The end of living and the end of life are not the same. This last week I enjoyed an afternoon with my father-in-law, Bill Nichols at a St. Patrick’s Day “Happy Hour” and music event hosted at his assisted living community. Bill is closing in on his 101st birthday. As one might expect, his abilities are a shadow of those he held as a younger man. For him and his fellow residents, physical beauty and vitality fled them years ago. However, beauty may yet be found within the eyes that reflect the youthfulness of their spirits.
Bill was animated, sang, clapped, enjoyed a glass of wine, shared embraces with the musician and staff, and of course wore a ridiculous Irish themed party hat.
I found his joy to be infectious. Actually, this one afternoon was not really exceptional. Bill’s days are filled with activities such as “Chair exercises”, Bingo, “Balloon Volleyball”, and group sing-a-longs, not to mention the social exchanges that occur with his fellow residents at meals and throughout the day. Bill’s days are a joy that serves as an analgesic to the ills of his advanced years.
Being around Bill has left me to reflect upon the contrast of my visits with my father during the final years of his life. Dad died in 2009, 87 years old. He had suffered the intensifying effects of Multiple Sclerosis for over 30 years yet in his final years his abilities and challenges were not very different than those imposed upon Bill Nichols by virtue of his advanced years. Dad’s last years were in a nursing home community. I could usually find my father alone within his darkened room, shades drawn, television off, a faint antiseptic odor in the air. My father’s view of life in his final years may best be summed up by his own words. I would open visits with him by asking, “How are you Dad?”, and he would invariably respond from his bed, “Just waiting…”. Sadly, there was never any question what he was “just waiting” for.
As Christine and I entered our 60’s we have been continuously bombarded with ads, solicitations, and messages encouraging us to prepare for the end of life. Have we secured our final resting places? Living Trusts? Explore the benefits of Insurance Annuities! Beneficiary Designations in place? What about Charitable Giving? There is little about continuing to live and much about the end of life.
My father’s life ended in his 87th year, but I believe that 30 years earlier he retired from living at the same time that he retired from work. Dad had been a college coach, Director of Athletics, and a teacher. He was highly regarded in those roles; they were his passions. When he retired a cavernous vacuum formed in his life. Dad never sought other interests that might have carry the joy of living into the years beyond his working life.
Another contrast: My mother will be 94 this year. She is as busy today as she was 40 years ago. She has her Bridge Club, Woman’s Club, Church activities and myriad other social and community engagements. I see in her eyes the same joie de vivre that I see in Bill Nichols.
There is a lesson in these observations: We have more influence and control over delaying the end of living than we have on the end of life. When age or infirmity deny us the pursuit of one passion, find another to replace it… Always have a next thing and Pursue Good Stuff!!!
Peace everyone. Pete
PS. Dad, my calendar just reminded me that tomorrow is your birthday and you would have turned 97. Although you have been gone 10 years it seems that I am still learning from you.
Most days of our lives present a relatively narrow range of experiences. The most memorable may be those that expand that spectrum and allow us to appreciate a fuller range of the human condition. Today was such a day.
Morning sprang with the chill of near freezing temperatures in a lush Louisiana State Park. In less than 3 hours we were entering the environs of “The Big Easy”… New Orleans. As we approached our destination we beheld hundreds of tents pitched beneath the overpasses of I-10. These were not recreational campers, but those whose circumstances have reduced them to the struggle of seeking food, warmth, and the next day of life. We passed them and turned right into our “campground”, The French Quarter RV Resort.
The “Resort” is located in gated environs, protected by an 8 foot concrete wall that is topped by inconspicuous razor-wire. It looks like a Soviet era gulag from the outside, but within it is an elegant $100 dollar per night RV park that is only 2 blocks from the French Quarter and 4 blocks from Bourbon Street. Passing through the gate I felt like Dorothy did as she awoke to the technicolor experience of OZ.
The Resort provides a swimming pool, hot tub, rec-hall, fitness room, plus the usual amenities of bathrooms, showers, and laundry. Full hookups are a given. Most of the “campers” are in large “sun blocker” motor coaches that cost more than the average home. We count ourselves among the few micro-campers. We are not envious… au contraire, we pity them the burden of their mass.
After making “camp”, we walked 10 minutes to Alice’s Wonderland, here known as Bourbon Street.
Sex and Alcohol are the prominent neon lit themes that adorn the antebellum buildings and illuminate the street. The effect is intoxicating, even for the sober pedestrian.
Liberally mixed among the tourists are those whose hands are reaching out for spare change. There is sadness to be found in some, and larceny in the intentions of others… not easy for the uninitiated to discern.
