What Happens After

September 20th, 2019

Jack is dead.

You probably don’t know Jack. At least, I don’t think you do. He left this world a few days ago, at 93 years of age. He lasted longer than most of us will. However, it should be noted that his last couple years kind of sucked.

Karin and I went to his funeral today. We have been friends with Jack and his wife for the last two or three years. We only really knew them through our church, because we all attended daily Mass together. Jack and Audrey were an inseparable couple, and they had just recently celebrated sixty-five years of marriage. Sixty-five years. I’m not sure that I will even live that long.

Jack hardly ever spoke to me, and I don’t think he spoke much to anybody else, at least not toward the end of his life. Jack had Alzheimer’s disease, and I could see it slowly tearing him down. I noticed, when we first met, that he couldn’t follow along during the morning prayers. Then he started forgetting things in church, like his cap or his walker. He was adamant about turning off the lights in the church after Mass ended, even when the pastor told him to leave the lights on. Jack was clearly frustrated at times. He wanted desperately to understand what was going around him, and he just couldn’t.

Jack’s wife tried to shepherd him as best she could. Sometimes he was cooperative, sometimes not. Toward the end of his life, he struggled to do things his own way, and it never quite worked out for him. It didn’t work out well for his wife either. Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects a large number of people beyond the person who is sick. Jack was hurting, but the effects of the ailment touched his wife and kids, and anybody else who cared about him.

My time with Jack was not my first experience with Alzheimer’s. My mom had it. It’s a slow, hard way to end a life. My mother suffered with the disease for years before I even knew she had it. My dad kept it quiet, and he tried to care for her on his own for far too long. Eventually, it overwhelmed even him. My father, grudgingly, finally put my mom into a nursing home (a good place where people actually care about the residents), and my mom cried for days after he left her there. She knew that she was never going back home. She knew that. It’s not like my dad abandoned her. To his credit, he visited her every single day until she died. He did that for six years. He did that even when he didn’t know if she knew he was there with her. He was loyal to the end.

During that time, I didn’t visit my mom very often. I am not sure why. There was some geographical distance involved with any visit (a three hour drive). Now, after time has passed, I think the emotional distance was even greater. When I did visit my mom, she was usually sleeping fitfully. She was there physically. I could hear her breathing, and I could see her chest rise and fall. But she was not available. I would say, “Hi Mom”, and there was no response, no reaction. I occasionally held her hand, and there was no pressure from her hand against mine. Nothing. Did she know that I was there with her? I have no idea. I could not feel her presence. I was with her, and I was also all alone.  It was hard to make the trip to see her, because all I ever did was see her.

A funeral should provide some kind of closure. Sometimes a funeral cannot do that. My mom’s funeral in 2015 was anti-climactic. She has been absent for so long already. Our family had been saying goodbye to her for years prior to her death. My father’s funeral, last year, was somehow inconclusive. There were many things left unsaid, and many feelings left unexpressed. Death doesn’t necessarily end anything.

I initially sat by myself at Jack’s funeral. I did that on purpose. I have trouble with funerals, in that my emotions are activated in ways that have nothing to do with the situation at hand. Funerals make me remember things, and I need space in order to deal with those memories.

Karin convinced me to sit with her, and with her friends from the church choir. I felt that was a bad idea. I excused myself from the pew early during the Mass, and I sat outside in the narthex, the gathering space. One of the undertakers sat next to me. He remarked,

“We got the good seats, huh?”

I made some kind of neutral comment.

The man talked with his partner after that.

He said, “We counted 117 people in the church.”

His co-worker replied, “That’s pretty good.”

I never realized that these people kept score.

Prior to the funeral Mass, there was a line of well-meaning people, all of them waiting to give their condolences to Jack’s widow. I didn’t join the line.  I didn’t want to go there. What for? What was there to say? What words could I find to make anything better? Maybe if I had known Jack better, I could have said something that might have helped. I had no words.

