California Dreaming

“Best way to live in California is to be from somewheres else.” ‘No Country for Old Men,’ Cormac McCarthy

We came to Ladera Ranch for a baptism. And stayed for a while. Our youngest granddaughter, Adelaide, took the plunge. Her parents decided for her at five months of age, but the indelible mark for all eternity is the same. She seemed to enjoy the experience, and the lunch back at Marty and Meg’s house, catered by a local Mexican food restaurant, was superb. The beer wasn’t bad either.

Father Angelos officiated and impressed on the five sets of families present both the permanence of the commitment and the fruits of the promise. He is a lovely guy and a good priest at St. Kilian Church in nearby Mission Viejo. A large parish, each weekend the seven masses have full pews for the most part. The homilies are inspired and loving, but they do not lack authoritative teaching. No Catholic Lite at St. Kilian. He greeted each family, as he did when we attended Mass the following day on Sunday. Big choir, well led, mostly traditional; the whole congregation sang. I’d estimate over nine hundred at the Mass we attended.

Marty and Meg are most gracious hosts, and we enjoyed many nights of leisurely, healthy and delicious meals. Perfect balance really, as we took some side-trips to Selma’s (excellent) pizza and In and Out, my favorite fast food burger joint, complete with chocolate shakes and something called animal fries (don’t ask, but wonderful.)  Then there were Scott’s Donuts and Wendi’s Donuts, which in the interests of supporting local businesses, Marty and I felt we must patronize regularly.  Lots of walking trails in their neighborhood, which we enjoyed daily with Mila (the best puggle in the universe), Adelaide (the best five-month-old on the planet), Meg and Marty when he wasn’t working. Desert vegetation, a nearby deep canyon with steep paths and a mountain lion.  Mountains to the east.

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”  ‘On The Road, Jack Kerouac

We took two side trips to Laguna Beach for lunch at the organic vegan frozen yogurt place, ‘Active Culture,’ with quinoa avocado salads, again to balance out the donuts. One Sunday, we all went for a long walk on the beach around sunset. Rita and I spent a relaxed afternoon at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano the day before the baptism with a sumptuous lunch of salmon for Rita and a creative grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup at Sundried Tomato. But eating wasn’t all we did while we were there. Hours of conversation, watching Winter Olympics (at six o’clock instead of nine – just one of the West Coast advantages).  Adelaide prefers hockey and figure skating. She eschews curling, as do most human beings, except Scandinavians, the Scotch and the British. Enough said.

We shopped various times at ‘Buy Buy Baby,’ Whole Foods and a quick trip to Nordstrom’s bargain outlet to pick up the shirt and tie I forgot for the baptism. Walking around the store with a baby in the stroller was enjoyable, as were hours of holding that warm, sweet smelling tiny girl while she played, cuddled, goofed around and fussed. A couple of times she fell fast asleep in my arms. I think that is an experience that never ages.

For our birthdays (we both turned 72) Rita and I ventured north for three days. First to the Reagan Library in the Simi Valley, which has spectacular views, a full-size well used Airforce One, a Marine One helicopter, replica Oval Office, a piece of the Berlin Wall and hundreds of displays of videos and President Reagan’s papers from handwritten high school essays to his presidency. One oddity: the brand-new suit with a jagged hole in it that was cut off President Reagan in the emergency room after John Hinkley shot and almost killed him while trying to impress Jodie Foster.

The second day we drove from Oxnard where we were staying near the Channel Islands Beach up to Santa Barbara and the Franciscan Mission there. At a noon Mass, we received our Ash Wednesday ashes and blessing. Reminded by some displays in the museum, we remembered from San Juan the Abraham Lincoln – Franciscan Missions connection. During the bloody Mexican Revolution, the new radical secular government decided that it would benefit their connected families to confiscate Church land and give it to their friends, turning them into instantly wealthy people. Of course, it is not unusual in revolutionary affairs to outlaw worship and kill worshipers and priests, but Mexico rivaled its spiritual forebear in France for brutality. A few decades later, the Mexican government lost a war to America, and in settling accounts also lost California. Just a few weeks prior to his assassination, President Lincoln returned the missions to the Franciscans. Not all the abundant, arable land, which had been dispersed, but at least the churches and immediate surrounds for gardens, vineyards and orchards, which remain to this day; the old buildings extraordinary havens of peace. Mass has been celebrated continually in the Old Mission at Santa Barbara (under deep cover during the revolution) since Saint Junipero Serra founded it in the eighteenth century. The litany of the missions is a litany of the history of California: San Francisco to San Diego.

On the third day, we meandered without haste south down through Malibu and Santa Monica back into Los Angeles down the Pacific Coast Highway, with the hills and mountains to the east and the vastness of the ocean to our west with frequent stops along the way. One striking feature of our stay in Oxnard were the miles of fields and orchards of oranges, lemons and avocadoes. The fields were full of vegetables and flowers that are sold at florists and supermarkets throughout the country. Nothing quite matches a lemon or orange picked daily locally. New England has no answer to those, except to cede this ground and come up with its own Macintoshes and Red Delicious pretenders.

