by: Dustin Joy

Every year, in July, at that point in the season when the compass plants are blooming and the hummingbirds are going at the feeder like a band of desperados, and I cannot imagine one more tedious, soul-withering, work-related conversation – I leave. It is not exactly a “damp, drizzly November in my soul” situation, but, like Ishmael, I certainly get the “grim about the mouth” thing. Unable to go to sea, I still make a concerted effort to visit “the watery part of the world.” I go to Lake Superior. I pack my Pequod, a kid-battered 2011 Honda Odyssey, with the people I love and I point my rig at Polaris.

I will stipulate here that there is a certain austere beauty to the miles and miles of corn we must traverse to get to the north woods of Minnesota. The gently rolling hills of Iowa, saturated with the green of midsummer, are not unlike waves on the ocean. Sea-sickness is a possibility. 

Iowa can be lovely and reassuringly monotonous. It is the emotional support animal of states. It calms you. As the Grant Wood landscapes ease by the windshield one at a time, you know what to expect. You are not, for example, going to top the next rise and find a fjord, or a pyramid, or a redwood tree. And yet, much as I admire constancy, were God to grant me telekinesis, I would slide Iowa out of my way and connect things thus that the west side of the Muscatine bridge would land me in St. Paul. 

North of the twin cities, Minnesota becomes a study in diversity. There is corn, surely, but along Interstate 35 it peters out, giving way to potato fields, then pastures lined with round bales of alfalfa, and then the first little lakes (10,000 I’m told.) These preliminary “lakes” are ponds, really, with reedy borders morphing into swampy little wastes of cat tails, red-winged blackbirds swaying atop many like 1920’s flag pole sitters. 

At this latitude the uplands, forming the pond’s catch basin, are covered in a wonderful mixture of birches and pines and aspens. White, paperish trunks alternate with blue/green boughs and the little green geisha fans which shimmer and quake in the wind. Below is the lovely orange duff of no longer green evergreen needles. In the interstices are ferns and mosses, yellow daisies, red columbines, purple lupines, blue harebelles, maybe a pink lady slipper. Lichens are not thick enough here to guide a lost hiker with the old “north side of the tree” technique but as you travel closer to Gitche Gumee they obtain a foothold and, on some Boundary Waters lakes it seems they are the dominant life form, inanimate though they be.

Superior is a sensory banquet and diversity is on the menu here, too. The “beaches” are fields of polished rocks: red rhyolite, grey/ brown basalt, blackish gabbro, green lintonite, and the elusive agates which every visitor cranes his neck to find.  Each one is rounded and shaped into a perfect skipping stone by the pounding, roaring waves. Driftwood logs are abraded, over and over, at the surf-line until they are as smooth as if turned on a lathe.

In a minute the lake is flat calm reflecting the blue sky like a great horizontal mirror. In the cove below the palisades, a coffee-brown river pours over the escarpment with a continuous pulsating roar. Children play in the waterfall, twittering randomly as they “rescue” crayfish from the little tide pools. Another minute passes and a gentle onshore breeze, air conditioned by eighty miles of fifty degree lake, rolls into the humid atmosphere in the cove and, suddenly, unbelievably, we are standing in a cloud. There is momentary silence, even from the waterfall it seems, as all the creatures thereabouts adjust to the sensation of floating in air. 

The breeze stiffens and the fog dissolves as quickly as it came. The giant lake reappears, riffled, not a mirror now, but maybe a broken mirror, reflecting nothing, or reflecting a million things. Behind and to the left there is a croaking sound, deep and guttural, from the boughs of a pine tree growing literally from the rock face itself. Upon the highest branch sits a raven the size of a pheasant and he cocks his great head and looks at me as if to say “what a curious creature you are, all pale an earthbound, and … those shorts are really not your best look.” A chipmunk crosses the bar, gingerly from one sun-hot stone to another, circumspect of me, and the raven, and the lapping wavelets. A mother loon and her two babies, the chicks riding high and dry upon her back, round the headland, crabbing into the breeze. She divides her attention between our world and the one below, ducking her head rhythmically, scanning for herring. When the trio is abeam me she emits a long, lonely cry which carries for miles and sounds more like “nevermore” than the raven’s sarcastic call. 

I am loathe to leave this place, ever. I will miss it for 358 days. I must go back to my my work-related conversations, though. I must drive through the miles and miles of Iowa. At the end of the day core competencies must be optimized, proven methodologies must be executed, synergy must be achieved, and we must monetize our assets … and some other bullshit. We must sit in our cubicles and file the paperwork and pull the same drill-press handle over and over and over and … why not? Aren’t our brains stimulated adequately when we consider best practices and seamless integration?

There is something missing, lest why the “need” for vacation? Why the Moby Dick ennui? I would like to say color, but that’s not it, exactly. A million acres of cornstalks certainly represent color in spades. And cornstalks can be pretty. And it’s not people, exactly. I work with some fine people and I live near some other fine people, even if they are mostly white, lumpy people who look a lot like me.

I contemplate these things from the mezzanine at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Our final stop is as different from Lake Superior as can be. But, there is something I like here. There is something intangible that Superior also has. It is something that satisfies a craving. As I sit and sip my root beer and watch the people moving in and out of frame I put it all together. 

A tall, slender woman passes, her skin the color of milk chocolate, and she smiles broadly and says “Haal-o” in an rich Somali accent. Opposite her a lady as white as a sheet of typing paper with lustrous, flowing auburn hair reads the Star-Tribune. A ruddy fat man, easily 350, in a Hawaiian print shirt, and carrying a bag from the Lego store, pauses below me on the landing to readjust his load. A Chinese lady plays Candy Crush on her cell phone as she waits for her husband and two sons to return from Sbarro. She sits back-to-back with a blonde twenty-something with an impressively braided pony tail and a shirt which says “On Wednesdays we smash the patriarchy!” A little girl in a pink pinafore licks a loosing battle with a giant ice cream cone. 

I get up and walk down the concourse and, on my right, two women in burkhas, one pushing a stroller, pass. I cannot see their faces but I know, somehow, that they are smiling. Next comes Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s doppelgänger and I wish, for the hundredth time, that I could pull a Freaky Friday switcheroo with him. Here is a young father in a grey pocket-tee and wearing a tie-dye backpack with the Build-a-Bear Workshop logo on it and an American Girl doll’s head and face protruding from the drawstring at the top. A 6’ 3” bald man, covered in tattoos, walks hand-in-hand with 5’ 2” woman, in what could be mistaken for a prom dress. It strikes me that if a Martian suddenly landed in the Mall of America parking lot one sunny day it would not be immediately clear to him or her or it that we were all of the same species.

And if our physical attributes aren’t interesting enough, our opinions and personalities offer glorious variety. People long to reveal themselves, and they do it. At the Mall of America tee-shirts are the chosen platform of expression. We have:

“Hold on a minute while I overthink this.”

I don’t snore, I dream I’m a motorcyle.”

It’s tough being a genius, but I manage.”

On a short, plump lady in line at Starbucks:

“I will not be forced to learn a foreign language to live in my own country.”


“I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.”

“I’m with stupid.” A map of Minnesota and Wisconsin with an arrow over Minnesota pointing to the left.

“Hey Babe!” Over a picture of Paul Bunyan’s companion animal.

“Your mom can party!”

“I bake because punching people is frowned upon.”

“Born to be mild.” With a picture of a three-toed sloth, in a leather jacket.

“I suck at apologies so, unfuck you, or whatever.”

“If you were in my novel I would have killed you off by now.”

“May the fetus you save be gay.”

“Spooning leads to forking.”

“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”

“God, Guns, and Guts. Made in the U.S.A.”

“Back in my day we had nine planets.”

“Poop jokes aren’t my favorite jokes, but they’re a solid number two.”

“Strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.”

“I never said all that shit. – Confucius.”

And, finally, the profound ones:

“You’re killing me, Smalls!” (blue)

“You’re killing me, Smalls!” (red)

“You’re killing me, Smalls!” (green)

And, on a very pregnant woman:

“You’re kicking me, Smalls!”

And I feel reassured here, much like I do on the North Shore. I feel at home with these people. I feel welcome at the Mall of America, even with my weird opinions and cock-eyed view of the world. I feel a sense of belonging to this mass of humanity, this cacophony of culture, this menagerie. 

There is a place, in this world, for monoculture. It’s called a cornfield, and it serves it’s purpose and even bears a simple beauty. But, in my humble opinion, diversity is better. I don’t know what axiom of the universe makes it so, but I know it is true in my bones. William Cowper said variety is the spice of life. That rings true to me.

I like hamburgers, but I don’t want them every day. I want Mongolian Beef and Pad Thai and authentic tacos and Chicken Tikka Masala, too. I like Mark Twain, but I want to read Tolstoy, and Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, too. I like corn and hogs, but I want some lupines and columbines and loons and bears, too. I love America, but I don’t want everyone in our vast, beautiful, diverse country wearing the same red hat.

That Smile

That Smile


It was a fall day, one of those few and far between, pristine days that can only be described as crisp. The air possessed a clarity, a perfection of optics, that we pilots call “clear and a million.” For a few more minutes at least, I could see 93 million miles. The sun was setting, the color of an ember deep in the belly of a campfire, behind the bleachers of the football stadium.

I did not care for football nor about football. I did not usually watch the game nor, to be honest, did I share the devoted, patriotic hope that our Rockets would “Trounce the Tigers” or “Whomp the Warriors” or “Charge the Chargers” (not enough thought put into that last one by the cheerleading coach.) I might, if I scoured the entire varsity roster, have found a single name which didn’t inspire in me a visceral disgust. These were the beefy, bully sons of beefy, bully farmers who, by virtue of their great-great-grandfather’s covered wagon breaking an axle here, claimed pride of place in the community and in our school and on the football team. They were “the jocks” whom I hated with a white-hot passion when they singled me out for persecution and hated all the more when they ignored me. In my narrow world view, it seemed that they lived charmed lives, enjoying the adulation of the community, hero worship by the local WHBF sportscaster, and, I always imagined, the sexual attentions of any and all the girls in my class. 

Still, I attended the Rockridge home games religiously. I even came to enjoy the chilly autumn evenings with my breath visible in the air and the interesting contrast between the brilliance of the “Friday night lights” and the blackness of the cornfields beyond. I liked the unpredictable sounds generated by a crowd in the stands, the half-audible conversations of 500 people discussing soybean yields, PTA fundraisers, and, inevitably, the dickhead quarterback’s prowess on the field. I liked the occasional exuberant roar when our team scored, a bit like the flocks of red-winged blackbirds that twisted and turned in a synchronized ballet, as if a thousand organisms could share one brain. 

All of this modulated sound, was underlaid by the carrier wave drone of the big grain dryer at the nearby elevator, the sonorous, white-noise of continuous combustion. I came to enjoy these things – or tolerate them. But they were not, ultimately, the reason I was there. I came for the band. I came for the marching band and, particularly, a pretty, little dark-haired clarinetist who had stolen my heart and took my breath away. 

She was the loveliest thing my newly-pubescent eyes had alighted on. She was an angel – in every possible sense. She was beautiful and confident but with the demure shyness of the cherubs in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. And she was smart, the polar opposite of the redneck linebackers on the field. She thought interesting thoughts and said interesting things and knew about books, had read books, and despite being the daughter of a local farmer herself, whose grandfather’s father had broken an axle in Edgington Township, she was the opposite of whatever a beefy, bully was. She was decidedly different from the stuck-up, pageant-queen-wannabe cheerleaders sharing the field with her.

I watched her from the stands as she played the national anthem. I applauded wildly as they covered Wipeout, with accompanying full drum kit on a hayrack towed behind a lawn tractor. I gave the stink-eye to the football fans who talked through her performance.  I had, after all, offered their moron progeny the courtesy of tepid clapping at touchdown time. 

And I had contrived, when the band returned to their designated seats in the grandstand, to sit nearby, in a place that offered me a convenient view of the little black-haired girl and her clarinet.

She had other suiters, a fact which now makes me reflect on the unlikelihood of what happened. She had even accepted an invitation to the dance that night from a “friend.” Still, after the game, I waited in the grass practice field behind the stands, with happy people filing past to their cars (we won the game.) I was miserable. There is very little worse than being miserable in the presence of happy people. 

I had brought a pitiful little flower for her. Initially this struck me as a “smooth move” but, as the minutes ticked away, my droopy carnation seemed to grow more pitiful and less adequate to its purpose. I saw a couple of trumpet players pass on their way to the band room. When they saw me they pointed discreetly and emitted a joint titter that echoed across the lot. I felt small and cold and stupid, a nerdy boy shivering in a nerdy tan jacket and corduroys. I held out unreasonable hope that something might yet be salvaged of this pathetic catastrophe.

And then she appeared, disgorged with the streaming crowd, from the opening between the bleachers. She was with her best friend and she was laughing. And she was beautiful. She was wearing a black sweater with a panda knitted on the front. She was wearing black and white saddle shoes, and, oddly, a black bowler hat. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, one of Raphael’s cherubs. She looked up from her clarinet and noticed me standing alone in the middle of the field and, to my ever-lasting gratitude, she smiled. She smiled genuinely, involuntarily, the kind of smile that a person hopes for, longs for, lives for, all his life. It was a smile that demonstrated, without the need for mere words, that she was happy to see me and my sad flower standing there. It was an honest smile, with no sign of irony, or artifice, or even charity.  She was happy to see me. She was actually happy to see me. My heart skipped a beat. 

