periods to impress the cretans who were my classmates.

The next time I remember seeing Brother Robert was by pure accident. By now I knew he was a highly respected, if comically constructed, tutor at St. Mary’s College. By this time, having graduated from the high school and joined the ranks of Brothers under the name of Steven Noel, I was taking courses at St. Marys College as a student brother. Brother Robert was trying to initiate a program paralleling that of the “great books” curriculum of St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland. I was required to attend a seminar which read and discussed ancient Greek texts like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the historian Tacitus, the playwright Sophocles and, of course, Plato’s Dialogues. I was shy and didn’t talk much but somehow I got a B+ in his seminar. A friend who talked a lot, got a C. As I remember it, he was upset, thought a mistake had been made. Not so, Brother Robert said. He apparently thought I asked better questions or something of the sort. Very good for my ego at the time.

I asked him once what one should do to become a good teacher. I admired his technique in seminars and watched him free wheel around the classroom in his history of religion. He gave me his delighted smile.

“It is very easy to be a good teacher,” he said with a straight face. “Show students how to learn and then make sure they like learning. Then they will be life long learners.”

Many years later I accosted him with his comment. “The first part is easy,” I said. “The second part is impossible.”

“Not so,” he replied. “How about Jaime Escalante?”

“Yeah, “ I retorted, “but he’s a genius.”

“The defense rests,” he said with a smile.

Shortly afterward I left the Brothers. I was 20 years old and didn’t have any idea what I was going to do. It is not an exaggeration to say that what Brother Robert did for me changed my life forever. He showed me catalogues of St. Johns College, their curriculum, their style of education. He said I would be an ideal student there. I bought his sales pitch, but said my parents couldn’t afford to pay tuition and room and board. So he used his connections, asked me to write an essay saying why I wanted to go to St. Johns (it was a damn good essay, he told me), got one of our teachers, George Elliott, to send St. Johns a letter of recommendation, and made sure everything was taken care of before I left. He was right. St. Johns was the ideal detox station, a transition for me on the way to the rest of my life.

I kept in touch with Brother over the years, but didn’t see him again for some time. I heard that he had left St. Marys to become a tutor at his beloved St. Johns College. I never had an opportunity to ask him point blank why he decided to leave the western province of the Christian Brothers and St. Marys, perhaps the blunt question would have been our of order anyway….but I wouldn’t be surprised if St. Johns College was his way of achieving an amicable separation without divorce. To put it in the context of your essay, Brother Misfit, LeRoy, and your own story, he was a scholar; the pedestrian view of education afforded by St. Marys likely bored him to death. St. Johns would have been his equivalent of the vision, the new mission….perhaps similar to your view when you embarked on the Farmworker’s quest for fairness. Even so, the one time I asked about the lack of novices, intimating that the days of the Christian Brother order might be numbered, he replied that it was quality that was needed, not quantity. Loyal to the end. At least publicly he would never badmouth the Brothers.

Certainly his long standing friendship with the legendary Dean Klein, Mortimer Adler and other distinguished scholars was a major influence in his decision. But this is what reinforced my original thoughts about his “real” motives. You remember he was personally responsible for birthing the “Integral Program” at St. Marys, a seminar based St. Johns-like curriculum, started when we were student brothers in the 1950s. In a memorial service on November, 11, 2006 shortly after Robert’s death, his program was mentioned in a eulogy by Brother Donald Mansir, then the director of the St. Marys monastic community. So I looked for the program on the St. Marys web page. No attribution…in fact, absolutely no mention of Brother Robert at all. And his program is buried at the bottom of a list of curriculum options under “Liberal Arts,” with this remark at the end of a descriptive paragraph: “The program attracts talented and committed students from any and all backgrounds, but is not and has never been an honors program.”

So much for loyalties going both ways.

Years later I moved to Paris in a new job capacity with IBM. I rented an apartment near the Duroc Metro station in the 7th Arrondissement, the area containing the Eiffel Tower and the home of the legendary sculptor, Rodan. One day I was walking my dog around the our cul de sac and thought I heard Gregorian Chant. I put my ear to the wall of the building and, sure enough, Gregorian singing. Just to check it out, I walked our dog around to Rue de Sèvres, just around the corner. To my astonishment, a small street called Rue Jean-Baptiste de la Salle greeted me, and just across from that was the Christian Brother mother house of Paris…where some monks were probably singing Gregorian. I looked skyward. “Come on! Give me a break,” I pleaded to the ether. “We had this out years ago.”

Guess who was coming to dinner? The next thing we knew, Brother Robert was a guest. He was a Francophile of the highest order, spoke French fluently, and visited Paris whenever he could. With the Christian Brother house around the corner, he could visit when he pleased, hang out with his Russian Orthodox priest friends and have easy access to transportation anywhere in Europe. He liked my wife, Valerie, gave my daughters large, round hugs. He was so knowledgeable about so many things, his company was as unusual as it was entertaining.

He loved my youngest daughter, Leslie. They always compared heights when they met, she demanding they stand back to back for the obligatory measurement. Some years later, she won. “A-ha!” she triumphed. “I’m taller.” To which he replied with dignity, “Being taller than me, Leslie, does not constitute tallness.” She fell on the floor laughing.

We sent her to stay for a time with Brother in Annapolis, so she attended some of his seminars at the tender age of 16. When I asked her later what she thought of it, she said, “The book they were reading was Plato’s dialogue, “The Phaedo”. Fifteen people sat around a table for two hours arguing over a paragraph I thought had little or no meaning.” Needless to say Leslie did not go to St. Johns in spite of her affection for Brother Robert.

I worked for a time in Baltimore after I retired from IBM. I saw Brother Robert infrequently, but it was always a pleasure. He recommended books for me to read. We would talk about the Church occasionally. When I said I thought it was in serious need of reform, as with his defense of the Brothers, he replied, “The reforms have already taken place in Vatican Council II. It takes time.” When I pointed out the obvious pedophilia among American priests, he said, “There have always been bad priests.” I thought he missed my point, but I had no desire to hurt his feelings. So I dropped the matter for the time being. I wonder what he would make of Benedict’s latest pronouncements which seem to be antithetical to the spirit of Vatican II and of the enormous sums of money awarded the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ victims?

He was still active at St. Johns, a tutor emeritus, still giving lectures and leading seminars and about to publish a book on Russian iconography, a subject in which he was an acknowledged expert. He now hobbled around Annapolis with the aid of a cane, but still very able, keen mind, waving to everyone. He was an established feature of Annapolis, an affable icon in his own right. I saw him one more time with Valerie. We had lunch and chatted, at ease in each other’s company.

A year later I heard he was ill and was taken back to California. To die, it turned out, of prostate cancer. I called him at the home of the Ancients. At 96, he was one now. I said I wanted him to know what an important role he had played in my development and my life… and how much I cherished his friendship. He replied with a rasping voice, obviously in pain, “And you in mine, my friend.” Two days later he was gone.

In my lifetime there have been a few people who were there for me when I most needed help and direction. Brother Robert was one of them. Bless you wherever you are.

Oh, by the way. I recently read The Grand Inquisitor from The Brother’s Karamazov….probably for the sixth time overall. I’m pretty sure I get it now. Brother was right. It is a real novel.

Once upon a time….

….I was a Christian Brother. I thought about your post, LeRoy, about when you left the Brothers and began your life with the Farmworker’s crusade for decency. This is my story.

I am now seventy-two years old. I never expected to live that long. My father died of tuberculosis when he was 34. My stepfather died of alcoholic related diseases at the ripe old age of 48, wizened and yellowed by cirrhosis.

I never had much of a family life. By my count I had moved 10 times by the time I was 16. Then, for about six years, my family was a motley collection of boys who found themselves in Catholic boarding school, Mont la Salle, in Napa, California. Recruiting young men of high school age, usually from one of the seven or eight schools they owned and ran, was the primary method of recruitment for the Christian Brothers, an order founded in the seventeenth century whose laudable purpose was to teach children of poverty.

I was three years there, one year in the Novitiate, two years at St. Marys College as a student Brother with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and then I left for the real world. When I try to remember what I was like as a high school student I see a small, immature and very insecure child, clueless about what the implications of being in a religious order meant, a child who talked during the periods of silence, showed off to get attention, and was thoroughly disliked by the Director in charge of these children, Brother Michael Quinn. Deliberate humiliation was one of his weapons, indifference was another. God knows I needed neither.

Probably the most important person in my life, and no doubt the most influential during those six years, was the Director of Novices, Brother Pius. For the first time in my life, an adult took me seriously. In many ways he was the father I never had. A function called “redition” was a weekly affair. A novice would spend an hour alone with the Director, talking about many subjects, about life, about values, about expectations, about morality, about….well more or less whatever the Director wanted or thought important to talk about. When I told him of my fears, my anxieties, he eventually got me to understand that I had an “inferiority complex” and that I had no reason to feel that way. He said I was smart, good hearted and could probably succeed in anything I chose to do. Nobody had ever said anything like that to me either, but I wondered about his judgement then.

Something else he told me was what kind of temperament I had. Aristotle divided the world into four emotional categories: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic. He said I was a more or less equal mix of sanguine and melancholic. I now translate that to mean, part smart ass, part introspectively moody. It was an accurate assessment. The smart ass part, I am sure, was what most people saw and likely was the main reason for being told by our Director of Scholastics, Brother Gabriel, that I should look seriously elsewhere for my life’s work. As it turns out, he was right. In a left handed way I owe him a debt of gratitude.

This revelation or pronouncement came like a slap in the face, completely out of the blue. It was during a redition. We chatted about this and that, then he looked at me and said that there were those in the committee, (I never found out who were on the “committee” or what exactly was said), who had reservations about my acceptability, my piety, my basic conduct, my “vocation”.

