Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Ides of December, A Christmas Poem

December 15, 2013 Please note that the blog is not very friendly at dividing lines or I don;t know how to do it, so I have put slash marks at every line end, plus doubles for stanza ends. Hope it works for you all! Merry Christmas! The Ides of December// Beware the Ides of December!/ Elves scurry to and fro/ While Santa tries to remember/ All the places he must go.// In cities, the shoppers are crazy/ Trying to spread Christmas cheer./ No one has time to be lazy:/ Just ten days till Christmas is here!// The trees are all trimmed and lighted,/ The stockings await their payloads;/ Adults feel they should be knighted/ For secret surprises untold.// The animals out in the forest/ Take notice of all that we do,/ Foraging like they do for breakfast,/ Online or store to store in worn shoes.// The gifts all still need to be wrapped,/ The groceries need to be bought./ Children share dreams in Santa’s lap/ While his own hopes soon will be sought.// Santa is preparing his red sleigh,/ The elves loading the gifts and toys/ For all the less fortunate parents/ Who can’t treat their own girls and boys,// Because this is a celebration/ Especially for one child’s birth/ That’s bigger than any nation:/ For one day we see what has worth.// A toy train chugs around merrily,/ Hot cocoa and tea warm our hands=/ As we gather around our grand trees,/ Upright and proud on their stands// Like guardians keeping quiet vigil,/ Protecting us all as we sleep:/ They’re softly lit beacons of good will/ That guide Santa through the dark and deep.// So welcome the Fifteenth of December!/ Prepare for the ultimate feast!/ Keep burning that warm, glowing ember/ And celebrate the Child of Peace!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Travelblog: 19 Windmills at Kinderdyke

The heat wave started today, as promised. Our temperature climbed from Sunday’s high at 2 degrees to a low this morning of 14 and a high of a blistering 23. In a sense, it got warm enough to snow, and we had a good six inches of the pure white powdery stuff on our porch, lawn and driveway when we got up this morning. So, for just the second time this season, I pulled out the snow shovel and heaved ho ho ho. It took an hour and a half to get our long driveway cleared even while another half inch was falling, plus the front pprch for guests and the back porch for Meg. Our little five pound Chihuahua finds herself shoulder deep in the snow if I don’t clear a path to her toilet. This makes her most reluctant to actually do her business – do her duty. Clearing a path for her is a kindness to her and a way of avoiding messes in the house. The nice thing about shoveling that much snow is that it is great exercise and keeps me warm even in the snowy cold conditions. This, in turn, helps me keep my boyish figure, so hard earned so late in life. Diane comments now and then that shoveling snow doesn’t bother her much at all: she sits inside and watches me do it. I guess it’s a win, win. Out there in the cold, I was remembering our last wintertime visit to Holland in 2009. It was very cold there, that trip. Temperatures hovered around the zero mark (Celsius) and felt much colder. Of course, from a Montana perspective, cold is something altogether different for me now, and I live in Montana’s banana belt, not the bitter flat on the other side of the Great Divide. It is actually the frozen banana belt, but everything lives by comparison. I heard today that a temperature reading at the South Pole was minus 132. Like I said, it’s all relative to your point of view. In 2009, the weather in Holland was brisk. It was more than brisk. One of our little side trips took us to Kinderdyke, a famous spot where nineteen windmills fill a large space by the dyke. Legend has it that, centuries ago, a great flood hit that region of Holland, as one often did through the years. Many lives were lost. But rescuers on the river found a basket floating on the water. A small kitten was standing on the basket, mewing wildly, desperate for help. The rescuers pulled the basket in, to find there was an infant inside. Both were saved. The people of the region decided that they ought to build a protective dyke so that no other child would ever be in that situation again – the children’s dyke, the Kinderdyke. And later they built nineteen windmills to harness the power that the dyke was there to control. It is a spot worth visiting. There is a walkway that winds among all nineteen windmills, and a gift shop, all that jazz – a working tourist photo op. But the day we went, it was bitter cold. We parked, got out, and made our way toward the windmills. We got as far as the gift shop, which was closed. We looked out toward the windmills, each of us thinking, just how much did we want to do this? Annemieke asked, “So, just how much do you want to do this?” and we all said, “Not this much!” Maybe we’ll make it back in summer. There’s a toy in the gift shop I think would be perfect for Xander. I haven’t seen it anywhere else.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Travelblog to do list: Leyden (Leiden), the Nedtherlands

I have not yet been to Leyden in the Netherlands. Leyden is the home of Holland’s first University, a renowned place of higher learning. Among the brilliant minds associated with the University are several members of the royal family, and Rene Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Hugo de Groot (Grotius), Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Nobel Laureate Hendrick Antoon Lorenz, Myles Standish, Rembrandt van Rijn, film director Paul Verhoven, and lawyer and founding citizen of New Amsterdam Adriaen van der Donck, just to name a few. Leyden is also a place of huge historical significance. The Dutch revolt against Spanish rule was in its relative infancy and in serious danger of being strangled in its crib. After losing Haarlem to a Spanish siege, William the Silent could not afford another defeat of that magnitude, otherwise the movement, its hopes for political and expressive freedom, and William’s own career, would disappear. It was late summer, 1574, and Spanish forces had surrounded and besieged the city of Leyden. Leyden under siege became a desperate place. Relieving it became William’s prime objective. The Spanish were firmly entrenched; the citizens of Leyden faced starvation. Two years earlier Dutch forces delivered the town of Alkmaar from a similar siege by opening the dikes and flooding the Spanish encampments under three feet of water. William decided that strategy was the only tactic that would work for Leyden, but the strategy was far more complicated here. The people in the areas that would be flooded had to agree, and did. The water would have to cross twenty miles of lowlands with natural barriers along the way. The water had to be at least two feet deep for even the lightest barges to navigate to the city gates with soldiers and supplies. Plus, it was summer: the weather and the winds would not be favorable. William thus went all in. At first the flood waters refused to cooperate, and the Spanish troops kept Dutch forces in check. But at last the elements aligned. The Spanish soldiers, waste deep in water, panicked and abandoned the siege. Leyden was relieved. The war of liberation would go on for 75 more years, but, in a very real sense, the independent Netherlands was established for good. Such an important event deserved a monument to commemorate it. William fully understood the significance of his victory. But he did not want an obelisk or statue that might crumble in time and did nothing to further his personal goals and hopes for his country. Instead, he encouraged the establishment of a living symbol of a free Holland and the freedom of thought he so deeply believed in: the University of Leyden. One of the first things the Nazis did upon invading Holland in 1940 was to close the University. It was a center for Jewish studies and a hot bed for resistance against the new invaders, as well as an historic symbol of Dutch tolerance and freedom. The University reopened immediately after liberation. Walking down its corridors, where so many great minds flourished, would be a great joy and an honor.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Sub-Zero Connections: D-Day, William the Silent, Rubens

December 7, 2013 D-Day. The weather outside is frightful. It is a clear and beautiful day as long as you stay inside. Outside it reached minus six degrees Fahrenheit, about minus 22 Celsius. How cold is that? Well, you would not be able to find a well digger’s butt because it would be frozen to the side of the well. That’s cold. That’s beyond brisk. The cold snap is supposed to last a few more days, and then we will move back up into the high 20’s. We’ll be dancing for joy: we’re having a heat wave, a sub-arctic heat wave! It is also the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the terrible event that brought the United States into World War Two through the back door. More importantly, 2500 lives were lost on that day in that attack. In the grand scheme of things, with a death toll numbering over sixty million in that war alone, 2500 doesn’t sound like much, unless of course you are one of them or knew one of them. The other fact is that most of the people who lived through and fought that war have slipped away from us. But it is important to remember them, to imagine their lives and their deaths, to realize their humanity. The great philosopher of misery, Josef Stalin, once said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.” We have to hold onto the tragedies one by one or the statistics will overwhelm us into indifference. I bear that in mind especially this year, remembering that next year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the War to End All Wars, which is still raging. Having said all this, I now present you with a heartwarming story for a cold afternoon. You can call it “Connections” or, simply, “Forgiveness.” It goes: In 1572, William the Silent learned that his wife was having an affair with a man of relatively little consequence. Anna was an unhappy woman and wife, with a husband more devoted to his adopted country’s struggle against Spain than to her. She became involved with a married man, and the affair was discovered. By the rights and precedents of the time, William had the right to have them both executed for treason. He decided to spare his wife to protect fragile political alliances, and probably because he felt at least partly responsible for her actions. The man’s wife came to him to plead for her husband’s life, and William had already decided to spare him as well. William felt the man was as much a victim of Anna’s unhappiness and behaviors as he himself was. So he demanded, simply, that the man return to his own town with his devoted and steadfast wife, and never leave it. John Rubens’ wife apparently also forgave the man. History would not have noticed him further, except that, six years later, he and his wife had a son together. They named him Peter Paul.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Blogger's Prayer

It has been said, and wisely, that the last thing a writer wants to do is write. This is a funny way of putting it: any writer knows that when the muse strikes there is no stopping the flow of ideas and words, as if we no longer exist ourselves except as a conduit for some higher power or function. We tap into that special zone and cannot stop until the muse lets go. Then we look over what we have done, and the real work begins, ug, editing. Still, the process is one we often try to avoid starting: OMG, a leaf fell, I cannot possibly write today! Did you say there was a Castle marathon? Starting when? How long – 48 hours? Get the popcorn, no, let me make it. William Goldman, novelist and screenwriter who gave us Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, once said (I am paraphrasing) that when it’s going badly, you could be in the most idyllic and quiet cottage by a pristine lake all by yourself, and the words still will not come. But when it’s going well, you can write in an elevator. Which prompts A BLOGGER’S PRAYER: To Whom It May Concern, who art in the ether, hallowed be thy muse. Thy elevators come, thine ideas be done. Give us this day our daily blog, and forgive us our procrastinations, as we forgive the put-off artist within us, and lead us not into writer’s block but deliver us from repetition, Amen.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Recommendations and Reviews

