DC, January ‘63

I was not yet seven years old when my father’s job moved

From the bucolic comfort of Coralville, Iowa

To the perpetual motion of Washington, DC

It was a bare root transplant.

We flew east on one of the first commercial jet airliners

From a land of glistening snow and twenty below

To the coldest forty degrees on earth

Drizzle and grey instead of sparkles and frost.

We stayed in a hotel downtown somewhere

Till the house was ready for us to move in

Six year-old me in the back of the wagon, riding, riding, riding

It took forever to go anywhere.

Riding and watching this new world going by my window

The snow along Wisconsin Ave. was black, not white

It had lost its sparkle long ago. Frozen into gargoyle shapes by plow and road spray

I knew there was something wrong.

There were no box elders to cut in Mr. Alberhaske’s woodlot

So I cut down the dogwood in the back yard

It fell across the fence and our neighbor, a kind old Virginian

Said it was a crime.

The snow was now in remission and Spring was progressing fast

There was one lone log left at the top of the sledding hill where the fire kept them warm

I rolled it home, a quarter of a mile, and cut it in half with dad’s bucksaw

Just for something to do.

It’s funny the things that stick with us

Through-in and through-out of the years

Little lessons of large import

The snow should not be black.

Battery Chase

Worked at SEDA-COG yesterday & today. A week ago, we had six inches of snow, an inch of rain, and an arctic blast. I went to drive up the steep hill to get to the back of the building, where the tops were. Got to the foot of the steep. All four wheels spun. (It’s easy to get the impression , if you’re watching, that log skidders are invincible. Like most things, they do have limits). When I applied the brakes, I slid backward a short bit.

Fortunately, I had permission to use the neighbor’s driveway, so I went around there, bailed down into the patch & worked. Up the driveway, down the hill. The first 2 trips down the hill were uneventful. The third, the skidder took off & bobsledded. Brakes only made me go faster. Fortunately, the machine stayed straight. Other than being faster than I preferred, and lacking a certain desired amount of control, there really were no ill effects. Descents did become progressively faster.

               Then, late yesterday afternoon (3 o’clock-ish) the skidder declined the invitation to start. The alternator is apparently not alternating properly. The battery was dead. So I pulled it out, carried it to the driveway, brought it home, and charged it overnight.

               This morning, I set the battery down on the driveway. Here it is important to note that the first 500 yards of the driveway are steep. Open-the-tailgate-and-things-slide-out kind of steep.  I sat the battery down on the driveway and closed the tailgate. I heard a sound. My brain sifted through its Rolodex. (It still uses paper filing. It doesn’t even have a 1983 Atari. Though it does seem to have lots of random-access memories). I surveyed the back of the truck: tools are already over at the skidder. So is the saw. When I turned around and reached to pick the battery up, it already had a 5-foot head start on me. The brain created a new card for the Rolodex: that sound is the sound of the sound of a battery beginning to slide on a seal-coated asphalt driveway. The chase was on. A chase which, I suspect, was not in Bugs Bunny’s catalog of chase scenes. I thought maybe it would slide to the inside of the sweeping curve & lodge in the snowbank, but it corrected & kept on going. Life is rarely easy or simple.               

I’m sixty-six. I don’t run that well, and certainly not very fast anymore (add that to the list of “I used to…”). Add felt-pack boots, and the handicap rendered the race almost even. It took about 100’ to catch and corral the battery. And they say there’s nothing new under the sun. Next thing you know, there’ll be an OSHA reg prohibiting placing a battery on any paved surface exceeding 5% slope.                 

Problem With Civility

Perhaps the most memorable event at CC happened while the clerk of nominating committee was giving her report. Perhaps it is the nature of such things, but the report seemed interminable. It ran into break-time. She asked the clerk whether she should finish, or wait till after the break. And from the depths of Zoom comes “It’s taking too F****** long.” Ah, the live mic. Mortifying but honest. There was a collective gasp in the room. The clerk called for a minute of worship, then break.

            There was another bit of worship when we reconvened. I shared a paraphrased version of my apology from the YAY Gathering back in July: I have fallen down. I need grace and forgiveness. The tension in the room decreased/ relaxed. The person from Zoom was grateful.

            Funniest thing. This week the Los Angeles City Council was embroiled in controversy as the chairwoman, several other members, and a union boss were recorded making racist remarks. They were all Hispanic. So much for woke utopia. Racism isn’t just a “White” problem. Civilization is a thin veneer over who humans were, not so long ago. Denying those parts of who we are only makes addressing behavior which is antisocial in this world of 7 billion souls all the more difficult.

            We have this problem with polarization, the worst it’s been since the late ‘60s. I have to say that I think the morality police who enforce political correctness are at least partly culpable. Prohibiting people from speaking honestly only forces their ideas underground. Rather than being able to disagree respectfully, they are “sent to their rooms:” those echo chambers of toxicity on both the left and right where wacky ideas gain currency and go mainstream.

            That is in no way to justify being mean. There is a stark difference speaking one’s mind unfiltered and doing so in a civil manner. I don’t remember the late ‘60s being this mean. Maybe they were. I don’t know. But today there’s a sense that “the other side’s” agenda spells certain destruction of the Republic. (Admittedly I see denial of the legitimacy of elections as something that could actually destroy the American experiment).

            Conflict mediation tells us to attack the problem, not the person.

Context Matters

Professor of Old Testament studies, Nancy Bowen, had four cross-stitched sayings posted in the front of the classroom. One was “context matters.” Afterall, without having the background for a snippet of Scripture (or other writing) the meaning (implied or otherwise) often changes significantly. Consider the following:

“… as heavy a monument as she is, she likely did not move sideways significantly, but simply fell over in place.”

What!?! Wait, wait, wait, wait. Hold on. Don’t ever say that to her. Unless….

“She” happens to be the headstone of Anna Pletcher, a 19th century Quaker buried in the Bald Eagle/ Unionville burial ground (Quaker-speak for cemetery). The burial ground is on the sunny banks of Bald Eagle creek which, over the past century and a half, flooded occasionally. Until recently, there was no provision for the long-term care of the grounds. Flooding, frost-heaving, the occasional falling tree branch, the slings and arrows of time- -in other words, entropy- -caused many of the grave markers not to be above the appropriate person of yore. Figuring out who’s where has been a forensic adventure worthy of the DaVinci code. Anna Pletcher’s headstone was larger than most of the others and so was likely not moved… very much.

Relationships are hard

Many years ago, before I got married, my mother saved a newspaper clipping. It was an advice column titled “Keep Your Gutters Clean.” The gist of it was that the gutters on our houses slowly fill with stuff: shingle grit, leaves, dead things, seeds which sprout to become gutter gardens…. If we don’t keep the gutters cleaned out, they overflow. And then the real trouble starts.

The mundane work of maintenance can save a lot of trouble down the road. It’s a variation on the “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Reflecting on that led to writing the following this morning:

Alice kicked Justin out last night. Served him with a PFA. The officers were nice but firm: You can’t be here, sir. And the nice ladies of the domestic abuse shelter, whom we help move furniture, said so too. No due process. No “’Two Sides to every Story,” only “you can’t be here.”

               Sometimes distance helps sort things out, gives clarity. But at some point distance becomes a barrier. There comes a point where the distance between is so great that he no longer hears you calling, nor you him.

               My father was from New England, mother from Midwest. Weather matters both places. But in so much of modern life, peripheral vision is sacrificed. We see only the highway in front, the tractor trailer beside. We miss the scent of the goldenrod. We are unaware of the gathering storm clouds.

               It’s been a decade or more since the day I was working in the woods. It was thickest winter. I watched the sky grow black for an hour or more, then all hell broke loose. The wind whipped. The snow fell like a ruptured feather pillow, what they call “near-zero visibility.” 80 turned to greased glass. Sixty vehicles plowed into a plugged funnel. If only they had noticed.

               The mare’s tails stream across the sky. The sun dogs flank left and right, thirty-seven and a half degrees. They are a signature of ice in the stratosphere, portending “weather” within 48 hours. Averted eyes, submissive manner. The signs were there. If only they had noticed.

               They cruised the lifeways interstate for nearly thirty years together, Sometimes the back roads too. Bright spring sunshine, when everything is new and exciting. But the wind screen was never washed, and the boot was full of unresolved memories dreams, hopes. They never watching the sky. And when the snow fell like a ruptured feather pillow, it took them completely by surprise.

               He’s injured in the pileup; she walks away. The kids, who knows. Time will tell. The tow trucks come, large and small, untangling the life wreckage left behind. I tried so hard, he said. She never told me of the coming storm. Or at least I never heard. If only I had noticed.

Oh, Those Moses Moments

A long time ago, there was this cat named Moses

Stuck in Egypt with a bunch of his bros

One day god comes to him and says “have I got a job for you.”

And all old Mo could say was “uh huh. Yeah, right.”

(Refrain )

You got the wrong guy, god.

Ain’t no ways I kin ever do that.

Really. You got the wrong guy, god.

And all he heard back was “Uh huh. Yeah, right”

See here, God, says Moses They’ll never follow me

I’m a little slow on the switch, if you know what I mean

And I got a s-t-t-t-t-t-tutter that u make a washboard seem smooth

No siree. They’ll never follow me.


Be still, my man. Be still, says god. Settle down and listen right here.

I’ll b-b-b-b-be right here wit chu

And given you the words to say

Yeah, you just settle down right here, ‘cause we got some words to say


But Moses. See he still didn’t believe. I’m tellin’ you Lord, you got the wrong guy here

God paused a moment and said look here, son

You can do this ‘cause you wanna, or you can do it ‘cause you gotta

But either way. You’re gonna lead my people Home

By now y’all prolly done heard the story

And you know how that all turned out

Pharoah done had enough of plagues and things

He said “Moses, gather up your bros and get you gone.

A not so long ago, there was this cat named Fox. Ain’t life funny like that

Just moanin’ and a-rambling cross the land

Looking in the churches, looking in the fields, looking high, looking low

Trying to find someone speaking to his soul.

And just the other year, a voice came to me in the night

Tellin’ me “I got plans for you, son. Together we can make a difference.

I said “You got the wrong guy, God.”

And all I heard back in the silence of the night was “Uh-huh. Yeah, right.”

Early Morning

The alarm goes off at ten till six

In the fog of sleep, I know she’s gotten out of bed

The toilet flushes

The coffee pot hisses

The bells on the door tinkle

As she lets the dogs out

And when she lets them in a few minutes later

Coffee pours into her thermos cup

The spoon tink, tink, tinks against the sides

As she stirs in the teaspoon of sugar

And I know she’ll be gone soon

To work

I want to give her a hug before she goes

To tell her I love her

More than anything else there is

But the gravitational field of the bed is so strong

I can’t break free

The bells on the door tinkle again.

This time, that means she’s leaving

For work

Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait! My voice a raspy croak

Desperately throwing off the cobwebs of sleep

As she steps through the door

Eyes foggy, feet noncompliant, plunging toward her

Louder, with what seems like all my effort.


She turns and looks quizzically

At her sleep-crazed lover

Approaching unsteadily across the floor


I need a hug

We embrace for a long minute

My soul breathes in the softness of her breasts, the scent of her hair

And then she’s gone

To work

There are times we sleep on

We never hear the morning sounds

The tinkle of the bells on the door

We let the sun set on our anger, convinced it is we who are right

Why must you be like that?

In the words of Detective Hercule Poirot, J’accuse!

Parents, brothers, sisters, lovers, friends

A burst artery, an infarct

A crash on the highway

A tree branch away from leaving

For Work


If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, you’ll know I’m a Quaker of the unprogrammed (silent) worship type. At least in Eastern North America, there is a strong tendency (like iron filings around a magnet) to be oriented in favor policies advocated by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC & Co. One part of the narrative is that any profit-making venture is defacto evil and corrupt. So, the narrative goes, business is inherently bad.

It wasn’t always that way. It has been said that the Quakers of the 16- and 1700s came [to the colonies] to do good and wound up doing well. It was a result of living their faith. Many of them were tradesmen. There was as much need for ethics in business then as there is now.

Today’s Quakers are a diverse lot. While it is true that in the US we are overwhelmingly white, middle or upper class, theologically we run the gamut from hardcore Christian to atheist. Ideologically, there are some conservatives and many liberals. We try to hold space for all. Sometimes we do better at it than others.

There is still a need for ethics in business. There is also a need for dialogue between “tribes.” So a group of Friends (one appellation for Quakers) came together and started a group called Quakers & Business . We meet monthly, second Saturday at 11 AM Eastern time. We discuss a wide range of topics from spirituality at work to finance. As much as anything, it’s a safe place to be a capitalist.

An associated group called Quaker Aspen, is devoted to business development., finance, networking, and mentoring. In order to provide services needed by both Quakers and non-Quakers, employees and owners, for-profit and nonprofit enterprises, they are conducting a survey . Even if you know nothing about Quakers, please take a few minutes to do the survey.

Peace, friends. Martin.

Sisyphus Meets Gulliver

There was this guy named Sisyphus 

Condemned to roll a rock uphill always 

He thought it was his life’s work 

Surprise! As he rolled his one large rock, he met a cat named Gulliver 

Now Gulliver explained it to him 

All in the fine print there 

It wasn’t just one big rock to push 

But a whole truckload of little guys, his work was redefined. 

Little rocks, you know? 

You left the seat up, let dirty dishes lay 

On and on your whole life long 

Like herding cats, catch this one, miss that one. Back down the hill they roll 

The two of them became fast friends 

And cried in their beer, down at the bar 

How unfairly life did go 

Chasing cats and pushing rocks (both large and small) just to watch them roll. 

Are You Living?

Fear is like an artichoke.

Layers and scales

And where does love lie?

Obscured, in the heart.

Honesty and vulnerability.

They go together.

We cover our tender undersides

Out of fear

Will you let me past your face to see what’s really you?[1]

They sang

Does the danger exceed the reward?

Better to stay with the devil we know, lawyers tell.

The sweet chloroform of security

Never find our limits, never know risk

Never know our potential

So much sacrificed for comfort

Dare yourself to see!

Beyond the self, beyond the evening couch, beyond the television

Beyond the world and reality we think we know

As solid as a manure storage pit[2]

And into eternity

What we call “that of God” in each of us.

[1] Outlaws, “Green Grass & High Tides.”

[2] Appears solid. Isn’t.

Prisons of our Minds

I liked my old prison, he told me.

He is, literally, in prison. They moved him recently.

But it made me think

How many of us have prisons

Those places of comfort, dog fences for our minds

All of our own building.

It is said it’s easier to stay

With the evil you know

Than to venture into the cold unknown

In search of something

You’re not even sure is actually there

All in the name of security

Those days you live in the fog

It’s hard to believe

The sun is shining, the sky is blue

Not that far above

Rather than hike the mountain, you choose the valley path

And succumb to the status quo

It doesn’t really suit me, say you

And way out is nowhere to be seen

Have you looked? At all? Questioned authority?

Or circumstance?

Don’t let them define who you are

Grab a shovel and dig out of this hole!

The sky is blue above the fog

I assure you

Comfort is easy, but often lacks the essence[M1]  of living

But you say the cold, dark world is full of razor teeth

A place of misery and tribulation

But I tell you: satin grace and comfort, too

Break free of your prisons

The ones you’ve built in your mind, in your spare time

Cast down the stony walls

Let the sun melt away the fears

That bind you

In these prisons you hold so dear



*Here in Pennsylvania, we have 3 seasons: winter, mud, and road work. The last is usually announced with a sign stating “work area ahead.” It is not lost on me that work rhymes with quirk, which means that qwork should be pronounced quirk. That, of course, raises magical possibilities in the mundaneness of ubiquitous construction zones, especially when we pay attention to what we perceive as the quirkiness of the universe. For those who plod along the cow paths of thought worn into their minds, the quirkiness is (I think) invisible, or at the least nearly so. For them, I think the world is a rather gray place. But awareness of the wrinkles in time, the puckish humor of the Holy Spirit (by whatever name you may know it) renders life an exciting adventure, a treasure hunt.


In that “things to ponder” department:

The big, old tree is no older than the Meetinghouse. I think it was planted in 1982, not quite 40 years ago. For some short-lived species, 40 years is a lifespan. For others, it is only the beginning. Strategies include “grow fast, die young,” and “be patient. Wait for the short-timers to age out. Then take over.” And there are some kind of in the middle.

We often equate size and age, especially among trees. There’s actually a rather poor correlation. What other factors contribute to the apparent disconnect between size and age?

More broadly, it can be understood as an error in attributing cause and effect.

What other places in our lives might we come to similar, if erroneous, conclusions?

What sorts of information and knowledge can help us avoid errors of attribution? With trees? With people? With news and information?

How is Apple Juice Like a Seminary?

We have a tendency to accept things as they are presented to us. The other day, a gallon jug of apple juice was opened and needed to go in the fridge. The shelf wasn’t tall enough.

“It won’t fit on the shelf. How about on the door? We can move the milk to this shelf and put the juice on the door,” I said.

“That one’s not tall enough, either” said Maddison, my granddaughter.

“Sure it is,” I said. I jiggled and wiggled the juice and other things that already occupied the door shelf. “Hmm. Guess not,” I admitted. “It seems we are at an impasse.”

Without saying anything, Maddison stepped forward. She grasped the shelf, unhooked it from the door, and moved it up a notch. With a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, she put the juice on the door shelf.

There has recently been a good deal of consternation at Earlham School of Religion (ESR). They had a sizeable endowment that allowed them to provide tuition assistance for many students. They are also a yeast nub on the corner of Earlham College (EC). The relationship between the two is sort of the odd couple.

               Last summer, the EC board of trustees de- or redesignated a substantial part of ESR’s endowment. While ethically questionable, it is apparently within their legal right to do so. The EC president has also directed that ESR raise its tuition, increase fundraising efforts. One interpretation is that ESR needs to be self-sustaining. Another is  that it needs to become a profit center for EC.

