The God thing

Three people came to our front door this morning wanting to spread the word of God to the heathens.  Two pleasantly dressed women of middle age stood on the porch, and behind them several steps was a teen-age boy who was fidgety and did not seem interested in the visit.  The tallest of the two women  said they were Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I had not seen Witnesses at the house in five years or more.  They are always polite but have the annoying attribute of persistence.

The tallest woman who was actually very short read off six questions from the front of a magazine which I assumed to be either The Watchtower or Awake!  I don’t remember a single question, and at the first chance, I said as nicely as I could, “I don’t believe in God.”

I thought that statement might turn them in reverse.  But instead, both women approached closer to the screen door which was one of many things that separated us.  A short discussion followed with the tall-short woman.

She pointed to the house, saying someone had to make it, and that’s how the world came to be, from a Maker, from God.

But who made God? I asked.  She said the Bible tells us God has always existed with no beginning and no end.  I said I didn’t believe the Bible was a book of truth.  I told her what I believe:  We human beings are products of chaos and randomness and that Man is a doomed experiment who will surely devise means to obliterate the planet.

Eventually, the woman saw I was a hard case, thanked me, and turning to leave, said she enjoyed our conversation.  But she could not leave before indicating she might return some day.  Maybe my views will change, she said.

I’m a bit ashamed of myself, not that I didn’t express my true beliefs.  I usually speak my mind when provoked, yet . . . .

I’m ashamed of being too close-minded.  I wish I had asked the woman some questions, knowing that Witnesses believe Armageddon on Earth is near.  Like what is the time frame?  I wish I had asked how old she thought Earth was?  I wish I had asked her political views if indeed she had any.  If so, does she vote?  Who does she favor?

You can learn from anyone, even those with whom you most disagree.  I should try harder next time.  But it has been my experience that if you encourage religious zealots just a bit, they soon become encouraged too much.

Memorial Day in the dust

A crumbled grave at Cross-Cut Williams Cemetery.

It is Memorial Day in Phoenix, but who would know by looking into the little unmarked cemetery on Van Buren just west of 48th Street.  It is the one with the chain-link fence around it and barb-wire on top.  The one with empty plastic bottles and other trash blown up against it, the flotsam of the living.

The gate is chained and clamped shut by two padlocks.  There is no grassy lawn, no flowers, no trees.  Only a flat, brown sun-baked tract of land near a convenience store in a decayed part of town with a handful of gravestones poking up through dirt like bleached bones.  A sign in red and white says:  No Trespassing, Private Property.

It is a forgotten place, this cemetery.   It should be a lesson to all of us.

The monument of John and Manda Williams.

In the southwest corner, there is a large monument.  Buried there, it is assumed, are the Williamses, John and Manda, husband and wife.  He died in 1912, she in 1934.   A container of pink roses, can they be plastic? rests in front, the only brightness to this drab scene.

Not far off is the grave of Margaret Cline.  The stone says she was born in Indiana in 1814 and died in Phoenix in 1898.   Several others dot the corner, all beginning to receive late-afternoon shade from a billboard that advertises the Pink Rhino Cabaret.  A half-nude young woman is pictured in the upper right corner.

This little patch of dirt and stone actually has a name.  I looked it up on the Internet when I got home.  It’s called the Cross-Cut Williams Cemetery.   I found only a smidgen of information about it.

To my way of thinking, this is much more a realistic cemetery than the fancy Catholic cemetery up 48th a mile or so.  St. Francis has a manicured lawn, beautiful trees and numerous people walking the grounds looking, I guess, for loved ones.

The pull of “family” only goes so far, only lasts so long.

The cemetery gate under lock and chain.

My parents and sister are buried in Texas.  I haven’t been back to their graves in maybe 10 years.  My grandparents are buried in northeastern Oklahoma, and I have visited their graves only a few times.  I only know where two of my four great-grandparents have graves, and I’ve seen them once only out of curiosity.  I know little about their lives.

The point is this.  In 25 to 50 years after your death, when your children and grandchildren are gone too, no will put flowers on your grave, no will remember you as a live, breathing human being.  You will be a curiosity yourself, a mere entry on someone’s genealogical chart.  And then comes neglect.  And perhaps a short time later your cemetery will run out of money, broke, say, by bad investments on Wall Street.  And what then?

