Nothing For Me, Thanks

Begging for change.
Begging for change.

Dear Santa Baby,

Hey, how’s it going? Busy time for you, I realize, so I’ll keep this short.

To be honest, I have my doubts about your ability to deliver what I really want for Christmas. I’m not even sure that it falls into your area of expertise, which, as I understand it, is toys and trinkets for children and adults. But I figure what the hey, it can’t hurt to ask, right?

So here’s the deal. No presents wrapped under the tree. No Secret Santa surprises, no mistletoe, no romance tied with shiny ribbon. I’ll forgo the cookies, the eggnog, the chocolate bonbons, the whole freakin’ holiday enchilada.

All I want is peace. And I’m not talking the “Silent Night” variety. I’m not referring to any sort of Christmas miracle where everyone lays down their weapons and their resentment and their territorial blood feuds for an hour or two before reloading.

I mean the honest to God, bone-deep peace that passes understanding and goes straight to universal forgiveness and tolerance for every stupid self-centered human on the planet, myself included.

I haven’t been the best person I can be. You know that. I know that. But I’m making an effort to do better. And I sincerely believe that with your help, Santa, maybe, just maybe, we could at least cut down on the number of massacres of innocent women and children. That’s not asking too much, is it?

So. That’s all for me.

Thanks for trying to make the world a happy place for one day of the year. And good luck with that!


Diehard Peace Freak


Slow Burn

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?
Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

I am part of the problem.

I drive a car. I fly across country in fuel guzzling jets. And even though I make an effort to recycle faithfully, I am part of the dominant throwaway culture.

When the world succumbs to runaway mutant viruses and the ice cap melts and life as we know it vanishes without so much as one last desperate Tweet tapped into a dying iPhone, you can blame me and the millions of people like me, who feel concerned about global warming and the loss of habitat wrought by too many humans wreaking havoc upon the natural world but lack the ability to do much about it.

At times like these I turn to science fiction. Before the days of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the first authors to enjoy popular success writing about imagined worlds, there were always writers and thinkers who tried to see into the future.

But not until our own era, when powerful computers and vastly improved technology have given us the tools to actually see and measure some portion of the universe in which our planet is but a “pale blue dot,” as Carl Sagan famously noted, have we been able to really get a sense of what a mess we’re making of this former paradise.

Such a perspective could have made us take stock of the very small niche we occupy in the Big Picture. But you know how it is. The movie ends, you walk out, and within minutes hunger, boredom or fatigue divert attention from weighty ideas such as planetary survival.

When I was younger I was never much of a sci-fi buff. I read “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451,” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. I read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which, while not exactly hard science fiction, derives much of its humor from twisting the limits of scientific understanding.

We do know a lot more about the universe now than we did in 1898, when H.G. Wells wrote “The War of the Worlds.” Fat lot of good it seems to do us. Our inability to get along with each other remains a huge stumbling block to every sort of progress.

Some people have suggested that video games such as the immensely popular World of Warcraft help humans to work out their frustrations without shooting real people. I wonder. Some of us carry our anger around just under the skin. The slightest bump or scratch and out it comes.

As we enter what could be an end game era for our planet, it would behoove us to get serious about science. Beliefs can be comforting. But they can also lead us into states of confusion, and at this point, with sea level rising measurably every year, it’s time to stop ignoring the data.

This ain’t no video game. When the lights go out all over the world this time it will be a bit late to start brainstorming about brilliant ways to charge up the batteries.

I’m currently reading “The Windup Girl,” a disturbing science fiction novel by Paolo Bacigalupi about a time on Earth after climate change and runaway gene manipulation have led to devastating loss of diversity and worldwide starvation. Not exactly a fun read. But as a cautionary tale it’s right up there with “1984” and “Fahrenheit 451.” When those books were written the ideas they described were considered far-fetched. Surely there would never be a time when a Big Brother government could follow your every move and thought, or when books would be banned for fear the ideas in them might spark revolt against tyranny.

The truly sobering facet of science fiction is how frequently science fiction evolves into science fact.

I am, of course, a dreamer. A Pollyanna in the face of peril. I’d like to believe that even now some brilliant team of nerds is working on a plan to reverse the carbon overload in the atmosphere, to turn back the clock on global meltdown.

