Elderhood….Say What?

According to the criteria of the United States government, this Saturday I will become an old lady. When I wrote the word “elderhood” in my emailed party invitation (sorry, not to you, precious reader, but to a few lucky locals), I got that wavy red underline challenging me to dismiss that illegitimate word. WordPress too, I might add, flashed its red warning as I edited this essay. So off to Google I went, which gave an admittedly scant 247,000 search results for elderhood. Compare that with “childhood,” which yields over seven billion, amounting to almost one search result per person in the world.

Naturally I pondered such an imbalance which is so lopsided that it threatens a word’s right to exist. What is this, linguistic ageism? I would say that the transition from middle age to elderhood is just as significant and extensive as the transition from childhood to middle age.

There are other words I could use to mark my new state, such as senior/ senior citizen, (ugh, that’s the worst) crone, entering old age, mature, ancient, the golden years, et cetera. Never mind the triply damned status of those among us who are female, old and never-married who get the words “spinster” and “old maid.” I hate all these terms, because they are either disparaging, falsely respectful, or euphemistic as if aging is something that needs to be downplayed or colored on the rose side. “The golden years”? Oh please!

There is one other term, “third age”, which I would take as a runner-up to “elderhood.” It is not negative, and for those familiar with the term, connotes a time of increased emotional well-being despite some cognitive decline. But for those who are not familiar with it, I think it is a puzzling expression. “Elderhood” is self-explanatory and has that nice corresponding suffix in its sister word, “childhood.”

I hereby in this post promulgate “elderhood,” for its positive associations such as in the phrase, “the elders of the city”. This word, as far as I can tell, frankly and accurately refers to my age status with a touch of dignity, puts it on a psychological par with“childhood”, and echoes none of the neurotic avoidance of of aging as a touchy taboo topic, which –Heaven help us– hints at our Final Days.

Well! Through this post I have just increased the search results for “elderhood” by one. So I’ve done my part today for celebrating the coming of old age

A Genie’s Regrets

Unlike the first time Mitch asked the genie for three wishes, he was itching to be real smart about it by not bungling this opportunity with wishes that would cause other problems. (He had wished for more money, and then all those long-lost creditors started to show up.) “I don’t ordinarily give mortals second chances,” she said upon popping into his life again, “but I am curious to see how your second try goes now that you have some experience. So go on, tell me your first wish.” Mitch said, “Rid the world of all kinds of mosquitoes.” His second and third wishes were left unsaid, because after the first one was granted, poof!– he along with his entire species no longer existed in this newly altered ecosystem. “Second chances?” the genie glumly thought to herself. “Rotten idea. No more humans to trick.”

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Originally I had submitted this tiny story to sites that specialize in such itsy bitsy fiction, but they did not appreciate the suspense, the foreshadowing (“itching to be…”) the climax, and the denouement, all in this micro-story. Those sites shall remain nameless. What’s more, one editorial reviewer asked me if Mitch was a mosquito. Thus we have two morals here, one for the story itself, and one for writers who receive rejection letters.

Update: October 6, 2021

A friend brought my attention to another genie story, much longer and undoubtedly much better. It is creative, and best of all does not have a lame ending. The link for that is here: https://www.tor.com/2014/09/10/as-good-as-new-charlie-jane-anders/ Tor.com is a science fiction/fantasy newsletter and publisher. Charlie Jane Anders has authored many novels and garnered many awards.

The Stock Market Demystified

“Steve,” I said over breakfast one fine morn to my husband, who is a professional investor and financial advisor, “it always has bothered me when you say things like, ‘the market punishes the maximum number of investors’. It’s not like ‘the market’ is a godlet that does things to people. It’s not a living organism.” (Even though it is true that most people lose money in the stock market by buying high and selling low.) Steve and I parried this back and forth for a bit and then he suggested I write a guest column about it in his newsletter, which I did. And now I decided to share it here in modified form to warn unwary and novice investors, which is practically everyone these days: But the “market” cannot be a personified glob from above that takes action on its victims. Let’s first take a casino as a simpler example of what I want to convey: it’s not “the casino” as some mystical entity that causes people to lose as much money as possible, even though that is the goal of one. It is not a charity. There are humans who design a casino such that the most people will go to the most lucrative (for the house) tables. These humans put in whatever lighting, carpeting, colors, attractive staff, free tokens, other types of gambling nearby and of course free food that will conspire to get those customers to go to those most favored tables and to spend the most time there and in the casino in general. This is all calculated in advance, down I am sure, to the style and fabric of the chairs, that will influence the customers’ behavior.

