March 27, 2009

Violence & The Cowboy Myth

In doing a little research for my book, I ran across a 2002 article that seems to be a justification for the American response to September 11th, basically the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Bruce Thornton wrote:

“The constant theme of the cowboy myth is that idealism is dangerous, for force is always the tragic choice necessary for destroying evil and protecting civilization. Nor is this choice simple: in the best movie westerns, the cowboy understands that his willingness to use force to protect civilized innocence is itself uncivilized and creates a moral burden, which he must accept and bear. As Alan Ladd says in Shane, ‘There's no living with a killing.’”

Basically, Thornton believes that some people are just evil (the reasons do not matter) and that such people cannot be talked down or reasoned with. In such cases, you just have to shoot them in order to prevent them from harming others. He then believes that the defining characteristic of a cowboy (or cowgirl) is a willingness to do violence in order to prevent violence and to bear that burden for society.

I have often wondered about this. The idealist in me would like to say I would never kill anyone, but I’m really not so sure. If the choice was as simple as my life for his or her life, I generally believe I would be ready to go, but it’s rarely that simple. Someone who is willing to use violence, to commit murder once, is likely to do so again. The world is full of serial killers, thugs, and soldiers so desensitized to violence they can’t even see another way. I have to wonder, if I knew this to be the case, would I let him or her live?

Would I let myself die and let them walk away to kill again? Yet if I am willing to use violence, to commit murder, then does not the same logic apply? Is it better for me to knowingly bear the negative karma for violence than to allow someone else to do so? Is pacifism an all or nothing bargain? Or can I just shoot to wound and hope they don’t bleed to death as a result? If we were all pacifists, would the thugs take over the world? Would it be China in Tibet? The Soviet Union in Eastern Europe all over again? Darfur? The Taliban in Afghanistan? Why is it that when we had a cowboy (Reagan, not W.) in the White House, nobody messed with us? Luck?

Thornton believes that the big stick and our willingness to use it is what keeps America safe. He believes it brought down the Soviet Union. I tend to believe the Soviet Union collapsed as a result of seventy-two years of a corrupt system which crippled their economy and destroyed their resource base to a point their expansionist wars could not longer compensate for, but, hey, what do I know?

He also believes some people are just downright evil and that you can’t negotiate with evil. This reminds me a lot of the Christian idea of original sin – that all people are basically sinners, if not outright evil, then at least prone to evil, and it is only through the Grace of God that they can be redeemed. Is the belief that humans are basically bad a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or does it even matter? Even if I know humans are basically good, that doesn’t stop them from doing evil things. Being basically good didn’t stop Hitler or Stalin or Bundy. Sometimes being basically good doesn’t seem to make a dent in our suffering or the suffering we cause each other.

Other times it seems like being basically good is the only thing that makes a dent. It is that very goodness, that buddhanature, that allows us to win free from our suffering and in so doing relieve the suffering of others. Thornton talks a lot about the “modern” idea of diplomacy: “Our modern tinhorns and tenderfeet, those intellectual deconstructors of every mythology save their own, scorn the cowboy as simplistic. His ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are old-fashioned concepts modern psychological science has shown to be no more real than fairy tales.” He doesn’t seem to notice that pacifism has appeared in the historical record as early as 600 BCE, and forgets entirely the Jesus of Nazareth was commonly held to be a pacifist some 2,000 years ago. Was Jesus a tenderfoot?

I still do not have all the answers to all my questions, not that I am surprised. However, willingness to use violence is not the defining characteristic of a cowboy. It may be the defining characteristic of a movie cowboy, but most of those movies were probably written by tinhorns anyway. I’ll give its due to the romantic, mythologized versions produced for mass consumption, but I’ll not use them as a model for the behavior of real people.

There is so much more to being a cowboy or cowgirl than John Wayne or Clint Eastwood could ever teach us.

DN Staff Ed - Obama's Oops

I co-wrote the staff ed with Mark the other day. He'd spend a couple of hours working on it and then brought it to me at about 300 words. He'd been having some trouble and wasn't quite sure what to say, and we needed filler. I had reassured him, if there was one thing I was good at, it was being verbose. I figured if he could lay down the points I could expand on them. We sat down together with me at keyboard and twenty minutes later had a 500 word staff ed. I read through his work, made a couple of edits, came to the end and then my fingers started flying without pause for three straight paragraphs.

"Wow, you weren't kidding!" he told me. "This is impressive to watch."

I deflected, reassuring him that once he'd been in college for ten years, he'd be able to do the same. We published the staff ed and yet I remain unsettled. You see, my contribution that evening, for whatever reason, came out in the form of some very snarky and sarcastic comments, low blows for sure. I fear I am very guilty of the unpardonable sin of Bullshit.

As my architecture theory professor, Rumiko, explained Harry Frankfurt point in On Bullshit, Bullshit is worse than a lie. The liar knows the truth, whereas the Bullshitter doesn't care about the truth, they are only speaking in order to get someone else to listen.