Maybe it can only happen in science fiction. But at least that’s a start.

Heavy Medal

I tuned in to the Concert for Valor last night, after I learned that HBO was unscrambling its signal so that even non-subscribers such as I could enjoy the Veterans Day tribute.

I expected the usual bland assortment of pop music stars delivering the usual red, white, and blue anthems with earnest efficiency. And the first couple of performers I caught didn’t do much to stir my soul. The Black Keys were pleasant and capable. Carrie Underwood, bright-eyed, blonde and slightly pregnant, delivered a mild set of forgettable songs.

I reached for the crossword puzzle to work on during the breaks. But then Tom Hanks showed up on the big screen in a prerecorded piece about Team Rubicon and suddenly I was totally engaged. Started by two veterans, Team Rubicon unites military veterans with disaster response teams to provide lifesaving assistance in emergency situations worldwide. The project not only rebuilds civilian lives, it offers vets a new sense of purpose and fulfillment after their military service is over.

The theme of what happens to veterans after they come home gave last night’s tribute a deeper resonance than a mere collection of musical performances could provide. The examples of veterans, some with devastating injuries, returning home and finding ways to keep inspiring others, was profoundly moving, and underscored by the presence in the audience of those veterans. The emphasis on the veterans, true heroes who give all that is asked of them yet often return home to find they can’t get a job, made the Concert for Valor more meaningful.

Of the 800,000 people in attendance, many were uniformed service men and women invited into the areas closest to the stage. They sang along to some of the songs. But no act got a more enthusiastic response than the band that has for more than thirty years exemplified the gritty power and controlled fury of heavy metal.

If you had told me thirty years ago that I would ever be a Metallica fan I would have scoffed at the idea. I’m not scoffing now.

Those guys are incredible. The audience, which had been listening with polite attention to all the previous acts, jumped into action when James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich unleashed their blistering brand of rock. Let’s just say it was a far cry from “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Of course, the truth is, the world is a much different place than it was in 1940. Wars have changed. They seem to be continual, for one thing. And the adversaries are harder to define, much less find and root out. The only thing constant is that young men and women continue to suffer and die to keep the rest of us safe. And we owe them. More than an occasional concert or parade. We owe them a country worth fighting for. A country that takes care of its own, and more.

Opinions will always vary about what sort of music is best. But even if we disagree about whether or not Bruce Springsteen was right to sing an antiwar song at the Veterans Day concert, surely we can agree that it’s past time for us, as a country, to stop bickering about trivial matters and get back to working together on what matters. Let’s take care of our veterans, our children, and our world.

Bang your head once if you agree. Bang repeatedly if it feels right.


Let The Freak Flag Fly

Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.
Tie-dyed t-shirts had to be home-made in 1970, when only freaks wore them.

The crisp feeling in the air, the rustle of dry leaves skittering along the sidewalk, the scent of fresh apples — these things signal the most poetic time of the year, for me.

Others may wax nostalgic about spring or soft summer nights, and those things have their appeal. But nothing quite compares to the bittersweet bliss of October, when the world tilts toward the darkness again, at least in this hemisphere. There is a rush of energy to this autumnal shift, a sense of urgency. Time’s a wastin’, get the harvest in. The season hums with a “back-to-school,” anything-can-happen mood of fresh opportunity.

This mood changed my life back in October of 1969, when there were a lot of fresh ideas, and some recycled ones, adrift on the shared consciousness of our nation. At that time I had already dropped out of high school, dropped out of college, and tuned in to the mesmerizing pull of a group of scruffy musicians in the D.C. area who were gaining momentum on the local scene.

They started out as a trio, guitar, bass and drums. Within a few months that core had expanded to a collective whose appearances included anywhere from six to 12 performers on stage. The repertoire was eclectic and the group dynamic was volatile, but when they were going good, they were as good as anybody, and better than many.

For the last century, to play in a band has become almost a rite of passage for a large percentage of America’s youth. The type of music doesn’t matter. It’s the playing that defines us.

The United States is a nation of bands. But what makes a band different from individual musicians who may be more skilled and talented than the average band, is that bands can only exist through consensus. And consensus is never easy. Ask anyone in Washington, D.C.