She left her friend then, and she came to me, and she gave me a hug. I remember that hug as if it were here and now. I wanted to remember it. I concentrated on the moment to grasp it, to capture it, to file it away. I recall the chill air in my lungs from that first intake of breath. I remember her friend, over her shoulder, tittering as her bandmates had done. I remember the beep of a car horn in the parking lot behind, not a warning or a display of anger, but a friendly acknowledgement of one friend in a car to another in the crosswalk. I remember the smell of bratwurst and charcoal drifting from the concession stand. I remember the visiting team’s dejected bus idling nearby. But mostly I remember her, the feel of her sweater and the clean smell of her perfume and the unruly shock of her bangs protruding from beneath the brim of that bowler hat. Above all, I remember the enveloping warmth of her hug as if she exuded a supernatural energy that lit me up inside like a neon bulb. 

Skip forward thirty-four years.

The term long day doesn’t begin to describe the labyrinth I found my way out of. I woke up before dawn in the featureless frozen tundra that is Fargo, North Dakota. I mainlined caffeine in the form of an acrid-tasting, styrofoam-cupful of perfectly mediocre hotel room coffee. And I started the day.

My crew was crabby and the airplane was cold. Even the water bottles in the galley cart were frozen. We had to deice the hoar-frost-covered wings and it took forever. Ineptitude seemed epidemic, from gate agent to ground crew to air traffic control – to me. I signaled the ramper to disengage the ground power unit before deselecting the switch in the cockpit, precipitating a ten minute delay as I restarted the plane, reentered all of the flight plan data, and suffered the Flight Attendant’s caustic remarks when the plane went unexpectedly dark and quiet. We flew to Chicago. 

We swapped airplanes at O’Hare, from Gate B24 to gate F14 (about 1/4 mile of walking.) We had to repeat all the pre-flight steps we had accomplished, so laboriously, in Fargo. The new airplane was late and included its own catalog of maintenance deferrals, including one that limited our airspeed on the ensuing flights to 250 KTS (about 80 mph slower than our usual speed). 

The weather sucked. When we arrived overhead, Dayton, OH was suffering a runway closure, leaving only one plausible instrument approach, one which would allow us to descend to 450 feet above the ground. The solid cloud deck hovered 230 feet above the airport. Aside from the top third of a tall radio mast sticking up through the murk, we could see nothing. We entered a holding pattern. 

As you might imagine, people who buy an airline ticket to Dayton, OH would prefer to go to Dayton, OH. They are not well-pleased when you take them, after 3/4 of an hour of airborne holding, to Columbus.  They are less enthusiastic when you tell them the punch-line to the biggest joke of all;  Dayton’s weather will not improve until tomorrow night. We will be either: A. leaving them in Columbus, B. transporting them on a bus to Dayton, or C. taking them back with us to Chicago, from whence they had commenced. 

Every passenger was surly to the flight attendant, which translated into a general crabbiness on her part, which ultimately poisoned the congenial relationship the First Officer and I had built up over the course of four days. Oh, and the weather had deteriorated in Chicago. The windy city was windy as hell. We made it back to O’Hare four hours late, tired and disgusted. Then I had to drive home, three hours across frigid northern Illinois.

I pulled into our icy driveway, and, with relief, turned off the ignition. My hands were sore from clenching the steering wheel. My back hurt from leaning forward to peer out of the ice- obscured windshield. When I cracked the car door, I was greeted with a blast of arctic air that made me think, just for a moment, that I had gone full-circle and was back in god-forsaken North Dakota. 

I trudged to the house, dejected, exhausted, defeated, my thin leather wingtips filling with snow. I opened the back door of our crappy little house. The screen door, with it’s sticky latch, was frozen. I had to batter it with my fist to break it loose, which, of course, released a cascade of snow from the gutter down the back of my neck. The inner door, with the bad seal, was also frozen and required battering. All of these things should have been repaired long ago. Something about my door battering vibrated the filament of the motion detector light on the front of the house and it broke, leaving me standing in the cold, covered in snow, in total darkness. I stepped onto the cold porch, set down my flight case, and reached for the kitchen door. And the world changed.

The kitchen door swung open. The porch flooded with warmth and light and the aroma of something delightful. And there, in the glow of a new and different world, stood the little black-haired girl. She had waited up for me. She had, indeed, waited up for me for thirty-four years. And she had made me cookies. She took my wet jacket and hung it on its peg. She set my suitcase over by the furnace register. She reached up and took off my epaulets and put them in their place in the china cabinet. And, all this done, she gave me a hug, a warm,  enveloping, life-affirming hug. And then the little black-haired girl smiled. 

I am one lucky bastard.


By: Dustin Joy

His Barn

His Barn – a poem

by: Dustin Joy

The barn door creaks on ancient hinges,
like her knees, with aches and twinges.

She opens it with apprehension,
melancholy, belief suspension.

She came here just to get the spade,
to dig potatoes, while there’s shade.

To him it never was a chore,
scorning melons from the store.

He sowed these seeds with loving care,
pulled the weeds, ran off the mare.

Sweet corn might be nice for lunch,
bright green onions by the bunch.

A fresh tomato, one zucchini,
suitable for tonight’s linguini.

She turns to go, this barn is haunted.
She steels herself, she wont be daunted.

She takes the shovel, hard to heft it,
cleaned and oiled from where he left it.

These things were his, his pride and joy,
her husband’s bench, his tools, his toys.

His works of art, both wood and ferric,
colorful and esoteric.

Whirligigs, doo-dads, inventions,
moving sculptures, good intentions.

She picks one up, a clever what’s-it.
She smiles, she laughs, she cries, she hugs it.

Compassion, kindness, a touch of crazy,
serenity some took for lazy.

Whimsical, her dad thought feckless,
she loved him more when he was reckless.

His things still lie here, strewn about.
Others said to throw them out.

Sad memories, to best be rid.
They never knew him like she did.

Without his spark, his touch of dreamy,
she steps outside, the sky is creamy.

The setting sun, he loved the gloaming.
Across their lives her thoughts are roaming.

A widow’s world, can she adapt,
a sewing circle, perhaps a cat?

She locks his barn up, safe and true.
She smiles for him, he loved that, too.

A Sad Step Backward

  Today the United States Senate, a deliberative body consisting of 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, approved the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme court. Kavanaugh was approved despite the fact that only 39% of Americans in a Gallup poll supported his confirmation. He was approved despite strong evidence that his temperament and political biases make him unsuitable for such an important lifetime appointment. He was approved despite several credible accusations of sexual assault against him. 

The bare majority of senate votes (50/48) which put him over the top obscures the injustice of this process and the undemocratic nature of our government today. 

Americans frequently claim to value democracy. They overwhelmingly support the idea that our government should reflect the beliefs and values of it’s citizens. We are far from that ideal today.

Brett Kavanaugh, when he is sworn in, will become the fourth justice on the U.S. Supreme Court to be nominated by a president who lost the popular vote. These four justices, John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and now, Brett Kavanaugh, are all extremely conservative and do not, by any means, represent the beliefs of an American electorate who gave Al Gore 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush in 2000 nor the electorate who gave Hillary Clinton 2.8 million more votes than Donald Trump in 2016. Indeed, Gorsuch’s seat was effectively stolen from a president who did win a majority of the popular vote (9.6 million vote margin in 2008 and 5 million vote margin in 2012). This unseemly and undemocratic action by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was a disgrace. He prevented consideration of President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, for an entire year. 

It is high time that we Americans examined our “democracy” to see if it is, in fact, democratic. Kavanaugh was appointed by a minority president and confirmed by a “minority Senate.” What do I mean by that? Consider the following:

The current U.S. Senate has 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats (or independents who caucus with the Democrats). That must mean that Republicans won more votes in the election, right? Sadly, no. In the 2016 Senate elections across the country, Republicans won 40.4 million votes. Democrats won 51.5 million! So, if the U.S. Senate reflected, at all, the will of the American people, there would be 56 Democrats in the Senate and Obama’s Supreme Court Justice, Merrick Garland would be completing his second year on the court. If democracy mattered, President Hillary Clinton’s first nominee would be winning confirmation today by a comfortable margin.

The Senate itself, which confirmed Kavanaugh today, is ridiculously undemocratic. Let me explain. The state of Wyoming has 574,000 residents and 2 U.S. Senators. The state of California has 37,253,956 and, you guessed it, 2 U.S. Senators. That means that each California Senator represents 18.6 million people while each Wyoming Senator represents 287 thousand people. Is a Wyoming resident 64 times more important than a California resident? Is this fair? Is it right that a state with a population smaller than Milwaukee, Wisconsin can provide the votes necessary to put a firebrand conservative on the court against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans? 

Unsatisfied with their unfair advantage in Senate seats and, thus electoral votes, the Republicans have pursued every avenue available to them at the state level to disenfranchise minority voters and thus skew the results further. Their voter ID laws and restrictions on early voting are all thinly veiled attempts to repress Democratic turnout in elections by targeting traditional Democratic constituencies.

All these things have consequences. They make our society less fair. They delegitimize our democracy and the critical institutions of our government. They empower demagogues like Donald Trump. Our archaic electoral college system has now elevated a man to power who has little respect for our democracy or its institutions. He is, as concisely as I can put it, a bad man. He is a profane narcissist. He does not respect women. He does not believe in freedom of the press. He is a bully who empowers bullies. He beats up on the weak instead of protecting them. He enriches himself and his family at the expense of our nation.

He is a tax-cheating, draft-dodging, faux patriot who uses patriotism as a cudgel to beat down his political opponents yet is, somehow, idolized by flag-waving morons who couldn’t name one of their U.S. Senators, let alone a Supreme Court Justice.

He is a three-time philandering, porn star shtupping, prostitute paying, pussy grabbing ridiculer of sex-crime victims. He has somehow hoodwinked the fundamentalist, evangelical Christians in this country. These are the Christians who devoutly study the Bible yet recognize no contradiction between the cruel, violent, hateful, arbitrary God of Leviticus and the loving, kind, protector of the poor and downtrodden upon whose name their religion is built. These so-called “Christians” wouldn’t invite this immoral man over to their house for dinner yet voted for him to be the leader of the free world. They chose him to be America’s example of propriety because they hoped he would punish unwed teenage mothers and homosexuals. 

And… he is a spoiled and coddled New York billionaire who rode in a limousine to school, poops in gold toilets, and built his largely inherited “empire” on strategic bankruptcies which screwed his creditors, contractors, and low-wage employees. Still he somehow manages to get the vote of poor, downtrodden West Virginia coal miners who, if they showed up at Trump Tower, would be quickly and unceremoniously escorted off the property. 

This is where we stand today in our democracy, in our America. And now the “minority” Republicans, who lack any kind of shame or decorum or sense of fairness have elevated Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court for the rest of his life – and he is 53. 

Does it matter, any of this, to the average American? It does! It really does! It matters in real and concrete ways to real people. 

I am reminded today of the Supreme court case Obergefell vs. Hodges. You may not know the case by name. It is better known as the Same-Sex Marriage ruling. It is the ruling which finally offered dignity and respect and the promise of America to gay and lesbian Americans. It was a wonderful and essential bend in what Martin Luther King Jr. called “The arc of the moral universe.”

And Obergfell was decided 5-4 with the conservatives on the wrong side of history and the deciding vote cast by Anthony Kennedy whose humane and logical ruling changed life in this country for a persecuted minority. Today, the “minority” Republicans in the Senate replaced the moderate and sensible Kennedy with another firebrand conservative appointed by a minority president. Obergefell would never have happened today. Homosexuals would still be denied their fundamental civil rights if that case came before the court tomorrow morning. 

It matters! 

In honor of this sad, infamous day I will here re-run the blogpost I made on the day Obergefell was decided, June 26, 2015. The title of this piece was A Step Forward. I hope it will give you pause when you go into the voting booth in a few weeks. I hope it makes you think about our democracy and our America and what Donald Trump and his Republican lackeys have done to it.




     Four years ago, when it became legal in Illinois, I had the honor of participating in the ceremony of civil union between my great friend and his long-time partner. My wife, our kids, and a small group of their friends and family assembled at the courthouse on a nice day in July.  It was a lovely day, and it was a lovely and dignified event. As they offered their vows, their little boy stood with them. They exchanged rings and said the words that we all know by heart and we signed papers signifying our witness to the event. 

     And then we went home and they went home and began the commonplace work and extraordinary joy of married life together. They have built a wonderful life in the intervening years, making a home, raising two bright and outgoing boys, advancing their careers, struggling through some serious medical issues, and doing all of those things which my wife and I have done and which all married couples who stay together must do. 

     And I remember thinking as we drove home from the courthouse that day that I could not understand how anyone could object to the thing we had all just been a part of.  I, who want to think the best of people and their motivations, decided that anyone who objected to this ceremony simply did not understand it. Any kind and thoughtful and, yes, Christian, person could not oppose this wonderful thing except through ignorance. 

     We all fear the unknown. We all are apprehensive about things which seem foreign to us. But I am here to tell you, as someone who has seen and participated in this joyful event, that gay marriage is not scary. It is not weird or foreign or disrespectful. It is the most normal thing in the world to want to build a life with the person you love. 

     This is a fundamentally good thing. It is good for families and it is good for children and it is good for our society. It is fair and right to afford the same opportunity for joy (or misery, as a divorced friend reminds me) to gay couples that the rest of us take for granted. And it is, I think, another step in the long march of civilization. It demonstrates that we continue to create a kind and humane society in the United States where dignity is respected and diversity is honored. 

     To all who are afraid of gay marriage I tell you that the earth will not fall out of its orbit because of this. The economy will not crash and our republic will not be brought to its knees. What will happen is that there will be more happiness in the world and more dignity and more understanding.  And, wonderfully, there will be one more group of our friends and neighbors who can happily move from the category “them” into the category “us.” To me, that is what the United States is supposed to be. 

by: Dustin Joy

Quotes, etc.

