Thursday, June 21, 2018

Volunteering


            I worked as a volunteer writer for the Transplant Games of America and World Transplant Games, interviewing competitors who had received organ transplants. The stories were posted daily on a website hosted by the University of Michigan, and everyone I met had a life-and-death story. I remember most vividly watching a woman meet the recipient of the heart of her daughter, dead from a traffic accident. She leaned over and listened to the heart beating, tears streaming from her eyes. I was linked to both women, and the daughter, and I always will be. I still tear up when telling that story from 13 years ago. (These games, by the way, still take place annually.)

            More recently, Kim and I volunteered at Paynes Prairie State Park in Gainesville, answering questions about the bison and sandhill cranes while advising visitors not to pose their children next to the alligators. It was rewarding to be part of the park as we learned and taught.  Volunteering also meant an opportunity for Kim to take photos.

Turtle Surfing on Paynes Prairie


These guys were everywhere!

We did this for three years, stopping when we found ourselves assigned to the cash register at the Visitor Center.

            And now we are volunteering in Northern Michigan, doing official monitoring for the Michigan Butterfly Network. In this role we walk a prescribed path at a prescribed rate, noting butterflies that we see. Let me correct that – only Kim can see the butterflies, for my role is “scribe.” For the survey to work from year to year, we use a strictly controlled procedure to more accurately measure changes. I have written previously about how we monitored butterflies at Leonard Preserve in Southeast Michigan. Now we are doing it at the Grass River Natural Area. So far we have not seen many butterflies on this route, but that doesn’t matter, for we are outside, walking together on a beautiful path, and we are part of the Michigan Butterfly Network.

            We are also volunteering with the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, monitoring two Conservancy properties. We mainly go for walks in places where we would probably go anyway, taking photos of birds, plants, butterflies and dragonflies, looking up the ones we can’t readily identify, and then passing the information along to Angie at the Conservancy. 
PHOTOS

European Skipper - smaller than you can imagine


Our woods has an incredible variety of plant life, which we document as best we can. This photo includes a Twin Flower.
         
             It’s good to feel that we are contributing something – to be contributors. It’s also good to NOT be thinking about health issues or delays in the construction of our cottage. As Kim says, “You are forced to see, and that connects you deeply to that specific place.” And again, it’s good to be outside, walking together on a beautiful path. When we take a break from volunteering we do exactly the same thing on other paths where we are not volunteering.

Little Wood Satyr

            The dictionaries I’ve checked mention altruism in their definitions of volunteering. As volunteers know, it’s not so simple. Volunteering involves stepping up to your full humanity to engage with the larger world. Being a witness – to butterflies, bison, or a beating heart – gives us that kind of engagement – call it religious if you will – and that’s a great pleasure. And how can we not feel blessed when this week’s volunteering brought us these:

Scarlet Tanager

Indigo Bunting

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Ethics


            When I was teaching I often ended the year with a 3-week seminar on ethics. I used moral or ethical dilemmas as starting points, and my emphasis was not on the “solution” to each dilemma, but rather on how that solution was reached. Was it from an authority, perhaps directly from God, or indirectly through what God said to trusted sources, such as we find in the Bibleor the Koran? If it’s directly from God, there might be a problem if God tells someone to shoot up an elementary school. How do we know that God didn’t, in fact, tell the shooter to do that? How can we rely on anyone’s version of what God said to them?
            Do we determine what is ethical based on how our actions would make us feel? Is it all subjective? Evil makes you feel bad – unless you are a sociopath.
            Are ethics simply the customs and norms of a society? If so, then the Nazis were ethical, as were slaveholders.
            We also looked at Utilitarianism, which holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good, or in some versions, the greatest happiness, for the greatest number.Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, described utility as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.Do the math. But what if it makes thousands of people VERY happy to kill one innocent child? Or in one of my dilemmas: Imagine that a terrorist has planted a bomb in a packed Michigan Stadium. It’s due to go off in 10 minutes, and you have captured him and are trying to get him to talk. Your team of psychologists tells you that the only way to get him to reveal the location of the bomb is to torture his wife and child in front of him. Setting aside questions about the efficacy of torture, is it ethical to do so? Weigh those tortures against, say, 50,000 lives and countless injuries, plus the suffering of friends and families of the victims. It is not, I submit, an easy call. Do the math. Students were creative in coming up with ways to fake or simulate the torture to accomplish the goal. I suggested getting someone else to do the torturing and leaving the room.
            I don’t think my Ethics mini-course made my students more ethical, but I do hope it made them humbly uncertain when confronting situations where ethics comes into play.
             