People often feel pressured to say something at a funeral. Then they sometimes say something lame. I have heard people say things like, “He’s with the Lord now.” So, what does that actually mean? Does it mean anything?

There was a Gospel reading at the funeral Mass. It was about the raising of Lazarus. More specifically, it was about Martha’s comments to the Lord just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. I have always felt ambivalent about the raising of Lazarus. Did Christ really do his friend any favors? I mean, Lazarus eventually had to die again. I would think that once was enough.  

I listened to the priest’s sermon. It was about eternal life, and believing in Jesus. His words were not unexpected. But, seriously, what was he talking about? What actually happens after death? Does anybody know? We believe certain things, but we don’t know anything. I believe in an afterlife, but I have no conception of what that might be like. I will find out when it’s my turn up to bat.

If we don’t know what we are talking about, then it might be best to remain silent. Death is a mystery, perhaps the ultimate mystery. Let’s leave it that way.














Walking in the Dark

September 16th, 2019

I walked Shocky at 4:00 AM yesterday, well before sunrise. It was probably unwise to walk a black border collie/lab for a couple miles on an unlit stretch of road. I did it anyway. Not only was it dark, but it was also foggy. Fortunately, there was only a minimal amount of traffic. I suspect that the motorists I saw were mostly people in a rush to get to jobs that they hate. I used to live like that. I remember playing death metal on the radio to stay alert. Anybody who is up at such an ungodly hour is probably not loving life.

I was up. I am often up that early. I worked third shift for over twenty years, and I can no longer sleep like a normal human. I wake up at two or three or four in the morning, and I can’t go back to sleep. No chance. I stare up at the skylight for a while, and then I crawl out of bed.

The wee hours of the morning are pretty twisted. They are part of a time frame is not quite right. It is too early to start a pot of coffee, and it’s too late to crack open a beer. I can’t begin anything, because then I will wake up Karin. Lying silently in bed is not an option.

What to do?

I tend to latch on to Shocky and go for stroll in the dark. Some nights are glorious, with the stars above us as we hike past subdivisions, farm fields, and marshes. Other nights are not so glorious. However, even with the fog, it was good to walk. It was still good to be outside.

Darkness can be a blessing. We rely far too much on vision. Walking along a lonely road at night requires the use of other faculties, especially when the few things that are still visible are shrouded in mist. The senses of hearing, feeling, and smell sharpen as sight fades. The sounds of crickets, frogs, and an occasional sand hill crane became much clearer to me on our hike. The smell of the marsh was more pungent. The feel of the road under my feet, and the pull of Shocky on the leash was more immediate. A familiar world became strange and fantastic when there was so little light. Our walk was not completely in the dark. Every once in a while I could look up and catch a fleeting glimpse of the waning moon through fog.

I have been thinking about other predawn activities, some from long ago.

Once, I had a friend named Greg. He worked as a truck driver, but his passion was music, all sorts of music. He had a radio program on a local non-profit station. It was called “G.B. and the Neutral Drop”. His time slot was from 3:00 to 6:00 AM on Mondays. That was a truly wretched time to be playing music on the air. He had very few listeners, simply because very few people were conscious at that time of day/night. The only people who ever called into his program were bakers and dairy farmers.

The one upside of being a DJ in those predawn hours was the fact that Greg could play whatever he wanted to play. And he did. It would be a gross understatement to say that Greg’s program was eclectic. His choice of music was diverse to the point of being almost random. He played everything. Greg ran through his selection of artists in a jarring and unpredictable manner. I think he took great pride in that.

Greg invited me to come to the studio with him during those witching hours. We had fun. He even let me speak on the air. What a mistake.

He asked me to do a PSA (public service announcement). I proceeded to make a total mockery of it all. I’m not sure why he would have expected anything else. He did seem a bit alarmed.

Once he switched over to some music, he cut the mikes and gave me a hard stare.

“Hey man, what are you doing? I mean, we are recording all this. What if somebody from the station hears what you said? C’mon, man!”