"Too harsh?" I asked Mark when I saw back to look at my work. He shook his head, but I wonder if I'd just unwittingly scared the pants off him with my skill at vitriol. (I guess high school was good for something. Who knew?) So I did my job and published the staff ed, but now I'm left wonder. Where is Right Speech when your job is to represent someone else's opinion (the ed board's)? Do you throw all-in or do you let your personal opinions of what is fair or not color the subject? With the staff ed, I lately find myself throwing all-in, and I worry that this is a byproduct of the fact that my name isn't attached. I can be as evil as I want because, hey, it's not my opinion, right?

Obama’s talk show slip brings weakness to light

I'm thinking this is a problem.

PS - Everything from "One thing we love about our celebrities..." is mine to worry over.

March 26, 2009

Dharma Cowgirl - My Mother's Saddles

The English saddle is draped over the back of one of the dining chairs in my living room. It is a warm, rich brown, so much lovelier than the dramatic black of every other English saddle I’ve ever seen. I was surprised when I saw it in my cousin Rodney’s large hands as he brought it down from where my aunt had kept it all these years. It had been kept in the house, not the barn, so it was in good shape. It is a small saddle, because my mother is a small person, not short, but delicate. My friend who saw it said it was suited for a small horse and I wondered how large Cookie, my mother’s horse, had been. I could find out. Cookie’s photo and papers are framed among the other family pictures in the hallway at my parents’ home.

My mother taught herself to ride English style when she was a teenager. That is why she had an English saddle and bridle. She did it on her own at a time and in a place where everyone rode Western saddles and was more interested in roping calves than high-stepping dressage. I wonder why she did that? She once explained the different in mechanics to me between the two sets of tack, but I never thought to ask her why. She had loaned the saddle to her sister several years ago after Donalee had broken her arm. The English saddle was light enough for Donalee to fling on the back of a horse one handed. Donalee lives on a working ranch, and cattle don’t wait to be moved until bones have knit.

The Western saddle is still in the back of my car. It was kept in the barn and is coated in layers of dust. Donalee had to call my mother for a description when she learned I was coming to collect them, it hadn’t been used in so long. Donalee only had boys, and big boys at that. Her mother-in-law, Jo, a tiny little woman, used to ride that saddle, but her cattle chasing days are now several decades behind her. Donalee knew she was looking for a small Western saddle, but given the thick coating of brown dust, it is no wonder my mother’s description of a yellow seat was unhelpful. I really don’t know if this saddle I have belonged to her or not, but it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. It is a nice saddle and a nice idea, even if they end up to be not the same thing.

“Just scrub it real good with soap and water,” Donalee told me, fingering the embossed leather patterns on the skirt through the grime. “Even the suede seat. Then oil it really well, everywhere except the seat. The guy who does our saddle work, he puts saddle oil on with a brush, so really coat it. Sorry it doesn’t have a cinch. We must’ve used it for some other saddle at some time. But it’s still in pretty good shape. See how this leather here has started to curl inward. When you’re done, see if you can find a barrel or something to lay it over while it’s drying. It should get the shape back.”

They are small saddles for a small woman with narrow hips and long legs. The seats are short enough that such a person wouldn’t slosh around while riding them. Donalee took more after their big brother Dean than her older sister, my mom. She is tall and sturdy, which is a good thing given her occupation. Growing up, she and my mom did the same kind of work around the ranch and in the hayfields, despite the fact that my mother was little more than a will o’wisp of a girl. Though she filled out with middle-age and two kids, you can still see it in her tiny wrists and elegant hands and the narrow blade of her nose.

I don’t know why I decided to ask for my mother’s saddles after all these years. Mom has no interest in them anymore and Donalee doesn’t use them. I was glad she hadn’t sold them or given them away to some neighbor with a will o’wisp daughter or two. But I suppose they are mine by right, as much as I have a right to any family heirlooms. I simply woke up one morning, in the guest bed at my folk’s house, and the first thought in my mind was “I wonder if Donalee still has Mom’s saddles?” I’m the only girl in the family likely to use them, though I don’t know when that would be, but sometimes I wonder if fate is conspiring.

I overheard a conversation while eating lunch the other day. I was by myself and one table away from a booth with two ladies who were discussing horses. The young woman who was speaking had been caring for and training a horse that the owner could no longer afford to keep, dire financial straights, I heard. My ears picked the word “Friesian” out of the air. My friend has two half-Friesians which I have loved riding. This horse was a four-year-old Friesian/Mustang cross, newly broken to the saddle. The unique thing about him was that while he had the beautiful build and long flowing hair of the Friesian, he was under fourteen hands high and not likely to grow anymore. That would take a unique adult rider, the woman explained, or a kid. But he was solid and quiet, slightly clumsy, but not liable to spook. My heart let out a little sigh. He sounded just perfect.

