FIFTY

 

 

FIFTY – a poem

by: Dustin Joy


I hurt my back today, brushing my teeth.

 To tell the truth, it’s not a thing,

I thought a person could do.

The mechanics are obscure.

It certainly never happened when I was

 forty.

Praise be to ibuprofen.

The only lasting injury was to my pride.

 

 

In the cockpit, my handsome

 twenty-three 

year-old co-pilot and my pretty

 twenty-one 

year-old flight attendant share an exuberant laugh. 

I say hello and smile. The laugh dissipates into the ether.

I do the math. Twenty-three plus Twenty-one equals

Forty-four.

They are properly solicitous 

of their old Captain.

They inquire about my day, and my wife, 

and the weather in Santa Fe.

 But they don’t tell me what was

 so funny.

 

 

I stop to to talk to my daughter’s roommate, 

to compliment her editorial 

in the college paper, 

the one about cultural appropriation. 

I sense a kindred spirit, her fight so like

the liberal causes I championed, when I was

twenty 

My brilliant, fierce, and caustic essays beat down apartheid (at least in Galesburg, IL).

But she is late, and on her way to class, 

and distracted by a major crisis, 

involving her Instagram feed.

Respectful and deferential, she holds the door for me as we go out,

as if I was an old man, and not a fellow warrior 

in the battle against injustice. 

 

 

I think I spent too much of my youth being

fifty. 

I followed the rules, I aimed to please, 

I got good grades, and mostly abstained from

fun.

I kept my powder dry, I lay in wait, 

I built a nest egg, and I collected data. 

I awaited the hour when I could use my competence,

my acumen, my knowledge, to awe, to amaze, to impress. 

I would grab the world by the lapels and shake it. 

 

 

And now I am really

fifty, 

with a larder fully stocked 

with wisdom and pertinent experience. 

And now that I am ready it seems that 

the treasure I assiduously cached, a penny at a time,

in the mattress of life, has been the victim of inflation. 

It is a Cabbage Patch Doll after 1985. 

It is a buggy whip in 1930. 

And if you’re not also

fifty 

you don’t even know what that means,

just like I don’t know what LMFAO means. 

I should probably look that up

or stop using it.

 

 

There is little call for what I have accumulated

and it’s value seems to diminish day by day.

I wish I had read Shakespeare again when I was 

thirty 

and heeded Rosalind’s words to Phoebe;

“Sell when you can, you are not for all markets.”

Now I’m 

fifty

and even the god-damned toothbrush

has turned against me.

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.

 

 

A STEP FORWARD

     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

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.”

Checkmate

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.

______________________________________________

 

Checkmate
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.”

 

 

 

Thank God?

A massive storm swept through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia recently. Twenty people were killed by a swarm of tornados including one which hit a mobile home park.
As always, brave and generous people rushed in to help the survivors and save those who could be saved. I find people to be universally good and kind to one other in such awful circumstances. I am inspired by this. I think it is the best part of human nature.

What I cannot always understand are the comments people make in these cases. Our need to explain tragedy often leads to a response which to me feels hollow, illogical, insensitive, or even cruel.
Here are some examples from that weekend’s news reports:

“God was with me that day .”
“I’m just blessed to be here.”
“God was in the room with us.”
“God was looking after them,”
“Is God mad at us?”

I wrote the following piece several years ago after a tragic outbreak of tornados killed 24 people in Oklahoma. I have been reluctant to post it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, matters of religion are sensitive. This piece, while it was not intended to be offensive, might appear so to some. I have no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings. There are quite a few “believers” whom I like, and respect, and count as friends.

Secondly, there is often a price to be paid, in this Christian dominated society, for even admitting that one is an atheist or agnostic. A young person who thinks differently, expresses doubt, or questions the answers his pastor gives him can be branded a trouble maker and ostracized. An adult who does so is subject to subtle, but very real penalties.

It is difficult for Christians in the United States to understand just how powerful they are. You sometimes hear them lament the“war on Christmas” or the “rise of secular humanism.” But, if you consider, for just a moment, the quantity of Christian references in our daily life compared to that of any other religion or set of beliefs it is overwhelming. As I write this the television is on. When I flip through the 18 channels I find fully a third devoted, 24 hours a day, to Christian programming. I find none dedicated to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Atheism. When I drive to our local town to the store I pass 8-10 Christian churches, each with a billboard out front admonishing us to believe as they do. Do I pass even one center for agnosticism or free thought? Not one. In fact, I never have seen one.

The good thing about being an atheist is that we are not obliged to proselytize. I will explain my point of view to you here, and I might be gratified if you came to believe the same thing, but I don’t have to save your soul. All I ask of the dominant Christian culture is that my tax dollars not be spent to support religion and that kids who attend public school not be compelled to believe in it. That’s in the Constitution and that’s not a big demand.

On a personal level I generally like religious people and am fascinated by religion. If you approach me in a friendly way with a Bible tract in your hand or knock on my door, full of enthusiasm for your new devotion, I will smile and listen thoughtfully, as I have done for 30 years. It might be nice also, in an open and free society, for Christians to listen occasionally to those who think differently? After all, as the Turkish writer Elif Shafak has said, “If we learn anything, we learn it from people who are different from us.”

 

 

 

Thank God?

It is always troubling to encounter a concept I cannot grasp. The embarrassment is compounded when I discover, to my chagrin, that the idea is easily understood by others. There are many examples. My father-in-law can rattle off a list of numbers (rates, capacities, volumes, ratios, percentages) and within seconds arrive at a mathematical solution which is invariably correct while I am still hunting for the square root key on the calculator. Many times my father has tried to explain elementary radio theory to me only to leave me smiling and nodding like Dan Quayle at a spelling bee. And don’t get me started on quantum physics. Actually, you can’t get me started on quantum physics.

It is not so bad to be bested by intelligent women and men from time to time. How else can one learn? I will readily admit that there are things I do not understand and possibly will never understand. I am willing to concede that there are better brains out there than mine. What is truly unnerving, though, is to be at odds with a majority of the world’s population on a question of importance. Religion is such a stumbling block to me.

It is estimated that 89% of the U.S. population believes in a God, of one sort or another. That is a pretty resounding number and it suggests that I might be wrong in my thinking. I do not regard being wrong as a moral failing, since most people are from time to time. The remedy is simple; merely collect more information and revise the hypothesis. Yet my mental roadblock here is thick. The more information I collect the more I am convinced of my previous hypothesis. I am no more able to accept religion at face value than I can start a gouda mine on the moon.

I listen to the 27 televangelists on my TV, I read the Bible, I sit quietly waiting for my still small voice and…and…and…nothing. Nothing comes to me. Nothing persuades me to ignore the contrary evidence I see all around me. My own innate sense of what is true will not give credence to stories about a 6000 year old planet, nor all the earth’s creatures escaping a giant flood on a vessel built with hand tools by 5 senior citizens. I cannot comprehend a system of good and evil in which an omnipotent God allows the non-omnipotent Devil to get the upper hand even occasionally. I cannot adhere to a moral code that puts a book filled with contradictions and of unprovable provenance above other human beings.

When I look at the misery in this world which is the direct result of arguments over religion I am loathe to conclude that I want to be on their side, even if they are right. And how does one choose the one true faith if such a thing exists? As Professor Robert Price has said, “I’m going to hell according to somebody’s doctrine (Islam, Hindu, Christianity, etc). I may as well call them as I see them.”

The closest thing I have found to representing how I feel about religion is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut in his later years.
“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.”

Still, being a humanist has to mean also that we show a decent respect to the thoughts and feelings of other humans. That means the other 89%. I have tried to do this throughout my life as I have been bombarded with Christian culture every day on the airwaves, on billboards, at public events, and in person. Christianity enjoys such hegemony in this society that it is an affront apparently to simply express your non-evangelical ideas in public. It is hard to be different, as we all know, especially when the odds are 89% to 11%.

Let me offer an example, from my personal life, where I have been at odds with the majority of people around me. The following story illustrates my difficulty, as a believer in logic and science, in coming to the same conclusion as the majority, who are religious believers.

Take the case of Officer Norman Rickman, a member of the Knoxville, TN police force. In a U.S.A. Today article about police officers embracing the use of bulletproof vests it was explained that Mr. Rickman had been shot twice in the line of duty while not wearing a bulletproof vest. The story says, “Yet he was on the ground within minutes, blood pouring out of bullet wounds to his chest and left arm as one of three suspects stood over him and fired two more shots into his upper back at point-blank range.” It continues, “More extraordinarily, perhaps, is that the May shooting marked the second time in seven years that Rickman had been seriously wounded while not wearing a bullet-resistant vest.”

The story includes two quotes from officer Rickman. One says that he will wear a bulletproof vest when he returns to work. The other, while it mystified me, was readily understood by others to whom I showed the article. It was this, “God was on my side that day.” This, to me, invites two questions and I do not mean them to be flippant or disrespectful. I should like to ask Officer Rickman the following:

1. If God is on your side, why did he let you get shot four times?

2. If God is on your side, why wear a bullet-proof vest?

I explored these questions for some time after reading the article. I concluded that there were four possibilities, logically, with respect to God and Officer Rickman. They are as follows:

1. There is no God and Officer Rickman was shot by a sociopath who himself had been created by a combination of his environment and genetics. Officer Rickman, in this scenario might have been saved by a bullet-proof vest. Logically Officer Rickman should place no faith in God and should wear his vest.

2. There is a God and he (or she) allows free will. In this case God allowed the sociopath to develop from his environment and genetics and shoot Officer Rickman without intervening. In this case, logic dictates that Officer Rickman should place no faith in God and should wear his bullet-proof vest.

3. There is a God who has malevolent aims for humanity. In this case God created the sociopath on purpose and sent him to shoot Officer Rickman. Logic dictates that Officer Rickman should actively oppose this God and wear his bullet-proof vest.

4. There is a God who loves us, but desires to teach us moral lessons through adversity. In this case God created the sociopath and sent him to shoot Officer Rickman, but did so for a noble objective. Whether Officer Rickman assimilated the lesson is unknown, unless that lesson was “Wear your bullet-proof vest!”

In only one scenario would I conclude that Officer Rickman might, and I emphasize might, thank his God for the treatment he has received. That is the benevolent God who continually treats us to his “tough love.” If God’s lesson was to wear a vest, which is a good lesson for policemen according to statistics, it seems a harsh form of instruction. The article states that 37% of the officers murdered in the line of duty in 2007 did not have on a bullet-proof vest. Those officers died. They had no opportunity to learn God’s lesson about vests, or any other moral instruction he might have been offering.

