Toddler

June 12th, 2020

Weston is asleep. So are Gabby and Hans. The sun isn’t up yet, but the sky in the east is just starting to get light. I let the three dogs outside when I got up half an hour ago. Then they started howling and scratching at the door, so I let them back inside. They immediately burst into the bathroom and started drinking water from from the toilet. I tried to move them, but they would not be deterred. Now they are back in the yard, and I am sitting at the kitchen table with a large cup of coffee. Thank God for Keurig.

I spent most of yesterday with Gabby and Weston. Hans worked a long, ugly shift, so I didn’t see very much of him. I had plenty of time to learn more about Weston, my 18-month-old grandson. Gabby fed Weston and changed him, but the little guy did come to me occasionally when he was feeling unappreciated. He crawled up in my lap, and then he left when he realized that I wasn’t appreciating him either.

Weston is a toddler. He walks all around the house, but his motor skills are not yet finely tuned. He keeps his right arm raised when he walks in order to maintain his balance. He still tumbles occasionally. Weston tends to break his falls with his forehead, which leads to unpleasant scenes of pain and sorrow.

Weston is solidly built. Nobody would accuse him of being fragile. The young man is remarkably strong for his age, both in body and will. An uncharitable person might say that Weston is stubborn. Of course, I would never say that.

The lad is inquisitive. He likes to explore, and that can sometimes be a hazardous activity. Gabby and Hans have done their best to child-proof their apartment, but that is impossible to do completely. Weston loves to open cabinets and doors. Nothing is safe and nothing is sacred. The whole world is new to him, and he plans on seeing all of it.

The little guy takes food very seriously. That is a family trait. Gabby makes him a hearty breakfast: fruit, pancakes, juice, bacon. Yesterday Weston was shoveling pieces of pancake into his face with both hands. He couldn’t eat fast enough. When the pancakes ran low, he grabbed slices of banana. For Weston dining is a messy process, conducted more with gusto than precision. At the end of the meal, it is not unusual for his face to be smeared with fragments of food. I can tell what was on the menu by picking through his tangled, reddish-blond hair.

When Weston is not hungry, and that does occasionally happen, he carefully picks through his food and casually drops it all, piece by piece, from his high chair on to the floor. As I mentioned, there are three dogs, so clean up is efficient and thorough.

Weston is a Lausbub. That is a German term for “rascal”. He has a clever and agile mind. He can’t use words yet, but he is quite capable of expressing himself.  He does not deal well with disappointment. He cries out in a high pitched voice, and his face gets beet red. A small vein in his forehead pulses ominously. That lasts for about five seconds. Then he notices that Mickey Mouse is doing something funny on the TV, and life goes on. His mood swings are blindingly fast. He is not one to wallow in melancholy. There is simply too much to see and do.

Weston would be a good Zen master. He is always in the moment. He moves from one thing to another rapidly, but he doesn’t forget much either. He loves to play with cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices with buttons. Gabby and Hans bought him a toy cell phone, but Weston knows the difference between the baby toy and a real cell phone. He can be discouraged from fooling around with somebody’s cell or the TV remote…for a while. Eventually, stealthily, he comes back to the scene of the crime and tries to grab the magical play thing. He tries to be all cute and innocent, and then, when you aren’t looking, his little hand grabs the prize. So far, he hasn’t dialed 911.

Sometimes, when Weston is tired or frustrated, he sighs. It is always a deep sigh that wells up from the depths of his soul. When is doing some physical activity, something that requires brute strength, he grunts and groans like he is a weight lifter going for the Olympic gold medal. He occasionally growls with a surprisingly low, feral voice. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of “The Exorcist”. I find it a bit disturbing. Then he smiles and toddles away.

He has a very expressive face. He can smile sweetly. That doesn’t happen often. He can also give the death stare. When he is unhappy, he looks at you with cold, unblinking, grey eyes. The message is clear: “Don’t fuck with me”. The Sith energy is all in his eyes. Darth Weston.

Oh well, he will be up soon. Maybe, I’ll take him outside before it gets hot. After all, we are in Texas and it is summer.

I wonder what he will teach me today.