               To be sure, many colleges find themselves on the ropes financially. Many are not expected to survive. EC is likely among that group. From that perspective, perhaps the redesignation of funds is justifiable. ESR, previously in good financial shape is now in the “uncertain” column.

               In worship sharing the other week, I observed that “way” (in the Quaker sense of the course to follow) has an uncanny tendency to open, i.e. become apparent, when we allow ourselves to be led by Spirit. “Way” is often what seems to us to be the least likely solution. See also Moses, David, etc. Faith, like movement of the Spirit, is often not intuitive or rational, at least from our perspective.

               The consensus thus far is that ESR needs to survive. In seeking way forward, we may need to move the shelf.

See also “Refrigerator Theology.

Career Advice

A friend recently retired. He said in his announcement that when he took the job, he expected to do it for a couple of years and then return to preaching. I wrote the following to him:

It is interesting to watch the places the Holy Spirit leads us. I’ve considered the query (Quakers are big on queries): What, exactly, is ministry? I used to think it was a message delivered from a pulpit. Then I met the Quakers, where we are all considered both ministers and congregants, shepherds and sheep. What has come from that (for me) is a growing understanding of what potentially qualifies as ministry. Ultimately, properly lived, it includes every area of life. Surprisingly (or not), that includes work, a huge part of the lives of so many of us. And from that, I would say that you’ve spent the last 20 years preaching.
It seems to me that ministry has a few attributes. It focuses on fruits of the Spirit. It lifts up that of God in others. It seeks to nurture the greater good. For me, it focuses the work on the glory of Christ’s reign, rather than on myself. The synergies of working in tandem with the HS are beyond words. To say that work as ministry is transformative is only to scratch the surface. ###

I’ve likely said elsewhere that we have a strong tendency to see work as that activity which results in a pay check, or perhaps a task performed to meet some obligation. Work can be understood as a framework for doing the real work: caring for fellow humans and the rest of creation.

Business as Ministry: Fostering Transformation & Hope at Work

Tuesday, June 30 2020, I’ll be a panelist at a Friends General Conference workshop with the above title. You are welcome to join us:

Event day and time: 6/30 Tuesday 4:00-5:30pm(Eastern)
Zoom meetinghttps://us02web.zoom.us/j/82594186992

Capitalism is much maligned these days, not without reason. Sometimes it seems that the race to see who accumulates the largest pile of bones (money/assets) brings out the worst in people, and by extension, their corporations.

I believe that as both business owners and employees, we have a responsibility to conduct our work ethically. What does business look like when it’s guided by religious ethics, i.e. the Holy Spirit? Can it be a force for transforming society at large, and the individual lives it touches? I think the answer is Yes!

The outline follows. I hope to turn it into an essay.

Work as Ministry: Creating Transformation & Hope Through Business

  1. A bit about me.
  2. Function of business/ work
    1. Provide product or service
    2. Make money (profit), keep body & soul together
    3. What else?
      1. Be part of community, care for employees, environment
      2. Ministry? Nothing in the contract that says we can’t.
  • Importance of questioning status quo, i.e. world as we observe it
  1. What if… (an important question)
    1. Life is communion, actions are sacraments
    2. Part of the function of business was to do the work of the Spirit
  • Even the task is incidental, a substrate for something larger: Work
  1. The function of Work was the actualization of the Kingdom, doing Spirit’s work here on earth?
  1. What, exactly, is ministry?
    1. Evolution of my understanding
      1. Man in a black robe telling us how to live, what a wretched lot humans are
      2. Spirit is accessible to us through worship. Limited to MFW
  • Spirit is accessible to ME through worship. Still only in MFW.
  1. Fox: HS not confined to buildings. Worship can happen anywhere.
  2. I can be (I am) a minister => messenger of the Word. That old thing about telling us how to live.
  3. HS as a spectrum of light: IR => visible => UV
  • Let your life speak: vocal ministry is only a small part of where HS is active. How, then, to speak?
  1. What does a life lived in the Presence look like & how do we practice it?
    1. Fruits of the Spirit. Gal. 5:22 But thefruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
    2. Jesus as role model/mentor. Acceptance of Church teachings not required to live as He taught
  • Individual as a tool or conduit for the activity of the HS
  1. Ministry reaches outward and inward simultaneously.
  1. In this model, all of life presents the opportunity for ministry.
    1. In being faithful, our own needs are met. Able to let go of need for control.
    2. Expand the concept of “neighbor.”
  • The search for “that of God” in customers & neighbors.
  1. Firewood: a co-product. Burdensome. Offer to people in need, or if they pay, pay it forward.
  1. What does this look like? What are the possibilities?
    1. “audience:” employees, customers, public, and of course, yourself (ministry as a 2-way street)
    2. Witness (traditional language). People notice “something different.”
    3. Mentorship, empowerment, agency, self-image
      1. Victims of abuse
      2. Released prisoners
  • Recent graduates
  1. Modeling life lived in response to Spirit/ “Let your life speak.”
  2. Even as an employee, there are subtle, and not-so-subtle ways to influence the culture at work.
  3. Conflict resolution, listening, helping others achieve clearness
  4. Work is relational.
    1. Customers are often looking for a relationship as much as they are to get a specific job done.
    2. Testimonies address this: integrity = “my yea is yea, and my nay, nay.” AKA “you can count on me. Anchor point in a world where so much is beyond control.
  5. Helps address uncertainty. Plan A to plan ZZ. All in a day.
    1. Roll with it.
    2. All will turn out as it is supposed to. Not fatalistic
  • John Esh. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
    1. The power of brainstorming
    2. HS “thought” processes are often different from ours.
  1. And how do you do this?
    1. Life as communion, actions as sacraments
    2. Power of intentionality.




Once upon a time, two tree guys met in an arborist supply store In West Chester, PA. Dave was local, John was not. As is not uncommon among peers, they got to chatting about business. It turned out that John was from a college town, up in the middle of the state. “Hey,” said Dave, “do you know Bill up there?”

“Oh. That guy,” said John. “He’s a hacker.”

This rather amused Dave, for Bill had shown him many essential techniques of the job, from tree climbing to rigging, to the finer points of felling. In fact, they still worked together sometimes and enjoyed each other’s company. Must not be the same Bill, thought Dave. Next time he and Bill were on a job together, they had a good laugh about “Bill the Hacker.”

Fast forward about thirty years. John was doing a job across the street from Bruce, who happened to be Bill’s financial advisor. Bruce was an ex-Marine, if there is such a thing. He had a plot of ground, several acres of woods, where he had felled a good number of trees, so he had some knowledge of felling and things tree.

The job across the street progressed to where the crew was ready to drop the stub. The brush was off and chipped. The crew built up a landing area made of branchwood to protect the sidewalk from the stub’s impact. John put a notch is the stub, to make it fall towards the pile of branchwood. Bruce, standing on the sidewalk across the street watching, piped up.

“That’s not going to land on your crib,” Bruce said.

“Oh yes it will,” huffed John. “What do you know about cutting a tree down, anyway?” Bruce hummed a little tune to himself. It was the sort of whimsical tune that went “ignore me if you want to, but I think I’m right.”

“All right,” John barked at the crew. “You guys take the rope down the hill towards the branchwood.” He went to work on the back cut. He pounded in two wedges for insurance. The men pulled. The tree started forward. It picked up speed. It landed with a thump that shook the neighborhood. About five feet to the right of the branchwood. Bruce shook his head ever so slightly, clicked his tongue and tsked, turned and walked back into his office, returning to his present life as a financial guy. A stream of profanity directed at the errant tree, his men, the powers that be followed Bruce as he shut the door. Today, there are three new squares of concrete in the sidewalk.

Six months later, Bruce related the incident to Bill, who chuckled and told Bruce about  his official title as Bill the Hacker.

“Karma bites,” said Bill. After a pause, he added “lest I get too cocky and suffer a similar fate, there but for the grace of god go I. Anybody can have a bad day. Even someone who’s not a hacker.”

Another Day in a Branch Office

(Note: when I was about 8, I got a comic in my piece of Bazooka bubble gum. They always had a fortune at the bottom of the comic. Mine that day was “if you become a tree surgeon, you will work in a branch office.”

I got a call from a guy a little while ago. He has a camp on Bear Meadows Rd, along the (usually) sunny banks of Galbraith Gap Run. Being in the bottom like that, it has its measure of adelgified hemlocks. Among that measure, are a number which couldn’t make the payments, the adelgids having extracted too much in rent for the hemlocks to afford. So they’ve gone out of business. Given up the ghost. Perished. As McCoy said “He’s dead Jim.” Bottom line is that there were many units of dead hemlocks, some of which were threatening his electric line. Eight, to be exact. Fortunately, there were an elbow birch and an elbow white oak added to the list, so the Bermuda Triangle of eight trees was avoided.

A few of the hemlocks could be wedged. A few needed the assistance of the come along. The elbow white oak went up thirty feet and elbowfied leftwise, about five feet above the powerline. It stood almost next to an intermediate power pole, which had a guy wire to keep it standing up. The tips of the white oak rested on a live hemlock about forty feet away. I gave him a price for the hemlocks. I’ll throw in the elbow birch for free, I said. You get the power company to come drop the line, and I’ll drop the elbow white oak for another $50. You set up the appointment with them, and let me know when it is. I’ll be there.

The thing about the electric company is that their scheduling is a mystery to those not involved in their process. Shoot. Maybe even for those who are involved in their process. You call their 800 number and do battle with their automated answering system. The option to speak to an operator does not arise until the caller has yanked out a minimum of half their hair. I’m not sure how that works for people who have shaved heads. Perhaps they’re just completely out of luck. Either way, the electric company has a hair print on file and they can tell by the vibrations the caller is emitting, the exact moment when hair loss has reached an acceptable threshold. Then they put you through. Mr. Burns, the camp owner, persevered and at long last spoke to the nice forester person. The nice forester person explained that they would come to the camp to assess the problem, and if the tree and the line met the requirements of paragraph 3, subsection IV, articles 2-5 of their guidelines, he’d call Mr. Burns and schedule the work.

It was Monday he called. Thursday, he said. They’ll drop the line on Thursday.

It’s going to rain in a very meaningful, sincere, wet, and potentially doggish and cattish sort of way on Thursday, I told him. There was a pause.

Do you want me to cancel? he asked. I thought a minute.

Nah. Let’s just go with it, I said. It’ll only take me a couple of minutes. He can put the wire back up and not even have to return this afternoon.

He’ll be there between 8 & 8:30, said Burns.

Tuesday, we had one of those days when everything went twice as fast as planned. Not common, but irrefutable evidence that it can happen. I called Burns.

Hey, I said. We got done with our job early. We’ve got time we could go up to the camp.

That’d be fine, he said. See you about 1:30

In short order, we had the eight hemlocks on the ground. I slew the elbow birch and a large hemlock that had broken off, perhaps in the same wind that elbowfied the white oak. And I notched the white oak. I did the usual plunge cut and formed up the hinge. All I would have to do on Thursday in the rain was release the strap at the back of the tree and the job would be done. By the time Burns showed up, we were packing up the gear.

Seven thirty rolled around Thursday morning, and the rain was indeed mixed with the occasional cat or dog, just like when it’s trying to make up its mind whether to rain or snow. I dumped all the ropes and other stuff that gets disgusting when it’s wet, on the garage floor. I pulled up to the camp a few minutes till eight. The Power Guy (PG) was already there.

Burns was there too. He told the power guy the plan. Power Guy looked at the elbow white oak. Never work, he said.

I don’t know, Burns said. This guy is pretty good.

Then I showed up, grabbed my saw and did the windmill on the algae covered board deck of the bridge across the creek to the camp- -you know, that funny little dance you do on a slippery surface when your feet can’t get ahold of anything and your arms are flailing around at ninety miles an hour as you try to keep from biting the figurative dust. I managed to stay on my feet. Power Guy got out of his truck and brought his gear across the bridge. He leaned his ladder very precisely against the end of the camp. He climbed up and pulled a pair of bolt cutters out of his ditty bag. Snip. Snip. He put a little wad of super-duty electrical tape in the ends of the wires and snipped the ground wire. The wires fell to the ground.

You didn’t pull the fuse at the pole, did you? I asked.

Nope. This works great as long as there’s no bare spots in the service line.

Well, it’s wet enough today you’re not going to start a fire.

No. We’d burn up the transformer instead. That plan you’ve got, that’ll never work, he said.

Ah, I said. It’s an old trick I call eight ball in the side pocket. The tree wants to fall this way. It just doesn’t know it. And Power Guy coiled the wire up by the pole.

That out of your way enough? He asked.

Let me put it this way, I said. If I hit it there, I’ve got other problems and I did something I shouldn’t ought to have. I started my saw. With a zip and a zing, the tab at the back of the tree was cut. The tree fell forward. The elbow neatly settled around the guy wire (which is very different than the wire guy).

Huh. I’ll be danged, said PG. Guess it will fall that way.

Well, I said, I don’t do anything that can’t be done. Just another day in a branch office.

Working on Loneliness

One of the lessons from a class at Earlham School of Religion: There are ways I am like all others; there are ways I am like some others; there are ways I am like no other. While your experience is indeed unique to you, you share this isolation induced loneliness with many, if not all. In some way, it is a bond with all. I recently wrote to another friend that loneliness is like a predator. It separates us from the herd and then it takes us down. Awareness gives us an edge to grip so that we can begin to work on the problem.
Know that you are loved. Not for your potential, or who you were supposed to be. You are loved, warts, sores, bumps, Light and all, exactly as you are. No matter what! Imagine being held, hugged, in those arms that comforted you and know that it was Spirit reaching out to you.
I cannot pretend to understand, but my experience is that I must be brought low to slip free of the deceptions of the world. There is a time and a season to all things under heaven (Ecclesiastes): There is a time to be strong and practical; there is a time to be “weak” and irrational. In the best counterintuitive nature of faith, strength is (often) found in weakness.
There is no shame in tears offered in grief. They can wash the sky of our souls clean. They can give us the strength to face the work before us.
There was a time, many years ago, when I got my index finger caught in some gears at the sawmill. It earned me a trip to the ER. I was largely stoic. My nerves had not yet figured out their trauma, so there was not yet physical pain. It dawned on me that I wouldn’t be able to go rafting (on the Cheat). Slowly, the tears built within me until they erupted in a loud wail. The doctor was nonplussed. What’s wrong? he asked. Pain? No, I answered. I’m tired of being tough. I’m tired of being strong.

Tree Flowers (again)

Judy’s dad likes to grow miniature orchids, along with the regular ones. When he first opened them (Quaker-speak) to me, I realized a couple of things. Beauty is not related to size. In some ways, the concentration of beauty into a miniature can make it even more intense. A second realization was that we often are unaware of the beauty around us, metaphorically as well as literally. The flowers quietly go about their reproductive activities, whether we notice their beauty or not.
Beauty is present on several levels, as well, from macro to micro. We drive down the road and we see a puff of white against the side of the mountain: serviceberry, dogwood, sweet cherry. We are often unaware of the beauty on the micro-level. Besides Judy’s dad & the orchids, I think my interest in looking closer was sparked by the fact that the showy part of a dogwood flower isn’t the actual flower, but bracts. So I went looking for the actual flower. Then I realized that if it had a seed, it had a flower (angiosperms and all) and that there were a lot of plants with seeds whose flowers I had never seen. The search was on.
Then there was the question, from observing oak catkins, of “how do you get a nut from that?” Of course there are many flowers with both anthers & calyx. But many plants (as you likely know) who have a male flower and a separate female flower. And ornerier even yet, those with separate plants for male & female… Ginkgo comes to mind. Sooo… you don’t get an acorn from a male flower, which brought me to the fact that I’d never seen the female flower… of many trees, oak among them. Fortunately, they’re all right down the hall from my (branch) office.
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;
to search out a matter is the glory of kings. (Proverbs 25:2)


The flight out to San Francisco was uneventful, except that the 767 was nearly empty. Covid-19 anxiety. We took off from Philly at 8, landed in San Francisco at eleven. Six-hour flight. You do the math. But there it is. They’ll make up for it on the return trip. We’ll get those three hours back says Timekeeper. Just you wait and see. Matter can be neither created nor destroyed. By now, time is a form of matter, I suspect.

Went to the Safeway on my way to the air bnb. No bread. No cleaning supplies. Lots of bare shelves. More Covid anxiety, except San Francisco was one of the original hot spots. So it was more like anxiety with a side dish of frenzy. California always wants to be first with any new trend. Too bad that’s not always such a great thing. I wound up with brioche for my peanut butter and jelly. Only in CA, except not. Panic is country wide. We’re all “home sheltered.” CDC has decreed gatherings of more than 10 people are a bad idea. So we’re all supposed to work from home, except that doesn’t work very well with trees. Bar tenders are out of work. Restaurants and stores are closed. Spending on anything but food has ceased. The economy has seized. The stock market is in furry[1] fall. To spend a day in the woods with a few other people climbing a redwood may be the best way to retain sanity.

I was stalking the weather, as I often do. The extended forecast on Weather World made it look like Monday might be rainy. I don’t like climbing in the rain. The climb was on, no matter the weather. The list said to bring raingear. It rained most of Sunday night, and was still at it when I got up Monday morning. I queued up the weather app on my phone (further stalking). The rain was still raining. The temperature was thirty-four. Damp and cold really sucks. It even agreed with actual observations. It doesn’t always. The rain did seem to be moving away. I needed the wipers most of the way there, but the rain appeared to be in remission as I got near.[2]

I don’t know if it’s because the ocean is on the wrong side of me or what, but my sense of direction is really messed up. The house is on the east side of CA 17. The redwood is on the west side of CA 17. Logically I should have to cross 17. But I didn’t, at least not that I was aware of. But once we were up the tree, we could see the ocean. Maybe it’s California Rules.

