No Room at the Inn

As the Christmas season approaches, and colder weather creeps in on us, my thoughts turn to . . . rodents in the chimney.

Please understand, I would rather write about something else, today. Almost anything else. But the truth is, this morning when I got up to begin the day my plans were trumped by the encroachment of a varmint in the chimney, probably an R.O.U.S. (for more information, see The Princess Bride).

He is clearly above the chimney flue and not in the firebox itself (thank goodness), but he [I apologize for any sexist slur implied; I could just as easily have said “she” but women don’t like being compared with rodents as a rule] has been quite busy building, tearing down, straightening his living space, or . . . I don’t know what all else.

I decided that a trip to Kroger for a combustible firelog would be in order. My plan was to heat (or smoke) this guy out of his new found apartment forthwith. I purchased the log, placed it in the firebox, lit the match, and waited with great anticipation for the heat and smoke to rise through the flue, knowing I would be delighted to hear the scurrying paws (or whatever it is they have) as the unwanted intruder departed, running for his life.

Instead . . .

To my chagrin I heard increased activity from the little interloper. After this persisted for some time I realized that I had just provided what must have been welcome warmth to the busy creature. I could just imagine him saying, “Wow! I had no idea this apartment came with central heat!”

There is no clear place of entry from the outside (that I can see), but there must be some way he entered our domain. [I knew I should have left up those NO TRESPASSING signs. Now look what’s happened!]

When Joseph and Mary made their trek to Bethlehem lo these many centuries ago they searched for an Inn in which Mary could give birth to the baby Jesus. And finding “no room at the Inn” they settled for a stable, and laid the babe in a manger, a feed trough for animals.

And I suppose the unidentified creature inhabiting my chimney has done something similar. Although, I suspect that just as soon as he can get into the Inn he will do so!

You may not appreciate the fact that I have compared the rodent intrusion of my residence with the birth of the Christ child in a stable, but . . . [Work with me here, OK? I’m trying hard to make lemonade from lemons, all right?].

I suppose the besetting of my plans is something I should realize is always a possibility. And that implies a resetting of my plans, sometimes done (as they say) “on the fly.”

The fact that Joseph and Mary could not find a birthing place befitting the King of the Universe seems incredible at first blush. But seen in its larger context it becomes remarkably fitting. And so . . . I will try to see my situation in a similar light, today.

As stated in the previous blog entry (Casting Call), my life is not a script over which I have absolute control; sometimes I have no control whatsoever. And truthfully, (although I would love to give it a try) if I wrote the script of my life and had the power to make it come about as written, it would not be nearly as interesting, not nearly as helpful to others, not nearly as transforming for me – as the one I am living.

So . . . I will accept (albeit a bit begrudgingly) this little trespasser, and deal with whatever havoc he may wreak. Face it! At worst, he has given me something to blog about, today. And at best? Well . . . we’ll just have to see how this one turns out, won’t we?

It’s just that way when . . . there is no room at the Inn.

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Casting Call

Yesterday one of my former students lost her husband to a heart attack; a young family is now fatherless. A good friend in his 60s just lost his brother to cancer early today.

As I write, my wife and I are sitting in a RaceTrac C-Store, enjoying free Wi-Fi and a cup of coffee; Carly Simon just got through singing, “You’re So Vain,” on the overhead sound system, and the atmosphere is inviting and comfortable.

It is a beautiful fall day outside, with milder temperatures than we’ve had recently. While we are enjoying our hint of spring, New York is still feeling the effects of record snowfall.

The President will address the issue of immigration tonight; politics and world events trudge along. Israel was bombed a day or so ago; many are suffering the loss of loved ones. And families across our country are looking toward the beloved tradition of Thanksgiving next week.

Have you ever paid much attention to the credits at the end of a movie? I am always fascinated at the number of jobs and positions. One that constantly intrigues me is “Casting.” You know, the person(s) who decides who gets to play which role.

Clearly, by the time the movie hits the screen any decision about roles is ancient history. Once those roles have been set, and contracts signed, actors are not at liberty to “try out” for another part; changes like that are not made in a willy-nilly fashion.

When the casting is done well . . . the movie is usually a success, assuming (that is) the screen writing, directing, camera work, sound work, makeup, stunt work, editing, location selection, wardrobe, catering, transportation, etc. are all done well, too.

There are lots of pieces in the puzzle, aren’t there? More than I ever realized.

Our lives are like that.