The fields were also full of migrant workers. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Without them, America would be impoverished, and not just for lack of fresh produce. At one of the local churches in Oxnard, the Ash Wednesday services were scheduled at 5, 5:30, 6, 6:30 and 7 AM for the workers to be able to attend. This striking reminder of the universality of the Church resonates still. What a marvelous, warm and friendly people live here to bless us all.

A final memory is the crazed drivers of the eight and ten lane suicide runs called freeways. A moment’s hesitation while a stranger tries to figure out a lane change or turn earns an instant amplified horn ten inches off the rear bumper, or a ninety mile an hour Porsche passing on the right like it was Le Mans. I know New England drivers, especially in Boston, can be rude, but Bostonians can be generally abrupt and impatient on or off the road, so this is not a disappointment when they revert to type on Commonwealth Avenue. Californians are replete with smiles and polite friendly replies and pleasantries, but get them into their automobiles, and they reveal themselves as sociopaths.

Just kidding, Marty.  Sort of.

“Americans will put up with anything, as long as it doesn’t block traffic.”  Dan Rather



Filed under Personal and family life

Second Half

“Love unlocks doors and open windows that weren’t even there before.” Mignon McLaughlin

We celebrated our fifty first wedding anniversary this week with a long walk on Sachuest Point and a stylish feast at one of our favorite restaurants, West Main Pizza. Our friend, Father Joe McKenna, who lives in Portland, Maine, sent a story a couple of months ago about an Irish couple from Rumford who celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Because this milestone is reached far less frequently than with earlier generations, the local paper sent a stringer to do a Saturday feature story on the event. The reporter thought that it might work best if she softened the interview with the husband with some easy questions to start. “What did you do to celebrate your twenty fifth anniversary?” she asked. “Well,” said the earnest gentleman, “I took her to Dublin.” “Wow,” said the reporter, “how are you going to top that? What are you going to do for your fiftieth?” “I’m going to pick her up,” said he.

I’m not suggesting that to live fifty years together requires a twenty-five-year respite. On past anniversaries, I have posted about my beautiful wife[i]. This time, I’ll write a bit about our relationship, and what I’ve learned along the way. As with all shared loves, while different in the specifics, the topography is common in most long-term marriages. We enjoy quiet times and talks together and many of the same activities:  walks or bike rides on pretty trails, reading and discussing each other’s current books and articles, going to new places and revisiting old ones. Our entertainment needs are for the most part simple and modest, our favorites are free or inexpensive. A visit to a park, a beach, a museum or a library delights us both. A warm, welcoming, modest home with a good roof, a woodstove and working plumbing is fine with us. We laugh and hug.  A lot.

Our biggest extravagance is travel occasionally and live theater. We like pub food and short order cooks at funky breakfast places. We like the same people almost invariably. Our shared faith is central to our daily lives. The four children we conceived in love and raised together, along with the five grandchildren (so far) are, after our faith and our marriage, our most precious gifts. Reading and learning new things are important to us; each of us finishes at least two or three books a month, many times more than that. History, faith, philosophy, politics, art, humanities, biographies and cultural trends among our favorite topics. We enjoy the same kind of music, albeit eclectic, classical concert music, Italian opera, bluegrass, jazz, occasionally some country and old-time rock and roll. From Bob Dylan, Willy Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Doc Watson and Nitty Gritty Dirtband to Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Verdi, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and Little Richard to Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Art Pepper.

Friday, Rita went over to Pete and Angela’s to help get the kids together early to go to their co-op parent/children’s group with Angela. Afterwards, we went together to the Portsmouth Transfer Center (i.e. the dump) in our 2008 Tundra (Rita loves to go to the dump with me in the truck), then to pick up a piece of milled granite for a hearthstone for a woodstove, next to Home Depot, and a cup of coffee at our favorite local café, Anna D’s. Came home, built the mantle for the woodstove hearth with about twenty bucks worth of pine. Went for a walk past Escobar’s Farm near our house towards sunset. Too tired to go to the gym, we read for a while (“Seven Story Mountain” for Rita, “Federalist Papers” for me) and fell asleep early. It was a perfect day.

We wake up almost every morning full of gratitude.

 “When you marry, ask yourself this question: Do you believe that you will be able to converse well with this person into your old age?  Everything else in marriage is transitory.” Frederick Nietzsche

Two overriding understandings from experience. The first is that you will not always like each other, especially sometime in the first ten years. You will see and have seen each other at your most self-sacrificing, courageous, decisive, persevering, loving and generous moments. You will also see each other when you are most petty, vain, irresolute, cowardly, defeatist and selfish. Dating and marriage, short term romance and marriage are very different things. No hiding the ignoble and short temper after a major setback at work, or sleepless nights with a sick child. Get over it. It will pass, and a deeper, lasting love will re-form when you can push past the ephemeral worries. The troubles (a dying fire, malaise, financial strain, a wandering eye, seemingly intolerable quirks you didn’t sign on for) may seem insurmountable; they are not. On the other side of this creaky, narrow bridge is solid ground again. Press on, ask and give forgiveness freely and retake the solid ground.

