Toes on the Board

The wonderful science fiction and fantasy writer R.A. Lafferty once said, “The best time to write a story is yesterday. The second best is today.”

As person who is now hesitating–the metaphorical equivalent of standing at the edge of a diving board, looking down past my toes at the rippling swimming pool water below–I find wisdom in Lafferty’s remark.

A few days ago I saw a respectful documentary about fantasy fiction, from Tolkein and C.S. Lewis through Game of Thrones. I took issue at a few things–why wasn’t the epic fantasy Beowulf mentioned as an influence on the author of Lord of the Rings and why was the myth-blending science fiction “New Wave” not discussed–but I just boiled when I heard interviews with current writers, some famous, some not, who were answering the questions I used to be asked when one of my books was published. Our answers were more or less the same.

From there it was a typical woe-is-me session, though, at my age, I was more like Lear complaining of how less he was a sinner than sinned against. What, I asked myself, had I done wrong so that my fantasy novel was not published?

Oh, there’s a long list of what I could have, should have and would have done, but the fact remains that the my heart was in the right place in writing it, the book has some very good scenes and a few that could be improved, and an important character could use a bit more development. I can say something similar about every book I’ve written, whether or not it was published.

I know from writing books, hanging around with people who write books, and interviewing people who are famous for writing books, that such an attitude is common among the profession. We can all talk, in retrospect, about what it all means, how we’re trying to change the world, that we never thought that anybody would ever read it or that we were hoping the book would correct a misleading cultural attitude or trend that has gone on too long, but, when you’ve finished a book, about the best thing you can feel is relief. This doesn’t last long before you think everything you’ve done is terrible, or that even if you’ve published a zillion times, you’re still a fraud counting the days before someone exposes you.

The only cure for this is to start another book.

My difficulty of late is that other emotion that stops many people from writing a single word: that utter certainty that nobody is going to read this, nobody is going to care about it, nobody is going to publish it or spend money on it or come up with a decent cover illustration.

It’s similar to how you feel when you’re on the edge of that diving board, asking yourself why you should hurl yourself off, when you could hurt yourself, kill yourself, make a fool out of yourself with everybody around the pool watching, or get water up your nose.

When I mentioned my hesitation to my wife (who really likes to read my stuff, so thinking that nobody will read my stuff is not just wrong but not fair to her), she reminded me what an agent had said after reading an earlier draft. Yes, things can be changed and why not change a few?

I fired up the word processor and wrote about a page of a new beginning. My wife read it and said that this, finally, was the opening of a book I just may have been born to write.

In terms of encouragement, it doesn’t get any better.

But I am still hesitating. My new feeling is much closer to the truth: do I want to feel so good, and so bad, as I write the book?

While every writer enjoys the rare work that “writes itself,” the more typical situation is an emotional hay ride, with bumps, twists, moments when the tractor stalls, too many other moments when you ask yourself why you ever thought you would want to sit on all this dried straw when you could be doing anything else, or nothing at all?

I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve been blocked, others when I just had some time without a deadline. Doing nothing can be a good thing.

But after a while, you ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, you could be doing something…else. I’ve noticed that part of the reason I enjoy solitaire games is a safe feeling of accomplish when I win. But what precisely is accomplished?

So I’m still hesitating. But not for long. I sincerely want to put this book into some shape so that even if all those other things that I fear happen, one person in this world will have a story that I’ve always wanted to tell.




Hiccups aren’t supposed to be scary.

When you’re a child, they’re almost funny. You find yourself making a sound like a small bird. Something inside you ticks like a clock, or a toy that’s been wound up to perform at intervals that are so slightly out of sync as to cause a little suspense. When will it happen again?

After a while you grow weary of the novelty. You hear about all the cures for hiccups that don’t work. You may even try a few. You hold your breath. You jump up and down. You experience what appears to be a hiccupless moment.

And then you hiccup.

Though there are accounts of hiccuping continuing for several days, most of us find that the spasm of the vagas nerve goes away after a while. We soon forget about the discomfort.