Sometimes I ask myself what my role is in this life. Who am I here to support in this “all the world’s a stage” existence? Do I have a speaking part? Or am I just an extra?

Am I a principal whose part is crucial to the storyline? And no matter what my role is determined to be, can I play it in such a way as to make the other actors’ and technicians’ jobs easier?

I am at a loss as to how to comfort my former student and my good friend. The storyline has moved forward in their lives, doubtless in a way they would rewrite if they had the chance. But the roles have been set; the parts are being played. And the story keeps moving ahead, unfolding as it proceeds; baffling us, surprising us, and sometimes overwhelming us.

None of us is the director. None of us is the screen writer. Nor are we technicians in this drama we call life. We are the actors. There was a casting call. We responded to it.

Now we must play the role we have been given.

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Imagine That!

My youngest daughter has not yet married; she is twenty-eight.

Of course, not everyone wants to be married. And not marrying certainly doesn’t make someone a second class citizen.

But . . . she wants to marry. She wants to share her life with a man she admires and adores, and she wants to have children. But times have changed, haven’t they?

Maybe like me, you haven’t noticed that marriage rates have been falling for several years now.

One source says that 75% of all women and 50% of all men in the 1950s were married by the time they reached their mid-twenties. In the United States (in 2011) the median marrying age for women was 26.5, and 28.7 for men. Just 51% of adults 18 and older are married (as opposed to 72% in 1960).

Marriage rates fell a full 5% from 2009 to 2010 here in the states. A mere 20% of adults 18-29 are currently married (as opposed to 59% in 1960).

A 2010 survey found 40% of Americans expressing the notion that marriage was becoming obsolete (only 28% said that in 1970); still, 61% of those who had never married said they would like to marry someday. Of course, of the 40% mentioned above most are unmarried, single parents, or cohabiting couples. And a high percentage of these are young and have less formal education.

Divorce rates soared in the 1960s and 70s, leading some to think that fear of divorce has created the current slowdown in marriages. The rate of divorce has dropped, but clearly that is due in part to the slowdown in marriage rates, as well as the increase in cohabitation, and the changing views on sexual behavior and the birth of children.

I am no sociologist (that should be clear from what you’ve read so far).

So, let me cut to the chase (so to speak). Because my interest in writing today is primarily fueled by the disappointment of a daughter that I love more than the moral arguments for and against the institution of marriage, sexual mores, and the life of an unborn child.

Here is the skinny on the matter. My daughter is sandwiched in an evolving era in our history where traditional values and practices are opposed by modern “enlightened” values and practices at every turn. She works with, and is friends with, a number of lovely, intelligent young women who would love to be married; that is, she is not the “odd one” who can’t seem to find a man. Many share her dilemma.

Many of my daughter’s girlfriends are able to secure “dates” but not able to secure the marriages they seek. Men and women are now accustomed to sexual privileges that once were held sacred in marriage (we tried to destroy this notion in the 1960s and we were quite successful); career goals are now shared equally by men and women, and so the “goal” of marriage for women has been put on the back burner for many. So . . . why marry?

What is the point of marriage?

If marriage is obsolete, destined for eventual divorce; if sexual privileges are available (and considered completely respectable) apart from the establishment of a doomed institution; if career and individual financial stability are a higher priority than any permanent relationship; and if the birth and raising of children can be taken care of adequately by single parents and/or gay and lesbian couples willing to adopt – why marry?

No doubt, marriage is being obsoleted. It is being made into something out-of-step with our current world. Each year it appears to be more and more out-dated, outmoded. But make no mistake: obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder. And it matters not how many people nod in agreement with the error of their ways; if it is error, it will still be error.

I think what might be missing in our society today is – commitment. You know, it’s funny. Right off the bat that word is offensive to some, isn’t it?

Years ago there existed a good bit more loyalty in general. People tended to purchase food from the same grocer, buy books from local book sellers, look for cars at the local car lot. Now we are more cosmopolitan, more world-aware, more willing to buy from a dot com that gives us a cut rate price. We are wal-martish amazon-lovers and we will defend to the death our right to pay the lowest price we can find.

We have identified ourselves for decades now as “throw away” consumers; now we sing songs about the times before everything was “automatic,” before everything we ate was “instant.” We no longer expect products to last a long time; it is cheaper to replace them than repair them. When the latest new electronic marvel hits the market we stand in long lines anxiously waiting to replace the old marvel in our hands (and it isn’t even broken yet).