The second, and perhaps the caution hardest to internalize is that during those inevitable difficulties, and indeed for the rest of our lives, realize this: the most heroic challenge we will face is in the mirror. The shortcomings of any relationship start with me, and because they are my own, they will reappear at some point in any new relationship, especially one that seems so effortless in the beginning, sure to be the balm to heal the wounds and it urges us to abandon the original commitment and promises. But we will always return eventually to the cracks in the mirror. From this self inflicted heartbreak we cannot escape; there is a perfectly good reason.

In each human person, at our core, there is a “seed of eternity,” a tiny hole that will rip open at some point, however expertly and firmly we try to glue the elegant wallpaper over it. A long topic for another time, and eventually a spiritual discussion, but for this post, just this: All of us, starting young when we let our minds drift to it, and certainly older out of necessity, will acknowledge our unavoidable end. Our mortality lurks, and there is no escape. Oblivion or something else, we all look over the edge into the stormy waters and see what the theologian Karl Barth called “das Nichtage, the nothing, that which stands opposed to God’s creative intentions, difficulties both interior and exterior, difficulties physical, psychological, and spiritual.”[ii]

That we must confront, and about the “nothing” we will spend a lifetime gaining wisdom. No gym or medicine will thwart its inexorable pull. No relationship, even the best of marriages can fill all the gaps, smooth all the wrinkles, calm all the storms. For that, more is needed, infinitely more, and if we put that whole burden on the person whom we trust and love most, and who most trusts and loves us, it will break things, especially those fragile things at our center.

“A happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short.” Andre Maurois



[i] Last year: Half Way to a Century and another anniversary before that: Anniversary Waltz

[ii] From one of Bishop Robert Barron’s daily meditations.


Filed under Personal and family life


  • “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” James Baldwin

One of the ironies for the socially concerned citizen is the uneven burden imposed on the poor by high minded programs attempting to address other compelling challenges – call it unintended (or unheedful) consequences or collateral damage. The ‘climate change’ agenda as typified by the Paris Agreement is one such dilemma. Irrespective of whose interpretation of the discredited hockey stick curve of global warming[i] for which you’ve signed up, that our abused planet will benefit from a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions bears no argument. The open questions, it seems to me, are what solutions are created, how much they cost and who pays? One answer to the last question in the short term is undoubtedly the “energy poor.”

Whether income is limited by low wages, no work, the fixed income of seniors or disability, the energy poor are defined as those for whom more than ten percent of their income is needed to cover energy costs. Since those folks many times also are housing poor (more than thirty percent of their income goes to basic housing costs), the effects grind hard on their ability to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Some live on a constant edge, a couple of missed paychecks away from sleeping under a bridge alone or with their families. During this current brutal winter in the northern United States, such a load means cold houses with thermostats set well below comfort and pipes at regular risk. Life lived wrapped in a blanket.

If Al Gore or Bill Gates (or Donald Trump for that matter) doubles his electric bill, it’s not even a petty inconvenience. More than likely since someone else probably does the mundane work of paying their bills, they wouldn’t even be aware of it. For someone energy poor, such a disaster could be the difference between fresh vegetables and cheap boxed mac and cheese, straight or crooked teeth for Johnny or a ten-year-old car that takes you to work and one that is busted or needs gas and is parked on the street outside the apartment house where the rent already strains the budget.

Just a few statistics and facts, I promise:

  • Thirty million Americans live in energy poor households. Among the population in the world’s “rich countries,” two hundred million are so burdened.
  • In Europe where renewable subsidies (and costs from emissions caps and targets) exceed the United States, thirty percent of Germans are energy poor; in Greece the toll approaches fifty percent.
  • In the United Kingdom, since 2006 while trying to hit coercive renewable targets, energy costs have risen 36% in real terms, while income has grown 4%. A poll in 2014 found one third of British elderly leave at least part of their house cold; two thirds bundle up with extra clothes in their homes.  15,000 died in the tough winter of 2014-2015 because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes properly.

And so it goes.

 “The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time.”  Willem de Kooning

Brayton Point coal fired 1,500 megawatt plant in Fall River. Closed in 2017.

There is good news[ii] regarding carbon emissions with a milestone in 2016: natural gas passed coal as a source of electrical generation for the first time.  Admittedly, a short-term solution, because while gas emits about half the carbon as coal per megawatt generated, the fracking techniques and drilling that freed new sources of plentiful natural gas also emitted significant amounts of methane, an even more efficient greenhouse effect gas than carbon dioxide.

Coal use has steadily declined for the last three years after peaking ten years ago. Nuclear power generation and renewables with hydro-electric leading the pack, have grown as a percentage of power production, but they are more expensive, especially solar and wind. We’ve already noted who gets hurt with that. Who benefits? Those of means and higher income can take advantage of disproportionate government support for expensive electric cars and solar panels on their roofs. The poor and working poor will not be getting energy star tax credits; they’ll be struggling to keep the heat and lights turned on.