I was told that I would have a short time to think and pray over my decision, but the implication was that he, “they,” wanted me to leave. I did think about it. I did pray over it. Then I sought advice from the only one in the world I trusted, Brother Pius.

Now a little about Brother Pius. Short, funny kind of duck walk, warm and insightful. I said he took me seriously, but more than that, he liked me and cared about me. He was a bit of a smart ass himself, I think, and that probably explains why he was not a member of the “committee.” Here’s a picture of him I took in 1953. Roman nose, direct look, sly smile, wise and sensitive.

He said, in short, that the decision was all mine. He said the “committee” could not expel me, in fact had acted already beyond its responsibility, and that if I decided to stay, they could not do anything about it. He emphasized that I had done nothing wrong, nothing that would justify this “notification.” He told me he would talk to whoever I wished him to talk to and I could be present if I wished.

In the end, as you did, LeRoy, I decided to decide. It turned out to be simple. I felt like an inverse Groucho Marx. Why would I want to be in a club that didn’t wish me as a member? So I packed my bags with the sum total of two shirts, two pair of black pants, several pair of underclothes and socks, one pair of shoes and my toothbrush. My mother came to pick me up during evening prayer so that nobody would know that I had left. I left no note of explanation. I disappeared as if I had never been a Brother.

You can imagine, LeRoy, I was in a quite different state of mind than what you describe when you left the monastic life. When you decided to leave, you had plans, vision, excitement going into a new life.

I had no place to go, no vision, no sense of mission, no self respect after that humiliating exit. Brother Robert, bless him, and George Eliot our English Novel teacher, wrote St. Johns College suggesting that I would be an excellent addition to their student body. So that was where I headed after the summer, beginning a new life.

Half a century has gone by. Going nights, afternoons, weekends, whenever I could take a class while working full time and with a family, I eventually acquired a degree in mathematics and an masters in Electrical Engineering. I became a technologist, primarily computer applications, lived in six countries, fathered four children, married still to the same woman, Valerie, for fifty years….in short, an interesting, challenging and fulfilling life.

So once upon a time I was a Christian Brother, looking forward to taking my final vows, intent on getting a PhD in Literature, teaching in a university like my friend and mentor, Brother Robert. Looking back, I bear no grudge or bad feelings except for the way it was done: cruel and mean spirited.

As for the Christian Brother religious order itself: in retrospect it had already lost its way. Educating poor kids had become a very secondary objective at best. The winery, now sold, and the college, now more or less secular, became the primary objectives. I wonder what John Baptist de la Salle, its founder, would think of them now? There are still plenty of poor, illiterate kids around.

Oh, yes. I am still a smart ass and moody. And sure enough, I can do most things I set out to do. I guess Brother Pius was a pretty good judge of temperament after all.

A Bonny Requium

LeRoy, you recently mentioned my posted piece on the thin thread between the time of Jesus and Peter and the current pontiff. You said you thought Brother Boniface, our class religion instructor among many other things, would have been proud of me in spite of his orthodoxy. I came across this tribute I wrote for him shortly after his passing. I thought I might post it.

Brother Boniface George. Brother Boniface. Brother George Kohles. “Bonny.”

In December of 1997, Valerie and I decided to visit our youngest daughter, Leslie, in California for Christmas. Leslie invited us, because, as she said, “I have a place of my own. I’m proud of it. Come see it.”

One day, the three of us decided to go to Napa for the day. I, of course, had gone to the Mont LaSalle Junior Novitiate. Graduated in 1952 from the most massive class in its history…fourteen. I became a Novice. Took vows. Went to St. Mary’s as a student brother. Left the Brothers. Married. Had babies.

I really had no intention of going to the Mont this day, but as an afterthought…..who knows? I drove up Redwood Road and parked in front of the Chapel.

I first met Brother George “Boniface” Kohles when I went to the Mont in the middle of my second sophomore semester of high school. I was recruited from Christian Brothers School in Sacramento by Brother Ed Behen, the silver tongued vocational director of the district. I have always suspected that I made his quota that year and he owes me one. As I remember, Ed made it sound like a country club. It wasn’t.

Brother Boniface was one of the five Mont La Salle resident faculty: Michael, the Director, Vincent, the Sub-director, Paul, Gerard and Boniface. They taught everything….language, literature, science, math, music, history, (library science, for crying out loud)….typing, athletics, games, values, “the rule,”…even the occasional movies had much scrutiny. I remember two “real” movies we went to: in Napa, the film about Cardinal Mindzenti (“The Prisoner” with Alex Guinness) and, in our senior “trip” to Lake Tahoe, we saw “An American in Paris.” Talk about a luxury trip. I had to share a motel bed with Jack Kannevan and Paul Bayne, for God’s sake. Or was it Benny Munoz. Maybe all four of us. I think all the little people had to quadruple up.

Boniface taught French…and the textbook had English/French puns in it, much appreciated by a congenital paronomasiac. I had had some Spanish, but really no language skills. I learned enough Italian in another life to be dangerous, but…..French was difficult. It’s hard to think of Brother George without thinking that he was much more than any of us gave him credit. He always had this smile. He always found some infraction of the rule of silence, which I broke with alacrity. He was polite. He cleaned my clock in paddle ball. I never played golf with him, I never had a chance, but I’ll bet he was a decent golfer until arthritis took over. And the other things: fluent in French, the instigator, trainer, leader of Gregorian music, personal promoter of the Monks of Solemnes. I hope they gave him a royalty…he deserved it. I kept bugging him over the years to get me a Liber, the liturgical song book we used at sung masses, but they were scarce then (Benny Munoz got me one recently…where he got it is as mysterious as the book itself). Brother Boniface was impressed during one discussion many years later, to know that Justine Ward, who was very influential in liturgical music, was my aunt. I wonder how many of us recognized his horizons.

I should not leave out religion. He was our moralist, dogmatist, faithest and all around fundamental religionist instructor. He never deviated from strict, formal interpretation of our religious training. It never occurred to me to question things like the Virgin Birth, the mathematical eccentricities of the ‘three in one’ Holy Trinity doctrine or the excesses of the Catholic Church itself for that matter. And when I could, many years later, I chose not to. I loved Bonny and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

He always encouraged me; I took him for granted.

Brother Boniface was my vow sponsor. Over the years I would, from time to time, visit the Mont and see him. He met Valerie at the famous “reunion” and my three daughters at various intervals. This time, stopping at the Mont on an afternoon, I went over to the “Ancients” area on a whim. I never got caught, if the truth be known, drinking some of the leftover wine when I cleaned up as a Junior.

Mirabile Dictu! Brother George was in residence and available. He came down and gave all three of us a big embrace…he was sort of amazed that we were there…no notice…, gave us a tour of what was the Juniorate. I had forgotten the stain glass windows in the chapel that Michael Quinn had somehow managed to con someone out of when we were there. We went through what had been the Novitiate quarters. I saw my old room. Now it is a modest mansion…two rooms. He introduced me to Brother Conrad, who was not in good health. Conrad was the fourth grade teacher at CBS when I was there.

…and he showed us his room and office. He had been making rosaries from “Jacob’s Tears” bushes that he had been cultivating at the Mont. When I was a Novice, George Archaris and I made rosaries…I still have mine, as a matter of fact. Brother Boniface gave me one of his, and wondered aloud if I might want to make some too. “Maybe not right now,” I said. We walked around the Mont. We took pictures. Back in his office, he casually asked me if I could see myself on his bulletin board. I looked. There were pictures of many people, friends, family, monks….Leslie said, “Dad, look at that.” There was a black and white photo of me playing checkers/chess with Gordon Matley, at some time (probably in my Junior year). I didn’t recognize myself. I’m sure I was never that young. Leslie did. “Bonny” had remembered me over many years. I was dumbstruck, to tell the truth. Flattered and humbled. Another embrace and goodbye.

I wonder how many people had been influenced by Brother George. When I learned that he had died I was surprised. Last I had seen him, he seemed in great health, vigorous, hopeful and cheerful as always. The “La Salle Newsletter” mentioned, as a footnote, almost an afterthought, his passing.

I am grateful and enriched having had the great fortune of his friendship and guidance. In ways hard to measure, he helped shape my life. It was a grace that I chanced to see him once again before he left.

Requiescat in Pace, Bonny.

Don Edwards….Brother Stephen Noel, 1952.

American Economics 101 Updated

I had an interesting conversation with Mike the other day. I see him occasionally as we both hike up the hill to the Ajijic chapel for exercise. On the way down, we exchanged views on the consequences of outsourcing jobs and the political whining about “losing American jobs” that both parties seem to find satisfying; while all the time intending to do exactly nothing about it.

Cheap labor and skills was the subject. Corporate outsourcing of jobs on the one hand and politically complicit behavior towards “illegal aliens” providing a large supply for “insourcing” low paying jobs on the other was the essence of our discussion.

The same day, I read this excerpt from the Christian Science Monitor:

The vanishing American computer programmer. Move to increase number of foreign worker visas fails in Senate, but that has not stopped what critics call a push for cheaper labor. By David R. Francis. Excerpts:

A popular video recently posted on the Internet’s YouTube shows an immigration lawyer talking to a group of business people in May about the process of hiring foreigners for their companies. “Our goal is clearly not to find a qualified US worker,” says the attorney in the video, an immigration lawyer at Cohen & Grigsby, a firm in Pittsburgh. ”‘In a sense, that sounds funny, but it’s what we’re trying to do here.”

To Norm Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, such efforts to use loopholes in immigration laws that were supposed to give Americans and legal residents first crack at high-tech and other jobs is “absolutely outrageous.”

“The real goal is to hire ‘cheap labor,’ charges Dr. Matloff. High-tech executives had backed a provision in the comprehensive immigration bill that failed in the Senate last Thursday to boost the number of H-1B or other temporary visas for highly educated foreign workers. Now, the focus will shift to ‘stand-alone’ bills already before Congress that would accomplish the same goal, notes a spokesman for the Software & Information Industry Association.