The morning of the climb, I cued up the map app on my phone. The address was 14215 Long Ridge Rd., a twenty minute drive, so it said. I got to Long Ridge Rd. I got to 14231, looking for 14215. Close. Next place had a huge redwood that had fallen across the driveway. About 16’ of tree had been removed to allow access. The rest laid there, went out through the woods, and popped out on the road 200 feet away. Where it was chopped off, it was still 3’ thick. But in spite of the fallen tree, the address sign said 14211, and then the numbers just got squirrely after that and seemed to have no sense of order. The GPS, which had been silent, calmly informed me that I should “return to the route,” meaning that it thought its silly human wasn’t paying it enough attention. They like to be scratched behind the ears, you know. And they get grumpy when you don’t listen.

I turned around and went back to 14231. 14235 was also on the stump. And then there was a faded, faint 14215 under them, down near the ground. The roads around here, and this includes the driveway, were either mapped by someone with really bad palsy or an EKG machine. It was enough to make the driver woozy. Admittedly, all the wiggles are necessary to accommodate the terrain. These slopes make the best West Virginia has to offer look like flat ground. The wiggles of the driveway (a scenic attraction in their own right) led me to the top of a knoll, directly above the fallen redwood at 14211. Can’t get there from here.

Scott came out and introduced himself as Scott. See that one out behind the house, he asked. That’s the one. We call it grandpa.

That scrubby little thing? I said.

Well, the hill drops down behind the house. The tree, as is common with trees, gets bigger when you get up close and personal.

Jean arrived in her Washington Jeep. She said she was from Port Arthur or Angeles or one of those portly places on the Olympic Peninsula. She had her own tree experiences involving a large western red cedar which went up some distance and forked. One day she came home and couldn’t find her van. A fork of the cedar had flattened the van and buried it in foliage. Then a year or so later, she came home and the other fork took out her shed. She said those were the only two things the forks could possibly hit, and both scored direct hits. But now the stump has new sprouts and a commitment to reach for the sky.

Which reminds me. I believe the trees around here are so tall- -some more than 300 feet- -because Hollywood was up here shooting a western or a gold rush movie, something with good guys and bad guys, you know. And when the bad guy said “reach for the sky,” the trees thought he meant them, and so they did. Just a theory. There’s this whole thing these days about how trees talk to each other. A little anthropomorphic, if you ask me.

Tim came out and introduced himself as Tim, and gave a little background about how he came to be a tree climbing instructor. Back in the dark ages before 1990, little was known about the ecology of the canopy in redwood forests. Since he had tree climbing skills, he could help the non-arboreal scientific types get up into the canopy to study their studies and research their research. We went around the ring, just the four of us for this climb.

Scott reintroduced himself as Scott. He’s pretty clear on his identity. His story wasn’t too different from Tim’s. He has a background in biology and botany and other plantish things. He, too, got hooked up with the research crowd. Part of his work was rambling around northern CA seeking the tallest redwood. It was 366 feet when “discovered.” It wasn’t lost. It knew perfectly well (within the limits of a tree’s cognitive capacity) where it was; it had been there all along. And just because somebody else doesn’t know where you are doesn’t mean you’re lost. Scott, being the prescient sort of fellow that he is, was keenly aware of these nuances. It has grown to 384 since he’s made its acquaintance. He and Tim told tales of life in the tops, whole plant communities no one even knew were up there. Sometimes they’d spend nights up there, a world away. He seemed to think he’d been at this for quite some time, having started in ’92.

Jean said she was Jean, which was (on the one hand) no surprise, and on the other hand, very affirming in these uncertain times. Her husband had had his fun at a trade show the previous week where they had seven buildings full of tech stuff. He only got to five of them. She had thoughts of going, but when he said the word “Vegas,” that thought evaporated. So now she’s here and ready to climb a tree.

I introduced myself as me. Logger with a BS in forestry and one in Plant Path. Tree climber since 1969. Fifty years ago last year. My goal is to climb a tree in every state. Actually cut one down, because that’s what I do. But my insurance wouldn’t cover me in NY & CA, so I was faced with the quandry of how to get CA under my belt. To the Google! Climb a redwood. And here I am.

Tim gave us a little background. This place used to be owned by a logger, but the neighbors, who were afraid he’d cut these trees, effectively ran him out of here. Now the place is owned by Janice and Harold. They may be here for lunch. If you meet them, please be sure to thank them for allowing us to climb their tree. The logger did cut some trees here, and for whatever reason, he used to go up grandfather here and do some pruning. At first I had concerns about the impact of climbing, but when I learned that grandfather had already been subjected to human presence in his branches, I was put at ease.

The four of us gathered under Harold & Janice’s deck for a kinesthetic lesson on how to climb a tree. The method was single-line, top-roped. There, off the joists of the deck, hung two single lines, one for me and one for Jean. We each got a saddle. There were only three holes and I put my feet through them wrong four times. New dogs and old tricks. Lucky hogs and blind acorns. Or something. With patience and persistence, Tim managed to show my feet where they actually belonged. Pull the belt up. Cinch up the waist strap. Good to go.

Then, using locking carabiners, he fastened the two ascenders onto the belt. One had a pair of loops for my feet. The other had a little hand grip for- -of all things- -my right hand. See, now this is the way you do it, he said. You lift your feet up so you’re kind of scrunched in the middle. Stand up. Slide your hands up, left on the rope and right on the ascender. It works out so you sort of move like an inch worm. And this (he pointed to a little flippy lever) is the equivalent of the ejection seat button on the dashboard that says ‘don’t ever push this button.’ Because if you do, the ascender can come off the rope and there you go. When we get to the top- -or as high as you want to go before we get to the top- -I’ll switch you over to this gizmo. He held up a device that looked not too different from a can opener.

It opens like this, and the rope goes through here, and it snaps shut. When you’re not holding onto the handle, it’s locked. You’re not going anywhere. Pull down a little. There’s a sweet spot where it’ll let you move. But if you panic or pull down too hard, it’ll lock right up. That’s not a problem. Just flip it back up to the home position. He demonstrated the hooking up, the going up and the coming down, all there under the deck. Now it’s your turn, he said.

Put your feet in the stirrups (there girls[3]. There are stirrups other places than on horses. Hah!). stand up. Grab ahold of the upper ascender with your right hand, and the rope with your left. Your arms are pretty long; it may work best if you put your left hand above the ascender. Keep your forearm parallel to the rope and lift on it. The ascender should slide upward freely. Then scooch your feet up towards your waist. Sort of like an inchworm. Rinse & repeat. I reached up and slapped the bottom of the deck joist with a rowdy woo-hoo. These guys are pretty contemplative and (seemingly) not given to rowdy behavior. I had to explain the river yell to them.[4] Yeah, great, said Tim. Now it’s time to go down.

The stirrups came of and were stowed around back of the saddle on a clip ring. We’re going to start off slow, Tim said. The hand ascender’s going to stay hooked up, as a safety. So take your right thumb and release the lever that grips the rope. Slide the ascender down towards your waist. Don’t let go of it. Then with your left hand, pull down on the descender lever, but make sure the strap for the ascender doesn’t get tight, or I’ll have to come over there & pull you up by your bootstraps. Neither one of us will be happy about that. Being that my feet were dangling, there was no need to reverse the inchworm effect. Just make sure the strap on the hand ascender didn’t get tight. A few iterations and I was on the ground. Seems like you got the hang of that, Tim said. I’m thinking “I have to get a set of these.” Scott and Jean had been engaged in parallel exercises. When she got back to the ground, Tim asked “any questions? OK, let’s head down the hill.”

To call the path a trail would be to use the term “trail” loosely. It was more like a cat path, which is several orders of magnitude smaller than a cow path. In keeping with the roads laid out by Zizzies[5], the trail required several switchbacks[6]. The tree loomed.

It was actually three trunks with a shared base, a wall of tree. It was more than 20 feet wide. The ruddy bark bore black blotches, evidence of fires in times past. Thick roped ridges ran skyward in a gentle spiral twist. After a silent moment of awe, Scott spoke.

Notice how the needles on these little guys here look more like yew. They need to maximize solar uptake. As far as they’re concerned, that’s their most limiting factor. Moisture down here near the ground isn’t a problem. But they can’t close their stoma completely, and the environment gets drier and drier as the tree goes up. They gamed the system. For every 13 feet of height, they need to pull an atmosphere’s worth of tension to lift water from the ground. So they get as much as they can from the air. That’s why the fog is so important to them. The leaves near the top are much smaller, almost feathery so they don’t lose water. Jean held up a sprig of a twig that had fallen. The needles were a fraction of the size of those from the little guy on the ground. Yes! Exactly, Scott said.

Among gymnosperms- -conifers—redwoods are unusual. They sprout vigorously from stumps, and they have epicormic[7] sprouts. In a stroke of luck, even though 95% of the old trees have been cut, the genetic material has been preserved in these sprouts.

They don’t have crown shyness.

They what? I interrupted.

They share air space. A branch from one tree will grow over through its neighbor. As they grow and become more stationary, they’ll often fuse in a graft.

Ah. That, I said. I thought you said crown shine-ness. The hardwoods back home like to beat each other up to keep their neighbors out of their space.

The world is full of amazing things when you pay attention, Scott continued. You’ll see redwoods growing in a circle. We call that a fairy ring[8]. The “kids” sprout up from the roots or stump of the parent tree. The circle might be thirty feet across. That gives you an idea of the size of the parent tree. They can reproduce sexually- -by seed- -but these sprouts, which are really clones of the parents, are far more common.

There’s this whole underground world that’s out of our view, but is just as amazing. The roots graft together, so that even though the trees can’t root very deeply, they provide a vast mat of support for each other. Then there’s this whole symbiotic community of mycorrhizal fungi. It really becomes hard to tell where one organism ends and the other begins. The fungi are in the tree’s cells. There are others in the needles that help get moisture for the tree.

Tree-ologists estimate that fire ran through these woods at intervals usually not longer than fifty years. That kept fuel accumulation at reasonable levels. The bark near the base may be as much as six inches thick. It’s naturally flame retardant. The epicormic sprouts don’t have the thick bark of the trunk, and they’re killed when the flames and heat lick up the trunk. The sprouts die and fall off. That way, there’s no fuel ladder to the crown. Questions? Great! Let’s climb a tree!

Scott and Jean went to the uphill side of the tree. Tim & I went around to the downhill side. We were more than ten feet below Scott & Jean. Tim pulled the eject button-lever and put the ascenders on the rope. The first few inchworms worth of climbing, there may not be enough weight on the rope’s tail to let it feed itself through the foot ascender, he said. You’ll have to reach down and give it a little encouragement with your hand. It was true, but after about the third inchworm scooch, it fed itself nicely.

Since we’re starting below them, let’s get started, Tim said. We’ll go as far as the fork where the trees separate. Try to keep your feet against the tree. The fork was about twenty feet above us. So off we went, and when we got to the fork, there was Scott with a smile on his face.

There’s no better place to be than up a tree, he said. We all agreed and paused to survey the view. That one down there with the flat top and the old lightning strike running down the side, we call than one Sparky. And this one over here, see all those little holes in the bark? The acorn jay gathers up acorns and stashes them on those little holes. We call that three “the pantry.” Then when times are lean, the jays return and raid the pantry. Seems like a better plan than burying the acorns. Maybe not if the acorns had a plan to become oak trees. But as a way to store food, it’s pretty ingenious. You won’t see them higher up because the bark gets too thin. But up there, you’ll see little horizontal rows of holes made by sapsuckers. They peck at the bark. Sap oozes out. Bugs come to feast on the sap. The sapsucker eats the bugs. Not a bad way to make a living, if perhaps a bit treacherous from the bug’s point of view. We climbed on for a few minutes, then paused again.

It’s nice to take it slow and savor the time spent here in the tree, Tim said. The other day, we had a group of tree climbers and their boss. They were in a ferocious hurry to get to the top of the tree.

Yeah. This is one of those places where it’s more about the journey than the destination, I said. There are so many ways to deepen your consciousness. Mindfulness, awareness, gratefulness, practicing being present. It all feeds the sense of awe that there even is such a thing as this tree.

Tim mused too much testosterone, or they had to show their boss. I don’t know. But to hurry the climb like that is to miss so much of it. Didn’t make much sense to me or Scott, but we’re just the guides. Customer may always be right, but there are times he’s not. Again we climbed for a few minutes. We watched the mist rising off the mountainsides. Down below us, a rooster crowed. That’s not a wild one, mused Scott. But then there was a turkey not too far from the rooster, and he was answered by another turkey over behind us. Thus we had stereo turkeys. We arrived at what Tim and Scott called the braided bacon branch. It was a study in the physics of trees. Scott spoke.

See how the branch is oval? He asked. Conifers add wood to the bottom of the branch as it grows. The pith, what’s usually considered the middle of the branch, is way up near the top. The growth rings go the whole way around. One is added each growing season. But the rings will be tightly packed on the upper surface of the branch, and often pretty far apart on the bottom. Hardwoods are the opposite. They rely on tension wood added to the upper side of the branch. And see how, near the base of the branch, there’s a flare? That acts like a gusset or prop to hold the branch up and support it. It’s another aspect of the tree’s use of compression wood for strength and support. I think the biggest one of those I know of is about twenty feet deep or long or however you want to call it. When they get that big, they get flattened. It’s called fasciated. We climbed on again. Tim stopped and sat on a branch. I guessed it at twelve inches diameter. He asked what I thought it weighed. I pictured picking it with a crane. I don’t know. 1500-2000 lbs? Well, he said do the math. It’s seventy pounds per cubic foot. It’s an eighteen inch branch, and it goes out there fifty feet. That’s sixty cubic feet of leaves, twigs, bark and wood. I did the quick math, 60×70. My eyes got wide. That’s 4200 pounds! That’s right, Tim said. And that’s not accounting for rain or wind loading. Yeah, I said. I’ve taken up telling people that the wonder of the world is not that trees fall over, but that they are able to stand at all. Tim nodded. We climbed the last ten feet.

I sat on a branch. One hundred and eighty feet above the ground. You know, I said to no one in particular, when I signed up for this, I was really hoping to make it above three hundred feet. I looked around. The ground had disappeared in a mist of feathery green foliage below. The Pacific Ocean was visible through a gap in the crown. The clouds had lifted. The hills were dappled with sunshine. But you know, I said, this is enough.


Later that afternoon, I went to Big Basin Redwoods State Park. It was sobering to realize that I hadn’t even made it to the first branch on some of those giants. They were in the 300-foot club. 180 was enough.



[1] free

[2] In the best tradition of worry, it was all for naught. No rain during the climb.

[3] My daughters are horse-o-philes (equuophiles). I, on the other hand, have a reputation as a misequusonist.

[4] The river-worthiness of a raft crew on a whitewater trip is judged by the volume and vehemence with which they yell YEE-HAW. Known as a river yell.

[5] Carl Sandburg. The Rootabaga Stories. Imaginary creatures who like life crooked.

[6] Narrow gauge RRs were laid out on the sides of mountains. They couldn’t build a curve, so the train went up or down in a motion like a falling leaf: forward for one stretch, backward for the next. It’s different than a hairpin.

[7] Epi=upon; corm=stem. These branches arise from dormant buds beneath the bark.

[8] In the east, fairy rings are circles in a lawn or pasture grass. It’s another effect of mycorrhiza. The fungus helps the grass secure nutrients.


Covid 19 and God


I’ve been sitting with the intersectionality of several things: There is that of god within. God works with those who deny God. There is the traditional Christian approach: God is out there, heaven is up there. God directs our lives. There are many who deny that there is a god. There are many who profess that they are saved by grace (New Covenant), but whose god is the vengeful, jealous god of the Old Testament. There are some few who grasp that the basic premise of the New Covenant is Love.

Then there’s the humanist approach: We direct our lives. Our thoughts are the way to define what is good, and what is not. Intellect, not divine inspiration, is the answer to life’s problems. There is no external force, deity or otherwise. It’s all up to us to make it or break it.

This morning, a friend wrote to me. It was his opinion that this virus was god’s punishment for god’s people turning away from god. He said that god said he would close the sports stadiums and concerts if we didn’t turn to him[1].

I went out shopping this morning. People are friendly, even while keeping their social distance. There is a group of Democratic Socialists who are organizing ways for those who are able to help those who are not. Without going the broad brush route, they’d tend towards the humanist end of the equation[2]. Churches are looking out for their members in the same way. Most of my non-Quaker churchy friends fit the conservative model of god in the world. The simple fact is that regardless of ideology, politics, or religion, this caring for neighbors, while not universal[3], is broadly apparent.

The mystics of various traditions mostly believed that god is/was still talking, still among us. That doesn’t exclude heaven. It just creates a both-and situation.

Ah humans, we try to depict and describe the ineffable. In the apophatic and cataphatic traditions, god is both unknowable (apo) and knowable (cata). The simple fact is, though, that any attempt to say “god is…” or “god is not…” will fall short. It will be inadequate in some (or many) ways.

I recently wrote a little piece titled “In Search of Big Sur.” I drove up & down CA Route 1. It concludes, “I saw a car with a stack of surfboards on the roof. That was as close as I got.” It turned out that Big Sur was more of an area, a region, than it is a place. Truth is, I was there. I think our search for god is a lot like that.

In the movie Men in Black, the alien tells the G-men “the galaxy is in Orion’s belt.” Of course, it’s a matter of life and death to find the galaxy. It turns out to be in the cat’s (Orion was the cat’s name) collar, not in the constellation’s belt. Again, I think God is a lot like that. We look for the fantastic, the extraordinary, the miraculous. We never stop to realize that this creation we are present in and part of, is all those things. Which brings us back to the virus.

If god is entirely good and loving, god won’t do things that hurt god’s creation. But humans do do things that hurt creation, including themselves and each other. God is capable of taking the things that happen in the world and turning them to god’s purpose(s). So to say that god sent the virus to cause us to turn to god is, in psychological terms, transference or projection. It is to make god a human creation, not the other way ‘round. It is to say that as humans, we often respond more quickly to punishment than to affirmation. The reasoning is that since that’s the way we would do it, that must be the way god would do it. Old Covenant vs. New Covenant. Such reasoning is to miss the kingdom

There are many who believe if you haven’t accepted Christ as your savior, god isn’t present in your life. Afterall, Christ said “None may come to the Father but by me.” However, the Holy Spirit has many manifestations. One is what a friend referred to as “sneaky Jesus.” I see god active in the lives of those who deny his existence. How to reconcile this? Look for Big Sur. It’s there, whether you find it or not.

