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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Everything Is New the First Time Around

Young and irrepressible!

 

“It’s nothing but bullshit!” I yelled and suddenly I had the feeling I always got when I tried to explain the Dharma to people, Alvah, my mother, my relatives, girl friends, everybody, they never listened, they always wanted me to listen to them, they knew, I didn’t know anything, I was just a dumb kid and impractical fool who didn’t understand the serious significance of this very important, very real world.


-      Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

 

I can’t believe I’m finally reading Kerouac! Tried On the Road once, not that many years back, feeling that I had been neglecting my autodidactic education in American literature (something nearly unforgivable in a bookseller), but I just couldn’t stay with it. The early pages so completely bored me, and reading it felt like such a waste of time – and I know many people feel the same way about some of the books I not only love but re-read on a regular basis – that I shook my head and resigned myself to having that particular hole in my hit-and-miss bookish background. After all, no one has read everything. And it isn’t as if On the Road is fading into obscurity without my devotion: 3 million copies sold, still selling 60,000 a year, according to publisher Viking. Anyway, I’m doing better with The Dharma Bums (first published in 1958), which reminds me as I read of a few people I knew in the 1960s and beyond.

 

Jack Kerouac was 36 when he wrote this hymn to youth and freedom (he was dead by age 47), but Ray Smith, the first-person narrator of The Dharma Bums and stand-in for the author, seems to be in his early 20s, at most. It’s mind-bending to go, as I do, from the semifictional Ray Smith to diarist Silas Durand, 25 years old in 1855 – two such different individuals, two such different American eras: Jack bumming around California in the late 1950s, Silas soberly teaching school in the 1850s – but also mind-bending to recall myself in the second and third decade of my life, an era that now seems almost like a movie I saw long ago or a book I read several times when young but not at all in recent years. And what a blessing, I occasionally think, that fame was never mine then -- or now, of course. Fame (or infamy) must be a terrible burden at any age, but to be famous when young seems an almost insurmountable challenge. It’s a miracle that as many well-known young people survive being famous as do. Great wealth and privilege at an early age (any age?) has to be an equally great challenge, all the world being so new and intoxicating and all. 

 

Last evening we were reading quietly while waiting out a “severe” winter storm warning as the snow fell silently, so taking Peasy outdoors before bedtime was a surprise to me as well as to him! Then this morning there was more snow (five inches, one of my neighbors says), and it isn’t over yet. Snow is still falling, and the storm warning is in effect until 8 p.m.


Peaks hidden in snow clouds

Where did the mountains go?


Our little ghost town landscape is quite transformed. The mountaintops are hidden from sight, desert tree branches outlined in white, tracks of rabbits and birds and small rodents as clear as they would be back home in northern Michigan. And Peasy cannot get enough of it! Since we don’t know his age, we don’t know if he has ever seen snow before, but whether he has or not, it’s obvious that he finds it very exciting.


As for me, watching the snow from inside a warm, cozy cabin, I think what a perfect day this is to stay indoors. A perfect day for baking. Perfect for reading. Perfect for answering letters from friends and working on my Silas project. Oh, the warm indoor light! The quiet, contented tasks!





But of course a young dog cannot be expected to lie around indoors all day. He needs exercise. A lot of it. He throws his beloved lion up in the air and carries it from one end of the house to the other, but that just isn't enough.


Ha! I say Peasy “needs exercise,” but in his mind I’m sure it’s fun and excitement he craves. “Outside! Outside! Snow! Running! Finding treasures! Poking my nose down under the snow! Zoom, zoom, zoom! Fun, fun, fun!!!” 

 








Is his grip on reality more reasonable than mine? Is Peasy a dharma bum in canine form? Or is all dog nature dharma nature? Not at Peasy’s tender age, I’d say. Right now, in what definitely seems like canine adolescence, the excitement of the storm is overcoming Peasy’s tenuous grip on his dogly duties and right conduct. Come when called? Oh, Mom, you are so boring! Right now, today, Mr. P is all about fun and freedom! But I am patient. I can wait him out! And it does lift my heart to see his joy. Dog joy is one of life’s great gifts to human beings.