            And now, as an antidote to uncertainty, let me simplify things by telling you what is ethical and what is not:
·     Be kind to one another. bEllen DeGeneres has popularized this by saying it at the end of every show. Anyone have a better suggestion?
·     Don’t use people.  Emmanuel Kant wrote about the Categorical Imperative, a way of evaluating our actions, not in terms of their consequences (as Utilitarianism does), but on the basis of what reason tells us (tells Kant, actually) is ethical. I don’t understand most of it, but I do understand the word “imperative”: Our ethical sense nudges us to act– we feel that nudge. Kant went on to say, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” 
·     Don’t be an asshole.
·     Be the person your dog thinks you are. This might be OK if you don’t mind bumper-sticker ethics, but do you really know what your dog thinks of you. Kim and I were watching a guy throw his frisbee to his dog, who would repeatedly bring it back to him. After the last throw, however, the dog took a dump in the frisbee while staring at his master.
·     Do unto others as you would have others do onto you.  In practice, this does not seem to mean allothers, because that would make war immoral.
·     Floss.
·     Don’t fuck up the planet. Ethics does not only deal with our actions toward other people. Or you can think of our ecosystem as a person – after all, if a corporation is a person . . .. (I saw a bumper-sticker that said, “I’ll believe a corporation is a person when Texas executes one.”)
·     Do a good deed every day.  I learned this one in the Boy Scouts before my struggles with the Morse Code forced me to leave. I try to get my good deed out of the way early in the day.
·     Don’t let anyone take your guns away.
·     Try, however briefly, to see the world from someone else’s point of view. Kim taught me this: Nobody gets up in the morning intending to be an asshole. 
·     Walk in a good way. We learned this at a talk by a Native American tribal elder here in northern Michigan. He emphasized looking back each day to evaluate how well you lived it. I like his word “walk” – its slowness, its deliberation.
·     Remember your anniversary.
·     Encourage people around you to be ethical.  Doing so will most likely benefit you.

            The trick is to pull all of this together into a coherent philosophical position that helps you know what to do. Maybe Ellen got it right: Be kind to one another. I’m not sure how kindness helps resolve the torture/mass killing dilemma – that’s why it’s a dilemma – but it’s a starting point.


NOTE: All of Kim’s tests, scans, X-rays, etc. were good. Injury time continues . . ..


Doug Reilly wrote:

Reading Ethics reminded me of something I wrote for myself decades ago and have always kept somewhere on my desk. The rainbow photo is added because one of my hobbies is chasing Rainbows, Halos, and Glories. I’ve taken slide shows of these phenomena to our local schools and even showed them to attendees at some of our international safeguards courses. This has given me the nickname, Rainbow Man.

You mention the Golden Rule in your essay; I’d add that every faith or philosophy I know has its own version. Sure, the words may be different, but the meaning is the same.

Nice work, as usual, doug

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Two Flights

I wrote this poem about 30 years ago after learning about monarch migration:

Monarchs

Aloft with monarch
            butterflies heading
to Mexico   dense
                        sheets of velvet
crowd me orange
            black    the wings
soft and heavy
            brushing my flesh
no butterfly cries
                        but repeated wingthuds
            and creaking joints
patches of wingdust
                        perfuming the air

My flock surges
                        faster than clouds
            wings and startling
wings    heads wisely
                                    small   all eyes
and tongue   brown
                                    shriveled trunks
they
            tolerate my heavy
                        pink laboring flight
they conceal me
                        we become
                                      a butterflycloud
huge as a lake

