Thursday, January 31, 2013

spending time

It is a quiet morning.  Too quiet.

My mornings in Salem were once filled with a chorus of territory-defending, mate-searching bird song. The tapping of crows in the trees.  The scurry of squirrels across the roof.

Not this morning.  And, come to think of it, not during any of my trips north during the last three months.

It is late fall.  But it is not as if I lived in the Yukon where the wildlife migrated or took its long winter siesta.  This is Oregon.  With winters milder than wildlife-infused Pátzcuaro.

The only sound is the whir of commuter tires on the damp pavement -- pavement well past the petrichor stage.  Cars filled with workers with one thing on their minds.  Getting to work.  Too focused to notice the lack of natural noises.

But i have time.  Some, at least.  Enough to be prodigal.  As I wait in my museum-fresh home awaiting the arrival of the realtor who will reward my work with a sign in my front yard.

No gold star.  Just the first step of reducing an asset to its more portable capital value.

Even so.  I would have preferred a few birds singing their approval of my choice.  But birds have other cares.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

have you seen hansel?

You are not looking at witch's cottage in a Grimm Brothers tale.

It is my garage.  And despite its apparent flaws, it is a working garage.  It housed my car (and assorted doodads) during my sixteen year residency in the Salem house.

The garage was infirm when I bought the house in the 1990s.  Infirm enough that the realtor asked the appraiser to not include it in his report.

The roof had begun to wear.  The presence of the locally-despised English Ivy was both a blessing and a curse.  It damaged the cedar shingles.  But it also provided a natural covering where the roof had failed.

But there was an additional culprit taking its toll on the roof.  Squirrels.  Eastern gray squirrels to be accurate.  An introduced species.  Probably part of that East Coast Establishment I have been fighting all of my life.

At one point in my career, I feel into terminal yuppiedom.  I bought a red BMW convertible that I liked far too much. 

It probably received the best care I have ever afforded a car.  I washed it weekly.  Detailed it inside and out.  And housed it nightly in the garage.

Apparently, I was not the only being to love the car.  On one of my periodic trips to the dealer (where I would hand over $400 just to get it in the door), the mechanic pointed out something unusual under the hood.  All of the wiring had been stripped and every piece of rubber had been gnawed.  To the tune of $1500 or so.


From that day forward, the squirrels and I were on the same footing as Serbs and Albanians.  Initially, I was rather charmed that squirrels had chosen to take up residence in my garage.  Until they declared war.

I will spare you the details of our prolonged battles.  But Jiggs was allowed free rein to clear the back yard of the vermin.  And he performed his canine chores with glee.

For my next birthday, my brother sent me a box filled with peanuts -- and this sculpture.

He has a wicked sense of humor.  And that is one reason he is my best friend.

But today, while the super cleaning squad spent their second day cleaning my house to go on the market on Thursday, I decided to take a whack at cleaning the garage.

I straightened up the usual clutter.  Clutter created by, I suspect, gamboling rodents in the absence of The Great Squirrel Hunter. 

There was plenty of dirt.  Spruce needles.  And items not quite so easily identified.

But it felt good to be doing something useful.  It took me several hours to get the place looking like this.

I know it does not look like much.  And the hours I spent may have only a minimal benefit.  But it certainly made me feel better.

We will now see if it can charm buyers the way it once charmed the squirrels.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

where do you want to go?

I gave myself a treat last night.

As a reward for getting the house ready for the house cleaners for the next three days, I went to the movies.  To Zero Dark Thirty to be exact.

The political hullabaloo that has surrounded the film dropped it from my interest radar.  First, the right was upset that it would be used as a propaganda film for the president's re-election.  Now, the left has labeled it as a fascist paean to torture.

The jabber whirlwind reminds me of the fight that greeted John Wayne's The Green Berets during the Vietnam War.  Reviewers took their stand on the film based on their own political stands.  Almost no one noticed that it was simply not a very good movie.

But that is the way of politics.  To hear Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, you would think the film-makers had updated Birth of a Nation.

The film is about the efforts the United States took in killing Osama bin Laden as a result of his terrorist activities.  We know each of those terrors.  And they are masterfully and artistically recalled in the film.

Here is my take on the moral issues.  I hate war.  I hate killing.  But mature citizens of the world know that life does not always offer us black and white moral choices.  Too often, our choices are between evil and an even more unspeakable evil.

That is what this film is about.  It is about the choices civilizations must make.  In this case, Osama bin Laden and his group repeatedly attacked the west and its citizens.  The west, led by the United States, reacted.  Osama bin Laden is dead.  If anyone wants to argue with the result, they should say so.

But, let's put politics aside.  This film is a very good film.  About a young woman CIA officer who doggedly puts together the facts that led to Osama's death. 

The screenwriter does not deliver up a Joan of Arc for us.  Our heroine is very flawed.  Very real.

Squeamish about some interrogation techniques.  Far too personal in her desire to see Osama dead.  But a patriot who knows evil.  And keeps focused in destroying it.

The film is intense without being gratuitously violent. But where there is violence, it is very personal. The film does not swerve away from portraying the tough moral choices that are made on behalf of our nation.

We all know how the story ends.  The young woman accomplishes her mission through the agency of bearded foul-smelling men.

