Sunday, October 17, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 225: Biomythography - Note 2

A Biomythography - Note 2
by Secret Hippie


Accidental Revisionism

Rarely do I remember how different things were. Coca-Cola, when I was nine years old, was so fundamentally different that I enjoy my occasional flashbacks to 'the best soda I ever had.' The event took place after I swam until I was exhausted, begged for vending machine money, and drank a small bottle of soda.

That's a tangible thing. Plus, there's evidence of the drink formulas from various eras. That's why so many people in our society remember the taste once being better despite Coca-Cola ads claiming otherwise. Less tangible and less easy to recall, I think, are the past contexts of our lives like those revealed in the terms we used. Some of them were regional sayings. For instance, I grew up oogling girls.

That was what the old men said. And I definitely did it. I liked to watch girls. Talking to them was more difficult. Sometimes I would freeze up completely. But I could half-close my eyes and just watch. Or watch with my mouth hanging open.

The term was pronounced oogling as in googling or "oooo, look at that."

Later, I learned that the dictionary said this was ogling. It was officially spelled differently and pronounced differently than I thought. (Whoever wrote the dictionary probably said, "oh, look at that.") Nowadays, the oogling form is gone entirely. It's been replaced by the official dictionary decision, at least in my region of the country. But oogling was a better word. You could just hear and almost see the wide-open eyes implied by it, the sheer dumbfoundedness in someone’s face.

Another term that was stolen from our colloquial history, was "yadada yadada." Somehow, perhaps from my friends using Yiddish slang, I started saying “yadada yadada” in place of “and so on, and so on.” I think my changeover to "yadada yadada" happened when I was around thirteen.

There was a childish joy in saying a string of nonsense syllables and having everyone know what you meant. No one could define “yadada yadada” but everyone smiled and nodded at it.

In the late 1980s, though, after I had been spewing out my multisyllabic nonsense for over a decade, a new TV show came out that re-set the standard phrase. That show was Seinfeld. Suddenly, people started to look at me funny when I talked to them exactly as I always had before.

I actually had a few friends try to correct me. At this point, I may not have owned a television. But I was forced to learn about the show Seinfeld. Because whenever I said yadada yadada, which was often, I would get an involuntary education on how funny this program was.

Everyone loved it. I hadn’t seen it and already I hated it.

At this point, I wonder if anyone remembers that "yadada yadada” once existed. As far as I can tell, there's a lot of revisionism about the past that isn't deliberate. It just happens. Everybody backfills their memories with wrong stuff from television shows. ads, or current cultural norms. Little snippets get left out of our national or regional stories. Elements of personal contexts get lost.

Gone forever or radically changed are oogling, ping, flannel cake, twilight, wampum, sneakies, catfish, mixed marriage, sick, thongs, and so many others, yadada, yadada. You know what I mean.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 224: Biomythography - Note 1

A Biomythography - Note 1
by Secret Hippie

When I was 23 years old and living in western Massachusetts, I made $7000 that year. I saved $1000 in my bank account. I was living a stoic and buddhist life. Or, if you prefer, I was cheap and dead broke.

Another financial landmark that year came when, during one month, my bank statement was off by a penny. I did the math. I checked it several times. The bank had made an error in its favor of one penny. I was mad.

But I didn’t complain

The next month, the bank statement was off by a penny again. The mistake was in the bank's favor. And now I thought that it was deliberate.

I knew that I should complain. I drafted a letter about the problem but I didn't know where to mail it so I kept it for a visit in person.

When it happened for the third month in a row, I was so mad that I had to go to the bank and show them the error of their evil ways. I walked up to the teller window with my paper statements in hand and my complaint letter, signed and dated. I showed the bank teller how the withdrawals and deposits didn’t add up right. The bank teller was very polite and agreed that it looked odd but he said he might not be able to do anything about it.

The teller took my information and promised that, if the bank was at fault, I would be rewarded. Weeks went by. I didn’t hear anything from the bank. Then my bank statement arrived. It had $20.03 extra in it.

The bank had returned my three cents and given me a twenty dollar reward. Or had it? Someone in the bank had been pulling a penny skimming scam. I had to wonder if I had complained to the person who had been pulling the scam. In that case, he must have thought to himself, how much does it take to buy off a person who notices a penny missing each month? Probably twenty bucks. 

And he was right.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.42: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 42

Robert Gallagher, Wake

After the Wake

For the first weeks after my mother died, my father made it clear that he wanted to die, too, right away. My wife and I came to an agreement to bring our kids to see my father as often as possible. Showing him that he had grandkids was our strategy to discourage his ideas of suicide. However, with three kids who had to be in different places for different activities every evening, it was difficult. By the second week, we knew that not everything could be canceled or postponed. Sometimes other parents and kids were depending on us.

Fortunately, the planning for my mothers wake took over. Wrangling the legal details and the logistics of inviting people gave my father a challenge that he could meet. As he received phone call after phone call, he discovered that my mother had a lot of friends who remembered her, even if they had worked with her fifteen years ago, even if they only knew her from a YMCA water fitness class, or even if they didn't know her family but saw her obituary in the paper and wanted to be there at her remembrance.

“Jenny’s children are coming,” my father told me. We could tell he was looking forward to that. By Jenny's children, he meant my cousins on his side, all of them older than me. “Probably Gary and Sue. Definitely Annie. It sounds like Jim will fly up from Texas.”

“Even Jim?" I couldn't remember the last time we'd seen him.

“Will Mark bring his family?” My mother's youngest brother was someone whose company he enjoyed as well. While my mother had been alive, we had seen Mark often.

“Of course.”

Together with my wife, we made a list of all of the friends and family who would be coming to the wake. At my father's insistence, I rented out a nearby recreation center to host them.

"Because I can't travel far," he said. "Besides, if it's close to the house, it'll be easier for you when you set up."

Left unspoken was the problem posed by the house. At this late point in his collecting or hoarding things, none of us could conceive of an attempt to clean it for guests. It didn't seem realistic.

Our list reached over seventy people. When the day came, some of the visitors cycled in and out of the wake and didn't stay long. Most of them sat at their tables for hours, though, and the most important of those were our friends. Many of them arrived early to lend a hand. We needed their help. Mark's family leaped in, side by side with us. And Kyllian and Adam tackled a couple technical jobs on the spot. They saw the needs and acted. Without them, I would have had to choose to do either one of those jobs to the exclusion of everything else.

The talks around the tables of our rented hall weren't limited to my mother, of course, not for the entire four hours. But my father was pleased that so many people were willing to talk with him about her. People approached him who he hadn't seen in years or who he had never known. He was as alert and energetic as he'd been for weeks.

In the end, though, he was tired. He sat down for the last forty minutes to watch us clean up. With a few grandkids along, he allowed himself to be led out the glass doors and toward his car. I sped up to walk ahead of the crowd. It was a surprise when someone started calling for me. I turned. I saw a few people standing in a circle. One of them was staring at me. Then I looked down and saw my father lying on the asphalt.

He had stepped from the curb and fallen.

That's how we spent another evening in the hospital. This time, we learned that he had broken his collarbone near the right shoulder. He had already been hoping to die after the wake. This only seemed to strengthen his position, emotionally. It was time.

Nevertheless, a month later I dropped by on another of my weekly visits to check on his healing. He looked better than he had in a long while. Although his right arm was still in a cloth sling, he had improved in the use of his left hand. He motioned for me to stroll with him out onto the porch.

"Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to light the cigar," he said. I had previously refused to help him with that.

On a stool on the porch, he had put a glass ashtray. He'd rested cigars on three of the four ashtray corners, each of them in a different state of decay. With his left hand, he picked one up. It was trailing a wisp of smoke. He puffed. The coal of his stogie glowed. Grey vapors billowed from his lips. He coughed.

"Help me sit down for a minute." He gestured to his green, wrought iron lawn chair.

"How do you get back up when I'm not here?" I asked. My hands found it hard to get a grip on him that avoided his collarbone, right arm, and shoulder. His left arm felt thin. His body seemed brittle. When I let go an inch too early, he fell into his seat with a huff.

"Getting back up is easier," he said. He slumped into a position of comfort. Some recent memory made a flicker of doubt pass through him. "When it's not, I yell for your brother. If he doesn't come, I find a way anyhow."

My expression must have looked doubtful.

"Usually," he qualified.

When I checked the other porch seats, I found that the front one had a stain that smelled like dog urine. The other had enough fur to knit a dog but I opted to sit in the fur. Before I could ask more questions about his health or my brother, my father launched into the topic of Orioles baseball. The team had gotten a new manager, Buck Showalter, and it seemed to have become instantly better with the same lineup of players.

"I remember going to a minor league game with you," he said. "Was it Frederick?"

"Yeah, the Keyote mascot waved at us. We almost caught a foul ball." That last part wasn't quite true although I had shield him from two looping fouls.