 

 

Missing Mass with the Monks

June 9th, 2020

I am staying in the retreat house at Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas. I have been here many times in the past. One of the joys of being here is the opportunity to pray with the Benedictine monks who live in the monastery. It is always a pleasure to sit in a choir stall next to them, and to listen to the chanting of the psalms. It is a very moving experience.

I probably shouldn’t use the verb “is”. I am actually describing something that “was”.

This is my first visit to Subiaco Abbey since the before the COVID-19 pandemic spread everywhere. Subiaco is in a sparsely populated area of the Arkansas River Valley, not far from the Ozark Mountains. So far, this little section of the world, with its trees, pastures, and old pick up trucks, has been spared the worst ravages of the disease. However, things have still changed at Subiaco.

When I arrived in the afternoon at Coury House, the retreat center, I had to wait at the entrance until somebody took my temperature. Susan came and did that for me, and then she let me inside. She was wearing a mask. So was I. Susan gave me my room key, and asked me how I liked the idea of having a couple more grandchildren. We chatted for a while, but it felt weird. I still find it difficult to have a conversation with somebody if I cannot see their facial expressions. It’s like I’m missing important pieces of emotional information.

I went to supper in the guest dining room. Meals there used to be served buffet-style. No more. When I arrived there, I found that my food was mostly pre-packaged. I took my tray and sat at a table by myself in the little dining area. Four other people showed to eat. They all wore masks, and they all went to separate tables. Almost every person drifted off to a position as far away from the others as possible. Only a married couple sat together. The room was silent.

On impulse I asked the married couple,

“Where are you from?”

My words sounded as loud as a pistol shot in that small space.

There was a brief pause, and then the woman said, “West Palm Beach. And you?”

I replied, “Wisconsin.”

End of discussion.

Now, I will grant you that often people come to the retreat center specifically to get peace and quiet. Idle conversation is frowned upon. However, in this instance, I felt a certain wariness or fear in the room. Nobody wanted to get close to any other guest, physically or emotionally. People were actively keeping their distance.

The following morning I went to Mass. During previous visits to the monastery, my wife and I always sat with the monks in the choir, and we celebrated the Eucharist together. No more. Now the only the monks sit in the choir area. The laity sit in the pews in the nave, and are physically separated from the monks by the altar. The only part of the church which was lit was the choir. With a couple people I sat in the dark. There was no light in our section of the church, except for the lamps in the baldachin. The lights there illuminated the upper portion of the crucifix that hangs over the altar. On the golden baldachin I could read the words “Rex Christe, Redemptor” (“Christ the King, Redeemer”).

The priest said the Mass facing the monks, with his back toward me and the other guests. It was like a throw back to the pre-Vatican II days. It was very difficult to hear the words of the liturgy, especially the Scripture readings. All that was tolerable. However, it really sucked when the priest did not offer any of the guests communion.

That was a big deal, at least to me. Non-Catholics probably wouldn’t understand this, but receiving the Eucharist (the Body and Blood of Christ) is the whole point of the liturgy. Sharing communion is everything to a Catholic. People that go to Catholic retreat centers want to share the Eucharist in an intense and visceral sort of way. Being denied communion, even for valid health reasons, is literally painful.

At one point during my stay, I spoke briefly with Brother Francis. He is the retreat center director, and he is a warm and friendly man. He has a good heart. He told me about their two month quarantine, and he explained to me how all the new rules and procedures were designed to “protect the monks”.

The Benedictines take the pandemic very seriously. They should. Most of these men are old. By most objective standards, I’m old, but in comparison to these guys, I’m just a young pup. If the virus strikes that religious community, it will likely decimate the population. The monks know this. When they stay separate from the guests, even at Mass, they do so reluctantly. They simply do not want to die. They don’t want their entire community to die.

Subiaco is still a beautiful place. It is still a holy place. Even during this modern plague, there is God’s love in the monastery.

Sometimes pain and love exist together.

 

 

 

 

 

Cruising the Pandemic Highways

June 11th, 2020

I left my home in Wisconsin at around 12:15 AM on June 8th. There was no good reason to do that except for the fact that a tropical storm was due to hit my destination in Arkansas in about fourteen hours, and my drive required at least twelve hours of windshield time.