As the film winds down following Osama's death, our heroine boards an airplane and the flight chief asks her: "Where would you like to go?"  The camera pulls in for a tight closeup as tears stream down her face.

It is a good question for Americans.  Having spent a decade tracking down the evil of September 11, where do we want to go?

Monday, January 28, 2013

no piano, no forte

Once upon a time a pianoforte lived in the corner of a living room.  "Piano" -- to its friends.

For nine years it provided entertainment to various house guests.  Friends.  Acquaintances.  Bible study groups.  Political plotters.

But it had long been the companion of a boy who took his first lessons on a giant, black upright piano in his family's dining room.  And when the boy showed some promise with the instrument, his parents bought a spiffy cherry wood Yamaha spinet with the innards of a baby grand.  That was in the 1960s.

And grand it was.  Unfortunately, the promise the boy showed was "some."  And never more.  Years of lessons and a few recitals convinced everyone that the Alto saxophone would be a better investment.

The piano came to Salem in 2004.  But it could not move to Mexico.

Just as the boy -- now drawing Social Security -- was ready to list the piano for sale, an Air Force nurse friend called.  She wanted to know if he would be interested in selling the piano to her daughter.

He was.  And for a bargain price.  His piano tuner had told hm that pianos are difficult sell these days.  Few people play keyboards any more.  The days when most people in the family could play the piano are long gone. 

And those who play often buy digital instruments.  And modern homes are the poorer for it.

So, this afternoon, the piano boarded a truck for Portland.  Where it will find a loving home with a young family who appreciates a instrument that can add joy to a home.  Leaving nothing more than a corner filled with a decade of dust and bits of broken crockery.

For the piano, it was not a parting.  It was a new beginning.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

not quite saint francis

Big news on the clear cut front.

My two major piles -- to Goodwill and the dump -- are finally out of the house.  That is the Goodwill pile at the top of this post.

I finally decided the easiest (and quickest) solution was to hire a small U-Haul truck.  I estimated two trips.  And that is what it took.  Too full loads.

What you see in the photograph is only about half of the Goodwill load.  It was a big mix.  Almost everything could have been flogged in a garage sale -- or with lots of eBay activity. 

I had neither the time nor the inclination.  In fact, if I had all the time in the world, I would not have had the inclination. 

That pile was teamed up with hundreds of pounds of vinyl records (a collection I began when I was in grade school), an expensive turntable, several lamps, two brass storage cubes (I had the good sense never to op them with a bridge of glass and pretend it was a coffee table), and about nine filing cabinets from my old law practice.

There were lots of memories in the pile.  But after four years of not using any of the items, it felt rather good to watch it all go. 

The second trip was to the dump.  For all of the items that were still useful to someone, there were plenty of things that should have been thrown away years ago.  If I lived in Mexico, most of it would have been used for another purpose.  But it was the type of stuff that even Goodwill would not take.

This cleanup has turned out to be rather serendipitous.  I had a couple of items in the basement that were not suited for either Goodwill or the dump.  The guy who mows my lawn stopped by as we were getting ready to head to the dump.  I asked him if he knew anyone who could help on my unaccomplished tasks.

He volunteered.  By the time we returned from the dump, everything was out of the basement.

So, here is what happens next.  The piano will be shipped to Portland on Monday.  On Tuesday, the cleaning team arrives for two and a half days of spruce up.  On Thursday, the house will be listed.

And Saturday will find me back in Melaque.  Waiting for the vagaries of the housing market to seal a deal.

A lot of work.  And, I certainly hope, worth the effort.

Friday, January 25, 2013

comments on strike

I have noticed a distinct drop off in the number of comments posted on this blog.

And I am not surprised.  After all, even though the blog is about my life, it is primarily a blog about my life in Mexico.  And there has not been a lot of Mexico since November.

But it may be something more.  This past week I received several email from readers who comment frequently.  They all had the same refrain.  They have not been able to post comments.

In November I upgraded to the new version of the Disqus comment engine.  Apparently, that cut off a number of commenters because their Internet Explorer was not the most recent version.  So, I switched back to the older version of Disqus.

Somewhere in that shift, it appears that some of you are suffering from the "garbled in transmission" syndrome.  But I am not certain how many.  And, if you cannot comment, it is difficult to let me know you are having troubles.

It sounds like a good time for a poll.  We have not had one of those recently.  Here are your options.

  • I comment.  I have no problems.
  • I comment.  I currently cannot leave comments.
  • I do not comment.  And I have no idea what you are talking about.
Before you make a choice, could you do me a favor?  Try to add a comment to this post.  And then make your choice.

After all, your comments are often the most interesting aspect of this blog.

The poll is on the right.

Note:  I have no idea why the poll decided to give its instructions in Spanish.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

snow bound, but not snowbound

OK, it's not Canada.  But it is certainly not Mexico, either.  Or Salem.

My brother was in town yesterday to deliver his daughter (my niece) to university.  While he was in Salem, we decided to get rid of some of the piles in my living room.

So, off we went.  A full load of computer parts ended up at the same business that shredded my legal files.  Including some pieces that were fully operational.  It turns out that Garten hires people with disabilities to break down the components for usable parts.  One man's trash, another man's treasure.

Feeling better for Doing Good, we then packed up Darrel's Subaru for a delivery of my household goods to Goodwill.  It turns out that Goodwill (like the Salvation Army) no longer picks up donations.  That means I will be making several trips to Goodwill with more items on Friday and over the weekend.