November 18, 2013: Recommendations and Reviews (Glacier Symphony, Rabbids, Ruby Sparks, Castle, and Free Birds) Sunday, 10 a. m. It is 42 degrees outside and the snow is already starting to melt. I am not sorry, because this afternoon we go into town to the Glacier Symphony performance with our good friend Joop, then return to his place for dinner and conversation. It will be a good day. Xander is running around the house this morning waiting for me to play cop and criminal with him. He likes to use one of Meg’s dog toys, a yellow donut shaped squeaky toy, as handcuffs – or, rather, fingercuffs. We take turns capturing the other and throwing him in jail, only to watch him escape again while Meg looks on, a bit forlorn, thinking, “What are you doing with my toy?” But life is hard, after all, and everyone has to make sacrifices. Monday, 1:30 p.m. The temperature outside is back to 42. we had a trace of snow overnight that started disappearing before we got up this morning. The concert was fantastic and fun – the Glacier Symphony, under the direction of Maestro John Zoltek, is a strong group of very talented musicians. I am always surprised at both their ability and their willingness to take on challenging works. Alan Hovhannes’ And God Created Great Whales is not ever going to be my favorite piece, but it is an interesting one that truly tests the orchestra. Glacier Symphony passed with flying colors. The guest soloist for Max Bruch’s famous First Violin Concerto, Kinga Augustyn, was brilliant and flawless. She is an up-and-comer who so far appears on only two recordings, but is one to watch for if you like violin. Finally, our dinner with Joop was a wonderful feast of friendship, good food, wine and Scotch, that did not get us home until 10:30 last evening. Speaking of great performances, I wanted to mention a couple of items that might slip under most people’s radar. The first is the Nickelodeon program, Rabbids. The premise is simple: alien beings, who look a good deal like rabbits, come to earth to explore and perhaps conquer the planet. They are curious about everything but not altogether bright, with the attention span of a puppy running to the bathroom. These intrepid adventurers find amusement and excitement in the most unlikely things. Their adventures remind me of Roadrunner cartoons on steroids. Very funny stuff, meant for kids but gut-bustingly funny for anyone. Highly recommended. Second is the 2012 movie, Ruby Sparks. If you haven’t seen it yet, give this one a try. It is about a writer who somehow – he never learns how – creates a real woman out of his imagination. He then has to deal with the aftermath. It is a funny story that at times gets necessarily a bit too real and uncomfortable. As in many good comedies, using an absurd premise to bring up very real issues and observations makes for compelling watching. Third is a single moment in the long-running mystery series, Castle. The improbable series just gets better and better. Episode 18 in Season Five, “The Wild Rover,” features an actress named Carla Buono as the owner of a pub in the Irish neighborhood where the main character Kevin Ryan once went undercover. Early in the episode, the detectives inform her that a particular character has died. Her face changes, on camera, showing remorse and fear in a subtle array of expressions. It is a magnificent piece of acting, akin to Kevin Spacey’s death scene in LA Confidential. If I taught acting I would show that scene and tell my students, “This is how it’s done.” Finally, for now at least, I bring up the new theater release Free Birds, an animated story about two modern day turkeys, who go back in time to try to change the tradition of cooking turkey at Thanksgiving. It is a bit long among animated films, and pretty intense, but it had our grandson and his cousins rapt. These kids range from three to ten years old, and all of them had a great time. The only question I have is how they will react on Thanksgiving Day when we do indeed serve turkey and they, collectively, will be asking, “Where’s the pizza?”

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Snow, Symphony, Red Whine and Whales

The snow I mentioned yesterday has been falling, and falling, and falling. This morning we found about four inches of the glorious white stuff on our porch. We use our railing as a measure. Sometimes we clear away a section just to see how much falls after we get started. Then I shoveled the snow off the porches, both front and back. This snow is heavy, wet, but oh so pristine white. It makes great snowballs – as Diane can attest to, having taken the one I made for her and thrown it at me. I made a second one and threw it at her, so we are even, for now. Yesterday I whined about winter. I apologize. I mean it when I say that snow makes me nervous, particularly navigating through it. But there is something magical about being in the middle of snowfall – steady, flakey, and so very silent. Unless there is wind, or it is a blizzard, you don’t actually hear the snow falling. You just see it. So my best bet is to sit back and relax, with a cuppa or a glass of the house red, and watch. I can travel to far away places like Siberia, imagining myself to be on the train with Doctor Zhivago; or up on the mountains of Glacier National Park searching for wolverines, as in the Nature show I watched this week on PBS, only warmer. I do have to venture out, however. This afternoon the grandparents, both sets, are taking the grandkids to the movies and pizza. Xander is our one and only, but Claire Marie and Frank have several others as well, and Diane and I have been adopted by them as honorary Oma and Opa. We got the invite a few hours ago and feel honored to be invited. Besides, except for our very occasional major trips, we don’t get out much. Then, tomorrow, we go with our good friend Joop to the Glacier Symphony for a matinee concert. Two outings in two days! There remains nothing in the world like live performance, and our experience with this orchestra has been a continual surprise and delight. This concert includes an early piece by Edvard Grieg, a violin concerto by Max Bruch, Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Alan Hovhannes’ And God Created Great Whales. I have never heard the Grieg or Bruch, so am very excited about them. Pines is an old favorite, and Whales is one of those fascinating modern romantic pieces that always manages to please. Hovhannes uses actual whale song in the piece. I just wonder how on earth they’re going to get a whale up on the stage.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Staying Put with a Snow Shovel

November 15, 2013: Snow It’s snowing here in Montana. It has been snowing for the past two hours, but the ground has been too warm for the snow to stick. As the sun goes down, however, the ground is losing the battle and the relentless falling flakes are starting to whiten the yard just outside my window. As long as I am inside, it’s cozy to watch. But when I think about tomorrow, getting up at 2:30 am to go to work by three, trudging in below freezing temperatures and then driving on the first serious snow of the year, I get a little nervous. I have been here before, and I know that it’s not that big a deal – drive slowly, take your time, watch for black ice (which usually isn’t there at 2:30 AM), and hope the heater in the car revs up within a few minutes. It could be worse – it always can be worse. Ah – the snow is really sticking now. Nice, big, juicy flakes falling straight down. I took two days off, setting the blog aside and barely checking my emails on the computer. I did write a few poems during that time, playing with words and ideas as I always seem to do. Even on a day off, the work sometimes won’t let you go. If I can call writing poetry work – I have so much fun doing it that I sometimes want to crawl inside my own brain and just hibernate there. But humans do not hibernate. We weather through, so to speak. The weatherman predicted one to five inches will fall over the next 36 hours. With the accompanying cold, this means tomorrow late morning I will have to deploy my snow shovel for the first time this season as well. We will have Xander for an overnight. He likes to help, and I have a snow shovel just his size. This year I hope I can convince him to throw the snow away from the path. I don’t mean to complain. I have no cause. The winter is beautiful here. It’s just that I never had to deal with winter before we moved up here three years ago, so I am still not properly winterized. My idea of cold and snow was to go somewhere to visit it. Now I live in it, work in it, photograph it and write about it as if it were part of who I have become. This is because it is. And, really, it’s just a minor inconvenience that in the long run means plenty of water for the summer. The snow is really sticking now. I can always take myself far, far away from here by writing one of my travelblogs. I have been to a handful of amazing places, as you already may have noticed. So far this month I have been talking about places in Holland, but I have seen amazing things right here in the USA – in California and Indiana and Arizona and Oregon and Montana. In fact, my own front yard is an amazing place frequented by wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, a wondrous array of birds and the occasional squirrel. Two squirrels live right by. We call them Jumpy and JR – Jumpy Redux. They try to set up a seasonal retreat in our little outdoor shed. I try to evict them. It’s a dance we go through. It started last winter, and they won. This year the battle is on again. I get the feeling that they’re not that wild about winter, either, but, like me, they just want to get through it cozy and warm.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Travelblog 11: Blokker on Blokker's (no Relation)

When traveling through the Netherlands, I found several constants that seemed to follow me on my journeys. In the countryside, for example, to find a town or village you only have to scan the horizon until you see a church spire pointing up to heaven. That spire is usually the tallest point in the community. Even where high rise apartment buildings loom like a threat to beauty itself, church spires let you know where the older, more quaint and friendly city centrums are. It is reassuring and welcoming. In those centers you will find another mainstay or two. Certain businesses pop up everywhere. In train stations you might find Burger King and Starbuck’s sitting side by side trying to seduce commuters. But Corporate America’s invasion of Holland has not fully encroached on the centrums. Instead, there is a constant there, Dutch stores you can count upon to be in or near. The grocery chain Albert Hein provides beautiful food in precise packaging and reasonable portions. The all-in-one Hema provides commercial grade selection of everyday sundries, kitchen gadgets, china, pubware, linens and cosmetics, and often includes a coffee shop for weary shoppers. In direct competition with Hema is another general store called Blokker’s. Blokker’s is one of the oldest chain stores in Holland. I decided that it would be fun to take a photograph of every Blokker’s I encountered, but I made that decision too late to take more than two. I missed the Blokker in Amsterdam and Arnhem and den Haag, getting only Tiel and Culemborg. The Culemborg Blokker’s is a particularly fond memory for me. On our very first trip to Holland, in December 2001, we arrived on the 27th of December with a list of things to look for and purchase for friends back home. With surprising energy, we walked into the centrum from the Rutgers home after lunch. The very first store we entered was Blokker’s. The very first item we bought was a tea cozy for a friend back in Salinas. The very first transaction we made was still in guilders, as the Euro did not become common currency until January 1. So Blokker’s became an integral part of my travel experience from the very start. Earlier that very morning, when we entered the country through Schiphol, we had to check through passport control. When I presented my passport to the young officer, he said, “Blokker – any relation?” Diane said, “Sadly, no.” Rumor has it that we might, indeed, be related in some shirttail way, but I have no evidence either way and no way to discover any. Still, it would be cool to be one of those Blokkers, even as just a poor cousin three times removed, once by slow boat to America. Perhaps I could spearhead a counter-invasion: Blokker’s of Kalispell.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Travelblog 10: Rotterdam, Part 2: Oldenbarnevelt