Of course, if fate is conspiring, it is only to torment me. That's nothing new. Even if Donalee would let me board a horse with her, even if she would let me pay her back in a few years for his keep (which I would be certain to do as soon as I could afford), I’d never have the money to purchase a horse in the first place. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair to the horse to be left to his own devices should I end up gallivanting all over the globe. I should love to train up my own horse, even if I don’t know precisely how right now. Donalee’s isn’t too far for weekend visits. I would love for Mom to come with me. I would love for her to be the one to teach me how to ride.

My mother’s saddles represent these two aspects of my life, my past and future, or more precisely, her past which is part of my heritage and my possible future as I someday hope for it to be.

Life really does turn in a circle, doesn’t it?

DN Column - Our Democracy

What would we do without the internet? How would I ever be able to cherry pick the quotes I need without Wikiquote? You know, all of my academic research is done using full text articles downloaded as PDFs off the internet. Yet somehow I don't really feel like we're in danger of killing libraries. Nothing can compare to actual books. But journals and newspapers, those are adapting. Thus, I get to post my column on the internet and save a few trees.

Government is the problem, we are the government


March 25, 2009

The End is Nigh - Well, Not Really

I find myself unaccountably nostalgic. It took me a while to label this slow, sad feeling. It took me a while to understand. Then I realized, this is my last year. In about thirteen months, I’ll most likely be gone from here, and not gone for a week, a summer, a few months, or even a year. Most likely, I’ll be gone gone and not coming back. My lovely little condo will be sold, most of my furniture too, maybe my car. My cat may be with me or she may be with my folks for an indefinite amount of time. I’ll be leaving and I don’t know where I’ll land.

That’s nothing new. I often don’t know where I’m going, but I’ve always known where I’m coming back to. There is a word in Japanese that I’ve always liked – kaeru. It means to return, but unlike other verbs it means to return to somewhere specific – home. So now I’m kaeranai, “not returning.”

This summer I’m being a good girl. I studiously ignored all the internship advertisements for wonderful and interesting places I’ve never been before and arranged with my boss at DHHS for thirty-hours a week and tuition remission on my research assistantship over the summer. It’s going to be so damn boring, but that’s okay. I’ll take those few extra classes that I need, write, paint, maybe plant a garden, and enjoy my last summer in Lincoln, the kickoff to my last year.

Who knows where I’ll be next summer? I’m applying for a Fulbright Scholarship that would put me in Japan for twelve to eighteen months after graduation. I’ve asked my folks to hang on to my condo if I get that, just so I have a landing pad on return, while I hunt for the much overrated “real job.” I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll land in Phoenix, odd as that entire idea sounds. I don’t know if I’ll get the scholarship, but the odds are better than even. If I don’t that will accelerate the “real job” plan and the odds are high I’ll not be staying. There just aren’t enough jobs to go around for all the graduates the University puts out.

So I find myself looking around my bright condo and gazing at the stone tower across the parking lot and still green capitol lawn. I hug my cat until she squeaks. I make mental lists of what I should box up and take to Good Will. I think how nice it would be to replace the windows or refinish the floors, but what’s the point if I’ll be gone in a year?

I’m not really worried about where I’ll land. I’m not even worried if I’ll like it. I just like where I am so much right now. My place is so bright and airy (sometimes downright breezy, thanks to the eighty-year-old windows). It’s the perfect size – large enough not to feel cramped and small enough that I can’t accumulate too much junk. I love the tiny little kitchen and bathrooms, two rooms which I care the least about, and the awesome walk-in closet that is bigger than either, big enough to store lumber and paint and power tools and my mother’s saddles.

I love the old building and the slightly run-down neighborhood and the big oak trees. I love the sound of morning doves and the way the weather people on television get all hyper when there is a tornado warning. I love the hustle and bustle of campus. I love Arch Hall with its thousand steps and cramped studio spaces. I don’t really love going to class or actually being a student, but I love the stuff that comes with it – working for the paper, taking part in the student organizations, arguing in the senate, and annoying the faculty. I love riding my bicycle around our wide downtown streets.

Ya know what, though? I still get to love these things after I leave. And I’ll find other things to love wherever I go.

I have started reading The Quantum and The Lotus.

“Buddhism stresses the importance of elucidating the nature of the mind through direct contemplative experience. Over the centuries it has devised a profound and rigorous approach to understanding mental states and the ultimate nature of mind. The mind is behind every experience in life. It is also what determines the way we see the world. It takes only the slightest change in our minds, in how we deal with mental states and perceive people and things, for ‘our’ world to be turned completely upside-down.”

I thought about that today and I thought about “turning my frown upside down.” I don’t have only a year – I have a whole year. I don’t have to leave – I get to leave and go explore somewhere new. That lasted about sixty seconds until I realized that, fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with being a little sad and a little nostalgic. (There might be something fundamentally neurotic about being nostalgic for a place you won’t be leaving for over a year, but hey, I’m not going to judge.) Being sad is okay. It’s actually a good way to be, because it opens me to all sorts of experiences I might have otherwise taken for granted. As long as I’m not moping around and dragging other people down with me, it’s all good. Sad doesn’t have to be suffering.

So as I walk home tonight, I can appreciate the fact that spring is coming and it’s not that cold. I’ll walk through a city where I feel safe (even though I’ve been called naïve for thinking I am).