                        When I start
to tumble    unthinking
                                    wings pummel me
            aloft      is it
the rustle lifting
                        me or vibrations
of color above
                        the invisible earth

Larvae fed only
            on milkweed soured
                        us to the taste
of birds

                 Each
abandoned chrysalis shiny
                        greengold speckled
            dried in sun
to blow away
                        as wind-dust

Seventeen mariopa trees
            await us


            When I read this in class, a student (who knew) asked me, “Were you going through a divorce when you wrote this?”
            “Yes.”
            “So maybe you felt a lot of support when you were going through all the changes?”
            I’d never thought of those changes as having any bearing on the poem. I hope that student went on to teach English.

                                                             * * * * 

            This poem is more recent. When we lived in Gainesville, our dining room looked out onto the edge of Paynes Prairie State Park. In the poem I imagine a flight that Kim might be imagining:
                      
The Flight

From your seat before the window you
lift from your chair and take flight
over Paynes Prairie – low at first,
skimming the barbed wire fence,
avoiding the still vacant blue bird house,
then gliding free, twisting over the grasses.
Startled egrets cock their heads
to look up, and sandhill cranes, yes,
crane their necks to see and cry their
raucous welcome to you, the newcomer.

You glide on silent wings over ponds
and marshes, the morning mists lifted,
the sun warm and golden, the breeze
strangely still. You lift yourself on soft
powerful wings, pass the stoic kestrel
standing sentinel on a leafless tree as
meadowlarks rise in alarm, gather, scatter,
and reassemble again in the grasses.
A great blue heron approaches and veers
away. You circle toward distant
                                                       
trees edging the prairie, but no, in a graceful
turn you swerve back toward the house and me,
my coffee frozen inches from my lips, watching,
transfixed, my wife who was suddenly not
at my side eating breakfast. You skim low over
the reeds to check for frogs, then spy the bulls
ambling into the prairie and can’t resist bothering
them into a small stampede. You swoop
through our window, settle into your chair,
smooth your feathers, and nibble your toast.


Thursday, May 31, 2018

Injury Time


            In soccer there is a thing called “Injury Time,” where the referee adds a few minutes to the end of the game to allow for time when play stopped for an injured player, though the clock kept running. Injury Time often leads to more intense action on the field. Kim and I feel like we are playing in Injury Time, and we want to make the most of it.

            In the next week or so Kim will have a bunch of tests – CT Scan, bone scan, X-rays, and blood tests - on top of her regular infusions, butt-shots, and chemo. These are all routine, every month or two or three, not because of any new symptoms. But they all hit this week, and it’s hard not to be anxious about what those results might be and what future they might suggest. After all, no matter how well Kim feels (good, except for ongoing back pain and fatigue), her cancer is Stage 4. I’m imagining, and trying not to imagine, further treatment, hospitalization, more pain, tears, and worse: our curtailed lives.

            At the same time, we are going ahead with what we hope will be the last month of home construction, which projects us into a future where we both are healthy and strong. We are going ahead with our very ambitious project AS IF we were younger and not awaiting the return of cancer or whatever surprises will hit us as the years roll over us.
·      I will haul box after box from our storage facility.
·     Kim will unpack everything and put it away.
·      I will move furniture and haul rocks around our yard until it appears that a glacier dropped them there.
·     Kim will pull up weeds, water the wildflower garden and supervise my rockdropping before going in to cook my dinner in our new kitchen.
·     When we relax we will enjoy a cocktail on the deck, looking east and wondering where the sunset is.

            We are playing in Injury Time. Kim’s major surgery was a little more than a year ago, and since the anniversary of that day in March Kim has often pointed out all the cool things we have done that we might have missed out on had she died. Just about every morning we greet each other thinking, and often saying, “We have ourselves another day – a gift!” 

            Yesterday, for example, on the way home from doing some yardwork at our cottage, we pulled off the road to photograph fields and orchards.