But I wonder . . . have we embraced the same social/economic point of view when it comes to relationships, marriage in particular (although friendships are probably affected in the same way). Are we essentially persons who keep “our options open”? Or are we essentially persons who don’t look back once we’ve put our hand to the plow?

When close relationships become challenging (and they always do), do you walk away from them, or does the dissolving of a close relationship even cross your mind? Do your intimate, personal relationships “appreciate” with time, or “depreciate” with time?

We stand knee deep in a culture whose base of operation is founded on the notion that we don’t have to continue in anything that displeases us; that our inalienable rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) endorse flimsy and conditional commitments; that there is no measurable value in staying with a sinking ship (“sorry for that,” ship captains of the past), and we worship the idea of “free” freedom.

Let me tell you about the neighborhood where I have lived for almost 20 years now. There are 21 houses in our small subdivision. Two houses are currently vacant, under renovation. Of the 19 inhabited houses, 8 (that’s 42%) have been inhabited by the same families for 20 or more years; 7 (that’s 37%) have been inhabited by the same families for 5 or more years [and 2 of those families are made up of children who actually grew up in that neighborhood]; 4 (that’s 21%) are relatively recent additions, having been in the neighborhood less than 5 years.

Neighborhoods are not marriages, but they can be very close associations. I have neighbors whose children and/or grandchildren would feel safe and comfortable coming to our house in a crisis. We depend upon, support, and look out for one another; we are a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” group.

We never stood at an altar and recited neighborhood vows to one another while surrounded by witnesses. But we are committed to one another. Had we actually engaged in a ceremony like that, we might be even more committed. And that is in spite of the fact that sometimes our neighbors (never us, of course) do some really crazy and annoying things: where they park their cars, how they deal with their pets, when they like to make loud noises, how they keep their lawns, etc. We are, indeed, a social melting pot.

In schools we used to pledge allegiance to a flag. In small towns we used to stop traffic voluntarily when there was a funeral procession. We used to be lifelong members of one or more organizations, and we used to enjoy lifelong friendships. And there was a time when we used to stay married to the same person for 50 years or more.

Is that because relationships were just easier to maintain in the past?

I think not.

I think it is because we do not understand, nor do we even want to understand what is involved in total commitment. Until we do . . . our culture will continue its erosion, and our march toward self-destruction will one day be realized.

The history books will contain the following line: “Like the ancient Roman civilization, the United States of America had a good beginning, but crumbled under the weight of its own quest to grant individual freedom.”

Our neighborhood would crumble, too, if there was no commitment, no sense of the sanctity of community; if we decided to move away every time the neighbor’s dog pooped in our yard. Or if we found a less expensive house in another neighborhood and left this one without considering the value of the relationships in our current situation as a part of the equation.

A Commitment of Permanency. Giving our word (and keeping it). Making promises before a crowd of witnesses. Staying the course. Putting our hand to the plow (and not looking back).

The country group Diamond Rio released a song in 1997 called “Imagine That.” Some of the lyrics describe our marriage culture quite accurately:

  • “They say they will, when they won’t”
  • “They say I do, then they don’t”

And then the chorus: “A love that lasts forever . . . Imagine that!”

So, my daughter is waiting, “committed to commitment” (as a friend put it), hopeful she will find someone like-minded in the not-too-distant future.

Social changes are always the result of a plethora of factors. And the history books will attempt to evaluate and tell the tale at some distant future date. But I wonder . . .

Will a lack of commitment of epidemic proportions be identified as our culprit?

Imagine that!

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Ashes, 2 Ashes

It happened while I was watching a favorite TV series the other night. A young man was given his estranged father’s ashes to scatter as a memorial to him. He chose Eagle Lake, a special place in Alberta where his family had experienced “better days.”

I noted the reverence with which he handled that urn, and I instantly identified with him; I felt the sacredness of the moment.

It is marvelous to me that no matter the culture, no matter the religious or non-religious environment of a given place, the remains of a human being are considered sacred. [Of course, I am exempting in this statement the brutal, insensitive, and insulting treatment of the dead exhibited by persons bent on vengeful and angry retribution. I speak here of the norms of societies, not the aberrancies.]