The world is big and, provided I don’t get hit by a bus, I still have a long way to go.

Brothers & Sisters

A great post today on interdependence (via the mouths of babes) from the fabulous Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man.


March 24, 2009

Do Not Fail to Count the Cost

It was my vacation. We had spend the vacation doing what I wanted to do and going where I wanted to go – sandstone Mars-scapes, forest cathedrals with waterfall music, vast bichromal landscapes of gold and blue, tiny little towns where nothing in the pie comes from a can and the beef was raised ten miles away. The final day, we followed his muse and stopped at the SAC Air and Space Museum.

SAC stands for Strategic Air Command, the precursor of today’s STRATCOM, which dominated Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska, during the Cold War. Brandon, my brother, and I used to joke when we were kids about how we were lucky. SAC was a priority target, even with their secure underground bunker. If nuclear war broke out we would be killed instantly and wouldn’t have to live through the aftermath to die slowly of radiation poisoning or starvation. Yes, we were lucky to live so close to such a place. We ooh’ed and aah’ed appropriately on the fifth grade field trip to the SAC museum, then housed at Offutt. I had not been there since.

In the intervening years, the museum was moved to Ashland, where a new building was built to house the entire collection indoors, where it could be properly displayed and protected from the weather. The atrium encloses a pedestal mounted and dynamically tilted SR-71 “Blackbird” which is 107 feet long and 55 feet from wing tip to swept wing tip, painted a utilitarian and dramatic matte black. The museum was one after another of bombers, fighters, reconnaissance planes, helicopters, and all manner of minutia for and about the profession of warfare as undertaken by SAC. The great B-52, 160 feet long with a 185 foot wingspan and an 80,000 pound payload sits side by side with its ancestors, starting with the B-17 only half the size with a fourth the payload capacity. There were stories and trinkets, including a copy of the Japanese declaration of surrender, a Nazi flag, maps, flight suits, and partially deconstructed engines.

It all made me unbearably sad. I have felt more cheerful at funerals. I wandered silently between and below these monstrous machines and felt the weight of all those ghosts pressing on the inside of my eyes. I sat on a bench and watched middle-schoolers by the busload learning to glorify war. Oh, they may sit and watch the constantly scrolling videos with the testimonials from the veterans, old and scarred, of friends lost, horrors seen, and hardships endured. But they’ll still dream of how cool it would be to become a military pilot and revel in this tangible evidence of American power, never mind the final outcome.

The power of this place was greater to than the power of the Vietnam Memorial or the Holocaust Museum in D.C., for here was a place that failed to count the cost. There were no names on the walls, no lists of the dead, no photographs of the aftermath of American bombs. Here the bombs were lined up in neat rows from smallest to largest, the size of a Volkswagen, so that we could be suitably impressed by our technological progression and awed by our military might. We both walked out quieter than when we had arrived.

“I mean, it’s cool and all, with the planes, but it’s just….it’s just….”

“Yeah. I know exactly what you mean.”

That so much genius and industry, arguably more than any other pursuit in human history, should be invested in the waging of war is perhaps the single most tragic facet of our existence. Now we live in a time of relative peace and we are supposed to look back on our violent legacy with what? Pride? After all, we did survive. We defeated great evil every now and then. We have learned in the process, haven’t we? But learned what?

So we walked out of the SAC Air and Space museum into an overcast and blustery day, quiet and reflective. We drove away without looking back, but I think if I ever have children, I shall bring them here. It will not be to revel in the glory of American achievement, but to understand the fundamentally mistaken nature of our society and to what lengths human beings will go to impose our will upon others, even in the name of a “just war.” We will count the rolls of the dead.

And I shed silent tears for anyone who fails to do so.

March 23, 2009

Ego Storm Warning

Four days and eight hundred miles later we were getting on each others nerves. Yet, it is interesting to note, that we weren't actually getting on each others nerves. We were getting on our own nerves. This was just a case of two loners who hadn't been alone in days. For days we had been operating contra to our life-long habitual patterns. I think because we both realized to this, what snapping and growling there was didn't get very far. (And I did apologize for those bite marks.)

I could see my ego building up a story in my head, like a thunderstorm pulling itself up out of seemingly nothing, growing dark and ominous, and tossing out lighting and hail, until the full fury bursts forth. But the thing about thunderstorms is that they need a front against which to build. They need a place where north wind pushes against south wind. Without that opposition they cannot form. Without that push back, they dissipate into a gentle breeze.

I let go of the story line. I didn't push back. All those little personal foibles on his part that my ego was so intent on convincing me were the source of my annoyance (because heaven forbid I should be to blame for my own foul mood) we, in fact, no different on day four than they had been on day one, or in all the years previous. And perhaps I am projecting, but I could almost see him doing the same thing when he looked over at me on the last of those long drives.

Because of this, the ego storm that was brewing, never got a chance to erupt and we passed our last day together in good company. By this morning all that had faded and we were able to spend our last hours together in peace and gratitude for each others presence.