Are we to conclude from Officer Rickman’s statement and the opinions about it from religious believers that these unfortunate officers did not have “God with them.” Again, I do not wish to be flippant about so serious a tragedy. I am anxious that no one die under these circumstances. It is not I who trivializes this tragedy, but the people who chalk such things up to “God being with me.”

This same story can be seen night after night on the news with the names and locations altered slightly; A tornado rips through a subdivision in Oklahoma annihilating houses on one side of a street and leaving them standing on the other. Invariably a survivor from the “lucky” side will credit God and his love for her family’s survival. This explanation is accepted readily by the majority of conventionally religious people in this country who can be seen nodding their heads as the woman speaks. But is it not insulting, both to our intelligence and to the people who were killed, to credit God’s mercy for saving those who survived. In fact, it is a cruelty to say such a thing. Does God hate the other families?

We might be better off as a civilization if we worked out problems logically, with the human costs evaluated, than to offer credibility to supernatural sources. If we did not give the credit for good things to God and bad things to the Devil, we might conclude, rightly I think, that people are complex and must be dealt with (helped or punished) on an individual basis. God did not make us all either good or bad, but a complicated combination of circumstances did make some people more selfish, more corrupt, less empathetic, less kind than other people. Without the easy answer of religion and the stark contrast between good people and bad people, between believers and heathens, we might be forced to try to understand the problems we face. It is entirely possible that we might come up with solutions to some of them.

by: Dustin Joy

Minor League Hero

With the news everyday seeming so much like fiction I thought I would take a break from that and offer you some of my own fiction again (whether you want it or not). This is a short story I call:

 

Minor League Hero

by: Dustin Joy

Superman has it made. You have to admit, being able to fly is the big one. Who wouldn’t give their left arm for that? Flying opens up so many other opportunities, too. Not riding in coach is just the tip of the iceberg. And cooler even than flying is that standing in midair shit. You want to impress a lady, I tell you, try knocking on her sixth story apartment window. She opens the curtain, and there you are leaning against an imaginary wall fifty feet in the air. Man, you know you’re getting laid.

But it’s not so easy being in the minor leagues. For those of us who can’t summon whales to do our bidding or run four hundred miles an hour, it’s hard to get any respect. We get no press at all. I even tried getting on Hollywood Squares once but Whoopie wouldn’t take my call. Her assistant said they already had Green Lantern for September and they didn’t want to get into a rut on the whole superhero thing. Green Lantern, for Christ’s sake?I’m not bitter, though. I still thank God every day for what I’ve got. It is a gift, you know. And it is good to know that I’m helping people. I mean that’s what it’s all about, anyway. Right?

All I ever wanted was to do good in this world. I should be happy, because I have more chance to make a difference than most people. When they print up my obit in the Journal Star I’ll probably get one of those two column things with a little picture, you know. That’s more than most folks. And I like what I do, you know. It’s not drudgery. I’m not working in a factory. I don’t pull the same drill press handle every day. I save lives. I stop criminals. I do just what Batman does, without all the hype.

Sometimes I think about when I was a kid, before I discovered my gift. It seemed to me then that my life stretched out before me like a great plain. I could see in all directions, and I could go in any direction. But as I got older, it seemed like I was coming up to a big forest. At first the trees came in patches, and I could travel at will among them and even through them. But the farther I progressed, the denser the patches became until finally each patch formed a solid wall. After a while the patches merged into a vast forest with a single trail, all other avenues having been blocked. When we’re kids anything is possible. You can be an actor, a doctor, an astronaut, maybe president. But every decision you make closes certain doors or, more accurately, leads you down a path toward other choices each more inevitable than the last.

Finding out I had super powers opened up a lot of doors for me. But it also narrowed my focus. It closed some doors, too. As Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If God grants you super powers you can’t just go out and become a custodian. It’s like spitting in God’s face. At least that’s what my Mom used to say. “God doesn’t pass out super powers just for the hell of it.” If he’s gonna let you defy the laws of physics there’s got to be a reason. That’s how my Mom saw it, anyway. She always thought of my power as a gift for all mankind. I just kind of thought He meant it for me because He liked me.

I discovered my gift the same way a lot of young superheroes do, while masturbating. That might strike you as strange, especially given my previous statement about the God-given quality of such things. It makes sense, though, if you think about it. Each super power is rooted in or augmented by strong emotion. The Hulk is the obvious example. He gets mad, “TaDa,” here’s the Hulk. You’ve even heard of regular people, what we call norms, who in times of great crisis find superhuman strength- a mother who experiences an adrenaline rush lifts the refrigerator off the little child. It happens.

My theory is that there are more superheroes in this world than we know, people who just haven’t discovered their powers or learned to control them. Aquaman thinks I’m full of shit on this, but I believe it. Look at Granny Power. She never discovered her abilities until the age of seventy. Weren’t they there all along? I think so. All her life she was winning at Bingo and she just thought she was lucky. It was only after deep introspection and careful observation that she realized she was manipulating the balls with her own mind. She started channeling her energies, went to Vegas, won enough to make herself financially independent, and put her gift to use fighting crime, crimes other than gambling fraud.

Anyway, superpowers are nearly always the result of electrochemical reactions in the body and mind. Strong emotion whips these chemicals into a froth. Hence, there you are, jacking off to your Debbie Gibson album cover, and, TaDa, all the light bulbs in the room blow out at once. Coincidence? You start thinking. Next day you’re helping your Dad in the shop and you hit your thumb with the hammer; all four tires on the car go flat. It’s things like that that clue you in. You don’t tell anyone, of course. They would think you’re nuts. And also, your folks would be horrified to learn about your self-abuse. So you quietly conduct some more experiments, with Debbie Gibson’s unwitting assistance. You discover that things blow up, break, crack, or otherwise destroy themselves every time you reach a, shall we say, emotional climax. Then it strikes you that maybe this thing can be controlled. Maybe it can be put to use.

Now, you can’t carry around pictures of Debbie Gibson while you’re fighting crime. It wouldn’t look right, even wearing big puffy pants. But you practice in other ways. You glare at the uncool corduroys your mom bought for you and you bear down with all your might like you were fixing to take a crap. They burst into flames. You learn, through hard work and perseverance how to control your gift. You learn, eventually, how to knock the bully on his ass from across the playground without bursting any blood vessels in your eyes.

See, it’s only half a gift from God; the other half is hard work. That’s why there are superpower bums out there. I know a guy who comes to the meetings sometimes who can locate lost keys and stuff just by talking to the person who lost them. But he doesn’t want to bother with it. I told him he could make a lot of money that way, finding people’s rings and things for a fee. But he just wants to watch Nascar and drink beer.

I’ve come to understand that. I mean, what does God want, anyway? He gives you this gift and everybody thinks you’re a freak. Sometimes you can make a good living out of it, sometimes not. Just look at Dittoman, able to burn the image of one page of information onto a fresh piece of paper placed below it. Here he’s doing alright, making a living, and wham, here comes Xerox and he’s on state aid. And even if God gives you a good one you’re still not making out like Bill Gates. Christ, Superman still has a day job. If God wanted to give you a real gift he’d give you an MBA from Harvard, or make your parents George and Barbra Bush. Sometimes you start to wonder if your gift is actually some kind of punishment, possibly for masturbating.

But you do your what you can and try to make the best of it. Once you learn to control your powers, you’ve got to learn how to apply them. You get a lot of thank you in this line of work but precious few stock options. I understand the sentiment of superheroes who just want to be left alone.

I guess I was about 15 when I first discovered my powers. I was just a normal kid, maybe a bit nerdy. Bookish is the word I like to use. But I played soccer, had some friends, the hots for Debbie Gibson. You know, regular kid. Then one day it all changed. I was in my bedroom alone, you know. As I was about to finish my, um, exercises I noticed some movement off to my left. I look over and here is a rock from my rock collection floating in mid air. As you might imagine, I was a little surprised. But as soon as I got a real good focus on the rock it fell to the floor. I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I saw. Eventually I forgot about it. A few weeks later, though, it happened again- same situation, same rock. Only this time the rock stayed in the air. I was dumbfounded. It was like something out of Close Encounters. I sat there with my hand on my wank looking at this floating rock. At first I assumed that I was witnessing the work of a poltergeist, which unnerved me mostly because that meant the poltergeist had been witnessing my work. In my absorption with the riddle of the rock, my hand fell still. The rock began to slowly descend toward the table. As my erection quickly subsided so did the rock, finally settling back into its place among the rest of the collection.

I sat in the semi-darkness of the room for what seemed like hours, staring at the rock and the spot in the air which it had occupied. I was literally petrified, certain that any poltergeist that could lift a rock could just as easily dash my brains out with said rock. For the next week, I spent hour upon hour in my room waiting for the rock to move, but it never did. Though I spent all day in the room I wasn’t about to sleep there. When my parents had gone to bed I snuck down to the laundry room and slept in a pile of linens, curled up against the dryer, badminton racquet in hand. For some reason I felt a badminton racquet was the proper weapon for use against a rock chucking poltergeist.

No matter how vigilant or distracted, however, it is impossible for a teenage boy to keep his hands off himself for long. I finally succumbed to my natural urges in the laundry room one night. All hell broke loose. As soon as I commenced to enjoy myself, cans of soda from the nearby shelf began to burst sending geysers of RC and Tab everywhere. I ran from the room in my birthday suit, dripping with soda and certain the poltergeist had found me again. What my father must have thought when I barreled into him in the hallway, I can’t say, but it is that incident which finally prompted the appointment with Dr. Marshall. It was in the psychotherapist’s office that I ultimately began to understand and control my gift. Dr. Marshall gave me a new perspective on my powers and my Dad helped Dr. Marshall pay off his Bentley. We were all winners.

In my life I haven’t been able to determine if God is kind and benevolent or petty and malicious. Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Of course Einstein was mistaken about string theory, wasn’t he. And he didn’t really seem like someone who spent a lot of time around crap tables. My theory is that God has a lot to watch. I think he has about a billion worlds out there to keep him entertained. Once he sets one up and tinkers with it a bit I think he kind of loses interest. It’s like your closet full of junk at home. There’s your stamp collection, the snow skis, the paint by numbers thing, with easel, your wood-burning set, the treadmill. All held your interest for about a week and then you never looked at them again. I think that’s what God did to us. I think he set it all up, let there be light and whatnot, then just kind of got bored.

