Thursday, May 13, 2021

Have a Nice Day

             A poem by Stephen Dunn begins:

 

And so you call your best friend

who’s away, just to hear his voice,

but forget his recording concludes

with “Have a nice day.”

 

“Thank you, but I have other plans,”

you’re always tempted to respond,

as an old lady once did, the clerk

in the liquor store unable to laugh.

 

This, of course, is an invitation to come up with other probably smart-ass responses.

 

            Here in Northern Michigan the likely response would be, “Don’t tell me what to do.” In fact, for many of our neighbors this is pretty much their response to anything, from face masks to vaccines, from speed limits (those are supposed to be upper limits, not lower limits) to environmental protection. “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” could be our state motto. It might be better than our current motto: “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

 

            In fact, I get rather tired of all those imperatives bombarding us in the form of advice about how to live better, more virtuous and therefore happier lives. You know, sayings like, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Or, “Find joy in the journey.” How about, “When you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine.” Nothing wrong with these, really, but when I’m bombarded with them in garden shops, gift shops, faux antique shops – it starts to feel oppressive. That guy in the insurance ad who is teaching young people how not to be like their parents gets it right: throw those signs away. Or maybe it’s just me . . ..

 

            Another problem with “Have a nice day” is the word “nice.” How often do we really want a “nice” day? Polite? Socially acceptable? Polite? Excessively precise or delicate? Fastidious? I can see pleasing or agreeable as worthwhile blessings to offer, but that seems to be setting the bar rather low, especially since it doesn’t really cost you anything to utter this blessing-gift. How about, “Have an amazing day,” though I admit that many of us do not want to be amazed. (I recall Samuel Johnson’s definition of “wonder” as “the effect of novelty on ignorance.” Maybe my life is wonderful because I supply the ignorance and Kim supplies the novelty.)

 

            So, the challenges now are two:

 

1.     Come up with an alternative generic parting comment. Something better than, “Have a nice day.” A fellow Starbucks barista would tell customers, “Have a great day,” which I chose to hear as “Have a gray day,” which I thought an interesting parting wish. My Starbucks manager would say, “Have a nice day, darlin’.” She explained that when she said “darlin,” she meant, “you asshole.” (I think it’s a southern thing.)

 

2.     Come up with a good response when someone tells you what kind of day to have. Something to put a smile on the face of the clerk in the liquor store.

 

            Have a next day.

 

 

 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Mortal

             I woke up thinking what a pain in the ass it would be for other people if I were to die. So, I decided not to. Kim told me that people don’t think that way. O.K. 

            So far in my competition with Death I am undefeated, though Death has a much longer winning streak. 

 

            The conversation, along with stories I’ve been reading and hearing about deaths in India and Brazil, led me to remember a poem I wrote about fifty years ago, back when I was more immortal. Bill Whitney was a friend about the age of my father. About my age now.

 

 

            Bill in Bed

 

Bill tells me he is having a crisis of faith.

Tears slide into his beard.

 

He lives in a hospital bed on the glassed in

porch of his home. His dog

 

dozes at the foot of his bed. The tv sends

lively ghosts from the corner.

 

He tells me he is afraid he is never going

to get well again. I decide

 

not to cry. I see creases in the skin

of his bald head propped

 

on the pillow. I wonder if the radiation

caused them. I remember

 

my father’s death, a death I missed. 
Bill tells me

 

late last night a friend said it is

all right to lose faith

 

but not all of it. I decide not to cry.

I picture the tumor locked

 

into Bill’s brain, tentacles inching into

the wet folds, squeezing,

 

with pitiless eyes and a beak. Bill says

he envies my trips out west.

 

I decide not to cry now.

 

As we talk I stroke Bill’s unparalyzed hand.

I rub his foot, but

 

I’m uncertain about touching his left hand,

still indented where his rings

 

were removed. The nurse arrives, takes

Bill’s blood pressure, gives

 

him a shot, checks his skin and the response

of his pupils. Sue

 

joins us, kisses Bill’s forehead. Tells

the nurse and me she sleeps

 

here with him, likes to cuddle in bed,

jokes that they make out

 

heavily when people aren’t around. I rise

to leave. Sue asks

 

the nurse to make room in the bed for her when

she turns Bill over.  Sure.

 

I say it’s OK they are married. Sue and the nurse

lift, using some leverage tricks,

 

relocating the tube leading to the urine bag hooked

on the frame of the bed.