"I liked that more than I thought I would," he admitted. "It was up close. I could see. The sounds were clear, too. That helped. But I don't think I'll ever go to a game again, not in person."

Even half an hour before first pitch at the Keys Stadium, he had barely made it down the steps to his seat. Attendants had rushed to help. After the game, we had been forced to let everyone else go ahead of us. My father had barely made it back up even with three stops to sit on benches along his way.

"The Orioles have a couple of those minor leaguers now," he said approvingly. "They're on the roster."

He lured me into talking about sports for half an hour. We recounted the preseason football games so far. His enthusiasm for Baltimore and for the University of Maryland pulled me in. Besides, he deflected my questions about his health whenever I tried to steer the conversation back to it.

After his cigar died out, the fumes faded from the porch. The mosquitoes started to find me. I killed one on my shirt. He nodded and laughed.

"I'm immune," he said. Whether it was the cigar scent or something else about him, he was right. He never seemed to pick up mosquito bites. "For me, it's not a bad time of year to be outside."

"I need to go in."

"You could start smoking," he suggested.

"Ha ha. Do you want help out of the chair?"

"I guess I'd better." He leaned forward as I approached. Lifting him out was easier than getting him into place. A hand to his left shoulder was all it took. He felt like paper. My pull backwards was just a touch too fast. "Ow. Easy, easy."

"Sorry. Are you still okay?"

"Sure."

"What about your other shoulder?"

"The collarbone keeps healing," he told me. He lifted his right arm, still in the sling, to show me. "Funny, isn't it? I didn't want it to heal. Didn't care. But the doctor says it's better. And I can tell, it's better."

He seemed surprised. I was, too. Even though he didn’t seem to have much of a will to live, his body insisted on healing.

"It's the way of things," he said.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.41: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 41

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Goodbye to Ann, Part II

In early May of 2013, my mother got out of a twelve hour surgery to remove scar tissue in her stomach. That scarring came from mis-aimed radiation therapy.

My father tried to visit her but he couldn't make it every single day, so I doubled up on the visits. During lunch, I drove from work to the hospital. Every weekday, I stopped in to talk with my mother. Usually, I added a Sunday trip with my family.

"Well, they tell me I have pneumonia," she said. "It's not good."

The amount of time she spent in surgery may have been critical. Twelve hours is a lot for someone with a pre-existing lung problem.

"Can you tell me if I'm on antibiotics?" she asked.

"Okay. Yes." After I walked around the room and checked her IV drips, I could see that she was on a steroid and an antibiotic. Her resting heart rate was high. She had received an insulin shot and was due for another one soon.

During my first few visits, my support role for her was to gather the information that no one else had conveyed yet. As she grew more lucid, that aspect of the visits faded. At the same time, the nurses started asking me to help my mother eat food. (For days, my mother would only sip Ensure. When I got her to eat ice cream, it was a breakthrough.) The staff also came over to ask about my mother's family. She had gotten mysterious phone calls, probably from her brother Johnny, but he wouldn't leave messages.

"We had to put mittens on her," a nurse told me after a few days. "She keeps having panic attacks and pulling on her cords."

"Why is her white blood cell count so high?"

"She has an infection." My face must have done something because the nurse followed with, "We don't know the source of the infection. We're looking."

The staff doubled up on antibiotics. They sedated my mother, too, and left her unconscious for a day in the hope of speeding up her recovery. It seemed to work. At the end of the week, my mother no longer needed to be intubated. The nurses had figured out my mother's hearing problems, too, and were trying to work around them. My mother was frustrated and sent me off with a directive to get her hearing aids, which my father wasn't able to find on his own. She gave me very specific directions.

On Wednesday of that week, my father talked to Kaiser Permanente. They agreed on a plan to move my mother in about a week's time. She would go from Holy Cross hospital to a rehab facility.

On the same day, Dr. Zhang at Holy Cross came in during my visit.

"If your mother wants to leave for rehab," he said. "She must be able to eat and drink. She's still being fed through a tube. She can't go. Do you understand? We must wait. She must work hard."

"Absolutely." It was obvious she wasn't ready. She couldn't eat and she couldn't brush her teeth.

That's why it was a shock to visit the next day and find that Kaiser had moved my mother to a different bed in the same room and also prepped her for another move.

"Isn't this too early?"

During the window of my visit, I personally got a call from Kaiser Permanente. Jocelyn from Kaiser told me that the next move wasn't within Holy Cross but was in fact a transfer to the Genesis Layhill Center. The insurance company was cutting out the doctor's planned week of hospital recovery and sending my mother to rehab.

That night, while I wasn't there, the company transferred my mother to Genesis Layhill. I got a call the next morning.

"Your mother is doing very badly," said the representative from Genesis Layhill. "Very, very badly."

"What are you doing about it?"

"We have transferred her back to Holy Cross." He sounded angry. "She will be there soon. You should try to meet her."

From that point on, the battle changed from getting healthy to staving off death. Holy Cross hospital put my mother back onto a respirator. Within a day, they moved her into the CCU, the cardiac care unit, because her previous respirator was not enough. My mother needed a pressure respirator to help pump her lungs.

Moving her onto a pressure respirator meant stopping her oral medications. During my visits, my mother took off her respirator mask to talk with me. That seemed a little risky but also like a good sign. Obviously, she could move her upper body well. She said she liked listening to me read her get well cards to her. One came in from her sister Lois that day and a bunch more came from Johnny.

"She seems like she's happier," my brother said. He and my father walked out of the building with more bounce to gaits.

"Yeah, her symptoms are stable."

"She's in less pain," my father added.

We all felt better than when my mother had arrived back at Holy Cross and needed critical care. In a few days, she had recovered from her near-death. On the other hand, her health was still not back to where it had been before the aborted transfer. The physician in charge, Dr. Zang, had a timetable in mind. My mother was no longer on it.

The next day, we skipped seeing her. Other family members visited to keep her company. Then, on Memorial Day, Diane and I drove down to Holy Cross.

When we came in, the staff seemed shocked and dismayed to see us.

"You just missed her," a nurse blurted.

"What do you mean? Has she been moved again?"

This time, the woman hesitated. She searched our faces for understanding.

"She was removed from oxygen. She didn't last long."

It took me a moment to understand. The hospital decision to remove her oxygen seemed so out of place. But they had done it. We arrived at 11:03. But at 11:00, a doctor had pronounced her dead.

We went in to see her. My mother's respirator and monitors had been turned off. The nurse told me how they had turned up the opiates. The drip that had been set up to slow and stop her heart was still in her arm. My mother had felt no pain, they said. Around her, I could see that someone had set up soothing music. The television screen showed a nature scene. Staff had drawn the curtains in the window opposite to leave the room in shade.

We stayed for a while. Our friends Richard and Andrea Price came. They offered to pick up our kids and bring them to my father's house, which seemed like a good idea. Lois, Mark, and Nattipa came, too. They had been planning a visit. We tried to make calls to folks who couldn't get to Holy Cross.

"Your mother wanted her body donated," my father told me over the phone.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.40: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 40

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Library

The smell of a lit cigar wafted up the stairs. I followed it down to a grey haze. When I reached the landing, I saw a bright beam shimmering through the cracked-open library door. I swung the door wide. Fumes billowed toward me and I met the full effects of the fog. It felt like I had spent hours in the pool as a child and saw mists and rainbow halos around every light. The cigar smoke wasn't chlorine but it reminded me of my hazy upbringing.

"Oho!" my father said. He sat upright in his chair. "What brings you here?"

He put down his plate. He had been eating plain toast.

"There was an accident on the highway," I replied. I gestured for him to remain seated. He ignored me and made room to rise. "So I turned onto the back roads. I was driving sort of close to here. I thought, why not take Black Rock?"

"Well, that's nice." He finished brushing his pants. He wiped his mouth.

"I can only stay a few minutes."

"Fine. I just woke up, anyway."

One of the luxuries of my father's retired life was that he got to make his own schedule. Now that my mother was gone, he felt no constraints. He slept more or less randomly.

"How have you been?" I asked. It had been a week since I'd called.

"Can't complain." He wobbled to his feet. His right hand shot out and grabbed the back of his chair. "Doesn't matter if I do. No one listens."

"Last time, you said that you fell at the bottom of the stairs." Although I hadn't seen it, the image rose to my mind of him lying on his back on the landing.

"That was weeks ago." He chuckled.

"Well, I was wondering about your feet."

"They feel okay." He shrugged. "Of course, I can't feel them, not really. But I do look at them now and then. They seem fine enough."

He wore special shoes, which were padded sandals with velcro straps. They didn't help much. Maybe they kept his circulation nearly normal, maybe not. None of us in the family knew it, of course, but he was a few months away from another fall. It would be his last.

He would land on his hip and break it.

I would meet my father and brothers that day at the hospital, where we would debate intensely with doctors. One of the surgeons would turn out to be a former student of my father's. That would change the conversation. The hospital would agree to operate. They would let us wait in the hospital, too, for the procedure to finish.