I mumbled an apology.

He queued up another song, and gave me the side eye. He shook his head, and said,  “Asshole”, as he was laughing to himself.

As I mentioned, Greg’s musical tastes were far-ranging. One morning he started off with some scratchy 45’s of black Gospel hymns. Then he went immediately to some nasty-ass track from Solomon Burke, a soul artist whose musical references to sex would have made Prince blush. After that, Greg went to directly to some western swing, some shit so redneck that any white boy would want to stand up and wave the Stars and Bars.

As far as I am concerned, the best part of Greg’s show was when he played “unheard 45’s”. Greg, in his travels, would stop at garage sales and buy old records. Often, he bought records from artists that were completely foreign to him. He never listened to them prior to dragging them out for his show. These were old vinyl disks. They were recordings from bands that made one or two records, and then disappeared. Greg would pull out the 45’s, and then he and I would play them at random.

The recordings almost always sucked, and we almost always said exactly that on the air. It was kind of an artistic sadism. We ripped on these performers who probably put their hearts and souls into some lame song. I am likely going straight to hell for my active participation in this cruel enterprise. I suppose I should feel regret. I don’t.

At one point, I thought to myself, “What if one these performers actually hears us mocking him?”

Then I thought, “Oh well, he’ll get over it.”

We moved on to the next record.

The wee hours of the morning are times of intense beauty and terrible sin.

It’s best to stay in bed.



I Don’t Need to Know

September 13th, 2019

Last week I went to the post office to apply for a new passport. My old passport is way expired. I haven’t used it since 1998.  For two decades, there really hasn’t been any reason for me to cross the border.

Now there is.

As I was fumbling through the application process at the post office, one of the employees on duty asked me if I wanted the passport just to have it handy, or if I had a trip planned.

I told her that I was going on a journey.

She asked me where I was going.

I told her, “Mexico.”

She smiled, and then she asked me, “Oh cool. where?”

“Ciudad Juarez.”

She gave me a funny look and asked, “Where’s that?”

I answered her, “It’s right across the border from El Paso, Texas.”

“Why are you going there?”

That’s a good question. Sometimes, even I am not sure.

I answered her, “I’m going with a group from a Catholic immigration organization. We want to see for ourselves what is happening with the migrants on the border. Since the current administration is not allowing any asylum-seekers to come into the U.S., most of the action is on the other side of the border.”

She looked at me and said, “Wow, that’s awesome. That’s great that you are doing that!”

I sighed, and said, “Well, it’s just something that I think I should do.”

She replied, “No, really, I think that it is great. I see the pictures on the news with those little kids, and it just breaks my heart. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I think I do.”

She went on, “Well, you have a good trip, and thanks for doing this. It sounds intense.”

Yeah, intense is the right word. Nobody yet has told me, “Have a good time!” Everybody knows better than that. Some of the visit will be a disturbing experience. That is guaranteed. I think that some people are glad that I am going there, because then they don’t need to go. Maybe, they actually want to go, but can’t. Maybe they hope to learn things through me, and that is fine. Not everybody can go to the border, and not everybody should go. I believe that those who do make the journey are meant to do so, for some reason.

As with many things that I do, it is difficult for me to believe that this trip will occur. I don’t believe that things will happen until they actually happen. I am old enough to know that plans seldom go as planned, and that reality often gets in the way of my hopes and desires. I expect to go to El Paso, but somehow I will be at peace if it doesn’t come to pass. It’s not really up to me.

Already, events are shifting. Our immigration group had a meeting a week ago. We had a conference call with a man, Chris, from Annunciation House in El Paso. We spoke with him about the logistics of the visit to the border. Some of the conversation revolved around money and travel arrangements. There were other topics discussed.