What would it look like if we were, as my friend said, to turn to the god who calls us? I think we see it all around us. The ideological lines (for this purpose) have disappeared. We help others, regardless of political, religious, sexual, or any other distinction. When we love our brother[4], we are heeding the greatest commandment, and its successor as well. For we are responding to that of god in the other, and we are loving our neighbor, no matter who that may be. Services may be canceled, but church is happening all around us.


[1] God is either genderless, or all genders. Referring to god in the masculine is one way we limit who/what god is.

[2] Many people have rejected organized religion, for a variety of reasons. Many of them identify as “spiritual but not religious (SBNR).” SBNR is the fastest growing “denomination.”

[3] Beware of categorical imperatives.

[4] Again, intended to be “all people.” Brother is the language Scripture uses. It can be helpful to consider who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Around here, neighbors don’t always live next door.

Crazy World

Especially in this time of isolation/social distancing, humor is good medicine. To that end, I’d post a thread on “funny stuff,” or “smile.” It is my belief that life approximates theater of the absurd, or vice a versa. In my experience, this (perceived) absurdity, which may be the quirkiness of the universe, or a sign of how little we actually understand the divine, is what gives life color. I can tell when my life is becoming impoverished because it becomes black, white, and shades of grey. It can be depression or spiritual hunger. The symptoms are similar. When life starts to get better, the color returns.
I heard someone say “Try to do at least one thing to make someone smile during the day.” Seems like good advice for all times, but especially at present.

California visit

The other day I drove to the Soquel demonstration forest. The GPS on my phone took me down Old San Jose Rd. to Summit Rd. At the junction with Old Soquel-San Jose Rd., Summit ended and turned into Hart Valley Rd. GPS said go straight. The road got narrow and lost its center line. Then, in the middle of nowhere, was a stop sign. No intersection. Just a place where the mountainside had slipped away silently in the night and taken half the road with it, so there was only one lane left. Stop and proceed when safe. There were other places where the mountainside had tried unsuccessfully to slip away in the night, indicated by a semicircular depression in the road. Still other places, boulders had come rumbling down the mountain, come to rest on the road, and been herded off to the side by the CADoT. I had seen the CADoT trucks with not quite snowplows on. They appeared more sturdy than a snow plow, apparently having been manufactured from 36” gas pipeline with a ½” wall. Furthermore, snow is very uncommon in the area. So the blades are used in rock and mud herding. You wouldn’t think a place like this would need to practice rock and mud husbandry, but I guess with no snow to plow, the DOT guys need something to do. Besides, this is California, home of sustainable mania. Properly managed, rocks and mud are sustainable. Good for them.

As mentioned previously, the GPS is feeling neglected. That causes it to be at least fractious and at most conniving. I should have been more on my toes. It said turn right onto Spanish Castle Magic Rd[1],which (after an appropriate distance of crawling around boulders, washouts and trees) had a sign: NO access to Soquel Forest.

Up to this point, I have neglected to mention a very important fact of life in California. Wildlife has the right to use public highways. As such, it has Right-of-way. California may seem progressive to an old conservative curmudgeon, but I realized they’re right. I’ve met a deer with my car, and the deer definitely had right of way. But California has taken the whole debate a step (or a whole marathon) farther. Given this whole thing with trees communicating, they’ve been granted sentience. And with that recognition came the privilege of right of way. So if a tree is in the road, you’d best yield to it as it approaches you.

Ah, you may protest, trees don’t move. Well, that may be true some places, but not in California. They’re so advanced out here with equal rights and such that they took Einstein’s theory of relativity and applied it to trees. If you’re driving thirty miles an hour, that means the tree is approaching you at thirty miles an hour. And the law says- -so it does- -that cars must yield to trees. Failure to do so will result in consequences worse than failure to yield to critters.

Then there’s the new legal debate over whether trees have standing. To ask if someone (thing?) has the standing is to ask whether they have the right to argue before the court. Normally, a reasonable person wouldn’t think to ask if trees can argue before the court. But I googled “who has legal standing” and a site from the Cornell legal whatever (associated with Cornell School of Law) offered this insight: “requirement that plaintiffs have sustained or will sustain direct injury or harm and that this harm is redressable.”[2] In this scenario, if you’re at fault for failure to yield right of way to the tree, and you peel off a patch of bark, the tree’s lawyer can argue that you owe the tree for pain and suffering and the value of lost wages and that patch of bark. Never mind that your car has been destroyed by the tree. If the darn thing hadn’t been going thirty miles an hour, none of this would have happened.

Myself, I would argue that trees have standing till they get cut down, at which point they’re laying. Of course then, the tree’s lawyer will argue that you’re guilty of murder and seek the chair[3]. See, this all goes back to trees being able to communicate. No doubt, while the tree was going down the road at thirty miles an hour, it saw a billboard: Injured? Hurt? And a picture of several saplings weeping around a stump (never mind that they were weeping willows), with the statement: Give the perps what they got coming! Call Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe! Free consultation! This is a very slippery slope, friends. Next roads will have standing, even though they lie like rugs. They’ll be able to sue you for giving them a pothole. However. Philosophical arguments aside….

The GPS was adamant that Spanish Castle Rd. was the one and only way to get to the Soquel Demonstration Forest that the only course of action left me was to hit override. I drove back to where I had cell service and called the number for the forest. See? More evidence of the sentience of trees in California. You can call the forest. And it will answer!

Hello said the forest.

Yeah. I was trying to get to the Soquel Demonstration forest and my GPS ran me up Spanish castle Rd. which has a sign on it that says no access to Soquel Demonstration Forest.

They do that a lot, said the forest. It’s a union problem. They’re bargaining for more. More what, I haven’t heard. But they want more. And until they get it, they’re going to keep driving people into lakes and giving wrong directions.

I see, I said. So… I’m hoping that as the forest, you can give me directions for how to actually get to you.

Gladly. Where are you.

Normally I would have no idea where I was. After all, I’m (as we say at home) not from around here. But for some odd reason (maybe it was the road sign). I’m at the corner of Summit and Old Soquel-San Jose Rd, I told the forest.

Yeah. Then go down Hart Valley Rd.

I just came from there.

And it told you to turn on Spanish Castle Road, didn’t it? Asked the forest


So don’t take that. Stay on Hart Valley Rd. The road will hang onto a side-hill. Mind the rock and mud gardens, the trees, and the washouts. After a bit it’ll get down near Corallitos creek and there’ll be a bridge on your right. That’s the access. Oh. And be careful. People get lost out there. I thanked the forest for being so polite and cooperative. And accurate with his directions.

I was ditty-bopping along at 15 mph giving right of way to trees and rocks and gophers. I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a dusky little bridge that would have been easy to mistake for a fallen-tree footbridge. They do have such trees out here. But it had boards on the surface and a zig-zag truss for a railing and a moss covered sign that said Enter here. A little further on, one said access to Soquel Demonstration Forest.

It’s second, or maybe third growth forest. Redwood sprouts 30” in diameter and 150’ tall holding silent vigils around seventy year old, moss covered stumps in their fairy ring circles. The part of the forest where the access brings you is low on the mountain. That’s not to say that it’s not steep or gulchless. But it was evident that it had been cat-logged, not high lead logged. And as I walked, I sensed the presence of the men who worked there before I was born.

There was the growl of the D-6 Cats as they bored their way up the mountain to access the timber felled by the cutters. There was the raspy buzz of the chainsaws, the echo of wedges being pounded. There was the yell of “timber,” the whoosh and earth-shaking crunch of another fallen giant. Trucks came in and were loaded with steam shovels. The men were rough and whiskery and dirty and smelled the pungent smell of redwood and piney douglas fir. They carried their saws on their shoulders and chopped square holes in the bases of the trees for springboards. I could feel them around me. I was in the middle of the hustle and bustle and commotion. And silence, among the ghosts.


[1] Ref: Jimi Hendrix. Spanish Castle Magic. The name of the road was Spanish Ranch Rd.

[2] https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/standing

[3] Capito punishment

In Search of Big Sur

Not to complain, but things haven’t turned out quite as planned. And not that that’s new, either. It’s just that once I’ve decided how things are supposed to work, it’s unsettling when they switch direction without telling me.

The other day, I drove to Big Sur. It was represented by a dot on the map, so I sort of assumed it was an actual collection of houses & shops. My friend John had recommended it as a place to go while I’m out here. He even said he & his wife lived there for several years. I punched that into the phone’s GPS, and off I went, with a side trip to Harry’s fabric spot in San Jose. There on the door was a sign, said “closed till further notice due to corona virus & BMP issued by the CDC.”

The GPS said it was an hour and twenty minutes to Big Sur, sixty-some miles. I left Harry’s and headed down CA route 1. It started out as an expressway. There’s a relatively wide coastal plain around Monterey Bay. The table-flat ground reminded me of the flatland near the great lakes. I guess one piece of flat looks like another. The farmers had it all tilled up and ready to grow the season’s crops. There were billboards for live artichokes, fried artichokes, sliced, diced and julienne-fried artichokes.

The expressway ended. So did the fields. The road turned to wiggles. The mountains ran their mountaininess right to the edge of the ocean. The sea worked itself into a froth arguing with the intransigent boulders unwilling to admit  that in the end, the sea would have its way. The road clung to the side of the mountains, often with its left foot planted on the shaky ground of the hillside and its right foot dangling in the air. The fact that I was driving on the right-foot side of the road was a matter of some concern.

There was a sign for “Pine Cyn.” Being from a state where the Welsh are responsible for such erratic, enigmatic names as Conyngham Drums and Bala Cynwyd, I wondered what a Pine Cyn might be. Then I figured it out. It’s their abbreviation for canyon. No Welsh influence here, thank you very much. The road wangled on.

My average speed was less than thirty MPH. It became clear how it could take an hour and twenty minutes to go sixty miles on an expressway. The expressway was a teaser. The road had a nasty habit of lurching up to a bridge across some cyn or another, hanging a hard right or left, then doing exactly the opposite on the other side, with a curve sign at either end that said “15 MPH” and some sort of acute arrow designed to impress on drivers that unless they were driving a Porsche, this curve means business. It’s the California version of West Virginia, where, at 2 AM, you’re confronted with arrows pointing at each other and you have to decide whether it’s one U-turn curve, or one curve this way followed by one curve that way a bit farther on. There’s a depth perception test to the WV signs that’s easy to fail at 2 AM, which is not present in the CA system.

I wound and wiggled and careened and cajoled along. The hills were bare, except for in some of the draws where there were instant redwoods. No transition, just bare to treed. There were a few cows on the hillside, and like the road, they wore stilts on their downhill legs to keep from tumbling into the sea.

The road took up away from the ocean, back along an apparent river, through a grove of trees. The GPS said “arrived,” and then “return to the route,” which is its way of saying “silly human. You missed it. Why don’t you pay closer attention?” I really had to take issue with the GPS, though. There was no town, just a tourist trap. Restaurant, lodge, cabins, store, gas station. Like the redwoods, all clones off the same root.

The restroom said “for use by customers only,” and while the urinal police appeared to be on break, I went in to get a Coke to comply with the spirit of the thing. $2.50 plus tax for a twelve ounce coke. I smiled and bit the bullet. I asked the clerk where Big Sur was, because this place didn’t seem to fit my image of what it ought to be. “Oh,” he said. “There’s a commercial district about eight miles down the road.” I thanked him. As I walked past the gas pumps on my way back to the car, I saw the price per gallon: $5.35. Tourist trap. Case closed.

With a harrumph I got back in the car. I continued south on the highway, that being the direction I assumed “down the road” to be. But after I’d gone fifteen miles and the sign said “Loma Lumpa 10” with no mention of Big Sur, I decided to reevaluate and reconnoiter. Maybe the clerk was from the Southern Hemisphere, where north is “down,” I don’t know. When I inquired of the GPS “oh great one, what have they done with Big Sur?” it conjured a dot north of the tourist trap. So I turned around in a pull-off. I stopped for a minute to take a picture of a rock the ocean gnawed a hole through, and headed back north.

I wiggled and wound and kept a close eye out for anything that looked like a community of anything, surfers or otherwise. I did see a car with its roof stacked full of surf boards, but that was as close as it got.

A word from the Faculty

A good friend of mine is a ceramics professor at Enormous State University (for those of you remember the comic strip “Tank McNamara”). He shared the following with me and gave me permission to post it.


Dear Colleagues and Friends,


Like many of us I am trying to make the best of a challenging situation. To be honest sometimes  I wake in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep. In today’s world there is no shortage of things to worry about.


In my own feeble way, I want to try and be of some help. I am trying to move forward with my online teaching. My heart goes out to my students and I want to do right by them. To, be candid I often think of the tuition they have paid and am challenging my-self to make this online learning experience worth their money and time.


This week I asked my students TWO QUESTIONS. And to answer them in around 150 words each.


  • Look at the palms of both your hands. Then think of something meaningful your hands have done in your lifetime and share this.


  • Think of something you are currently struggling with in your life that you are willing to

share with the class.



More than anything the reason I asked these two questions was so the students wouldn’t feel so isolated and alone. To try and build community.  I too plan to share my answers to these two questions with the class. We are all in this together. Some of the students have already responded. With the first question students often answered with a touching example of how they reached out to help someone in one inspirational way or another.


The answers to the second question have moved me emotionally beyond what I would have imagined. One student wrote about how difficult it was to be alone in her house quarantined  with her parents, who didn’t get along, with one having a drinking problem that only made things worse. Another wrote about having a lot of friends but longing to have a boyfriend and wondering why she has never had one.


You might ask what does this have to do with creating art?  Years of teaching have taught me that the more a student understands themselves the stronger their artwork. It is important to note I know full well I am not a psychologist and always try and keep the conversation in relationship to making art. And frankly with what we are going through currently trying to build community any way we can is paramount. Most of us are dealing with anxiety, I know I am.


In reading each other’s responses students are likely to feel less alone. And if history is an indicator time and again, I have witnessed students reach out to help and support each other.


Next week I will use ZOOM and talk and demo from my studio at home. Obviously, I want to continue to teach students to make the strongest ceramic art they can. Might be ask them to build nests or dig for clay and pit fire?  Also, I will include my dog Roka for a moment given every student has petted her at one time or another. I will make a point during each class that every student will have an opportunity to share a message with their fellow students.


As much as anything in the weeks ahead teaching online will be about building community.  Art is about community. I have found the best way to create community is by using what I call QLVS , which stands for Questions, Listening, Vulnerability, and Strength.


Truth be told, most of us,, my-self included don’t ask enough questions and are not very good at listening. Too often we are too insecure to share our own doubts and fears.  Sorry to be so direct but all too often I just hear people ramble on talking with-out being curious of other. Now more than ever is the time to simply ask a question and listen. As Thoreau once said “the biggest compliment I was ever paid was when someone asked me what I thought.”


I apologize in advance if the above sounds sanctimonious. It was my hope to just speak from my heart and try and be of some help?


With Love and blessings to you all during these difficult times,


Chris Staley


Student, Teacher, , and artist.


PS  In trying to think creatively for another assignment I am going to ask students to draw with a

felt tip pen Tattoo someplace on their body. A tattoo that they have been fantasying about  and possible doing.  Take a picture of this drawing and  then share both the image and the meaning behind the Tattoo. Could be interesting!




















Quakers & the Bible

I wrote the following in 2014. Hard to believe that’s 6 years ago. Hopefully this is the first of a series of posts. I’ve been writing, stuff just hasn’t been making it to the blog.      Martin Melville

My experience of Quakers and the Bible.

My parents were members of the Bethesda, MD Unitarian Church. In Sunday school, Bible stories were acknowledged with a wink and a nod. My mother was raised Methodist in north-central Iowa. We often had bible stories read to us for bedtime. We also had Greek myths and the little engine that could. They were all stories. God was out there, a force I eventually named Nature. But Jesus as savior? Not mentioned. When we visited my Iowa grandmother, I was encouraged to attend church with my friends who were mostly Lutheran. They spoke a strange religious language of salvation and human fallenness.

When I was old enough, I joined a Boy Scout troop. The scoutmaster was (as it turned out) a Quaker, though I only know of him attending Meeting once or twice. That was an interesting paradigm for practicing faith: until then, I had conceived of church attendance as essential to any practice or profession of faith. In hindsight, though, his conduct and calm demeanor in dealing with a bunch of ornery, rambunctious boys really was a model of the faith I was going to eventually join.

His wife and daughters did attend Sandy Spring Meeting. I was fond of Nancy, the oldest, and started going to meeting with them. We sat in meeting for a bit, then trundled off to First Day school. When Nancy and her family moved away, I continued going to meeting. One of the girls in the First Day school class invited me back, but I replied that I preferred Meeting.

In that time, in the early 1970s, transcendental meditation (TM)was the thing. I professed to be an agnostic, or sometimes an atheist, but “waiter” might be the most accurate term. I wasn’t seeking anything outside my mind. Not that I was self-absorbed, but my sense was that wisdom could come from within. There was not the intentional emptying of the mind typical of TM; I just worked with the stuff that was piled around the sides of the garage of my mind. For several years (it seemed) all I “heard” in Meeting was the loud tick-tock of the Regulator clock that hung on the wall. There was an elder who liked to talk about the power and the glory. There were anti-war messages. There was silence. There was a bible on a podium in a dusty corner of the meetingroom. Spirit was acknowledged. I was never aware that Christ was.

