A novel Called “the Promise” begins thus, “All beginnings are hard.” While I don’t disagree with its basic premise, life seems to teach that endings are harder still. Or so I’ve found. I’m pretty sure most people will take the ultimate beginning, birth, over the ultimate ending, death.

And in between are all sorts of beginning and ending pairs. The one that occupies me at this very moment is that of arrivals and departures. As in vacations. This year I was a snowbird, spending two months in the gentle arms of a Florida winter. Even cold, it was warm, comparatively, and at all times, the colors, fuscia, purples, reds, the sharp green of the sawgrass and the deep ocean blue are simply a feast for the eyes. Yes, it was hard to begin, to set up home keeping in someone else’s living space, feeling alien in the surroundings, simply navigating along unfamiliar terrain, living by the GPS, finding where to shop, to eat, to see a movie, to organize banking…indeed it was challenging.

Strange, how quickly one adjusts: within a month I rarely looked at the GPS, knowing where to go for needs, entertainment, pleasure, and even establishing routines. It was no longer necessary to think through every thing, no matter how trivial; familiarity took over and the autonomous brain function let the frontal lobes relax. And then, suddenly, the weeks were winding down, days only were left and it was time to organize for the return. Last trip to the ocean, last crossing of the draw bridge, one last visit with friends, taking pictures to remember the beauty, the hated packing, knowing that when you crossed the boulevard and rounded the curve, you would likely never again see it, and if you should one day return, you’ll see it in a completely different way, because you won’t be you, at least, you won’t be the same you, you are at the moment.

But by far the hardest, the soul-wrecking part of endings is that of leave-taking of loved ones. Here, the beginning is easy, an exception to the book’s proposition. With what joy is this beginning, with kisses and bear hugs, and all talking at once. It’s been a year, and this is my older sister, the person who knows me as do few others, and loves me unconditionally. Phones and e-mails cut the distance somewhat, but until you can touch electronically, nothing can replace being there. So if you catch a break on an easy beginning, you pay in spades on the leave-taking.

The hardest, most cruel part of departure, is knowing that you might never see one another again. This is true when Inge go to the candy store, but it would be morbid to think that way – how could we live? And the chances are pretty good, statistically wise, that the 35 year old will return in fifteen minutes, to his family, aren’t they?

But a couple of senior citizens taking their leave for upwards of a year? Not so good. So this taking, this ending, this departure is painful and bruising. There must come a time when it will be the very last one. One day, one time, I might not return, or I will, but she will no longer be there. And that knowledge, unspoken but felt bone-deep, is the ultimate in making endings so devastating.


Forget MADD; Try MARD

Drive a single stretch of roadway, maybe half a mile in length along Florida’s State Highway 1A and you will count three flower wreaths commemorating the violent deaths of three people involved in three car accidents. Florida doesn’t have a lock on road carnage by any means. Roadside flower wreaths have sprouted up across North America.

Three deaths in a restaurant would be outrage; three deaths in a boating mishap would call for a marine review. Three traffic deaths on a short stretch of road cause…not too much. The bodies are taken away, the debris removed, the plastic shards and metal bits swept up, the road re-opened, and only a few hours later, it’s as though nothing happened. Just three wreaths as a reminder, should anyone happen to notice. Unless, of course, you are one of those grieving the death of a loved one.
No! I’m not anti-car. Love ’em in fact. Love driving, too. Not too fond of drivers, though, not these days. Not with the general lack of manners prevalent in society today, and especially, it seems, when people get behind the wheel of a car: Seemingly sane people, people who might be our friends, our neighbours, our co-workers, maybe even you. Turn on the ignition and too many of you lose all manners and civility. You become aggressive, thinking that you own whatever lane, street, road, highway that you are on. You don’t – it’s public property, and you need to share it.

You know who you are: won’t hold a door open; will cross in front of someone to enter a store instead of going around them. Either they have to stop or step on your toes. Lately, I’m all for the toe stepping.
You make the same type of moves in your car, don’t you? You’ll be the third, or even the forth car to make that left turn through the intersection, running the red, long seconds after the light has turned green for the opposite traffic, forcing them to stop and wait for you to clear the intersection.
You race to the red light. Why? You only waste gas, but you must get there ahead of the other guy. If he goes 50 clicks, you go 60. If he goes 60, you’ll do 70. If you need to turn right and you’re in the passing lane, you won’t fall in behind the car in the curb lane and make your turn behind him. No! Instead you’ll speed up and cut in front, braking sharply in order to make the right turn, forcing the other driver to slam on his brakes in order to avoid hitting you. Given a line of traffic, you won’t wait. That’s for suckers. You’ll move up in another lane and then cut in. If there’s no space, you’ll force your way in, especially if you’re driving a large SUV. If someone lets you in, you won’t wave a thanks. Too busy on your phone, or you feel that you deserve what you can get.