Now let’s take the stock market. It began a certain way, centuries ago, as a way for wealthy and knowledgeable business persons to make mutually beneficial investments and it has evolved today to include anyone at all who wishes to participate. Especially now, I think, by accident or design, various features of the market and of brokerages result in enticing the vast majority of investors to do the wrong thing, with a game-like atmosphere being one of the most recent characteristics. Advertisements imply that with everything going “so well” this is a great time to win big. (Now is about the worst time to buy stocks like Apple, Facebook, etc.) Brokerages are now encouraging teenagers as young as 13 to open accounts and trade, all with no commissions to make teenagers or anyone else for that matter hesitate. And of course the lack of knowledge as to how financial markets work and what patterns to look for is a guarantee for losing money unless by pure rare luck someone hits the jackpot.

In other words, whoever is connected with making trades possible, such as a brokerage, is by design, consciously or not, making calculations as to how to approach would-be investors to woo them to engage in trading. Even with knowledge, it takes tremendous planning and work for an investor to come out ahead. Without knowledge and just the lure of “easy money”, yes, the novice investor is bound to fail. But it is not because the godlet of markets is punishing that investor. It is because various savvy individuals who are well-versed in human behavior are taking advantage of that information about human nature to get that investor to reward the wealthy ones. Don’t say I did not warn you.

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Parable submitted by an anonymous investor on September 30, 2021:

“I agree with you  Karen that the markets do punish investors, and more so try to constantly turn prudent investors into bad investors. I agree it’s not because the market is some self-aware entity. It is because it acts as a simple feedback loop for the participants themselves. The “market” is the sum total of the participants – and they punish themselves.
We had chronic problems with local squirrels ripping apart the contents of our garden shed, boring holes through the plywood and frame to get in. A real mess, especially in mid-March trying to clean it up in the middle of a heavy snow and -15C. So I installed some black 1/2″ square Peak netting to prevent squirrel entry. That netting was successful. However we also had a cute chipmunk who arrived this season after the netting was installed. It was much smaller, generally kept to itself, would hop up on our deck, look at us curiously as though we’d feed it (we didn’t) but the chipmunk did their own thing and didn’t create any home ownership issues.
One day I noticed the chipmunk was repeatedly entering the shed, by pushing aside my black netting in one corner of the shed floor which blocked the larger squirrels. Not enough that squirrels were getting in, but enough so the smaller chipmunk could get in. It was remarkable how it could make its way through that maze of netting each time. It did this for the better part of this year, storing acorns and other food in some small corner of our shed floor. Fine I thought; we’ll live with the chipmunk since it isn’t actively destroying the contents of our shed, or ripping up wood and other items to try to build a nest, so I’d leave it be.It successfully entered and exited the shed past this dense netting hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.
You probably know where this investing parable is going.One day two weeks ago, I noticed a funny smell by the shed. I didn’t see anything obvious but on closer inspection, I saw the rotting carcass of the chipmunk which had strangled itself attempting to traverse the netting. Sad. Had I been able to communicate with the chipmunk, I would have said “your risk / reward is far lower by continuing to store your acorns under our deck, which has clear passage and where you’ve also been storing them for the season”. Everything was fine traversing that netting, until one fine day came along when it wasn’t. But that’s life, in both investing and acorn storage.”

____M. Anonymous is referring to the current danger of buying stocks at already very high prices, where one is bound to lose as the stock could rocket downwards literally in moments. -Karen

My husband has his own site, https://truecontrarian-sjk.blogspot.com/ if you want to “invest” more time on this subject. His newsletters are available through paid subscription only.

To see me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

To see Steven on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TrueContrarian

I Dare You To Top This Parking Story

Who says you have to go far to find exotic and inscrutable customs among the locals? I in my own country, near my own state, visiting Saratoga Springs, New York. Yes, that place, the one famous for natural springs, casinos, and horse racing. (I was there for the first, honest.) But I could not fathom the alternate side parking rules. I mean everywhere else I have been, rules like that might indicate, no parking on Side A from 12 noon until 4 p.m. on Wednesdays and no parking on Side B on Thursdays. Yeah, so? On Wednesday, one must move the car to Side B anytime after 4 p.m. the preceding Thursday but before noon on the following Wednesday. On Thursday, one must move the car to the Wednesday side before noon. In other words, there are plenty of hours available to move the car, right?

