Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Holy Squirrel

We live in a condominium complex. These small “villas” are one story four-plexes and there are hundreds of them. When we were looking at them last July as a possible place to retire, I noticed that in the center and above the middle window of each four-plex was a small altar. On most of the altars were single statues. The most popular of these by far was St. Francis. There were also statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and some male Saints whose identities I have yet to figure out.
In 2002 Katie and I traveled to Italy and France for 2 weeks and one of our stops was Assisi, where St. Francis lived and died. It was in late March and our experience in this ancient town was magical. It hangs on the side of a mountain overlooking the Umbrian valley. We found lodging in a who knows how many year old hotel made of stone blocks. As we walked the streets, we saw evidence of the Greeks, the Romans and thousands of years of Italian history. There were huge ornate churches everywhere. The day was sunny and warm and the sky dark blue with clouds above and suspended across the valley below.

After returning to our hotel room, a storm blew in and it started to snow. We sat and watched the landscape transform.Within minutes the big wet flakes covered the tables and chairs of the hotel courtyard and the orchards turned white. For a brief period we felt transformed along with our surroundings. Surely St. Francis had a hand in this.
His tomb lies in a grotto under a big church built on top of a smaller one which was built two years after his death in 1228. We spent some time silently sitting in seats facing the large casket containing his remains. You can walk all the way around the casket and in the surrounding walls are buried St. Francis’s beloved monk friends. We were told that since his death, there has been an unending stream of pilgrims to this place. We learned a little about his life--his dedication to living simply, his vow of poverty and his love of animals and the environment. The experience was one of the highlights of our trip and even though we are not Catholics, we both felt a special closeness to this simple monk who lived what he believed.
So walking around the condo complex looking at the apartments for sale with our realtor, I was hoping we would find one with a statue of St. Francis above it. When we finally agreed on the one that satisfied all of our requirements, I expectantly looked up at the alter on the outside of the building. But there was no St. Francis to watch over us or for that matter there was no saintly figure at all. What was perched on the altar above our new home was a statue of a squirrel eating a nut. My sister often has squirrels above her home too. Every year they get into her gutter making a big mess and a lot of noise. They clamber all over her roof and she has to call the pest control people to get rid of them. Some of the statues of St. Francis I’ve seen depict him with animals on or around him. Mostly they are birds, but I may have seen a rodent or two. So Katie and I decided to dub our statue “The Holy Squirrel” and assume it is dutifully doing the work of St. Francis and watching over our building. The little critter does however seem awfully preoccupied with that nut.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Great Divide

We had dessert and coffee with some of our neighbors the other day. There were three couples including us. I am always somewhat hesitant to participate in get-togethers like this because most of the time, after it is over, I feel bad about something I said or something I didn’t say or something someone else said or didn‘t say. This particular get-together proved to be no exception. The conversation was rolling along nicely when one of the men made a sarcastic remark about global warming. Then he and his wife began telling us about a lecture they went to on the book of Genesis. They made sure that we understood that this lecturer was an extremely smart man and he basically set the record straight by saying the earth goes through cycles and what the liberals are calling global warming is just another one of the natural cycles. The liberals however want us to believe that man is causing global warming. The other couple and Katie and I just sat there quietly listening. Then our fellow neighbor launched into a joke in which Al Gore was about to become the punch line. Not wanting our tea party to turn into a "Tea Party", I couldn‘t keep quiet any longer. Somehow I managed just enough control to say, “Be careful now, you’re sitting next to a couple of liberals.” This stopped him in mid-joke. After a few moments of deathly silence he said “I don’t know how you people can believe all that crap.” I asked him, “So you don’t think there’s any validity to green house gases and their effect on the earth?” He then told us about a lake in Russia that puts out the majority of green house gases and he said there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. “It‘s nature's way.” I don't really know the science behind global warming but I did see "An Inconvenient Truth" and the correlation between man made pollution and the warming of the earth was very convincing. My neighbor was obviously suspect of anything Al Gore had to say and probably for that matter anything a majority of scientists agree on. The women began talking about knitting which allowed time for me and this guy to regain our composure. We never revisited the subject, but like many times before I had come up against the "great divide". The woman in the other couple who had been sitting quietly through it all leaned over and whispered to Katie, “We’re liberals too.” Early on I had noticed her husband's Birkenstocks which was a give away.
Recently several Democratic Congressmen quit because of this "great divide" our country is experiencing but this is not a new phenomenon. In June of 1860 shortly after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, Samuel Wilberforce, the bishop of Oxford, had a debate with Thomas S. Huxley, Aldous’s grandfather, who was a supporter of Darwin. Wilberforce asked Huxley if he claimed to be a descendant of a monkey on his grandmother's or his grandfather’s side. Huxley replied that he would rather be a descendant of an ape than a man like Wilberforce who used his great talents to obscure the truth. A more recent example is an early Saturday Night Live skit where Dan Akroyd and Jane Curtin are doing a parody of a popular TV news program called Point Counter Point. This show pit a conservative against a liberal talking about various issues and the debate often became quite heated. If you remember, after Jane Curtin presented her views on a topic, Dan Akroyd opened his remarks by saying “Jane, you ignorant slut.” If my neighbor had started quoting the Bible as if it were accurate history or science, I don't think I could have contained myself and a similar derogatory comment would have erupted from my mouth. But he didn't and the cunning wisdom of the women saved the day. It’s strange because these are nice people and we like them as neighbors. They are thoughtful and helpful and I believe they could say the same thing about us. When I figure out a way to calmly talk about politcal issues with them without wanting to put my fingers around their throats, I’m going to write to Obama. He really could use some help right now.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Desert Dwellers