For most of my adult life I have been a collector of literary esoterica. I love clever turns of phrase (intentional or not), strange juxtapositions of images and words, and brilliant quotes, both funny and serious. To satisfy my habit I seek out these gems in the places I have long found them. Local newspapers (particularly police blotters) are a treasure trove of entertaining tidbits. I also search the ubiquitous local guide books found in hotel lobbies. Not every town can be New York City, open 24/7 and overflowing with culture. When you are a little burg in the middle of nowhere you may have to get creative to bring in tourist dollars. Superlatives may be hard to come by. A recent “facts” segment in the Eastern Washington State tourism guide states:

The Palouse region grows 18% of the country’s lentils. 

Yes, yes they do. You have to work with what you’ve got. 

You might even have to add a few qualifiers to your local claim to fame:

 COME AND SEE THE second LARGEST antique GUMBALL MACHINE IN southeastern McClean county MISSOURI!

I love these things, no matter how trumped up or qualified. I will happily drive 40 miles to see the largest ball of twine in Minnesota. I have. It is really big! – for Minnesota.

I plan to include more of my travel magazine finds in future posts as well as sundry items from small town newspapers. Here is a nice example from the Durango, CO Herald police blotter for Wednesday, August 22:

1:02 AM – Someone called to report that a man punched a car in the 900 block of Main Avenue.

1:26 PM – Someone’s tire was punctured in the 2700 block of Main Avenue. (This guy really has a problem with cars, I guess)

4:23 PM – Someone locked a bike to another person’s bike instead of the bike rack near Main Avenue and East Eight Street. (No crime too small)

10:54 pm – A man was in his underwear in the 500 block of Animas View Drive.

I think you see what I mean. This stuff is better than reality TV. 

I have been reticent, lately, about posting to my blog. I have been working on some other writing projects and, I must admit, have been a bit lazy. I hereby pledge to post more regularly. That may include my own essays, short stories, and poetry. It may also include some of the “stuff” I encounter in my travels around the country. It’s stuffiminterestedin, after all.


Today I want to feature the fruits of my other collecting hobby – Quotations. Everywhere I go and in everything I read I seek out really excellent quotes. I jot them down in my notebook and store them away for future inspiration. I look for profundity  and humor. Great quotes are often the product of great minds, but not always. One of my favorite quotes of all time is a quick piece of bluster from the boxer Mike Tyson:

“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth” 

Quotes represent, to me, the perfect distillation of complex or confusing ideas into coherent, often beautiful, English. I love them and I collect them and I will share a bit of my collection with you. The quotes presented here will obviously reflect my own biases both politically and philosophically. Still, I am open to the well-crafted quote from people who represent other points of view and even some who I do not respect very much (Mr. Tyson, for example, or … Ronald Reagan). 

I will start today with a couple of gentlemen who recently passed away and whose voices will be greatly missed. Both of these men were brilliant and intelligent and funny. Both had principles and were, in the truest sense of the word, humanists, which is the greatest compliment I can give a person. 


Senator John McCain

The following quote was made by Senator McCain at a campaign rally on October 10, 2008 in response to one of his supporters who had called his opponent Barack Obama an “Arab” and said she was frightened of Obama being elected. This moment of political courage is unmatched in my lifetime. It shows definitively what a noble man John McCain was and why he will be missed so badly.

About Obama:

“No, M’aam, No M’aam, he’s a decent family man citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. He is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as President of the United States.”

More quotes by Senator McCain which reveal his humanity, brilliance, and logic:

“Our shared values define us more than our differences. And acknowledging those shared values can see us through our challenges today if we have the wisdom to trust in them.”

“Every day, people serve their neighbors and our nation in many different ways, from helping a child learn and easing the loneliness of those without a family to defending our freedom overseas. It is in this spirit of dedication to others and to our country that I believe service should be broadly and deeply encouraged.”

“The truth is sometimes a hard pill to swallow. It sometimes causes us difficulties at home and abroad. It is sometimes used by our enemies in attempts to hurt us. But the American people are entitled to it, nonetheless.”

“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

“War is wretched beyond description, and only a fool or a fraud could sentimentalize its cruel reality.”

“Our great power does not mean we can do whatever we want whenever we want, nor should we assume we have all the wisdom and knowledge necessary to succeed.”


Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain was not a politician. He was a sometime drug addict and directionless youth who became the Executive Chef at a well-regarded New York restaurant. His 2000 book Kitchen Confidential became a surprise best-seller and catapulted Bourdain to fame and other media opportunities. Chief among these were No Reservations on the Travel Channel and CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. Both shows, focusing on food and travel, revealed Bourdain’s fundamental humanity, humility, decency, and integrity. He was intelligent, broad-minded, and generous.

“I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car — a really nice car — and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet.”

“Life is complicated. It’s filled with nuance. It’s unsatisfying. … If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.”

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia — the fruits of his genius for statesmanship — and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.”

“I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life: the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam. Admittedly, it’s a life that grinds you down. Most of us who live and operate in the culinary underworld are in some fundamental way dysfunctional. We’ve all chosen to turn our backs on the nine-to-five, on ever having a Friday or Saturday night off, on ever having a normal relationship with a non-cook.”

“Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.”


Favorite Quotes from others

Kurt Vonnegut – American writer

“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

“If what Jesus said was good, and so much of it was absolutely beautiful, what does it matter if he was God or not?” 

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

“If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow.”

“Evolution can go to hell as far as I am concerned. What a mistake we are. We have mortally wounded this sweet life-supporting planet – the only one in the whole Milky Way – with a century of transportation whoopee.”

“Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”

“We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.” (Vonnegut credited this statement to his son, Mark)


Mark Twain – American writer

For those of you who think Mark Twain was some sort of comedian only, a humorist, try this on for size:

A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell, mouths mercy and invented hell, mouths golden rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! . . . 

“What a helluva heaven it will be when they get all these hypocrites assembled there.”

“Man has been here 32,000 years. That it took a hundred million years to prepare the world for him is proof that that is what it was done for. I suppose it is. I dunno. If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno.

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” 

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform.” 

“The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” 

“A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” 

“Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.” 

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.” 

“I did not attend his funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” 

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” 

“Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option.” 

“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.” 


Elie Wiesel – Holocaust Survivor, Nobel Prize Winner, and author of Night

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

“Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” 

“Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.”

“That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life – that is what is abnormal.” 

“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” 

“Mankind must remember that peace is not God’s gift to his creatures; peace is our gift to each other.” 

“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.”


Henry David Thoreau – American writer

“It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”

“If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law.”

“The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.”

“My greatest skill has been to want but little.”

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

“The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend.” 

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded:

 “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”


Stephen Fry – Comedian, actor, intellectual, and atheist

To the question “What if you are wrong and find yourself standing before the Pearly Gates talking to God:

“I will basically say: Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It is utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who created a world which is so full of injustice and pain. I wouldn’t want to get in [to heaven] on his terms. The god who created this universe, if it was created by a god, is quite clearly a maniac. Utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that? Yes, the world is very splendid, but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable. So, atheism is not just about not believing theres a god. On the assumption that there is one what kind of god is he? It’s perfectly apparent he’s monstrous. Utterly, utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.” 




Martin Amis – British novelist and essayist

“To say he is humorless I mean to deliberately impugn his seriousness.”

“If God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”


Edith Sitwell – British poet and critic

“I am not eccentric. It’s just that I am more alive than most people. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of catfish.” 

“I am patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it.” 


Dorothy Parker – American poet, writer, and critic

“The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” 

“Razors pain you,

Rivers are damp,

Acids stain you,

And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren’t lawful,

Nooses give,

Gas smells awful.

You might as well live.” 

“Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common.” 

“Don’t look at me in that tone of voice.” 

“I don’t know much about being a millionaire, but I’ll bet I’d be darling at it.” 

“Tell him I was too fucking busy– or vice versa.” 

“By the time you swear you’re his,

Shivering and sighing.

And he vows his passion is,

Infinite, undying.

Lady make note of this —

One of you is lying.” 

“That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.” 

“What fresh hell is this?” 

“They sicken of the calm who know the storm.” 

When asked by a friend to use the word horticulture in a senetence:

“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” 

“Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” 

But now I know the things I know

And do the things I do,

And if you do not like me so,

To hell, my love, with you.” 

“This wasn’t just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”

“I require three things in a man: he must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.” 

“Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both.” 

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” 


John Cage – American Composer

“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”


Bill Nye (the Science Guy) – Television presenter and science communicator

Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”


Willa Cather – American writer

There are only one or two human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened.”

“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.”


Christopher Hitchens – British/American journalist, writer, and prominent atheist

“Our problem is this; our prefrontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands are too big and our thumb finger opposition isn’t all it might be, and we’re afraid of the dark and we’re afraid to die and we believe in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can, and all children do, as you can tell by their questions, actually see through them.”


Robert M. Price – American theologian and writer

“I’m going to hell according to someone’s doctrine. (Islam, Christianity, etc). I may as well call them as I see them.”


Pete Docter – Director of animated movies UP, Monsters Inc., and Inside Out

Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering, there are days you’re gonna feel sad, you’re gonna feel angry, you’re gonna be scared. That’s nothing you can choose, but you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It’ll make a world of difference.”


H. L. Mencken – American journalist, essayist, and cultural critic

“A philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. A theologian is the man who finds it.”

“On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

“Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.”

“It was morality that burned the books of the ancient sages, and morality that halted the free inquiry of the Golden Age and substituted for it the credulous imbecility of the Age of Faith. It was a fixed moral code and a fixed theology which robbed the human race of a thousand years by wasting them upon alchemy, heretic-burning, witchcraft and sacerdotalism.”

“The final test of truth is ridicule. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth.”

“We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”


Garrison Keillor – American writer and radio host

“People with plenty of work to do are less enamored of self-destruction.”

“One reads books in order to gain the privilege of living more than one life. People who don’t read are trapped in a mine shaft, even if they think the sun is shining.” 

“God writes a lot of comedy… the trouble is, he’s stuck with so many bad actors who don’t know how to play funny.” 

“Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. ” 

“Intelligence is like four-wheel drive. It only allows you to get stuck in more remote places.” 

“Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn.” (I’m not too sure about that one)

“The most un-American thing you can say is, ‘You can’t say that.” 

“They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I’m going to miss mine by just a few days.” 



“Saying Lincoln was a Republican is like saying Nicholas Cage won an Oscar. Technically it’s true, but a lot of shit has happened since then.”


Malcolm Gladwell – Canadian journalist and author

“You don’t want bureaucracies run by Marine Corps guys. The worst thing that can happen if you’re in a bureaucracy is if the bureaucracy gets really, really good. Our liberties are imperiled overly competent bureaucrats.”

“We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we really don’t have an explanation for.”

“Insight is not a lightbulb that goes off inside our heads. It is a flickering candle that can easily be snuffed out.”


Groucho Marx – American comedian, writer, and actor

“There is one way to find out if a man is honest: ask him; if he says yes, you know he’s crooked.”

“I dont want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

“A black cat crossing your path signifies…that the animal is going somewhere.”

“Quote me as saying I was mis-quoted.”


Ernest Hemingway – Nobel prize-winning writer

“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” 

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

“The first draft of anything is shit.”

“I drink to make other people more interesting.”

“It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

“All thinking men are atheists.”

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

“But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.” 

“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”

“If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it.”

“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”


Joan Didion – American journalist and writer

“we tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

“I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right, but we were each the person the other trusted.”

“Innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.”


Elif Shafak – Turkish novelist and essayist

“If we learn anything, we learn it from people who are different from us.”

“For extremism to work they need to dehumanize ‘the other.’ Fiction rehumanizes. Fiction tells us that the person you saw as ‘the other’ has a story. If you know that person’s story, you can connect with that person’s sorrow or hopes. In a world of so much conflict, we need the art of story-telling like never before.”


Iris Murdoch – British novelist

“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.”

“I daresay anything can be made holy by being sincerely worshipped.”

“At crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”


Neil Pasricha – Canadian author, blogger, and podcaster

“None of your ancestors was a virgin”


Ronald Reagan – (Written by Reagan’s chief speech writer Ken Khachigian)

“How can we love our country and not love our countrymen, and loving them, reach out a hand when they fall, heal them when they are sick, and provide opportunities to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact and not just in theory?”


 Charles Dickens – English writer

“Spring is the time of year when it is summer in the sun and winter in the shade.”


Eleanor Roosevelt – First lady of the United States and diplomat

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”


Samuel Johnson – English writer and lexicographer

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.”

“Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”


Adam Smith – Scottish Economist

“Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”


Richard Feynman – American Physicist 

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” 

“You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.” 

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

“If you thought that science was certain – well, that is just an error on your part.”

“I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.” 

“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” 

“All the time you’re saying to yourself, ‘I could do that, but I won’t,’ — which is just another way of saying that you can’t.” 

“Physics is to math what sex is to masturbation.” 

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil – which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.” 


And, finally, some immortal wisdom from The Princess Bride

“A few more steps and we’ll be safe in the fire swamp.” 

“We’ll never survive.” 

“Nonsense, you’re only saying that because no one ever has.”


by: Dustin Joy

If this isn’t nice…

If This Isn’t Nice…
by: Dustin Joy

Well I’m not the kind to live in the past
The years run too short, and the days too fast
The things you lean on are the things that don’t last
Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these
time passages
Time Passages – Al Stewart

Kurt Vonnegut, in his later years, concluded many of his speeches with a simple lesson. He was scrupulous about crediting the idea to his uncle Alex. He felt that a simple mental exercise had made his life better. In Vonnegut’s words:
And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim, or murmur, or think at some point, If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

I have been trying to take Vonnegut’s advice to heart. I think his mantra contributes to a better life. I think it works in the present tense but, I would like to suggest, it applies quite as well to events in the past.

Memories are our possessions. More than any other kind of property they belong, personally, intimately, to us. Only dementia can steal away the treasure we possess in our memories. They can be called on for strength in times of trouble. They can be a reservoir of hope, and they can serve, per Vonnegut’s suggestion, to uplift the spirit and remind the downtrodden that there once were good times and might be again.

