Thursday, December 29, 2011

I Heartily Disagree with Things My Mother Said

"If you can't say something nice, then say nothing at all." Nooooooo, no, no, no, no! This is the worst advice in the world. To not speak up against some things is a major crime and at the top of the list is bad service, like clerks/waiters/nurses standing around discussing personal lives instead of taking care of the business at hand. Overhearing the nurses' social klatch at their desk while waiting for something only a nurse can do is infuriating. Sullen waiters and flirty clerks who would rather chat with their coworkers are surely business liabilities. But I will not be the one who speaks, though. My mother taught me well. I might desperately need a bed pan, and no one wants to know what angry waiters do to the food before it arrives at the table.

"Beauty is only skin deep," my mother said. She forgot to add, "But ugly is to the bone!" If she had just given me the entire truth on this one, I think we would have found common ground.

"It is always best to tell the truth." On the surface, this seems to be foolproof advice. Most everyone agrees that truth is always the best policy, until faced with one of those delicate social dilemmas. I would never tell a radiant new mother that her child is the ugliest little baby I have ever laid eyes on. In fact, I hope the expression of surprise and revulsion does not show in my face. Merely offering congratulations is a time honored, neutral social response, and for good reason. Everyone needs a gracious way out of a tight spot. The need has always been there and always will be there.

Any time I stray into those subjective areas of beauty, good taste, or appropriate manners, telling the truth as I see it is not the best idea. The internet is full of "Walmart Weddings" photos. In such a case, if I cannot say anything good, then I say nothing at all. Mom was not wrong all the time.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Truly, Times Are Hard

Friday afternoon at 17th and Gage, Santa Claus turned the corner in front of me. He was driving a beat up roofing truck, ladders rattling in the overhead racks. Either driving that rig is cheaper than the magic reindeer, or the old boy is holding down two jobs in this economy.

Catch-All and Crumbs

I celebrated another birthday, one far past the expected half-way point. It is always time for reflection when another year ticks off and all the things I had hoped to accomplish in life are yet another missed milestone. Sometimes I get angry at the way life escapes in the daily grind, the constant minutia and minor disappointments, and the way we certainly seem to be at the mercy of everything out of our control. I understand it is good that we wither and eventually die. If we just cease to exist, then it was hardly worth the trouble. But if we carry on in some manner, then I assume we awaken in fresh bodies, in fresh dreams. Not that I am ready to give up on this journey just yet.

I recently lost the ring with my mother's diamonds. It slipped off my hand one morning between the couch and arriving at work. It could be in the house, in the prairie, in the car, or in another dimension for all I know. It is a particularly poignant loss of something I had never in a million years thought I would be so careless as to lose. Like my parents, it is gone from me and there is not a goddamned thing I can do about it. Is that not just the perfect metaphor for our lives here? We are born but none of us can remember asking to be born. We live at the mercy of forces far out of our control - disease, natural disaster, genetics, politics, luck and calamity. We have intentions, but some force thwarts us. We are minding our own business when bad luck (and good luck) strikes. Then we die, whether we are ready to go or not.

There are a few things we can control in life. Last week, on my way to work, I was speeding in the left lane, almost ten over in a 65 mph zone, so it was not as if I were holding up traffic. The person behind me flashed for me to get out of his way but I was not ready to change lanes yet. I had to get closer to my exit. When I did not immediately clear the way, the driver behind me continued to flash his headlights and to speed closer to my tailgate. Apparently, the fool expected me to instantly slam over into the slower lane for no other reason than his insistence. Do I not have the same rights on this road as he does? The flashing indicated the driver was quite agitated and as I was approaching my exit, I attempted to grant the fool his wish, but it meant slowing down to fit between the slower cars on the right. As soon as a space became available, before I could merge right, the fool sped into that space so he could give me the finger. Of course, I replied in kind. It was an old white guy, in a black Cadillac Escalade. I think he was in a suit. It made me laugh. Based on his car, his clothing and his attitude, he has likely had his way all of his adult life. I was glad to be of service in reminding him that he does not rule the entire world and that he is not the boss of me. Ginger is. But the whole thing was mildly depressing. Almost six decades on this earth and I am still giving people the finger? Really?