In fact, my father would get through the operation perfectly well. His deterioration came from the opioids they gave him, which slowed his digestion a day later. This was something that had happened to him before. Sepsis had set in, fifteen years earlier, when he had the first occurrence. A surgeon at Shady Grove had removed the section of his intestines that had died. The next day, his vital signs improved and he was ready to walk. At the time, I had thought the intestinal sensitivity was a complication of his diabetes but I was never sure.

After the hip surgery, though, his health plan sent him to rehab. At the rehab center, the staff gave him more opioids. Again, a section of his stomach shut down. And nothing that his family had to say could persuade the medical staff to ease off the morphine. When my father got sepsis, we couldn't persuade the staff to remove the section of intestine. They didn't feel he would survive the surgery. Maybe they were right, too, but not removing the dead section meant they had determined that he would die of the sepsis.

The general staff reaction to his circumstance was to turn up his morphine dosage. They raised his levels of painkillers for two days until he lost consciousness for the final time, still in pain.

So at their ends, both of my parents died due to multiple causes yet the foremost and most literal cause for both of them was painkillers shutting down their bodies. Each time, the hospital staff made the decision. We in the family were not consulted. It's also hard to see how the patients could have been conscious enough for a doctor to talk to them without us.

But in the library, in the November of my visit due to a traffic jam, we were half a year away from all that.

"I usually get up to watch the evening news," he said. He fumbled with the remote control. He was trying to turn down the volume out of politeness. I had been ignoring his show so completely that I didn't notice until he shut it off. "Lately it's been so depressing."

At the time, the new anchors kept showing the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. They also talked about mosquitoes spreading the Zika virus and creeping north. Ryan Lochte had lied about getting mugged at the Olympics and he was still apologizing. Donald Trump had won the election for U.S. President but there was an investigation of the Russian influence in the voting. Police shootings of unarmed citizens were coming out on phone videos. Pokemon Go players kept wandering into traffic and a couple of them got injured trying to catch a Squirtle.

"How can people be so stupid?" he asked.

In the dimness of the basement lights and cigar smoke we talked about the Russia problems. Those, we thought, were the least stupid. I had a computer security perspective. I had seen plenty of Russian cyberattacks. My father had his past NSA experience. He still thought in terms of the Soviet era. That was starting to seem more and more relevant to us both.

"I had a joke book," he said. "Did you take it?"

"No." My head rose as I recalled some of the home-grown Soviet gags. I had read them over and over. He had found a good collection in a Russian specialty shop back in 1972. "You still have it here somewhere."

The Soviet Union started to crack down on drinking while on the job. An official assigned to handle it entered one of the industrial plants where the problem was said to occur. He asked a worker,

"Could you do your job if you drank a cup of vodka?"

"It would be a little difficult, but I suppose I could."

"Could you do your job if you drank two cups of vodka?"

"I probably could, yes."

"Could you do your job if you had three cups of vodka?"

"Well, I'm here, aren't I?"


We wondered where the jokes had gone as we walked around his library. Instead of his Russian books, I kept finding his math, computer, and philosophy texts.

"It's been a long time since you tried to quote Aristotle to me," I observed as I thumbed through the pages of Rhetoric and Poetics.

"Ah, I don't even like him."

"Really?"

"Socrates was better. And Plato, because he wrote about Socrates. But Diogenes was the best," he said. "Looking for an honest man. The older I get, the more I sympathize with that. Virtue is revealed in actions, not in theories. That's what he claimed."

"Didn't he disrupt Plato's lectures?"

"He teased Plato. Mercilessly. And he mocked Alexander the Great. To his face!" His chuckle ended in a sigh. "I couldn't live in a barrel, though."

"Oh, here's Dylan Thomas. 'Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'"

"I don't want to talk about that," he told me.

"Okay."

We walked among the books of the library, tapping our fingers on the titles or pulling them out for a look. We saw Does it Matter? by Alan Watts and The Way of Zen, also by Watts, followed by a stack of Golden Age of Radio magazines. My father still had his copy of The Science of Logic by Hegel. He owned The Republic by Plato. A row of 1950s-era philosophy books rested underneath a shelf of 1970s high school math texts in faded blue and grey.

My father put his hand on a trade paperback of Man and His Symbols by Karl Jung. He pushed aside a stack of TV Guide weeklies to read the full title. On the other side of the room, between cigar boxes, I found the Collected Confucius and a pair of science fiction books that I thought I'd thrown out.

"Oh, Twilight Zone," my father said next as he picked up a videotape. "I forgot where I put these."

"Did you bring them down to watch them?"

He shrugged. "I'm not sure."

He set the tape down on his pile.

"What are we looking for?" he asked.

"Russian jokes."

At the diagonal corner of the room, my father picked up a faded, green-backed Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas but he put it back down. On my side, I found a heap of Science News Magazine issues pressed between textbooks. Next, bound in hardback leather, lurked The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. We had never talked much about it. I gather he didn't think much of Kant. Beside it sat The Wisdom of Kierkegaard. After that came a shelf of Gunsmoke tapes in VHS format, still unopened.

"It's a small book with a white cover and blue lettering," I remembered. There had been a matryoshka doll on the cover, I thought, inked in blue and red.

"What is?" My father was holding a box of cassette tapes and reading the label. "Burns and Allen. I forgot about these."

He couldn't forget the comedy routines, so I knew he meant only that he had forgotten to transfer that particular run of tapes onto CDs or re-record them into some other format.

"What did George Burns say near the end?" he wondered to himself. "It was something like, 'I'm very pleased to be here. Let's face it, at my age I'm very pleased to be anywhere.'"

"Hah, Burns and Diogenes."

"That's right. 'I was brought up to respect my elders, so now I don't have to respect anybody.' That's Diogenes."

"That's Burns, isn't it?"

"You know what I mean." He waved the red and silver cardboard box. "What are we looking for?"

I checked the clock next to his chair. We had been browsing through his books for twenty minutes. I hesitated as I recalled how our search had started.

"Sneaky Russians," I said. I was looking at the table next to his chair, where had had his plate with two pieces of toast. Next to it sat his can of diet coke. On the other side of the chair, beyond a stack of magazines, he kept his dark green, glass ashtray. He had set his cigar into it. The ember had died out and turned to ash. "But I should let you get back to your breakfast and news, I guess."

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.39: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 39

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Goodbye to Ann, Part I

"Meet us at the hospital," my father said.

Those were my instructions when I called to let him know I was bringing their grandkids over. He informed me that, no, he would not be at home. The pain my mother had been feeling for the past weeks had gotten worse. My brother and father had taken her to the doctor. The doctor, seeing her in pain for the third or fourth time, had sent her for a consultation.

"We had to come home for an hour because I forgot my medicine. But we're headed back. You should visit us. Your mom would like it."

Forty minutes later with my wife and kids in the car, I arrived at the healthcare center. We walked in to find my father and brother sitting in the waiting room on padded vinyl chairs. I hadn't seen the place for a decade. The slightly-faded salmon walls seemed odd. I guessed they had been re-painted. The partly antiseptic smell in the hallways felt familiar, though. I glanced around. My mother was nowhere to be seen.

"They keep saying they'll send her out," my father complained, "but they keep sending her for more tests instead."

For this visit, we had planned in advance. We had coloring books, novels, homework, and games for the kids. In between the sessions of childcare, the adults could talk. The only topic we cared about was how long mom had been in pain. My father said it had been at least a year. He suspected more.

"Because Ann never says anything," he sighed. "Now that she's saying something, I'm afraid it's really, really serious."

After only another forty minutes, a doctor came out. He wore his dark, straight hair parted to the side. His hands came out of the pockets of his white, lab coat as he strode forward to greet us.

"Who is next of kin?" he asked. "Are you all related?"

We took a moment for introductions. It didn't take much longer than that for the doctor to notice our impatience. He paused for effect. We all fell silent. He got to the point.

"We don't see a relapse of the cancer," he admitted. His tone grew darker. "But the CT scans of her abdomen look odd."

"The radiation." Three of us had the thought at once. The doctor gaped the adults around him. He hadn't expected that his view would be so widely anticipated. He recovered a moment later and nodded sagely.

"We want to do a very small surgery to look at what's causing the pain." Unconsciously or not, he made a small incising motion with his right hand. "Do you know what a laparoscopy is?"

We groaned. It wasn't good news. But as we exchanged glances, we realized it wasn't the worst, either. That would have been cancer. A laparoscopy was the next logical step. The main risk to my mother during it would come from her lungs. Her previous doctor had said he didn't want to send her into any procedure that required anesthesia. Her breathing rasped from the fungal infection she'd gotten in her portable classroom years ago. A short surgery, though, might not carry too much risk for her.

"I suppose that you do know." The doctor seemed wary of us. "It's the least invasive way that we can look around. It's possible that there is some scar tissue left over from her last surgery. That was what, four years ago?"

"Yes."

