The Almighty We – Expectations

Community is absolutely necessary to humans, probably fourth in the hierarchy of needs after air, water, and food. But most of us don’t get too tangled up with our neighbors.

For one thing, it’s culturally appropriate in the U.S. to live independently. For another, we haven’t had much experience living together. First there were waves of immigrants, then the westward expansion, and finally, we all got cars and went our separate ways. We don’t depend on each other like villagers in developing countries, who need each other and know it. Americans are designed for independence.

As a kid, I idolized the heroes of 50’s and 60’s television, Tarzan, The Lone Ranger, Batman. They were rescuers who seldom, if ever, needed rescuing themselves. I became a movie buff and was entranced by “The Seven Samurai.” A village of farmers hire some samurais to protect them from the bandits who make off with their rice harvest year after year. The samurai risk much to put an end to this injustice. One of the most interesting facets of this movie is the secret longing these samurai have for villages they could call home. Sadly, they know they will forever be outsiders, and at the end of the movie, the seven go their separate ways.

Eventually, I too, longed to belong. When I first hooked up with Bob, he taught me how to be more of a team player. We traveled, and gained a reputation for throwing in with others. In this way we honed our interdependence skills.

Ten years ago, we made the big leap and joined a group of community-minded neighbors in North Carolina. We didn’t discuss our expectations, but we liked the concept. And for some years now we refer to ourselves as an unintentional community. We’re rather proud of that. Its working, this community thing, and we’re not even trying too hard. We get together for potlucks, come to each other’s aid when asked, and do our best to get along.

Until, lately, we decide to put some intention into it. We ask ourselves, “What do we want our community to look like?” Now we were faced with a “blind men and the elephant” situation. Some of us want a deeper spiritual connection, others, more programs and facilities. We all agree we want food grown on the premises, a school for our children, and a burial ground. We take inventory and begin deploying under-used assets. We say no to nothing, all new ideas are worth manifesting. We want it all without losing our peace and quiet, and security. The children swim in the pond, we are a village of fun and parties. My head begins to spin.

I reach into my memory for insight, and find a dog story. It was my first day at dog obedience class. I’d brought a young husky bitch, a sweet dog in need of a program. When the trainer explained that we dog owners could have it any way we liked it, I remember laughing to think it could be this simple. If we wanted our dog to jump up into our arms, that’s what we would teach it to do. If we wanted a dog to pull a cart, we could have that, too. Eat out of our hand, never touch our skin with its lips, pee outside, pee in the toilet; anything was possible. All we had to do was decide.

Back to our community. I give it some thought and can’t come up with anything structural. I don’t know what I want us to look like. I think we look fine as we are. I’m getting everything I need, perhaps a little more. I decide to turn the question around. “What do I expect from my community?” The answer erupts with clarity; acceptance, respect, and support. That’s all I want, and I want it for all of us. No more, no less.

Sounds simple.

Read Part I: The Almighty We – Proximity

The Almighty We – Proximity

I learned something about community from the dogs in Nicaragua. Thirteen years ago, Bob and I found ourselves managing a vacation lodge on a 3200-acre Caribbean island without police or doctors. We lived in small house inside a large chain link compound. Six dogs served as security guards.

The first time one of the dogs got outside the fence, we tossed her back in. The other five turned on her as if she were any other intruder. We were shocked. Occasionally all six of them would escape and become a snarling mass of teeth and flying fur. The rest of the time they were backyard pets, goofy and polite.

Their hierarchy was completely territorial, the lone pack member instantly turned outsider by a few millimeters of fence. The humans were equally insular, separated from the mainland by miles of water, and therefore connected to everyone on this little island. At one point we had a problem with someone who was interfering with our staff and wanted to ban him from the grounds. But the lodge owner stayed our hand with, “You can’t write anyone off on an island.”

Another thing about this island; although there were no elected officials, everyone knew where to bring their troubles. We took our problems to a handful of elders who could be counted on to shoulder the burdens of dispute. Every social ripple ended up at their doors.

It’s easy to see how people sort themselves into groups on an island. You are either on the island or not, resident or visitor. Within the group of residents are levels of belonging based on time. On Maui we were often asked, “How many years have you lived on the island?” “One,” earned a sniff, “Two,” a nod, and “Four,” the hint of a smile.

Likewise, down here at the bend we hesitate to write anyone off, there are a handful of elders, and concentric circles of belonging. Tami and Lyle are the center of our community for all three reasons. They’ve been here the longest, actually sold many of us our homes, and never shrink from the difficult work of keeping peace. Radiating outwards are those who have lived here and been actively involved in the community for fifteen years or longer, then ten, then five. Populating the outer circles are renters, interns, and future homeowners.

But, unlike dogs inside a fence, or islanders strapped to a rock in the sea, our community members are far more mobile. Regardless of what I want to think about my connection to my neighbors, the truth is I am often outside the fence. I hop in the car and join other tribes for a time, then come back home and try to get back inside the fence.

It’s a challenge to behave in a tribal manner despite our jet-setting lifestyles. No way did our tribal ancestors move freely in and out of other tribes, yet we often find ourselves in communities dozens or hundreds of miles from home. We are constantly reconnecting. Despite our mobility, we do our best to mimic the bond we imagine tribal members had with one another. I have to say, we’re doing a pretty good job.

‘Read Part II: The Almighty We – Expectations

Potatoes!

Those who know me well have heard me say, “I’m never bored,” and yet I worry my life appears boring. My life is as predictable as the sunrise, especially in the culinary department. Bob and I get up, make the bed, and sip coffee and cocoa at our desks, before wandering down the well-worn paths of our day. I drive to work three days a week, and divide my time at home between yardwork, desk, and kitchen.

My fourteen or so hours in the kitchen yield a rotating menu of our favorite dishes. We used to be gourmets, were never foodies, and have settled in the middle with extraordinarily simple, down-home comfort food. Of late, Bob’s been pulling potatoes out of the garden at a furious rate, so there are plenty of potato meals. You can tell we came from Irish stock! We’re eating new potatoes with sour cream and garden chives, potato salad, oven fries, scalloped or mashed potatoes and fried potatoes in our Saturday night burritos. When people drop by they leave with a bag of potatoes. German Butterball, Yukon Gold, Colorado Rose, Rose Apple Finn, French Fingerling, Red Thumb – yum!

Shelley and I swap tomatoes for potatoes. There’s nothing better than a slice of home-grown heirloom on toast with lots of mayonnaise after my Sunday morning walk with Shelley. Last week she put up a half a bushel of her tomatoes sauce and gifted us a couple of jars with one of her Delicata squash. I went right home and put eggplant parmesan with roasted squash on the menu for Tuesday. The next week she gave me cucumbers which I turned into tangy refrigerator pickles. On Thursday’s Bob returns from farmer’s market with eggplant, sweet corn, cucumbers, and squash. Most of our other neighbors aren’t keen on potatoes. “No thanks,” they say, eyes rolling, “We’ve got plenty of potatoes.”

On Sunday I plan the upcoming week’s menu on a dry erase board. Lately, I don’t have to do much erasing or writing. We may as well have cheezburgers with potato salad on Monday again this week. Ditto for new potatoes and sauerkraut on Thursday (did I mention that Bob makes delicious sauerkraut using cabbages from Granite Springs Farm) chick’n sandwiches and sweet corn on Friday, Saturday burritos with fried potatoes, and potatoes again on Sunday.

We bake all our bread and meat analogs: veggeroni, ribs, veggie burgers, breaded seitan cutlets. Whenever possible we buy this season’s dried legumes for black bean soup, Greek butter beans, chili, garbanzo Brunswick stew, baked beans, and cassoulet. These are nice served with a crisp salad and corn tortilla quesadillas. We doll up our salad with homemade croutons and pickled beets, refrigerator pickles, tomatoes, and homemade balsamic vinaigrette.

I love the instant gratification of the kitchen and will often go there rather than my desk. A few years ago I started listening to audiobooks while I cook which made it even more addictive. Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, The Evanovich “One for the Money” series, “Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Gone Girl, Poisonwood Bible, and Go Set a Watchman. I get them from the library or stream them off Youtube. Next up, one of my very favorite reads, 100 Years of Solitude.

As if this weren’t enough fun, Bob set up a projector and screen in our living room so we can watch part of a movie or TV series while we eat dinner. We found Downtown Abbey especially enjoyable, and are addicted to House of Cards. Loved Stranger than Fiction, Whatever Works, Sweet Bean, Zootopia, and Sully. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Youtube, we are seldom at a loss for something good to watch. “Dinner and a movie with my best friend, again!” Bob predictability exclaims.

This is predictability by design. We two old folks have spent years fine-tuning recipes and rituals that bump our quality of life into the “no comparison” zone. No matter what challenges our day presents, we close with a stellar meal, and this time of year it usually involves potatoes. Call it boring, I call it delicious!

Boiling Point

I step outside into a shroud of stupefying air. Still chilled from the air conditioning, the hot air feels good to me, like when I open a hot oven on a winter’s day. I breathe it in. It tastes like a movie of my life, a feeling so basic and all-powerful, some might call it god. If this is my last breath, I happily surrender.

I imagine this is what it feels like to freeze to death. You stop fighting to keep your insides at 98.6. You peacefully give in to the elements and become one with the world outside your body. You are reclaimed.

I poke around in the yard until self-preservation kicks in and the heat shepherds me inside. Back at my desk, I see that Amy Armantrout has shared an article about global warming on Facebook. She’s looking for feedback, so I dive into “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells from the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

I’m surprised at what I learn. Apparently, there are ancient diseases trapped in Arctic ice, “an abridged history of devastating human sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun.” As the planet heats up, we’re only a few degrees away from another round of Bubonic Plague.

Meanwhile, right here in real time, the air is becoming increasingly more toxic. I learn that our cognitive abilities are negatively affected by high carbon dioxide-to-oxygen ratios. And that carbon dioxide just reached 400 parts per million and is estimated to reach “1,000 ppm by 2100,” Wallace-Wells writes, “At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.” Maybe that explains why we’re not all worked up over what’s coming down the pike. “Surely this blindness will not last,” the author pleads with his readers.

Perhaps it’s for best, this dumbing down. Natural selection may solve the problem the way Kurt Vonnegut Jr. proposed in his novel, “Galapagos.” In that story, the isolated human survivors of a world-wide disease outbreak evolved into furry, sea lion-like creatures without a care in the world. Turned out our big brains were the biggest threat to humanity ever invented.

I think back to my surrender on the back porch moments ago. I was as comfortable as a frog in a pot of water brought slowly to boil. As Daniel Quinn observed in “Ishmael,” put a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will hop out. But, put a frog in a pot of cool water and bring it slowly to a boil, and a frog will sit there and turn into stew. We are that frog, and our pot is boiling.

The Decommissioned Centurion

“Our fickle bodies,” Bob remarked when I showed him my throbbing index finger. “All I did was pull a weed,” I whined, laying the swollen digit back on its bed of ice. Tami saw me minutes after it happened, a purple crease on a pale sausage. She comforted me with “This happens to me sometimes; guess we’re getting old.”

Only a few days earlier, I’d had to dig a splinter from underneath the nail on this very finger. I had washed my hair and laid the towel to dry over the wooden porch railing. After dinner, I grabbed at my towel and yanked my hand away when the dark sliver of wood bit into my finger. I didn’t quite see stars. Instead, I flashed on one of those World War II POW scenes the nuns used to show us in grade school before the duck and cover drills. (No wonder I dream about body parts.)

This seemed like more than a coincidence. Same finger, same week. I thumbed through Louise Hay’s “Heal Your Body” list. Under Problem, I found “Index Finger” and under Probable Cause it said, “Represents ego and fear.”

I didn’t see that coming! I suspected I might find something about fault finding, finger pointing, criticism, or judgement. I began to doubt the woman I’ve trusted since the 80’s. There’s nothing wrong with my ego, I thought, and I’m not afraid of anything.

I slept with my right hand elevated, and in the morning my finger was back to normal. But I couldn’t let go of Louise’s verdict. The words, “fear,” “ego,” “criticism,” and “judgement,” scrabbled at the back of my mind until I knew I had no choice but connect them.

“Do you think ‘fault finding’ has anything to do with fear?” I asked a friend, afraid of her answer. She’s one of those friends, though who knows how to deliver honesty in a velvet glove. Also, we are both first-borns, both diligently responsible for the behavior of our younger siblings. She realized she had to be in charge the day one of the neighbor kids drowned when she wasn’t paying attention. And it seems I always knew. My mother told me recently that I was “the centurion – the guard who watched out the door to see if everything was alright with my brothers.”

So we learned at an early age to recognize potentially dangerous behavior. It was our job to head mishaps off at the pass. Kids with matches, no, no, no, no. Swimming too far out into the bay, nope. All must be reported and/or addressed. Elsewise, we would hear about it. “Why didn’t you say something?” “How could you let this happen?”

That explained the connection between fear and judgement. As for ego, we agreed that pointing out other people’s faults is grand food for ego. I hated to think I was one of those people who make themselves feel good at other’s expense but the writing was on the wall. There is only one verdict for this unpalatable epiphany. Throttle back on the finger pointing. Decommission the centurion.

As a litmus test, I asked Bob what he thought. “That would be a good thing to work on,” he said with more gusto than expected. So I’ve stepped away from the score board. My decommissioned-self suppresses vocal criticism and avoids passing judgement. Blissful impartiality, here I come!

I thought it would be harder, this turning a blind eye. I imagined shivering in a corner with withdrawal symptoms. But it’s been as easy as tossing aside a winter coat on a warm day. Sure, I still notice the behavior of others, but I don’t feel the need to criticize. I’m loving my new freedom, and I owe it all to one little finger.

Paradise Unhinged

Against proper judgment but tacitly supported by their spouses, two of the sons and the oldest, a daughter, drove into the heart of Amish country. On the surface they were checking on the condition of their parents’ vacant house, euphemistically referred to as “The Farm.” In reality, it was voyeuristic reconnaissance, and this year the daughter had upped the stakes. She aimed to remove a photograph from the third floor bedroom wall.

It was a picture of her mother holding her as a baby, something her mother might give her if she asked. But she hadn’t asked and hoped not to get caught. All but the oldest son moved away decades ago and once a year the daughter came to visit. In previous years, they had left everything exactly as they found it, out of respect tinged with childhood fear.

At eighty-five and ninety-one, their parents were beyond navigating the narrow pathways and stairs. Ten years ago, a bone-crushing car accident put the woman in a nursing home. When she regained the use of her legs, the kids helped her move to an apartment in town without stairs, near the bus line and the church. The man remained alone at the farm for another seven years. Without his wife to temper his hoarding habit, the trails inside the house had filled in so he moved to town, too.

With the sun low in the sky and their blood pumping, the three grown children parked on the rocky lane some distance from the house. “I don’t want to scratch the paint on my van,” explained the oldest son. The younger son grabbed a bag of work gloves and they climbed up the rocky driveway through a tunnel of encroaching undergrowth.

At the top, the youngest pointed out two tall trees and told their stories, how they came into possession of the seedlings and planted them forty years ago. Back then they had repainted the house, turning the faded green shutters to red. The mother had always wanted a white house with red shutters.

Not long ago, the man had siding put on the house and it still looked pretty good. But the barn has since gone to ground, the garden buried in weeds, and a legacy of cars rust into the landscape. There is the first car the daughter ever drove, forty-seven years earlier, sinking under half a ton of books. Their father was an English professor.

Twenty feet from the front door, they noticed a light on in the living room. They imagined a squatter with a shotgun. But they could see that the front door was still blocked by its wall of clutter. They stalked the perimeter, high stepping through brambles and poison ivy. The daughter tied back her long grey hair, her spinal cord tightening with each step. All they found were broken windows and animal trails. No fresh trash, no path worn by human weight.

They returned to the front porch and pawed through the rubble like badgers, handing stuff back bucket-brigade style. Hedge shears, a scoop shovel, weed trimmer, an axe. “That might come in handy,” the daughter remarked. The youngest chuckled, breaking the tension. “This is insane,” they thought.