He jumps for joy, and my own heart leaps, too!


 


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”


It’s a question that can freeze the heart of a creative person, but specific questions can get worse. To the writer of a novel about a dysfunctional family: “Were your parents really that crazy?” To the painter of landscapes that blend reality and dream: “Where were you standing when you painted that?” (Or, “Is that painted from a photograph?”) I’m sure sculptors and poets and clothing designers could easily give the typical question that they are asked over and over, but I’m also sure that all creative people must be asked the general question, “Where do you get your ideas?” 

 

Whether an answer is given graciously or irritably or not at all – whether the artist questioned knows where his or her ideas come from or not! – will vary. As a sometime writer of occasional poetry (almost all unpublished), fiction (all unpublished), and nonfiction (some traditionally published, much self-published here), I can only say that for me ideas come, unbidden, in strange, wondrous, and puzzling forms. A stranger glimpsed one day may be a character in my mind when I wake the next morning, or an unforgettable image germinates after weeks or years as the core of a situation. Sometimes the seed is neither character nor image but simply a phrase that won’t leave my thoughts. Jot it down on a paper napkin and carry it around, and maybe it will generate further phrases – and maybe it won’t;

 

I do not give myself as an example because I am some kind of great writer to be worshipped and studied! It’s just that my own process is the only one I know intimately. Other writers have told their stories in their own books and interviews, but probably none of them can tell the whole story, any more than I can. There is a lot of mystery to it. 

 

What turns an idea into a work is the more important question and much easier to answer. As a writer, you sit your butt down in a chair and see where sentences on paper or a screen take you. A painter or sculptor or dress designer gets to work with her or his given tools. Work never gets dreamed into being. That’s why it’s called work. It has to be done.


***

 

Other kinds of ideas and beliefs motivate life choices we make every day. We are not cameras or digital recorders making copies of the world beyond our own skins. Our senses do not simply send copies to our brains to be filed. All our prior personal experience, however limited (and there is no one on earth whose experience is unlimited), comes into play, interpreting what we see and hear and read. I remember sitting in the same room years ago with my then-brother-in-law as we watched a political debate, televised live. Same screen, same faces, same words presented to us both. I actually felt sorry for one of the debaters, who seemed to my mind to make a pitiful showing, but at the end my brother-in-law turned to me and said, “Well, he [the one I felt sorry for] really came out on top, didn’t he?” It was as if we had been in two different rooms, watching two completely different events. 

 

Even on-the-scene eyewitnesses can “see” what isn’t there or miss what is, as many experiments have shown. We see for the most part what we expect to see. We also see what we look for. That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can become aware of our prejudices – pre-judgments – and work to develop more accurate perceptions.

 

***


Originally I thought that this post on creative work and perception/misperception involved a leap from one idea (creating) to another (perceiving), but I see now – and there is an example of what we can learn for and from ourselves when we start working, which in this case for me is writing – that both come from the same place: being open to the world. Being open to seeing something new.

 

Today is Inauguration Day, and while I would like to feel celebratory, my feelings can better be described as a mix of anxiety and weariness. Don’t get me wrong: I voted for Biden and Harris and am grateful for a change of course in Washington, D.C. My anxiety comes from the events of January 6, my weariness from conversations with those who see a different America from the one I see. --Which leads me to the questions I was asking people yesterday, questions that I hoped would give me some clarity on their perceptions and opinions (so different from my own), questions that gave me the idea for today’s topic on Books in Northport. The questions did kickstart this blog post, but I gained no clarity on views held by those who disagree with me.