In looking for my ring, I have scratched through all of the nooks and crannies in my house, my car, and the prairie between the house and the barn. I have found little items, pieces of broken jewelry and bits of junk, even rocks I picked up in my travels. Every item reminds me of something, of someone, of some place. Some pertain to my life stories, the ones I hope my children will recall long after I am gone. I know they have forgotten every story as soon as I told it, the way I forgot almost every story my mother told me about her life. Now I wish I could remember every fact and detail.

I wonder what goes with us when we leave this life. Upon my death, will I remember things like trading the great all-American insult with a fellow commuter? Will I see into his life and understand why he felt his travel on the shared highway was more important than mine? Will I suddenly see and understand where and why I lost my mother's diamonds? Will I remember the stone I carried home from Jackson Hole, Wyoming the summer my kids and I went camping in Yellowstone? Will I understand that my life, though it was merely an extended string of minutes and seconds of nothing great and nothing tragic - just a regular lifetime - was more than the sum of its parts? Will everything, every single second, be revealed as something profound? What if my only lesson was to refrain from giving the finger to jerks?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Maybe a Merry Christmas for Ginger...

Could you in good conscience sell these young, healthy horses to the slaughter house?

More of the herd that narrowly missed starvation and just missed the slaughter house.

There are fourteen horses that were allowed to almost starve to death before intervention could be legally initiated, but eventually the horses were taken away from their owner. They were fed, given medical attention, and brought back to health. With the slow grind of justice, this took over 18 months. Then just this week, the Sheriff ordered all the horses to be removed from the boarding facility before tomorrow, or the kill buyer would take all of them to the slaughter house. What in the hell is wrong with human beings?

The good news is that all of the horses have a home. One of the horses has a home at Spirit Creek, I just do not know which one it is yet. There is a dappled palomino, a brood mare who has likely been pregnant most of her adult life, who seems to be destined for Ginger's kingdom.

Maybe by Christmas, certainly before the end of the year, there will be another horse in the pasture.

She has lost her figure from having too many babies but hey, I am not in such great physical shape myself!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Parenting Duties Officially Concluded!

Thursday afternoon, my son completed the last final exam required to earn his college degree! Congratulations to the Unabomber for hanging tough until he succeeded! It it truly a red letter day.

I believe this signals the conclusion of my minimum required parenting duties. Though I have never doubted my son is superbly capable to do anything he wants in life, I have worried about him since he was a baby. A born athlete, he crawled for a week or two then switched to his natural rate of travel: high speed. Whenever I took him any where - shopping, day care, doctor's office - I had to hold tightly to one of his limbs or maintain a handful of sturdy clothing at all times or he would dart into traffic.

He wrecked every mode of transportation he has ever ridden or driven, starting with a toddler ride toy. He sat on it and pushed with his feet. The seat was maybe four inches off the ground but he found a way to make it dangerous. When he skidded over a large crack in the driveway, he crashed, landing on the point of his chin. Later, when a thin vein of calcification could be felt in his chin, the doctor said my son must have had a hairline fracture.

He rode a skateboard under a car, miraculously without injury. His father almost crushed him letting a car down off a jack. My son fell fifteen feet out of a tree. He skinned half of his face in a spectacular BMX bike wreck. He wrecked his first car in the first week he drove it. He totaled that car on the gravel roads a couple of weeks after it was repaired. He wrecked his second car on the same gravel road. When I saw the way the car was situated in the ditch, I marveled over the power that prevented the car from rolling. (His third car was a 1987 Cadillac - 3000 pounds of heavy metal to keep him firmly on the road.) Needless to say, I have actively and consistently campaigned against my son owning a motorcycle.

