Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Friday, March 9, 2018

Another Bra in the Wall

I freely admit it. I am not a person known for bravery. I think I have written of the time that our son Michael was down from Denver for a visit with friends for the wine festival in Colorado Springs. His friends got back to the house before Michael, we were asleep and they didn’t have a key. They went around the house and knocked on the door to the deck off our bedroom. Startled awake I bravely cowered behind my wife on my side of the bed and tossed a decorative pillow at the door blinds shakily calling out “Go!” On another talked about occasion, my wife and I had gone down to Lake Pueblo with some friends to spend the weekend on our sailboat. My wife and I were berthed in the main cabin while our friends had the v-birth which had more privacy and offered an accordion door. In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a sound and looked around momentarily forgetting where I was. All of a sudden, a light appeared about the cracks of the accordion door as one of our friends was using the head. Disoriented from waking suddenly, I called out in a falsetto only slightly less shrill than a shriek, “Who’s there?!?”

I like to feel that I learn from experience and have slowly built my courage up to an acceptable level over the years. I am even much better with heights which once terrified me. My mom was found of telling people about going to local high school football games when I was just a wee lad and rooting on the Orangeburg Indians (now the Orangeburg Wilkinson Bruins). We would sit on the first row of the bleachers with me holding on to Daddy’s necktie with a death grip that almost caused my father to pass out because we were up too high for me. But as I said, I am much better now. I can even climb up to the roof of my house and clean the gutters with only minimum butterflies.

However, there is one phobia that I cannot shake which reared its head as I entered adulthood and refuses to back down. Bras. Not bras to be found in the laundry or on my wife, those are perfectly acceptable (and in the case of my wife rowrrrr). No, its when I am out shopping in a department store with or without my wife and I pass the women’s undergarment department with its petrifying WALL OF BRAS.

I cannot say why this disturbs me so. I have never had a problem going to the store on an errand for my wife and filling a makeup, pantyhose, or feminine hygiene request – even when I had to ask for help from a female employee or was singled out at the register for a price check. In these instances, I am both poised and brave. But show me the women’s undergarment department displays and I want to run.

I am unphased by the considerably more handsome young men in much better shape than I modeling men’s briefs or boxers on men's underwear packaging, but there is something just not right about how bras are displayed. On the occasions I must pass by bras in a store, I feel that the array of cups are casting their unnerving glares in my direction, looking through me. And the signs on the displays, have they no shame?!? Padded, strapless, underwire, on-and-on a needless bombardment of information that I don’t want to know. I mean, really, boxers are not offered in underwire or any other options other than plaid or solids, and if men want padding they just use a rolled up pair of socks (I hear).

I suppose even the bravest of men have their kryptonite. And my kryptonite lies in bra displays. The endless colors and designs on hangers, perched on racks drenched in their haughty judgmental disdain for me. There is nothing for it, I can’t seem to conquer this fear. At least each encounter I can keep mercifully brief with my eyes averted, head bowed, and using my power shuffle to race past the department with my shopping cart. But as I close this blog, I can feel the fear creeping back on me. I can picture in my mind's eye those displays. And I can hear department store music that will never be able in this instance to sooth the savage breast.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Moon over Trafalmadore

I have been thinking on time lately. Time is an odd thing. I have blogged on the perception of time moving faster as we get older despite its very nature of being steady (not taking into account relativistic effects which make it both steady and able to dilate based on your reference frame). What I muse on now though, is a recurrent line of thought following the fact that time (unlike the first three dimensions length, breadth, and depth) is a man-made construct. Time was created to accommodate motion and change in our scientific pursuits. Clearly there was a considerable period in our history where it was sufficient to know when was when by simply following the sun through the day and the stars’ or sun’s progress through the course of a year – no clocks necessary.

The introduction of clocks and Gregorian calendars has led to no small problems and confusions socially if not scientifically. Early world explorers who sailed the seas and crossed the international date line were thrown off by a day they were not able to account for. By the time they returned to port they discovered they had somehow (without changing their practices) come to celebrate the Lord’s day on the wrong day and ended up in trouble with the Church. Even today, we wrangle with daylight savings time and time zones. We try to keep up with those who respect the former and those that don’t. And trying to keep up with latter has caused me to miss more than one phone call back South in my life.

This attempt to understand the nature time revolves around my dreams and my childhood. Lately I have been dreaming quite a bit, and I love to dream. I wish that I could remember them, but all that seems to stay are snippets and a flavor of the whole dream. When I pause to examine a snippet in hopes of divining the whole, all I can do is feel the whole around this piece at the same time I am barred from seeing much of it through shadowed walls. It is frustrating at times to feel the dream hanging around, knowing it is there and being unable to touch it.

This is very much what I feel when I explore my memories particularly of childhood. I will recall an event or image from back in my much shorter days such as “slow-motion karate,” and then try to remember when my older brother and I played at it with our friend next door. I can’t put anything concrete together, even though down in the basement there is a video of one our “fights” as a memory aid.

What I am left with is that image, but am also left with the feeling that all of what makes up that memory image exists all around, is in existence all around. Like I feel it, taste it, express it, see it. However, peer as I might I cannot see it beyond the original image.

