Monday, August 31, 2009


The sycamore’s broad leaves
are summer sun to me;
Other trees lack the personality,
the tough persistence;
His first leaves in late spring
peak out shyly, slowly,
then burst forth with boldness
to say summer has begun.

I will not scorn you, summer sentinel
because you have no blossoms
like the pear or apple or cherry trees
nor any fruit for people or for birds.
Beside the slow meandering river
where I go to watch nothing
but the passing of my short life,
your shade is enough for me.

And when the end of August comes,
and the last blasts of summer heat
hang shimmering over the meadow,
I remember other months and years
when summers were too long and life
seemed on the edge of something
that would never come but danced
in waves on the road to somewhere.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

These pylons, buttresses, and ribbons of concrete mark the Intersection of Interstate 805 and Interstate 8. Kumeyaay Indians once lived here beside the stream that we call the San Diego River. Not far from First United Methodist Church of San Diego, these structures, too, are our cathedrals, our monuments.

America the Beautiful
Words by Katharine Lee Bates,
Melody by Samuel Ward

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stem impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!
What happened to the dream?And then... I came home and sprayed a mist on my orchid which is blooming again for the third year... a good sign... an omen... like the doves that nest in my yard, a reason for hope.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My cup of "senior" coffee from Macdonald's this morning looked me straight in the eye. It was a very private conversation that followed.

Friday, August 28, 2009

This evening Margaret and I had dinner in La Jolla with two wonderful friends, friends who matter. Leslie Abrams and Janice Culpepper were my students at the Singapore American School. They make me very proud to have been their teacher. Leslie is a librarian helping students navigate the world of words at the University of California, San Diego; and Janice is a biologist doing important work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. After dinner, as Margaret and I walked back to our car feeling very glad indeed to have had a beautiful evening with Leslie and Janice, we passed under a tree that is right out of the world of Dr. Seuss, whose home for many years was La Jolla. He’s the guy who said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” After all the years, I won’t say how many, since they were high school students, Leslie and Janice are truer than true. The tree and the moon were made for the evening, or maybe the evening was made for the tree and the moon. Whichever, I am glad for it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

By the way, if you ever want to comment on anything in this BLOG, you can do so without being a BLOGGER yourself. Just hit the comment button and type whatever you want to say. If you are not a blogger, you choose "anonymous."
You know how disconnected things that by themselves wouldn’t give much reason for thought sometimes come together to make a kind of sense that’s worth further consideration. Last night I had the privilege of staying with Godchildren, Nina and Julian, while their parents went out to dinner and to see a play. After supper, before descending night made play in the street impractical, the corner of Sleepy Way and Sneezy Court (In the way that is pure California, the subdivision streets were named for Disney Characters.) was a literal playground for Nina, Julian, Chris, jeremy, Kyle, Bryan, and Jean Luca. Let’s see if I can recall what happened and explain why today it suddenly got solid in my mind the way Jello does in the refrigerator.

Out of no previous conversation that might explain why he wanted to know, Jean Luca asked me, “Have you ever been to France?” Jean Luca is eight and a half years old. He would be offended if I said just eight years old. Half a year is very important to someone eagerly wanting to be nine. He looked at me directly so I knew his was a serious question wanting an answer. I said that I had been to France; and as adults sometimes do, I added unnecessarily that I had been there several times. Before I could ask if he had been to France, he said, “I was born in Italy. Have you ever been to Italy?”

I said that yes! I had been to Italy several times. He asked, “Is it nice.” So it was my turn to ask some questions of my own about his having been born in Italy, but he pressed for more answers about where I had been. He asked if I had been to Spain and to England and to Germany. I admit to feeling a bit self-conscious about having been to all those places, even though the questioner was only a child; so I said quickly that I’ve never been to South Africa. He said maybe I’d been to some other place in Africa, maybe Egypt; and he had me there. I said that I had been to Egypt.

Before I could get at the reasons for his international interest, young kyle, who is maybe only four or five, asked if I had ever been to the North Pole. I hadn’t noticed that any of the others were listening to the conversation. I said I have not ever been to the North Pole and stopped myself from saying I was only about a thousand miles from the North Pole only last month. I am very, very glad I stopped myself. It would have been unnecessary bragging that might have stopped the wonderful questions. Kyle said matter-of-factly, “Santa Clause lives there.” I said that I had heard that. He went back to putting pieces together to complete Batman’s plastic castle.