Directives imposing or releasing coal from restrictions in the long run will make little difference. Efforts to strangle or to revive the coal industry with Presidents Obama and Trump swapping executive orders are akin to squabbling over saving fax machine manufacturing. Well, maybe not quite that depth of obsolescence. Coal is dying of its own infirmities as an energy source and will expire as quickly as alternate fuel source electrical generation can be brought on line. Xcel Energy is typical. One of the largest Midwest utilities, it has shuttered twenty five percent of its coal fired plants since 2005. Xcel has a goal of reducing their carbon emissions by sixty percent by 2030 with or without the Paris Agreement. “I’m not going to build new coal plants in today’s environment,” Xcel CEO Ben Fowke told Reuters. “And if I’m not going to build new ones, eventually there won’t be any.” [iii]

A modest, and to me, humane suggestion: avoid the “Inconvenient Untruth” histrionics and cease the ham handed, ideologically and politically motivated, big government (or worse international) draconian intervention on carbon emissions or swaps. Instead focus efforts on research and development of affordable and sustainable energy solutions that do not punish those least able to pay the bills.

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” William Butler Yeats

[i] See attached critique of climate modeling that was done several years ago by a friend of mine who has taught at a large university for many years. Since it is a compilation of his remarks in email exchanges with others, and I didn’t ask his permission to share this, I have taken efforts to remove his name, but he’s one of the smartest people I know, brilliantly adept in math, energy and engineering and in interpreting data. Has multiple patents and published papers.  If you object, B, I’ll take this link down. Climate Modeling


[iii] Ibid


Filed under Background Perspective

Winter Views

“Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”  Cardinal John Henry Newman

As each year closes, we find ourselves retrospective, along with everyone else. Newspapers, magazines, and television are awash with ‘best of’ and ‘top ten’ lists of everything from sports events and politics to movies and songs. Even Pandora sent me a list of what I liked last year and how much and to what I listened. A little spooky – like the intrusive proliferation of ads for products or events peripherally related to what I mouse clicked on a Google search or liked on a Facebook post.

This year end I ponder what has happened to once perfectly useful words. Remember “diversity,” which once implied a dialogue of different ideas with civil discourse, point and counterpoint, reasoned debate? Now the word is withered and alludes to a loose tolerance (there’s another shrunken word) of sexual proclivities and racial or ethnic make-up. Even of changing our gender, as if the XY or XX chromosomes embedded in every cell could be expunged with mutilative surgery, ill-advised hormone shots and a change in wardrobe. Such miscreant, truncated tolerance undoubtedly fails to embrace the dissidents who choose to not bake wedding cakes or to not provide chemicals to kill our offspring. They are hammered flat on the anvil of ‘progressive’ law. But I digress.

Another pernicious word that has been transformed to our great harm is “values.” We must form our lives around our values, live our values, expound on our values, etc. Of course, values are malleable, just as we once variably valued our possessions, our pets, our Bitcoins, our portfolio; they change and are negotiable, subjective and subject to the market. We rummage around and indifferently agree on a value, so that the easy or the trendy prevails. Or what tickles our erogenous zones and assuages our guilt (another perfectly good word ruined by consignment to mere neurosis). We are “distracted from distraction by distractions.”[i]

Whatever happened to “principles?” Principles are drilled into bedrock, in objective truth, and it is that objective truth which became suspect. Your principle is my punchline; who’s to say? Four hundred generations of human wisdom has been found wanting. Principles abandoned, replaced by tepid, washed out ‘values’: timid, reticent replacements. ‘Truth’ replaced by “I’m OK, You’re OK.” ‘Good’ replaced by ‘nice.’ ‘Freedom’ replaced by ‘license.’ ‘Virtue’ replaced by vague platitude.

“(A republic) is only to be supported by pure Religion or Austere Morals. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private (virtue), and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” John Adams

“And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”  Farewell Address, George Washington

 Without exception the Founding Fathers of our country knew that a virtuous people with a common bond of shared morality were necessary for this most messy form of self-government. The breakdown of a shared base of Judeo Christian morality and a communal language of stable principles is a great danger to our country. David French wrote a thoughtful, year-end article in National Review.[ii] It begins, “If I had to pick one of the most under-appreciated and under-reported stories of 2017, it would be that a post-Christian America is a more vicious America, and that the triumph of secularists is rendering America more polarized, not less. Remove from the public square biblical admonitions such as “love your enemies” and the hatred has more room to grow. When the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — wither, then the culture is far more coarse.”  Is there any dispute that our public argument has become more polarized, less reasoned and more vitriolic? Are we yelling more epithets at each other and at our political adversaries with bumper sticker, vulgar, repetitive talking points parroted from one website to another? Are we debating the issues or lazily calling each other morons, pond-scum, or far worse? Are we listening to anyone other than our fellow true believers?

When discussion is stifled, shouted down with curses and condemnation, and when dissent from the current orthodoxy of “diversity” and “tolerance” is threatened not just by intelligent counterpoint, but by lawsuit, the law itself or violence, can despotism be far behind?  Does the loudest impassioned scream settle the debate?

We saw in the late, unlamented twentieth century, the most murderous in human history by far, the natural consequences of tyranny that chose atheism, arrogance and division over peace with mutual respect for the dignity of human beings.  Like a grotesque planetary natural experiment, it recurred so many horrific times in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba and Cambodia and the endless “people’s” revolutions of Africa and South America. Power overwhelmed, and the innocent died.

If we lack even a common language with agreed upon terms, how do we talk about anything? If truth is defined as subjective and amorphous rather than as objective and solid, where do we begin? Is objective moral truth an illusory myth, or is moral law an element of nature like gravity with necessary and inevitable consequences for disregarding it?