“There is nothing new in this video,” he (Matloff) says. He recalls getting a document years ago in which a proponent of H-1B visas referred to the arsenal of tools companies can use to legally reject any American applicant for a job in favor of a foreign worker. But now that those tactics are on video, ‘everything changes,’ Matloff says. Viewers can see and hear with their own eyes and ears the words of this immigration lawyer and ‘his utter lack of scruples.’

And this from August 13 issue of Business Week:

And by hiring tens of thousands of people in developing nations, IBM gains more than the benefit of low-cost labor. It’s also helping to build strong economies that are now becoming sizable markets for its goods and services. Revenues from the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China—now represent about 5% of IBM’s total sales and are growing at 25% per quarter. Strategic outsourcing contracts from Indian companies grew nearly 150% last quarter. “These are the markets that will hypergrow over the next few years, and IBM will grow even faster there,” says Michael Cannon-Brookes, vice-president for strategy in emerging markets.

In a completely free market economy it is inevitable that jobs will go where the skill level is comparable but cheaper. So if a Chinese man who graduated from a technical university with equivalent skills to an American MIT computer science geek, it makes perfect sense for IBM to have their software developed by the Chinese man for ½ the cost or less and no requirement for benefits. At the same time it allows the man to be a consumer in a country that wasn’t able to consume much a few decades ago: China, India, Indonesia and Russia just to name a few. IBM now has around 60,000 Indian employees, virtually all their software development done in Bangalore. Rather than bemoan the obvious, in point of fact corporations have an obligation to their shareholders to go for the bottom line. Morality is not part of the equation.

But this dynamic is gaining momentum and is clearly costing the middle class in the USA. We are inadvertently eroding our own workforce. The middle class has been both the engine that has driven the greatest consumer economy in history and simultaneously itself becoming the largest consumer group, fueling itself in a sense. In the process of looking to the bottom line, we are killing the golden goose. Or cooking it.

Why? Because corporations like IBM are also uplifting the economies of other, poorer, countries and funding new, growing middle class consumer groups there. In effect, we are capitalizing other countries’ economic growth to the long term detriment of our own.

At the same time, millions of Latinos come to the USA without proper papers, don’t pay taxes and fulfill the cheap labor requirements of businesses who look the other way….because, of course, they can force the laborers to work for even less by intimidation, threats to call the authorities. Tsk tsk. More jobs lost to American labor because of insourcing.

If our motives were “Christian” or deliberately altruistic that would be one thing. Then Jesus would approve wholeheartedly…..helping impoverished countries out of their poverty and helping the poor in neighboring countries.. But it isn’t altruistic at all. It’s bottom line profit margin. So inadvertently, corporate capital goes to help poor countries because of their need to increase profits but at the same time erode the capital that has traditionally driven our own economy.

And farmers need the Mexican laborers to bring in the crops. If all “illegals” were deported, the agribusiness would go bankrupt and the nation wouldn’t eat. If the work was done to alleviate poverty among poor Mexicans, Jesus would also be supportive of agri-virtue. But the reality is that everyone foams at the mouth over the problem but profit wins out in the end.

One last thought. Speaking of Jesus’ messages, there is real evil involved in this process. The sweat shops abroad making our consumer products are treated and manipulated like slaves. The living conditions of our insourced cheap labor are brutal and fundamentally inhumane. Where is Cesar Chavez when we need him again?

Business giveth, Business taketh away. Blessed be the name of Business. Meanwhile, morality aside, the middle class of America is in very deep trouble.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for our spread sheets tell me so.”

Thin Threads

As you know, LeRoy, I have been doing research involving the early Church, the relationships and beliefs of Christians and Jews at various times. For the first couple of centuries after Jesus’ death, beliefs were fluid. This is demonstrated by the many gospels written, Mark’s thought to be the first which established the basic three year events in Jesus’ life.

Several interesting things, unknown to me at least, immerged during the research. The first was the likely error on the part of the writer of the Matthew Gospel. The Aramaic word for “virgin” is more likely translated as “young woman.” The Greek text, from which the prophesies of Isaiah was evidently taken, was translated as “virgin.” That being said, as far as is known, no other text up to that time had any reference to a virgin birth. So enter the busiest angel of all time: Gabriel. Of course he had to tell Mary. Then Joseph. Then the writer of Matthew manufactures the slaughter of the innocents. No other historical document mentions anything like that. Gabriel comes again, says to hightail it for Israel until things calm down. This makes Jesus come from out of Egypt, another Isaiah prophecy.

The changeable nature of beliefs during the first two centuries were legion. Some believed Jesus was God, some didn’t. Some demanded adherence to dietary laws, many didn’t. Scripture is not known for its humor, but the censors missed this one. Prophets, when in trouble, invariably have a vision. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter had a dream. He is told to go to Caesarea to baptize Cornelius, the Centurion. He does so, comes back to Jerusalem and is given grief by his followers about eating with an uncircumcised gentile and eating non-kosher food. Here comes the vision. Peter said God Himself said, “What God has cleansed, do not call common.” That shut them up alright. It’s hard to find a convincing rejoinder to visions

But passionate beliefs can be dictated to be “truth.” The first major “heresy” was that of Marcion who manufactured two gods, one for the Old Testament and one from the New Testament, with the New Testament god being the more powerful. Just as the victors write the history, a heresy is the ideology which lost. Sometimes heretics were excommunicated. At various times they were killed, during the Inquisition for example.

A century later, Constantine called for the Council of Nicea. He was much in need of a unifying religion to help him manage the empire. The two primary factions attending were headed by Alexander, the Trinitarian, and Arius who believed that Jesus, though the Son of God, was subordinate and therefore was not God. It is not know if Constantine favored one or the other, but given the tradition of emperors declaring themselves gods, some historians think Constantine had much to gain if the “messiah” was also God. Arius lost his case at the Council of Nicea, albeit narrowly. Had his doctrine prevailed, we would certainly have a very different church today.

If the mythology surrounding the Battle of Milvio can be believed, next to Paul the apostle, the most important person in all of Roman Catholic history would be Helena, the mother of Constantine. He won the battle so, the story goes, he kept his promise to her, took a persecuted minor sect and made it the religion of the entire empire.

And the bishop of Rome, the Sweet Christ on Earth, wasn’t all that important anyway until much later. The most powerful prelate by far during the reign of Theodosius at the end of the fourth century was Ambrose, bishop of Milan.

So here we are two millennia after Jesus. The doctrine of his divinity, coupled with the “Holy Spirit” also being God, presented a monotheistic conundrum that even the best logicians in the world couldn’t rationalize convincingly. It became a “mystery,” a dogma of Faith, heretical to disbelieve. I think the thin thread you mention broke completely at that time, the thread between Jesus and the pontiffs, the thread between his ideas and the evolving behemoth, the church.

Of course, the current pope, Benedict XVI, trying to put the genie back in the bottle, and having been the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith….the modern office of the Inquisition….he would know the genie well. Now we have open criticism of Islam, Latin Masses, and the doctrine of Roman Catholic supremacy. At the very least, not very ecumenical, not in the spirit of Vatican II, not in the spirit of John Paul II, and I suppose most of all, not at all in the spirit of Jesus.

If “heresy” is the ideology of the loser, then it is clear if Jesus were to come back in these times, he would likely be denounced as a heretic. So much for threads.

As Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim would say, “So it goes.”

The Skeptic

Buenos dias, LeRoy, from sunny, downtown Ajijic, Mexico.

I have read your recent “The Wrong Door” entry several times. It touched a nerve I have been wrestling with for some time. You ended the story with this:

“I was stunned and deeply saddened for this mother and her daughter, neither of whom I will ever meet again. Yet, I was proud that Loaves & Fishes exists, that I exist, that I was able to open this locked wrong door and listen to the heart-rendering words spoken by this woman

“Oh, that every run-a-way daughter, and every searching mother, would have their own Loaves & Fishes, and their own wrong door on which to knock”

I admit I was both touched and bothered by these comments. Touched by the poingnancy of the tale, bothered by my immediate reflection about how the values of the land of our birth has changed in our lifetime. Even interpreting those lines allegorically….they are, well, provocative. I had a flash of near panic which, when my initial response, translated into an overlong paragraph, went something like this:

“The United States of America has transformed itself into a selfish, cynical, ‘I’ve got mine, go get your’s’ view of life. The culture has detoriated to such an extent and Christian values have been so distorted that many think that to be homeless is to be shifless, and therfore worthless. Homelessness, they speculate, is a direct result of laziness or deliberate abuse of one sort or another. ‘If only they would try hard, this land of milk and honey and the American Dream would be theirs. They need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,’ they say.”

Then I pulled myself up short. What the hell was going on in my thinking? Instead of just saying something like, “Thank God for people like LeRoy and Loaves & Fishes,” I went into a mental rage against my entire country. What in the world is this all about?

While I, too, am a byproduct of the “American Dream,” I had so much help. I came from a very poor, but literate family which valued education. I spent time in a monastic order which gave me a social concience, a taste for learning, a head start. I was male and white at a time when American industry, especially high tech industry with computers, exploded. I married someone who loved me and took care of the kids while I went to school. I couldn’t afford to go to college full time, so I went nights, afternoons, weekends to classes whenever I could while I worked as an apprentice engineer at Westinghouse. Finally I got a degree, then, also part time, a master’s degree. Then I managed to live in six countries, travel the world and had many challenging, interesting jobs before retiring to Mexico to live. The American Dream indeed, but I had so many advantages compared to many.

I reflected again on your comments. Have I let myself become arrogant, complacement, cynical I wondered?