 

Where do you get your news? Over and over for months I have been hearing and reading jeers of “Fake news!” Some monolith identified as “mainstream media” is accused of spreading lies. What I have tried to ask in the past two days is, What news sources do you distrust, and, more to the point, what sources do you trust? Because the people who disagree with me – so vehemently! – are getting their beliefs in reality from somewhere, and if I knew where, if I could look in that direction, maybe it would help me understand why our perspectives are so completely far apart that even a Venn diagram of them hardly yields common ground. But there must be some common ground, and we sure as hell need to find it if we’re going to reunite this country! 

 

Here is one important truth I have managed to uncover recently. It is that across the divide we opponents have many shared values. We don’t share all values, by a long shot, but we share many of the most basic, and that is not trivial. We disagree in many places on translating values into action. Well, ‘twas ever thus, and that’s what makes politics. The much, much larger and deeper and more intransigeant problem is that we disagree on facts, on truth.

 

And that brings me back to my question: Where do you get your news? What sources do you trust?

 

I wish I could report that I received even one concrete answer to that question, but I did not. I was told from more than one person that s/he relied on multiple unnamed sources. “Then I turn it off.” (What do you turn off?) Or, “Honestly, I don’t know what to believe.” Yet the people who "don't know what to believe" have beliefs. Where do they come from?

 

Over seventy percent of Republicans still believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election! Where did this come from, and why do they believe it? 

 

County clerks around the country, many of them Republicans, scrupulously distributed ballots and counted votes. State governors, both Democrat and Republican, certified election results from their states. There were recountsCourts upheld the results and dismissed lawsuits claiming fraud as baseless. “Mainstream media” did not invent these results. The election results come from all across grassroots America.

 

“People have concerns about the legitimacy of the election,” we have heard over and over. Yet all of those concerns, wherever they have been voiced, wherever they have been reported, can be traced to one source, one man: the outgoing president. What must be so painful and difficult for his supporters to acknowledge is that the person to whom they gave their vote and pledged their faith is lying to them. The “concerns” about election fraud come from the same man who started the rumor that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, the man who flogged that falsehood for months and then, finally, after making as much political hay from it as possible, took credit for revealing it as falsehood, as if that made him some kind of saint.

 

I went to my township office and picked up my absentee ballot in person from the township clerk and delivered it back in person. She is someone whose integrity I trust. For me, it really comes down to that. Nor rumors or conspiracies or “alternate facts” or one corporate news source over another but trust

 

I can understand feeling disappointed in election results. (I have felt that more than once in my life.) What I cannot understand is taking the word of a compulsive serial liar and his enablers over people whose business is truth. And while I can forgive the misled, I find it hard to forgive the misleaders, who have taken cruel advantage of many good hearts and set brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor, parent against child, for nothing but an illusion.


Postscript 1/21/2021: So many dates long awaited have come and gone without banishing my nightmares, but last night at last I slept well and awakened today calm and hopeful. We listened to the inauguration on the radio, and I found it dignified, sincere, meaningful, and moving. There will be so much work yet to do -- and so many Americans yet to convince that the sky has not fallen -- but I find my heart renewed for tasks ahead.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

What Can One Seasonally Retired, “Tiny” Bookseller Possibly Do?

Peasy with some of his things

In one of my favorite children’s books, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, a story I continue to re-read with delight and pleasure as old age encroaches on my life, there is a character known as Spiller. [Correction: Spiller appears in the second book of the series, The Borrowers Afield. Sorry about that, but you should read both, anyway.] A hunter who lives in the wild by his wits (rather than staying indoors and “borrowing” what he needs to live from “human beans”), he was just old enough when he lost his parents to recall his mother once calling him a “Dreadful Spiller.” Older now, he quite reasonably chooses not to introduce himself by what he takes to be his first name, Dreadful, though he confides it to Arietty, the main character in the story. 

I mention Spiller and the origin of his name, thinking of Peasy’s many worldly temptations, because Peasy is a Dreadful Chewer! Furthermore, Peasy has an irresistible (so far) penchant for plastic! Not that he limits his sins to plastic items, mind you, but my precious gel roller pens are never safe if he can reach them, even if I’m sitting right next to a writing implement I’ve foolishly set on a footstool rather than in the middle of a high table. I love those pens! You'd better believe I put cell phones and channel changers up out of reach every night!