“It’s a lonesome stretch out on Highway 9
Just another semi moving up from behind
Eyes are getting heavy, brain’s about to bust
When a light comes shining through the diesel dust

It’s that mudflap girl
Flashing in my headlight beams
That little mudflap girl
Shining like a midnight dream”

from “Mudflap Girl” from the group Timbuk 3 (an appropriate song for a late night road trip)

My made my journey through Illinois mostly at night. It is usually best to drive through Illinois in the dark. I had a surprise when I got on to the tollway. All the cash tollbooths on I-90 were closed down, and I had been so proud of myself for having my exact change ready. The sign at the tolls said, “Pay with I-Pass or online”. The closing of the tollbooths had to have been somehow related to the pandemic. Maybe it was about having less virus-laden money changing hands.

South of Rockford, I-39 was nearly empty, except for a some big trucks. The sky was clear. A gibbous moon shown brightly over a lonely, flat landscape. As the moon moved toward the west, Jupiter and Saturn followed in its wake. I listened to Gregorian chant while I drove. I wanted Jesus along for the ride.

I stopped for gas at a filling station in Bloomington. I walked into the store to buy a Gatorade. The girl at the counter wore a mask. I found during the trip that the clerks in the gas stations almost always wore masks. That seemed to be standard procedure. Somehow that surprised me. I had expected that the social distancing rules would grow more lax as I traveled south. I was wrong.

Dawn came while I was rolling west toward St. Louis. I could see the eastern sky glowing orange in the rear view mirror. I played some songs from George Ezra. That felt good.

“You can try and run and hide
Tearing at the chain
Means I’m coming home again
Means I’m coming home my friend
Oh, Lucifer’s inside
Oh, Lucifer’s inside
Oh, Lucifer’s inside.”

from “Did You Hear the Rain?”

After six hours on the road, I was feeling edgy and tired. I needed music that was a little twisted. I especially wanted to listen to something that would keep me alert while navigating through St. Louis.

I stopped for breakfast at a Denny’s in Sullivan, Missouri. Sullivan is on I-44 as it heads away from St. Louis and toward Tulsa. Most of that part of Missouri is densely wooded and seriously redneck. I passed a billboard that read:

“I am PROUD to be an American. If you’re not, leave.”

There were also many signs proclaiming Trump as savior. Big signs. MAGA.

The Trump signs went well with the numerous roadside ads for the Uranus Fudge Factory. No, I’m not kidding. There really is such a place.

Anyway, I walked into Denny’s, feeling just a little tired and loopy. A friendly waitress greeted me and gave me a big smile. She said,

“You look so tired. You come a long way?”

I mumbled, “Yeah.’

“Well, you sit yourself down, and eat. Then you can go on home and take a rest.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I still needed to drive another five hours.

The Denny’s took the COVID-19 rules seriously. The waitress guided me to my own private booth. The table was completely bare. She brought me a menu, along with salt and pepper shakers. She gave me another smile, and asked me, “Y’all want coffee?”

I said, “Yes”, emphatically.

“What would you like to eat?”

I gazed at the menu with eyes unfocused.

After a pause, she said, “Well, we have a special on the Grand Slam breakfast. Would you like that?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

She walked away, and brought the coffee. It seemed like she returned almost instantaneously with the food: bacon, hash browns, sausage, sunny side up eggs, and pancakes. There was nothing on the plate that was even remotely healthy. I felt grateful for that. I asked her for some ketchup.

She brought me back five little packets.  No ketchup bottles any more.

I-44 goes through miles and miles of forests. It’s pretty country, but after a while, all the trees look the same. When I got close to Springfield, I put on some Tab Benoit. I needed some Delta blues and zydeco to keep going.

“I’m a night train
Rolling nine hundred mile
I’m a night train baby
Rolling nine hundred mile
Can’t you hear me coming
Ain’t stopping until morning light

Keep it burning baby
Got that fuel for my fire
Keep it burning baby
Got that fuel for my fire
You know smokin’ track thru Memphis
Ain’t stopping until morning light”

from “Night Train”. (the song has a rhythm section that hammers like a steam locomotive)

I drove through the Ozarks on US 65. There were steep, rolling hills on the way to Branson. I saw a lot of signs advertising things like “Dolly Parton’s Stampede” and “Presley’s Country Jubilee”, shows that give the South a bad name. I drove past the Branson Welcome Center. The parking lot there was completely empty. No cars. Zero. That is a very bad sign for Branson, a city that thrives and survives on tourism. The pandemic strikes again.