I asked Chris about how I should describe the experience. I explained to him that I am a writer, and that want to write about the migrants who are stranded in a kind of legal limbo right now. I told him that I wanted to talk with some of the migrants, and (most likely, through an interpreter) hear their stories. Chris threw cold water on that idea. He doesn’t want visitors, like me, asking the guests in the shelters questions about what has happened to them. First of all, they have suffered trauma, and they often they do not want to talk about it. Second, they require a certain level of anonymity. For various reasons, they want to stay under the radar. Chris emphasized that we are primarily concerned with the welfare of the migrants. Any other agendas we might have are not as important.

Fair enough.

So, maybe I won’t be writing about the asylum-seekers who are now utterly lost in places like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana. These people can’t go back home, and they can’t come to the U.S. I would love to hear their stories, but I don’t need to do so. I can just write about what I observe and about what I experience. That will probably be good enough.

I spent a couple days this week tutoring some Syrian refugee kids. I have been with their family for over two years now. I help them with their homework, and we talk about school. It’s to the point where I am like a crazy uncle who just shows up at their house sometimes. I’m good with that.

It’s odd, but I have never heard anybody in the family tell me the whole story of their journey from Syria to America. I have heard bits and pieces, but never the entire saga. I know that they trust me, but nobody in the family has had the desire or the need to talk about all that happened to them.

That’s all right. I don’t to know everything. I just need to be their friends.

I don’t need to hear the stories from the migrants on the border either.

I would rather be their friends.

















September 8th, 2019

“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”
― Edmund Burke,  from “Reflections on the Revolution in France”

I struggle with my ancestors, which means that I struggle with ghosts. It also means that I struggle with myself. Whether I like it or not, my ancestors are inside of me. They are in my DNA and in my memories. They reach out to me in my dreams. My ancestors are not in the past. They are here with me now.

My parents built a house in Amherst, Wisconsin. It was their dream house. One of the rooms in this house looked like a dining room, but it wasn’t. It was a shrine of sorts. The walls were lined with black and white photos of long dead family members. I knew some of them. They were my grandparents. Most of the pictures were from weddings or other official gatherings. I was curious about the other people in the photos.

I asked my dad about these people. I wanted to know about them. I wanted to know if they were drunks and/or hard-workers. I wanted to know if they were sinners or saints. Did they have hard lives? What did they do? What did they want to do?

My father refused to tell me anything. He was only interested in his past in a very sanitized sort of way. I had heard over the years about how some of my family members had been bootleggers. I had heard rumors of other less than noble activities. But my dad wanted none of that. He wanted to hang on to a glorious past that never, ever existed. So, there was nothing to tell. I just gazed at pictures of total strangers, people who would forever be strangers to me.

Both of my parents are dead. They don’t qualify as ancestors, at least not yet. Our relationships were way too close. Even after death, there is too much baggage. There are too many disturbing memories. I suppose that there are people who have wonderful relationships with their parents. I don’t know many of them. In any case, I don’t have enough distance between myself and my mother and father. I still hear their voices in my head, and that’s not always good.

I have spent a little time with Native Americans. Those people take their ancestors very seriously. They pray to their forefathers and foremothers for guidance. I remember hearing one of the Indians talk about praying to “our grandparents”. Ahhhh, that is the answer, or part of it.

I have good memories of my grandparents. They are my true ancestors. Yes, they had their issues, but they didn’t have issues with me. I know that my grandparents loved me unconditionally. They were wise, partly because they had seen many things, and partly because life had repeatedly kicked their asses. These old people just wanted to love a little kid. They no longer had an agenda. They knew that they had nothing left to prove, so they were just there for me, and for their other grandchildren.

For some reason, I also consider deceased members of my wife’s family to be my ancestors. Karin’s parents, Max and Erika, always treated me like their own flesh and blood. Those people suffered mightily through World War II (on the other side), and still they loved me, even though I was an American soldier in Germany. Karin’s other older relatives, Onkel Kurt and Tante Aga, Onkel Friedel and Tante Maria, were all my part of my history. They are my ancestors too.

I do pray to my ancestors. That may be silly. However, I believe that love is stronger than death. I believe that we are still connected.


The Little Car that Could

September 4th, 2019

Sally has a Kia. I don’t know what model it is. I know is that it’s a small four-door. I also know that it is clean and well-maintained. The Kia has a few years on it. I figured that out when I saw the faded sticker on the back that said “Environmentalists for Obama”.

Karin and I met Sally the day after the land purification ceremony. Senji had arranged for for the participants to make a day trip to the Olympic National Park. The timing was good, since that day was the birthday of the National Park system, and entrance into the park was free. Most of the people involved in the excursion were visiting Buddhist monks and nuns, and a few stray lay people, like Karin and myself. We loaded up in four or five cars and left the Ground Zero Center at Poulsbo at 9:00 AM.

Karin and I rode with Sally. So did Sawada, the monk from Los Angeles. We drove to Hurricane Ridge in the national park. Poulsbo is close to sea level. Hurricane Ridge is not. To reach that place in the mountains requires a long, tortuous ride along steep, winding roads. The park facility is at an elevation of 5242 feet. At Hurricane ridge a person can have a truly breath-taking view of the Olympic Mountains. I usually hesitate to use the word “awesome”, but in this case, it is the only word that fits. Pictures cannot capture the majesty of the view from the ridge. It can only be appreciated in person.

As we drove up to the ridge, Sally noticed a funny smell coming from the car. Sawada noticed it too. Reluctantly, I acknowledged the odor. To me it smelled like hydraulic fluid. I couldn’t be sure. Sally was understandably concerned. Sally is a consistently upbeat kind of person. She looks at the positive far more often than I do, but I could tell that she was worried that something was wrong with the Kia.

I was sitting in the back seat with Sawada as Sally drove us along the endless uphill road through the park. Sawada asked me,

“This car, does it sound good to you? I don’t know. I do not drive.”

I shrugged and told him, “It sounds okay.”

Honestly, I wasn’t so sure about the car. I was amazed that Sawada, a long time resident of Los Angeles, did not drive. That seemed inconceivable to me.

We had a good visit at Hurricane. Everybody looked around, and took pictures. We had a picnic lunch. Eventually, we packed up to travel to another tourist spot in the park, Sol Duc Falls. Sally was concerned about her vehicle. I looked underneath the car for any obvious fluid leaks. I found none, and I told her so.

We drove to a different area of the park, the section with the temperate rain forest. That is where the Sol Duc Falls are located. During the ride, Sally and Karin talked. They had much in common. Sally is an artist, as is Karin. Sally’s children, as well as our kids, went to Waldorf schools. Our children went unwillingly, and none of them have forgiven us for that experience. During their conversation, Sally also spoke about the Kia. She was anxious, but in a calm sort of way.

Sally kept asking me questions about the vehicle. This was ironic, since I know very little about cars, mostly because I am not interested in them. Karin and I have two sons. Our two sons are both gear heads. They love cars. To me cars are just machines that get me from here to there. In any case, perhaps because of my gender, Sally really expected me to understand something about her Kia.

We got to the parking area near the Falls. There is a mile-long walk from the parking lot to the actual water falls. It was a beautiful walk. We were surrounded by many old trees, covered with moss and sometimes lichen. The forest reminded me of Fangorn, the ancient woods in “The Lord of the Rings”. Everything was green and alive and old.

At the end of the trail is the waterfall. There is a large bridge that crosses over the falls. It was on this bridge that the Buddhists took out their drums and started chanting, “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”. The other tourists tried not to take notice of the spontaneous spiritual outburst. These monks and nuns chant whenever they are inspired to do so. It’s what they do. I have gotten used to it.

Kamoshita, the monk from Okinawa, climbed down from the stream to the very edge of the waterfall. I watched him do it from the bridge. He slid down slippery rocks to look more closely at the rushing water that fell at least one hundred feet to the stones below. He stared at the roaring stream below him, and then he found his way back up the rocky path. I was relieved when he returned to more solid ground.

When we left Sol Duc, Sally was still edgy about her car. I told her to pop the hood open. I checked all of the fluid levels in the car. Everything was okay. I told her that. We started the long ride back to Poulsbo.

Sawada did not ride with us on the way back. Instead, a nun, Jun Sen, came with us. Jun Sen is a small, wiry woman. I don’t know how old she is, but she is feisty. She has an inner strength that is amazing. Jun Sen is with the peace pagoda in upstate New York. She knows what she wants, and she gets it.

It took almost two hours to get back to Ground Zero. We had a couple unexpected stops. Jun Sen wanted deep-fried okra. She remembered from a previous visit that there was a gas station near the Indian casino that provided this kind of treat. Sally, as a rule, seems to be accommodating to the needs and/or wants of her friends. So, we went on a long search for this elusive filling station. We found it. The place was closed. Jun Sen pounded on the door of the shop, but she got no answer. We went to Poulsbo without the desired fried okra.

Note: On the very next day, Jun Sen sat at Senji’s table with a plate of fried okra. I was impressed.

When we got to Poulsbo, Sally spoke to me. she said,

“I am so grateful that you were with us, Frank. You made me feel so much more secure and relaxed about the car.”

I was a bit puzzled. I told her,

“I didn’t do anything.”

She replied, “But at least you knew all the right words! You knew that much. That meant everything.”

Sally really has a nice car.



Blessing a Hole in the Ground

August 31st, 2019

The peace pagoda at Ground Zero has been a work in progress for at least thirty-seven years. I have to be impressed by the tenacity and patience of the Buddhist monks and nuns, but I am not surprised. Over the years, Karin and I have met many monks and nuns (mostly Catholic), and these people all take the long view of time. They think in terms of centuries. The Buddhists have been in business for 2500 years, and they are in no rush to get things done. Monastic communities are probably the most counter-cultural groups in our country, and perhaps in the world.

On August 24th, a week ago, we attended the land purification ceremony on the Ground Zero property. Karin and I helped to set things up for the ritual, but we were spectators once the show began. Perhaps the word “show” is a bit disrespectful, but the Buddhist liturgy was a physical manifestation of a spiritual action. In that sense, it was a show.

The Buddhist ceremony lasted for an hour. I didn’t understand much of it, and there is no reason why I should have. The monks and nuns wore white and saffron colors. They played drums and chanted in Japanese (mostly “Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo”).  They used gongs, bells, and spinning cymbals. The spinning cymbals were very cool. There was a lot of incense, bowing, and general weirdness. Karin and I loved all of it.

As Catholics (and Buddhist sympathizers), Karin and I are comfortable with ritual. I read once that Catholics, by definition, believe in magic. True. Oh, so true. I think that the Buddhists may be the same. There was absolutely nothing that happened during the hour-long ceremony that made a damn bit of sense to me, and yet it was all incredibly beautiful. I especially liked the scattering of flower petals.

Set behind the gathered Buddhists was an altar, nearly buried under the weight of flowers and food offerings. Somewhere on the altar was a statue of the Buddha and a picture of Guruji, the founder of the current sect. Behind the altar was the site of the proposed peace pagoda. The site looked like a bomb crater, albeit a bit cleaned up. The entire ceremony was designed to bless a hole in the ground.

After the ceremony, there were guest speakers. That is kind of standard for this sort of event. Some Native Americans (i.e. indigenous people and/or Indians) were scheduled to talk. They never showed up. I don’t know why. It doesn’t matter. In my extremely limited experiences with these indigenous people, I have found that they do what they want when they want. That is both infuriating and admirable. It just is.

There was an interfaith prayer. A rabbi came, and she sang a prayer in Hebrew. Karin and I sang along with her. There were two Christian pastors who spoke. They were ecumenical in a warm, fuzzy way.

Other speakers included Jim and Shelley Douglass. They are co-founders of Ground Zero, and they rocked. Old does not mean lame. Both of them spoke very eloquently about peace and justice. I listened closely to them.