A few nights ago I woke up with hiccups and it wasn’t funny. Ever since my heart attacks, I’ve been aware that illness isn’t merely the body misbehaving, or an invasive infection that must be fought. Your body can fail you in ways you cannot predict, no matter how much medical advice you followed.

It’s almost a metaphor for life itself: things fail that you cannot foresee, cannot control, did not plan, are not your fault. They can be as innocuous as hiccups, or as terrifying as a heart attack, when the part of your body you never think about (unless you exercise hard, or fall in love, and even then, sooner or later, you think about something else) stumbles just enough to let you know that you can’t take anything for granted anymore.

If you’re lucky, as I was, you’re close enough to doctors who can fix it. But the fix, like a patch on a tire, won’t change the fact that the tire has worn down to the point that it is vulnerable to what used to be harmless things that it had once rolled over with ease.

When I woke up with the hiccups I was recovering from surgery on my right knee. About half a lifetime ago, when I joined my son in a kids’ karate class, my right knee began to swell and hurt intermittently. The karate teacher suggested I go to a sports medicine clinic, where, after an MRI scan, I learned that a piece of my meniscus–a wafer of cartilage in my knee that insulated and supported the bones that comprised the joint–was floating about. It was unlikely that the pain would go away.

I had the surgery and, a few years later, suffered a similar tear on my left knee. At the time, I was told that this was due to the heavy exercise I did: running, karate, weights in a gym. I’ve since had different explanations as to why the piece was torn away from the cartilage and I’m correcting my behavior so that it doesn’t happen again.

But, about eight months ago, it happened again. As in the previous times, I waited for the pain and swelling to go away by itself. It didn’t.

So now I’m recovering from the surgery and, hiccups aside, it hurts. I know that the swelling and pain will eventually subside, but, until it does, the cure feels as bad as the original sickness. I’m trying not to take too many over-the-counter painkillers.

I no longer look at illness as something that eventually goes away. What involuntarily distresses us, what causes us undeserved pain, what fails without apparent cause or explanation changes how we understand ourselves.

I do not see myself as a victim of what I can’t control. Rather, I have a better understanding of the meaning of sustainability. I am, more than ever, considering what is it that keeps me going reasonably well, holds me together emotionally and spiritually when so much around me seems to be is falling apart, how can I accommodate the inevitable limitations that the years bring and, most important of all, how may I acknowledge that I am not alone, that sustaining life is an interdependence that can be recognized only in hindsight. Like so much of what is truly valuable in life, it begins, and ends, in mystery.

And I am looking forward to the one thing that makes discomforting illnesses, from hiccups  to heart attacks, almost worth while: that wonderful, miraculous feeling you get when realize you’re getting better, you’re coming back, you’re returning to the person you were.




Galactic Pot Washer

I was washing pots in a college dining hall kitchen when another pot washing student mentioned to me that he had published a short story in a science fiction magazine.

I almost dropped my scrubber. Having dreamed, prayed, aspired and–too often–despaired of seeing my stories in print, I assumed that published writers were unique life forms who possessed something I lacked. Of course, when I summoned what little bit of self confidence I had, I told myself that someday I would join their ranks, merely because my stuff was the best I could do, and the way you “make it” in the arts is to do the best you can every time you’re at bat, with the hope that sooner or later you’ll make it to first base and when you peak you’ll hit a few home runs.

Back in it that kitchen, I felt my life was an unending string of strike-outs.

As I scoured through what had once been mushroom gravy, I asked him how he wrote it. He said he came up with an idea, wrote the story in less than an hour. Somebody told him to send it to the magazine and, a few weeks later, he got a check. It was so easy he thought so little of it that after cashing the check, he didn’t hold on to the copy of the magazine that the editor sent him.

Was he lying to me? The skeptical voice inside me that would help in my journalism career said it was a little too convenient that he didn’t have the magazine. And, in this pre-Internet era, I couldn’t take off my gloves, pull out a cell phone and google his name.