"And it may be binding parts of her organs together. That would cause her discomfort." He sounded like he was developing a slight drawl. His understatement sounded confident.

"You know about her lungs?" my father asked.

"Tell me about her lungs," the doctor said.

After more talk about her medical history and her diagnostic tests, the medical team at her health center put her on their schedule for surgery in two weeks. Soon, they realized that her pain meds weren't enough to let her move. Since she was bed-ridden, they bumped up her priority. To six days. It caught the family by surprise. Everyone agreed it was probably good, though, especially my mother.

For once, the procedure was so routine that I didn't bother to take off work for it. My mother went into the operating room at noon. At one in the afternoon, I called to check on her.

"She's not out yet," my father said. "I don't know what's going on."

What was going on was that the laparoscopy had found so much damage, so close to the incision, that the surgeons decided to operate. They had to remove the scar tissue. I kept calling the health center to get updates. By the third call, a nurse had told my father what was going on and that the procedure would take a few hours.

"I didn't bring enough medicine to stay here all day," he replied.

"You might as well go home and have dinner," the nurse told him.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.38: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 38

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Strategy

On our former carport, I pulled out a drawer and looked into it. Its bottom sat packed full of cigar boxes, hacksaws, about a hundred pipe cleaners, a wad of rags, and a coping saw without a blade. Around me was a room that lurked in dust and darkness with its shelves stacked to the ceiling along the walls. Above, one of the overhead fluorescent lights flickered.

"Oh, it won't be in there," my father said. He put a hand on the doorway next to him and stepped down to join me in the room.

"Okay." I pushed. The drawer closed with a rattle.

The shelving around me had once been a set of drawers and a filing cabinet. My father had stitched them together with a structure of particle board painted in primary colors. Between his creation and a teak desk stood a stack of particle board shelves, all painted white, piled together to the same height as the filing cabinet. Along the surface sat plastic containers full of rubber bands, staples, and caramel cream candies.

"What are you looking for again?" he asked. He leaned against the other set of filing cabinets near his sliding back glass door.

"I've got to take down some tree branches. You had a blue saw for it."

"You mean a pruning saw?"

"I guess so."

"And it's not in the shed?"

This was a set of questions that threw me because I wasn't sure if the curved saw I wanted was a pruning saw, really, or I should call it something else. Anyway, I had walked through the front shed. I hadn't recognized anything I wanted.

"Probably not? Because I didn't see it."

There was a second shed but it was sort of a mystery to me, a two story monstrosity that held mostly spare lumber, plus a third shed, newly built, that provided space for the riding mower.

"Well, I can't have used it for years." He shook his head.

That seemed right. I turned and crouched next to a tall, cardboard box. It held about eighty plastic bag clips. They were the kind with magnets on one end so you can stick them to the fridge when you're done. Why he had eighty of them in translucent green, orange, blue, and red plastic, I had no idea. He'd found them on sale somewhere, maybe. He had put two screwdrivers in the box with the clips. I fished out the screwdrivers in case I could find a better place for them.

"I can't really keep my arm over my head like that," he continued. "Not to cut a branch. It's my shoulder."

"Oh, yeah." My eyes scanned the desktop and low shelves for more screwdrivers. After a few seconds, I gave up. "How is that healing?"

"It isn't. But I can't complain." He put a cigar in the corner of his mouth and chuckled. "No one listens if I do. Anyway, age is a case of mind over matter, right?"

"If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter," I chimed in as we finished the saying together.

My father had repeated the punchline hundreds of times. Mostly, I hadn't known that he was quoting Jack Benny. The saying had become part of him, like his fingers or his beard or cigar. He always had it handy. Given his shoulder problems, though, he was certainly right about not cutting any tree branches during the last eight years.

His guesses about where he had put his not-yet-rusted saws seemed suspect. They could be anywhere.

Idly, I strolled across the aisle to one of the other desks. It held rows of shelves, this time full of books and cassette tape boxes. Most of the boxes were empty. I tugged on the desk's top drawer. It squeaked open to reveal a pair of books about radio dramas, a few unlabeled cassettes, and a book about carpentry with a bent cover, probably from someone like me looking through and then closing the drawer on it.

"You mother probably used the saw last," he said. "Did you ask her?"

I hadn't because she wasn't the one who kept the collections of tools. But he was right. She had probably been the one to take it. She would have put it in a logical place or slipped right back into the spot where she'd found it. She might even remember where that was.

"I'll get her." The drawer jammed when I tried to close it. I tried again. Now I could see why someone had slammed it on the carpentry book. "Hey, I forgot. Mom told me to ask you about making a will again."

"Now why would she say that?" His voice sounded sarcastic and annoyed.

"Because you don't have one?" I slammed the drawer shut.

"It doesn't matter." He tucked his unlit cigar into the corner of his mouth. "She'll outlive me."

Although a radiation technician had nearly killed her, my mother had gotten emergency surgery to help her recover. She made it through the next surgery and the next, too. She'd emerged stronger than ever from the chemotherapy and she seemed to be in remission.

At this point, my mother had been healthy for three years. In contrast, my father kept losing eyesight to burst blood vessels in his eyes. His right foot had lost sensation. Diabetes had claimed part of his left foot. It seemed reasonable to think that my mother would inherit everything. That's why he didn't feel any need to write a will. There wasn't much to inherit, anyway, besides his share of the house. Paying down the mortgage would become my mother's worry, not his. She could have a will written up when he was gone, if she wanted.

“Maybe she won't outlive you by much,” I ventured.

“Your mother and I talked. I don’t know why she keeps bringing this up.”

We looked for more tools. At least, I did. My father seemed to be browsing through his candy and his cigar collections. Behind a waist-high shelf, I found a hammer that belonged in the shed. A few minutes later, I found a rubber mallet.

With nowhere else to place the tools I was finding, I put them back in the box with the plastic clips. That made me wonder if this had all happened before. Someone else had found tools and decided the box was convenient.

"Oh, there you are, Bob." My mother opened the kitchen door next to the carport door. She stepped down onto the landing to grab a copper-bottom saucepan.

"We were just talking about you, Ann."

She paused, hand on the rack of pans.

"Mom," I called, "where is the blue hand saw?"

"The one I use for branches?" She gestured to the back yard. A moment later, she moved her saucepan from one hand to another. "I cut the overhang off a tree last month. I put it right back in the shed."

"But ..." That meant I'd walked past it somehow.

"Told you," my father said.

My mother nodded and stepped back into the kitchen. She closed the door behind her. I picked up a handful of tools that I thought I could return to the shed.

"Leave the hammer," my father told me.

"But."

"And the mallet. I use that mallet."

"What for?" I thought of it as a tool for putting tent pegs into the ground and not much more.

"I can't remember. But I use it."

After I put them back roughly where they had been before, I noticed tins on the shelves next to them. They had once been full of potato chips, some of them. Others had originated with butter cookies. He had repurposed them for collections of things. And they had lids. The lids were probably hard for him to close.

"Okay." Putting things back where I had found them always seemed okay. Sometimes the places even made sense. That's why I knew I could count on the blue saw to be in the shed, even though I hadn't found it the first time. My mother put things back. She was reliable that way. "Wait, dad, didn’t mom tell me a couple of years ago that you were making a will?”

“Yes. I had a lawyer.”

"Right, the guy in Poolesville." I had never seen the man but my father had shown me a draft of the document. There had only been two pages to it. "What happened?"

"He died. Cancer."

"Oh." After I put all of the tools back where I'd found them, I rose and started the walk through the carport to the back door. "Do you want a reference to another lawyer? They make computer programs, too. Do you want me to get you a program to fill out the will for you? I mean, you can have any strategy you want. Mom just wants you to have one."

He gave half a laugh.

"My strategy is not to die," he said.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 223: A Response on Actualization Techniques

This is a brief note to say that, on another platform for discussion of Buddhism, I answered the questions:

What expedient means/tricks/methods do you use to speed up the transition from intellectual 'understanding' into practical 'realization' ('making real')?

My response was:

Well, it's been some time and I don't see any references to the method that worked for me best for thirty-plus years. That is visualization.

Perhaps the term makes the practice seem trivial. But it used to be known as one of the forms of western meditation until awareness meditation took over the term from everything else. It has also been known as self-hypnosis, auto-suggestion, and other things. None of the terms capture the magnitude of visualizing correct responses, whether mental ones or physical.

As a teen, I used visualization to help lose my fear of heights. I used it for trivial things like basketball, martial arts, and swimming. More importantly, maybe, I used it for practicing the noble truth of nirodha. Very simply, I visualized letting go of all of my possessions. Of course, I actually let go of possessions, too, and that's an essential part. But I don't want to underestimate the visualization. The quality of the practice makes a difference as much as quantity.