Eventually they were able to pull the storm door open several inches. The daughter knocked and called, “Hello! Anyone home?” Hearing nothing, they pushed at the inside door until they could get an arm through. Things must have shifted. “We used to call it ‘the shifting sands'” said the younger son, “Put something down and it disappears.”

Despite the trouble with his back, the older son knelt and snatched at the avalanche of debris, getting ahold of one piece at a time and tossing it further inside the kitchen. They tested the door every couple of minutes until it gave, wide enough to squeeze through, breath held. It was growing dark and they’d left the flashlight in the car. The youngest used his phone to light the way. Dread closed upon their hearts but they forged ahead.

They slid across a morass of plastic bags and magazines, through the kitchen to the narrow stairs, willing them to hold their weight. Without incident, they made it to the second floor, pausing to behold the ruins of three bedrooms. Outside, the sun had set. The photograph in the attic beckoned.

Another steep flight of stairs, and they were standing in a room barely big enough for the queen-sized bed, the same bed the parents used to conceive all six children.

Beyond the bed, on the wall next to a broken window was the picture. The daughter stepped towards it and something squished beneath her feet. Her brother raised his cell phone flashlight to find the floor was covered in animal scat. “Animals,” said the older son, “You know they’re in here hiding,” and stepping around his sister, he removed the picture from the wall.

She returned to the hotel exhausted, clutching her prize. Her husband’s balmy voice brought her into the present, a place from which to shake the past. She felt dirty, buried, bruised. She went through half a bar of soap in the shower, felt as if she were swimming towards the surface, towards the light. She joined him in bed and slept like the dead.

Bridging the Gap

As he does every year, Bob rents a car and drives us to DC, our first stop on an annual trek to see my parents and four of my five brothers. We spend the night at our friend Ned’s and pick up my brother Joe at Dulles in the morning. He’d nearly missed his flight. “It’s not a vacation unless you’re running through the airport!” He says this every year.

We decide to make a vacation bingo card. If Jim says “You know, it’s funny,” we’ll mark off a square. If John suggests we taste the honey locust blossoms, if we sneak out to the farm, if Dad loses his temper, if the great grands run up and down the wheelchair ramp and piss off the old folks.

The three of us, me, Bob, and Joe make our rounds. We have a two night layover at Jim and Kathryn’s lake house before heading west. They’ll catch up to us in a couple of days. I know we’re getting close to Shippensburg when the scent of suburbia gives way to liquid shit. Cow manure is the smell of Amish country in the spring.

We’re staying in the fourth floor turret room at Shippen Place. Just like last year. Entering the lobby I’m hurled into 1970. Heavy metal head banger riffs, and plump teenagers hoisting trays for pocket money. They haven’t changed the tape in years. The heart thumping music makes me edgy. I choose the back stairs for my escape and find myself in an alley named Apple Avenue. Someone has stuck a bleached white washcloth between the door and frame so they can get back in without going through the lobby. I hesitate for a moment before wedging it back in place.

Outside, the streets are refreshingly warm but soon turn steamy as I trudge across a memory landscape. I clip past the Methodist Church with the loudspeakers that ring the quarter hour from seven until ten. I pretend not to see a man smoking on his back steps in a dingy beater tee. We kids used to call them “grandpa overalls shirts.” I pass another church and another, parking lot after parking lot.

My fact pattern begins to blur. I’m not seeing things as they are but rather as they were. I first hear that phrase from Kathryn. “It’s lawyer speak for ‘the story.'” I return to our room where Bob’s earnest smile brings me back to the present. Thank god I met this man, I think.

I wonder how my brother John can live here. Like me, he left as a teenager, but he and Darla moved back after they had their three kids. Unlike us, Darla grew up here. Her parents and grandparents are buried here. Their ten grandchildren have never known any place else. They play in the same parks she played in as a child.

The morning after Jim and Kathryn arrive in Shippensburg we go for a wander. Kathryn and I follow Jim to a patch of lawn where he peers across the street trying to picture a house that’s no longer there. It seems significant, so Kathryn and I obligingly squint toward the object of his mind’s eye. He shows us a hill where he lost control of his bike and crashed into the back of someone’s leg. He got yelled at, he says. Jim was only five years old when we moved here from his first home in New Jersey. It was my eighth move. I was sixteen with one foot out the door.