Just about that time Jean Luca’s eleven-year-old brother Bryan rode in on his scooter. I asked him if he was born in Italy too. He looked knowingly at Jean Luca and then at me and said, “Jean Luca wasn’t born in Italy. He was born here. I was born in Italy.” Jean Luca looked down, I knew how badly he wished he had been born in Italy. I wished he had been born in Italy. When I got the chance a little later, without Bryan near, I said to him that I was absolutely sure he would someday go all over the world and that he was going to love Italy and France and Spain. He still looked a little sheepish, but he favored me with the slightest smile to let me know he understood what I was doing. It’s a look school teachers recognize.

Later I asked Bryan where in Italy he had been born, and he said Padua. Again I resisted the impulse to say I was surprised that he knew about Padua and to tell him that the Italian name is Padova. I desperately wanted to talk with him about Padua and 
Shakespeare, but I resisted that impulse, too. And then I found myself thinking how absolutely wonderful the world is and how privileged I was to be at the corner of Sleepy Way and Sneezy Court on a summer evening with children who are curious about places far away from El Cajon.

This morning when I rode my bike onto the platform of the Little Italy Trolley Station, the conversations from last night and the things I saw suddenly in early daylight all around the station delighted me again with how wonderful, and terrible if you allow your mind to go there, the world is: there is the word “GLOBE” high up on a building disconnected from any context that might give it meaning; the moving sign above the track flashed over and over, “Not in Service,” but it was clearly in service because a trolley full of people had just pulled away; another sign declared that the blue line trolleys that stopped here were on their way to San Ysidro/Tijuana, a border town and a town in another country; and on a building across the tracks beyond the Little Italy sign the words “CHOW” declared it's over in big letters... or maybe that it's time to eat.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Forty years ago when I was living in Singapore, I bought the two crystal “eggs” and the jade horse you will see in the pictures below. When I was casting about today for something to photograph, something from my house because San Diego is experiencing a rare hot day and I wanted to stay inside, my eyes fell on the eggs and the horse. One of the good things about photography is that it gives a reason for looking again and looking closely. For example, I found something in the green crystal egg that I hadn’t seen before even though it was right before my eyes all the time. I found it after I downloaded the image to my computer. Millions of years ago... it takes that long for this kind of crystal to form... a couple of bits of ancient moss or fern got caught in the process of crystal formation. There it is, clear as, well, crystal. I am thrilled to see something organic, something that lived millions of years ago, something that has been sitting unnoticed in our living room (a series of living rooms since Singapore) for more than forty years.

Margaret’s sister died yesterday in Texas. Senator Ted Kennedy died yesterday in Massachusetts. I knew both of them. I had conversations with both of them. All over the world organic things are dying. That’s what organic things do. Most of them will be forgotten long before millions of years have passed. But this moss is now not among things forgotten because I see it and I am sharing it with you.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I have to admire anyone who takes a perfectly good house, where everything works... no drippy faucets, no mildew in the closets, no toilets backed up, no walls with paint peeling... and decides to redo the inside, not just a little bit but completely: walls, ceilings, floors, lights, plumbing, everything... My friend, Ed, is doing just that. He is a man with vision. What I saw when I looked at the “old” house was a lovely, comfortable home. What I saw this afternoon was a house reduced to a skeleton of its former self. What Ed sees is a vision of beauty, peace and comfort. I’m getting the picture... and I like it. The picture below was taken a week before the one above. He had begun packing things away. I don't have a picture of the room two weeks ago. I'll supply one in a month or so when everything is back in place.

Monday, August 24, 2009

I came across a man today in Santee who reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The llustrated Man” (also the title of a book of Bradbury’s short stories). The central character in the short story is a man whose body has been covered with tattoos by a woman from the future. The tattoos are animated and have the power to tell the future. The unnamed narrator is warned not to look at the tattoos, but he does... and what he sees become stories: “The Veldt,” “Kaleidoscope,” “The Other Foot,” “The Highway,” “The Man,” and several others (eighteen altogether) including my favorite, “the Last Night of the World.”

I gave the man my BLOG address so he could see the photographs I took... and so I could thank him again.

The Illustrated man has a somewhat less thoroughly illustrated friend. He was willing to let me get pictures.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

“Serenity now,”
The Buddha whispers to me.
So does the palm tree.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The thunder clouds, my photo du jour, have no direct connection to the BLOG writing. For a couple of weeks I have been, with admitted presumption, writing what I am calling a "sermon." Some folks have been surprised that I seem to them to have lost my faith. A couple of friends have been saddened, even slightly offended by my admission of doubt. Maybe the thunder clouds are not completely disconnected with this writing.Someone responding to my BLOG suggested: “Lighten Up!” “Give the church a break.” O.K. Here it is-- and I’m not faking it. I love the church. Well, considering everything, maybe “love” isn’t exactly the right word, the way “love” isn’t exactly the right word for how I feel about hot buttered popcorn, but I’ve said, “I love popcorn;” so why not say I love the church. I’ll stand by the verb “love” with the church as the direct object. Otherwise why in the world do I go? I like what it is, but even more I like what it represents. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been, when I learned that a few people consider me a heretic after reading my BLOG entries on August 8th, August 10th, and August 15th. One fellow assumed I don’t like the church, so I am trying to set the record straight. I like the church.