Well I noticed in Saratoga Springs, several streets had rules that said the alternate side parking had 24 hours on each side. Say what? How could they mean 24 hours? Let’s say I arrive on a Monday and park my car on Side A, which says you can park there from 8:00 a.m. Monday through 8:00 a.m. Tuesday morning and not a minute after that. Are you with me? Bear with me I promise it’s worth it. And Side B says you can park there on Tuesday from 8:00 a.m. Until 8:00 a.m. Wednesday morning. Well wait a minute. That means I must move my car at 7:59 a.m. on Tuesday morning to go from Side A to Side B? I asked a neighbor about this and he says, unless he was messing with me or something, that people moving cars to the other side as late as 8:05 a.m. could get ticketed.

Hmm, what if I suddenly had to go to the bathroom at 7:59 to 8:02 a.m.? What if I felt sick? Or had to answer the phone because I was expecting a call about my dying aunt at any moment? Or I had to be at the Zoom interview of my life right at 8:00 a.m. with people who wanted to turn my book into a film?

But just imagine the daily tumultuous atmosphere around 7:58 in the morning when everyone pours out of their homes to move their cars to the other side, greeting each other with knowing grins, or more often furious scowls, and gossip that can last no more than three minutes prior to the mass side-changing ritual. And who can move their car the fastest while everyone else is trying to do the same thing? All with the police looking on, hands filled with tickets half-filled out just in case of a potential bonanza at this only once-a-day opportunity. Maybe this is a way to get all the neighbors on one’s block to know each other. Or hate each other and keep their distance.

I did not get to witness this daily spectacle, as I searched for a street nearby that always allowed parking on Side B, but always prohibited parking on Side A. After all, I was on vacation, and did not want to wake up at a specific time. I wondered, though, how Side B ever got a shot at street cleaning. If you don’t believe the 24-hour story above, here’s the proof from the Saratoga Springs city site, which has the ominous URL of “ecode360”. I absolutely get lost though from the word “except”; a sentence undoubtedly created by a parking Nazi.

“For any street where parking or standing of vehicles is permitted on both sides of the street, parking or standing shall be prohibited on one side of each individual street from 8:00 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays to 8:00 a.m. the following day, and on the opposite side of each individual street from 8:00 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays to 8:00 a.m. the following day, except that when signs are installed to indicate that parking or standing shall be prohibited on one side of each individual street from 8:00 a.m. on Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays to 8:00 a.m. the following day, and on the opposite side of each individual street from 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays to 8:00 a.m. the following day, then parking or standing shall be prohibited as indicated by such signs.”

Still think I am the one who is messing with you? Today’s not April 1 or anything. Go see for yourself if you don’t believe me at: https://ecode360.com/6521610

For more of my writing, see me at https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Forgiveness in the Time of Covid-19

Last year I gave everyone an advance peek at one of my High Holy Day sermons, so I thought why not keep the tradition going? I am also doing so in case anyone could use this material. I will be giving this sermon on Zoom. The text follows:

You know that forgiveness thing we are supposed to settle on the High Holy Days? How we are supposed to contact people you have offended, or who you think owe YOU an apology? Well at the same time you also know that in practice that sounds like a fairy tale. How often have we heard a non-forgiver plead, “You don’t know my mother,” implying that if you did, you would agree that she was unforgivable. The expression, “I can forgive but not forget” shows that there is something problematic or at least puzzling about what it means to forgive. It is too simplistic, to say the least. And especially this year, as we review the sins of others and of ourselves connected with the pandemic and our attempted transition away from it, it is even more complicated. What really is a sin and what forgiveness amounts to become startling questions. We are not so sure anymore. The simple formula, you sinned, I forgive you, all is good now, is not how reality operates. Would that it were so easy! On the contrary, forgiveness is a tricky business. Anyone knows that, otherwise there would not be all this fuss about it during the High Holy Days.

Before I go on, I’d like to quote from one of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters which I was reading at the same time I was writing this sermon. By coincidence he makes this same point. You may know that he is the famous artist who is also famous for letters to his brother Theo. Here’s the quote: “If life were as simple and as little complicated as the trite sermon of the average clergyman, it would not be so difficult to make one’s way. But it is not so, and things are infinitely more complicated, and right and wrong do not stand separate, any more than black and white do in nature.”

Well that is certainly true, and I hope my sermon rises above the average clergy person that Van Gogh was gently rebuking for spouting off unhelpful advice. Just look what Joseph’s brothers got themselves into. Bear with me as I talk about the old news of ancient sins; I promise what we get into here will shed light on our modern quandaries, including this peculiar past year and a half. If you know the story about Joseph, you will remember what a stew of jealousy, resentment, hostility, revenge, ambivalence, and yearnings for re-connection took place all at the same time. And yes, forgiveness. Sorta kinda.