Well, while I am demonstrably skeptical about many things, I’ve never thought of myself as a bona fide cynic. I wondered if perhaps that had changed. So as soon as I could, I looked up the precise definitions of each.

skeptic n : follower of the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain. Doubt.

cynic n : Gk, literally “like a dog” 1. An adherent or advocate of the view that virtue is the only good and that its essence lies in self-control and independence 2. one who believes that human conduct is motivated wholly by self-interest….a sneering disbelief in sincerity or nobility.

Interestingly enough, an article I sent to almost everyone some time ago, published by Harper’s Magazine, talked about the un-Christian Christianity in the United States, how many people think the quote, “God helps those who help themselves” comes from scripture rather than Ben Franklin. This is almost exactly the definition of a cynic and almost antithetical to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings. While I think that self reliance is a valuable attribute, I am of the belief that society has an obligation to take care of its less fortunate citizens. I guess that makes me a Socialist. I call Canada’s approach to government “benevolent capitalism.”

I know that age and experience shapes values. But had my age and experience in life pushed me from skepticism to cynicism? Had I crossed that line?

So came up with a test for my own question. I wrote down a list of important things and tried to test my current belief system. “Ok,” I thought, “let’s start with something really basic….our species, homo sapiens.”

1. How about the basic goodness of our species? Just watch “The Last King of Scotland” or see the news about Darfur. Skeptical. Our species hasn’t improved in all of recorded history. At the same time as we have been able to double the life expectancy (for those who can afford it), we have invented the technologies of destruction such that, without any help from the Creator whatsoever, we can eliminate all life on earth, the Apocalypse of our own making.

2. A favorite science fiction theme: mankind evolving to a more spiritual plain eventually. Very Skeptical.

3. Arthur Clarke’s “Childhood’s End” is a wonderful allegory that is very unlikely. But I must remember that there are heroic efforts by individual people against incredible odds. “Shindler’s List” comes to mind. So neither skeptical nor cynical when it comes to particular examples. Our species spawns good people too, thank God.
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4. Aristotle’s definition of “Politics” as “The science of the good for man.” Perhaps true as an objective, but….well, I’m skeptical.

5. Most Roman Catholic dogmas. Very skeptical. Beyond skeptical, often cynical. Just read the Baltimore Catechism again to see why. And too many dogmas were politically motivated. Constantine and Divinity. Poor translations beget virgin births and the necessity of the most active of angels: Gabriel. My story, “Bless me, Father” which looks at the Roman Catholic dogma of sin, fairly well summarizes my feelings there. To equate masterbaton and deliberate murder in the same sin pot, both deemed to be “mortal” is a statement which is so ludecrous, that the dogma itself is sinful in my book. In Mexico, it is mortally sinful to use contraceptives. A planetary plague of AIDS? Well that’s just too bad. Abstain.

6. The Beatitudes. Not skeptical. Not cynical. Thank God. Just read the Sermon on the Mount again. Blessed are the poor in spirit…for they shall see God. Indeed.

7. The likelihood that any politician’s walk will actually match the talk. Skeptical. Lord Acton’s letter to Bishop Creighton in 1887 resonates: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Just listen to the current “debates” of both parties. Just watch “Sicko” to understand that all politicians are at least partially owned by their financial benefactors.

8. Anything good can intentionally come from the Bush administration. Definitely cynical.

Score: five “skepticals”, two “cynicals” and two “thank God’s”. I’ll give myself the benefit of the doubt. Two”thank Gods” negate two cynicals.

So I guess, all in all, while I am still the skeptic, I still believe in the potential of sincerity and nobility of individuals. While I often despair over the future of mankind as a whole to improve much, still I believe that Loaves & Fishes is an admirable, unselfish organization in a sea of cynical disregard for the the hungry, the homeless, the poor in body and spirit.

God bless you all. You and others like you keep me from crossing the line.

My Sacramento Solons

LeRoy,

Your nostalgic remembrance of our Solons reminded me of my step-father, Willard Edwards, who ran the Shell gas station cati-corner to the ticket booths at Solon Field. It was the best civilian time of his life, back from the war, a partner he trusted, getting to know all the players on the team and some of the best of the visiting teams. I post here a piece from a memorial I wrote about him some years ago.

“After a year working in the station down town, Bill was given his own gas station to manage. I think it was like a franchise…he sort of owned it, perhaps got a percentage of the revenue. It is the only time I can remember that he seemed to like what he was doing. He was a kind of big shot. He had a partner (I’ll call him Jim) who was tall and blond and pretty quiet. Together they ran the business. The gas station was not very different from others of its kind except for one very important feature: it was right across from Solon Field, the baseball stadium of the Sacramento Solons.

The Solons were a triple A team, one step removed from the major leagues. Walt Dropo played for the Solons before he was promoted to the Boston Red Sox and he won the batting championship of the Pacific Coast League in 1949. Years later, visiting the Cooperstown Baseball Museum with Valerie and Tracie, I came upon Walt Dropo signing autographs. He wasn’t charging anything either, unlike some of the baseball clowns that sat around looking bored. When I reminded him that he had won the Pacific Coast League batting championship, I thought he was going to kiss me.

I was given the task of cleaning the bathrooms in the summer and weekends when I went to school. You can probably understand that this was a dubious honor at best. I found out all kinds of things people do when they don’t have to clean up after themselves. One day, while cleaning the ladies room, I saw a bloody bandage in the garbage can. I thought to myself, “holy shit! Some lady has a really bad cut.” At that time, I caddied at the local golf course to make some extra money. While looking for a ball in the rough, I came upon a similar bandage with blood all over it. All day, I kept looking for a woman who had a bandage on her arm or leg or somewhere so I could tell her to be more careful in my father’s bathroom. I never found her. “How could I miss a lady on the golf course with a huge cut?” I thought. Learning stuff comes in peculiar packages.

I wasn’t fond of “cleaning the heads” as Bill would describe the job. “Latrine duty” was another expression often used. One day, I just didn’t ride my bike down to the station (only around 10 blocks away). Eventually, Bill called my mother, furious probably. There was a long talk. Eventually, repentant, I went to the station and cleaned out the fucking heads. He was still angry. His partner, Jim, came over and rubbed my head later as if to say, don’t worry, Don, he still loves you.

Also, Bill made me the “official bike fixer” of the gas station. I could fix anything having to do with bikes, even the brakes which were pretty complicated assortment of disks inside the back wheel hub. I was able to exercise that important title once and once only. A kid came into the station with a bike that had loose handle bars. With a crescent wrench, I tightened it. Pretty sharp bike kid, with little to do except empty used Kotex pads in the bathroom.

At close of business, Bill and his partner would toss some stuff on the garage floor…a combination of sand and cinders, I think, which would absorb the oil and grease from cars that were up on the hydraulic lift during the day….and sweep up for the next day. I helped with that from time to time also.

But the best thing about the gas station was, IT WAS JUST ACROSS THE STREET FROM EDMUNDS FIELD!!!! I met a lot of baseball players, some that were on the way out of professional sports because of their age, some coming up through the minors to play major league baseball. I mentioned Walt Dropo. Red Mann threw a no-hitter once. Joe Gordon, a former star Yankee outfielder, was the manager. Jo Jo White, also a former Yankee, played left field. Bill knew Bruce Edwards who became the Cincinnati Red’s starting catcher before the Johnny Bench years.

This is an excerpt from an article I located on the Net:

“For 50 years, there was a ball park at Riverside and Broadway in Sacramento, although it did not always have the same structure or the same name.

Buffalo Park, named after the Buffalo Brewing Company owned by the team’s major stockholder Edward Kripp, was built in 1910. It became the new home of the Sacramento Senators of the Pacific Coast League. The wooden grandstand and bleachers seated 5,000 fans.
After Lew Moreing purchased the club in 1920, a new park named Moreing Field was built at the same location in 1922. Its concrete and wooden grandstand accommodated 10,000 fans in addition to those in the bleachers. The first night game in the Pacific Coast League was played there between the Sacramento Senators and the Oakland Oaks on June 10, 1930.
Branch Rickey, then of the St. Louis Cardinals, purchased the franchise in 1935, and renamed the park Cardinal Field and the team the Sacramento Solons. In the winter of 1938, a storm damaged the entrance and roof of the grandstand and it had to be rebuilt for the 1939 season.
A newspaper contest in 1944 resulted in renaming the park Doubleday Park, after Abner Doubleday, but on September 9, 1945, between games of a doubleheader, it was renamed Edmonds Field, after former Sacramento Union sports editor Dick Edmonds.
Solon (Edmonds) Park 1949A fire almost totally destroyed the park on July 11, 1948, and the Solons were forced to play the rest of the season on the road. The park was reconstructed almost entirely of concrete, and reopened for the 1949 season.

On January 4, 1961, the Solons were sold and moved to Hawaii, and Edmonds Field was demolished in May of 1964.”

Bill’s service station was kitty corner to this main entrance. I used to go over to the ticket booths with a long board and scrape the sand out from under the kiosks. Often there were coins that had been dropped by people paying for tickets that rolled under the booth. Easy money and pretty clever of me.

The sportscaster for the Solons was Tony Koester. He was wonderful…in the same mold as Red Barber and other sports announcers of the time. Since there was no television or e-mail, the only information an announcer had was an abbreviated tickertape. At the county fair each year, they would set up Koester in a plastic booth while he would call the Solon game.

For example, if the pitcher was “Redd Man,” and the opposing batter was Fred Monk, the ticker tape would read: “ 3&2 17 FO 8.” That translated to “3 balls, two strikes, Number 17, Fred Monk, flies out to center field (the 8th position on the defense).” Here’s what Tony Koester would say:

“Red’ Mann steps to the mound and picks up the rosin bag. Looks to first base and ambles to the rubber. Fred Monk is at the plate, a waggling, menacing bat in his hand. Monk doesn’t have a batting average to show it…he’s only hitting 246…, but he is a very dangerous batter with men on base. Of his 47 RBIs this year, all but 6 have come with a man on first, leading the league in that category.