Having washed a mountain of pots in my college and post graduate career in restaurants, I know that some pot washers humiliate each other because pot they occupy the lowest rank in the food-service employment hierarchy, and when you’re the lowest of the low, you can do things to each other to push another closer to the bottom. Had he done that just to put me on the bottom?


I went back to an extremely crusted sheet pan.

Way back before food service became a degreed profession, if you wanted to learn how to cook (or, like me, you wanted a free meal), you washed pots because you couldn’t break them and your job was a simple matter of scraping off the burnt goo so the pots could be used to make more goo. After that, you moved to dish washing, which was more complicated because, not only did you have to remove the goo, you had to use the right mix of detergent, water heat and water pressure to blast lipstick off the glassware and keep those nasty spots off the cutlery. That, and you weren’t supposed to break anything thing. If, after several weeks, months or years, nobody heard a dish shatter, someone may show you how to chop onions.

After I graduated, I worked in restaurants to support my writing habit. Before the habit became regular enough to devote myself to it completely, I rose as far as fill-in chef, somebody they’d call when whoever was supposed to do the cooking didn’t show up. When I filled in, I couldn’t be expected to know the menu as well as the regular chef. I burnt some things. I dropped some things. I sent some plates out that probably shouldn’t have gone out.

But I learned to do what had to be done, not just because that was the job. When you can reach that state of non-judgemental action, you can do more things correctly, or, at least, adequately, and maybe even accomplish a few miracles.

I never quite achieved that non-judgemental state as a writer. Yes, I had times I was “in the flow,” gulping coffee and pushing out the words to meet a deadline. I had moments when I was surprised at how passages seemed to write themselves.

But, even when I met the deadline, I always experienced a let-down when I saw my work in print. I’d find a misprint, or a passage I could have stated better, or a chunk of the article that had been removed to make room for an advertisement that had come in at the last minute.

Once I saw that the name of an interview subject who had asked me repeatedly to make sure I spelled his name right, had been spelled wrong. I felt bad for several days, long after I called the guy and apologized.

It was worse with books. Unless an author has hundreds of thousands fans who will buy multiple copies of everything he writes, most writers feel an enormous pressure that each book sell more, get better reviews, and–most important of all–generate more subsidiary rights sales (“Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber wants to make a musical out of my novel? Bring it on!”). The slightest sign that this may not happen (which, in fact, NEVER happens, for the overwhelming majority of published writers), sends the author into a panicky, downward mood spiral. The only cure for post-publishing blues is investing even more expectation in the next book you commit to finishing.

It’s ironic that in so much human endeavor, the sickness is the cure, and vice versa. After a while you get tired of the ups and downs. You just want to live long enough to reach the point where you just finish the job.

It took me years to learn that non-judgemental action is the big lesson in washing pots. Yes, it’s a boring, steamy, noisy job, but, sooner or later, the goo comes off and you move on to the next pot. If you ask yourself a cosmic question, such as why a college educated soon-to-be-published writer has to put up with rejection while this other guy whom you’ve never seen before and probably hasn’t taken the courses and read the books that you did, blithely lands a short story in a science fiction magazine, you start to slow down. You wonder what significance washing pots will ever be significant in your literary career. You contemplate the series of unfortunate events that brought you to the pot sink (in my case, I just wanted to make a little extra money). And then, somebody from the kitchen yells at you about running out sheet pans. You find the goo-encrusted sheet pans and find a place for one under the faucet. You pick up the scrubber, pour on a little detergent, and scrub. You go on to the next pan, and the next and, a few hours later, all the pots are washed and you go back to your dorm room, wet and exhausted, with a definite feeling of accomplishment that no amount of envy, or rejected science fiction stories, can subvert.





A Course in Kindness

I recently crossed into another world, one in which I found a better thing to do than write. I was quietly surprised to find this place. It was almost like finding a door in your house that you never noticed, and opening it to find a new room, with a window from which what you thought surrounded you now appears to be different.