To digress briefly once again, one of the fascinating stories of 2017 was a verification of the gravitational waves predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. The most dramatic instance in 2017 was confirmed with what the scientists define as “multi messenger astronomy”: an event detectable and verified across many studies like gravitational waves confirmed with concurrent or nearly concurrent gamma ray, X-ray, ultraviolet, optical, infrared and radio waves logged in multiple observatories.

Such was the case with the first ever detection of the merging of binary neutron stars, another proof of Einstein’s predictions. In a galaxy far, far away (130 million light years give or take a few billion miles), two massive dead stars orbited each other for ten thousand centuries or more, growing ever closer as gravity inexorably, infinitely slowly, drew them together. As they approached their finish as a binary system, the dense, lightless stars whirled ever more rapidly about each other, quickening to many hundreds of orbital revolutions a second.  When ultimately, they collided and merged in seconds, astonishing amounts of energy, including gravitational waves escaped. This cataclysm occurred millions of years before any human being looked to the skies, but when the waves caught up to us, like time travelers, in August of 2017, we saw and heard.[iii]

Whether we will it so or wish it so, gravitational waves have their way with us. They wash over us. They and gravity’s repercussions exist whether we believe them to be true or not. Can you feel the waves?  Can you feel them?

  “Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.”  Bob Dylan

[i] From T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Burnt Norton by T.S. Eliot:

Neither plenitude nor vacancy.  Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before time and after.

[ii] “Can America Survive as a Post-Christian Nation?” David French, National Review, December 2017

[iii] “When Neutron Stars Collide,” Govert Shilling, Sky and Telescope Magazine, February 2018


Filed under Culture views

Super Moons, Shepherds and Chrétiens

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.” Edgar Mitchell, astronaut and moon walker

On December third, we witnessed a “super moon.” Before the popular media got their hands on them, the astronomers referred to perigee full moons and perigee new moons. From sixteen century French, it derived from ancient Greek meaning simply “close around the earth.” We name any full moon that comes within ten percent of the closest approach the moon in its orbit makes to earth a “super moon.”. Closer means slightly larger and brighter in our view, and stronger tides, both high and low.

What is somewhat unusual this time around is that there will be three of them consecutively. The full moons on January second and again on the thirty first will be perigee moons.  The second full super moon in January will also be a blue moon, the second full moon in a month. And to complete the January 31’st trifecta, there will be a full lunar eclipse, so super, blue and eclipsed. Quite a free show. Hope for a clear winter night in an area without a lot of light pollution. A party would be in order.

When full on a cloudless night, our closest neighbor with the enigmatic smile lights our way. Unique in our solar system with its relative size to a planet, our moon greatly intensifies the tides of our great oceans. Without it, the sun would still cause tides, but not nearly as pronounced. Those tides have a profound effect on the rotation of the earth, slowing it from its early cycle to our familiar twenty-four-hour spin. Without the moon we would see sunrise every ten hours.

“From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.”
The Cat and The Moon, W.B Yeats

From Genesis 1: God made two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night. He made the stars also. I’ve wondered what the shepherds guarding their flocks and saw the angels announcing the birth of Jesus did when there weren’t miracles about. They must have welcomed the full moonlit nights to help them in their assigned watch. I wonder if they understood the moon reflected the sun? Most ancient peoples thought the world was round, but most thought our globe was the center of the universe, and the array of the stars and planets revolved around us.

Only sixty-six years, less than a lifetime, separated the first powered flight of the Wright brothers and Neil Armstrong’s “one great leap” on the surface on the moon. Only since then, have human beings viewed images of our home planet from another celestial object. Out of all the human beings that have lived over tens of thousands of years, only we that have lived in the last half century have been graced with this revelation.

Our perspective, literally our worldview, has lifted, never to be the same. In that same sense, our view of the shepherds, the angels, even the birth of Jesus has subtly shifted as well. We see what angels see, but what those fearful shepherds never did.  They were calmed by the angels, “Do not be afraid.” Are our fears, too, put to rest?  Or has the view revealed from the moon of our luminous and fragile blue orb changed us in some way we have yet to comprehend?

“Minuit, chrétiens, c’est l’heure solennelle,
Où l’Homme-Dieu descendit jusqu’à nous
Pour effacer la tache originelle.” 
French lyrics for “Oh Holy Night”, traditional Christmas Carol [i]

 “Midnight, Christians, it’s the solemn hour. When God-Man descended to us….”

I recently learned reading one of the brilliant speeches of the late Justice Antonin Scalia[ii] that the disparaging English word used to marginalize a group of people, “cretins,” originates from the French. Unlike us (as seen in far too many social media posts), the French originally named a group of severely developmentally challenged residents of the Alps “Chrétiens” or Christians in the fourteenth century, not to demean them or Christianity, but to remind all that human beings, all human beings, irrespective of their status, their gifts or their net worth are inheritors of the dignity of man. “Imago Dei.” Made in the image of God. How many of us believe that in our hearts today?

Yet, is this not the center of the mystery of Christmas? And how, dear readers, are Christians perceived in fashionable society today? Let Justice Scalia speak for himself, far more eloquently than I could ever hope to.