I remember vividly how I felt when I saw my own father’s ash-filled cherry wood box in Tucson, Arizona. And when the time came for his memorial in Georgia (13 months after his death), I clearly recall how I felt picking up the cardboard box that contained that wooden box, mailed all the way from Arizona. My uncle was with me on that occasion; I remember we spoke of the unique feeling I was having, holding my Dad’s ashes. We may even have done so in somewhat subdued tones.

Because there is a sacredness about human remains. There just is.

When mother passed away several years later I brought her ashes home in a rectangular black hard plastic container. The ashes themselves were in a heavy clear plastic bag inside the container. And my wife said, “Don’t bring those in the house.” She was frightened, uncomfortable, ill-at-ease around them.

So, they stayed in the garage; the dark garage. And frankly . . . I felt guilty about that.

Because, you see – there is a sacredness built into my psyche about those remains.

When the date came for my mother’s memorial, my brother and I went into the garage together, and together we removed the plastic bag from the container, then maneuvered the bag of ashes into the narrow neck of the urn my uncle had purchased for the memorial.

The urn was carefully carried to the car (along with all the legal paperwork that goes with human remains – you see, even the law of the land affirms the sacredness of human remains), then placed on a stand at the memorial site. For the interment it was placed in a small urn vault, then carefully lowered into the ground. Respectfully.

And that is as it should be.

Life is sacred.

When life is valued properly there is respect; honor is fitting. It almost dwarfs the character of the individual who has died. And that amazes me.

It is as if life itself is so sacred its value cannot
be bound by the mortal container it enlivens.

I know that in our society some of the norms of the past have changed. People seldom get all dressed up when going out to dinner, or to special events, etc. And many of the social formalities of the past have been replaced by a casualness that frankly . . . I often prefer.

But . . . I do not want to change norms about the sanctity of life. Or respect for the dead. That is sacred ground.

When I was a boy I was taught that you should not step on a grave in a cemetery. Oh sure, there are myths and all sorts of other reasons given for such a custom. But . . . to this day I try to observe that custom. And I don’t think that is so bad.

We need to honor the remains of our loved ones who have departed. Abraham Lincoln pronounced sacredness on the ground at Gettysburg in honor of those who died there. And then he gave a charge to the living.

 And I wish to give a charge as well. We must always honor the memory of the dead, and in addition we must make it our goal to treat the living with that same sanctity, that same value, that same devotion.

Posted in Aging Parents, Family History, Fathers, Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ants and Uncle

OK. So yesterday didn’t end up going exactly like I wanted.

I had just returned to the office after a quick trip to the bank, and had just enough time to check emails and phone messages before heading to the gym, then home.

I changed into my gym shorts (so I would be ready to dash out the door) and sat down in the swivel chair in front of the computer screen. I could not have been there more than a minute or two when I felt something biting on my legs. I looked down and there were dozens of ants on my socks!

I quickly began killing them (I apologize to any of you who do not approve of such violence), then felt them also in my pants, biting in places the FCC would frown upon me mentioning in a public forum like this. Yes, I literally had “ants in my pants” (for the first time in my life).

I ran into the bathroom, disrobed, and shook my shorts into the toilet. Then I returned to my office chair to look for stragglers. I did find three or four, but that is all. No trail to the nearby trash can, however. Puzzling.

Several ants were meandering around in my duffel bag, so I tried to purge it of the tiny adversaries as quickly as I could. Then I headed to the gym.

After walking on the elliptical for 15 minutes, periodically gazing at the swelling in my legs (welts forming quickly), feeling more bites on my feet, and now on my arms and back, I gave up the exercise idea and headed home dreaming of a diphenhydramine overdose.

While driving I had the sensation that my field of vision was occluding, and dark areas were encroaching around the edges. I kept breathing, trying to just get home as fast as I could while at the same time trying to stay aware of my level of consciousness . . . just in case I needed to stop the car and pass out somewhere.

Finally, I arrived safely at home. I quickly took off all my clothes, dumped them into the washing machine, put my shoes and duffel bag in the garage, took 75 mg of diphenhydramine, and lay on the bed naked as a jaybird.

The welts were well pronounced by this time. My breathing was becoming a bit raspy, too. Shortly my wife returned home to find a stark naked Kafkaesque creature in the bed. After a couple of hours the antihistamine worked miracles, and we applied hydrocortisone and lidocaine spray to the non-private areas.

As the night wore on, more antihistamine was consumed, and today the regimen has continued. Most of the welts are gone now, but have been replaced by pustules. This is not a day for me to wear a bathing suit. Let me put it that way, OK?