 

Yet another gel pen destroyed (tip crunched by teeth -- not mine)

Poor little Peasy! His little world is so very, very complicated! There are some things we very much want him to do, and he’s pretty good at those. Then there are other things we don’t mind him doing, plus a few things we absolutely do not want him to do, ever! The clear positive commands he gets -- but how is he to figure out the difference between permissible and forbidden? Why is it okay, he must wonder, to chew some things – the things we give him to chew or let him bring inside from the great outdoors – and not others? I would love to be able to explain to him that the distinction is between items on the floor or offered to him (okay to chew) and items on furniture – the latter our things, not his and not okay to chew, ever!

 

In a recent post, I titled one section “Peasy’s Progress,” and at least one of my friends made the connection I intended, to the famous classic work, John Bunyan's Pilgrim’s Progress. Laurie thinks Peasy’s Progress needs to be a book, too. It’s a thought. Since we only met Peasy at the Graham County Animal Control facility, where he had been for over three months after being picked up as a stray, the earlier part of his life would have to be invented for his story. Were those months in the pound his Slough of Despond?

 

My new little dog boy is a real challenge! Overall, though, aside from the dreadful chewing, he is a better dog every day, gradually worming his way into the Artist’s heart, as well as mine. Nightly “pack time” is one of the best times of the day for all three of us.


And here’s the thing, you see – the part that inspired my title for today’s post: There are so many troubling aspects of our world today over which we (all of us) have no control that it’s encouraging and immensely satisfying to find something over which we can exercise some agency. An animal is not to be “controlled” like a machine, but working to establish authority over an animal, along with establishing a kind of partnership with it, allows a human to feel effective. It gives a sense of accomplishment. This is something I can do. I can give this dog a better life than he had before I adopted him, and I can give him sufficient boundaries and limits, along with exercise, love and rewards, so that he enhances our life, too. Recently I read something in a magazine about people rearranging, remodeling, and redecorating their houses to find satisfaction in being able to accomplish something, and I thought, That’s how I feel about working with Peasy.

 

A happier dog every day

When it comes to political action, now that the election is past I feel somewhat stymied. I have written several times to the Representative from our home district in Michigan but can’t help feeling at this point that further attempts to communicate with him would merely be banging my head against the wall. (A cowboy would more likely say “pissin’ inta th’ wind,” but that phrase coming from a female doesn’t have the same force, does it?) All of that feels, at the moment, way beyond anything I can do, and I'm not going to write a single word here about the second impeachment --.

 

Instead, what I want to say is that somewhere in the great, very welcome middle ground between dogs and elected officials are all the rest of us ordinary human beings, and there are actions I can take in that realm, however modest. 


Each time I went to the grocery store in November, I routinely added $3 to my total at the cash register to help provide Thanksgiving dinners for local families without the means to shop as I could. Before 2020 came to a close, I wrote checks for annual donations to the ACLU, the Carter Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Growing Hope Locally, Save the Children, and the National Writers Series. The various groups I support range from local to national to global, as I don’t see filling needs or doing good as limited to any certain geographical reach, and each has a different mission, because need takes many different forms.

 

On a more personal level, I have been making more phone calls recently than I do ordinarily, because it is clearer to me all the time how much a phone call means. “You sound good,” I’ll say, and when the other person says, “I always feel good when I talk to you,” I'm glad I called and realize that I can easily call more often. It isn’t like the old days of “long distance,” after all. I have unlimited calling and texting on my cell phone plan.

 

Letters mean a lot, too. (They certainly do to me! An empty mailbox puts hope off until tomorrow, while finding a letter in my mailbox any day makes my day!) My friends Marilyn and Dawn are writing and mailing notes and letters to friends and strangers and encouraging others to do so in these troubled times. I am happy that they are doing so.


