20160605-SkyView

Blessed

When I was growing up along the south end of the Santa Monica Bay it was not uncommon to see snakes as part of the landscape. Gopher Snakes and Garter Snakes where in great abundance and even the beautiful King Snake was not an infrequent sighting in backyards, vacant lots, parks, and fields. I grew up thinking snakes were such an important part of our ecosystem, especially in limiting the growth of rodent populations. I enjoyed observing the snakes I saw as a boy but never considered keeping one as a pet, although many years later my oldest son did sneak one into his room that he intended to keep a secret from us. However, his younger sister did give him up and we let him keep the snake but there was no possibility of me ever feeding it one of those cute little mice.

20160605-RedRacerI went to Ace hardware yesterday afternoon (Saturday) to pick up a filter and was blessed with a rare treat when I arrived home. A Red Racer raced past me as I stood beside the car, continued across the driveway, walkway, and rock-filled drainage ditch to take cover in the shade beneath the squash plants that line the front of our house. I was quite excited and shouted to my wife: “We have a snake!” and enticed her out to see our visitor as it eyed us with his head raised from within the sanctuary of squash.

It had been a long time since I’d seen a snake other than some rattlesnakes here and there, although many years ago snake sightings along Yucaipa Boulevard were very common as the Gopher Snakes, Garter Snakes, King Snakes, and others fled the bulldozers that were destroying the hundreds of acres of orchards that were to become the Chapman Heights development with its 1,700 homes, schools, parks, and golf course. Sadly, many of those fleeing snakes perished beneath the wheels of the cars and trucks that whizzed carelessly along the boulevard. Many more were killed by residents who did not understand and feared those that were themselves terrified by the bulldozers.

I suspect snakes are eking out a living in the Crafton Hills and other undeveloped areas nearby but I fear for them once again as a new development is in the works less than one-half of a mile from my house. Fortunately, it abuts extensive open land and a wildlife corridor, which I hope will keep the casualties low. Anyway, I wish them well and am thankful for our visitor.

20160517-Swarm 2

Swarm 2

I came home from work the other day with the intention on tightening up a sink drain that had developed a small leak. I went out the back of the house and in through the rear door of the garage where my toolbox is and was surprised by a significant humming sound. In did not take long to realize that I was surrounded by curious honeybees who seemed to be checking me out in a friendly matter. I became rather concerned that in my absence from the garage for a couple of days, while we were receiving our much needed rain, that my little friends had set up housekeeping inside my garage.

This concerned me greatly because at our previous house a colony of bees had set up residence in an irrigation control box beside our orange tree and proved to be quite aggressive about intruders. I had attempted to deal with the problem myself with no luck and then called upon a professional bee handler to remove the colony. I was dismayed to learn that we were in an Africanized Bee zone and the bees could not be relocated but had to be destroyed.

There are as yet no lights in my garage so with flashlight in hand I began exploring the garage to see where the bees were congregated. I could not see any evidence of a hive but they seemed to be coming and going from a dark location above centered above the main garage door. I foolishly decided that I needed something for self-defense and drove over to Dollar General for a can of the Wasp and Hornet Spray. I returned home and sat down at the Internet to read up on honey bees where I learned I shouldn’t try anything myself and that a swarm could hold upwards of 30,000 bees in a ball that looks something like a football. I also read that as long as they did not have a hive to defend they would remain unaggressive, which gave me some relief.

I opened that main garage door, which has significant gaps for entry, and went on inside and studied my little friends who now seemed to be disturbed greatly by the open doors front and back. They continued to swarm around me in numbers of perhaps 10 to 20 without any signs of aggression. I decided that the garage had been cluttered long enough with tools not put away and various construction materials lying here and there so I turned on the radio and went to work under the constant supervision of my guests. After perhaps two hours I turned the shop vacuum on to suck up the debris from the concrete floor with the bees still hanging around. Then, after about another hour the brain behind the swarm must have decided my garage was not a decent place to rest or live and the entire swarm left.

