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An Evening with Neighbors and Their Friends

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I’ve been sitting out on my patio in the darkness of night. Crickets sing and collections of clouds slowly head east for the evening. It is ultimate peacefulness. No noises or lights from dwellings or from across the trail and the stream and the woods. Just the dark of Gresham Butte and greetings from an occasional screech owl or coyote troubadours far up the butte's wooded side.

It's a new moon, but there are a few stars, and Saturn and Jupiter are in the southwest sky. Looking slightly off to the side and down from Jupiter is the star Antares, 640 light-years away. I like looking at its ancient, tiny, reddish twinkle through my 10-power binoculars, which make it a slightly larger tiny, reddish twinkle than the naked eye sees. I try to comprehend the that the light I see has traveled 186,000 miles per second for 640 years and to appreciate what it is I’m seeing.

After contemplating Antares long-traveling light, I return my view to Jupiter. Being much closer than Antares, at a distance of 365 million miles, its light reaches Earth in a mere 43 minutes. Considering that, Jupiter feels like a neighbor—just down the street.

Wyoming

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At about 11:30 a.m. or so I was getting hungry, so I asked Sofia if she was hungry too. She was lost in her magazine in the passenger seat, and although we weren’t lost, I imagined how easy it would be to get lost in the vast, empty expanse of Wyoming. I don’t understand how someone can want to go on vacation all the time and then stare at a magazine while ignoring the wild, open, airy, blue sky vacation just on the other side of the car window.

“Hungry,” she said without looking up from the mag.

“Ok,” I replied, “I’ll look for a joint, but it could be awhile. We could chew on some sage brush in the meantime.”

She snorted a laugh. “That’s ok, I’ll wait,” she said.

I thought about the words in the magazine sailing along at 70 miles per hour. Wouldn’t it be funny if the words got left behind between the page and her eyes? “Hey,” she’d yell, “Will you slow down? The shorter words are being swept away before they make it to my eyes and I have to guess what they would be. Either slow down or turn around so that we can go back and pick up the words, assuming we can even find them.”

She didn’t say that though, but kept reading, so I sped up to 75 to see if that would make a difference in the word transmission rate from page to eye. Nothing happened. She kept reading, so I slowed back to 70. What’s the rush? Why speed when the whole point is to be here?

My next test was to measure her connection to any reality beyond the written page. To launch this investigation, I said, “Man, that was an impressive and unexpected group of gorillas we just passed. I wouldn’t have thought that they’d come down out of that range of hills, but it sure was cool to see them.”

“Huh?” she said. “What are you talking about? Did you say gorillas? Why are you talking about gorillas?”

“Just mentioning the scenery,” I replied. “We were lucky to see them.”

She let the magazine settle on her lap and looked at me as I looked straight ahead, as if I was pondering the unexpected group of gorillas grazing by the roadside on a narrow country highway in the heart of Wyoming.

“You better find us some food pretty soon,” she said still looking at me. “I think something bad is happening to your brain. Food might help, but maybe not. Maybe your brain needs something more significant than nutrition. It may need a major overhaul. But I hope not,” she said, “that could be expensive, and brain overhauls aren’t covered by insurance.”

She picked up her magazine and disappeared once again. I watched as she faded from view, a few atoms at a time, and waited for the magazine to drift through empty space where she once was until it landed on the empty passenger seat. I looked away, blinked, and looked back, realizing that she was still there and apparently fully intact. I thought about other things. I glanced in the rearview mirror wondering if I’d be able to read the magazine words as they were scattered by the wind created by the car, but they were invisible. I wondered why.

Then I saw something on the horizon. As we came closer, it was obviously a sign, a smallish billboard sign on two 4 X 4 posts stuck in the ground off to the right side of the road. “Smiley’s,” it said.” Great home cooked food, four miles ahead. Breakfast served all day.” Why is it always breakfast, I thought? Why not lunch or dinner served all day? Or dessert? “Smiley’s Baked Alaska available 24/7,” would be one thing the sign could have said. What is the big deal about hash browns and toast? So ordinary.