In a little more detail: when I was nineteen, I was absolutist about letting go of my desires. I took my Zen reading literally. To me, letting go of desires meant giving up everything. Some of the things,
  • giving up possessions
  • giving up the desires for possessions
  • giving up wanting people
  • giving up wanting animals
  • giving up plants
  • giving up wanting to achieve things
  • giving up signs of past glories like paper awards, ribbons, medals, and trophies
  • giving up all desires generally
  • giving up food and hunger
  • giving up thirst
You might see that, at times, this was getting extreme. Giving up hunger and thirst is a good mental and emotional exercise but human bodies might not react well to giving up nutrition. Maybe it's not practical. Nevertheless, that is how I felt and it is what I strove for.

When I was twelve years old, I fasted for a day to remove my desire for food. Later, I fasted for a day without water. I kept up the habit of going for twenty-four hours without food. In a few years, I progressed to fasting for two days but with water. By the time I was seventeen, I could fast for three days. I had managed four, too, although in that case I noticed my body got slow, achy, and cold. I was learning not to fast too much in the winter.

I threw out the posters of plays I had been in. I tossed my college scholarship offers (after they weren't needed) and my photographs. I threw out awards. Some of my actions upset my friends and parents. The third time I threw things out, I needed to empty the trash can, push my school papers and awards in the bottom, and then fill the trash back up to keep my father from catching on.

When I left home at seventeen, I'd reduced my possessions and made a habit of steadily envisioning giving up more. If I wanted something, I envisioned losing it. It wasn't a perfect process. For instance, I formed romantic attachments to young women. I remained attached to my friends and wanted to help them, to hang around with them, and make them laugh. Sometimes, I considered letting everyone go. More often, though, I experienced a growing peace with myself, increased acceptance of my friends, and I got closer to many of them.

All of this led up to generally giving up desires and expectations. The process never seemed tedious to me. Did it take a few years to reach a tipping point? Yes, and I'm not sure how it compares to other people who envision giving up their desires every day.

When I did get to a certain point, I found myself (a) very much at peace but (b) in a sort of conflict with my friends, who didn't like my lack of expectations.

Perhaps that's another story, though. This is about visualization.

When I think of an example of the technique that's not from my own life, I usually recall a story from the winter Olympics. Due to the weather, a championship ski run had to be postponed. Officials shut it down the next day, too, and eventually decided to open up the course for the medal round only. That is, they allowed no more practice runs.

The contestants were told to visualize the course. Most of them did. (All of the successful ones did, from the reports I heard and read.) Someone interviewed the winning woman afterward. During her interview, I noticed something interesting. When she talked about how she visualized skiing the course, she mentioned how she could smell the turn. She meant that there was a difficult spot between the flags of the course. She remembered the smell of the land, the snow, and woods at that spot. Of all the contestants, she experienced the best visualization. It translated into her performance. Her mental rehearsal prepared her, physically and emotionally, for the reality of her situation.

In a similar vein, I found that practicing visualization helped me personally. Nowadays, I am scandalized (occasionally, when I notice) by how little it's discussed. It's one of the most powerful tools available to human minds but it sometimes seems to be taken for granted.

Note: the question above was posted by Denis Wallez. It may be worthwhile to save some of other parts of the group discussions, here or elsewhere, with explicit permission from Denis and the other discussants.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 8: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021

The Hike and the Spa: Hot Springs

During our dinner at The Grateful Head, Diane and I tried to figure out where we wanted to hike on the next day. Our choice was the Hot Springs Mountain behind the main line of buildings in the city that the locals call "bathhouse row."

The prospect of walking up on my bad left foot didn't seem like much of a risk. I had been hiking on it before and the main problem was that it slowed me down, which inconvenienced anyone with me. At the diamond mine park, I tramped through the mud with Diane, slow but steady. A mountain seemed like no problem.

As we made our way through downtown, we saw more of the hot springs. They're fun but, as before, they are not impressive to look at. Two of them are available as free water. I'd guess that one of the sources must not be hot because we saw a team of three adults, probably spring-water resellers, filling a hundred plastic jugs. They were making off with a truckload of free city spring water. They didn't seem to be feeling any heat from their tap source.

Farther up, a quarter-mile along the promenade, we turned south and uphill onto a trail. At first, our way was neat and paved. As we climbed and connected to other trails, the path got ragged. It turned into rocks and dirt. By the time we reached the top of the mountain, the trails were just dirt. At the top, however, we crossed a road (you can drive to the top, too) and found the observation tower.

It seems ridiculous to take the elevator to the top of the tower. But my advice to other visitors is, go ahead. You're at the peak. You might as well look. (Anyway, you'll notice that they've closed the stairs so that you have to pay to take the elevator.)

We looked. It was good. You can see across the Ozark mountain range.














It was a long hike back down at the spas but we made it in time to report for our appointments. There are no appointments for couples in the traditional spa, where men and women are separated, so we had separate appointments at the same time.

Here is what the traditional, 100 years old spa treatment consists of:
  • A hot mineral water bath
  • A sitz bath (strictly a bath of the bottom regions)
  • A personal sauna (you're folded into a hot tin box, head sticking out)
  • A cool-down session but with hot towels on sore joints
  • A shower
  • A massage
All of the treatments on my side of the house were by men and for men.

The treatments on the women's side were supposed to be equal. We noticed these differences, though:
  • The women's cool-down involved hot towels on all joints, not just sore ones
  • There was a cold needle shower after the hot towels
  • There was drink of water after every station
Back in 1900, twice as many men went for spa treatments as women. Nowadays, the proportions are reversed. There was a crowd on the women's side of the spa. Diane had to sit tight between stages. That meant, by the end of her treatments, she was twenty-five minutes behind me. Finally, we could compare experiences.

I was a little jealous of her extra towels. She was a bit shocked that the men don't drink water.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 7: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021

Finally: Hot Springs

After our start in Oklahoma City, we stopped at towns with populations of 3,312 (Okemah), 49 (Clearview), 2,886 (Eufaula), 1,621 (Murfreesboro), and 1,248 (Bonnerdale). Although we did stay overnight in Fort Smith, which is a decent-sized city, we didn't get to see much of it. We strolled inside one restaurant and a park.

What this means is that, when we arrived in Hot Springs, the place looked huge. It's got a population of 39,111 but it seemed like more. Technically, it's smaller than Frederick. So are a lot of well-known places. Brattleboro in Vermont has 12,042. Travel reviewers consider it vibrant! Sturgis with 6,958 is a South Dakota tourist site and home of a motorcycle rally. Seaside in Oregon has 7,020 and it's another big tourist town. Hot Springs is many times their size and, with a main drag that boasts statuary, parks, a promenade, and grand hotels, it feels significant after so many smaller places.

So I guess city reputation is base partly on comparison.

The main drag in Hot Springs is a dozen blocks long and it's tall, too. It represents the end of the 'food desert' of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. As you might expect, it's still not a mecca for foodies. It's not going to appear on anyone's 'best eats' list (sorry, Hot-Springsians). Still, the stores aren't boarded up or closed. There's no Taco Mayo and no Sonic in sight. After a few hundred miles of little else, that's amazing.

Local eateries offer quirky menu choices at semi-usual hours. That is, they don't close at 1:30 p.m. They keep a full day schedule (although they may close at 8:00 p.m. so you have to check). The local breweries offer slightly-different-than-usual drinks because they use local mineral water as an ingredient. The minerals are a popular selling point; they're what tourists come to experience, after all.

We toured a bathhouse museum. Then we walked around town and found the springs. There's a pair of them in an alcove behind the main street, between the health spas and the promenade. (The promenade is a brick walkway wide enough for a dozen people to stride along, shoulder to shoulder. It parallels the main street of the town but allows no cars.)

The springs are like the one I grew up with on Black Rock Road. By which I mean, they don't bubble. They look like standing pools of water. The differences them and puddles are a) springs never dry up, b) they trickle downhill, and c) they never freeze over even when all of the other water has frozen. There's also a d) I suppose, which is: if you're a curious teenager, you might reach into the Black Rock spring, repressing shudders, to grope in the dark, murky water. You'll get to the bottom of the silt, where you can imagine that leeches are finding your fingers tasty, plus you can verify the spring by feeling water push out into your hand.

You might do that twice, the second time to impress a girl. (Fair warning: she'll be disgusted as much as impressed.)

You might not do that with the hot springs in Arkansas, as it would get uncomfortable. In fact, it's worth mentioning another difference. The algae around the hot springs is unique. It grows in water at 140° fahrenheit - it prefers high temperatures, in fact - and it's bright green and apparently happy.

A park at the other end of downtown features the Hot Spring Falls. It's worth the hike. The falls are where water dribbles out of a spring high up on a rock wall. It flows down across a plate of lime-green algae, pools at a midway point, trickles again over fallen stones, and comes to a rest 50 or 60 feet later in a hot pool with more extremophile algae. There, teenagers hold contests to see who can hold their hands in the hot water the longest.