20160517-Angry HostWell, I have fruit trees and a vegetable garden and I do appreciate the service that they provide but sometimes one does have to assume the role of an ungrateful host and send your unwelcome guests packing. I am just thankful that no one was injured in the process.

Pursuit of Happiness

Pursuit of Happiness

At our A Course in Miracles meeting yesterday one of our members asked during our break: “Why are there so many homeless and hungry people in America when we’re supposed to be the richest and most powerful nation on earth?”

It is a valid question and one whose answer includes the very foundation that the United States of America was founded upon. I have long found it irksome that our founding fathers skewed John Locke’s Natural Rights to Life, Liberty, and Property into Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Pursuit of Happiness, what a meaningless phrase that is in and of itself.

As part of our United States Government course I ask our high school students to write a Compare and Contrast Essay between the Bill of Rights and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms as outlined in his 1941 State of the Union Address. To iterate the Four Freedoms are: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. While it is clear the Freedom of Speech and Religion are covered by the First Amendment most students do not grasp what Roosevelt’s Freedom from Want and Fear actually implies.

What does it mean to be Free from Want? How would the lives of the people everywhere change if they did not want for adequate jobs and living wages? If they did not want for adequate food and shelter? If they did not want for adequate health and dental care? If they did not want for respect and dignity?

And what does it mean to be Free from Fear? How would the lives of the people everywhere change if they did not fear aliens and homemade bombs? If they did not fear their neighbors armed with guns? If they did not fear the police shooting first? If they did not fear gangsters and drive by shootings? If they did not fear enslavement? If they did not fear pollution and the chemicals in our foods? If they did not fear losing jobs to younger and cheaper workers? If they did not fear not having enough to survive when you cannot get work?

Yes, how would the lives of the people everywhere change if they no longer lacked and were no longer afraid? Perhaps that would be the true Pursuit of Happiness.

Change in Perception

Change in Perception

Last October I began having a serious pain in my right shoulder and assumed that somehow I had injured it while working on the fixer-upper house of ours. I did not do anything at the time because my annual physical had already been scheduled for the end of October and I would discuss it with my doctor at that time. We did indeed discuss it and he ordered x-rays of my shoulder to see if they would show anything. A few days after the x-rays were done I received a letter telling me that my shoulder showed mild osteoarthritic changes.

I continued working on the house not believing that the shoulder pain I suffered was arthritic in nature and continued to think that I had somehow injured myself. The pain intensity was such that I had to numb it a bit with regular doses of ibuprofen and after a while I began to question my quality of life and whether or not continuing on with the pain on a day to day basis was worth it. Shortly after these negative thoughts began I contracted a bad cold and was forced to slow down my level of effort.

After the cold passed I turned my attention to some small woodworking projects, namely two display shelves for the master bathroom, and attempted to wean myself off of the ibuprofen with no success. I had a follow up with my doctor scheduled for the first week of March because he was concerned about an abnormally low level of vitamin D and an abnormally high level of cholesterol. During this visit we discussed the pain in my shoulder and he suggested I have a shot of cortisone to relieve the arthritis pain. I told him I did not believe the pain was arthritic and I showed him exactly where it originated. He in turn palpitated the area and declared it was coming from an inflamed occipital tendon and that I was suffering from tendonitis.

I left the medical clinic with exercises and in higher spirits than I had been in for several months because I knew that what I had would heal and the pain would eventually be gone. In fact, it seemed to me that my pain was no longer as severe as it had been just because of my new prognosis.

In A Course in Miracles we define a miracle as a change in perception and on the 3rd of this month I had a change in perception. When I feared the pain I endured was a lifetime affair it seemed at times to be wholly unbearable. When I learned the pain I endured would be a transient affair it then seemed tolerable and surmountable.

We have all had setbacks and it is often hard to realize that while we are caught within the unrest a small change in perception is indeed a true miracle.