Almost from the beginning there were regular phone calls from the school. He was always too busy, too talkative, too much of who is he is to fit quietly and easily into the uniform square pegs the school requires. I always told the school that he has a right to be who he is. Luckily, there were teachers who clearly saw my son, recognized his potential and genuinely liked him. In the classrooms of those good teachers, he was a brilliant student. If any gifted student makes it through the American public school system with any originality, any spark of creativity, any love of learning left, it is thanks to those precious few stellar teachers.

But now, at long last, he is a free man - a college educated free man - an athletic poet with a tremendously creative mind. The only thing he must do now is ENJOY!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Video Games

When my son was little, he loved playing video games and he was good at it. He and his buddies knew all the games. By some osmosis peculiar to the young, he knew about all the "easter eggs" which are hidden treasures, jokes or puzzles within the games. He knew the cheat codes that gave unlimited life, or bullets, or super powers to blast through the games. The thing I found most irritating about the games - a dizzying string of controller moves that once mastered would confer death blows to opponents - delighted him.

Of course, I was either a permissive parent, or a lazy parent, or possibly even a negligent parent because if he wanted to play the games for hours at a time, I did not care. I recalled playing Monopoly games with my friends for hours. It was so much fun watching him play the games that sometimes I would start a game as another character and play, too. When I ran into monsters I could not slay, my son would take over the controls for me. If there were parts of a game that demanded patience and time consuming gathering of coins or other slow, boring passages, I would take his character through for him. As you might guess, this led to some spectacular squabbles when one or the other of us would not give up the controller, or if we committed a fatal move that caused the other's character to die, or lose his powers, or if it meant starting over in a challenging level.

When the Tomb Raider games came out, with the female lead character of Laura Croft, a sexy, gun-toting, bad-ass who looked like... well... Angelina Jolie, I was blown away! Those games were so much fun. It was a role playing game and Laura Croft was a female Indiana Jones. A feminine character who could beat up bad guys, shoot machine guns, blow away scores of monsters and armies of thugs was a delight for a woman who grew up with only dolls and the 50's female stereotypes. I had to practice diligently to control that character in order to put her through all the physical demands of the adventures. I could never get much more than halfway through those games, but my son could finish them.

By far, the best games, ever, are the Zelda series of role playing games. Link, a little elf-like character, starts out in Hyrule to find the Princess Zelda. Through a series of puzzles, mysteries, mazes, fighting a variety of enemies, Link matures, eventually possessing an arsenal of clever tools, magic, weapons and expertise to slay ever more difficult monsters or bosses. You have to search the environment to find a map, then unlock all the puzzles to get to the treasures, and eventually defeat a big boss in order to move to the next level. There are forces for good that help Link persevere in his quest. This game is one of the most beloved games of all video games. People of all ages around the world play it. I loved it at first because I could keep my character alive for hours, searching the Hyrule world for treasures, instead of constantly fighting monsters.

The Zelda games always contains some small secondary, humorous surprises. In the little village where Link lives, there are chickens that behave exactly the way real chickens do, clucking about, coming and going in their chickenly pursuits. Link can chase them to try to catch them, which is about as difficult to do in the game as it is in real life. If he succeeds, he can carry them around, gently set them down, or toss them in the air. They squawk and beat their wings the entire time he is carrying them. When tossed, they fly off clucking in alarm. If Link chooses to hit the chickens with his sword, if he is mean enough to a chicken, all the chickens in the village come flying to attack him until he stops being mean. In some games, Link has to catch a chicken so he can use it to fly off roofs or hilltops without damaging himself. It is utterly charming.

Video games are a modern art form, containing sophisticated logic challenges, humor and entertainment. Some of the digital worlds are the beautiful, amazingly inventive work of very talented artists. Modern techno-composers are creating an entirely new genre of music for these games. There is no end to human creativity. I wonder what the games will be like in ten years from now, and I hope I am not too old to be able to play them.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

About Those Ghosts...

My earliest memories include being afraid of two intangible things: bears and ghosts, neither of which reside in Kansas, so my parents taught me. I suffered nightmares of our tidy little farm home being stuffed entirely full of bears, crammed to the ceiling. I would wake in a state of terror. Sometimes I would dream of ghosts filling the house, equally as frightening. I do not know what caused these terrible dreams. My mother scolded me a thousand times, "It's just your imagination!" My imagination was a burdensome thing for both me and my mother.