 

I try to stay out of the way. I’m uncertain

about touching. I’m having a crisis

 

of faith. Sue leans down

 

to arrange Bill’s head on a pillow. His good arm

reaches to circle her neck, holding

 

her in a fierce headlock of an embrace. I

can not see her face or Bill’s.

 

I am jealous of this broken dying man. I see

now the death I missed.

 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Not This Week


            I’m not going to write a blog entry this week. My friend Bill suggested that I write one on aging, but I think I already wrote and posted one on the subject. Maybe two. Or maybe not – I can’t remember. I could maybe look it up and see if I published one, but I’m not sure of the title or date. My computer probably has a search function that would help me find it, but then I’d have to figure out how to do something new on my computer, and you know how that goes.

 

            Of course, what else am I going to do with my time? Do some jumping jacks? Maybe have sex a few times?  Buy a new suit? Dig a hole? Bill said something about identifying paradigm shifts, but I can’t find his email to see what he said, and I can’t find my reading glasses to find his email. And I’m not sure what a paradigm is, anyway. (I used to think that a paradigm was 20 cents, but now I’m not so sure.) I blame Donald Trump for all this, but I can’t remember why he’s responsible. Or maybe it was Biden.

 

            So, I’m not going to do a blog entry this week. It’s my first miss in about six years. Or maybe I missed one two years ago. Maybe I’ll ask Kim when she gets back from wherever she told me she is going. I think I’ll take a nap.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Caught Napping

             Our friend Ron used to take naps regularly, at least when we were around. I remember once when he and his wife were shopping with Kim and me, and when we parked, he said it was time for his nap, reclined his car seat, and he was out. At the time, I thought that was a bit strange. Now, I don’t think so. And now Ron has gone to The Big Sleep. Let’s hope the pleasures of the nap were but a preview.

            For most of my life, I never napped. It never occurred to me to do so. I was too busy working – teaching, grading student papers, taking my boys for walks or bike rides, refereeing soccer, mowing the lawn, vacuuming. You know what I mean. Even reading did not nudge me napward. That was then, this is now.

 

            I don’t nap every day. About once a week I am forced to take what I call a “chair nap,” leaning back in my comfortable chair, closing my eyes, and settling into the light bliss of shallow sleep. (When I was teaching, my students would call this “resting my eyes,” which my lectures enabled them to do even in uncomfortable chairs.) Chair naps, for me, are pretty much non-negotiable. Sometimes it happens after a bit of yardwork, but also, increasingly, after a drive home from Traverse City – not so long a drive as to really tire me out, but somehow, some days, it does.

 

            Occasionally I experience a big decision regarding naps: It’s about 3 p.m., I’m feeling a bit drowsy, so I need to choose between a nap or yet another cup of coffee. Fortunately, however, when working at Starbucks I learned that it takes about 20 minutes for the caffeine from a cup of coffee to deliver the caffeine kick, so I can drink coffee and then take a quick chair nap. Then maybe have another cup when arising from the chair. Life is good.

 

            I pretty much stay away from formal naps – the kind that involve lying down on the couch and sleeping with a blanket. Kim, recently, occasionally goes in for these, largely a result of her pain-related insomnia and her fatigue from overdoing it. In fact, she might nap more often if she were not pressed by all the stuff she feels she needs to get done, from ironing to meal preparation, from gardening to cleaning the burners on the stove, from wiping my fingerprints off of cabinet doors to identifying the white butterfly she just photographed. In Kim’s case this is not guilt, exactly – as it often is for me – but just her “just-get-it-done” nature. I share that quality, but for me it’s more an inclination than a drive as it is for Kim.

 

            There is something like a ritual involved in Kim’s naps. She takes a bedroom pillow to the couch and microwaves her “body buddy” pad to place against her sorest spot at the time, usually upper back, sometimes lower. I turn on the television, maybe to a movie. She unfolds the blanket she keeps on the couch and goes through some nesting wiggles to get comfortable. She starts watching, slipping in and out of sleep – I can’t see her eyes. I watch the movie, sometimes with my laptop open. When she wakes up, I fill her in on what she missed in. She asks what time it is, and pretty much whatever time I say means it’s time for Kim to get up and start fixing dinner.

 

            Has mankind always indulged in naps? Somebody probably knows the answer to that, but not me. I suspect the invention of electric lighting has something to do with naps, and certainly the internet is a contributing factor. Night is not just for sleeping. And not too long ago, most people farmed for a living, and it’s hard to imagine farmers taking an afternoon nap, though I might have found a way, as I’m sure Ron would. And for the farmer’s wife, napping is even less imaginable.