Sometimes, when I am down or nursing a grievance, I go on a little mental journey. I am buoyed by a lovely memory, a piece of mental real-estate which has been mine for nearly 40 years. It never fails to offer me comfort. I close my eyes and relive an afternoon from my childhood and, no matter the present circumstances, I feel better.

A boy of 14 and a man of 65 are in a boat. They are not speeding down the channel but floating, drifting among tall trees, the trunks of which have been overtaken by a Spring flood. Here and there one can see little mounds of earth poking up through the floodwaters, but mostly it is a wet world. It is a wet world dappled with sunlight and filled with a the croaks of frogs, the plops of turtles, and the startled cries of wood ducks.
The boy guides the wooden boat with a pair of oars. He is a skinny boy with a notable awkwardness in his manner. He is no athlete and mostly lacks grace and coordination, that is, on land. Here he is smooth and efficient, propelling the narrow craft between the maples and the cottonwoods quietly. He executes long power strokes when he can but is compelled, frequently, to retract one or the other oar into the boat, dripping, to avoid bumping a branch.

The boat is a beauty, his Grandfather’s pride, and the boy takes pride in it, too. He takes pride in it’s lovely alternating oak and pine ribs. He loves it for the sleek, elegant curve of its transom and the v-shape of it’s bow. He loves the creaky brass oarlocks and the varnished gunwales. He loves this boat because he knows it’s history. He knows the story of how the boat was ordered from a catalog and arrived at the depot in town on the back of a railroad flatcar.

He can recite the outdoor sagas; this bow piled full of wild ducks and monster catfish whose length matched the boat’s beam. The boy loves this boat precisely because it is an anachronism. It is an oddity among the fleets of metal Jon Boats which ply the Mississippi. Other fishermen have been known to mock it at the boat ramp – impractical. At this point in his life the boy sees the boat as a proxy. He is coming to realize that he himself is, if not an oddity, then at least odd. His quirky pastimes (collecting coins, reading the encyclopedia, flying model airplanes) are symptoms of a congenital “un-coolness” which will be made painfully manifest in high school.

There is a fine line between quirky and weird, after all, between eccentric and crazy. He senses this already. He knows that the lovely cheerleader who sits next to him in English class, will not really be part of his life, his daydreams notwithstanding. If he has to be odd the boy wants, somehow, to be oddly beautiful, like his Grandpa’s boat. That afternoon, enjoying nature, soaking in the sounds, the smells, the warmth, and taking in the wonderful curiosity of floating on an island, the boy is transported. He is transported from the daily life where he is an awkward, bumbling nerd to a place where he is competent and impressive and beloved.

I still have my Grandpa’s boat, and… I am still odd. I retain the memory of that perfect day, and the flood, and the wood ducks, and my Grandpa, sitting in the bow seat, leaning back and resting his head on a boat cushion. I still remember how the narrow sunbeams burrowed through the canopy of branches above and exploded in the rivulets of water running down the oars. I remember the serenity and the solitude and the perfection of the day.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that the “use” of a memory; recalling it and then storing it away again frequently alters or degrades it. Like the famous telephone game our memories undergo a loss of fidelity and can, in fact, begin to incorporate elements which were not present in the actual incident. But It may be that perfect fidelity is not what matters.

It may be that, as a crutch to mental health, a modified memory is just what the doctor ordered. My treasured afternoon with my Grandpa is sweet to me and though it is possible that it did not occur as I describe it to you here, let alone how I might describe it to you in five years, or ten, it is of great value to my sanity. I miss my Grandpa. I miss the way he cocked his head to listen for geese. I miss the rough feel of his five o’clock shadow when he would puff out his cheeks and I would run my little hand across the whiskers. I miss the way he would pretend to struggle with some simple mechanical device so that I could “help” him. And I miss the genuine and exuberant little whistle of appreciation he would give for some trifling achievement I had obtained. I have never had a better cheerleader, and I never shall.

And so I draw on this memory frequently. I open the rusty file drawer and I pull out the yellowing folder. Inside is a photograph as vivid and as clear and as powerful as it was the day I put it there. I pull it out and I look at it and I remember. I think to myself, and I exclaim, or murmur (as is appropriate) “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Charity Nebbe


Charity Nebbe
by: Dustin Joy

Note: In case you are wondering; yes, this post was approved by my dear wife. 


I am obsessed with Charity Nebbe. In case you don’t know who Charity Nebbe is, I will tell you. Charity is a public radio host and the on-air personality for the show Iowa Ingredient. She is smart and clever. She has a playful wit and an infectious laugh. She listens politely and says intelligent, insightful things. Charity is pretty. She might not be considered beautiful in a shallow, conventional, commercial sense. She has a generous, natural nose that is to me, superior to those rhinoplastied monstrosities we see so often on TV. She has short, pixyish hair, giving her a flirty, devil-may-care look. She is thin but with just the tiniest bulge of a belly as if to say, “sure, I go to the gym,” but I’m not one of those “I go to the gym people.”

Charity is a vegetarian, but not a preachy one. She’s written a children’s book, and…get this… she won an Emmy. Well, okay, a regional Emmy. Charity is an Iowa girl. She lives on a farm near Kalona, with her two kids and her … baker husband. He’s a baker. Not that there is anything wrong with that. God knows loaves must be baked and someone must bake them. So what if he wears an apron?

Charity was born in 1975 which makes her only five (or six …or seven) years younger than me. She grew up in Cedar Falls and attended Iowa State University majoring in Political Science and Biology. I majored in Biology with a concentration in Political Science. I know, right? Charity went on to a successful career in radio. With her undeniable good looks and irrepressible joie de vivre, the move to television was inevitable. Each week on IPTV she gives Iowa, finally, something to be proud of.

Now I know you are asking, “how does he know all these cool things about Charity Nebbe?” or, perhaps, “why does he know all these cool things about Charity Nebbe?” It’s not because I have stalked her. Parenthetically, that is really unfair of you to think that. I just did a little research on Wikipedia, that’s all. My interest is a healthy interest, literally. Ive learned a lot from Iowa Ingredient. I’ve learned about the merits of arugula, kale, and organic honey. I’m a better person for my obsession.

And here’s the thing. I am married. I am happily married and have been for 26 years. I love my wife with all my heart. I’m not at all suggesting that I would leave her and my beloved, beloved kids to run away with Charity Nebbe to a cabin in the high Sierras where we would hike and paddle around mountain lakes in kayaks and eat wild chanterelles which Charity would sauté up with a little garlic and thyme wearing that cute apron.… I would not do that.

But my wife and I have a deal. If, hypothetically, the rock star and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin shows up at our front door in Illinois City and asks my wife to come away with him to the south of France I, as a good husband, would step aside and … go back in and watch Iowa Ingredient. Likewise, and it’s only fair when you think about it, if Charity Nebbe someday recognizes that her glamorous life as a public television star is hollow and meaningless and that her …baker…husband does not adore her like…well, like his precious crescent rolls…then.

I think I have a perfectly acceptable, not-at-all weird obsession with Charity Nebbe. I watch her show. I know things about Charity that I do not know about Jaques Pepin or Mara Liasson. So what? I care, for some reason, that Charity raises chickens and that she once went sky-diving. I really don’t care how much marijuana Rick Steves smokes. Why is that? Is it okay to Google Charity Nebbe? Would it be okay to write her a fan letter? Does it matter that I am a middle-aged man? Why? If I were a teenage boy with a poster of Ariana Grande on my wall that would be okay. But if I’m an adult man with a life-size poster of Charity Nebbe on my wall (and I’m not saying such a poster exists) am I eccentric?

Maybe this obsession is like my infatuation with geocaching. Maybe it is a little stranger, like my brief devotion to the discography of Glen Campbell. Both were harmless and transitory. Charity Nebbe is a real, live person, though. It’s not that Glen Campbell wasn’t a real person. But a superstar is really more of an abstraction and, ultimately, it was just Wichita Lineman, Galveston, and By the Time I get to Phoenix that rattled around in my iPod for a time. I was really more obsessed with Jimmy Webb than Glen Campbell.

I could download episodes of Iowa Ingredient I suppose and study them like the Zapruder film. That is a tolerable eccentricity. If I drive past Charity’s house, though, that is a different thing, maybe? If I call her at work or write her a letter that is odd? Probably. If I meet her outside her office with a heart-shaped box of candy I’ve probably crossed some kind of line. Women, in our culture, have put up with this sort of bullshit in a way that most men never will.

The news today is full of men behaving badly, and stupidly, in the company of women. Certainly these things run on a continuum. There’s Jimmy Carter, who admitted to “lusting in his heart” and then there is Donald Trump who, you know, said all the things he said…and continues to say…and continues to say. There is normal, and then there is deviant. But where, exactly is that line?

I suspect every person becomes obsessed with another person at some point in their lives. These interests are usually controlled. You are a “fan” or you have a “man-crush” or you “really enjoy the company of” so-and-so. You might know that Mark in accounting is an avid cyclist. But a “normal” person doesn’t fish Mark’s discarded chewing gum out of the garbage can when he leaves the room.

I once had a co-worker who followed the Moody Blues around the world, spending, by her own estimate $50,000 on travel and concert tickets. She was clearly obsessed with Justin Hayward in a way that was unhealthy. Or was it? It appeared to make her life richer and, at worst, constituted an occasional nuisance to the Justin Hayward. Until it doesn’t. It is that “until it doesn’t” that is the problem.

I don’t think I’m crazy. I will never pursue a relationship of any kind with Charity Nebbe. I predict that my interest in her will fade like my devotion to Hemingway’s short stories, my crush on Pam Dawber, and geocaching.The only question that troubles me is this; does the unhealthy obsessive know when he crosses that line? Does the devoted fan recognize when he becomes a scary creep? I fear that, at some point, he does not. That is the scary part, scary to the obsessive, but scarier by far, to the target.

Distilled Arguments

Distilled Arguments

The world is a complicated place. Determining the facts, figuring out the truth, making the fine distinctions necessary to alight on the right course of action, these are difficult things. They call for free inquiry, diligent research, the application of logic, and a thorough challenge in the free market of ideas. At least that’s what I think.

Our President and his administration see things differently. Their world is a small, simple place where the opinion of every redneck in a pickup truck is equal to that of a PhD in physics. In their minds all political arguments can be formulated from a bible verse (mostly Leviticus), a twangy country song, or a Fox News ticker.

Not only have the President and his cronies done away with free inquiry and the thorough vetting of facts, he has even made a mockery of the need to explain and justify his positions. Our complicated world and all that is in it must now be distilled down to a nasty 140 character screed from the Chief Executive of our nation.

Question: Compared to other Presidents, how did Barak Obama carry out his duties during his first term? Was he an effective leader? Was he a good steward of our resources and talents as a nation? Did he advance our nation’s purposes on the world stage? Was he a steady and sane force for good? How did the economy perform under his leadership? What do the data and statistics say?

These are all great and necessary questions for determining the direction our democracy should take in the future. Here is what Mr. Trump reduced these questions to:

“Obama is, without question, the WORST EVER president. I predict he will now do something really bad and totally stupid to show manhood!”

The irony is so rich it makes Scrooge McDuck look like Mother Theresa.

Apparently those of us who value education and science and the pleasure of intellectual inquiry have lost. We who find beauty in a cleverly and subtly woven argument cannot compete with the President’s literal mind and lightning-fast thumb. SAD!!!!!!

I surrender. I concede that the American public will not sit still for complicated explanations. Our eyes glaze over at anything short of fireworks if it lasts longer than a YouTube video. But the problem is, I still like philosophical questions. I still believe in science and investigation and free inquiry. What is a boy to do?

Here is what I’m gonna try. Without much confidence I am going to take a swing at dumbing down some complicated political and scientific ideas I have spent years trying to understand. I have not been able to get them down to 140 characters but most of these will be shorter than a YouTube video of guys kicking each other in the balls. I call these DISTILLED ARGUMENTS. I’m thinking of making this an occasional series. I’ll start with a pair of contentious ones. Here goes:


This is an easy one, I think, the no-brainer which generated our enormous brains. Here is the argument for evolution in seven lines.

  1. Offspring tend to have a combination of the physical characteristics of their parents. (Well, Duh!)

2. In every generation fewer offspring survive than are born. (Duh, again)

3. The ones who survive are the ones who reproduce. (Duh, Duh, and Duh)

4. In limited environments (all known environments) some individuals will be more successful than others. Those are the ones who survive and reproduce.

5. The next generation will be made up of the offspring of these survivors.

6. Repeat this process for thousands or millions of generations and you have a population made up of individuals well adapted to their environment.

7. That is evolution in a nutshell and it is not complicated or unlikely. It is simple and it is inevitable.



Next, a political argument. Everyone I have ever met in Canada thinks this is a no-brainer (and I’ve met quite a few.) If you disagree I would love to hear your thoughtful, well-reasoned argument.



1. People should not die because they are poor. People should not be bankrupted because they get sick. If you cannot accept these two assertions as axiomatic I will acknowledge the intellectual consistency of your argument but I can never find common ground with you. I cannot teach you to care about other people and show empathy.

2. If you accept the above premises you have accepted, unambiguously, the proposition that providing the best health care possible to all Americans is somebody’s obligation.

3. It’s our obligation. There’s nobody here but us chickens. We Americans need health care. We are the ones who must provide it. That means taxes, or premiums, or whatever you want to call them.

4. The cost of doctors and nurses and hospitals may be “too much” but they contribute to the goal of using the resources available to provide healthcare to all Americans.

5. Insurance Companies, conversely, who must make a profit for shareholders, do nothing but take resources away from the system.

6. While for-profit insurance drains the system of resources the concept of “insurance,” spreading the risk over the entire American population, makes perfect sense.