I have been a bit surprised at how easy it is to turn loose of what once reflected my life.  All of the stereo equipment, books, travel mementos, and clothing we delivered yesterday once meant something to me.  And they were the very things I could not turn loose of when I headed to Mexico four years ago.

What I learned while being away from them is that I can live a good life -- maybe even a better life -- without being anchored to a Lot of Stuff.  And that is what the pile now appears to be to me.  Just Stuff.  Not even My Stuff.

After we finished our Goodwill run, we loaded up boxes of books to deliver to our mother.  I have lots of hardbound biographies -- the type of reading she enjoys.  Rather than donate them to strangers, I decided to pass them along to her.

And, because the books were headed to Bend, I decided to join my brother on the drive over.  After all, I had not spent time with Darrel and Mom on this trip north.

So, the three of us had hamburgers and ice cream cones for dinner, and talked about what we should do for Mom's 85th birthday next month.  It looks as if a visit to Mexico is in the offing -- as soon as she recovers from this Friday's surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

It was a brief visit.  I will be heading back to Salem on the shuttle bus around 11 this morning.  That is, as soon as we finish another Cotton tradition in Bend.  Eggs Benedict for breakfast.

It is almost time to say good-bye to the snow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

shredding over the edge

Every project has a tipping point.  And I hope I just met mine.

The shredding truck showed up today to eat the thirty-six boxes of files from my ten years of private practice.  Oddly, I felt no sense of loss.  If I felt anything it was relief.

Relief at not being forced to slip each page through a finicky personal shredder.  Instead, a mechanism similar to a garbage truck fed bins of files into the shredder's maw.  I now know te sound of masticating giants.

The cost?  A mere $261 (US).  And it was worth every George Washington.

The arrival of the shredder freed up boxes to reshelve my hardback books for staging -- and to ship off my paperbacks to some charitable organization.  Along with the books will go a full truckload of personal items that would have made good garge sale fodder.  But there is no time.

I contracted with a cleaning firm to give the place a thorough scubbing next week.  If all goes well, the house will be listed on 1 February -- and I will be n my way back to Mexico on 2 February.

Oaxaca and Chiapas await.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

spies in the cupboard

I am not a hoarder.

I don't even consider myself to be a collector.

But I am beginning to doubt both of those denials after looking at the oddities I am now discarding from my life.

Take this can, for example.  I found it in the fruit cooler cupboard.  (Remember.  The house was built in 1925.)

I had no idea why it was there.  Aluminum fruit juice cans with Spanish labels are not very exotic.  Not after four years in Mexico.

But this is not a Mexican can.  It is a Cuban can.  That I picked up on my trip to Cuba in the spring of 2001.

I have mentioned that trip on my blog and in comments on other blogs.  It was fascinating.  Enough to convince me that socialism has not been kind to the Cuban people.

But also enough to make me interested in returning.  To do work with the Salvation Army.  My plan to accompany a Salvation Army corps from Canada in February has not panned out.  But there may be other opportunities.

I also ran across a photograph of our 2001 tour group.  The trip was sponsored by my law school law school alumnae association.  And here we all are.

If I had a better memory, I would ask you to play a little game by identifying the Cuban who was willing to talk to us about the failure of the socialist system -- and the Cuban who was assigned to us to report Cubans who talked about the failure of the Cuban system.

Neither of them is holding an orange juice can.

And neither am I. 

I have assigned it to the dustbin of history.  Where I trust a certain regime will be before too many more years.

Monday, January 21, 2013

fickle electronics

I do not always choose wisely.

The pile of obsolete computers, dating back to the 1980s, that currently clutter my living room prove the point.

But -- now and then -- I get it just right.  My Kindle purchases qualify as best buys.

When I moved to Mexico four years ago, I considered buying a Kindle.  Books in Spanish in Mexico are not common.  Books in English are as rare as silver in street vendors' necklaces.

Kindles were still quite expensive in 2009.  And there were issues in uploading electronic books on the internet.

In 2010 Amazon made one of those masterful marketing decisions that will be taught in business schools for years.  The company decided to sell its electronic book reader for just above cost -- following the model of RCA Victor decades earlier. 

After all, Amazon was primarily interested in selling books.  That was its profit source.  And Amazon made downloading books a snap with the new Kindle.

I bought one.  And, as you know from my earlier posts, I fell in love with the convenience of having my library with me at all times and being able to buy new books no matter where I was.

When the letters on my first Kindle keyboard began to wear off, I bought a Touch Kindle.  It was even better than the original, and lasted until I lost it in Dubai and had to buy a replacement.

As of this week, I am on Kindle number four.  Nothing went wrong the version I ha.  I was simply seduced by the upgrades in the new version.

My new device -- the Paperwhite -- arrived last week.  And I am pleased to report it is even better than its three predecessors.

There are a lot of improvements on this model, but my favorite is the internal light.  No longer do I have to rely on a clip-on or cover light (with their uneven light throws) to read at night.

Some of you remember that I did not buy a Fire or an iPad because the screen is backlit.  In the Mexican sun, backlit screens are extremely hard to read.

But this screen is different.  It lights from the side while retaining the technology that creates an image that is as easy to read as a book.

In two weeks, I will be on my way back to Mexico with one of the purchases in my life that has made sense.