What brought me to this world was an answer to a question that many have asked: what is the best thing to do with myself, right now and into the near future?

Years ago I had my head hooked into a distant, utopian future in which I had attained a state of grace that I ascribed to my favorite science fiction writers, all of whom seemed to have

  1. the ability to come up with a wonderful idea for a story. This is ability is not shared by everyone. Though I got ideas for stories any time I wanted them by letting my mind wander, I discovered that most people don’t get ideas for anything, and thus, they depend rather heavily on those ideas that are packaged in consumer items. How surprised I was when my college professors dismissed the science fiction and fantasy stories I read in my adolescence as hackwork and junk culture, even if, in our brave, new 21st century, the cheesy space opera that I found fun but trite lives on as Star Wars, the greatest money-making consumer art work of all time, and the comic books that my parents wouldn’t let me read are now earning almost as much as films.
  2. the opportunity to do whatever they must to write their stories. That meant, for me, not long hours at a typewriter as much as an open, adventuresome attitude that took in the strangeness, scariness, beauty or hidden truth in the world, so that my prose would have an authenticity that I associated with the American realists, who embraced the syllogism that nothing was worth writing about until you lived it, and that what you hadn’t lived was not only not worth writing about, but impossibly to write about honestly and thus, wouldn’t sell to the avuncular editors who inhabited seedy little offices in New York, Chicago and Boston and thus, experienced a the world through the fictionally transformed misadventures of those they published. Alas, I’ve traveled a bit, and even done some travel writing. A guidebook I wrote is years out of date and nobody has tried to update it. I’ve read work by writers who have never been to Paris, Jerusalem or Mars, but they’ve done a pretty good job of telling a story. So what makes an experience “honest” or worth writing about?
  3. a talent for not letting their artistic ambitions drive them crazy. I also hoped, when I met writers who were drunks, self-promoting frauds, vindictive egotists who were abusive to their loved ones, that I would behaving with dignity and a gentle gravitas, as if being a writer of science fiction and fantasy stories was a civic role as important as that of the old village storytellers, or the griots who preserved tribal history.
  4. relationships with editors so that the stories were published smoothly. Most writers lied about this. Though my college professors taught the importance of legendary editors like William Dean Howells and Maxwell Perkins  (as well as John Campbell, who transformed science fiction from space opera to imaginative speculations about sociological and psychological trends, and nurtured the work of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and many others who became my heroes), I used to believe that I should work with every editor because all editors shared a joy in good writing and had reasonable goals toward packaging and distributing that joy–until I met editors who were not only unreasonable, but petty, and pettiness can stomp on youthful idealism with a cruelty that sends deep, paralyzing shocks that lead you to conclude that this gatekeeper wouldn’t have let the door quietly shut in my face if I had been a different person.
  5. people who valued their writing enough to buy it or seek it out in libraries. Hey, I did this with my favorites. How was I supposed to know that there were so many, many people writing stuff worth reading that, even if you major in English and read two or three books a week, you’ll never read them all. So how do you become a writer with a following? Nobody really knows. Promotion doesn’t work all the time. Writing the same book every time doesn’t work. Having your book made into a movie doesn’t help if the movie is bad, or the movie changes your work so much that it isn’t yours anymore. The only thing you can hold on to is that everybody who gets that following has moments when they can’t stand the expectations these people create. See Stephen King’s Misery, the best novel ever written about a writer and his Number One Fan.
  6. a sense of confidence so that I would not be unduly injured by critical slings and arrows. Again, I met many writers who claimed they never read reviews, but they had ways of finding out what the critics said about them, and they went nuts when critics didn’t like what they did. I know this as a writer, and a book reviewer, who was occasionally the subject of an angry letter from a writer, agent or publisher when my opinion (even a positive one!) wasn’t what they enjoyed reading. It seems that to survive in a commercial society, a writer has to be produce a lot of stuff, produce it quickly and without remorse, the stuff has to be “out there” in the marketplace as much as possible until something happens that brings attention, desired or not, and, most important of all, have a cast-iron ego that can withstand so many disappointments, let-downs, twisted ironies and far too many years of silent neglect. Who are these confident writers? I never met them. I never read them. Everybody seemed to want attention, if not the love, of people in their community, or in the great world of readers, and make these people happy with their work.
  7. A person to share it with. This I got. This dream came true. Hooray!