Sure the whole Garden of Eden thing was interesting: nudity, intrigue, betrayal, talking snakes. Even the rest of the Genesis days had their interesting points: deceit, murder, incest. But I think God had stuffed us in Mr. Whoopee’s closet before he even got through the begats. Since then it’s been kind of tough to get his attention. Hitler finally got noticed, but it sure took God a while to do something about him. I think by then he was watching his own little soap opera in the Andromeda Galaxy.

So despite my mother’s insistence that I was one of God’s chosen, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was the butt of one of God’s less funny jokes. As I learned more about my powers I became even more persuaded that God was the, well, the, shall we say, the Carrot Top of the, well, of the universe. My first frustration came when I tried to use my powers to levitate items other than my one particular rock and soda cans. No dice. Strain as I might and curse as Dr. Marshall would, I could not move wood, plastic, steel, copper, marble, oatmeal, or cotton. As it turns out the only things I have influence over are items composed of at least 18% aluminum by weight or rocks containing at least 37% bauxite ore. My powers were not quite as stunning as I had imagined.

Now some people would have accepted defeat at this point and used their powers to retrieve beer from the fridge while they watched Nascar. But whatever I have been in my life, I have not been a quitter. By this time I had settled on superhero as a vocation and no matter God’s plan I was going to parlay my meager gift into fame and universal renown. I had the ability to levitate, bend, melt, and otherwise rearrange the atoms in objects made of aluminum. That’s pretty darn cool if you think about it. Most people can’t do that. And if you think about it there are quite a few things in this world made of aluminum; some pretty cool stuff, in fact.

So I made a solemn vow that I would use my powers for good, to benefit all mankind. Now I needed a hook, a motif, and a name. Several suggested themselves. My friend Marcus proposed the Tin Man, which I thought summoned up negative comparisons with the “heartless” character of Oz fame, and after all, aluminum is not tin. They are separate elements, you know. Comparisons to Superman didn’t seem appropriate, either. “Man of Aluminum” just doesn’t turn on the chicks like “Man of Steel.” I put the moniker on hold and focused my attention on the modus operandi. To fight crime, you have to be able to use your powers to reduce felons to custody. In my mind that called for a weapon. But my weapon, obviously, had to be made of, you know, aluminum.

Fortunately for me aluminum is a fairly versatile metal and it is, contrary to popular belief, very strong for its weight. I considered a number of items: a gun which fired aluminum bullets. I could steer the bullets as they left the muzzle to hit targets even around corners. Alas, I lacked the intestinal fortitude to actually kill anyone, even bad guys. The gun was out.
Next I considered airplanes. Airplanes are made of aluminum. I could have a cool little jet like Wonder Woman. I could control it from the ground to locate terrorists and put out fires. Who knows? I quickly discovered that even the most paltry “little jet” was in the neighborhood of five million dollars, more than my weapon budget had allotted. I even appealed to the U.S. military for funds, expounding the benefits of my gift which could accrue to them if they would provide me the use of one of the Air Force’s spare “little jets.” The short-sighted bastards passed on the deal.

Ultimately, I had a friend of my father, who happened to be a competent machinist, fashion me a hammer out of aluminum. It was large, about the size of a mini sledge, and not unattractive. Sleek and silver, it glimmered as I piloted it across the sky. With it I could break things, deflect weapons, and knock the wind out of fleeing thugs without, in the process, killing them. The true mark of a superhero is, of course, the ability to render bad guys unconscious, not send them to hell.

Satisfied, if somewhat disappointed, in my weapon, I returned to the problem of a name. Marcus suggested that if I was still against Tin Man, that perhaps Tin Hammer would sound good, or even, perhaps Silver Hammer, since my weapon is, actually silver colored. But I felt that Silver Hammer still implied too much. Honesty is the best policy for a superhero and it struck me as vaguely dishonest to call my hammer silver because of its color when I knew, full well, that everyone would assume the hammer was made of silver.

Finally, I opted to eliminate the color altogether and I settled for a moniker that commanded attention and summoned up a manly image of power and stability. I became — THE HAMMER! In the headlines, at least. In the eyes of the State of Illinois I remain Martin T. Hammer, since the bureaucrat in the Secretary of State’s office required that my name change paperwork include a full first name and a middle initial.

To be a crime fighter, one needs to develop a close working relationship with the police. It does not do to leap onto the scene in your nifty periwinkle leotard and announce to the assembled law enforcement personnel surrounding the bank robber, “stand aside officers, I shall subdue this scoundrel!” A lot of prior legwork is required before that little give and take can be pulled of credibly. The first time I tried it I nearly got shot in the back by a Mattoon county sheriff’s deputy and ended up spending 72 hours in the pokey for aiding and abetting.

But I finally hit my stride after a few more false starts. My first unqualified success was a drug bust at a crack house in East Peoria. I had been hounding some cops I knew to let me ride around with them on patrol. They were skeptical, at first. I think it was the leotard. Anyway, I just kept hanging around the precinct getting people coffee and whatnot. Everyone has to start small, you know. I’d get to use my hammer here and there mostly to, you know, hammer stuff. And then one night, Sergeant Floyd Patterson, requested me as backup. Actually, I think he kind of said, “For Christ sake Martin shut up and get in the damn car. And for God’s sake put on some pants, you freak.” It was like that at first, you know. Cops are always like that, hard boiled and unrefined. And they’re always kidding each other like that, calling each other freaks and stuff.

We met up with other law enforcement officers from the metropolitan enforcement agency in the Wal-Mart parking lot and planned the approach to the crack house. I offered that I could knock on the front door dressed as a pizza delivery guy with my hammer neatly concealed in a pizza box. When they opened the box to get a slice of pepperoni, those thugs would get the comeuppance they so richly deserved a silver, er, aluminum hammer upside the head. Unfortunately my selfless offer was met with a barrage of paper cups and wadded up doughnut bags. In their defense, the cops were right to be cautious, never having witnessed my prowess with the hammer.

Finally, it was determined to knock down the door with the battering ram and toss in a stun grenade and some tear gas. Their solution was effective, I guess, but none too elegant. I told them so. Floyd told me to go sit in the car. I thought I had lost my opportunity. When we reached the crack house, though, my plan was vindicated, well, partly. Somebody forgot to bring the battering ram. My hammer carried the day as the door to that den of iniquity dissolved in a shower of splinters. It would have been even cooler if I had been swinging the hammer, instead of Officer Perkins.

Today I am well known and respected in crime-fighting circles, in and around Peoria. Whenever there is trouble in the tri-county area, The Hammer is there. When meth lab doors need opening, I’m there. When scofflaws tear down stop signs, I’m on the scene to nail new ones up. When the mayor’s cat gets caught in a tree, I’m there to knock that branch off the tree. I also stop the occasional high speed chase by knocking out the headlights of the felon’s getaway car. This works only at night, of course.

I have gained a degree of satisfaction from my work that most people only dream of. Sure, being a minor league hero can be mundane at times. If I have to knock icicles off the water tower again I’m gonna scream. But you don’t hear me complaining… much. I’m doing good work. The people shower me with adulation, well, appreciation, well …. Did I mention that I get a free cell phone? City hall picks up the tab. They were gonna have a big spotlight thing, projecting my trademark hammer symbol on the clouds, to alert me in time of need. But I kept responding to false alarms at Malcomb Chevy/ GEO when they were having a sale. Mr. Malcomb likes his spotlight and he’s got pull on the city council. So I got the cell phone. It’s really a good deal. I get unlimited night and weekend minutes.

I also get a salary from the city, even a per diem when I’m on loan to the Quad City or Rockford Police. The Mayor doesn’t mind if I take a tip or two from grateful crime victims as long as I declare it for my W2.

As for the ladies, I think they are a little intimidated by the whole Super Hero thing. They are obviously attracted to the leotard and cape. Men in uniform always draw women in. But then they make this nervous little laugh and keep their distance, all coy and shy. It’s really sweet. Unfortunately it doesn’t translate into much one on one action for The Hammer.

I try to be philosophical about my gift, if that’s what it is. I try to make my own luck, as they say. But on those cloudy days I will admit that I have my doubts. Maybe God plays tricks on all of us. Maybe his best one is this: He whispers in our ears that we are really something, that we are special, that we are superheroes even. He tells us we are right, and good, and noble of purpose. He leads us to believe that we are the hero of our own narrative. Only later do we see that he was just joking. He whispered something else about us into everyone else’s ears.

Chicory

I recently entered, for the second time, the River City Reader’s short fiction contest. It is an interesting little challenge for someone who tends to go on and on and on in his writing. The challenge is to write a short story of 300 words or less incorporating a writing prompt from Iowa Author Ethan Canin. About 10 prompts were available, consisting of sentences plucked from Canin’s novels and short stories.

If you are a writer you will recognize that 300 words is not a lot to work with. New Yorker Fiction editor Deborah Treisman says stories in the magazine average about 2,000 – 10,000 words. To give you another idea of this limitation, the word magazine, in the last sentence, was the hundredth word in this introduction.

Last year my story A Hero of a Sort, heavily edited to make the 300 word limit, got honorable mention in the contest and was published in the Reader. This year I got honorable mention again and had my story published on the Reader’s website. While I can’t seem to break into the medals I have enjoyed the challenge and am considering some more short-short story ideas for my blog. Please enjoy here, a story I call Chicory, the first sentence of which is a prompt from Canin’s novel We Are Nighttime Travelers. My story was inspired by walks with my daughter (who is not handicapped) and my father’s devotion to this beautiful roadside flower.

 

 

Chicory

by: Dustin Joy

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. She smiles and swings our two hands back and forth extravagantly. We walk together feeling the heat in the soles of our shoes as the blacktop gives up a day’s worth of stored up sunshine. I take baby steps. She can’t walk very far or very fast with her braces.

“What is that flower, Daddy?” She pauses to allow a honeybee’s evacuation and then bends at the waist until her nose touches the cornflower blue blossom at the side of the road. “It is sooooooo pretty.”

“That’s chicory.” I sound it out for her and she forms the word, “chick-ree.”

“It grows in the rocks, Daddy. It grows real pretty. It’s the bluest flower I ever saw. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes, it is sweetheart.”

She bends down again as if paying her respects to the chicory. She sniffs. “Why does it grow in the rocks, Daddy, and not in the garden with the other flowers?”

Our shadows lengthen, one long and one short.

“The prettiest flowers grow in the rocks, my dear.”

Now she grips my fingers, tendon and bone. We are all fragile things.

“Why, Daddy?”

“Nobody knows why, my dear. Nobody knows why.”

The Boy in the Picture

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The Boy (there is not really a ten foot trout jumping up the waterfall.) My boy added that.

On the wall of my bedroom is a picture. It was given to me by my Mother who took it, had it enlarged, and had it framed. It is on the wall where I see it first thing in the morning when I swing my feet to the floor and stand up.

The picture is of a boy. The boy sits on a rock looking at a waterfall. Because I know a bit of the history of the picture I know that the rock and the waterfall and the boy are in Yellowstone National Park. The boy faces away, always, with his back turned to the camera. He is pensive, silent. It is clear to me that he doesn’t know about the camera. He is oblivious to everything around him but the waterfall. Waterfalls can do that.

The boy is a teenager. He is thin and gangly but not slouchy. He sits up straight (as his mother undoubtedly told him to) because he is a good boy. He is a good boy and he is a smart boy but his clothing reveals that he is not a “cool” boy. Here in the middle of a forest in the middle of a national park in the middle of the Summer he is wearing a button down shirt and blue jeans. His “cool” brother is undoubtedly clad in shorts and a t-shirt.

The boy sits on the rock watching the water flow down through the canyon and he holds his jacket folded in his lap. He is calm, you might say serene. He seems at ease here in a way that he is not anywhere else. Being here in nature, watching the simple, eternal cycle of water evaporating up and running back down gives him a respite from the ceaseless barrage of teenage thoughts and the endless interior monolog in his head. Here on this rock he can forget about the compulsion to behave and to do well and to study hard and to achieve great things. In this place he can stop the flow of hormone-driven nonsense that colors his view of the world and the other people in it; girls, jocks, bullies, teachers, adults. I think the boy on the rock, in that moment, wishes he could stop the relentless flow of time and sit there, if not forever, then at least a little bit longer.

I wake up every morning and I look at the boy sitting on the rock. There are times I wish I could talk to him. I wish I could tell him a few things that I know about the world but he doesn’t. I wish I could make his life easier. What would I tell him? I would tell him that a lot of the things he worries about just aren’t going to matter in a few years. I would tell him that some of the people in his life that he trusts or admires will let him down or hurt him. I would tell him what moves to make and perhaps what moves not to make in this great chess game called life. I would like to save him some grief. I would like to help him find more joy.

Mostly I would like to offer him some valuable knowledge that he will otherwise acquire through pain and embarrassment. There is so much a teenage boy thinks he knows that just isn’t so. His certitude primes him for disappointment and mistakes. He needs somebody who has experienced the world to help him navigate this perplexing place. But he won’t listen. He won’t hear it even though he is a good boy. He didn’t listen to his Mom or his Dad. He had to make the mistakes on his own. He is a silly stubborn boy!

All of us grizzled and jaded adults want to talk to the boy in the picture. We have seen suffering and we want to save him from it. We have tasted defeat and we want to rig the game in his favor. We have felt heartache and we want to help him dodge it. We want to trim the gristle off of life for him so he can enjoy the steak. But life is a marbled piece of meat. The good times and the bad times are inextricably intertwined. The people who give us the most pain are capable, at times, of giving us the most joy. Decisions which were clearly mistakes teach us something of value, even if it’s only the mundane lesson not to touch a hot stove a second time.

And if we could talk to the boy in the picture would we really know what to tell him? Have we learned anything true from our own experience? Would we tell him how to avoid our fate? As I lie in this bed snuggled against my wife, the absolute joy of my life, or stand silent in the hallway in the middle of the night listening to the most profoundly wonderful sound I will ever hear, my children’s breathing, I’m not so sure. Would I dare lead the boy away from a path which might be difficult but which will ultimately bring him to the warm place next to his soul mate, a woman who loves him and understands him and forgives him? Would I dare divert him even one degree from the true course that leads here, to this quiet hallway, to this bed?

When I consider, from the vantage point of age, what I would like to teach this boy about the world, I am troubled by a fleeting thought. What if the truth of the matter is this; I wish I didn’t know some of the things he doesn’t know. Sometimes I wish the boy could untell me things. I wish he could unteach me some of the bitter lessons I learned along the way. I wish he could teach me instead to trust people again. I wish he could help me forget all those things I know about the cruelty and greed and pettiness of other people. I wish he could teach me the pleasure of sitting on a rock.

The boy in the picture never changes. He is fifteen years old forever and there is no way I will ever teach him anything. But there may be, just possibly, a way for him to teach me a few things by his serene example. Maybe if I study the picture I can unlearn the cynicism and sarcasm that separates me sometimes from the ones I love. Maybe I can learn to forgive the people in my life who have let me down or disappointed me. Maybe I can learn, from the boy in the picture, how to just sit on a rock sometimes and let the world flow around me like a waterfall.

by: Dustin Joy

A Step Forward

I do not intend for this website to be a political blog. While I’m sure that I have already betrayed some of my leanings, I do not intend to make a habit of beating my readers over the head with my ideology. Still, today I cannot resist celebrating a piece of news which made me very happy- the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage. I do not mind talking about it here because I regard this remarkable step forward not as a political thing, but as a victory for kindness and tolerance and dignity and indeed civilization.

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 of it.

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 move from the category “them” into the category “us.” To me, that is what the United States is supposed to be.

Dustin Joy

Michael

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I found a dead body on December 3, _______. Even as I write this I sense how harsh and callous these words feel to the ear. What I found was a man, a man who had committed suicide. I didn’t know, until sometime later, what man this was and so, at least for a while, I said in my own interior monolog and to others, “I found a dead body.”

I want to be very clear about what this story is. While the “dead body” was a man who deserves consideration and I have, since, grieved for him myself, this story is about me. It is about my experience finding a “dead body.” It is about how I felt about that and what I learned. It is also about how others reacted to my story and how I felt about their sympathy or callousness.

I would like to write a story about Michael _______, the man I found. But I cannot. I cannot know much about his life. Believe me, I have tried to find out. I can’t know how he felt or what made him happy, or what made him so sad that he ended his life. His story should be told. I am not the man who can do it.

I am a pilot. I fly all over the United States. I sleep in hotel rooms about 150 nights per year. When you are a pilot you develop routines. These are very important. A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson has said, but a logical consistency will save you a great deal of trouble when your surroundings change every day. If you lay your hat on the desk with your tie coiled neatly in it and then you place your wallet and watch to its left and your cell phone to its right, you will tend to have an idea where these items are at 4:00 in the morning when your alarm (which is on the right hand nightstand next to your glass of water) drags you out of bed. These consistencies follow us into the cockpit. They are called checklists and you can be sure, after doing them 10,000 times, that your hand will naturally float to the switch you need to push just before it is required that you do so.

It is no surprise, then, to find me in a hotel room near the Oklahoma City airport with my USA Today in my hand, the remote in the other (to turn on the Weather Channel, of course), and a steaming cup of mediocre hotel room coffee on the left nightstand. I had to “show” at about 1:00 in the afternoon for a flight to Houston, TX, followed by a flight back to Oklahoma City and, once again, back to Houston.

The Weather Channel decreed that it would be a cold and windy day in Oklahoma City, which nearly goes without saying. I had recently acquired a new hobby called Geocaching. Geocaching is an organized “treasure hunt” using GPS technology. Unbeknownst to non-cachers (called muggles in the lexicon) there are small containers hidden all around the world which can be found by using a GPS and determining the coordinates on a website called Geocaching.com. These containers can be as small as a vitamin pill, or as large as a truck. They contain, at minimum, a logbook which you can sign and sometimes trade items. Trade items are trinkets or toys for kids or occasionally what we call a “travel bug.” The trinkets are to be traded; you take something, you leave something. The travel bugs are small coins or “dog-tags” which have a distinct number printed on them and so can be tracked and their movements logged on the Geocaching website.

On this windy morning in Oklahoma City, I had planned to take a walk along the biking trail adjacent to the Oklahoma River and find a geocache for which I had written down the coordinates. It would later strike me as ironic that I was essentially playing a game when I discovered the man whose life experience had brought him to this tragic end.
The cache was near a pedestrian bridge crossing a drainage canal along the trail. This spot was about half a mile from my hotel and maybe a hundred yards from another hotel which sat along the river.

Even prior to my experience on December 3, I had come to think of Oklahoma as a depressing place. One cannot truly be a traveler in the sense of knowing a place. What you get, even if you travel a lot, are snapshots and impressions. It is possible, if you are not careful, to form a powerful opinion about an entire state from your experience of a few city blocks, or a bad hotel. This is of course unfair. It is nonetheless true.

The Oklahoma I have known includes a rapid transit of the state from North to South on I-35 when I was a child of 12, several nights in a lackluster hotel undergoing renovation next to the Tulsa airport, and many, many overnight stays in this particular industrial park/strip mall just outside the Oklahoma City airport. Our Oklahoma City hotel is nice enough. The rooms are clean, the van service is prompt, and a good breakfast is provided in the morning. The terrain around the hotel is less inspiring. Scattered on either side of the main road coming out of the north side of the airport is an irregular assortment of hotels, restaurants, car washes, small businesses, and gas stations similar to what one might find anywhere in the country next to an airport. These complexes always somewhat depress me for reasons I cannot exactly explain.

This one, in particular brings on a gloomy feeling in me because of previous walks I have taken in the vicinity of this hotel. What one finds, if he walks even one block east or west of the main drag, is a flat scrubby plain of red dirt populated by sparse little trees, what I might call tumbleweeds, and lots of cast-off junk. The “river,” which runs at right angles to the main road, is a muddy little ditch, highly eroded by periodic rains, but nearly stagnant, the lack of current suggesting the lack of any rain at all. Along its banks have been deposited old piles of construction material and garbage. More than once, I have seen old couches or other furniture pitched down into the gullies. Close to the road bridge one is apt to find a vast collection of beer cans, snack food wrappers, soda bottles, and an unusual number of chewing tobacco tins with occasional accompanying containers of accumulated spit. This is not to suggest that the people of Oklahoma are more slovenly or prone to littering than their neighbors, but only to illustrate the origin of my prejudice against this place. Twice I have, while hiking along this river, wandered into the lonely camp of a homeless person with its battered tent, one or more shopping carts from local stores, and piles of sundry items making up eclectic and unpredictable collections of unknown use.

I like to walk, though. Being a geography buff I have a strong desire to get to know the places I travel even if, as I have said, I can’t really “know” much. And so I took a cup of stronger, better coffee from the hotel lobby, waved to the girl behind the front desk, and walked outside. It was chilly but nothing like as bad as it could be in December in Oklahoma. I remember alternating, as I walked, between zipping and unzipping my jacket. Had I been standing still I would have been cold, walking made me sweat just enough to seek relief. I cut across the parking lot and had to wait a few minutes for an opportunity to j-walk Cimarron Ave. Trotting across I managed to spill coffee on my jacket, no new phenomenon. I downed the rest of the cup and pitched it into a dumpster behind the Applebee’s restaurant. I did not go to the trail-end nearest the highway because I knew approximately where the geocache was located. I decided to cut a few minutes off my travel by approaching it at an angle. The terrain between me and the official trailhead parking lot was easy going, mostly parking lots, although I did have to detour around some contractors doing cement work on a new bank. I j-walked again across Columbine Street. On the other side was a vacant lot which had been graded for some construction project and then let grow up in weeds. There were holes and ditches hidden in the now dry, dead weeds and so I debated on the direct route or a more roundabout walk down along the sidewalk-less street. I opted for the street and walked along the curb for about 50 yards until I was able to enter a parking lot that served as the trailhead for the bike path and a launching point for a little excursion boat which traveled sometimes between here and downtown Oklahoma City.

As it was Sunday morning I expected to be left pretty much alone on the trail. In fact, I recall being irritated at seeing a white pickup truck parked in the parking lot and mentally noted that it appeared out of place. The truck was obviously a work truck as the bed was filled with what appeared to be tool boxes and some nondescript parts for working on heating and cooling systems. This is not as impressive a deduction as I might lead you to believe since the truck also had the logo of a local refrigeration contractor on the door. The reason I found it out of place was because I have not known many “working” people who go jogging on Sunday morning. I recognize this observation as an unsustainable stereotype and yet it is what I thought. I could not picture the driver of this particular truck cycling or hiking along a semi-urban bike path on Sunday morning. I walked on.

Crossing the parking lot, I walked down to the boat landing and thought about why anyone would pay to “cruise” along this little drainage ditch and I wondered if many did. I turned right at the top of the boat ramp and joined the bike path heading east. The pedestrian bridge is only a few paces from the trailhead and as I walked onto it I happened to glance to my right. The bridge crosses a cement-lined drainage canal which must accumulate drainage from the south side of the road, pass under the little road bridge, and empty itself into the river just underneath where I stood. There was no water in the drainage canal and I noted, at this time, that there was a man standing down in the canal just under the road bridge. As he was nearly 80 yards away, I could not see what he was doing but I could see his outline clearly as he was somewhat silhouetted by the light coming under the bridge. I did not wave, as I usually do in such circumstances because, I think, my brain was wrestling with a question I could not quite put my finger on. It went something like this, “what the hell is somebody standing down in this ditch on a Sunday morning for. Oh well, people do odd things. But perhaps I should not go down the trail too far because, after all, it is odd people who do odd things and I am alone in this vicinity with what could prove to be an odd person.” My brain said “caution” and I walked on across the bridge.

I walked down the trail only a few yards past the pedestrian bridge as I programmed my GPS for the cache coordinates. When I got it programmed I realized that the cache must be located right near or even under the bridge. I walked back toward the bridge and the signal clearly homed in on the northeast bridge abutment. I walked around the rail of the bridge and down a gentle grassy slope until I was standing under the edge of the bridge itself. I was circumspect and I worried, for a minute, that my odd friend from the ditch might be able to see what I was doing here, not once reflecting on the odd behavior I myself was displaying. I found that my activities were blocked by the intervening scrub trees and so I proceeded to look for the cache. I quickly spotted it, a small container tucked up under the bridge supports. I opened it up, looked the contents over, and signed the logbook. I had thought about continuing on down the trail but feared being cut off from my hotel by this odd individual I have spoken of. I hiked back up to the trail and retraced my steps across the bridge.

A funny thing about the human mind is its habit of making sense out of things that don’t make sense. We all have, within our eyes a spot where the retina meets our optic nerve. This patch of retina is effectively sightless, a big black spot in our field of vision. And yet we do not see a black spot. Our brain fills in the blank with interpolated data to make the eye’s view of the world make sense. Our brain has the ability, throughout our lives, to fill in the blanks. It weighs, measures, and calculates the information it receives, so that what you see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or think conforms to its own rigid framework of previous experience. It sorts and orders. It allocates sensory inputs in ways that can lead to cognitive dissonance and gives birth to a phenomenon called confirmation bias, where your brain automatically discounts data or arguments which oppose your previously held belief and buttress those which support it.

My brain, having never seen a man hanging by a rope from a bridge railing, saw instead a man standing in a drainage canal, arms akimbo. Even this was outside my brain’s normal experience and so I thought “odd” and was wary. Still, my brain must have calculated that “man standing in drainage canal” was more plausible than man “hanging from bridge rail” and so, if I had left the trail in the other direction I would have continued with my day and flown to Houston and never again reflected on the man, or the bridge, or the whys or the hows that have haunted me since that day. I would have seen one of the handful of truly life-changing images I have ever witnessed, without knowing it. The experience is not in the seeing, necessarily, but in the understanding.

On my way back across the bridge sensory input finally accumulated sufficient evidence to overcome my brain’s ability to rationalize and —- I stopped in my tracks. The man was still standing in the ditch, as before with his arms slightly akimbo, as before, facing me, as before, with his head down, as before, and not moving, as before. The man appeared to have not moved a muscle in the fifteen or so minutes I was attending to the cache. Here my brain cried foul. I looked closer and the camel’s back-breaking straw finally revealed itself. Stretched between the man’s neck and the bridge rail above was a thin, but definite line. That was all. There was no motion, even with the blowing wind, and no awkwardness or contortion to the man’s body. There was just his stillness and this thin line of the rope. I suddenly became aware that I was breathing very hard and chanting (aloud, I think) the words “no, no, no, no no.” Then I thought, and perhaps said, “It’s a prank; a leftover Halloween prank.” But as I thought this my mind was running through the calendar and calculating the number of people who might walk on this trail between October 31 and December 3 and the calculation was not working out in any sort of logical way.

I started to run. I ran down the bridge’s western incline and started across the lawn adjacent to the drainage canal. I think I lost sight of the man due to some scrubby trees growing along the canal and realized that the closest approach to the body I could achieve without scrambling down into the canal itself was to get to the south end of the parking lot and follow a cement trough which ran from the parking lot into the canal. I did this quickly but was cognizant that, despite myself, I was moving slower and slower as I approached the canal. When I reached the edge of the canal I guessed that I was about 50 feet from the man. I think I swooned a little as my eyes took in what was clearly not a Halloween prank.

It was this part of the experience that I later reflected on with shame many times. I stood at the edge of the canal looking at the man’s body for maybe a full minute. I could see clearly that it was not a dummy. Somehow, though, it was not clear to me that it was a person. Looking back I cannot understand this little piece of faulty logic. The man’s proportions were correct. He was not distorted, or disfigured, nor even disheveled. His clothes looked normal. His hair was thin and wispy with a sort of pointed clump growing right out of the top of his head. I could not see the man’s face (a fact for which I have been grateful ever since).

The next detail of the scene which struck me was one which haunted me for months afterward; his feet were either touching the ground or within inches of it. He was so close to really standing on the bottom of the canal that, from a distance, I had seen no light under his feet. I supposed, at the time, that the distance from the top of the bridge rail to the bottom of the canal was about 15 feet. Including his height (about 6 feet) I figured the rope must have been about 9 feet long. I wondered for a long time whether he might have survived the fall had the rope been a foot longer. Did he dangle there only a few tantalizing inches from the ground. Had he measured the rope? He must have measured the rope. How else to know that it was long enough? How else to know that it was not too long? Had he thought about the possibility of simply breaking his legs? Had he thought about the possibility of dangling there inches from the ground? Or did he know that it would break his neck regardless? Did he think about any of this at all?

The reason I was ashamed later was not because of anything I did upon finding the man, but for what I did not do. I did not jump down into the canal and try to lift his weight off the rope just in case he lingered alive. I did not rush to the top of the bridge rail and cut the rope. Cut the rope with what? I didn’t rush over and feel his wrist for a faint pulse. I did nothing at all to try to help him. I said at the time, and later to myself, “he was already dead. It was apparent. He was dead.” But, in truth, I did not know that. And I have often speculated about why I did not approach him. I have rationalized that I could not have helped him. I needed to call 911. “If I lifted him how would I undo the rope.”, “I had nothing with which to cut the rope,” “I wouldn’t be able to sense a faint pulse, anyway,” and “he was already dead.” I have thought all of these things and in retrospect I think they are all true. He was dead. There was no way he had been hanging there less than several hours. The fifteen foot fall would have broken his neck even if his feet had hit the ground. There is no way I could have saved him. He really was dead.

But the truth is that there was only one reason I did not approach him and try to help. I was afraid. I was afraid to see him up close. I was afraid to see his face. I was afraid to touch him. He was a man. He was a man I might have shook hands with at a meeting or party. But, in my incapacitated imagination, he had crossed some threshold into another place. He was, in that moment, a sort of specter. As proud as I am of my lack of superstition and my rationality, I could not shake off the conviction that if I walked up and touched him he would raise his head and look at me. For someone who spends 150 nights a year alone in a hotel room, the creation of this specter was a real problem for me for a while. Many nights I would lie in the dark hotel room and visualize, in my mind’s eye, the man hanging from the coat rack in the closet. His face would slowly swivel up and look at me with a question, “well, are you going to help me this time?”

I did call 911. As I turned away back up toward the parking lot I dialed the emergency number on my cell phone. It struck me that this was a momentous thing to do (I had never dialed those numbers before in my life), and yet it seemed natural. When the operator answered I found that I was panting, breathing hard. My speech came out in short bursts. “My name is Dustin Joy. I think I just found a dead body, the body of a suicide victim. I am near the river trailhead.” I looked up and realized, fortunately, that the address of the place was written on a sign near the entrance to the parking lot. I’m not sure, otherwise, how I would have described the location. Apparently the wind was blowing harder here as the operator asked me if I could go to a less windy spot and repeat what I had told her. I remember cupping my hand around the receiver and trying again. She got it this time and she told me to stay put and that someone would be there soon. I don’t remember her voice conveying any sympathy toward me and, as irrational as this sounds, I felt a little off-put by this. This feeling overtook me several more times that day and later when I related the story to others and yet it sounds ridiculous to me now. Why would I think that I deserved sympathy or concern. The man I found deserved sympathy and concern.

I sat alone in the parking lot for what seemed like twenty minutes. I think it was really only about ten. In that time I sat on the curb and leaned against a lamppost, and, at length, went back down the cement trough to look at the man again. I thought about jumping down into the ditch and trying to help the man. Once again I was able to rationalize not doing so. The ditch was deep. I might not have been able to climb back out. Someone needed to be there to direct the police, or the ambulance.

I went back and leaned against the lamppost again. I remember this quite clearly; I thought about what a person who had found a dead body should look like or be doing when the ambulance arrived. This is, of course, insane. I have no idea where this particular internal script came from, what set it to running, or what it means. I just know that I thought about it. I even remember sampling different seating positions and I could not explain why. I tried sitting on the curb again. I leaned against the post. I paced back and forth. Finally I could hear sirens approaching in the distance. I knew they must be for me – or rather for the man under the bridge.

I was overwhelmed by what showed up. First to arrive was, indeed, an ambulance. I waved my hands over my head and the driver pulled into the parking lot and stopped just a couple of feet from me. He stepped out. I think there were several, or at least two, people in the ambulance but I only have recollection of the driver. He looked at me and probably said something, I can’t remember what. I said, “he’s down here under the bridge. I will show you.” I led him down the little trough to the edge of the canal. He did not immediately jump to the aid of the man, either. He didn’t jump into the canal, run over to the man, and try to lift him up. He walked back toward the ambulance with me. I was surprised by this.

About that time a police car pulled into the lot, and an officer, a handsome, African-American man, got out of the car and came over to talk to the ambulance driver. They exchanged some words that I did not hear. The ambulance driver pointed toward the canal and the policeman walked down and took a look in the same way the driver had. He also walked back up to the vehicles without doing anything to help the man. Another police car pulled in followed quickly by two full-blown fire trucks. Out of the fire trucks tumbled what seemed like twenty firemen and women of various shapes, sizes, and colors. All of them walked down to the edge of the canal, looked at the dangling man, and then proceeded to stand there and talk to each other about I knew not what.

For the first time I noted that the ambulance driver had jumped down into the canal and approached the man’s body. I stayed near my lamppost and so could not see what was going on in the canal. The cop approached me finally and I remember feeling a little angry that they had left me standing for so long by myself. I was also growing angry at the firemen for what I felt was their disrespectful loitering. When the cop came up to me I remember saying to him, in a rather awkward construction of words, “Is it a person, and is he really dead?” The cop reported that it was and he was. He asked me to explain how I came to find the body. I explained my morning much as I have explained it to you here. I even included the detail about geocaching which I had originally thought I might leave out since it seemed such a frivolous activity given the circumstances. Also, I knew it would be hard to explain.

The cop had a notebook but I cannot remember him writing anything in it. He nodded a lot and grinned in a way that I found inappropriate. I had the strong sense that he was mocking me although I would be hard-pressed to say what led me to think this. After a few minutes a woman wearing a fire department uniform approached me. The cop backed up a couple of paces and started to talk to one of the many other cops now present. The fire-woman, for the first time, asked if I was okay. I told her I thought I was, but that I was a bit shaken. I remember saying over and over again, “I suppose you guys see this kind of thing every day, but it really effected me.” The lady nodded solemnly when I said this, as all the other responders had or would. She handed me a card, her business card (I keep it to this day), and said that if, later on, I had any problems dealing with this, that I could call her and talk about it. I felt a little better.

Suddenly I became aware of the sound of a helicopter overhead. I first assumed that it was on final to land at the airport. Then it stopped it’s forward motion and hovered, clearly against a very strong wind, right over us at an altitude of maybe 500 feet. I could not believe it. I tried to determine if it was a news helicopter or part of the rescue team. I was never able to figure that out. It hovered over the scene for maybe 2 minutes and then turned and flew rapidly downwind toward the north. I had the impression, at one point, that one of the cops was talking to the helicopter over a walkie-talkie. When I turned back around the fire-woman was gone and to my surprise, so was the ambulance. Somehow the paramedics had cut down the man, loaded him onto a gurney, carried him up out of the canal, loaded him in the ambulance and driven away without my notice. During that time I was never more than 15 feet from the back door of the ambulance. I still cannot explain that. Tunnel vision is yet another of the brain’s little tricks, and it is a good one. Magicians use it to great effect, obviously. And I like to think that perhaps the Fire Department Lady used it on me to spare me from another sight that might have stuck with me.

After a little while, the African-American policeman returned and asked me some more questions. He said that a homicide detective would be there soon and would want to talk to me. He emphasized that I should not worry about that. I said to him, “I suppose you guys see this kind of thing every day, but it really effected me.” He gestured to two cops who were chatting behind him. “It tears me up,” he laughed, “but these two guys are as tough as nails.” They both looked up and chuckled.

I will now concede that the conversation probably did not go down with the kind of callous disregard I describe here. I’m sure the officer’s words were embellished by me and perhaps even misunderstood. I once again had the feeling that the cops were mocking me and not taking seriously enough the plight of the poor man who had killed himself. I remember thinking that the cop was an asshole and that his buddies were worse. I remember thinking that the firemen were rubber-neckers and slackers.

While I sat on the curb waiting for the homicide officer, a local television news team pulled into the parking lot in a big SUV like a Suburban with a retractable antennae sticking out of the roof. A cameraman got out as did a slick-looking news reporter. I was afraid he might come and want to talk to me and I remember sliding around to the other side of the lamppost as if he might not see me. I asked the policemen if I had to talk to the reporter. I told him I didn’t want to. He seemed surprised by that, but said that I didn’t have to talk to him at all. I needn’t have worried. The reporter walked down to the edge of the canal, talked to a couple of firemen for about 30 seconds, walked back up to the SUV, and left. They had concluded, I guess, that it was a simple suicide (as if that could ever be simple). From what I discovered later, the media must have rules against reporting on suicides because try as I might, I could never find anything about this incident in the local papers or on the local news.

Still waiting for the homicide cop, I paced around the parking lot saying to various people “I suppose you guys see this kind of thing every day, but it really effected me.” Each one allowed that that was probably true. I looked up at one point and a middle-aged couple in jogging clothes was walking into the parking lot along the same route I had come. They were obviously curious about the cars and trucks and SUV’s and helicopters. They began walking toward the knot of firemen by the canal. I had the strongest urge to run over and bar their way. I think this was to protect the couple from seeing what I had seen, but I really think I wanted to protect “the man” from further disrespectful gawkers. Watching the firemen had given me a protective, if not possessive feeling toward “the man.” I felt that his privacy was not being respected.

Finally the long awaited homicide cop arrived. He parked along the edge of the lot away from the other cars. I remember him looking like Columbo, but this might have been my imagination at work again. He was middle-aged and heavy set with a rumpled looking sport coat on and, I think, a tie with the knot loosened up. He spoke to another cop well out of my hearing range, wandered down to the canal edge and finally walked around to look down from the bridge above. What he saw or concluded I will never know. The hanged man was gone. Presumably the rope was gone. He walked back over, got in his car, and left. He never spoke to me at all.

I was mentally tired by this time and I asked the cop if I could go back to my hotel now. He just said “sure” and started to walk away. Again I had a powerful feeling, I don’t know why, that these cops owed me a little more sympathy than I was getting. I said, “it’s about half a mile over to my hotel. Could one of you guys give me a ride?” He looked over at one of the “tough as nails” cops and the other man nodded. “Yeah,” he said, “come on. I’ll give you a ride.”

I have sat in the front of a police car on one other occasion during a ride-along with my friend who is a Bettendorf, Iowa police sergeant. Fortunately, I have never ridden in the back of one. I could not stop comparing these cops to how I thought my friend would act in similar circumstances. I decided to strike up a conversation with this one, a tall, blond, good-looking, young man. I said, “I suppose you guys see this kind of thing every day, but it really affected me.” He thought about this for a minute. I was thankful for his taking it seriously. “I guess this stuff doesn’t bother me any more,” he said, and then after another pause, “unless it’s a kid. I still can’t deal with that too well.” I thanked him for the ride when he let me off at the hotel and I reflected for a minute what this might look like to the hotel clerk or one of my crew if they saw me getting out of a police car. None did.

When I returned to the room the world was somehow a different place. My hat was on the desk with my tie coiled in it. My glass of water was on the nightstand. My newspaper was where I had left it. But something was different and I could not quite put my finger on what it was. I somehow understood that staying in a hotel alone would be different from then on.

Ever since that day I have had this second unwanted guest in my room with me. He is no longer menacing as he was before, but he seldom fails to make a brief appearance as I lay down to bed in a hotel room. At home, where I am surrounded by my family, he does not show up. I have often wondered if it was the fact that I met him on a hotel overnight that determined his domicile, this phantom. If I had found him near my home perhaps that would be worse. It is hard to say.

And curiously he is no likelier to dwell in my hotel in Oklahoma City than Philadelphia, or Chicago, or Buffalo. He is, in my case, a hotel/ layover manifestation. I’m not sure why. I am convinced that it is this little bastard offspring of memory that is the origin of ghost stories, although I don’t believe in ghosts myself. My friend Michael is purely a creation of my vivid imagination and I believe that I have been able to manipulate him over time. I still think of him sometimes when I go to sleep in a hotel room but now he is not a menacing thing lurking in the closet but a sort of benign entity, perhaps even a confidant, as ridiculous as that sounds. Mainly now I want to ask him questions. I want to ask him who he is, exactly, and why he did what he did. Was he angry or sad or hopeless, or maybe fatally ill. Did he reflect on what his action would do to his family? How about to the guy who found him? Was it his responsibility to worry about such things? He remains reticent.

For a few months, at least, I was obsessed with finding out who Michael __________ was. I felt sure that there would be something on the news or in the paper. Surely such a momentous thing that had happened to (me?) would be a headline. But it was not. I scanned the Oklahoma City papers for weeks and scoured the local media outlet websites. No mention at all. We treat suicide in this country as a shameful act and we seem to think that we are doing families a favor by ignoring it or sweeping it under the rug. The only data I ever found was a rather abbreviated obituary on the website of an Oklahoma City funeral home for a young man (my age) who had died on the date in question. There was no mention of a cause of death and no details about where or when he died. But I was pretty sure.

And there was a picture. The man looked young and healthy in the picture. He was the right body type. He had a little wisp of hair on his otherwise balding head. And he had, even in the pictures from his youth, a veiled sadness, or something. There were photos of him as a boy, fishing and hunting, just as I did. There were pictures of an awkward looking teenager, just as I was. There were pictures of him as a young man with a little girl who I knew, somehow instinctively, was not his daughter but probably a niece. And I felt sure that in all of these photos there was this underlying sadness. And I can’t tell you exactly what it was that made me feel that. I wish I could see those photos without the context of the suicide and its discovery to see if I could still see the sadness in those photos or if that sense, also, was merely a figment of my very fertile imagination. I tried to show them to my wife but she could not see them in the same way I did.

I am very much a believer in reason and rationality. I do understand why superstition is so hard to overcome, however. Sometimes coincidence can be a powerful persuader. It can even give chills to a rationalist like me. On my first trip back into Oklahoma City after the suicide I was assigned a visual approach to runway 17L which took me very nearly overhead the pedestrian bridge. As I turned final for the runway, I noticed that the Final Approach Fix for the Approach was named HANGS intersection. All of these fixes have odd, typically nonsensical names. Although I had flown this approach many times the name had never registered with me before. It was a little spooky to look at it on the chart and I thought to myself, “I will really be freaked out if it turns out to be directly over the little bridge.”

To be honest it wasn’t really. It is about two miles north of the spot. And therein lies the root of our superstitious nature. Our brain, as I mentioned before, is a great recognizer of patterns, even if none exist. HANGS intersection has been on the ILS 17L approach at Oklahoma City for years. I have flown it and reported its passage to air traffic control for years. Yet it only became meaningful because of my experience on the ground. And the hanged man I found was not hanged under Hangs intersection. He was hanged approximately two miles south of Hangs intersection. Unless he was a pilot, he did not choose the spot to match the approach plate. And if some omnipotent God arranged for him to be hanged near the intersection to impress little old me, then why not directly under the intersection’s geographic coordinates? It is another mind creation. It engenders no meaning. It distracts from the true meaning of the event which is that a real person, in our real country, was rendered so miserable by things in his experience that he decided hanging himself from a bridge rail was preferable to doing whatever he was doing for one more day.

We are all left with the question; what could we have done? What can we do to help other people avoid coming to that conclusion? Would one kind word from one other person have delayed or prevented this? Was I possibly the person who could have made a difference in Michael’s life? How about somebody else I met today? Is there another Michael in my life, in my circle of friends, at work? I think about this often now.

Michael has changed my life in many ways even if I did not have the opportunity to change his. I don’t joke about suicide anymore and certainly not about hanging. I don’t say “go ahead and shoot me” or any of the many death related little sayings that we are used to. I even heard the silly little Roger Miller song Dang Me the other day and, I must admit, cringed when he sang out “they ought to take a rope and hang me.” There is a scene in the Shawshank Redemption where Books, the older inmate is released after many years in prison and doesn’t know what to do with himself. Although I have watched that scene many times before, after December 3, ______  I averted my eyes when Books climbed up onto the chair in the pivotal scene.

I find that I am keenly aware and touched by any suicide I read about now. I find a dull achy feeling in my chest when I hear about it. I think about the family and the person who found the body and I sometimes obsess over how it might have been prevented. Before this I had considered suicide in a cold philosophical way as a sometimes logical and even rational choice. I sometimes thought that there was something noble in the death of Hemingway or Hunter Thompson or even Socrates. But now when I entertain such thoughts, I think of Michael hanging there from a god-damned bridge rail and I am disgusted with myself. I wonder how sad you would have to be to do what he did, or Robin Williams did, or Richard Jenni did and I wish, for the thousandth time that I could have talked to any of them for just a few moments and I wonder again, probably irrationally, just how a few small friendly caring gestures might have tipped their scales the other way. I don’t know. I will never know, perhaps.

But I think it is worth trying to cheer people up. I think it is worth trying to treat people with kindness when you can. I would like to say “the world is a good place” or “things are not so bad.” But sadly, for some people, the world is not a good place and maybe it really is so bad. I understand this intellectually. There are gravely ill people whose very existence is misery to them. It would be wrong of me to judge them for wanting to end that suffering. But my experience with Michael has made me think that sometimes, occasionally, maybe, our little actions day to day could make one person conclude that things are not quite bad enough to make them jump off a bridge in the middle of the night. I hope this is true.

 

Postscript:
I learned many things from my experience in Oklahoma. One of the most troubling is how unreliable the brain’s narrative of an event can be. I wrote down the bulk of this story within a few days of the actual event. I felt, at the time, that it was a fairly faithful account. Some time later I had another overnight in OKC. I was drawn, irresistibly, to revisit the trail and the pedestrian bridge. I took some pictures and paid attention to details. I was appalled at how poorly my memory of the event corresponded with the actual “lay of the land.” Examples:

1. An important part of the story to me was the idea of standing on the pedestrian bridge and seeing the body hanging from the other bridge. I discovered during the second visit that, because of the intervening scrub trees, I could not have seen the body from the pedestrian bridge. I must have spotted it from the incline west of the pedestrian bridge.

2. I clearly remember seeing the body in silhouette caused by the light coming under the road bridge. After re-examining the site I think this is very unlikely since that side of the ditch would have been in shadow. Also, after returning to the site, I am highly skeptical of my estimation that Michael’s feet were near the ground. I think the point of view from the incline made it appear he was standing on the ground, but I think he may have been well above the ground in actuality.

3. I got a lot of smaller details wrong. There is no Cimarron Ave. (It is actually Meridian Ave.) There is no Columbine Street (It is only a numbered street.) There may be an Oklahoma River, but this one is called the North Canadian River. The Applebee’s is actually a Chili’s. There is no bank where men were pouring concrete.

4. I have no faith, anymore, in my assessment of the police and firefighters who were present that day. I really doubt that they were as callous as I portray them to be. Because they really do “see this stuff every day” I think their “business as usual” approach is part of a coping mechanism for them. I hope this is the case.

5. I really thought that my experience was profound or unique. What I found, when I shared my experience with a handful of close friends and family was that, for the most part, people were not impressed. One friend, whom I thought to be a very “sensitive” person could hardly wait for me to finish my narrative before launching into his own story about working on a local ambulance squad and seeing “lots” of dead bodies. I was deflated by this and, to top that off, felt guilty that I was somehow in a competition now to make my experience relevant.

I often wish that I had walked the other direction down the trail that day in Oklahoma City. I frequently blamed Michael for his selfishness in making me part of his story. But I think, and I hope, Michael also made me a little more sympathetic and a little more aware of the suffering of others and for that I am grateful. And I think it made me aware of the limitations of my ability to see and remember and understand which humbled me a bit and made me a little less strident in my opinions. We could all benefit from such a lesson once in a while, I think.

by: Dustin Joy

And the Loser is …

In April, after serving two years as an appointed member of the Rockridge School Board, I ran for a full term spot and finished dead last among the competitors for the seat. I have a feeling the result was related to my outspoken advocacy for a Education Fund Referendum for the district. At my last meeting before leaving the board I had an opportunity to talk about my time as a board member and what I think I did wrong, or right. Here is what I said.

 

Ever since Nixon’s famous “you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” speech it has been the prerogative of people who lose elections to make it worse by saying something about the results and what they mean. I’ll try not to do that.

Since this is likely my last board meeting I wonder if you would indulge me, for just a couple of minutes to tell you something about what being on this board has meant to me and what I learned.

I would like to start by saying what a pleasure it was to discover, when I got on this board, that these folks up here were not a bunch of malevolent ogres, but in fact a group of good people who stepped up to do a job nobody else wanted to do, for no pay, in their free time, and who are doing their best with really bad options. I have learned a lot from them and they have been universally generous and helpful to me as I tried to learn the mountain of information required to be a really good and useful board member as Thomas the Tank Engine would say.

I lost this recent election pretty badly and I‘m afraid that it wasn’t for lack of “getting my message across” as losing candidates usually say, but very likely because I did get it across. I said what I thought and a lot of voters did not agree. That, of course, is their prerogative. I have been told by a number of friends since the election that it was a mistake to advocate an Education Fund referendum. School tax referenda are the only opportunity most people get to “vote against taxes” and if you look at the data on school referenda it is clear that they frequently take advantage of that opportunity. But I could not duck this question. I felt I had to make my position clear. Because working for an Ed Fund referendum was where I got started in this process three years ago and I still believe it is a sadly necessary step given the state of Illinois today.

It is hard to explain, in a few words in the newspaper, the complexity of the problems handed down to districts like ours from Springfield. It has taken me a full two years of study to put the picture together in my head and it is still a blurry picture.

Illinois – A Tale of Two Districts

Education in Illinois today is a story of haves and have nots. Rich suburban districts like Northfield H.S.D. 225 are buying their students laptop computers. Their state of the art schools offer classes like architecture, ceramics, photography, astronomy, forensic science, meteorology, and seven (yes, seven) foreign languages. At Glenbrook High School you can participate in debate team, contribute your writing to the literary magazine, take courses in radio and TV broadcasting (yes, they have their own radio station, WGBK), and compete on the swim team. The Northfield District spends $21,577 per student on operations. Virtually all of their funding is from local property taxes and you will be further discouraged when I tell you that their total tax rates are lower than ours.

Contrast that with Beardstown C.U.S.D. 15, a poor semi-rural district along the Illinois River. Beardstown currently spends $8464 per student on operations and $5300 on instruction. 76% of their funding comes from the State. I don’t need to tell you; they do not have their own radio station.
Sometimes you hear people say that money can’t buy education results. When I look at the funding and performance of Illinois schools, however (which any of you can do on the Illinois State Board of Education website) one quickly sees that money not only makes a difference, it makes a big difference. Northfield pays their teachers $101,000. 80% of those teachers have a masters degree. Beardstown pays their teachers $43,000. Given these options where do you suppose the best teachers in Illinois go?

In every parameter analyzed by the ISBE Report Card Northfield trounces Beardstown: Graduation Rate – 96% vs. 84%, PSAE scores – 85% vs. 31%, Readiness for college classes – 83% vs. 13%.

Rockridge?

What about Rockridge? The Rockridge District has a 19% higher median household income than the State, 41% higher than Rock Island County as a whole. Yet our district has no frills. We are not handing out laptops. We do not have a pool. Our buildings are old, our textbooks tend to be old, and we have grade schools which lack a full time principal on site. Right now our performance metrics are not bad. Our graduation rate is 96%. Our PSAE ranking is 62%, well above Beardstown, but far behind Northfield. Our readiness for college numbers stand at 45%, almost exactly at the state average. So far so good.

The Illinois Constitution says “The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.” Illinois, quite obviously, has not met this obligation. The state aid foundation number, $6119 has not changed since FY 2010. Costs, of course, continue to rise. Furthermore Illinois has not even fully funded its foundation obligations for the last several years. In FY 2013 payments to districts stood at 89% of the amount owed in the formula. In simple English this means that those rich districts like Northfield fully fund (some would say extravagantly) their schools from local taxes while poor districts in Illinois have lost even that pittance from the state which kept them afloat.