There were no regrets as I hugged him goodbye at the drop off lane of Epply Airfield.

March 22, 2009

I Will Always Remember That Bed

I looked up at the stately, stucco and stone, three story mansion rising before me as I lifted my little blue suitcase out the back of my car. A little oval placard declared this the Nagel Warren Mansion Bed & Breakfast 1888. It looked the part. Inside was even more tantalizing, as my eyes drank in the dark wood paneling, copper ceiling, and period furniture. A willowy old man sat behind a period desk in one of two bright sitting rooms flanking the entry. He was speaking into the phone, but he pointed one long finger toward the room next door. Turning the corner, I looked into a dark library, with tall shelves and two comfortable chairs.

He was waiting for me and I smiled as I was wrapped up tight in his big embrace. We stood that way for a while. In time, we got the key to our room, an honest to god key, an old, skeleton key to the original brass doorknob with the original lock. We got the tour from the friendly proprietor and the security check by a large grey cat who scanned us from the garden bushes, then we retreated to our room. We were both a little ennervated, circling each other as we circled the grand tower room, gazing at moldings and paintings, sticking our heads in the closet and the bathroom, and really all the time readjusting to each other.

We lay sideways on the big bed, a bed I will always remember, fully clothed, relearning what it is to touch and be touched. For the last several months the entirety of my human contact had involved the polite shaking of hands between strangers, the rib-cracking hugs of my father, and the sweet peck on the cheek of my mother. To be able to run my hands unhindered along the warm skin of another, along ears, neck, back, to feel someone’s heavy palm resting on my rib cage, hip, shoulder, was both new and very old, uncertain and very welcome.

Years ago I watched an Alan Alda movie, something that had been adapted from a play. The movie spanned decades of the two characters lives, yet always took place in the same location, an out of the way motel room. “Same Time Next Year.” It was the story of a man and a woman who met there for a few days each year, and each year relearned each other, through marriage, birth, death, war, loss, and finally into old age. It had it’s funny parts, like when George saves Doris’s marriage (and himself from an angry husband) by posing as a priest, but it was one of those poignant comedies in which laughter is the balm used to smooth the hard edges of life. It was an amazing window into the lives of two otherwise oh-so-normal people.

So that’s what I thought of, at that little bed and breakfast in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I thought of George and Doris and how much they loved each other, no matter that they were each apart so much of the time, leading their separate lives. I thought about how they met each year like almost strangers and parted again and again as such close friends.

I don’t know where my life will take me, though I have a few ideas, and who knows where life will take him, but I hope that we can love each other when we can and always part as friends.

As the warm sun poured through stained glass windows onto polished wood floors, I ignored it all looked into his face and realized how lucky I am.

March 16, 2009


We got Spook when he was an eight week old kitten. He was black with silver points, like an inverted Siamese. He came from the home of my best friend Christy as a Mother’s Day present from her to my Mom. My dad wanted to send him back. We didn’t need a cat, in his opinion. He was, of course, correct, but that was beside the point. My mom wanted a cat and she had lived without one for a decade, which was quite long enough, in her opinion. She just looked at him and said, in a sweet, utterly reasonable voice, “But, dear, he was a gift. We can’t send him back.” Dad stomped down to the basement to sulk. We never bothered to tell him that we had been by Christy’s house the day before to pick him out of the litter.

Spook thought he was a dog, since we already had two of those. As he grew, his silver points gradually faded until he turned into a big black cat with bright yellow eyes. He still had the occasional white hair, but only if one looked very close. He enjoyed the dogs, especially Benjamin, our twenty-pound miniature poodle. Benjamin had his own issues, having come to us feral from a condemned puppy-mill. He could never eat at the food dish. He would carry his food from the dish by the back door into the living room and eat a few mouthfuls at a time, then go back for more. Spook would wait for him at the juncture of the back hall and the bedroom hall and leap out to attack him as he passed. Poor Benjamin would freak out every time and Spook would run away. Ben would pick up the food he had dropped, continue into the living room, and when he went back for more, Spook would stalk back to his corner and the entire thing would start again. Sometimes they would play tag. Ben would sit at the far end of the living room and then go racing down the hall, knock Spook over and then race back to his starting point. Then Spook would race out of the hall, leap onto Benjamin and go racing back. This could go on for quite some time, while our larger dog, Jordan, just watched from the safety of the couch.

Spook was never the most friendly of cats. We tried to show him in 4-H once and he received the award for “Most Spirited” because he bit the judge, who kindly didn’t hold it against him. The only person he would visit was my mother, and then only for five minutes at a time a couple of times a day. That was all the affection he needed, though he did sleep in my parents’ bed at night. He never cared to be petted. If I wanted to pet him, I had to catch him. He never purred for me, but I could set him on my lap or on the floor and he would arch his back and stick his tail up as I scratched up and down. He would even press his ears into my fingers to a vigorous skritch, then turn and hiss at me. I would kiss him between his glaring eyes and flattened ears and let him go, or, if I wasn’t quick enough, dodge his bite.