But I never became a science fiction writer because every story I ever sent out (including novels) was rejected and the rejection really, really hurt so bad and nothing helped me deal with that hurt. The stuff I sent out that was not rejected, was non fiction, mysteries, magazine and newspaper articles. To my surprise, a few science fiction and fantasy writers confessed they wished that their stuff appeared where mine did.

As I wished my stuff appeared with theirs.

I’m sure that if people read any of the books I have “in progress” (translation: I’ve begun them but I don’t work on them consistently and I don’t know when, or if, I’ll ever finish them) they’ll like them, maybe even love them. May these works be important somehow? Perhaps. Will critics like them? Maybe. Will they make money if published? Why not?

But is there something better to do until any of those books finds a reader?

Yes. Of course.

And that is to be kind to as many people as possible.

Not change the world. Not change their world. Not tell truth to power, expose the bad guys and draw attention to worthy folks who struggle in the darkness. I’ve done that as a journalist and we still have powerful people who don’t care about the consequences of their action (or inaction), venal folks at all levels of society and so many, many worthy people who are trying to make themselves and their world a little bit better.

Journalism is not a profession that readily embraces kindness. In fact, kindness is dismissed as a weakness, a bias, a willful neglect of flaws, foibles, mistakes and things that could be improved.

To be kind is to be…what?

I never took a course in journalism. I only took one writing course and passed it.

But I’ve been taking a course in kindness all my life and, like most of us, I’ve had a few report cards that I’d rather not remember. It’s easy to disregard civility, respect for others, a positive comment or a bit of generosity when you want to “make something of yourself.” What you miss that that the self you’re trying to make something of–doesn’t change much, and whatever you have in the bank, whatever you’ve published, whatever you’ve lost or gained, doesn’t make as much a difference as you’d wish.

I’m at the age when life has made me more than I’ve made it. I must admit I’m lucky to have come this far. What’s next?

This new world I’ve entered, in which all I really have to do is be kind as many people as possible. I may lose it every once in a while. Or my acts may have unintended consequences. My increasingly forgetful mind may prevent me from returning a library book on time. People may accuse me of being insensitive to their passionate causes. I may be taken advantage of, ripped off, exploited, thought a fool.

I’ll never really know if being kind is the best thing to do. I’m enrolled in the course, and I’ll show up for classes and hope the report card is better this time around.


Coping with Nightmares

Let’s admit that, as much as we’ve wanted some dreams to come true, we’ve had more than enough that we’d rather stay on the shelf.

The dreams we remember have been powerful phenomena for as long as human beings have been able to record them. But some dreams–the kind from which we awaken in a tense, fearful state–we hope are, in the words of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge in confronting the ghosts of Christmas–“an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are.”

The best “natural cause” of a remembered dream I’ve heard is that it is a relic of the neurochemical processing our brains perform when we sleep. This processing is a kind of filing system that stores memories of some of our waking events, and purges others.

This explanation fails to satisfy when we recall the dregs of dreams that are so outrageous that we are confounded for an origin. What did I ever do, I wonder when a nightmare hurtles me out of sleep, to deserve this?

Part of the Freudian psychoanalysis is based on the fatalism that that nothing happens to us by chance: our dreams, our “slips” of the tongue, our careless errors, our preferences for one ice cream flavor over another, are the strange fruit of our subconscious, and by analyzing these things, we may come to understand our behavior better.

This is a nice idea, but it quickly grows cumbersome as we look at so many, many seemingly random blurts of behavior. Surely some are more significant than others? Why must those bad dreams survive our waking memory? Where’s the psychological equivalent of a flush lever?