The trouble all started with their dad Jacob, you know, the one of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” fame? His sin is that he favored Joseph over all the other sons, and not only that, could not refrain from concealing his feelings from his other offspring. Giving Joseph the most famous coat in history, that multicolored one, was not exactly tactful or great for reducing sibling rivalry. In short, the brothers captured Joseph and sold him to some slave owners, who brought him to Egypt. Joseph makes good, rising from the ranks of slave to personal attendant to Pharaoh’s dream interpreter and finally to being Pharaoh’s second in command. Wow, going from slave to vice president; not bad. A famine hits, but unlike anywhere else, Joseph had planned on the famine coming and had stored lots of goodies during the times of plenty. Joseph’s brothers journey to Egypt to ask for food, not knowing that when they are brought before a powerful man to plead their case that they are speaking with Joseph himself of all people. Ah, but Joseph knows who THEY are, those scoundrels who had thrown him into a pit and then sold him off. And he sure was NOT, despite his wonderful success story in Egypt, ready to be all smiles and forgive and forget. Oh, no, to get his revenge, he puts them through various trials, including holding one of them hostage until they return with their remaining brother Benjamin. Let’s just say his father Jacob had been overprotective of Benji and so had not permitted him to go along for the trip in the first place. The brothers go all the way back, and even bring Benjamin along for that second trip, yet Joseph still does not reveal his true identity to them. When he sees Benjamin, his heart does soften a little, and as the text says, (43:30) Ki nikh-me-ru rakhamav el achiv… “he was overcome with feelings toward his brother and was on the verge of tears, and went into a private room and wept there.”

But more tests ensued, including possibly having Benjamin stay in Egypt and not go back, which would have emotionally killed his father Jacob. Part of Joseph was ready to forgive, and part not. Finally, he is moved when one of the brothers offers to stay as a slave instead of Benjamin. He senses that they have some remorse about their past deeds. Joseph at last reveals himself and the brothers are dumbfounded to say the least, and of course embarrassed and ashamed as could be. He consoles them by saying it was for all the best and God’s will because he was able to be in a position of power and therefore save his brothers and father from starving. “V’atah al tei-atz-voo v al yikhar b’eneichem…” (45:5) “Don’t beat yourselves up,” he basically says, “All that has happened was to save life, and that is my destiny. God sent me here, not you.”

This is definitely not a forgive and forget story with everyone living happily ever after. But neither is it all about revenge and no forgiveness at all. It’s somewhere in between. Well let’s start with Joseph, the one who rose from the pit to being Pharaoh’s second-in-command. Even though his brothers’ actions happened years and years ago, it’s clear from all the game playing that took place before revealing his identity that he resented their mistreatment. And maybe he subconsciously resented his dad Jacob’s favoritism for putting him at risk that way in the first place from his brothers’ hatred. See how fast this gets messy? See how he might have scoffed upon hearing about forgiveness at a Yom Kippur service if that had existed then by saying, “Yeah, yeah, right, you don’t know my brothers Judah, and the rest.”

But eventually, especially because of Benjamin, and because he exhausted his cravings for revenge through all the acrobatics he had put the starving brothers through, his urge to reconnect with family overrode his wish to never forgive their crime. In the end, he consoles himself, as well as his brothers, by saying, Look, God wanted it this way, so that I could be in a position of power and save you from the famine. Doubtless he still harbored lingering resentments despite this rationalization. So you know what I think? I want to say that sometimes, the best you can do is forgive in part. Forgiveness is not necessarily complete. As you think about your own forgiveness issues, ask yourself not whether you can forgive or absolutely cannot, but rather, can you grant partial forgiveness to that false friend, insensitive family member, and obnoxious relative?

I think the brothers went for that option too. When they were being tested, this roused their guilty memories of that dastardly act they did which could have made Joseph a slave in an alien land for the rest of his life. But they could not forgive completely, because really, he was so arrogant to think that God gave him this gigantic role in history, and that they were little nothings that had to bend to his will. So there you go. And not only that, later, when their father Jacob dies, they fear Joseph will take more revenge on them after all, and so they plead with him to forgive them their harsh treatment and they even offer to be his slaves. I think that was partial forgiveness at best because it was done out of fear for their own physical welfare. In other words it might have been done for ulterior motives. Ah, yes, the messiness of life. But for all sides, there was just enough forgiveness to get on with life, even if it were not totally genuine.