7. An insurance pool of the entire population paid for by the entire population is, in fact, the most efficient possible model for providing healthcare to all citizens.

8. People who are healthy now but do not buy insurance are parasites on the system. There is nothing noble about them because every single person requires healthcare at some point in his life.

9. Finally, I have to address the boogie-man of rationing. Rationing will and currently does exist in every healthcare delivery model on the planet. In our current system for-profit insurance companies do the rationing and have, of course, the incentive to ration coverage aggressively. A government payer system would have to ration care, also, but without the incentive to make a profit could base such decisions on science and logic and compassion. And, if people were unhappy with the way the government was carrying out this responsibility, we could vote them out of office. Try voting the President of United Healthcare out of his office.

Nuff said.


I will have more distilled arguments in the future. If you think I’m off base or mistaken I’d love to hear from you. Give me a comment.


by: Dustin Joy


Since I was a little boy I have believed that showing off, tooting your own horn, or otherwise bragging was improper and unseemly. But …. Since a man as classy and esteemed as our President does this on a daily (minutely?) basis perhaps I can be forgiven one little lapse.

For the last three years I have entered the River City Reader Short Fiction contest. The real challenge is embodied by the word “short.” All pieces must be less than 300 words and incorporate a writing prompt from literature selected by the River City Reader editors. For most writers (who can’t shut up by their very nature) cutting a story to 300 words can be a real heartbreaker. Sometimes editing can feel like ripping the guts out of a beloved idea. It is good practice, though, and frequently results in a better product.

The first year I entered I got an honorable mention for my story A Hero – of a sort. Last year I did not place, but had my story Chicory printed on the Reader’s website. This year (drum roll please) …I WON! Amazing! Against obviously superior entries my little story called Checkmate got first place. I credit the clever title, suggested by my friend Gregg.

The story, I think, is about marriage. It is about the kind of loving, respectful, yet playful traditions that evolve in a long relationship. These little rituals become the cement which bond the couple together and strengthen both to allow them to weather life’s storms. This couple, both book lovers, obviously has a long history of arguing about literature and promoting their own favorite authors. This is one such episode.

2017 Short Fiction Contest Winners


Note: For those of you not familiar with the authors referenced, here is a little primer.

The first quote offered is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, Act 3. His retort that she is a “saucy minx” sounds a lot like Shakespeare and originates in that era but I couldn’t find any evidence that it was his. The most recent use of the term I know of is by Prime Minister Hugh Grant in one of my favorite movies, Love Actually, in reference to Margaret Thatcher.

The second quote is from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The longer quote is better but I had to abbreviate it for the contest because 300 words is 300 words. It reads:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

It killed Hemingway, of course, which is referenced later in the story. He shot himself in 1961 with his favorite pigeon gun.

The third quote, “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” is from the wonderful but troubled British writer Virginia Woolf. She authored Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Waves. This quote comes from her brilliant essay A Room of One’s Own which argues the need for “room” for women in our male-dominated literary canon.

After struggling for many years with depression Woolf killed herself in 1941 by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into the Ouse River in Sussex, England.

The last two quotes are from my favorite author, Mark Twain. The first is from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  which was one of the writing prompts for the contest. The second is from Extracts from Adam’s Diary which was Twain’s humorous take on Genesis. In the book Adam is at first perplexed and annoyed by the arrival of the first woman, Eve, finding her difficult to live with. Ultimately, he finds he cannot live without her.



by: Dustin Joy

She ran her arthritic fingers through his wispy hair. The infusion pump clicked. There was a far-off rattling of a candy striper’s cart.

His breathing suddenly ceased to be metronomic, punctuated now with little clearings of the throat.

She laid her book down. “You awake?” Silence. “Are you okay?”

He spoke without opening his eyes. “A man can die but once; we owe God a death.”

“You’re not dying. It’s a hernia.”

He groaned.

She laughed. “You thought you’d trip me up with … Shakespeare?”

“All right, you saucy minx.” His eyes opened slowly. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

“Do you want some ice chips?”

“Ice chips? You’re stalling.”

“Please, you think I don’t recognize that old misogynist?”

“Papa Hemingway? Take that back or I swear I’ll relapse into my coma.”

She considered for a minute. “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

He smirked. “Well, Virginia Woolf says you’re not doing your job. And rocks in your pockets? A real man uses a shotgun”

“Your point being that Virginia Woolf wasn’t a real man?”

He stroked his chin. “Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine.” He smiled wickedly. “Gotcha!”

“Nice try, but at least Twain was a feminist. He threw off inherited ideas and spoke for suffrage. How about you?”

She kissed him on the forehead and he sighed.

“Since I’m dying, do you want to hear my favorite Twain quote?” he asked. “It’s from Adam’s Diary.”

“Okay.” She looked intrigued, but wary.

“I see that I was mistaken about Eve; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.”

She smiled. “I like that one.”




Hamilton – A Review (of the soundtrack. I still can’t afford Broadway tickets.)


For the last few months I’ve been part of a local writers group and it has inspired me to explore different forms of writing. I’ve now written short stories, non-fiction essays, even poetry. This is my first try at a review. 



A few years ago we drilled a new water well at our house. When I say we, of course, I mean that we hired a crew of professional drillers to do it for us. While I did not turn even a spadeful of earth, I found that I could sit for hours and watch these masters of their craft at work.

As they emerged from the ground on steel cables, the heavy lengths of pipe would be casually tossed over the shoulder of the hoist operator and would arc around his back and be guided smoothly and apparently effortlessly into the rack by his assistant. Any one of these 1000 pound chunks could maim, cripple or kill in an instant. These men knew their business. They knew the physics involved in every step even if they had never drawn a vector diagram. They were masters of their art. Watching a master work is one of the great pleasures of life, as far as I’m concerned.

I have never considered myself a Broadway guy. I worked on the lighting crew for Godspell in high school but if more recently, I had won tickets to see Rent on Let’s Make a Deal I might have asked to trade it for curtain #2. Also, I seem to have a powerful curmudgeonly aversion to anything that is suddenly “must see.” When the crowd is surging one direction, I am usually lurching in the other. So it was with great skepticism and out of respect for her feelings that I let my daughter play and sing for me a few of the songs from the Broadway phenomenon called Hamilton. “Pffft! A rap version of the life of a more or less obscure founding father. Yeah, that must be great.”

I will grudgingly have to tell you: It is !@#$% GREAT!

Taking in Lin Manuel Miranda’s play is like watching a ballet, or in my vernacular, watching a couple of really talented guys drill a well. The music is masterful. He makes it look easy. But the songs are complex with layers of meaning and each interacts with and builds upon the preceding songs. Miranda’s songs draw you into the story. You find yourself suddenly invested in the lives of people who are dead two centuries. You catch yourself getting choked up about the plight of a former Secretary of the Treasury. You find yourself rooting for the ostensible villain, Aaron Burr. You are made to care about the women, Eliza, Angelica, Peggy, and Theodosia, who made these founding fathers what they were but never got the credit. I don’t know what you can say about someone who can take a Broadway skeptic and have him humming “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” as he walks through an airport. Lin Manuel Miranda drills a mean well.

The story of Alexander Hamilton’s life is compelling. It has been told before, of course, in history books and biographies. We look at his face nearly every day on the ten dollar bill, though most could not say what he did to earn that honor. Miranda’s genius, aside from songwriting of course, was to recognize a good story when he heard one and to retell it in a way which is fundamentally true but which also distills the battles of a lifetime into an understandable and digestible morality play.

An example is worth a thousand explanations:
Hamilton is blackmailed, at the height of his powers, by the husband of the woman he has had an affair with. Not one man in ten-thousand would do, in that circumstance, what Hamilton did: he openly published an account of the affair to undercut the blackmailer. This is a truly unique and fascinating episode which reveals a unique and fascinating personality. It requires some unpacking as to motivations and consequences. Hamilton stopped the blackmail at the expense of his wife, his children, and his career. The approach turns out to be consistent with his history, and his hard-headed principles, while it would be unthinkable for a modern celebrity, say Bill Clinton, to take this approach.

Miranda captures and distills this story masterfully into the song The Reynolds Pamphlet. He opens with whispered voices saying “Have you read this?” This sets the salacious tone. The song, two minutes and nine seconds long, progresses quickly to the taunting voices of Hamilton’s antagonists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison singing “never gonna be President now. Never gonna be President now. That’s one less thing to worry about.” In these lines Miranda speaks to the complexity of Hamilton’s relationship with his fellow founding fathers and invites the question: who has one less thing to worry about, Jefferson or Hamilton? The next heart-rending verse is sung by Hamilton’s sister-in-law and long-time confidant Angelica, as she dresses him down and leaves him twisting in the wind with the phrase “I’m not here for you” and “you can never be satisfied! God I hope you’re satisfied!” It ends with the powerful final phrase uttered again by the uncomprehending crowd “Have you ever seen somebody ruin his own life? His poor wife.”

Hamilton’s behavior would be incomprehensible to us here, except for the beautiful and haunting song Hurricane which precedes it. If past is prologue as Shakespeare says, Hurricane, explains Hamilton’s particular devotion to the idea that the truth will set him free and to his confidence that he could explain things, to the nation and to his wife, through his writing.

Hurricane is somber, opening with spare, low piano chords, accompanied by Miranda’s (Hamilton’s) pain-filled voice telling the story of his traumatic childhood on the small, poor Caribbean island of Nevis. His father had abandoned the family early in his life and his mother died when he was 12. Miranda’s powerful verse “She was holding me. We were sick and she was holding me,” encapsulates, in 12 words, much of what we need to know about the tragedies that shaped Hamilton’s view of the world and established his recurring insecurities which he confronted with hard work and “excellence.”

As in all his songs, Miranda’s metaphors are beautiful and poignant here. The hurricane which destroys his town when he is 17 offers him his first opportunity to “rise up” from his squalid condition and to show the world what he is capable of through writing. At that tender age, he wrote an account of the hurricane which was published in newspapers and brought him to the attention of community leaders on his home island. The song’s refrain “I wrote my way out,” begins a powerful momentum at this point which replaces the somber opening. One senses, as Hamilton must have, that his ability to “write it all down” was his salvation, from a real hurricane, and later from the metaphorical one that surrounded him when his enemies discovered the affair and subsequent blackmail. “I’ll write my way out, overwhelm them with honesty. This is the eye of the hurricane. This is the only way I can protect my legacy.”

Perhaps the saddest part of the song is the naiveté revealed by Hamilton’s confidence that other people hold and respect his principles as well. If not one in ten-thousand would respond to this crisis as Hamilton did, not one a thousand would understand and forgive his forthright confession. At the end of the song, as he contemplates writing the Reynold’s Pamphlet there is a swelling crowd of voices urging him to “Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it.” It is a foreshadowing, really, of the collision with Burr that costs him his life. He seems to be asking “How can anyone object to what I’m saying, controversial or not, as long as it is true?” His audience, the readers of the Reynold’s Pamphlet, obviously did object, as did Burr seven years later, about the “truths” Hamilton told about him.

If Hamilton is a morality play, as I have suggested, it is a hazy and troubling one. It would be facile here to sketch Burr as the Snidley Whiplash of the play; he is a killer, after all. But Miranda captures the reality that there is seldom a white hat and a black hat in human interactions. In the song The World Was Wide Enough Burr sings, not in his own defense, but resignedly “He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it. I survived but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known. I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Burr is not Snidley Whiplash and Hamilton was no Dudley Do-Right. They are friends, even admirers of each other in the beginning. As years go by and water passes under the bridge, their relationship is sabotaged by their own stubborn and disparate philosophies and by the magnitude of the dramas that envelope them.

Leslie Odom Jr.’s Burr is a complex character. He is a man of high ambition but a cautious nature. His trademark motto “Talk less, smile more” is reiterated in no fewer than four of the songs, by himself in Aaron Burr, Sir and The Election of 1800, by George Washington in One Last Time, and even by Hamilton himself, reluctantly in The Room Where it Happens. His personal philosophy, “work hard, keep your head down, and good things will happen to you,” seems to pay off for him early on. He is elected to the New York State Assembly, appointed New York Attorney General, and ultimately elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing Hamilton’s Father-in-law Philip Schuyler. The one and only time he embraces Hamilton’s hard-driving philosophy, in The Election of 1800, it leads to his downfall.

Hamilton’s philosophy is very different. If Burr’s is “keep your head down” Hamilton’s is “stick your neck out.” He is vociferous and bombastic. He says what he thinks always and frequently draws the ire of his rivals, and as we know, eventually his friends, notably Burr. Burr admires Hamilton’s work ethic but scorns his headstrong ways. He expresses both in the song Nonstop. He sings, “Why do you always say what you believe? Every proclamation guarantees free ammunition for your enemies.”

Hamilton retorts in the song The Room Where it Happens.
“When you got skin in the game, stay in the game. But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it. But you get nothin’ if you wait for it, wait for it.” The verse is a direct taunting challenge to Burr’s contemplative song Wait for It.

Wait for It, to me, is one of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces in the musical. It reads like a mantra that Burr repeats to himself, justifying his actions and inactions. Despite his ambition, Burr is afraid to take a chance and therefore passes up opportunities. He believes, honestly, that prudence is his way forward. His self-catechism carries him through the first few verses as his confidence in his own strategy augments with his successes:“I am the one thing in life I can control. I am inimitable, I am an original. I am not falling behind or running late. I am not standing still, I am lying in wait.”

His confidence flags in the middle as he contemplates Hamilton’s success. “Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb. He has something to prove. He has nothing to lose.” That’s not me, he seems to say. I am a Senator. I have a successful law practice.

The repetition of his mantra in the chorus, “Wait for it! Wait for it! Wait for it!” doesn’t ultimately assuage his burning envy of Hamilton’s reckless, but successful, methods. He grudgingly acknowledges the method of Hamilton’s madness:

Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes.
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes.
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit, I’m willing to wait for it.