Either way, you are rude. You lack manners; there is no sense of fair play and certainly no consideration for your fellow traveler. I’ll bet that it is the lack of manners, more than alcohol, which is responsible for increased insurance costs and so many of those roadside wreaths. Along with driving lessons, maybe driving schools need to teach courtesy and manners, and maybe they should be tested along with our ability to drive. You need to smarten up; it’s just possible that one of those roadside wreaths has got your name on it!
                         MARD??? Mothers against Rude Drivers

Cruisin’ the Life

Cruisin’ the Life

Only a week after I stepped off the Carnival Freedom, the Carnival’s Mediterranean line, Costa, provided  hours of TV news with the spectacular sinking of its cruise ship, Concordia, including loss of life, missing passengers or crew, and surely for some of the survivors at least, a certain loss of faith in life’s advertised certainties. For truly, what could be safer, possibly to the point of boredom, than a cruise ship? The last thought on my mind as we walked up the Freedom’s gangway, crossing over from land to the world of the ocean and these behemoths that ply them, was a concern for my personal safety. At the time, overeating seemed my biggest health risk.

Whereas the Concordia failed to rehearse the life boat procedures, our ship, the Freedom, held muster almost immediately, before we sailed into open waters. But it occurred to me, even at the time, that should we ever face an emergency, we’d be in serious trouble: no one yet knew where their muster station was and when we were directed to the correct place in front of our lifeboat, we were lined up against the deck’s wall, with later arrivals added in front of us, and still later arrivals in front of them, like a seven layer cake. Maybe there’s a different operating system in a real emergency, but human nature being what it is, surely panic would have set in if the ship were sinking; it is not likely that we passengers would docily line up, waiting for others to take their places in the lifeboats. True, there are always acts of heroism as there were on the Titanic and apparently on the Concordia, but by and large, the ship’s crew isn’t going to have the luxury of half an hour to tidily assemble the terrified passengers of a listing ship.

In contrast to the Concordia’s passengers in full-emergency muster, desperately trying to board tilting lifeboats or scale ropes down slanting sides to escape the ship into the waiting waters, we mustered impatiently, lining up as mere exercise and eagerly awaiting our dismissal so that we could get back to the Lido deck and some serious eating, never once conceiving the thought that this could be real, that in a week, for 4,000 plus souls, it would indeed be real.

I wonder if the musters on cruise ships the day following the Costa disaster were a little more somber, with fewer thoughts of food and more on how to survive now that the unthinkable was all too thinkable.

Near misses are the reminders of life’s irony and fragility; the old adage advises, “There but the grace of God go I.” All that separates us from disaster is a left turn when we should have gone right – taking flight 901 instead of flight 109, leaving at 3:00 instead of 2:59:

In 1989, I took my family on a special vacation to California. After sleeping under the shelter of the mountains in Yosemite, we drove along the Rockies, crossing over the spectacular Oakland Bay Bridge into San Francisco. Weeks later, back home, we watched the news clips showing the crushed cars as the top tier of the Oakland bridge collapsed on top of the bottom tier and the entire bridge split in the San Francisco earthquake. As they say, “Timing is everything.”

There is the old story of the man who tried to escape his revealed destiny, that Death was stalking him, by fleeing to a different city. When he arrived, he found Death waiting there for him, asking, “What took you so long to arrive?”

If we can’t flee, and we can’t know in advance which direction to turn or when to leave, we either hide, ostrich-like, our heads in the sand, or we get on with our lives, trying to find meaning and joy whenever and wherever we can.

And if we get to drink from the glass of fortune, we need to give thanks for that good fortune, never to take it for granted. And we need to extend a hand to those needing our help, out of common decency, and against the time when we also might zig when we should have zagged: against the time when the odds catch up with us and it’s our turn.

The Day after: Christopher Hitchens meets God

The Hitch  is dead.

Thursday, December 15, aged 62. Cause of death: pneumonia caused by esophageal cancer. Cause of cancer: excessive smoking and drinking. Contributing cause? Maybe the vagaries of existence with no intrinsic order or meaning, as Hitchens, ever the devout atheist, even unto death, might have said.

If you knew of Hitchens, then you know all of this and maybe more. If you didn’t, then he might be a posthumous discovery for you.  Hitchens, according to the spate of obits and remembrance columns, is (was?) a preeminent 20th century intellect, journalist, essayist and debater. A sort of modern-day George Orwell. Last year, his blond hair sacrificed to the gods of chemotherapy, Hitchens debated Tony Blair on television, worried only that his mind would retain its clarity, which, apparently, it did. And now the mind, the tongue, are silenced.