As promised, let’s see what all this has to do with us. On Rosh Hashanah I referred to sins spawned by Covid-19 as “unwilling transgressions”, such as not being able to comfort the mourners, attend funerals, visit the sick and dying, or honor mother and father with visits. Despite the necessity of our behaving that way, I think there’s a lot of guilt on our part, and a lot of anger and lack of forgiveness from those who were the targets of our unwilling sins. Not only that, we have done other sins during Covid, like putting others at risk when we got lazy about putting on that mask or not putting it on properly, or coaxing people into joining a large gathering indoors because of our deep need to feel connected with others. Or God forbid pretending to be vaccinated when that was not so. And something that actually happened to me, someone did not inform me they had Covid and exposed themselves to people I in turn was exposed to, who she also failed to inform. The whole cruel irony of this pandemic is that when in crisis, what we most crave is to be connected in person, but which was the very thing we have had to refrain from doing.

Forgiveness on this Yom Kippur is a whole different task than previous years, with all these “Covid sins” flying around. I think it is more complex, because we have had to encounter new dilemmas we had never faced before. Hardest of all may be the forgiveness we have to administer to ourselves for not visiting the loved one who died, or not taking proper precautions and therefore maybe spreading the virus. Maybe we can never completely wipe out our guilt over the “cheating” we did during the quarantine, or not taking the time to get reliable information and guidance about this plague, or not refraining from being there in person for a loved one in crisis and putting them risk for the virus. But can’t we see the way to a more realistic goal? How about “partial forgiveness”? Consider it. Ponder it. Not only is self-healing necessary for us to continue living, it is in fact a mitzvah. Self-regard makes so much else possible, including the mitzvahs of appreciating God’s Creation, of making visits in the future, of encouraging others who are struggling to do their own mitzvahs and to treasure their allotted time to be alive. Forgiveness is a way to unburden ourselves from our past, to be at more peace with ourselves. Partial forgiveness makes this a practical and doable achievement. May these Holy Days comfort and strengthen us as we move forward on the continuum from anger to acceptance, from fear to courage, and from the flames of guilt to the cooling wellsprings issuing out of a forgiving heart.

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If you plan to use this sermon to preach or quote from, kindly mention my name and this blog.

Needed: A Homo Sapiens Makeover

I wonder if “survival of the fittest” can mean the same thing any longer for humans: You know, be the most likely to survive and to repopulate our species by strength, intelligence, physical traits and technological advances that guarantee more protection from predators and that enhance our ability to be predators. Under the old rules, we have become so fit as to become unfit. We have become “too successful” as we populate the world like crazy and don’t clean up after ourselves. We even have littered on other planets: I felt sad when one commentator explained that the container that held the Mars Ingenuity helicopter had to be left behind on the surface as Mar’s first piece of garbage.

Okay, let me bring this closer to home: The other day I put my mask on, not because of Covid, but because smoke from the Oregon “Bootleg Fire” all of three thousand miles away put dangerous small particles in the air that I was breathing during my late July evening walk. Doing whatever it takes to flourish in numbers has worked great for eons. But now we are confounded to think we voluntarily have to practice restraint. Otherwise the Earth will do it for us with even more severe and/or frequent diseases and disasters. Refraining from maximizing the dominance of our species I think is so much harder than doing the same old same old, because up to now, that has not been the script for survival of the fittest.

Anyone who has tried to cut down on overeating or not use quite as much air conditioning or drive (gas-powered) cars less often knows how hard it is to practice constraints of any kind. And of course we learned all too much about restrictions during the Covid lock-downs. But I was heartened yesterday at a cafe in Havre de Grace, Maryland, to overhear someone say as they passed by the tray with the plastic ware and straws, “Oh, I don’t actually need that straw now do I.”

I think just being aware of how so very unnatural our new behaviors must be is a step toward incorporating them. We would have so much to be proud of as individuals and as a species if we not only go forward with a new and improved “survival of the fittest” plan, but push against all those forces that try to drag us backward to the original version. True enough, ingenuity and launching new technologies are really part of both the old and new scripts, and so there is a fighting chance that we will rise to the occasion by learning how to hold back in some instances, while providing alternatives in others, such as inventing air conditioning that does not heat up the outside air, and new kinds of airplane fuels that do not pollute. May the most considerate and compassionate members of our species, not the strongest, win.