Heroes pop up in surprising ways. There are names that need to be remembered and honored in every country among every people in the world, for their bravery and their conviction. There are stories that demand telling and re-telling for the lessons that can be learned. These stories almost always center around great sacrifice. All too often, that sacrifice is the ultimate one, given for a cause far greater than the life that is lost. What makes a hero, living or dead, is courage under fire regardless of personal safety. This truism applies to both warriors and peacemakers, who should work hand in hand. On Veteran’s Day, it seems somehow fitting for me to briefly remind the world of one hero lost trying to secure peace. My brother once told me that no one hates war more than the soldier,. For the most part, I believe this to be true. But there are warriors who love war and the glory that comes with it. These zealots will crush anyone who stands in their way. One such warrior happened to be the leader of the Dutch Republic, the Statholder and Prince of Orange, Maurits (not to be confused with his younger cousin Maurits of Mauritshuis fame; for convenience we will call him Maurice). Prince Maurice had taken over the fight to liberate Holland from Spanish control after his father was murdered on orders from the Spanish King, Phillip II. Maurice had a knack for warfare, and liked it. Unfortunately, the best the Dutch could do was hold their own against the Spanish for 25 years, even after Phillip passed away. Both sides grew tired of the fighting. The Spanish were struggling to survive as a major power, while the Dutch were busily expanding an international commercial empire. A twelve year truce began in 1609, much to the objection and then sullen acceptance of the Prince. The main architect of the truce was Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Oldenbarnevelt had become the leading statesman of the Republic while Maurice concentrated on military matters. While Oldenbarnevelt focused on what he thought best for the economic growth of the new country, Maurice built up and trained his forces, certain that the Spanish would do the same. This is an oversimplification of events, I know. Other issues came into play as well, causing in-fighting on both religious and political grounds. Maurice used all this as an excuse to build a case of treason against the statesman. Oldenbarnevelt hoped to negotiate a lasting peace while Maurice was anxious to resume the war. As the end of the truce approached, in late 1618 Oldenbarnevelt was arrested. In May of 1619 he was tried and sentenced to death. He was beheaded on the grounds of the Binnehof in den Haag the following day. He was 71 years old. A statue in his honor towers over the street in Rotterdam. As we walked from the da Vinci exhibit to the train station to make our way back home, we passed the statue. The face looked vaguely familiar to me, so, curious, I stopped to find out who was being so honored. Of course, it was Oldenbarnevelt. Our friend Hanneke took a picture of me in front of the statue, playing tourist, dwarfed by the great man. Incidentally, the truce expired in 1621, on schedule. In 1625, Maurice died and Frederick Henry became Statholder and Prince. Henry was more liberal and tolerant than his older brother, but the fighting with Spain resumed. In 1628 Piet Heijn captured a massive amount of Spanish silver en route from the New World to Spain, virtually destroying Spain’s ability to wage war. It would be twenty more years before hostilities finally ended, closing off what has become known as the Eighty Years’ War. Today, Oldenbarnevelt’s statue graces Rotterdam, and his bust appears on at least one silver commemorative coin. His name is honored and remembered, as a man of strength, conviction and skill who was martyred, basically, for doing his job.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Travelbog 9: More to Holland: Rotterdam and Leonardo

The city of Rotterdam surrounds the busiest port in the world. Several miles upstream from the point where the Waal River meets the North Sea, Rotterdam is a jumping off point for cargo shipping up through the rivers of Western Europe. The Waal is a major tributary of the Rhine, making Rotterdam a key port city and industrial center for the Netherlands. Rotterdam held such strategic importance that, on May 14, 1940, the German Luftwaffe made a carpet bombing run against the city that leveled over twenty-eight thousand buildings in the medieval centrum and outlying residential area, and killed nearly a thousand civilians. The death toll would have been much higher, but the city officials enacted a thorough evacuation, anticipating the oncoming German army in an assault that did not happen. Instead, the Germans made an ultimatum. Seeing the horror they had inflicted, the Germans told the Dutch to surrender, or the Luftwaffe would attack and level Utrecht. The Dutch capitulated after five days of fighting, on May 15, to avoid any more civilian deaths. Rotterdam rebuilt itself. It is, perhaps, the most modern major city in the Netherlands, at least by appearance. Its harbor is breath-taking. We toured the harbor by boat on an earlier trip to Holland. My nephew took a photo then that graces my office wall. It lines up the old Holland-America Shipping Line office building, which is now a restaurant, the adjacent pier from which the Blokker family embarked for America in 1952 when I was just two years old; a modern circular office building that rises up like a glass tube; and the Erasmus Bridge, a Bascule (drawbridge) using a single asymmetrical pylon. The bridge is affectionately called “the Swan.” The three features combine old and new, and link me to my own history is a unique way. On this trip, however, we had a different goal in mind: a rotating museum exhibit in the old Postkantoor (Post Office) that focused on the career and achievements of Leonardo da Vinci. Erik does not do museums, so our friend Hanneke joined Diane, Annemieke and me for this adventure. In fact, Hanneke organized the trip and Annemieke arranged the train fare. It’s good to have friends to rely upon where you travel! The train ride from Utrecht to Rotterdam was wonderful and relatively quick. It is amazing how much building is going on throughout the Netherlands. Utrecht central station, called the Hoog Catharijne, is being virtually doubled in size to accommodate the growing train traffic. Along with the trains come commuters, of course, and once again shopping opportunities are rampant, and increasing. The Winkelcentrum Hoog Catharijne (High Catherine Shopping Center) is a city unto itself, and expanding along with the station. The Rotterdam central station is already well established. Both are bigger and busier than Schiphol International, I suspect. Before we went to the exhibit, we went to a mystic shop and restaurant. Mystic shops are always interesting and fun, even when everything is in Dutch. They are filled with books, Tarot cards, statues, rocks and jewelry. This one was perhaps the largest and best organized I had ever seen. We had both a wonderful lunch and a good long look. Then we went to meet Leonardo. The exhibit encapsulated his entire career in copies of original materials plus mock-ups of what his inventions would have looked like. The most interesting part was a long room dedicated to the Mona Lisa, with detailed blow-ups and a series leading us backward to what the painting probably looked like originally. Using a sophisticated spectrograph camera with something like a quarter million pixels, scientists photographed the original and then subjected the images to a long process of analysis. The results decorated the walls around us, and brought us close to truly understanding the mind of the genius who created the Mona Lisa. I lingered at this exhibit for a long time. I then went to find my three lovely companions. I found them huddled together, and as I approached them, they moved toward me as one. It seems that they all had left their wallets in the lockers provided before we entered, but everyone wanted coffee. Did I have my wallet? Yes. Did I have any cash in it? Yes. Could we all get some coffee – and carrot cake? Of course. As nice as it is to have guides who happen to love you, it’s equally nice to be needed by them, in turn, even in a small way, and no one can ever dispute the crucial nature of a cuppa after exhaustive touring.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Travelblog 8 - More to Holland: Tiel and Flipje

Apparently, there is a saying in Holland: “Never be caught dead in Tiel.” The implication, as far as I understand it, is that Tiel is a very dull place. Therefore, it was amusing and interesting that Erik, who told me the saying, and Annemieke wanted to take us there one afternoon. Mostly, I think, it was to experience the bus ride through the back country around their home in Culemborg. Secondly, I think they really wanted us to see Tiel – but I don’t know why. Perhaps it was the statue. And yet, and yet – I like Tiel. We packed up the dog, Daan, a long-haired dachshund. In Holland, dogs are welcome almost everywhere, even inside many stores and restaurants, and certainly on rapid transit. The bus ride over was fun and casual, along the dike and then through small towns and villages. Tiel is about half an hour away from Culemborg in the Riverland. We crossed no major rivers to get there, but left on the southern bank of one, the Lek, and finished on the northern bank of another, the all important Waal. Tiel is one of several major cities along the Waal River. The Waal is the main tributary that leads from Rotterdam up to the Rhine and its gateways to Europe. As such, the Waal is one of the most heavily trafficked rivers in the world. Tiel is quaint. No other word gives the city justice. Apart from the sprawl common to the outlying areas of most Dutch towns, there is much charm and there are many shopping opportunities in the centrum. Like so many Dutch and European towns, Tiel was all but destroyed during World War Two, to be rebuilt carefully with an eye to its past and a mind to its future. The area around Tiel is surrounded by orchards, and Tiel was the home of the jam company de Betuwe until 1993. A cartoon character called Flipje graced the company’s advertising since the 1930’s. A statue of the raspberry-based humanoid Flipje is one of the modest highlights of Tiel’s central district. As with most centers in Holland, forget your car and visit on foot. Tiel’s main street runs parallel to the Waal until it reaches a distinct V. One branch of the V leads away from the shops and into a more open area where street venders ply their trade, then past them toward the old city gate and wall. Pass through the open gate and you find the river beyond, with a large parking area for water sport enthusiasts between the wall and the Waal, so to speak. Large transport barges head up the river and down, covered with pods. You can tell if the pods are full or empty by how low the barge rides in the water. Going back through the gate, you enter a large square with a playful fountain that sprays according to a modest computer program. This part of the square is dominated by restaurants and their requisite sidewalk seating. On our visit, no one was busy yet. We made our way down a side street lined with more shops, including a fair trade store whose owner, as it turns out, has family in Mesa, Arizona. It IS a small world. Later, we had a cup of coffee on the second floor of the local Hema department store. The window overlooked the V from the first juncture. Prominent in the plaza below stood Flipje, smiling from every inch of his four foot stature. Daan sat at our feet while I snapped a couple of pictures. As we were leaving the waitress came over to Annemieke to explain to her that the dog was actually not permitted in the eating area of Hema, for future reference. I was impressed by the consideration to wait until we were done rather than stop us altogether. Of course, it could have been economics. The best part of Tiel, though, was the very new adventure it offered Diane and me. On two occasions, in two separate stores along the first street, we saw women’s clothes on sale on outside racks. Both times, we found something we liked for Di. Both times, we went for it and bought outfits at a price that would make any Dutchman or Scotsman proud. But the best thing was that we bought them without Di trying them on first, with total confidence that they would fit. And they did! It added to the depth of our experience to know that Di could find something beautiful to wear right off the rack. So, maybe you should never be caught dead in Tiel, but if you are at least you can be well dressed when you go.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Travelblog 7: More to Holland: den Haag