We were approached by a friendly 50ish woman who represented that she was seeking donations for “Meals for Wheels”. Christine donated and we then received the gifts of a Hare Krishna Cookbook and Bhagavad-Gita. It was not the “Meals on Wheels” that we assumed she represented. Were her intentions honorable? We will never really know… I choose to presume the best of intentions until proven otherwise. I believe that she holds as firmly to the dedication of Diety as any Christian, Jew, or Muslim. Had I the presence of mind I would have liked to have engaged her in a serious discussion.
A few days ago we walked the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast. I happened to look down upon an ocean clam and suddenly wondered at the chasm of intellect that separated it from me. How could it ever fathom my intentions as a superior being. If the Universe is the creation of an omniscient and omnipotent Being, how much greater is the separation of it’s intellect from mine. Is it not presumptive for humans to claim to know the mind of that Being, and yet as a species we have been driven to do so for nearly a hundred thousand of years (human and Neanderthal ritual burial has been documented for that long). It seems to me that The Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, and the Bhagavad-Gita, among others, are human expressions of an inadequate effort to understand the Infinite.
Back to Earth… We enjoyed some music and the 2 for 1 beer specials that abound up and down Bourbon Street.
The spectacle allows one to turn a blind eye to the well worn establishments, street hawkers, and less than sanitary bathrooms.
Hunger drove us to first find Chicory coffee and Beignets at Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans tradition since the mid-19th Century.
We then adjourned to the very upscale Restaurant GW Fins. Less than a block from the helter-skelter of Bourbon Street we found the calm opulence of white linen table cloths, a well ordered bar, and a dignified professional staff.
This was another expansion of the spectrum of the day’s experiences. Christine, a “slightly dirty” Martini, me a Rye Manhattan (served up, but in a rocks glass). We then settled into a review of the last 41 years.
Dinner followed. Christine, a succulent Filet Mignon, and me a flaky, melt-in-your-mouth Halibut-Scallop combination. As spectacular as the meal was it was overshadowed by the attentive staff. We were graced with the exceptional services of Rod, Benjamin, and Moose.
It is common for a patron to ask directions to the restroom, but entirely uncommon for the waiter (Benjamin) to then take the arm of the lady (Christine) and accompany her to that destination much as one would be ushered in a wedding. Totally endearing!
We count today memorable and leave tomorrow for consideration on another day.
Over a span of 48 hours I have had 2 vastly different experiences that were courtesy of both The Great and The Forgotten.
In 1938 a collaboration between the University of Texas and the University of Chicago established the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains of Texas.
Named after its benefactor, William J. McDonald, who donated $800,000.00, the Observatory quickly became a preeminent research facility. The 82” Otto Struve Telescope was dedicated on May 5, 1939, and at that time was the second largest telescope in the world. The 107” Harlan J. Smith Telescope became operational in 1968 and at that time tanked as the third largest in the world. It now ranks 41st.
The Harlan telescope weighs 160 tons and is housed under a 220 ton dome. Both the scope and dome rotate to track celestial objects, remarkably power by only half horsepower motors. The most recent addition to the large telescopes at McDonald is the 390” Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), dedicated in late 1997.
It is composed of 91 separate 1 meter hexagonal mirrors. It currently ranks as the second largest optical telescope in the world and was constructed at the bargain basement price of 40 million dollars by using common construction materials available on the open market.
The Observatory is located atop 6,780 foot high Mount Locke and is in a prime “Dark Sky” region with little rain and predominantly clear skies. The Observatory includes dozens of smaller telescopes. We enjoyed both a daytime tour with solar observations and a nighttime “Star-Party” with observations of the moon, star clusters, and a the Orion Nebula.
The Observatory, its largest telescopes, and other noteworthy parts of the facility display the names of The Famous who have expanded our understanding of the cosmos. Perhaps among The Forgotten are the thousands of workers and technicians who built the facility and keep it running each day. The current on-site housing for the staff makes the Observatory the second largest “town” in Davis County.
Between 1933 and 1942 over 3 million economically destitute unmarried men between 17 and 28 years old enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a huge government funded public works/relief program that was born of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Nearly 90 years after its inception the hand of the CCC can be seen in forests and parks across America.
Construction of Davis Mountains State Park was begun by the CCC in 1933. The workers constructed roads, trails, pavilions, and the magnificent adobe Indian Lodge and restaurant which remain in operation today.
I hiked the trails and abandoned roads that These Forgotten built with their grit, sinews, and sweat.
There were no Famous among them to warrant the naming of these artifacts that remain, yet on this day I was the direct beneficiary of their efforts. I have no one person to whom I can direct my gratitude for a day well spent, so I give my thanks to The Forgotten.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. I have often heard the rhetorical question, “Why isn’t there a CCC today?”, followed by the questioner’s own answer that is a criticism of “the Younger Generation”. Here is my thought: The CCC was first and foremost a government funded relief program. There was little thought given to profit or benefit other than for the unemployed workers. The current political climate does not favor public relief or social welfare. Additionally, the workers were driven to enlist in the CCC (and WPA) out of their own economic necessity.
