Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thinking About Rich Folks

I think there are some things to learn about the rich.  So much of the traffic on Facebook, Twitter, etc. paints them as vindictive people who work to keep the poor and middle class down.  In most cases, this isn't true.  Not that the end result of their actions, or in-actions, isn't the same whether intended or not.  It is.  But something became clear to me a long time ago when teaching a class at IBM called Technical Excellence. One of the books I assigned was Tom Watson Jr.'s Father, Son, and Company.

During World War II he tried joining the Army Air Corps.  He knew he'd have trouble passing the physical because of his eyes, though he'd been flying his own plane for seven years.  He got tested by a private doctor using a machine the military used and failed depth perception so he bought one of the machines and spent endless hours practicing until he could pass.  While one has to admire the determination, realize that most people with his depth perception issues couldn't compensate by buying their own test machine.  There are many similar examples, times when because of his family's wealth he was able to do things that most of us could never even think of doing.

My realization is this.  He had absolutely no concept of life without essentially unlimited money.  His father, who started out selling sewing machines from the back of a horse drawn wagon, knew.  But not Junior.

Maybe I'm being naive, but I believe the same is true for the current crop that was born into money: John Kerry, Mitt Romney, the Koch Brothers, and many senators and congresspersons, for example. Just as I, a Caucasian, cannot, no matter how hard I try, truly understand what life is like as a person of color, these people cannot understand what it's like to have to worry about paying bills, about buying food, about finding shelter, and so many of life's other daily challenges.  Some of them may think they know, but they don't, really. They have no reference point. They've never been there.

An architect friend once said that every student architect should spend a year or more working construction jobs to better understand the impact of implementing some of their design ideas.  Should the super rich spend a year or more working at a minimum wage job with none of their substantial resources available?

Interesting concept, but one  not likely ever to happen.  Too bad.

Enough musing for now.  Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

No Going Back

It's been quite a while since my last post - a summer hiatus that happened to last into autumn.  Anyway, I'm back.  Back is a fascinating word.  It can be a noun, verb, adverb, or adjective according to good old Merriam Webster. So let's think about going back.

Here's a "Life is Like ..." statement to put with the hundreds of others we've all heard.  "Life is like climbing a huge tree. Each branch is a decision point - left or right.

Generally I don't indulge in reminiscing, in musing about my life, the decisions I've made, branches in my tree.  Partly it's because there's always the seed of regret waiting to germinate in some fertile memory, but mostly it's because memory - mine at least - is unreliable.  It comes in flashes, images that blast into my consciousness with the blinding intensity of a camera flash that leaves me unable to see anything else for an instant.

Whether the metaphor uses forks in a road, branches in a tree, or Forrest Gump's "... a box of chocolates" it is a necessary oversimplification of the myriad possible futures that confront us with each decision we make, and it ignores of necessity the possible futures lost to us by that decision.  Once we step through that instant in time our decision is irrevocable.  That instant is now past and changing our mind, taking the other path, presents a new future on a different time line.

It makes every step we take an adventure because we can't go back.

This is another example of how my mind works at three in the morning.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Living With a Gemini

Carol is smart, focused, caring, and often a source of wonder to be around.  Let me illustrate that last point.

A couple of weeks ago we were working on our camper and had a small bag of tools resting atop a step stool in the middle of the garage floor while the work progressed.  While I was working on the next stage of the project, Carol left, probably for a yoga class which she takes almost every day.

Some time later I broke for lunch, leaving the tools and the stool in the aforementioned place and the garage door open.  Now Carol normally settles her Prius in this small garage when she's finished with it for the day, but when she turned into the driveway the picture I described faced her.

There are a couple of obvious actions that she could have taken: 1) move the stuff toward the wall of the garage to make room for the car or, 2) leave the car in the driveway overnight.

But Carol is a Gemini.

This is where it spent the night.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Why I Write Mostly Fiction

I write fiction.  I make things up.  I've been asked why I don't write memoirs, topical essays, or the like.  Well, I kinda do... kinda.  My musings are sometimes essays, sometimes memoirs.  My fiction is sometimes part memoir since the characters I create are often living in places or situations that are part of my history.  I guess I prefer fiction because I can make sense out of the moral character, or lack thereof, of my creations. They're not real.