One thing I liked about the Army was the functional clothing. I wore my fatigue jacket for years after I got out. It had big pockets, a zip-in liner and a draw string to tighten it at the bottom. I also liked the jungle fatigues, which are very similar to the cargo pants I wear to this day. The jungle boots were comfortable, breathed well, and had good grip on the soles. And in the Army, you always wore some kind of head cover. When I moved to Oregon in 1970, I was pleased to find that functional clothing was in. It seemed everyone was involved in outdoor activities like hiking, biking, mountain climbing, and skiing, and wore outdoor clothing everywhere at anytime. I felt protected and in harmony with my environment by wearing functional clothing. We now live in the Sonoran Desert, which is lush and alive with all sorts of plants and animals. The sun is intense and relentless. I notice some of the retirees here are adapting to the desert climate. The other day I saw an older woman wearing a huge cowboy hat. I ran into her again in the hardware store. She was looking at paint samples and the big hat rested comfortably on her back held by a string that was attractively gathered in front by a turquoise bolo. I thought "very cool--this person has transformed into a desert dweller". Most of the retirees, especially of the snowbird variety, appear to be more of your summertime barbecue, drinks- on-the-patio type of dweller. Their time down here is like a long summer vacation. Too many of them don't protect themselves from the sun. When they go to social functions, especially church, fashion trumps function every time. They stand outside, after the function, and there isn't a piece of functional clothing within miles. By contrast, the people we meet on the hiking trails have adapted to this climate by wearing hats, sunglasses and light protective clothing. Maybe that's the difference, those who venture out into the desert and those who don't. I am still adapting to our new desert home and striving to become one of the desert dwellers.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Peace on earth

They're having big snow storms in the midwest and on the east coast. Storms blow through Green Valley as rain storms. They don't last more than a day of two. It could rain hard all day, but then hours later there's barely a trace of water. The desert just sucks it up like there's a big underground vacuum cleaner (a worry which might be a later blog topic). Most people here are pretty smug about being out of the harsh weather up north. I feel a slight twinge of longing for the snow. I'm sure it goes back to my childhood in Missouri. As a kid, big snows meant no school. But I don't think the longing is only related to that. I remember the stillness in the early morning light, a light like no other, soft yet bright. And a quiet that stretched out over the land, not unlike the quiet experienced in the desert. It was momentary peace on earth. This is the 3rd day the government is shut down because of the snow in Washington DC. I hope our government officials are taking some time to tune in to nature's blanket of peace.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Life of a Writer