Fast forward 15 years. College. Marriage. House. Kids. State College (PA) monthly meeting. A reading group formed to study the Journal of George Fox. I was surprised to discover that this fellowship I had fallen in with had its roots in a very biblical sort of Christianity. Best kept secret around, I thought. Fox kept saying “this I knew experimentally.” I engaged in a seeking that was guided by an outward spirit, though I couldn’t have called it Christ at that time. It was different than the non-directed experience at Sandy Spring. I asked. I waited. Like the images in a “Where’s Waldo” picture, the answers (as promised) were present in the world around me. They were full of grace. They served to explain the Presence. And they often differed from the mainstream of Quaker thought. My demeanor took on a peace, a calmness that others noticed enough to comment on. The experience was mystical and transformative.

I read a smattering of other writers, notably Brother Lawrence, Parker Palmer and Henri Nouwen. I re-read Fox on my own “in the spirit in which it had been given,” (Fox, p. ?) and the words and times came alive for me. These all pointed (for me, at least) to the fact that if we live our lives “in the Spirit,” our outward needs are taken care of. So in a parallel to the research biofeedback generated in the ‘70s, I began to intentionally seek ways to find, and stay in, the Light, the Presence. In meeting, there began to be a shift in vocal ministry from being almost wholly Universalist (where Christian language and images were avoided, almost unacceptable), to a growing acceptance of Christ-centered messages. Now the balance is the other direction: Universalist messages are rare. When there is a balance, the movement of the Spirit is richer, broader, and deeper.

Our particular meeting attracts a significant number of people who found their previous religious experience inadequate. This pattern has been affirmed in conversations with friends at the yearly meeting level (Baltimore YM). Many have had their birth faith used as a hammer to attempt to forge them into conformity or some “shape” besides their own. The sentient response to negative stimuli is avoidance. A significant number deny that the Bible has any Truth to impart.

If one sits on the south side of our meetingroom, the ridge is behind you, out of sight. You can truthfully deny that there is a ridge. If you sit on the north side of the meetingroom, you can deny that there is a college with 40,000+ students, for then it is behind you, out of sight. If we are to apprehend any sort of balanced truth which we can then speak to the world, it seems to me that it is necessary to apprehend Truth wherever we find it. If the Bible is the ridge and our mystical experience is the college, we need to acknowledge that they inform each other. Mysticism that is grounded in our imperfect selves runs a great risk of “running off into imaginations,” as Fox would say (Fox, p. ?). The Bible and other works of wisdom literature are (dare I say) essential to keeping us grounded. Likewise, the Bible can be informed by mystical understandings of it. In many ways, these understandings bring to life radical (root, basic) understandings of what it means to live life in the Presence (of the Lord). This is true to such a degree that if we have faith and intention (which is part of faith) it is possible to live in unity with the Spirit here on earth. Not easy or common, but possible.

What should a Quaker reading of the Bible look like? First of all, for it to do any good, it needs to be opened and read. Decades ago, research showed that sleeping with a book under your pillow did not measurably increase knowledge. But given our audience, it needs to be opened gently, almost silently, to keep from scaring or further hurting timid souls. A wild animal can learn to eat from your hand. It takes quietness, stillness, an unimposing demeanor, patience. The animal has to think you have something it wants, some tasty morsel that is worth risking its safety for. For the timid soul, this can be food, shelter, nurture, for modern life has a way of grinding us up and spitting us out, and secular society tells us our needs are material. We know when our bellies are hungry; we forget to feed our souls. Like a 2-year old in the frenzy of play, we tell ourselves we don’t have time to eat. Like them, we get cranky. All we know is that something’s missing. We just can’t quite put our fingers on it.

Any reading of the bible for today’s audience must be relevant. This is the crucial intersection of the mystical and the traditional, the awesome and the mundane. I will hazard a guess that none of us knows kings or Philistines, at least by those names.

Humor helps. God has a sense of humor and playfulness that is often overlooked in the slate-sky colored landscape of judgment. Admittedly, not all is goodness and light.

A Quaker (and hopefully other denominations, too) reading of the Bible should give us tools with which we can live faithfully. The needs of the World are often overwhelming. One aspect of this relevance is understanding how it is that we are to Be, how we would look if we attained unity with Spirit. That, then, manifests in our behaviors (ministry) towards others. The more wholly we allow Spirit to guide us, the more wholly our lives are illuminated by and become, ministry. Ah. Another feedback loop. On the one hand, we develop the ability to tell the mountain to “get thee gone,” (Matt. 17:20) and on the other, we recognize that our own efforts, if they are uninformed by faith, are sadly finite.

I believe one of the strengths of the Society of Friends is its theological diversity. In order for that to work, we must come to realize that in some ways John Owen’s fear of there being as many readings of the Bible as there are people has come true (Owen, p. 850). On the other hand, I will argue that is as it should be: No one is being made a shape they were never intended to be. Each of us experiences God in our own unique way. On one hand, we need to realize that. On the other, we need to be open to at least hearing the truth others have to share from their own readings of the Bible.

Places of dis/continuity: Conservative meetings (such as North Carolina) are arguably closest to the original Quaker (eg. George Fox) reading of the Bible (pp. 31,32). That is what they will tell you is their goal (personal correspondence, Debra Fisch, Iowa YM (conservative)). To my way of thinking, orthodox and evangelical meetings have reverted to a puritan or Anglican reading (pp. 9-10). Modernist Friends and Liberal-Liberal Friends struggle to acknowledge its existence (class discussion).


Masters of Musical Whistling competition is in Pasadena this August. I had to submit an audition to qualify. The song is “Movin’ On,” by Gary Moore, formerly guitarist with Thin Lizzie. I’d highly recommend the album “Still Got the Blues” (1990).

Not perhaps my best work, sort of dashed it off this afternoon. My best stuff is impromptu acapella jamming, which isn’t a good fit for this competition. Let me know what you think. Posted at

Overlooking and Overthrowing Sexist Stereotypes

I listened to a program called “Hidden Brain” on WPSU yesterday. The NPR blurb says “Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.” Link:


Shankar interviewed a shrinkeloligist named Jennifer Bosson (sp?). She said she grew up in the 70s & 80s with a feminist mom who followed the conventional feminist rhetoric of the time: systemic oppression & discrimination against women by men in a patriarchal society is based in misogyny.

When she was in college, she liked a boy and thought he was cute. She asked another boy what he thought of Jim’s looks. Dave refused, or couldn’t give an answer. She wondered why.

Then there was the question of why it’s OK for women to work in “male” professions but not the other way round. In one of her studies, she had 1 group of men braid a blonde wig and tie the braids with pink ribbons. The other group did something more gender-neutral. Then she gave both groups the option to choose a second activity: shape-matching (like Tetris, I think), or working out on a punching bag. Most of the braiders chose the punching bag. She hypothesized that the braiders needed to recover or repair or reaffirm their masculinity. She said “[The image of] masculinity is difficult to earn, and easy to lose (or impugn).” In short, masculinity is fragile. Its roles are based in protection [of image], and fear of judgement by male peers.

Stereotypes (usually) exist for some reason. There is some grain of truth there somewhere. The fact is, though, that life is far more complex than any single label. When we find ourselves in that place where we run contrary to the stereotype, aka conventional wisdom, we may find that our work is to debunk it. Rather than resorting to intellectual argument to explain where stereotypes are wrong, it may be more effective to frame responses in story. This opens the possibility of changing the narrative.

Challenging the status quo can be uncomfortable in its own rite. Conventional wisdom is (often) that if a blade sticks above the lawn, it will be snipped off. Thus, to challenge may confront us with the possibility of such snippage. We may face rejection, ostracization, or worse. We may be pronounced “odd.” In the end, I will assert, it is better to carve one’s own path and be at peace than it is to conform and be oppressed or miserable.

Stuff Happens

The last time I jacked up the cab on the forwarder, the little jack-fed hydraulic cylinder that lifts the cab puked its guts, which rendered it nonfunctional. My solution that day was to use my truck’s scissor jack to lift the cab high enough to put the hydraulic bottle jack under the cab to get it high enough for me to do what it was I wanted to do (which is now lost in the mists of time). It wasn’t fast, but it worked.

The other day I went over to Gravel Point to put the tracks on. I noticed that I seemed to have a pretty good leak going on somewhere, the sort of leak that really should be fixed. It seemed to be under the floorboards, down in the belly of the machine. That meant jacking the cab up again, and the cylinder still wasn’t fixed. Not only that, it was rooted in the very bowels of the machine, in a place that could only be accessed by one person: Pretzelman (aka Dan). It appeared to me to be the sort of a place where you reached in through the inspection port with a left kink in your elbow, went about a foot and reached to the right around a bundle of prickly hydraulic lines, then back towards the rear of the machine. When your hand reached the destination, it was completely out of sight in the dusky cavern that lurks beneath the operator’s seat. The fingers had to find the nut for the anchor bolt, fondle the wrench until it fit on the nut, and turn it 1/16 of a turn. Of course they used a fine-thread bolt. I called Dan. He beat me there.

The cab needed to be tilted before anything else and of course (as I mentioned) the cylinder that was supposed to do the job was on strike. I got to thinking in that quizzical sort of way that I think sometimes, and I thought, now what if a person tied a rope to the light bar around the top of the cab, and threw the rope over the cab and hooked the come-along to it. It worked on paper. So I did that, only the light bar wasn’t going to be strong enough, so I tied the rope around the roots of the light bar where it was welded to the roof of the cab. That made it a shear load instead of a bending load, if that matters to you. Innovation in America is not dead.

Dan went to pretzeling himself around in the bottom of the machine, while still standing outside on the frozen ground. Pretty quick he looked like one of those contortionists that folds himself up in a box, pulls the lid shut and slaps the postage home on the outside (that’s the real trick, doing that from inside the box with the lid nailed shut). He had the cylinder out faster than you can say badger hound. On to the leak.

They say “follow the money” in CSI. In this case, it was more like “follow the oil,” which he did, and found the origins on the bottom of the valve bank. The leak wasn’t in the bottom of the machine at all. That’s just where gravity made it look like it was. We still need to change the tranny filter & fluid. That’s an ordeal for another day.

Before I even left home, I looked at the toolbox in the back of the truck. It’s heavier than most passengers, so it cuts down on acceleration and gas mileage. My little voice said “leave that in there.” Sometimes I listen; sometimes I don’t. I left Dan the pretzelman and took off down the highway, down to Tyrone, to look at a couple of trees for Frank.  This time I did listen. The toolbox was with me. Sort of like the Force (ref: Star Wars) Not being in a particular hurry, I stayed on the old road (which is very much the road less traveled these days since the interstate came through). I had been keeping an eye on the right front tire because it had a slow leak. The truck started getting a little squirmy and I thought “that feels like a tire going flat,” which is maybe a little like “that sounded like a snake,” but is actually quite different since my pickup doesn’t have duallies (a requisite feature to achieve the proper “that sounded like a snake” effect).

I came to a stop in front of Jensen’s junkyard. The right front tire was still happy. Apparently they had done a lateral and the flat was on the left rear. It went flatter after I came to a stop. There I sat, beside piles of cars and anything else you can imagine- -snowthrowers, bicycles, washing machines, an old milk can lurking beneath a rose bush, horse-drawn ag implements and jumbled piles of cars- -thinking “somewhere in this confusion there’s a tire that will fit my truck.

I called Frank to tell him I was going to be late and oh-by-the-way, might he be able to come and rescue me. He said no, he was up on Bald Knob doing his own confusion, trying to get a cylinder off his own machine so he could get it repacked, but where are you, he asked. I told him up here at Jensen’s, just above Ball Deagle. He said yeah, but where at Jensen’s. He said look for the gate. They live in the trailer up there in the middle of the junkyard. I was skeptical, since there weren’t any tracks (foot or otherwise) in or out, and the trailer blended in with the natural habitat, but I took his word for it and walked around the gate and up to the trailer. Frank called again. “He’ll be there in a minute. He was over at his son’s.” Presently a tattered minivan swung around the corner of the rutted road.

Watcha need?

Gotta flat on my pickup.

What fer pickup?

’02 Nissan.

Got none of them. Size are they?


Sure they’re fifteens?


Six hole?

Um. I think.

Yeah. So, down beside the trailer, there’s one. He said this like the trailer was a landmark, something I should know, in this sea of 100 acres of Detroitus. A guy was going to take it, he said, but his wife called and needed a ride to the hospital so he dropped it and there it lays.

Can you show me?

Shouldn’t. The missus told me not to go anywhere with the boy. I looked in the back of the van. There were no seats other than a single bucket occupied by a tow-headed boy of about 5. I guess Jensen saw my reservation. Aw hell. I’ll give you a ride down there. Let her squawk.

The passenger seat was occupied by man’s best friend, a 100-pound German Shepard. Jensen combination coerced, praised and muscled the shepard to get him to surrender his domain.

Is he friendly? Thinking of Jim Croce “badder than old king Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog.”

Yeah. No problem. And with a final shove he toppled the dog end for end, clearing the seat. Dog crawled up between the front seats and commenced to give me a good sniffing. I guess he doesn’t get many visitors.

We bumped down the lane, opened the gate and stopped next to my truck.

Back there, he said. Besides that trailer there’s that tire laying that the guy left when his wife called. I believe it will fit your truck. I rolled and carried it out across an archeological cross section of humanity. “I best be getting back ‘fore the missus misses me,” he smiled.

I know. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure. As he drove away I marveled at his grasp of his kingdom. A tire of a certain size in 100 acres of (seemingly) randomly stacked stuff. Just imagine how lost he’d be if someone came through in the night and “organized” it.

I stopped back at the trailer to pay for the tire. I knocked. No answer. I opened the door, and Dog let himself in to chow down on the cat’s food in the mud room. I knocked on the next door, but it wasn’t much of a knock, more like a thud, so I opened it and yelled “Helloooo! Any life-forms here?” but I got no answer. I could hear the TV. I poked my head in. Still no greeting. I followed the sound to the kitchen, which was in the far end of the trailer. Jensen was getting his ears pinned back for roaming with the boy, who was sitting on the kitchen table.

What do I owe you?

Twenty bucks. How do you know Frank?

I climb trees. I’m a squirrel. Over the years, we’ve done a good bit of work together.

How long you been doing this?

Since ’69.

Uh-huh. How old are you?


Whad you say your name was?

Martin Melville.

What’s yer phone number? Case I ever need a tree squirreled. Think I heard of you. From Joe.

Do you know how many Joes there are in the world? Ah. But context matters. Joe associated with Frank. Joe is his cutter, as we call fellers around here.

Tell you what. There’s an ash and a spruce over there at the house. I looked across the field of car roofs. The trees were a quarter mile away. If you’re not in too much of a hurry, mind giving me a price just to put them on the ground?

There are a collection of things about this whole scenario that amaze me. That Frank knows everybody in that valley. That he can call Jensen and say “see if you can help this guy out” is one. That Jensen knew where that tire and wheel were in that sea of stuff slated for recycling. That, had I taken the road more travelled, I’d have missed all of this and settled instead for a tow from the AAA guy. And not least of all, that little voice that told me to leave the toolbox in the truck. How much richer I am.



Query: Unity: what is it? Is it possible? Should we want it?

In the Quaker sense, unity occurs when a group of people share an understanding of what God is calling them to [do]. This is most commonly achieved in the context of (in our unprogrammed[1] case) silent worship as we seek to do the business of the Meeting (Meeting for worship with a concern for business). This practice of actively seeking to do God’s will can expand into other areas of our lives- -marriage and family, work (see Br. Lawrence)[2]– -ultimately anything we do can be done with the understanding that we all work in common for the “greater good.” Quakers call these divine intimations “leadings.”

In the mystical sense, unity occurs when we live fully and completely into the mind of God. Imperfect as we are, it is rare. It is also very beautiful, similar to enlightenment in Buddhism.

For a variety of reasons, we must test our leadings. Sometimes we impose our own ideas/agendas on our leadings. Sometimes the “noise” of what is popular in society overpowers the stillness of Spirit. Our ability to intercept and comprehend “God wifi” is imperfect, resulting in something like “I do not think I think what you think I think I said is what I think I thought I said.”

On a societal level, unity is much more difficult and may, or may not, be desirable. There is plenty of evidence that God created creation with the intent that it be diverse. In this sense, it is necessary to accept that unity is either a.) not desirable, or b.) that our work is to find the Truth in other points of view while gently sharing our own version. This process breaks down when we cannot agree on the basics (it’s green. No, it’s blue) or, as in the case of today’s “tribal” politics, each side views the other as monolithic anathema.

[1] Some Quaker Meetings have pastors. These are known as “programmed” Meetings. Unprogrammed Meetings depend on God/Christ/Holy Spirit to teach or inform us of what we are to do and how we are to live. We sit in apparent silence and listen for the Teacher in our hearts & from outside ourselves.

[2] Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence.


The hours slipped by

Soft and thick as velvet

No lines between them

They blended together into timeless



Somewhere in the night

Maybe between Hartford and New Haven

Landmarks blended and blurred, location not sure

The sodium lights flashed by

And the baby woke



She howled her displeasure

The only words she knew

Language uncomprehended by us

So we rocked and cooed and sang and shushed

To no avail

Answering all the wrong questions

In those timeless hours of



Ah Dunbar. From our perspective, so much of life resembles a broken play in a football game, or a broken forecast for the weather man or herding cats, which is a lot like breaking the balls in the first shot of a pool game, or even riding a pig backwards across a parking lot while the Amishmen fight to remain standing because they are laughing so hard at the silly Englishman who even presumed to give them such a show. Yet if we take a moment to stand back from our foibles, perhaps possibly and just maybe we’ll realize how entertaining life can be. As Judy is fond of saying, I had the choice of laughing or crying. I picked laughter. For me, it’s the sheer absurdity. Life indeed resembles theater of the absurd[1]. See, it was like this….

Liz who was Stell and is now hyphenated, Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy, Sue who was Smith but is now Zahradnick, and I who am Melville and as far as I can tell, will always be so, arranged to go rafting on the Youghiogheny, commonly known as the Yough only it’s pronounced “Yock.” The whole adventure occurred back in the days when all the four-wheelers had CB radios so they could learn, and pretend, to talk like the truckers who used them for such legitimate purposes as dodging Smoky the Bear, and since Wayz hadn’t been invented yet (hell, the PC hadn’t been invented), radidios were handy for keeping tabs on traffic and beavers and other necessary things. Of course, the first order of business was for all of us to actually get to the Yough.