If circumstances were to repeat (and I pray that they don’t), I have every reason to believe that “the Younger Generation” would roll up its sleeves just like “the Greatest Generation” did.
We had stopped to gas-up, a frequent occurrence on the road. I stood at one side of pump #4 and a very large man, football player large, was filling his 4Runner up on the other side of the pump. I would soon learn he had played a year of college ball when he said, “There are better ways to pursue an education… that stuff hurts!”. In the breezy 40 temps he stood unaffected in shorts and sandals. “I’m a Florida beach bum at heart.” he would explain.
Most folks at the pumps seem to avoid human contact, preferring to focus on the task at hand and then be on their way. This big man had searching eyes, eyes that soaked up the details of his surroundings, seeking to know his environment and those who he shared it with. He drew eye contact like a magnet and once the attraction was established, “Hi, nice trailer… how does it pull with your SUV?”. My reply was barely past my lips as I found my hand engulfed by his firm, friendly, and warm handshake. “Marty, Marty Leake, I’m retired, a traveler and a writer”. (See: https://007pandas.com)
Thus it began. In the time that it took to fill up our cars I had learned he was single, had two sons, had enjoyed a long and successful career in law enforcement in Virginia, was college educated, was a compulsive traveler and blogger, was very well read… I learned more of this man in those few minutes than I know of some folks who have been coworkers and neighbors. I suspect that Marty’s take from his side of the gas pump mirrored mine. We capped our gas tanks and moved our vehicles to the parking area, continuing our fast friendship for another twenty minutes. We were looking at each other across the salad bar of life experiences, sampling from each other’s side but denied a full meal because the plates that time allowed were too small. A picture, exchanged contact information, invitations, “If you pass through Kansas City/Sanibel Island…”, a longer handshake, regret that travel called us in opposite directions, and the chance encounter ended.
Encounters such as this are unexpected treasures. I can plan my destinations, I can plan what we will see, but I can’t plan such a rewarding exchange between kindred souls.
This is the antithesis of the tribalism that divides us. We need more Marty Leakes in this world… we need to take the time to appreciate what we hold in common during the brief lifespans that mortality grants to each of us.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. We are camped in Davis Mountains State Park and are in a cell phone “dead zone”. Yesterday we spent the afternoon and evening at the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. I look forward to sharing the experience and images in a future post. Also, the weather and continuing Federal shutdown that is effecting National Parks has caused us to change our plans. We will be heading further south in Texas.
We are continuing our journey southwest through Oklahoma with plans to overnight at Great Plains State Park. A weather event is predicted for Friday, rain to the south, a snowy mix to the north. We are choosing rain. (The pictures interspersed below are from our drive through Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge and our camp this evening.)
During long drives my mind wanders like a rat in a maze. But where a rat seeks its reward at one destination, I find rewarding thoughts at each turn… even at the dead ends. At one such “end” I recalled a phrase from ancient history, “Know Yourself”. It was attributed to Socrates who was said to admonish his students nearly 2,500 years ago to seek to know themselves before seeking knowledge of other things. The maxim actually predates Socrates and is found as one of 147 Delphic aphorisms (kind of an expanded 10 Commandments). There are also equivalents found in Egyptian temple hieroglyphics.
Know Yourself… There is what I know, a product of education and life experiences. The “physical me” is pretty straightforward. A genetic role of the dice where my parents were each a die largely determined many of my obvious and hidden physical characteristics. Except for the intervention of fate (as in an accident or outside agency) my life expectancy is even influenced by my genes. But what about WHO I am, the personality that is me.
We are products of natural selection (recent events in China may herald a change is coming). However, it may be instructive to examine what can be accomplished through “intentional selection”, as in the controlled breeding of animals. Selection can focus not only on physical characteristics but also behavioral ones. Great Danes are big and tall, Dachshunds are small and short. Similarly, Dobermans and Rottweilers stand at one end of a behavioral spectrum while Labradors and Cocker Spaniels inhabit the other.
What behavioral and personality characteristics within each of us may have a genetically influenced predisposition? I seem driven to travel. I derive deep satisfaction in bringing people together. I am a ponderously slow reader with abysmal spelling skills. These are just 3 of the traits that I have made a directed self examination.