As for the pile of computers, they are history.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

i know it when i see it

Pop quiz time.

Guess who is in the photograph.  Not the skinny kid on the left with that cheesy Nancy Reagan stare.  But the urbane chap on the right.

If any of you know him by his face, I would be shocked.  Even though he was, at one point, one of the most powerful men in the federal government.  Certainly, a member of the most elite club in Washington.

Please meet Potter Stewart.  Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court for almost twenty-three of America's most turbulent judicial years.  From the late 50s through the early 80s.

He was my favorite justice on the court during those years.  Starting in the summer of 1962.  Between the seventh and eighth grade.

I was a political fan in those days.  My friend Chad could recite Roger Maris's batting average.  I could recite the names of the members of Congress and their district numbers.  My mother thought I was a baby step away from playing Rainman.

The Supreme Court names were a snap.  Nine men -- they were all men until President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the court, to fill Potter Stewart's seat.  With memorable names.

Black.  Frankfurter.  Douglas.  Clark.  Harlan.  Brennan.  Whittaker.  Stewart.  They could have been the starting lineup for the Cubs.

During the summer of 1962, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Engel v. Vitale -- one of the school prayer cases from the 1960s.  Stewart was the sole dissent from the court's decision.  But his opinion seemed far more persuasive and reasonable to me than the majority's.

Back then, I suffered from the same type of myopia that clouds the vision of most Americans when they look at the Supreme Court.  Most Americans see the court just as another political body imposing its policy will on the nation.  Rather than as a body of judges interpreting the law and the Constitution without regard to their personal political agenda.

But there was something more.  Something about his reasoning.  The Warren Court was slipping into high gear in its "we make up the law as we go along" judicial philosophy.

That was not Stewart's philosophy.  He thought the majority was ignoring the intent of the Founder's in its interpretation of the Establishment Clause.  And, in the process, the majority was usurping the prerogatives of Congress and the state legislatures.

He applied that philosophy in
Griswold v. Connecticut -- where the Supreme Court found a Connecticut statute barring the use of contraceptives in violation of a "Right to Privacy."  Stewart could not go along with the court.  Even though he thought the statute was an "uncommonly silly law," he could not find a "Right of Privacy" in the Constitution.  For good reason.  It is not there.

He was one of the earliest proponents of "originalism" -- even though the philosophy would not take on that name until the late 1980s.

His moderate pragmatism even caught the eye of the editors of GQ who endorsed him for the presidency in 1968.  I would have worked for him -- abandoning the candidate for whom I was working at the time.

He was wise enough to avoid that swamp.  He avoided another when Richard Nixon considered nominating Stewart as chief justice in 1969.  Instead, he stayed on the court developing a judicial philosophy that some of his successors should review. 

The photograph?  It was taken the summer of 1970.  My college pal John and I, both of us on our way to our political science and history degrees, flew to Washington for an existential pilgrimage. 

We met senators and congressmen.  And made the usual rounds of monuments and museums.

Before we left, I had arranged an appointment to meet my judicial hero.  He was just returning from his vacation in New Hampshire and promised us some time during our week there.

I had already decided that I was going to be a lawyer by that point.  If I had not, this visit could have been the deciding point.

The public area of the Supreme Court building has the feel of a temple.  But beyond the guards, the chambers of each of the justices has the feel of a combination of priesthood and Renaissance princedom.

The man in the photograph looks as if he could be the president of a midwestern bank.  And that is exactly how he came across.  No pretension.  No paternalism.

He talked to us as if we were intelligent adults.  Perhaps his neighbors.  Explaining the court's process -- peppered with several fascinating anecdotes.  For instance, Felix Frankfurter, one of the most political men appointed to the court, believed so strongly in the separation of powers that he gave up voting when he was appointed to the court.

We exchanged letters over the years.  The last one is a letter describing the process to apply as a clerk at the court.

I never followed up on it.  In 1979 I graduated from law school and set up a private practice.  Less than two years later, he resigned from the court.  And died four years after that.

I find it hard to believe he has been gone for thirty years.  But the judicial philosophy he promoted still battles on.  As long as it does, there will be a refuge for those who respect both the Constitution and the democratic decision-making of the people and their elected officials.

Justice Stewart, you were correct.  We do know it when we see it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

pulling for patti

"I am going to be in Portland on Wednesday -- at the Grotto.  I know you aren't interested in going there, but I would like to see you."

It was my friend, Patti.  You met her earlier in coaxing the blues out of the horn.  She is currently undergoing a series of chemotherapy treatments for liver cancer.

I knew why she wanted to go to the Grotto (the popular name for The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother).  "A welcoming presence and beautiful environment conducive to peace, quiet, and spiritual inspiration" -- according to its web site.

It is also a place of pilgrimage for Roman Cathlolics seeking the intercession of Saint Peregrine for illnesses.  Especially cancer.

But, for Patti, it was not only a place for intercession.  It was a legacy trip.  Her mother took her there as a child, just as her grandmother had taken her mother there.  Patti was sharing the place with her daughter.

They thought I would not care to go there because I am not Catholic.  I am catholic in the sense I believe in the universality of the Christian faith.  I am simply not a Roman Catholic.