The contest answer is: "He did it! What a dummy!" Fortunately, no one gets hurt.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 6: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021

Day Six: Murfreesboro

Small towns in western Arkansas have better food than Oklahoma towns. Just not by much. In Murfreesboro there were three restaurants. Normally, we don't eat Tex-Mex food so we avoided the place called Terlinga's. However, by the dinner on our second day, we had tried the other places and didn't want to go back. Also, we had noticed that Terlinga’s seemed to have the busiest parking lot in town. We thought that might be a good sign.

When we sat down inside, we asked about the name.

"That's my grandmother," the waiter explained.

Terlinga is also grandmother to the waitress, the hostess, and the cook. Despite its large menu, the place is family run. The ingredients are good. The cooking and service are good. Terlinga's is the place that all of the locals recommend and I have to agree.

"Do you have a drinks menu?" Diane asked.

"Hah!" The waiter burst into surprised laughter. "This is a dry county, ma'am."

So we can't recommend the margaritas. But otherwise, yes.

Around this point in our travels through the Ozarks, Diane realized that virtual learning was never possible in the area, and not for hundred of miles around. It's a big region. It's got plains and mountains. It's got a lot of people. But virtual classes during the pandemic lockdown were not an option.

"These students can't have Zoom meetings even if they have the equipment. And they probably don't."

That got me thinking, too. I had AT&T as my cellular carrier and I'd been traveling with one bar on my phone, sometimes none. Diane had Verizon. Her phone usually had no signal. The best internet connections available in Eastern Oklahoma and the Ozarks came through satellite hookups. Those satellites had the bandwidth of a 1974 Ford Ranch Wagon thrown into space. I mean, technically someone could bounce a signal off of the satellite. But it's hard to feel satisfied with the results when you really need to communicate.

Even in a building with internet connections, attempts to send email back through the satellite failed. Yes, that means, going upstream, even plain-text messages timed out. It was worse than dial-up. Downstream, the satellite could broadcast television signals. Clearly, that's where all the bandwidth went, however much (or little) there was.

Between the crap satellites and the non-existent cell towers, it's fair to say there was essentially no internet service.

This led me to remember that, in eastern Oklahoma, I hadn't seen people using their cell phones. That is, folks didn't look up anything that takes data. They couldn't. The phones are not a source of entertainment. You don’t see them out of pockets or purses. After a few hours of travel, we didn't take ours out, either. Most of the time, cell phones can only be used in the region for calling and, even then, only under favorable conditions.

"We saw a school back there," Diane announced during our drive.

"We did?"

"Now that I think about the parking lot, it had wifi stations set up in it." She pointed back and to my right although it wasn't like I was going to turn the car around. "I think that's how they isolate the students when they need to do it. Parents drive to the parking lot. Everyone gets wifi from the school. Then they can reach the teacher."

"Who is also in the parking lot, also on school wifi."

"Maybe."

For us, it was a mystery solved. Partially, at least.

Another oddity for us about eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas was discovering that maybe twenty percent of the stores are thrift stores. In small towns, they are market influencers. They offer fairly nice clothes, too, because they are the main source of clothing for the area. They offer DVDs and video tapes because those don’t require any bandwidth to download. For the entire week of travel, I saw no one with a laptop computer. The Oklahoma economy seems to depend on farming, ranching, and possibly crude oil. The Arkansas economy looks like logging and tourism.

Of course, as we could see in our bed-and-breakfast stops, the majority of folks in the region have computers. They simply have no way to travel with them. There is very little wifi and not enough cellular signal to keep a laptop online at any local store.

A few smarties could park in a corner of a school parking lot, I suppose, when the wifi is on.

And just as thrift stores seem to provide a lot of the local clothing, Dollar General seems to provide the majority of the food. It offers mostly packaged, heavily processed stuff but it's cheap and it's mainstream. I hadn't envisioned a place where Dollar General would be the main provider. Now I've seen it - and over a wide area.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 5: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021

Diamond Mining in: Murfreesboro

We arrived at the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro before it opened. But that's not where the work began.

The reason we could get in, equipped correctly, was that Diane did so much work before we even crossed the state border. Yes, I was there renting the equipment, paying the entrance fees, digging up gravel with her, slogging through the gullies, hauling buckets of sludge, working the sifters in the muddy water, and sorting the stones. But Diane did more than one day of work, a lot more.

She researched the site. She studied the methods that work. She found out where to rent the right equipment. When we were done for the day, we left with material to sort. She continued to look through our pebbles for the diamonds on the next day and beyond.

"Can you pour an eighth of the bucket onto the big sifter?" she asked.

"I can fit a bit more."

"Get it right to the top."

When we get going on a project together, we enter a different mode. We think about the facts in front of us. We see little problems and solve them. Sometimes we don't say much. We can get that way when gardening or hanging drywall or almost anything. That's why it's hard to picture doing this with anyone else. At one point, she handed me a bucket with sludge that had turned to natural concrete.

"I just can't," she said.

I scooped some water into the bucket, mixed it with the sludge, and got out some lumps. She positioned the sifter to make the process easier. I repeated stir and pull until I got most of the natural concrete broken up and into her sifter.

"Smart, thanks."

"Sure."

"How is your leg?" she asked.

"Holding up."

I had worried that the digging would be awkward. It was. But I thought I'd re-injure my legs because of it, pushing too hard on the shovel with my foot. In fact, one of the hints for finding diamonds is to find stream beds or any place with water that would have washed diamonds and other interesting rocks into collections of detritus. For that kind of digging, scraping the surface with a shovel is fine. You only want the first few inches of soil.

Basically, we could twist our ankles in the mud or falling into gullies but it was no more dangerous than that.

The process of searching for surface diamonds is tedious, though. It involves a lot of sifting and then re-sifting. The remaining pebbles need to be set out to dry. Then they have to be sorted. You want to pull out the best translucent candidates to test for diamonds.

The diamond mine staff are willing to look at diamond candidates and verify them. But of course they expect to see only the most likely candidates. In our last run of the day in the diamond crater, we walked down a grubby stream and found deposits of gravel and silt. We sifted it. From that batch, Diane located our first strong diamond candidate.

According to the park staff, though, it was a deceptive piece of calcite. They were more impressed that we found amethyst. At this site, that's more rare than diamonds.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 4: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021

Planned: Horseback Ride and Spontaneous: Spiro Mounds

We only planned the horseback trip a day in advance. We made reservations in the evening and returned in the morning to Robber's Cave State Park. We contracted with the way-too-kid-friendly trail riders. We wanted an excuse and this was it: the riding trail went up into the foothills of the Ozarks.

Eight people reported in with us. At that point, I knew it wasn't going to be a great ride since what we like best is hearing about the countryside as we go. In a large group, you can't get close enough to ask questions. You can't hear responses. Trails through the hills are single-file.

"What horses do we have left?" the owner said as she pulled one of them out of the lineup. Her attitude woke me up. She didn't want to give the one she had to a child or to the oldest woman in the group.

After a few minutes, one of the guides brought the problem horse to me.

"His name is Apache," she said.

"Don't let him bite the other horses," the owner warned.

Diane observed that I usually get the problem mounts. There is something about me that makes the owners of these stables look around and single me out for them. I get handed the reins at the same time as I hear phrases like, "He's a little frisky," "She bites," or "Try not to let her eat." It's fine by me. A tough-minded horse gives me something to do. When the ride is boring, the mount will usually try to do something bad. That keeps both of us occupied for a minute.

On this ride, sure enough, Apache kept trying to bite Max, the horse in front of him. Max was slow and, I had to notice, not terribly sure-footed. Apache seemed to feel he was better than that. Behind me, Diane sat on a roan gelding named Doc. Bless him, Doc acted well-trained. He didn't give Diane any trouble. Apache kept me busy.

The mountain trip was pretty but unfortunately, it remained uninformative despite my attempts at questions. The guides couldn't tell us about the flora or fauna. Their horses were well-trained, though. That's where they excelled, except maybe for Apache. I started keeping track of the number of times I kept Apache from biting Max .. 9, 10, 11. Then I made a mistake. We all paused on the trail and I relaxed. I talked with Diane behind me. Apache took a step forward and bit Max. It took about a second. I was just too slow to pick up the reins when I felt him move.

Then, when I opened my mouth to apologize, I got confessions and apologies from the rider in front. They were certainly uncalled for since it had been my mistake.

"I know you said to kick Max but I can't," she explained.

"Sorry, I wasn't paying enough attention to Apache." I tried to express regrets between her contrite phrases.

"Max is so slow!" She apologized for another minute, all because my horse bit hers. And it's true that her horse was cautious and moved at his own pace. But I knew what Apache was trying to do and I let myself drift mentally anyway.

As an aside, horses are awfully tough in their bodies. If you haven't dealt with them, you might not have a feel for it. Even if you could give a horse a hard kick from the stirrups, which you can't, the horse is only going to notice it as an indicator of your intent. Really, a full grown horse can't be bothered by your only-human strength. Conversely, though, a horse's mouth is sensitive about the bit in it. There's never a need to tug on the reins. Doing that just hurts the horse for no reason. Even in my one-second reaction, I didn't tug. I put pressure on the reins. Apache felt it. That was enough.