 

            Is napping simply a matter of age? I’ll let you know when I get old. Fortunately, I never nap when I’m writing, probably bec;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;;

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Prayer: A Guide for Atheists

            I have come to believe in the power of prayer, but not the way normal people do. My undoubtedly oversimplified view of the way most people view prayer is that it’s some sort of request sent up to the Big Guy in the Sky, a being that William Blake named Nobodaddy. God then considers the request, perhaps evaluating its Goodness and the moral status of the person doing the praying, and then sends down an energy beam to intervene in our earthly human situation. A basketball player prays before shooting a free throw, and perhaps God’s breath tips it off the rim and through the hoop. Or a prayer before getting your CT-scan results works retroactively to change not only the scan but also the tumor that might otherwise show up on the scan. God can do stuff like that, right?

            Perhaps not.

 

            So, why would an atheist pray? What might be a benefit of prayer lies in what happens within the mind or heart (soul?) of the person doing the praying. The person shooting the free throw might simply be asking himself to be his best self, and the act of prayer may generate needed calm confidence.

 

            Another benefit: When people learned of Kim’s cancer, several of her friends told her that she was in their prayers. It helped – not because God beamed down a boost of well-targeted radiation therapy, but because her knowing that folks were and still are praying for her gave her a sense of support in what must be a lonely battle. I’m not sure those prayers would work if Kim didn’t know about them. Difficult to test that one . . ..

 

            And here’s another benefit: If you are praying to God, you are probably bowing your head in a submissive posture, or maybe you are looking upward. In either case, what you are doing is humble (unless you are the kind of asshole who demands divine intervention because of how great you think you are). The act of prayer is an acknowledgment that there is a Something, bigger than us – call it Nature, the Oversoul, God, or whatever. Humility is, almost all of the time, a good thing – good for you, and good for everyone around you. Just think of all the horrors that the opposite of humility has inflicted on the world. It interests me as a Word Guy that “humble” comes from the Latin word “humus,” which refers to the dark organic material in soils that is essential for the fertility of the earth. I’m proud to be so humble. 

 

            But on the other hand, for an atheist the prayer could also be directed to the divine qualities within ourselves. Think of the Greek gods, or other polytheistic theologies. When I pray to Apollo (which I don’t), I am praying to the Apollo in me. When Kim prays to an oak tree (she may), she is praying to the strength of the oak and the generosity in all that an oak tree provides for the world – qualities that she shares with the oak. Seeing the divine as part of us does not sound all that humble, I will acknowledge, but as a humanist, I applaud it.

 

            And after all, what is it that most people pray for? Lord, give me strength. Lord, give me patience. Lord, make me a kinder person (Does anyone really say that one?), Lord, help me remember where I put my cell phone. Not really asking for Outside Help here, right? It’s Inside Help we are after, in most cases, and prayer may be an effective way to gather our internal resources, however we word the request. Does anyone know of a better way to do it?

 

            And then there is the kind of prayer which does not involve praying for something, but rather a prayer of thanks for what you have been given. Again, I see this as a kind of Inside Help, fully available to atheists through prayer.

 

            Prayer, then, is a lot like appealing to the better angels of our nature. But don’t let me get started about angels.

 

 

If you care to share your thoughts about prayer, please contact me at dstring@ix.netcom.com.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Sap

           
            The birdhouse was a gift to us from Scott and Shariee. Modeled after our bark house, it’s about 3’ x 3’ and weighs maybe 150 pounds, plus another 50 or so for the mounting that Scott built. The siding is the same poplar bark that we have on our house.

 


 Our actual house, however, does not have those little round holes in the windows.


            After a lot of discussion, we decided to place it in the large maple tree outside our garage – the first thing we or anyone sees when arriving at our home. In order to mount the birdhouse, Scott and I had to remove a large limb that extended over the garage with the flat surface where we cut it providing the base of the construction. We had to pull the limb with a rope while we cut it so it wouldn’t land on the garage roof, which meant that some of the bark was torn, which meant that there was a place where the sap immediately started to run.

            We are not sure whether this is a sugar maple tree – one guy told us it is not – but just in case we attached a small pail into which the sap could drip. Drip it did. By the next morning the pail was full, so Kim filtered out most of the bark that had fallen in, and then she boiled it for several hours until the half-gallon of sap became about a cup of syrup. We enjoyed it on our sweet potatoes at dinner, and we saved the rest for Scott and Shariee’s next visit.

 

            Our batch tasted like good maple syrup, but that’s not the point. And it’s great that we made it ourselves, but that’s not quite the point, either. The point is that we were communing with our maple tree, taking its spirit into our bodies. We are grateful to our maple tree, and we thanked it for existing and for sharing itself with us in such a tasty form. (“Sharing” may not be the right word, as it did not voluntarily lop off its own limb . . ..) The next day we paused to thank the tree again before pouring its syrup on our waffles. Our maple tree is a person, in a way, and a member of our family.

 

            Thanking the natural world for its gifts is a tradition that goes back to Native American practices, and it’s continued by many hunters today (including Scott when he actually gets his deer). It’s a tradition that should actually spread as we thank all the elements involved when we spread blueberries from California on those waffles, served with shade-grown coffee from Central America, by way of Maine. Our economy is almost as miraculous as our maple tree, and we are thankful.

 

            But that is not the point. Taking maple syrup into our bodies is an act of communion. I don’t know much about communion as part of Christian practice, but I do recall my friend Kent’s description of a conversation with some Iranian kids when he was in the Peace Corps. They were astounded, he reports, that Christians would actually eat their God. Nevertheless, and my skepticism aside, something happens when you take a spirit into your actual body. It may just happen in your mind, or soul if you prefer, rather than chemically. But why do I say “just happen in your mind”? Let’s pause to appreciate the complex dance between food and spirit.

 

            And then, let’s get the very satisfying teamwork involved in getting the 250 pounds of birdhouse up a ladder and into our maple tree, a process that generates more gratitude as the tree becomes even more of our home. And soon, birds will be involved in our gratitude.

 



 

 


Thursday, April 1, 2021

Learning from Movies

            Kim and I have been watching a lot of movies over the past year. Too many, but we really don’t care because the movies and series have been educational. Here’s what we learned from the movies. (I will not give specific examples as it will be more educational for you to come up with your own examples.)

 

·      Lies will be exposed, probably not when you want. And once you are caught in a lie, you will always be a liar. Even if you’re not caught.

 

·      The same is true for secrets, especially family secrets.

 

·      If a woman throws up, it means she is pregnant. Not drinking means the same thing. A man’s throwing up, however, does not mean he is pregnant. It may mean he’s been drinking.

 

·      Don’t be happy too soon – it means something bad will happen to make your story interesting. If you start out with a serious problem, it will most likely be fixed in some way. Or not.

 

·      Don’t get into arguments while driving a car, for people will die. As a matter of fact, keep your eyes on the wheel when conversing with the passenger next to you. Though this seldom leads to accidents, it makes me uncomfortable when I see it in a movie.

 

·      Families can be toxic. But you probably knew this already.

 

·      Everyone looks better with clean hair. If your life is boring, wash your hair so people will have something nice to look at.

 

·      Young people tend to have sex against a wall, on a desk, or on a kitchen table. Sometimes in the bathroom. Old people make love in the bedroom.

 

·      Algebra is very rarely used – at least, in ways you can see.

 

·      You don’t really know your neighbors. They lie and have secrets.

 

·      You don’t really know your spouse or partner. You may think you do, but you don’t.

 

·      You don’t really know your children. Obviously. Knowing “what’s best for them” is not the same as knowing them.

 

·      You don’t really know yourself. You may be keeping secrets from yourself or lying to yourself, or you may have hidden potential that will rise to a challenge.

 

·      You don’t know shit.

 

·      Life would be better with subtitles. Even better if the subtitles explained what the speaker was really saying, and what was being hidden. (I’ve seen that in a movie, but rarely in real life. Kim, apparently, sees them more often.)

 

·      Anorexia is not a disease unless it occurs in a movie about anorexia. Otherwise, it’s OK to be that thin.

 

·      It’s OK to be seen doing your bodily business in the bathroom. Meaningful conversations can take place when one of you is on the toilet or standing at a urinal.

 

·      The experience of drama is improved if you can sip a cocktail and enjoy a salty snack while going through it.

 

·      Life is more enjoyable without masks, both wearing them and seeing them. But you knew that already.

 

            That’s about it. If you have learned anything from movies that you’d like to share, please let me know at dstring@ix.netcom.com.