For whatever reason, Judy and I picked up Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated, and headed up I-70 from suburban DC. See, we lived in Pennsylvania and Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated lived in DC, which is really not on the way from here to there unless you choose to go that way. After all, unlike Pennsylvania where you can’t get there from here, if you go to DC first, you actually can get there from here. Consider it a glitch in God’s plan. But anyhow, it was already dark when we picked her up, and the Yough was most of four hours away. We weren’t going to be early getting to the campground in the state park.

The late evening summer air had conspired with the hollows and valleys to conjure some most excellent fog, with the effect that when the highway was on a high ground hilltop everything was peachy and you could see the twinkle of town lights 20 miles away. But when you dropped down a grade into the hollow of the valley, the fog set upon you like thieves and just as quickly. So it was that the CB radio crackled.

“I can’t see.” It was said by a twangy voice reminiscent of George Jones, the Country singer. It was either a trucker or a very well-practiced four-wheeler. The comment went unanswered. The airwaves were silent for a moment.

“I still (pronounced steel) can’t see. Apparently he found himself in a long low spot. Another period of silence. We popped out of the fog onto a highground hilltop.

“I can’t see she-it.” This was long before the first Gulf war, when the national news alerted us to the fact that the fine folk of hot ‘Lanta expressed confusion as to the proper response concerning news of Shiite Muslims, being unsure if it was OK to talk like that in polite company. The trucker, unaware of such unborn nuances, rumbled into the night. Really, the rest of the trip was uneventful except for the deer bounding over the car, the flat tire and the guy who decided an alternative view of the universe would serve him better and so chose to breakdance his car down the highway on its roof in a shower of orange sparks. Small potatoes.

The Yough is in southwest PA, and though, for tax purposes, it is indeed a part of the Keystone state, culturally it is a northern extension of the land of the Hatfields & McCoys. Sally, who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick lived up in “da Burgh,” i.e. Pittsburgh, about an hour and a half away. In those days, we had to use folded paper maps of whatever state we were in, except unless if we had a Rand-McNally road atlas, most famously known for putting little grey roads in areas where there weren’t other travelable roads. Call it artistic license. We consulted our foldy map and discovered that we could cut half an hour off the travel time up to da Burgh if we took this little blue road, the foldy map’s equivalent of Rand McNally’s grey roads. Just go out of the campground and instead of turning left towards Ohiopyle, go straight. After some twists and wiggles and some unmarked side roads that didn’t even warrant blue status, it seemed we should pop out over on US 119, a little south of Connellsville, south of da Burgh. The roads suggested themselves. Where there was a fork that didn’t appear on the map, we took the one more traveled. Hah! Take that, Walt Whitman! We knew things were going as planned when we came into this little nub of a town just before we hit 119. The sign said Village of Dunbar in gold letters on a blue background with a Greek key squiggly pattern outlining the sign. Just a little black dot on the foldy map.

We headed north on 119, which is the direction to go if you want to get to Pittsburgh the short way. If you turn south, it’s 23,950 miles, which is a lot longer than 50, and there’s this small problem of a couple of oceans and getting across Antarctica. Besides, we wanted to go rafting the same day. As we went up the highway, we passed used equipment dealers with old, dead, non-resurrectable mining equipment: steam shovels with no bucket or tracks, old Cats, so old they used a cable and winch system instead of hydraulic cylinders to raise and lower their blades. That didn’t seem like much of a problem, because they lacked engines and other seemingly necessary bits commonly used for the operation & mobility of such dinosaurs. There were used car lots where cars were missing headlights or windows or other things the rest of the world considers essential. But, see, in West Virginia, that’s still a “good runner.” You could almost get the idea mining had left, and nothing came in to take its place. The resulting vacuum spoke of hard times. Even the used equipment dealers and the used car lots had barbed wire fences and padlocked gates. I guess they didn’t want to lose any more headlights.

We picked up Sally without incident. We took the correct left turn to whip into Dunbar, came up to a tee in the road. Turned right. Then left. Some wiggles. Another turn. We followed the road more traveled, and in a jiffy we were in Ohiopyle, ready to get swamped, drenched, chundered and all the other fun stuff that goes with whitewater rafting. The water level was nice, not too high, not too low, sort of a Goldilocks kind of level. The air was warm. Birds were claiming their stake in their annual mating rituals (singing). In the best tradition of the movie Deliverance, what could possibly go wrong?

Now if you’ve ever watched Deliverance, you’re aware that there was some, um, tension depicted between the city slicker river rats and the locals. That dynamic was real. Not only that, I fit the part of typical river rat: a lanky hippie-looking kid of 20-something who (unless you knew me) could easily be judged as one of them mara-je-wanna smokin’ liberals bent on the destruction of society as we know it. Hey Pony tail, you know you look like a girl? Hmm. Let me check. Yeah. And my sox don’t match either. I was way ahead of my time. But that’s for later. We launched the raft below the falls. The park guys got kind of pissy if you ran the falls. Maybe that was because they called it illegal. What’s a 35-foot waterfall. Schmaterfall.

We wound our way down through the first section, known as the loop. I steered. They paddled. Everything was going great. We were singing “Oh what a beautiful morning” until we took the hydraulic in Railroad rapid sideways, which is a recipe for disaster. We were only a little sideways. It didn’t care. The hydraulic grabbed the tail of the raft and, in the best tradition of guide and passenger ejection, pwanged (or is that pa-wanged?) Judy out of the raft.

They say you shouldn’t run any rapid you wouldn’t want to swim, because sometimes you wind up swimming whether you planned to or not. The guidebook warns that the hydraulic there in Railroad, which hydraulic is known as Charlie’s washing machine, is not a good one to swim. There’s something about “if you swim this hydraulic, you will know what it’s like to get flushed down a toilet.” It’s not a keeper, one of those hydraulics that recirculates you again and again. Getting recirculated really isn’t that pleasant. The river has this game: it knows you like your air. So it dunks you. Then, as you’re coming up towards the surface, it whispers “quick! Get a breath while you can” And as soon as you open your mouth for a gasp of air it invariably smacks you directly in the mouth with a smack of water and chuckles as you sputter. Needless to say Judy, who was liminally afraid of water to begin with, was not amused by the hole’s treatment of her. Sort of took the shine off her day. Of course, it’s always more fun watching someone else get trashed than it is to do it yourself.

Naming rapids is a long and colorful tradition. Cucumber… because it’s shaped like one. Railroad is called railroad because there’s a railroad bridge just downstream of it. Stunningly original. I’m going to go way out on a limb and speculate that somewhere in the distant past, a fellow named Charlie got famously abused in the hydraulic that today bears his name. River’s end… the river takes a hard left behind a gigantic rock and it really looks like there is no more river. Of course like an episode of Star Trek, you know Kirk is going to squeak out of whatever jam he’s in. The river and the show both continue. Dimples, or dimple rock, has a darker side to it. In the early days of whitewater paddling, aluminum canoes were the weapon of choice. Never mind that the soft aluminum caught on rocks in such a manner as to throw the passengers through the windshield. That was in the days before seatbelts, when you could still go through the windshield if you wanted to. Aluminum canoes were also really good for gift wrapping rocks, which was a simple enough trick for a rookie. Get sideways to the current. See the rock downstream. Lean upstream in an intuitive effort to avoid said rock. Ship water. Fill with water. Impinge on the rock you were trying to avoid. Glub. [Rock’s] mission accomplished.

Here it is important to realize that a canoe full of water weighs about 2,000 pounds (908 kg for those of you playing along at home with enquiring minds which need to know). You get it going a couple of miles per hour, just add rock, and voila! Nice shiny wrapping on a rock. Only this was even more sinister (left-handed, if you must know). Dimples rock was undercut, so that when the unfortunate paddlers capsized, the bottom of the river swallowed their boat. No one ever admitted to being the boat’s owner. It was found late in the low-water summer by some Folboters out for a hike because they didn’t want to tear the canvas on their Folbot which was a kayaky thing with a wood frame that folded up sort of compactly when you wanted to transport it, and a rubbery canvas skin that stretched over the frame. The aluminum was still shiny, to some degree. The water rippled and shimmered. The boat’s name was dimples. The name of the rapid memorializes that fact. Shoot, it would almost be worth losing your boat to get a rapid named after it. Nah.

Half a bony mile below dimples rock is swimmer’s rapid, sort of the final insult  because if you capsized at dimples, and the current played pinball bouncing you off the bony stones for that half a mile, the hydraulic at swimmers was going to give you one final nasal enema before the slack water. This is such fun. I’m sure you can see why we do it. Then came double hydraulic.

As the name implies, it was a double hydraulic, one right after the other. That very self-same guidebook that enlightens prospective victims about the toilet-flushiness of Charlie’s washing machine, drolly notes that the first one (hydraulic, also known as a hole for obvious reasons if you’ve ever spent time in one) slows the prey down. The second one captures it. There’s a nice eddy below the rapid, where we pulled out to eat lunch.

What to our wondering eyes should appear but a raft full of turkey boaters, which is a kind way of calling them inept. They either didn’t read the map the outfitter gave them, didn’t know where they were, couldn’t control their raft, or possibly all of the above. While they took dainty little paddle strokes like they were sipping tea at brunch, the current directed them directly towards the two holes. And just as the guidebook predicted, the first one slowed them down and the second one stopped them. While the hole didn’t capsize their raft (as holes are prone to do), it wasn’t about to let them go, either. They were there, as Flo used to say in her Texas accent, on the sitcom “Alice,” for the duration pronounced as two words: doo-ration. And so they were. The hole spun them around. It munched on the upstream tube, like a cat with a vole. The turbulence of the water tore the bottom out of the raft and one by one it sucked the turkey boaters out of the raft like you’d slurp a strand of linguini. Finally there was one lonesome, terrified rafter left spinning round & round when another raft committed the same error of the first hole and the second hole and bumped the lonely rafter out of the second hole. Then they were stuck. Sort of a river version of rinse & repeat. It was the best show we’d had in many a trip. It’s always good, even if there but for the grace of god go I, when turkey boaters get munched. I even think it brightened Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy’s spirits a little. Being flushed down a toilet was apparently pleasant (in her mind) compared to the fate of the turkey boaters. I think she enjoyed the show.

Back at the campground, we regaled each other with tales of rocks vanquished and feats of extraordinary wateriness while we burnt tofu burgers on the fire grate. The thing about days like that, though, is that dirt would taste good. Hungry and alive and relaxed and exhausted. Anything tastes good. Sadly, Sally who was Smith but became Zahradnick had to be returned to her home in Da Burgh. Sally, Judy, and I, piled back in the ’68 Corona and plied the trail back that way. This was the third trip on those roads more traveled. The horse knows the way and all that other trite stuff. Only by now it was dark. And sometimes it’s the things your brain thinks it knows but doesn’t really that get you in trouble.

We dropped Sally who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick off at her ‘rents house a little after eleven, got out of Squirrel Hill and followed the signs for Connellsville. It had gotten late. Traffic was sparse. There was reason to believe that what traffic there was originated at either the Legion or the VFW, endowing the drivers with a certain undulant narrative. Anyone who hadn’t been to a watering hole was most likely looking for headlights.

We spotted the turn for Dunbar, a nondescript township road with no street light and no sign. As an official nub off the highway, it didn’t even rate for a borough sign. No road sign. It turned inky dark. We came to a T. Which way? Left seemed the most traveled. Left it was. Driveways branched off, left and right. A township road to the right. Another to the left. Two more to the right. The road most traveled got a little narrower. The yellow line disappeared. It had only been a single stripe, but it was a stripe nonetheless. Now it was gone. The hardtop turned to gravel, then dirt, and ended in the side yard of a ramshackle farmhouse. An old Ford pickup up on blocks presented its tailgate, verifying the end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Weeds, even small trees, were holding a vigil around it. The yard was mostly red dirt, where it wasn’t stones. The rump of a Farmall M strained to support a splay-doored shed. It was about midnight, but there was a light on in the upstairs room. There was hope for directions. Being a warm summer night, the sash was open. I beeped the horn as quietly as possible. Their hound bawled.

A woman in a nightgown pushed the shade aside. She was a lot older than us, sort of saggy in the places younger women aren’t, her hair the color of iron filings.


Um, we’re kind of lost. We’re trying to get to the state park. Bad call. It pegged us as river rats. Or maybe it was a ruse & we were going to rob them. Either way, it earned us about as much grace as someone looking for a gas station during the1974 gas shortage.

How did you get here? Twenty questions.

Pittsburgh… off 119… trying to get to the state park…wrong turn… lost… directions? Please?

Yer not one of those hippy-types, are you?

No Ma’am. Extra polite.

About that time I saw the kitchen door open. There were lights over the counters, and a pole light in the yard. A man- -without reason I assumed it was her husband- -was coming toward me. He wore boxer shorts and a muscle man shirt known colloquially as a beater – short for wife beater. He had at least a three day beard, stubbly and grey, and a stain of chewing tobacco juice at the corner of his mouth. He walked like a bulldog. He wasn’t overly large, but there was no way I was trusting him. I noticed that he held both hands cupped at his sides. His arms hung stiffly. His carriage seemed unnatural, artificial. I began to back away. There was a glint between his thumb and forefinger in the shine of the pole light. A flash of revelation. He was sloppily concealing a Derringer in the palm of his right hand. Yikes!

I held up both hands.

What’re you doin’ here? Really? Nothin’ funny. Don’t nobody come back this road this time of night lest they’re up to no good. His voice was as stubbly as his face.

Sir, you give me directions back to 119 and you’ll never see me again. Hippies and guns aren’t really such great friends. Just think of Dennis Hopper at the end of Easy Rider. He brought the gun into plain sight and put his finger on the trigger. With a barely audible grunt, he motioned toward the car. The only directions he gave were a wave of the gun and the words “that way.”

For some reason that I’ve never really been able to pin down, I was a little rattled. Maybe it was the three-day silver grubby stubble, or the beater, or the way his wife (presumptuous as that might be) acted as a diversion while he crept out the kitchen door. Or the gun. I’d never been on the receiving end of a gun before. I put as much distance as I could between me and him as I could as quickly as possible. The Corona leapt over rises in the road that weren’t even noticeable as less than light speed.

Unbeknownst to me, they organized that little nub of a town in a series of interlocking circles. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the pole light. The upstairs light wasn’t on any more. We turned around and left as quietly as we could. No shots were fired.

We got the scenic tour of that little burg. It even got to the point where we recognized certain corners, but the road over the ridge to the park refused to show itself.

It was about this time that the smoke began rolling out from under the hood of the car. I stopped and flipped it open. The rag I kept on the firewall for wiping the dipstick when I checked the oil had fallen down on the exhaust manifold and was smoldering. I reached back in the car, grabbed my coffee and poured it on the rag. That at least cooled it off enough to grab the rag and evict it from its subhoodian residence. Fortunately for me, that crisis happened in front of another house where the light still burned. Was that a smirk, or a chortle I heard from Judy who joined my conspiracy and became Melville?

This was a more prosperous residence: a ranch house with vinyl siding, wrought iron columns on the front porch. The yard was grass. Mowed grass. There was a lamp post at the end of the driveway with a cute little manicured flower bed and a couple of rug-junipers and a garden gnome. It seemed the risk factor wasn’t near as high as the first place we stopped.

The TV was on. The doorbell button glowed to the left of the door. The tones chimed inside after I pushed the button. From inside I heard

“Just a minute.” The door opened. The man was dressed. Button-down shirt in uniform blue, with “Clyde” on the left breast pocket. (It’s amazing how many people know your name when you wear that shirt. Then again, perhaps it’s more amazing how many people still don’t know your name). Perhaps he worked second shift and was just winding down at one in the morning.

My gaze wandered from his face to his shoes. In between, his hand held a nice Colt .45 with a 12 inch barrel. There it was in the open; no attempt at sneaky concealment. It was pointed at me.

Can I help you?

We’re lost. We’ve been looping around this little town for an hour. We can’t seem to find the way back over to the state park.

“Ah, well. This place is like that. Just go back this way,” he said pointing down the road with the gun. “Take your next left. That’s the road.”

I thought about telling you we got lost again and this time we found a guy who pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at us, but that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t want to be accused of making this kind of stuff up.

Next morning, Liz who used to be Stell but is now hyphenated asked us, over Cheerios, in a polite and conversational voice how our trip to Pittsburgh was. I guess she didn’t hear us roll into the campground at 2 in the morning. Somehow she didn’t cue into our blurry red eyes. I’ll never know how or why. Maybe that has something to do with why her last name isn’t Melville.


[1] Waiting for Godot is a favorite of mine.

Coffee Cup

The sun got broken today

Dislodged from its tripod pedestal

By the rap of the rump from a rambunctious Rover

It landed on the floor

And shattered.


You are my sunshine

Colorful shards

My wrath flared at the rollicking, clueless Rover

Though in my heart I knew it was

My fault


My attachment to things scolded me

It was just a mug, after all, but more than a mug. A symbol

A reminder every morning of my love for my mate

Assuaging fear of separation at the end

Of life

coffee cup

Smokin’ Rats

Smokin Rats

Note: no rats were harmed in the writing of either this story or the song. Some events in this story are actual. Others are fictional. I apologize if anyone is offended. The attempt is to bring into view the absurdity of daily life through humor.

Smokin’ Rats is the song. I’m no professional musician… still, I think it works. Through the miracle of technology, I can both whistle and accompany myself. Smokin Rats Story is an audio version of the following essay. Friends seem to enjoy hearing the stories.

It’s been many years at this point, since we bought our first house, just mom & dad, Elise and me, Jenny. It was over the mountain, in Milroy, an was an old grey farmhouse we bought from Matterns. I don’t think its goal in life was to be grey. It started out as a drafty plank-sided house insulated by old newspapers. Then I guess, in an attempt to reduce the draftiness, Matterns put blue aluminum siding on, but the blue oxidized to grey and that’s how it stands today.

