Guarding the Unicorns

    As we cycle through life on this spinning orb, most of us come to know that the time is too short, that we will be checking out before many of our big plans/dreams are realized.  We have that bucket list, but even then, most of it won't be fulfilled.  Life has often dealt us a bad hand. This creates a conundrum.  Do we only grieve for our broken lives, for the failures, for all the good that will not be done, or do we remember those moments throughout life that created awe and wonder? Are we guarding the unicorns?
    Many years ago I was in personal crisis and working a temporary landscaping job. the company where I was managing editor had gone bankrupt. A seven year marital relationship had imploded in a fireball; not even the ashes were left.  Future prospects seemed dim. As I began planting a flower bed just after a rainstorm, sun rays highlighted a group of rose and violet petunias. For a few seconds, I was mesmerized by their beauty and grateful for the image. A ripple of light.  All of us should have those times that we can embrace and then file away in a mental scrapbook, to be recalled when the darkness threatens.
    You are riding a Greyhound bus from point A to point B. You have just experienced the devastating loss of a close family member. The weather outside matches your mood; bleak with little sign of lifting. The bus seat is uncomfortable. This trip will not end soon. As you begin to nod off, a woman a couple of rows back begins to quietly sing, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  At this time, at this moment, it is what you needed to hear. A ripple of light.
    A young soldier has served overseas in a combat zone for fifteen months.  Unending heat and dust.  Death. The unknown of IEDs and sudden ambushes.  The swoop of fighter jets in response. The Dear John letter comes one month before return to the real world. Three years of dating and one engagement ring up in smoke.  The young soldier disembarks at a hometown airport.  He is met by a girl who was a classmate in high school. He had almost forgotten about her. She is smiling broadly. A ripple of light.
    You have been on a camping trip. The family dog has disappeared. Lost among the tall pines. You spend hours frantically looking for the dog without luck.  The children are devastated.  You return home, having left your phone number at the ranger station. Nothing. Two weeks later at 3 am you hear a whining and scratching at the back door.  It is the dog, worse for wear. It has traveled forty miles and found its way home. A ripple of light.
    She has worked for the same company for almost twenty years.  Invested most of her waking hours into being exceptional at her job. Gets a pink slip out of the blue.  Company's operations moving to China.  No farewell party.  She sends out hundreds of resumes. Nothing. Savings almost gone.  Out of the blue a former college roommate calls.  Wants her to run the business end of an online startup for pet needs. Begin next week. A ripple of light.
    The block you live on has just been devastated by a sudden tornado.  Miraculously your house is unscathed. There is even power. You don't know many of your neighbors by name, mostly just faces.  You open your home to those who have lost everything but their lives.  You make coffee and sandwiches. A family arrives at your door. A small child is clutching a wet teddy bear. He thrusts the bear towards you, says it wants a cookie. A ripple of light.
    Your elderly father is in poor health. You drive him, probably for the last time, to visit his surviving sibling. It is in the mountains, away from everything. The two of them reminisce about old times. Mostly good, some very bad. A real history lesson. Your father can't sleep that night. He asks you to take him outside. Both of you slowly walk to a nearby field. You hold him close, feel his warmth. You both look up. The sky full of a billion stars. A cascade of light.  You are guarding the unicorns.

