A Chance Meeting on a Train

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The chance meetings or random coincidences always intrigue me. I’m travelling cross country by train and I‘ve met two writers already just as table-mates in the dining car. One, age nineteen, has two published books (what was I doing with my time at nineteen?). The other is a ghost writer and mostly now does short stories. The nineteen-year-old just started a university writing program so, who knows, she may never write again – or maybe be a great success. I knew her when…

I had lunch in the dining car yesterday with a lady from the island of Hawaii travelling to St. Louis, which happens to be my destination. As we talked, she shared some of her experiences of moving to Hawaii and what her immediate surroundings were like…plants and animals. There was also another lady sitting at a table across the aisle who was glancing over from time to time. It turned out that she also was also from the “Big Island” and they were, in fact, near neighbors. They lived in adjoining communities. So what are the odds of two people starting off on separate journeys from the same general place at different times and meeting in a dining car in New Mexico on an east-bound train? How many different things had to fall into place for that to happen? I suppose someone could figure out the odds with enough information but I’ve learned just to accept it.  Maybe a butterfly in Tibet flapped its wings and things fell into place. Maybe not.

My life is full of similar random coincidences that defy explanation. My late wife’s birthdate matches exactly with my brother’s wife’s birthdate…same day and year. They were born in the same state but not the same city. Also, totally unknown until later, my wife once worked for my sister-in-law’s mother when she was starting her career before I met her.

About a twenty years into my work life I was living in a small town and employed in government as a program manager. I had to hire a new secretary so I interviewed maybe a half dozen candidates. I hired a local woman from the small town and never really thought much about her background or family. In small towns one doesn’t pry into family connections unless the topic is initiated by the other person. My experience was that many people were related to each other either directly or by marriage and it was best not to express opinions or comments about someone. Now, realize that I was born and raised 150 miles away and had no prior connection to this town. That is what I thought until a chance conversation with my secretary revealed that we were both cousins to the same person. Somehow one of my cousins married her cousin and we were commonly related to their children. It was a second marriage for both of these cousins; both being divorced in different localities.

I also have two insurance agents, both living in that same small town that I moved to at age 27, and both of these agents share my birthday. One is exactly the same — day and year – and the other a few years later. They don’t know each other and work for different companies. There are other date-related coincidences: my dad died ten years, to the hour, before the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. I could list almost a dozen other odd, seemingly random occurrences but you get the idea.

I was recently reading a short passage from Tolstoy’s War and Peace in which he questions how things happen. Often we see things as planned and managed by a talented leader (in this case, Napoleon) but maybe that is an illusion. Maybe things are set in motion in another way. Maybe a peculiar string of random events led Napoleon to Moscow with a huge army. Maybe he was just along for the ride. We plan things and sometimes the plans work out and sometimes they don’t. “Serendipity” is one English language concept – to find something good by accident without seeking it. In history, one person’s serendipity is sometimes another person’s catastrophe. I suspect that concept is not unique to English speakers.

At any rate, things have an odd tendency to fall into place in ways that, while seemingly random, also give a hint that something else is in control. My daughter says that it is the angels at work. She got that idea from my wife who attributed certain happenings to an unseen hand…”Let it be – marvel but don’t question” was her philosophy. Maybe so. Maybe the angels are bored and play these games to keep busy.

Carl Gustave Jung, a clergyman’s son and prominent psychoanalyst, was also intrigued by these chance happenings and devised the concept of synchronicity. To his way of thinking, events do not need to have a causal relationship to have meaning — perhaps meaning eclipses cause? Out of all of these events that I’ve mentioned above, or others I haven’t described, or those others have experienced, none of them really had much of an impact. I didn’t change my behavior or plans in response to the events and it made no difference to other people whose lives intersected in the events. It is just a curiosity, sometimes with meaning to the observer, sometimes there is no meaning. Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. Other than that one fact, there really isn’t anything else to say except that they both went on to change the course of history.