The last stretch of the ride went along steep, winding, back roads in Arkansas. Some of the turns have a 20 MPH speed limit, and even those speeds are a little scary. The sky got dark and cloudy as I drove through the woods. The wind picked up. After about an hour on the slalom run, I got to the Arkansas River Valley. From there it was just a short ride to Subiaco Abbey.

I pulled into the parking lot of the abbey’s retreat house just as the first raindrops fell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Alone

June 7th, 2020

Tomorrow is my brother’s birthday. Marc would be fifty-one years old. However, he’s long gone. He only made it to twenty-eight.

By this time tomorrow, I should be on the road. I am traveling down to Bryan, Texas. That’s where Marc lived. That’s where our son, Hans, lives now. I am going down there to see Hans.

Hans and his wife are expecting anther child. They found that out on the Memorial Day weekend. That’s not the main reason I am going south. Actually, there isn’t a specific, logical reason for the journey. I just have a gut feeling that I need to be with Hans. I’m not sure why that is. I know that the recent news reports have had an effect on him. I think that the scenes showing soldiers dispersing crowds of protesters has triggered his PTSD from Iraq. When he calls on the phone, I get sense that something is churning inside of him.

I have no plans for when I visit with Hans. I just want to be with him. We can sit around and talk. I want to listen to whatever he has to say. We can drink some beers. I want to be physically together with him. There are some conversations that cannot happen on the phone or online. Some things have to be up close and personal.

Karin is not coming along on this trip. She is staying at home with a girl that we love. That will feel strange. I have made the trip to Texas many times over the last thirty years, but almost always in the company of somebody else. It’s hard to remember, but I think the last time I went to Texas be myself was in the summer of 1997. That was also the last time that I saw Marc alive.

I drove down there in ’97 to sell Marc and Shawn a car. Karin and I had just purchased a minivan. We needed the room for our three children. Rather than trade in the ’94 Nissan Sentra, we decided to sell it to Marc and his wife. They needed a reliable ride, and the Nissan was a really good car. It was a five-speed, and both Marc and Shawn knew how to drive a stick. The plan was for me to take the Nissan down to Bryan, stay a couple days, and then fly home.

I was young then, so I did the whole 1400 miles in one stretch. I think I slept for an hour or so in some rest stop in Missouri, but otherwise I just drove. It was a little over twenty hours on the road. The road trip is a blur to me now. I know that I went through Chicago, Champaign, Cairo, New Madrid, West Memphis, Little Rock, Texarkana, Longview, Palestine, and a plethora of godforsaken little towns. I called my brother on a pay phone in Texarkana. People didn’t have cell phones then. People didn’t have GPS either. I was reading road maps all long the way.

I got to my brother’s house on Day Street feeling ragged. I crashed for a while. I’m not sure what we all did while I was there. I know that on my last night with Marc and Shawn, I watched “The Wrong Trousers” with Marc. It was a claymation DVD that featured Wallace and Gromit. The movie was hilarious. Marc and I snacked on crackers and pickled herring while we watched the show. Shawn was/is a vegetarian. She was not thrilled that Marc had purchased a jar of herring. She just looked at us and said, “Enjoy your dead fish.” We did.

Marc had to go to work extremely early the next morning. I had a plane to catch later that day. He woke me up at 4:00 AM to say goodbye. We shook hands. I remember his smile, and his voice, and the grip of his hand on mine.

That was the last time I saw him alive.

Marc died in a car wreck in February of 1998. Our family went down to Texas for the funeral. Hans was only ten years old at the time. Hans was unable to stay in the mortuary with everyone else. He was freaked out by it. Karin took Hans outside for a while. Hans told her, when they were standing by some trees, that he felt Marc’s spirit. Then Hans was okay, and he could go back inside the funeral home.

That trip is kind of blur to me now too. I do remember the last time I saw Marc’s face. The undertakers were getting ready to close the casket. Each of us went to the coffin to say a last farewell. I kissed Marc on the forehead. It was like kissing a block of ice. I have never in my life felt anything so cold.

I will have plenty of time to think and ponder as I drive solo on the road tomorrow.

I wonder what I will all remember on Marc’s birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Fresh

June 3rd, 2020

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come”
― William Wordsworth

There is a young woman who we love. She got engaged on Saturday, May 23rd.