What I can't make sense of is the residents of this country I call home.  A long time ago I accepted the sad fact that we are an anti-intellectual society.  We treat deep thinkers with disdain, call them geeks, or eggheads, and such, but generally not with a tone of respect.

We're mentally lazy.  We'd rather have questionable sources feeding us our news and information and not verify its truth than search out what's real by exploring alternate sources.   That makes us gullible: to glitzy advertising, to sound bites taken out of context, to Facebook and its spawn that are collectively called Social Media, to data that mirror our personal beliefs.

We're angry.  I say that knowing in my heart that the real truth is we're afraid, but fear implies weakness in the minds of so many of us.  What are we afraid of?  Interesting question. On one side we're afraid of: liberals, gays, immigrants, radical muslims, other races - among other things.  On the other we're afraid of: conservatives, guns, climate change, fundamentalist christians, other races - among other things.

We're racist.  Oh no! my Progressive (nee Liberal) friends cry.  Oh no! my Conservative friends (and I do have some) cry.  But we are.  When we meet an ordinary individual not of our race, what goes through our heads?  Don't think of what should, think of what does.  Is the person put in a category somehow different from you?

I could continue with other examples, but I write fiction.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Chanting OM on a Rainy Day

OM, chanted as three syllables [Ah-oh-mm] that flow into each other through a single breath, is a way to calm one's thoughts, to relax, to facilitate meditation.  It is a private time, a time when the sonorous repetitive drone brings with it a defocusing, a soothing, of the mind and of the body.

When the chant is performed in a group, for an hour or more, something else happens.

My good friend, Dahlia, counselor, mediator, musician, and beautiful soul, leads a chant four times a year around the equinox and solstice - the times of transition when people tend to recognize their connection to the universe, if only for those brief periods.  I have participated in most of them, and each time I come away with the a sense of peace, of altered consciousness, of awareness of ME.

The thing about a group chant is the melding of voices, of people sitting, eyes closed, voices open, in a common simple intonation. Om, in its polysylabic rendition, is an unintended incantation.  As the chant progresses it changes from a simple repetition to a sea of sound.  As Dahlia begins the chant, her pure gold voice pulling us in, we initially follow, picking up her rhythms, but she changes, doesn't maintain a metronomic cadence, and soon we are in our own rhythms, each different by a beat or two. The result is an almost continuous sound, sometimes with just a few voices somewhat tentative to be alone, sometimes in a cacophony of discordant sounds, sometimes even in a harmonious crescendo that lifts each voice into the harmony of OM.

An hour passes so quickly that I can't believe we're done. In the chant, I have found distance from my all-to-present mortality to some other feeling - peace I think.  The acceptance, the okayness, of this rung in the ladder of my existence.  I leave with new breath and look forward to the next chant in September.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Where Left is Right and Fences are Stone

I took Carol to Ireland for her 70th birthday.  We arrived at Shannon airport about 10:30am on June 2nd after leaving JFK around midnight on the 1st.  I'd reserved a car for the week from Hertz so our first stop after picking up our bags was the counter to get the keys and such. The clerk told me the insurance I added didn't cover tires and wheels, but I could buy a separate policy for that.  I didn't make sense to me so I turned it down.  After the third time I jumped a curb making a left turn on the first day, I thought that might have been a mistake.

There are many signs in and around the airport warning drivers to stay to the left, including a sticker on the driver's side windshield (on the right side of the automobile.)  It took a day and a half for me to climb in the driver's seat without first opening the passenger's door and being surprised at the absence of a steering wheel.  I did however  trade our standard shift car for an automatic before we drove anywhere but around the airport; shifting with my left hand from the right side while keeping to the left was one more thing than my old brain could handle.

The morning of the 3rd we traveled to the village of Dingle (gotta love some of the names) on the Dingle Peninsula.  The road to Limerick was wide with shoulders almost a car wide.  Road markings are similar, dashed white line verses solid white line, but the yellow line marking the wide shoulder was also dashed.  I discovered that slower cars would move to the shoulder to let others pass.