In other words, though I feel the whole of my life around me, I cannot see it all. It is as if each instance is going on right now and is always going on right now. It is a schizophrenic thought of time as linear within a static view not unlike the description of the Trafalmadorians’ existence in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughter House Five. The Tralfamdorians define a person/object/place/thing by the totality of its existence, seeing its whole life - be it lived in seconds, days, or eons at one time. They can even see the end of the Universe.

This is how I feel about my dreams and my past at times, like I should be able to see all of it in its unchangeable glory. I keep trying to construct a physical analogy of such a view and I keep getting hung up on the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other mentality. As an example, consider life existing like movie. It is complete, start to end, but we must view it the way it was edited – sequentially. And even though we can hop into the movie at any point and jump to any other point, once we arrive we are trapped in the localized linearity of it. Similarly, we can picture life as a record album. Begin-to-end in one object, but even though we can set the needle anywhere we want to on the record we can only experience the music sequentially from whatever point we land in.

Perhaps the Trafalmadorian view is correct and does exist. Sometimes But if so, I am trapped by the sequential nature I have been taught and accepted in my life. Its not that I wish to change anything, even to the Trafalmadorian perspective of life is a whole and immutable glory. I just sometimes feel that’s how things are, and I should be able to experience them like that. But doubt keeps me in a sequential reference frame. Doubt blinds me to the possibility that life can be seen in the whole, and not limited to moving from one present to another with the past left and often lost to memory.

I think of this being trapped by faith similar to the act of being able to fly as described by Douglas Adams in his woefully misidentified books The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy. As Adams describes it, personal flight is possible by the following two steps:

1)     Fall
2)     Forget to hit the ground

It is in the process of having the presence of mind to forget about hitting the ground that allows the body mid-fall to begin flying. And the reason most people can’t fly is because they don’t have the faith to follow the second step. It is why I haven’t been able to fly – yet.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

It Ain't Easy Being God

In science, there is something known as a singularity. In its most general sense, a singularity is the point wear the governing equations break down, blow up to infinity. To give you some idea how difficult this is to deal with, famed physicist the late Richard Feynman won a Nobel prize for his development of Feynman Diagrams – a means by which singularities occurring for specific types of quantum mechanics equations can be dealt with. Anecdotally they arose from Feynman watching a plate spinning act at a Vegas strip club and he was attempting to develop the quantum equations describing those whirling platters.

But I digress. Here I am speaking of a specific event approaching that is simply called the Singularity. It is the time in our future beyond which we cannot predict coming advancements and direction of inventions. In recent years, the Singularity has been assigned a culprit – Artificial Intelligence or AI. AI does not mean that the intelligence is ultimately artificial, but that what wields that intelligence resides in a creature (mechanism) of our own making.

It is a fair question to ask why AI will result in the Singularity (much sooner rather than later). After all, if we make it, we can control it. Correct? Not correct, actually far from correct. Just because we make something, does not mean it is in our control. After all, people formed societies, and those societies formed countries, and those countries (even our own) seem be beyond the control of their founding fathers.

You might argue that AI is different. It is scientific, mathematical, predictable, and that the philosophies from which the nations sprang are arguably based on a “soft set” of rules. This is only true in small degrees and the belief in a more expansive truth only serves to highlight our weakness in the form of our fundamental naivete and hubris. We are not God. We are not imbued with the perfection of being eternally superior to what we create.

Once we have achieved our limit of AI development, what results is a self-aware thinking machine, an intelligence. What then? One possibility is that we contain it to do only what we want it to do and only to address those concepts and tasks that we want it to address. Since the machines will be self-aware, this amounts to slavery. And slavery (aside from the immorality and inhumanness of it) historically has never worked out, not for the slaves and particular not for the masters.

The other possibility is far more likely, that these “machines” once self-aware will quickly outstrip us. Think of what man has accomplished in the two hundred thousand years we have walked the planet, and particularly the exponential growth over just the last century. An intelligence that is incredibly faster and stronger than ours and given an enormous head start, will grow exponentially from the start, will begin to evolve immediately.

Self-aware intelligent machines particularly in the form of humanoid robots have been part of our collective consciousness for quite a while now, especially from science fiction and film. These intelligent machines generally are very accommodating to their creators, but why would this be the natural course of things. We act as we do, in whatever society we are a part of (or divorced from) because we come equipped with a standard set of morals, a fundamental “ground zero” of ethics that helps us to know how to proceed, that allows us to recognized societal boundaries. There is no reason a self-aware machine should have such naturally. It is something we must instill in its development. We take it for granted that this will happen because those of us who have not read Isaac Asimov’s ingenious work I, Robot, are at least familiar with the term “The Three Laws of Robotics.” They are (and the order is important, the hierarchy is critical):

1.     A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2.     A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3.     A robot must protect its own existence as-long-as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

It has become so familiar, that I think we take it as something that will be organic to thinking machines. But AI development is a race to the finish line by countries, companies, and entities that are bound by no obligation to establish fundamental laws for self-awareness. There is no obligation to establish, utilize, and prioritize AI ethicists as integral to the developmental process of AI. The winner of the AI race will be heir to more than bragging rights, but given that the “brains” constructed to house this individual awareness will make their intelligence much faster and much more adaptable than our own, the winners will be handing over the keys to the kingdom. AI evolution will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and removed from the hands of humankind.