The trouble with dying as an atheist is that there is no one to meet: no Maker, no St. Peter, no loved ones waiting to be reunitied.

Worse, it’s a lose, lose proposition: if Hitchens’ denial of god is wrong and God exists, then he’s going to meet a god he’s spent his entire adult life prodding and jabbing. That could be shock enough to kill him all over. If Hitchens is right, and there’s no one to meet on the other side, then Hitchens won’t even have the satisfaction of knowing that his was the correct assumption. As Hamlet so well remarks, death is the “undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

On second thought, did Shakespeare accidentally, or possibly even purposely, leave a loophole there? After all, Hamlet the ghostly father, has returned from some sort of purgatory to exact the promise of revenge from his son, our Hamlet. The ghost visually describes the world in which he is doomed to wander until the wrong is put right. It’s not going to attract too many “Vacation-To-Go” offers, for this is a terrifying place, but Shakespeare describes it so concretely that you have to wonder whether the bard himself made a round trip. And should Shakespeare be waiting, Hitchens might well consider a meeting worth his early demise.

But of course, if there is a heaven, and Hitchens qualifies at least for a preliminary interview, then he’ll have to deal first with a God likely just itching to meet his unruly, prodigal son. What a conversation that might be!

God:     (depending on your interpretation, looks like Charlton Hesston or George Burns; to St. Peter) Take a harp break, Peter, I want to handle the next traveller personally.

Peter:  (looks off through clouds and makes out the figure of Christopher Hitchens ascending) Be back in a couple centuries.

God:    Well, well well! The prodigal son returns. Welcome to North Korea,            Christopher.

Hitch:    You really exist? (caught off guard but only for a second before Hitch goes on the offensive about the North Korea reference.) Nice use of irony there, and you plagiarized one of my good retorts, too. I’ll be damned!

God:    Oh, I can arrange that, you know. You have indeed garnered some sterling              qualifications in that direction.

Hitch.   You refer to my so-called immoralities? You’re not so great yourself!

God:    Indeed I well know your feelings towards me.

Hitch:  Ah yes, the omnipotent, all –knowing god! Eavesdropping on everyone 24/7. Sort of like Santa Clause’s naughty and nice bit, but without the yearly presents.

God:    Yes, well, there is that, I suppose. But also, I read your book. Quite good, actually,  Christopher, if wrong, nevertheless.

Hitch:  Do you deny it then – the violence on your earthly paradise, the death and misery?

God:    How could I deny it.? But contrary to your gem about North Korea, my children have freedom. You can choose your fate, you humans. That is a precious gift and some of you have made fine use of it. Unfortunately, not by all of mankind. But there is still life, and still  hope.

Hitch:  Freedom to choose? Like Adam and Eve.

God:    Exactly so

Hitch:  Oh, c’mon! They didn’t stand a chance. Good god!

God:   Thank you.

Hitch:  You’re pretty funny. Actually. I prefer you this way.

God:   So you do admit of my existence!

Hitch:  Nice try, God, but no, I’m simply speaking metaphorically, clothing an idea in a personified wrap, for how else could we have this debate?

God:   Nevertheless, we are. To paraphrase one of my happier disciples, Descartes, of whom I’m  sure you’re familiar: ‘You think, therefore, I am.’ I rather like that.

Hitch:  I’m not so sure the Descartes would like it, but anyway, it’s not even me who’s thinking. It’s this turgid blogger who fancies that he can write not only a Platonic dialogue, but that he has the intellectual capacity to engage us both in repartee.

God:    He’s my creature as well, Christopher.

Hitch:  Yes, well, I wouldn’t be bragging about that one, you know? You don’t exist, and now I don’t exist either, except in the minds of a few people such as this ill conceiving blogger.

God:    You are indeed a harsh critic.

Hitch:  Exactly how I made my living! And now to put an end to this. Hey, blogger! I’m not playing along for your benefit. If you want fame, don’t try to hitch –  yes, yes, I know, it’s weak, but look who I’m relying on here – I say, blogger, if you want fame, then hitch a ride on your own merit. And you better post this soon, because death is time-sensitive. Tomorrow my death will matter less than today, which is already less than yesterday.

So go ahead and post, because now, we’re….done.