Miranda has spoken about writing Wait For It:
“I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, “Wait for it.”

Burr tells himself that, until, ultimately, he no longer believes it. It is a bitter revelation and he concludes the song confused, shaken, and uncertain of what he believes.

Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
I’m willing to
wait for it.

There is comedy here as well as tragedy. Miranda is a master of both. His Message from the King monologs are extravagant tongue-in-cheek works of art. They provide the needed history lesson again in the form of an efficient metaphor, the breakup of a relationship. The talented Jonathan Groff portrays a flamboyant King George III. In the first of the monologs, called You’ll be Back he plays the part of the spurned boyfriend who is irked, but also heartbroken that his “loyal subjects” are no longer so loyal.

You say,
the price of my love’s not a price that your willing to pay.
You cry,
in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by.
Why so sad?
Remember we made an arrangement when you went away.
Now you’re making me mad.
Remember despite our estrangement, I’m your man.
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see,
You’ll remember you belong to me,
You’ll be back. Time will tell,
You’ll remember that I served you well.
Oceans rise, empires fall.
We have seen each other through it all,
And when push comes to shove,
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.

There are several clever little historical tidbits in these pieces in addition to the reference to the Boston Tea party. The final verse of You’ll be back includes a reference to George III’s mental illness in his later years.

When you’re gone, I’ll go mad.
So don’t throw away this thing we had,
Cause when push comes to shove,
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.


From the follow up song I Know Him there is reference to George Washington’s precedent-setting refusal to run for a third term as President. “They say, George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away. Is that true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”

And, finally, in the song What Comes Next King George nurses his wounds about losing the war:

They say,
The price of my war’s not a price that they’re willing to pay.
You cheat with the French, now I’m fighting with France and with Spain,
I’m so blue,
I thought that we made an arrangement when you went away.
You were mine to subdue.
Well, even despite our estrangement, I got a small query for you,
What comes next? You’ve been freed.
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own. Awesome! Wow!
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Oceans rise, empires fall,
It’s much harder when it’s all your call.
All alone, across the sea,
When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.

When I reflect on the importance of this musical, I come back again and again to Miranda’s metaphors. They are efficient and masterful. Each one provides a perfect brick in the edifice of Hamilton, building a complex and intriguing story of ambition and pride, of loss and sorrow, and, ultimately, a questionable redemption. The metaphors make this play and deserve a final review.

Hurricane – a literal hurricane, surely, but also representing the self-inflicted storms of Hamilton’s life.

The Room Where it Happens – A brilliant metaphor for Hamilton’s (and Burr’s) powerful ambition to play a role in the shaping of the new nation.

I am not Throwing Away My Shot – The expounding of Hamilton’s carpe diem philosophy which is cleverly integrated with the two duels central to the story – the one in which his son was killed and the one in which he was.

Wait for It – Previously explored above.

Quiet Uptown – A beautiful meditation on death and sorrow, and dealing with them.

If you like musicals, or perhaps even if you don’t, if you are a history buff, or even if you’re not, Hamilton is a pleasure and an education. Miranda, of course, has taken liberties with the historical record. The story is true to the spirit of the feud which led to Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hands, but alters slightly the details. He inserts Burr and Jefferson into the episode called We Know about Hamilton’s Democratic-Republican enemies confronting him about the Reynolds Affair. They probably weren’t there really, but it is a minor offense and certainly moves the narrative forward more smoothly.

Thanks to Hamilton many more Americans will know about their history than do now. Will that knowledge be perfect and comprehensive? – no. But neither is history perfect and comprehensive. Hamilton is a work of art, a well-drilled well, brought to us by a master at the top of his craft. I will still admit to being a Broadway skeptic, but I’m learning. Anyone got tickets to Kinky Boots?

By: Dustin Joy

Don’t Piss On My Leg And Tell Me It’s Raining

“Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” It is a lovely and efficient idiom. To me it expresses, in ten words, what every intelligent and thoughtful American should want to say to Donald Trump.

It must be obvious at this point that this man Trump has no regard for truth. He lies as easily and naturally as he takes breath. That is not unique in the field of politics. What is remarkable, and possibly unique, is the audacity with which he will lie about things that can be proven, with no very hard effort, to be false. In another essay I spoke of his pathological insistence that he won the biggest electoral vote count since Ronald Reagan. As I noted then, a fifth grader with a smart phone could have pronounced Trump a liar within 3/5ths of a second. Why lie about something when you know you will be caught? The only reason to do so is because, in today’s bizarre America, it seems to work. It works with a remarkable coalition of our fellow citizens: the extremely gullible, racist xenophobes, and the unprincipled opportunists of the Republican party.

The gullible and the xenophobes require no further explanation. In a sense they are, at least, consistent. The really troubling folks are the Republicans who are smart enough to understand what a charlatan Donald Trump is but refuse to denounce him. They are whatever the opposite of patriotic is. They tolerate him and prop him up with tacit approval because they want things. What do they want? They want what Republicans always want and they are willing to put their country at risk to get it.

Here Come the Tax Cuts

Nobody likes paying taxes. Nobody gets a little anticipatory thrill about the approach of April 15. But, if we are honest and rational, we know that paying our taxes is a patriotic act. It is not the kind of patriotism exhibited by serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, surely. But it is much more of a sacrifice to our country than is sticking a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker on the back of your pickup. Why? Because it is, quite literally, supporting our troops.

Since 1974 it has been an article of faith in the Republican Party that cutting taxes on the rich not only stimulates economic growth but also generates more revenue for the government. Famously, the economist Art Laffer drew a graph on a napkin in a Washington, D.C. restaurant which established this idea and made disciples out of the Ford administration officials in attendance, notably Dick Cheney. The Laffer curve, as it became known, caught on quickly in Republican circles primarily because it was simple. Economist Hal Varian observed, “It has been said that the popularity of the Laffer curve is due to the fact that you can explain it to a congressman in six minutes and he can talk about it for six months.”

The graph purports to show tax revenues to the government as a function of tax rates. Shaped like a woman’s breast the curve shows revenue increasing as tax rates increase and then declining again as rates enter what Laffer called “The prohibitive range.” The idea is simple; the more you tax, the more money you take in. But at some point taxation will become onerous and one of two things will occur to decrease revenue – either people will stop working and corporations will shut down or taxpayers will find increasingly clever ways to cheat on their taxes. Therefore, Laffer determined, cutting tax rates below the prohibitive range will generate more revenue. Cheney was convinced. Reagan made a religion out of the Laffer curve. It suited Republican ambitions since they had always wanted lower taxes for the rich anyway. They actually put the infamous napkin in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The Laffer Curve – The Napkin which caused much of the U.S. National Debt

In principle Laffer was right. There probably is some tax rate at which a point of diminishing returns is reached. What the Laffer curve probably isn’t, is a nice, symmetrical C-Cup. It’s possible that it really resembles a wave crest on the ocean, or, as some economists have speculated, a certain part of the male anatomy.

While Laffer’s disciples saw his curve as a revelation the truth is that as a guide to establishing optimum tax rates it is useless. If you look at Laffer’s napkin you will see a common coordinate graph with an x axis and a y axis. What you don’t see are units. The only numbers that appear on the graph, in fact, are the tax rates 0% and 100%. While the graph on the napkin appears to peak at around 50% taxation the sketch was not based on empirical data. The difficulty in applying the Laffer curve to real world economics is simply this: 1. Nobody knows where the prohibitive range begins and 2. Nobody knows where we are on the curve.

The truth is that Republicans don’t really care about deficits or the national debt anyway, unless Democrats are in power. When they take the reigns they want two things, increased military spending and tax cuts, preferably “huge” tax cuts. All their tea-party deficit rhetoric dissolves into thin air when they get into power.

Since Republicans don’t really care about maximizing tax revenues to keep the deficit down the Laffer curve is to them a cynical rhetorical tool. They want lower taxes on the rich. Therefore, when they enlist the Laffer curve to serve their political cause they simply assume, no matter the current rate, that we are in the prohibitive range and tax cuts are needed.

Thus in 1979, when Reagan used the Laffer curve as a club to bludgeon those “tax and spend” Democrats, the top marginal rate in the United States was 70%. That seems high, but it was nothing like the top rate during the booming economy of the Eisenhower years – 91%.

During the middle of Bill Clinton’s time in office, in 1996, the top marginal rate was 39.6%, a little more than half the rates of the 1970’s when Laffer drew his curve. Still, George W. Bush, and a certain Vice-President of his whom we have met before in our narrative, convinced the country that, once again, miraculously, those “Tax and spend Liberals” had us back in the “prohibitive” range. They cut the top marginal rate to 35% and would have liked more. For the second time in modern history the Republicans proved, though they didn’t mean to, that cutting tax rates doesn’t increase revenues. The deficit skyrocketed under Reagan when he cut taxes, and did it again under Bush when he cut taxes while simultaneously spending trillions on a war in Iraq.

Now Trump and Mnuchin and McConnell and Ryan want to try it again. Although each, over the last 8 years, has given earnest and ominous speeches about the danger of deficits and the cruel burden they lay on “our children,” the crack cocaine of tax cuts simply overwhelms their fiscal “conservatism.” Just because Laffer’s brilliant scheme didn’t work at 70% taxation, or at 39% taxation, or at 35% taxation, … or ever, doesn’t mean it won’t work this time. It’s such a pretty chart and so easy to explain.

The Wikipedia article on income inequality in the United States offers a pretty good overview of the absurdity and cynicism of Republican ideas.

The top 1% of households received approximately 20% of the pre-tax income in 2013, versus approximately 10% from 1950 to 1980.

The bottom 50% earned 20% of the nation’s pre-tax income in 1979; this fell steadily to 14% by 2007 and 13% by 2014. Income for the middle 40% group, a proxy for the middle class, fell from 45% in 1979 to 41% in both 2007 and 2014.

To put this change into perspective, if the US had the same income distribution it had in 1979, each family in the bottom 80% of the income distribution would have $11,000 more per year in income on average, or $916 per month.

According to Republicans the super rich, like our current President, whose incomes have surged while the lower and middle classes have stagnated, deserve a break, yet again.

So how do you sell tax cuts for the rich to a society in which the top 1% of Americans control 40 percent of the nations wealth? How do you justify to them a world in which the richest 85 people on the planet (30 of whom are American Billionaires) have more wealth than the poorest 3.8 Billion people. How do you convince a working class voter that the CEO of his company who earns 347 times his salary is suffering from overtaxation? You piss on his leg and tell him it’s raining!

You lie and you obfuscate and you misrepresent. And if there is data that contradicts your assertions, you erase them from the official record. According to a Sept. 28, 2017 Wall Street Journal article:

“The Treasury Department has taken down [from it’s website] a 2012 economic analysis that contradicts Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s argument that workers would benefit the most from a corporate income tax cut. The 2012 paper from the Office of Tax Analysis found that workers pay 18% of the corporate tax while owners of capital pay 82%. That is a breakdown in line with many economists’ views.”

So, when the billionaire who has been pissing on your leg for the last two years says it looks like rain, don’t believe him. And don’t believe his minions either. Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic advisor said, recently, “The wealthy are not getting a tax cut under our plan.” That is pure piss and you don’t have to be an economist to understand that.

The Trump tax cuts, “the biggest in history,” according to Trump, have 6 main components. 1. Cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. 2. Cutting top marginal rates. 3. Eliminating the estate tax. 4. Repeal of the alternative minimum tax. 5. A new tax loophole for “pass-through” income. 6. An exemption for corporate foreign profits.

You can debate the merits of any one of these proposals if you want, but the idea that they together do not represent a massive tax cut for the wealthy is simply and clearly a lie.

Trump’s other foundational lie about his tax cut plan is that it will not, like Reagan’s tax cuts and Bush’s tax cuts, blow the deficit sky high. According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “We think this tax plan will cut down the deficits by a trillion dollars.” This is the Laffer curve again and it is pure piss. Even if you are the type of conservative who kneels down five times a day to pray to the napkin you must realize that there is no way Laffer’s “prohibitive range” starts at 35%. Cutting taxes now will not increase federal revenues and will, most assuredly, explode the deficit.

Finally, in a recent speech Trump said this about his tax cut scheme, “I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me. Believe me.” also, “I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit, In fact, very, very strongly, as you see, I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.”

A Sep. 28, 2017 New York Times article, based on Trump’s estimated net worth and 2005 tax return (the only one available), determined that he would, indeed benefit, and in a massive way. The analysis calculated that Trump would personally save $31 million from the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, $16 million from cuts in business taxes, and $.5 million from the reduction of the highest rate. His delightful children would gain even more, saving an estimated $1.1 billion when the estate tax is repealed.

Any man who says “believe me” as much as Trump does is not to be believed. This tax cut is designed by billionaires to benefit billionaires and it will, once again, massively expand the deficit. It is a transfer of wealth to the wealthy at a time when income inequality is already at levels not seen since the late 1920’s, and that didn’t end up so good.

As I have said before, Republicans control all of Washington now and they are the only ones who can stop this comic book villain. You may like what Trump can do for your narrow self-interest now but, as he has demonstrated time and time again to his friends and foes alike, he will piss on your leg if he gets the chance. Believe me, Believe me.

By: Dustin Joy



In May my beautiful daughter graduated from high school. She is smart, talented, witty,  and clever. She is a hard worker who always got good grades and did as she was told. Just yesterday she was a tiny baby cuddled in my arms. Today she walked across the stage an impressive young woman. In the Fall she begins a new adventure at St. Olaf College. I could not resist, in such a moment, expressing to her how proud I was and to offer some small piece of advice for what it is worth. What I wrote is a tribute to her. It is also a tribute to my own parents who made me what I am today. I am fortunate to have such a family.



