Thursday, April 18, 2024


            I’m fond of jokes, and I’m especially fond of the way many jokes begin – especially what are known as “dad jokes,” which I have written about before. These jokes set a premise, and it doesn’t matter how absurd or ridiculous it is – the more so, the better.


            Here’s an example: “A moth goes into a podiatrist office.” So, what are you going to do with that? What I enjoy is simply making the jump, accepting the premise. It’s like a big door has been opened wide, and I am stepping through into a very different universe. Good for me! I’ve heard that the same kind of acceptance is a good way to have conversations with people with dementia – just go with what they are saying rather than trying to correct them by saying, “No, that’s not what really happened.” (In the same vein, I read an article about “Eight Things You Should Never Say to your Partner,” and one of them is, “I never said that.” Agreed.) So, go joyfully with the opening of the joke as the opening of a door.


            Here are some samples:


·      Four nuns were standing in line at the gates of heaven.


·      Two poets die on the exact same day at the exact same time.


·       A rich art dealer is obsessed with paintings of Lenin, and he has made his life goal to buy every single genuine piece of art that has the figure of Lenin no matter who the artist is or what the cost.


·      A head without a body floats into a bar.


·      There was a truck driver who had a monkey that was always with its owner.


·       Redneck in Arkansas calls 911 and says, “Help, I think my wife is dead.”


·      Three bulls heard the rancher was bringing another bull onto the ranch.


·      Jesus is in the temple in heaven and he notices that the roof has a small leak in it.


·      A 6-year-old little girl comes to a pet shop and asks in a childish voice: “Good mowning sir, do you sell wittle wabbits?”


·      The little sapling in the forest, seeing its leaves were so different from all the other trees, turned to the nearby large oak tree to find out where he came from.


·      A truck driver would amuse himself by running over lawyers.


·      A new inmate in the prison noticed different patterns of tapping at night followed by fits of laughter. 


·      Mother Superior invited Captain Phillips to speak to the nuns about a day in the life of an ace fighter pilot.


·      A boy was in the bathroom of a restaurant when a Navy man walked in.


·       A newlywed couple had just arrived at their marital home after a blissful honeymoon when the husband said, “Wife, we must have a talk.”


·       A blonde is sat by the side of the road, her Porsche having broken down. 


·      A fellow prayed earnestly every day, “Oh, Lord, please let me win the lottery.”


·      A bounty hunter rides into a small wild-west town one day, and heads straight for the Sheriff’s office to see if there are any bad guys that need rounding up.


·       A Police Officer gets a call on his radio about a gorilla was on a Lady’s roof, so he heads to the location, and sure enough, there really was a gorilla on the roof. 


·       Three engineers are having a drink at the local watering hole after work and get into a debate about the nature of God.


·       A Jewish doctor kept the foreskins of all the baby boys he circumcised in a preserving jar.


I could go on, because my computer saves all of my old email because I may need them some day – case in point.


            In case you are wondering, here’s how the opening joke goes:


            A moth goes into a podiatrist office. The podiatrist is a little surprised, but he tells the moth to lie on the couch.

            “So, tell me what the problem is,” the podiatrist says.

            The moth replies: “I feel that life is passing me by. I wake up in the morning and there’s an old lady moth lying there where once they used to be a young one. My wings are tired all the time, my kids are giving me hell showing no respect. I feel like I’m trapped in a web suspended over the eternal flames of hell.”

            “My goodness,” says the podiatrist” You seem to be in a terrible mental state. You need a psychiatrist not a podiatrist. Why did you come to me?”

            The moth replies, “I had to. Your light was on.”

            Meanwhile, we can see each arriving day as the opening sentence of a joke – and you are in it. The trick is to make it to the punch line.


Thursday, April 11, 2024



            The total eclipse of the sun has been made into a very big deal, but I don’t get it. The eclipse appears to me to be a cosmic coincidence, and nothing more. I suppose it’s spectacular, in its way, and fairly rare – though darkness happens on a regular basis, at least, where I live. (In fact, I’m in the dark about a lot of things.) And it’s not as if we can take credit for it as an achievement, though I am impressed by the folks who predict it with such confidence. No, I’ve seen shots on the pool table that are more interesting, especially since they are human achievements. I know from personal experience during my undergraduate days that most shots are not easy. But for the eclipse, all we have to do is watch, and this is supposed to give us some measure of joy.


            Nevertheless, television and the internet are giving it a lot of attention, though I doubt there is much entertainment value other than stories about folks who are traveling long distances in order to be momentarily in the dark. And there’s all kinds of marketing associated with the eclipse, starting, I think, with Moon Pies.


            Let me interrupt myself with a joke. A guy is taking a door-to-door survey in Northern Ireland, and he asks one homeowner, “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?”


            “Neither. I’m an atheist.”