“Gomez takes a lead off first, trying to distract Mann, but Red isn’t buying it. He winds up and hesitates before throwing to Monk. Gomez is taking a huge lead off first. Man looks to first base again and throws indifferently to Walt Dropo just to hold him closer to the bag. Gomez slides back easily beating the throw. 2 to 1, Solons, in the bottom of the 8th. Dropo tosses the ball back to Mann and Red gets ready again to pitch.

“He’s back on the rubber now, staring straight at Monk. It’s the windup……the pitch….(now Koester would knock his little wooden mallet on the desk)…craaaack….It’s a long fly ball to deep left center field (now he would crank up the crowd noise on his tape, the only other prop Koester had in the booth), OH NO…it looks like it’s out of here. Jo Jo White, playing center today in place of the injured Cap Williams, is racing towards the wall. It’s going, going, going….HE CAUGHT IT!!!!! (really cranks up the crowd noise) What a catch! White climbed the wall and robbed Monk of a certain home run. Frisco would have gone ahead 3 to 2. Oh, mannnn…what a catch!”

Here’s the point. This was completely made up except for the count, the inning and the out. Every game Koester called was way better than the real game. Tony Koester never made it to the announcing big leagues but he was as good as anyone at this fantasy, virtual ballgame announcing.

So the Solons were competitive, came in 3rd in the league in 1949, had a new ballpark, and my stepfather was on a first name basis with all of them. I got to visit the dugout sometimes before the games. The ballplayers would sometimes park their cars at his gas station. Did Bill have a great job or what?”

In the year you mention, LeRoy, 1946, there was a contest sponsored by the Sacramento Bee, the accursed competitor to my Sacramento Union for which I plodded around 150 papers in the vicinity of Southside Park. The best essay about “Why I would like to be a Sacramento Solon batboy” would be the kid for a year that got to be in the clubhouse, get the bats after a player was finished hitting, keep track of the baseballs, get to wear a uniform, talk to all the players, a splendiferous mascot…God, it sounded glamorous. And the kid probably didn’t have to clean the heads there either. My mother and Bill really tried to get me to write an essay and I finally did a half hearted job and sent it in. The kid who won was a nerdy geek with a high forehead that didn’t play any sport, was probably an “A” student…his name was Malcolm for Christ’s sake. And he lived two doors down from me. Bill would tease me unmercifully about Malcolm getting to meet Jackie Robinson or Gil Hodges or some baseball god. To tell the truth, I was just plain lazy. I didn’t try very hard. I was an indifferent student at best. But I was a big baseball fan and saw a lot of games.

Those were, as you point out, very different times. I think of the Sacramento of my youth as almost a playground. I played every sport at the park, caught perch and frogs in the lake, using little balls of dough as bait, then threw them back. There were bass there too, and many fishermen came to test their skill.

I rode my bicycle everywhere, even to the airport to clandestinely sneak into the cockpits of abandoned WW II aircraft, to Oak Park. It would be dangerous today, I reckon.

If only I had been a more dedicated writer then. Maybe I would have known Walt Dropo personally.

Suspicious and Unsavory

As you know, LeRoy, I have traveled widely. All of the incidents in this story happened to me in one form or another. I am sure if I met the Dumb Ass Pope, one of the Swiss Guards would be very unsavory and find me suspicious looking. I would probably wind up in one of the San Angelo Castle dungeons.

Suspiciously Unsavory

We were nervous, my wife and me, but for very different reasons. About to cross the American-Mexican border in Laredo, Texas, over the bridge spanning the Rio Grande River to Nuevo Laredo we were imagining endless bureaucratic complications. We needed a visa. We needed an automobile sticker. We needed auto insurance. These are the kinds of things one would normally be nervous about, but not us, not this time.

Just that morning before dawn as we packed in the hotel, the TV news blared three drug related executions of city officials within shouting distance of the Nuevo Laredo city hall. Juarez, Tijuana, Nogales all reported regular drug assassinations the announcer said with a very serious face. Kidnappings, extortions are not uncommon, he told us, brow appropriately wrinkled. Drug cartels are rampant. Unsavory characters of every descriptions were abundant. Of course I believed these things. All of them. We were about to enter a country with people of nefarious motives.

I began looking furtively back and forth to see if any unsavory characters were lurking about. It was 5:00 AM. There was no one on the bridge, unsavory or not.

My wife was nervous too, though not about potential banditos, assassins and thugs, the people I was looking for. She was terrified of any government official at all being in close proximity to me and we were going to be around a lot of them for the next few hours.

When I look in the mirror I see a plain, very ordinary American male face. Nothing dangerous there. No beady eyes. Perfectly normal. Even pleasant. But she probably had a right to be concerned. There is a long track record backing up her apprehension.

It all started when we moved to Los Angeles years ago. I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles with my new 1963 Chevrolet Impala, to get my driver’s license. As I was getting in my car following the successful passing of the written examination, driver’s license in hand, three large policemen, revolvers drawn told me to get out, put my hands on the roof of my car. One enormous, unsavory looking official patted me down, another rifled through my glove compartment and wallet, a third with a big gun trained on me in case I would try to flee warned me of the futility of such action. I was terrified, of course, but after all my records seemed to be in order, the big ugly one explained there apparently had just a few minutes earlier been a bank robbery nearby perpetrated by a man around 5’ 9” tall, brown hair and clothes that could have been like mine, who had escaped in a white 1963 Chevrolet Impala exactly like mine. And, the policeman informed me sternly, I had looked nervous when I left the DMV. He said I appeared to be furtive, suspicious.

Several years later a trip I took from Japan to New York required me to pass through US customs in Hawaii. Nobody gets in trouble in Hawaii I am told. While standing in line, talking to a business colleague, two very unsavory looking officials came up to me, flashed badges and asked me to follow them. Puzzled, I did so. We found ourselves in a smallish room. After one of them patted me down, asked me to hand over my wallet, the other unsmiling man asked me to take off my clothes. In disbelief I declined. Fine, he informed me, there was a jail cell awaiting me until the following Tuesday when a judge could hear my case. “My case?” I asked. “What case?” I was informed that I had looked suspicious standing in line. “We are trained to look for suspect body language,” he informed me. “But I was just talking to a friend who was on the plane with me,” I said, mystified. “Yes, but you were joking. That is what people do when they have something to hide.” So rather than spend a weekend in an unsavory jail, I stripped to my skivvies. The officials didn’t apologize. They were still angry because the suspicious guy they picked was clean as a whistle.

Then there was the incident on the train on the way from Paris to Brussels. It slowed, then stopped at the border, many policemen with capes and clubs walking up and down the aisles of the passenger cars, looking left, right, presumably checking passports, and bingo! They stopped right in front of my seat, looked at my wife, looked at me and the next thing I know I’m being patted down outside. Someone who spoke both languages asked the officials why they picked me. “He looks suspicious,” one dour, unsavory official with shiny black boots, cape and mustache, informed him. I never found out what my suspected infraction was.

I almost forgot the Saudi Arabia debacle. I was minding my own business coming into Riyadh airport. A huge Arab was at the customs desk as I put my suitcase up for inspection. He looked very unsavory, much like Punjab in Little Orphan Annie. Glaring at me suspiciously, he opened my suitcase. There on top of the clothes was a copy of Playboy and a full bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label, both of which apparently were singled out by the Prophet himself as a no-no. “Hear my words, Oh Believer. Shun the wicked August issue of Playboy concupiscence. Pour the heinous Johnnie Walker down the latrine.” The entire customs building shut down. They had found a live one. Herded into an office I was surrounded by bearded, unsmiling, very religious, exceedingly unsavory looking Arabs, Punjab behind me in case I tried to escape, I supposed. I was reprimanded by the head Arab for my lack of sensitivity for the Holy Koran’s admonitions, and told in no uncertain terms I would be jailed next time if I duplicated this act. It did not help my case when I informed him that I didn’t have any problems in Egypt. Saudi Arabians look on Egyptians as apostate Muslims at best. I just barely escaped a public caning in the square.

The short hop plane trip in Nepal was probably my fault, I admit. I had just purchased a souvenir…a Ghurka knife, a weapon invented for close, hand to hand combat by one of the fiercest fighting people on the face of the earth, a knife about a foot long, sharp as a razor, made in a crescent shape to facilitate cutting through muscle, cartilage and bone, with a beautifully carved bone handle, Somehow, absentmindedly I presume, I stuffed it in my backpack. It took the full range of diplomatic skills of our guide, Hari, a former Ghurka warrior and national hero, to convince the ten, grim-faced, unsavory looking airport guards that I should not be put in a prison for life somewhere in a Himalayan monastery. I asked Hari why they singled me out. He told me the Nepalese word for “suspicious looking,” but I’ve forgotten it.

Back to Nuevo Loredo, Mexico. We made it over the bridge without incident but once we parked the car it was clear that there were many unsavory characters hanging about the official visa place, many with big bushy mustaches like Poncho Villa. Everyone in line for their official papers appeared to be a little apprehensive, like the waiting room in the dentist office. Poncho at the visa window took one look at me, scowled, my wife gasped and….he stamped my visa. We got through the whole thing, all officials sullen, glowering, muttering at me, but no patting down, no obscure, loud orders in a foreign language, no interrogations. We got our auto sticker and our six month visa with no incarcerations or threats. As we drove away there was an audible sigh from my wife. Then we came to the first checkpoint 20 miles or so down the road. The unsavory looking official held out his hand to stop, my wife sucking in a considerable amount of air, and he…..let us through, pushing the button for the green light signifying no inspection required.