One horrible episode involved my entire family. My father had to leave for Wichita literally in the middle of the night. He worked the third shift at the Boeing factory. The yard light was turned on so he could do a few of the heavy farm chores before he left, and the light shone directly into the bedroom window. My little brother and I shared a bed. In the shadows between our two pillows, I saw a little snake slithering toward the covers. My little brother saw it too. I ordered him to touch it, which he did. (At age three, he knew the consequences of not following my orders.) When he confirmed that it was real, I screamed because snakes were the third thing I feared.

My parents came to investigate my hysterical screaming. My father took it seriously because sometimes there had been a snake in the house. He turned on the lights, shook all of the covers and sheets, looked under all the furniture. He found no snake and tucked us both into bed with strict instructions to go to sleep. As soon as he turned out the light and left, every shadow in the room was full of moving, wriggling, fearful "monsters". It was as if that shadow snake was only the first one of a million black entities haunting that room. They could not exist in the light, so they crowded into every square inch of shadow. The seething cauldron of black energy surrounded my little brother and me in our tiny square patch of light coming in through the window. I could not bear to close my eyes and I could not bear to keep them open. Well over fifty years later, my brother also still remembers that strange night.

In the decades since, I have never seen a bear in the wild but I have no unnatural fear of them, nor dream of bears filling my house to capacity. I no longer run in a blind panic whenever I come across a snake. In fact, as long as there is a safe distance between the snake and myself, I enjoy seeing them. Amazingly enough, I have even evolved to holding the opinion that baby snakes are cute - on a sliding scale, you understand.

I am still afraid of ghosts. If they bother me in dreams, I wake myself up and have some tea. They know they cannot scare me while I am awake because I do not believe in them. I know they are just my imagination. The last two times I dreamed of someone knocking at the front door of my house, I woke myself instantly, the rattling of the storm door lingering in the room. As soon as I am fully awake, I am thankful it was just a bad dream. Then I get up and shut the front door, the same front door that was firmly shut and locked behind me when I went to bed.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cattle Country

This is cattle country. There is still enough of the tall grass left in the Flint Hills to graze many thousands of cattle. Some of my neighbors have herds of the finest beef cattle I have ever seen. One family owns a herd containing about fifteen or twenty bulls, and at certain times of the year, The Boys will be pastured together. They are huge beasts, calm and slow, taking it easy, and seemingly enjoying exclusive male companionship. Each bull had to have shown special promise and extreme beauty as a calf to be spared the fate of steers. But, every cow eventually comes to the same fate: the slaughter house.

It is common at certain times in any given year to see real cowboys on horseback moving herds from one pasture to another. I have always wondered if nostalgia causes the bigger ranches to keep horses. All terrain vehicles can easily travel the pastures. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized nothing could take the place of horses. An ATV cannot squeeze between the trees in a stand of timber, or climb out of a steep ravine, or safely turn on a dime.

There is a lot of negativity against the cattle industry, some of it for good reason. The huge feedlots are an abomination. Anything that smells so bad you can smell it twenty miles (or more) away is not healthy for man nor beast. The disgusting concoction fed to cattle in the big lots should be outlawed. Some of it is chicken manure. (Research it.)

PETA and other animal rights groups have been unfortunately branded by their most extreme actions, yet without the work of such groups, the immense suffering of all animals who give their lives so we may live would be even greater. At the least, the transport and slaughter of the animals should be as humane as we can possibly make it.

There is not enough grassland left to raise enough beef to fuel the fast food industry of the western world. The cattle who are fortunate enough to live in the Flint Hills, no matter how brief their lives may be, are lucky - if anything is considered lucky in the life of an animal raised for food. But my heart still goes out to the cows and the calves when the babies are taken from their mothers to be fed and fattened for market.