She found out that she was pregnant on Memorial Day.

Timing is everything.

The child will be born into an interesting world. Things are pretty crazy right now, and I don’t expect the level of madness to change much during the next nine months. This kid is going be taking a wild ride. Guaranteed.

The young woman is already into the mom mode. She is taking vitamins. She is concerned about staying healthy. The woman is very aware that her baby’s life depends on her actions. She now has to care about the life of another person, and she knows it.

I am impressed.

Prior to this pregnancy, the young woman needed only to take care of herself. Being responsible for yourself is one level of maturity. Being responsible for the well-being of somebody else, is whole different scenario. Becoming a parent changes a person completely. The young woman is transitioning to the role of mother. That role is permanent. A woman never stops being a mother. It is a fundamental transformation.

I am watching this transformation with great interest, and I feel proud of this young woman. I feel more than just pride.

I feel an enormous amount of love for her, and for her child.

 

 

Violence

June 1st, 2020

“All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do.” – Leo Tolstoy

“This is the ultimate weakness of violence: It multiplies evil and violence in the universe. It doesn’t solve any problems.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I haven’t participated in the demonstrations against the murder of George Floyd. I’m not sure that I even want to be involved in any of them.

It’s not that I am afraid to participate. At least, I don’t think that I am. I have been part of plenty of protests over the years. I have marched, carried signs, chanted, and done all the other activities that usually go with peaceful protests. Back in 2017, I got arrested and jailed for civil disobedience during an action in Nevada. I’ve tasted tear gas, but that was many years ago, and courtesy of the U.S. Army. I’ve seen some things. It’s because of my experiences that I reticent about diving head first into the current madness.

I have learned to be very selective about my fellow protesters. I go with people I trust, or I don’t go at all. Based on the recent news reports, there are some people at the demonstrations who are not trustworthy. There are people on the streets who are violent and destructive, and I don’t want to be anywhere near these folks.

Demonstrations, by their very nature, tend toward chaos and confusion. It requires careful planning and solid leadership to pull off a successful protest. I remember back about nine years ago, I was involved in the annual May Day march that was organized by Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee.  I remember Primotivo Torres asking me if I would volunteer to be a “marshall” during the march, and help to shepherd the crowd through the streets to the lakefront. I reluctantly agreed to do that.

That march had probably 10,000 participants (official estimate). I tried to guide an unruly river of humanity through downtown Milwaukee. It became obvious to me early on that I was had control over nobody. Somehow it all worked out. Men, women, and kids wandered along the route with no problems. The police were there, and they were a benign presence. Marchers waved at them, and the cops waved back. It went well.

Why did it go well? Voces de la Frontera (generally) has a good working relationship with the Milwaukee police. The two parties actually know how cooperate. There is a certain level trust and mutual respect. This helped to make for a peaceful protest. Also, the march was well-planned and organized. There were no surprises. That keeps people calm.

I see little evidence that many of the George Floyd protests are well-organized. Even if  they are, they don’t seem to stay that way for very long. The whole reason for these demonstrations is that there is not a good relationship between law enforcement and the protesters. So, there is no trust between the cops and the people chanting in the streets. Both the police (and now the soldiers) are edgy, and the protesters are scared. The potential for sudden violence is definitely there. Frightened people do stupid things, and that’s when folks get hurt.

I know that there is police brutality. I know there is systematic racism. I can’t understand how that feels, because I haven’t lived it. Maybe if I was a black man, I’d be in the streets right now, but I’m not. I don’t have the fierce passion for this issue that other people do. Maybe I should, but I don’t. I can get fired up about immigrants, because my wife is an immigrant. I can get intensely emotional about veterans and our nation’s wars because my oldest son is an Iraqi War vet. I don’t feel a personal connection with the death of George Floyd. There is a gap that I can’t cross, not yet anyway.

My sister-in-law, Shawn, has a biracial granddaughter. She attended the rally in Houston, Texas. Shawn is connected with George Floyd crisis. She has skin in the game.

Shawn wrote an eloquent essay about her experience in Houston. It is titled “Solidarity and Love: #BlackLivesMatter”.