Unscathed, uninterrogated, unincarcerated, my wife very relieved, but I was pissed.

I had spent hours in the hotel in Laredo making out a very detailed inventory list of things in my car. Everything…EVERYTHING in our van, I was told, having something to do with the passage of electrons through wires needed to have the manufacturer’s name, purpose, serial number and model number clearly delineated. So I spent some considerable time writing down these items: a flashlight, an electric toothbrush, a Toshiba laptop, a hair dryer, a Canon digital camera, a nose hair trimmer…all had to be documented. Then I put them on a spread sheet from my computer. With the help of a dictionary I identified each item in my van in both Spanish and English. This time, I resolved, I would not be caught seeming to have suspicious behavior by some fat, sweaty, unsavory Cro-Magnon official with a prehensile tail.

But now that I had the goods all in order they seemingly didn’t give a damn about my behavior. And it turns out none of my nice neighbors are unsavory at all. They all deliver me a “Buenos Dias” every morning. They don’t seem to find my behavior suspicious either. The workers in our recently purchased house are hard working, skillful and friendly folk. Not an unsavory person anywhere in spite of the Laredo TV warnings to the contrary. I pay my bills without incident. Policemen wave to me in the streets and amazingly seem not to perceive me to be suspicious as far as I can tell. Unsavoryness seemed to be a thing of the past. I began to relax. Even my wife stopped vibrating with anxiety whenever a local official came near me.

That is until I picked up an article in the Miami Herald International Edition. It described a new governmental agency, the Mexican equivalent of the American FBI called the AFI. The Mexican president, Vincente Fox, had established “an elite, honest federal force to fight kidnappers and drug dealers.” The article said there were charges of corruption, AFI agents actually doing the dirty work for the drug traffickers, carrying out kidnappings themselves, the same kinds of vice the agency was created to stop.

President Fox backed his guys just like President Bush backs his. However a report released by the Mexican Office of the Attorney General said 1,493 of the agency’s 7,000 officers had been investigated for possible wrongdoing and 457 had been indicted. That’s 30%. Even President Bush would have to work hard to beat that number. Of course, the Attorney General in Mexico City also defended his team saying, “The instances of corruption are normal for any agency that so intensely fights drug dealing. What we are going to do now is strengthen our mechanisms of supervision.” Good, I thought. Tough guy. Going to police his own agency. Probably the liberal press making outrageously exaggerated claims. Rid the country of unsavory characters.

Then I read the name of this man in charge. First name Daniel. Good biblical name. Last name Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca? For God’s sake, the policing of corruption in all of Mexico is being headed, if you will pardon the unavoidable pun, by a guy named “Head of Cow?” The unsavory drug thugs must double over with laughter every time they read about him. “Old Cow Head is going to get us for sure,” they would howl in glee each morning as they pound some poor kidnapped merchant or gringo who looks suspiciously as if he might have some money. Here I am in tranquil, warm Ajijic, Mexico with a Cow Head protecting me?

My neighbors are beginning to look very unsavory again. The cops who used to wave at me now scowl and mutter. I’m doomed, I’m sure, it is just a matter of time.

On the other hand, we had a head of the FBI named after a vacuum cleaner and besides liking to wear women’s undergarments, he did a pretty good job on the mob. Maybe I better wait and see.

“Faith is a gift”

I got up early this morning, LeRoy, to watch the sunrise. Didn’t happen. The weather here in Ajijic, Mexico, has changed. During this rainy season, normally it rains at night but during the day it is bright and dry, often spectacular sunrises. Some say this is the normal condition, rain all the time. Others say that this is a peculiar condition due to global warming.

But while I was waiting in vain for a splendid sunrise, clouds everywhere, probably going to rain all day, I wondered about a phrase we were brought up with. So I researched it a little and here it is.

Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God”

When we were Brothers, this was drummed into us. Faith is a gift. So, I assume, belief in the entire dogmatic contents of the “Baltimore Catechism” is required in order to belong to the Roman Catholic fraternity. Catholics who don’t go to mass or who don’t participate in various sacraments, are referred as “lapsed” Catholics. I qualify, I guess. But my lack of qualification to the club does not in the least perturb my conscience. I know right from wrong.

I know it is a bad thing to kill. I know that the Commandments are good guidelines to not do bad things, and I know and believe the basic messages of the gospels: take care of the poor, the children, and the beatitudes from the sermon on the mount:

• Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are the meek: for they shall posses the land.
• Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.
• Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill.
• Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
• Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God.
• Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
• Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

How can you argue against these guidelines for living a virtuous life?

Nothing here about politics. Nothing about persecution of some other culture’s version of Allah or God. Not even the famous Jesus quote…“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” though that is good advice too.

So my basic beliefs in Jesus’ principles of life are intact. But since most “dogma” has historical implications and often has nothing to do with the spirit of the gospels, well….

I am now researching the origins of anti-semetism. Even in Antioch around the end of the second century, there are movements, though mostly doctrinal, mostly whether or not Gentile Christians need to keep the diatery laws, be circumcised, need to worship in the synagogue

Later, around 388 AD, the time of my next “diologue” with my friend, Otto Rand, the biship of Antioch, St. Chrysostom, writes letters exhorting Christians not to attend any synagogue ritual, not to revert to Judaism, letters which have phrases like “perfidious Jews,” and Even Augustine, while tolerant of Jews, denounces contact with them.

Don

It is 3:53 PM on Friday, and I am in mourning. I just found out Brother Sixtus Robert Smith died. Of course I knew he was close. But he was among the two or three persons in my life who made a major difference. I will write a memoriam in the next few days.

Jesus’ thoughts about Christianity today

I am sure, LeRoy, this is not a new idea. But I wonder about what Jesus would make of his legacy whether Catholic or any of a variety of Protestant churches in our time. For that matter, I wonder what the prophet Mohammed would make of his legacy now.

Talk about a coincidence. I talked recently to an ex-Catholic priest here in Ajijic about my research into the early Church. He’s an interesting man, plays a lot of golf, is about ten years my senior. He has given some talks on the “spirit of the gospels” and I find them without reproach and some interesting insights. It turns out he was the young seminarian at the church I went to in Sacramento when I was required to go to “Saturday School” for Catholic kids who went to public schools when I was probably twelve years old. I am sure we met…but of course after all these years, we wouldn’t remember.

Sin

LeRoy,

I wrote this some years ago and wrote a short story about it called “Bless Me Father.” But in accidentally coming across this attempt at humor or cynicism, I’m not sure which, I will attach it to our dialogue. It is probably relevant to our common monastic and religious backgrounds.

Can’techism

From Webster:

catechize: vt, c.1449, from L. catechizare, from Gk. katechizein “teach orally, instruct by word of mouth,” from kata “thoroughly” + echein “to sound.”

Dogma: n, from the Greek meaning “to seem”

My friend LeRoy and I share a common experience. We were both brought up strict Roman Catholics and went to a very religious parochial school. We share a common skill too. We were whiz bangs at answering questions posed by the catechism. LeRoy recently wrote a short essay which inspired me to make this contribution to the exegesis and elucidation of the famous Baltimore Catechism, compiled in 1884, an American version of the first one proposed by the Council of Trent and initially published by Pope Pius V in 1566.

This famous tome distills all the important dogma, that is to say, required beliefs, of The Church. Two thousand years of teachings from Jesus, Peter and Paul to Thomas Aquinas to Hans Kung are in this eighty page book of questions and answers. Pretty impressive job I would say. I was required to memorize all answers in order to receive the sacrament of Confirmation at around twelve years of age.

It was the section on sin that attracted me most at the time. Actually it was sin that attracted me, period.

From the Catechism itself:

54. Q. What is mortal sin?

A. Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God.

59. Q. Which are the chief sources of sin?

A. The chief sources of sin are seven: Pride, Covetousness, Lust, Anger,
Gluttony, Envy, and Sloth; and they are commonly called capital sins.

As LeRoy correctly points out in his essay, mortal sins are very bad news indeed. Eternal damnation awaits the sinner. I was not very good at math as a child but I knew intuitively that eternity is a very long time.

So it was with thinly veiled anticipation and pubescent curiosity that I engaged my pastor, Monsignor Augustino, in an ongoing dialogue concerning the subtleties and nuances of sin. These exchanges took place in various confessionals, conversations and serious admonitions offering wisdom and guidance that influenced my entire life thereafter.

Monsignor Augustino’s presided over a small Portuguese church north of Southside Park in Sacramento, a parish of which I was a member and as an official Latin reciting altar boy, served Mass faithfully every Sunday for many years.
The Monsignor’s name derives from a very famous theologian indeed, Saint Augustine, the fourth century Bishop of Hippo, a self proclaimed expert about matters lustful, who uttered the famous prayer “O Lord, help me to be pure, but not yet.”

Mortal Sins. Missing Mass on Sunday. Murder. Concupiscence. Father Augustino was very cross with my continual confession of “self abuse.” He always prescribed avoiding “impure thoughts.” I found this whole thing very mystifying and exciting. “Nocturnal emissions” didn’t count apparently. “But what,” I asked him, “if I have an impure thought dream?” Did that count?

“No,” he answered without hesitation. It didn’t count because it was not deliberate. “Ok,” I said, “but what if I saw a good looking girl during the day and she kissed me even though I tried to avoid her and my dream had impure thoughts associated with such behavior with this self same girl? Does that count?”

The Monsignor eventually tired of my contextual ethics and hypothetical morality and just gave the obligatory “ten Hail Mary’s” as my penance and let it go at that.