The house had a dank basement with rows and rows of shelves for canned goods. The foundation wasn’t dry-laid, but there were more chinks between the stones than there was mortar. It was the sort of pace that was terrifying to my sister because, as John Prine sang, “The air smelled like snakes[1]….” It wasn’t the cucumberiness of copperheads. It was more like the sleek blackness of rat snakes, an impression given all the more credibility by the 5-foot long pair seen slithering gracefully up the Keefer pear[2] tree just off the corner of the back porch. Where there be rat snakes, there be rats. Equally terrifying for a six year-old sister. Fascinating for a nine year-old me. The imagined rats (for we knew of their presence only from the presence of the snakes. Everybody knows that the snakes are there because the food’s not far away) were the basis of little stories I made up about their families and how the daddy rats went off to work in the morning and how the mommy rats fed us kids breakfast and sent us off to rat school while they stayed home and watched rat TV and crocheted a new throw for the back of our ratty couch. There were other stories where the mommies went off to work and were moguls and stuff like that, too. They were an endless source of inspiration.

The upstairs walls were horsehair plaster, and I used to imagine the outlines of countries following the cracks in the walls and on the ceiling as I lay in bed on summer mornings, waiting for the alarm to go off. My sister, Elise, on the other hand, imagined armies of spiders emerging from the cracks. The steps creaked when no one was on them, and sometimes when the winter wind howled in the eaves the whole house seemed to moan. She was sure there were ghosts. Even if I thought I knew better, these were notions I did my best to bolster. After all, what are sisters for?

Dad always told us to treat each other as people, not sisters. It wasn’t until we became adults that we would have any inkling what he was driving at. We did understand, however, that he wanted us to quit digging and jabbing each other. For instance, we’d be going somewhere in the car. “Da-ad. She’s in my space. She’s touching me. She’s making faces at me.”

“So ask her to stop.” And some words were said to that effect in a sing-songy voice and the period at the end of the request was a stuck-out tongue. Ah, the subtleties of internecine warfare. Follow the form for peace-making while continuing the provocation. The tongue was returned by a kick to the shins, which in turn was rewarded with a bop on the head. Howls ensued. Dad gave a look to mom that said ungracefully “shut them up.” She turned around, burned a hole through the back seat with her gaze, and proceeded to calmly, in a measured voice, to inform us that we’d best behave or we’d find ourselves walking home. It was her most extreme version of the old saw “don’t make me stop this car or there’ll be hell to pay,” and usually it was sufficient to at least lower the level of poking and prodding to some liminal amount. There was, I have to admit, the time we united as sisters there in the back seat and escalated the conflict into a full-fledged nail scratching, hair-pulling full-howl brawl. The car stopped. We were ordered out. The car drove away. We looked at each other in disbelief. After some recrimination concerning whose fault the present situation was, we both had one of those moments of revelation. We knew on some level that mom & dad were not prone to making idle threats. Sometimes it is best not to play “poke the ogre,” or at least recognize when it’s time to quit. In the best played game of “poke the ogre,” the time to quit is while clemency is still available, just before they stop the car. We had found out what happens when we “made them stop the car.”

All that aside, I was (mostly) daddy’s girl and Elise was mommy’s. I loved the outdoors. I helped him with the firewood and building sheds and mowing the grass and the vegetable garden. There were rocks to flip over searching for newts. The compost pile was a great place to dig for worms to go fishing in Coffee Creek, a quarter-mile from our house.

There was the abandoned house next door. Sometimes Elise did play out doors. She was sure the house was haunted. The game was to demonstrate nerves of steel as follows: burrow under the bottom strand of the rusty barbed wire fence that separated our houses, sprint to the house and touch it, and be back on our side of the fence before you could say “boo!” or the ghost got you, whichever came first. Elise watched, but no amount of dare, double dare, double dog dare or any other kind of insinuation and character assassination was motivation enough for her to even burrow under the fence, much less touch the house. She was sure I would “get mine,” and was more than willing to let me take the risk. On some level, it was the nonchalant game of “kick the chick out of the nest,” with the intent of getting more devotion from the parental units. I wasn’t afraid of that old house.

You just never knew what sorts of adventures lay waiting on summer mornings. The rooster might be out. The goat might be standing on top of mom’s car. The pigs, well you can read about the pigs elsewhere. That’s a whole ‘nother story. The neighbors might be burning their trash which was a time-honored tradition and competition (competitive trash burning. Next Olympic sport), which doesn’t sound all that adventuresome, except they tended to include the aerosol cans with the trash. When the cans blew up (as the inevitably did) the formerly smoldering trash erupted into flame as it gasped enough air while soaring across their back yard. It was pretty harmless fun. I think the worst I ever saw come of it was when Jones caught his compost heap on fire.

Daddy told me that different animals have different ways of showing interest in what the news man would call current events. Horses put their ears forward. My aunt’s cockatoo raised its crest. So, one Saturday morning I was riding around on the lawn tractor with daddy when our ears went forward and our crests went up. Jeff Shockley, our other neighbor across the alley had a dog kennel that sat next to his garage. He worked at the fertilizer plant over in Burnham. He had a good beer belly going. If he’d have been a woman, we would have called him frumpy. But really, we were what you’d call “waving neighbors.” Dad knew Shockley enough to wave at him. I knew him less. I never knew the dog, never even saw it in the kennel. He’d take food out in the evening, and in the morning it’d be gone. This morning he was on some sort of mission. Apparently he had a rat problem, and not enough rat snakes.

What put our ears forward and raised our crests was this: He was walking around the outside of the kennel with a gallon can of gasoline. Every so often, he tilted the can and poured out some gas. What was he up to? Mot wishing to gawk too much, we mowed the same patch of grass about four times. His rats had burrowed in from the perimeter of the kennel. Sort of a reverse Hogan’s Heroes, where they burrow into prison instead of out. When he tilted the can, the gas went down their holes. We figured that he figured to “gas them out.” We were correct in a way. However, we misunderestimated his determination in the matter. His next step took us both (all?) by surprise. He lit a match. He tossed it. The fumes ignited. The holes, as we soon found out, emerged under cover of doghouse. Bawoom! The ground shook! The collective oomph from all those holes underneath, lifted it more than a foot off the ground. As the dog house returned to earth, the explosion vented itself in the other direction, around the edges of the kennel. We congratulated ourselves for our patience in mowing and re-mowing that patch of lawn for the reward of such a show. It paled next to the finale.

As mentioned, it was not uncommon to see flaming garbage sailing across a yard. This finale was both horrifying and entrancing. Like tracer rounds or contrails, a dozen or so smoke trails arced across his back yard. It took a moment to comprehend. We looked at each other quizzically. What was that? From whence cometh the smoke trails? Realization dawned. The human cannonball of circus fame, in multiple, rattine form.  Smokin’ rats.

The lead story (memorialized in song) on rat TV News at 5: Explosion at Relief Mission Kills Twelve. Investigators have determined that a gas leak was responsible for the deadly explosion at the Dog House Kitchen….


The song…. Smokin’ Rats

There was a man

Who had a dog

That lived behind his house

And every day he’d take that dog

And bring him out some food

And every night them rats come out

And steal that doggie’s food

‘the man got mad and one day he said

I’m getting rid them rats


Smokin rats, O smokin rats

Shootin’ ‘cross the yard

Smokin’ rats them smokin’ rats

Life can be so hard

Smokin’ rats them smokin rats

All they’s tryin’ ‘do

Was eke them out a little livin’

Just like me and you


Well one day that man came from in his house

with gallon can of gas

He poured it down those rattie’s holes

And touched it with a match

The boom was a loud, and then the ground shook too

The flames flew out, the man just smiled

And out came smokin’ rats




Now the dog house leapt up off the ground

At least a foot or more

From that ‘splodin’ gas-o-line, like I said before

And the rats left little trails of smoke

As they sailed across the yard

The man knew then full, good & well

Those rats won’t steal no more




Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

And you might be one of them

Just remember what is said

There’s some who think that eking out

A living is plumb wrong

But when the ground shakes and the flames fly out

You’d better be long gone




Alt. Last verse:

Now in this life there’s lots of folks

Who’ll try to steal your bread

Or you just might be one of them

Remember what is said

There’s some who think that stealin’s wrong

And those who just get by

When the ground shakes and the flames fly out

Your judgement day is here.


[1] John Prine, “Paradise.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vC65_cq0Js

[2] Known as a “winter pear” because they could be stored for the winter. When they fall from the tree, they’re hard as rocks and not very sweet, but they get a little tastier as the winter goes on. Mostly they get raked up & fed to the livestock or thrown in the compost heap today.

Mom: Theater of the Absurd

It’s a fact of life. We grow old and die. There are a lot of ways to do that. I think they all involve some degree of grieving. My mother passed away in the spring of 2016, a month short of her 97th birthday. Here are some reflections.

The phone rings and rings. She’s hard to get ahold of. It’s not that she’s not there. She sleeps a lot. More even, lately. Maybe because it’s easy. No permission required. No one to interact with. Besides, she’ll tell you, there’s nothing to do. Her friends are dead. The activities the retirement community puts on aren’t to her liking. So she sleeps a lot. More, lately.

But when she does wake up, she calls my brother, John. He’s her anchor. I’m the baby even though I’m almost 60. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t call me. He lives closer, too. He can be there in an hour if she needs him. He’s her window to the world, the one bit of certainty she remembers. He has the answers. She’s sure of that.

Her world is becoming like the tunnel vision of a glaucoma patient. There are shadows in the periphery of her vision. Those shadows, the people and things she used to know. My father, her husband. Died in 2006 at a ripe old age. Is he out of town? I haven’t seen him recently. Do you know where he is? My grandmother, her mother. Died in 1970. She says John, I want to go visit her, but she won’t answer my calls. My brother Bob. Died in 2010. Have you seen him? I need to talk to him about the farms. She calls him, the one thing she can count on. Maybe she doesn’t call every day. The questions, though. They’re the same. It’s like when the kids used to watch the same Sesame Street episode again and again. It drives him nuts. Like the two-year old who’s learned that “why?” elicits a response, she calls. It grinds his gears.

My father’s sister took care of their mother. When I was a teenager, I’d visit grandma in Worcester, MA. I’d do yard work. She’d regale me with tales of the past and make pancakes without any baking powder for me as a special treat and then be sorry she forgot the baking powder. I told her not to worry, the intent was good. They were made with love. She still had her own house up on the hill then. It was a few years later, she moved in with my aunt. And drove her nuts.

When’s the news on? She’d ask. How long until the news is on? My aunt professed Episcopal piety, but apparently that piety didn’t extend to the water torture of how long until the news is on. She could be pretty nasty about it. The news was my grandmother’s window, looking out into a world that had become the image presented by a pinhole camera. When the news was on, she still felt connected. (this was before CNN). When the news was over, it was like it never happened. The questions resumed almost immediately.

11-29-15. It was a raucous Thanksgiving, the kind my brother characterized as “a bunch of introverts sitting around ‘socializing.’” That pretty much nailed it.

Mom’s 96 and not as sharp cognitively as she once was. Her hearing isn’t all that great, either. She still enjoys conversation, and she’s still trying to make sense of life even as it becomes more remote. She no longer lives at home. The County got involved somehow and edictified that either she had to move out or she had to hire a live-in caretaker. Being of the 7th stage of man (everybody’s trying to rip me off), she couldn’t find a way, even when confronted with the choice of hiring a person or being moved to a “home,” to hire anybody. So she lives in a “home.” It’s a nice place. Not cheap. It sort of reminds me of a automobile junkyard, filled with shells of people who lived lives and had families and love and loss, shells like the skeletonized leaf I saw the other day. Transparent. Frail. A sketch of its living self.

She dispassionately says she hates the place. Maybe she does; maybe she’s reaching out, trying to evoke any reaction from the world so that she can still feel alive. I don’t want to go back there, she says. Conversation, like a 2-year old asking why, to get some response- -any response. In the words of Pink Floyd, “Is there anybody out there?”

John brought her over to dinner. They were having Thanksgiving there at the home, he said. Who would want to have Thanksgiving there? He asked, with a note of disgust in his voice. The question was real. There was doubt, angst, trepidation, maybe even a little fear behind it. Disgust is too simple a word for what his voice carried. Sadness? In the next breath, he detailed the adventure that had constituted getting Mom into his little, low-slung car. Each month when we take her to the pancake breakfast at the Methodist Church a mile or so from the blessed, berated home, it gets harder and harder to get her in the car. Her strength is fading. Entropy is harder and harder to resist. I don’t know. Maybe there will come a day when we can’t get her over here. We could still have dinner with her there. She likes the company.

Dinner in 3 acts.

Judy and I agreed to take her back to Kensington Park, the home. The conversation runs a lot like dialogue in a theatre of the absurd production. As with such a play, there’s no point in getting upset with the characters. They may (or may not) see life as the enterprise it actually is. After all, who’s to say what constitutes reality or delusion.

“Where are we going,” she asks.

“Back to Kensington Park, where you live.”

“I hate it there. Does this road go near Melwood?” Sometimes the world encroaches through her fog.

“Yep. We’ll go by Melwood.” My sister worked there for several years. Mom was an active supporter of the place, though not without friction in the later years of the engagement.

“What road is this?”

“Route 4.”

“Why are we going this way?”

“It’s the way back to your place.”

“I don’t seem to be able to get a hold of Mother.”

“That would be because she died in 1970.”

“Oh.” (Puzzled silence. We take the ramp onto I-495). “Is this the right way?”

“Yep. This is the way to Kensington.”

“Look at all the people.”

“Yep. They all had their Thanksgiving dinner and now they’re headed home. Lots of traffic.”

“Does this go to the Beltway?”

“This is the silly circle.”

“The what?”

“That’s what truckers call the Beltway on the CB radio. So, yes, this is the Beltway.”

“Oh. Look at all the people. Where do you think they’re going?”

“Like the wind, they’re going from someplace to someplace else.” (this was what she told me when I was little and asked what the wind was. “Lots of air going from someplace to someplace else,” she’d say) “In fact there are so many going the same direction that they cause a whirlpool, and all the rubbish settles out in the center, which is about where the Capitol is. No wonder the government doesn’t work very well.”

“Hmmmph! I don’t like sycamore trees.”

“Why? Their bark is pretty.”

“I think they’re plotting to take over the world.”

“Well now. It’s all about market share, isn’t it. Just because they want to make more sycamore trees doesn’t make them inherently bad, does it?”

“I still don’t like them. Have you seen Bob” (her eldest son)?

(with resignation, implied patience). “No. He died a few years ago.”

“He did?” (surprise in her voice). “How?”

“Well, he got the cancer, and he up and died.”

“I miss him. But boy could he be an SOB. Where does this road go?…”

Pope to Visit Myanmar

I like to string words together in unusual sequences, modifiers next to nouns or verbs where they wouldn’t normally belong. For instance, in Higher than my Nose there’s a line about how a particular school “exacerbates learning.”

This evening, I jumped in my wife’s car. She keeps it tuned to NPR. The story was about an ethnic minority in Myanmar called the Rohinga. The Pope, always favoring the oppressed, spoke on their behalf in August, and is planning to visit Myanmar soon. This sentence pegged my meter:

“The Pope was advised not to even mention the Rohinga for fear of reprisals by Buddhist fundamentalists.”

WHAT!?! To quote Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others.”

I have to admit, I hadn’t considered the possibility that there might be such a thing as a Buddhist Fundamentalist. But OK, so there is. And what should they be about? There’s a nice .pdf that does a pretty good job of summarizing Buddhism  

Bottom line: there is suffering in the world, and by faithfully following the 8-fold path, you can do your part to alleviate it. And first on the list is

1. Do not kill. This is sometimes translated as “not harming” or an absence of violence.

OK. That’s fundamental. And a fundamentalist Buddhist, I suppose, is one dedicated to following these 8 precepts as closely as possible. So maybe “fundamentalist” and “Buddhist” can coexist in the same sentence without the sentence bursting into flame.

I don’t see any room for “reprisal.” The radio story definitely intoned “violence towards the Pope.” The goal of this Buddhist board game (think chutes & ladders) is to live the 8-fold path diligently enough to end up in Nirvana. Maybe these guys gave up on that and are planning to come back as pond scum. Go figure.

Pray for peace!


I don’t usually tout stuff I’m doing on this blog. That’s for Facebook. But I go to Facebook about twice a year, get overwhelmed at the incredible time sink it can be, and flee.

However, this blog is about opening stuff to the rest of you that may not be in your normal circles of travel or the patterns of your lives. Hence, the posts about trees and forestry, faith, and the quirky side of life.

I like to whistle. Seriously, as in a serious way. I show up at a jam, and people look me up and down, looking for an instrument. They don’t see one, so they ask “what instrument do you play?” and I answer “I whistle,” which is more often than not met with a chortle or swallowed laugh and an “oh. That’s nice. Glad you’re here.” It’s hard (and rare) to be taken seriously.

Yet people often spontaneously tell me I’m pretty good. Mostly blues, but country & a little classical, too. So it was that in June, my kids were noodling around on the interwebs and stumbled on The International Whistling championships. They decided going to the competition was my birthday present. It’s in LA. Hollywood, actually. I live in central Pennsylvania.

I’m registered. I’m going. I’m competing. I’m looking forward to being among others who take whistling seriously. I’m looking forward to learning new skills & meeting new people.

I put in a little time in a recording studio a couple of years back, but it’s not in .mp3 format.I’ll try to get some of it updated, or maybe record a new bit to post.

I’ll let you know how it goes in Hollywood.

Jephthah’s Daughter

This is the last of the bits I wrote for the Midrash class. I apologize for its length, 2,800 words. It was my final paper. The Biblical story tells us nothing about Jepthah’s daughter: not her name, nor her upbringing (Jepthah was an outlaw, remember?), nor what went on while she and her maiden friends were in the wilderness. I have to admit to liking happy endings. I’ll only say that she does not get sacrificed. Follow the link above to find out how that happened.