We saw that we had pulled into the driveway of a property owned by the local Nature Conservancy. We were both tired, but we decided to explore. The trail went down through a beautiful woods to the shore of Lake Michigan. What we saw along the way, and Kim photographed, shows how a tiny world – these butterflies the size of a fingernail – can be more than enough. Each is a gift. 

Brown Elfin

























Eastern Pine Elfin

            William Blake got it right:

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Female Summer Azure

Spring Azure

Hoary Elfin

Pink Lady's Slippers

Kim, age 75, suffering from Stage 4 cancer


          Yes, we are playing in Injury Time, and the game is sweeter because of that. We are hoping it lasts for years.

Make a wish . . ..

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Wow!


            I’m at a loss for words. What do you exclaim when you experience surprised delight? A couple of four-letter words have served me well for surprising misfortune, but the positive side has proved elusive. 
            
            I confess that I watch HGTV and the occasional series on Netflix where homes are shown to customers or remodeled for their owners. Kim watches them for decorating ideas, or for how to design our cottage, while I’m more interested in watching the people and listening to what they say, hoping to learn something.

            On Fixer-Upper, the prevailing exclamation when the couple sees the amazing remodeling transformation, is “Oh, my God!” Occasionally – Waco, Texas, being where it is – we get an “Oh, my goodness!” But “Oh, my God!” appears to be the default exclamation. And I’ve heard it frequently in other contexts as an expression of surprised delight – American Idol(now that grumpy Simon is not a judge), Ellen(when she gives a good person a gift), and even in real untelevised life (when I gave my granddaughter a computer). I’m not sure how God figures into this. Is the happy exclaimer suggesting that God had something to do with the surprise? Is it an expression of thanks to God for creating a universe where such surprises can happen? Is the word “my” significant in the expression – if you had a God like mine, you would get a similar kitchen remodel? How does God feel about the expression as He looks up from laying some bathroom tile? This is all mildly troubling to me, but as a non-religious person, I can let it go. Being abbreviable as OMG makes the religious dimension an even more difficult stretch.

            We recently saw a Canadian series where in each episode, a couple would look at three homes, each featuring the “view” (golf course, frozen lake, vineyards, California beach, lighthouse – you get the idea) that the couple was seeking. Half of the properties were in Canada, half in southern California. But no matter where the episode was filmed, the response was the same: “Wow!” After a while Kim and I got the giggles each time someone said it, and we ventured guesses how many times “Wow!” was exclaimed in each 28-minute show: I guessed 50, Kim 80, but we could not stand to re-watch and check.

            The word “Wow!” has an interesting origin. When you witness something amazing, as a reflex you have a sudden intake of breath in anticipation of engaging in the spectacle you witness. This intake makes a sound like “Wow!” When writing was invented, the sound was given a spelling. (Come to think of it, this might actually be true. Google was no help, being preoccupied with World of Warcraft (a role-playing game).) (Nice punctuation move!)

            When I was in college in the early ‘60s, nobody said “Wow!” because, at our male bastion, nobody wanted to be thought a vulnerable fool who actually experienced emotions and therefore could be ridiculed. So instead we said, “All right!” with the protection of ironic understatement. The idea was not that All is Right in God’s World (see above), but rather that the event was just all right, a step above “Not bad.” This was when buttoned-down shirts were invented.

            What else?

            “Brilliant” is not an exclamation of delighted surprise, but an evaluation, as when our waiter, a Lithuanian working on his British accent, pronounced my choice of beer as “Brilliant!”

            “Awesome”? Spoken so often currently as to be almost meaningless. As used today, the word means “not entirely boring.” As in, “These potato chips are awesome!” On the other hand, if one is highly sensitive, one might respond to a potato chip with awe . . ..

            “Shut the front door!” has considerable appeal as an expression of delighted surprise, largely because the imperative has nothing to do with that emotional response. Those of us who are in the know understand that the sentence is a euphemism for an expression with the same rhythm, which also has nothing to do with delighted surprise. Perfect! Except Kim says I don’t say it quite right – something off with the accents.