My nightmares of late share two general themes. One is incompetence, in which I must perform some kind of important task and discover that I’ve either failed to prepare sufficiently (I’m dressed wrong, I did not to study, I did not bring a necessary tool) or an unforeseen, frequently slapstick catastrophe makes a mess of everything.

The other is betrayal, that scorching paranoid fantasy when you discover that the people you thought were out to get you, really are out to get you, and, in the nightmare, they get you.

Perhaps because I’ve spent so much time learning and teaching, the majority of these dreams occur in an academic setting. What is it about public schools and a well-meaning, unquestionably liberal liberal-arts college, that can leave this dreadful motif in me, especially when I’m far away from the places where my nightmares occur? Not only did I study for, and pass, the last standardized test I had to take, but, way back in my 30s, when lecturing about history, I showed up for class and discovered I’d left my lecture notes at home. I had to do it from memory, and I not only delivered the talk, but I discovered that the audience responded better to what was a spontaneous event, rather than the recitation of a text.

So the guy who lives in the waking world knows these bug-a-boos aren’t real, but, they keep happening. What to do?

I came up with a tactic that certainly won’t “cure” me of these nocturnal delusions, but will make it easier to live with (and without!) them.

And that is to come up with an alternate dream, a brief fantasy that is as wildly improbable as the nightmare, but upbeat, wish-fulfilling, ridiculous good fun!

So, when I show up for the lecture and I realize that I did not prepare adequately, or that, instead of professorial tweeds, I’m wearing cargo shorts, sandals and a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a competing university, I give myself a few seconds of head-on-the-pillow time and–

I begin a stand-up comedy routine about the academic pettiness and everybody laughs at my jokes! They forget what I’m was supposed to talk about and tell me that they had the best time listening to me!

Or I use the magic of imagination and everyone in the lecture hall is wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt, each from different periods in the band’s history and, smart guy that I am, I demonstrate how the shirts reflected, not just the band’s image, but that of the surrounding American culture that embraced, or ignored it.

And, as ludicrous as this fantasy is (though the band’s Skull ‘n’ Roses shirt shares the same colors as the later Lightning Bolt skull logo, it’s difficult to tie in the mix of cowboy country music and psychedelic noodling of that period to the later, more regular, pop-music influenced “disco” Dead of the 1980s), it negates the ominous dread of the nightmare. At best, the twin fantasies cancel each other out. At worst, you accept the fact that there is no benefit in letting the cumbersome processes of a sleeping brain taint the dawn.

If only so many other afflictions were so easily banished! Living clearly, living honestly, living happily (and for those of my age, in reasonably good health) in the sunlight–that’s a dream that has come true, and should come true as many times as possible.



Back to Normal

A little less than 24 hours ago I left a hotel in Jerusalem and, after two plane trips spaced with long spaces of not-much-to-do in airport terminals, I’m back in familiar surroundings, at home, with the washing machine gurgling, the dryer tumbling and the gentle forces of a winter day returning me to…

Normal? Not quite.

I hadn’t visited Israel in 40 years and I began too many conversations “forty years ago…” Now I ask, what’s the difference between 40 years, and 39, or twenty, or two weeks ago?  I saw much newness: architecturally exciting condo towers, a Calatrava bridge, a widened highway, a light-rail worm sliding along what was the border between Israel and Jordan. More of the area around and beneath the Jersusalem’s Old City has been excavated and made accessible to tourists. The Dead Sea has shrunk perilously. The Sea of Galilee remains one of the world’s most beautiful, though it, too, is shrinking.