“It has often occurred to me, however, that for quite different reasons the equivalence of the words Christians and cretin makes a lot of sense. To be honest about it, that is the view of Christians – or at least traditional Christians – taken by sophisticated society in modern times. One can be sophisticated and believe in God – heck, a First Mover is at least as easy to believe in as Big Bang triggered by nothingness. One can even be sophisticated and believe in a personal God, a benevolent Being who loves mankind, so long as that Being does not intrude too ridiculously into the world – by working so-called miracles, for example, or by limiting human behavior in inconvenient ways…. But to believe in what might be called “traditional” Christianity is something else. To believe that Jesus Christ was God? … Or to believe that he was born of a virgin! (Well, I mean, really!) That he actually, physically, rose from the grave?!?…”

Read the original, more comprehensive in scope. I strongly recommend this book for some opportunity to think deeply about what we may have avoided thinking about deeply. His point here is that simple and unsophisticated is not by definition wrong, and may indeed be the truth, however incongruent and inconvenient that may be for us. Be advised, though, the recognition, and our place in that truth, may call us to honest introspection and change.

Have these times of ours, so confusing, with an ever-present din of anger and fear, conflict and loneliness, concealed in its foggy night something we have lost, and can ill afford to misplace?

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

 “The Fellowship of the Ring,” J.R.R. Tolkien

[i] ‘Oh Holy Night’ Luciano Pavarotti, 1978 Montreal


[ii] “The Christian as Cretin,” from “Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith and Life Well Lived.” Antonin Scalia, Christopher Scalia and Edward Whelan, Crown Forum, Penguin Random House, 2017.

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Filed under Background Perspective


“It is innocence that is born and experience that dies.

It is innocence that knows and experience that

does not know.

It is the child who is full and the man who is empty.”

From “Innocence and Experience” in “God Speaks,” Charles Péguy


“That’s not fair!” screams the fuming child. And sometimes they’re right. An outraged young child is quick to spot hypocrisy and irony, and it is the adult who points out in our maturity how sometimes it is necessary to tolerate a bit of it, to comprehend the subtlety, to live with the accepted cruelty and how life isn’t always fair. And sometimes we’re right. And sometimes we’re rationalizing the irrational.

Several stories and threads have prompted a “that’s not fair!” reaction from me, and perhaps the adult in me must learn to adjust my expectations of justice and accommodate the irony of that adjustment. Comes with maturity and experience, I’m sure.

Cecile Richards, the million-dollar compensated president of Planned Parenthood, complained, “I’m infuriated. “I’m heartbroken,” when describing her reaction to President Trump’s decision to put immigration reform back where it should be with Congress by reversing the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive actions of President Obama. Let me state up front, I have great sympathy for the plight of immigrants and Dreamers, and profoundly hope for a just and compassionate permanent resolution and have written to my representatives and senators in support of a solution. But to get back to Ms. Richards, she continued, “Here at Planned Parenthood, we firmly believe that every person has the right to live….” Huh? Her organization profits greatly by taking the lives of over 320,000 pre-born humans each year, presumably with their own “right to live.” Irony doesn’t seem to quite cover it.

In a somewhat related irony, the New York Times, among others, made it a campaign to excoriate and ruin David Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress. If you can remember and stomach the videos, the CMP published on line a series of exposé videos of Planned Parenthood showing PP executives bargaining for better prices to sell baby parts and laughing over cocktails about some of the amusing incidents that occur when they diligently apply their skills to crush skulls to save hearts, livers and lungs or crush hearts, livers and lungs to save intact skulls and brains to maximize the profits. At the same time, the NYT’s ran a whole series based on undercover videos about the gratuitous cruelty of Big Farming slaughterhouse practices. Perhaps the quote of Ingrid Newkirk (founder of PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” should at least infer that the boy might have the same rights as the rat, dog and pig, but I suppose that asks too much. Great article on this by Mary Eberstadt of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “Why Animal Lovers Should Abhor Planned Parenthood.”

 “Truth is too simple for us: we do not like those who unmask our illusions.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Occasionally public figures inexplicably give us an unexpected glimpse into their inmost thoughts. Such was the case in 2009 when in an interview with Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said this about the archetype judicial activism decision, Roe v Wade, in 1973, “Frankly I thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.” Ah, so it is revealed. Margaret Sanger, the founder of the country’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, made no secret of her eugenics agenda and her disdain for the poor, the immigrant, the minority who so heedlessly breed children. [i] Apparently, Ms. Sanger’s intellectual offspring have retained her biases and her program.

“Not so!” you protest. “Current practitioners of the craft of baby dismembering are not eugenicist and racist!” Just so. Since over 78% of Planned Parenthood clinics are within walking distances of minority neighborhoods, and over thirty percent of abortions are perpetrated on the eleven percent of the population that is black, one must reflect if Sanger’s successors are just more adept in hiding the motivation behind their campaign.

The intensity and animosity between the ideologically estranged seems to deepen by the week.  “Repugnant Cultural Others” are group defined, self-defined. We use them as a mechanism in our human predisposition for what Cass Susstein named “global polarization” in 1998, that tendency to become increasingly radicalized in our opinions and proposed remedies as well as self-limiting our choices for conversation and reasoned discourse. Circumscribing our lives by drawing an inclusion/exclusion circle by meticulously defining our RCOs and taking great care to leave them out in the cold.