Walkin’ Moxie – or – An Alien’s Persepctive

          The pulling power of a 10 pound Shih Tzu is, frankly, quite fierce…not surprising since the name apparently translates to Lion Dog.  At the afore-mentioned 10 pound weight, or a bit less than 5 kilos in metricspeak which puts her at the low end of the weight category, Moxie nevertheless fulfills her obligation to carry herself with a “distinctly arrogant carriage,” as Wikipedia puts it. If an underbite and large, buggy eyes might be an invitation for human bullying, especially amongst children, the dog world seems blissfully unaware of such human-termed imperfections; moreover, as long as it’s dogs and not people, these characteristics apparently represent good breeding, so to speak.

          So there I am, being forcibly yanked at the back end of a ten foot leash by this miniature tow truck. From my position, of course, I see none of Moxie’s finer front-loaded  breeding qualities, only the end orifice, the presence of which in all mammals really should unite humanity in some sort of realization that given we share this back-end aspect of nature, there’s little sense in worrying about who has buck teeth, a given skin pigment, is short, heavy, or whatever.

           Or maybe there is! Maybe we distract ourselves with such trivia because we don’t want to be reminded about the back end, because it reminds us all too clearly as to what makes us us, and that the only time this biological process stops is not a time to be wished by most sane people. Dogs, once again, don’t much seem to care, not even about this, and have no remorse about exercising said orifice in public.

          Once, while waiting for  Moxie to perform that hind-site action, then bending low to scoop up the by-products of life, specifically breakfast and a couple of treats in this case, it occurred to me, that should a flying saucer be hovering in the stratosphere while scouting the earth, the aliens (who for all I know could be Shih Tzus) focusing a high-powered, super resolution telescope on me precisely at that moment, would see a small animal leading, its servant humbly following a respectable distance behind, stopping from time to time to scoop its poop. What more evidence could a space-being ask for in order to establish racial dominance? The scouting report would most definitely establish that the four-legged creatures on this third planet from the sun are the master race, they being served by a lesser species with but two legs, clearly less powerful, less able, far slower, and given its role as pooper scooper, possessing significantly less intelligence.

Even stranger, however, is that there are moments when increasingly I’m prone to agree with the aliens.

The superior species

Enjoying a royal rest

The God Complex

For two days the fish tank ran on auto pilot: lights and filter came on in the morning, the motor hummed quietly, oxygen bubbled, and then at 7:00 p.m. everything shut down for the night. Only I didn’t have to descend the flight of stairs to feed the fish several times a day, since, of course, there were no longer any fish in the tank.

The tank was my model, an ocean in miniature, ideal – an underwater Atlantis. Beige gravel with blue splashes flowed in contours around strata of rock while plants framed the outcropping and lined the tank back to hide the wall behind, leaving the front open for the fish to freely swim.

There must be some sort of God complex in people who keep aquariums or create miniatures such as scale railroads. Maybe it even applies to gardeners. What they all have in common is that they get to create. From nothing, hills and valleys  appear on the train layout, and the loco-driven freight train barrels past the sleeping village in the dark; the gardener plants a shade tree here and cuts the bed just so there, uprooting any weeds that would spoil the view.

Essentially, hobbyists create their own Edens, small worlds built for their pleasure, which they can control, not just from the aspect of play, but from the very act of creating them. Nothing happened in my small sea world that I didn’t make happen. At least until disease entered the tank.

Maybe that’s what annoyed God: he lost control of his perfect model. Disease in the form of the serpent entered his magnificent Garden of Eden and suddenly the creatures he had created and shaped neglected his will, disobeying him. “Eat from the tree of life,” he offered Adam and Eve, “But do not eat from the tree of knowledge,” but that is exactly what they did. And so God relocated Adam and Eve and locked the gates of Eden behind them. Genesis clearly shows God’s anger, but the focus shifts to Adam and Eve who now will suffer and, ultimately, die.

But what about God after his creations have let him down and are now wandering  elsewhere? Surely the Garden was desolate for Him, a bitter reminder of that searing event. Surely, the treachery of his small world must have caused Him a great deal of pain. Perhaps He could never again enjoy it in quite the same way.

My fish didn’t exactly disobey me, unless you want to consider their dying an act of civil disobedience. But after all those years, watching them grow, seeing their beauty as they flashed deep orange, mouths gaping at the surface when I came to feed them, suddenly not having them was desolation, and I too decided not to restock Eden.

But unlike a model railroad, or a garden, a fish tank can’t simply be abandoned to lie fallow, turning to dust and gradual decay. It has to be drained of water; gravel, plants and decorations rinsed and placed in buckets; canopy and filter cleaned and mothballed, and finally, the tank, that empty shell that had once contained a world, put into storage.

If God did in fact felt empty after undoing his creation, I can indeed, definitely relate.