The Launchpad

Dear Chloe,

There are plenty of times in our lives when we have to do what we are supposed to do. As an adult you will be obliged to tow the line, to meet your obligations, to smile when you don’t feel like smiling, to laugh at jokes you don’t find funny. You will be asked to demonstrate your acumen, your diligence, your gumption, and your stick-to-it-iveness. You will be required to do the sensible thing, the rational thing, the thing calculated to achieve the maximum return on investment. In the words of Roger Hodgson:

They sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There will be ample time for all that. For four years and more you have done that. You have learned how to do that. You have done what you ought. You have done what you were told. You have gotten the straight A’s.

I believe life must amount to more than that. I think there is more to be gotten out of it. I think that stuff is a foundation for building a more impressive structure. Even the animals work day-to-day to make a living. The nobility that is within us, if it exists, is not simply an extension of the economy of animals – getting and consuming. Nor is it the natural extension of that economy – the accumulation of wealth and dross. The truly noble things that people have accomplished, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Salk’s Polio vaccine, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Armstrong’s footprint on the moon, were not done for the money. They were not achieved by people obsessed with security or the accumulation of wealth.

Thoreau described what I’m talking about in Walden. He said about the average man:

He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?

At Cape Canaveral, in Florida, there is a place called complex 39A. Most days it is a quiet place. You can feel the salty breeze off the Atlantic here as it rustles the marsh grass. You can hear the squawk of the gulls and see the pelicans wheeling overhead. It is a place of beauty and silence. The manmade obtrusion into this place of nature is an industrial looking platform rising many stories into the air. Standing by it is a water tower. Beyond that are several smaller towers topped out with lightning rods. This complex stands on an earthen berm built up for the purpose many years ago. These skeleton-like structures, stark as they appear, have a purpose more noble and awe-inspiring than the pyramids. They are merely a foundation, sure, but a foundation assembled lovingly and with meticulous attention to detail. This is the place where thousands of individuals, dedicated to a dream, realized the aspirations of thousands of generations of humans who looked up at the night sky and thought “what if we could…” The summer your mommy was born this quiet place was the center of the world’s attention and imagination. The hard work of building the foundation was complete and from this little berm rose a rocket on a pillar of flame which carried with it the aspirations of those thousand generations.

On your graduation day this example may seem like hyperbole. It may seem a grandiose metaphor – the Saturn V launchpad and you, going off to St. Olaf. But I assure you it is an apt metaphor. All those visionaries I mention above, Thoreau, King, Twain, Salk, Armstrong, started from a firm foundation built up by their parents, and their parents, and their parents.

Mommy and I love you very much. Our aspiration is to be your foundation. We want to be your launchpad. We have worked every day and socked away money and planned and worried so that you can have this opportunity to be the rocket, to find your dream, to imagine a better world and do what you can to make it a reality. This is your chance to think big thoughts and explore the amazing worlds a place like St. Olaf can show you.

I know that everyone you meet today will ask you “so, what are you going to study in college?” This comes with the implication that you had better choose a major that “pays off.” I say “to hell with that!” Going to college is about building yourself as a human being starting with the foundation your parents laid for you. What if Martin Luther King had majored in accounting because there was a “good living” to be made? What if Mark Twain had become a plumber because there was a “lot of call” for that in Hannibal, MO?

You are smart. You are capable. You are a hard worker. You have good social skills. It would be a horrible waste for you to take on a mundane, work-a-day, “practical” profession that did not draw out and call upon your natural gifts. You may not know, right now, what will inspire you. You may not know, for awhile, what the world calls on you to do and to be. That is what education is for. That is what St. Olaf is for. That is what youth is for.

We are your launchpad but, more importantly, we are your safety net. Whatever I have accomplished, whatever chances I have been able to take to achieve my dreams, were made possible by the foundation laid down by my Mom and Dad and by the safety net they provided me while I was struggling to “figure things out.” My Mom and Dad lived in a mobile home when I was born. My Dad worked third shift in a machine shop to buy me toys to inspire my imagination. My Mom clipped coupons and made us beany-burger and skimped and saved. All of these things laid a foundation for me so that I could go to college, so that I could explore the world, so that I could find my place. They did not expect or ask me to pay it all back. They worked and saved and “did without” as a pure gift to me. It is an awesome responsibility.

The only way I have found to pay my parents back is to live by their example. Mommy and I have worked and saved and “done without” because we believe in the sacred obligation of building a foundation – a launchpad. I want you and your siblings to have the opportunity, the freedom, to be all that you can imagine. As my parents did for me we now do for you. Your only obligation is to do the same for your kids someday.


Your Daddy


A Noble Ditch

In my last travel related post I told you of my experience at the U.S. Rocket center in Huntsville, Alabama and of my infatuation with the Saturn V, the most powerful transportation machine ever built and certainly one of the fastest. Today I found myself, unexpectedly, spending the greater part of a day in downtown Syracuse, New York where I became, if not infatuated with, at least deeply fascinated by another museum dedicated to a much slower mode of transport.

After an amazing lunch at the Creole Soul Cafe (who knew Syracuse, NY would have absolutely amazing cajun food?) I walked up to the Erie Canal Museum which lies on the aptly named Erie Boulevard. It turns out that the boulevard, now blacktop instead of water, was the route the famous canal took through Syracuse. The museum is part of the original Weighlock building where passing canalboats were, quite literally, weighed to assess their toll for canal passage.

The Weighlock at Syracuse – Now the Erie Canal Museum.

Looking at a Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program in it’s entirety one can scarcely believe that this little ditch was its equivalent, perhaps it’s superior, in 1820. Considering the resources and technology of a still young nation this project was audacious. In fact, when asked to help with the financing of it Thomas Jefferson, no slouch in the visionary department, wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. “…little short of madness,” he is said to have commented.

It fell, instead to the Governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton, a bunch of progressive legislators, and some even more visionary but less celebrated thinkers and engineers to bring this crazy idea to life. And, like the Little Red Hen, when the wheat grew, was, harvested, ground into flour, and baked into a nice warm loaf, New York ate that loaf and became, well, New York.
Many big cities grow organically from a wide spot in a river. Clinton’s audacity was to build the river. Cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and, to a greater extent the Big Apple, grew from these seeds.

If going to the moon seems like one giant leap (to quote Neil Armstrong) the building of the Erie canal, in it’s day, was no less improbable. To understand the difficulty it is useful to assess the terrain of upstate New York.

Starting in Albany the canal follows the course of the Mohawk River west. This makes a lot of sense. The more your route can follow existing rivers the less you have to dig. Also, to New York’s great good fortune, the Mohawk possesses a unique characteristic unknown to other eastern rivers. It flows east into the Hudson, but it rises west of the Appalachian mountains. It’s valley transects the one insurmountable obstacle which stymied so many dreamers intent on building a water route to the Ohio or the Great Lakes.

Minimizing the digging is not the only consideration for a canal, though. The Mohawk route made sense from a hydrological point of view, also. A canal is not a static system. Moving water is what makes the locks work and allows boats to change elevation. That means that water must be added to the system continuously from the highest elevations. Having rivers nearby makes that possible. Only sea level canals like the Suez are not subject to this requirement.

The Erie Canal route across upstate New York is emphatically not a sea level affair. Even with the advantage of the Mohawk, the elevation changes from Albany to Buffalo were daunting. The net rise from tide level on the Hudson at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo is about 600 feet. That’s just a little less than the height of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The best locks that could be constructed in 1825 would raise a boat about 12 feet. That would require about fifty locks, a big job. However, kind of like your Grandpa’s old story about walking to school “uphill both ways” the Erie canal route doesn’t just slope from one side of the state to the other. From Albany it goes up to about 420’ at Rome, then back down to about 380’ near Montezuma, then back up again at the Niagara River to 565’. In between it crosses rivers, creeks, valleys, and hills. The original “Clinton’s Folly” had 83 locks, each hand dug, lined with clay and stone, and fitted with heavy gates and valve systems. This was not child’s play.

Not a sea-level affair. A contemporary profile view of the Erie Canal route. Click on image for enlargement.

Looking at the map of the canal and upstate New York one is struck immediately by a question. You slap your head and think, “these people couldn’t have been that stupid.” The question is; Why build a canal across 363 miles of forests and swamps when you could, near Oneida Lake, cut a few miles up to Lake Ontario, ship your goods on this vast natural waterway to Niagara Falls, and build a short canal to bypass the falls? It is a good question, but there was, indeed, a method to the madness.

Firstly, canal boats are a great deal different from the sailing vessels required to navigate big open bodies of water like Lake Ontario. They are long and shallow draft to fit their highways of water. They are not designed to take big waves or make top speed under sail. So it would have been necessary to swap one for the other at Lake Ontario, again at Niagara Falls, and again to proceed on Lake Erie. If these dreamers had wanted to load and unload cargo three or four times they would have just kept transporting goods the way they had for years; overland in horse drawn wagons. Secondly, building a canal around the Niagara Falls, while doable (Canada did it in the mid-1800’s near Welland), was not an easy task. There is a reason Niagara Falls is such a famous attraction. It’s a damn 167 foot tall waterfall.

The truth is this though; It was mostly politics. In those days Canada was not the benign little puffball that we know today. Canada, or as they were in actuality then, England, was a very real existential threat to the new nation. We had just fought two wars against them and a multitude of skirmishes. It is easy to forget now, but was undoubtedly vivid in the American imagination then, that only three years prior to the commencement of canal construction, a British force had occupied Washington, D.C. and set fire to the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Only in September 1813 had the U.S. won undisputed control of Lake Erie during the famous Battle of Lake Erie which we all remember, if we remember it at all, from Oliver Hazard Perry’s cable to Washington after the victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The U.S. never did achieve decisive control of Lake Ontario.

To make a long story short we didn’t trust them, we didn’t like them, and we certainly didn’t want them to get the benefit and control of trade in the western Great Lakes. The New Yorkers spent extra time, extra money, and probably extra human lives to keep their new canal just out of reach of those dastardly Canadians. Thanks to their sacrifice we are not obliged to eat poutine three times a day.

Seriously though, building the Erie Canal was a matter of blood, sweat, toil, and tears. The claims of 1000 men dying of swamp fever (probably malaria) during the excavation through Montezuma Marsh in 1819 are probably exaggerated. Still, it is quite likely that many hundreds of men were crushed, drowned, lacerated, blown up with gunpowder, and killed by epidemics.

Consider, if you will, the difficulty of removing a single tree stump. Even today, with chain saws and tractors, and grinding equipment it is difficult, at best, to remove the stump of a large tree to below grade level. If you are digging a canal, grade level is not good enough. You must remove the entire stump including the tap roots. For a tree of considerable size, like the American Chestnuts comprising the primeval forest of upstate New York, these roots can go 20’ deep.

The engineers who met these challenges were clever men. The way they solved the tree stump problem tells you all you need to know about their resourcefulness. Below is a picture of their stump puller. It’s elegant use of simple mechanics and leverage is an inspiration.

Stump Puller – An elegant solution to a big problem.

The catalog of challenges faced by the Scots Irish immigrants who dug the canal, the German Stonemasons who built the locks, and the engineers who mapped out the route, were astounding. In building locks, bridges, aqueducts, and machines to do so, these men advanced science and technology in their age no less than did the NASA scientists who built the Saturn V.

Some of their achievements are truly astounding. There is, of course, the 363 mile long canal 40’ wide and 4’ deep. There are also the 83 locks. Beyond that are the marvelous creations that Pharaoh might have been proud of. There is the “Deep Cut,” a high spot in the bedrock near Pendleton where men, without the benefit of dynamite, chiseled a channel for the canal 40’ deep and 7 miles long. There is the “Flight of Five” locks climbing the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport. There is the giant aqueduct of stone crossing the Genessee River at Rochester. And, there is the “Great Embankment,” a mile long earth fill 76’ deep crossing the valley of Irondquoit Creek. These are all remarkable feats.

A river crosses a river – The Erie Canal/ Genesee River aqueduct at Rochester.

What makes them more mind-blowing is to consider the catalog of things these men did not have. In 1817 they did not have bulldozers (invented 1923), diesel excavators (1930’s), or even steam shovels (patented 1839). They didn’t have the aforementioned dynamite which Alfred Nobel did not perfect until 1867. There were no rubber boots (Wellingtons invented in 1852). There was no nylon rope (1940’s), no steel cable (1830’s), no really very good steel at all (Bessemer process 1855). Feeding huge numbers of men in a remote wilderness area was difficult too because there was not yet refrigeration (1856). There were no antibiotics (penicillin 1928), exactly one “sort-of” vaccine (smallpox, 1796), and no anesthetic (1842) for the inevitable amputation of infected limbs. These men made Chuck Norris look like Steve Urkel.

They worked 12-15 hour days in terrible conditions with inadequate equipment and, in most cases, for about $12 – $15 per month. The unluckiest, and there were many of these, had been lured to the United States by deceptive advertisements in Irish newspapers promising a good job with decent pay, three meals a day, and an allowance of whiskey. The workers, too poor to pay, were brought to the U.S. by the Erie canal contractors and their passage was charged against their future meager earnings, making them, immediately, indentured servants. They were basically slaves without chains.

Once the canal was completed, New York’s investment paid back, and the financiers made rich, the men who labored to build this canal did what laboring men have always done – they took a deep breath and went back to work. Because they had to. They built railroads, worked in dank mines, and dug more canals.

A canalboat (2016 recreation) in the weigh lock chamber at Syracuse. I am standing where the opening in the building is visible in the previous weigh lock building photo.

Sleeping quareters on a canalboat. Cramped but cozy.

The Erie canal changed the United States. It enriched the country, it sped up western settlement, it insured U.S. dominance of the Great Lakes, and it helped to make New York City the financial and cultural powerhouse it is today. All these things were bricks in the great edifice which became U.S.A. – the Superpower. In this way the Erie canal, “Clinton’s Folly,” the little ditch, changed the world.