He bit like a snake. We used to wrastle, he and I. I could tell when he was in the mood, if I walked through a room and he let me get within three feet. I would get down on the floor, pull my hands into my sleeves and then knock him over. He would attack my hands, which I put on his head or his belly. Sometimes he would nail me even through my sleeves, but I figured it was his prerogative. When he was done being “playful,” he would get up and leave. He didn’t bite my mother but that was because she bit (or smacked) back.

He missed the dogs when my parents moved out. He actually wandered around their new home calling for them and he rarely talked. When I sold the house in Gretna, and Jordan and I moved back in, Ben having already passed on at the grand old age of fourteen and a half, Spook was most pleased. When I moved to the condo in Lincoln, I left Jordon with my folks, since the third floor walk-up was too many steps for his old bones. I came home every weekend to visit him, bring my new cat, Isis, with me. One day, Isis had an accident in her kennel, so I rushed right up to the bathroom to wash it out, neglecting my poor old dog, who promptly piddled on the carpet outside the bathroom. I scolded him quite loudly as quite loudly is the only way to scold a dog that is ninety percent deaf. As I shook my finger and yelled, Spook came up right beside me, hissed very loudly and attacked my leg.

I was absolutely dumbfounded. Yes, Spook was a mean cat, but he never, ever, attacked people, especially without provocation. Thankfully, I was wearing riding boots, so I just shook him off and then went to put the dog out in the yard. Spook, a house cat his entire life, who didn’t even like the feel of grass on his paws, trotted right on that dog’s tail, until I closed the screen door literally on his nose. He turned and attacked me again. I shook him off again and then yelled at him, using every bit of animal body language and sound I knew to let him know that I was fully prepared to punt him across the living room should he do that again. I wouldn’t have, of course. As I turned away from the back door, he went to sit at the screen and look out. I realized then, he was protecting his dog. He thought I had been threatening his dog and he was protecting his dog from me.

Jordan died in my arms at the fine age of fifteen and a half. Spook died a month ago, in my mother’s arms. He was over sixteen years old. Dad, who had even been known to scoop up that mean old cat for a pet himself, called to tell me. I choked back tears as I was getting ready to go to class; tears were not in the schedule. I miss Spook. He was a good cat, even if he was mean.

This weekend, Mom and I went to the local PetSmart where there is a branch of the Nebraska Humane Society. She had been there to look at self-cleaning litter boxes (my cat Isis still being a frequent house guest) a few days before and spoke wistfully of this lovely little tortie she had petted. Of course, I talked her into taking the lovely little tortie home. We knew Dad would grumble, just like Dad knew that when we decided to go to PetSmart that morning, I would talk Mom into coming home with a cat. The little tortie is seven months old, with long legs, and a lovely pattern of red, brown, and blonde splotches and stripes, one of which makes almost a perfect circle on each side. I tried to sell the name Basho (which I realized later should have been Enso, the Zen calligraphy circle, not the 17th Century haiku poet), but that didn’t fly. As of now, she is nameless, though when I left we were running through the list of old movie stars with May West currently the favorite.

She is as different from Spook as a cat could be, loving and cuddly and talkative. She explored the entire house and sat on every lap in it, including Dad’s, in the first day. She slept in my parents’ bed that first night. She was still growling at Isis when I left, but at least Isis wasn’t growling back, which is an improvement. Isis did not like Spook, though Spook had always seemed perfectly prepared to be friends with her. Mom always felt her dislike was entirely unjustified. “Hey, the last time she let a guy get near her she got knocked up and dumped at the humane society with a litter of five kittens before she was a year old,” I defended her. They had learned to co-exist after a fashion. Now she just watches the new girl with alert ears. They will have a week to get acquainted, while I am travelling for spring break.

Fur-people are some of the greatest teachers I could ever imagine having. They teach compassion by the bucket-load and unconditioned love. They have their own brand of unique and powerful wisdom, all wrapped up in a candy-coating of humor. They both need and want our care, having several thousand years ago, volunteered for domestication. As I pet the cat who rests in my lap, I often marvel that she is even there. I mean, what’s so special about my lap? Certainly there are softer places to sleep, quieter too, which don’t move and wiggle so much, and don’t tug on ears or tails out of boredom or mischief. Yet, if I’m sitting on the couch, there she is, ready to take over my lap. Maybe it just makes her happy, but I know that it makes me very happy, content. I am reluctant to get up, when she is on my lap. Maybe that’s it. Maybe she’s just trying to get me to sit for just a moment longer, with her warm, little body. And Spook was just trying to get me to wake up with his sharp, white fangs.

Fur-people are each a very special kind of buddha.