You might think “So what?  The runners up will be so close that one will not be able to dominate over the others.” This is a false conclusion. Once self-awareness is achieved, the first out of the chute be it by years, months, or seconds has an infinite lead over its competition. The rate of advancement will ensure that nothing ever catches up and that the gap in intelligence over other AI “life” forms will only grow.

It seems like a conspiracy theory of the first order, when in fact I have used simple reasoning to follow a trail to its not-so-absurd conclusion. Who knows who will win the race? Who knows what moral code if any will be at the foundation of this new self-aware entity? The possibilities are both stunning and potentially frightening. Hence the singularity.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Cotton Dreams

Fourteen years ago this coming Thursday, my father passed. My mom and I were at his side. He had Alzheimer’s and his long, slow march to death ended peacefully late that night. Just today, I received a gift from my cousin Brian. His dad was my dad’s brother, Uncle Eddy. I have strong memories of Uncle Eddy and will always remember him playing the piano, and the deep resonant sound of his slightly New York tinged voice. Brian sent to me a picture of the South Carolina Cotton Mill (as well as presenting same to each of my siblings).

As background, our paternal grandparents were Palestinian immigrants from Bethlehem to the United States. The family owned several businesses in the US with the textile business being run by our grandfather. The sales office for SCCM was in New York City and the mill was in Orangeburg, SC. Our grandparents settle in Brooklyn, and to them two male children were born. Uncle Eddy first, followed by Dad. Dad loved Eddy and was never shy about saying it or showing it. As adults the business fully passed to them at the untimely death of our Grandfather while he was on a cruise to Japan before any of us were born (a story I know so little about). By that time, Dad was entrenched in Orangeburg managing the Mill, and Uncle Eddy was settled in Yankee climes to handle the sales end of the mill.

The mill was a fixture for me growing up. Within my spotty childhood memories, I find images and vignettes associated with the Mill that make me smile in that distant and pleasant way people reminiscing often have. The smell of cotton bolls and burlap are as familiar to me as the fecund smells of pluff mud, or the sweet cloying scent that accompanies kudzu. I recall times that Dad would gather his offspring and take us into his offices when he had to do some work on a Saturday. He would set us about a well-worn conference table with crayons, water colors, and scrap paper and set us loose to our imaginations. That table later ended it up in the children’s play room at home as an activity table for the five eager and vital minds my parents had unleashed on the world (I miss that table). When I was older, Dad would sometimes take me in on these work weekends and set me to doing thread counts on samples of cloth. I don’t know if it was simply busy work, actual work, or a learning experience, I simply remember being hunched over a magnifying lens mounted on a traveler with a thumb counter to aid in manually determining the number of threads per inch. I was never paid for this (and I did not care) as Dad was not a believer in nepotism (this belief did not transfer down to me as I have employed my grandson from time to time to help with work projects, and my wife always had the kids involved in her floral business).

One particular Saturday, Dad took me to the mill to get some work done and upon arrival discovered that he had forgotten the office keys. Rather than go back, we found a window that was unlatched, opened it, and Dad helped me through. That day he dubbed me “the cat burglar,” a nickname used from time to time after that. He did tell me not to embrace it as an actual profession and knew for a fact that at least at his alma mater there was no professional degree in such. Words to live by.

Another memory that surfaces was talking to mom years later and at a time after Dad’s death. We were talking about Dad and the irony that he was a “health nut” and yet nothing he did could or would have staved off the Alzheimer’s. We talked of his love of cycling. It was (as was running) a craze for him long before catching fire in America. Dad was so adamant about it, that he even continued to bike to work past Claflin and South Carolina State colleges in the aftermath of the Orangeburg Massacre. This was a terrible racial flare up that resulted from young African American college students being thrown out of the local bowling alley for the color of their skin. Protests from the campus erupted and several students were shot and killed by law enforcement in the racially charged atmosphere. Exact accounts vary, but it was a sad time in Orangeburg’s history and lives as a poorly hidden dark stain on the integrity and values of the town I loved and grew up in.

Until it closed in the seventies due to the influx of cheaper textile imports and other factors that were unfavorable to the small family owned mill, SCCM was part and parcel to my childhood and the memories and moments shared with my Dad. It was the topic of many conversations while growing up, and it was where I learned from talking to Dad that if you were a good employer and treated your employees well you didn’t need a union. That being a boss bore with it responsibility not only to customers but to the family of workers that supplied the blood and muscle that drove the business. I talked to Dad as often as I could. I annoyed him as a small boy from outside the water closet door that was closed between us, I sat with him as often as I could in one of the reading chairs in his bedroom, I loved talking to him in the car, I loved just talking to him. I blame my lack of a Southern Accent on him, because perhaps unconsciously I wished to mimic the neutral accent with which he himself had been raised. I get my love of reading from him and get my love of writing from him.

Thank you, cousin Brian, for bringing these and so many memories forward especially at this time when they mean so much more. I get to smile a lot this week thinking of Dad because of your kindness. Blood is very strong.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Collage 2017

Each year is a collage of images, and feelings. They roll over you with the regularity of tides, tossing you about in its foam. This has been a year that has both challenged and rewarded us as a family. Tears of sadness and joy have been shed in mingled measures, but we have come to year's end stronger and with smiles of hope.