And yet–

  1. You can apportion the newness into areas of wealth, hi-tech business, funded religious enclaves and that dreadful wall that slices off portions of what divides Palestinians from Israelis. As in America, much of what is new is about privilege, advantage and a desire to make what is merely fortunate appear as the result of righteous struggle or God-given right.
  2. What remains of the excavations requires a narrative to comprehend. Tour guides struggle to be heard in the popular areas, and the clever tourist can position himself to experience a traveler’s version of cognitive dissonance. The stones don’t talk, so guides, video presentations, illustrations, interactive displays and scale models–all presented with an air of utmost certainty–give you a version of a past that of which we cannot be absolutely certain. When I came to Israel as a tourist and then a volunteer archaeologist, I learned that the science of archaeology began as precision treasure hunting in the 19th century but became a well-funded passion in the 20th century dedicated to proving that the Bible was “true.” When Israel became a nation, it developed a third preoccupation: establishing a Jewish presence as far back in recorded history as possible. You can find the treasures in museums, and you can visit cities and regions that were mentioned in the Bible, but there is precious little physical evidence to confirm what so many people want to believe is true, or historical.
  3. One of the guides told us that Israel recycles 95 percent of its waste water and sewage. I looked at the bottle water in my hand. The label in Hebrew. I couldn’t read the fine print. I wondered: what happens to the five percent that refuses to be anything more than what it is?

Some things get better. Israel has better restaurants and potable water throughout. For the first time, I did not develop some kind of digestive ailment. More people speak English–I did not have to speak Hebrew.

A cable car makes it easier to visit Masada. I would have tromped up the “snake trail,” a switchback path along the mountain’s western face, if pain in my knee had not stopped me.

I heard one of the two guides on the group tour talk briefly of how both sides of the current Arab-Israeli conflict hate the way the British tried to govern Palestine after carving it up (with the French) and creating–with the Balfour Declaration–a national homeland for Jews. “Everybody hates them, which means that they probably were fair.”

The comment is problematic. We have no way of judging the overall behavior of a forty-year colonial military force. Colonialism–that urge among powerful nations to invade, conquer, exploit and “civilize” the inhabitants of a seemingly primitive territory, has been discredited as a political aim, though it continues as an economic goal.

This led me to speculate: does disorder and antagonism spring inevitably from attempts to be equitable and just? We like to think that peace should be the result of any conflict. But when we read any of the historical or religious texts from the Middle East, we see war following peace on a more or less regular basis. The reasons vary. The gods and goddesses vary. The conquering nations come and go.

Ying and yang dualities don’t work in the Middle East. You get no satisfaction in taking sides, especially when you notice how divided each side is. Because our trip was sponsored by our synagogue, and included our rabbi, the sites visited emphasized spirituality, with an emphasis: Jewish people are here, they persist, they remain and, in most places within Israel’s borders, they are in the majority.

I did not feel any closeness, or sense of commonality, with that majority, though I met several Israelis who were born in America and spoke English with accents that contained the inflections of home. Others had the middle European and Slavic tones that I heard when, as a child, I visited my grandmother in Florida. All of them had powerful justifications for living in THE Jewish homeland.

The Balfour Declaration was careful to suggest that Palestine could be “a” Jewish homeland. There is a subtle and enormous difference between “a” and “the.”

Throughout the trip, I savored the privilege of being in a place that was like no other, and sharing the experience with my wife. Such experiences are easy to cherish.

While there is no place like Jerusalem,  there is also no place like home. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz movie, I noticed I wasn’t in Kansas, paid attention to the man behind the curtain, saw the equivalent of a horse of a different color, found that the Emerald City wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. After a few days, I wanted to click my black Clark shoes together and wake up in my own bed.

Alas, my shoes were not ruby slippers. At 3:30 a.m. we boarded a cab in Jerusalem for a flight that left a little later than 7:30, having been warned of the intensity and depth of Israeli security. I then waited nearly six hours for another flight to leave London, where I was singled out (for reasons never revealed) and had an explosive-residue probe passed over my arms and legs, and then asked to roll up my pants legs to reveal my black compression socks (a holiday gift). Both flights featured screaming babies, kids that kicked the back of our seats, people coughing and tripping me when I went toward the lavatories.

As flights go, they were uneventful. I am now home, on a cold, bright winter day.

It feels good.





Keeping Still

The stories come out when I walk the dog and another person with a dog seems interested. I talk about what it was like to be there and do this, or have that thing happen to me.

I listen to the other dog walker and try shape my response to the flow of the conversation. I did more of this shape shifting when I was a journalist to pry from sources the telling quote, the admission or confession that elevated frequently trivial, always evanescent reporting to a human level, as if by listening to a cop, a lifeguard, a chef, a maitre d’, or somebody who has been pretty much doing the same damned thing for an entire life you could hear the universal beating heart, or touch lthe strange glue that holds us all together.

I sense, sometimes, that some people who walk dogs feel a spiritual pain that makes them drink, or they are angry at what they see and hear about the world. Occasionally, it’s a genuine pain. As guy who is not quite old enough to be called a senior citizen, I am included in that demographic group that gets sick too much, or needs surgery, and takes too many pills. .

It’s easy for me to be positive when the other dog walker is so negative. Because of the numerous political divisions lurking in our quiet, safe, suburban sprawl town, I’ve learned to go for universals when particulars are discussed, especially those that are intended to arouse the addictive, hateful spite that motivates so many people to behave so badly in public.

I mention many things for which we can be grateful, starting with roofs that don’t leak (not to mention the ability to hire people to fix the roofs when they leak), heaters that roar to an anticipated temperature, water that goes only where we desire–when we desire it, a washing machine and dryer that accepts the soiled and the smelly and restores it to the (reasonably) pure and perfumed. Think about all that food in the refrigerator (and more that can be bought for ridiculously low prices in any of the dozen or so places that sell groceries that are less than a twenty minute drive away) and a kitchen that fills a house with aromas that say, good food is being made here.

Then there’s a personal benefit: my two sons are healthy, employed and–based on phone conversations and the occasional “face time” visit–reasonably happy. That they make more money than I did as a writer is to their credit.

I usually don’t discuss my spouse, though one dog walker complained a few time about his. I know that ragging about the accidental or intentional wounds afflicted by females is a way for guys to feel closer. I used to do this. I acquired a long list of scars that refused to heal. But, as I walk the dog, I am not wounded. I am deeply, sincerely, gently, easily and triumphantly in love with my wife to the extent that it is very easy to bring her roses and gifts and go out to dinner. But other guys aren’t in the same place, and when I hear this, I let it go, and, like the fumes that make you wrinkle your nose for a few seconds, it goes away, and the conversation goes elsewhere.

I happen to be highly educated, but people I meet don’t want to hear fun facts about the evolution of the neck tie, the discovery of America’s first dinosaur, or that the word “lord” originally meant “keeper of the loaf.”

I am somewhat well traveled. When I was last in China, I found out cool things about the price of tea. But that was a long time ago and the price has certainly gone up since then.

As the hair that remains on my head goes gray, I notice that most people rarely feel appreciated in their daily slog. I try to say thank you often, especially when they notice the dog.

And yet, there are people who don’t like dogs. There are people who look at those with gray hair as inconveniences. We are gaunt, misshapen caricatures of Leonardo DaVinci’s perfectly proportioned Vitruvian man, who is drawn with his arms stretched out and is clearly not holding a leash that connects to a harness that encloses a dog with its nose to the ground. We are the people who are supposed to need the drugs that inspire those horrible commercials that clutter the evening TV news programs. Parts of me aren’t working the way they used to. But I am not sick.

So I tell the person going into the hospital that he or she will be up and about soon. I mention a person I know who was given six months to live and is still with us, eight years after that gloomy prognosis.

Am I looking on the bright side of life? Have I finally arrived at that understanding that helps the world turn? Am I just lucky that most of my needs have been met and all I have to do is walk the dog a few times a day, pick up what the dog drops, and deposit the droppings in convenient receptacles?

About that I keep still. It is no longer necessary to answer to every question. I am far from the social and workplace whirls where you distinguish yourself by having opinions, telling a funny joke, come up with great ideas or solve other people’s problems in a flash of creative insight.

I’m just a guy who walks a dog.