If there is a “travel gene” I probably inherited it. My mother’s parents were immigrants from Lebanon, leaving everything known and familiar for adventure and the speculation of opportunity in America. My father’s parent were Germans from Russia, part of two mass migrations. The first occurred in the early 1800’s where hundreds of German families moved to the Ukraine at the invitation of Catherine the Great, and then again in the early 20th Century to America seeking escape from the oppression of the Bolshevik Revolution. Most of my ancestors remained in Lebanon, Germany, and the Ukraine. Not my grandparents. My mother and father each left their homes and families in pursuit of higher education, meeting at the University of Wisconsin and establishing their home in Illinois, far from their West Virginia and North Dakota roots. When I was offered my first job out of college the placement options were St. Louis and Kansas City. I chose Kansas City solely because I had never been there before. Genetic predisposition?
I have always tested well, except in spelling. I hated spelling bees because I would always be the last person chosen for a team… for good reason. No amount of tutoring seemed to help. Spellcheck and a wife who “spells for me” have been my salvation. I have to occasionally force my memory to recall the directions that b, d, z, and s face. I learned to read at a very early age, hearing the words as if spoken in my mind. I still read that way for pleasure, but not when reading was required in my professional work. Learned behavior? Genetic? Perhaps a combination.
Finally is there a social gene. A dear friend brought this to my attention saying that the “social gene” was strong in me. This caused me to reflect upon my past… childhood, gathering neighborhood children for group play… College, starting the Undergraduate Administration of Justice Association… Our return from the 2013 Camino, founding the Kansas City chapter of The American Pilgrims on the Camino… 2015, starting the Kansas City Metro Casita Owners group. And of course the delight in sharing our travels and “seeing” you cross-talk with one another in the comments to my posts. Genetic? Socrates would likely have castigated me for focusing on the irrelevant. What is important is that we can all be part of a larger family when we embrace what binds us rather than what divides us.
Peace Everyone! Pete
PS. We are in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma, among the oldest mountains in North America. Driving through the National Wildlife refuge we were surprised to see that the campground was open and fully functional! We continued on to Oklahoma’s Great Plains State Park with intentions to proceed tomorrow to northern Texas and then on to El Paso. We are the parks sole occupants… except for the coyotes.
PPS. If you would like to read the remaining 146 Delphic Maxims, here they are. #66 is especially profound! (from Wikipedia):
1 Follow God (Επου θεω)
2 Obey the law (Νομω πειθου)
3 Worship the Gods (Θεους σεβου)
4 Respect your parents (Γονεις αιδου)
5 Be overcome by justice (Ηττω υπο δικαιου)
6 Know what you have learned (Γνωθι μαθων)
7 Perceive what you have heard (Ακουσας νοει)
8 Be/Know Yourself (Σαυτον ισθι)
9 Intend to get married (Γαμειν μελλε)
10 Know your opportunity (Καιρον γνωθι)
11 Think as a mortal (Φρονει θνητα)
12 “If you are a stranger act like one” or “When you are a stranger be aware” (Ξepsilon;νος ων ισθι)
13 Honor the hearth/Hestia (Εστιαν τιμα)
14 Control yourself (Αρχε σεαυτου)
15 Help your friends (Φιλοις βοηθει)
16 Control anger (Θυμου κρατει)
17 Exercise prudence (Φρονησιν ασκει)
18 Honor providence (Προνοιαν τιμα)
19 Do not use an oath (Ορκω μη χρω)
20 Love friendship (Φιλιαν αγαπα)
21 Cling to discipline (Παιδειας αντεχου)
22 Pursue honor (Δοξαν διωκε)
23 Long for wisdom (Σοφιαν ζηλου)
24 Speak well of the beautiful good (sometimes translated as “Praise the Good” but “kalon” is primarily “beautiful” but a Greek synonym for good – so it’s a nuanced translation) (Καλον ευ λεγε)
25 Find fault with no one (Ψεγε μηδενα)
26 Praise those having arête. (Επαινει αρετην)
27 Practice what is just (Πραττε δικαια)
28 Be kind to friends (Θιλοις ευνοει)
29 Watch out for your enemies (Εχθρους αμυνου)
30 Exercise nobility of character (Ευγενειαν ασκει)
31 Shun evil (Κακιας απεχου)
32 Be impartial (Κοινος γινου)
33 Guard what is yours (Ιδια φυλαττε)
34 Shun what belongs to others (Αλλοτριων απεχου)
35 Listen to everyone (Ακουε παντα)
36 Be (religiously) silent (Ευφημος ιοθι)
37 Do a favor for a friend (Φιλω χαριζου)
38 Nothing to excess (Μηδεν αγαν)
39 Use time sparingly (Χρονου φειδου)
40 Foresee the future (Ορα το μελλον)
41 Despise insolence (Υβριν μισει)
42 Have respect for suppliants (Ικετας αιδου)
43 Be accommodating in everything (Παςιν αρμοζου)
44 Educate your sons (Υιους παιδευε)
45 Give what you have (Εχων χαριζου)
46 Fear deceit (Δολον φοβου)
47 Speak well of everyone (Ευλογει παντας)
48 Be a seeker of wisdom (Φιλοσοφος γινου)
49 Choose what is divine (Οσια κρινε)
50 Act when you know (Γνους πραττε)
51 Shun murder (Φονου απεχου)
52 Pray for things possible (Ευχου δυνατα)
53 Consult the wise (Σοφοις χρω)
54 Test the character (Ηθος δοκιμαζε)
55 Give back what you have received (Λαβων αποδος)
56 Down-look no one (Υφορω μηδενα)
57 Use your skill (Τεχνη χρω)
58 Do what you mean to do (Ο μελλεις, δος)
59 Honor a benefaction (Ευεργεςιας τιμα)
60 Be jealous of no one (Φθονει μηδενι)
61 Be on your guard (Φυλακη προσεχε)
62 Praise hope (Ελπιδα αινει)
63 Despise a slanderer (Διαβολην μισει)
64 Gain possessions justly (Δικαιως κτω)
65 Honor good men (Αγαθους τιμα)
66 Know the judge (Κριτην γνωθι)
67 Master wedding-feasts (Γαμους κρατει)
68 Recognize fortune (Τυχην νομιζε)
69 Flee a pledge (Εγγυην φευγε)
70 Speak plainly (Αμλως διαλεγου)
71 Associate with your peers (Ομοιοις χρω)
72 Govern your expenses (Δαπανων αρχου)
73 Be happy with what you have (Κτωμενος ηδου)
74 Rever a sense of shame (Αισχυνην σεβου)
75 Fulfill a favor (Χαριν εκτελει)
76 Pray for happiness (Ευτυχιαν ευχου)
77 Be fond of fortune (Τυχην στεργε)
78 Observe what you have heard (Ακουων ορα)
79 Work for what you can own (Εργαζου κτητα)
80 Despise strife (Εριν μισει)
81 Detest disgrace (Ονειδς εχθαιρε)
82 Restrain the tongue (Γλωτταν ισχε)
83 Keep yourself from insolence (Υβριν αμυνου)
84 Make just judgements (Κρινε δικαια)
85 Use what you have (Χρω χρημασιν)
86 Judge incorruptibly (Αδωροδοκητος δικαζε)
87 Accuse one who is present (Αιτιω παροντα)
88 Tell when you know (Λεγε ειδως)
89 Do not depend on strength (Βιας μη εχου)
90 Live without sorrow (Αλυπως βιου)
91 Live together meekly (Ομιλει πραως)
92 Finish the race without shrinking back (Περας επιτελει μη αποδειλιων))
93 Deal kindly with everyone (Φιλοφρονει πασιν)
94 Do not curse your sons (Υιοις μη καταρω)
95 Rule your wife (Γυναικος αρχε)
96 Benefit yourself (Σεαυτον ευ ποιει)
97 Be courteous (Ευπροσηγορος γινου)
98 Give a timely response (Αποκρινου εν καιρω)
99 Struggle with glory (Πονει μετ ευκλειας)
100 Act without repenting (Πραττε αμετανοητως)
101 Regret falling short of the mark (or goal) (Αμαρτανων μετανοει)
102 Control the eye (Οφθαλμοθ κρατει)
103 Give a timely counsel (Βουλευου χρονω)
104 Act quickly (Πραττε συντομως)
105 Guard friendship (Φιλιαν φυλαττε)
106 Be grateful (Ευγνωμων γινου)
107 Pursue harmony (Ομονοιαν διωκε)
108 Keep deeply the top secret (Αρρητον κρυπτε)
109 Fear ruling (Το κρατουν φοβου)
110 Pursue what is profitable (Το συμφερον θηρω)
111 Accept due measure (Καιρον προσδεχου)
112 Do away with enmities (Εχθρας διαλυε)
113 Accept old age (Γηρας προσδεχου)
114 Do not boast in might (Επι ρωμη μη καυχω)
115 Exercise (religious) silence (Ευφημιαν ασκει)
116 Flee enmity (Απεχθειαν φευγε)
117 Acquire wealth justly (Πλουτει δικιως)
118 Do not abandon honor (Δοξαν μη λειπε)
119 Despise evil (Κακιαν μισει)
120 Venture into danger prudently (Κινδυνευε φρονιμως)
121 Do not tire of learning (Μανθανων μη καμνε)
122 Do not stop to be thrifty (Φειδομενος μη λειπε)
123 Admire oracles (Χρησμους θαυμαζε)
124 Love whom you rear (Ους τρεφεις αγαπα)
125 Do not oppose someone absent (Αποντι μη μαχου)
126 Respect the elder (Πρεσβυτερον αιδου)
127 Teach a youngster (Νεωτερον διδασκε)
128 Do not trust wealth (Πλουτω απιστει)
129 Respect yourself (Σεαυτον αιδου)
130 Do not begin to be insolent (Μη αρχε υβριζειν)
131 Crown your ancestors (Προγονους στεφανου)
132 Die for your country (Θνησκε υπερ πατριδος)
133 Do not be discontented by life (Τω βιω μη αχθου)
134 Do not make fun of the dead (Επι νεκρω μη γελα)
135 Share the load of the unfortunate (Ατυχουντι συναχθου)
136 Gratify without harming (Χαριζου αβλαβως)
137 Greave for no one (Μη επι παντι λυπου)
138 Beget rom noble routes (Εξ ευγενων γεννα)
139 Make promises to no one (Επαγγελου μηδενι)
140 Do not wrong the dead (Φθιμενους μη αδικει)
141 Be well off as a mortal (Ευ πασχε ως θνητος)
142 Do not trust fortune (Τυχη μη πιστευε)
143 As a child be well-behaved (Παις ων κοσμιος ισθι)
144 as a youth – self-disciplined (ηβων εγκρατης)
145 as of middle-age – just (μεσος δικαιος)
146 as an old man – sensible (πρεσβυτης ευλογος)
147 on reaching the end – without sorrow (τελευτων αλυπος
In the course of our travels we have often witnessed various forms of risk taking behaviors. Stunts on motorcycles rocketing down the road, aggressive driving in other forms, and folks dangling their feet over the edges of cliffs are just a few examples. Most of these risk takers are under 40 years old. Folks in my age group (post-60) tend to be a bit more cautious and circumspect of their mortality.
In the last 3 months 7 of my friends and professional colleagues have died. 5 from illness, one the victim of a tragic accident, and this last week one the victim of suicide.
It was not so many years ago that encountering death among friends and acquaintances was rare. These days I am becoming increasingly aware that the odds in the lottery of life are slowly shifting against me and in favor of “the house”. My Mother recently remarked that Christine and I are blessed to have so many friends both near and far (we agree!). In the same breath she sadly noted that all of her long time friends are “gone”. Two weeks ago we celebrated both my father-in-law’s 100th birthday and our newest grandchild’s first birthday. One of the few things that those bookends of life share in common is that while they are both loved, they have few friendships. Little Lennon is too young to have yet made friends in this life, while Bill has outlived most of his. Lennon and Bill are at opposite ends of the Bell Cure of Life and Death. In our 60’s, Christine and I are approaching the peak of the curve. At age 84 statistics say that a flip of the coin has the same odds as whether we will be alive or not.
None of this is morbid or depressing to me. It is reality and much of the reason that I so passionately pursue travel. A judge once remarked to me that “Lawyers don’t retire… they just die at their desks.” There is some truth to that, although I know a few who are the exceptions and I long ago determined to be among those who would retire.
To you who are closer to my age I offer, don’t put off until tomorrow the things that you may find you are then unable to do. To you who are much younger I pray you will see your careers as a means to an end and not an end in itself. Have Fun, Do Good (as in both your best, and what is right), and Be Safe for the sake of those who love you. And finally to the few of you who silently despair of life each day, please share your secret with someone and be open to help.
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is a suicide magnet. In 2013 there were 46 who jumped to their death… in the preceding years it is estimated that over 1,600 have jumped with a 98% certainty that they would not survive. I read of a study where the author interviewed a number of those few who did survive. The thought that they uniformly held in common is that at the moment they let go of the bridge they regretted the decision.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. My friend Mark ended his life this last week. He was a brilliant scientist, a gifted athlete, and an incredibly caring and generous man. I count myself among the many who wonder why and wish that I could have intervened.
Have I said how much we like Canada? I have fond recollections of visiting as a child with my parents, our small camping trailer in tow behind a 1958 Buick. I have fond recollections of tent camping in Canada with our children in the early 1980’s. Before we entered at Thunder Bay I tuned the radio to a French Canadian radio station and told the children that upon entering Canada we must drink Canadian water in order to “understand Canadian”. At the tourist information office we entered and I immediately shuffled them off to a drinking fountain. After they had each had some “Canadian water” we approached the information counter and I asked the young attendant if she would say something to our children. She asked, “What do you want me to say?!?” The children exclaimed in a virtual chorus, “Dad, WE UNDERSTAND CANADIANS!!!” (I only wish our President did)
In those days all that was necessary to cross between the United States and Canada was a driver’s license and a smile. Unfortunately, the current political climate has made it a bit more stressful for Americans to both leave and return to the United States from Canada. It should come as no surprise that treating a best friend with mistrust will engender a reciprocal response. It is the same with nations.
Canada shares the longest international border in the world with the US. We share language and culture… We share the same aspirations for democracy, freedom, and the preservation of human rights. We have fought side by side in two World Wars, Korea, and Iraq. Canada is our number one trading partner. Christine and I support our friendship with this good nation and its people.
On July 1, 2017 we were in Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory, for the National Canada Day Celebration. It was also the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. It was a memorable day for us as we witnessed ceremonies that celebrated not only Canada’s founding, but the heritage of the First Nation Peoples, the admission to citizenship of 55 people from over 15 different countries, and the expressions of inclusion for all Canadians regardless of prior national origin, religion, gender, race or sexual orientation.
We arrived today in Ottawa, this nation’s capital, where our friends Tom and Nanci are treating us to the hospitality of their home. We joined with them this evening for a spectacular multi-media presentation on Parliament Hill. In words (English and French) and laser images projected upon the Parliament building. A “Cliff Notes” recitation of Canada’s history played out to the delight of hundreds of spectators. As citizens of the United States Christine and I were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our Canadian friends as the strains of “Oh Canada” concluded the festivities.
Peace Everyone. Pete
Canada’s Eternal Flame.
The buildings that comprise Parliament Hill, the first being Parliament.
The offices of the Prime Minister.
Selected images from the multi-media presentation.
In the interest of full disclosure, this is not a “travel post”. In my work and education I have been associated with the American Justice System for nearly 50 years. I am a fan of the Justice System, and I firmly believe that the system as a whole and those who dedicate themselves to working within it are honorable servants of society. However, as a creation of humans, administered by humans, it is imperfect… strive as it/they might to achieve perfection.
I recently reconnected with a former client who I represented as an attorney over 30 years ago. “Dana” (not her real name) came to me after her children had been taken into custody by Child Services. I represented her in the proceedings to place her children under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court. I was empathetic to her situation and although I believed her to be much a victim of her own history and circumstances it was clear that intervention for the benefit of her and her children was appropriate.
The Court took jurisdiction in a largely uncontested action. Dana and I saw this as an opportunity to secure services for her, the children, and to extricate all of them from the abusive shadow of her husband. The avowed intention of the Juvenile system is reunification if such can be accomplished in the best interests of the children. In this regard a Parent Service Agreement is crafted that is intended to give clear guidance to the parent of what she must accomplish to achieve reunification. In “Dana’s” case, the husband was and would be no longer in the picture.
Dana actively pursued compliance with the Service Agreement. However, with each achievement the “finish line” seemed to move. It appeared this way to both Dana and to me. Our suspicion grew that the caseworkers had pre-ordained the case for Termination of Parental Rights. This is the equivalent of the death penalty for a parent. The irreversible termination of a parent’s relationship with her/his children. The children could then be legally adopted by another family and the natural parent would become less than a memory.
The caseworkers repeatedly found minor faults with Dana’s performance. I found the complaints to be disingenuous. Ultimately I was informed that the workers believed that her acceptance of responsibility was inadequate… her “acts of contrition” were insufficient. Dana’s energy had long been exhausted by the abuse that she had both witnessed and suffered. She was unable to continue. Dana instructed me to inform the workers and the Court that she would accept the termination of her rights as a parent.
I learned in my first undergraduate Survey of American Justice class that there are 5 main purposes for the imposition of punishment:
4. Incapacitation (elimination of further threat), and
These are stated in no particular order, but it seems to me that rehabilitation, restitution, and deterrence are the most noble while retribution is the least principled.
There were many outcomes in the course of my 3 year career as a Probation/Parole office and nearly 40 year career as an Attorney that I disagreed with, but only a few that I felt were fundamentally wrong. Dana’s was one of the latter. With the removal of her children came the removal of services for her. In my recent meeting with Dana I learned of the results for her and also for the children who she reconnected with in later years. There was no benefit for any of them.
As a society we like our news stories, novels and movies to have clean discernible endings… the good guys are distinct from the bad guys. Perhaps for some in the Justice System clean and discernible conclusions are valued as well. There are occasions that the System makes a determination that is clear on its face, but the distinctions between the good guys and the bad ones are less well defined. “Acceptance of Responsibility” and “Sufficient Contrition” are not a substitute for the purposes of punishment outlined above. The Innocence Project has proven time and again that a legally convicted defendant is not always “the bad guy”.
Yesterday I mentioned my challenges with relaxation and solitude. That remark drew thoughtful comments from good friends. Before I delve further into that… first about today.
Within a radius of 5 miles my bicycle carried me to a number of remarkable (and memorable) sights. The Stockton Dam, constructed in 1963, featured a state of the art hydroelectric turbine. The original turbine now stands on display. In 2009 one of its huge blades failed, breaking off from the unit and then discharged into the lake. It was retrieved, welded back in place, and the turbine was restored to service in 2010. However, the handwriting was on the wall and a new more efficient turbine was installed in 2013.