            After way too much thought, I have come up with an explanation that works for me – though I don’t believe I’ve ever said it in the context of surprised delight: Yes! It seems to be just right, but I won’t know for sure until the right event comes my way.

            I recall a philosopher (Schopenhauer?) arguing that the sentence “I love you” is never true at the time you say it, for when you say it you are not actually loving – you are analyzing your feelings. (Makes me wonder, by the way, what this philosopher’s love life was like . . ..) I fear that when I experience my next surprised delight, I’ll be trying to remember how I am supposed to respond. Those experiences are supposed to overwhelm your thinking, but maybe the thinking will overwhelm the experience. I hope Kim sees this as a challenge . . ..

            

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Targeting Disorder


            First we received a message on our local BirdAlert: “A nice show of warblers yesterday evening at Port Oneida: 40-60 palm, 20-30 yellow-rumped, 6-10 black-throated green, 2 blackburnian, 6-8 magnolia, 1 black and white, a couple of redstarts. Also, a pair of green-winged teal, kestrel, merlin, a pair of sandhills, 4 kingbirds and a wood duck.” Kim and I decided it was a good day for birding in Port Oneida.

            Google told us it’s in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – less than an hour from here. Further research told us that Port Oneida contains a number of turn-of-the-century farms (that’s 19th turning into 20th). All the better.

            Our birding was pretty much a bust. We saw no warblers. We may have heard some, but since recognizing bird songs was my commitment to our birding enterprise, we did not recognize any of them. Kim got a shot of a very distant male American Kestrel in bright breeding colors, 


and we saw some White-crowned Sparrows darting through the underbrush, but that, except for some Canada Geese, was about it for birds.

            We almost succumbed to Targeting Disorder. I remember hearing an unorthodox business leader argue that it’s a bad idea to have goals because focusing on goals can limit your achievements and blind you to opportunities you didn’t think of when listing your goals. We went to Port Oneida looking for birds. We didn’t know exactly where to look, so we drove around, looking out our car windows –not the best way to see birds. We passed a few trail heads, but we did not know which ones had the birds, so we, probably foolishly, didn’t hike any of them. Birding was a bust.

            I experience a version of Targeting Disorder almost every day. Yesterday’s version: I was looking for the butter. We keep it on the right side of the third shelf of the pantry, right next to the salt and pepper. Well, I couldn’t find it! Someone, probably me, had put it on the second shelf, maybe 8 inches away from where I was looking. My target was only about 4 inches wide, so I missed it. Kim found it for me.

            We did hike down a long flight of stairs to an isolated Lake Michigan beach. We weren’t at this point, expecting to see any birds – we were mainly eager to get out of the car to stretch our legs and see the lake. (This is where you are expecting me to say we saw these great birds when we were not looking for them, but that’s not what happened. We saw none.) We did find some cool rocks that we brought home to place around our cottage when it is finally finished. We would have brought more, but we would have had to carry them up all those stairs. Our landscaper had said we should have a place where our grandkids could deposit all the rocks they bring up from the lake, but Kim and I know that most of those rocks will be our finds.

            Kim, fortunately, does not suffer from Targeting Disorder. We were driving along this steep road through the woods when she cried out. “Dutchman’s Breeches!” Momentarily confused, I slammed on the brakes – her tone was urgent. She then pointed out the window at a small wildflower by that name, so she got out and snapped some photos, even though she only had her birding lenses. 


Something similar happened with Trilium, though when she shouted I knew that was a flower.


She also photographed Wild Oats, which someone had sown in the woods, and which she could only identify when we got home and could hit the guidebooks.


            While I was scanning the woods and fields for birds – not an easy task while driving – Kim was noticing barns, so she got a few.





Not really a barn, but we like the the Monopoly-house simplicity.
We are not sure if any of them are the barns that make Point Oneida relatively famous – we saw no sign or plaque. But we love barns, even when they are not the target of our outing.

            I remember Keith Taylor, friend of mine, responding to someone’s asking him where he gets his ideas for poems: “Keep a line in the water. You never know what will bite."