But, Patti was wrong.  I did enjoy the spiritual nature of the place.  The grotto -- the carved cave topped with a rather pedestrian copy of Michelangelo's Pieta -- is not noteworthy in any artistic sense.  But there is a sense of peace there.

One of the lessons Mexico has taught me is a greater respect for other people's religious practices.  Some people find symbols helpful in reaching out to the divine.  I have stopped looking at those practices, as I once did, through prejudiced eyes. 

Symbols do not work for me.  But they are certainly efficacious to others.

That is the same feeling I had while walking with Patti and her daughter.  They lit a candle and placed it with the choir of other flames sending petitions to God.  And, even though, I did not light a candle, I added my own prayer.

More than that, I enjoyed spending the afternoon with a very special friend who has been a big part of my life for the past thirty-seven years.  And will always be.

We are indeed pulling for you, Patti.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

young women on the trail

Youth can intoxicate us.

The truth of the adage popped up while I was tossing photographs from my 1988 campaign.

This one is a favorite.  My district included a large number of mobile home parks.  (I learned early that letting the words "trailer park" trip off the tongue would result in a monetary -- and social -- fine amongst park residents.)

Rental fees in the parks had been rising for years.  Partly due to increased property tax assessments.  And it was causing budget problems for most of the residents.

My opponent had made populist hay out of promises that government would repeal the law of economics on behalf of the residents.  As a result, he had cornered one of my natural constituencies -- seniors.

After all, I had clients and friends who owned mobile home parks.  And I had plenty of family members and friends who were residents.

The photograph features a meeting I had with my aunt and uncle -- and some of their neighbors -- at their home.  Together, we knew we could come up with a solution that preserved everyone's economic liberties.

In the photograph, everyone reflects confidence that everything will turn out right in the end.  That is, except me.  I look a bit baffled.  Far too earnest.  Almost overwhelmed.

Compare it to this photograph.  I am talking with two gorgeous twins at a fundrasier.  They are the daughters of an attorney neighbor.  Both of them worked diligently on my campaign.

I cannot tell you what we were discussing.  But I certainly seemed a bit more engaged.  And I know myself well enough to note that I am that shallow.  A moment of beauty will always make me beam.

Of course, that may not be a fault.  Mexico has taught me that enjoying the moment is one of life's most rewarding philosophies.

Rather than judging my joy in the second photograph, I wish I could have shown the same life in the first.

Monday, January 14, 2013

birthday greetings -- ii

My mother thought you might like this birthday photograph.

She has a far better photographic archive of my younger years.  This gem comes from one of her albums.

We were living in Eugene when my birthday rolled around.  So, there I am.  About to blow out the four big candles on my cake.

My brother, Darrel, is trying to help me with my birthday task.  And, I am resisting his assistance.  I like to think I would be a bit more gracious these days.  After all,I might need help to blow out my current forest of candles.

The gentleman to my left is my maternal grandfather -- Daniel Bruce Munro.  I am not certain I ever saw him dressed in anything other than a coat and tie.  Even when he was working in the garden.

Thanks for the photograph, Mom.  In fact, thanks for the gift of life.  I hope I have put it to good use.


the little master arrives

Sixty-four years ago -- at 5:30 AM -- I made my entrance into this world.

According to my baby book, my arrival was expected to be a bit dramatic.  I was situated to appear on stage -- bottom first.

The potential mooning was a portent of my future view on life.  But not on that day.

I apparently showed some propriety by righting myself.  Leaving the comfort of the womb for the comfort of family and friends.  And enjoying every moment of it -- even into my seventh decade.

Rumors to the contrary, this photograph is not how I entered the world.  I was actually born clutching a brief case.  For some inexplicable reason, I am not holding it.  The nurse was probably washing it when the photographer was in the delivery room.

Birthdays are a good time to reflect.  But Socrates was not correct.  The unexamined life is often worth living.

So, my advice to myself is to keep on accepting the adventures that life has to offer.  Wherever that may be.  And let other people do the examination for me.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

write myself a letter

Cleaning out the house has led to a few moments of sentimentality.  But there have been far more guffaws.

Yesterday I found this gem.  I do not know why it is in a frame.  But I know why it is has been so honored.  Someone knew irony writ large.

Some readers have been kind enough to compliment my writing style.  And everyone appreciates compliments.  Even all of those American teenage girls who think they sound like Beyonce instead of Bea Arthur.

But the framed prose was not about writing -- even though the first line would lead you to believe it was.  It was about penmanship. 

Even though I had been writing stories for the previous three years, I was never very good at penmanship.

Like most Americans, I was introduced to the arcane ways of cursive in the third grade.  Whether it was my hand, eye, or mind control, I was never able to copy the rather fascist white strokes on green cardboard that topped our chalk board.

After three months of forcing the right and left sides of my brain to communicate with each other, my technique had not improved.  This example is from early 1958.  And Miss Romig was obviously not impressed.

Even though I told a compelling tale -- in Hemingwayesque prose -- about Columbus, discovery, and Indians, the best I could get was a 4-.  If Miss Romig had been Dr. Romig, my penmanship would have been in intensive care.  On death watch.

Of course, she was correct.  As penmanship, the piece is a disaster.  On the other hand, it is an interesting piece of calligraphy.

It may even be a nascent
Saichō.  That may explain the frame.

There is a resemblance, isn't there?