So those opposed to (or who favor) gun control (or abortion or for quelling global warming) talk only to each other, become more convinced of the righteousness of their position and move more radically towards the poles pushing for drastic action.[ii]   Since the kindling of the social media wildfire, this phenomenon has exponentially intensified. Only a few minutes reading posts about opinions with which the posting disagrees proves the point, using terms like “moron” or “hopeless idiot” or “evil” or expletive deleted. Tallying “Likes” has replaced moral debate.

Subsequent generations also seem to worsen incrementally. Sometimes the apple falls from the tree and rolls way down the hill. Such seemed the case with a previous Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., son of the esteemed poet and professor of the same name. Justice Ginsburg was not the first Supreme to promote a draconian solution for those troubling other human beings who were not worthy of breathing the same rarified air as the self-satisfied elites. Justice Holmes advocated publicly for “sterilizing idiots.” Since his father, I expect, never imagined a society in which he would live that would contemplate such things, there is one final irony for today, and not a comforting one.

“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

[i] See prior post, Maggie, Part Two

[ii] See “The Law of Global Polarization,” Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago Law School, John M Olin Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91 12/7/1999 Available free on line:


Filed under Culture views

Rockee Sing, Dad, Do Rockee Sing

“it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me.” From “His Last Game,” Brian Doyle [i]

We read to our youngest girls every night at bedtime, as we had with our older children, and when they were still of fit on my knee age, I would hold both, a book held between them, in the chipped, painted black frame wooden rocking chair with the woven wicker seat and back. As they grew sleepy, and so did I, we would rock together, and I would sing softly. Sometimes a slightly misremembered song my father sang to us. “Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. Hush, now don’t you cry. Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. It’s an Irish lullaby.” [ii]

Another regular lullaby was “Lord, You are more precious than silver. Lord, You are more costly than gold.  Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares to You.” When Angela was three and Meg was born, I brought Angela to meet Meg now outside Rita’s womb. As we were leaving Women and Infants Hospital in Providence to go home after the introduction, Angela, our koala bear hugger, was wrapped around me. Walking back to the parking lot, she sang in a clear, but sleepy voice, “Lord You are.”  [iii]

Thousands of nights, week over week, year over year. I have a vivid memory of one night, while smelling their freshly washed hair against my cheek and gently rocking, a memory filled with longing. I remember thinking that there would be a last night I would do this, and I wouldn’t know when it ended. I don’t remember the last night.

When they were little, we started with books like “Cat in the Hat” with Sally and the troublesome house wrecking Thing One and Thing Two. “Maple Hill Farm” with its multiple, memorable animal characters. Beatrix Potter’s “Tale of Peter Rabbit” with Peter, the fearsome Mr. McGregor and Flopsy Mopsy. So many books now in boxes or with granddaughters.

As they grew, we moved to the couch or pillows on the floor. The whole Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series with a house on the prairie built of cut sod and thatched roof or a house in the woods built of logs. Dreamy, restless, loving, hardworking Charles. Resolute, long suffering, cheerful Caroline. Mischievous, adventurous Laura and kind, quiet Mary who loved her little sister and was struck blind during an illness and eventually became a teacher. The bargain Caroline negotiated with the terrifying Plains Indian in full war paint when Charles was away. “The Long Winter” we read in a cold New England winter, and we cuddled and shivered under blankets. The rope Charles strung from house to barn so that during one of the many, interminable blizzards, he would not lose his way to drag down hay for the animals and milk the cow, essential daily chores. Without the rope we were told, he could easily miss the barn in the blinding snow, although it was only ten yards from the house. And in missing it, perish to be found in the spring when the melting came.

The entire Chronicles of Narnia series with the handsome Prince Caspian and the heroic mouse, Reepicheep: Unhand the tail! No fear! No retreat!  The Dawn Treader. The Magician’s Nephew. Marvelous, unforgettable C.S. Lewis stories. Most of all the first: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” with Peter, Lucy and the traitorous Edmund sent to live with the professor to escape the London Blitz. Through the magic wardrobe: The White Witch, Ice Queen. Poor friendly, brave, frozen Mr. Tumnus. And the noble, suffering, then triumphant Aslan, Lion: kind and terrifying; sacrificed, humiliated, then resurrected to redeem with overwhelming power the ice-covered, bleak land from the White Witch’s cruel spell.

Later we read Lewis’s dear friend J.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” with pleas each night for just one more chapter. Bilbo and Gollum, goblins, hobbits, dwarves, elves, a dragon and wizards. Literally wonderful. One December, we read Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” with chains, doorknobs, ghosts, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge, Tiny Tim and small crutches enshrined in the corner of the simple kitchen, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Future. And tombstones. Reawakening and miracles. So many books, so many years

We continued to read aloud each night as a family into their pre-teen years. One summer, when Angela and Meg were older, college and high school, we rented a cottage on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, near my brother Martin’s summer home. Rita and I couldn’t travel up there until Sunday, but Meg and Angela wanted to go up and open the camp on Saturday when the rental period began. The nights were still chilly. While the invitation was open at Marty’s to stay there, the sisters wanted to stay with each other in our camp – listen for the night call of the loons and watch for the reflection of stars on the water like they did so many times at the other Maine camp on Webb Lake in Weld, where we vacationed for a decade every summer. When the moon rose, and the night grew quiet over Great Pond, they curled up on the couch and read to each other.