Spoiler Alert to “Encountering The Edge”

In the last chapter of my hospice career book, I imagine I am the one who is dying and baring my soul to an of course excellent chaplain named Darlene. Wait, don’t stop reading, this is not as creepy as it sounds. I even give myself the generous lifespan of making it to my nineties. I will be revealing the ending here, which you most likely can figure out right away anyway (hee hee). Somehow even though I launched this book all of seven years ago, I have been shy about including samples on this blog from that last chapter. Why now you ask, alarmed. No, no, nothing is wrong, I am perfectly fine. But why have I hesitated? This imaginary conversation in Darlene’s skilled hands is so very personal, I wonder now how I had the guts to have included it.

My answer then, as now, is that it addresses the question of what sort of life prompts one to become a healthcare chaplain, which at least is of interest to prospective chaplains and others such as social workers and funeral directors. “Oh come on,” prompts Darlene, “What is the deeper reason you wanted to write about that for?” Okay, I’ll take the bait: “ As a chaplain, I have done my share of the principal task a chaplain has, which is to listen, listen, listen. Now as I reveal my own story, my readers are doing the ‘listening’, which I had very little of in my career, and in my upbringing.” I think, too, the question of career choice is of broader interest. I know that people wonder, because they have asked me out loud, “Why on earth would you want to be a hospice chaplain?” Of course they do not usually say “on earth” but I bet they are thinking it! Getting answers to this sort of query gives people insight into human nature, and into their own search for meaning. What the questioner may really be getting at is, “In my own career choice, have I lived up to my potential? Is what I am doing meaningful? What am I missing about what it means to be human?”

So now I present to you excerpts from the final paragraphs:

“Darlene, …..this whole business (of adversity) has puzzled me so much, because of another question: How come some people are not resilient enough to recover from the damage? You know, I did come to something of an answer for a memorial service I’ll never forget. The man who died was a public figure who himself had suffered multiple kinds of adversity, like poverty, medical problems, and ethnic discrimination. But he flourished and became world renowned. He wrote an autobiography, and he pondered his own resilience just like I’m doing now for myself. Anyway, in my invocation I said, ‘This person seized upon his own internal flame that had been waiting to illuminate his life purpose. Each of us has a flame residing within. It may be sputtering. It may be tamped down by malicious moisture. But with the unfaltering fan of passion, each of our own flames will blaze their way into a most exalted and full and bountiful panorama of light.’”

“You see,” I continue, “this sort of says if too much moisture is dumped on the flame that we all have, then we won’t make it. And believe me; I’ve met plenty of people like that. I pause, thinking of something I read in a John Cheever‘s novel, The Wapshot Scandal, where he talked about such people: ‘We are all ransomed to our beginnings, and for some people, the sum might be exorbitant.’ I then add, “Those people have permanently fallen in a pit and I cannot reach them and pull them out. And sometimes I feel afraid as I think how precariously close I have been many times to tumbling right down into the pit with them permanently and being trapped there. But somehow for some people like me, even a faltering flame can keep on going because of the passion inside there that fans it. Though I guess that still leaves the mystery of where the passion comes from.” (I pause to catch my breath.) I ramble on: “It’s tempting to say it’s from God, but then I don’t understand why some people’s destiny is to have enough passion to overcome the bad stuff while others do not…..”

Then, at the very end, I describe my absolutely final moments:

“I feel myself clutching at these remaining moments of life. Even now, I feel as if you, this room, this house, all the loved ones in it, all my previous thoughts and memories of all connection are receding. Getting smaller as if I were in a train, seated facing the caboose, feeling pulled backwards and ever further away from all of this as the train speeds forward.”

Darlene and I sit placidly in the quiet for a very long time. I take in the small noises in the background as my husband joins us. The wind is rattling the impatient leaves. A lawn mower’s bass voice crescendos and decrescendos as it mows nearer, then further, then nearer again, off and on, drowning out the bird calls—these sounds and movements are richer than any symphony and as dramatic as any action film. I see sparrows in the wake of the mower’s progress go in a jagged line of jumps contrasted with the obedient steady itinerary of passersby on the boardwalk. I feel the rise and fall of my chest and abdomen as I breathe, all of this sensation as infinitely captivating as the exotica of my extensive travels. Quiet places have been my refuge and my meeting place for fanning my internal flame of passion. The silence here is sacred, beheld reverently by us as I prepare to dwell in the burgeoning stillness to come.”