March 12, 2009

DN Column - The Capitalist Ponzi Scheme

Hell of a title copy desk came up with for this one. I myself would generally never use the word doom, but hey, maybe it will wake some people up. I encourage everyone to read up on the sources for this story and do some scavanging (aka research) and analysis of their own. Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme by Kim Stanley Robinson. Several posts by the great Joe Romm over at the Climate Progress Blog along with trackbacks to articles by the LA Times, New York Times, NOAA, and New York Times again. The ever-inspiring No Impact Man, Colin Beavan. And, of course, the all knowing Wikipedia and the anonymous souls who wrote about Ponzi schemes and market externalities in a way even an anti-economist like me can understand. Also, as always, check out the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (especially if you like scary stories), the NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory, and (if you're really bored) try typing 'climate change' into the search box over at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website. (Hint: 57,649 results, and that's just research that they've published.) Aren't we glad Obama ended the war on science?

‘Ponzi Scheme Capitalism’ spells out future doom


March 11, 2009

Memories of My Boss & Friend

We sang "You are beautiful" as we drove up over the pass southwest of Denver into the valley of the Collegiate Peaks. I think Greg only knew the words because he had three daughters right around my age, but he sung along with me anyway. He was always good for a hug. He had a genuine smile. He took us hiking on his property and climbed a steep boulder formation so he could show us the view of the mountains across the flat plane to the west. He never seemed winded, even though we were over ten-thousand feet and I was panting. I never met his daughters, though I saw one or two of them in the office, tall and athletic. I met his wife just once at a party, along with his dog. I judge all people by their dogs, and this was a good dog. Greg was a good boss and I will miss him, as will we all. My thoughts are with his family and my former coworkers at Rocky Mountain Institute.

Democracy Now, March 11, 2009

"Green Architect Greg Franta Found Dead at 58 - And the green architect Greg Franta has been found dead. His body was discovered inside his car in a ravine between Golden and Boulder, Colorado. It appears that he crashed on his way home over a month ago when he was reported missing. Greg was the chief architect at Rocky Mountain Institute and named Colorado architect of the year in 1998. He worked with the Clinton administration to make the White House more energy efficient. He had been spearheading the building of Democracy Now!’s new studio, which we are looking forward to being the first leed-certified TV/radio/internet studio in New York City. In this video for the Rocky Mountain Institute, Franta spoke about the importance of green building.

"Greg Franta: 'When we think about high-performance buildings it’s having a low environmental impact. And it’s good for our economy. Creating a place for the building users, so it becomes sustainable in a variety of ways.'

"Greg Franta was 58. His death is a tremendous loss for us all. Our condolences to his family, and to the Rocky Mountain Institute which we know will continue to pursue his dreams of building a more sustainable world."

Goodbye, my friend.

March 10, 2009


"I found the people hair clippers but there are no attachments (combs) for cutting 1". I volunteer to make it look like crazed guinea pigs nibbled on you but that's probably about as good as I could do.



I love my mom.

March 09, 2009


The speed of silence is a heart beat.

The age of fear is an indrawn breath.

The color of happiness is sunshine.

The depth of mischief is the tall grass.

The light of sorrow is a raging fire.

The beat of madness is a quick dance.

The stroke of loss is a slow blade.

The field of wonder in an oak tree.

The gap of mind is a broken shutter.

The illusion of hope is a closed box.

Only Schrödinger’s cat knows.



Sometimes I run across things that just make me go "Wow." I can't believe the depth of human thought on issues that I didn't even know were issues. I found this particular one while searching for alternative takes concerning Kim Stanley Robinson's article "Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme," which is going to be the topic of my next column. One click led to another and viola, new horizons. This entire idea is both facinating and concerning. It puts a little furrow in my brow. My mind whispers "seeking, desire, attachment, beware." It's a whole new world out there.


March 08, 2009


The time has finally come. Sometime in the next few weeks, I will be trading in my two-foot ponytail for a crew cut. Don't panic. I do this every few years and every time, someone panics. Last time it was my friend Noreen who was doing the cutting. She flatly refused the buzz I wanted and I had to spend two weeks convincing her that I really could take it.

This time I don't know who I'll get to cut it. I may just do it myself. Mom still has the clippers we always used on our dogs. The ponytail will go to Locks of Love as usual. I keep thinking that there must be some way to leverage this - to raise some money for a good cause, to publicize it, to shake people up a little. I'm not sure I want to go for the generosity or vanity angle. Maybe both. I know I am going to cover it in my weekly column, including running two mugs that week, the before and after. My blog friends don't get to see, but in the printed paper, all of our columns run with a mug shot. Mine is particularly unfortunate this year (I look grumpy) so this is a good chance to change it.

However, beyond my column, I'm thinking there must be something else I can do. I could auction it off a lock or an inch at a time, but I'm just not sure I have the energy to organize something like that. David and Wendy have already agreed to pay me $5.50 each, so I'm up to $11. Personally, I think my hair is worth far more than that. It's thick and wavy and very, very healthy. This ponytail is probably enough for four wigs, once you cut the length in half and then split the thickness.