A little aside on roads:
    Motorways are like our interstates.
    National roads are similar to state highways
    Regional roads are anywhere from county road to country lane.

Leaving Limerick on the road to Dingle.  The road wove through some beautiful countryside, which I didn't really get much chance to see because I was trying to stay on the left side of ever narrowing roads without drifting off the non-existent shoulder.

 My ignorance of western Ireland's geography is profound - there are Catskill-size mountains in the area, and almost no trees.  Ireland, like the western Catskills, grows rocks.  Stone walls are everywhere. Some are finely crafted while others are haphazard piles of rock. they enclose fields where sheep, goats, cattle, or horses graze; they border tiny towns and often hug the edges of narrow roads that are nominally two lanes.  I was constantly aware of the proximity of the left side mirror to the walls - add that to the other things I was trying to manage and you have a fairly intense driving experience.
Connor Pass - This is one lane with some wide spots to pass
Ballysitteragh 2050 feet

Things I learned driving in Ireland:
1- Village roads are narrow, often bi-directional, with cars parked facing both directions on either side of the street.
2 - The default speed limit is 100kph. A shade over 1.6 kilometers in a mile (I'll give you a minute to make the conversion ... .)  Many of the shoulderless, stone wall bordered, lanes carry this maniacal allowance and folks actually maintain that speed!
3 - And this I loved - Instead of speed zone signs at the entry to populated areas, signs reading "Traffic Calming 400 m" serve the purpose,

Later in the month there will be a more detailed travel journal on my website, I'll keep you posted.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Breathing Backward and other Yoga Missteps

I've sort of taken up kind of practicing yoga by taking classes several times ... well at least once ... a week, most weeks.  I'm almost always in a class consisting primarily of women - most of them within a decade of my age (no ingenues, in other words.)  Our teacher is a delightfully upbeat elf who looks barely out of her teens but I'm told is over forty. She speaks softly in the way one would expect a yoga teacher to intone, no Zumba shouts here.

Softly - there's the problem.  Even with my trusty electronic assistants, hearing her clearly is an issue.  That's partly because I turn the hearing aids low so they don't make noise when I'm lying with one or the other ear to the mat.  So, I don't hear every detail of her instructions, maybe not many of them.  I compensate by peeking at my neighbors to see what pose they are in.  Sometimes I have to average them and go with the one most are attempting.  Sometimes I miss altogether and become somewhat unique in my poses.

Please understand, I really enjoy yoga, but I have to subdue the 'guy' in me in order to continue.  Before you misunderstand what I mean by that, let me tell you it's the genetic competitiveness that makes guys try to do more than they're capable of in a physical activity visible to more than just themselves.  I can't explain it, but every guy knows it in his heart, even if he's unwilling to admit to it.

That said, I have accepted the fact that: my knees will never be closer than twelve inches above the mat with my legs crossed; my arms shake when holding Downward Facing Dog; there's no chance I'm ever going to execute Tree pose without assistance from a wall or perhaps a rope hung from the ceiling.

What I discovered during my last Gentle Yoga class, was that I was breathing backward! I caught her words when returning us to the neutral position "Inhale back to center."  I was exhaling!  You know how hard it is to switch to inhale in the midst of exhale? Don't try it at home. I managed to get in sync by hurrying a couple of breaths and found the rhythm, but then I was paying so much attention to breathing when and how I was supposed to, that I forgot about averaging poses.

It all eventually worked out - until Savasana - my favorite pose, although I shorten the approach to the pose to a simple collapse rather than follow the minutiae in the link.

Our teacher had placed chairs in front of each of us while we were involved in some pose on our back (we're supposed to have our eyes closed most of the time and this time I did.)  She told us we would be doing Chair Savasana to end the session, so I promptly sat in the chair.  When I looked around, everyone was lying down with their legs on the seat.  I adapted quickly and our lovely, gentle yogini gave no indication that she even noticed my mistake as she placed multiple pads on the seat so my legs rested at a right angle as I lay on my mat, knees bent, trying my best to become invisible.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Time, Speed, Distance and Sunday Mornings in the 1960's

Some of my Air Force time was in Alexandria, VA. It was a nice gig, mostly regular hours, and weekends off.  My friend Kelly and I spent Sunday mornings rallying.