Travelblog 7: There’s More to Holland than Amsterdam: den Haag When most people think of the Netherlands they see images of tulips and windmills. Then they think about Amsterdam, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Most visitors to Holland concentrate a good amount of their energies on that fabulous city, but there is more to Holland than Amsterdam, or windmills, or tulips. A prime example is the seat of government, den Haag (the Hague). Den Haag not only houses the Dutch parliament in the Binnehof, it also serves as home for the World Court of the United Nations. Beyond that, the city is a treasure trove of Dutch history and art. In an earlier blog I talked about the Grote Kerk (Great Church), where three of the Huygens family are buried. The building is a masterpiece of engineering and construction on a par with every major church in every major city in Europe. Having been allowed inside when the church was totally empty, not just of people but of pews, I had the chance to see how really huge the building is. The Mauritshuis would fit inside it, I think. The Mauritshuis is one of the most enjoyable art museums in the world. Three stories tall, the Mauritshuis was build in the 1630’s by Jacob van Campen for Johan Maurits of Nassau, cousin to Prince of Orange Frederick Henry. Constantijn Huygens oversaw the building while Maurits was on expedition to Brazil. Huygens built his own house right next door, but that home no longer stands. The Mauritshuis is the permanent home for Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.,” plus a treasure trove of great works in an up close and personal setting seldom possible in larger museums. The Mauritshuis serves as a focal point for the city. The Binnehof (Parliament Building) is right next door. The central shopping district is a short walk away. Den Haag’s centrum is as nice as any in Holland. A large plaza stretches from the back of the Mauritshuis to the first street of the central area. Restaurants line the plaza, with outdoor seating in good weather. The plaza itself is often crowded with some sort of fair or event. On this last trip the square was covered with book dealers selling old books. At one corner of the plaza, the centrum really begins. From pizza to Surinamese food, from the latest fashion to the most expensive fountain pen, den Haag has it all, right there, right now. Not far away, Constantijn Huygens built a summer home, a retreat from the rigors of court. He designed it to look like a man when seen from above. The small house sits on the edge of a large pond, forming a head and hair. Carefully positioned groves of trees make up the rest of the shape – neck, torso, arms and legs. Unfortunately, half the land has given way to city growth, but the home, called Hofwijck, remains. The word “Hofwijck” translates as “Avoid Court.” Huygens, a composer and poet as well as diplomat and art patron, obviously had a sense of humor. His second son, Christiaan, was one of the greatest scientists of the age. A working model of his pendulum clock ticks away on the second floor at Hofwijck. Two other tourist-friendly vacation destinations are within minutes of central den Haag. The beach resort Scheveningen is den Haag’s summer playhouse, with long beaches and a pier that juts out a goodly distance into the North Sea. There is a yearly sand castle contest that tests the limits of what sand can build. The theme for the one we saw was “The Lion King.” The castles were actually statues, including one of a grinning Elton John replete with very wide sunglasses playing and singing wildly at the piano. Then there is another major attraction, Madurodam, nothing less than a miniature of Holland itself. The artists of Madurodam are so precise that their buildings will reflect any ongoing re-construction on the actual building in real time. From windmills to Schiphol Airport to tiny masterworks inside the halls of a minute Rijksmuseum, the highlights of the Netherlands are right there in precise detail. It is amazing to me that there is so much to see and enjoy in one municipality, let alone so small a country. My brother likes to point out that there is much more to Europe than just the Netherlands. I know he’s right, but I haven’t seen all of the Netherlands yet.

Travelblog 7: More to Holland than Amsterdam: den Haag

When most people think of the Netherlands they see images of tulips and windmills. Then they think about Amsterdam, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Most visitors to Holland concentrate a good amount of their energies on that fabulous city, but there is more to Holland than Amsterdam, or windmills, or tulips. A prime example is the seat of government, den Haag (the Hague). Den Haag not only houses the Dutch parliament in the Binnehof, it also serves as home for the World Court of the United Nations. Beyond that, the city is a treasure trove of Dutch history and art. In an earlier blog I talked about the Grote Kerk (Great Church), where three of the Huygens family are buried. The building is a masterpiece of engineering and construction on a par with every major church in every major city in Europe. Having been allowed inside when the church was totally empty, not just of people but of pews, I had the chance to see how really huge the building is. The Mauritshuis would fit inside it, I think. The Mauritshuis is one of the most enjoyable art museums in the world. Three stories tall, the Mauritshuis was build in the 1630’s by Jacob van Campen for Johan Maurits of Nassau, cousin to Prince of Orange Frederick Henry. Constantijn Huygens oversaw the building while Maurits was on expedition to Brazil. Huygens built his own house right next door, but that home no longer stands. The Mauritshuis is the permanent home for Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring.,” plus a treasure trove of great works in an up close and personal setting seldom possible in larger museums. The Mauritshuis serves as a focal point for the city. The Binnehof (Parliament Building) is right next door. The central shopping district is a short walk away. Den Haag’s centrum is as nice as any in Holland. A large plaza stretches from the back of the Mauritshuis to the first street of the central area. Restaurants line the plaza, with outdoor seating in good weather. The plaza itself is often crowded with some sort of fair or event. On this last trip the square was covered with book dealers selling old books. At one corner of the plaza, the centrum really begins. From pizza to Surinamese food, from the latest fashion to the most expensive fountain pen, den Haag has it all, right there, right now. Not far away, Constantijn Huygens built a summer home, a retreat from the rigors of court. He designed it to look like a man when seen from above. The small house sits on the edge of a large pond, forming a head and hair. Carefully positioned groves of trees make up the rest of the shape – neck, torso, arms and legs. Unfortunately, half the land has given way to city growth, but the home, called Hofwijck, remains. The word “Hofwijck” translates as “Avoid Court.” Huygens, a composer and poet as well as diplomat and art patron, obviously had a sense of humor. His second son, Christiaan, was one of the greatest scientists of the age. A working model of his pendulum clock ticks away on the second floor at Hofwijck. Two other tourist-friendly vacation destinations are within minutes of central den Haag. The beach resort Scheveningen is den Haag’s summer playhouse, with long beaches and a pier that juts out a goodly distance into the North Sea. There is a yearly sand castle contest that tests the limits of what sand can build. The theme for the one we saw was “The Lion King.” The castles were actually statues, including one of a grinning Elton John replete with very wide sunglasses playing and singing wildly at the piano. Then there is another major attraction, Madurodam, nothing less than a miniature of Holland itself. The artists of Madurodam are so precise that their buildings will reflect any ongoing re-construction on the actual building in real time. From windmills to Schiphol Airport to tiny masterworks inside the halls of a minute Rijksmuseum, the highlights of the Netherlands are right there in precise detail. It is amazing to me that there is so much to see and enjoy in one municipality, let alone so small a country. My brother likes to point out that there is much more to Europe than just the Netherlands. I know he’s right, but I haven’t seen all of the Netherlands yet.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Travelblog 6:Crossing Borders 2: Nordham, Germany

A few kilometers over the border between Holland and Germany is a small city called Nordham. It is not a very important town, apparently. I could not find it by search engine. I barely spotted it on one map of Germany after painstaking search. The search engines all wanted to direct me to Northheim, a city much much farther to the south (500 kilometers, to be exact). Perhaps this is a good thing for Nordham. The city can remain a bit sleepy, a sort of oasis for the farmers in the region. It is plenty big to entertain a lovely centrum with many shopping opportunities, plus a very large Costco-like single building shopping arena that does not require a membership card to get in. There is little to make Nordham special in my memory. A river runs through it, a very small and narrow river that branches off and makes the centrum virtually an island. I never learned the name of the river. Ducks, however, love it. There is a very large and impressive church on one side of the centrum, and the center itself is lined with stores, a bakery, and a few nice places to eat. We stopped for coffee at one, sitting outside along one branch of the river. The waitress was very pleasant, but all she spoke was German. She did not speak English, or even a little Dutch. At that moment I felt far removed from the world I know, like a real tourist out of water. It was a refreshing experience. There was one remarkable thing about Nordham that I will always remember. In two separate places there were plaques to show where synagogues stood before the War. The synagogues did not return in peacetime, but the people of Nordham decided that it was important to remember where they stood. It was another example of holding onto memory, even horrible ones. Perhaps it demonstrates that level of cultural maturity that seems to run through Europe at present, the same sort of maturity that has allowed the nations on that continent to form the European Union. War may not be completely a thing of the past for the Europeans within that union, but they want it to be. Honoring the memory of the victims of past wars is an excellent way to promote peaceful cooperation among generations who otherwise might never know about events like the Holocaust. These people do not forget their history; they embrace it, even in small places that Google cannot find, like Nordham.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Travelblog 5: Crossing Borders