“We’re on final approach to Smiley’s,” I said to the Sofia zombie, and imagined her completely wrapped in white strips of cloth with the magazine left uncovered and permanently turned to pages 58 and 59. In a thousand years when our car was dug out of the dirt and sage brush, archaeologists would study those pages and ponder the significance of the words and paragraphs describing the various benefits of yoga versus Pilates. They’d probably assume that the reader must have been honing their religious beliefs and then they would look for other antiquities related to yoga and Pilates.

Four miles zips by when travelling at 70 miles per hour, and I wheeled into the gravel parking lot with Smiley’s restaurant standing forlornly behind it. There were three cars in the lot, all with Wyoming plates. I turned off the engine and announced “Here we are. Smiley’s awaits our grand entrance.”

The zombie sprung to life, unfastened its seatbelt and got out of the car. Strips of white cloth unraveled and fell to the ground as it walked toward the small wooden edifice called Smiley’s. The closer it got to Smiley’s the more the zombie became Sofia again, freed from an eternity of staring at pages 58 and 59. My attention shifted to the building. It looked as though Sheriff Matt Dillon might saunter out the front door, but I was disappointed.

A menu was hanging by the door. It was large and printed on a piece of wood screwed to the wall. The menu must never change, I thought. Who would want to have to take the screws out, sand off the old menu item, get out the paint and small brush, add the new item hoping that the paint matched the rest of the menu, then hold the board against the wall and reinsert the screws. Easier to have the same items available in perpetuity . In Wyoming, where there aren’t any people anyway, who’s going to notice or care?

The faded sign board by the entrance said “All fresh ingredients and cooked to order. Nothing fake about food at Smiley’s.” Now completely free of her zombie persona, Sofia put her hands on her hips and stared at the sign. “What do ya think,” I asked.

“I think I’m hungry enough that I might even briefly consider going in this place,” she said. “Look at this, they even have breakfast available all day,” she proclaimed and looked at me as though this was some sort of culinary breakthrough.

“Yeah,” I replied, “but they don’t even mention Baked Alaska.” She gave me one of her looks. I’m used to them, so I didn’t say anything. Neither did she, but she did shake her head. I opened the door and held it while Sofia walked in. I watched carefully to see if any words from the magazine shook from her jeans as she entered. I didn’t see any, but of course they were invisible. I wondered if there is a difference between the meaning of words when they were visible or invisible? I hadn’t thought of that before but would carefully consider the issue while enjoying  my hash browns and toast.

 

An Evening with Neighbors and Their Friends

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I’ve been sitting out on my patio in the darkness of night. Crickets sing and collections of clouds slowly head east for the evening. It is ultimate peacefulness. No noises or lights from dwellings or from across the trail and the stream and the woods. Just the dark of Gresham Butte and greetings from an occasional screech owl or coyote troubadours far up the butte's wooded side.

It's a new moon, but there are a few stars, and Saturn and Jupiter are in the southwest sky. Looking slightly off to the side and down from Jupiter is the star Antares, 640 light years away. I like looking at its ancient, tiny, reddish twinkle through my 10 power binoculars, which make it a slightly larger tiny, reddish twinkle than the naked eye sees. I try to comprehend the that the light I see has traveled 186,000 miles per second for 640 years and to appreciate what it is I’m seeing. After contemplating Antares long-traveling light, I return my view to Jupiter. Being much closer than Antares, at a distance of 365 million miles, its light reaches Earth in a mere 43 minutes. Considering that, Jupiter feels like a neighbor—just down the street.

Trash

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I thought I could just buzz over the neglected shelves in my study with a dusting cloth and rearrange a few items to give them a fresh look, which I hoped would give the whole room a fresh look, as I was tired of looking at it. Over the years I’d considered buying new shelves or repainting the room, but a recent trip to a paint store put that fantasy to rest, as there must have been thousands of paint chips in every variation of color. It was overwhelming to skim my eyes over all those segments of coordinated color covering the walls and creating an impulse to flee. A conversation with the clerk would lead to a journey into my taste and desired outcomes for the room, and I had neither taste nor desired outcomes, so a rapid exit was in order.

I decided to look at shelves so got into my car, but realized I didn’t know where to buy shelves, or why I would even want to do such a thing. In fact, why did I want to do such a thing? I drove until I came upon a taco stand that I frequented when I was in a moral dilemma.

I ate my carnitas tacos with both red and green hot sauce and realized that I had lost my desire for new shelves. The ones I had were fine. I came home, went into my study, and the shelves that didn’t look so bad after all. So I went outside to read.

In between chapters two and three of my book about Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, I realized that I should have some people over for lunch, or at least tea and coffee, because I would be more motivated to do battle with the paint chips knowing that I had guests showing up. Like most guests, they would arrive with visit rating scales, critical judgement and score cards,  and if I hadn’t painted, I’d be in trouble. I knew that before departing, they would hold up their score cards and show grades for the visit. I envisioned a 6.2 or 6.3 out of 10 on the tea and snacks, which was fine, but probably a 5.4 on interior décor. After scoring, they’d stand up to leave, tuck their criteria sheets and manila score cards under their arms and thank me for inviting them over. I’d be expected to give hugs or at least pats on their backs, but how could I give hugs or pats to a crew who thinks I’m a slob who lives in a dump with third-rate shelves and dismal paint? A get together was out of the question.

The only way to avoid this dilemma of friends versus paint chips was to sidestep it. Sometimes the best solution is a compromise. With this in mind, I went outside and read chapter three. Then it hit me that the compromise was to  straighten up the room, and clean the shelves by  removing the books, the rocks, the sequoia and ponderosa pine cones, the Northern flicker and  Osprey feathers discarded by molting, the framed 4 X 6 pictures of my dogs Grace and Zoe, the six bird nests, the leaves collected from the U.S., Mexico,  Tenerife, mainland Spain and the Golan Heights, and a five-pound ingot  of 99% pure tin I took from Vulcan Materials Inc.  in Pittsburgh. Once the shelves were bare, I could blast them with a dusting polish that leaves a shine, which would provide them with the same aura as new shelves. When showing the room, I would say that fresh wall paint was coming soon.

The  problem was that when I went back into the room to imagine how the polished shelves would shine, I realized that a collection of dried flowers on the end of the second shelf from the bottom was beyond dusting, and the flowers were in an advanced stage of decomposition. Before long they would resemble a tiny compost pile, an absurdity on the newly polished shelf.

The collection had to be thrown out and replaced with new blossoms, that was clear even if I didn’t clean the shelves or make tea for people. The remains had to go.

But I liked the rotted-out flower collection. I didn’t want to throw it away because when I looked at it, I remembered the streamside meadow in the high Sierra in June, the August walk with my soon-to-be wife when we were contemplating marriage not divorce, the low-lying September field next to the wild, West Virginia River, and the October garden near the front entrance of Fallingwater, a Frank Lloyd Wright house built over a stream in a forest near Pittsburgh.

I wished I had never thought of cleaning the shelves, painting, or having people over. Everything could stay as is. I would let nature take its course. I heaved a sigh of relief, then wandered outside to read chapter four.

Fragments

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At the end of my 10-foot patio is a lawn about 20 feet deep, and then a chain link and red slatted fence. Brushing against the other side of the fence is a row of juniper trees, and behind them a stretch of wild grasses about 20 feet deep, and then the Springwater Trail, a 40+ mile long East-West paved bike and walking route. Across the trail lies a 40-foot-deep stretch of forest and then Johnson Creek, also approximately 20 feet wide. The creek is busy travelling from Mt. Hood to the Willamette River and it always arrives, yet it is always here.