Your grave and cemetery may look much like what you now see at the Cross-Cut Williams on Van Buren.

When great art makes you feel bad

A guide to his exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum.

W. Eugene Smith, the great Life photographer, and I have some things in common.    That realization smacked me hard a few weeks ago after viewing an exhibit of his work at the Phoenix Art Museum.  I began to make comparisons.

Smith was born in Wichita, 60 miles from my hometown in southern Kansas.  For a short time he  was employed at the morning Eagle, upwind from where I later worked at Wichita’s hopeless afternoon paper, the Beacon.  And in his later years, he resided in Tucson, even died there a few months before I arrived 120 miles up the road in Phoenix.  That’s about where the commonality ends.

What made Smith so great, or so it seems to me, was this profound discovery at an early age that only a few experience.  He found his calling.  And not only that.  He believed in it without much doubt.  And he had the courage and confidence to stay at the wheel, to continue learning his craft and in the process weathering whatever storms and distractions arose.  Call it dedication, call it genius, a miracle of birth, I don’t know.  But I’d guess he met someone along the line who believed in him.

This obsession with the camera finally found its way into Smith’s forte, the photo essay.

Essays in black and white like “Nurse Midwife,” which features a midwife, Maude Callen, a black woman in South Carolina in 1951.   Smith catches near-perfectly the essence of her life as a health-care provider among poor blacks in the racist South.   Certainly not a subject in The Fifties guaranteed to produce fame.

Examples of Smith’s “Nurse Midwife.”

The museum’s exhibit also displayed, “Country Doctor,”  which depicted in 1948 a weary Dr. Ernest Ceriani visiting the ill around the small Colorado mountain town of Kremmling.  I read somewhere this essay was “the first photo story of the modern photojournalism age.”

Smith traveled to Africa to shoot “Man of Mercy,” a study of humanitarian work done there by Dr. Albert Schwietzer, a man he apparently did not like.  Also exhibited was “Minamata,”  a searing look in 1971 at the devastation brought to a small Japanese town by mercury poisoning caused by chemicals released from a nearby plant.  Not shown from that essay was what is said to be Smith’s most noted single photograph, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath.”   Tomoko, a deformed victim of the poisoning, is seen naked, cradled by her mother in a bath.  The photo was withdrawn from public viewing at the request of Tomoko’s family.

As I walked slowly through the exhibit room of Smith’s greatest works, a tinge of sadness seeped in.

I thought of myself and how I had somehow missed the boat to fulfillment in what I do which is to write.

I thought of how we grew up during different eras in the similar uninspiring flatlands of Kansas, with visions of a world beyond silos and fields of wheat.  I too had a serious streak.  I too felt the injustices of what I saw taking place daily.  And yet Smith reached a pinnacle I never came close to matching in a similar field, print journalism.  Was it pure talent?  Whispers from the gods?

At some point, early on, our paths took a dramatic split.  I had wanted to do great things.  I thought, for instance, I could be a different kind of sports writer, that I could uncover the ills that plague sports to this very day.  But I failed.

Though I quit two jobs on principle, just as Smith had done with Life over anger with the Schweitzer photos, my issues were too personal, too egotistic.  Until it was too late, I didn’t understand man can’t have it all.  I made compromises along the way.  Not as many as some.  But compromises none the less.

Where Smith was focused, I was not.   And the recognition of what might have been struck me in a deep and hurtful way.

If I have worthy advice to any young person it is this.  Forget the money, forget the fame.  Find something you enjoy doing and stick with it.  Give it your best shot and let life’s chips fall where they may.

For me, I was, at least from the my early years on, always down-road and down-wind from Mr. Smith.

Loneliness on a mountain bike

A bike at home, far from Ride The Divide.

If there is a lesson in the 2010 documentary, “Ride The Divide,” it is this.  Long-distance mountain-bike racers do not live on muscle and stamina alone.  They live almost as much on a roller-coaster of emotions with the powerful need of human companionship at the core.

The film covers a race over “the world’s longest mountain-bike route,” a gruelling up-and-down traverse of 2,711 miles along the Continental Divide, through five U.S. states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico — from Banff in Canada in the north to the border with Mexico on the south.