For a number of years, beginning in 1975, my wife and I would take a week-long vacation each year…maybe longer some years. The dates of our vacation coincided with a number of major events including the stock market crash, the death of Princess Diana, the death of John F. Kennedy Jr., the assassination of Anwar Sadat, disappearance (and death) of Jimmy Hoffa,  various plane crashes, coups  and military invasions. We would occasionally joke about the CIA or FBI wanting to track our movements — something big was going to happen if we took a vacation. We still took our vacation and we were finally able to shake off the “curse” about fifteen years ago. Nothing would happen when we went on a trip. It was sort of a let down…we didn’t have any special powers after all.

(Revised from the original posted at The Green Room, August, 2016)

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Reflecting on my Aunt Vivian

This is Mother’s Day, not Aunt’s Day…but I decided to take a minute or two to reflect on my mom’s sister, Vivian, who had no children of her own but was part owner of all of her nieces and nephews. We all owe her a nod of remembrance now and then because she was a big part of our lives.

When she passed away at the age of 85 several of the nieces and nephews came together to help clean out her house…a formidable task since this was the family homestead, such as it was. Aunt Vivian was an artist and many of the prize possessions that we took home with us on that day were some of her paintings and a few other family heirlooms. I, being sort of the unofficial family historian, also took some of her papers and a few old and faded cards and letters that she felt a need to keep these many years.

One of the items I found later in her papers was a quotation that she took great pains to copy out in her own distinctive artist’s block printing that we all recognized as her handwriting. This quotation clearly established her philosophy and her self-proclaimed mission in life regarding her nieces and nephews. The quotation is the best way of describing who she was:

There was usually, somewhere a now almost forgotten maiden aunt who furnished the extra ammunition needed for winning the decisive battle on some early day in an obscure, eager, young person’s life…. The good aunt always gives to nieces and nephews the something extra, the something unexpected, the something which comes from outside the limits of their habitual world… She is the joker in the pack of cards which, placed here or placed there, can change the whole aspect of the game. She belongs to to nobody and to everybody. She belongs now to one child, now to another and the one whose turn it is to draw her wins. This is the kind of aunt I rather hoped that I might be. I wanted to join the long line of the famous aunts of history: those individuals, sparkling and free, who left such treasures behind them — Jane Austen, Kate Greenaway, Louisa Alcott, Emily Dickenson, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Chief of our aunts — and Samuel Butler’s Aunt Pontifex in the Way of All Flesh — aunts whose excellence in the role of aunthood is so richly shown in their lives and letters.        

         by Katherine Butler Hathaway

 

I scanned her hand-written version:

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So here’s to Aunt Viv — may she live long in our memories.

Footnote:  My Aunt was a person of many talents besides being an artist. One of these was dressmaking and she owned her own dressmaking shop and designed dresses for her customers. She was also the wardrobe mistress for the Goldenrod Showboat that was moored at the Mississippi River levee in St. Louis. She made and altered the actors’ costumes and worked on scenery. Bob Hope and Red Skelton were among the actors on the Goldenrod during the early years. The Goldenrod was the inspiration for Edna Ferber’s book and the later Broadway musical  Show Boat. She was also a member of The Mummers, a theatrical group in St. Louis that included Tennessee Williams. The Mummers were the first to perform some of his plays. In spite of his later fame, my Aunt’s opinion of Tennessee Williams was not very complementary.

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A Selfie, c. 1940s

The Secret of Life

About forty years ago (can that be right?) I was on a business trip with a few coworkers. We were a team of government auditors and we had a circuit of places we had to visit once every two years. Most of these places were one-horse towns —  county seats with almost nothing to do in our few hours of nightly down time other than find a spot where we could get a few cold beers and maybe a hamburger.  College towns had a bigger selection of places to sit and relax and on this one occasion we were sitting in a cavernous beer hall frequented by the local college crowd. The place was much bigger than the number of people that came through the door and it almost seemed like a converted airplane hangar. There were four of us sitting and talking and having a few beers. The conversation turned quite serious for twenty-somethings and before long we were debating the merits of all sorts of life choices. We were all substantially educated but had a diverse background and perspective: one Ivy-leaguer, one woman, one African-American, two married, two single. The discussions went long into the night and when we were through we were certain that we had discovered the secret of life. We went home with the happy knowledge that we had figured it out.