Missing Mass. I never had this problem because I was an alter boy, but one day I realized my main motive in going to Mass on Sunday was greed, surely imbedded in one of the seven deadly. If I was a regular altar boy, I would be given the chance to serve at weddings and funerals. It was the custom after a wedding for the best man to tip the altar boys at least five dollars. That was fine with me, but I lobbied like a Halliburton salesman in Iraq for funerals. Everybody at funerals felt bad so they tipped with alacrity. The sadder the occasion, the bigger the tip. I once got a twenty dollar bill for tossing around a lot of foul smelling incense during the ceremony.

I knew from the Baltimore Catechism that Greed was a fairly bad sin.
Furthermore, I couldn’t ask the Monsignor if it was mortal or not because he had a nose for sin and might not let me collect the big bucks any more. If I couldn’t serve Mass as the down payment to weddings and funerals, I probably would miss Mass a lot of Sundays. That would be a lethal sin I calculated.

A LETHAL sin was a definition of my own making. An accumulation of many mortal ones culminating in a lethal one I reasoned. So I decided that ten Hail Mary’s and ten Our Fathers would do nicely as a self imposed penance seeing as how missing Mass would surely be more grievous than impure thoughts contributing to God knew what within the meanderings of my concupiscent body with nocturnal obsessions of the flesh.

What really got my attention, though, was the equality of mortality associated with sins. Missing Mass and impure thoughts were apparently equivalent to killing someone. Committing any of them meant eternal damnation regardless of flavor as long as it was mortal. I never really contemplated killing anyone, so one Sunday after Mass when I was alone with Monsignor I asked the question that really got his attention too.

“Why is self abuse so bad, Father?” I asked him point blank. “Is it as bad as murder?” After a long look at me, and I am sure there was at least a huge inwardly directed eyeball roll at the heavens, he spoke.

“Because one is spilling seed intended only for procreation, my son,” he answered. I knew enough about the procreation business by then to understand the implication. It was mind boggling. Seed is for planting only and should not be confused with self inflicted pleasure. The agricultural metaphor failed to convince me, especially after he continued, “And while mortally sinful, it is different than murder.”

I stopped short of asking him if there were people who had impure thoughts about murdering someone night after night before actually committing the foul deed…..and could thereby have double jeopardy mortality. And what if they also spilled some seed thinking about it? Surely a lethal sin.

Months went by. Finally one day after a particularly lucrative funeral when Monsignor and I were changing from our ceremonial vestments to street clothes, I popped this one.

“Excuse me Father, but girls don’t have any seed. If they do self abuse, are they sinful?” The good Monsignor was drinking a glass of water at the time. He coughed so hard water came out of his nose. I whacked him on the back several times until he stopped coughing. When he eventually got over this attack he said, “We will discuss this at a more appropriate time, my son.”

Well, Monsignor Augustino never got around to this moral dilemma of mine so I guess there was no appropriate time. I had another question already prepared if he did. It had to do with spilling eggs. While I knew the basic rudiments of procreation I was not at all sure that eggs couldn’t be spilt, and I felt it was exceedingly unfair for the Creator to make something outrageously pleasurable for boys mortally sinful while girls got off Scot free.

At the age of seventy-one, I have stopped wondering about the various nuances of the dogma book written in Maryland by wise bishops. I now fondly call it the Baltimore Can’techism. Just as food which tastes good is bad for you, clogs your arteries, I now accept unconditionally the fact that everything that feels good is also bad for your soul, clogging the conscience so to speak.

And to this day I am overly fond of impure thoughts thanks to Father Augustino. Wherever he is, I wish to extend my profoundest gratitude for this fine gift.

Don

American Wars and Other Thoughts

Thoughtful ruminations, LeRoy, on Independence Day, and a very nice letter from your daughter. I have no recollection of any 4th of July celebration in my family unit other than the fact that I somehow acquired fireworks in my Southside Park neighborhood, blasted them whenever I could, and I wonder if there were any celebration fireworks in my Park. Probably not, perhaps they were done in William Land or someplace closer to the Capital Building, or Solon field. I just don’t remember any more. Celebrations were few and far between in my little family, my mother, my alcoholic step-father and my autocratic and mean spirited grandmother anyway.

But I have vague memories of family get-togethers in Dorchester, Mass. where my father’s family lived when I was a boy, after my father died and before my mother decided to move to California. Huge groups at, probably, the Fourth, and Labor Day and Thanksgiving and of course, Christmas. Everyone was on the back yard, many kids slept in the attic the night before Christmas. Lots of noise accepted but managed benignly by the grownups. Moving to California just before Pearl Harbor isolated me from my greater family, so I never had the experiences of Independence Day celebrations you had as a boy.

I watched the fireworks in Boston this week from my daughter Tracie’s condo in South Boston. Splendid, we saw everything which exploded above the skyline, listened to the Boston Pops and the 1812 Overture. One half million people spread out on the Charles. And, as you did, I had some thoughts about this day too.

This ugly occupation of a middle east country has many precedents. Our foreign policy has always had a racist component anyway. The so-called Spanish/American War was, in actuality, “The War of Mexican Land Acquisition.” We had to be pulled into two World Wars in the last century, kicking and screaming, even the heinous Nazis, after all, were decedents of our white, European, ancestors. No problem attacking Japan, Korea or Vietnam. After all they were strange and not white Europeans. “Japs” is still a pejorative word to the World War 2 vets. “Rag-heads” are no exception. If Al Qaeda had been headquartered in, say, Sweden, do you think for a moment we would have invaded them even if they had a lot of oil?

No, I think our patriotism comes from a lot of sources, many of them religious, some from ethnic histories, and now from pure, insane, ability to exert our will by military means. Our fine president has unleashed submerged hatreds from long before the aftermath of the Versailles Treaty. Our grandchildren are in for a very difficult ride, indeed, I am afraid.

So while I understand the warm, patriotic feelings of those who were placed in combat, especially during World War Two, I have never felt them myself. I think we as a nation and a culture are so far removed from the fabricators of our Constitution and the Federalist Papers, we no longer even resemble that amazing collection of divine compromise leaders of independent colonies made. And, to be fair, some of those intellects, Jefferson most glaringly, owned slaves.

So I watched the explosions with some equanimity and reservation. I think your father and my step-father had a right to be proud of our purpose and will in that war, extinguishing a truly evil empire. But of our country in these times? For the first time in my life, after traveling and living in all those countries, I feel ashamed to admit to casual acquaintances that I am an American. I always felt welcome, that I represented something of vision, of fairness, of a bold, though of course naïve, willingness to take on the challenges of the future.

I am by nature an optimist. I hate being the cynic I have become with our cultural, our governmental and even our religious view of the world and the future. We are capable of extinguishing life on the entire planet. What a thought.

“God bless us every one,” Tiny Tim pleaded. I echo that. We, as a species, need all the help we can get now.

Anniversaries and Happy Friday, LeRoy

LeRoy,

Once upon a time I left a monestary. I was, to say the least, unprepared. I had never had a date. I had never danced with a girl. I had not the slightest idea what to do with girl-type-women-of the opposite sex.

But I met this young lady at St. Johns College in Annapolis, Maryland. We were in the math tutorial together. We were in the Greek language tutorial together. We were in the music tutorial together. We were in the biology lab together, cutting up a very dead cat, together. I named our cat “Hugo” and she looked at me strangely. Twice a week we were in the evening seminars…together. I helped her with math and Greek. She was a good kisser. A very well balanced division of skills, I thought at the time.

You will probably be astonished to know I married her…or to be more precise, she married me. I was still clueless but after almost fifty years of marriage, four children, at least six countries lived in, I suspect I am more fortunate than she, poor woman. She’s still very smart, good lookin’, and compassionate.

My very best to you both on your event. I think most relationships, friendship as well as marriage, have much luck associated with them as well as hard work. We are both blessed.

Don

Beheading II

LeRoy,

I’m very glad you are adverse to being personally heheaded. We are very much on the same page there.

Our culture likes hanging and sizzling, and more recently, apparently more humane, injection of some bad stuff. It is just too difficult to hang folks now without the impression created by slave days and “reconstruction” days, boy what a euphemism that is.

And electrocution could actually be pretty easy….take a couple of car battery cables, climb the power line and ssssssssssssssst. Much more sensible, especially in a high tech culture like ours. Anybody can lop off a head, but it takes expertise to electrocute a head of state. Pun intended.

I actually have a plan for the end of war as we know it. The UN, with the economic help of the United States, clears one thousand square miles of Antarctica. The UN defines the terms and rules of war. The two or more warring parties can go to a warehouse of war implements and weapons, no nuclears allowed, and no airplanes. There are limits, of course, equal numbers of soldiers….well paid and if they are injured, all expenses paid, if killed, a large stipend goes to their families etc.

There are internationally selected judges, umpires of a sort, striped shirts of course, who adjudicate infractions of the war rules and can impose fines or handicaps (no hand grenades for 30 days for example).

Winning and losing parameters would be well defined ground rules. Both countries have to put some disputed territory in “escrow.” The losing country cedes their escrow land to the winner. The winner gets that territory when the umpires judge the winner.

I probably haven’t thought this out completely, but the whole world could watch on television, thus fulfilling the blood lust needs of the general population of watchers, and the vast sums of “pay per view of war killings” could be distributed to the poor of the world.

I suspect I am either way smarter or way dumber than anyone knows.

Don

6/6/6

How often does something like this happen, LeRoy? I wrote something about 6/9/69 years ago, some purile notice of sexual pecularities on a date.

I’m not confessional by nature, but our dialogue, especially with our common early background, lends itself to it I guess. At first I was crushed by my treatment, but even that summer, as a lifeguard at the Alameda Naval Airbase, I figured the whole thing out. That just wasn’t what I wanted, needed, was meant to be. Then on with it. Brother Robert Smith helped, brokering a scholarship to St. Johns College in Annapolis, the perfect transition place for me, and then it was on with my life.

This was the story I wrote a couple of years ago.