It’s agony.  Fifteen competitors start out, all in top physical condition.  Less than half finish the ride that takes more than three weeks for the winner passing through some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes in America.  Through mountain snow, thunderstorms and parched desert.  Through blisters, swollen joints, knee pain and in one case a torn Achilles tendon.  More than 100 miles a day at times, through equipment breakdowns, hunger and bear scares.

Sometimes, early in the race before they get strung out, a few of the riders meet up at a small motel, restaurant or a tavern to rest, shop for groceries but mostly to talk, to connect again with a human voice after hours pedaling solitaire.  Shadowing them everywhere is loneliness and, for one, near despair.

A small support crew with a camera and microphone trail along in a van.  The crew communicates via mobile phone with the riders, giving them updates on the race, who’s out, who’s hurting, who’s in anguish.  The focus here is not on technical matters facing the bikers or statistics.  The spotlight homes in on the human spirit.  We the viewers peer down into the soul, trying to grasp the racer’s essence.

The film quickly focuses on three riders.  Mike Dion of Denver, Matthew Lee of Chapel Hill, NC, and the only female, Mary Metcalf-Collier from Idyllwild, CA.

Mike proves to be the most susceptible to emotional wreckage.  Although he has issues like most with knee pain, he succumbs early on to his inner needs.  Near Dillon, MT, Mike breaks down, crying four times in one day.  Later we see him again break down during a brief telephone call to his young daughter.  He misses her, he misses his wife, he has “obligations” to them.  The excuses pile up.  He finally drops out on Day 11, having done roughly 1,330 miles, or about half the ride to Mexico.

Mary too is riven with emotion.  And pain.  Her legs from the knee down to the feet become horribly swollen.  She feels they are about to explode and gives in to lengthy stops at motels to elevate and rest her bedraggled legs.  But the worst part, she says, is the “boredom” of riding alone, particularly after her  racing companion, Mike, quits.  Mary too drops out.  Not once but at least twice.  Yet unlike Mike, she receives a boost from family members who come to meet her, to encourage her to finish.  And so, rejuvenated, Mary pushes on.

But it is Matthew, aka Matt, who is best able to maintain a proper emotional balance, to shunt aside thoughts of what he calls the “real world” back home in North Carolina.  He is a strong and experienced rider to boot.  This marks his sixth time traveling the Continental Divide.

One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when Matt’s sometimes riding partner Reuben Kline, of Gettysburg, PA, stops at a motel.  Reuben has led much of the race, but now he waits on Matt to catch up.  He misses the camaraderie.   Upon learning of Reuben’s purposeful delay, Matt is bewildered, or pretends to be.  “Why would he do that?” Matt tells the interviewer, then waving his hand to the great outdoors, “This is what it’s all about.”   A perfect example of how Matt compartmentalizes his need for human contact and the race.  He will not relent.  He is focused on the race alone.

When Reuben too eventually quits with ankle and knee injury, Matt barely blinks an eye.   “He was very entertaining,” he says of his former riding companion, showing little emotion.

Not only is Matt a championship rider, he lends an eloquent voice to the film.  As he approaches the finish line with a nine-day lead over second-place Mary,  a wistfulness overtakes him.  A decrease in his daily mileage sets him off on a monologue.

“I feel like in some way,” he says, “I might be passively mellowing here towards the end because of the fact I’m going back to the real world when I’m done.  Things are going to be very intense for me.  I’m having a baby in three weeks, and in some ways I’m not prepared for that.

“I’ve been over the Divide five times and I know what it’s like.  It’s almost easier than bringing a child into the world in some ways.  That will be the ultimate endurance test.  Maybe I’m dragging my heels a little bit, trying to savor the last leg of the race, I don’t know.  Certainly my life’s going to change in a way I can’t predict.”

Matt does not mention by name his family, so wrapped up in self, the wilderness and his racing.  It’s “I’m having a baby,” not “we are having a baby.”  As he approaches Antelope Wells, NM, the last stop before the border, Matt voices more uncertainty about the future.

“Although you might start out with a great deal of trepidation,” he says regarding the dangers that one might encounter during the race, “in the end it ends up being the safe place, and returning back to the rat race . . . seems like the scary thing to do.”

While the persevering Mary in many ways is the most admirable of the group, finishing second, it is later finishers that provide the telling moment about long-distance mountain bike racing.