Near the sight of the turbine monument are huge rock cores that were excavated at the time of the dam’s construction. These cores provided engineers with valuable information regarding the stability of the underlying strata to support the dam structure. Moreover, the cores gave geologists a remarkable window into Earth’s past. The cores exposed layers of rock that date back 450 million years, a time before vascular plants and vertebrate life forms existed. The cores could not only be examined on the surface, but the holes that the cores left were large enough in diameter to allow geologists to descend the 200 foot depth and closely examine the strata in-situ.
Perhaps the most unexpected encounter on my exploration was a small out of the way cemetery founded by Issac Lyons Hembree (1796-1865). He had settled 1600 acres of Missouri wilderness in 1852 and determined to be buried in a place where he could watch over the work in his fields below. His gravestone is weather worn, but a bronze emblem gives testament to his service in the War of 1812. Other monuments to his descendants speak to service in the “Indian Wars”, and most poignantly to the service of Thomas Wilson Hembree, USN, who died on December 7th, 1941… “a date which will live in infamy”.
I had the good fortune at camp to meet Katherine, a retired educator originally from Kansas City. She and her partner moved to Stockton Lake, attracted to the natural beauty of the area and the favorable cost of living. Initially there was some concern whether they would find acceptance in the rural society. Those concerns were quickly forgotten as they not only were embraced by their neighbors, but Katherine’s partner was elected Mayor of their town.
Katherine introduced me to her neighbor Craig, a 59 year old retired hydrologist. Craig found a new passion in retirement, hand building wooden boats. He brought to camp a kayak and a gaff-rigged catboat. They are both sea-worthy works of art. Tomorrow, weather willing, Craig and I are going to sail the catboat together.
Back to my starting reflection: My friend of 50 years, Maxine, suggested that I sit beneath a large tree and with the aid of a magnifying glass (or bifocals) engross myself with the close examination of the wonders to be found in a square foot of the ground. She touts this as a meditative exercise to embrace both solitude and relaxation. I intend to take her up on this suggestion. However, my first impulse was the thought of what others might think of a 66 year old white haired guy playing detective with blades of grass. Mind you, as an adult I have hugged trees in order to “feel” the life of those stately creatures… I have laid upon the grass to contemplate the endless universe above and the 8,000 miles beneath that separates me from those on the other side of the world. In these and other similar actions I have found a tension between my proper “adult self”, and the childlike wonder that occasionally motivates me.
Childlike wonder reveals what adult propriety suppresses. We knowingly smile at a child’s play with imaginary friends. We gently discourage a child’s “overactive” imagination… and eventually we drive that free spirit into compliance with the norms that we ourselves were taught to observe as the price of our adulthood. What if the unfettered imaginations of a child or an adult nearing the end of life, are able to perceive what we have become blind to? “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” (attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche among others)
Today was a journey not measured in distance but certainly as experienced in its depth.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS. Perhaps tomorrow will be about “The Next Thing”.
Evelyn Evans taught high school English and more importantly she taught life. She took the time to give me and other of her students a glimpse into the potential that she saw within us. Another of my high school teachers once took me aside and expressed his opinion that I might be better served in pursuing a “technical education” … college was probably not a prudent option for me. Mrs. Evans looked beyond my struggles with spelling, penmanship, and adolescence to express a different opinion. There are only two assignment artifacts that I have retained from those days, not because of the content of my classwork but because of the content of Mrs. Evans’ written comments to me. Her words mattered and it is not hyperbole for me to express that they may have changed the course of my life.
Each of us has the potential to give the gift of “words that matter” to either encourage or discourage. Be mindful in the exercise of such an awesome responsibility.
Peace Everyone, Pete
PS: There was also Mr. Robert Dreher. He was a successful attorney in Carbondale Illinois who taught a “Survey of the Law” general education course at Southern Illinois University. On the first day of class he confidently strode to the front of the auditorium and announced to the assembly of over 100 students, “I’m Robert Dreher, I’m a LAWYER… you may call me Mr. Dreher or Professor Dreher. You may NOT call me Doctor Dreher… because I’m a LAWYER.” Mr. Dreher, though short and portly, wore his three-piece suit with the strength and dignity of a medieval knight in armor. The large cigars that protruded from his vest pocket were like a coat of arms.
At mid-term, we were required to submit an essay to him. The day that the papers were to be returned to us Mr. Dreher began his lecture by first asking, “Is Peter Schloss here?” (we had never spoken). I raised my hand and he then asked me to see him after class. My heart was in my throat for the next 50 minutes. After class I walked up to him and asked, “Professor, you wanted to see me?” He looked me in the eye for a moment longer than was comfortable and asked, “Have you ever thought about becoming a lawyer?” “No sir”, I replied… To which he responded, “You should”. That was the extent of the “conversation”. Words that matter.