After the trail ride, I let Diane decide the tip and we said our goodbyes. We hopped in our rental car and followed the GPS to Fort Smith, Arkansas.

It was one of the longest legs of our journey. We had time to contemplate the Appalachian-sized hills that lead up to the Ozark plateau.

What's odd about the region is that everything else was underwater long ago but not this place. You've probably read that there was an inland sea in North America for hundreds of millions of years. Well, the Ozark plateau was an island in that sea. It was a volcanic ridge. If you know where to look, and we didn't, you can find the sediments of fossilized corals that once surrounded the island. The mountains themselves are the eroded remnants of the ancient island range.

Instead of thinking about the Ozarks, though, I was mostly navigating traffic and grumping about my coffee. It was Diane who took in our surroundings and noticed a sign for the Spiro Mounds.


The American Indians who lived at the Spiro site were part of a Mississippian culture. As artisans and artists, they totally rocked, apparently even better than the related inhabitants at Cahokia.

When you look at the remaining Spiro mounds, though, you have no idea. They don't look like much. You would pass them by in the woods without thinking about what they are. However, the human-made objects taken from the ground have been historically impressive.

The weirdest part about all of this stuff at Spiro is that we don't know about the treasures because of archaeologists. We don't know from the descendants of the Caddoan Mississippians. Instead, we understand them due to treasure hunters.

In the 1930s, some men legally bought the rights to tunnel into Craig Mound, the second largest of the Spiro Mounds. It was the Great Depression, after all, and they had the idea to mine the place for artifacts. They exposed a hollow burial chamber inside Craig Mound. That burial chamber, previously unknown, contained the best pre-Columbian artifacts ever found in the United States.

The treasure hunters discarded many of the the most precious items because they were fragile. (Yes, it's horrible. The artifacts were superbly preserved textiles or feather jewelry. If they weren't burned by the excavators in campfires, they soon rotted on the ground.) The less fragile items, they sold to art collectors. Fortunately, even those artifacts included works of perishable materials that were nevertheless preserved in the conditions of the closed Craig Mound chamber.

After the sale of most of the Caddoan Mississippian items, the United States stopped the excavations. In fact, the government bought back many of the artifacts, which are now held by the Smithsonian.

It was all because of the treasure hunters. And as a coincidence, we had something planned for the next day. We were about to go treasure hunting. For diamonds.





Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 3: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021

Even More: Lake Eufaula

The food desert section of Oklahoma continued the next day. We looked for a Italian restaurant near town. It was permanently closed. There was not another within 90 miles. (Come to think of it, that distant one was probably closed, too.) We looked for an Americana style grill. That was also closed. We tried the sports pub, closed. There was a Mexican place, open but unappetizing. Sonic was open. McDonald’s was open. And Taco Mayo.

On the edge of town, we decided to try a local chain restaurant called Boomerang Diner. We really hadn’t been interested in diner-style food. However, Boomerang was clean. The service was the best in the state. The salad was only lettuce and tomato, but fine. The fried food was fast and smelled good. Diane ordered the ultimate BLT sandwich which really did come with at least half a pound of bacon on it, as advertised. I tried the ridiculous Frito Chili Pie Supreme. That was pretty good too. It had more vegetables (again, just chopped lettuce) than any other option. Most of the items on the Boomerang menu were ones that we would not try otherwise but, in that diner, on that day, we knew we'd found the best that Eufala had to offer.

"Where did you want to hike?" I asked Diane at the diner.

"It's called Robber's Cave."

I was dreading the hike because of my sprained ankle but I was looking forward to it, too, because I was partly healed.

The drive to Robbers Cave Park took around 40 minutes. It's out of the way but totally worth it. It would have been even better with kids. The printed materials in the nature park are meant for kids. Likewise, there is a pool meant mostly for kids, a horseback riding outfit that catered to kids, and gourmet snowcones. Fortunately, even for grumpy old people not looking for any of that, the park was still pretty good.

The trail hiking was marked in a confusing way with signs from different eras and different skill levels crossing over each other. But the trails were still excellent. According to our map, we took the long walk around the crags surrounding the main cave. Halfway through, we met a bunch of kids who were participating in a rock climbing event. They took turns repelling down a cliff face and running back up to the top. They were having a blast. On the trail next to their cliff, Diane spotted a brown black and gold lizard among the rocks.

I crouched to take pictures. A little girl strolled up and asked what we were looking at.

“See the lizard?" I pointed.

"Why isn't he moving?"

"He's holding still right now so we can’t see him.”

In the loudest stage whisper ever, the girl leaned to my ear and hissed, “But we dooo!!!”

She and her girlfriend scared the lizard under a rock, much to their mutual delight, and we all moved on.

Also on that trail was a loud and shy family, both types at once. Several times during our hike, we crossed paths with them. They were led by an Oklahoma man who had married an Indian woman, and she kept silent. The father had dragged along his two daughters, as well, apparently with the purpose embarrassing them to judge by their expressions. He was loud. He liked sharing trail advice. His enthusiasm was enormous but he, like us, kept having trouble locating the actual Robber's Cave.

“If you find it, give a shout. I mean it!” He pleaded. He daughters stepped back farther away from him, arms folded.

As we continued, Diane and I passed by the mouth of the cave, which was hidden. We totally failed to notice it on our first try. When we circled back up the steepest climb up the mountain, following the map, we encountered the same family again. We met them just after they found the cave.

This time, even the daughters seemed happy. At least, they were more relaxed. We all went into the cave together although 'cave" is not really a good term for it. It is not really a cave system, just a natural hideout that outlaws used repeatedly in the 19th century. By the third or fourth time, the local sheriff must have known.

I imagined that he could have just hitched up his belt and said, “Well, we’ll catch them at their hideout. We know where it’s going to be.”

The place is nice. It's dry. It's got room to keep your horses or even some cattle. I wouldn't mind spending lots of time camping in it. As a shelter, it's great and it's relatively hidden. But once you've been there, you can find your way back. That means the officers of the law can find it, too.

Monday, August 9, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 2: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021


Next Stop: Lake Eufaula


These yearly trips around the country started because my wife and I didn't have money when we got married. We couldn't travel to a fancy place for our honeymoon, so I promised to take us to all of the states in the union. Eventually.

For the first few years, I planned and drove us around in the manner to which I had become accustomed. That meant we did everything on the cheap, a step above hitchhiking. I made arrangements on the fly. We camped or slept in the car. When we got hotel rooms, they were the cheapest available. They came with free breakfast. Breakfasts meant stacks of free apples and bagels piled high, snuck into our backpacks, and saved for lunch or maybe dinner.

It has been more than two decades, now, and seven job promotions since we started. We can travel by plane. Diane long ago took over the planning. Even so, this year I was struck by how much of travel is still closed to us.

We can get near many places that are rich in natural wonders. Every state has them. Oklahoma is more lush in land and resources then we would have believed from reading about it or watching the news. But if you want to go out on a nearby lake in a boat, it is $5000 per day to rent a boat that holds ten people. So that's an experience we won't have. Most people won't. Lake Eufaula is a human made reservoir, a recent development in the scheme of things, but it is effectively off-limits to many of the local residents. The restriction is not a legal one but it is a factual one.

Oklahoma has plenty of people who own farms or other mid-sized business. It's got a lot of descendants who didn't inherit farms or businesses, too. Those are the people you won't find on the lake.

"Well, you didn't like that one but the other is closed," my wife said as we looked for food in Eufaula.

"Wasn't there a third local place?" I asked.

It was hard to find anything but the cheapest of chain fast food restaurants. Oklahoma seems to be sort of a food desert. When we followed recommendations to local restaurants, either they weren't much good, had closed for the day, or they were closed forever. Closed forever was pretty common. We live in Frederick, which can spoil you for food options. Maybe we weren't making fair comparisons. But Sonic, McDonalds, and Taco Mayo were open in most towns and usually they had no local competition.

In this case, there was one local barbecue choice. It was a restaurant run by a woman who spent all day smoking not only brisket, pork, and chicken, but a couple of things that we haven’t had other places, turkey and bologna. The smoked bologna was more than half an inch thick. The taste was good although the texture was, well, odd. It made me think that you could smoke a block of tofu and get people to like it.

Smoked bologna is not for everyone. It was the last item left on my plate.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Not Even Not Traveling 1: Oklahoma and Arkansas Vacation, July 2021



Background: Twenty years ago, I used write reviews of my vacation choices and email them as letters to friends. Then technology changed and I posted my travel reviews to Facebook.  Then Facebook eliminated the Notes feature and all of my entries in it, so I had to resort to starting yet another thread in my blog. This one is devoted to travel.  

And so here we are.

This year, I visited Oklahoma and Arkansas.  These are my horrible, superficial thoughts.