You can find the post on https://bethanyhangout.com/

 

 

 

Trump and George Wallace

May 30th, 2020

“Sure, I look like a white man. But my heart is as black as anyone’s here.” – George Wallace

My dad voted for George Wallace. It might have been in 1968. or maybe it was in ’72. Probably my father voted for Wallace in both elections, but I don’t know for sure. It’s hard to remember things from that long ago.

I was just kid back then. I grew up in West Allis, Wisconsin. It was/is a blue collar suburb of Milwaukee. At that time it’s residents were mostly Slavic and working class. No blacks living there at all. None. Zero. My dad’s family and his friends were economically very left wing, but extremely conservative on social issues. I remember, after the 1967 riots in Milwaukee, my dad and his brothers talking about buying guns to “keep the niggers out”.

Fifty years later, George Floyd is murdered by a cop, and cities are burning again.

And the ghost of George Wallace haunts the White House.

I’ve been reading a book from Hunter S. Thompson called Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. It is Thompson’s account of his experiences as a journalist covering the race between Nixon and McGovern. Thompson also talks a lot about Wallace in the 1972 election campaign. His comments are both illuminating and bizarre. Hunter is Thompson was to journalism what Frank Zappa was to music.

For example, Thompson says this about a Wallace rally at Serb Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in April of 1972:

“For the next two hours I was locked in a friendly, free-wheeling conversation with about six of my hosts who didn’t mind telling me that they were there because George Wallace was the most important man in America. ‘This guy is the real thing,’ one of them said, ‘I never cared anything about politics before, but Wallace ain’t the same as the others. He don’t sneak around the bush. He just comes right out and says it’.”

“It was the first time I’d ever seen Wallace in person. There were no seats in the hall; everybody was standing. The air was electric even before he started talking, and by the time he was six or seven minutes into his spiel, I had the sense that the bastard had somehow levitated himself and was hovering over us. It reminded me of a Janis Joplin concert. Anybody who doubts the Wallace appeal should go out and catch his act sometime. He jerked this crowd in Serb Hall around like he had them on wires. They were laughing, shouting, whacking each other on the back…it was a flat out fire & brimstone performance.”

Thompson calls a Wallace rally an “act” and a “performance”. What does that remind you of? A MAGA rally, maybe?

Here’s another quote from Thompson:

“That may be the handle. Maybe the whole secret of turning a crowd on is getting yourself turned on by the crowd. The only candidate running for the presidency today who seems to understand this is George Wallace.”

Who in politics today only lives for his rallies? Who, during our time, turns on the crowd by getting turned on?

Donald Trump.

In his book, Thompson writes at length about the 1972 Democratic primary in Florida. There was a slate of eleven candidates, and Wallace got 42% of the vote. The losing Democrats, immediately after the election, condemned Wallace as a bigoted racist. They implied that all those Floridians who voted for Wallace were also bigoted racists.

Bad move.

There is evidence that Trump is a racist. There is not evidence that all of his supporters are. Trump, like Wallace, has tapped into a deep, visceral fear in the white working class. These people are worried about health care. They are worried about keeping their jobs and supporting their families. They are worried about losing their identities. Some, but clearly not all, of this angst is legitimate. Trump, like Wallace, attracts these followers, not because they are ignorant or stupid, but because they have been ignored and slighted by mainline politicians. Hillary considered these people to be “deplorables”. Obama said,

“It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

People know when they are being held in contempt.

That’s when we get George Wallace or Donald Trump.

 

 

 

 

Life Goes On

May 25th, 2020

Hans called us on Friday evening, long after I had gone to bed. Actually, he called us three times in quick succession. Karin was still up, but she didn’t pick up the phone until Hans made his third attempt to reach us. Generally, a call from a family member at an odd hour means that something is wrong, really wrong.

I was half-awake, so I tried to listen in to the phone call as I was lying in bed. I couldn’t hear Hans’ side of the conversation, but I could hear Karin’s responses. She said “Oh my” and “Uh huh” a lot. Then she asked, “So, the test was positive?” I thought to myself, “What test?” Then Karin said, “So, is Gabby excited?”

Mystery solved. I could relax.

Karin is a night owl. It was several hours later that she crawled into bed. She got next to me and said,

“Goodnight, Grandpa…again.”

I mumbled, “Goodnight”, and rolled over on to my side.

I didn’t go back to sleep right away.