The next day we couldn’t remember — or couldn’t agree on what the secret was and how we got there. There were four versions…mostly similar but with some unfamiliar twists.   My version had several broad steps or stages. First, we should invest our life energy in being happy — doing whatever makes us happy. Second, that includes being geographically in a place where you can be happy and including people in your life who make you happy.  If you are happy, chances are that those you care for will be happy. And third, if you can make other people happy in the process of achieving number one, above, than you should make every effort to do so.  A few years later I realized that there were a few other things to consider like raising kids and career advancement and college tuition and mortgages but those things didn’t change my basic view. Those things were essentially temporary but the permanent part was most important. They say that people sometimes have a life view where they always see their  glass half full or half empty.   The half full folks seem happier.  The half empty folks maybe need a smaller glass. I think my glass was always at least half full, or more, and I’m thankful for that.

Now here I am more than halfway through my seventh decade. I’m in reasonably good health, I live where and how I choose and I do pretty much what I want. I’ve been widowed for eight years and have come to terms with that in my own way.  My daughter is an independent sort and we get along very well. My life has simplified considerably from just ten to twenty years ago and I have no real complaints. I don’t know how long I can keep this going but I hope for the best. That old secret of life thing comes into play once you reach this stage.

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Famous or Obscure — Music That Shaped Your Life

Every Tuesday is Vinyl Night at my local micro-brewery in Bernalillo. Stuart brings in some refurbished portable stereo equipment and we play vinyl records or at least music that was originally released on vinyl…sometimes we stretch the rules but that’s how it is supposed to work. We have been walking a modern jazz tightrope for a few weeks but we have gone through surfer music, The Who, The Doors, and a couple weeks of old blues records. Last week we staggered into a more eclectic vein of music…Joe Cocker, Donovan, Mark Knopfler and a few others. Last night we landed on Leon Redbone…followed by Asleep at the Wheel. A lot of this music brings back old memories. We trade stories and memories as the music plays.

Someone asked an interesting question: What if you were under hospice care and the doctor told you that you had time for only one more record or CD…what would you choose? A couple people chose Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. I can see that. I chose the Abraxas album by Santana…I want to go out dancing, I guess. What would you pick?

That question reminded me of another question of a while back that turned into a more detailed exercise. The question: What were the 20-25 music albums or singles that helped shape your life? I had to think about it for a while. I came up with a list of music…some famous and some pretty obscure. I’m sure this list changes over time as my mood or remembrances change but here is what I came up with at the time and it is still pretty much my list…

I put in several “Best of…” because the actual album name escapes me or there are too many to list. This is not a ranked list – no numbers allowed.