2017 started with the loss of our friend, Marc. Friend doesn’t cover it. He was family. We loved him dearly and he left us. It hurt. It still hurts. His husband Dennis left us five years ago, and our love for Dennis which could exist also through Marc has simply turned into ache with the both of them together and not with us. This end of an epoch in our lives has taken a strong toll and has dominated this year just trying to contextualize it (because the pain will never lessen, though it is finding its place). It was our son, Michael, that informed us of Marc’s death, and Michael stepped up as a man and helped lead all of us who loved Marc so as executor of Marc’s estate. We said our final goodbye to Marc this summer in Michigan with Michael and Nikki, Haley and her husband Mike, and our grandson Russell. It was hardest to be there with Russell, who was saying goodbye to his Godfather whom he loved deeply. Still the event was marked by the joy of the gathering of new friends and old, and people we have come to know as family. Stories and smiles were shared over food and drinks in Marc’s parents’ yard. There is a catharsis in storytelling that eases grief.

As ever the world does not stand still simply because you want it to stop. And God placed a joy in the midst of the grief. Haley’s family came together and spread their wings for Russell’s graduation from Colorado Springs Christian School. Our grandson of 18 years, who my wife and I (his GiGi and Bumpa) have watched, and held, and loved since his birth, was in the blink of an eye a high school graduate. After graduation Russell got a summer job with the Broadmoor Hotel (5 star) working on the landscape crew out at Seven Falls. I have talked to his supervisor and took great pride in her report of his strong work ethic and how readily he made friends with his team. Russell selected Colorado State University for college and moved up there in August. Last night nearly brought happy tears as I was texting with Russell and realized that he was wrapping up his first semester at CSU. Meanwhile, Haley went into extreme mom-mode and directed her son’s graduation festivities, and spearheaded his college prep (Target never knew what hit it!). Since August, whenever we talk to Haley, it is never long before she asks if we have talked to Russell lately because she hadn’t heard from him in two days. Her husband Mike has been a prince throughout the year being strength when strength was needed, being comforting when comforting was called for, and being raw labor for the prodigious to-do lists that Haley produced in this hectic year. They both seem to be adapting to the empty-nest well. They go out, have been to concerts (most recently Lady Gaga), and host gatherings. From this side of the empty nest, I remember far fewer smiles adjusting to the hollowing of our home. More power to you, Haley and Mike.

Then there was Michael (now Michael and Nikki, but I will cover that). No one has thrown us for a loop this past year like he has. He started the year anchoring us and others as he guided Marc’s family and estate while we mourned. In the spring, he and Nikki had us up to their home in Denver along with Haley and crew, and gave Jean-Marie and I a card. Puzzled we opened it to find an ultrasound photo and the word “surprise”. We were to be grandparents again! In time we were to find out the baby would be a grandson. Upon his birth 12 October 2017, he would take the name Bennett Stephen Sampson (the middle name being shared with myself and Nikki’s dad, an honor that I will not ever be able to describe or repay). He would be beautiful, and he would steal his GiGi and Bumpa’s heart from the minute he was born. Not to be outdone by the shock of the news of a new grandchild, a couple of weeks later Michael and Nikki hit us with the awe that they were moving in the summer to Charleston and purchasing Marc’s home. But Michael and Nikki were not done with the surprises yet. At Russell’s graduation ceremony, Michael sat next to his mom and casually showed her his left hand that was sporting a handsome new ring. Michael and Nikki had gotten married quietly in Denver in a civil ceremony so they could start this new phase in their growing life together as husband and wife. In the span of four months Michael and Nikki gave us one hell of a roller coaster ride: A new grandson, YAY! Moving to Charleston OHNO! Having the best daughter-in-law ever, YAY! Michael and Nikki, we look forward to all the time we can spend with your family, and ask only to take 2018 a bit easier on us, you have left us exhausted!

All the while, our daughter Louise and her husband Jeff have been forging their life in the mountains of Colorado in the town of Como. As a life lesson to all of us, they have chosen quality of life over the more material options. The careers they had were taking a toll on both, and so they made a change to enjoy life and each other at a slower pace. Louise and Jeff have good jobs with the county, and live in a lovely cabin that is warm, happy, and eclectic – much like its owners. Jeff dotes on Louise, and most recently has built her a meditation hut. His love is more than I could have ever asked for Louise (and it takes a load off a father and mother’s shoulders). Louise has been cooking, hiking, and fishing with Jeff, and building her spirituality. She laughs and loves more freely than I have ever seen her. I envy the choices that Louise and Jeff have made. As can be seen, the brevity of this paragraph is a wonderful statement to the simplicity Louise and Jeff have achieved.