Erasing History

        The vile participants of the march in Charlottesville are justly condemned. Since the ensuing violence, there has been an intense push to rid the country of any positive reference to the Confederacy or those who led and fought for it. The immediate response has been to remove statues honoring Confederate "heroes." Somehow these actions are expected to heal a nation that many feel is racked by racism and an endemic hate. It is unclear that this purifying will have the intended consequence. Rather we are creating a slippery slope which will rid America of any reference to unpleasant facts in our long history. Human beings are flawed. They do bad things; many of which are inexcusable as seen through a modern prism. However, are we really better off cancelling the participants from our history rather than keeping their "sins" accessible in the public square so that we can learn and grow as a country from these failings?
          Besides erasing most of our founding fathers, others must receive a similar hit. Taken to its logical conclusion, Andrew Jackson should be eviscerated from our history because of his attempt to solve the "Indian problem" by moving tribes West on the Trail of Tears, a form of ethnic genocide. Give no thought to his heroics in fighting the British during the War of 1812 or the many positives of his presidency. Rename the towns, cities and colleges named after him. Custer was clearly a bad dude, who got his just desserts at Little Big Horn. But that is not enough. His name also graces towns, parks and monuments. The Custer battlefield should now be the Sitting Bull battlefield. The winners write history.
          FDR was responsible for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. A dark stain on the national fabric. The good done by the New Deal cannot make up for this. Any reference to FDR must go. Woodrow Wilson was a racist, a cringe worthy flaw. So what if he pushed, unsuccessfully, for American participation in a League of Nations which would try to stop further war after the horrors of WWI. Senator Joseph McCarthy fomented a witch hunt going after Communists in government, "the Red scare." Obliterate him from our history. No cautionary tales worth keeping there. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace after Watergate. Give him no credit for an opening to China or trying to end the Vietnam war. Bulldoze his presidential library and the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. These are the tactics of ISIS.
          The point is this. We wish that throughout history men and women would always listen to their better angels. However, the way we are wired, this is never going to happen. Human failings are built into the cake. Better to learn from them as part of the American experiment rather than erase them from our consciousness. We are on a path to have our history books filled with blank pages. Never forget that profundity by George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Electronic Hell

       So I'm trying to copy some music from a CD to my iTunes file. The first part goes ok, but then I try to create a new playlist for the music, and it won't let me drag and drop like I've done in the past. Is this a new version of iTunes? Have I just gotten dumber than I already am? I switch to the podcast section, and again I'm suddenly in a format that I don't want.  The electronic gods are messing with me.

          I check in on Face Book, a guilty pleasure.  I have three years of notifications I am unable to delete.  Why do they make me keep these things?  When I try to revise my security settings, I first need to self-identify my gender.  There are fifty-two choices to choose from. Huh? What happened to male and female?

          There is an important news site on my computer that no longer loads properly.  I go through all the protocols suggested by the help tab on the browser. No dice.  I call up my computer savvy son.  He can't figure it out.  The problem only happens on my computer.  The site loads on my smart phone but the print is so small I will get squint lines.  I try to clear old messages on the cell phone.  Won't work.  These guys must be hooked up with Face Book.

          A program keeps loading repeats on my DVR.  I only want first run versions of this particular show. Ok, it's a stupid machine, but why provide me with programming choices if they are just a mirage?  How many times would I want to watch the same episode of the dog whisperer?

          The onboard computer in my car tells me to check my engine. Something ain't right.  I take it to my mechanic. He runs a diagnostic check, Has to do with the emissions system. I fork over two hundred bucks to have a five dollar replacement part installed.  A week later the check engine light comes back on.  Mechanic clears it.  Comes back on. I put black tape over the glowing engine icon on my dash display.  Problem solved.

          What if there were a time and place where I didn't have to spend so much of my short life in electronic hell? It's fifty years ago: I am a sophomore in college. My music choices are limited.  There are two top forty stations on the transistor radio, or I can play a 45 or LP on my box like portable record player. Easy choices.  I need to call home. I know when mom will be available; there are no answering machines. There is one phone available, on the wall at the end of the hall in our dorm section.  It works if some drunk hasn't beat it up over the weekend. 

          I write letters to a couple of out of state friends, then it's time to get an afternoon paper from the dispenser in front of the dorm.  Most of the news is more than a day old, but Hey!, the world doesn't move that fast anyway.  That evening I go to the dorm's common area to watch Star Trek with some other fans.  The school just installed color sets. Awesome! If I miss this episode, can't see it again for years until the show goes into syndication. The next day, my roommate wants help changing the spark plugs and setting the points in his car. Doesn't take long, plenty of working space. Engine compartments haven't really been updated in years.

          I have this recurrent dream where Marty McFly comes by my college dorm in the DeLorean. He has the time gizmo set for 2017. I say, "Marty, don't do it! It's a terrible trap!"  Marty goes anyway, and I am left standing on the sidewalk, desperately clutching a TV Guide and the Beatles' Rubber Soul album.