            “Are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”


            Such are the divisions – in our country and in our world. Just look at the horrible wars. But the eclipse doesn’t care about these divisions. It has nothing to do with them. Is an eclipse something we can share – at least, this time, in America where this one will be visible? Somehow the eclipse gives us a Big Picture view of our Earth as we picture, in our minds, the sun, moon and Earth lining up, with the extraordinary coincidence of the sizes and distances of sun and moon being exactly what’s needed to make the eclipse total and perfect. Reminds me, in a way, of the early days of the space program, when we could see Earth from very far away, and we could feel that it’s a home we all share. Is it too much to ask to see our planet as a home we all share? Anything less than that seems like pure selfishness.


Note: I wrote the above before Monday’s eclipse. Let’s see how it goes . . ..


            I am more or less converted. We watched a bit of the eclipse coverage on television, and I’m not sure how to take all the hype. But people seemed genuinely and deeply moved – not just because they were witness to something rare, though that was a factor, but because they were witness to something beautiful. Also important, I believe, is that people felt they were and are part of something larger than all the crap – politics, wars, shootings, hunger, racism, etc. – that divides and depresses us. People across the country were, apparently, sharing the joy. No wonder a solar eclipse often took on religious significance. It made the world a better place for a few hours. How can anyone want to decline something called “the totality path?” This is not to say that we won’t be hearing those who believe the eclipse was part of an ongoing conspiracy . . ..


            Kim and I celebrated the eclipse by watching it on television for about half an hour, and then going out to the back porch for a look. (We called our local market to see if we could get eclipse-rated dark glasses, but they were sold out.) We poured ourselves glasses of wine to celebrate, but we left them half-finished as we realized that we had to get the thick layer of leaves off of the flowers in woods and garden. The eclipse may have spurred an appreciation of a flash of natural beauty in our solar system, but it spurred us to do what we can to promote the natural beauty in our yard. That’s our “totality path.”

Thursday, April 4, 2024


            It might have been when I was taking Latin in high school that I came across the word “gravitas,” or it might have been from a history teacher in our Humanities course who was talking about Roman values. And the term may have stayed with me because the letter v, in Latin, is pronounced like our w, so I could feel superior to those who mispronounced it. Nevertheless, gravitas is an important concept.


            Gravitas means a kind of seriousness, with suggestions of weight (gravity), dignity and importance, along with restraint, dignity, moral rigor and commitment to the task. The Romans considered it to be an essential quality for a leader. In fact, a recent article referred to Biden’s “presidential gravitas,” though I suppose some might attempt to apply the term to Trump.


            And this week on “American Idol” one of the judges said that a singer-contestant should sing with more gravitas (mispronounced). It does me good to think about what this might mean. More soul? More sincere? Hearing a number of these young singers, most of them singing about heartache, I think I know gravitas when they deliver it.


            So, gravitas is a good thing – one of the ancient Roman virtues. But what if you don’t really have it and you want to attain it? Or, perhaps more simply, you want to appear to have it? I suppose the main thing you can do is stay calm and reasonable – as the Roman stoic philosophers advised. Don’t lose your temper, and don’t get distracted into frivolity. Get the job done, seriously. For some reason I think it helps to be a large person, probably tall (as I happen to be). I believe the Romans only applied the term to men, since leaders at the time happened to be men. What women today demonstrate gravitas? Suggestions welcome. And, come to think of it, what men?


            Perhaps the closest we have to the term gravitas is the slang term “heavy” – not in the sense of being overweight, or a tough guy, but as serious and intense (according to my Urban Dictionary). Good to be heavy, right?


            Of course, you may very well not want to achieve gravitas. After all, people with gravitas don’t sound like a lot of fun to be around – or so I’m told. An alternative, I think, is to be a “blithe spirit,” a term taken from Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” which begins:


Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from Heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.


This was how to live according to Romantic poets: Feel the deep feeling and out comes the spontaneous song! Forget about duty or discipline, forget about reason, dignity, accomplishing noble tasks and all that Stoic gravitas crap. Of course, the problem here is that as a blithe spirit you may awaken in the middle of the night and post some embarrassing stuff on social media. But still, who can object when you are pouring out your heart? My guess is that it works better for birds than for real people, though some poets, artists and musicians may disagree.


            So, where does that leave us? Probably best to let other people, those “in charge” (whatever that means), be the ones with serious, disciplined, responsible character. Time for me to get serious about becoming more of a blithe spirit.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

First Days


            When I was teaching I always enjoyed the first day of school in the fall. It was great to see friends and colleagues, good to shift out of the idleness of summer (which I always thought lasted too long), and exciting to face the energies of a fresh crop of students, looking at me expectantly.


            Other First Days have their excitement as well. I didn’t date much, but when I did, that first kiss . . ..