In the beginning of the band that dominated my life for three years, we all lived together in one house. When the band grew too big to fit into the house we shared in D.C., we found an old farmhouse in the Virginia countryside and moved there. The house was big and rambling, but it wasn’t designed to accommodate a horde. There were enough rooms that could be used as bedrooms, but they weren’t equal in size or charm. The question of who should get the best, or biggest, room was discussed. In the end, it was decided that the order of choice would be decided by a cut of the cards. The day before the move happened to be the drummer’s birthday. He was late to the card cutting and as it turned out the card he drew was the lowest.

Yet, as the guys went through the house for the first time the next day (none of them had seen it before; in order to rent the house we had sent our most respectable looking pair to negotiate the deal, keeping the musicians out of sight) each found a room that suited his needs. And most were happy, with the possible exception of the organ player who chose one of the smallest rooms because it had the only private bath, which later proved to be nonfunctioning. Also one of the lead singers chose an attic room that had great potential after he lobbied to have the group pay for his building supplies to fix it up. Those supplies are probably still sitting up there in the dust.

But the drummer, choosing last, selected an overlooked room above the kitchen. It had its own private staircase to the kitchen, thus ensuring a good spot in the line for dinner, and was the warmest room in the house, a key plus in the drafty old structure.

We were happy for a while in that old house. Everything the band earned was used to pay our expenses. The musicians got one dollar per gig.

If that sounds like communism, I suppose it was to an extent. But it was more than that. It was a democratic commune. We debated every expenditure. The milk vs beer argument was never won by either side. And there were other, ahem, expenses.

By the time the band broke up a couple of years later, we were no longer living together. We got together for gigs, but the day-in-day-out sharing of good times and bad had lessened, and without that daily closeness, understanding and sympathy lose the race with self-interest and ambition.

Yet the funny thing is, the band enjoyed its peak when everyone was more concerned about the group as a whole than about themselves as individuals. The willingness to work for the good of the whole benefits all the parts.

This is the key not simply to rock and roll survival, but to national strength. We in this country like to think of ourselves as champions of individual freedoms. But what made this country great in the first place was the readiness of all the individuals who sacrificed for the good of the whole.

It might sound corny, but sometimes nothing swings like the basics. The country that plays together stays together. We may never agree on the milk vs beer question, but as long as we keep the discussion civil, we still have a chance for greatness.

Nothing To Fear

I don’t know about you, but I’m scared.

I blame the media. I know how they operate. I used to be one of them. They feed on Bad News. The Badder the Better.

But there’s a limit to how much of this stuff an ordinary person can take before they start to feel, you know, paranoid. And I know from paranoid. So when I say I’m quaking in my boots, I kid you not.

Not to bum you out or anything, but if you have come up for air any time in the last couple of months you may have gotten wind of the Ebola epidemic, the beheadings by extremist groups, the widespread leakage and spillage of data relating to security, privacy and general peace of mind. It’s enough to make a person want to curl up in a ball and wait for the all-clear siren to sound.

But when the going gets apocalyptic, the diehards get going. That’s what I’m counting on — those hardy, “not-on-my-watch” types who refuse to give up no matter how bleak the outlook. I aspire to be like those guys. Aspiration will only get you so far, however. To cover those last critical inches in time to hurl yourself through the closing gates of safety requires perspiration.

Thus, after a lifetime of resisting the idea of regular exercise classes, I now lift weights, do crunches and attempt push-ups. I put up with the relentless cheery chatter of the instructor, who is, of course, twenty years younger than I am. That’s the new normal for me. Everybody is at least twenty years younger. I don’t mind. I’m stronger now than I was when I was nineteen, when I took good health for granted and thought joggers were obsessed weirdos. Now I realize all those people running everywhere had the right idea way ahead of the rest of us.

I’ll never be a long distance runner, but I give my all in sprints. And what keeps me going, aside from the daily news and the rising tide of dread in my heart, is the thought that, if the zombies ever make their move, I’ll be ready. I may not be able to outrun them myself, but if I can at least help the kids to reach the safe zone, I’ll feel it has all been worthwhile.