When I'm out on my patio, I can hear bits of conversations as people pass by on the trail. Maybe a paragraph or two if it's a family, a sentence or a fragment if it's fast bike riders (a k a. the Spandex people), or a drawn out slow complaint if it is a five year old dragging along behind it's mother like a shipwreck survivor:
"I'm tired Mommy."
"We're almost there honey."

On one of these summer-like mornings I'm going to sit out there to read and have a tablet and pen to record these fragments and then incorporate them into a story. The Spandex sentence fragments and groups of women walkers are the most fun. The women always have multiple conversations going at once which makes it even better. It would be like codebreaking to fit the voices into the right conversation, but I'm more interested in the parts. 

If I collect these voices, the excitement or exhaustion of a few five-year-old kids, and several quips from  fast Spandex, mix them together and let the mixture rise in the oven overnight, the next day I might open the oven door and find a reasonably well baked small story. Who knows?

Pittsburgh Parades

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Thunder sends chills

black-purple clouds, afternoon quiet

hangs on threads.

 

Rain songs lead the march,

lightning paints oaks

with ragged brushes.

 

Stoic maples join in, and play

on wind, their sleek limbs

show power and purpose.

 

Summer days when storms

come, I glide to a porch seat

on the darkened street.

 

Swept into the movement,

carried by beauty

of thunderstorm parades.

Sunset to the East

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Our refreshing early morning walk brought us to the grassy knoll where we often sit to enjoy our  little piece of the world.

“Which way will you face today?” inquired Sofia.

“Hmmm, I think today, I will enjoy the sunset to the east.”

“Excellent,” she proclaimed. “We’ll sit back to back and watch the world spin.”

We settled in and Sofia opened our thermos of tea and poured us each a cup. She handed me mine with a toast “To another beautiful day.” Tessa Sue circled us slowly. I knew she was exploring with her nose, wagging while wandering, and sometimes nose-bumping our legs to remind us that petting her is a good thing.

Our conversation ranged from the philosophical to the political to the mundane, but we kept coming back to superlatives to describe the view.

“The poppies are closing now,” she said. “They feel dusk upon them.”

“The streams of sailing white clouds lying low over the mountains are just beginning to turn pink in my direction,” I exclaimed. “It’s going to be a beauty. I’m glad I turned to the east today for our setting sun.”

“I know,” she responded, “It’s going to be a glorious sunset to the west as well. The sun is withdrawing across the valley, but it’s playing with the river, showing off  sparkling diamonds in the ripples. Shadows from the fir and cedar are really coming alive, stretching out to their full length across the meadow and the sun is providing perfect back-lighting; the trees are basking in it.”

“I always love the long shadows,” I said. “I have the Aspen casting more of a group shadow this way, shorter, but intertwined and dancing with each other in the breeze. And the clouds are  alive now. Incredible streaks of red hovering over the peaks as the valley descends into darkness. It is quite the sunset! I’m glad we came out for this.”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I love our sunsets together.”

We were then silent as the earth rolled and our sunset became dusk as the sun slipped away. The air began to chill. Soon Sofia closed the thermos and gathered my cup. “I guess it’s time for home,” she said.

“Yes, another beautiful evening,” I replied. We stood and started down the short  trail to the house. Sofia hooked my arm with hers, and a gentle breeze accompanied us as we slowly made our way. I knew Tessa Sue was trotting along right behind, with brief nose-to-the-ground interludes.

The trail was known to me after so many years, and it was smooth and well maintained. Sofia had been walking with me this way  for several years now, and despite our age, we could still coordinate together like a dance team as she steered the course. Nevertheless, I always had my white cane with me. I used it to keep track of the edge of the path, which also helped me paint a mental picture  of our walk. So I took it with me, even when walking with Sofia.

We were silent as we enjoyed the song of trees. I remembered that day years ago when I did see the sunset in the Rockies, and it was spectacular. I wondered what direction I would face the next evening we came up to the grassy knoll, and which beautiful sunset would fill my mind.

 

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