Outgoing mail


So I call, and I write, and I hope my little Peasy stories (which is much of what I share with friends and family these days, as well as here on Books in Northport) bring a few smiles. We all need reasons to smile, to laugh, to feel joy. It isn’t sticking our heads in the sand to pause to enjoy life and give thanks for it.


These are things I can do. 


I can call. I can write. I can donate. 

 

I can cook and bake for the Artist and enjoy our time together in our seasonal retirement and work to integrate a very challenging little rescue dog into our family.


Cookies!

Pizza from scratch!


I can write my blog posts, in hopes of sharing with the homebound and/or snowbound our modest winter adventures here in southeast Arizona. 


In general, to be honest with you, I can’t not write. Like breathing, it’s what I do. I will be writing again soon about a few books I've read recently....

 

Anyway, regular readers, however few you may be, please know that my appreciation for you knows no bounds and that when you leave a comment that lets me know some message in a metaphorical bottle I’ve thrown out onto the cold, vast ocean has reached someone somewhere on shore, it’s as good as finding a letter in my mailbox. Thank you from the bottom of my heart! 

 




Monday, January 11, 2021

We Are All Going in the Same Direction

Where did we go on Saturday? Read on and find out.

It is remarkable how much there is to see in a single American county. If you spend enough time looking into nooks and corners, as well as at the grander vistas, rather than speeding through on expressways, every region has its natural beauties and remnants of the past. This is certainly true of Leelanau County, Michigan, which the Artist and I have been exploring for decades, and it’s true as well of Cochise County, Arizona, where we have now spent part or all of six (I think it’s six) winters.

 

For example, the road into the trailhead to Cochise Stronghead is reached via a large modern development called Sunsites, but the post office for the development goes by the name of Pearce. The original Pearce, largely a ghost town today, is not far south of Sunsites and lies within close view of brutally gouged buttes, the town having come into existence by virtue of a late nineteenth-century mining boom kicked off by the discovery of gold in 1895. 



Although we have driven through old Pearce before and stopped once or twice so I could photograph buildings (the largest, most impressive one presently for sale), we had never taken the road west, the direction intriguingly marked (to my mind) with a sign pointing to a historic cemetery. Saturday, at last, we took that less-traveled road (not worrying much about rattlesnakes along the way in January).





I found the cemetery enchanting. The “non-perpetual care” idea is feasible here in the arid West, where no forest is going to retake the land and obliterate the lovingly marked and personally tended graves.





There are miners buried here, and farmers, and at least one blacksmith.

 


Information near the entrance gives statistics on causes of death in the mining period, the numbers broken down into Hispanic and non-Hispanic “communities” (as the explanation read). Tuberculosis and other lung diseases were common in both groups, what with rock dust underground and coal- and wood-fired stoves, unpaved roads, and trains filling air above ground with a variety of particulates. Stillbirths and infant deaths were more common among Hispanics, childbirth deaths for non-Hispanics, but there were a lot of baby graves in the cemetery for both groups. 







Interestingly, the same statistics tell us that non-Hispanics were more likely than Hispanics to be shot or otherwise murdered, as well as to die of alcoholism, while accidents rank sixth in both lists (“all mining-related” in the Hispanic list).






As is true of the pioneer cemetery in Dos Cabezas (our own winter ghost town home), some graves are beautifully elaborate, while others, equally touching, could not be simpler. There are wrought iron or adobe enclosures and statues of saints in the same vicinity as crossed pipes and rows of natural stones outlining graves. People have left small tokens on and near many graves.












The newest resting places are farthest from the entrance, some still decorated for Christmas, for the cemetery is still very much in use today. There are gravestones with 2018 and 2019 dates and a few plots of fresh earth not yet marked with tombstones. ‘Tombstone’ – there’s a word not often used any more. We usually say ‘headstone’ or just ‘stones’ when we speak of grave markers. To de-emphasize thoughts of death?