We didn't rally around the flag or a sports team, we plopped our butts in my car - Kelly driving, me navigating - and took to the road.  If you have tuned in to the speed channel, you've seen rallies where Audis, Subarus, and such are flying over closed roads at insane speeds to reach the next checkpoint. This ain't that.  This link will explain: Info on Rallying

If you read down a ways on the explanation, you saw  Road Rally and the term TSD - Time, Speed, Distance.  That's us.

My Rally Car - 1964 Triumph Herald 1200 Convertible

We'd arrive at the starting point about fifteen minutes early to receive our turn-by-turn directions. When our turn came I scanned the first page of directions and made sure our trip odometer was zeroed.  Of course that was because we ran unequipped i.e. no fancy gear.  Some of the more intense people installed special rigs with two adjustable trip odometers (Tommy boxes, I believe they were called.)  One older couple - we were in our twenties so that could mean forty - arrived in their red Corvette convertible just before their start time dressed as though they'd just come from church. She behind the wheel in a nice dress and hat, he navigating in a suit.  Turns out he had built a rally computer into his dashboard, so with a brief look at the first couple of instructions he'd punch some buttons and wait for the start.  They won every time they entered.

We were sent off at 30 second intervals.  The first mile or two were used to check our odometers against the one that set up the rally.  It didn't matter if you had the most accurate odometer made, you had to know the difference between your readouts and the mileage listed on the directions.  That number had to be factored into every calculation of speed and distance, so the navigator in an unequipped vehicle was constantly working a slide rule (circular was best) as well as giving the driver the next instruction.

The idea was to follow the directions, e.g. "Left at Stop change speed to 31.4 mph" exactly, and at some point - around a blind corner or over the crest of a hill - a checkpoint appeared.  You didn't know where or when and were penalized for visibly altering your speed as you approached.  You were supposed to reach said checkpoint at precisely the allotted time between it and the start line. Each second late was a point against you.  In order to ensure that traffic laws weren't flouted on the way, every second early was a ten point penalty.

One of the best things about these Sundays is that the rally always ended at a restaurant.  Regardless of where we placed, the camaraderie over burgers and beer where we discussed places we got lost or some interesting location to go back to, made the day great.

As I write this rather long piece, memories keep flooding back: getting lost - which we did often, misstating a direction - which I did often (hence first item), stopping by a small white church in the woods to listen to the choir belt out spirituals - we missed every checkpoint that day because they shut down twenty minutes after the time the last car was due.

We had fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Who Names Roads, Anyway?

Back in the late 1940's my family began a migration from urban/suburban areas of New York and Connecticut to the rural quiet of Otsego County up in the western Catskills.  Before moving ourselves, we drove up to visit in the 1935 Buick Sedan my dad bought after we three kids got too big to ride in the rumble seat of his '32 Plymouth Roadster.

The trip from Queens Village to Otsego County took forever.  We'd motor across the Bronx Whitestone Bridge, up the Hutchison River Parkway to the Taconic all the way to its end - back then at Route 52 in Southern Duchess County.  We turned west on 52  to US Route 9 and north on 9 to Route 23, crossing the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. On 23 we passed through Windham, Prattsville, Grand Gorge, Stamford, Harpersfield, a few Davenports, and finally into Oneonta then out the other side on East Street. That soon became a gravel road for several miles until we made a right turn then took the left fork onto a narrow dirt road, arriving a minute or two later at my grandparent's house on Dutch Hill Road.

With pit stops to buy fuel, pee, eat, and such, it was a lo-o-ong trip!

We kids used to amuse ourselves by reading road signs and coming up with stories about how they were named: Gun Hill Road, Bullet Hole Road, and the like were fodder for our fertile imaginations and helped the endless hours pass.  The same old road names could elicit different stories each trip.

Even now as I travel, I often amuse myself by making up stories about how roads got their names. However there is one, Exit 65 off I-85 just south of Petersburg, Virginia that, no matter how I try, I am unable to come up with a plausible story to explain.  The name - SQUIRREL LEVEL ROAD.  