Visions

He had come to a decision. While he waited for his friend and spiritual advisor in this cavernous room, he reviewed in his mind the turmoil of that day, the dreadful meeting with his superior, the Director of the community of student brothers at this small Roman Catholic liberal arts college.

The authorities had decided that he didn’t belong. “Your style has something wanting,” the Director explained matter of factly. It was a stark office with a plain desk, crucifix on the rear wall, a small bookcase and a potted plant very much in need of water. This statement was delivered to the young brother seated in the straight backed chair in front of the desk, conveyed without passion or expression. For this reddition, the face to face counseling session all brothers had with their immediate superior, both wore the traditional black robe with the rabat…a little white dickey worn around the neck in the manner of the centuries old French teaching order of the de la Salle Christian Brothers.

The Director continued. It seems that there were certain types that fit into this complicated life without physical love, owning nothing and requiring absolute obedience to a superior’s whims. He did not fit that profile, the Director said. He was frivolous at times showing, perhaps, a lack of dedication. He often broke the sacred time of silence that began after final prayer and lasted until after Mass and breakfast the next morning. Yes, he was an excellent student but seemed not to have the kind of piety looked for in the dedicated Christian pedagogue. Never mind that his practice teaching in schools showed that he might have superior aptitude for the fundamental objectives of this order….to teach the poor. He could do that as a secular person just as well, couldn’t he? The council had decided that he should leave, but there was no need for haste. He could collect his thoughts and belongings, meager as they were, and leave on the weekend.

“You can call your parents to pick you up. I shouldn’t tell anyone if I were you. It might unsettle some of the other Brothers in some way. You should leave on Sunday, I would say. I would suggest the afternoon while the others are at prayer, but you can decide as long as departure is inconspicuous. It is always easier for everyone concerned to go without any fuss.”

That meeting with the Brother Director was like a pronouncement of doom. This was his family, the only family he ever had really, this motley collection of young men thrown together presumably by a common need to pray, educate and achieve a level of sanctity over their lifetime. Noble causes, a mission, opportunities to make a difference. To shape children’s souls. To dedicate life to lofty ideals and to share with one’s brothers purity of spirit. He was crushed, bewildered. Am I such a bad person? He shuddered. This was completely unexpected. He had planned to finish college, take the final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, teach for the rest of his life, probably get a PhD in literature, write fiction, help young men reach their potential.

“Do you have any questions,” the Director asked?

He had been so stunned that he could think of none, could not imagine a life without these people. He began to feel panic. Now what? He had no plans. There had not been even a hint of this cold blooded dissection of his faults.

“Good, then. It’s decided. I wish you luck, Brother. You will be in my prayers.” And with that, the Director stood waiting for the young man to leave.

Completely unnerved he had gone straight away to his long time friend and spiritual advisor, a brother he had known since the second grade, a man he trusted. Was it possible to be dismissed in this trivial way? After listening to a torrent of questions for several minutes, Brother Edward had put a gentle hand on the young man’s shoulder. Unlikely, he was told sympathetically. The Director was not known for his diplomatic skills anyway. But what did he want to do? Was this life the right thing for him? After all, Thomas Merton had found a way to be secular and a monk at the same time and he was a member of a cloistered order. The student brother could do the same if he decided to remain a brother. Variations in the rule could always be worked out. How about the vows? Did they seem right for him? This was God’s business after all, but God’s business came in many flavors, Brother Ed had suggested. There was no pecking order to sanctity. You could be a husband, a soldier, a teacher or a prophet.

“George Forman or Cora ….who are we to judge the difference?” Brother Ed chuckled.

Over two years ago as a novice, he had learned about the mystic, a woman his mentor knew intimately but he had never met. The woman was said to have visions. He imagined at the time that she somehow walked with Jesus in her special inward eyes, was told about life and death, the beginnings and end of the world. The meanings of things kept secret. Her name was Cora. Is that any kind of a name for a genuine God seer he wondered at the time? Proper names for the chosen were Theresa, John, Francis. “Cora” seemed so….plain.

But Brother Ed had allowed him to read some of her writings. They seemed to him amazing, though not very well written. Actually talking with God, seeing Him, being given Godly secrets which she should share with the world like Fatima or Guadalupe. She was about God’s big business and she wasn’t even a nun, his advisor had said. Maybe there was a holiness pecking order after all, the young man thought absentmindedly.

He asked his advisor if he had seen Cora recently. Brother Ed shrugged as if to say that it was irrelevant, nodded affirmatively and changed the subject back to the problem at hand.

“Look, Brother, you decide. They can’t decide for you no matter what the Director told you. You have done nothing wrong and I think you will make a wonderful teacher. Your whole life is ahead of you. Take this opportunity to choose what is best for you. You will do well no matter your conclusion. I will back you in any case and you know that.”

They had spent hours wandering together in the hills of the East Bay, browned by the early summer sun talking, sitting quietly, taking in the rather bleak view of the village several miles away. He asked himself the important questions. Why? What is their thinking? What is wrong with me? If many are called but few are chosen why aren’t I chosen? As the day waned, lights blinking on in the distant town, they made their way back silently to the chapel. They had prayed together and he was left that night with his own unspoken thoughts. He wept himself to sleep, ashamed of his emotion. He did not pray. This was not right, not fair. He tried to calm himself, tried to be objective. It was impossible. He awoke the next morning exhausted and very angry.

Instead of going to classes…Latin, The English Novel, Calculus II, Ancient History and Moral Theology…he removed his robe, put on a jacket and walked to town. By the time he returned, hours later, he had decided.

Back in the greeting room, his reverie was interrupted by Brother Edward, stout, affable and energetic, striding through the door. They embraced and the elder brother sat down opposite him in a large, overstuffed chair. The room looked very formal, brocades everywhere, a large cupola surrounding the ceiling like a plaster of Paris crown molding. It was uncomfortable, stuffy, antiseptic.
Huge windows with ponderous, red draperies. Framed pictures of saints on the white walls. He couldn’t help notice the largest one in front, conspicuous with the wide gold leaf frame of the founder of this teaching order, Saint John Baptist de La Salle, a wealthy seventeenth century cleric who was determined to invent ways to teach the poor children of the teaming, industrial slums of France. The saint looked out at them, lips pursed, an almost comically pious demeanor, the obligatory halo behind his head. The young brother had often suspected that this man had to have been much tougher than the prissy image his pictures depicted.

“So, my brother. Have you come to any conclusions? I feel like a failed midwife,” Brother Ed said with a wry smile. “I brought you into this world of men and now………well tell me what’s on your mind.”

He began to explain what he planned to do. If he wasn’t wanted, he would leave. What was the point of staying even if it was possible to appeal? He would finish college elsewhere. Maybe he wasn’t religious or holy enough anyway. Sex would be nice, he said, in an attempt to be amusing.

Brother Edward listened attentively but at the exact instant the word “sex” was uttered, his friend took his eyes away and began to stare at the ceiling where the ornamental crown molding was. He looked distracted. It was as if he saw something no one else could see. The young brother turned to look where Brother Ed was looking. He saw nothing. The older monk continued to stare at the ceiling and opened his mouth as if in wonder. Then he began to stand and slowly turned his body around as if he could see something moving along the wall, over to the opposite corner of the room and then around to the front. He slowly lifted his arms as if in supplication, then fell like a stone to the floor landing heavily on his back, commencing to shake convulsively, his whole body rattling and jerking, his tongue out, eyes back in his sockets showing only white.

“Holy shit,” the young man said aloud. “He’s having a vision.” Hang out with mystics, you become one he wondered?

At last the seizures stopped. Gradually his breathing returned to normal, his eyes closed. After some minutes the young man, still shocked by what he had witnessed, picked his friend up with arms around his body and stretched him out on the uncomfortable straight-backed couch. He wondered if he should call someone, but who do you call for help with a vision? Did Padre Pio have a vision doctor, he wondered? Calling Doctor Apparition! STAT! Instead, he waited patiently. Finally, Brother Ed’s eyes opened. He looked at the young man and propped himself up on one elbow, then sat upright, stretched and said, “I’m sorry. I must have dozed off. I haven’t been feeling well lately.”

The young brother looked at him in disbelief, stammered “What did you see?”

The older man’s eyes narrowed` paused and said, “What are you talking about?”

“You had a vision, didn’t you? What did you see?”

Ed looked at the young man without expression. Then he stretched and stifled a yawn. “I just dozed for a moment. You’ve been reading too much Cora.”

“Wait a minute, Brother Ed. Listen to me.” He went into the details of the seizure, the length of time the man was unconscious. “Look at your watch. Your ‘nap’ took forty-five minutes.”

He looked at his watch, then at the young man. “I’ve been traveling and not getting enough sleep. Last year I had a blackout at the residence, fell down and had a mild concussion. The doctors didn’t find anything serious, but maybe I am feeling some after effects. Don’t worry about it. I’m having my physical next week. Now, tell me what you have decided.”

“I’m leaving. What’s the point? We’ll talk before I go.” Brother Edward started to stand up, seemed to lose his balance momentarily and sat down again. After he rested a few minutes, they both got up and strolled together across the expansive grass in front of the college, unspoken questions lingering, each deep within his own thoughts.

Of course the physical Brother Edward had the following week showed that this was the first of many grand mal seizures he would have most of the rest of his life. The young man would never quite look at religion the same way again, either because of how he perceived he had been treated or because he concluded that real visions didn’t happen. For the first time in his life, he felt that God might be capricious.

On Sunday afternoon, his mother drove up in front of the student brother residence. He took his small suitcase, closed his bedroom door for the last time, walked out the front entrance and viewed the campus, Brother no more.

In the car he turned around for one last look. He remembered the day he had first come to the order, a high school student, a new life to begin, apprehensive, uncertain, hopeful, all of these. Now he was leaving without any goodbyes and finally without regret. It was over.

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