            There are, of course, other kinds of First Days. Think, as we must at our age, of awakening after the death of a spouse or partner to the first of a bleak string of unshared days – something to move through and beyond. Or, simply, the first days after a cancer diagnosis, or after a serious fall compromises your mobility, perhaps for the rest of your life.


            But I prefer to think of First Days as, to a certain extent, a matter of choice. We are choosing to move into a new living situation, and yes, we have found a new place to live. It’s a condo in the woods near Traverse City. You may recall that we see this as a three-step process: First, keep our Bark House, primarily for the summer months, and then move into the condo, which we have dubbed the Tree House, in the winter. Since it’s only an hour away, there will probably be a lot of back-and-forth all year. The second step will occur, probably in a couple of years when keeping up maintenance, cleaning, yard work, snow shoveling become too much for us, sell the Bark House and move into the Tree House full time. And the last phase is when one of us dies, the survivor lives alone in the condo. We don’t own it yet, but it’s under contract with closing scheduled for mid-April.


            We see this process as positive and exciting. Kim’s creative juices are flowing full time, redesigning the kitchen, choosing paint colors, placing furniture, etc. We are making appointments with flooring people, cabinet people, movers, etc. We bought a bunch of stuff, including a couple of beds and a television, when we thought we were going to move into the Stone School condo, and we are looking forward to getting that out of our garage and basement. Yes, “First Days” will extend for months as we prepare and then finally move in. And yes, there are declines in our 80s, but it’s best, we think, to face them proactively and creatively.


            We are making other First Days choices. We know we can’t do long trips any more, but we are planning some bird photography trips in Michigan, and the Tree House is closer to some of our favorite birding sites. Kim also had the idea this week to visit all of the properties owned by the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. We don’t volunteer there any more as we have enough weeding to do in our own little woods and garden, and we don’t go on organized hikes because photographers go at their own pace, which often includes waiting, and we are not sure how well we could handle distances over rough terrain. So, we are looking forward to the arrival of spring – not the false spring we had in early March and not the First Day of Spring which was marked by a snow storm, but spring which we will experience as such, our in the woods. Our first trip out, probably in May, counts as a First Day, and we are choosing to celebrate it.


            When I asked Kim to look over what I had written above, she pointed out that every day is a First Day. When we get up in the morning it’s the First Day, and it’s exciting, especially when we see the sunrise over the lake, a mink scampering on the shore., or a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers just outside our window. A few weeks ago was the First Day the Pine Siskins returned, and yesterday we saw the Hellebore flowers peeking up through the snow – first flowers making that day a First Day. I know it’s a cliché to point out that today is the first day of the rest of your life, but like most clichés, there’s some truth in it.


Thursday, March 21, 2024


            Shoes are good. They help make my life good. I don’t mean fashionable shoes that look cool. No, I mean shoes that cover and protect my feet so I can walk. When I was a kid I used to go barefoot a lot, especially at camp in Vermont where I would frequently go in and out of the lake. My feet were a lot tougher then, or perhaps less compromised by injuries, weird growths and, possibly, diseases. But now I wear shoes pretty much always, unless I’m in bed.


            I may soon be getting old and may start to forget things, so it might be a good idea to inventory my appreciation of my shoes.


            Before I begin my shoe inventory, I simply have to say that I can’t believe women can wear high heeled shoes, sometimes all day long.


            So, into my closet:


            My main indoor shoes are my Minnetonka slippers, which I wear with socks. I wore out my previous pair after a couple of years, and my replacements, the same model and size, are a bit small, making portions of my feet red, but they are comfortable enough, and with the socks, they keep my feet warm. (I suffer [but not much] from Reynaud’s syndrome, which makes my hands and feet cold.) I bought them from a local taxidermist who also sells shoes – welcome to Up North in Michigan.


            My main outdoor shoes, Merrells, are slip-ons, which means I don’t have to sit or bend over to put them on or take them off. They are reasonably waterproof. Their tread picks up dirt and wood chips from the yard, so I always swap them for slippers when I come in. Their resting place is in a metal boot tray by the front door. I also have a new second pair of Merrells waiting in my closet in case these wear out, or in case we ever find another place to live. 


            I also have two pairs of sandals, one of them for wear in the water where the stones hurt my tender feet and the other for warm days when I wear shorts, which I never do because of my ugly eczema. I also have a pair of water shoes that I lace on when I need security as I attempt to paddleboard.


            Also in my closet is a pair of stylish black shoes with white rims – a gift, as I recall, from my step-son, possibly after a hint from Kim. I wear these when I “dress up” by wearing my black Levis on the way out to dinner or to get a haircut from Trevr. The only problem here is that the white rims tend to show dirt, which means I need to be reminded to clean them. Kim read about cleaning them with toothpaste, and this worked the one time I did it – my shoes have not had any cavities.