Peace, friends. Thanks for reading.


I think it’s safe to say that it’s unique, or at least unusual, among July 4th celebrations. It’s one parade among many, perhaps thousands, on Independence Day. This one is less formulaic, more freewheeling. At only 20 years old, the memories of it intermingle as streams of water do when they join.

Take, for instance, the story of its origin. One version would have it that the first parade came into being spontaneously when two cars got stuck behind Farmer Ralph’s tractor and manure spreader. Ralph had gone to spread the load on a field some distance from the farmstead. Our roads are sort of narrow: two cars can pass, but the bushes on the roadside will brush the mirrors. You get in the tractor with the radio going, bouncing rhythmically up and down as you drive, and you get in the zone. It’s easy to forget that you’re not going as fast as some people want to go, or even that someone or two someones might catch up and want to pass. And so you wind as the road winds on your way to do your work, thinking about how to get the hay in between the July thundershowers and whether the shoats you bought at the sale last week are gaining weight as they should, and the kids, and the warm embrace of your wife. Someone in one of the cars recognized the moment for what it was: a celebration of our nation’s glorious history and accomplishments. Two cars and a manure spreader (make of that what you will). A tradition was born. Next year, a hot rod, a bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper woven through its spokes , a John Deere “A” tractor with a flag on it, and two cars (one with a cannon on the roof) spontaneously lined up down by the lake entrance.

One of the fun things about this little part of Pennsylvania is that our roads go around in loops. Before there were road signs and GPS and spoilers like that, people would get back in here and go around for hours, trying to get through the mountain the back way or back out to the main highway, either. The park might only be ten miles from you as the crow flies but fifty miles by road. Stop and ask directions, you’re likely to be greeted with a pensive look, maybe a seemingly blank stare, a shake of the head and a sincere “No. This is Pennsylvania. You can’t get there from here.” Confusing in those days, yes. But it makes for a great parade route. I digress.

There is another tale, some might call it a legend, concerning the parade’s origins. The editor of The Courier, that paragon of yellow journalism (motto: if we don’t have the facts, we’ll make some up), lived back here in the corner at the farm with the stone fence. One July fourth, he challenged some friends, allegedly saying “Let’s get on our four-wheelers and go house to house and see how many beers we can get.” So in this version, the first parade was a beer run (or perhaps more accurately, crawl).

There are certain facts that do indeed serve to corroborate (not corroborated cardboard, either) this version. In the early years, the parade remained untamed. The fire department tanker would wantonly drench parade-goers. Likewise, the parade-goers kept their garden hoses at the ready, just in case someone in the parade looked hot. Vodka Jello shots were freely available. Purveyors of fine alcoholic beverages (mostly Bud Light) continued to drive against the grain of the parade, offering libation to anyone in need of such.

But as is too often the case when too much fun is being had, the fun police showed up and quashed the whole thing. It is unclear whether the firehose or the alcohol was to blame, but Mary Jane took a tumble off the back of the hay wagon serving as parade float for the day. She incurred a closed head brain injury or some medical thing like that. And while she’s fine today, the fact that the ambulance had to be called resulted in a visit from the state police who, in their sternest, you-don’t-mess-with-Texas manner were about to haul the whole bunch of us lawless reprobates in for drublic punkenness and being generally, well, lawless and reprobate, even though none of us knew what any of that meant.

Fortunately for all of us, the judge got wind of these goings on. He was one of the parade organizers, and not afraid of a little fun. Unbeknownst to us, he was also practiced in Jedi mind tricks (or maybe it was more like police whispering). He managed to explain that these were not the paraders they (the staties) were after and while the staties were compliant, they used their own mind tricks and whispering to make it clear that things needed to change. The whole thing was like a subsonic growling match between dogs over a food dish. Nobody went to jail, and without any further words, the place of alcohol in the celebration was suddenly quietly minimized.

While it could be argued that the inhibition-lowering function of alcohol was responsible for some amount of the, um, creativity displayed in the parade floats, we all rose to the occasion and continued the nascent slightly wacky tradition. As mentioned with Mary Jane’s incident, hay wagons served as a popular (you might say) platform for floats. So when the Fish & Boat Commission drained the lake because they said the dam was leaking and that was unsafe, one popular motif was the kiddie pool with a fisherman or some other version of a lake-user sitting beside it. On the side of the wagon was a banner to the effect of “Save Colyer Lake.”

There was a guy who drove his log skidder one year, an otherwise white horse painted as a flag, a guy on a recumbent bike. There was social commentary (via float) on the richness of rural life: guns and hunting, motor heads, beer, hard work, family. Because we’re a short distance east of a large university, there was commentary on the absurdity of academia. There’s this odd intermixing of who we used to be (a farming community) and who we’re becoming (a bedroom community for said large university). Usually the fire truck joined the festivities. Several years, there was a Civil War reenactment group. They’d stuff their cannon (mounted on a hay wagon, what else?) with black powder and the proverbial wad (about to be shot) and give us all a loud ba-woom! and a cloud of smoke. There also was always room for a good play on words. Such was the case with the drill team.

Bridgette was a drum major in high school. Batons and such, shiny, high boots with pom-poms you know? She rounded up some young (and not so young) ladies. They all scrounged cordless drills. They took tinker toy bits and chucked them up in the drills. Bridgette showed them how to take a Tinker Toy hub piece and stick little American flags into the holes around the rim of the hub to make a spinny pinwheel. When she hit the drill’s trigger, the flags spun around. The whole bunch of them got dressed up in shiny leotards and marched the parade route, drills in hand, flags spinning. They had the whole thing choreographed to patriotic music, with Bridgette as drum major. They practiced. When she blew her whistle or twirled her baton, the team responded to the cues with classic cheer moves. At one point when the parade came to a standstill (which it did with some frequency), they formed a pyramid. In formation, they whirled their tinker toy flags with a squeeze of their drill’s triggers, dismantled the pyramid, and moved on. Behind Bridgette, two women carried a banner: Colyer Drill Team.

In the early years, when the parade finished the route circuit, we all milled around at the end like there should be something more. The answer was a picnic. In the best patriotic tradition of such things, a committee was formed. Tom B. agreed to take care of the beer (top priority). Tom W. procured memorabilia: hats and t-shirts commemorating the parade and its legacy (at less than 5 years old, the parade already claimed “legacy.”) Tom P[1]., a lawyer, said he’d take on negotiations with the Fish Commission so we could gather at the lake, and get a permit from the township so we could clog up the local roads for a couple of hours. It used to be that you didn’t need a permit to do anything. Those days are gone. When people move here, they want it to be like where they came from. They expect paved, pothole-free roads and then complain when people drive “too fast” (more than twenty miles per hour). They want, as one wag noted, streetlights and sidewalks. They want zoning and rules so they can make their neighbors behave. You could see the effects of their encroachment. Everything had to be organized, I’s dotted and T’s crossed. A little randomness in life is a good thing. On the other hand, some battles are not worth fighting, and organization is not inherently bad. Just so it doesn’t crimp creativity.

Tom P. was successful in his negotiations with the fish folk, so the next year the picnic was held at the boat launch (the lake was still a lake). But the fish guys ordained “no alcohol on the premises,” in direct conflict with the parade’s axiom “beer is good,” and the fish wardens have broader power here than the staties who, as noted above, have their own mind tricks and are not to be trifled with. The upshot, in the best tradition of civil noncompliance, was the covert consumption of the beer. There were cozies and flasks. There was the London Fog with the interior breast pocket suitable for holding the beer. There was the Camelbak with mouth tube (usually for mountain biking, you know) filled with beer. All allowed for discrete consumption. Even at that, though, there were those who were uncomfortable with the necessary deception. So the next year, the whole affair moved across the road like a swarm of honey bees to Braun’s cattail swamp which, in a show of generosity, he had mowed. But it was stubbly and swampy and had prickly dewberries growing down in amongst the stubble. While the site did allow for the consumption of beer, it was deemed unsuitable for other reasons. The search resumed.

Fortunately for us, Jonesey came forward and said we could use his manicured field next year. He lives up at the top of the hill amongst a group whose highest priority in life is maintaining a minimum of five acres of weedless ecological desert known as “lawn.” It is a nice place for a picnic. Its only shortcoming is a complete lack of trees for shade, trees and perfect lawn being largely incompatible. The committee rented a tent for the covered dish food line to compensate for the lack of shade. Several of the rest of us had canopies and tents. Nevin borrowed a bunch of tables from the VFW. Cloyd came up with chairs from the Bretheren church. Now when the parade is over, we all have the chance to share a meal and catch up with our neighbors.

For a couple of years, there was an awards committee, but there were accusations of favoritism (covered in full color by The Courier) and they just laid the whole thing down as not being worth the fuss and aggravation. To raise money for the food tent and beer and ice (life’s true priorities) they cut holes in the top of five gallon spackle buckets that say “Dryvit” on the side and posted signs above the buckets with “Donations” and an arrow pointing down to the bucket. There’s a trash committee, and a set up committee and a tear down committee and a food committee. The parade has “grown up,” some would say. The crazy wild hare-ness has mellowed. It’s still a good time. It’s just more like a block party than a trappers’ roundup.

[1] It has been documented that we have a statistically significant population of Toms here.



Please visit this page. Pages are displayed a the top of the blog. The idea of a page is to keep content on the “front page.” I haven’t figured out how to do the tags for the page, or how to separate posts, hence the link from he blog to the page. If any of you have the tech knowledge to make this easier, I’d welcome your input

The Who Speak for God?

This morning I looked up the Rolling Stone interview with Pete Townshend. I found it revealing & illuminating. Who’d have thought such things of a rock musician? Connections to eastern religions are often acknowledged. But understood as god working to salve the pain of humanity and rectify injustice, the interview casts writing & lyrics in a whole new way:

Pete Townshend is a seminal figure on the rock & roll scene. His band, The Who, have been around since the mid-1960s. I heard on the radio that Townshend told the Rolling Stone Magazine the song “Love Will Open Your Heart,”  was conceived as Jesus singing to us. Consider the lyrics “There’s only one thing that’s going to set you free. That’s My love.” Rock & roll was often depicted as “the devil’s music.” Words, lyrics, can open us to different ways of being. In the following excerpt, Townshend speaks of the spiritual connection, background, and origin of several songs:

“A lot of the songs on the album—well, “Let My Love Open the Door” is just a ditty—but particularly “A Little Is Enough” and a couple of the others—“I Am an Animal,” I think—are getting close to what I feel I want to be writing: in terms of somebody who’s thirty-five writing a rock song, but one which isn’t in the George Jones-Willie Nelson tradition—“I’m a smashed-up f***** standing at the bar…” “Empty Glass” is a direct jump from Persian Sufi poetry. Hafiz—he was a poet in the fourteenth century—used to talk about God’s love being wine, and that we learn to be intoxicated, and that the heart is like an empty cup. You hold up the heart, and hope that God’s grace will fill your cup with his wine. You stand in the tavern, a useless soul waiting for the barman to give you a drink—the barman being God. It’s also Meher Baba talking about the fact that the heart is like a glass, and that God can’t fill it up with his love —if it’s already filled with love for yourself. I used those images deliberately. It was quite weird going to Germany and talking to people over there about it: “This ‘Empty Glass’—is that about you becoming an alcoholic?”

Poetry and song can allow us to address matters too far beyond the pale for society to swallow. This was true for the prophets, it is true today. Townshend continues:

“When you listen to the Sex Pistols, to “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Bodies” and tracks like that, what immediately strikes you is that this is actually happening. This is a bloke, with a brain on his shoulders, who is actually saying something he sincerely believes is happening in the world, saying it with real venom, and real passion.

“It touches you, and it scares you—it makes you feel uncomfortable. It’s like somebody saying, “The Germans are coming! And there’s no way we’re gonna stop ’em!” That’s one of the reasons: a lot of new music is harder to listen to. So you get a band like the Clash, and they come out with a nifty little song like “Clampdown,” and you can’t hear the words, and they’ll play it on the radio in L.A. You read the f****g words, they scare the s*** out of you.

“Or the Pretenders—Chrissie Hynde’s got a sweet voice, but she writes in double-speak: she’s talking about getting laid by Hell’s Angels on her latest record! And raped. The words are full of the most brutal head-on feminism that has ever come out of any band, anywhere!

“And yet it’s only because it’s disguised that it’s getting played, and getting appreciated.”

I don’t necessarily aim to scare the hell out of anybody. Much of what I have to say may make others uncomfortable. The softening effect of music, poetry, and lyrics is a form of accommodation. Writing is, and has always been, a powerful tool for social change. Accommodation, as Townshend observes, allows otherwise unpalatable realities to be heard.

The Rolling Stone Interview: Pete Townshend (06/26/80)

Lizzo Blues

I wrote this when I was in my late teens. Much of the stuff I wrote in that time seems to be lost, but Liz copied the poem & decorated the margins with fall leaves. It hung on the wall in my attic bedroom until recently. The ink faded. In places it was only a shadow on the paper. “Trapped in cold concrete” refers to the community college I was attending at the time. “Paint crew reds and greens and blues” is a reference to stage crew. I helped build sets for high school & summer theater plays. See if you remember what it was like to be a teenager in love.

It’s to be sung to a traditional blues tune. I don’t read music, but I do whistle & have a pretty good ear. I’ll see if i can do a recording of it & get that posted.

The Lizzo Blues (ca. 1975)

Well I’ve been runnin’ all the morning

I’ve been runnin’ all the night

And you know some people tell me

Such cavortin’ ain’t too bright

But I’ve got the blues

I’ve got those rotten stellar blues

They get down in your pocket

And you’ll spend your time a-wishin’

You’d see her once again

So you’re working all day

And talking all night

Your parents been away

You’ve never known such delight

I’ve got the blues

I’ve got those far out Lizzy blues

And just one free back scratch

Can take away those blues

Well you wonder how she does it

Now just how she stays so pure

‘cause once you’ve been trapped

There ain’t no man-made cure

I’ve got the blues

I’ve got the flea-bitten, Lizzy-lookin’ blues

And though I feel like shit

I just know I’ll never quit

So here I sit just writin’

Entrapped in cold concrete

The wind and snow  a bightin’

But ol’ Lizzie makes me feel so neat

I’ve got the blues

Oh Lord, I’ve got the blues

I’s s’posed to go to sleep last night

But Lord I’ve got the Lizzy blues

I’ll sleep some more tomorrow

And I’ll stay inside tonight

A wonderin’ ‘bout ol’ Lizzy

I’ve got to figure what she likes

I’ve got the blues

I’ve got the paint crew reds and greens and blues

But I know that if I fall in love (heaven forfend)

My mind’s gone down the drain

Now I’ll write you one more verse, dear

I’ll write you one more line

‘Cause I know by now you must be

Feelin’ really fine

But I’ve got those blues

Those ? far out Lizzy blues

I can’t explain why I love you (reason to be found)

But I’d like to stay your friend

Season of Twilight

Season of twilight

Your father will grow old and die, as will you and I.

And our children….

‘Tis best to make peace while peace can be made.

When he’s curmudgeonly, ornery, contrary or just plain cussed,

Picture a sign on a strand of hairy binder twine around his neck,

The sign laying against his chest

Jagged letters by infirm hand scrawled, that say:

“Humor me.”

Just keep in mind that it really means

“God, I need your love

now more than ever”

Hold me tenderly in your heart

Allow me dignity

As I sing my final song


No one knows the last line. ###

I’m not obsessed with death. This & “Back to Iowa” reflect what’s going on in my life. My in-laws come over for Sunday dinner. My wife was struggling with her dad. I wrote this for her on Christmas morning as I sat in the silence of Meeting for Worship.

Just for a Moment

Just for a moment can you set aside

who you think you are

so that you can see who you can be.

Perception becomes reality, so they say

but they also say garbage in, garbage out.

And if perception is based on garbage, well.

Wrong belief results in wrong action.


Just for a moment can you set aside

what your (or someone else’s) dogma says you believe

to see what is written on your heart.

To look past yourself to see a good beyond your own.

Passion can be an important source of energy,

but it can cloud vision, too

so we no longer know where rhetoric ends or truth and justice begin.


Just for a moment

Suspend disbelief

Love your brother, someone said

Though they grind your soul like Jezebel’s bones beneath the steed

Follow the light [of the world] and

Allow yourself to be set free

Peace is possible.

Remember that.

Pizza Reflection

There’s a new pizza place in Spring Mills. They named it Pizza Heaven. I’m sure they were trying to conjure images of the best pizza that could possibly be. My mind, being the associative menace that it is, reflected on that name. I mean, where do we go when we die (if you follow traditional religious belief)? Heaven, of course! Naturally it follows that pizza heaven is where dead pizzas go. Remember all those dead pizzas from your single days? They laid around your house or apartment or car until they could have earned you an “A” in microbiology. Now perhaps when they get to heaven, those pizza bones are “made new,” but I didn’t get there. My understanding of a pizza heaven was more like a pizza graveyard.

Much to my surprise, that evening  I found myself sandwiched between my granddaughters, 6&9 years old, headed for… Pizza Heaven. I explained this all to them, there in the back seat. The six year old is kind of fussy. Not maybe a neat freak, but she did warn Judy that “Um Grammy? You might not want to eat that. It’s moldy.” When Judy was fixing to have some blue cheese & crackers. It was plain that the idea of having dinner at this repository for dead pizzas made her uncomfortable. I provided her with an alternative. After a pensive moment, I confided “well. You really wouldn’t like the live ones. They scream when you bite them.”

Reblog: Regeneration in a clearcut

My friend Chuck Ray walked through the same clearcut 4 years later. Clearcutting has become an emotionally loaded word, concept.

It’s a tool. I tell people that if you want to change a spark plug, you need a certain tool to do it. And a screwdriver isn’t it. While forestry is less absolute than mechanics, the analogy is valid. When a clearcut is what’s needed, little else will do the job of forest regeneration as well.

Here’s a link to his post: