Saturday, December 31, 2005

Amsterdam - Day 7 - Brugge, Belgium

"Surely one of the most romantic towns in Europe, Brugge is a fairy-tale mixture of gabled houses, meandering canals, narrow cobblestone streets, a busy market square, and a populace intent on providing a gracious and warm welcome to its visitors. It’s a place that would melt a heart of even the hardest stone, and a visit – no matter how brief – is guaranteed to generate a glow you’ll carry away as an impenetrable shield against the slings and arrows of our own outrageous 'civilization'".

After reading the above description, we set off for Brugge, Belgium – 160 miles southwest of Amstelveen. The trip took us through Utrecht, Antwerp, and Gent. As we drove through farm land, we passed several windmills of varying styles. Of the original 10,000, about 1,000 windmills remain. Some cattle reminded us of small, young buffalo and Julie was curious about the long tailed sheep. The gray sky turned darker and snow began falling.

The historic part of the town was a fairy-tale mixture, just as the travel guide described it. As we walked the streets, the wind blew the crystallized snow, stung our eyes and made photography almost impossible. A French restaurant provided refuge and warm food.

Let’s play word association. I say “Belgium” and you think? . . . . horses . . . waffles . . . chocolate! We didn’t see Belgian horses but we did eat a small Belgian waffle and visit a chocolate museum. The waffles are about 3 to 4 inches in diameter, are heated and are served in a paper wrapper – fast food style – and are excellent.

The chocolate museum is a four-storied building filled with warmth, demonstrations, free chocolate and interesting history.

  • The Aztecs used cocoa beans as money – one turkey egg cost 3 beans, a rabbit cost 10 beans and a large tomato cost 1 bean.
  • In 1672, Madame de Sevigne wrote her daughter: “Take chocolate in order that even the most tiresome company seems acceptable to you”.
  • A saucer with a central ring to hold a cup was developed to hold a cup of chocolate – not coffee!
  • The Aztecs used chocolate to treat hemorrhoids.

The return to Amstelveen was a slow, slow trip due to the accumulated snow. I was impressed by the cautious driving of the Belgians, Dutch and other Europeans.

I’m ashamed but I’ll admit it. I think it was justified. It appeared we would get back about midnight so we decided to eat at . . . McDonalds. I’m sorry to report that McDonalds in Belgium is no better than McDonalds in the US. That's why we packed rolaids!

About 1:30 AM I was lying in bed, working a sudoku puzzle when the explosion happened just outside our bedroom window. I felt the vibration and saw the red flash. I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

(Ah, come on, you know it wasn’t a tragedy. It’s just another interesting part of Dutch customs – that I’ll explain tomorrow.)

(Photo Gallery)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Amsterdam - Castle Day

Damn! Sorry that my redneck heritage is showing, but damn! That was a sight for sore eyes. We toured Kasteel de Haar near Utrecht. I thought I had seen rich, but there was so much wealth poured into the castle that it gave a whole new definition to “filthy rich”.

De Haar Castle was built in the 14th century. In 1482 the castle was stormed, set ablaze and seized. It was rebuilt in the early part of the 1500s, was destroyed again in 1672 and, thereafter, it gradually fell into disrepair. In 1890, Baron Etienne van Zuylen van Nijevelt inherited the ruined remains. He had married the extremely wealthy Helene de Rothschild and in 1887 he decided to rebuild the castle. Two hundred craftsmen spent twenty years doing the reconstruction. The castle stood in the mist of a village of sixteen farms. The church was preserved but the village was demolished to create a park around the castle. A new village was built one kilometer to the east.

Photography was prohibited inside the castle and we toured only seven rooms – scullery, old kitchen, dining room, main hall, hairdressing salon, ballroom, knights hall and library. Photos of the exterior of the castle do not hint at the elaborate, extravagant and expensive interior and furnishings. The tour was conducted in Dutch. Because we could not understand the language, we had more time to explore the rooms and look at intricate details than those who understood Dutch and focused on the guide.

In the main hall is a sandstone statue of the Virgin and Child which originally came from a French convent and was probably made around 1350. The statue displays an exposed breast and the infant grasping it and suckling. A young girl who could not speak English was amused by the statue. She tugged on Abby’s sleeve, put one hand over her mouth, point toward the statue and giggled. She needed a friend with whom to laugh.

To get a feeling for the size of the castle, look at the photo gallery. If you’re ever in Europe, tour a castle.

We rented a car for the rest of our time. We discussed driving to Switzerland or Paris (313 miles, about 4-5 hours) but will probably stay close to Amsterdam and take day trips. Abby and Shaun live in Amstelveen which is a suburb of Amsterdam and the driving isn’t too bad. There is no way in hades that I’m going to attempt driving in Amsterdam.

We have a Pugeot. It snowed and the windshield needed washing. I couldn’t get the fluid to spray so, assuming it was out of fluid, I stopped at a station to purchase washer fluid. I couldn’t find the hood release. Luckily, an employee came out, reached under the dash and pulled the lever which was not labeled and was not visible. As you probably guessed, the reservoir was full. He washed both front and rear windows, offered to take the fluid and return the money. I asked if it was customary for employees to pump gas and he said that most stations were self-service. He indicated this station offered “help” and that is why most people stopped there. I asked if he owned the station and he replied, “No, I work here with some pleasure”. I’ve met another fine person. Before we left I shook hands with him and repeated my thanks. I hope I brightened his day as much as he brightened mine. By the way, as we left I tried pulling the lever in a different direction and the washer worked. The same lever controlled all features and speeds on front and rear wipers and washers.

Last night we had supper at home with Shaun and Abby, Another student, Anlene (pronounced on-le-nee), from South Africa joined us. She entertained us with her accent, her charm and her description of South Africa. As we discussed apartheid, she said many wonderful stories are being told of the changes in South Africa. She told of two young pre-school boys – one black and one white – who became best friends. One day both parents arrived at the school at the same time. When the young white boy saw the black father he turned in excitement to his friend and said “Your father is black!”. He had never noticed that his friend was black.

Another excellent day ends with hopes for more adventure tomorrow. I don’t think we’ll be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Amsterdam - Five

I noticed the cane. His father was zipping his coat and his mother was searching for their tickets. One of the pleasures of our trip has been to observe people, watch for animals and look for cultural differences. Without sight, he could do none of these. “Was he born this way? Does he realize how much he misses? Perhaps he enjoys life more than I realize.” The sadness that I felt was tempered by the way his parents cared for him.

Two threads of thought floated in my mind. How would a handicapped person navigate Amsterdam? Buses, trams, bicycles, autos and canals have few barriers. To cross the street requires crossing a bicycle lane, an auto lane, a tram lane and the center median and then the lanes in reverse. The pedestrian paths are narrow and are not always located in the same place. There are multiple steps and landings to be confronted, turnstiles and yellow boxes to stamp strippen tickets that must be folded to the correct line, multiple trams using the same station and nothing to prevent a person from stepping off the platform to the tracks below. Impossible! I’m accustomed to seeing blind students on campus in Flagstaff and, perhaps, have grown somewhat insensitive to the challenges they face and their abilities to live with independence. Here, it would be impossible.

The second thread of thought compared the life of this young man with the prostitutes in the red light district. They have the ability to live with independence, the hope of a better way of life and the remote possibility of freeing themselves from their present situation. This young man probably has no hope of vision. Both situations are sad

We took a train to The Hague which is about 36 miles from Amsterdam. A round trip ticket cost 17.50 euros. The trains are double deckers with large windows and gave us the opportunity to see the countryside – green fields, canals, furrowed fields covered with a light snow, large green houses for raising plants, traditional windmills, horses, sheep, ducks and large white swans with graceful necks. Yes, I normally dislike cities and it felt wonderful to be in the country.

I enjoy Amsterdam but I found The Hague to be more enjoyable. It appeared to have a slower pace. Architecture was similar but somewhat distinct. If you visit the Netherlands, you might consider staying in The Hague and taking a train to visit Amsterdam.

We discovered a bench that I recognized from a distance. It was constructed of two non-functional solar panels. Behind the bench was an LED display that showed the electrical output of the functional panels at that location. It was late in the day and cloudy so the display read zero. Hmmm? I hadn’t thought about our solar/wind system since we left home – which is as it should be.

We ate at a restaurant that did not have English menus. I was able to understand that the choice I ordered was a sandwich consisting of bread, cranberry something, some type of ham, some variety of cheese and something else. The “something else” turned out to be walnuts. The waitress asked if I wanted “regular” coffee and I said yes, thinking regular versus decaf. When she bought the coffee I realized regular meant regular size – about 4 ounces – which was served with a long twisted and colored marshmallow.

Enough writing for now! There’s more to see and do.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Amsterdam - Day 4

Today’s experiences involved red lights, a church, pizza pancakes, art, and restrooms.

Why do the travel guides always include the district? It’s strange. On the way to an historical church we passed through the red light district. Truthfully, it wasn’t that obvious or sleazy. The alley we passed through was neat and clean. On the right and left, in small windows that had red lights on both sides, stood scantily dressed women. They were over weight, unattractive, no longer young and had expressionless faces. After we passed through the narrow alley we arrived at the church on the opposite side of a canal. As we passed the back side of the church we saw another small alley – the church was on one side and more small windows on the other side.

Our destination was Central Station and when we arrived we looked for a restroom. As we looked through the doorway we saw a stile that required fifty cents euro. Darn! Last night I gave away the last of my change to the woman needing money for a hostel. We searched for a place to get change and found one after about twenty minutes. As we returned to the doorway and stepped in to the stile, we discovered a clerk just out of site who provided change. I learned a double lesson – don’t give away my last fifty cents euro and peek through the bathroom door!

Pizza pancakes? For lunch we stopped by a small restaurant and ordered pancakes. There were two groups – savory pancakes and sweet pancakes. Julie had a savory mushroom pancake and I had a sweet pancake -- apple with vanilla ice cream and ginger. They were thin like crepes and so large that they hung over a large dinner plate. We had about twenty-some choices including pizza pancakes! Umm, forget the syrup.

I highly recommend the Van Gogh museum which has four floors of works by Van Gogh and those who influenced him. The museum is arranged chronologically. Large signs explain the period in his life and display paintings from that period. It was fascinating to stand in the middle of the room and look around the walls and see his talent and style develop. It was equally interesting to see the works of those who influenced him. For years I have read about artists and influences on their works but this was the best explanation and illustration of influence that I’ve encountered. If in Amsterdam, don’t miss it.

Before browsing the museum I went to the information desk to get a brochure and get oriented. The gentleman at the desk was helping another family and was speaking French. When I said “hello” he immediately switched to English. As I spoke with him I learned he is from Aruba, his parents were from Surinam and he speaks Dutch, English, French, German and Italian. I’ve studied three languages and can’t read any of them now – and he speaks five! In the course of our conversation, he said that some Americans were offended when he handed them a brochure from the UK stack. I asked who was the most difficult tourist and he responded “the Japanese”. He explained that the Japanese do not react. Their faces remain expressionless and he’s not sure if they understand him. Interesting!

For supper we had vegetarian. I woke up about 1:30 AM starving. Nope, I’m not exaggerating – starving! But, in spite of the hunger it was a fine, fine day.

(More Photos)

Amsterdam Christmas Day

We met him as we walked along a canal. He had a pot that contained a few missed kernels of rice that he had fed to birds. He asked if we were from the best part of the US. Thinking I knew where he was going with the question – anywhere we named would be the best part – I responded by asking him which part is the best. He replied “north Texas” and the conversation was off at a run. I doubt that he said Texas because recognized Julie’s Texas accent. We confirmed some Texas roots and, in a humorous gambit, he turned the conversation to Bush. Even though the Dutch are involved in Iraq, he thinks “Bush should be back in Texas signing death warrants for a few people rather than signing warrants for so many in Iraq”. I asked “What’s your opinion of other US presidents?” He liked Eisenhower! Patting his head in a dramatic gesture, he replied “Eisenhower wouldn’t have a war. He would have used his head.”

Regardless of your political position and regardless of your evaluation of the war, I think you would like Jung. He is a photographer and appears to be 70 or, perhaps, 80 years old. Before we parted, I asked if Julie might take our photo and he agreed. “Jung, I wish we had a few hours to sit and talk. I hope to meet you again, my friend.”

Christmas was a sunny day with a blue sky. As we walked toward Central Station we found an open square that had booths and a carnival atmosphere. Children and adults were ice skating. It was entertaining to watch them. Some were experienced and some held fast to a rail for balance. Children always laughed when they fell. There was much laughter.

We stopped by a café for lunch and ordered the egg breakfast. We were delivered one egg, over easy, two slices of cheese, a thin shaved piece of ham, coffee and about eight pieces of bread that had been toasted on one side. Food isn’t important to me and, when we ordered, I didn’t notice that the waiter didn’t ask how we wanted our eggs nor did I question how many we would receive. In my opinion, the meal was excellent in quantity and quality.

We met Abby and Shaun to attend an Anglican service at four o’clock. The older I get the less I plan ahead. I don’t feel stressed about blundering into new or unknown situations so I didn’t ask questions and assumed we were attending a traditional Anglican service in a traditional church building. When we arrived, it was a building like hundreds of others. We climbed a four story spiral stair case into a relatively small loft room that appeared to have no organization. It contained a sound system, some tables and chairs, a few couches, large pillows on the floor, a few children and several twenty-something young adults. Coffee and hot chocolate were available. In the end there must have been about 50 people in attendance. We sang traditional Christmas carols with the support of guitars and a violin. The entire service was in English with the exception of “Silent Night” About half of those who attend are Dutch and the remainder are international students. I spoke with a man from Los Angeles who is in Amsterdam to speak at an international conference on some subjected related to church work. He and I were the old guys in attendance. He must have been all of 42. The parts of the experience that will remain in my memory are the youthful enthusiasm, dreams, sense of group identity, desire to change the world and blind faith in their abilities. Where will they be in twenty-five years? Will they be attending church with a more sedate attitude or will they be tired, less hopeful and perhaps cynical? It doesn’t matter. For the moment they are young and somewhat naïve. Life is as it should be for them. I’m glad I had the opportunity to take part and be reminded of a period of my life many years ago.

Forget that Christmas goose with side dishes and plum pudding. We chose to follow the ecclesiastical hot chocolate with pizza and a visit to Australian Chocolate and Ice Cream. As we left, a thin man of about fifty who was pushing a bicycle approached me and said “give me something to eat”. I was in the middle of a conversation with Shaun and didn’t handle the situation as I normally would. Rather than attempt to begin a conversation and offer to buy a meal for him, I quickly decided he didn’t appear to be an alcoholic looking for money for another drink and gave him all the change in my pocket – perhaps about five euros. He thanked me and went on his way. Later, Julie and I stopped by a fruit market and walked down the same street and I was approached by the man a second time. I reminded him that I had given him some money earlier. For a moment he appeared confused. I’m confident he didn’t remember me. Alcoholic? Mental problems? Other health problems? I don’t know.

Amsterdam has a red light district that’s noted in all the travel guides. Julie wanted to walk through the area. As we walked along she made the statement “I wonder how sad it will make me?” I questioned why the wanted to go there if it would make her sad. My personal thoughts were that Christmas was the perfect time for this experience. We’re spending money on entertainment and travel and Christmas gifts and live oblivious to the day to day existence of women who live what I perceive to be horrible liives. Maybe Christmas night is the time to be brought back to reality. We walked and searched for about thirty minutes before the cold led us to turn back to the warmth of our hotel. I regret that we couldn’t find the area. We’ll find it on another search but I don’t think the experience will be as dramatic. I wanted the contrast between children ice skating, young adults attending church and victimized women ignored and abandoned.

On the return to the hotel a woman in her early forties spoke to us as we walked near a residential area. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if she was speaking Dutch or English. As she repeated herself, I struggled to understand. It appeared she needed money for a hostel that cost nine euros. She had four and need five more so she wouldn’t have to sleep on the streets. She didn’t appear to be homeless. She pulled four euros and a debit card out of her pocket and explained that the debit card was being rejected for some reason. Was I being conned? I had three euros in change that I received at the fruit market so I gave them to her. She thanked me and made an effort to ask about us – were we Americans and were we on holiday. Was I scammed? Don’t know, don’t care. I’d prefer to lose a few dollars occasionally and maintain some of the youthful idealism that I had seen among the young Anglicans – the same idealism that I used to have in abundance.

Christmas day came to an end. It was a good day. Julie and I didn’t exchange gifts this year – not physical gifts. Instead we gave each other memories of experiences that we shared together and memories of people who crossed our paths briefly. Yes, it was a good day.

I've posted 23 photos in the gallery (

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Amsterdam - Day Two

It’s been one day and I’m ready to move. After wandering around this morning, I began thinking about how many countries I could live in for one year before I die. In my imagination, the adventures, discoveries and new friends sound fantastic. From my perspective, it’s a perfect plan but, for some reason, Julie doesn’t think much of this idea when I try to discuss it with her. She said something about money, language, work, etc, etc, etc -- but I employed that ancient defensive skill inherant in men and went deaf at the critical moment.

We had a leisure morning and set out about 11:00 to buy a strippen card to ride the tram to the center of the city. The card cost 6 and one-half euros and contains 15 lines. Once we boarded the tram, we folded the card and inserted it into a slot that stamped the time on the card above the line on which we folded the card. The next time we use the card we’ll fold it to a new line and stamp it again until it’s full. The city is divided into three zones so the card is folded over to the number of zones that we’ll ride in plus one. In other words, the farther we go the more it costs because we use more of the fifteen lines. It’s basically an honor system but I read that personnel do spot check riders and have the power to fine them on the spot.

On the way to catch the tram we passed several small open-front shops selling cheese, meat, clothing and flowers. We bought two deep-fried pastries at a booth which was operated by a man and his son. The Dutch signs were close enough to English so that we could ask for what we wanted and pay for them. The young boy waited on us. He was about eleven years old and spoke some English. I was amused by his look of ‘huh?” when I asked a question but he recovered quickly and handled himself with confidence. Language hasn’t been a problem. Many signs are in English and many people can switch immediately to English.

We decided the first day would be an exploring day rather than planning any specific activities. We walked and wandered through a part of the city center. The architecture can keep me going for hours and miles – uh, make that kilometers. In the older part of the city, the canals and streets are U-shaped around a center so I found it easy to wander without getting lost.

The streets are paved with bricks and stone or concrete pavers. Streets can be divided into four zones – pedestrian ways, bicycle and moped/scooter lanes, autos lanes and electric tram lanes – often without barriers. Pedestrians dodge bicycles, autos and trams. Trams pass within a foot or two of people walking the narrow crowded streets. I like this atmosphere of self-responsibility where I’m expected to take care of myself and get out of the way. I must admit that it would be scary with children.

Buildings have a cantilevered beam at the top of a peaked façade that contains a hook or eye bolt. Many of the stairways are small and circular or spiral so the cantilevered hooks provide a way to lift furniture to the upper floors.

Finding a restroom is a challenge. There is an occasional cubicle on some streets that can be used. We chose McDonalds restaurants. At each one, a woman sat outside the restroom at a small table with a saucer. After placing 25 or 30 cents euro on the saucer, she permitted access to the restroom after a quick cleaning with a cloth. It’s a pay-as-you-go approach to sparking plumbing facilities.

Plumbing fixtures are entertaining. I know that sounds weird but it’s true. In the US we press a lever but not here. I heard Abby say that it’s best to try pushing, pulling and twisting any lever, button or knob until something happens. It was good advice. Some that I’ve encountered include a knob on the top center of the tank that must be pulled up, two buttons on the wall (big and little flush) and a rectangular area to be pushed on the top right of a tank. I have yet to see two that are the same. OK, so I’m easily entertained.

We saw seven police today. Julie didn’t think they looked very intimidating on their bicycles which were cruisers. They wore soft caps rather than helmets and didn’t appear to carry equipment such as guns, clubs or flashlights. We never saw a police car.

As we roamed the streets, Julie looked for a Christmas gift for Shaun. The clerks at the men’s store from which she made a purchase were friendly. I mean exceptionally friendly and courteous and professional. They could teach sales.

Bicycles! 550,000 functional bicycles. I don’t think I’ve seen a new or shiny bicycle. They appear to be old, well used, weathered, faded and tired. All are cruisers with broad seats, front and read fenders and a rear shelf to carry goods. It’s not uncommon to see a person sitting sideways on the rear. Some have windshields and a small – very small – child’s seat behind the handlebars. Some have two child seats on the rear. Abby said she has seen them with a small child’s seat up front and two on the rear – a family bicycle. Some have extended front ends with large covered boxes that can carry several bags of groceries. Many of the bicycles have large weather proof saddle bags. I’m fascinated with these bicycles because they’re functional, non-polluting, sustainable and healthy. There are traffic lights for bicycles mounted in poles about four feet above the ground. Also, bicycles are equipped with bells. Very quickly, I learned a ringing bell means “get the heck out of the bicycle lane.”

I’ve seen few, very few, overweight people. I assume walking and bicycling contribute to the slimmer population. Another explanation is probably related to serving sizes in restaurants.

Julie has a small backpack that she often wears. Today she packed fruit, crackers and water. We bought cheese and stopped in a coffee shop for a mid-afternoon break. We ordered coffee and tea which was available in two sizes. The clerk held up a cup and asked “this size?” and I said yes – thinking it was a small. As I paid for our purchases I realized it was a large which was smaller than a small in the US. Perfect! Now, I’m curious to go to a McDonald’s. How big are the servings? Do they offer to “super size”?

We bought the cheese at a booth in a street that tugged at my imagination. Think of a centuries old, curved street lined with booths and tents selling food, clothing – everything. The history this street has seen is amazing. Now, it’s filled with two rows of booths selling CDs, DVDs, socks, food, kitchen gadgets and lingerie! As I looked at the incongruity between te building and items for sale, I began to wonder what other time-warped oddities the street must have seen over the centuries.

Shaun spent the day at home in order to complete some school work and received our delayed luggage which was delivered about 2 PM. We checked into our hotel late in the afternoon and met Shaun, Gregory (a philosophy student from Philadelphia) and Paul (a philosophy student from Hong Kong) at a theater about a mile from the hotel. The theater began with 15 minutes of commercials followed by 5 minutes of previews and finally the feature – Narnia. I was intrigued by the commercials. Some were in Dutch and some were in English. As I reflected on it, I realized it caught my attention because the theater in Flagstaff has a slide presentation of commercials rather than videos. These commercials were similar to TV commercials.

After the movie we went to an Indian restaurant and had a late, leisurely meal which we didn’t finish until about 11:30 PM. I remembered to order water properly – without gas. Yesterday, at the Greek restaurant, the carbonated water surprised me. “Water, please – without gas!”

At midnight, as we walked back to the hotel, we saw several people walking or riding bicycles – including several women alone. I wonder about the crime rate and will have to research it.

That was day two – another perfect day.

Now, the task at hand is to convince Julie that we can live in Europe for a year or two – after we finish building a straw-bale house and hiking the 800 miles of the Arizona trail and doing a few other things on our list of goals. Hmmm? Maybe we need to re-prioritize that list.

I'm posting some photos in my gallery but don't want to take the time to insert links in the text above. Too much to see and do. I plan on updating the gallery as often as possible. Cloudy skys made photography difficult so there aren't many photos or any good photos yet.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

It's a Wonderful Life

Ring! Ring! “Hello, I’m sorry but, I gave you 100 euros too much. Would you please return them?” The bank teller gave Julie 500 euros for 500 dollars. As we left Flagstaff, we returned them. Thus our adventure began.

We drove to Phoenix and stayed at a “park and stay” hotel that provided a shuttle to the airport. Last Christmas we couldn’t find long term parking at the airport and paid for ten days in short term parking.

Going through security in Phoenix was he easiest I’ve experienced. I think all security stations should be manned – er, staffed – by little old ladies like the ones we encountered. They were nice and it would have been difficult to get impatient with them.

The gate attendant failed to appear in Chicago so we waited while an attendant was summoned so we could unboard. After a not unpleasant wait and after boarding for London we learned the fuel for a plane at the next gate bound for Delhi has been loaded into our plane. We would have to wait an hour for excess fuel to be unloaded because we couldn’t land with the extra fuel. But wait, let’s unboard this plane, move to another gate and take another plane which will save time. But wait, we need to do some maintenance on this plane. We’ll leave in a short while. By the way, for everyone who expected to board the plane that we are now waiting to board, please go to the gate that we left and wait for the fuel to be unloaded. Two and half hours later we boarded. (Ummm? Which is faster? Wait one hour to unload fuel or two and one-half hours to prepare another plane?)

You jumped ahead, didn’t you? You knew we missed the connecting flight in London. If we hadn’t circled London and if the gate had been free, we might have made the next flight.

You jumped ahead again, didn’t you? You knew our luggage didn’t follow us from London to Amsterdam.

Customs in Amsterdam was a piece of cake. As we waited for the luggage that was still in London I watched the customs station so I would know what to expect. After reporting the missing luggage we went to customs and no one was there! Lunch break perhaps? We walked through, no alarms sounded and we were on our way.

We had some interesting experiences in the Amsterdam airport. – at least, I found them interesting. I went into the men’s room and the first person I saw was a woman. She was cleaning the sinks. Everyone else was ignoring her and she was ignoring us so no problem – except for the coffee that I drank. Ma’am, excuse me please but nature is calling with a loud scream.

While waiting for Julie, a scruffty looking young man, who appeared to be from somewhere in Asia, held his camera near the floor and took a photo of my bags sitting next to my feet. Did he get all of me or up to my waist? He moved closer and took a second photo. As he walked by he said thank you and wished me a merry Christmas in imperfect English. I returned the wish. Did I look weird and interesting? If, in the future, you see a photo of some luggage and a guy’s legs dressed in hiking boots and jeans, let me know. I’d like to see the photo.(Actualy, the lines in the tiled floor and the lights in the backgound and some other details made me think this guy knew now to take an interesting artistic photo. Glad I could help.)

At the luggage belt I heard a man’s British voice say “There it is!” While he held a baby, his wife approached a woman and traded coats with her. The coats were identical and the mistake was understandable and the apologies sounded interesting in proper English.

The taxi ride was exciting. The driver didn’t fasten a seat belt and I hadn’t fastened mine yet and was wondering if The Netherlands mandates seat belts when he pulled out into traffic. I decided to fasten mine – as quickly as possible. Ok, a kilometer is about six tenths of a mile so, if we’re going though the city at 140 k/h then we’re going……. Darn, I know it’s too fast for me without doing the math. The taxi was equipped with a GPS system and a brilliant display. I knew where we were before we got there! Actually, we saw very little traffic. I read that Amsterdam has a population of 750,000 people and 550,000 bicycles.

We’re here to visit Shaun and Abby (Julie’s daughter). Shaun is Canadian from Montreal. He and Abby married last August in Dallas and moved to Amsterdam two days after their wedding. He is earning a graduate degree in Philosophy and Theology at Amsterdam’s Frei University.

Newly married + in graduate school + living in school housing = Julie and I are sleeping in a cot! One cot, both of us. Not that I’m complaining! I like being close to the love of my life. We have hotel reservations starting tonight but Julie wanted to spend the first night with Abby and Shaun. Their apparment came furnished with two cots so we packed an air mattress – a big, thick, comfortable one. Yes, that’s right – the mattress that's in luggage in London.

Two of Shaun’s friends met us for supper at a Greek restaurant. Let’s see – two Texans (Julie and Abby), one redneck (me), a Canadian (Shaun), a philosophy student from Baltimore and a friend from India are eating Greek food in The Netherlands talking about the Chinese friend who had been invited but couldn’t join us. There we were – six of us with five Dutch menus and one English menu. What’s number 83? Never mind! I like surprises. (83 turned out to be a vegetable plate.) I can’t remember the name of the drink in the shot glass. It was potent stuff that tasted like licorice, burned on the way down and was made from anise seeds.

On the return from the restaurant we stopped by a grocery store. Amsterdam has a reputation for being expensive but I wish we could buy food at these prices in Flagstaff. Shoppers weigh fruit before taking it to the register because the cashier doesn’t have scales. "Excuse me, please. I’ll be right back with the weight." Julie saw a man in line behind us roll his eyes and say something that began with the letter ‘D’. Does the Dutch word for ‘dumb’ begin with a ‘d’? It was fun trying to read labels. I’m not certain what’s in the bread but it looked good so we bought it. I liked the store. They do not provide bags and they do not bag groceries. Shoppers bring bags and do the bagging. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons groceries appeared to be less expensive than in the US – or is this store an anomally?.

The last two days were perfect. I've enjoyed it all, including waiting on planes and searching for luggage – which may appear today. The sun is coming up and another day of adventure begins. Life should be adventurous and unexpected and surprising.

It’s December 24. Happy Christmas Eve!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

We're Off

In a few minutes, Julie and I are leaving for Amsterdam. We'll get back on January 2. We're taking a few days in southern Arizona and will return to work on January 9. Over the next two weeks, posts will be sporadic. We have reservations in a hotel that has internet access so I plan on keeping up with you, writing a few entries and, perhaps, including a few photos.

I've been busy lately and haven't kept up with reading and writing comments on all of your blogs. My silence doesn't communicate how much I appreciate each of you. Your friendship fascinates me. It's exciting to read your perspectives, to be suprised by your comments and to know there are some fine people in this world.

I wish all of you a merry Christmas, a happy holidays, a joyous winter solstice and a bright new year.

Acceptance and Beauty

For some reason he hated his body. Red hair, lack of muscle definition, complexion -- he hated it all. In his late teens he was attracted to a male friend who seemed to exude beauty, confidence, peace and joy. The friend died in a car accident and he was left with a void in his life. After serving in the Navy and experiencing some homosexual encounters, he entered a monastery and spent many years searching for a sense of peace. After leaving the monastery, life began to change. He grew to like himself and his body. He married a nun and, finally, after more than fifty years, he was dancing because he knew life as joy, peace, happiness and acceptance. I read his experiences in his autobiography -- "Dance of a Fallen Monk" -- and felt a sense of sadness that so much of his life appeared to have been wasted searching for something that was always within his reach.

It's tragic that for some of us it takes many years to accept ourselves. We compare ourselves to others. We look in the mirror and see a flawed person who doesn't measure up to some unrealistic, idealized standard. I wonder why we compare ourselves to others? I wonder how we can teach children to accept and love themselves? I wonder if the monk's experience is typical? Do most of us take fifty years to accept ourselves?

I look at old photos of myself standing with other children and I'm amazed to see peas on a pod. I wasn't different, special or unique! I remember youth as a time of great discernment. She's three months and six days older than I am. He's stronger. She always dresses in style. He...she...they..., on and on.

I don't know when I lost that ability. Now, I find myself blundering along in life. "I need a new pair of shoes. I wonder what's in style? What are other men wearing? Julie, help!"

Life is definitely more enjoyable now that I accept who I am. I don't mind being bald or having five extra pounds. Give me hair and I wouldn't be any happier. Remove the few extra pounds and life wouldn't be more wonderful.

I can't remember when or how I gave up comparing myself to others but I'm glad I did. Life is much more beautiful now that I forget about myself and get caught up in the beauty around me. I look out and see beauty in nature. I look out and see people -- attractive people -- and wonder why they consider themselves unattractive. Are they blind?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Strange Laws

I'm short of time today so, for my 100th post, I present a section from the January 2006 issue of the magazine Arizona Highways.

Life in Arizona - Territorial Days
Strange Laws

Although some of these Arizona Territorial laws have been taken off the books, they were actually enforced at one time. Better check to see if you are in violation.

  • No hunting camels.
  • Any crime committed while wearing a red mask was a felony.
  • Donkeys could not sleep in bathtubs.
  • When attacked by a criminal, you could protect yourself only with the same type of weapon as the criminal was using.
  • It was illegal to refuse a person a glass of water.
  • No hunting rattlesnakes without a license.
  • No suspenders, in some small towns.
  • In Prescott, you were not allowed to ride horses up the county courthouse stairs.
  • In Tombstone, it was illegal for adults to smile with more than one missing tooth visible.
  • In Mohave County, anyone caught stealing soap had to wash with it until it was all used up.
  • In Glendale, cars could not be driven in reverse.
  • In Globe, no card-playing in the street with a Native American.

Yes, there were camels in Arizona. They were brought in as an experiment.

This list makes me wonder how many laws we currently enact that will be seen as humorous, strange and mysterious in another hundred years.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Gravity, Cacti, Pottery and Responsibility

Gravity is perfect! It’s consistent. It’s dependable. It always holds us accountable.

Did you know that babies aren’t afraid of falling until about a week after they learn to walk. Nature knows when to turn on a fear of falling. Once a respect for gravity is acquired, it remains throughout childhood. There are no recorded instances of a child falling to his or her death in the Grand Canyon. (There was an instance where parents failed to set a parking brake and two children in car seats died after the car rolled over the edge.) There are many cases of adults falling. One author suggests a sign that reads “Children, watch your parents!”. Somehow, adults learn to be irresponsible.

With gravity, we are responsible for our actions. If we try to cheat or take a short cut or expect gravity to be forgiving we learn a painful lesson. Gravity holds us accountable. It’s unfortunate that we have created a world where we are not accountable. I think life would be radically different if all of our experiences held us responsible.

We replaced our cell phone recently. Some of the young people working in the Cingular store failed to provide good customer service. Why? I suspect that it didn’t matter. It appears their income didn’t depend on our purchasing a phone. They seemed to be insulated from the consequences of their actions. They don’t own the business. Perhaps that’s one of the great institutionalized evils of corporations. They remove a sense of responsibility and insulate employees from accountability.

Years ago I worked at a Ford stamping plant with 6,000 other workers. I’ve worked at places where I was paid during lunch breaks so I asked if we were paid for lunch time since we didn't punch out when we ate. The person replied, “No, we don’t get paid but we f*** them in other ways.” It was in that moment that I realized the orporate/union war zone was going to be worse than I anticipated. We worked in an environment of irresponsibilty. (Wow, do I have stories from that job.)

Julie and I bought potted cacti from Lee Jones who owns and operates Cactus Flats Gift Shop in Apache Junction, AZ. Lee seemed to be a fine person. He took extra care to wrap and package our purchases. He was friendly. As we talked I learned that he doesn’t take credit cards but will take checks. “Don’t have your checkbook? No problem. Take the plants and mail a check to me.” What? Yes, he lets people leave with over $100 in plants with the promise of a check. He said he’s never been cheated. As we prepared to leave, he made a special point of reaching across the counter to shake hands.

On Saturday in Sedona, we stopped by Red Hot Pottery which is owned and operated by artist Christine Tenenholtz. She creates pottery and her husband is a musician. We watched her working on a new creation and chatted. She said they are not getting wealthy but they are enjoying life and teaching their children that it’s possible to be happy, content and successful on a more modest income. We paid for some gifts and she give us some pleasant memories free of charge.

The thing these two people have in common is that they’ve learned they can’t cheat gravity and they can’t be irresponsible in their businesses. Their happiness and livelihoods depend on their choices and how they treat customers and people in general.

I need gravity-like accountability in other areas of my life. I need to hold myself responsible. The government doesn’t owe me a free ride. A union isn’t always a good thing. Corporations seem to be inherently flawed and merit my suspicion. I like taking care of myself. If I fall, don’t help me up. Instead, point out the foolishness of my actions that led to the fall. Be kind to me and hold me accountable. Gravity holds me accountable and I've learned to live peacefully with gravity. I can learn to be reponsbile in other ways. Give me the chance.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Play Weekend

I’ve learned that laughter, play and recreation are necessities.

Julie and I schedule some time each day for recreation – a walk together, a short 30-minute sitcom, sitting together and reading -- something. We plan our weekends around recreation. We work one weekend and focus on playing the next weekend. Even on work weekends we’ll take one-half day for some extended play time.

Today we’re going to Sedona to browse art galleries. Later in the day we’ll drive south toward Phoenix to lower altitudes and warmer weather. (At our house it’s been getting below zero this week). We’ll swim in the sunshine, talk with friends in a huge hot tub, cook together and watch a movie tonight. Tomorrow we’ll leisurely make our way home and do whatever catches our attention on the way.

I’ve learned that life is series of choices. I generally avoid either-or choices but I think this is an either-or choice. Either I can spend my money on recreation or I can spend my money on visits to doctors, prescriptions and preparations for a nursing home. I can’t live without food, water, sleep, oxygen and play.

Tomorrow’s post won’t happen until late in the day – if at all. I hope you have a good, fun weekend.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Bicycle's Lesson

I was a twelve year old American male suffering the cruel and unusual experience of not having a bicycle. How could I develop normally? Everyone had a bicycle but me. Life doesn’t have to be fair but it should be fair to me!

On the spectrum from poor to wealthy we camped on the left end. I felt guilty about asking for a bicycle but I faced that emotional trial head on and begged and pleaded without hope of success. The day a brand new, shining bicycle appeared I was amazed, excited and had a renewed faith in the fairness of life.

One week later – honest, just one week – I was sitting admiring this mode of transportation, this admission ticket to the brotherhood of young adventurers
and explorers, when a strange mood settled on me. Thoughts began exploding inside my head.

“It’s just a bicycle. It’s metal and rubber and plastic and nothing more. It’s not the source of happiness that I expected. How did my father afford it? It must have cost as much as he brings home in a week. Why did he buy it? It’s not his nature to give in to begging. Does he love me this much?” As I sat there staring at the bicycle I began to think about my father and how grateful I was for him. Financially, I may have been raised on the poverty line but I have good memories and an eternal respect for my father.

In was in that moment that I realized what’s valuable in life. Things have no value. Never again have they held an attraction for me. Only family and friends and people have value.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

An Apology

I have three posts on my other blog -- Grid Free. I'm using software that is new to me. Comment moderation is turned on which means comments are not visible until I approve them. This is not what I intended. I'm going to turn off comment moderation and trust people to post appropriate comments.

Also, I discovered I had a typo in my email address so I wasn't receiving emails to approve comments. I've corrected this and approved seven comments.

I sorry if you posted a comment and thought I was ignoring you. Tonight I'll respond to comments.

I plan on posting daily to the other blog beginning today.

Thanks for your comments. I hope you continue to read and reply as we search for a sustainable lifestye.


I remember when she started. I would occasionally stop by her office to talk. She had a pleasant laugh and was enjoyable. She did well in her job and became secretary to the president so I had fewer opportunities to talk with her. Things changed and I’m not certain why. She seemed to take sick days more often and laugh less.

She was single, had no children, was attractive and, to the best of my knowledge, had no problems in life. As time went on she grew more angry for no apparent reason. Co-workers tried to reach out to her but she retaliated with a mysterious vengeance until everyone gave up and began avoiding her.

One morning the president arrived early and, upon unlocking the outer door to the office suite, found her slumped over her desk. On the desk was a note, a small pool of blood and the gun. In the note she left her library to my immediate supervisor. When he received the books he was amazed by the number of self-help books. Only a few appeared to have been read.

I remember when he started. He was a student worker in the mail room. He married another student and they had one son. After graduating he was hired as an admissions counselor and began the climb to the top. He would grab the phone before others had a chance to answer so he appeared to be the only one working. He continued manipulative tricks, took credit for everything and was promoted to a director. He was moving up but was making enemies on the way. Later he moved into another director’s position but it was time to pay the piper.

His wife left him and moved in with another man. She began teaching their son to call the new man father and to call his real father by his first name. He lost his house and his home. During an annual performance review his supervisor refused to give him a raise and told him the behaviors that must change – or else. He was angry and he had cause for his anger.

A year passed. At his next review he received good performance ratings and a double raise. He continued to change. A few years later when he left to take a job in anther state, he had the biggest send-off of all that I attended – more friends, more gifts, more laughter, more sincere wishes.

Life is sometimes confusing. Are people selfish? Do we face life alone or are others willing to help us?

It appears she created imaginary problems in her mind. She pushed people away and bought books. When friends tried to reach her she continued to push them away and retreated more deeply into her self.

He created his own problems but when people reached out he was more receptive and open. He accepted encouragement and help and friendship.

I wasn’t born with knowledge. I wasn’t given an instruction book. I don’t have the phone number for a help center. But – and it’s a huge but – I think people -- people who are sometimes selfish -- are basically willing to reach out to me in my times of anger, blindness, self-created troubles. No matter how bad it seems to get, I try to hold on to this belief and keep a small door open to let others in. I know deep inside they will come with comfort and encouragement and words of wisdom. They will come – not to take but to give to me the friendship that will help me see once again the beauty of life. For me, this belief makes the difference between hopelessness and hopefulness.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


The young lady was having martial problems. I heard of her through a church member who was employed by her father-in-law. Counseling is not my strong point and I felt hypocritical talking with someone about their marriage when mine was a failure but, I agreed.

When we met I asked her to explain the problem. “My husband drinks and keeps beer in the refrigerator.”

As we talked she explained that she attended a certain church. I recognized it as a very fundamentalist church. While in college in a larger city she “backslid” and began going out with friends and drinking and enjoying the fun life typical of many young adults. In was during this time that she began dating her husband-to-be who happened to live in her home town which is a small town of about 2,000 people.

They were married, graduated and returned to this small town. She reverted to her previous life of attending church and living the straight and narrow. The problem developed when her husband continued to be himself and chose not to attend church with her. Ironically, her father-in-law was a doctor known to everyone in the small town. He had the reputation of being an atheist – which he wasn’t. Her husband’s choice was not a surprise to me. I knew her father-in-law. He has courage and integrity so I assumed the son was probably like the father.

I questioned her. “Does your husband drink too much? Does he ever get drunk? How is he with the children? Does he treat you well?” In response to all questions she described a good father, a loving husband, a man who never drinks to excess, a man who sounds like a fine person.

I asked one final question. “Are you afraid that some church members may visit you and see the beer in the refrigerator?” To her credit, she answered honestly – “yes”.

Since church and the Bible were extremely important to her, I pointed out passages related to alcohol. The Old Testament contains psalms that sing the praises of wine. Jesus turned water into wine – excellent wine. The apostle Paul advised Timothy to drink wine to alleviate an upset stomach.

I summarized my opinion by saying “It sounds like you are very lucky. You have a good husband. The problem appears to be your fear of church members and what they may think.”

I didn’t tell her what to do or give her advice. She was intelligent and educated. She didn’t need advice. Unfortunately, she had attended a church that ignored parts of the Bible or tried to explain certain portions in a way that fit the church’s preconceived beliefs. She attended a church that focused on “thou shalt not” and missed the passage shouting “everything that God created was good!”.

The meeting ended. I never met her again. Later, I heard that her father-in-law said that over the next few weeks she changed dramatically. He saw sides to her personality that he had never seen. She began to blossom and grow.

It’s amazing how liberating, rewarding, fulfilling and life-giving our existence becomes when we focus on the good things, turn a deaf ear to those who would tell us how to live and let our hearts, minds, values and experiences lead us.

In my opinion, religious people should have faith that my Creator will lead and guide me without their assistance. Churches should celebrate with me rather than dictate to me. For me, the unforgivable sin is not unbelief but fear. I choose to be unafraid and live my life with or without the approval of other people. I wish I had chosen this when I was young. My life would have been dramatically different and much more wonderful. The past is gone and unchangeable but the future -- the future will be wonderful!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


I moved out and rented a one-room, furnished apartment in an old hotel. It was late fall and I was a little worried. What would I do with myself? No yard to maintain, no house needing routine cleaning and maintenance, no sunlight after work so I could get outside, cut off from friends who didn’t know how to react. I hadn’t lived in town in years and felt the unpleasant transition from peace, quiet and nature to an alien urban life. I planned trips to the library and other activities and survived until just before Christmas when I rented a house nestled in the trees on top of a hill about five miles from town.

I wasn’t worried about being lonely or not having anyone with whom to talk. I enjoyed the end to the stress of a tragic marriage. Life was filled with hope and optimism.

Then it hit. Not loneliness nor a need for another voice nor a need to have another person in the room. I felt an overwhelming need to touch and be touched – just to sit shoulder and shoulder and read or take an item from someone and feel the brush of their hand for a fraction of a second. Why hadn’t I felt this need during the last years of my marriage when physical contact was purely accidental? What this need fulfilled by the cats and the dog? The depth of the need surprised me. Heck, I had the attitude I could handle anything and prepared for many struggles but this definitely wasn’t anticipated and I didn’t have a clue as to how to cope with it other than endure it.

My father had been deceased for about ten years and my mother lived alone. I phoned my sister and told her about my experience and encouraged her to touch Mom whenever she visited -- sit close to her, loop your arm through hers as you walk, hold her hand.

About this time I heard of an elderly, widowed woman in town who went in to pay a bill at the local electric cooperative. As she was slowly fumbling to get her checkbook out of her purse, a young insensitive man behind her grew impatient and told her to hurry up. The lady was shaken by the man’s words so the employee waiting for the check reached across the counter, patted her hand and told her to take her time and ignore the man. The woman began to cry! She said “I live alone and you are the first person to touch me in months.”

When I moved to Texas I lived in an apartment across the hall from a young woman who lived alone, had no family close and wasn’t dating anyone at the time. After I got to know her well enough I asked her about the need for touch. She replied that when she felt the need she volunteered to babysit for friends.

If something happens to Julie and I’m alone again, the first things I’m going to do are get a cat, volunteer to work with some women and couples in a nursery, volunteer to work in a nursing home and schedule a massage. I’ve learned some new coping skills.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Instructions for Life

I find it helpful to distill raw data into brief, manageable and usable lists of information. It's fairly easy to summarise a movie or taining manual but, how do we distill life experiences? What to include and what to omit? Here's one distilled list that I find worthy.
  1. Take into account that great love and great achievements involve great risk.
  2. When you lose, don't lose the lesson.
  3. Follow the three Rs:
    • Respect for self
    • Respect for others and
    • Responsibility for all your actions.
  4. Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.
  5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.
  6. Don't let a little dispute injure a great friendship.
  7. When you realize you've made a mistake, take immediate steps to correct it.
  8. Spend some time alone every day.
  9. Open your arms to change, but don't let go of your values.
  10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best answer.
  11. Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get older and think back, you'll be able to enjoy it a second time
  12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation for your life.
  13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with the current situation. Don't bring up the past.
  14. Share your knowledge. It's a way to achieve immortality.
  15. Be gentle with the earth.
  16. Once a year, go someplace you've never been before.
  17. Remember that the best relationship is one in which your love for each other exceeds your need for each other.
  18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in order to get it.
  19. Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.
The fourth item caught my attention: "learn the rules so you know how to break them properly". At first reading, I think I would have written "Find the bigger rule behind the small rule." However, the instruction is best as it is written. It's interesting to think about breaking rules "properly".

I found the above list on Matt's blog and have reprinted it with his permission.

The Dalai Lama is the author of this list.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

My Selfishness

When I posed the question on my last post, what did I expect? Nothing in particular. Sometimes, when we ask a question, we're fishing for a specific answer. Perhaps we want the answer so we can prove ourselves “right” or we’re trying to manipulate another person. I think both are bad choices. When I posed the question “why do you read my blog” I had no agenda and no list of suspected answers.

I was pleasantly surprised – very pleasantly. You told me some things about yourself.
  • You want to be a better person.
  • You love your father.
  • You are attracted to truth.
  • You shy away from self-righteous people.
  • You learn from others.
  • You value compassion.
  • You want community.
  • And the list goes on . . .

I was amused by part of George’s response (PS: George has a PhD in psychology): “…you are opinionated, tough, self-reliant, headstrong, anti-social, and sometimes troubled, yet temper that…” How do I temper my natural tendency to be an opinionated and anti-social ass? I think I do it by selfishness.

I’m selfish and I want to enjoy life. I don’t enjoy it when confronted by unpleasant people attempting to force their opinions on me. I don’t like ranting and raving and chose not to read blogs that are a continuous series of rants. An occasional rant is fine – we all need to vent but ranting shouldn’t be a way of life. Because of my desire to enjoy life, it’s a small, selfish step to temper my opinionated tendency. I don’t want to be around myself when I’m opinionated. The only way to avoid myself is to learn to temper that part of my life.

Anti-social? I’m going to interpret that to mean I pick carefully my friends and social interaction. It’s true. I do avoid some people -- actually, many people. Life is too short to expend it in the company of unpleasant people. Besides, there’s the danger of being influenced by them. I think we are influenced – good or bad – by the company we keep. There are millions of people around me so I choose to have a brief conversation with unpleasant people, excuse myself and move on to pleasant people or a time of solitude.

This brings me back to what you told me about yourselves. Read the list above. You are “pleasant people”. I like your company. That’s the good thing abut blogging. I can find pleasant, interesting, un-opinionated people who help me enjoy life. Thank you for adding to my enjoyment.

Friday, December 09, 2005


Why do you read my blog?

I posed this question on another blog that had a link to my blog. The response was “I just find your discussions of your experience with the Church fascinating, given that I've only recently been going. Also the stuff about attempts at self-sufficiency…”.

Recently, Julie asked me how many people I baptized and how many weddings I performed and I answered “I don’t know”. For some reason, I react negatively to counting heads. I remember people and experiences and these are important to me but the numbers aren’t.

So, when I ask “why do you read my blog” it’s not to change my posts to increase the number of readers. Rather, it’s a way of asking “what is there about me or my posts that interest you?”

Psychology, sociology, people and the world in general intrigue me. This is just a curiosity question. I have come to the point that I enjoy writing but, most of all, I enjoy asking questions. I think learning can be an addiction.

Why do you read my blog?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Blue Velvet Elvis

She came into my office carrying a framed blue velvet Elvis. I hadn’t seen her in several months. She was in her early twenties, unemployed and a member of a church I had formerly pastored for a few years.

She was selling lottery tickets for the blue Elvis as a Salvation Army fund raiser. (Salvation Army raffle? Something is fishy.) I tried to get a conversation going but she was insistent on selling tickets. I bought one, an amateur homemade ticket, and tried again to get her to talk but she rushed out of my office. I thought “a girl in trouble” as I watched her leave.

She was not well educated or socialized and in need of some kind of help. What to do? Her father had an elementary school education and bragged about going through school – “in the front door and out the back”. I was educated and perceived as “the enemy”. "He won't be receptive. Perhaps I can approach a family member who can intercede."

That night I went to the milk barn of a family member whom I highly respect. As he milked I explained what had happened and his response was “Let’s forget it. He won’t talk to me either.” And, so it ended – for two years.

The newspapers contained the full story. The young lady was with a “friend” who purchased some items with a credit card. Later, the “friend” told her the card was stolen and both of them were going to jail unless they repaid the money. The blue Elvis raffle was her attempt to repay a debt for which she wasn’t responsible.

It was a grand scam. “The businesses are still going to send us to jail. I have an attorney but we need money”. She and her family met the “attorney” at McDonalds over a period of two years until they had exhausted about $120,000 – all they and the grandparents had. Finally, when the money was gone, they were desperate to keep the daughter out of jail and contacted the county seeking free legal services. This led to the arrest of the three people who had defrauded the family and the return of about $80,000.

As I think about this experience I wonder why it happened. Was it a lack of education? Yes, but that’s not the heart of the issue. I think it was pride. The family was too proud to listen and talk and consider what others might say. They were aloof and separate and proud.

I understand this and empathize with them because I was raised this way. It appears to me that a lack of education and borderline poverty tend to cause us to become proud. Remember the phrase popularized in song: “I’m poor but I’m proud”.

As I think about this experience I wonder about my pride? How much remains? To what am I blind? Am I open to family and friends and receptive to their observations and opinions? I hope so!

Julie is educated, perceptive and has experiences alien to mine. I look to her as my first line of defense against my pride, blindness and ignorance. When she speaks, I try to listen and take her words seriously. Sometimes, she sees me better than I see myself.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

People are Changing

People are acting more friendly and I’m wondering why.

Over the course of my life, when meeting people, I’ve usually tended to smile and be pleasant. A few weeks ago I turned this up a notch – a bigger smile, longer eye contact, a smile in my voice. Things are changing and I’m wondering if it’s caused by my efforts or if it’s coincidence or what.

Two or three times a week Julie and I go to the weight room in the University rec center. The employees are students and maintain an aloof, cool image. When I present my ID card to obtain a pin for the machines I try to smile and use the magic words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. Generally, in response I receive a straight face and a quick ‘Yuh’. Lately, in return, I’m getting a slight smile and once or twice a ‘welcome’.

Last week during a walk through town, while waiting on a traffic light, I saw a man walking toward me who appeared homeless. There are several in Flagstaff who work the streets and parking lots so I prepared to say “Sorry, I don’t give money”. He appeared slightly intoxicated and walked directly to me and started talking. “Where are you from? How long have you lived here? This is the best place in Arizona – no, in the world – to live.” He shook hands with me and we chatted but he never asked for money or said anything other than pleasant conversation. When the light changed and we went our separate ways his parting words were “I’ll catch you on the flip side”. I hope he does.

A short while later, as I returned to work, at the same traffic light I met a young man – Matt – born in West Virginia, worked at the Grand Canyon, currently looking for work, has interesting opinions about our economy and the future of the US. We walked and talked for the next few blocks until our ways parted.

I could tell you more stores but will save them for another time. I don’t know for certain what’s causing people to be more pleasant but I like it. I like it very much.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The December Grouchies

To me, Christmas has become just plain weird and irritating. I tend to get a little grouchy in December.

In the building in which I work is a box titled “Providing Warmth to the Community”. We are asked to donate warm clothing and blankets. This morning the temperature is minus 1 but we’ll wait until Christmas to distribute the clothing and blankets. I miss the logic of waiting.

I’m expected to buy gifts for grandchildren who need for nothing material. The gifts they want don’t necessarily contribute to healthy development and the welfare of the world. I refuse to purchase video games that portray war, illegal and irresponsible behavior and a lack of reverence for life. I don’t feel good about buying DVDs that will cause them to sit and be a passive spectator. What to do?

In my previous life I refused some gifts and returned them unopened. My former mother-in-law would get angry with me and not speak to me for months at a time and then arrive with a Christmas gift! No thank you. Don’t feel obligated at Christmas. Meet me half-way each day of the year, please.

Julie and I received $200 week before last as a Christmas gift. We’re debating what to do with the money. There’s nothing we want or need. If we do want or need, we can purchase it ourselves. I wonder how the giver would feel if he received a thank you card stating that we donated the money to a worthy charity?

Here’s what I want for Christmas. Have a cup of coffee with me and let’s talk – I’ll buy. Tell me how you’re doing and the plans you have for the future. What have you been reading that’s caused you to wonder and be amazed at our world? Share stories with me about your children and grandchildren. Gifts will wear out, break, get lost, become obsolete. The memories we'll make will stay with us and improve with time.

That’s what I want for Christmas. Better yet, let’s not wait until Christmas. Let’s do it today.

Monday, December 05, 2005

More Future Thoughts

I like getting older. Life keeps getting better with each passing year. Yes, I’ve noticed some changes that can’t be classified as better – loss of hearing (which can be a blessing at times), less stamina, less physical strength, a few joint pains, etc.

Julie and I are at the point in life where we are learning from our parents. We’re seeing Alzheimers, nursing homes, inflexibility, and some other situations and behaviors that we would like to avoid. These experiences have caused us to think about and prepare for the years ahead. I don’t see this as bad but as affirming life.

I’m reading and working to maintain my physical health. For me, physical health is secondary as compared to mental, emotional and spiritual health. I’m focusing more attention on these.