Tiny little insects, aren’t they? But they did me a world of hurt. And my only theory (by the way) is that I carried food in my duffel bag days before, something spilled, then the ants found it. But I don’t know that to be the case. My wife asked me, “Were they fire ants?” And I replied, “All ants are fire ants as far as I’m concerned!”

I have discovered today that keeping my legs elevated helps, but the itching continues, as does the diphenhydramine and other meds. I need cheering up. Pizza might do it! Ha!

At any rate, I have told my story about ants. The “uncle” part actually happened right after they bit me. That is, I said, “Uncle,” but they still didn’t stop.

I guess ants aren’t familiar with the tradition of a fair fight.

Ant bite welts on my legs. Not a pretty site. But . . . "you should have seen the other guy!" Ha!

Ant bite welts on my legs. Not a pretty site. But . . . “you should have seen the other guy!” Ha!

Ant bite welts on my leg; hand in the foreground.

Ant bite welts on my leg; hand in the foreground.

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The Canadian family television series Heartland has certainly worked its way into our hearts. And, as per our typical pattern, we are watching it for the first time a full seven years after its release (thank you, Netflix).

We are in the first season (2007). And since the show is still being produced in 2014, we have a long way to go to catch up.

But Heartland has drawn us in. So, the remaining seven years of shows does not seem daunting; rather, a welcome distraction. We look forward to them.

Starring Amber Marshall, Michelle Morgan, Shaun Johnston, and Graham Wardle, the series is loosely based on the Lauren Brooke novels (ghost written by Linda Chapman) which first appeared in 2005.

The TV series is set in the beautiful mountains of Alberta, Canada (although the original stories were set in Virginia, as I understand it). And if you are not one who is enthralled with the west, wide open spaces, cattle ranches, and the romantic life of the rugged cowboy – don’t bother to engage.

I am. Enthralled, that is. With The West.

Our move to Arizona in the summer of 1963 exposed me to the intoxicating lure of The West. And my time living in Montana in the mid-1970s sealed the deal. I am hooked. I expect to die with one boot in The West; if not physically, then mentally, for sure.

But the longer I live . . . and the more places that I live . . . (the list is embarrassingly long), it occurs to me that what I truly love – in any and every place I have resided – is the wide open spaces. The mountains. The woods. The valleys. The lakes.

Open terrain. The wilder – the better.

As my Minnesota friend, Randy Stinchfield used to say, “I need a horizon.” Me, too, Randy!

The truth is, there is a bold and unmistakeably profound statement made when one is in the presence of pristine wilderness. I am not going to try to tell you what that statement is in this blog entry. Sorry.

What I am going to say is that I am touched deeply in my heart when I am there. I am properly humbled. Right-sized. Appreciative. And awestruck.

The human heart. The place where the mind is truly connected and in concert with human emotions.

There is a reason why we have created expressions like these:

  • “get to the heart of things”
  • “the heart of the matter”
  • “change of heart”
  • “take it to heart”

Your heart is where one can find what is really true about you.

It may be hard to get to your heart, because it is covered with so much armor and protective coating. But when you do get there, all there is – is true.

Each performer in the Heartland story has his/her own issues, his/her own back story. And it will be interesting to see how it all gets worked out. Or doesn’t, as the case may be. One thing is certain: the characters will be successful in their varied relationships in direct proportion to their genuineness of heart, i.e. their ability to see themselves and others as they truly are.

If there is subterfuge in the heart, relationships will suffer.

Maybe the writers and creators of this Canadian program intentionally named this Heartland because they knew that creating a place, a ranch, a terrain, a land where the heart is central would give them ample subject matter and call out to the part of us that aches deeply and smiles deeply.

Ya’ think?

You may not be enthralled with The West like I am. And the mythical cowboy and ranch life may not appeal to you in the least. Or the TV show may not catch your eye for one reason or another. No matter.

What appeals and calls out to every human who breathes a breath . . . are the issues of the heart. Your heart.

When the new website emerges later this summer, it will be addressing issues of the heart; derailments that get us off track and leave us in destinations we do not want to visit. Addiction, grief, disappointment, anger (to name just a few).

Are we destined to live our lives in a land that keeps us arms length from that for which our heart longs the most?

Or . . . is there truly a Heartland?


That’s me sitting on 4 year old Chico, in Clint Goben’s front yard, Anaconda, MT, circa summer 1973.

Posted in Family History, Stories, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments