3…2…1…?

Yesterday I visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It is the home of the famous U.S. Space Camp and, at the nearby Redstone Arsenal, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Since space flight is predicated on rocketry, Marshall is arguably the birthplace of the American space program. At Huntsville America took the shameful remnants of Hitler’s missile program and transformed them into an ideal of peaceful, civilian-controlled scientific achievement, culminating in the landing of men on the moon. The centerpiece of NASA’s effort, and indeed the showpiece of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, is the Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn V - The Most Powerful Vehicle Ever Built

The Saturn V – The Most Powerful Vehicle Ever Built

To a certain kind of person, one like me, standing under this massive machine, the most powerful vehicle ever built, fills the heart with pride. Every patriotic American should be proud of what this country achieved, ostensibly to beat the Russians, but truly to advance science and answer the fundamental questions men have posed since our ancestors first looked up at that bright light in the night sky.

Since the Saturn V is a superlative machine, let’s say the superlative machine, I cannot help, at this point, offering some data to back up that claim. The Saturn V, fully assembled with the Apollo capsule in place, stood 363 feet high. Loaded and fully fueled the Saturn V weighed 6,500,000 pounds (3,250 tons). For reference this is the weight of about 7 Boeing 747s. The fully loaded weight of the Saturn V represented a great deal of fuel. After liftoff the five powerful F1 rockets burned for 2 minutes and 41 seconds, each generating 1,500,000 pounds of thrust. In that time those engines consumed 4,700,000 pounds of fuel (Kerosene and liquid oxygen). In terms of energy released as a function of time, this makes the Saturn V a bit like a scarcely controlled bomb. In 161 seconds the Saturn V burned 82% of an Olympic swimming pool of fuel.

So that is pretty big and pretty powerful and pretty god-damned amazing and yet …

Apparently, according to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the most powerful machine ever built is an inadequate showpiece to hold the attention of entertainment-starved Americans and get them to part with $27 in the museum gift shop for a flashing Chinese-made keychain with Katelyn, or Caitlin, or Katylynne printed on it. To buttress the Saturn V and the Jupiter C and the Mercury-Redstone and the full-size mock up of the Space Shuttle and, get this, an actual, no-kidding rock from the frigging moon they needed something “flashy.” So, right in the middle of this monument to American can-do technological know-how we have – a carnival ride. No, here are two carnival rides. No, wait, three. Here my internal curmudgeon shows his wrinkled face. Since cell phone addled kids can’t be expected to focus on something as humdrum as a 363 foot tall rocket there is a ride called the “G-force” or something suitably “spacey.” The G-force, pretending to be an “astronaut-training device,” is nothing more than the ride we used to puke all over at Adventureland called the “Silly Silo.” Next to it is a “temporarily out of service” launch simulator named the “Space Shot” which is no more than the kid’s “bouncy ride” from the Mall of America.

The V2 - Hitler's Evil Toy That Led To Something Really Good

The V2 – Hitler’s Evil Toy That Led To Something Really Good

And I suppose the amusement park philosophy at the U.S. Rocket center is actually market driven; gotta pack in the paying customers. But why must everything in this country, including a museum dedicated to our space program have to turn a profit? I soon saw why. As I was standing in the main hall taking in a captured German V2 rocket, a disgusted father and his tween son hove into view from the IMAX theater (another concession to entertainment culture.) The father, about my age, tried to engage his son in the wonder of the Saturn V. The son continued to groan and send text messages on his phone. A bit later I saw the father literally throw up his hands and say, loudly, “So this is how today’s gonna go, I guess! You are going to refuse to be impressed by anything?”

I am not, at all, prone to picking on the Millennial generation. My children’s cohort, the ones I have known, are intelligent and savvy, and hard-working. They are achieving some amazing things against the strong headwinds of a tough job market, low pay, and crippling college costs. They face challenges that my generation and my parents generation never faced and indeed “laid on them.” What is sad, to me, is that we have failed to inspire these kids with the science and technology that set our hearts afire. More on that later.

A Model of the Future - We Can Hope

A Model of the Future – We Can Hope

1.5 Million Pounds of Thrust Each - Not too Shabby

1.5 Million Pounds of Thrust Each – Not too Shabby

A 363 Foot Roman Candle

A 363 Foot Roman Candle

3 Men, 8 Days, Half a Million Miles, In This Tiny Capsule.

3 Men, 8 Days, Half a Million Miles, In This Tiny Capsule.

Unlike the tween boy I found much to be impressed by at the U.S. Rocket Center. Exhibits in the main hall included the Saturn V, the aforementioned moon rock picked up by Astronaut Alan Bean, an actual piece of Skylab the size of a Mini Cooper which survived its plunge to Earth when it crashed into Australia in 1979. There were models of the U.S.’s past and (hopefully) future rockets, “extra” F1 rocket engines, and a full scale mock-up of the lunar rover demonstrating the manner in which the little space car could be folded into a box about half its size. In the corner stood an actual Apollo spacesuit. It looked just like my grade school friend had described the one he owned and “forgot” (so many times) to bring to school to show us. All of these wowed me. I found myself lapsing into vivid daydreams starring me, lying in that implausibly small capsule atop that pillar of explosives and being catapulted into orbit, watching the wide green horizon of Earth resolve itself before my eyes into a curved blue billiard ball framed by blackness.

I have, several times in my life experienced what Edgar Allan Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse,” a powerful, nay overwhelming, urge to do a dangerous, forbidden, and completely uncharacteristic thing. My imp presents himself mostly at moments of awe or grandeur, or at times when circumstances call for decorum. I felt his presence when I stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and heard his whispered voice describing to me the perfect swan dive one might execute for the crowds below. My imp gnawed at me yesterday as I stared at the moon rock, urging me, prodding me, tempting me to lift up the glass enclosure and pick up this otherworldly relic. I had to walk away eventually, out of fear.

An Actual, No-foolin' Moon Rock. I Successfully Walked Away.

An Actual, No-foolin’ Moon Rock. I Successfully Walked Away.

Nearby was a fascinating exhibit which showed Neil Armstrong’s heart rate during his manual landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Even Armstrong, whom I always found to be disappointingly boring in interviews, could not hide the pressure and excitement of the mind-blowing activity in which he was engaged.

Neil Armstrong's Heart Rate - A Cool Customer, But Still...

Neil Armstrong’s Heart Rate – A Cool Customer

Outside the rocket center’s main exhibit hall are some other pretty amazing pieces of American-made technology, now left to moulder. The A12, an early model of the SR-71 sits, apparently rusting if such a thing is possible, in front of the gift shop. This is an aircraft capable of traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 64 minutes. Today it was going the opposite of fast. It needed a thorough cleaning to remove the pine pollen and a coat of paint.

The A12 (Predecessor to the SR-71). Can Titanium rust?

The A12 (Predecessor to the SR-71). Can Titanium rust?

Behind the visitor center and flanked by the carnival rides were rockets representing the critical baby steps it takes to get to the moon. There was the Mercury-Redstone rocket, America’s desperate attempt to catch-up to the Russians and put a man “up there.” The Redstone part was simply an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the warhead replaced by a capsule the size of a pup tent. When ready for launch it resembled nothing so much as a high powered rifle cartridge with Alan Shepherd the little lead projectile on the end. The courage it must have taken to climb into that claustrophobic bullet and be launched into space makes Schwarzenegger look like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Why can’t we sell this story to kids? Why do we need gimmicks and rides to hook kids on science? We have actual heroes and actual amazing machines to inspire the next generation. The other rockets, like the A12 are fading in the hot Alabama sun. Their chalky paint looks like my old ’87 Mercury Sable. Even the signs and placards meant to explain these wonders to the center’s visitors are faded and warped and unreadable. In the meantime the Space Camp kids, whose parents are paying thousands of dollars to send them here, are treated to the Silly Silo and a foil package of Astronaut Ice Cream. We should do better.

Rocket Garden

Rocket Garden

This Is The ...I Guess...Jupiter C?

This is the …I Guess…Jupiter C?

We are so cheap in this country now and have lost our collective swagger to the point that we have to pay the Russians to send our astronauts to the International Space Station. What we can do, apparently, is make movies. Finally, overwhelmed by the heat, I retreated into the visitor center again to take in the IMAX movie. This movie had the highest ratio of flag-waving pride to things to be proud of I’ve seen since the last time I was in Texas (sorry Texas, that was a cheap shot). It crowed about our past glories, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. But then it lapsed into cheap sci-fi, commercialism, and wishful thinking. Part of the film was little more than an unpaid advertisement for Spacex (Elan Musk’s commercial rocket launch company) and it’s competitors. A breathless narrator explained how these highly-subsidized private companies would be doing the basic “Earth orbit” stuff in future so NASA could focus on dreamy stuff like a trip to Mars in the next 30-100 years.

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How Old Is Too Old To Be An Astronaut?

I’m sorry guys. That model does not inspire one kid to study Physics. It is not a vision we can all take ownership of and be proud of like Apollo was. And don’t fool yourself; unless the American public is inspired and unless they feel real pride and ownership in our space program none of this stuff is going to happen. If kids can’t go down to Cape Canaveral and feel the vibration in their chest as a Space Shuttle roars off the launchpad with a big American flag painted on the side, there will be no money for space flight and there will accrue none of the tangible and intangible benefits of space flight we got from Apollo.

When I walked out of the U.S. Rocket Center with a strange combination of inspiration and disappointment I waited near the curb for my hotel van. To my right, near the entrance, was a specially marked parking spot blocked for use, so the sign said, of the U.S. Rocket Center Director. Parked in the spot was a shiny new Tesla sport’s car, manufactured by Elon Musk’s other flagship company. I do not imply here a quid pro quo. I will allow you to draw your own conclusion. It is possible that the Director, obviously a space enthusiast, is simply a fan of Musk and his technologies (I am, too). All I am saying is that if the U.S. Space Camp is in the business of promoting private space initiatives while NASA dreams unfunded dreams we have lost our way.

Not everything we do as a nation requires a profit motive. Some things should be done because they are intrinsically worth doing. They are worth doing because they inspire us, lift us up, give us a nobility of purpose. Doing these things together as a nation, instead of as companies watching the bottom line, bestows that nobility on all of us, rich and poor. When Armstrong made that step onto the powdery surface of the moon every American’s heart rate rose with his because we were all there with him.

 

by: Dustin Joy

Eat The Pretty Ones

Every day we see them,
In all the magazines,
They don’t look like anybody,
We’ve ever really seen,

They make us feel so ugly,
But now it’s time to stop,
They don’t look like that either,
Without the aid of Photoshop,

So, love your love handles,
Love your double chin,
And your receding hairline,
And all your saggy skin,

See your folds and creases,
In a whole new way,
Starting today.

Love Your Love Handles
by: Mitch Benn

It’s Not Fair

I am not a looker. I never have been. I was not “hot” in college. I was not a “handsome young man.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t win any beauty contests as a baby. I was a bony, skinny, scrawny teenager. I graduated into a pudgy, lumpy, bumpy adult. I have, you will note immediately, a big nose. I have gaps in my teeth, a ruddy complexion, and an aspiring double chin. My butt sticks out too far and, as a sort of hilarious joke by God (that trickster) my belly has expanded as a counterweight. I did not get my brother’s good looks nor my Grandpa’s stature (He was 6’ 3”). I am never gonna make the cover of GQ. And I am OK with that …now.

There is a time in our lives, though, when we certainly lament our genetic deficiencies. Adolescence is the worst, of course. Just at the point in our lives when we are most desperate to impress people (read that as the opposite sex) our bodies start doing weird and unexpected things. No one on the planet is crueler (more cruel?) than other teenagers. If we are not in that tiny club of genetic lottery winners, the cheerleader with the blemish-free skin or the football quarterback with the muscles and the freakish good looks, we begin to view ourselves as outcasts – garbage, to put it bluntly. We start to think that this is a judgement from an angry and arbitrary god, the jock god, if you will. We somehow start to think that we deserve this, that we deserve less happiness than these pretty people. Some people spend their whole lives in a kind of funk because of this phenomenon.

The Ugly Silent Majority

I am no Pollyanna. I understand that happiness is not distributed evenly on this cursed planet. I am willing to concede that some people are going to have an easier time of it by virtue of the height of their cheek bones or the slimness of their waist. Research demonstrates that the tips you get as a waitress have a great deal more to do with the color of your skin and the size of your breasts than the skill with which you do your job. I am prepared to admit that the “pretty” people will probably always have an easier time of it. What I’m not willing to concede, and you shouldn’t either, is the idea that they deserve more happiness than you or I. More to the point, I do not believe I, nor you, deserve less happiness because we have crooked teeth or little boobs (big boobs in the case of men) or acne. And the plain fact is – we have got them on the numbers.

Mitch Benn’s song, which I quote above, has another verse which set me to thinking the other day. It goes like this:

We feel like we’re abnormal,
But that’s ridiculous cause,
There’s maybe a couple of hundred of them,
And there’s six and a half billion of us.

That is the point. Look around the airports, and the parks, and the malls. We have the numbers. We are the ugly “silent majority” searching for a ski-slope-nosed, droopy-cheeked Nixon to lead us. Uh, ok, well he’s dead. But the point is that we, the big-nosed, overweight, uni-browed troglodytes should run this country. We should demand our share of happiness. We should redefine what beautiful is. The pretty people are the genetic anomaly and yet they have been able to perpetuate a state of, for lack of a better word, apartheid, on the rest of us.

Jupiter and Callisto by: Peter Paul Rubens

Jupiter and Callisto
by: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The Three Graces by: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The Three Graces
by: Peter Paul Rubens
(1577-1640)

 

Rubens and the Evolution of Pretty

Looking back through history there has been some evolution of “pretty.” Many of us, the gravitationally challenged, cling to the notion that in the days of Rubens “fat” was the standard by which women were measured. Plumpness was a sign of health and vivaciousness. His ladies were beautiful and confident and desired and, you know what, they looked like real women. Even in ancient cultures fertility icons were invariably statues of voluptuous women.

Ancient Stone Female Figurine Willendorf, Austria (24000 - 22000 BC)

Ancient Stone Female Figurine
Willendorf, Austria
(24000 – 22000 BC)

The ideal of beauty represented by the anorexic blond is an arbitrary creation. It has no more basis in objective reality than too-wide lapels did in the seventies or leg warmers did in the eighties or Kardashians do today. And while I would never be so callous as to call Jessica Alba ugly (it’s not her fault she looks the way she does) I will say that beauty, like many things, is a pendulum that can swing too far and hurt people. So, maybe beauty was once defined as something other than emaciated blondness. I hope it was. If so, I’m afraid that boat has sailed. So I say it’s time to swing that pendulum back the other way or sail that ship back into port or whatever metaphor applies best here. When the majority of human beings live their lives feeling “ugly” it is time to redefine “pretty.” Sorry pretty people, majority rules.

 

 

The Problem, as Always – Fox News

“Pretty” today can be ascertained by what is on TV. TV “news,” in particular seems to be leading this march away from meritocracy and toward bimbo ascendancy. You will get a whole lot farther today in “news” with big boobs and tantalizingly crossed bare legs than with hard work, good reporting, and brains. Don’t know what I mean? Tune in to Fox and Friends any random morning to get the idea. You don’t even need to turn up the volume. In fact, absolutely don’t turn up the volume. Better yet, tune in to the Fox News show Outnumbered and again, preferably, turn down the volume. You will notice some striking similarities in the 4 color-coordinated female “hosts.” Hint: It’s not their erudition or education or journalistic excellence. Fox has been the driver of this trend, like so many other harmful trends, since their debut in 1996. Sadly the other networks have fallen in line and cut their skirts shorter and shorter. From Lara Spencer’s vapid Betty Boop routine on Good Morning America to the nauseating spectacle of Savannah Guthrie sitting in the same chair formerly occupied by Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, and Katie Couric on the Today show, this diminishment of Q and A in favor of T and A should be an embarrassment to our culture. Edward R. Murrow would be spinning in his grave. If we could hook a fan blade up to his corpse and prop him up in front of “The Kelly File” we would go a long way toward solving global warming.

But I Digress

My purpose here is not to decry the state of journalism in this country but to decry the unfairness that “looks” trump talent and hard work across the spectrum. Fat people, short people, and “ugly” people on TV are relegated to comedy relief, if they are relegated to anything at all. We must change that in order to open up new opportunities for the repressed majority called “us.”

What To Do

So, what do we do about this sorry state of affairs? How do we use our advantage? First of all, we don’t give away any of the power we have. Don’t give your hard earned money to Christi Brinkley for her Ab Stretcher, or to Cindy Crawford for her Skin Smoother or to Shaun T for his Paunch buster Polka DVD’s. We all know that the only thing that makes you skinnier is giving up bacon and, for God’s sake, it’s just not worth it. And we should know, if we don’t, that the only way to look young is to be friggin’ young – or to make a deal with the devil. (I’m looking at you Dick Clark. Oh, yeah, I guess the devil finally got him.) Also, don’t go see movies with “hot skinny young starlets” in them. If it doesn’t have Melissa McCarthy in it, boycott it. And, you know what, boycott her, too, as a traitor. What is she thinking, losing all that weight. Where is her pride?

Next, we have to organize. If Wayne LaPierre and the NRA can run this country of three hundred eighteen million people as their own private fiefdom and the AARP can spook legislators into a buffalo stampede by saying BOO! what could 317.9 million ugly people accomplish if we just voted our self interest and actually ran for office. And we already have a start in politics. Bernie Sanders is not exactly a GQ model and Mitch McConnell doesn’t have enough chin to put on a pillowcase.

We will call our group SOAP – Society Of Average People or maybe HISS – Homely Individuals Standing Strong or, how about UGLY – United Group of Lummoxes and Yahoos. So, lets get SOAP rolling. I’ll be the President (or Benevolent Dictator if you will) and we will draft a few of our talented brethren who have become famous to do PR for us. I envision a PSA starring Steve Buscemi, Dawn French, and Sandra Bernhard. In fact, why hasn’t somebody put them in a movie together already? That would be awesome!

600full-steve-buscemi

Steve Buscemi – No George Clooney in the looks department but one helluva actor!

Dawn French

Dawn French – Not sure if it’s okay to have a crush on a Vicar, but I always have!

bernhard-sandra-

Sandra Bernhard – A conventional beauty? Perhaps not. But smart, talented, and sexy as hell if you ask me.

Here’s a Modest Proposal for the twenty-first century; let’s round up those feckless, shallow, phony-boob-bearing, Escalade-driving, wheat-grass-chugging, sit-up-doing, little twits and turn them into Soylent Green (Google that one, youngsters. Who said Charlton Heston never made a good movie?) In honor of Jonathan Swift, our campaign will be called Eat the Pretty Ones and we will get a good New York advertising firm to market it for us – and then we will eat them, too. After all, if we are going to lift up and celebrate the persecuted big-boned American public we are gonna need a reliable protein source.

Finally, we need to heed the words of Mitch Benn. Love your love handles. Love yourself. We are who we are. We look like what we look like. We deserve to be happy. After all, our contribution to this world is just as important as, say Paris Hilton’s, isn’t it?

by: Dustin Joy

 

Love Your Love Handles – Full Lyrics

Every day we’d see them, in all the magazines 

They don’t look like anybody, we’ve ever really seen 

They make us feel so ugly, but now it’s time to stop cause 

They don’t look like that either, without the aid of Photoshop so 

Love your love handles, love your double chin 

and your receding hairline, and all your saggy skin and 

see your folds and creases in a whole new way, starting today

Some people try their hardest, to make all our lives hell cause

They’ve all got moisturizers, and diet drinks to sell

Don’t have to ask permission, to be heard or seen

Don’t need to make excuses, for being a human being, so

Love your love handles, love your laughter lines

Cause every one’s a medal, for all the happy times

Love your bumpy eyelids and your wonky nose, so everyone knows

All of our imperfections, all our asymmetry 

They’re an important part of, what makes us you and me 

Who cares what someone looks like, long as they have their health 

Be good to everybody, starting with yourself, cause 

We’re not all supermodels, we’re not all movie stars

Most of us look exactly, like what we really are

We feel like we’re abnormal, but that’s ridiculous cos there’s

maybe a couple of hundred of them and six and a half billion of us

Love your love handles, love your crooked teeth

Cherish that wobbly tummy, and whatever lies beneath now

Love your fuzzy nipples, and your droopy chest, and all of the rest

Love your love handles, love your dimply thighs

Lanky, dumpy, scrawny, whatever shape or size

You’ll find you can be happy and comfortable in, your own skin

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

Local Flavor

I’m sitting, staring out the window at a light but steady rain falling from a low overcast sky in Lafayette, Louisiana. This is my first time in Lafayette and I am sorry to report that I am disappointed. It’s not the dreary overcast, nor the rain exactly, although those certainly contribute to the mood. It is just the sameness of every place we visit that contributes to my ennui today.

My minds-eye is still 20/20, even if my real eyes are not anymore. Since I was a little boy I have loved to read about places. I read about Louisiana and New Orleans and the Bayou. I know what they are supposed to look like. I know what they are supposed to be. I have a vivid picture in my mind of weathered cypress-wood shacks close by the mocha-brown water with alligators sunning along the shore and a jon boat tied to a tree. I visualize a little old place which doesn’t look like much, but which has the best crawfish étouffée around and big glasses of sweet ice tea. I expect to hear voices like Justin Wilson speaking that slow syrupy cajun dialect. And I expect the soundtrack to the whole world here to be some Beausoleil song with momentum like a locomotive rolling down a track and lots of manic fiddle playing and squeezebox. Instead, when I walk down to the hotel lobby they’ve got Fox News blaring from three TVs.

Maybe there are crawdads and cajun fiddle and sweet iced tea still to be had in Lafayette. Maybe that stuff exists. I hope it does. But the dapper young man at the front desk of the Doubletree speaks clear and perfect english as if he were ready for an anchor job at WGN. Everyone I have met here so far talks like that. From my room on the 10th floor I look out over a “bayou.” And it is a real bayou, I guess, but in Illinois we would just call it a creek. It looks like the Edwards River back home except here it is less wild. It has been tamed by retaining walls to prevent shoreline erosion near the office buildings and condos along its verge. If there is an alligator hereabout he is not sunning today and really there is no place along this stretch of bayou to sun. The water flows slowly between the revetments with not a floating log or rock in sight. I think I see what might be cypress trees adjacent to the office building but they are almost certainly ornamentals planted to make the landscaping “authentic.”

Here is what I see of the “cajun capital” from my vantage point. From left to right I see two office towers that look like corporate headquarters in Naperville, a neighborhood of average looking frame houses which could have been transplanted here from Moline (nothing at all unique or southern about the architecture). I see a Wyndham Garden hotel, two cell phone towers, a billboard for Smoothie King and another for the Louisiana State Lottery (just change the word Louisiana to Illinois and you get the idea.) A busy stretch of road runs by the hotel with the exact same types of cars one sees everywhere, a preponderance of SUV’s, a helluva lot of white pickup trucks, and all vehicles late model- you just don’t see people driving rusted out clunkers anymore like you used to. Along the street opposite our hotel, in lieu of the great little étouffée place, is a Chili’s, an Outback Steakhouse, and a sushi bar (really?) bracketed by a Comfort Suites and a Fairfield Inn.

I could honestly look out the window in Cleveland or Newark or St. Louis or Minneapolis and see this same general picture on any given day of the year. We are homogenizing our country slowly but relentlessly. If there is uniqueness to be found in our melting pot nation you have to look hard for it. I have to wonder why are we so divided politically when we are all so very much alike in what we want and value and dream about. To judge by my travels around the United States, I would say that what we Americans want and value and dream about are a plate of Riblets from Appleby’s, cheap Chinese consumer products from Target, a Slushy from Kum n’Go, and, of course, good cell phone reception.

But maybe I have unreasonable expectations. What is it that I am pining for? I would like to say “authenticity,” but it’s not authenticity, exactly. Because if Americans are authentically anything in 2016 we are authentically obsessed by convenience. We genuinely want things to be easy and cheap and fast. Lafayette is as authentically American as Cleveland or Des Moines or Syracuse. What I’m looking for, admittedly, is a nostalgic or “tourist” version of America. I want a Dodge City saloon full of lawless gunslingers, bowler-hatted pi-ana players, and bartenders with big curled handlebar mustaches. When I go to Maine I want to see yellow-mackintosh-wearing lobstermen in brightly-painted little boats bobbing in the harbor, raising their traps. When I go to South Dakota I want to see an Indian wearing a war bonnet, sitting on a buffalo skin rug outside a teepee, dispensing wisdom.

But in 2016 the saloon is just a barn-board facade backed up by a metal frame building which has to meet code just like all the others. The gunslingers head off to the microbrewery after their shift is done to grab a “Long Branch Pale Ale.” The piano player “didn’t go to Juilliard for this crap.” And the bartender is bitter every time he trims and waxes his ridiculous facial hair, thinking about the the upper management job he lost when the injection molding plant closed down.

The lobsterman is sick and tired of chapped hands and this god-damned cold weather and fantasizes about moving to Boca Raton. The Indian doesn’t really have any wisdom he wants to pass on to a bunch of sun-burned nitwits from Chicago on their way to Mount Rushmore. The nitwits probably don’t want the wisdom, either, which might consist of something like “you don’t carve a !@#$%ing 60 foot sculpture of a white man’s head on our sacred mountain and we won’t build a casino in Arlington Cemetery.”

There is a reason we don’t do authentic “regional” things anymore. There is a reason we don’t tan our own leather, or make our own candles, or sew our own dresses, or slaughter our own pigs, or run a trap line, or go out in the frigid ocean in little boats to catch sea bugs anymore. It’s because we don’t have to! The truth is, most people never wanted to do those things. It may seem romantic to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and imagine Pa coming in the door after a long day of plowing behind a team of oxen and sitting down with the girls to eat dinner by candlelight before gathering around the fire to play the fiddle. In fact, writing that sentence makes me want to go back and live there. But what we have to remember is that plowing behind oxen was brutal, exhausting work. Losing your entire crop to locusts or drought was not a setback to be brushed aside by a little of Pa’s philosophy but a real, true, life-threatening catastrophe. The dinner was probably salt pork and potatoes for the 1100th time, and the reason they had to listen to Pa’s lousy fiddle-paying was because “Game of Thrones” is on HBO and the Ingalls’ only had basic cable.

I confess that I love quaint local traditions. I love antiques. I love to learn about the good-old-days. Every year we go to the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I love to watch the antique tractors and ride the electric trolleys, and visit the log village. For a week we all steep ourselves in the old-timey ways. We watch volunteers cooking dinner over an open campfire, splitting logs with a wedge, hand cranking a Model T Ford, and cleaning clothes in a tub with a washboard. And then, you know what, we all go home and turn on the air-conditioner because, truly, washing your own clothes in a tub sucked. Hand cranking your Model T is a novelty once or twice. But there is a reason some genius invented the “self-starter’ and there is a reason that EVERY SINGLE CAR has one now.

Lafayette, Louisiana, Dodge City, Kansas, Portland, Maine, and Walnut Grove, Minnesota are not like they used to be. The people who live there have kept some of the flavor of the “old days.” Indeed, some people in these places still dress up like cowboys, play cajun music, catch lobsters, and farm the great plains. But the sad (or maybe happy) truth is that we Americans don’t want to work that hard. We don’t want to struggle and freeze and go hungry and spend our days doing endless, repetitive, subsistence work. Thanks to science and innovation and creativity we don’t have to anymore. We can enjoy our “nostalgia” because we want to, not because we have to.
We are all very alike, really, around the USA and around the world. We like many of the same things and we obsess about many of the same things, too. It is not surprising, when you think about it, that we are becoming more and more alike in terms of our culture as we share technology and communication and entertainment. This phenomenon has advanced to the point where we have to make up things to have political debate over. We are so affluent that we are running out of things to be outraged about. Well, I am outraged that I can’t find a good cajun restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I will be furious if I have to call Uber.

by: Dustin Joy

Merry Christmas! / Happy New Year!

It is not easy being named Joy. Monikers like Smith or Jones or Cumberbatch don’t come with expectations. Even folks named Miller aren’t asked to grind your wheat into flour. But this time of the year people do seem to think a guy named Joy should be cheerful. And that can be a challenge even once you take to carrying mistletoe in your pocket and wearing bells on your shoes.

While a name can be hard to live up to, Bush for example, maybe it’s good to have expectations. Thought of properly they might be called aspirations. Being Joyful, while not always easy, is a darned good thing to aspire to.

I sometimes listen to people at Christmastime and think their statements of “Goodwill to men” ring hollow. When you see how “men” treat each other all the rest of the year it would be easy to lapse into cynicism. There is a lot of meanness and anger and cruelty and hatred in the world. The headlines are filled with war abroad and shootings at home. It is hard to believe that singing a few carols, tipping the garbage man, and distributing inedible fruit cake can make a dent in mans inhumanity to man.

But, as a guy named Joy I ask you this, “What else can make a difference?” The human race, it seems to me, is not a lost cause. We are not perfect but let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. And let us not dwell on badness because surely badness breeds badness. Expressions of Joy during the Holidays are not naive, but hopeful. Our challenge is to expand this little hiatus from hatred into something bigger. The headline here is “Joy says Joy should be bigger!” (An aspiration if I’ve ever heard one)

A traditional Christmas letter has always seemed rather self-aggrandizing to me; my kids are great, my wife is beautiful, and we took cooler vacations than you this year. (By the way, just to be clear: My kids actually are great, my wife is, indeed beautiful, and ……). Anyway, in lieu of such a recital, I thought I would tell you a story this year for Christmas / New Year. Don’t worry, it’s a short one. My story is about how people are not all jerks; and it goes like this.

Dustin’s Story

My crew and I were in Dayton, Ohio. The hotel there is a nice one but sits right on an Interstate Highway which separates it rather effectively from most of the eating establishments in the nearby town. We had heard from the hotel front desk clerk about a “pretty good” barbecue place on the other side of the highway. We decided to try it. Despite the fact that it was only a hundred yards from the hotel in a straight line we had to hike nearly a mile to reach the restaurant via the highway overpass north of the hotel. It was a nice day and pleasantly warm so we took off walking.

The food was “pretty good” as promised and the only “dark cloud” on our little field trip turned out to be an actual dark cloud. Almost as soon as we left the restaurant the sky let loose sheets of rain, big drops, the kind that sting when they hit your face. We ran hard to the shelter of a gas station canopy and stood there watching what looked like, on the radar, a “major rain event.” I called the hotel to see if they might send the van to pick us up. Alas, the driver had taken a group to the airport and would not be back for an hour.

We weighed our options. We didn’t really want to call a taxi to go a hundred yards. Our clothes were damp but we didn’t really want to endure the soaking a walk back might entail, either. And despite the charms of the Kum n’ Go, we quickly exhausted our interest in beef jerky and pine tree air fresheners. As we stood there pondering our future a black SUV pulled up to within a couple feet of me and rolled down it’s window.

Inside was not a menacing “Men in Black” dude, but a small grandmotherly lady with a broad grin on her face. “Are you guys pilots?” she asked (though I could not imagine how she knew this.) I said, simply, “yes.” She smiled even more broadly if that was possible and said, “would you like a ride back to the hotel? You will get soaked if you try to walk.” And yes, we very much did want a ride. “Hop in,” she said, “I’ll drive you over.”

And so I found myself riding through the rain, with my crew of three, soaking the leather seats of the personal automobile of a lady I had never met before. More importantly, of course, since I had my two buddies with me was the fact that she had never met us before. She knew nothing about my crew (monks or axe murderers) except that we were some perfect strangers who were in a pickle. She had seen us from the road, turned and driven over to the gas station, and without fear or trepidation, given us a ride.
“A small gesture,” you might say. But whatever the size, it was a lovely gesture. Driving on by would have been a reasonable and “normal” reaction. But she took time from her busy schedule (running her own hair salon, I found out) to help someone she didn’t know, without hesitation, and without hope of renumeration. And how did she know we were flight crew? She said we looked like pilots. I’m not sure if that is bad or good – but for us it was good enough.

So I ask you, does this little lady’s gesture signify anything about the human race? I think it does. I think it means that in a world with a very high density of jerks we are not all jerks and maybe there is hope for us yet. Does it make up for the shootings and the reality TV shows and the …. well, the Trumps. Yes, yes it does!

Merry Christmas to all of you!

Slowing down – An update

I must apologize to my loyal readership (and you both know who you are).  It has been a challenge for me, throughout the Fall, to generate content for this site on a schedule. In October I spend quite a bit of time farming whenever I’m home from my full time job. I have recurrent airline training this time of year and it is this time of the year also when the kid’s school activities ramp up to a fever pitch. We have plays, and concerts, and scholastic bowl, and fundraisers and fundraisers and fundraisers. I also like to take a bit of time in the Fall to spend outdoors with my family before the dreaded Winter hits. All of these are offered up as an excuse for my sloth.

My real excuse, though, will be that my original pace was unsustainable. I do not want to post my writing just to post some writing. When I post something I want it to be of good quality and worth a few minutes of your time. And, of course, I’m paying for the site and not troubling you with advertisements so I think this is a  reasonable position. If you are someone who checks this space breathlessly every morning hoping for a new essay or story (yeah, right!) you can use the subscribe link and will be notified when any new content is posted.

I am working on several pieces. Whether they are of good quality and worth your time will be determined by you.

A couple of updates are in order, I think. I recently got my first piece of writing “published” on another website. My piece called “The Sycamore” appeared on the site called Naturewriting.com. It is a pretty neat site and worth your time to take a look if you are inclined to like nature and writing.

Finally, another tree related update. After our recent windstorm the last trunk of my big Cottonwood north of the house finally gave up the ghost and came crashing down. It is a pitiful sight to see such a giant prostrate on the ground. It took out two or three lesser trees on its way down. All good things come to an end, I guess.

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More to come.

 

Dustin

Tiny Glowing Screens

And when the sun burns out
We’ll light the world with tiny glowing screens
Tiny glowing screens, glowing screens

-Tiny Glowing Screens, Part 1
by Watsky

A stocking frame is a long way from a modern smart phone. It was a kind of a wooden knitting machine invented in 1589 by William Lee near Nottingham, England. It was one of the first machines to replace human workers in the textile industry, but far from the last. The first stocking frames, while doing the work of hand knitters, did a fairly crude job. They would be refined over the next couple of centuries and by 1850 there were a quarter of a million power looms in England, each doing the work of 40 or 50 workers and often operated by children. As with the remarkable rise of the iPhone, not everyone was sanguine about this development. There were people who liked to weave fabric, or more precisely, had worked their whole lives to get good at it so that they could make a living.

In 1799 such a man named Ned Ludd was fed up enough to take a sledge hammer to a couple of these stocking frames in a futile but symbolic gesture akin to John Henry and the steam drill. Others who shared his ideas and fears took to smashing looms and stocking frames, too. These “frame-breakers” soon became known as Luddities, a term which lives on today to describe people who fear and oppose technology. I’m trying to decide if I’m a Luddite.

Bleary-eyed and not yet fully capable of rational thought I climbed aboard the hotel van at the Holiday Inn Philadelphia at 5:00 AM the other day (which I will remind all you Central Time Zone dwellers is really 4:00 AM.) It is customary on such journeys, particularly at 4:00 AM, for crews to be somewhat taciturn. Later showtimes will often call for conversation. We trade stories and grievances about airline life, the dreaded scheduling department, unions, and management. Pilots are notorious complainers (witness the famous old joke: Q: What is the difference between a pilot and a jet engine? A: The jet engine stops whining when you reach the gate.) It is enjoyable and sometimes informative to talk to other crews and get their point of view on recent events in the industry or occasionally a joke such as the one above. Sometimes we talk about favorite layovers, good restaurants, hotels with generous breakfasts, and sights worth seeing.

But this morning there was no talk, not one peep among the seven persons comprising the van-load. And despite the early hour these aviation professionals were not cat-napping on the way to the airport. They were, each and every one of them, except me, looking at their tiny glowing screens. What they looked at or thought about or communicated I could not say. Some seemed transfixed by a single image or text and stared at it relentlessly. Others flipped madly from page to page. Some typed away with their muscular thumbs. All were entranced to the point that we almost drove off and left one of the other crew’s flight attendants.

I would like, here, to portray myself as something of a hero, a defender of the cherished traditions of human interaction through speech. But the truth is that I had already spent 15-20 minutes in my hotel room staring at my own little glowing screen and gathering “information” about my flights for the day, the weather, and, of course, the latests comings and goings of one Mr. Donald Trump. I watched these digital slaves in the van with a sense of superiority, like a teetotaler looking down his nose at the local sot; but I was little better.

So, is texting the death of small talk? If so, do we care? Is there still merit in talking to people other than your friends and family? Do we gain by the conversation of our seat mate on the airplane, in the van, in line at the theater, in church? Will humanity fall into chaos if we text a few lines to our windbag coworker instead of talking to him for an hour on the phone? For truly the little glowing screens are an escape. They are an escape from the demands of civilization, from the boring and the foreign and the scary. When we are waiting in a queue at the airport or for the bus or at the DMV we are in a state of suspended animation. We are bored and perhaps we are lonely. Anthropologist Amber Case says, “People in lines have been put on pause and the thing that reconnects them to some sort of humanity is to look at their phones.” True enough, but people have always waited in lines and people have always dealt with that boredom in different ways. One would like to say, “well, in my day we talked to other people.” But to be honest we didn’t, always. Bored people who had been put “on pause” read a book, looked at a newspaper, or did a crossword puzzle. These are all anti-social activities akin to looking at one’s phone. And in a way “looking at the phone” is a less anti-social activity than reading a book because in many cases the person in question is communicating with someone, just not someone here.

In the local context, looking at the phone is exactly like putting up a barrier and if you are in close proximity, perhaps even alone with, someone looking at his or her phone it can be rather alienating. It is hard not to take the person’s devotion to his little glowing screen as a sort of insult to the real living breathing person in the same room. So if a phone can keep us connected to those we love, it at the same time, separates us from the world of interesting people around us. It encourages clannishness and I can’t help thinking it reinforces the polarization we increasingly find in this country, socially and politically. These are feedback loops and they amplify our biases and opinions. We talk to the people we like and who think like us and block out the voices who sound different.

Here is where I think the little glowing screens do us some harm. “Small talk,” for lack of a better word, is good. It does benefit us. Some of the most interesting conversations I have ever had were with people sitting next to me on airplanes. In that “phone-free” venue people sometimes share thoughts and ideas which would not be shared in the gate area where everyone is busy texting their friends.

I offer another 5:00 AM example. A Flight crew is picked up at a Hotel in Peoria, Illinois for a taxi ride to the airport. The crew says hello to the driver as they approach the taxi. She, preoccupied by texting on her cell phone, says nothing. The driver allows all passengers to load their own bags in the rear of the taxi. She settles into the driver’s seat and continues to text. The driver is visibly irritated to find that the Flight Attendant has failed to get the rear door latched properly and grudgingly gets out to re-close it, texting all the while. To her credit the driver does not text while driving, although I have seen this on numerous occasions with hotel van drivers and taxi drivers. When they reach the airport the driver leaves the taxi only to open the rear door but then stands by and texts while said crew removes their own suitcases.

The average modern traveler will attest that this recitation is a true and accurate representation of life today. The names of businesses or “associates” may change, but the omnipresence of the cell phone and its role as a palpable barrier between people cannot be denied. On its face it is difficult to assess whether this localized “rudeness” results in a net loss in civility in the world. For all I know our taxi driver may well have been communicating something very important. It is possible that she is a key player in a charity organization that helps the homeless. Maybe she was coordinating important scheduling or maintenance information with her company to facilitate other customer’s experience. Or maybe it was an emergency. All of these are possible, but not plausible. We all know who she was texting at 5:00 AM, if not the name of the person, then the category into which they fall; friends or family. And is this wrong?

The reason that sociological study is so difficult is that it is hard to establish a baseline. Are people ruder than they used to be? Is texting with your friend truly an insult to others? If the taxi driver gives us less of herself, perhaps she is therefore giving someone else more. Is her friendship or kinship strengthened at the cost of irritating a few “customers?” Surely her boss would object. I know we did.

A man doing a crossword puzzle at the airport may be doing so for entertainment. He may have no other agenda than to fill boring “pause” time with mentally stimulating activity. I have seen times, though, when a magazine or book or crossword was used as an intentional barrier, kind of a “do not disturb” sign. These barriers are effective. Cell phones are even more so. I have observed, in cities with a high load of panhandlers, that one of the surest ways not to be approached by a panhandler is to pretend to talk or text on your cell phone. This is fascinating to me. The idea that someone who has the effrontery to walk up and ask you for money will be deterred because he doesn’t want to interrupt your cell phone conversation is interesting. Panhandlers will approach two people talking on the street and interrupt their conversation. They will interrupt a man reading a newspaper. The cell phone, somehow, acts as a more definitive barrier.

I blame cell phones for destroying the valuable social interaction of strangers in public places. We can’t very well “reason together” as the Book of Isaiah suggests if we are playing Words with Friends with friends. Texting is all too often a way of blocking others out more than it is a way of communicating.

So, I hate cell phones. The problem is I love my cell phone. This is not exactly a contradiction. We all love our dogs and hate other people’s dogs. Congress’ approval rating is 14% according to Politifact, but 95% of Congressmen were re-elected in 2014. We love our own congressman but we think everyone else’s congressman is a scoundrel. This is not about the cell phone or dog or congressman in question then; it is about us. It is about human nature. My theory is that we all suffer from a prima donna complex. The things we do and say and think about are important. What others do and say and think about are abstractions, at best. The problem, if there is one, is not in the technology but in the people who operate it.

When I was seven years old my parents were dogged by a tenacious encyclopedia salesperson. I was far too young to remember, or understand the subtlety of her sales pitch. Perhaps she thrilled them with tales of inaugurations thirty years hence. Maybe she applied liberal amounts of guilt, contrasting for them their children’s education with the extravagant central air unit we ultimately did without for ten more years. I believe guilt was the right motivator to separate my thrifty mother from her money as the only thing in my Mom’s psyche surpassing her frugality is her selflessness. Perhaps she feared for my immortal soul, worried that I would end up in jail, or perhaps law school, without this intervention. Whatever the woman said obviously worked because our family was soon the proud owner of a complete set of 1975 World Book Encyclopedias.

Whether my mother would today conclude that the purchase was economically sound I cannot say. There have been no inaugurations as yet. Whether my father’s ten year dearth of air conditioning was assuaged by seeing his sweaty little boy read about stink beetles and comets is hard to determine. I can say, with conviction, that those 26 brown faux leather books did change my life. They made me whatever I am today and I thank my Mom and Dad for foregoing the air conditioner.

The owner of a set of 1975 World Book Encyclopedias was allowed to drink from a fountain of knowledge that children of the internet age cannot now appreciate. Information which is available today in 4 nanoseconds required a drive across town to that receptacle of human knowledge called a library, an arduous search through a medieval torture device known as a card catalog, a trudge through a dank, moldering labyrinth of shelves clutching in your hopeful hand a piece of scrap paper bearing the cryptic symbols 123.657 LGA scrawled with a broken stubby pencil, and then the withering look of a horn-rimmed harpy whose intimidating glare made the Wizard of Oz look like the man behind the curtain.

My World Books avoided all that. I had this fountain of knowledge in my own house and I drank from it daily. I would often pick a letter at random and sit down in a comfy chair or on the foot of my bed and enter the world of the World Book much as a boy today might Google googol. My mind flitted alphabetically from topic to topic; aardvarks in Africa, The Ancient Mariner and his Albatross, Armstrong, Neil and Apollo. In this way I developed a mind full of trivia. I learned a little about a lot. But the World Book made me fall in love with the World. It opened up to me vistas that I could not see with my own eyes. I read it from cover to cover to cover and I am consequently condemned to be fascinated by everything. I want to know three succinct paragraphs about the universe.

Little did I or anyone else know that my beloved World Books would be surpassed by many orders of magnitude. Our children are growing up in a world where all human knowledge is available in the palm of their hand. They do not have to drive to the library. They do not have to look through a card catalog. They do not have to send away for more information. How can this not be a good thing?

Amber Case studies human interaction with technology. She calls herself a Cyborg Anthropologist because of her hypothesis that glowing screens and the internet therein constitute a sort of extra brain which we carry around with us. We are half-human, half-robot. She says, “Mental tools extend what our brains can do. Our phone is our mental exoskeleton.” And Cyborgs are, mostly, stronger than humans. We are better for having all human knowledge in the palm of our hands, obviously. But there may be a price for this, too. Case makes the argument that we can get too enraptured by our knowledge and technology, much as I got absorbed to the point of distraction by my World Books. A fine example of this can be found on You Tube. Simply type in “Texting man walks into a bear.”

What may be lost is “down time” and I would argue “small talk.” Case says, “People aren’t taking time for mental reflection. When you have no external input that is the time when there is creation of self. Then you can figure out who you really are.” How does she deal with this overload? “I take road trips and use paper maps,” she says.

Which reminds me of an anecdote of my own. I was standing in a store in the Mall of America with my son (A girl’s clothing store. We boys were obviously “on pause”). I was looking at a road map of Minnesota and trying to cipher out a route to escape Minneapolis with minimal frustration. I was approached by a young sales clerk (maybe 19) who stared in wonder at my map. “Is that what I think it is,” she said, “I didn’t think anybody used maps anymore.” I was tempted to retreat into the old person’s mantra “well in my day, young lady…..” But I didn’t. I showed her the map and we talked about the area and she pulled out her “map app.” She actually had some good ideas for getting back to the highway. And it wasn’t that she didn’t know what a map was, or that she didn’t use maps.

The thing is: maps are different today and in many ways they are better. Encyclopedias are better, too. And we can still talk to each other today, even about maps. We just need to take the time to do it. So I guess I won’t take a sledge hammer to my iPhone. There may be some good to come from it. Rest in peace Ned Ludd.

by: Dustin Joy

A True Story (with minor embellishment ) #3 – Sex Appeal vs. Bacon

Ghandi said, “Confession of errors is like a broom which sweeps away the dirt and leaves the surface brighter and clearer.” Here is my most recent attempt. Perhaps a Dyson is more nearly in order for me than a mere broom.

Following is a shameful little exchange I had this morning with my stunning looking young flight attendant (you can be sure it’s nothing of a risqué nature.) I am happily married and have been for twenty-four years now to a brilliant and interesting woman who loves me dearly, as I do her, and who cares if I fall down and break a leg in the shower. But, however happily situated we all are in our relationship statuses (stati?) it seems most people would still like to think we are a commodity someone would be willing to buy. I have occasionally joked (not in earshot of my wife) that monogamy is easy when you have a physique like mine and a handsome nose to match. Still, one would not mind a temptation once in awhile just for the sake of ego.

Our hotel here in Richmond, VA offers flight crew members a coupon for a free breakfast. It’s a pretty good hotel and despite landing after midnight I dragged my tired carcass downstairs with minutes to spare before they stopped serving (free is free after all). And free being free I ordered the “hired-hand / farm-boy / lumberjack” special which was comprised of two eggs scrambled, three strips of bacon, wheat toast with butter and jelly, and American fries (Starbucks coffee, too.)

I was absolutely luxuriating in my bounty when my lovely slim flight attendant appeared and placed her order at the counter. She got her tiny container and a small glass of water and walked over to give me the minimum obligatory hello required by law of one flight crew member to another in such situations. Looking down at my loaded plate she smiled sweetly and said “my, what did you get?” It is amazing how much subtle meaning and judgement can be conveyed with the simple two-letter word “My.”

She might, if she wanted, make a good dental hygienist for she had chosen to begin this conversation just at the moment I had taken a large bite of toast (and okay, bacon and eggs and potatoes). I, stuck like a squirrel with a cheek full of acorns, sputtered and swallowed, and, at length emitted a veritable geyser of toast crumbs onto the table. Stammering, I finally got out, “the works, I guess, and you?” She giggled what I thought was a rather inappropriate giggle and said, “oh, I just got the egg whites and spinach.” She obligingly held out her clear plastic container holding what appeared to be one scrambled egg white (baked likely, if that is somehow possible) and one single leaf of raw spinach. I nodded and smiled and wished her well. My internal monolog ran somewhat differently.

Katlyn (not her real name) has, over the last two days been chatted-up and given the phone number / business card of more than six male passengers. She has been slavishly catered to and complimented by an equal number of gate agents and pilots. She is practiced in using her God-given attributes to their full advantage which is, after all, what we all aspire to do.

I have, on the other hand, received exactly no overtures from the opposite sex save the offer of a somewhat “pre-owned” lollypop from a four-year old girl who came on board with her mother. I respectfully declined. Life must be very different for a beautiful young woman. I’m not saying it’s better, mind you. We all have our crosses to bear I suppose. I’m just saying it must be different.

After our encounter in the restaurant this morning I sat and thought (okay, brooded) about our discrepant breakfasts. There is much to be said for being attractive to the opposite sex (or same sex. This is the 2010’s after all.) But I find that I am pretty happy with my beautiful wife and in lieu of flattery will settle for the occasional used lollypop – and bacon. Bacon is awfully good. The little girl on the plane did smile nicely after all, and those guys who gave Katlyn their numbers were probably jerks anyway.

So, Ghandi, confession may indeed be liberating, but apparently there is no contrition in mine. I will meditate on that.

The Embellishment – One would imagine that I have exaggerated the paucity of Katlyn’s breakfast. I must report, however, that that part of the story was entirely true, as was the enormous size of my breakfast. The misleading part of the story is an impression I may have given you about Katlyn’s personality. I have led you to believe that she is a vapid, self-absorbed, stuck-up girl. In yet another of God’s little injustices she is, in fact, kind, intelligent, friendly and really quite humble. It’s just not fair!

The Island

The visual approach, contrary to what you might imagine, is one of the more difficult maneuvers that a pilot is asked to accomplish. Using an instrument approach, even with low clouds, places the aircraft in a very stable and consistent position during the landing and is mostly a “straight-in” affair. It is the “visual”, where the aircraft is approaching the field from many possible directions and the pilot is judging his or her descent rate by eye instead of by instruments, which tests one’s art and skill.

At airports I fly into frequently I like to stake out landmarks which help me to judge the “letdown” and plan the diameter of my turn from downwind to final. In Cincinnati landing south I plan my base to final turn to fall just a little north of the Ohio river. In Roanoke, Virginia landing northwest I judge my turn based on a small mountain just left of the final which has a big illuminated star on its peak, a sort of advertisement for the city.

Lately I have been flying into Harrisburg, PA on a regular basis. Except in unusual wind conditions, we land to the northwest on runway 31. With good visibility we approach the field on what is called the “downwind” which is an imaginary track about 1,500 feet AGL (above ground level) paralleling the runway opposite the direction of landing. We usually begin our descent from the downwind “abeam the numbers” (which refers to the big white numbers painted on the threshold of the runway). Smaller aircraft make nearly square turns to the base leg (90 degrees from the runway heading) and then another square turn to the final. In our faster jet we tend to plan a smooth descending 180 degree turn to the final hopefully rolling out in line with the runway and at the appropriate altitude to be on the proper stabilized glide path for landing.

My reference landmark for runway 31 at Harrisburg is an island in the Susquehanna River. On the Island is a nuclear power plant with four 30 story cooling towers two of which are generally belching clouds of steam into the air. These towers make an excellent center point for my imaginary arc from the downwind to the final and my visual approaches here are better than they otherwise would be thanks to this reference.

The Susquehanna, and indeed the entire valley surrounding the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, is beautiful. The low forested mountains to the south run right along the river bank and upstream from Harrisburg the river seems to cut straight through the mountain range at a 90 degree angle in a phenomenon called a “water-gap” which you really should read about. The river itself, at least in low water, seems lazy and inviting as it winds past little islands and rock bars. It looks like it would be great fun to float down it in a canoe or even an inner tube. The airport lies along the river and the runway parallels it behind a small levee so that coming in to land from either direction one gets a stunning view up the valley and, coming from the southeast, a glance at dozens of small pastoral farms with crops planted in contour around the numberless hills. Just downstream from Harrisburg is Lancaster County, famous as the home of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” Amish community, where the tiny picturesque farms are tiny because they are still worked by horses. To know quickly how beautiful the Susquehanna is just look at its Wikipedia page. The photo below the header tells you exactly what I’m talking about.

Some of you, particularly those older than 40, might have had a dim memory awakened by my description of the scene above, particularly of my landmark for landing and the cryptic remark about “two of the four cooling towers belching steam.” Only two of the many FO’s who have accompanied me into Harrisburg had a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned the name of the place to them. None of them had a sense of the momentous events that happened there.

To look at Three-Mile Island now and the Susquehanna flowing past it is difficult to summon up the fear and apprehension that most American’s shared for several weeks in 1979. It is so pretty here. Even the power plant perversely seems to fit its surroundings. It seems benign. Within about 5 miles downstream, in fact, is a coal burning power plant which always has a dirty, yellowish plume of smoke trailing downwind. The cooling towers at Three-Mile Island just seem to have a happy white cloud over them much as Bob Ross might have added if he had ever painted a nuclear plant.

And the people I meet in Harrisburg, or Middletown where our hotel is, don’t seem to think about 1979 either. I have asked numerous residents about it and the result is the same; the young one’s have never heard of it and the old ones don’t really want to talk about it. I guess I don’t blame them. We are all whistling past the graveyard in one way or another whether we be Angelinos living atop the San Andreas Fault, Oklahomans watching the skies in May, or you and I knowing we shouldn’t have that Five Guys Cheeseburger, but having it anyway.

It is probably a good idea to remember, once in awhile, that things are not as bad as they could be. The mistakes of 1979 were big mistakes. They encompassed all manner of human failing and frailty from inattention to denial to tunnel vision to misleading optimism to outright deceit. They commanded the nation’s attention for good reason. They made us step back and take stock of our unquestioning embrace of nuclear power. The lessons learned were ultimately applied to making power plants safer and machines more dependable. And the worst did not happen here. This lovely valley was not laid waste to like the dead zone surrounding the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine. Thousands of people were not killed in a devastating explosion or in the hopeless effort to stop the radiation from spreading. Southeast Pennsylvania and Harrisburg and the Amish country and the Chesapeake Bay were not poisoned and rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And, though there is still some argument about the long term effects of the radiation that was released, there were not thousands of cancer deaths and birth defects in the major cities of the east coast.

But it could have been that way. Some things went right here that did not go right at Chernobyl or Fukushima. Were our people smarter than theirs? Probably not. Was Three-Mile Island better designed than these? Probably better, for that time, than Chernobyl for its time, but probably not better than Fukushima. So could the disaster have happened in this lovely valley? It seems likely that it could have if a few things that went right had gone wrong instead. 50% of Three Mile Island’s uranium fuel melted down. That is 20 tons. Chemical reactions generated a huge hydrogen gas bubble in the reactor containment building which could have exploded releasing radiation and radioactive elements into the air over the east coast much as happened at Chernobyl. It might have been worse, much worse.

There were not exactly villains in the drama at Three Mile Island, just flawed humans who made mistakes, some poor designs, and, as we always see in such circumstances, a tendency to “cover your own ass.” The utility running the plant and its contractors paid over $100 million in compensation to various plaintiffs and spent about $1 billion dollars cleaning up the site. Hundreds of tons of radioactive fuel and wreckage from the site were shipped to a Department of Energy facility in Idaho. Radioactive coolant which had seeped into the concrete of the containment building could not easily be recovered and its removal has been deferred likely until the other reactor at Three-Mile Island is decommissioned.

The fact that the infamous Three-Mile Island nuclear plant continues to generate power and a white cloud of steam above two of its four cooling towers is what surprises me most. Despite heavy local opposition reactor #1 was allowed to resume operation in 1985 and, in 2009 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Three-Mile Island’s license to allow reactor #1 to continue operations until 2034. Money is money, after all. When I do my circle to land around the ominously quiet cooling towers of reactor #2 I think about what still lies inside that building and reflect on the huge concrete sarcophagus the Russians had to build over the wreckage of Chernobyl at great personal cost to those who did it.

What happened at Three-Mile Island in 1979 has largely been forgotten and perhaps that is as it should be. Our “collective memories” are already filled up with worries and, in some cases, manias. Kids today don’t think about the possibility of the Russians blowing us up like I did when I was a kid. Parents today don’t obsess about their kids getting Polio, as our grandparents did. And apparently people in Harrisburg today don’t fret about nuclear meltdowns like they did in 1979. Today kids worry about terrorism (which they statistically shouldn’t have to) and parents worry about vaccines (when they should be worrying about the renewed specter of Polio and the diseases that these vaccines nearly eradicated) and the loonies give us a thousand other things to worry about if we listen to them.

Worry is something we all live with and it is hard not to. It harms us in many ways and it seems, often enough, that the things we worry about, terrorism, illegal immigration, other people’s morality, are not the things which we really should statistically worry about. If you look at the data we should be concerned with heart disease, auto accidents, suicide, and the overuse of antibiotics. From Three-Mile Island to 9/11 to saturated fat the challenge has always been to worry about the things that matter, to learn from our mistakes, and, finally, to ignore those boogeymen who pose us no real threat. Only by doing this do we make progress without hurting ourselves in the process.

When I look at the steam plume at Three-Mile Island I still can’t decide if it represents a victory or a defeat. Did we learn from our mistakes and advance our search for clean energy or did a bunch of people with money find a way to overcome a PR nightmare to keep on making more money? I’m still not sure. But I do still feel lucky when I look around this pretty valley and reflect on what might have been.

by: Dustin Joy

St. Louis Breakfast – What is their Story

I’m eating breakfast at a hotel in suburban St. Louis. It’s a pretty good breakfast with a lot of choices and possibly some real eggs (as opposed to the synthetic polymer common to such venues.) People of every different age, shape, and shade make up the morning clientele. At my one o’clock position is a young mother and her baby. The mother is wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey and is patiently handing the little pink-clad girl pieces of banana which the little girl carefully, almost fastidiously, places in her mouth and chews (or gums) until the next bite is ready. She is so quiet and absorbed in the work at hand that it startles me a little when her mother runs out of banana and the little girl looks up quizzically and says, “No more?”

At three o’clock is a girl’s soccer team all eating breakfast together. Kids’ teams are a hazard of the frequent hotel guest and I reflect that this team didn’t wake me up in the middle of the night running up and down the halls. I must say girl’s teams are not nearly the problem in this regard that boys teams are. The team of let’s say 14 year olds are so identical, with one exception, that you could almost believe they were sisters. All but one are thin and blond with long, carefully braided pony tails. Their heights don’t vary more than an inch among the six girls. They all sit the same way on their chairs, seem to have the same food on their plates (yogurt cups and a banana), and, of course, wear matching uniforms. The exception is a young girl in the team uniform who is several inches shorter than the average at the table, black-haired, and, I’m guessing, a Pacific islander. She, too, has the requisite yogurt cup and banana but doesn’t seem to converse with her teammates as the others are doing.

At ten o’clock there is a young bearded man (20ish) in a faded green T-shirt that reads “Roanoke Island Running Club.” He sits by himself but in a way that seems to indicate he is waiting for someone. On his right arm, partially covered by his short sleeve is a tattoo. It is some kind of odd looking bipedal creature whose head is obscured. My first guess is the Michelin Man. That would be odd, of course, unless the guy really has a tire fetish or something. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow man would also fit the bill, or perhaps the Pillsbury Dough Boy, but the tattoo is really not rounded enough for either of these. Finally, as he leans over to pick up a napkin he has dropped on the floor I see that it represents a person from a bomb squad in protective attire. I assess him to see if he looks like a soldier. He is certainly physically fit enough although the scraggly-looking beard suggests he has been out for some time if so.

To my left and facing the same way is a woman of about 60 with dyed black hair who is wearing a loose cotton pastel blouse and a short white skirt that would be eye-opening on a woman half her age. She is unselfconscious about her revealing attire and so I think this is a sort of uniform for her. She flirts briefly with the front desk clerk when he comes out from behind the desk to check something on the breakfast buffet. He blushes at some suggestion she makes that I cannot hear. I admire her a little for not acting her age but also feel a little embarrassed for her. Even at 46, I understand that I can only get away with so much in the “young at heart” department. I set off fireworks and “fell in” the creek on our farm over the 4th of July holiday, which is okay when I am playing with the kids but might be questioned if I was by myself. I don’t want to be old. I guess this lady feels the same way. One of the teenage soccer players gives her a withering look and waggles her pony-tail. “To hell with you, pony tail! Time will get you, too.”

My interest is drawn, necessarily, to a couple sitting directly in front of me on the other side of a small railing/ barrier which bisects the dining room. Their table is at right angles to mine but so close that it is almost as if I am sharing a table with them. Only the top of the barrier separates us. The man is older, maybe 65, and thin. He is lean in a way that suggests not only life-long wiriness but perhaps a recent struggle with, what, cancer maybe, or a heart valve problem. He doesn’t look ill now, but it is apparent that it wouldn’t require much to put him in the category “frail”. His hair, once black, is now shot through with grey and he wears a small, neatly trimmed grey mustache. He has a proud bearing and sits, with excellent posture, chewing his eggs. He is as white as white can be. His skin is thin and almost translucent in spots where it has been drawn tight, such as the bridge of his nose. He has the kind of prominent Adam’s apple that some thin men seem to have and it bobs up and down aggressively as he drinks his orange juice. Everything is dignified about this gentleman with the glaring exception of an impressively flamboyant Hawaiian print shirt. It becomes clear to me over the course of our time together that he did not choose the shirt but is wearing it for the benefit of his wife, who sits opposite him.

The wife is as different physically, almost, as can be. She is a short woman and heavy set. I guess that she is about 5’ 4’’ to his 6’ 2”. The term pear-shaped was invented for her it seems and the term stubby would easily apply to her arms, legs, fingers, and probably toes. She is, I’m pretty sure, Vietnamese, or perhaps Laotian.  She has a dark complexion. Whatever other physical characteristics she might have, or shortcomings for that matter, are overcome by an omnipresent and beautiful smile. The smile, and the lack of wrinkles on her face make her seem younger than she probably is. It seems to me that she must have been very pretty as a girl.

As they eat, they chat politely and I might say lovingly with each other about their trip. I do not catch all the details due to a group of noisy new arrivals to the breakfast buffet. I think they have been to a family gathering, maybe even a family reunion. She is solicitous of his every need, looking up from her breakfast at his least cough or clearing of the throat. She butters his English Muffin for him and, at length, produces one of those large pill cases which is divided into days of the week. She removes Thursday’s compliment of medicine, five large colorful capsules, and arranges them neatly beside his plate in what I understand to be an “order of consumption.” She solicits his advice and help with the toaster, even though it is clear to me that she knows how to do it just fine. All this she does for him, not dutifully, but lovingly. She wants him to be okay and she wants him to still feel relevant and valued.

It is clear that they have been married for many years as each of their respective moves is obviously anticipated by the other gratefully. He peels her slightly green banana for her, breaking the tough stem loose and pulling back a couple of the peels before handing it gently to her. At the same time, she hands him a cup of coffee into which she has poured one packet of sugar and a half a container (only half, mind you) of creamer. It is clear that this ritual is of long standing and represents one of those dollops of mortar which bind together a long and happy marriage.

The husband and wife consume their breakfast at half volume (compared to the other guests, anyway) and I find that I am struggling to eavesdrop on their murmured conversation. There is much I want to know. And since I can’t know my mind wanders into a game of “What is their story” much like I did in Philadelphia with the office window and with my son on the streets of Chicago. As they finish their breakfast my imagination intrudes itself into their quiet lives. Here is what I thought:

How did this odd couple meet and why are they so clearly devoted to each other? Time and familiarity can build a bond like this in some relationships just as it can lead to contempt and disgust in others. I think there is something deeper here though than just becoming acquainted with each other’s habits through long observation. There is a gratefulness to her devotion that seems to transcend the daily squabbles and work of marriage. And, though subtler than hers, his actions and clear adoration of her reveals that he still desires to be her “knight in shining armor” and would gladly hurl his pitiful frail body against a dragon if one showed up here in the St. Louis hotel. This couple’s relationship has, I think, been welded in the fire of adversity and they have clearly been through something difficult and traumatic together which is belied by their serene and mundane breakfast together.

Their Story

He was a young boy, living on a farm in southeast Minnesota in 1968, the year I was born. He was a strong boy, and handsome. Perhaps a bit on the tall and “gangly” side, he nevertheless possessed a bright and cheerful face and a quick and friendly smile. He liked hot rod cars and his Dad, who farmed about three hundred acres of corn and soybeans near Spring Valley, had given his “boy” a truckload of soybeans from the bin and told him to deliver it to the elevator, receive the check in his own name, cash it, and buy a 1964 Mustang he had been salivating for. This generosity was typical of his father but also the boy had been a good boy all his life. He did his homework, got good grades, was devoted to his mother and father, and worked hard on the farm. Driving the Mustang home he couldn’t help taking a circuitous route which looped past the homes of each of his high school buddies. When he got home, near the apex of joy which is possible for a young man, there was an envelope laying on the kitchen table with his name on it.

It’s not that he hadn’t thought about Viet Nam. Every boy in America his age had thought about Viet Nam. Actually, when he reflected on it later, there were very few thoughts about the future, at that point, or even the present which were not tangled up by the thorny vine of Viet Nam. It was ever present in his thoughts but somehow in the background, too. It was so abstract. Here was this place which he probably could not find on a map, where boys from Minnesota and Iowa and Wisconsin were going, against their will. And these innocent young farm boys and city kids too were killing people. They were killing people they had not given one thought to in their brief lives and also … they were being killed there.

In less than six months, his Mustang sat in a back corner of the barn with a tarp over it and he was in Hawaii, a place he had never been and had never thought much about. The serene and beautiful days there were short in number and he thought back on them many times in contrast to the foreign and sometimes ugly place he would later be.

What he discovered in Viet Nam was heat and humidity and boredom, at least for the first few months. Later he would discover noise – noise on a scale he had never imagined. He had thought nothing could match the discomfort and misery of baling hay in August in Minnesota. But the humidity in Saigon defeated even his vivid imagination. A cold shower gave just the briefest respite because almost as soon as the valve was shut off the heat bulldozed back in to rejoin the humidity of the shower stall. Doing any work at all caused a torrent of sweat to gush from every pore and, to add to the misery, it did not evaporate but simply wicked into his clothing to give him the sensation more of splashing around in a blood warm pool than walking. Riding fast in a jeep was some relief but there were few opportunities to do so in this teeming city and he found it unsatisfying when he did, comparing the experience with driving Minnesota highways in his Mustang. The boredom was palpable for the first few weeks in Saigon. The work was mind-numbing (filling sandbags, digging holes) and was punctuated by long periods of sitting around in the sun waiting for further pointless orders.

Sometimes change, even for the worse, can be a relief and when he got orders to climb aboard a chopper headed for the country’s interior he was almost glad for the opportunity to do “something else – anything else.” This feeling was short-lived, though, as too much of one thing, monotony, was quickly replaced by too much of another, fear.

The noise was a big part of the fear. It was ceaseless and stupefying. And there was an odd sense of disorientation with it since some of the noises were routine, and harmless; generators running full speed, jeeps racing back and forth, choppers, the clang of pots and pans in the mess hall. But intermixed with the drone of the mundane were sounds that would literally kill you, the scream of mortar rounds, the staccato “tat-tat-tat” of machine guns, and the deafening roar of the 155 mm howitzers. The boy spent a lot of time in base trying to morph in his mind the olive green jungle around him into the verdant rows of corn back home. He was not too successful.

Finally the day arrived when he was selected to go out on patrol to a village near the base. There was news that the Viet Cong had infiltrated the village and were using it as a staging point for recent attacks against the forward air base. The boy was scared, naturally. But again it seemed that change, any change, held an dark allure. He had stared at the jungle until his eyes were blurry on watch. He had listened to the noises, the noises, the noises, until he could not stand it anymore. He stepped up into the Huey with a sense of foreboding mixed with a sense of relief. Something might happen but something was better than nothing.

The village was tiny and sat out in the middle of a flat open plain of dried up rice paddies surrounded at a distance by dense jungle forming almost a wall at its edge. Low dikes broke up the landscape into an checkerboard pattern with the village of thatch-roofed huts in the center. This was a resettlement village and was home to about 150 peasants, 50 PF’s (Popular Front soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army), and 5 CAP’s. CAP’s were American soldiers assigned to the Combined Action Program. These soldiers lived in the village with the peasants and protected them and helped them with things like digging wells, repairing structures, and building dikes. They lived in fear and trepidation as the the little village was under constant attack from the communists massed in the jungle just to the north. The PF soldiers, while officially there to defend the village, were not from there and were not crack military troops. The American CAP’s would often hear rumors of communist attacks and in the morning find many of the PF’s had slipped away or hidden their uniforms to blend in with the local villagers in case the Viet Cong overran the village. When the attacks did come they were usually not straight up gun fights. They could take the form of mortar rounds suddenly landing all around them in the village, booby traps laid along paths during the night, or in one horrible case, a twelve year old boy heaving a hand grenade into the middle of the CAP’s as they were eating dinner. There were sometimes firefights and if the CAP’s were lucky enough to hear rumors of them from the local villagers, they could call in support from the local bases. This time the CAP’s had heard such rumors from credible sources and had noted that about a quarter of their PF’s had disappeared into the night. The boy’s unit was called in for the first time. It would not be the last.

As the choppers circled in a wide arc around the village, there was no sign that there was anything menacing at all here. The boy looked out, with great concentration, as the Huey settled onto a dike a few hundred feet from the outskirts of the village. For a few moments dirt and dust were everywhere in the air, churned up by the rotor downwash. The boy found himself shoved bodily out the door and onto the hot ground.

In a moment the chopper was gone, as he had been told it would be.  Lingering would have been suicide for the pilot and the gunner as such a target was a great temptation for the Viet Cong back in the trees. The boy gathered his weapon and backpack and used it to push himself into an upright position. When he did this and rubbed the dirt out of his eyes, the first thing they fell upon was the smiling countenance of a young Vietnamese girl. She was his age and she giggled as he brushed the dust off himself. He had never really believed in love at first sight but he knew then, instinctively and immediately, that the greatest thing he could aspire to for the rest of his life was to elicit this smile and this giggle from this girl. He blushed a vivid crimson which was not lost on his Lieutenant.

The girl took a couple of steps forward and held out her hands in which was a steaming cup of tea. She offered it to him and in very broken English said “Here sir, some tea for you.” He chuckled to think of the term “sir” applied to him who for months had only heard the words “scum, and maggot, and boy” applied liberally by his drill sergeant back in California. He dropped the pack and took the offering, a thin metal cup so hot that it must have been very uncomfortable for her hands to hold as she waited for him to make up his mind. The Lieutenant, another tall farm boy from Tipp City, Ohio, whom the boy had found to be friendly, likable, and approachable nodded at the girl and winked at the boy. “Your watch is 2200, why don’t you let her familiarize you with the village. It’s important that we fully understand what’s going on here and find out who we can trust.” The boy knew that the Lieutenant had already had a thorough debriefing by the CAP’s. The girl smiled even more broadly, if such a thing was possible, and beckoned for him to follow her to the common dining hut which the villagers, the PF’s and the CAP’s shared. She took his hand and the touch of her skin thrilled him as he had only experienced once before. He remembered now that he had been solely in the company of men for 65 days. This new sensation was a thing he could get used to. Through a strange alignment of the stars, he had an opportunity to do just that.

This village remained, for nearly four months, the target of Viet Cong threats. The CAP’s were far outnumbered by the communist strength in the nearby jungle. The PF’s assigned to the village were flighty and undependable. The boy’s platoon was called back time after time to stand guard over the village at night and make forays into the edge of the jungle to root out the Viet Cong. The boy, to the surprise of everyone except his Lieutenant, volunteered for this duty every time. Even the horrors of the jungle and what were increasingly suicidal patrols were insufficient to prevent him from spending time at the village. Four men he knew well were ambushed on such a patrol, their bodies found the next morning just yards from the edge of the tree line, riddled with bullets.

Occasionally he and several members of his platoon would stay in the village for a week at a time when the threats of attack were credible enough. He watched over the villagers paternally as they went about their subsistence farming. He played with the children and watched them play. And he watched over one hut in particular and was loathe to let it or its occupants out of his sight. When he was ordered back to the base at the end of such a deployment, he lingered and resisted, even begging his Lieutenant to let him stay on as a CAP. At length he would board the Huey and watch out the open door as long as he could until the little village merged into the dark green blur of the jungle passing below.

He hated leaving her and he hated the Viet Cong for starting this absurd war and he hated the other soldiers in his platoon who looked at the girl and saw something very different than he did. He almost punched one of the men, a loud-mouthed cocky son-of-a-bitch from Jackson, MS who had made a lewd remark about the girl. The Lieutenant had overheard the exchange and ordered the boy off to some made-up duty on the other side of the village. The next afternoon the son-of-a-bitch from Mississippi stepped on a booby-trap near the latrines and blew one of his legs completely and cleanly off and mangled the other grotesquely. After helping to load him onto the evac chopper, the boy hid behind the mess hall and cried.

Another day a single mortar shell came screaming out of a clear blue sky and exploded almost on top of a water buffalo and an old man trundling behind it through the rice paddy. The boy was only sixty feet away and when he ran to help the old man found that the bomb had done such a thorough job that he was unsure which bloody part belonged to the buffalo and which to the man. The old man, it turned out, was the girl’s uncle and when he told her about it her smile faded for the first time in his memory. Horrified at what he had done, he spent the rest of the day trying to rekindle that precious smile. At length he simply held her in his arms and squeezed her.

She did not smile again for days and he felt he would rather have spray painted graffiti on the Mona Lisa than have defiled that lovely life-giving smile of hers. He was finally able to coax it back with a little card trick he had learned in basic training but he felt, forever after, that this had been an unworthy, desperate, selfish thing for him to do. He had cajoled that smile, her smile, for his own purposes, because he needed to see it. Little did he know that she offered it up to him as a gift to assuage his sadness and guilt even though she had not yet felt ready to smile.

Nearing the end of his tour of duty the boy became distraught at the idea of returning to Minnesota and never seeing the girl again. He could not countenance the thought of her remaining in this village which would surely be overrun and the villagers massacred by the Viet Cong as traitors. She assured him she would be alright but he could tell that, once again, she was offering him up this fantasy as a gift. He conjured up increasingly implausible schemes by which he would spirit her off to Saigon in the back of a jeep under a tarp. He considered going AWOL and simply joining her in the village to await whatever fate dealt them. He could not imagine his world without her in it.

On his last deployment to the village he landed with a heavy heart and went directly to her family’s hut. She offered him tea and set by the fire with him talking for hours, sharing thoughts and dreams and fears.

Near dusk the boy heard a distant popping sound coming from the jungle to the north. He recognized this, immediately, as AK-47 fire and peered up over a low wall to see what he could see. What he saw sent a wave of fear and nausea through him. Advancing slowly across the  furthest rice paddies were hundreds of Viet Cong troops fearlessly and brazenly crossing open ground and headed for the village. He then heard the thump of mortars being fired from the trees and the earth twenty yards to their right suddenly exploded into a shower of dirt, rocks, and debris. The CAP’s raced to the machine guns and laid down a withering fire in the direction of the communists but it did not stop them.

The boy grabbed the portable radio set and the girl’s hand and they raced to the mess hall where he knew the Lieutenant to be. The Lieutenant emerged as they approached and with incredible composure took the radio set and began transmitting instructions and numbers to someone listening on the other end. The boy didn’t really understand what the Lieutenant was saying but he knew what the conversation was meant to result in. The lieutenant had called in an airstrike which meant the calm and collected officer thought the situation was dire. The boy grabbed the girl’s shoulders, looked her in the eye, and told her to return to her home and hide in the root cellar below the hut’s floor. She shook her head. He insisted and drug her that direction. She relented finally and ran for the hut. He followed her progress until she disappeared inside and then grabbed his M16 and knelt beside the CAP’s to hold off the attack until the planes could arrive. He wasn’t sure that was possible.

Despite the CAP’s steady fire the Viet Cong advanced, stepping over their dead comrades and coming on. Minutes seemed like hours to the boy as he replaced cartridge after cartridge and the barrel became a branding iron if touched. He was no longer thinking about the people he might be killing or even the possibility of being killed himself but only concerned that he hold off just long enough to protect the girl and her family.

When it seemed impossible to hold off the oncoming enemy any longer, he finally heard, off to the South, the screaming roar of two F-4 Phantom jets just above the trees and coming on fast. He hit the ground as the first unloaded its weapons seemingly just over his head. The bombs continued forward and down as the F-4’s streaked forward and up twisting rapidly to the left and disappearing into the clouds just as the napalm exploded all around him with a deafening roar. The enemy soldiers in front of him simply disappeared into the conflagration and as he rose unsteadily he turned around to find that much of the village had, too. One of the bombers had dropped its load a split second early and at least one or two napalm bombs had burst in the middle of the village, turning the nearby huts into an inferno.

He raced to the girl’s hut finding it fully engulfed in flames. He rushed in through the opening and unmindful of his own burns tore open the hatch leading down into the root cellar. The girl lay curled in the tiny space dazed but unhurt. The boy could see that her father and mother had not made it into the cellar but had been killed by the concussion of the explosion. The girl looked up into the eyes of the boy surrounded by wreckage and flames and smiled. He smiled back. He pulled off his coat and wrapped it around her, taking care to cover her head, not only to protect her from flames but also to protect her from a sight which might have lingered with her for the rest of her life. He picked her up and carried her out through the door of the hut just as it collapsed into a pile.

During the escape, the boy had been burned badly on his exposed arms and scalp. He fell to his knees near the flaming mess hall taking care that the girl not fall on the ground. When he looked at her again, he found her smile gone and replaced with a look of fear and concern focused on his chest. He looked down to find that his shirt was covered in blood apparently the result of shrapnel from one of the napalm bombs or mortar shells. He was suddenly dizzy and he slumped to the ground as the world went dark around him.

When the evac chopper arrived moments later, the rotor wash fanned the flames into a frenzy of searing heat. The Lieutenant, who had seen everything from near the machine gun emplacement, carried the boy like a rag doll to the landing site. He pushed the boy into the open door of the chopper where a medic went immediately to work on his wounds. Then, to her surprise, the Lieutenant whirled and grabbed the girl below her arms and boosted her into the chopper, too. The gunner, surprised and uncomprehending, objected to this Vietnamese girl’s presence and pushed her back toward the open door. The Lieutenant leaned in close and said something in the gunner’s ear which the girl could not hear. The gunner scowled and pulled the door closed with the girl still aboard. The chopper, seeming to struggle and beat at the air frantically, cleared a flaming palm tree and then soared into the fiery orange sky. Neither the girl nor the boy ever returned to the village and neither ever saw the Lieutenant again.

Back in St. Louis

As I finish my cereal and my reverie with the old couple’s lives I notice that the man in the Hawaiian shirt has paused in his chewing. He grimaces a little and I think he has started to choke. His wife, the girl from the chopper, looks worried and pushes back her chair, preparing to rush to his side. He winces again, swallows, and takes a drink of orange juice. Then he gives her a little thumbs-up sign and grins in a goofy sort of way. She smiles her wide smile and lays her little hand in his outstretched palm. No more words are exchanged that I can hear.

The soccer team gets up noisily and leaves. The little girl in pink has finished her breakfast and her mom picks her up. She looks quiet and thoughtful. Then she smiles. I would like to know more about all of them. I see these people every day in hotels and airports and on trains and busses and I get snippets of their conversations. As they pass I catch partial sentences and non-sequiturs. One day I heard a man on a cell phone at O’Hare say clearly and rather sternly to someone on the other end “that is the kind of thing that will get us put in prison!” He passed by and his conversation and his odd story continued and I never saw him again. That happens to me a hundred times a day in my line of work. So, I have to make up stories for them.

I had to leave to go catch my van to the airport. I never saw the old couple again and probably, barring some miracle, never will. Their story now is the one I made up for them. But whatever it was in real life I like to believe that their story continued and had a happy ending.

by: Dustin Joy

A True Story (with minor embellishment ) #2 – A Hero of a Sort

I was in the restroom at Wal-Mart. I was washing my hands. I was luxuriating in the warm water. It was a Wednesday, I think, and it was a good day. I was home from a four-day trip. I was off work. I did not have to rush. I did not have to answer questions. I did not have to please bosses or passengers or co-workers. I did not have to please anyone. I was not required to demonstrate my acumen or diligence or stick-to-it-ivness or people skills. And it was Christmastime! I had listened to Bing sing about a White Christmas and Elvis sing about a Blue Christmas and the Bare Naked Ladies sing about a Green Christmas. But I was having a beautiful brown Christmas and I was with my lovely wife and my brilliant little boy in the Mecca of American capitalism and I was feeling warm and beloved. And then the door opened.

And in stepped – a woman. She was not an attractive woman. She was plain. She was perhaps a woman who had suffered sadness and disappointment in her life due to her genetic plainness. And I know a thing or two about genetic plainness. She was middle aged- as I am myself. She was thick around the middle – as I am myself. She had streaks of gray in her dull brown hair- as I do myself. She had a worn and unstylish old brown coat. Okay, mine is blue.

And she was perplexed and embarrassed. I saw her perplexication immediately and I felt a surge of compassion and kinship with her. I have made mistakes before. I have been on the wrong end of bad decisions. I have struggled myself through this hard and challenging world of obstacles. I have suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

I smiled. I smiled a wide winning smile as if to say that I would not contribute to her pain. I would not be one of those who had made fun of her in grade school or pushed her down in the playground. I would not mock her error or hold her up to ridicule. I smiled to say that I had forgiven her immediately. Her faux pas was a “no pas” in my book. She was off the hook. She needn’t have concerned herself even had I been standing at a urinal. Indeed I thought how much more delicious would have been my magnanimity had I been at a urinal. But she blushed. “I’m so sorry,” she stammered, puzzled and confused. And I, in my genuine magnanimity airily waved away her concern. “de nada,” I thought. “It was nothing,” I said, “I have done that many times,” which was a lie, but only a small one.

It felt so good to forgive her. This was perhaps the metaphorical cherry on the top of this already outstanding day. Not only was I warm and beloved and free from responsibility, I was a hero, of a sort. I was a good guy. I was a guy with enough confidence and savoir faire that I was above being an enforcer of social rules. This was her lucky day. She had barged into the right restroom at the best possible time. For, not only would she be alleviated of her embarrassment, she might gain, from my easy absolution, a new faith in her fellow man. And perhaps even a new faith in men, for I discerned, in a moment, that she had not always been treated well by the male of the species. “Your contrition is not wanted here, my lady,” I thought, but I could see she was contrite. She was used to cowering. She was used to wincing. She was used to masking her shame in nervous laughter and hidden tears.

“But not here,” I thought, “not in my restroom. Not today.” She affected a little bow and turned to leave much like a geisha backing out of a room. “Be not troubled,” I thought, “For all is well.” She looked relieved, or overwhelmed, or perhaps …nauseous? “No bigee,” I said, gesturing toward the door, “after you.”

I wadded my paper towel and launched it along a trajectory which intersected perfectly with the open garbage bin – nothing but air! And throwing my jacket over my outstretched arm and sucking in my gut just a little I pushed open the door and we walked out together- out of the ladies room.

The Embellishment: My coat was brown, too. And, okay, I missed the garbage can.

 

Postscript: This is one of my only pieces to ever be “published.” A shorter version of this got honorable mention in the River City Reader Short Fiction contest in 2013. I guess that somewhat diminishes its status as a True Story.

 

by: Dustin Joy

A True Story (with minor embellishment) – The Dude

Caution: This story contains foul language, specifically the words “motherfucker” and “poop” and, for my vegan friends, gratuitous reference to bacon. If you object to such language I suggest you- oops, sorry.

 

I got onboard the hotel van this morning at 4:00 AM central time in Cincinnati. The van was filled with sober and sedate pilots and flight attendants sitting silently, nodding off or looking at their phones as flight crew tend to do at 4:00 am.

The other four passengers were a group of exuberant, perhaps “lit up,” twenty-somethings who were just a little past the point of tolerable for this time of the day. I believe they had not so much gotten up early to catch their flight, as stayed up late to do so. The runt of the litter who we might call “Tiny” weighed 300 if he weighed a pound. They were all wearing flip flops, baggy shorts, and t-shirts that looked like they had been slept in (or passed-out in).

About five minutes after our scheduled van departure time, the fifth member of their group (the leader?) finally hove into view from the hotel lobby, climbed aboard, and plopped down practically in the lap of a very stern-looking United Captain who had already been tapping his watch for the last five minutes. “The Dude,” as he shall hereafter be called, was wearing the requisite flip flops, a dirty “wife beater” with some samples of last night’s meal on it (I would suspect poutine if we had been in Canada. Gravy, at least, was involved), and a pair of droopy shorts with what looked very much like poop smeared across the bottom.

The United Captain scowled relentlessly but the Dude, totally oblivious to this, jumped up, ran to the front of the bus, and started an impromptu rap performance which went as follows. His mates joined in immediately with beatbox sound effects:

“Four o’clock in the morning,
Cookin’ bacon,
Motherfucker in the kitchen,
With a bulletproof
Apron”

This, I had to concede, was better than I could come up with at 4:05 AM. I know I never would have thought to rhyme bacon and apron or even how to work “motherfucker” in effectively. Even the United captain couldn’t help chuckling at this.

Having apparently exhausted his repertoire with that simple, excellent verse, or feeling perhaps that nothing more was deserved by his thankless and unresponsive audience, the Dude resumed his seat. The United Captain, hoping to avoid another game of musical chairs grimaced and shrank back against the wall leaving the Dude an ample landing strip.

Noticing, perhaps for the first time, that we were all in uniform the Dude suddenly waxed philosophical about aerodynamics. He pestered the good Captain all the way to the airport about the unlikeliness that them “big jets” could really get off the ground. As we bid the group goodbye at the terminal, the Dude asked each of us, in turn, whether we planned to “hit the liquor store” after the flight which always sounds good in front of fifty passengers waiting in line. The last I saw of the Dude and his crew was at the TSA security checkpoint where they were being diverted into the private screening area (usually a bad sign). Godspeed, Dude! I have to admire anyone with that much energy at 4:00 in the morning (even if it is chemically induced).

The Embellishment: You may have wondered what aspect of this story I made up or exaggerated. As Garrison Keillor would say, this is a “true” story. The only made-up thing in it is the United Captain’s sour demeanor. He was, in fact, enchanted with the Dude and chatted with him enthusiastically all the way to the airport. Surprised?

 

by: Dustin Joy

Being Ward Cleaver / A Letter to my Kids

Ever since I became a father I have really only had one ambition- to be Ward Cleaver. Ward was the complete package as fathers go. He was handsome, of course, and made a good living. His wife adored him and his business partners respected him. He raised his kids to be polite, competent, thoughtful, and intelligent members of society. He instilled wisdom in Beaver and Wally without screaming insanely or being reduced to tears of frustration himself. He was never sarcastic or cruel when the Beaver cheated on a test at school, suggesting that he would never amount to anything and should probably grab a broom handle and start practicing holding up a sign along the side of the road.… etc., etc., etc. If Wally backed the car into the garage door and then tried to hide the fact, Ward did not blow up like some kind of lunatic scarring Wally’s fragile ego for life, but steered him gently in the direction of honesty and responsibility. He never cussed in his kids’ presence or cheated on his golf score or flung his @#$%# backlashed fishing reel out into the middle of @#$%@ Lake George …… ah, forget that last example. There are a lot of reasons I want to be like Ward Cleaver. They are the same reasons I want to be like my dad and I want to be like my grandpa. All these guys were solid and steady and competent and smart. To distill it all down to a single phrase, these guys “Knew what to do, always.” There never seemed to be any moral flailing about with these guys. If the car broke down, they fixed it. If they had a new wife and child they went out and got a better job and earned more money. If their kids got into trouble at school they new what to say or do ….every time. The truth is that I don’t always know what to do, and you can ask my kids about this (or, rather don’t do that). I do a lot of moral flailing and philosophical questioning. I do give contradictory answers and uncertain instruction. I am sometimes sarcastic and unnecessarily cruel. I do sometimes shake my head and walk away in frustration and I have been known, on occasion, to throw a @#$#% fishing reel out into the middle of the lake. If I can’t be Ward Cleaver, at least I can say that I have studied on how to be Ward Cleaver. I do try to be calm in a crisis and thoughtful in assigning punishment and loving and supportive whenever I can. But it is hard. And it is trying. And I never seem to live up to my own expectations. So what is a guy who wants to be Ward Cleaver but knows he never will be, supposed to do? I decided to write about it. I decided to think about what has worked for me in life and what hasn’t and to try to write a “Leave it to Beaver script” that I can use as a cue card for my own role as a father. Here is what I have come up with so far. It is in the form of a letter to my kids.

A Letter to my Kids

Advice is almost always unwanted. The rules by which one person lives his life cannot and should not be a template for anyone else’s. Though I have endeavored to teach you all some knowledge and skills which will serve you in the pursuit of what ultimately makes you happy, I hope that you will, at length, find your own course. And while I hope that your course ultimately brings you joy, I hope that you make a wrong turn along the way, as well, for serendipity is not found on the straight and true path and serendipity is worth the occasional inconvenience.

Having said that, I do know that the advice of my elders, what little of it I took, was worth the trouble, too. And their advice which I did not take sometimes looks smarter in the rear view mirror. If I had known then what I know now, I might have done some things differently. I certainly would have saved myself some trouble. While I would not prescribe a direction for your life, I would offer some tips of the trade, if you will, that I have learned the hard way. While I do not expect you to heed them, perhaps you will look back at these words someday and say, gosh, I guess he wasn’t so dumb, after all. So, here goes nothing. My tips for a better life:

1. Cultivate an interest in other people – The world really is a marvelous place and nothing in the world is as interesting as people. I have been interested in people all of my life and I love to learn about them and about their lives. I often approach people in airports and ask them where they are going, where they live, what they do for a living. If they don’t call security (ha ha!) we sometimes have an interesting conversation. I am always amazed at the variety. You might even discover a new way of living from talking to people. This interest can pay off for you personally, also. No present you can bestow on a person is better or more treasured than a simple and sincere interest in them. If you show people that you are interested in them, they will think kindly of you. It is difficult for even the most curmudgeonly old fool to be cruel to someone who shows a genuine interest in him. It is a kindness to bestow this interest on others and it is indeed its own reward.

2. Let people help you – This is related to the advice above. People often think that giving a present will endear them to the recipient. Perversely, I have found that the opposite is actually true. When receiving a gift, many people sense an unwelcome obligation. I am sure you recognize the feeling of disappointment when a gift you have put much time and thought into elicits a guilty tepid response and a hasty, awkward attempt to reciprocate. Reciprocation was not your intention, but sadly, that is what your friend feels. Giving is a nice feeling and something that should be liberally indulged. But accepting gifts or help from others is what actually endears you to them. Bizarrely, it is not easy to learn to accept others charity with equanimity. You will do well to learn this skill, however.

3. Doing better is always a victory- The bad things that happen to us, the choices, and situations and company we find ourselves in usually don’t happen suddenly. They evolve over time and cannot be fixed or changed overnight. But, however far down the wrong road we are, stopping and turning around is a victory. Striving to improve is the victory. The results may not come immediately, but they will follow inevitably. Never despair. There is always something you can do to make things better. And often, that is enough.

4. Be kind – I am not enthusiastic about the teaching of moral obligation. But I have noted from long experience and observation, that certain ways of behaving seem to make life easier and, for lack of a better word, better. Some people call what I am talking about the “Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I have no problem with that. It seems to me that being kind, especially to those less fortunate than you, is the best and simplest way to make the world we live in a better place. That is good for the people around you and that is good for you. If there is anything I have observed about human nature that I believe to be true, it is that attitude is contagious. If you are kind, others will be kind to you. This is a corollary of my point above about cultivating an interest in other people. I would encourage you, also, to surround yourself with kind people and to avoid the company of cruel people whenever possible. While friendliness and kindness are contagious, you cannot convert everyone with your smile. Simply get away from these people and minimize your exposure to them, for surely cruelty, anger, and bitterness are contagious, too. When you encounter new people, make friends, or even, perish the thought, choose a mate, surround yourself with kind people. If you are dating a new guy or girl watch how he or she treats others, especially weaker people. Observe how he treats the waitress in the restaurant, the clerk at the store, your classmates who are not socially popular. If he is cruel in these situations, he will be cruel to you eventually. You do not need this in your life.

5. Surround yourself with intelligent, talented people- Their company will make you better. They will up your game. You cannot get intellectually lazy if the people around you call you out for such behavior. Don’t shy away from productive and challenging competition. It makes you strong. But avoid petty rivalries and pointless one-upmanship. Make talented friends but avoid the temptation to constantly compare yourself to them. Everyone has his own cross to bear.

That’s about all I have for you at this point. I will keep working on it. It is important to remember that with seven billion people on our planet, no one has figured out the meaning of life or how to live it. Your guess is as good as Einstein’s. What to do is make your own way and never give up. Emerson said  “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Whether you are on someone else’s trail or are blazing your own, if you find yourself on the wrong path (for you) turn around and regret it not. It was a learning experience. And, finally, try to have some fun. I don’t know if this is the advice Ward Cleaver would have given Wally and the Beaver, but, you know what, to hell with him. He’s a fictional character.

Dustin Joy

Deriving an Ought from an Is / My Father Hates Thoreau

As I look back over the entries I have made in this blog, I am struck by a pattern. I have written about nature and travel and friends and family and gardening and geography and politics and getting abducted by a Chinese submarine while skin diving. Recently, I discovered on my blog setup page that I could tag topics or items of interest to advertise the individual blog posts on the home page. You will see this as what they call a “Tag cloud” along the right side of the home page. When I use a “tag” that word appears in the tag cloud and, if I use that tag on multiple blogs, that tag becomes larger in the tag cloud. As you can see, there is one tag in my tag cloud that sticks out prominently.

It shouldn’t surprise me, I guess, to see philosophy play an important role in my writing. I have always been interested in philosophy in one way or another. When I reflect on the writing I have done, I suspect nearly every blog post should include the tag “Philosophy.” I took courses on the subject in college, of course, and “studied” Mill and Hume and Sartre and Plato and Nietzsche and Freud. But looking further back, I think I have always been interested in what things are and what things mean and, of course, what to do about them. With apologies to David Hume, Philosophy is, to me, “how to derive an ought from an is.” The fun thing about philosophy is that no one agrees about the oughts and in fact, no one even agrees about the is’s.

There is philosophy everywhere, I think, and I suspect nearly everyone is an amateur philosopher. The other fun thing about philosophy is that everyone who does it, even the professional philosophers, are really amateur philosophers.

There is a philosophy to flying airplanes. To an airline pilot that encompasses many things. It involves, in my case, a striving for “smoothness.” That means more than keeping the aircraft straight and level and trying to “grease” the landings. It means running an organized and “effortless-looking” cockpit. It means trying to learn about your crew and their differences so that you can best utilize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. It means trying to be on time, when you can, and trying to be safe always. It means making hundreds of judgements a day and dedicating yourself to making them based on the best information available and in a calm, dispassionate way. Will I attain the results my philosophy calls for every day? Of course not. But I will try and I will be guided by my philosophy and I will feel a pang of guilt if I fail to live up to it.

Every profession calls for philosophy. There is no endeavor, I think, so menial or unappreciated that it cannot benefit from a philosophy. Whether you are the President of the United States or the guy that cleans the toilets at O’Hare, it behooves one to have a philosophy and it behooves us all to respect the guy who has one. Our society is greatly enhanced when the guy who cleans the toilets at O’Hare believes in his work, feels valued, and wants to do his job well. We must honor that.

I don’t trust a person who lacks a philosophy. Anyone who has not considered, seriously, the ramifications and meaning of his work is foolhardy at best and a danger at worst. Whether you fly airplanes, sew quilts or erect skyscrapers what you do is important and “requires” an ethic; that ethic gives dignity to your work and makes your life worthwhile.
Since I’m thinking along these lines anyway and, after all, my blog is called stuffiminterestedin, I think I may include, in the next few posts, some more direct thoughts I have had about philosophy and what it means to me. For those of you whose eyes are glazing over already, I promise I won’t be quoting Schopenhauer or Ayn Rand (Eww!) but I may well quote some others who are more easily digested. As always, please feel free to contribute your opinions. I love talking about and thinking about and even arguing about philosophy.

My first post along this line is one I call “My Father Hates Thoreau.” It is an effort to examine “happiness” and how it can be achieved by looking for insights from people I respect.

 

 

My Father Hates Thoreau

My father hates Thoreau. This surprised me at first. All his life, my father has loved the outdoors. He has always been independent minded and is every bit the free-thinker that Thoreau was. He revels sometimes in going against the grain and taking contrary positions. He has always lived a self-reliant, somewhat minimalist lifestyle. Thoreau should have been a perfect fit. But when I, for the first time, loaned him my copy of Walden he returned it later with a complaint. “I thought I would like this,” he said, “but Thoreau was a jerk!”

And so he was. It is hard to read Walden, or some of his other work, without concluding that Henry David Thoreau might have been one of those people you would try to avoid in your daily life. He was obviously arrogant. He was self-absorbed. He was abrupt and direct and tactless. In my father’s apt description, he was a jerk. Yet I still imagined that, looking past Thoreau’s harsh rhetoric of trees, a man like my father would find much philosophical forest to agree with. Having read Walden many times myself, I frequently go away with a sense of longing- longing for simplicity and the courage to embrace Thoreau’s ideas in a material way. I find much truth in that book.
Still, I see why some would not be able to tolerate the haughty style. I think I know just the passage that sealed Thoreau’s fate with my Father. It was in the first chapter, Economy:

Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my mentors said nothing about.