There is something terribly moving to me in old cemeteries. The simplicity of it all. Names and dates, marriages and military service, “beloved mother” and other brief notations. The wind was whipping across the Sulphur Springs Valley on Saturday, raising a white cloud from the playa as we crossed from Dos Cabezas to Pearce. “Dust in the wind,” the Artist commented, referring to an old Moody Blues song. [Correction: The recording group was Kansas. The Artist had said Moody Blues, and I love the name of that group, and immediately I found a YouTube video giving credit to the wrong group. Sigh! Loved the visual there, too....] It seemed an appropriate song and thought for a day to visit a cemetery. Cemeteries remind us that none of us is here forever, even those who make the biggest names for themselves while alive. Benefactors to humanity, perpetrators of crime and war, ordinary working people providing for families -- we are all going in the same direction, with our common end, that of us all, no more than metaphorical dust in the wind. The time given us to live and love and work and become worthy of being remembered is hauntingly brief, for the longest-lived human being as well as for those whose lives are cut short in relative youth.

 

Aside from general associations and feelings I find in all old cemeteries, this particular spot on earth outside an old ghost town is especially moving to me because its backdrop on the western horizon is the Dragoon Mountains, a range that always, for me, has its heart in Cochise Stronghold. I cannot look toward the Dragoon Mountains without my eye going to the Stronghold, and I cannot gaze upon the Stronghold without giving thanks each time for the fact that Cochise himself did not die on a reservation but there in his mountain home, in historic Apacheria.




We are here now, the Artist and I. That is, we are alive and together on this so-precious earth, in the presently troubled United States of America, and, for now, here in winter in Cochise County, Arizona. With all that’s going on in the country at large, we continue to look for moments of peace and hours of contentment, not to waste all the time remaining to us in storms of the soul. And we have not yet exhausted the possibilities for exploration of nature and history in this corner of the American West. 

 

The road from Pearce to the cemetery, for instance, continues west through Middlemarch Pass to Tombstone. I have noted on other occasions the Tombstone end of the road and now need to ask someone about the road through the pass. How mountainous is it? Is it frequently traveled? What is the highest point? Is it like the high, narrow, twisting road over Onion Saddle in the Chiricahuas, or more like Stockton Pass through the Pinaleños? Perhaps we will find out this winter. Certainly, we will continue our Arizona adventures while we can, before we too become dust in the wind.




 


Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Brought To You By the Letter ‘P’


 

…Dogs are always happy to share their passion about being alive. It’s easy for them to lift our foul moods because dogs bring their joy with them wherever they go.

 

-      Dogs Don’t Bite When a Growl Will Do: What Your Dog Can Teach You About Living a Happy Life, by Matt Weinstein and Luke Barber

 

 

This was a good first entry on my “Books Read 2021” list. With a distinctly Zen Buddhist background philosophy and a generous sprinkling of Western philosophers, this work by two authors writing as one (“I”) is not a book of rules for training (teaching) dogs but one that highlights dogs’ virtues and life lessons we can draw from a canine approach to living. The quote above is from Lesson 15, “Dogs Bring Joy With Them,” something no one who lives with dogs can doubt. 

 

Sarah found the energy to wag her tail more than once on her last day of life. Peasy, now that he’s been sprung from his little concrete-floored prison cell, instead of moping around about how unfair life has been to him until recently, approaches each day with boundless enthusiasm. I get to run in the wash? Chase sticks? You’re giving me another meal? I get to go with you in the car? Life is GREAT!

 

Which brings us to the first item to be covered in today’s blog post:

 

 

Peasy’s Progress

 

The first couple of meals our new dog had under our care, he fell upon like a starving wolf. When I began the process of training him to “Wait!” for permission before attacking his dish, I had to restrain him physically for several days. When at last I got him to “Sit!” on command, even as he could see the desired breakfast or dinner dish in my hand, it was real progress, and now? Now he sees the dish and sits politely without the command. I put the dish on the floor, and even as he quivers with excitement and impatience he keeps his eyes on my face, not on his food, waiting until I tell him “Okay.” 