Leighton White, a man named Adrian and two Europeans, Alan Goldsmith of the UK and Domnick Scherer of Germany ride to the finish line smiling, hand in hand, the foursome more than happy to share third place.

Ah, wilderness.  Ah, the spirit of competition.  But more accurately here:  Ah, togetherness.

Words With Friends: No match for the crossword puzzle

For many years my morning routine did not vary.  It started with cups of black coffee, an ink pen and the daily New York Times crossword puzzle.

The Times‘s crosswords are always found in the Arts section, and barring titillating news, I quickly shed Page One for later reading as well as the Opinion Pages, which I like nearly as much as news.

The puzzles were addictive.  They started with relatively easy ones on Monday and increased in difficulty as the week passed.  By Saturday, when the answers were often multiple words, I frequently threw up the white flag.

But about a year ago I found a new sweetheart on Nebra’s i-Pad.  She was already playing a Scrabble-like game called Words With Friends.  I tried it out and fell in love even though the game does not require the word-skills of Scrabble and allows “cheating.”

The game goes like this.  An opponent and I are each dealt seven tiles by a computer, which also determines who plays first.  Just as in Scrabble, the first word must cross the center square on the board.  The computer keeps score.  The players can choose not to play, or swap letters thereby losing a turn.  The key to victory is playing high-scoring letters, like the Z, Q, K or the two blank tiles on Triple-Letter, Triple Word squares, or even Double-Letter, Double Word squares.

The game allows only one Username, so I adopted Nebra’s name.  There was no confusion, since she played only friends and acquaintances and I only computer-generated “random” opponents.  It was easy.  The problem was Nebra had a feminine Username, and I would on occasion run into a foe who was more interested in romance than the game.  Personal questions would pop up on the game’s chat board.  Some very raunchy and explicit.

Through December I enjoyed enormous success, winning 55 of 61 games.  But as 2012 opened up I found two or three really good opponents and I played them regularly.  My winning percentage went down.  I understood that.  But something else was happening that bothered me.

Take one opponent.  I’ll call her “mary kay.”  We were very competitive for the first five or six games.  But then she started beating me regularly, often by huge margins.  Now everyone “cheats” in Words.  Unlike Scrabble, you do not lose a turn for constructing  an unacceptable word.  In fact, Words allows you, if you want, to form a word by trial and error using every letter in the alphabet.  I’ve done that.  But, I think, there is a limit to cheating.

I felt “mary kay” was not only using the so-called word-builder programs, that provide acceptable words of the most esoteric origin imaginable.  Like chemical terms and Scottish words.  But she was using a computer to make every play for her.  In short, I lost faith in Words With Friends and have not played for months now.  I suppose “mary kay” could have advanced from “very good player” to “genius” overnight.  But I doubt it.

While I have not returned fully to the Times crosswords, I see it as a pastime for “purists” who compete only against themselves, not against an opponent using a computer.

And, if I want to play a board game involving words, I’ll play real Scrabble.  Not fake Scrabble, which is what Words With Friends really is.

Words With Friends can quickly morph into a game of computer skill and know-how and winning at all costs, a mentality that plagues the land.  And yet it is an inescapable product of human competition in any pursuit.

Mother’s Day: It can’t pass soon enough

I assume I speak for many when I say not everyone loves Mom.  I didn’t love mine.  In fact there was much about my mother that repulsed me.

When she died in Amarillo, Texas, in 1998, I stormed back from the nursing home to my motel room and screamed at the walls, “What was the matter with you, mom?  What was the matter with you?”  An exact quote.

Over the years I tried my best to understand her.  Why was she so manipulative and mean?  To the world outside our little home, she was noted for her sweetness.  She was shy.  Her friends seemed to love her.  But at home, behind the closed blinds, she was hell on wheels.  She ran the household with an iron grip.  My father — a successful businessman, city mayor and civic leader — proved no match for her.

On this Mother’s Day, I’m looking back to those days of so long ago trying to find a bit of charity in my heart.  Very little emerges.