I kept thinking about Gabby being pregnant again, and about little Weston becoming an older brother in a few months. I worried about Hans worrying. Dads do that sort of thing.

I asked myself in the darkness of the bedroom, “They want to bring a child into the world now?”

That was perhaps not a charitable thought, but it came to me anyway. This is not a particularly hopeful time in human history. The question becomes: “Is there a good time to have a baby?” The answer is: “No.”

I am pretty sure that every era during the last several millennia has been fucked up in some profound way. There has never been a golden age, so there has never been an auspicious moment for a child to make an appearance in our world. We keep showing up anyway.

I am still happy for Hans and Gabby, and for Weston. A baby is a promise of a new beginning. I think one reason that most people love babies is that each child is a new life, a new chance to get it right. I look back at my life as a messy series of blunders and tragedies, and it gives me hope to believe that maybe, just maybe, the coming generation will do it better. It is an absurd idea really, but it is one to which I cling.

Karin is obviously excited about the prospect of a new grandchild. She is looking forward to going to Texas again. She wants to see Weston, and I am sure that she wants to spend time with Gabby. She will probably say “hi” to Hans too.

 

Older brother

Weston, our grandson, looking at his mom’s positive pregnancy test, and wondering, “What is this all about?”

He will find out soon enough. His world will be rocked.

Oh, on another note, we had some news from a young woman that we love.

She came home with her boyfriend. Then she walked up to me and waved her hand. She wanted to show me her engagement ring. I looked at it.

She smiled, and dryly said, “It’s real.”

Indeed it is.  Life goes on.

 

 

 

 

 

First Century Jewish Woman

May 23rd, 2020

My sister-in-law is excited about writing her first book, as well she should be. Shawn has been a writer for a number of years, and she has finally convinced somebody to publish her work, and actually pay her for her efforts. A Catholic publishing house, Our Sunday Visitor, has agreed to print an inspirational guide by Shawn. I believe the working title for the book is “Mary’s House”.

Shawn and I have discussed her book. The basic idea is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, invites people into her home, and these visitors talk with Mary about their lives. The reader is likewise invited to mentally enter Mary’s house, and engage in conversation with her. The book potentially provides a starting point for prayer and meditation.

“Inspirational” texts have the unfortunate tendency to become really cheesy. I am not worried that Shawn will fall into that trap with her writing, but it is easy to put words into somebody’s mouth. It is especially easy to do that if that person has been dead for nearly two thousand years. So, there needs to be a conscious effort to maintain some level of authenticity in story. This is difficult with regards to Mary, since everything we know about her could be written on a single sheet of paper. Mary’s life is in many ways a vacuum, just waiting to be filled by an author’s imagination.

Most of what Catholics think about Mary is not from the Bible. A lot of our beliefs come from the theology and traditions about Mary that has accumulated over the course of twenty centuries. We seem to know quite a bit about Mary the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the Kwan Yin of the West. We know next to nothing about Mary, the peasant woman in rural Palestine.

Shawn wanted to know from me what Mary would say about God. I guess she asked me about this because I have been hanging around an Orthodox synagogue for a decade. I gave her some ideas, but as I thought more about it, I realized that I really had no clue what a First Century Jewish woman would say. I know that she would not say what a modern Catholic woman might say about her faith, but that doesn’t help much.

I decided on Wednesday to join the synagogue’s schmooze session on Zoom. The meeting is hosted by Sarah, the rabbi’s wife, and it amounts to a virtual kaffeeklatsch. There were five people in attendance at this session: four Jewish ladies and myself. I mentioned Shawn’s book and I asked the other participants for their input. I told them,

“In Catholicism, Mary is kind of a big deal. I’m not going to try to explain why.”

They all nodded. There were no eye rolls.

Then I asked them, “Alright, so what would this woman be like? What would this Jewish mother say?”

Those questions provoked a rather interesting discussion.

One of the people in the group, Susan, asked me, “What time frame in her life are we talking about? Is this before or after, well, you know…”

I answered, “I believe we are talking about after her kid was tortured and executed by the Romans.”

Susan went on to ask, “So, when she got pregnant, what did she think? Did she really believe that God did it?”

I shrugged. “Well, that’s what the book says.”

Tamar and Jane suggested some reading materials about that time and place in history. I look forward to seeing those, and forwarding them to Shawn.