Here he closed his eyes briefly, perhaps to lessen temptation!


Peasy had his introduction to my walking/hiking partner and her two dogs on Sunday morning. Therese and I had agreed that all three dogs would be on leashes and that she and I would first approach from opposite directions and pass each other without stopping, then walk the dogs in parallel, leash-holding humans on opposite sides of the wide dirt road. The dogs were interested in each other, and Peasy ducked behind my legs briefly when he first caught sight of them, but as the walk proceeded we all moved along in harmony. No growling or lunging or (from Peasy) cringing. Eventually butts were sniffed, and the oldest, calmest dog, Buddy, was allowed off his leash. On our second encounter, we will make the walk a little longer, but we humans are already very pleased with how things worked out the first time around. Sarah had so much fun being a seasonal member of Therese’s pack that I can’t help hoping Peasy will be able to fit in equally well.

 

Mr. Peasy has been pretty good on a leash right from the beginning. He sticks close to my left knee, right where he belongs. Nevertheless, I am adding regular on-leash walks to our morning routine, because our Sarah was good on a leash when young, but then, when she “needed” less and less to be leashed, our discipline fell away. That was my fault and not a mistake I want to repeat with Peasy.

 

He faces a couple of challenges, which is to say that I face a couple of challenges with him. The easier one to cure will be his jumping up on the bed before I get in, so eager is he for our evening pack time. He’s great about getting down after pack time, when we tell him “Go to bed now,” and is, as I’ve already said, very good about waiting for permission to dive into a meal, so teaching him to wait for permission to jump up on the bed shouldn’t take more than one or two lessons. 

 

The second and bigger challenge is chewing things he should not chew. Peasy is a young dog with a lot of nervous energy, and I want to be a good dog mom for him but don’t want to be spending every waking minute in training, so to keep him out of trouble this morning (he kept yielding to the temptation of picking up one of my shoes in his mouth), I put his leash on and draped the leash across my knees while I worked at the table, not paying him any attention at all. Quickly he chose to lie down and wait patiently. So we’ll probably take that route for a while – when he rejects all his own chewing things as “old and boring!” – until he is ready to calm down without the leash. Which may take months, who knows?


 

PJ’s Project

 

Dog training, however, important and time-intensive as it must be, is not my only winter project. One that fell by the wayside over the holidays and with the addition of Peasy to the household is now, albeit in fits and starts, back on track, and that’s the one I call my Silas Project. Originally “His Time and Mine,” I described what I’ve gradually come to call “The Silas Project” this way: 

 

It is a comparison of pre-Civil War American life with our life today in 2020-2021 America, a very personal comparison drawn from both periods, using a young man’s handwritten diary from the 19th century and my own journals, thoughts and reflections, all of it set in social and political context, historical and contemporary. 

 

David pressed me one day for an “elevator pitch,” and that’s what I’ve came up with. As for genre, that’s a tough one. “Is it biography?” David asked. No, not really, though there is biographical material in it. Frankly, when I think about describing the project to anyone else, I wonder if I’ll be the only one who ever finds it fascinating. But I can’t worry about that now. 





At this stage, the Silas Project is a sprawling, untidy mess, chapters inconsistent in terms of length or voice, the whole of Part One so rough overall that I think I have never written anything in my life more in need of deep, extensive editing – and by someone other than me! But that’s another thing I can’t think too much about right now. Right now the point is to keep pushing through, keep moving forward, from concept to first draft, however big a mess that might be.


 

Partisan Politics

 

I thought of beginning with politics and ending with Peasy, saving the best for last, but then I thought I’d probably lose the majority of you right off the bat if I started with politics. And much as I’d like to have it out of my life, too, on it goes, like the coronavirus….

 

Poor Donald Trump! The voice in his head, his father’s voice, tells him that if loses at anything, he’s a loser, and if he’s a loser, he’s worthless, he’s nobody. So while he lost the November election, he cannot admit it. He cannot bring himself to concede. Perhaps he truly cannot believe he lost. Who the hell knows? 

