Friday, November 26, 2010


In his book, "My Life in the Woods" or "Walden", New England transcendentalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau penned the words "Life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify." Simplify: Have less stuff, but have better stuff. Have stuff that you really use and enjoy. Simplify: Do less things, but do better things. Simplify: Buy less, but enjoy more. Eat less but taste more. Pack it up and put it away. If you need it, go get it, use it, and assign it to its place. If you haven't needed it for six months or a year, get rid of it. Stuff accretes like barnacles on the bottom of a ship. Let life show you what you really need and let go of the rest. Simplify.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving -- It's a Tradition

Thanksgiving is perhaps the most American and most traditional of all holidays celebrated in the United States. Older than the nation itself, the roots of this tradition run deep. On the fourth of December in 1619, Captain John Woodlief led thirty-eight newly arrived colonists to a grassy knoll along the James River and instructed them to drop to their knees and pray in thanksgiving for their safe journey to the new world. That day, the men of Berkely Parrish proclaimed that "We ordain that the day of our ship's arrival at the place of plantation in the land of Virginia shall be yearly kept as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God. Two years later, in 1621, another group of English Colonists celebrated their bounteous harvest with a feast of Thanksgiving in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It is from this celebration that we get elements of the tradional menu of turkey, cranberry sauce, corn pudding, and pumpkin pie. Family has always been part of the tradition, and somewhere along the line football got added to become an essential part of the feast, as did shopping the day afterward. My personal Thanksgiving tradion is to write a list of things large and small for which I am truely grateful. The big things are easy: life, the love of my family, interests and ideas, continued employment, friends and shared experiences. This year, I am very thankful for two weeks in Alaska with my wife and her sister and brother-in-law. As a result of those two weeks, I find myself newly thankful for bears, both black and grizzly, and for wolves, carribou and moose. I refer to my list throughout the year whenever I need an attitude adjustment. For me, that's the important part of thanksgiving: the conscious act of remembering, recording, and giving thanks. I am, among all people, most richly blessed, And most profoundly grateful.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

My Father's World

Had he lived, we would be celebrating my dad's 100th birthday this month. The world in which he drew his first breath was different than the world in which we live today. As was customary for the time, Dad was born at home in the small village of Browningsville, Maryland. Like his father before him, Dad grew up in the house in which his grandfather had also raised his children. In that house, which still stands today, water was pumped by hand from a well twenty or so feet from the kitchen door and carried to the house in a bucket. Hot water, for washing or doing dishes, was heated on a wood stove which also served for cooking, baking, and heat in the winter. As a boy, Dad's job was to keep both the water bucket and the wood box full. I would later perform the same functions for my grand parents who lived there for most of the 67 years of their marriage. In the winter, the downstairs was heated with wood and the upstairs with whatever heat escaped to it through the ceiling. On cold nights, sleepers would rest under two or three thick quilts while frost formed on the inside of the windows. The fire would die overnight, ensuring that one woke up to a cold house. Dad received his elementary education in a two-room schoolhouse build on land donated by his grandfather. For high school, he walked the three miles to and from Damascus. And, while not exactly up hill both ways, there is one significant summit at the midpoint. Dad became a farmer, a grower of tobacco, which was the money crop, and also enough wheat and corn to get the animals -- the horses and a flock of chickens -- through the winter. In the beginning, he worked the land using horses. He also planted enough potatoes for the winter and a sizable garden. Dad's first tractor, a 1940 John Deere model B, was useful for plowing, cultivating, and pulling stumps and other heavy objects but wouldn't go slow enough to pull the tobacco planter, so the horses, two big white Clydesdales named Harry and Jimmy, stayed around until 1949 when dad bought a John Deere model M. During his lifetime, Dad lived through two world wars, survived the great depression, witnessed the advent of the automobile, the telephone (and its evolution from hand-cranked monster to direct distance dialing), household electricity, indoor plumbing, radio, and television. He watched the airplane develop from an interesting toy to a means of transportation that eventually outpaced and ultimately doomed the passenger railroad. At age 61, he actually allowed himself to fly on one. And when the Concorde flew into Dulles International Airport for the first time, Dad was in his back yard in Frederick, MD. to watch it make its final turn inbound over the Frederick Airport. He told his young niece who was with him "You are seeing history," and she was. Dad saw the economy and his community change from agricultural to suburban and his land increase in value until it was no longer economically viable to farm it. Today, most of that land and area are grown over with ticky-tacky houses. The way of life Dad knew and lived has all but disappeared from the area in which he lived, all in less than 100 years. Growing up when I did and where I did put me squarely on the cusp of a lot of the changes I mentioned here. Although I was too young to work them, I remember the horses, and I really did learn to drive on a John Deere tractor! I remember how to split wood and keep the wood box full, and how to carry out the ashes. And I remember the warmth and comfort of sleeping under a pile of quilts with only my nose sticking out while frost forms on the inside of the windows. But I also remember the inconvenience of having to go outside to use the bathroom, and of heating water in which to bathe on a wood stove, and splitting and carrying wood, and stoking the fire for heat and a hundred other things that were normal parts of life at the time. There is a certain nostalgia involved. If I had to, I could live that way again, but I'm not sure that I would want to. Maybe, I'm getting soft. Or maybe, I am as much a man of my times as my Dad was of his. As my children observe my 100th birthday, I wonder what changes they will remark that I lived through. I look forward to being there to listen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans' Day

A haiku: We stood together For Liberty and Freedom, Sacrificing all.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Once, There Was a War

Once, there was a war, a great war, a war to end all wars. For five years, the combatants savaged one another from one end of the European continent to the other. New weapons were developed, new means of increasing the horror. When it ended, it was not by victory or defeat, but by a negotiated armistice that took effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Peace negotiations dragged on for another year and the terms finally imposed virtually insured that the peace would not endure. And the peace did not endure.

Again, there was a war, and it was a war of such global extent as to be termed a world war. New weapons and tactics provided new means of inflicting punishment. Ironically, this war was ended by the use of a weapon of such unspeakable horror that it has not been used since. In this war, there was no doubt who won and who lost, of who were the victors and who were the vanquished. Afterward, the victors assisted the vanquished to reconstruct so that these former enemies are now among our staunchest allies.

But again, within five years, there was a war. Not a declared war but a police action in the land of the frozen Choisan. Men endured almost unendurable conditions. Men suffered. Men died. And the war was ended by a negotiated armistice. War continues to threaten while peace negotiations continue to this day almost sixty years later.

Once again, there was a war, and this one was my war. Maybe it wasn't much of a war, but the mud, the blood, the pain, and the sacrifice were as real as in any other. The troops in the field did their jobs but the politicians back home lacked the backbone to win. We were winning when they negotiated away what we and our allies had won and sent us home from where we watched our legislators abrogate treaty obligations to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

There have been two wars since then. The first was conventional. Ended by negotiation short of absolute victory, the terms of peace virtually ensured that the another war would be necessary, as it was. So, once again, we are at war, and this time it is not a war among nation states, but against shadowy organizations loyal not to any nation but to a religious ideology. Conventional strategies and tactics are of only marginal value in a fight where the primary weapon is the improvised explosive device and the primary objective is to sow destruction and reap terror among non combatants.

In this war, there can be no negotiated peace. How does one negotiate with an implacable enemy whose only desire is to see us dead? In this war, victory will come to the one who is best able to endure, and endure we must, lest we cease to be a nation. Have we the backbone to do what needs to be done and to keep doing it for however long it takes?