I appreciated all responses to yesterday’s post. The final paragraph seemed to get the most attention. (In a future post I’ll address the part about the future that’s on the horizon.) When I wrote the final paragraph, I edited it a few times and removed parts of it and left it vague because I was short of time and was having trouble framing my thoughts. Following is an imperfect clarification of my thoughts.

I do not believe in ”a vengeful God”. Nature and life have led me to affirm a belief in a loving God. I find it sad that so much of many religions focus on the negative.

To say that I will “take a final hike to a beautiful isolated place and meet my time” does not mean that I will take my own life. "Meet my time" is a way of saying that I choose to accept my finiteness and that I’m not afraid of death. I enjoy hiking. It’s my number one recreation. A final hike gives me a sense of peace and acceptance. An isolated place gives me a sense of rightness, purity and wholesomeness.

I like to focus on the natural as opposed to the artificial. Given a choice between treatment that would extend my life for a short period of time and letting nature takes it’s course, I would probably choose the latter if the extension didn't include an acceptable qualifty of life for myself and those caring for me.

I don’t like drugs that mask pain. I’ve taken very few. I appreciate – not enjoy but appreciate -- some pain because it gives me a perspective on how fortunate I am to be healthy and pain free. About a year ago, Julie scheduled a lower endoscopy for me. I asked the doctor to do it without drugs. It was uncomfortable but it was a great adventure to talk with the doctor, watch the monitor and see myself inside-out – much better than watching a medical procedure on TV. The slight pain was a small price to pay.

I want my death to be this way. I want to see it coming and talk with people about it. I don’t want to waste away like my mother who does not remember me and is afraid and has no happiness. Instead, I want to maintain enough health and enough mental ability to have one last opportunity to say “life has been good” and to tell Julie “I’m glad we shared our lives. I love you.”

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Thoughts About My Future

I’m thinking about how long I want to live.

Years ago, in a philosophy book, I read a fictional discussion between two men discussing death. One man believed we have an optimal time to die and that we can miss that time. That passage has stayed with me and is becoming more relevant. My mother is 88, lives in a nursing home and, most of the time, is unable to answer even the most elementary question such as “Are you cold?” I have a sister who is an RN and cares for my mother. Most of the time my mother refers to Gale not by her name nor as daughter but as “my mommy”. Her body continues to live but she is gone. Perhaps, she missed her time.

Recently, I purchased Andrew Weil’s Healthy Aging: A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being. The book speaks not to extending our lives but to maximizing our health and our enjoyment of life during our natural life span. I find Weil’s summary of medical science and research exciting and intriguing. I find his discussion of doctors’ and corporations’ greed, manipulation and lack of ethics to be disheartening. Scientific research, corporate developments and marketing strategies are combining to create a stratified society that will be untenable. I do not want to live in the future that appears to be on the horizon.

Weil quotes a woman of 102 who comments on a doctor telling her, when she was in her mid-sixties, that she would probably live to be 100.

Don’t wish that on me, I told him. . . . All those people who want to live to 100 – what’s so good about it? Tell me – why do they think it’s so great? I feel alone. I can’t go to the store myself. I’m a burden. No, I don’t think I’m happy I’ve lived so long. As for people in their thirties who think they’d like to live that long – don’t they realize the world is just getting worse and worse? Don’t they read the papers? I don’t think you’re going to like it here when you’re 100. . . .The world is going to be upside down. . . .Ninety. . . . That’s a good age. That’s old enough.

I don’t want to live without a sense of freedom, a sense of control over my decisions and actions, a sense of joy and excitement and discovery and contentment.

My theology has evolved. No longer do I believe in heaven, hell, judgment or a vengeful God. My theology has distilled to one concept: “life is a gift to be enjoyed”. Death holds no fear but life without enjoyment and independence and some control holds great fear. I hope I’ll have the wisdom to know when – and the strength – to take a final hike to a beautiful isolated place and meet my time – my right time -- with a sense of gratitude and contentment. Somehow, this seems natural and good and right.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Building Mental Muscle

In yesterday’s post I wrote that I had read “as we age we loose the ability to recognize some emotions conveyed by facial expressions”.

Here’s the text of what I read.

“It also happens that elderly adults are worse than younger adults at recognizing negative facial expressions – fear or disgust for example. This finding provides support to the right-hemi-aging hypothesis – that, as we age, the right hemisphere tends to decline more rapidly than the left. Perhaps that’s why certain “crystallized” left-brain abilities such as vocabulary size don’t decline as fast when we age, compared to certain “fluid” right-brain abilities such as abstract spatial reasoning and facial recognition. In a recent study, young and old adults were asked to assign photographs of faces to categories of emotion (“Happy”, “Fearful”, etc.). Older subjects performed much worse than younger ones in identifying negative expressions, but as well as younger subjects in identifying happy faces.”

This above paragraph came from page 25 of

Building Mental Muscle: Conditioning Exercises for the Six Intelligence Zones

David Gamon, Ph.D. and Allen D. Bragdon
Copyright 1998
ISBN 0-7607-0521-6

The book cites many references but did not contain a reference for this study. A web search uncovered a similar study published after the book: Emotion Recognition Deficits in the Elderly (PDF of 56 pages).

The book Building Mental Muscle was a Christmas gift from Julie’s daughter. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is a readable summary of “the latest scientific research on how the brain works” and contains “an assortment of puzzles, exercises, and self-tests”.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Tactful Communication: Random Thoughts

Responses to yesterday's post were welcomed, enlightening and thought provoking.

Truthfully (uh, weak humor intended), in my mind I was writing about communication. When I began to see responses talking about "truth" I was pleasantly surprised. I didn't realize I had used the word "truth" in the post. I used "honesty" in the title and four times in the body.

Substituting the word "communication" for "honesty", here's what I thought I said:

"Before my wife and I married, I asked her to pledge "tactful communication". I expect her to communicate with me regardless of the pain or discomfort that it may cause me. I asked for "tactful" communication because I'm human and therefore fragile. I want communication in loving terms if possible."

In my first marriage I experienced hidden phone bills and other less-than-honest behavior. My son was drinking and had been arrested for DUI but I was never told and learned about it a few years later. In my mind, honesty and communication and relationship are linked and inseparable. "Be honest with me" can be translated as "communicate with me".

In my work experience, I have known employees who were viewed as problematic but no one had the courage - supervisors included - to communicate with them, to be honest with them. I think they deserved honesty - honest communication - so they would have had the opportunity to correct our misconceptions or change their behavior if they chose.

This morning Paul at Random Thoughts made a good choice of words in his post titled "SUN grocks it". I've heard the term "grocks" but was not certain of its meaning and looked it up on the web. (I'll leave this for you to do, if you're interested: "grocks/groks".) Day before yesterday, on another blog, Enlighten Me, I asked Stacey to explain her understanding of "enlightenment". Using a dictionary and looking up "groks" gave me a fairly precise definition whereas looking up "enlightenment" would be futile. It would be nice if we all had the same vocabulary and the same experiences. Communication might improve.

As we all know, communication is verbal and nonverbal. Did you know that as we age we loose the ability to recognize some emotions conveyed by facial expressions? Some research indicates that older people cannot recognize anger, impatience and frustration on the faces of others. Interesting! Perhaps, this is one of Nature's gifts as we age and loose speed, agility, memory, etc. People in the grocery checkout line behind us may be impatient with us but we don't recognize it and continue in our slow, happy world.

Communication is difficult. For me, at the heart of communication are relationship, patience, courage and effort.

Thanks to all who responded. I hope I heard what you said. If in doubt, I interpreted it in a positive light because that's the relationship we have with one another.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Tactful Honesty

In my first church a woman came to me one day and said "Do you know what your problem is?" I didn't but she proceeded to tell me. I don’t remember what she said but I've always respected her for being straightforward. It took courage and it took compassion. We don't let people we care about live with blindness and she thought I was blind to something.

Before my wife and I married, I asked her to pledge "tactful honesty". I expect her to be honest with me regardless of the pain or discomfort that it may cause me. I asked for "tactful" honesty because I’m human and therefore fragile. I want to hear the truth in loving terms if possible.

From my experience, honesty is rare. I value it greatly.