20160117-False Spring

False Spring

I walked outside into the bright sunlight this morning to be welcomed by the hum of a thousand bees visiting our tree in the front yard. I watched the little creatures as they visited one dangling pollen branch after another in an aerial dance that has gone on for millions of years. I turned to see that both my wife’s white SUV and my dark green Cavalier were both covered by the light green pollen that reminded me of the pine pollen that regularly coated our vehicles when we lived up in the mountains. On the other side of our driveway is a narrow patch of earth dividing our yard from the neighbors where I had planted an apple, apricot, and plum tree. As I inspected these trees that had only shed their leaves in November I was surprised to see that they wore their spring buds. Surprised and dismayed because the first day of winter was not even a month ago.

It must be tough to be a plant in times of climate evolution when it is the mechanical responses to the change of seasons that appear to be responsible for their behavior. We have had frosts, sleet, and marble-sized hail in the fall, El Nino rains in January, and now short-sleeve Southern California sunshine barely a third of the way through winter. Whether you refer to it scientifically as Global Climate Change or, as in the popular press, Global Warming it is certainly instilling chaos with the flora and fauna of our neighborhood and I suspect many more neighborhoods about our shrinking planet. We are just over 2,500 feet above sea level and I know of a woman who maintained a number of avocado trees at an altitude of 3,000 feet. However, just yesterday, I learned from my neighbor that his Mexicola Avocado, thought to be one of the heartiest withstanding temperatures as low as 18-degrees, had perished in the last frost. That ended my plan to plant one in our own yard this year.

My wife and I went to run some errands this afternoon and it seems everywhere we drove there was the signs of spring: shrubs blooming with bushels of warm yellow flowers, dark red flowers lining the Canyon Road, and the sheer numbers of active birds make me wonder if they are already preparing for the nesting season. What a cruel joke that would be since our weather forecasters continue to predict severe weather for Southern California as this El Nino winter develops. As of yet it seems that Northern California has taken the brunt of El Nino’s fury but I am sure that our turn will certainly arrive just as it arrived when our son Matthew was five-years-old and either my wife or I stood with him in day-to-day deluges while we waited, in the bitter cold under an umbrella, for the school bus that would ferry him to his kindergarten class.

Yes, the signs of spring are everywhere they should not be in what should be for many a time of dormancy. All too soon I fear we will get another unsettling frost and even more sleet and hail to once again beckon winter’s sleep and I pray that all will fair well.

20160104-Happy New Year

Happy New Year

It seems I blinked and 2016 is already four days old on this last day of our Christmas break. Tomorrow the teachers and students in our district will be back in their classrooms muddling through yet another semester as the storms of the Godzilla El Nino roll eastward across the Pacific. From where I sit I can look to the north and see the bands of clouds encircling the mountain tops and obscuring my view. There are still patches of blue sky to be seen and the two cats are in their roosts occasionally showing excitement with their tails as yet another winged friend visits our backyard. Our visitors this day include mockingbirds, blackbirds, sparrows, black-winged finches, and scrub jays and I wonder if they are instinctively preparing for the four storms currently on their way to us.

There is an occasional splash of sunlight that illuminates our backyard and the crows that pass solitary and in groups of three on a path that varies for west to east and then back again. Five of the thirteen Italian Cypress trees that lined our back fence are now stumps of varied sizes while the remaining eight trees are skeletons of their former selves but I will not be able to complete their removal until the storms have passed. Where these aged eyesores now stand will be apple, plum, citrus, and avocado come the spring planting season. There will also be a vegetable garden on the western half of the backyard and I will once again work alongside the pollinating bees and wasps.

The sun is now illuminating our backyard with a promising aura that belies the reality of the approaching storms, which our weather reporters say will bring floods and mud to Southern California. We were not living in our fixer-upper house this past winter although we were here frequently working on it. Last winter was mild, to say the least, but this one has already given us heavy rains, several days of freezing frost, and it is likely that we will see some snow this year. We are not yet fully prepared for a hard winter as I have not yet been able to install rain gutters and finish the property drainage but we continue to move further along.