I don’t know what I expected. While we were “camping” in Dinkelland, we were only a few kilometers from the Dutch-German border. One afternoon, we decided to cross over into Germany just to see what we could see. Part of our motivation, I have to admit, was to able to report to family and friends that Diane and I saw something besides the Netherlands. Part of us was curious how different Germany would be. Mostly, though, it was something to do. It didn’t take long before we had left Holland and slipped into German territory. You would never have known it except for the signs, “Leaving Dinkleland,” and “Welcome to Germany,” the first in Dutch and the second, peculiarly enough, in German. Otherwise, everything seemed pretty much the same. The farmhouses looked similar; the terrain was just an extension of what we had left. The roads were pretty much the same, too – no autobahn out there. I felt cheated, somehow. I wondered at the openness, as if I was crossing from Idaho into Montana, not one whole country into another. I don’t know what I expected: barbed wire and armed guards patrolling? Checkpoints with officious border guards checking papers? We had our passports with us, just in case. But there was no barbed wire. There was no check point. There were no patrols or guards. It was, just, simple, easy, welcoming. I admit to a certain inherent prejudice against Germany, a certain expectation. My image is born of stories from a terrible time long ago, before I was even born. I have fought all my life to control those feelings, knowing they have no relevance in the modern world. And on that late September afternoon, I could see for myself how much the world, or at least Europe, had changed from the place my parents knew. It was refreshing. And yet, I hovered over a different memory, from 2004. We crossed a border then, and were stopped by a border patrol several kilometers in from the border on the main road. The soldiers were polite but grim. We noticed that there were men in the tall grass on either side of the road with heavy machine guns pointed at us. We asked the young soldier who approached us what was going on and he answered, in sparkling English, “Just routine, Sir.” He then looked us over and apparently decided that two middle aged Americans and an Englishwoman (our friend Candida) were no threat. He waved us through. That was in Northern Ireland, crossing over from the Irish Republic on our way to Belleek. The soldiers were Irish in the British military. Nine years later I puzzled over the fact that the Germans felt safer at their border than the Northern Irish did at theirs. In 1922, Hendrick Wilhelm van Loon wrote that change does come. It can be painfully slow, but it does come. Just crossing a border, I saw that he was right, and I began to feel a change within myself.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Travelblog 4: Bikes, Trains and Automobiles

Getting around in Holland is amazingly easy and efficient. Trains can take you almost anywhere, and where they don’t go you can always find a bus or tram that will. The road system is both immaculate and brilliantly planned, so if you are fortunate enough to own an automobile, or share one like Erik and Annemieke do, using a car is also very easy. But cars cannot beat the rapid transit system for going to the centers of larger towns like Amsterdam, Arnhem, den Bosch, den Haag, or Rotterdam. Between the cost of gas to get there and the cost of parking to be close to the center, you probably will pay less if you travel by train and/or bus. On top of that, if you buy a transportation card for a set amount, you get ticket discounts and a very convenient scan in-scan out system that keeps track of what you have spent. Travel guru Rick Steves swears by such cards, and I’m with him. Because we could not afford to rent a car this trip, and because Annemieke now has a driver’s license and part-time access to a car, we spent much of our vacation on the rails. Each trip was a comfortable and delightful experience. The trains are clean and well maintained, with roomy seating. If you travel during commuter hours seats might be a bit hard to find, but as a visitor you can pick less crowded times to go longer distances. If your destination is a larger city, you will be stunned by the bustle of activity in the central stations. Most have major shopping opportunities right there, from Starbuck’s to Albert Hein Express, and just off the main area stores selling just about anything you could want. It’s like airports, only better (Sorry, no duty-free for international travelers). The most amazing thing to me wherever I go is that there is so much stuff available to buy, and there are so many people dependent on our desire and ability to buy. I keep wondering how we all can afford all that stuff. But we do. And if you are a commuter in Holland, merchants of all sorts have made certain that you can find them while en route to work or home. The train system connects the country with remarkable ease and speed. Once in a city, using the trams or buses is just as easy, and the same travel card can be used to pay for it as long as you have enough credit on the card. And it’s fun – I love being able to sit back and watch the city roll by me while somebody else has the responsibility of driving. With my Dutch relatives along, I don’t even have to worry about watching for my stop! We used the train to get to all those cities mentioned above. We took the bus from the central station to the rock show in den Bosch. We took the tram in Amsterdam. We took a bus ride through the country from Culemborg to Tiel, where Diane found an outfit on a sale rack outside a lady’s store and could buy it with utter confidence that it could fit and would be stylin’ in America. Erik and I took a bus and tram, the slow way, through the fields around Culemborg to Viannen and then on to Utrecht, then took the regular train line back. We determined that a car was not a necessity in Holland, like it is here in Montana. Here rapid transit is a 70 MPH speed limit. In Holland, all you need is the trains and buses and trams and a good pair of walking shoes, or a bike. Bikes are still big in Holland. Wherever you go, there are bikes parked along bridge rails, store fronts, and train stations. Bicycle parking lots are always full. This trip, we experienced that first hand as well. For me, it was the first time I had been on a bike since 2007. For Di it was the first time since she was 17 years old.. And we survived. Not only did we survive, we enjoyed it. Erik and I shopped for groceries, splitting the load between us. Then we biked out into the country. Di and Annemieke biked on the trails around Ootmarsum in Dinkelland, and even crossed the border into Germany on their bikes. I think it safe to say that, as closely as possible, on this trip Diane and I went native and lived to tell about it.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Travelblog 3: Arnhem, Market Garden and Living Art

Sixty-nine tears ago, the Allies began a military campaign designed to liberate the Netherlands from German occupation. On June 6, they had successfully landed in Normandy and by August they had liberated the city of Paris. Now they turned their attention to freeing another ally controlled and oppressed by the German war machine since May 1940. The operation was called Market Garden. Key to the plan was capturing the primary bridge at Arnhem. This operation was the subject of Cornelius Ryan’s book (later a film) A Bridge Too Far. The fighting that took place in and around Arnhem, as well as other places throughout the region, was intense and bloody. Near Overloon, for example, the biggest tank battle to ever take place on Dutch soil occurred. Now a magnificent museum sits on that battle site, called Liberty Park. My brother Ted, who is visiting this weekend, and our good friend Joop, who lives here on Flathead Lake, were very young men in Holland during the occupation. They both remember Market Garden and the sudden wonderful hope that Holland’s war soon would be over. The operation failed and the Allied forces had to pull back. A good part of Holland remained under German control until the very end of the war seven months later. For me, the connection to those events is strong and palpable, partly through these two fine people close to my heart, partly because of my own empathy for people caught up in combat, partly because of my affinity for all things Dutch, good and bad. Yet, in our several previous trips to Holland I had never gone to Arnhem. This trip gave me my first chance in a roundabout way. Erik and Annemieke arranged a “camping” trip to the east of Holland in an area called Dinkelland (gotta love it), where we stayed for six days in a very comfortable cottage. We arrived on Saturday, September 28. On Sunday, in Arnhem, dozens of street artists and actor-performers were scheduled to set themselves up as living statues for a four hour outdoor exhibit that covered most of downtown Arnhem. Erik wanted to go. With his deep love for and talent with photography, this was an ideal opportunity, hopefully, to get some great pictures. As it turned out, a very large crush of like-minded people had the same idea. In fact, over one hundred thousand people came to see the Living Art exhibit. The performers were wonderful, the costuming and subjects imaginatively and meticulously presented, and each “display” was stationed far enough from the previous one on a pre-determined course that none were lost in the journey. There was one woman posing as Vermeer’s, The Kitchen Maid, her entire tableau looking like it was made of chocolate, including her. There were statues of Beethoven, Joan of Arc, Mary Poppins, Don Quixote, a frontiersman, a pirate captain, and many, many others. My favorite was a young boy seated on a toilet reading a book. I watched him for several minutes, admiring the fact that he never moved an eyelash. The city embraced the moment with delight and well-organized chaos. The crush of spectators and photographers were having a wonderful time. And yet, my thoughts returned again and again to those terrible days sixty-nine years before. The scars of that battle have all but disappeared. I doubt that anyone could find the areas that were shot to pieces without a proper and very knowledgeable guide. Before the Living Art exhibit began, Erik and I had lunch in La Place, inside the largest bookstore in Arnhem. Looking around at the buildings surrounding the dining room, I kept reflecting on that combat and on the war that was so horrific it should have ended all wars for good. It did, within the confines of Western Europe. Yet there was not one shred of evidence to be seen. But the historians knew. On the display tables in the bookstore, not fifty feet from where we dined, were at least two dozen books on some aspect of Market Garden and the fighting in Arnhem. At least half a dozen were written specifically for the youth market. It made me take pause. It seems to me that the Dutch have long memories, and that they want to make sure that future generations mark and remember as well. If they can do that, if they can reach beyond the living memories of people like my brother and my friend, perhaps they can keep memory alive for future generations. Mark the terror that struck Arnhem 69 years ago. Remember what war can do. Then go out and make living art.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Politics on Halloween: True Fright Night

Well, I just can’t stay away for long. Let me begin with information I learned yesterday that I did not know and should have. It is a stunning bit of news to me. Did you know that there is a cap on the income subject to taxation by Social Security? The cap goes up next year to $117,000. This means that everyone pays Social Security tax on the first $117,000 they earn in a year. Anything above that amount is exempt from the social security tax. Once again, it looks to me like the rich don’t have to pay their share. Oddly enough, the base salary for a member of the House of Representatives is $174,000. Speaker John Boehner earns $223,500. Not CEO level, I admit, but I wonder how much someone like that will be entitled to draw when eligible. I no longer wonder why Social Security is struggling to make its ends meet, between the government borrowing from the program and an institutionalized lack of support from the wealthy. I have been watching the political scene in the United States in relative silence for six weeks now, as we shut down, then stood precariously at the edge of yet another fiscal cliff with one foot on a banana peel cheerfully deposited by the monkeys in Congress (meaning no disrespect to real monkeys and referring to the politically incorrect stereotype, so please, no letters. I like monkeys but I would never vote for one. Correction: I would never knowingly vote for one). The keynote issue remains Obamacare. The Republicans are trying to figure out how to withdraw funding and were willing to cripple the country and drive millions into poverty to attain this unattainable goal. Now with the website woes, Republicans call it the sign that the entire program is just wrong. There is much to say about their position, and not just by me. Number One: This is a big program. When Medicare was introduced, it took two years to work out all the kinks and make certain things ran smoothly. But we were more patient back then. Today’s citizenry suffers from the Baruka Syndrom, “Give it to me NOW.” Patience is supposed to be a virtue. Look at the country as a whole, how patient we have been with a do-nothing Congress about which your parents used to complain. Two: Much alarm has been raised that a million current policy holders face the possible suspension of their policies because the policies do not meet the minimum criterion of Obamacare. This is true. But consider, those policies are inadequate and substandard. This means that the policy holders are paying money for nothing right now. If the figures hold, most of them will be able to get better coverage for less money through the new exchange. Three: Obamacare is the law. The Supreme Court says so. Four: Even John Mc-Appeal-To-The-Base-Cain warned Ted Cruz and John Boehner that this is a lost cause. As much as McCain himself opposes Obamacare, the realist knows that the Senate would never pass a House bill withholding funds, and even if they did, the President would veto it and there are not 67 Republicans in the Senate to override a veto. Sounds like a lost cause to me. Republicans talk about Obamacare being their Rubicon. They liken themselves to the heroes of flight 93, the Alamo, and other great stands. But those were not lost causes. They were steps toward something bigger. The fight against the law of the land, particularly one that, in the long run, will help improve America’s embarrassingly poor rating in medical care, is a true lost cause. Lost causes are by definition not going to be won. They talk about being just like the 1960’s Democrats who stood up for their ideals against the war in Vietnam. Maybe so, but just what did the Democrats get in 1968? Another martyr or two, forty years dominated by the Republicans, soaring deficits, and the most expensive military the world has ever known. Wait a minute . . . Hmmm. Keep fighting, “Private” Ryan. Keep Cruzing down that river in Egypt, Mister Ted. Forty years dominated by the Democrats sounds pretty good to me right now.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Travelblog Two: Rock Epic

The Netherlands is a wonderful place, a beautiful country. As with anywhere, there are drawbacks. After all, every silver lining has a cloud, but the reverse is also true. Every cloud has a silver lining. For every modern, less than attractive high rise going up to help house Holland’s people, there is both a well-preserved centrum harkening back to very old days and discouraging of modern inconveniences such as automobiles, and an area of rolling green open land. Often, all three are within a kilometer of each other. Holland is flat. Much of the country is at or below sea level. There are a few hills in the country and one official mountain at barely one thousand feet high. It is located in the very southern corner of the country, near Maastricht, and on the German/Belgian borders. Holland is a country in which I would not expect to find rocks, and, truly, the country has none. It has peat and the occasional really hard mud clot. It has goat horns preserved in the peat bogs near Giethorn (Goat Horn). But rock collectors do not scour the countryside looking for amethyst geodes, or if they do they have set themselves up for major disappointment. Still, the Dutch love rocks. In Giethorn, for example, there is a rock shop to rival anything I have ever seen in America, including our own Montana gem, Kehoe’s. It came as no surprise that there was a rock show in den Bosch (short for s’Hertogenbosch). Annemieke, our good friend Hanneke, Diane and I had to go. It was the Sunday before we were set to return home, and it was a rainy and windy day. We walked from the Rutgers house to the train station, huddling under umbrellas in serious rain gear. We took the train to den Bosch, rendezvoused with Hanneke (who came from Nijmegen), and went inside. The show took place in a fairly large conference room and displayed a wide variety of very nice specimens, carvings and jewelry, all, of course, for sale. It was as mini-Tucson with mostly reasonable prices. Since we were traveling by air in two days, Diane and I felt safe to go looking, knowing weight would preclude us from buying very much. Without a vehicle to transport it, we figured neither Annemieke nor Hanneke would choose anything much larger than a kilo or two. It was the back pack limit. But there is never any accounting for love. A natural citrine specimen from a vender’s private collection caught Annemieke’s eye. It was plain, yet elegant, simple but huge. The price was unbelievable, and I stood there thinking, how in hell are we going to get it home? Diane said, “We’ll find a way.” Hanneke said, “You’ll find a way,” knowing she was going a different direction. I said, “I suppose we can carry it together.” Annemieke said, “I’ll take it!” She then became the proud owner of a rock weighing fifteen kilos, about 33 pounds – the size of an infant and almost as heavy as my suitcase fully packed. Then began the journey home. The merchant wrapped the rock in four canvas bags and I found I could cradle it against my chest. We made it to the bus, to the train station, and onto the train in short jaunts. People stared at us, wondering what was in the bundle I guarded so closely. On the train, the rock had its own seat. When we arrived in Culemborg, the final part of the rock’s journey to its new home began. The rain had stopped, mercifully, and the wind had died down somewhat. Using the same technique of cradling the precious bundle against our chests, we traded off every block or so and managed to bring the new addition into the Rutgers’ home. Erik later found a stand on wheels so the rock could move from spot to spot in the living room, always looking for the best light to show off its citrine crystals. Hanneke told Annemieke that the rock is a link between us all, like we needed another one. Of course, she’s right. I say the rock is a story, rock epic of strength, determination, perseverance and friendship. I think I understand now how the Spartans must have felt when they looked down from Thermopylae at the Persian army camped in the valley below. Thousands of campfires covered the valley, each one warming hundreds of soldiers. The Spartans had a force of just ten thousand at the start, ordered to hold the pass against that horde. I reflected on the Spartan motto: Come back with your shield or on it. My own modern version now goes: Come back with your rock, or under it. Holland does have rocks, and lots of them. They just started out somewhere else.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stress Testing Sometimes Gets in the Way

October 29, 2013 I begin with an assurance it is my delight to report: I am fine. And if anyone is upset that we kept all that follows to ourselves, please understand that we had nothing to report before now, and the report we have is that there is actually nothing to report. I was experiencing intermittent chest pain over the course of the last several weeks, even while away in Holland. Part of me thought I was being suggestible – which I tend to be – and over-empathetic to my nephew’s condition. But the pain was real, and when we came home I immediately contacted my doctor. You don’t mess with chest pain, and I already had postponed dealing with mine to keep from having to cancel our trip to Europe. Through a thorough examination, an EKG and analysis of the symptoms, she determined that my acid reflux had returned, causing “heart burn.” But to be certain, she arranged a stress test, which I took yesterday (and which is why I did not write a blog yesterday). The test was involved and long, with an IV catheter placed (I hate needles, but the nurse was perfect), radiolucent injections, lots of waiting, two sets of “pictures” and the treadmill. Everything went fine until the very last minute of the actual stress test. I felt something along the bottom of my rib cage that was not pain, just a sensation; a protest. At that same moment the attending asked if I was in pain – she had seen something in the EKG pattern. While I waited for the final “photo-shoot” she came to me and told me that she saw something that had her concerned, but that she wanted the cardiologist to read the EKG along with the images. “Not to worry, but please don’t eat breakfast before I call,” in case I had to come in for treatment (which I took to mean surgery), and she would call first thing in the morning. She also prescribed nitroglycerine tablets for me, in case my pain returned. Prescribing nitro made me jump. My father was on nitro during the last months of his life, so I associate nitro with end of life issues. Ironically, the high level of pain had not recurred since I had made the initial doctor appointment, and Nexium is helping control the acid reflux, so I did not need the nitro pills. But last night was a long one, waiting. Both Diane and I played out worst-case scenarios, as we are apt to do, and discussed contingency plans. As the saying goes: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst. We were betting on acid reflux but we were hedging our bets. By seven a.m. we were both up. By eight no one had called. At 8:30 I called the center, got an elaborate voice mail menu and left a message. By nine, still no call – it seems that first thing in the morning means different things to different people. But, of course, stuff happens, and if there was a serious problem I think someone would have called sooner. But I was hungry and desperate for a cup of coffee. At 9:07 I called back and got a human being, who told me the attending was in hospital and she would make certain to let her know I was awaiting the call. Within five minutes the attending called me and explained that the cardiologist was called to an emergency and only now had had the chance to finish interpreting the data. The data told him that there was no blockage, no problem with the heart. “Go ahead and eat,” she said, happy, I think, to be the bearer of glad tidings in a tough field of endeavor. I had already brewed a pot, in case, and now I poured my first cuppa. It may have been the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Travelblog One: Huygens

The Seventeenth Century belonged as much to them as anyone. They were the Huygens family, well placed, well known, well connected and well liked. Constantijn Huygens served Statholder and Prince of Orange Frederick Henry as his personal secretary, which entailed much more than taking notes. Huygens represented the Netherlands in various arenas throughout Europe on the Prince’s behalf. He also was a poet and song writer, an accomplished engineer and amateur architect, and a devoted husband and father. His second son, Christiaan Huygens, was one of the most brilliant human beings to grace the planet – Sir Issac Newton called him the most elegant mathematician of their time. Newton and Huygens carried on an intellectual argument on the nature of light, whether it was a wave or had mass. Today we know sometimes light can be either. Huygens also invented the pendulum clock, perfected the telescope to the point where he could discover that the bulges around the planet Saturn were actually rings, and saw Titan orbiting Saturn, just to name two of his many achievements. He also was one of the first to write a book using science to speculate what alien life forms might look like. Another Huygens, Constantijn Junior, was personal secretary to William of Orange and accompanied his employer in 1688 as William rode the second great Armada across the channel to unseat his father-in-law and become King William III of England. Other great figures owed their gratitude to some degree to the family. Constantijn Sr. oversaw the building of the Mautishuis, designed by Jacob van Campen. It is now one of the most intimate and enjoyable museums in Holland. He also is said to have discovered a struggling artist by the name of Rembrandt van Rijn. The Huygens had friends in England and France even when their country was at war, including John Donne and Rene Descartes. Constantijn was knighted by both the British and the French while Christiaan was one of the founders of the French Academy of Science. The list goes on and on. Their influences can be felt to this very day. They lie beneath another man’s marker, father, mother and son. In fact, exactly where their bodies are buried is not yet certain. There is no way to disturb the massive headstone above the spot where it is assumed they rest without threatening the entire structure that houses them. Such an important family should have had an elaborate, or at least noteworthy mausoleum, and Constantijn designed a memorial plaque to be used for such a structure, but it never happened and no one is sure why. Instead, in the Grote Kerk (Great Church) in den Haag, Constantijn, his wife Suzanna, and his son Christiaan rest together in virtual anonymity. As if they were never here, or as if we choose to ignore the fact of their existence. Plans are in the works to give the Huygens their due respect. But, for now, it was my turn. Annemieke and Erik know my passion for the Huygens. On our very first visit to Holland, they took me to Hofwijk, the summer home Huygens designed and had built in 1642 as a retreat from the pressures of court. When I had learned that the family was buried in the grand cathedral, I expressed my desire to visit their “crypt.” I did not yet know the complicated nature of their burial. Annemieke contacted the church and discovered that I had just missed a wonderful exposition dedicated to the family. But, if I was really interested, the cleric-curator would allow me inside by private appointment. Our first Thursday in Holland, Erik and I took the train to den Haag, then went for the appointment. A gracious and happily informative gentleman guided me to the spot they believe is the Huygens’ resting place. Above them is a massive plaque dedicated to a Frenchman who loved the city and asked to be buried there. His family later requested his body be returned to France for burial in their family plot, but the plaque was too heavy to move and moving it would threaten the very foundation of the massive cathedral. They left me alone to honor the three magnificent people under my feet. I found myself thinking mostly of Suzanna, who died while giving birth to their fifth child. Constantijn never remarried, loving her to the end of his says, fifty years later. His instructions were for his body to be buried with his wife. Christiaan, who never married, joined them six years after his father’s passing. But it was she who anchored her husband’s work and his art, who gave us the elegant mathematician, and who died too young to see it all come into being. Feeling deeply honored to even be there, I thanked them all for the gifts they brought to us, especially the woman behind the men. I took a few pictures of the spot and of the overwhelming, empty church, and of the simple plaque that has been set into the wall near the crypt that says, simply: “Grafplaatz van Constantyn en Christiaan Huygens.” That Suzanna’s name is not on the plaque is somehow fitting.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Best Espresso on Two Continents

This is not an advertisement. It is a testimonial. Among the wonderful things about the Netherlands is its coffee. Particularly in restaurants, the coffee actually has flavor. Sorry, Americans, but most of you wouldn’t know a decent cup of coffee if it slid down your throat. Yes, that’s harsh, but very, very true. Coffee in most American restaurants is brown water weaker than herbal tea. If I want a good cup of coffee here, I have to brew it myself or go to a Greek or Turkish restaurant. Even espresso, which is the strong coffee drinker’s best bet, is almost always lacking, and not just in Montana. The nice thing about Dutch coffee in restaurants or even in bars is that it comes to you strong, and is accompanied by some sort of cookie or biscuit or chocolate. You have to pay for a refill, but mostly you drink your single cup and move on to the next place expecting a similar experience. When they serve espresso they accompany the cup with a short glass of water to serve as a chaser in case you are overwhelmed by the strength. And yet – the espresso I had in Amsterdam, in den Haag, in Arnhem, and in Ootmarsum did not warrant the polite chaser. In fact, the standard by which I now judge espresso was set for me right here in Lakeside. Like I said, this is not an ad. Over the past few months we have gotten to know and come to really like a young couple trying to make a go of a small coffee shop slash cafĂ© right here, called cleverly Glacier Perks. The relationship is growing, and we really hope they can stumble through the winter. They should – they make wonderful baked goods and incredible sandwiches, and, literally now, the best espresso on two continents. Both Ashley and Miah are marvels with the espresso machine, bringing out consistently rich, strong and flavorful double shots daily. Nothing I tasted in Holland came close. Last year, an Italian visiting the area was so excited to find “a real cup of coffee” in America that he tweeted the information gleefully, for all to see. I consider this to be an issue of international importance. Man does not live by coffee alone, but no man or woman should have to live with weak and tasteless brown fluid in a cup. I don’t care where you are. But if you’re here, come on down. And if you are our guests – the door is always open – we’ll even treat!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Flying

For any of you who have ever flown anywhere on a commercial airplane, as well as any of you who have not, the experience of flying a long distance can be grueling, especially in coach class. The seats were always a bit tight but it seems like they were more so this time around, particularly on the longer jaunts to and from Schiphol. It seemed Delta squeezed more seats into the fuselage than the last time we flew. Mind you, we have been spoiled by the very first flight Diane and I took way back in 2001 when, after 9-1-1, the airline upgraded us to business class for free the very first flight. Most of you know the story. Suffice it to say that our good friend Candida advised us never to turn right on an airplane, and she was so correct. Trouble is, we can’t afford Business Class; we can barely afford coach (this time the tickets were a gift, at that), and we learned the difference right away on the return flight from that first trip. Ten hours doesn’t seem like all that long a time, a full shift with overtime, until you are seated in close quarters with the person in front of you reclining and the television remote in your hand only working in one direction, left. I think the remote wanted to be in Business Class itself. The flight from Glacier International Airport to Minneapolis-Saint Paul took just over two hours. It was moderately uncomfortable, but anyone can do two hours. The flight from the Twin Cities to Amsterdam was just under eight and crammed with sleepy passengers. It turned out to be not horrible. Everyone was very nice on Delta and the food served was palatable if not particularly diet friendly. I had trouble with the remote, as I mentioned, but I had my Sudoku and my Kindle and I even managed to get a power nap or two while stuck smack in the middle of the plane. The return trip, also on Delta, in partnership with KLM, went to Seattle. We had better seats but felt even more cramped. Neither my nor Diane’s remotes worked properly on that flight, and the food, again, was tasty but heavy on the carbs. Seattle is an interesting airport. We managed to wade through passport control and customs and another security check, grateful that our plane landed fifteen minutes early. Navigating the airport was more challenging: a tram system linked the terminals once you figured out where you were supposed to be. At first it was scary and uncertain for people on a time squeeze, but once through it we realized how quick and efficient the system actually was. I was most intrigued by the fact that these trams ran under the airport AFTER you passed through security, which meant that they had to be totally contained within the secure areas of the place. Pretty amazing. Then we boarded the plane for our last jaunt. It seemed counter-intuitive to fly to Seattle just to head back east to Kalispell, but in terms of time spent traveling it turned out to be the fastest and most direct route home. The plane was a twin prop that could seat 80. It turned out to be the roomiest of the planes we were on, with plenty of leg room and overhead space for our carry-ons and coats. The plane also cruised along a bit more slowly, offering us wonderful vistas of Mount Rainier, the Cascades, and the Rockies. It was the most comfortable and enjoyable leg of the to and fro. But the best part of the flying was a constant in every plane: in 2009, the last time we flew, Diane and I were so heavy and so big that even the seats were uncomfortable. Not this time. Diane proudly (and with good reason) proclaimed: “And I don’t need a seatbelt extension!” Of course, she still looked dangerous even by half.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Back in the Saddle

Trying to Get Back in the Saddle Well, we are back home after a wonderful three weeks in my homeland, the Netherlands, where it seems much has changed since we were there last, four years ago. Mostly, the urban areas seem all the more urban, with new and ugly high rise buildings going up, yet the city centers and the rural areas are as charming and beautiful as ever. Like most places where people get in the way with all those “people needs,” Holland has to accommodate what is the most densely populated country in the world, as measured by people per square mile. And yet, the amazing thing is that there is still so much land upon which human beings have not built high rises or anything else. In fact, when you travel through Holland you get a feeling that this place is so well planned out that the only thing that will wreck permanent green belts is global warming – excuse me, climate change – and the ensuing rise of ocean levels. More on our trip in upcoming blogs. Here I promise to try to be much more dedicated to daily blogging. I have had several readers tell me to get back in the saddle, so to speak, and I find myself compelled to make the time. Thank you all for your support and interest. I also will try to be cheerful and talk about the joys of my life, of which there are almost too many to count. I know politics will creep into them once in a while, but what can I say about Washington not getting things done that others cannot say more ably? I will say this: while we were away the government shut down. It re-opened the day after we returned. Obviously, America did not know what to do with itself while we were gone! One last note for this entry: Diane rode a bicycle in Holland, the first time she had attempted anything besides a stationary exercise bike since she was seventeen, and she didn’t kill herself! It was a momentous occasion, one which she repeated in the woods and on the trails of east Holland. She and Annemieke even crossed the border into Germany. neither lady had her papers, but no one noticed, and they slipped back into Netherlands territory without international incident. There must have been some advanced word about the transgression, though, because when we left Holland through Schiphol, Security searched her a bit more thoroughly than we would have expected. She looks like such a terrorist! They also searched her luggage – twice leaving that delightful printout that says: For your protection, we searched your stuff and neglected to put it back as carefully as you originally packed it; thank you and have a nice day. Indeed, we did.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

George M. Withee

The earth is a little less bright this week. A great and gracious man, who treasured his privacy almost as much as anything else in his life, has been lost to us. George McClellan Withee passed away at the age of 91, peacefully in his sleep. He and his wife Esther were a second set of parents to my wife and her four siblings growing up in Pacific Grove, California. I only met them after Diane and I became involved but quickly became enamored of them both. To say that George valued his privacy above almost everything else is not to forget that his greatest treasure always was his wife, and his family. In writing my blogs I always sent a copy to George and he always sent me back a response, often a cartoon or a smile or a picture or a thought relating to a specific line in the text of what I wrote. It was always positive and encouraging. When Di had her car accident last December and I went through a period of anxiety that I could have lost her, George was always there for me, reminding me of the treasure I have in my wife. He lost Esther several years ago. In one note I said how grateful I was that I could tell my bride how much I love her; George quietly responded, he wished he could, every day. George was a member of the Greatest Generation, the men and women who endured the terrible war that still defines the humanity as a being, and from which, despite all their sacrifice, we still have not evolved. He was pilot of a bomber in the Pacific. His crew’s motto was, “Ragged but Right.” Like most of his fellows, he never talked about it. Yet he did write about it, at least once, in one of several selections collected for an anthology called “In Their Own Words.” I invite you to go to the web page, http://www.315bw.org/anthologies.html, and find his contribution, a poem called “The Ghost of Five Nine-Three. No wonder I liked him so much. And thank, you, George, for everything.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Confession: I am a Poet

I've been thinking. I know that is a dangerous thing to do, but I can't seem to stop myself. The brain just kinda goes that way. I have never been busier than now, since I retired from my day job and moved to Montana to be closer to our grandson. And yet, poetry flows from me like never before. I have been thinking a great deal about this passion within me, and wrote the following lines of prose. I am a poet. I have chosen a means of expression that makes no money and has few admirers yet many, many contributors. Thousands write; hundreds read. It may be the closest a writer can come to painting: each sketch, each oil, each verse is a private showing. A book takes forever to write. I know: I have two published, many others collecting dust waiting for me to get back to them. A poem is more like a snapshot, quickly taken, then selected and edited and offered. More precisely, poems are journal entries written both for ourselves and for sharing – our experiences, our observations, our thoughts, our feelings – our souls laid bare for the love of words. Why do we do it? We are curators who hang words on gallery walls in limpid museums in our minds, doors open to invite anyone inside who happens to be passing by, but no advertising budget to let them know we are here. At least we are not closed Mondays.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Special Day, Wildfires and Travel Plans

Today is special. Each day is special, of course, without saying so. But today is August 22, and for the fifth time this year Helium has put one of my poems on the front page of their website. This one is a Tanka – a Japanese structure something like an extended haiku with a rhythm scheme of 5/7/5/7/7 beats. This one is on coffee. Please go to helium, Where Knowledge Rules, and flip through the featured articles and you will find me. Today is also a day of relief: in a season of forest fires one broke out about two miles away from our home in a not-so-remote spot even closer to our friends and out-laws. That fire was met quickly with an aerial assault combined with careful ground efforts, and has been contained at a relatively small 105 acres and no structures damaged. My heart goes out to anyone on the fire line, and for the National Forest Service scrambling to find enough money to finance all their efforts. The fires so far have cost nearly one billion dollars to fight. In relative terms, that’s about a week in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is also a day for planning. Our nephew Erik had open heart surgery last month, which forced the cancellation of their vacation plans for August. So they decided that they would use that money to buy tickets for Diane and me to go to Holland to spend time with them. It was an offer we could not refuse. We are leaving in one month exactly, on September 22, and staying with them for three weeks. Much to do, much to do! So it has been a long while since I have blogged. I guess I had to have a good reason to dust off the cobwebs. Thanks for listening!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Back Blogging w/2 poems

July 11, 2013 Hello, dear friends. It has been too long since I have written to you, and I apologize. Life is good, and busy, and active. Summer in Lakeside means taking grandson Xander down to the lake as often as possible and playing in the water, while fitting writing poetry into the schedule as best I can. I have been focused on the poetry heavily of late, with a new challenge on Helium for July plus other submissions. It has been very gratifying. I seem to be building a small but very loyal following among fellow poets on the site, and one of my poems has been featured on Helium’s Featured Stories link on their front page for the fourth time in less than two months. This one is called “Sadness.” Check it out on the Helium website, www.helium.com or search Helium – where knowledge rules. It feels so good when the writing is going well, and the irony is that I don’t have enough time to write about it! I am also trying to settle in on which project I want to tackle next in the long term. There are several candidates to choose from that already are in some degree of development, but none has grabbed me by the throat and demanded “WRITE ME NOW!” That may be why the poetry has absorbed me so greatly at the moment – poems are short and do not take a great deal of time to write, although to be good at it one still must exercise all the constraint and imagination (an interesting combination – worthy of a poem) required by a longer, book-length project. It’s all good. Let me share a couple of poems today that went on the Helium Coffee House blog: //Student// /I’m still learning. /Similes and metaphors /Play inside my brain /Like matchbox men /Engaged in war games /Oblivious to time constraints /Of ignoble history, /Guns drawn on cavemen, /Knights and cowboys /Side by side, /Pterodactyls on the wing /Soaring dragons, fire ready, /Words cleft from their creator, /Student conduit busy /Regurgitating. //Tusk// /You want me just to go away, /To wander into the woods, /Curl up, wait, and die. /I did my bit, /A career as a delivery boy /Buying more than he could afford /On credit, /Mortgaged to the hilt /Before the bubble burst /And desperation served notice, /Evicting the American Dream. /I grew old /And had the nerve to escape /Your demographics, /And you’d just as soon /I took my trunks lightly packed /And wandered off /To the land of the dead, /Burial ground, /Leaving my tusks behind.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Egg Timers and Surveillance

The other day, Xander discovered for the very first time our egg timer. It’s very old style, a three minute hourglass style timer. Flip it over and watch your eggs. You have to watch closely, of course, because there are no bells and whistles that go off when the very last grain of sand falls through the narrow passage. Xander was fascinated. We decided to test the timer and see just how long it took for three minutes to pass. We combined this ancient technology with the microwave timer and discovered it took two minutes and forty-seven seconds for the sand to run out. We ran this experiment several times – a delightful and easy way to entertain an energetic and wildly curious five year old for more than half an hour toward the end of our day together. It was a multi-tasking little egg timer, well surveyed! Speaking of surveillance, I have to digress for a moment regarding the NSA leak. The big question, to me, is: ARE WE SURPRISED? REALLY?!! The fact is that our government has had citizens under surveillance. That the numbers have increased exponentially only means that the technology to watch us has increased likewise. Our online activities are being monitored constantly, as conscientious citizens scour material for buzz words and phrases that raise a red flag. This very blog may cause a red flag to be raised simply if I mention the word anarchy, or terrorist, or Snowden, or any other of a vast number of possibilities. Yet I do so openly because I have nothing to hide from anyone. I am not afraid of surveillance, but I object to it. I object more, though, to our government – and our President – lying to us about what they are doing. Face it, whether you like it or not, those people who run the country – who have the power – feel somehow obliged to make sure they stay in power. They might tell you and me that they are simply trying to protect us, but the fact is that we are their subjects, not their partners, and they will treat us as such. Any one of us who threatens or appears to threaten THEM might find themselves being watched more closely than Xander watches an hourglass. It’s the hypocrisy that bothers me most. We spy. We have spied on others since we have been a nation. All nations do it as much as their technology and funding allow. Americans willingly give up their privacy – as I am doing right now – on social media or walking down camera-embedded streets. The fact that we spy on ourselves doesn’t mean much, except that it shakes our trust and confidence in our own government. What little remains. It’s like a three minute egg timing hourglass that takes 2 minutes, 47 seconds to run out.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Twins, Bees, Surveillance: What’s the Buzz?

My first blog in weeks, and second in two months, and I have so much to say that I can think of very little to say. I apologize up front. So much is happening in the world today, or not happening, depending on one’s point of view, that there are literally hundreds of topics not to write about and yet remain cheerful. With the sun shining and the temperatures indicating summer is here, I find it had to avoid commenting on the NSA and the shocking leak and issues like that. Shocking? I am shocked that we are shocked to think our government is spying on us. I mean, when you have power you will do anything possible to keep it. And we’re surprised? Our allies are surprised? They do it themselves. Are you shocked? Again, apologies – I did not really want to write about any of that. I want instead to talk about the things I have been surveying of late around my house. The white tailed deer have been few and far between while the birthing season has gone on. One of our deer – I talk like they’re our pets – is an older doe who has lost sight in one eye, and we figured she must be past birthing. She always had twins, year after year. Last Friday evening on our way home, we saw her guiding her brand new twins along the road. The fawns were so new they still didn’t have their sea legs, stumbling along while she watched us closely. Xander was with us and was very excited to see them. The next day I saw something I had not seen in a while: a honey bee buzzing amid the flowers in my back yard. With the plight of bees in America, I was happy to see this one, like a new hope dawning. And finally, we have a guest family nesting in the corner of our house. I don’t mean wasps and yellow jackets, who keep trying to take up residence against our wishes. I mean two robins, who built their nest atop our motion sensitive outside floodlight (that needs replacing) just under the eve at the north corner. We have been watching the mother robin sit on her eggs, and waiting anxiously for new life. Such things are much more exciting and fun to watch for and write about than the idiocies of our rulers. I just wish the robins ate wasps.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's About The Cat

Before we begin, I just wanted to let you all know that I am in e-print again. My story about finding the wedding ring was printed on Clever Magazine. Check it out online! Just heyword Clever Magazine. You'll find me. And thank you, Dianne! Today's blog: Saturday morning, when I came in from work, Kevin did not greet me at the door. This was odd. Kevin is my cat, and he always seems to be hungry, either for attention or for food. He always greets me at the door carrying a sign that says, “Feed me! NOW!” He backs that up with a soulful if decidedly sour verbal accompaniment. I was worried. I found him asleep on the living room couch. He barely moved to acknowledge my presence. This is my cat – if he hasn’t seen me for half an hour he greets me as if I just returned from six months at sea. He never stays by himself if a lap is present. I fixed his breakfast and he didn’t move; I put it under his nose and he sniffed twice before turning away. Something was wrong. Cats can go sour at the blink of an eye. In fact, cats are so good at hiding it when they’re sick that by the time you see the symptoms, they’re really ill. Add to that Kevin’s advanced age, thirteen human years, there was reason for concern. Of course, kids, pets and water heaters always get sick on the weekend. It’s the law. We decided to watch him closely and hope he started to feel better, but were ready to deal with a worse outcome and began calculating how to finance a visit to the Vet. Who was closed on the weekend, of course. Fortunately, by about four p.m. he began to act more normally, and by six he began to shout for dinner. The crisis had passed. It turns out -- we’re pretty sure -- that Kevin hopped up on the kitchen counter the night before (which is strictly against the law in our house, but cats don’t care about laws) and helped himself to a drink of soapy dishwater from the tub where we were soaking a casserole dish lined with fishy goodness, and made himself nauseated. I love my four-legged son. But I recognize the desperate truth: Kevin is a cat of little brain. He’s looking at me as I write these words, but all he wants to say is, “Get that damned computer off your lap, please.”