 

Despite his claim to be a “stable genius,” it’s been clear since his days on the campaign trail that the 45th president was and is emotionally and mentally unsuited for the job of leading the world’s most powerful country. He has been, in office, what he always was:  a weak, immature, morally stunted individual, unable to accept responsibility or live in truth. Over and over he has disgraced his office with public complaining, whining, threatening and blaming; time and again he has invented alternative fantasy “realities,” denying even his own well-documented and recorded statements; day after day, as each new outrage emanating from the White House disrespected American citizens and insulted reason itself, we said surely we had now heard “the worst” – and yet the outrages, the insults, the disrespect never slowed, let alone stopped.

 

Mental instability is a tragedy, but that of Donald Trump, 45thpresident of the United States of America, is not his personal tragedy, for he does not recognize it. He does not mourn his errors or lament his shortcomings. Rather, the tragedy of his presidency is suffered by the American people, his supporters no less than his opponents and critics.

 

I understand that there are people so wedded to a particular party that they cannot bring themselves to vote otherwise, regardless of the candidate put forward. I recognize the fact that some Americans are single-issue voters and would sacrifice every other value for the sake of the one issue they hold dearest. I even realize that some voters think “character” should not be taken into account when electing politicians. The last group probably describe themselves as “hard-headed realists.” What has saved us up until recently has been a general faith in our electoral system and a general consensus on facts. 

 

The United States is unique among the world’s democracies in the length of time provided by our Constitution for the transition from the outgoing to the incoming administration. … In the two and one-half months from election to inauguration, the president-elect and his team must choose key White House officials and senior appointees for the cabinet and subcabinet; set a course for foreign policy; develop a domestic agenda and budget; and write an inaugural address summing up all this for the nation and the world. And this is happening when the president-elect and his team, giddy with victory but exhausted from the campaign, are under scrutiny as never before for clues about the new administration. 

 

-      President Carter: The White House Years, by Stuart E. Eizenstat

 

How long has it been, for how much of my life is it that I have found the transition period as nerve-wracking as the months of campaigning that preceded it? And has any American transition of executive power ever been as fraught with anxiety as what we are going through this January 2021?

 

But all responsibility for the present attacks on American democracy cannot be laid at the outgoing president’s door. Republican representatives and senators in Congress have had four years to come to grips with the truth -- that their emperor wears no gorgeous robes, i.e., that he is dangerously delusional. A single naked madman could not bring this country to its knees. The support of a greedy, powerful and yet still power-hungry majority leader in the Senate, however, has tipped the scale, and now other senators, all of whom should know better, are joining the howling mob and saying they will refuse to confirm the results of the Electoral College when those results are presented to them tomorrow. I am furious and ashamed to see that the U.S. Representative from my home district in Michigan is among this crowd of unprincipled rebels. Party of “law and order”? Adherence to the Constitution? Clearly, they’ve thrown all that overboard.

 

The Republican Party’s disdain for democracy is nothing new, but never has it been so shamelessly naked as in their present efforts to overturn election results that even honest officials from their own party, from local and county boards to governors to William Barr, recent Attorney General, have scrutinized repeatedly, finding no evidence whatsoever of the “widespread fraud” that the delusional president continues to argue “cheated” him of victory. Senators who compose the rebellious cabal (can it be a cabal if they are public rather than secret?) say they are responding to “legitimate concerns” about the election results. As an acquaintance of mine points out, the “concerns” largely originate with the man in the White House who lost his bid for re-election and cannot resist feeding the fears of his “base,” those who put him in office four years ago. 

 

Feeding irrational fears, repeating and promoting falsehoods, dividing Americans, trashing our most cherished institutions – if this country and the world survive long enough, history is not going to cut the rebel senators much if any slack for selling their souls in 2020 and 2021. Their leader may be crazy, but what is their excuse?