I move from a sense of peace to a sense of worry from day to day wondering what this winter has in store for us. We had the fireplace inspected and we were pleased to learn that it was in perfect working order. My wife and I brought home the very last one-eighth of a cord of oak firewood in her SUV from the local firewood dealer. I also added some cherry from an old non-producing tree that I cut down in the backyard and so we are set for a while. We have been using our fireplace in the evening and it reminds me of when we still lived on the mountain way back in the 1990’s. There is a sense of nostalgia that arises from the scent of burning oak along with a sense of homesickness for what now graces my northern view.

One never knows what tomorrow’s storms may bring and I know 2016 will have more than its fair share be they rolling in from across the Pacific or from across the political landscape both here and abroad. Like the patches of blue that have now completely disappeared from my northern view, yet still remain scattered here and there in the south, this year will have its moments of darkness and of sunshine and, like the years before, we will weather them one and all.

Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

20151220-Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays

As of this weekend my wife and I, along with the rest of the school district, are on our winter break and ready for the happy obligations to begin. Obligations like children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, and you get the idea – family. When I was younger family took a back seat to the almighty career until one day my wife Denise (who was not yet so) and our mutual friend Becky instilled in me the importance of family. As a result regular visits began to take place with my near relations. Later, after our marriage, those regular visitations even took place out of state where my mother was a regular passenger on those extended excursions, sometimes with and sometimes without me.

Yesterday I received a Facebook message from a student of mine telling me that she had found out who and where her biological father was and was planning a meeting. She confessed that she was both excited and anxious as well one would be. I recalled my own excitement at meeting an older sister several years ago, a sister who had only been a rumor up until just before our first meeting. We had much to catch up on and one of those things was that we had met before – back when I was the barefoot, snot-faced, son of an Oakie farm girl. I was all of perhaps three or four years old, which would have made her twenty-three or twenty-four at the time. It was a meeting I did not recall and was saddened to learn that my sister had been denied by my father and thus was denied to her a large portion of her family. One can only imagine how our lives might have been different.

It’s been three decades since Denise and Becky redirected my ambitions to where they should have always been. It has been sixteen years since the unexpected death of my youngest brother Robert taught me how ephemeral and precious life is after all and the most valuable lesson of all, which is not to turn your back on a family member in need. This Christmas Season I once again have three family members that are incarcerated and I know that they, more than most, need the support of family and friends and so I send letters, cards, books, love, and pray that it helps in some small fashion.

This past Thursday my wife and I drove to the Juvenile Court in Inglewood for what will likely be the last time. As before, what I witnessed gave me much to ponder about including that family we used to talk about back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was the family we called the Family of Man and this Christmas I wish my entire extended Family of Man the happiest Holiday Season possible and encourage everyone who possibly can to reach out in love to someone and wish them a wonderful Holiday Season as well.

Whatever holiday you celebrate I wish it to be your very best.

Happy Holidays!

20151213-Love Thy Neighbor

Love Thy Neighbor

With the mass shootings in San Bernardino and the Presidential Candidate responses there is an increase in fear being perpetrated throughout the United States. Along with the fear there is an increase in anti rhetoric that is not new to our society but so disappointing that even after all our past mistakes we have yet to really learn from them. I have been told much of my life that the reason we study history is so we can learn from our past mistakes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all did?

Love Thy NeighborThis morning a friend shared this image on Facebook and it made me remember several things. One of those things is that within my circle of friends we don’t engage in the fear and the anti rhetoric. Another is that I am happier when I am ignorant of the bad things transpiring upon our little planet. Another is that there is really very little I can do about those bad things other than be a good neighbor to all of my brothers and sisters that I happen to meet upon my journey.