Have fun!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Old Friend

As I sat at my computer several days ago contemplating the digital equivalent of a writer's worst enemy, the blank page, my phone rang.  Mike, my best friend for over forty years had just come out of a movie with his wife to find the battery on his car had died.  "Give me about fifteen minutes," I said, gauging the time it would take me to get coat and shoes, crank up my truck, and reach the parking lot behind the Rosendale theater.

"Keep your cell with you in case we get help before you arrive," Mike said.

I hauled my butt out to the truck and headed north the eight or ten miles to the little village on the Rondout Creek.  A way into the trip, my phone rang.  Mike's wife had found someone to help them and they were on their way home.   "Great," I said, adding, "See you Friday," reminding him of our weekly breakfast with a couple of other friends.  I took a circuitous route home, paying homage to the beautiful sunny afternoon  as the rays played on the crystalline snow.

On the way I thought about our friendship.  He knows he can call on me when he needs something and I'll be there. I know the same about him. But it's more than that.  It's the fact that I, and he, would drop whatever we were doing to go to the other's aid.  There's no resentment, no sense of being inconvenienced in the deed.  It's our history: how we saw each other through hard times, my contentious divorce, his first wife's untimely death; how we've celebrated the good times, helped each other move, shared small things and big things, know each other's families, and trust each other implicitly in spite of our political differences - Mike right of center, me left of center.

Since 1992 we have recycled a birthday card, always with a note on it.  Twenty-three years.  He will get the card late this year because I missed mailing it before we left on our vacation to South Padre Island (my bad.)  I will receive it next time we get together for breakfast.  We are running out of places to add a note, so I don't know how much longer the card can be passed, but perhaps we can make it to twenty-five before retiring it.  Maybe we'll have some world record thing when we're done.

Just thought I'd introduce you to Mike.  I hope I didn't embarrass him.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Meditating with Elvis and Sycamores

When we're home Carol and I spend most of our waking hours in our 'dining room'.  It does in fact have a dining table that can comfortably seat eight, that is often, as now, covered with various stacks of papers (a state typical of the dining tables of all the Curry women, I've observed.)  But 'dining room' does nothing to describe the sixteen by twenty-four foot space lit during the day by seven large windows.  A free-standing fireplace on blocks in the center of the room divides the dining area from the cozy sitting area, which is furnished with four rockers bought at barn sales and craft fairs and two wooden school desks complete with student graffiti, from a second hand shop in Millerton.

What has this got to do with the title of the post, you ask?  Nothing, other than to locate me in space as I sit in my rocker bracketed by the windows and glance over my shoulder to admire the six inches of new snow outside.

I realized several mornings ago that when my cat, Elvis, jumps into my lap demanding my attention, the act of stroking his soft fur clears my mind of everything else.  I am only aware of that softness, the warmth, and the sound of his contented purr.  Most mornings begin that way, with us sitting in my rocker and Carol in hers.  When the morning sun finally joins us, I continue my meditations by closing my eyes. Those first few seconds after I do, I see a red-orange field with a set of lips and a suggestion of a small nose.  As the lips move they fade and the nose becomes not a nose but an animal’s face, a fox perhaps, then it too disappears, and the red-orange field shifts and morphs into shapes like clouds in a wind.  Some shapes I can name while others are just forms that are gone too quickly to identify, if identification is even possible.  When finally I open my eyes after some unmeasured interval, I feel alert, awake, alive to the day.

I also wanted to talk about my favorite tree, the Sycamore.  The tree is especially visible in winter when hardwoods shed their foliage to gird themselves for the weight of coming snow and rest up for a new growth spurt in spring.  It's dappled gray, green, brown trunk and substantial height make it immediately visible among its brethren (I've always wanted to use that word.)  Since it likes wetlands, it is often a signal for the presence of water in otherwise dry environments.  There is one just a mile away on the bank of a creek.  It is alone in the pasture and so beautiful in the setting that I've photographed it often, in fact it appears on the cover of my book Wishbone Creek and Other Stories.