It’s not Zumba that keeps me going. It’s zombies.

Swing Boat

I don’t usually look to the best seller list for reading material. But recently a Seattle friend sent us a copy of “The Boys In The Boat,” and it ran away with my heart.

This remarkable account of the true story of the University of Washington crew team who rowed their way into history as they pursued the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin brims with drama and beauty. It’s got real life heroes and villains, thrilling adventure, heartbreak and romance, even a touch of humor. But what makes Daniel James Brown’s brilliant book so deeply compelling is his keen appreciation for the almost spiritual aspect of the sport itself, and the reverence it inspires in its followers.

Among the fine portraits in the book is that of George Pocock, the British boatman whose careful crafting of racing shells, combined with his astute observations on the fine points of rowing, gave the Washington team a priceless advantage.

Describing the mysterious alchemy of character and strength that produced the eight-man crew team that defied all the odds, Brown’s prose at times borders on poetry. He grounds his narrative in the particular experience of Joe Rantz, one of the eight boys, and Joe comes across as pure of heart and brave of spirit. But in order to become one with his crew mates, he has to learn to let go of his self and trust the team.

Perhaps the most evocative passages in the book deal with a thing called “swing.” When the eight boys are rowing as one, when their hearts and minds are “in the boat” and the pain slips out of sight, the crew is said to have found its swing. And when that happens, well, you just have to be there.

Set in the darkest years of the Depression, the story pits the under-financed Western team against the privileged teams of the East. But when the team had to compete against Hitler’s specially picked and specially favored team in the cold Berlin waters, they demonstrated all that is best about Americans on the world’s largest stage, at one of the pivotal moments in history.

In the current self-obsessed state of our nation, where self promotion and self fulfillment, not to mention the plague of “selfies,” are viewed as perfectly natural, Joe’s willingness to sacrifice and struggle for the good of his team is inspiring on every level.

For anyone feeling discouraged by the rude and random waves of our current world, I suggest dipping into “The Boys In The Boat”.

They didn’t walk on water. They rowed their way into the stars.

Open Minded

Rising stars shine brightest in the tennis world.

Because the game is, for the most part, an individual sport, the cult of personality can sometimes play havoc with discipline, attitude and sanity. Often when a talented new player bursts into public view on a stage far bigger than the local tennis court, the ensuing media storm proves a more dangerous threat to competent performance than the wiliest opponent.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more merciless than at the U.S. Open. Now underway in New York City, the final major tennis event of the year takes place on the biggest, and often most raucous, venue in the professional tennis circuit.

A few days ago, fifteen-year-old American CiCi Bellis thrilled the crowd with an exciting upset victory over the No. 12 seed, 2014 Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, a fiery player from Slovakia recently ranked No. 10 in the world. The veteran Cibulkova, who is twenty-five years old, was expected to win.

The media went nuts. Bellis appeared to take it in stride. This is the beauty of being fifteen years old. You don’t know how lucky you are, until you aren’t.

Two days after her stunning victory, the young star had to play a night match against twenty-year-old Zarina Dyas of Kazakhstan. The crowd was solidly in Bellis’s corner from the first point. They cheered when she got over her nerves and began playing well, after the first three games. They cheered every time her opponent made an error, not exactly classic tennis etiquette, but not unusual with a New York crowd. And they went crazy when, after losing the first set 3-6, Bellis went on a tear and won seven games in a row, taking the second set 6-0.

But then one of those almost imperceptible shifts in momentum occurred. Dyas maintained her composure throughout, in spite of the crowd applauding her every mistake. She quietly dug in and battled back hard, fighting her way to win the third set handily before finally sending Bellis back to San Francisco with some things to think about.

However, in case there was any doubt about who was the winner as far as the media was concerned, consider this: usually, at the conclusion of every match, the media representatives swarm the winner to grab footage and quotes. At the conclusion of the Dyas-Bellis match, the microphone was thrust not in Dyas’s face, but in Bellis’s.

I was sorry to see this. Dyas, playing in front of an almost hostile crowd, carried herself with the kind of grace and stoic grit that has been the hallmark of many great tennis players. Bellis, in contrast, was cute as a puppy, frisky and playful. You couldn’t not like her. But I don’t think she would have been damaged if the media had had the good sense to first congratulate the winner before fawning over the newest darling of the tennis world.