Pot Pies

          In 1980 I was back in Virginia for a few months.  I was living in a boarding house, had a room at the top of the stairs.  We were free to use the kitchen, and one night I cooked a Banquet beef pot pie.  When I dug into it I realized there was only a top crust, no crust on the sides or the bottom.  It was a great disappointment. Who makes a pot pie with only crust on the top?

          Recalling this experience reminds me that while life is to be savored and viewed as the glass being at least half full, there are still many small irritants that we must deal with.  Things we have no control over. What ticks us off varies from person to person, so while my list may be idiosyncratic to me, the general concept of discomfort still applies.

          I was an only child, so I didn't like people messing with my stuff. Everything had to be just so. When I was about eight,  friends of my parents dropped off their seven year old son to spend the night. I was not informed this was going to happen, and the kid went through my room like a hurricane. It took me a week to get things back in order, and I begged my parents to never let any other kid sleep over without my permission. A little dramatic? First borns or singletons will understand.

          Back in college, during the dark ages, I was working on an important research paper.  Physical card catalogs, no personal computers or smart phones.  Journals and magazines only accessible in the library stacks.  I need one article from a particularly esoteric journal to complete my research. In a musty corner on the fifth floor I find the particular bound journal I am looking for. Eureka!  I turn to the needed pages; THEY HAVE BEEN RIPPED OUT!  Some idiot couldn't bother to just photo copy what was needed. It will take two weeks for me to have replacement pages sent from an out of state library. Arrggggh!

          I am a training officer with a basic training company at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. The recruits have just come off the range and are returning their weapons to the armory. All except private snuffy. Where is private snuffy and his weapon? Two hours later, still no private snuffy. I am responsible for this guy. My ruined military career passes before my eyes. Finally after a frantic search, he turns up. His girlfriend was visiting from out of state, so he hopped in a car with her to go off post to get a burger.  Of course he keeps his weapon with him. All of this is unauthorized.  Thankfully, with his return, my career has been salvaged, and snuffy is no longer a private or has any connection with the U.S. military.

          My rear brakes start squeaking. Pads and rotors are new, so why this problem?  The tech makes adjustments. Works fine for a week, then squeaks again. New adjustment, new pads. Squeaks after a week. The brake gods are laughing.  One year of squeaks later, I finally have them try aftermarket hardware that is not recommended.  Works like a champ. No more squeaks. So much for expert advice.

          The DVR is set to record a National Geographic special: Shrunken Heads of the Amazon.  Fill the cranium with cool info. However, there was apparently a lightning storm during the transmission which disrupted the satellite feed. Half the program is random pixels.  I search everywhere for a rebroadcast. Not there. Am very unhappy. Only option is to spend $25 on the hard copy video from Amazon (ironic?).  Do I really care that much about shrunken heads?  Maybe just watch a program on greased pig races.

          We all must deal with similar bugaboos throughout life.  Hopefully they are frequently balanced out by things that do go right.  In my sunset years I have found a Marie Callender's beef pot pie that has a thick crust: top sides and bottom.  Now if I can just figure out what keeps tripping the stupid smoke alarm...

I Love My Shirt

         There is that old chestnut, "Clothes make the man (or woman)."  What we wear, frequently says a lot about our personality, whether casual clothing or work attire.  Do you dress for success, acutely aware of the image you project?  Or do you just dress, throwing on any old thing to protect you from the elements or because wearing clothes is a social norm.  In either case, there are probably certain pieces of clothing that have a special place in your heart; that foster a sense of well being when worn or looked at.

          In the stone age, Gronk probably had a mastodon skin shirt that he liked better than the saber tooth jacket that his wife Hunga made for him. Of course if you only owned two or three pieces of clothing, picking your favorite was simple enough. However if you were Louis XIV, it might be a little harder to pick a favorite shirt out of the hundreds that had been made for you. So much to wear, so little time as you paraded down the hall of mirrors at Versailles.

          Favorite clothes don't usually involve items that constrict or restrain. The ladies expressed great relief when the winds of fashion deep sixed corsets and layers of petticoats.  Men were glad when three piece suits and starched collars where no longer de rigueur for business transactions. Most kids hated school uniforms because it stifled their individuality (precisely the point).  Clothes that are meaningful to us have to engender that personal connection.

          I like to dress comfortably and wear things that match, but I have never been a fashion maven.  My one indulgence is vests. That's right vests. In my hippie days I started out with a top hat and two discarded blue suit vests which I got at a Goodwill in Berkeley. Over the years I have acquired many more vests and am now pushing thirty.  Blue ones, black ones, tan, brown, white and maroon. I wore vests regularly during my teaching career (Why does Mr. Matte wear so many vests?), and they still pop up regularly at Sunday church services. While vests as a group are my favorite clothes, other individual items make the greatest hits list.

          I have this sweatshirt from college. It has the University of Florida logo on it and is faded out and full of holes. I probably haven't worn it in thirty years, but it hangs in my closet in case I ever want to put it on, reliving forgotten youth.  The Eagles are one of my favorite musical groups. Visiting Winslow, Arizona, I found a t-shirt featuring the line, "standing on a corner" from the song "Take It Easy." I love that t-shirt. Should have bought more than one. There is this brown leather bomber jacket that has a name patch with infantry insignia that commemorates my Army days.  The way it crinkles when I move... 

          The point is that favorite clothes often help us remember a time, place or event that has real meaning, no matter how ephemeral the moment. Life may seem like it's in the crapper, but if I can go in the closet and put on my favorite jeans, that special shirt and a pair of well worn boots, topped off by a sweat stained ball cap; maybe things aren't so bad after all.  

Father's Day

         Some see Father's Day as a sop to those ticked because mother's get all the attention on their day in May. But most dads want the world to know that they are more than sperm donors, though some in the modern feminist movement would be happy with that limited categorization. In the U.S., it wasn't until 1972 that Father's Day was recognized as an official holiday. Tricky Dickey was trying to do a good thing before Watergate fell on his head. Unofficially, a day to honor fathers has been around in this country since the early 1900s.  Probably about the same time Hallmark started spewing out an unending line of greeting cards.

          So exactly what is so great about dad that we set aside the third Sunday in June to give him a fishing rod or a tire iron with his name engraved on it?  It used to be that a father was the sole breadwinner in the family and thus provided a roof over your head, decent clothes and something in the pantry. His ability to do this was worth celebrating. In today's fractured world, most families, if intact, have two earners. The little woman has to supplement the income because of major changes in the economy. Dad doesn't go off to the same high paying job for thirty years. No more gold watches or company funded pensions. You can work for the government for thirty years, but by the end you are so brain dead that playing dominos in the park is a challenge.

          Enough of the negativity.  Dads come in all shapes and sizes and run the personality scale. Wife beater t-shirts to Armani suits.  Beer to bourbon, F 150s to Ferraris. The key thing is how do they treat the distaff side and the kids. Are they a Norman Rockwell painting or do they lean towards Sons of Anarchy? Honoring a father who actually listens to his wife and spends more than five minutes a day with the kids does seem like a good idea. This can also be a good prescription for avoiding divorce and not having your progeny grow up to be drugged out hulks. Family vacations can help cement positive relationships if you don't go to Wally World with the Griswolds.

          My own journey as a father required a few bumps in the road. I was an only child so didn't understand the sibling thing.  My parents were preoccupied and emotionally distant, thus my parental modeling was severely deficient. Before my first child was born, I had to spend a few sessions in the church nursery to see what kids were like. Did they first speak at six months or six years? How did you talk to a child? Gibberish or grownup words?  Thankfully, with the help of an understanding wife and Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care, I took to the fatherhood thing and avoid many of the negatives associated with my own childhood. I even coached my sons in a soccer league though I didn't know the difference between a goalie and a goldfish. We drove the Oregon Trail on a family vacation with two teenagers and everyone survived (the Indians were busy running their casinos).

          So, having a special day for fathers is maybe not such a bad idea.  Give Dad the card and the present but realize that what's really important happens the other 364 days of the year.

Memorial Day 2017

In May of 2017 a young man graduated from college and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army.  A month previously, the United States had declared war on Germany after multiple provocations including the sinking of the Lusitania by German U-boats. This young man and many others would soon be going "over there" to become one ofa million American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen to be involved in World War I.

          One hundred years later, we again remember those who served and those who made the ultimate sacrifice for this great nation.  On Memorial Day we pay homage to over three million men and women who have been killed and wounded in American wars.  The spilling ofblood and treasure that has helped keep us safe for almost two hundred and fifty years.

          The Great War, World War I, was to be the war to end all wars, so horrific was its destruction, both to military personnel and the millions of displaced civilians.  Europe had exploded, and America was desperate not to become involved.  However, after Germany's resumption in 1917 ofunlimited submarine attacks on passenger and merchant ships in the Atlantic, President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany and later,  Germany's ally Austria-Hungary. From America's entry in the war in April 1917 to the armistice on November 11, 1918 over 2.8 million men were drafted into the American military.

          The infusion ofAmerican troops helped break the stalemate on the Western Front. The names of the battles and campaigns have resonated through history: the Marne, the Somme, Belleau Wood,  Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne.  However, none of these victories came without tremendous costs.  In only nineteen months ofU.S. involvement, 53 thousand Americans were killed and over 200,000 wounded. To put this in perspective, around 52 thousand Americans were killed in the ten years of the Vietnam War. Defending freedom, no matter the time or place, always exacts a high price.    

          Those who serve, to protect us all, are the bulwark of the American experiment, a nation founded on the premise that the individual can make a real difference with God given gifts.  Memorial Day makes us remember that true freedom requires eternal vigilance and accompanying sacrifice.

          The young soldier mentioned at the beginning of this reflection was my grandfather, Paul J. Matte.  After serving on the battlefields of WW I, he went on to a long military career including service in WW II. His service established a tradition where four generations of Matte men, including my father and I, have been in uniform, in war and peace, for ninety out of the last one hundred years. My wife's father and brother also served proudly during this period.  My oldest son, currently posted to an airborne unit, served in Africa and has jumped out of planes over various countries in Europe.

          Without the support of those in this great land, no man or woman in uniform can effectively carry out their sacred responsibilities. I close with a quote from General of the Armies John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, most famous as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in World War I.

The point I wish to make is that many things cause the soldier to remember that the people at home are behind him. You do not know how much that is going to mean to us who are going abroad. You do not know how much that means to any soldier who is over there carrying the flag for his country.

          May God continue to bless the United States of America.

At The Hop

      Where were you in ’62?

          In a Back to the Future moment the wife and I recently attended a retro concert: The Doo Wop Project. Five guys wearing skinny ties and black shark skin suits. Incredible harmony and synchronized dance moves are king. They were reliving the glory days of doo wop, mid 50s to early 60s.  The audience was mostly over 60, but the energy level of the crowd and performers harkened back to long lost youth.

          The guys reprise such iconic classics as "Remember Then," "I Wonder Why," "I Only Have Eyes For You" and "Itty Bitty Pretty One." They also do early Four Seasons, such as "Sherry" since most of them at one point appeared on Broadway in Jersey Boys. The joint is absolutely hoppin'.

          Spring 1962. The jr. high sock hop at George S. Patton Jr. Jr. High School (not a typo folks).  I spend forty-five minutes combing my hair (I had some back then).  My penny loafers gleam and my madras sports coat, a size too small, hugs my chest. Having just learned how to tie the thing, my maroon tie is a bit askew. Clearasil covers my zits and, hopefully, Old Spice deodorant and cologne will do wonders for how I smell. Dad drops me off at the front door of the gym, and I prepare to brave the uncertainties of the teenage social scene.