We cross the tracks near where the Harpers used to live. Those afroed twins everyone called “the Harper girls” were my closest friends during that year and a half. We were a triad of trouble. Together we mourned when Jimi Hendrix, and then Janis died. Once we decided we’d had it and ran away to their older brother’s place in Harrisburg. A day or two later we were arrested while sitting at a dimly lit bar reaching for three open bottles of Rolling Rock.

We walk past what used to be Julia’s house, a handsome Victorian that dominates the corner of Orange and Prince. Julia took me in when I was seventeen, after my parents and I mutually agreed to split. Pointing, I say “I lived in that room up the stairs behind the little window.”

We cut through Grace United Church of Christ’s parking lot where I remember waking up with the mother of all hangovers, grateful to have blacked out most of the night before. I had made the mistake of going out with a nice looking guy from school. He showed up with a friend and a bottle of rum. After that I stayed away from the clean cut guys and stuck to freaks, geeks, and blacks.

Walking past a Victorian home with a pointy-roofed turret Jim says, “You know, it’s funny – I used to be afraid of this house.” Kathryn says she loves the house, even its unnaturally pointed hanging baskets and hollow-eyed tower. Nothing about that house is lurking in her past. But I’m looking at it through Jim’s eyes and feel his shudder, his urge to run. We turn back towards the hotel. It’s close to ninety degrees and I’m spent, sticky and soiled.

The next day, I climb into my brother John’s van for a trip to North Mountain. The honey locust in his yard has mostly dropped its blossoms and they are drifting like snow on his driveway. “These are old” he says, shoving at them with his boot toe, “They taste better when they first come out.” A block away we pass another tree just coming into bloom. “Grab a bunch of those, youngster,” he drawls. I reach out my window and bend back a branch. I pop some in my mouth and smack my lips for emphasis, like a giraffe. They are good, kind of chewy with a hint of vanilla. John is laughing.

John and I hike a shaded trail to an old dam and look across a valley that used to be a lake. On the way down, he dives into the undergrowth and retrieves a green canvas camp chair. I test it for comfort while he leans back on a log. We talk about everything. After we’ve rested he returns the chair to its hiding place.

On the way home John stops in front of a small house with two barns and a “For Sale By Owner” sign. He and Darla are thinking of selling their two-story home, planning ahead for their golden years. I dream along with him for a while before he pulls the van into gear and drives through a 130-year old covered bridge. I imagine the sound of horse and buggy echoing off the timber sides. Livestock doesn’t spook at the water below while crossing a bridge like this. Some people call them kissing bridges.

Out here amid the orderly farms, away from that little asphalt town with its forty-eight churches I see so much more than that old fact packet of teenaged angst. I feel a sense of place and see generations of family when I look through my brother’s eyes.

Windows

I can’t abide clutter and yet I do it to myself every morning. After I’ve brushed my hair and teeth, after plopping down on the carpet beside the bed for some speed yoga, after boiling water for cocoa, I boot up the laptop and sit in front of double south-facing windows.

I straighten my desk. To Do list on the right, mug and mouse on the left. Turn on the phone or maybe not yet. I push my work folders and notebooks into a drawer and square up my personal notebooks, the ones that are allowed to live on my desktop. Let the game begin.

Within minutes, I’ve opened six tabs and eight windows. Email, Quickbooks, Word, Explorer, Photoscape, spreadsheets, calendar, news, and weather – all clamoring for attention. I study the grackles and the morning post-rain shine of the willow oak leaves.

A window smudge reminds me that I’ve been putting off cleaning the windows for two months. My stomach winces. So much to do, so much left undone, I can’t decide which horse to let out of the gate first and now there are six of them galloping across my mind.

When this happens, I usually get up and start a load of laundry. Fill the bird feeders. Grab the weed trimmer. Scrub a toilet.