I'm actually surprised it has gotten this long. I have a pattern of simply letting it grow until it just becomes too much of a hassle. Then I cut all off and donate it. I've basically been a hair farm for the last fifteen years. In the last five years or so, my hair has become a barometer for my patience. The more patient I am, the longer I let my hair grow. Last year, when it finally hit the length it was at the last cut (about two-year's growth), I started wondering when I would get tired of it. Instead, I found myself simply enjoying it more and more. Long hair is very sensual. I find my hair to be one of my most beautiful physical traits, even if I don't bother to do much with it. Plus, it's nice and warm in winter.

I never really did become fed up with it. The length now is a bit inconvenient. I have to comb it out in the shower while it's loaded with conditioner, or not at all. Plus, I could do without finding shed hair all over everything, to the point where it clumps up into ugly little rat-balls which I pull off of my socks and blankets. However, now I am just looking forward to short hair again. I have the hot chick with the buzz in my statistics class to thank. She rocks that crew cut! So as much as I love my Rapunzal-esque tresses, it's time to say goodbye and look forward to the ultimate spring do. Still, how? Hmmmm....

Do I hear $5.75?

March 07, 2009


Warm sun, cool breeze

Stretched out beneath bare trees

Cap pulled low over the nose

Crunchy winter grass between toes

Smell of winter ending

Ave Maria

March 05, 2009

DN Column - Online Life

Stop reading this blog! Yes, you! Right now! Turn off your computer and go outside! Call your mom! Say hello to your neighbors! It's too late for me, but save yourself!

Internet does not replace humanity


March 04, 2009


This post was written on Monday while sitting, at various gates and cafes, in the General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Depsite my sincere desire to go back and edit it, I have left it alone as a testament to exactly what I'm talking about, crap and all.

I have often tried to write in airports, with less than worthwhile results. It is not easy. The words come out chaotic, broken, the sentences disjointed, the plot or thesis, if there is one, going in a dozen different directions, mangled beyond recognition. There are too many adjectives, all of them sharp. The verbs are bipolar and confused. Nouns hide behind fake potted plants. And people, people mill everywhere, trampling it all, every thought and feeling smashed under a hard boot heel or sharp stiletto – until all that comes out on the page is rubble, a flaming, smoking wreckage of what used to be an idea, a poem, a heart, or a soul.

Yet I have always rather liked airports. As buildings, they are intriguing. They have no historic precedents. They are sprawling, gangly teenagers and it shows. Some of them are still awkward and uncertain, a few dark and angry, and the rarer few maturing slowly into something of rare and elegant beauty. They hum like machines, every angle designed for efficiency. If they are pleasant it is only because that amiability aids in their functioning. No one has time for a tantrum when everyone must move smoothly as a cog in the machine.

They are also fraught with peril. They are filled with people who have felt their control, or illusions of control, slip from the fingers the moment they walked through those sliding glass doors. From that moment on, they have seen themselves transform from seemingly independent adults into small, sometimes fussy, children to be herded this way or that. Go here, then wait, go there, then wait, go over there, then wait. Get on the plane, then wait some more. Get off the plane, wait once again. We can do nothing, only wait. We like to imagine we are the masters of our own destinies, but the airline industry, in its never ending quest for safety and efficiency, has slowly stripped all that away. We do not like the harsh reality of our interdependence, even though it is no different here than anywhere else.

So we sit and wait. The people are fascinating. There is a beautiful woman with long silver hair in a warm butterscotch coat. There is a young girl who appears to still be in her pajamas, all baggy sweats in loud colors with collegiate letters printed on the butt. There are grey-haired grannies who stare down at their cell phones like they hold a small poisonous creature in their hand. Everywhere is the weary business traveler, sipping lattes and working feverishly and their laptops or just sitting quietly with the Wall Street Journal spread across their laps. They are all interesting and beautiful – the families with kids, the power consultants in expensive shoes, the old men in suspenders. Even the airline attendants in their matching uniforms four decades out of date and the maintenance crews in sturdy work boots and orange jackets. Complete strangers stop the servicemen in their pixilated uniforms just to shake hands and say thank you. Small clusters speak in foreign languages and others watch them, wondering what, of all things, could have brought them here.

Airports are such strange places. They are rich with the opportunity to practice. There is an opportunity to be calm in a sea of chaos and to be able to spread that calm - to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger who happens to be reading the same book, to discuss her teenage daughter and your middle-aged father, and later to smile and wish each other a happy journey - to not complain over mediocre food at twice the cost because at least it is warm and served quickly - to learn that we all must, in fact, depend on each other and that we are all equally helpless in the face of lake-effect snow is a very important practice – to let go of our control - to see that it was all an illusion to begin with.

My ability to sit here and write, badly or well, in order to compose thoughts and stories is not something that I do alone. It is not a solitary occupation. Without these people, these places, this so-called bad luck of a weather borne delay, I would not have this opportunity to practice or write. It is only these things which give me the opportunity to learn, to push past all the obstacles with have distracted and tormented me on previous attempts. I get a little further, a little better, every time. I learn to focus, to center, and not to shut out the swirling chaos around me, but to let it in with all its glory and energy, but without feeling carried away or pushed around. Every time I am here, I learn to let go of my struggling just a little more.

Airports are profoundly good places not because they are easy, but because they are not.