A Truck Named Bertha

Sometimes the most poignant conversations occur in the most unassuming places. During a recent trip to southern Delaware, after traversing cropland after cropland, my husband and I selected a breakfast place in the town of Milton (yes, named after the poet). Called “The Nook,” the restaurant advertises itself as “our neighborhood eatery” and has such things as a hefty glass of orange juice the waitress makes from oranges the instant you order it. This was promising, as it looked like a place that would have friendly regulars, you know, a non-alcoholic version of Cheers.

Seated at his own personal nook way at the very back was a placid gentleman who had his radar out for would-be listeners. It did not take long for him to tell us his life story, including his disease history and how hard it was to be a widower. But then, as is true with many people after they get their initial sources of distress off their chest, tales of more general interest emerged. He talked about another loss aside from his wife, and that was his 1946 Ford pickup. It was a dump truck, designed for hauling away small loads, but when he saw he could use it more for snowstorms, he bought or found snow plow parts that he figured out how to attach to the Ford. So he went around doing odd jobs plowing away snow, which were in more demand than hauling away trash. He was very proud of the new role he had given to this truck, and he even named her Bertha and placed her name on a decal on one of the windows.

As he grew older, it was harder for him to drive, and also more dangerous to do so. His children were worried about that, and so as to remove temptation for him to drive the snowplow, they took it away from him without—God help them!– his permission. He does not know whether they sold it all intact, or whether it ended up as nothing but a heap of parts, long since separated from each other. Not sure if being dismembered was the end of that vehicle’s history, he shook his head at how that was a fate even more unbearable for him to countenance . Hoping for the best, the former owner put ads in the local papers asking if anyone knew about the truck, which could be identified by its name Bertha placed right in the rear window. He asked his friends and neighbors, everyone he could possibly think of in the area, but no one knew of Bertha’s whereabouts. This man, in the nook of The Nook, looked at us and said, “You know, I wasn’t trying to sneak off and drive the truck again or nothing like that. I just wanted to kiss its fender goodbye.”

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Well if you want to meet this fellow or know anything about Bertha, you can get the particulars about the restaurant here: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g34039-d19444964-Reviews-The_Nook-Milton_Delaware.html If you go, be sure to say we said hi.

Cicadas: Fortissimo!

I think any insect-driven blast of sound that happens every 17 years qualifies as noteworthy. Not being fond of insects, it was with a mixture of queasiness and curiosity and awe that during my visit last week to my father-in-law in a suburb of Baltimore, I got to witness the emergence of the cicadas this year. The first thing I noticed were husks on the ground and live cicadas all over the trees and along the siding of the house. Then I took in their high-pitched noise, like a vast set of miniaturized alarms all continually going off in the trees, and unsynchronized at that. My wonderment at a species with such a life cycle and such musicality triumphed over my feelings of distaste.

As my husband Steve and I “waded” through this aural river of “ireek, yee yee ireek yee ireek yee yee yee ireek” during our walk through neighboring Sudbrook Park ( which incidentally, was designed by the same architect most famous for Central Park in NYC, one Frederick Olmsted Senior) we pondered why the cicadas evolved this way. Why is 17 set as their mating timer? We guessed that this number of years was the minimum needed to throw off any would-be predators’ routine. In other words, it makes the cicadas’ availability irregular enough to confuse the predators. “When should we predators show up, if at all? No use coming to an empty pantry.” A cursory search I made later on the Internet showed me that we were generally on the right track. Meanwhile, the surround-sound was so penetrating we could hardly hear anything else, except for our own speech, being that we were right next to each other. The Baltimore Sun wryly notes that the decibel level of these little devils violates city ordinances for other loud things such as power tools and lawn mowers.

We then contemplated where hubby and I were 17 years ago, which was not where the cicadas were. We missed it on account of being in New Jersey and made do with reports of their stupendous numbers. And as we continued our walk, feeling more and more immersed in this separate auditory world, we thought about how old we would be if nothing not too out-of-the-way happened to us 17 years hence, 78 and 81 years old in 2038. Then we spoke of how unlikely we would be alive for the cicadas’ next date in 2055. Maybe just one more single chance for us.

We suddenly took measure of our fleeting passage in the scheme of things. All humanity’s blaming and profaning and proclaiming and exclaiming, sounded all but mute against the imperial sweep of the pulsating waves of sound enveloping us, a conquering chorus at a constant fortissimo.

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For the fascinating history of Sudbrook Park see at: https://tclf.org/sudbrook-park-historic-district . The media gallery successfully captures its “curvilinear streets carefully laid out on rolling topography to produce a pastoral setting.”