  • Peter and the Wolf (composed by Sergei Prokofiev) Technically not an album but it fits in this category. I WAS Peter as a little kid.
  • Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (Simon & Garfunkel) Hello Darkness, my old friend…
  • Introducing the Beatles — well, of course. The 1st US Beatles album.
  • In the Wind (Peter, Paul & Mary) – Blowing in the Wind was my high school senior class song…we had already lost a guy (Bernie) in Viet Nam and would lose a few more.
  • Elton John (by Elton John) I remember the first time I heard it on the radio…like it was yesterday.
  • The Mamas & the Papas (1966) (the Mamas & the Papas) Big sound and clear voices…almost any of their albums. Largely overlooked now.
  • Shankar, Menuhin, Rampal – Improvisations-East Meets West, vol 3 (Yehudi Menuhin, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Ravi Shankar) – I still listen to it after so many years…sitar, flute and violin.
  • Feliciano! (Jose Feliciano) — I saw him in concert just about a month ago, 41 years after my first Feliciano concert.
  • Close to the Edge (Yes)   You can lose yourself in this.
  • Sargeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the Beatles). I actually studied this in a college English lit class.
  • In Search of the Lost Chord (Moody Blues) Almost any Moody Blues but this one in particular.
  • Clapton Chronicles: The Best of Eric Clapton (too many Clapton albums to list them all)
  • Common Ground (Paul Winter Consort) You have to hear it to understand…can’t explain it.
  • Woodstock (1st soundtrack album) You had to be there…Dang, I missed it.
  • I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye – single) …college party music
  • Abbey Road (the Beatles) Parting was such sweet sorrow. This was really the end – the last Beatles recording sessions.
  • Led Zeppelin II (Led Zeppelin) The guy downstairs in my college dorm played this loud and constantly and his stereo was against the heat radiator and the whole building reverberated with Led Zeppelin.
  • The Best of The Doors (The Doors ) – only because it has all the songs from various albums that I remember.   – Also see Led Zeppelin, above…same guy.
  • Songs You Know By Heart (Jimmy Buffett) Parrot Heads arise!
  • Graceland (Paul Simon) Sound track for a few road trips.
  • Greatest Hits Volume 1 & 2 (James Taylor) Sweet Baby James…
  • Songs in the Key of Life (Stevie Wonder) I always liked “As” as a perfect love song. Just as kindness knows no shame/Know through all your joy and pain/That I’ll be loving you always.
  • Beethoven: Triple Concerto & Choral Fantasy (Itzak Perlman, Yo Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim) I’ve written about this before…I can hear it now in my head.
  • Dire Straits (Dire Straits) Recalls a certain time – still like Mark Knopfler
  • Yo-Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone (Yo Yo Ma) The very definition of “sublime”. I’m a fool for YoY o Ma…I can’t help it.
  • Abraxas (Santana) Yeah…I’ll go out with that one.

Wednesday Roam — Attention to Detail

I recently saw the movie Mr. Holmes, which I enjoyed very much. Imagine a 93 year old Sherlock Holmes who lives with a housekeeper and her son out in the country where he keeps busy with his bees.  He has outlived his companions and is reflecting over his past successes and that one particular case that sent him into retirement. His age has caught up with him. He still has his abilities but only in fleeting glimpses.

We have a bunch of Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows to choose from these days. He is always the master of observation and detail. Almost nothing escapes his attention. It is frustrating for his companions — like Watson and Lestrade — who have seemingly normal powers of observation and deduction. Sherlock not only observes everything but he remembers and recalls it all as well.

There are other similar TV characters in shows like Lie To Me or The Mentalist who have well honed or specialized skills at observation. We seem to enjoy this theme….and yet, most of us do not have similar skills. We fail to observe details. Our attention flits from one thing to the other without really absorbing anything. What dress was she wearing? What kind of purse? Did he wear glasses or a ring?

This past weekend I happened to be a witness to a crime. On reflection I think “witness” is way too strong a word. The event, sadly, ended with the death of the perpetrator and I didn’t see that part…I was only present at the beginning. I saw the aftermath and the results of the original incident — property damage and minor injury. That part could have been much worse than it was. By the time I realized what was going on and reacted it was too late to observe what actually happened or even see the offender. It was sort of a novelty at first…just a commotion over by the door…I wasn’t ready or primed to be paying attention. I spoke with some others on the scene and realized that most people were like me…they saw something but only a piece of the whole. From that piece they were willing to make broader assumptions.  “He was on drugs.” “It was a domestic violence altercation.”  “He must be crazy.” The person in question intentionally rammed another car but not everyone was sure who was driving.  He…it was a he…sprinted away from the scene and was almost hit by a car. The driver of that car was the only person who actually seemed to see him enough to give a description. It was a chaotic scene and almost half the people around me were calling 911 to report the incident to the police.  The other fateful events of this incident took place some distance away…..with a whole other set of witnesses who may or may not have seen anything. I’m sure that there was probably a bunch of other 911 calls. The police were racing to the scene from all directions with only the scraps of information that was reported on those 911 calls.

I usually pride myself as being observant. If I’m on a walk or in a natural setting I can pick out sounds and the presence of birds and various plants or small animals. But in a random social setting — like at this fast food restaurant — I don’t pay much attention.  I was once present at another crime many years ago but with the same general result. This was a gas station robbery and I was in full view of what was happening but not paying attention. Something was going on but it didn’t involve me so it didn’t register.