This past week I had the occasion to drive into Inglewood for the trial of a family member in the Juvenile Court, which in and of itself is not a happy event. On this past Wednesday morning I had taken the Florence Avenue off ramp of the Harbor Freeway and was surprised by the number of homeless encampments that bordered my route. That afternoon I attempted to take the Harbor Freeway and was further surprised by the homeless encampments I saw at my tortoise speed that lined the bridges over the Freeway.

On Thursday morning I took Interstate 10 to La Brea Avenue and crossed over and into Inglewood and was taken again by the evidence of homelessness. I was intentionally early, however, and was able to sit on the Library Square, write some poetry, and reminisce about a time more than forty-four years ago when my girlfriend and I visited that same library, dined at a favorite nearby (but now long gone) sidewalk café, attended her piano recital at Inglewood High School, and even got stuck at the top of a Ferris Wheel on All Fool’s Day at the St. John Chrysostom Catholic Church on Florence Avenue.

As the SigAlert app on my phone showed that the freeways were horribly congested when I left for home Thursday afternoon I took surface streets, starting with Manchester Boulevard, through neighborhoods I haven’t seen in decades. I passed by the Forum where my girlfriend and I had gone to see the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and Martha and the Vandellas. I crossed over to the Imperial Highway and drove through the south side of Watts and later recalled that it was in August of 1965 when, only a few days shy of my eleventh birthday fifty years ago, I had watched the flames and smoke that engulfed that community from the rooftop of my home. As I continued alongside the crawling 105 Freeway on the Imperial Highway I found no evidence of violence in that community but what I did see was even more evidence of homelessness to a scale that I found staggering and was barely beginning to comprehend.

Now, I do not know what effect I can have on the issue of homelessness, other than we do give to Habitat for Humanity when we feel we can. And, although none of us can fix the homeless problem alone each of us can be a good neighbor as I was reminded Thursday afternoon on the second floor of the parking structure across from the Juvenile Court. I had opened my car door when a black man about my height and age called out for me to wait. He approached me rapidly causing a twinge of stranger danger, stopped inside my comfort zone, then turned and pointed to the backpack he wore – presumably to let me know he did not have a permanent residence. When he turned back to me with a smile he said: “Today is my birthday. Please, do something nice for me.” I nodded, extracted my wallet, and withdrew a few dollars and gave them to him. His smile was recompense enough but my new friend went to where a car could come around the corner unexpectedly and safely guided me out of my parking space and waved me on my way.

Happy birthday, my friend and neighbor.

Infinite Variety

Infinite Variety

The voice of reason seems to have fallen out of favor here within the United States. With the latest mass killing in San Bernardino, which is in my own backyard, the rhetoric being played back on the NBC news is far more frightening than the prospect of being singled out in wherever the next mass killing might occur. Just last night Donald Trump called for renewed racial profiling, targeting the families of terror suspects, and waterboarding (torture) of terror suspects. Next I expect he will call for all Muslims to wear badges featuring the Star and Crescent as the Polish Jews were required to wear the Star of David just prior to the pogroms of WWII. But, as frightening as this may be, what is even more terrifying is the number of people who claim that a Holy War be carried out against Islam in the name of Christianity. My friends, welcome back to the Dark Ages and the Holy Crusades.

As a child my family had no transportation and so we walked. My mother, who was raised Southern Baptist, took us to the only church within walking distance of our short legs. It was a Pentecostal Holiness church where the men and women spoke in tongues and writhed like snakes across the floor of the sanctuary. There I was introduced to God, a bearded old white man who sat upon a throne of gold and inflicted harsh judgement upon all of us sinners. It was an image of God that I rejected by the age of eleven and replaced it with the concept of Wakan Tanka, translated by many as the Great Spirit into English but is, in reality, better translated as the Great Mystery.

Whatever you may choose to call the Great Mystery; God, Allah, The Light, El-Shaddai, the Creative Force of the Universe, or any of the other nine billion names is, in my opinion, placing a limit upon the infinite. Likewise, by placing a label upon ourselves is also limiting our scope and power. When we call ourselves Jews, Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, et al, we place ourselves within an infinitesimally small Venn circle of all there is. Why then do we label ourselves in such a manner that we create conflict with one another? How can Jews, Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, and the others all worship the God of Abraham and bear such malice toward one another?