It’ll be a miracle if I get my mother’s memoir registered and printed to proof by May 12th. Meanwhile I’ve been avoiding a pile of letters from State Workers Insurance Fund, my living will, and other equally important, but not urgent projects. I’ve already decided I won’t get the windows washed until June.

Then there’s that second April post I’ve been stabbing at. Well, there’s one thing I can do, I think, I can write about windows and pass it off as a blog post. One thing done!

Kill Chicken, Start World War III

“Kill chicken, show monkey,” the Chinese doorman at the Tianjin Hyatt shrugged in reference to a geopolitical news story. This was in 1998 when Bob and I were working in northern China, living in a hotel, absorbing all the nuances of the Far East. I pictured emboldened macaques terrorizing a barnyard flock, the farmer stomping out ax in hand, grabbing a hen and wham, “Squawk!” Monkeys disperse, point taken.

After the great swearing in a couple of months ago, I diligently read news from all sources searching for patterns, hoping to get a handle on the unwieldy new normal. As the new administration gaffed and blustered its way into life, I saw an army of new hires elbowing each other for position amid the DC old guard. At center, a boyish man sharpie in hand, showing off his signature, ignoring intelligence in favor of TV’s talking heads, the trophy wife flown in for photo ops.

Shooting from the hip, the big fish fired off a travel ban. When a federal judge reversed the order it must have dawned on him that he was swimming in a big pond now, magnitudes bigger than his real estate, global-golf-course pond. I eased back into headline scanning mode, relieved to see checks and balances at work.

And then this week, Syria happened. I plunged back in, unable to resist this headline:

When China’s Dinner Partner Went to War – Evan Osnos 4/7/17
The first face-to-face encounter between the American President and his Chinese counterpart was expected to follow a predictable arc—the plutocrat and the Communist, the blowhard and the sphinx, the weary protectionist and the reluctant globalist. But, just after eight o’clock on Thursday, as the two leaders were polishing off their New York strip and Dover sole, Trump informed Xi that he’d launched cruise missiles against Syrian armed forces.

In the medium and long term, China now has a larger concern: if the emerging Trump doctrine permits him to attack at will—even between the appetizer and dessert—putting some pressure on North Korea might be Beijing’s more desirable option. But it must now also prepare for four years of an American President whose strategy and doctrine can change from one week to the next. In the field of national security, unpredictability is usually the favored tactic of small powers, not large ones.

As noted by Steve Coll in another irresistible story “Trump’s Confusing Strike on Syria

In the modern Presidency, firing off missiles has become a rite of passage.  …
Last Thursday, his seventy-seventh day in office, President Donald Trump pressed the cruise-missile button, sending fifty-nine Tomahawks to strike an airbase in Syria.  …
The President’s decision was familiar for being both spontaneous and confusing. As has happened before, he was apparently inspired to act by what he saw on TV.

Well, you just can’t make this stuff up. Especially the part about eating dinner with the Chinese president, getting up to push the button on Syria, then sitting back down for dessert. It was a classic “Show Monkey” move if I ever heard of one whether he meant it that way or not. Quite likely, the timing was accidental (maybe he had the TV on in the corner of the room.) Probably he’d never heard of Kill Chicken, Show Monkey. Even more delicious, the air strike didn’t sit well with Syria’s ally, Russia.

The other day I was walking with a friend, talking each other’s ears off when a moment of silence between us revealed an unnaturally quiet world. No birds, crickets, planes, traffic, or frogs. Total silence. “Wow,” I said.
“I wonder if something has happened?”
“I know, right?! Well, I guess we don’t have to worry until we see the mushroom cloud.”

I suppose I shouldn’t make fun of a dire situation. I guess I should be afraid. But I don’t know how to fear something I have no control over. There’s no point in obsessing over stuff I can’t do anything about. So, for now at least, I’m reading the news, morbidly fascinated and keeping my eye on the horizon.

My Big Brother Johnny

My brother John shows his greatness in small ways. Often it’s the unkind word that fails to leave his lips. His patience with our aging parents is immeasurable. Ninety and eighty-four, they cling stubbornly to their illusion of independence. If not for John’s tireless support they would be paying for assisted care. Dad lives with John and his wife Darla, and John shuttles him across town to Mom’s apartment before driving to work.