For most of the last forty years I lived in a small town where not much happened. I never was present or observed any crime or similar incident during those years. We lived within ear-shot of a sporting gun club and heard shots fired every day for hours. Later, my daughter lived two doors from the site of a double homicide and she never heard the gunshots — or they just didn’t register because she grew up hearing gunshots.  We had car accidents in our town but not much else. Maybe people who live in a larger city or who live in places where there is more crime might be more observant.  Apparently there are ways to improve your observation and recall skills and there are training programs for police officers to help them be more observant.

Here is a little YouTube test I found….

 

 

Procrastination and New Mexico Time

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We are now past the Ides of August and heading into a new season. The monsoon season is still with us but should be winding down. The kids are back at school in many if not most places. Vacations are winding down. I’ve been procrastinating with just about everything this summer and haven’t managed to get anything done. With my recent birthday I took a few minutes to consider how much I haven’t been living up to my activity plan. I moved here two years ago with the intention of becoming more active and getting out and about more. Instead I’ve been going the other direction. Part of that was my crazy affliction and reaction to the statin drug I was taking. That is mostly gone so I can’t blame that anymore.

I have a house project that has been going on for a year. I enclosed a portion of my rear ‘portal’ (AKA a porch if you are not from NM) and turned it into a sunroom/dayroom/office/whatever room. It is a bright and cheery place and I enjoy being there….maybe too much. I lost whatever momentum I had to get the job done. The new room had only one electric receptacle since it was once an outside space. I had extension cords and surge protectors running around the wall as well as the satellite cable TV cord and it looked like spaghetti so I decided to do something about it. Or, maybe I would contact an electrician and see about maybe doing something about it. Well, I called an electrician on Monday to see about getting two additional receptacles put in. I figured, this being New Mexico, the electrician would maybe be able to come by the end of the week or maybe next week.  I remember that it took me three different attempts to get a plumber to come to the house last year and two didn’t return my calls.  But, Holy Smoke, the electrician was available and coming Tuesday morning at 9 AM…the next day! I was in shock.

Well, he and his buddy showed up on Tuesday before 9 AM and had the job done by 11 AM. It was well done and looks great and they cleaned up everything before they left. It was inspirational. One phone call and in less than 18 hours the job was done. How can this be???

My next task is to get the brick floor laid in the room which will raise the floor slightly (a good thing) and finish off the project. I already talked to the installer guy and have the estimate for that so maybe I can get that job taken care of as well. I’ve been to the brickyard and have several possible brick colors to decide on. I think I can get this done. I’ll call him tomorrow.

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There is something about New Mexico that lulls you into a sliding time management mode. “New Mexico Time” is sort of a joking way to put it but it isn’t always funny. Every day is much like the last and tomorrow will be much like today. If you expect someone to do something for you it might not happen right away…but it will get done, eventually. When I was getting the patio door installed for my new room I made the initial contact with the (well recommended) home improvement carpenter in April. It was an easy two-day job…no problem. He got it done the last week of September.

There has been a road improvement project over in Bernalillo that was supposed to be finished in November 2013 (I think) but was still going on a year later and is just recently finished. The contractor was being fined for each day he missed the deadline but that total fine would be subject to negotiation at a later date…sometime. Meanwhile, there were follow-on projects with other contractors that were to start as the first one finished but they were delayed except that sometimes they would seem to get started but then stop for a while. The projects are stretching out to be a lifetime career. By the time they get everything done it will be time to start over.

There is even a sort of casualness about obligations of work and school. This is the only place I’ve been where there are public service announcements on TV saying that it’s not cool to bail out on work or school just because you don’t feel like going today.

Maybe I’m adjusting to the local time zone in my procrastination. I need to get back on track because I have things I want to do.