No doubt I’m just bitter. I remember how it felt to have to play singles against a much younger opponent. When I was in my mid-forties, new to tennis and pie-eyed with enthusiasm, I entered a charity tournament at the local rec club. I don’t know how they came up with the draw but I’ll never forget my opponent. She was fourteen. She was blonde, leggy, with a killer topspin forehand that took the wind out of my sails in a hurry.

And to make matters worse, she was kind and polite. It was obvious from the first point that she was going to beat me. The only question was, would I be able to win a game. When it was over she shook my hand and I wished her well in the rest of the tournament.

I kept playing tennis. Over the years I won some matches, and lost more. But my appreciation for the game, for the skill it demands, for the energy it requires, for the passion it inspires, still keeps me playing.

In any sport, winning is more fun than losing. But losing teaches you that no matter how good you may think you are, there’s always someone who can beat you. Yet in tennis you’re expected to be gracious whether in victory or defeat, because, at least in tennis, good manners are supposed to be part of the game.

Just another thing to practice.

Dock of The Bay

I paused for reflection at the end of the dock.
I paused for reflection at the end of the dock.

Something there is about a pier that leads us to walk to the end of it and stare aimlessly into the distance. There’s a metaphor floating around in there, no doubt, something to do with the brevity of life, the vanity of all aspiration, the transcendent beauty of the quiet sea.

The geometry of movement and stillness, reflection and shadow, produces a captivating grid.
The geometry of movement and stillness, reflection and shadow, produces a captivating grid.

It’s quiet on the dock in the early morning, before the sailors and fishermen begin the rock and roll of boats in motion.

Another postcard moment unfolds.
Another postcard moment unfolds.

Take a deep breath. Take another. Time drifts on the silent tide.

Birds on the bay share the view every day.
Birds on the bay share the view every day.

Birds may have tiny brains but they know how to drink in the moment. I’m still working on it.


Shell Game

The gopher tortoise is faster than it looks.
The gopher tortoise is faster than it looks.

The air was hot and still, the ground dry and sandy. High above in the clear blue sky the shrill cry of an occasional osprey broke the silence.

We were hiking along a secluded trail through the slash pines and palmettos when we noticed something moving rapidly through the sparse undergrowth.

My first thought was rattlesnake. The park signs caution visitors to stay on the paths to avoid this danger. But our son was with us, and he’s been throwing caution to the winds since he was very young, so off he went.

We caught a glimpse of the creature, a tortoise, motoring with surprising speed over the sand. We tried to keep it in sight, but within seconds it vanished.

Then I happened to see a tunnel entry, perhaps a foot wide and tall, only slightly obscured by the rough grass growing beside it.

I was elated to have finally seen the Florida state tortoise in the wild. Sightings are more rare than they once were, as the gopher tortoise, like so many other Florida native species, is endangered. Threats include loss of habitat, predation from other creatures, and humans, who continue to catch the tortoises to keep as pets or to eat, even though both these activities are illegal.

No wonder gopher tortoises spend most of their lives in the tunnels they dig. Often ten feet below the surface and as much as forty-eight feet long, the tunnels are used by hundreds of other small animals. Because of this the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species. Its presence in the neighborhood has a ripple effect that supports the entire local ecology.

I guess the humans who trap and eat gopher tortoises don’t care much about such issues. I wish they did. I wish that mere legislation were enough to stop the damage we humans continue to wreak on our splendid planet.

I realize that in the big picture a small tortoise doesn’t grab the public imagination the way, say, a horde of zombies, or a deadly contagion does. We humans tend to be self-centered and hot-tempered, a lethal combination. We treat each other with such savage disregard, I shouldn’t be surprised at our cavalier attitude to the environment which sustains every living thing.

A gopher tortoise looks for all the world like a little tank. You’d think that would be enough to keep it safe.

If things keep on the way they’re going, we may all wish we had our own personal tanks.

A baby gopher tortoise is as cute as any panda.
A baby gopher tortoise is as cute as any panda. Photo by Steve Beger.