            I have two boxes containing a pair of unworn black dress shoes, bought a long time ago to prepare me for some occasion that has not yet happened. I like seeing them in their boxes, as that reminds me of stuff I don’t need to do.


            I also have two pairs of fairly comfortable brown leather shoes – more sporty than dressy – that I wear when I clean up my act with brown or khaki pants. I should check how comfortable they are – it’s been a while.


            I also have four pair of boots: one for hiking in the woods or along the shore, one with metal cleats attached for dealing with the ice that we used to have in the winter, one pair of waders, and one pair of fairly tall snow boots that I wore a couple of times this winter.


            A pair of gray sneakers trainers lurks in the back of my closet. They are for running, and the last time I ran I tore my hamstring, so . . ..


            That’s about it. My brown penny loafers are out in the garage sale, waiting for an antique dealer.


            Shoes are good.

Thursday, March 14, 2024


            It was a rough week for news. I learned that Tony, a college friend, had fallen down some stairs and injured his pelvis, ribs and head. He’ll be in rehab for six weeks or so. And I also learned that Jay, one of the most talented people I have ever known (teaching, music, athletics, coaching, writing), has died. And Gordy, a colleague I love, is fading with dementia and overall weakness. And Bill, a few years older than me, is now in caretaking mode with his wife’s moderate dementia and a broken hip. And Fleda, a poet friend in Traverse City, is recovering from back surgery designed to relieve her chronic pain. And I stumbled across the obituary for Ernie, a teaching colleague who is two weeks older than me. And Kim continues to battle her pain and fatigue, struggling, at times, to get up out of a chair (to fix my dinner or do the laundry).


            That’s a lot of “ands . . ..”


            What do I do with this news? People are dropping, and not just in Gaza and Ukraine – they are dropping around me! And these are just the ones I know about.


            Kim and I don’t get out much, partly because of the weather, partly because most of our friends live far away. But we have some new friends, and we plan on reinforcing these connections – as health allows. Kim and I talked about this briefly, and she encouraged me to phone my friends – you know, actually make contact using my human voice. As I have written before, for some reason I am not fond of calling people on the telephone – I prefer the control, or maybe the distance, I have when writing. I know that many people prefer texting or, if you are old, email, probably because it gives us control over when and how to respond. Yes, there are digital advantages and conveniences, especially when confirming appointments, but there is nothing like the human voice to make a living human connection. So, I called Tony, and I called Jim and Angie to find out more about Gordy. And, of course, I called Peter – wonderful hearing his voice, his laugh. Felt good – even life-affirming. I even called my son.


            My son works at a call center, and he described how some people, usually older people, would call in just to have someone to talk with. I try to establish a human connection when speaking on the phone with Support folks. I keep it brief, as they are sometimes evaluated on how efficiently they deal with calls, but the connection is something good. No, it does not stave off Death, but it’s something in the Life column.


            No, a human voice may not be much as a response to Death and Disability, but in addition to human touch, it’s about all we have.      


Thursday, March 7, 2024


             This is one of my favorites:

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

                                                                             --Dylan Thomas

            The form of the poem is what’s called a villanelle. You can google the details, but suffice it to say the form mandates a lot of rhyme and repetition. But that is not what strikes me today.

            I was told by a professor that Thomas wrote the poem in response to his father’s growing blindness, though most readers, me included, see it as about how to respond as death approaches. Why not both?

            What is most striking to me is the word “rage.” Really? Is that how we are to respond to death’s approach? Isn’t it wiser, and thus better, to “go gentle into that good night”? But let’s look at the word “rage.” The dictionary says that the word means an intense and uncontrolled anger. Perhaps. But words change meanings. Take the word “sick.” For a while it was seen as a forgivable alternative to “evil.” He’s not morally responsible for his actions because he is mentally ill, or “sick.” Then the word changed into a positive, as I’ve heard it recently: charged with creative energy. Mental illness opens a new path, a vision. William Blake was sick. The word “bad” has undergone a similar transformation. And so has “rage.” Think of the way some fashion trend is described as “all the rage.”

            So, back to the poem: Perhaps the passionate energy of rage is preferable to a peaceful and gentle acceptance of dying and death. If so, then how do we put this into practice?

            Kim and I, despite some mobility issues, are planning photography trips for spring and summer, mostly in pursuit of birds and butterflies. This feels good, as it’s feeding our passions. We also continue to pursue housing, which has become a creative adventure. (You may know the term “starter home.” Well, we are looking for our “finisher home.”) We have visited about half a dozen, made about that many offers, remodeled and decorated most of them, planned how to build a few more. Kim is photographing birds in the yard, then perfecting them on her computer. She is updating scrapbooks and working on other art projects. All this, despite her pain and fatigue.

            Setting all this aside, Thomas no doubt used “rage” to mean “intense anger.” That, reinforced by the villanelle repetitions, is what makes the poem sizzle.