Rockridge was one of the losers. From 2009 to 2014 Rockridge’s general state aid went from about $2.7 million to $1.2 million annually. That is $1.5 million dollars gone missing from our budget – every year. What can we do?
The fundamental nature of budgets does not change just because Illinois fails to meet its obligation. You must cut spending or increase revenue. The board has done a great deal of the former. I sat up on the stage in the auditorium at a recent meeting and listened as students, teachers, and members of our community (people I respect a great deal) spoke earnestly about the value of music education and the quality of our program here at Rockridge. And I believed every word they said. And I wanted to get up and walk down into the audience and join them. And then I voted to make the program cut. Because we had to.

Whether we continue down that road, toward Beardstown, if you will, depends on how you view Rockridge today and what kind of community you aspire to have in the future. You might believe Rockridge is an extravagant district plagued by waste and overspending. I just don’t see that. But we can keep cutting. We can cut extra-curriculars and athletics, we can cut more of those people, like teacher’s aides and secretaries, whose daily interactions with our children shape their educational experience, and of course, we can cut teachers. We can become Beardstown with all that that entails.

I think I can safely say that we are not going to be Northfield but I think it is within our capacity as a community to keep being Rockridge. That is why I worked to get Rockridge Forward passed. That is why I supported the 1% sales tax. And that is why I said what I said during the campaign. My approach was unsuccessful, obviously, but I still am not convinced it was wrong. Problems are never solved by sweeping them under the rug. The solution to these problems ultimately lies with the voters of Rockridge, and Rock Island County, and, of course, the State of Illinois.

I said in the paper that good schools are the best thing a community can spend money on. They are an investment in the future. They pay dividends even to those residents without kids in the school. Studies show that and I really believe it. You can look around at communities with bad schools. You don’t want to live there.

As I leave the board I am still optimistic that we can keep Rockridge Rockridge. It has been my great pleasure to work with this board and these fine administrators and our wonderful staff. This place is as good as it is because every day these folks are doing more than they should have to with less than they need to do it. We, as parents, are lucky to have them.

by Dustin Joy

The Sycamore

There is a reason that mankind will never completely do away with wild things, hard as they might consciously or unconsciously try to do so. The reason lies in the limited scope of man’s perceptions and in the simple dogged persistence of nature.

There is little doubt that man has the capacity, with bulldozers, end loaders, excavators, and trucks, to undo nature’s patient workings of a thousand years. They have done it and they will continue to do it until the last trumpet blows, if you believe in that sort of thing.But they will not, ultimately, eradicate nature and natural things.

Along the Mississippi River, behind my father’s house, grows a nearly 100 foot tall sycamore tree. It is magnificent in its scale and its bearing, and I have stood at its base many times and looked up, slack-jawed, and just said WOW! How old it is I do not know. I could imagine it’s slow, relentless growth as the native Americans paddled by in dugout canoes. I could imagine Abe Lincoln stopping briefly at this pond to water his horse as he made his way to New Boston to do his none too impressive surveying job there. And I can picture generations of little boys growing up and growing old on this farm, fishing in the pond, helping their dads chop fire wood in this forest, and ultimately chopping their own firewood and planting their own corn. The sycamore grew patiently next to the pond. A hundred years, two hundred, it is hard to know.

The sycamore, or one like it, will continue to grow behind my Dad’s house. As the generations of humans in this little town are born and live and go to their graves it will persist. It will grow patiently and each year it will scatter its little seed balls on the mud below. And someday, when the river is neither too high nor too low, one will put down roots in a forsaken spot no other plant has been able to exploit (for a thousand unknowable reasons) and it will begin to grow. And the generations of humans will live some more lives, and drive bulldozers even. And it might be that after the sapling has pushed up six inches into the sky that a careless hunter will visit the pond and step on it and push it down into the mud. And it will be bent and may never recover its straight, proud bearing. But it will persist and start its crooked path toward the sun again. And perhaps, when it is six feet high, a buck deer will wander past with its velvety new antlers and rub some of the stuff away on the little sycamore and in the process give it a deep wound that will be visible on its trunk for a hundred years. Or perhaps the corps of engineers, in their wisdom, will determine that this little pond, good for nothing else, would be the perfect place to pump in 2 cubic acres of sand dredged up from the bottom of the navigation channel. And in that moment our little striving sapling will be buried alive and will die. If the big tree still lives its environment will be so altered that it, too, will not recover. Or perhaps the corps will simply cut it down to provide a road to their new sand pile. And these local tragedies will only be one more setback for nature, ultimately. There have been so many such tragedies it would be impossible to catalog them. Maybe sycamores, altogether, will succumb to these thousand little insults and become extinct. In that day we will have hurt ourselves and we will have destroyed the sycamore family, but nature will simply move on.

If you don’t believe in the persistence of nature go to Hawaii and look at a volcano erupting and try to picture in your mind’s eye how this devastation could turn into a verdant paradise brimming with life. Even here, along the muddy Mississippi, some little cell of life will persist when the last sycamore is chopped into kindling. Maybe a cottonwood can tolerate the sand better. Maybe it will take the old sycamore’s place and become the dominant life force in this vicinity. Maybe it wont be a tree. Maybe the deep sand will preclude any sapling from making another start here. Instead maybe the prickly pear that grows on the hills above will spread down into the new “desert” and use its special skills to translate a little sun and a little moisture into green paddles and pointy spikes. Or maybe only some sort of algae or bacteria can make a beachhead here. But rest assured that it will grow, and given enough time, it will evolve, and maybe its generations, after millions of years, will make something like a sycamore again. And maybe not. Maybe it will ultimately evolve a sentient creature with dextrous hands and a big brain capable of building and driving a bulldozer.

Bill Nye has said “We do not need to save the world, we need to save the world for us.” This is the point of environmentalism. The value of a sycamore tree, ultimately, is not to nature. Nature could not care less whether she exploits her resources with 100 foot sycamores or single celled algae. It is we, with the giant brains and the ability for aesthetic appreciation who need a 100 foot sycamore if for no other reason than to look up, slack-jawed and say WOW!

by Dustin Joy

Merle

 

My first post is a tribute to a great friend and mentor of mine who passed away this year. Merle was my Dad’s cousin but, as you will see, he was a great deal more than that to us.

 

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MERLE

When Robin Williams died last year more than one fan expressed his grief with the simple phrase “I can’t imagine the world without him in it.” Why that sentiment rings true when applied to Williams but would not necessarily do so for another actor is a question which is difficult to pin down. I suspect it has to do with personality; that undefinable glimmer of something; we don’t quite know what. Williams obviously had an outsized personality. You might say, indeed you would say, that Williams was a personality. He was bigger than life.

I have known a few “personalities.” These are the folks who make us the gift of a larger life. They pour into us a kind of energy or warmth or happiness or something. They are a kind of exothermic chemical reaction in human form in which heat and light are transferred from one to another without appreciably dimming or cooling the giver. I have known a few of these people in my life and I have treasured each interaction with them. My friend Gregg’s mother was one of these people. One day, after her passing, I tried to explain to him what I meant when I talked about this strange phenomenon. After grasping about and stammering for an explanation I said, “whenever I saw her or even thought about her, an involuntary smile came to my face.”

This has been a long way to go to tell you simply that Merle Joy brought an involuntary smile to my face whether I saw him or even thought about him. He was never on TV that I know of but he also had what Robin Williams had. He had an outsized personality. Indeed he was a personality.

I was about to say that if there was a person in this world who didn’t like Merle Joy I would like to meet him. That would be incorrect. If there existed in this world someone who didn’t like Merle Joy I would emphatically not want to meet him because there would be something very wrong with that person indeed.
Merle was a friendly guy. He was a smart guy. He was clever and witty and generous and gregarious. Many people have some of these qualities. Some people you know have several of them. But Merle was more than the sum of his parts.

He was friendly, sure. Everyone who ever met him knew that instinctively.
Clever and witty? Merle had both in spades. To me the sign of a great mind is revealed by a clever pun and no one ever turned loose a great pun on the world like Merle. Gregarious? Obviously! The man loved to talk. But he didn’t love to talk to hear his own voice, like some people do. This is where we find the unique spark of personality that was Merle. He was, and I think I may be getting to the point now, a “generous talker.” What I mean to say is that he loved to talk and he loved to listen. He wanted to hear what you had to say. He had a brilliant mind and in his three score and twenty (which is of course how Merle would have said it) he had acquired an amazing treasure trove of knowledge. Yet, when he spoke with you or me or even a child Merle did not want to tell you something so much as he wanted you to tell him something.

I have always thought that the measure of a person’s kindness could be taken by listening to him talk to children. It is easy to disregard what children say or discount their thoughts as unimportant. When Merle met my daughter Chloe for the first time she was just a little girl and he was a seventy plus year old man with a world of experience. But when they spoke Merle became a six or seven year old child himself and showed his genuine interest in her world. He talked about music with her and school and maybe her pets but he was not struggling to seem interested. He was interested. That genuineness is something you cannot fake. Kids are not fooled. They are better detectors of bullshit than you or I. And each year when we made our annual 15 hour round trip pilgrimage to Falls City to visit the “other” Joys Chloe always wanted to go along. Merle was a magnet that drew you in and no one who knew him could ever stay away for long.

Autodidact is a ten dollar word which means “self-taught.” Merle loved to learn words like that. Most of my heroes have been autodidacts in one way or another. Merle was certainly one of these. I would be very surprised indeed if he didn’t learn something new on the last day of his life. I hope he did. I hope we all can.

A favorite game that Merle played with relish was called “I know something you don’t know.” If you ever played this game with him you know that his delight in playing it in no way contradicts the generosity of spirit I described above. The game was for him simply an exercise in his lifelong quest for knowledge and he played it every day. Merle loved to play it. And, here is the best part; I always thought he was happier to lose the game than win it because then he got hold of a new, fresh piece of information. He was hungry to know about the world and he was hungry to know about you.

I did not get to know Merle as well as I would have liked. The ever present barrier of Iowa, which we both cursed mildly, prevented it. But I knew him well enough to realize that he was something special. He was certainly a special part of my life.

I am not a religious person and I concede that I don’t know what happens to us when we leave this world. It is a satisfying thought, though, to picture Merle reclining on a big cloud looking down through the mists at us scurrying around down here and chuckling to himself and saying with a grin “I know something you don’t know.” And I, and many, many others will be standing down here saying “I cannot imagine this world without him in it.”