The Start: Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City has a big-city reputation but it has a small downtown. Its buildings are ten or twenty stories tall for a few blocks in the center. After that, building height diminishes as the municipal area sprawls out into districts of warehouses, residential developments, and shopping malls.

There are some exceptions but most of the buildings beyond the central blocks are not much taller than in downtown Frederick. The canal is more functional than the Carol Creek canal and it supports tour rides. It is not as pretty, though, and I don't know if it's been tested in a flood. Rather than comparing Oklahoma City to other large cities, I found myself comparing it to mid-sized places like Harrisburg, Reading, Rochester, or maybe Indianapolis.

Oklahoma City seems reasonably priced for a big place, which was a nice discovery. Food prices were about as I'd expected, designed for tourists. Parking was cheaper, though, only four dollars for the day in downtown. We parked and stayed mostly in the Bricktown district near the Oklahoma City Dodgers ballpark.

Of course, that's where the American Banjo Museum is.

We hadn't planned ahead on the museum but, once we discovered it, we had to go in. Admission was cheap and the woman at the ticket window smiled and volunteered to give us discounts based on the excuses she could think of at the moment. For a while, I thought she was going to walk through the museum with us and tell us about each exhibit personally but she strolled just far enough to make sure we turned on the history tour recording for a good start.

Well, the chronicle of banjo development is romantic but sometimes sad. The instrument started out as a creation of poor negro communities. At first, their banjos were homemade. The museum has examples of those although mostly from the post-slavery era.

Then the banjo spread from the negro south into other communities around the country. After a few years on the fringes of musical scenes, it leapt into mainstream popular music forms like ragtime and dixieland jazz. Finally, it faded during the Great Depression. That happened possibly because, during the jazz age, other instruments rose in popularity but also it could have been because instrument manufacturers started charging top dollar for the best banjos. When people didn't have money, even an instrument born from poverty seemed inaccessible. Banjos went almost completely missing during the music of the World War II era.

After the war, people in Appalachian towns started to re-popularize the banjo. It was, once again, sometimes homemade. It was cheap and convenient enough to take from church to dance hall. The instrument achieved its mainstream presence through bluegrass, country, and a jazz revival. And of course it's been hanging around in the American music scene ever since.

I wandered around the museum, thinking about the history and taking pictures of the banjos. Sometimes I laughed about the ingenuity of the people who made their own instruments.

Have you noticed the round, open-backed bodies of banjos? They were made that way because the company that pioneered commercial banjos was a drum maker in Baltimore. The firm's craftsmen created banjo bodies in the same way they made drum tops.

During our tour, I noticed the director's office, off to the side from one of the top floor exhibits. The office walls were stacked with banjos and muppet dolls. The layout was so entertaining that I stopped to take a picture through the glass door.

The director noticed. He decided to open his door, let us in, and eventually he gave us a tour of his muppet dolls. As it turned out, he had played banjo behind Kermit in a few video scenes, so he had met Jim Henson. Naturally, he became a fan. Diane and I had to share that my parents knew Henson at University of Maryland and that their acquaintance was the reason that I almost got named Kermit. (That probably would have been okay for a little while, maybe until I was eight, when my little brothers started watching Sesame Street, or when I was ten and The Muppet Show burst onto the scene.)

After we finished our tour, we watched the director help another staff member shoot a banjo history video for a while. Then we headed out on the road.

We drove east across Oklahoma along route 40. That's how we stopped at Okemah, almost randomly. We were looking for local coffee. The regular place was closed, though. The nearby cafe was closed, too. The doughnut shop had closed at 1:00 p.m. but at least it had been open earlier, unlike the others. Too many of the small town shops were abandoned and boarded up. In an alley between buildings, we saw a tarnished copper statue.

It was Woody Guthrie. Okemah had been his hometown. That's why they had a statue of him.

There wasn't much else besides the statue, though. Only the McDonalds and Sonic were open for business. It's too bad because Okemah had once been a larger place with what must have been a thriving downtown, maybe five blocks long. Instead of local sights, we had to settle for McDonalds coffee and a drive back to route 40 heading east for Lake Eufaula.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.37: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 37

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Spirit Ancestors

We have ancestors from whom our bodies are not descended.

They are our spirit ancestors. Sometimes we don't know who they are. We only know that our family picked up a defining trait at some point. Sometimes we have the names of those people; we regard them as family friends or aunts or uncles. What our spirit ancestors have in common, though, is that they had the ability to leave a lasting impression. It might be that they possessed a grand idea or a skill, like negotiating, that the family didn't have before. It might be that they transmitted something as ephemeral as a love of music. Our spirit ancestors could provide us with examples of courage, or sophistication, or civility, or anything.

In the case of our nation, we are, as Americans, spiritual ancestors of the Haudenosaunee. The founders of our nation cited the Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederation, as their best, living example of what our country could become. The Haudenosaunee tribes demonstrated that a democratic republic made of multiple states was possible. Such an arrangement could last for generations, perhaps proving as stable as a monarchy but more fair.

However, as far as the individuals on my mother's side, the most obvious spirit ancestor is a monarchist. He was Lovidicus Stockett, Surveyor of the Queen's Works. He rose in the Elizabethan court as an architect and builder of her majesty's infrastructure. Not only did he hold a high office, he set an example that allowed his descendants to hold offices in various royal courts. He was both a blood ancestor and a spiritual one, as he inspired family loyalty to the court that extended through the generations to Thomas Stockett, who hid Charles II in France after the first King Charles was killed. This eventually brought the family to Maryland in order to claim their land grants from Charles II when the monarchy was restored.

More recently, my mother's sister Lois assembled family history and played a part in relating the family temperament. My grandmother, Adele, probably also transmitted to us part of her brother Harry's spirit. Harry Tolson, along with the other Annapolis men in World War II, enlisted and survived the D-Day invasion but later died in a counterattack.

I tried to explain this idea about spiritual ancestors to my father. Unfortunately, I hadn't fleshed out the concept. When I described it in his basement study, he shifted in his seat. He was trying to be patient with me and not smoke while I was visiting but the room reeked. He may have been getting a little irritable as he waited to light his cigar.

"You mean like Caspar?" my father said. He waved the cigar.

"Who's that?" I said, thrown off by the mention of an influence on his life that I hadn't heard mentioned before.

"A friendly ghost. Like your spirits, right?"

"Ha ha." With my right hand, I tried to clear the air of stale cigar fumes. It was futile. There was nothing to replace the smokey air except more of the same. "I meant like my Great Uncle Jack. He influenced the family."

"Oh, well, that makes sense. Uncle Jack was a good man."

On my father's side, we had to address the general lack of spirit ancestors. Maybe that's why my father didn't like the concept. Mostly, those influences had been wiped out. We should have had a spirit from Ireland but we were cut off from it. We should have had American Indian spirit ancestors but they were lost to us, too. That side of our family, such as we knew them, mostly left us with stubbornness, grudges, a tendency to argue, religious fanaticism, suspicions about cooperating with a group, and a distrust of doctors.

To balance that, we also had Jenny Roberts, a spirit of joy and gentleness. And then there was the other, even more obvious spirit ancestor, Jack Light. He is the reason for my father's attempts at patience, for family loyalty, for understanding codes, for military service, for generosity, and more. Maybe Jack is the reason that my father felt competent to have a family at all and to sort through the spiritual ancestors that are available to everyone through books. There was a hidden spirit ancestor, too, from college: a philosophy professor that both of my parents liked. Through him, my father chose doctrines to guide him like those of the Stoics, Socrates, and Plato.

When we become spirit ancestors, we achieve our strongest effect, perhaps, on the people around us. With hard work and luck on their side, the Stoic philosophers exerted an influence that we feel thousands of years later.

I brought up the idea of philosophers as spirit ancestors.

"No man ever steps into the same river twice." My father nodded as he quoted Heraclitus. "Because it's not the same river and he's not the same man. You always liked that one, didn't you?"

"Yeah. It's one of my favorites, I guess."

Both of us turned our heads as my mother clomped down the stairs. Her hand appeared on the door frame. She leaned. Her face appeared in the doorway.

"Are you two coming up?" she asked. She stepped out and put her left hand on her hip. "Everyone wants to go out to dinner."

"Everyone, huh?" My father waggled his eyebrows.

"Sure, I'll come," I said. I started to rise. My mother turned.

"Well, is my son paying?" My father hadn't left his seat. He really wanted that cigar.

"I thought I would treat everyone, Bob," she called. While she was employed and he was retired, she took a sort of glee in paying the bills. She could go places. He couldn't really object.

My father sighed. He leaned forward in his chair.

"Always borrow money from a pessimist," my father told me for the umpteenth time.

"Because they’ll never expect it back," we finished together. I knew that wasn't from a philosopher. That was Jack Benny, a spirit ancestor of skinflints and comedy.

"Yes, Ann, I'll come along," my father called up the stairs. He picked up a box of matches. "Give me a few minutes."