I retired last October and sometimes I feel like this has been one long weekend. I get up in the morning when I want to. I put on my sweats, make some tea and then read for as long as I feel like. So far so good. The day stretches out before me and I usually have no idea what I’m going to do. There are the daily chores like cleaning and laundry and sometimes we need to go shopping. I can take a swim or go to the recreation center and work out. Maybe read some more in the afternoon and take a nap. The problem is, it’s going to be one hell of a long weekend. Shouldn’t I be doing something else, something more meaningful, perhaps?
Throughout my life, the weekends have been respite and recovery from the week. I guess I could make the case that retirement is rest and recovery from a life time of doing what others wanted me to do. I started school at age 5 and since that time I’ve either been in school, been in the Army or have been working. So now at the age of 62 I can do pretty much whatever I want. But after all the doing for others, much of the time I don’t know what I want. Well, here’s what I’ve figured out so far, “Make your best guess and then go for it.”
I’ve dreamed of being a writer for many years. I used to imagine myself traveling the world as a merchant seaman like Joseph Conrad or Jack London. Working on the ship all day and at night when the others are drinking and playing cards, I’d be lying on my bunk writing novels. Or like Aldous Huxley or Herman Hesse, going to my villa in the mountains of Italy, writing all morning and then strolling down into the village for a drink, maybe visit with the locals. I could give many more examples of the romance of the writers life because I have read about many great authors. But what I’ve discovered is I want to live like a famous author, I just don’t want to have to write.
One of my elderly clients was a writer and a filmmaker of some success. I often talked to him about writing and my struggles with it. One day he asked me, “Do you know what the definition of a writer is?” I thought I knew the answer, but played into his little game. “No what?” He answered, “It’s a person who writes.” Yogi Berra couldn’t have said it any better. Sometimes the truth is very simple and at the same time very profound.
So one of the activities of meaning I am going to engage in during this long weekend is writing. Not for fame or fortune, but so that I can honestly answer the question “What do you do?” with the response, “I’m a writer.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Hiking with the old men

I went on a hike with one of our neighbors and two of his friends the other day. I had no idea where we were going, but I was happy to be invited along. All 3 guys were older than me. I know my neighbor Dave is 70, because he told me and the other two guys were about the same age. Gary drove and I sat in back with Bob. We started heading out toward Madera canyon, which I am beginning to know pretty well because Katie and I have hiked there half a dozen times. But Gary turned off the main road onto a dirt road before getting to the canyon and we headed up into the mountains. The dirt road wasn’t too bad, but after winding and climbing for about 30 minutes, Dave said, “Why don’t you turn up here.” Gary swung the four wheel drive extended cab truck up a worse road and we bounced up and down for about ten more minutes until one of them spotted a cave on the hillside. “Let’s go see what that cave is like.”
Now it was becoming apparent to me that they hadn’t planned this hike out at all. I’m used to hikes where first we decide where we want to go, then we choose a trail of a certain length and difficulty, and then follow that trail just like we’d planned. These guys were just riding around until they spotted somewhere that looked interesting to them. I was happy to see that they all had small back packs and walking sticks. This showed a little bit of planning on their part anyway. I had only used a walking stick one time before on a hike and that was when we went down into the Grand Canyon. I found it helpful on the loose shale, but basically it was a nuisance to carry it around. I didn’t bring one, so one of the guys lent me an extra he had. I didn’t feel I needed it, but didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “These older guys need these “crutches” to help them along.” I thought. (You no what’s coming don’t you.?)
Well, we took off toward the cave. We walked along the road before starting up the mountain. The three of them were slowly walking along talking and telling stories. Every once in a while they would stop when the story got to a critical point and all laugh while I waited up ahead thinking, “This is going to be a long slow hike, I might as well just enjoy being out in nature.” I assumed they were actually stopping because they needed an excuse to catch their breath. As soon as we started up the hill toward the cave, however, it all changed. Dave and Gary took off up the hill and Bob and I followed. There was sort of a deer trail to follow to the mouth of the cave. When we got to it, we stood around examining it for a while. They decided it was created by water coming through from underground. As we stood looking out over the valley, I thought that was it and they didn’t know where else to hike, so I suggested going back down and walking up the road for a while. Nobody responded and I heard Dave call out from above us, “Don’t come around the way I did, it’s better to go down there.” and he pointed below us. “and then come up and around.” Gary and Bob didn’t take his advise, but scurried along the edge of the ridge which had a nasty drop off with loose rock all the way. I took Dave’s advise and went down and around. I watched the other two guys as they skillfully used their walking sticks, carefully negotiated the ridge.
There were no trails up the mountain, so we all fanned out finding our way up the very large hill. We were probably a mile high at this point and going straight up was not an option. The hillside was steep and rocky and filled with plants that could hurt you. There were thorny plants like Ochoteo and Prickly Pear cactus, and Agave’s with there sharp pointed ends and many other nasty plants that I don’t know the names of. I soon realized that I had to be very careful and really look at the hill as a whole and the array of plants before heading forward. Dave and Gary were up ahead of Bob and I. After a while Bob said his calf was hurting so he sat down and told me to go on. I thought, “Now I can really make good time and catch up to the others.” But I soon found myself in the middle of a grove of Ochoteos and the only way forward without getting ripped to shreds was to go back down a ways and around these nasty, aggressive plants. By now I see the other two going over the crest of the hill. I trudge on with the help of the walking stick as both protect from the spinney branches and an aid to keep my balance on the rocky parts. I carefully winded my way back and forth up the hill. The journey up took every bit of my concentration and physical awareness. I had to repeatedly stop, study the mountain and the terrain just ahead of me and re-decide how to proceed. I remember thinking, I haven’t done this type of hiking since I was kid and a sense of exhilaration came over me.. When I finally reached the summit that feeling must have still been on my face because as Dave watched me approach he stopped talking to Gary and said to me, “You get it don’t you?” I replied, “Yeah, I get it.”
The view was beautiful out across the valley. The sky was a deep blue with big fluffy clouds. On the way down I got stuck again and had to go back up retracing my steps. I thought I knew a better way down, but I had placed myself between a steep cliff and very thick foliage. I slipped on the rocks and fell, cutting my wrist. I tied a bandana around it to stop the bleeding. I noticed Dave farther down the hill watching me. He didn’t continue his descent until I was up and going again. When I finally got down to the road, Dave was waiting. We both spontaneously dropped our pants and began pulling out hundreds of little cactus spines from our legs. His only comment was, “That sure was a nasty son of a bitch.” and we both laughed.
On the drive home Gary stopped the truck periodically to point out the various mountains they had climbed together on earlier hikes. I realized these guys really new these hills. They didn’t need a map. When Dave and Gary were on the summit Dave must have suggested that we go on to the next summit and Gary probably said no that was enough. Even though Gary was the first to the top and the first one down, on the drive home Dave teased him relentlessly. In a very whiney voice he said things like, “I don’t want to go anymore. I want to go down.” “Where’s Bob?” We better go back and see where Bob is?” “For Christ sake, it’s like hiking with a little girl.” The more Dave teased him the louder Gary laughed. Nobody teased me. I guess when that finally happens I’ll know I’m part of the group.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A burglar in the night