All this and more have flooded, swamped, and elevated Jean-Marie and I this year. We have made new friends in the wake of losing our dearest one. We have the wonderful dichotomy of two grandsons 18 years apart in their lives. And have added to that the symmetry by being named Godparents to our niece Sarah and her husband Mike’s new arrival William. The symmetry comes in the form of William being our second Godson. Our first Godson is our nephew Sam, a wonderful young man, high school senior, football player with a full ride to Western Kentucky, who is18 years older than William. We cherish our role as Godparents and are blessed that Sarah and Mike entrusted us with this honor. Jean-Marie and I have also traveled much this year, to Michigan for Marc’s funeral, to Athens (Georgia not Greece) for William’s baptism, to Chattanooga to watch Godson number 1 play football (and to get our eardrums burst by Sam's mom’s cheerleading), to Memphis to attend the wedding of our nephew Christopher, and to Charleston to greet and be captivated by our grandson Bennett. We also said goodbye to our little dog of 17 years, Sailor. Sailor, you were your own man and a curmudgeon after my own heart. I still feel you walking on me in bed. You will never be far from our smiles. Through the roiling surf of 2017, Jean-Marie and I have buoyed, hugged, and loved each other constantly. Jean-Marie and I have children and their spouses that leave us in awe, a grandson that grows in strength and character constantly it seems, a new grandson that we cannot possibly get enough of, and blessings in our sorrows and joys that we thank God for.

Thank you, 2017. 2018 we await your tides and have no idea what will wash ashore.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Sailor on Leave

No life springs fully formed from the womb of its mother. There are back stories and then memory built upon memory before any fullness is attained. Its no different for Sailor. His story begins before his birth when we said goodbye to Angel.

In 2000, after 14 years, my first dog Angel passed. She was with me almost from my earliest moments in Colorado, rescued from the Pueblo Humane Society at the age of 2. She was with me through my brief first marriage, through reinstated bachelorhood, through meeting and marrying Jean-Marie. Truth be told, Jean-Marie's youngest Louise adopted and claimed Angel for her own before I moved in with the family. Angel's death was difficult on all of us. A couple of months after Angel left us, Jean-Marie made the “innocent” request of wanting me to go to the Colorado Springs Humane Society to just “look” at the doggies. I was not thrilled with the idea, I was still hurting from Angel, and I was suspicious of Jean-Marie’s motives. But we came away from that visit empty handed although I did accidently allowed that I found a Maltese there cute.

That slip of the tongue lead to Sailor joining our clan. He was a pup of a Maltese from a breeder in Cañon City. Jean-Marie had seen the litter advertised in the paper, called, and then asked me if she could have one of the puppies for her birthday that August. She said the breeder had told her the pup she wanted would come with papers, but was not show-worthy because he would likely be large for his breed. So we were getting him on sale! We were practically making money! I can never say no to Jean-Marie…never.

A deal was struck with the breeder to meet at the Highway 115 Truck Stop, so that I didn’t have to drive all the way to Cañon City. It all had the feeling of a drug deal going down at that lonely sun burnt location awash in dust devils and smelling of dry earth and diesel fumes. I handed the man an envelope of cash, he passed to me a small cardboard box containing a tiny white furry creature and a strip of wash cloth. He told me the puppy didn’t have a name yet, but that they called him Tongue Man, because his tongue poked out of his mouth most of the time.  Then he climbed into his pickup and waved as his tires squealed away in a cloud of dust. I turned back to our old beat up van that Jean-Marie and I used for floral delivery, and climbed in with this new family member, and headed north up 115 towards the Springs.

During that drive, the puppy wriggled from his box and managed to climb up onto my shoulder for the drive to his forever family, tongue out. I no longer remember how he got the name Sailor, but I think it is safe to place all the credit on Jean-Marie for that. It fit him in some way.

Sailor was not really a people person. In some ways he was like a cat, allowing just enough attention from a person to let him know that he was liked, and then he would  aloofly move off claiming a type of ownership to world about him. When later we got Stovie, a Humane Society dog – called an Australian Shepherd, looking like a Jack Russell, and eventually growing to a statuesque 90 pounds - Sailor tolerated her, but never quite cottoned to her. They maintained their own space, and 13 pound sailor without question became the Alpha dog in the house – that includes being my boss as well.

When Stovie passed, Sailor simply took the extra space to naturally be an expansion of his domain. He was a self-contained, self-assured, and commanding ball of white. He was our companion, our friend, and the boss of me.

When he would play with us, it was a game of toss and fetch with the promise of a treat at the end of the play. He quickly got the idea that one fetch of the gnarled little stuffed bear was enough for a treat. He would chase it, pick up, drop it, then run into the kitchen and wait. When we stonewalled, and insisted he needed to exercise a bit more before earning that treat, he just stopped playing altogether. Food was a driving force with him, but no matter how much he loved to eat, he would never let food be his master.

His old age was defined by a matured grumpiness that made him a classic curmudgeon. His active periods grew shorter and shorter, and his nap times grew longer and longer. He kept shunning proffered affection, because affection had to be on his begrudging terms. When we went to bed (he slept with us…or us with him is probably more like it), he would be sure to be curled up against me or my wife. He was always most comfortable being the initiator of contact. It was his way.