In the same way that Russel Crowe's singing voice is similar to Colm Wilkinson's.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

a card and a box

I was not going to post this morning.  There are still too many areas of the house to be cleaned before can put it on the market.

Then I read Felipe's piece on tombstones.  About death, sadness, remembrance.

I have had an essay idea running around in my head since late November.  While tossing some old correspondence, I ran across a post card of Timberline Lodge -- a WPA-constructed resort on the slopes of Mount Hood.

At one point, it must have been in a scrapbook.  A tattoo of Scotch tape offers a clue.

But I did not keep the card for its artistic value.  The note on the other side is what made (and makes) it worth keeping.

It is from my mother and father.  The year was 1957.  From Portland.  Our family was living in Powers at the time.  From the address, we must have been staying with my grandparents.

I initially thought the two of them might have been at a logging conference.  Logging was the family business back then.  But my father had the foresight to see that felling trees offered a limited future -- as are all jobs dependent on natural resources.

That was about the time he decided to move the family to Portland.  But that would be a year away.

The card is special because it is one of the few notes I have from him in his handwriting.  The message is simple: "Hi, men. I wish you could come up.  I miss you a whole bunch.  Love, Dad."

I don't remember receiving the card.  But three things would have been special to a boy of eight.

His father called him a man.

His father missed him.

His father loved him.

Those are thoughts worth saving.  And save them I will.

My father does not have a tombstone.  He died in 1996 and was cremated.  His ashes sit in my dining room (right next to one of his favorite candy dishes that I doubt has been refreshed since his death).  Awaiting some yet-to-be-determined adventure.

No fancy urn or marker for him.  His home is the same cardboard box that we received from the crematorium seventeen years ago.  Complete with what looks like a UPS label.

He would not have wanted anything more.  It reflects perfectly his modesty.  And his readiness to pull up stakes.

But he does have a stone -- of sorts.  His life lives on in the memories of people who knew and loved him.

And he lives on in a note he sent me (and my brother) fifty-six years ago.

Dad --

You are a man.

I miss you.

And I love you.

Friday, January 11, 2013

health camp

There he was at the end of the counter.

On television, it would be the Cheers set.  In Salem, it was the neighborhood coffee shop.

Not one of those fancy coffee shops.  This was the type of place where a bottle blond waitress in her sixties walks around with a glass pot of Boyd's coffee.  A plastic name tag announcing her name as "Maxine."

I have seen Phil there ever since I started stopping in for lunch.  That was over twenty years ago.  Perched on his regular red pleather stool, he looked old.  But he looked old twenty years ago.

"Howdy, Mexi-boy."  His favored nickname for me these days. 

"See the paper this morning?  It looks like the health hysterics are all upset that American young men are killing themselves and each other.  From what I can make out, what bothers them most is that it makes our health numbers look bad to the Europeans."

For Phil, that was an inclusive statement.  He usually just takes a swipe at the French.

"If I read it correctly, the health guys want government to do something about guns, cars, and drugs.  They seem to be shocked that young men tend to end up on the wrong side of the lifeline while shooting, speeding, and shooting up.  That was the top of the story. 

"You know how the newspapers are.  They hide the truth lower in the copy. 

"But if you read a little further, there are a whole list of health culprits.  Compared to the hoity-toity Europeans.

"Teen pregnancy -- three times higher.

"AIDS rate -- nine times higher.

"If  cars, guns, and drugs don't kill us, sex will."

I knew this soliloquy was leading somewhere.  It always does.

"OK, Phil.  What's the answer?  The people discussing guns have all sorts of simple solutions.  Confiscate all the guns.  Restrict video games.  Arm teachers.  Limit the news from reporting stories of violence.  Require mental treatment for anyone who -- I guess, has a bad day."

"Bah.  Stuff and nonsense."

He has always loved doing his impersonation of a character right out of Finley Peter Dunne.  Without the brogue.

"No one is paying attention.  Take these shootings.  What do they have in common?  Sure, there were guns.  But the guns weren't doing the shooting.  Each shooter was a white boy between the ages of 18 and 25.  The testosterone kicks in and they go nuts.

"We used to have a social outlet for them.  The draft.  We gathered them up and shipped them off to some war in a God-forsken place like France.  [I knew France would get worked in somewhere.]

"But we don't do that any more.  We bumped off the big enemies.  The Nazis and the Commies.  And we don't have a draft.

"So, here's my idea.  You might call it another modest proposal.

"If you only have one X chromosome, and you're white, the moment you hit your 18th birthday, Uncle Sam whisks you off the a camp.  Call it a long summer camp.  A reeducation camp.  I don't care about the details.  You might even let them make Nikes and iPads.  That would drive the Chinese nuts.

"All I care about is that they stay there until they are 25. 

"It would even be good for the teen pregnancy rate.  After all, where do you think all those babies and the AIDS distribution is coming from?  By 25, any thoughts of sex or violence will be a misty memory."

Maxine walked over to warm up his cup.  He took a sip and looked off into the middle distance.

"What I can't figure out is why no one else has thought of this."

I chuckled, folded up my newspaper, and shuffled back to the house.

Why, indeed?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

a novel life

Shakespeare was wrong.

Life is not a stage.  It is one giant novel.  And you never know whether you are going to end up being written into a Faulkner or, far more likely, a Barbara Cartland tale.