Johnella La Rose, an indigenous person, gave a very emotional talk. It is hard for me to remember all that she said, but I do remember that everything came from her heart. That much I know.

The last person up to bat was Mark Babson, a violinist from Portland. He finished it all off by playing a short piece from Ernest Bloch. The music was composed in memory of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement if Judaism.

It was perfect.


Amtrak Revisited

August 28th, 2019

There are two groups that always ride Amtrak: old people and the Amish.

It is true that there are other folks who take the train, and they have their reasons for doing so. Some people just hate to fly. Some people have medical issues. Some people need to travel to some godforsaken location that has no airport. However, it quickly becomes obvious that many of the passengers on Amtrak are old and/or Amish. I would say that they are mostly old.

Why is this so? I will hazard a guess or two.

I am old. My wife is old. This is simply a fact. We are retired, so even if our chronological ages are not extreme, we still count as being old. If someone is retired, they are, by definition, old.

A retired person lives in a paradox. On the one hand, this person sees clearly that the clock is ticking, and that life is short and getting shorter. On the other hand, this person is also in no rush to go anywhere. Retirement, if it is truly retirement, means that there are no deadlines. That is the whole point of it. So, a retired person, like myself, wants to experience all that he or she can before death comes, but this same person has no need or desire to hurry. Hurrying is for the young.

This makes a long train ride very attractive. Karin and I went from Milwaukee to Seattle. That trip takes forty-four hours. A person making this journey will, if at all possible, book a sleeper compartment. I have made this trip in the cheap seats, and it sucked hard. A sleeper compartment is not luxurious, but it is civilized. There is privacy and a modicum of comfort. Also, the meals are included in the price, and the meals are of exceptional quality. So, if somebody has the time and the money to travel by train, why not? A retired person often has both time and money. If they didn’t, they would not be retired.

Another reason why I like the train is that the personnel on Amtrak treat passengers with courtesy. When I go to an airport, I feel like I am being treated as a criminal. Honestly, it is easier for me to visit a loved one in a maximum security prison than it is for me to board a plane. Flying has become stressful and thoroughly unpleasant. I only fly when I must.

As for the Amish, I don’t pretend that I understand their culture. I don’t understand why they always travel as a group. I don’t understand why the men wear suspenders and sport Abraham Lincoln beards. These things are mysteries to me. However, I did have the opportunity to speak with an Amish man while riding the train to Seattle. Actually, he came over to me in the lounge car for a bit of conversation. That, in itself, was unusual.

I am not good at all with small talk. So, I asked Stephen, the Amish patriarch, a question:

“Okay, really, why don’t you folks drive? Why do you take the train?”

Stephen was not bothered by my query. He thought for a moment and replied,

“Well, driving a car gives a person too much independence. It is important to us to depend on each other, to depend on our family and our neighbors. We need to depend on each other in our community.”

That was a damn good answer. I can respect that.

On the subject of smokers…

Amtrak strictly forbids smoking on the train. I put an emphasis on strictly. I remember distinctly the conductor telling the passengers,

“If you are caught smoking on this train, the next stop will be your stop.”

That seemed pretty clear to me.

There are those passengers who are very attuned to when they can get out of the car and smoke. The conductors try to guide them in this respect:

“The next stop is Fishbreath, Montana. We will arrive in about ten minutes, This would be a good time for you, if Fishbreath is your destination, to look around you for your belongings and prepare to detrain. Also, we will be stopping briefly, for maybe five minutes, in Fishbreath. There will be time for a very short fresh air break, a chance to stretch your legs. Please remain on the platform and respond to the “all aboard” instructions. Take it from me, you do not want to spend an extra twenty-four hours in Fishbreath waiting for the next train to arrive. Thank you.”

“Fresh air break” means “smoke break”.

Karin and I saw people run out of the train at a stop in order to light up. One woman returned to the train, and said,

“What a great stop! I got in two cigarettes!”

Yeah. I love the train.