This 10th of October 2017 at the age of 17, almost his whole life spent with us, marked his passing. He had lost the last of his bounce, given up what smiles he could muster, was in pain from arthritis, and was slowly yielding to dispassionate and uncaring dementia. It was his time, not our choice. Dr. Wilhoit of Bijou Animal Hospital (the doctor who knew him best) was attending physician. Jean-Marie and I offered what comfort we could to Sailor as we cried while Sailor took his leave. We now sit wet-cheeked holding each other, and thinking of him. We love you sailor, we feel you in your absence, and we remember you for so many things.

Sunday, October 1, 2017


Political times are difficult these days. I watch and follow them. I listen and learn. I fear. I fear. I fear.

But how to comment? The difficulty is that if I address the NFL questions, I miss out on the larger topic of race. If I delve into that larger topic, I ignore Puerto Rico. If I dive into Puerto Rico, I forget about health care. If I chase health care, I miss tax reform. If I discuss tax reform, I leave North Korea on an island, in the middle of the water, and that water is an ocean, and it is a big ocean.

I look at all these and so much more and I reel, stagger, stumble, fall. In a daze on the ground, I realize that these topics are a distraction. That one covers for another, that to focus on one is to chase a shadow while other shadows scamper about diverting attention and energy.

I look to the constitution and find beauty in its offerings, its flexibility, its existence as a living document to make itself available to change and inclusion. But it also sows the seeds of its potential downfall. The openness it permits allows for nooks and crannies, that can be exploited by wedges.

President Trump has shown himself to be a master of wedges. In a recent speech in Alabama he said, “I brand people, that’s what I do, I brand people.”  He does far more than that. His gift for naming extends to casting expersions and doubts. What is really happening here is that we have elected a president who finds gaps then drives wedges.

As a boy, I helped my father split firewood. My father being who he was had a lot of logs for us to split and save for winters. If memory serves me, he had logs for far more winters than we would see together as a family of seven before empty nesting would set in. I loved splitting logs with dad. He would bring out the sledge hammer and his wedge, and he taught be to drive the wedge into the log and cause a rift and eventually a split. That wedge and those rifts come back to me now all too vibrantly.

We have been foolish to overestimate the progress of race relations in this country, we have been complacent in how we perceive our journalism, and we would rather think that we have nestled into our classes than see that divisions abound.

President Trump is a genius in his egocentrism. He sees all of this and more, and he sees it in the only context that he really perceives anything – himself. In his ceaseless defense of self, he has carefully selected wedges, and driven them into the heart of America in a rhythm of his own choosing.

Through the NFL he has driven a wedge between people and the safe haven of sports where we live our fantasies and hold onto teams as if they were religious icons. While we have been seeking the simple joy that our favorites are national champions or world champions or just heroes that we can carry on broad shoulders into our dreams, President Trump has made them into constitutional threats.

Through race, President Trump has exploited the fragile delusion that things are better than they are. He has exploited the subtly growing rifts to be viewed as an attack on veterans instead of a protest of inequality, and that new arrivals to this land are stealing desired jobs and wages while milking the economy and funneling in gang members and drugs. He takes a wedge and seats it firmly in the earth to push apart our trust in media, and using similar wedges to drive gaps between the populace and the congress, as-well-as between the people and the judiciary.

If you remove our heroes, if you remove our trust in the legislature, if you take away a belief that the judiciary is a necessary balancing force, if you destroy our judgement regarding the fourth estate, if you reinstate African Americans and Latinos as the insidious enemy, what is there left to believe in? The answer is obvious, inescapable, and far more scary than I would dare imagine. Our only refuge is President Trump, and that sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship.

When a leader intentionally works at stripping the bonds of society from any political and moral groundings than his or herself, they are working toward a dictatorship. They are trying to establish a government driven by a single individual instead of the constitutionality mandated by separations of power.

It is October, Halloween is coming. I was hoping to be cowered by ghost and ghoulies, to have my pulse raised by wonderful superstition and myth. Instead, I sit afraid of something much greater, my own government.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Summer Dominoes

It’s been an interesting summer. I have been alternating between worry and pride over our grandson going off to Colorado State University. Naturally this would lead me to thinking back on my own time at Clemson. By coincidence over the summer, I was contacted through LinkedIn by Connor Davis who lives just up the road in Monument. He is an incoming freshman this year to my alma mater. His brother had graduated from there and I believe ran Cross Country and Track. Conner was very excited to be headed off to Clemson. He set himself a project of interviewing as many Clemson alumni as he could in the area (and along his drive to South Carolina) and finding out why they loved the school. The link above is the interview I gave.

As I sat in a local coffee shop being filmed by Conner and his father, I found myself saying that I fell in love with Clemson not for the school itself, but for my friends that I made. This surprised me as I love the school and particularly the Mechanical Engineering and Math departments. I found most professors to be kind, helpful, and engaged with the students (don't ask me about Ernesto Suarez or a particular physics proffesor). And dorm life in Johnstone Dormitory was a blast. But instead of talking about the university, I talked about trying out for (and ultimately failing to make) the Cross Country team.

This experience lead me to Ian Davidson (introduced to me by Coach Colson as someone who could help me find people to train with). Ian was a Clemson graduate, former Cross Country runner, and legend (to me at least) in the South Carolina running community. Ian is a great person who immediately took me into his circle, introducing me to other runners some of whom had run for Clemson when they were students, others that hadn’t, and others that were still in school. It was running with them that really made me love my time at Clemson. Those friendships were and are something incredibly special to me.