Inner Sanctum

Today is my birthday and I’ve been in sort of an reflective mood. I think we should have birthday resolutions instead of new year resolutions. I have a few things I need to consider as I move forward into my sixty-eighth year. The doctor wants me to get more exercise…OK, I’ll try. My health is getting better after a strange reaction to a statin drug that left me barely able to walk and I’m getting up to about three miles a day on average. I’m feeling that I can start getting out again to do some hiking and fishing.  I also need to become more socially connected so I’ll be working on that. Maybe a new volunteer spot would accomplish some of that.

In reflecting, I’ve been thinking about the difference between faith and religion. Fair warning. You may want to stop reading here. Really.

I am a religious person, in my own way. I am a member of a strict, conservative protestant Christian denomination. I didn’t say “I belong” to it…as some would say. I’m unsure about belonging. It implies ownership in one sense and also, in another sense, acceptance. I have my differences with church dogma but I keep them to myself. I am comfortable with that. People marvel at the fact that I am a member of such a strict and conservative denomination because I am generally liberal in most things. I feel that this dogma is all mans’ creation and it is flawed from the start and I have no problem overlooking or side-stepping the flaws.  I prefer a traditional worship service. Banjos, drums and electric guitars have a place but not in a church service…in my opinion.  But that’s my preference…others might like it.

I moved across the country about two years ago away from my home of almost forty years and the church I attended for over thirty years. My move meant that I needed to find a new church. I am surprised at how difficult this has been. When you are used to a church and attended services for three decades everything else seems quite alien, even if it is the same denomination and they use the same general service format. It’s like wearing someone else’s shoes — it doesn’t feel right.  I visited several churches and was not particularly happy with any of them. Some seemed downright unfriendly and unwelcoming. I finally settled on one (settled is probably the correct word) and transferred my membership but it is quite alien in many ways. It was the best of the bunch but it’s about a 30 minute drive so I try to get there once or twice a month. I’m OK with that.

I like to visit churches and I do visit churches when I’m on vacation. Where I live now there are some very old mission churches dating back to the 17th century. In Peru I visited the massive cathedrals in Cusco and in Lima.  When I was in Italy I made the rounds to a number of important churches. I attended a wedding at a sacred shrine built on the spot where a miracle took place. I may be Protestant but these old Catholic churches carry some weight in my own religious values. The double basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is one example. The duomo in Florence, St. Marks in Venice, St. Peters in Rome and Milan’s cathedral all are impressive as sacred spaces. They are no more sacred than the little provincial church or the pueblo mission church but they are very ornate and grab our attention. Surprisingly to me, the one place that I had the most intense spiritual connection was not a huge cathedral or basilica. It was an ancient 5th century church, or temple, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel in Perugia in Umbria.

My thought on religion is that it is a very personal thing. God is largely unknowable but we do the best we can. The popular concept of God is one created in man’s image. We often view God as a domesticated animal out in the barn where we get butter, pork chops and eggs. We are aghast and befuddled when God breaks out of the barn and stampedes through the house or destroys the crops.

In recent months I’ve been disappointed by the reaction of many church leaders — including mine — to the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. I was more than disappointed…I was livid. I decided to wait a few days and give it some thought. I was still livid. My church and many others are very busy driving people away and then wonder why the pews are empty on Sunday morning. It treats women as second-class believers. I can remember when women were first allowed to vote in church affairs — not all that long ago in my church — maybe 50 years.

(It’s not too late to turn back…)

For years religious zealots have been proclaiming the need for a national solution to the “problem” of Gay Marriage. They pursued various avenues but the Supreme Court was where they finally got their chance. They all waited for the hammer to drop — the final authority would surely side with them.  Well, it went the other way. Then they were squealing with all sorts of absurd arguments and scenarios. The Federal Government and the Supreme Court have usurped states’ rights!!! What fools these mortals be.

Think back. Contrast the hateful tirade and venom coming from “religious” people to the loving forgiveness and faith of the congregation at Charleston’s  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the shootings. They are on two different planets….one of faith and love and the other of religious dogma, bigotry, and fear.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you up there in paragraph two.

Well, as I turn my attention to my birthday cake, I’m thankful to have another year to figure this stuff out.  Maybe I need to work on my curmudgeonry this year as well.

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