I think Thoreau’s point here is that the world is new for each of us and we must live it ourselves. The young must make their own mistakes, not simply as a reproach to their elders’ advice, but because “their world” has never been experienced by anyone before. This meaning is obscured, though, because Thoreau does seem to carry with him a personal animus to the old that he wears on his sleeve. His words betray an old wound he suffered from an elder.

I’m in both camps on this one. I am pretty sure, having seen what I have seen of this world, that there is no one way to live. I’m glad that’s so. Yet, I find a persuasive case to be made for the value of my elders’ experience. I believe I learned much of value from my father and grandfather. Furthermore, I learned things of great value from Thoreau, who is quite obviously my elder. I would be hard pressed to say that I know, in the present tense, what to do with such advice as these sages gave me. Still, I think it’s accumulation over time helped me to make better decisions, when I heeded it.

Be it Thoreau, or Buddha, or my dad, we come back always to the question of how to live. That is what Walden is about. All literature is about that topic really. All movies are. All paintings, too. Furniture, clothes, the way one man shovels the snow off his driveway, the way a girl braids her hair, these are all answers to the question “How should we live?”

It is reckoned that about 106 Billion people have lived on this planet since Homo Sapiens evolved. Though there has been some fleeting consensus from time to time, no one has definitively answered that question. It seems unlikely that anyone ever will. It is hard to answer that question for yourself. It is trouble when you try to answer it for someone else. Really, all the war and bloodshed we have ever known was about one group trying to tell another group how to live. That’s what religion is about, I think.
So how should we live? Thoreau would say honestly and simply. That seems about as good a piece of advice as we are likely to get. I’m certain my father would add his voice to this. Yet, there are many to whom that advice is obvious anathema. There are people who live amazingly complicated lives and seem to be happy.

If the goal is happiness, we could be democratic about it. Let’s vote on what makes us happy. A natural question presents itself. Is pursuing happiness the best way to live? For purposes of this discussion I will take for granted the fundamental utilitarian principle of Jeremy Bentham that happiness, presumably the most happiness for the greatest number of people, is a worthwhile goal. How to get there is the question. Ignoring Thoreau, I look to my elders here for advice. I have assembled quotes from many renowned people suggesting strategies for achieving happiness. These tend to fall into a number of loosely defined categories which I call: Work, Giving to Others, Family and Friends, Attitude, Contrast, Being Satisfied, Not Being Satisfied, Living Honestly and Sincerely, Serendipity, and I Don’t Know.
Try these axioms on to see if they fit (or perhaps you will not agree to call them axioms).

WORK:

If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.
– Andrew Carnegie

If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator.
– W. Beran Wolfe

Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.
– Albert Schweitzer

What is happiness; to be dissolved into something completely great.
– Willa Cather

Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
– Helen Keller

Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.
– Benjamin Disraeli

The true way to render ourselves happy is to love our work and find in it our pleasure.
– Francoise de Motteville

To fill the hour — that is happiness.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Grand essentials of happiness are: something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.
– George Burnap

If thou workest at that which is before thee, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract thee, but keeping thy divine part pure, as if thou shouldst be bound to give it back immediately; if thou holdest to this, expecting nothing, fearing nothing, but satisfied with thy present activity according to Nature, and with heroic truth in every word and sound which thou utterest, thou wilt live happy. And there is no man who is able to prevent this.
– Marcus Aurelius

We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about.
– Charles Kingsley
Existence is a strange bargain. Life owes us little; we owe it everything. The only true happiness comes from squandering ourselves for a purpose.
– William Cowper

 

GIVING TO OTHERS:

Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.
– Buddha

Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within. It is not what we see and touch or that which others do for us which makes us happy; it is that which we think and feel and do, first for the other fellow and then for ourselves.
– Helen Keller

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
– Tenzin Gyatso
14th Dalai Lama

Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others, cannot keep it from themselves.
– James M. Barrie

There is a wonderful mythical law of nature that the three things we crave most in life — happiness, freedom, and peace of mind — are always attained by giving them to someone else.
– Peyton Conway March

Happiness is not so much in having as sharing. We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.
– Norman MacEwan

When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him; and you are torn by the thought of the unhappiness and night you cast, by the mere fact of living, in the hearts you encounter.
– Albert Camus

Love is a condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.
– Robert Heinlein

I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
– Albert Schweitzer

 

 

FAMILY/ FRIENDS:
The happiest moments of my life have been the few which I have passed at home in the bosom of my family.
– Thomas Jefferson

The most I can do for my friend is simply to be his friend. I have no wealth to bestow on him. If he knows that I am happy in loving him, he will want no other reward. Is not friendship divine in this?
– Henry David Thoreau

 

 

ATTITUDE:

Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.
– Groucho Marx

Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.
– Abraham Lincoln

The basic thing is that everyone wants happiness, no one wants suffering. And happiness mainly comes from our own attitude, rather than from external factors. If your own mental attitude is correct, even if you remain in a hostile atmosphere, you feel happy.
– Tenzin Gyatso
14th Dalai Lama

People spend a lifetime searching for happiness; looking for peace. They chase idle dreams, addictions, religions, even other people, hoping to fill the emptiness that plagues them. The irony is the only place they ever needed to search was within.
– Ramona L. Anderson

The greatest part of our happiness depends on our dispositions, not our circumstances.
– Martha Washington

The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.
– John Milton

 

 

CONTRAST:

There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state to another, nothing more. He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die, that we may appreciate the enjoyments of life.
– Alexandre Dumas

Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.
– Carl Jung

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.
– Carl Jung

Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness.
– Don Marquis

 

BEING SATISFIED:

Gratefulness is the key to a happy life that we hold in our hands, because if we are not grateful, then no matter how much we have we will not be happy — because we will always want to have something else or something more.
– David Steindl-Rast

Unhappiness is best defined as the difference between our talents and our expectations.
– Edward de Bono

The world has to learn that the actual pleasure derived from material things is of rather low quality on the whole and less even in quantity than it looks to those who have not tried it.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.
– Eric Hoffer

The perfection of wisdom, and the end of true philosophy is to proportion our wants to our possessions, our ambitions to our capacities, we will then be a happy and a virtuous people.
– Mark Twain

That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.
– Henry David Thoreau

Being happy doesn’t mean that everything is perfect. It means that you’ve decided to look beyond the imperfections.
-Unknown

A man should always consider how much he has more than he wants, and how much more unhappy he might be than he really is.
– Joseph Addison

The greatest happiness you can have is knowing that you do not necessarily require happiness.
– William Saroyan

Even if we can’t be happy, we must always be cheerful.
– Irving Kristol
Knowledge of what is possible is the beginning of happiness.
– George Santayana

Happiness comes fleetingly now and then, To those who have learned to do without it and to them only.
-Don Marquis

 

 

NOT BEING SATISFIED:

To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.
– Bertrand Russell

 

 

LIVING HONESTLY AND SINCERELY:

But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?
– Albert Camus

Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.
– Mohandas K. Gandhi

The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties and the fullest realization of the world in which we live.
– Bertrand Russell

Wisdom is the supreme part of happiness.
– Sophocles

 

 

SERINDIPITY:

Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn’t know you left open.
– John Barrymore
Fate often puts all the material for happiness and prosperity into a man’s hands just to see how miserable he can make himself with them.
– Don Marquis
I DON’T KNOW:

It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it.
– W. Somerset Maugham

The pursuit of happiness is a most ridiculous phrase, if you pursue happiness you’ll never find it.
– C. P. Snow

Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne

The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
– M. Scott Peck

There is no duty we so underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world.
– Robert Louis Stevenson

We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.
– Anne Frank

Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.
– Mark Twain

Independence is happiness.
– Susan B. Anthony

Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.
– Albert Schweitzer

It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day to day basis.
– Margaret Bonnano

It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness. Poverty an’ wealth have both failed.
– Kin Hubbard

Why not let people differ about their answers to the great mysteries of the Universe? Let each seek one’s own way to the highest, to one’s own sense of supreme loyalty in life, one’s ideal of life. Let each philosophy, each world-view bring forth its truth and beauty to a larger perspective, that people may grow in vision, stature and dedication.
– Algernon Black

Happiness is a mystery like religion, and it should never be rationalized.
– G. K. Chesterton

 

Sooooooo,
work hard at something that interests you, give of yourself to others, maintain a good attitude, enjoy a change of scenery from time to time, appreciate what you have, and live honestly and sincerely and you will find happiness – if you are lucky. Heck, it’s crazy enough that it just might work.

P.S.. You didn’t really think I was going to tell you the meaning of life, did you?

Dustin Joy (With help from the Dalai Lama, Hellen Keller, and Mark Twain)

A Force of Nature

The truth is that I don’t know much about happiness. It’s not that I’m a sad person. I’m not, though I love a good wallow in self-pity as much as the next guy. But, I’m starting to see that I’m no closer to a clear definition or strategy at age 46 than I was when I was a kid.

If happiness is a ratio between things planned and things achieved then I think I should be a basket case by now. My vivid childhood fantasies starred me, the boy genius, as a millionaire by thirty, best-selling author and governor of Illinois by thirty-five, and the genial and beloved, yet tough as nails, President of the United States by forty-five.

Just to keep you up to date I’m a wee bit short in the millionaire department, and if I’m going to be President on my schedule I’m going to have to crack that time travel nut pretty soon. I don’t drive a jaguar, I’m not a good public speaker, and I’ve written no best sellers to date.

Why I’m not a basket case (or perhaps I flatter myself) remains, to me, a mystery. Maybe life’s compensation for dashed hopes is a comforting drowsiness of the spirit that falls over one in middle age. About the time that famous athletes and movie stars become younger than us we begin to make adjustments to reality. Our goals become more reasonable, perhaps. I may not be a millionaire, but maybe I could afford to retire someday. I don’t have a Lamborghini, but I don’t have to drive a bucket of rust, anymore. I’m not married to Claudia Schiffer, but my beautiful and brilliant wife loves me and she’s still here after twenty-four years of my ridiculousness. To sum up life at this juncture I would have to quote the Barenaked Ladies. “I feel fine enough, I guess, considering everything’s a mess.”

What troubles me now, is not my own happiness, or lack of it, but the fact that I am responsible for the happiness of others. I guess I have been culpable in some vague way for my wife’s happiness or unhappiness for years. But, she is a big girl and in most key metrics more stable and sure-footed than me. The problem is these kids. I have discovered, in my new found adulthood, that I have a persistent and powerful desire to have my kids be happy. Unfortunately, I have no clue how to accomplish this and my efforts thus far have backfired worse that a 1972 Pinto in need of a tune-up. In my typical self-absorption I assumed that what made me happy as a kid would make my kids happy. For those of you taking notes this is not necessarily the case.

When I was a child I loved the company of adults. I needed, at some visceral level, the approval and recognition of these authority figures. The constant stroking of my little ego by my parents and more often by my grandparents made me conclude, apparently in error, that I was really something. My Grandparent’s apparent belief that I was a talented artist, a gifted writer, and an all around boy genius met with my approval from the start. The fact that they doted on me and showered me with laurels seemed to me no more than I deserved. I was going to be the millionaire President. Already, the powers that be (the adults) had recognized greatness in me and were giving me my just rewards.

What they had actually recognized in me (and liked, I might add) was obsequiousness. I was a more subtle Eddie Haskell and my earnest interest in and imitation of their views and values met with their approval from the start. I was able to validate their own notions about what a good boy should be. I sat and watched Lawrence Welk with them, for goodness sake. My cousins, who did not stoop to such obvious flattery, must have found my Grandparent’s favoritism alienating and unfair. I can only say that my cousins were right. In my own defense, I was just a kid.

Now I find, as an adult with kids of my own, that my daughter is a very different child than I was. She is headstrong where I was pliant. She is determined, where I was malleable. She is as eager to assert her own will as I was eager to please. She flies at the world with fury and righteousness. She speaks truth to power. I love her so much but I don’t always understand her.

It is well known that people, at a certain age, begin to live vicariously though their children. I never thought that would happen to me when my daughter was four. At this tender age she did something I have been too scared to do all my adult life. While we were visiting the Library in Muscatine, Iowa on May 5 2003 a local band had blocked off the street and were warming up with a few numbers in preparation for the Cinco de Mayo celebration. The avenue in front of the Library had been roped off for the street dance and nearly a whole city block was empty with pedestrians standing outside the roped area watching the mariachi band playing on the back of a flatbed semi trailer at the head of the street. Before we could stop her my daughter ducked under the rope and ran out into the vast expanse of empty pavement and proceeded to dance. My wife was chagrined and worried as our first born writhed and twisted to the Latin beat and to the gratification of a hundred bystanders. I will now admit that my weak paternal response was not fear, nor embarrassment, but sheer jealousy. I would have given any amount to possess the courage and lack of self-consciousness that celebration of joy required. In her exuberant dance I could see the shortcomings of a life lived on the safe side. I decided I could do worse than live vicariously through this little force of nature.

Now she has purple hair; or is it green today? And she lectures her Republican grandfather about gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. She is brilliant and tough and unyielding and witty and clever and manipulative and logical and emotional and she loves little kids and she is kind to old people and she gives money to the poor and I watched her warm a little kitten’s cold, lifeless body in her hands and bring it back to life. And she doesn’t give a damn what you think about any of that.

Thinking back on our time as parents my wife and I say to each other, “what are we going to do with her.” I still don’t know. But the idea I’ve come up with lately is this; I’m going to encourage her. My daughter is not me. I desperately want her to be happy, and I know that butting heads is not going to be an easy path. I can only assume that she will get knocked down and bloodied as often as she does the knocking and bloodying.

But I have no monopoly on wisdom. Most of us are able to see the world through our own rose-colored glasses and we accommodate ourselves to the necessities of living. Some people, though, see the world as it actually is and feel a compulsion to tackle it and wrestle it to the ground kicking and screaming. My daughter is of the latter school. It is her nature as surely as grass is green and sky is blue. I have always been a mutable fellow. Why should I fight against this force of nature. I might as well be on the winning team. I love my daughter so much. If she has to wrestle the world, I aim to help her. I hope she puts a full nelson on the son-of-a-bitch.