For my microblogging, catch me on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan

Loving The Fossil Lucy

I discovered something very disconcerting about good and evil in a novel about a pre-human cluster of families entitled Lucy Lives by Mark A. Weaver. Yes, you got it: the protagonist is named after that Lucy, the famous fossil discovered in1974 in Ethiopia. If only a book like that had been on the seminary reading list I would’ve been fairly forewarned and much more prepared for that congregational jungle out there. To be fair, this novel would be great prep for any venue laden with politics, such as the workplace, academia, neighborhood associations, and of course governments themselves.

The author explains that about 3 million years ago, Lucy and her fellows live in trees and are hairy like apes, but walk like humans. So they are “on the way” to human-hood. At the beginning of the story Lucy ranks very low on the social hierarchy and is subject to the leader’s tyranny. On the first page we read, “Lucy was still new around here, and the others tended to make her nervous. Conflict was common among them, more often than not instigated by their leader Bul…or his horrible mother.” Lucy finds some consolation in reminiscing about the group she was born to, where the leader was caring and helpful. Thus we have here the grandmother of all soap operas.

Throughout the story of Lucy’s life we learn of groups forming and losing members, of individuals trying to become adopted into new groups, of some leaders ruling by greed and intimidation, while others rule by fairness and cooperation. And on top of all that many new things are happening to cause shifts in power. Lucy, for instance, accidentally discovers that she can throw rocks and therefore kill animals for food. This was revolutionary by the way, as getting meat in the diet vastly improved their quality of life because they did not have to constantly forage for food, leaving more time for other things. She first keeps her skill a secret among a very few friends and she starts to teach her inner circle how to throw……See how this sounds like a soap?

So how do good and evil fit in? Weaver um “weaves in” some nonfiction segments between the chapters where he enlightens us about evolution, making this an unusual book for sure. One of his main points is that evolution is amoral. Whatever works to perpetuate a species through reproduction is “successful”. Thus during Lucy’s time, the groups that ruthless dictators ruled reproduced and flourished just as well as the ones ruled by more benevolent types. Maybe even more so. Think unbridled polygamy. And here we are, Homo sapiens, having won out among all the other prehuman species that died out and spreading around the entire world like crazy for eons.

So from a purely evolutionary perspective, good and evil have equal standing. I find that dumbfounding. But it explains so much. Leaders who rule by intimidation and craftiness are so plentiful on our church (temple, mosque, etc.) boards, and at our jobs, and of course in our society’s political arenas, because such rule can be successful in maintaining and expanding power! No wonder it is not easy for good to prevail over evil. Nor is it inevitable that good will win, even though it has been as successful a strategy for group survival.

This is perplexing to take in, as Judaism and other religions I know about at least hope for if not guarantee that in the end, good will be the victor. I wish I had understood the truth about why evil exists to such an extent ages ago. That way I would not have wasted so much energy being surprised and so dismayed about this or that evil situation. I wished I had said to myself, it’s natural, so deal with it. Join the battle against it and no complaints.

I assume my readers too are still cheering for good to vanquish evil no matter how even the score is. And since both can endure, at least so far, maybe we need some way for humankind to experience evil as more dysfunctional and thereby less successful. Come to think of it, this dysfunction is already happening; our collective behavior is making the Earth less inhabitable for humans (among others), which in turn will ultimately no longer lead to “evolutionary success” because we cannot live in a completely polluted Earth.

But there is another ingredient we need in tandem with that, because in the short term, an evil act such as more pollution may benefit a given group through more money and power. What we need is something for the long term, and that is an incentive of some kind to be generous, value creativity, etc. I am no genius to answer here in this scarcely known bloglet what innumerable masters of philosophy, theology and so on have stated over thousands of years. But I want to leave one humble thought: perhaps one character change we need, if we can evolve towards it in time, is an enhanced self-awareness that gives long-range planning and future outcomes more immediacy. This would jolt us into action as assuredly as any imminent threat or imminent benefit. May the good gals and good guys win.

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The book, Lucy Lives: A Novel Look at Early Human Evolution, is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Lucy-Lives-Novel-Early-Evolution/dp/1517653258/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

C’mon, now, after all this heavy stuff, time to have some fun: First, a video of jazzy classical music, or classical jazzy music, by Darius Milhaud on this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bv9ii_uc2Rc

And second, my husband’s humorous short play that was part of a one-act festival, about an apartment in a baseball field: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1DFdceWV7rYV4FioJndjYv1hA3Q0Vcro9/view?usp=sharing

And there’s always my microblogging on Twitter: https://twitter.com/chaplainkkaplan