When I joined the Air Force, I thought my fellow officers would be the best that the East Coast Establishment had to offer.  The kind of people who thought they owned America -- and the rest of us are just visiting.  To cadge from The Good Shepherd.

But they weren't.  They were just like me.  Middle class kids trying to find the best way to develop the talents God gave them.

All Americans are social climbers.  It is our nature.  We live in a society where we can be what we make of ourselves.  No strict social classes for us.  One day, cock of the walk.  The next, a feather duster.

That is why falling into a Jane Austen novel can be a bit disconcerting.  Especially for a man of the Western United States.  But that is exactly how I felt this morning when the photograph at the top of this post showed up in my inbox.

It came from my friend Nancy.  You know her.  I often travel with her and her husband, Roy.

In November 2004 we were in New York City preparing to join a cruise on the shiny new Queen Mary 2.  Because it was Thanksgiving, we decided to have dinner at Le Cirque.  Nancy's daughter, Alison, flew up from Washington to join us.

I had never met her.  Even though I had heard plenty of stories about her.  She was a delight.  Young.  Beautiful  Statuesque.  Witty.  A perfect addition to our table.

Several months later, I was in Portland for the my nephew Ryan's wedding.  I walked into the empty sanctuary to find a place for the box containing my father's ashes.  (There was no way I was going to let him miss his only grandson's wedding.)

A young woman followed me in.  "Steve?," she said tentatively.  I turned around.  It was Alison.  "What are you doing here?"  The words had barely left her mouth before she said, "Cotton.  Cotton.  You must be related to Ryan.  I never made the connection."

She had been the college room mate of my nephew's bride, Sara.  Roy had told me plenty of tales of Alison's college ventures -- and her friends.  I had no idea that one of those friends was my nephew.

It is from such coincidences that Ms. Austen was able to fabricate an entire series of novels based on human manners.  And here I was living my own version.

Alison is now married with two children.  Ryan and Sara have a son -- Colin.  They get together as often as good friends, who live on opposite sides of the country, can.  But they almost always meet at Alison's grandmother's house in Bend at Christmas.

And that is the genesis of the photograph.  Taken by my friend Nancy.  Of my dashing nephew, his stunning bride, and my genius nephew.

I didn't need to join the Air Force to find my place in society.  I just needed to be patient.  And it came to me.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

less miserable than other films

"An adventure is, by its nature, a thing that comes to us.  It is a thing that chooses us, not a thing that we choose."

So wrote G. K. Chesterton.  And, by my reckoning, he was half right.

Adventures choose us.  But unless we accept the adventure, it is merely an opportunity lost. 

This was an adventure weekend.  Well, a weekend of watching movies about adventure.

The first was The Hobbit.  (Reviewed earlier in dwarfs and a dragon.)

This time I saw it at a Cinteopia theater with its superb visual and audio quality.  And I enjoyed the film as much as I did before.  Even though I could have done without the 3-D treatment.

The second film was Les Misérables -- the film version of the 1985 musical.

I was prepared to be disappointed.  The musical is a rather overblown melodrama of Victor Hugo's novel.  The novel centers around the very personal adventure of redemption that came to the criminal Jean Valjean through the grace of a bishop. 

A story powerful enough that Whittaker Chambers believed it would make a reader either a Communist or a Christian.  It made him both.

But the film works.  It takes advantage of the personal nature of the camera and resurrects Hugo's human perspective from the novel.

The director made a wise choice to use the actor's singing voices from the original takes.  Rather than dubbing the voices in post-production.  The technique gives the actors -- even those who are not professional singers -- an opportunity to use their voices as acting tools, rather than mere performance.

And the voices are brought forward -- over the music.  The music merely accompanies the story.  Just the reverse of the stage music-voice mix.

The music is stripped down when it needs to be.  Anne Hathaway's interpretation of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a poignant lament of a life that has had highs -- only to end in despair.  On stage, it is raw bathos.  The film version knowingly connects with its audience.

The film could have benefited from a heavier editing hand.  By trying to be too true to the stage version, the film often plods.

But it is a small quibble. 

Chesterton would see the film for what it is.  An adventure of grace seeking humans willing to accept what always comes with adventure -- an opportunity to find a better part within us.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

evil under the disc

J.K. Rowling has an eye for names.

When she is not lifting characters whole cloth from Tolkien, she can create some interesting pun names.  Draco Malfoy, for instance.

The bully of the wizard school carries a family name echoing its obvious Norman past.  Mal foi.  Bad faith.

It appears my blog may be a cousin to dear old Draco.  But the family name is malware.

A reader contacted me this morning to let me know that she gets a momentary malware warning when she opens my site.  "May contain malicious content."

Now, I may get testy now and then.  But "malicious" is not how I would describe my usual prose.

I believe I have cornered the offending link -- and it does not present a problem to readers.  However, please let me know if you receive a similar warning.

You can contact me with the email address at the right by clicking my photograph.  The address is under "Contact me."

I would hate to think the name Cotton will join the Tolkien-Rowling pantheon of evil.

Friday, January 04, 2013

civil lives

It started with John Adams -- David McCullough's Pulitzer-winning biography of the second president.

That was 2001.  He set off an avalanche of biographies of the Founding Fathers.  Some were superb.  Some good.  Quite a few were indifferent.