I wrote before about the two delightful Mormon missionaries who would often visit me for pleasurable discussions of religion and spirituality. On the occasion of their first visit they asked me what I thought about their faith. I told them I had friends and acquaintances who were Mormon and very nice people and then delineated three reasons why their faith did not appeal to me. Over the course of our ensuing discussions they demonstrated the purpose of two of their tenets and I dropped my objections to them leaving only one exception. The one objection that I could not get past was that their faith was the only true faith and all others were false. My friends, I feel that it is that one tenet: I’m right and you’re wrong, that causes much of the violence that we see occurring around the world.

Most people I know see God as the infinite force of the universe and so, being infinite, how can something so finite as a religious faith be the one true way? The late Reverend Joan Bacon, a dear friend, taught that one should take what spiritual or religious tools worked for them, use them for only as long as they made sense, and then move on. It’s a good lesson.

The Great Mystery is the universal spiritual force behind all that is or ever will be and, should one open their eyes to it, they will see that it loves infinite variety.

20151126-Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving

On this Thanksgiving Day of 2015 my wife and I shared a traditional Thanksgiving dinner that I had wanted to prepare even though we were to share it as a couple, without the presence of family. Our oldest daughter worked Thanksgiving Day. Our oldest son lives in Arizona with his wife and their two pre-school age daughters. Our youngest son lives in Colorado and our youngest daughter is at the Colorado River sharing the holiday with her boyfriend’s family.

As it was only the two of us I roasted a turkey breast rather than the entire turkey. The meal also included mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, peas, corn bread dressing, whole berry cranberry sauce, and of course black olives. As a special treat I opened a reserved bottle of my favorite wine (Bordeaux) from my favorite country (France).

During the meal my wife listed a number of things that she is thankful for and I agreed with all of them but in the back of my mind I could not release the headlines from the news over the past several months. There are many things that prey upon my mind this Thanksgiving Day including our crazy Presidential Race full of rhetoric that is anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim, and anti-this, and anti-that. It almost seems that the same kind of thinking that interred the Japanese in the 1940’s is about to be repeated for the Muslim population. I certainly hope not. Remember Rodney King? Remember People … can we all get along? It sure doesn’t seem like it.

Our children are all doing okay, which is more than can be said of so many millions of children around our ever shrinking planet. With the wars and civil unrest that continue in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and God knows how many other ‘Stans, how are our species children going to be okay? In my country the powers to be talk about all of these conflicts as being the result of differences in ideologies, religious beliefs, or other off the mark reasons when, as Howard Zinn reported with such clarity, that all of these wars and conflicts are about economics and have always been so.

Too many people about this globe have been minimalized, marginalized, exploited, enslaved, subjugated, and otherwise mistreated. Is it all that difficult to understand that they simply want to be okay as well?

Our Republican front-runner is, from the viewpoint of this open-minded student of anthropology, in the least egomaniacal, in the most insane. The Democratic front-runner has always seemed to be Janus to me. The only candidate that seems to really care about people, all people, is Bernie Sanders and I wish him luck in his campaign, but American’s have a long-standing record of voting for their enemies. He’s a Socialist they say. I’ve heard some call him a Communist thereby invoking Tail Gunner Joe’s hysterias and those horrid Southeast Asian occupations. Well, I understand Bernie allies with the Democratic Socialist wing of the Democratic Party; the same wing of the Democratic Party that I belong to, and the same wing of the Democratic Party that many other good people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., belonged to.

There is so much to be thankful for and so much more that we could be thankful for if all of us everywhere could just get along, share, and help each other to walk through this world with dignity and compassion.

Therefore, on this Thanksgiving Day of 2015, I would like to wish this One Planet Under God a very happy Thanksgiving and pray that everyone, everywhere, would soon be okay.