I haven't slept well at night since I was a kid. The exception being the three years I was in the Army. That's a hard one to figure out because I didn't have a room of my own and slept in a bay with many other soldiers. In Vietnam there were nights on guard duty or when we were under attack that sleep couldn't happen. In fact I'm sure that's a big part of my current sleep problems. But that's for another blog entry. I've had sleep problems throughout my life. I thought that might change when I retired, but it hasn't. The nights remain a time of unease and worry. The other night I again was up for several hours. After I finally returned to bed and had just fallen back to sleep, I heard Katie say, "What was that?" My heart jumped into high speed. I heard something too, scrape, crash, bang! I racked my brain to think of what kind of heavy object I could get my hands on to protect us. We both stayed still and listened. There was definitely someone outside. It sounded like he was on our neighbor's patio. We continued to listen and the crashing and rustling stopped. A new sound emerged. It sounded like crunching. We jumped up and shined a flashlight onto the neighbor's patio. There was a javelina helping itself to something. It sounded like it was eating plastic because of the loud popping and cracking. I have no idea what javelinas eat and assummed they might be like goats and eat anything. "Is it eating their patio furniture?" I whispered. Then Katie remembered that our neighbors had recently gone out to pick pecans. We scanned the area with the light and exposed the thief as he munched away on a box of pecans he had dragged off a shelf. He didn't seem to mind the bright light in his face, he just squinted and went on "pigging out". We knew the pecans were hard earned, so we thought we should do something to make him leave. "Should we throw a rock at him or something?" Katie asked, but the pig-like beast looked too happy to disturb. We went back to bed but couldn't go to sleep with the loud munching going on. Our cat jumped off the bed and went into the kitchen to grab a bite of his kitty food. I guess the crunching made him hungry. So for awhile we had munching in stereo. Well, Katie started laughing and that got me laughing too. Finally she said, "I've got to get a picture of this" and grabbed the camera. I had recently loaned it to our 9 year old grandson and it was in a mode that neither of us recognized, so we turned the light on, found my eyeglasses, looked for the camera instruction book, but this is topic for another time. We succeeded in getting the camera back to a familiar mode and went out again to capture the crime on film (or whatever you call digital pictures). I had the thought, "Now I'd like to get a picture of our neighbor when he discovers his pecans have all been eaten." Finally it got quiet again and I felt totally relaxed. We both drifted off into a deep, peaceful sleep.