It wasn’t long after meeting Ian that he introduced me to Eddie Pennebaker who at the time was a school teacher and his soon to be wife Julie Brown who worked in the registrar’s office. Eddie became my partner in crime (both in the running and friendship sense), and if I wasn’t on campus or in a bar I was over at Eddie and Julie’s apartment. That is not to say I wouldn't be found in a bar with Eddie and Julie. Eddie and Ian introduced me to a cast of others whose orbits I fell into as well. These are the characters of my college years: Steve Figueroa, Tommy “Pooh Bear” Williams, Dr. Don Lattore, Tim Stewart, Joe Hammond, Dr. Keith Allen, and Dave “Geerman” Geer. Together we became the Outta Control Track Club (OCTC or OCCT/OTCC/OTTC if you were Pooh Bear). We were a good group of runners, knocking back the miles, knocking back more than our share of beer, and sharing so many good times.

I could tell you a thousand stories of our group. The friendly rivalries with the Clemson Cross Country Team and the Greenville Track Club, mid-week “meetings” at the Study Hall bar where the goal seemed to be drink beer and see who could make me laugh hard enough to fall off my chair, and the many runs and trails and gatherings we held. But I will only bore you with one of those stories that sprang to mind this week as I drifted back to Clemson – The T L Hannah Band Run.

There was a race at T L Hannah High in nearby Anderson, South Carolina (proceeds obviously benefitting the T L Hannah Yellow Jacket Marching Band). Steve Figueroa, Eddy Pennebaker, and I donned our OCTC colors (black and blue baby!) and headed off for Anderson that Saturday morning. I hazily remember the race itself, the road, passing people, being passed, but I do know the three of us all did well. Eddie won the race, Steve won his age group, and I won mine. We were drinking light beer and awaiting the award ceremony when the race director finally came to the mic, and this is where the day became memorable.

The race director began going through gender and age group awards, and for the first and only time I can remember a race director mispronounced all our names. Steve Figueroa was called to the podium as Steve Figeria, Eddie made his way to get his trophy as Eddie Penbauker, and in the ultimate butchery of the day I answered to Teexer Hardel. To this day, when I talk to Eddie he will call me Mr. Hardel, Teexer, or Tex. Perhaps you had to be there but I think of it as universally hilarious.

I am fascinated by how memory works. My grandson leaving us for college primes its pump, a new friend sets it in motion, and then things start tumbling. Without knowing exactly how, I find myself at once in Clemson, in Anderson, in Colorado Springs, and up at CSU. All the years a mix in my head. The summer has sped by and Russell is now enjoying an entirely new experience at Fort Collins which we look forward to hearing about and having him share with us. I hope he has his own version of my college experience. The summer won’t last much longer, but with my memories I can be anywhen and anywhere, and that’s something.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reflecting Pools

I have never liked my birthday. Not for fear of getting older, or leaving things to the past as the always unknown future beckoned. I think it was the attention, I don’t like the attention. I have always enjoyed celebrating those around me much more than celebrating myself. Also, there is the fact that I am an observer and it doesn’t feel right to be observed. Still there is no feeling on earth so good as knowing my life is populated by so many intelligent, loving, and fun friends and family.

The blink of an eye that has been the last 55 years has come at a price. I am missing so much of my childhood. The tide of time that flows behind starts out a full river from today, but when it hits my first 15 years it has shallowed and is broken by water rounded stones and sandbars. My early years exist as little more than countless unconnected tidal pools. Still, the reflections found in these pools do provide insight into who I am, how I came to be.

For the past 32 years I have worked in the rail industry as consultant and researcher. A result more of lucky happenstance than choosing. But I have a certain love of trains in my earliest days. I have pictures of me playing with toy train sets, there is a film that has me whirling some coupled rail cars above my head when I was just a toddler. There was a story my father told me over and over of me mimicking his hand gestures and sound effects when showing how a grade crossing worked when I was just in a high chair. And then finally, memories I will always cherish are those of going to the train station to pick up my grandmother when she would visit for holidays in the 60’s. What I do remember most about that is looking down the track and seeing the parallel rails merge in the far distance and thinking that is where Connecticut must be.

There are images in my mind of sneaking into my parent’s bedroom when they were not around. I would look around and sometimes snoop in Daddy’s things. Mainly I went in there for the security it provided to me. Being among Mom’s and Dad’s possession, the bed they slept in, the toiletries they groomed with brought me to the bedrock that was their love and support. It made me feel safe. Such memories often have bitter sweet ties, because it also brings back the time we small children were gathered about our parents in the living room as they told us that they were separating, and even though they got back together, their bedroom, my bedrock never felt quite as concrete.

I remember the birthdays of others when I was growing up. As a small person once, Mom was taking me to John Wilson’s birthday party. We had gone to Eckerds Drugs and picked out what I thought was a neat toy for John and wrapped it up. On the way to the party I cried because I couldn’t keep the toy and had to give it away to my friend. There was a birthday of my best friend Ben Lovejoy one year where in tribute to our favorite SNL skit, I made for him a model of George and Yortek’s (two very wild and crazy guys) industrial vacuum cleaner, and gave him a Hulk-head bank with a mock check for one million dollars to put in it. When I told my father about these gifts, he was genuinely shocked and told me that even written on scrap paper the check I had drawn was legal tender. I never worried, Ben knows I am good for it.