Though I always wish I had grown up to be a cattle rancher, I know in my heart I could never abide the guilt of making my living by selling the animals to their deaths. Human beings have made their living at the expense of animals since we emerged from the slime and grew hands. I am casting no judgement against those who raise cattle - it is an honorable profession. I enjoy my steak as heartily as the next person. I am just thinking this morning about the way nothing is ever as simple as it appears.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Warning: Contains Old Person Complaints and Swearing

So... I willingly allowed modern medicine to remove my gall bladder and now every time I eat a delicious sugar cookie from the Copper Oven, my stomach rewards me with three days of searing spikes of indigestion. I cannot eat enough antacid tablets. Who designed these bodies? First, no drugs! No rock and roll! No smoking! No horseback riding! Now I can not even have a goddamned sugar cookie? I should have purchased the extended warranty against the things that plague my gene pool: bad knees, gall bladder trouble, gaining weight as easily as breathing. I understand why people turn into old bastards yelling at kids to get off the lawn.

This getting old business is going to be hard. No one wants to hear a blow by blow description of how someone else's body is failing to hold up for the long haul.

"Hey, you rotten kids - get your bikes off my grass!"

Post script: Sugar cookies were not the problem. The symptoms coincided with purchasing and eating two sugar cookies on Monday and Tuesday, but it was apparently a flu bug. The cookies are off the menu for quite some time. The mere mention of them kind of makes me ill.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Miss Snot Face

You and Your Camera Can Take a Flyin' Leap...

Since the moment I met my horse, Ginger, my pet name for her has been Miss Snot Face, a reference I learned in my grade school days, when girls who thought they were better than everyone else acted "snotty". I did not make it up - it is what people said back in the Dark Ages.

Miss Snot Face lived up to her name today. The farrier made a special trip to my house to trim Ginger's hooves. Ginger does well with both front feet, but she does not like waiting on Terrie to finish those back hooves and wants to put her feet down. Terrie is not a very big gal, but she is pretty darned strong to wrestle Ginger for control of those hind legs. On top of this bad habit, for several weeks now Ginger has been quite concerned about something only she can sense somewhere south of her pasture. It might be coyotes, but I do not think a horse would be too worried about coyotes. Maybe a bob cat. I hope it is not a mountain lion. Something unusual has Ginger on constant alert so that made the hoof trimming even more fun than normal.

In addition to this bad behavior today, Ginger left her calling card for me in the barn. There are two stalls in the run-in shed which faces south. Ginger can shelter against the wind and rain, but about the only time I see her in the barn is when she needs to poop. She backs into the middle stall. She can fertilize the entire pasture, but she chooses to relieve herself in the middle stall of her own barn. I think she does this because she used to live in a corral attached to the barn, and the horse manure was removed about every day from the stalls by me. Sometimes, though, I think Miss Snot Face is making a very blatant horse statement, one just for me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Auspicious Sign

It was an auspicious start Thursday morning, the first day to return to work in almost three full weeks. The doe I have been watching for several months was in the middle of the road as if waiting for me when I crested the last hill before the interstate. One of her fawns remains with her, and it sailed easily over the west fence to pause for a brief moment in the center of the road, watching my approach. The deer's effortless grace is always to be admired.

A few minutes later, an eagle flying low from the north changed course to sail directly over my car as I was hauling toward the city. It is not every day a person is blessed by an eagle. The number of eagles has been rising in Kansas slowly over my lifetime. From never having seen a single eagle in the wild to seeing three within ten miles of my own home in the last twelve years is an auspicious sign. That little strand of happiness trailed after me the rest of the day.

A coworker who is a deer hunter in his real life explained it is likely the other fawn was chased away from his mother by a breeding buck, maybe still following his mother from a hundred yards back. Or he may have taken up with another young buck, and both are trailing a group of older bucks. I was thankful for this knowledge.

I am thankful for many things in my life - my family and friends, my home, humble as it is, and my time on this old earth.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Check It Out

My daughter has launched a new web site to sell her handmade jewelery: Flint Hills Gems

Best of success!