But America had re-discovered its past -- what it took to create a new nation.  In theory, it also gave us a better idea of who we are and how we came to have our political and social institutions.

For me, it was a golden age of reading material.  One of my academic interests in college was the revolution and federal era.  I had grown up with these men.  And it was good to make their reacquaitance -- and to see some of them in a new light.

That flood has ebbed.  Partly due to the calendar.

It is now time to celebrate the American Civil War.  If "celebrate" is the correct word.  My side having won, I will forgo moral equivocations and hand-wringing.

Doris Kearns Goodwin played majorette for the new parade with her Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  A small portion is currently seen on screen in Spielberg's Lincoln.  (Reviewed in driving my lincoln.)

Goodwin's very good book has been followed by a slew of Civil War biographies -- one I have read, another I am reading.  Both I can recommend.

The book I have read is Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr.  Goodwin introduced us to Seward in her discussion of Lincoln's cabinet. 

Stahr gives us a far more detailed (and interesting) look at the man who thought he would be the 1860 Republican nominee for president, but who then loyally served Lincoln as secretary of state.  And tried to keep Lincoln's policies alive during the Johnson administration -- while staying loyal to the new president.

Seward's role in the Civil War -- maneuvering France and Britain to keep them from recognizing the south -- is the major part of the book.  As it was of his life.  But his purchase of Alaska is probably one of his greatest accomplishments.

I am currently about a quarter of the way into The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H. W. Brands.

Despite the breathless title, the biography seems to be rather even-handed on the uneven career of Grant. 

I say uneven because I am in the early stages of his life.  As a young man, he failed at many civilian enterprises.  And he considered his early military career a failure -- if only because it centered around a war (the Mexican-American) that he strenuously opposed.

We all know the outline of the rest of the story -- and the reason for the title.  The Civil War pulled him back into military service.  Where he turned out to be just the general Lincoln needed to defeat the southern rebellion.

But that is a story I have yet to read. And I am certain I will learn new things about Grant -- just as I learned new things about Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Burr, Jay, and Morris in their respective biographies.

For a reader of lives, it is a good time to be alive.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

letters from william

I met him in 1989 when he was a guest on Jonathan Ross's television interview program.

The theme of the show was Successful Young People.  His success?  He had just been elected to Parliament in a by-election -- at 28.

But he was better known as the 17-year old who had fired up the 1977 Tory Conference -- assuming that Tories are capable of getting fired up.

William Hague.  A young man on the move. 

I was in London following my unsuccessful 1988 election.  And the fever still ran in my blood.

We started a correspondence acquaintanceship that ran over the next two decades.  He, of course, went on to be the Tory opposition leader and is now Britain's Foreign Secretary.  I went on to become ab expatriate beach bum in Mexico.

While doing my memory clear cut in the Salem house this week, I ran across a stack of letters from him.  They immediately went into the toss pile.  And then I had second thoughts.

The historian in me recalled the number of times I have seen entries in biographies that historians cannot answer certain questions because the subject's correspondence had been destroyed.  That phrase always leaves me a bit sad.  Something once existed, it no longer does, and we are the poorer for it.

Of course, there are often very good reasons to destroy letters.  And it is not hard to imagine what those reasons are.

None of them exists in these letters.  They are the ruminations of two young men about the future of their parties.  With a few personal touches.

But the letters were written in confidence.  And private they will remain.

It was nice to run across them.  To conjure up some lost memories.

However, like the rest of my correspondence, to the dustbin of history they go.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

in with the new

I do not make new year resolutions.

But if I had made resolutions in 2012, one of them would have been to finish reading Billie Collins's latest collection of poems -- Horoscopes for the Dead.  It is just as well because, as much as I like his poetry, the Collins book remained unread.

Until this morning.  I spent a couple of hours in the bath tub as the poet took me on a journey through his world of magical twists amongst life's ordinary objects.  All with an economy of words that is the jeweler's eye of the trade.

And I discovered this gem.  A perfect New Year's poem.  Though it was certainly not written for that purpose.

Thank-You Notes

Under the vigilant eye of my mother
I had to demonstrate my best penmanship
by thanking Uncle Gerry for the toy soldiers --

little red members of the Coldstream Guards --
and thanking Aunt Helen for the pistol and holster,

but now I am writing other notes
alone at a small cherry desk
with a breeze coming in an open window,

thanking everyone I happened to see
on my long walk to the post office today

and anyone who ever gave me directions
or placed a hand on my shoulder,
or cut my hair or fixed my car.

And while I am at it,
thanks to everyone who happened to die
on the same day I was born.

Thank you for stepping aside to make room for me,
for giving up your seat,
getting out of the way, to be blunt.

I waited until midnight
on that day in March before I appeared,
all slimy and squirming, in order to leave time

for enough of the living
to drive off a bridge or collapse in a hallway
so that I could enter without causing a stir.

So I am writing now to thank everyone
who drifted off that day
like smoke from a row of blown-out candles --
for giving up your only flame.

One day, I will follow your example
and step politely out of the path
of an oncoming infant, but not right now

with the subtropical sun warming this page
and the winds stirring the fronds of the palmettos,

and me about to begin another note
on my very best stationery
to the ones who are making room today

for the daily host of babies,
descending like bees with their wings and stingers,
ready to get busy with all their earthly joys and tasks.


I hope that you will all experience a year of sharing your blessings and joy with others.