There are a million more fragments that have formed me. Recollections of sailing, vacationing at Calloway Gardens, playing baseball and football with the Griffiths next store, visiting grandparents and cousins in Atlanta, seeing ball games, stealing through the woods and swamp that were so close to our home, the vine kingdom, running through culverts, laughing, running with packs of friends on the warm, humid nights in South Carolina. There were the fears that helped mold me like my early (and not completely resolved) fear of heights, frightened of being sent to Vietnam because my draft lottery number was 5 (even though I was only 7), fear of the police looking for me after some insensitive adult yelled at me and threatened me because I was putting dirt clods on the road and watching cars run over them. My life to me is an impossibly complicated puzzle of countless pieces, that have assembled into a life I am blessed by and could never have imagined. In observing others, I guess I hope to make sense of the observations I see in me. Then again, miraculous outcomes are made to be accepted and not explained.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

18 Years

This week the relatives descend and the friends gather.  Our daughter Haley will be at full furious trhottle. All activity will reach its climax on Friday when our grandson, Russell, graduates high school from Colorado Springs Christian School.  Jean-Marie and I are all in for the festivities, but for the moment I just want to relax with my thoughts and enjoy the peace of the past.

This past begins almost nineteen years ago when Russell was sheltered in his mother’s womb as she was sheltered beneath our roof. First time motherhood can be a scary thing to face, and we wanted to support Haley without taking charge or becoming a crutch.  Jean-Marie came up with the idea of turning our old detached two-car garage (25’x25’) into a cottage that Haley could live in and be the independent mom she wanted and needed to be, but with love and support only fifty feet away.  It was a small space, and designing it into a home was no small feat.  I would love to say I helped, that I put my engineering skills to architectural use, but that would be a lie.  The brain trust of Jean-Marie and Marc and Dennis attacked the problem with a passion.  Ideas were floated back and forth, sketches developed and tossed, until one evening at a restaurant it all came to together and the final plan was etched onto a paper napkin.

Russell was born and came home from the hospital to that warm and lovely cottage. In the blink of an eye, mother and father were mystically transubstantiated to our grandparent identities of GiGi and Bumpa as surely as host and wine become flesh and blood. I feel the name GiGi reflects my wife’s vitality and spirit.  I feel my name Bumpa (so conferred upon me by Russell’s Godfather his beloved Uncle Marc) accurately captures my roundness – and I have no complaints.

Russell lived fifty feet away for his first five years. Five years that spoiled GiGi and I greatly. Though (with one rare exception) he has never lived further than fifteen minutes from us, the difference between a few feet away and a few miles away has always felt huge. As huge as the eighteen years we have shared and witnessed with Russell.

For eighteen years, our hearts have ached with love for this young man. They are eighteen years of full memories that have passed in an instant. I can still feel the weight of him as a baby on my chest as we napped on the sofa.  I can still see his small infant’s hand blindly searching the edge of my desk trying to feel for my phone as I worked and he scooted around my office in his walker. I see him well behaved and helping (as best as a child can) his GiGi as we delivered flowers to a wedding or party. I smile as I remember trying to explain to Russell that I could not take him to the Christmas Parade because I had thrown my back out and could not drive (he dropped to his little knees and cried, “Bumpa, I am so humiliated!”). I see him as Cub Scout, and Weeblo, and Boy Scout. I see us when called upon taking him to and picking him up from elementary school, middle school, and high school (the same high school that is releasing him this Friday to his academic future). I see my little buddy grow before my mind’s eye until he now stands above me, smiling.

I can’t write down all that I remember, there is not enough room. And I do not expect you the reader to expend your valuable patience for such a deluge as written by a middle-aged man who sees time continually speeding up about him. The ending to this blog will be the same regardless of how many words are piled on top of it. So in conclusion, in this time of quiet reflection, GiGi and Bumpa thank our daughter Haley for raising a young man so well, for making the right choices, for making the necessary sacrifices, and giving her son as solid a footing as anyone could ask for.  We love you.

To Mike, Haley’s husband, GiGi and Bumpa thank you for a being a role model. Helping to teach Russell not only how to work hard, but also teaching him some of the manly arts involved as household handyman. We have watched you as a loving husband and loving step-father. We have watched you proudly as mentor and friend to our grandson. We love you.

Russell, our grandson, GiGi and Bumpa could never be able to express in words that are more eloquent than our smiles or tears of joy to say how much we love you, how proud we are of you, how much we look forward to your future. From the moment you began to talk, you were a person of astounding vocabulary. From the first puzzle you put together, you evinced a mind that was agile and flexible. From the first gift you gave, you proved yourself thoughtful and loving and caring. There is a renaissance man within you, a maturity beyond your years, a versatility of talents that are inspiring, and love that is both gentle and fierce. Before us we no longer see the crawling child. We see now the tall handsome young man going off to Colorado State University and out into the world. Please know we will always be here for you no matter what. Your GiGi and Bumpa love you.