Maybe I like what the church represents more than I like what it has sometimes done in its long history. Surely nobody in our time who “goes” to church regularly can actually be glad for some of the uglier episodes in the church’s history. When I was a child, I was intrigued by the travel factor in the Crusades; so I guess I didn’t notice the horrific purpose of the Crusades until I became an adult and had actually met and lived among people who happened to be “infidels.” Those handsome, brave knights of the Holy Crusades went out to kill infidels as a holy duty... jihid. The Spanish Inquisition, the Church’s excuse for killing slowly in the name of God, gives modern-day monsters detailed instructions on how to torture prisoners. But all things considered, I can still say I like the church, and this “sermon” is an attempt to explain why.

I don’t know much about constructing sermons, but I do know something about essay construction; so my “sermons” read more like essays. I’ve heard ministers mention the importance of three points in a sermon; so I’m going to build this one around three important things the church represents to me: redemption, forgiveness, and hope.First, let me begin with confession. (Fourth point in a three-point sermon?) I confess that I like very much my church, the big, beautiful cathedral soaring above the ordinariness of Mission Valley. I know, I know: It would be fair for you to think I believe it represents a great deal of money that could have been used to feed the poor or to provide homeless shelters; but I like the big, stately building; and I’m glad the decision was made fifty or so years ago to build it. I am grateful to the people who sacrificed to do it. I like and appreciate First United Methodist Church in Mission Valley the way I like and appreciate the other great cathedrals of the world. I love the drive through wide fields of sunflowers toward Chartres, where I never fail to be overwhelmed by awe and amazement when I first catch sight of the great towers and spires soaring above everything... or Cologne Cathedral rising above the surrounding square, park, old city and riverfront... and the wonderful Salisbury Cathedral and the new Coventry Cathedral sheltering the bombed-out ruin of the ancient church destroyed in the war. I remember an argument I had many years ago with my brother-in-law who firmly believed lavish ornamentation on buildings and in fact all public monuments and art work are a colossal waste of time and money. Of course, I disagreed and insisted the spirit is nurtured by great art and architecture. Neither of us convinced the other to move out of our entrenched opinions.

My church, and I think of it as “my” church, in Mission Valley thrills me. I am always reassured by the vaulting transept, crossing and chancel, by the ranks of organ pipes in back and front, and by the inspired, leaping fire in stained glass panels running the length of the church from nave to transept to altar... and I especially like the better-than-stained-glass clear window above and behind the altar that connects the inside of the church with the magnificent, albeit sometimes terrifying outside world. Now to the three points: Redemption first.

Redemption is the action of being saved from sin, error, or evil; the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment; the clearing of a debt. Countless times I have been reminded by something I’ve heard in church that I need to go back out into the world to undo some tangle I have created, some mess I have made, some confusion I have caused. I needed those reminders. Mostly I have forgotten specific sermons and Sunday School lessons, but I remember some specific, cherished times in church. Of course, I remember most of the details of my wedding. The real event was nothing like the rehearsal. In the rehearsal I was instructed about where to stand in the ceremony. In the ceremony I was instructed about how to be in relationship with someone I love. The ceremony redeemed me, and the memory of it continues to redeem me more than fifty years later. Much of what I know about the life of Jesus I learned in church. He continues to show me how to live, how to redeem my short life from the mundane, the ordinary. More than any other person’s life, I trust his example to redeem me from a careless life that might inflict harm on others. I don’t particularly like the talk about eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood that seems to be important to some people; but I put up with it, recognizing that it is a much misunderstood metaphor. Rituals are important. I am comforted by them. Symbols are important, and rituals would be impossible without them; so I have adjusted to the symbolic acts of communion and baptism. I don’t believe, as I did when I was a child, that those acts redeem me from eternal damnation; but they do remind me of qualities and purpose of life. They enrich rather than ensure. I no longer believe they are insurance bought and paid for by the shedding of Jesus’ blood and the breaking of his body. They are reminders. I partake of those symbolic rituals in remembrance of his example of living for others instead of just for himself. FORGIVENESS: The second point...