Some memories dim and become blurry like a hazy, slightly out of focus special effect in an art film.  Some do not.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem — “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.”  Epitaph – Cardinal John Henry Newman  

[i] Lovely, lyrical, poignant, simply and profoundly true. Written upon his brother Kevin’s death.

[ii] Toora, Loora, Loora. Bing Crosby.

[iii] Lord You Are. Paul McClure, Bethel Church.


Filed under Personal and family life

Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells


Filed under Background Perspective, Personal and family life

Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.


[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.


And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the



To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping


is changed in you by turns to stone and


 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter


Filed under Culture views, Maine Tales, Personal and family life

Tough Guy

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”  Dylan Thomas

When I first told a friend six years ago I was thinking of going to work for a family owned company in Southeast Massachusetts, he paused. Deeply experienced and well placed in the lumberyard network, his knowledge and wisdom is highly regarded. He told me it was a great company with strong ownership, well established and financially sound.  Then he asked with a slight hesitation, “But have you met John yet?”  John, as it turns out, headed purchasing for his brother’s company and was a well-known terror of the vendor community: cynical, tough, quick to criticize in colorful language. At any perceived slight or error that cost John’s company time or money or service to its customers, a supplier could quickly be locked out of new business and roundly bad mouthed to anyone who would listen.  A supplier was either in or out; the line could be easily crossed and difficult to traverse back in the other direction. John could be vindictive and harsh.

John emigrated from the Azores in 1968 with his younger brother Joe when they were teenagers. Both quickly established themselves through intelligence, incredible work ethic and proving themselves to be men of their word. However, their personalities were very different. Joe was quieter, a serial entrepreneur, who started several companies and assembled a business conglomerate in Dartmouth: first a gypsum commercial installation outfit with a hundred employees, later a building material supply company to supply the first, then branching out into residential and commercial real estate development companies, and others. John went to work for Berkshire Hathaway at their textile mill in New Bedford, and with his skills quickly moved up the ladder into supervisory and management positions.

When his kid brother called and asked for his help in his start-up building material company, John, who loved his brother, came there in the nineteen eighties, when Dartmouth Building Supply was a couple of trailers full of sheetrock. Together they built it, inventing it as they went. John was the shipper, truck driver, forklift operator and soon the yard foreman, shipper, receiver and warehouse manager all rolled into one. Tireless, John opened and closed the place. Through the years they built a fifty-million-dollar company with millwork, all manner of building materials and a kitchen cabinet showroom. Over a hundred and ten employees and their families have come to trust Dartmouth Building Supply for their livelihood and a thousand builders and customers trust it to keep their jobs supplied.

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” Robert F. Kennedy

John died in May at the young age of sixty-six after months of a courageous and dignified battle against cancer. My experience with John was not what I expected when I learned of his hard ass reputation. John would stop by my office to talk, sometimes about the lumber market or an issue in the yard, sometimes about fishing on his boat or a trip or his kids and grandkids. Never once in the six years we worked together did he fail to come through when I needed help:  current commodity pricing for a large job, an update on what to expect in the market, buying out a large job to cover the company’s exposure. And while I saw his rough treatment of suppliers and sometimes employees, I never experienced the wrath or the scorn. I was always treated with respect and kindness. John would share his lunch in a minute if it was something he thought I would enjoy.

The company has the benefit of being family owned, and kids, grandkids and pets are frequent visitors to the offices. When John was with his grandkids, the vendors would not recognize the big teddy bear clearly loved unreservedly by his grandchildren as they ran to greet him for a hug and to be carried around.

Joe told a story to a friend and co-worker about when he and John were kids near on St. Michael’s and Joe took pity on his grandfather’s dog, which was always chained to a tree. He released the dog, which bit someone, and John took the blame, catching a beating in the process. I’ve come to believe that much of John’s irascible ways and impatience at work was rooted in the same protectiveness he felt towards his brother. An underperforming employee or supplier was a personal affront, someone taking advantage of his brother’s generous nature. And that is something John could not and did not abide.

At his funeral, a beautiful and well planned Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s in South Dartmouth, there were two large new Dartmouth Building Supply trucks heading up and following the hundred or more cars making the journey with John from the funeral home. The outpouring of genuine, impossible to falsify love from his family moved me to tears. His wife of nearly forty-three years, Fatima, was inconsolable, his son Shawn and daughter Laura stunned and unashamedly weeping. John fought with extraordinary valor against an implacable foe to make sure he could be there for Laura’s wedding in January.

The reputation and the man, complex like all of us, will be remembered differently by many, and surprising to some. With all due respect to my friend who gave to me his best advice out of kindness, the rest of the business world saw a truly tough and sometimes abusive guy.  Those of us, who came to know him, saw glimpses of another John, a guy who liked nothing better in this world than to take the boat out with his son and catch a striper or tuna, and a son who felt the same way. Therein lays a legacy, an obituary worth writing and a life worth living.

 “In that other room, I shall be able to see.”  Helen Keller, speaking of her imminent death.


Filed under Personal and family life