This is what I’m left with.  My mother grew up an only child on a wooded farm in Oklahoma.  Her beloved father was a traveling salesman and returned home only briefly.  She was raised by a stern mother, a taskmaster who switched her legs when she was rebellious and wouldn’t practice her piano lessons.  Even though she had a college degree, Mom lived with her parents until age 26 when she married my father, Bill, after one date.  It smacked of an arranged marriage.  Mom’s father set Bill up in business as manager of his auto supply store in a small Kansas town.  It was during The Great Depression and Bill was jobless at the time.  Was there ever any real love between my parents?  I don’t know.

I do know that my mother tried to raise me as a mama’s boy.  It  became an issue in my family.  After Bill’s mother shouted at her  during a family get-together when I was 4, that she did not know how to raise a boy, Mom turned bitter and never forgave her mother-in-law.  In sixth grade, I re-invented myself.  I dived into athletics to relieve the tensions at home.

In all those years, even as she mellowed in old age, not once did my mother say with tenderness, “I love you.”  Nor did she hug me as a child or try to encourage me to be all I could be.  I felt unloved, not only by my mother but by an aloof father who told me in his last years,”The happiest days of my life were watching you play sports.”  Sad, I thought.  I was just entertainment for him.

My sister, Barbara, had a symbiotic relationship with her mother.  While the symbiosis continued into Barbara’s middle age, the relationship turned into one of love and hate.  My sister developed schizophrenia in her early  30s, and died of an epilepsy seizure in 1996, two years before mom’s death.  I felt it a blessing, that had Barbara outlived her mother she may have done horrible things to herself.  I’m no psychiatrist, but I believe any tendency to mental illness was exacerbated by that abnormal relationship.

When I got married to my high school girlfriend, my mother fought it with every weapon she could muster.  Snide and cruel remarks were hurled at me.  There was a period of a half-dozen years or more, I wouldn’t take my wife and son to see my parents at all.  Communication after high school was as minimal as I could make it.

Going back to visit my parents in Texas was always stressful and depressing.  One year I spent a week on the beaches of San Diego prepping my mind for the trip.  It didn’t help.  I was miserable, and left Amarillo as soon as I could.

Not long before he died in 1993 I offered to drive Dad to a family reunion near Waco.  Unlike Mom, he was a gregarious person, who as a friend once put it, “Bill just loves people.”  We were standing in the garage as I was packing to leave, and Mom came to the door and yelled at him, “Go ahead and go.  I’ll just lay here and die.”  Of course Dad never attended the reunion.

I actually liked my dad, even though he inflicted serious beatings on me with his belt, all at Mom’s instigation.  I can still see the smirk on her face as I emerged from the beating room.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am partly responsible for the bad feelings I harbor now on Mother’s Day.  Guilt is a part of who I am.  Maybe if I had tried, I could’ve been a more forgiving person.  But I could never do that.   I felt betrayed, that mothers are not supposed to be like mine was.   And to think now only a few sincere words from her could’ve changed all the anger and disgust I feel.  If only she had said at any point in her life, “I was wrong.  I’m sorry.  I love you.”   But she was unrepentant until the end, and even into her late 80s I could occasionally see in her eyes the mean fires of yesteryear.  “The Pat-Pat look,” Barbara’s children called it, referring to Mom’s given name, Patricia.

Time heals all wounds, they say.  But it hasn’t for me.  I’m as angry as ever.  I feel cheated out of a mother’s nurturing that should have been my due.  And so another Mother’s Day can not pass soon enough.

Two hallowed ideas of conservatives aren’t working

Other than their hatred for President Obama, there seems nothing more dear to the hearts of conservatives than deregulation and government austerity.  Trouble is neither is working, and it appears we’re headed back to the dark days.

News this week that the giant bank, J. P. Morgan Chase, has lost $2 billion in a “portfolio hedging” strategy is another shattering blow to right-wing politicians and propagandists who believe regulation by the federal government has no place in America.  Chase’s scheme involving the trading of derivatives is the same type of shenanigans that sent this country and the world spiralling into a recession four years ago.

Chase had skirted regulation and the law, Dodd-Frank or the so-called Volcker Rule, by successful lobbying of the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury, according to a story in the New York Times.  The lobbying created a “loophole that a Mack truck could drive through,” Michigan’s Democratic Senator, Carl Levin, was quoted as saying.

Government austerity, another banner held high by the right, has failed in Europe and is failing here.  In response, France has elected a leftist president, and beleaguered Greece is heading the same way.