In writing about forgiveness, I am going to use a word that Margaret absolutely hates, a phrase that makes her cringe whenever and wherever she hears it, an expression that my Grandmother probably never heard in her entire life. Sometimes in church I come face to face with the reality of my self-centeredness, my impatience, my quickness to get... now here comes the word... pissed. Although it is mostly hidden from sight and hearing of neighbors and even family, I sometimes get angry, really pissed, over some minor, sometimes accidental, mostly inconsequential action or statement by someone whom I should never let upset me. Perhaps this doesn’t happen to you, but sometimes when I am driving and listening to the radio, I hear a report of some ridiculous comment made by somebody like Rush Limbaugh, let’s call a spade a spade here, or by one of the sanctimonious prigs who claim they are protecting the sanctity of marriage from homosexuals... You see how it gets me going just to recall it... and I find myself muttering to myself, saying things out loud when I am alone in the car, something that I definitely would not write here nor would ever say out loud if Margaret or my Mother were present... In other words, I get really pissed. At the time I am probably a less safe driver; but that’s not my point. The point is that somehow in church a combination of music and poetry and visual beauty come together to help me become a more peaceful person, a person determined to become calmer in stressful situations. I think through situations from the previous few days, and something happens in my head and in my heart. I think what I feel is forgiveness... forgiveness following regret... forgiveness that doesn’t allow regret to become pathological remorse. What I feel is forgiveness. I feel that I am forgiven, and I stretch myself to try to forgive people like Rush Limbaugh. It's hard to do. If he were an ignorant bumpkin, a dim-witted person, I could manage the forgiveness; but I come away every time I think about it, convinced that he knows better but stands by his deliberately outrageous statements so he can continue to make millions of dollars a year on his radio program. So I have some forgiveness issues. It's something I have to continue to work on. However, when forgiveness happens, I go away from church feeling better and definitely more determined to be better with my family and my neighbors.

The church has helped me mature more appropriately than I might have done without the experience of church. I believe I am considerably better able to handle the stresses of living than I was when I was younger. Being old would have scared the hell out of me when I was a young man, but now I think I am handling it pretty well. At least I’m not angry about growing old. For one thing, I can appreciate that my growing into old age is better than the alternative. I am glad to be alive.
That brings me to the third point: HOPE!

How dreary life would be without the expectation that difficult situations can be resolved. Without becoming a Pollyanna, I can expect wrong circumstances to turn right. Although I admit that there is plenty of evidence to support the argument that the world has gone from bad to worse: World War I was terrible. World War II was even more awful... and here we are in the first decade of the twenty-first century with wars going on all over the place. What in the world is going on in the Middle East? Why can’t the Sunni Muslims just let the Shiite Muslims go their way in Iraq? What’s up with the Taliban? Where in the world did they get the idea that God wants a jihad against infidels, in this case that’s the rest of us; and that God will reward them in heaven if they carry it out? And those Protestants in Ireland! We are all encouraged that the situation seems to be better, but why can’t they let the Catholics be what they want to be? And can you figure out what is going on in Somalia? And that Bernard Madoff! Why in the world would someone even want as much money as he swindled? And on we could go with contemporary horrors.
But I am hopeful. I like what happens twice a year in a bird’s nest outside my window. I am thrilled by the buds that reappear in springtime on the trees along the Dnieper River after a bitter winter in Smolensk . And so far the polar bears and their cubs still come out of their frozen lairs and go out onto the Arctic ice searching for food as they have done for millions of years. We’d better not talk here about what happens to the seals; Let’s not get off on a tangent. I love kindergarten graduations. The point is that I am basically a hopeful person because the people in my life have been optimistic people. The church has had a lot to do with that.When I was a little boy, I spent time every summer with my grandparents in Arkansas. I remember riding in a wagon drawn by two mules, and I’m not just making this up, with my Grand Dad and my Granny on the bench seat up front and me sitting behind them on the floor of the wagon, to a Baptist revival meeting. I remember the ride in the wagon, going to the church in mid-summer daylight and going back home again after dark. I remember the sounds of the night and the brightness of the stars above Pine Ridge. I remember only a bit about the revival meeting... nothing at all about a sermon except that I think I recall a preacher shouting and raising his arms.I do remember clearly one night when my Granny stood at a special time in the service to “testify.” I was no more than nine or ten years old, but I’ve never forgotten what she said: “Some people say about church that it’s the same old soup warmed over, but,” she said, “Praise the Lord, it’s better every time you warm it.” Basically, I believe it. Tomorrow will be better. I am full of hope.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Equisetum Hyemale

Of course I know it’s called horse tail fern.
But why “horse tail,” and why, for that matter, “fern”?
It doesn’t look like a horse’s anything, so why equus?
and I don’t think “fern” when I see it.

What I do think when I see it is how fascinating,
how utterly outrageously marvelous, how neat
that evolution comes to this and moves on eventually
to slightly more complex living things like me.