My marks are not high when given the chance to test my caretaking endurance. Twenty minutes outside the Giant Eagle rest rooms, melting ice cream in the car outside pushed me over the edge last May. The shopping trip had taken an hour and a half longer than planned, the second stop announced after we’d paid for the ice cream at the first, after I thought we were headed home on an eighty degree day. By the time I got my mother back to her apartment, (“It’s alright dear,” she’d said, “I like my ice cream when it’s soft”) I lost control and let fly regrettable words. We’ll see how I do this year.

My brother works with developmentally challenged people, a source of great amusement to him. His clients are unapologetically candid, he says, crude and refreshingly unfiltered. He likes people, it’s as simple as that.

John is deeply talented but has put his creative career aside in favor of enriching our parents’ sunset years. Although his photography should be legendary, he never toots his own horn. He understands light like no one else. His creative eye unerringly homes in on the essence of a scene. He’s done a lot of studio portraits, many of them pro bono and has an uncanny way of teasing out his subject’s inner beauty.

You would never know that John suffers from migraines and back pain. At family events he works the room with tripod and cameras, mining for gold. Looking over photographs from our youngest brother’s wedding, we’re captured in candid enjoyment at round tables laden with food. John is missing. He’s behind the camera and I realize, has been on his feet the entire time. It’s all right, he tells me, it’s the editing not the standing that bothers his back.

John has a gaggle of grandkids and they crawl all over him, loving his attention, stealing his glasses. They call him Grandpa Basil. They make movies together, sophisticated ones with plots and multiple camera angles. The kids are great, flawlessly in character but I know how much behind-the-scenes patience it takes to pull this off. How John does this after a full time job and running our parents around, is beyond me. Surely he must pick the days between headaches, although I can’t imagine they are easily scheduled.

I was a pampered only child, regarded as miracle incarnate by my parents, until their next miracle appeared. Like many first-borns I felt dethroned, but quickly shifted gears after realizing I now owned a real-life doll baby.

We were the perfect two child family for three years. There’s a lovely photo of us, sitting on the stone steps outside our home in Norvelt, Pennsylvania, my mother beaming, my father slightly distracted by the camera timer, Johnny and I unaccustomed to sitting still.

Dad immortalized our relationship in another photograph. Johnny and I are in our Easter best, he in a jaunty sailboat shirt and me clutching my hatbox. I’ve got a firm grip on my little brother with my other hand. My attitude is doting and overbearing, his response unabashedly trusting. Johnny bought into my wisdom until he was old enough to question my authority, after which he was wise enough make it appear he still trusted my judgement.

Once we were playing on ice and it began to break. I watched in horror as Johnny began floating out into Hudson Bay. “Jump!” I shrieked and he stepped off into the knee-deep water without hesitation. Another time we were playing with friends, rolling around on their lawn, when the younger girl picked up a huge rock and dropped it on Johnny’s forehead. Her big sister fetched her mother, and I ran all the way home to tell mine. Mom flew out the door leaving me in charge. Terrified he was dying, I prayed the rosary again and again until she brought him home, alive.

John jokes about the incident, “I think she was trying to impress me.” he says. He is one of those guys who sees the funny in everything. John is a gifted mimic, too easily assuming personas to illustrate a joke. Even his complaints turn into jokes. We talk on the phone after dinner sometimes, laughing until tears flow and my jaw muscles seize up. “Remember that kid,” he’ll begin and I know I’m in for a good one.

In our thirties, John and I visited our grandmother’s home. “Let’s pretend we’re little kids again,” he suggested, picking up my hand. “We would walk like this” he said, taking a tiny little step towards the terrace above the vegetable garden. Off we went, climbing the concrete steps, navigating an enormous world and we small as toddlers. My eyes shone.

Life without John would be boring and burdensome, yet I take his presence for granted. It seems like he’s always been there, shouldering the hard work while making me feel big, picking up the pieces and joking about it. He touches many lives in profound ways without making anyone feel indebted. My little brother is bigger than me and has been for a long time. But don’t let him catch you saying that because he’ll defend his big sister’s honor with unabashed fervor to the end.