Sarah wrapped things up by say, “I don’t think we can put ourselves in the place of a woman from two thousand years ago. Things were just so different then.”

That’s hard to argue with. If these women can’t completely identify with a Jewish mother from the Roman period, then I certainly cannot. I agree that many things in life are radically different now. However, basic human nature has not changed in two millennia. One thing that I love about the stories in the Torah are that they remain so relevant to our times. The passions and foibles of men and women are the same now as they were in ancient times. We have the same hopes and fears, the same struggles.

Probably, Shawn will have to rely on her personal experiences as a mother to write this book. That might be the key to its authenticity.

By the way, Susan wants to read the finished book.

 

 

 

 

 

A Crucible

May 22nd, 2020

“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.” – Malachi 3:2-3

The pandemic is a crucible. Every person on the planet is being refined. Each individual is finding out who they really are, and they are getting a better understanding of everyone else.

It’s not pretty.

I am thinking specifically about how the COVID-19 virus is affecting our personal relationships. In a way, the current situation reminds me of how it felt thirty years ago when HIV and AIDS were ravaging the country. Prior to the onset of the HIV infection, there was a consensus of sorts that a person could have sex with anybody (or anything) and not have dangerous physical consequences. AIDS changed that idea in a hurry. Suddenly, people were aware that an intimate relationship had possibly lethal costs. There were serious risks involved.

COVID-19 has upped the ante. Now, just a handshake could mean illness or death. Each man or woman has to re-evaluate what is the danger to themselves, and what is the danger to the other person, whenever they meet in the flesh. We live in a new world, where every physical encounter requires a roll of the dice.

It helps when scientists and competent government officials can give people guidance on how to deal with the situation. Sadly, we are getting confusing messages. We are learning that there is no such thing as perfect safety. We are discovering that continued separation also has health costs. I know this from painful experience. Now, in an effort to revive the economy, various restrictions are being relaxed. Many rules no longer apply, and those that still exist are not enforced.

The lockdown forced us all to withdraw from a number of interpersonal relationships. We were required to be away from most other people. A couple months of that gave me a sense of what people were really important in my life, and how much I wanted to be with them. I have also got a sense of how important I am to other people. There has been a sorting process, separating casual acquaintances from true friends. Sometimes the depth of a relationship is defined by risking physical contact. Sometimes a real friendship shows itself through the willingness to remain apart. Every human connection is different, and there is often the potential for hurt and misunderstanding.

I wrestle with these relationships, and how to maintain them. Sometimes, the question is not about maintaining a bond with another person. Sometimes, the question is about how to let it all go.

Yesterday I drove across town to talk with a friend of mine from the synagogue. We pulled out a couple chairs and sat in his driveway, basking in some rare sunshine. Could we have spoken with each other using Skype or Zoom, or some other electronic means? Yes, we could have done that, but it wouldn’t have been enough. I am by nature an introvert, but even I need to be near a friend at times. Perhaps our meeting was selfish on my part, but it was good for my mental health. I was told before I left that our talk was also important for my friend, and by extension, for his wife. My friend’s wife told me this. Were there risks ? Yes, of course. The three of us, by mutual agreement, accepted these risks. We kept our separation, and did our best not to exchange germs, but nothing is 100% safe. Nothing.

I want to visit our oldest son in Texas. We talk on the phone nearly every day, and that is a very good thing. I know that sometimes his PTSD from the war gets the best of him. I feel the need to go down to Texas and just sit with him, and listen. I fear for him. Once again, I feel that using electronic means to communicate is not sufficient. My son and I need to connect in a close, human way. I need to look him in the eye when he speaks to me. He needs to physically see me too.

A few people have told me not visit until there a vaccine, or some other guarantee to prevent infection from the virus. I translate that to meaning: “Don’t come. Ever.” Perhaps I am misinterpreting the message. That could very well be. However, I truly believe that COVID-19 is here to stay. It will move around the earth’s population, and mutate. A vaccine that works this year may not work in the next. If a person tells that they don’t want to be close to me until they feel completely safe (and that is absolutely their right to say that), then I have to conclude that I may never see them again. We’re done.

I don’t want to get sick, and do not want to infect anybody else. I wonder how to do that and still retain my humanity.