As I walked back to my hotel through the streets of Syracuse I thought about these men. I thought about rockets and I thought about canal boats. My thoughts drifted to the pyramids, the cathedrals, the railroads, the highways, and to all these ostensibly “good” things brought forth by men and women who got very little out of the exercise but exercise. Others with money and capital and power got more money and capital and power. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.” And yet.

There is nobility in hard work and in struggle and in the creation of things which make the world a better place even if such benefits do not accrue to those who build them. The thing which raises human beings above the animals is not that we have iPhones, but that we can make iPhones. The Gateway Arch is a magnificent thing, but so is the Niagara Falls. What ennobles the Gateway Arch is not that it is pretty and gleaming and very, very tall, but that some man imagined it and a few men developed a plan to make it a reality, and hundreds of men and women with their hands and their feet and their brains summoned it into existence.

The Erie Canal, no less than Michelangelo’s David, was a work of art. The sacrifice of those who built it is not dimmed because their masterpiece has been superseded by bigger, better, and faster modes of transport. The nobility is in the striving, made all the more noble by the difficulty of the task. As John Kennedy said about sending men to the moon (the Saturn V) so might we say about the Erie Canal. We do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Therein lies the nobility.

by: Dustin Joy


I realize it’s been a few weeks since my last post. Given that one of my most recent blog posts concerned whether or not to continue blogging you might have guessed that you were finally rid of me. No such luck!

On the contrary, I’ve actually had some interesting things going on on the writing front. I’ve been working on a few new pieces for the blog, but also, get this, I seem to have actually sold my first piece of writing for real money. Well, I haven’t got the check in my hot little hand yet, but I have apparently had an article accepted for publication in Plane and Pilot magazine. I’m not quite sure which issue it will appear in but I’m pretty excited about it and hoping it leads to more in the future. We shall see.

Also, I’ve joined a writing group based in Muscatine called Writers on the Avenue. It is comprised of local writers, some amateurs, some with a number of publications under their belts, and all friendly and eager to hear each other’s work. We get together once a month and bring something we have written to read out loud. There are poets and comedy writers and essayists and novelists. It has been great fun, so far.

One of the most entertaining parts is a word challenge exercise. At the end of the meeting each member, in secret, writes down a word on a piece of paper. The words are collected and make up the challenge list for the next meeting. Each member is obliged to write an essay, article, poem, short-story, etc. incorporating each word from the list. It can be a bit of a challenge, especially when our local comedy writer contributes words like GOOSEGREASE. It is interesting to see what people do with the list. Some are very clever, indeed.

Below is my first attempt. It uses all the words. That’s about all I can say for it. Hopefully mine will get better over time. The quote I use later on in this short-story is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and here is meant to give the protagonist hope that his hosts are good and thoughtful people. Our group leader, an English professor from the local community college, reminded me, however, just what a nasty little play M.O.V. was and that the speaker, Portia, hardly had clean hands when delivering these pretty words. Good point, I think. Though I still like the way it turns the anti-semitism of the play on it’s head a little bit here.





by: Dustin Joy

The kitchen was redolent with goosegrease when Emily opened the back door and beckoned Mark inside. The aroma of freshly baked rolls enveloped him. A big, stainless pot of potatoes churned on the rear burner of the antique gas stove and an old-style percolator gurgled softly on the front burner, a curl of steam starting to rise from it’s spout. The pies cooling on the counter, apple, sweet potato, and pumpkin, carried him back to his own Memaw’s kitchen, another place of warmth and pie.

Still, Mark had hesitated, reluctant to enter this old clapboard farmhouse, at the end of the sidewalk, at the end of the gravel road, at the end of Illinois. “The end of the world,” was what he thought. The end of their fledgling relationship seemed a distinct possibility.
Emily had told her grandparents that Mark was coming with her for Christmas, of course. She had assured them that he was a nice boy and a fine student, endowed with grit and gumption and good manners despite his big city origins. He was studying English literature at the University of Chicago.

Likewise, Emily had assured Mark that her people were, like her, warm and loving. They were not heartless racists with repulsive opinions despite their rural origins. The fact that sweet, beautiful Emily derived her DNA from them gave him hope, but not much confidence.

The long voyage down Interstate 55, his Prius a very small boat on this ocean of corn, had inspired in him an irrational dread. The presence of no fewer than four pickup trucks in the driveway seemed to affirm his fear, as had the tattered confederate flag he had glimpsed near a fallen-down barn a few miles down the road. He was not certain that he was the first African-American to visit this township, but he was pretty sure he was the first to cross this threshold.

Emily, a smart girl who understood well the genesis of his fears, patted Mark’s hand and reached up to give him a kiss. Then she disappeared down the short hallway past the classical cupboard with its bird-claw feet, the mahogany washstand with its ceramic pitcher, and the oak bookshelf with its ticking mantle clock.

Mark stood alone in the kitchen, rotating slowly in his apprehension and indecision, the prime meridian of his gaze taking in the pantry and the sink and the pot-bellied stove and the refrigerator covered in unfamiliar photos, save one. Then he saw, in the far corner, a framed needlepoint and below it a basset hound slumbering on a big, puffy pillow.
He approached the dog gently, and she, waking to his presence, raised her nose and nuzzled his outstretched palm. He patted her head gently as he read the little name tag attached to her collar – Portia. He smiled – a coincidence perhaps? Then his eyes were drawn to the needlepoint again. It was a quote, one he knew quite well, and from his favorite writer, too.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

“It’s going to be alright,” Mark thought. He stood and followed Emily down the hall.

Getting Frosty in Hell: I back a Trump Decision…sort of

You might want to sit down for this. I’ll just come right out and say it. I have decided to endorse a decision Donald Trump made. I can hardly believe it myself. I can assure you it is not because I agree with Trump’s odious world view or wish to associate myself with some of the hateful xenophobes who voted for him. Indeed, when I consider Trump I am most nearly in agreement with the assessment of the author Philip Roth who has said:

“Trump is ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art. He is incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance. He is destitute of all decency. He wields a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

I object to many things Donald Trump has said and done. I need not belabor my disgust with regard to his treatment of women, his demonization of immigrants, or his enabling of racists. His transparent effort to destroy critical government agencies which promote education, protect our environment, and insure worker safety are just plain despicable.

But what really sticks in my craw is this; Trump appeals to people’s ignorance. He denigrates experience. He undermines science. He has suggested, over and over again, in subjects as varied and complex as climate, medicine, foreign policy, and trade, that his judgement trumps the experts.

Think I’m exaggerating? I’ll let Trump speak for himself:


“I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.”

“I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.”

“Nobody knows politicians better than Donald Trump.”

“Nobody knows more about debt. I’m like the king.”

“Nobody knows banking better than I do”

“I understand money better than anybody. I understand it far better than Hillary.”

“I think nobody knows the system better than I do.”

“I know more about contributions than anybody.”

“Nobody knows more about trade than me.”

“Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.”

“There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

“I know more about offense and defense than they will ever understand, believe me.”

“There is nobody who understands the horror of nuclear more than me.”

“I understand the tax laws better than almost anyone, which is why I’m the one who can truly fix them,”

“If Cory Booker is the future of the Democratic Party, they have no future! I know more about Cory than he knows about himself.”


The last absurdity is the cherry on top, of course, but altogether these quotes accurately represent a dangerous man. I have always been uneasy around people who are absolutely sure of themselves and their own judgement. They are dangerous whether they be religious zealots who are certain that God hates the same people they do (what a coincidence) or the “free market” apostles who want to outlaw the fire department because it is “Socialism!”

Well, I believe in experts. I believe in eggheads and poindexters and squares. I believe in people who read books and do research and carry out experiments. I place my trust in people who dedicate their lives to the acquisition of knowledge and mastery of skills.

When I need a surgeon to cut open my brain and remove the tumor I want a serious intellect on the job, not some good old boy who spends his evenings parked in front of a television with a brewsky in his hand. When my plane leaves the ground and soars seven miles into the air I want an expert at the controls. I want a pilot who understands Bernoulli’s Principle, not the guy who stayed at the Holiday Inn Express last night. And when my government has to make a decision about the efficacy of vaccinating kids for polio I want a PhD scientist on the case who has dedicated her life to studying infectious disease and not some Hollywood actress or reality TV star.

I believe global warming is real. Why do I believe this? Is it because I have carried out extensive experiments incorporating ice core analysis, satellite observations, expeditions to the south pole, and excruciatingly detailed number crunching? No. I have not done these things. But, you know what, there are people who have. They are called scientists. They work at top universities and government agencies. They have decided it. The evidence is in. All major scientific bodies in the United States whose work pertains to climate science have concluded that global warming exists and that human activities are a cause. These include NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Science, the American meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

These are experts. These are scientists and policy wonks who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of truth no matter where it leads. If you really believe that Donald Trump knows more than they do about our climate you need to crinkle some tinfoil onto your antenna, buddy, because you are getting some serious static. (Sorry, for those of you born after 1990 an antenna is a small array of aluminum rods wired to a television or radio in order to … okay, for those of you born after 1995 a radio is a …..oh, to hell with it.)

The organizations who deny this evidence, for the most part, are business entities who stand to lose money if action is taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That is called a conflict of interest and, under President Trump, these folks are the foxes who guard the henhouse. The new Secretary of Energy is Texas governor Rick Perry, an oil industry backer from an oil-rich state. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma is, you guessed it, an oil industry backer from an oil-rich state. Trump’s Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson who was CEO of ExxonMobil for ten years. It is easy to discern a pattern here.

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” It would be one thing if Trump’s conflict of interest burdened cabinet came out and gave speeches saying global warming was a hoax. Everyone can express such uninformed opinions in a free society. What is absolutely unacceptable is what they have done, instead. They have put an end to climate research by gutting research budgets. This is not seeking truth. This is a child sticking his fingers in his ears to avoid hearing the truth. That’s tolerable for an individual. That is horrible for a democracy.

So, given all that, what Trump decision am I willing to ratify and support? Here it is. Drum role please:

I think the U.S. Senate should confirm the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. I think the Democrats in the Senate should vote to approve him despite the Republicans disingenuous refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing and a vote.

I have three reasons for this. First, I think the Democrats should live up to their Constitutional responsibilities in a way that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans would not. It is a bummer to lose in politics. It stinks to have your bitter political rival win a round and get to steer things the way he wants. It would be satisfying to plant our feet on the ground, cross our arms, and, without regard to principle, simply oppose every action Trump takes, just like the Republicans have done for the last eight years.

Mitch McConnell said “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.” You will notice he did not say “to serve the American people or to uphold the Constitution.” As the absolute type specimen of the self-serving, opportunistic politician McConnell abandoned even Republican ideas whenever they were adopted by the President. The Obamacare insurance mandate famously condemned now by Republicans as some kind of Communist plot was, actually, (whisper) a Republican idea. As I said in my last Trump essay Republicans used to be the party of shouldering your responsibility and eating your vegetables; not so much anymore.

The second reason I can and do support the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch is the same one which prevents me from supporting Pruitt, Perry, DeVos, and, indeed Trump himself. Gorsuch is an expert. He is an egghead. He is a thoughtful, intelligent, and serious man who I just don’t agree with very much. He is not a political hack now, even if he might have flirted with that category in his youth.

I have read extensively about Judge Gorsuch, have studied some of his rulings, and watched much of his confirmation hearing. As a Liberal I am, of course, concerned about Gorsuch’s family history. His mother, Ronald Reagan’s EPA Director, was indeed an ideologue and a political hack devoted to destroying the agency she was tasked to lead. I could never have supported her confirmation.

I am also troubled by Gorsuch’s record in George W. Bush’s Justice Department. His role in justifying the use of torture and encouraging Bush’s questionable “signing statements” gives me pause. Gorsuch has replied that he was just doing his job. That, of course, is the well rehearsed line of the scoundrel, but it is also, to some degree, defensible. To succeed in Washington, at least to the level where you might be on someone’s short list to be a Supreme Court Justice, you must have established some political relationships and have found some backers. It appears that Gorsuch did this by working a mid-level job on Bush’s team.

Also, I say naively, people can change. People can mature. People can rise to the challenge of new professional responsibilities. I believe judge Gorsuch may have done so. For ten years he has been a Federal Judge and, by all accounts, he has been a fair one. Is he a conservative? I’m pretty sure he is. Does he advocate strict constructionism? Probably. Do I wish we could have Merrick Garland, instead? Sure I do. But, that brings me to the last of my three reasons.

We have very little choice. Due to the (Let’s be generous here and call it poor judgement) of a few thousand people in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania we have President Trump. Due to the poor judgement of a few thousand people in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania we have a Republican U.S. Senate. Replacing Scalia with Gorsuch, in my opinion is a small move in the right direction (possibly a very small one). There is not a great deal we can do to stop it since the Republicans hold all the cards.

A bigger catastrophe, from a Liberal point of view, would be the retirement of Justice Ginsburg under these circumstances. Political capital and the good will of the American people are real things, like it or not. If we fight Gorsuch to the bloody end and lose anyway we may not have anything left to fight Trump should worse come to worst.

So, based on my analysis, can we oppose Pruitt and Perry and DeVos and still support Gorsuch’s confirmation? I think we can. They are ideologues who claim to know more than the experts. We may not agree with Gorsuch about everything, but he is a serious expert on the law who takes the law seriously. That may be all we can hope for and all we need. Many of the “Conservative” Justices appointed to the court by Republicans, if they are serious men and women who respect the law, have a funny way of finding the middle ground when liberated by their lifetime appointments. I am thinking of Justice Blackmun, Justice Souter, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Kennedy. I have no way to be sure, but I think Gorsuch might have that potential.


by: Dustin Joy