          Boys languorously cover one wall; girls with big hair and full skirts huddle in animated groups on the opposite wall. A local band of high school kids are forever tuning their instruments and yelling "test!" and "check, check!"  Finally, the band kicks in with "Let Me In" by the Sensations. They then segue into "Blue Moon" by the Marcels. A few guys have asked girls to dance. Other girls continue to chatter in small groups or dance with each other on the fringes of the gym floor.  I have been keeping an eye out for a female classmate who might put up with my awkward dance moves, but she has not yet arrived.  There is a large punch bowl filled with some watery red substance.  It is an excuse to move away from the wall.  I hold a Dixie cup and a handful of pretzels.  The band finishes up with Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow by the Rivingtons and then goes slow with "You Belong To Me" by the Duprees.

          My classmate finally arrives in a cloud of pink taffeta.  She is a few inches taller than me, not unusual in jr. high. After some stumbling conversation, she agrees to put up with my clammy hands on the dance floor. After a couple of songs, I get her some watery punch and a gooey brownie made by one of the teachers who is a chaperone.  I don't know if I'm in love, but I do know that talking to a girl for more than a couple of minutes is a major victory. And she actually responds to what I am saying! After taking a much needed break, the band moves into new territory with "Sherry" by the Four Seasons and "Breaking Up is Hard to Do" by Neil Sedaka.  I never get to break up with my classmate because her parents later determine that she is too young to date.  This will be a big disappointment for a socially challenged fourteen year old. However, tonight I am just reveling in the moment.

          Fifty-five years later, gray heads bounce to the bewitching beat of The Doo Wop Project as they finish their performance with on point versions of"Gloria" and "Speedo." Five guys whose footwork, hand movements and harmony are always in sync. The sheer pleasure of reviving joyful music that speaks to a much simpler time.

          As we exit into the desert night air, I almost expect to see Dad ready to pick me up in his '57 Bel Air, a warm bed and hopeful future awaiting me.

Lazy Days

          When trying to figure out what constitutes a lazy day, it may be helpful to look at a standard definition for "lazy": disinclined to activity or exertion,  not energetic or vigorous, encouraging inactivity or indolence.  So a lazy day is one where you basically do nothing.  For hours, you lie in a hammock, float in the pool, stay in bed. Is it possible, however, to also extend the definition to what actually seems to be energetic activity?

          The idea of wallowing in inertia as a way to spend my lazy day has  never been appealing to me. Sitting on a dock or a river bank for days with a cane fishing pole is anathema. Laying on the beach results in having grains of sand everywhere. Curling up with a good book/kindle for hours is paralyzing. What is going on in the rest of the world while I'm buried in a book? Same thing with TV. Binge watching a ten hour series sounds more like visual torture than pleasure. Some would see a lazy day as going on a twenty mile bike ride. I see sunburn and painfully sore muscles.

          My idea of a lazy day is anything other than work, where I can cram in as much in as possible. Walk the dog, check mail and news updates on-line. Go to the bank, the hardware store, the grocery. Come home; take a power nap. Blow the front porch. Add pool chemicals. Check news updates. Write for thirty minutes. Feed the dog. Start dinner. Water plants. Check email. Talk to the wife for five minutes. Channel surf two hours of TV, including sports highlights. Go to bed. This is how I relax. 

          If someone ever offered me a free seven day cruise, with the chance to endlessly rearrange the deck chairs and indolently eat until I explode, I would pass in a nana second. A boat to nowhere is not my idea of a good time.  Rather, give me a day with a new activity every fifteen minutes. I would be like a pig in slop on steroids. That's my lazy day.

Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

         We are use to having something go wrong in our lives on a regular basis, but every once in a while a tsunami of  frustration descends on us in short order. Not long ago I had the privilege of experiencing such a day.

          I had just received a bill for $1,500 from my wife's health care provider. It was supposed to be covered by insurance. I called the provider. Not their problem. I called the secondary insurer. Nothing to see here. I called Medicare. It's our problem but it's not our problem. Glitch in the system.

          I try to open e-mail for an important insurance document but the system is down. Attempting to get in three different ways is fruitless. The message says,  "We are sorry for the inconvenience. We appreciate your patience." Yeah, well I'd appreciate them hot footing it back on line.

          So, guess this is a good time to cut the grass. Only the riding mower won't start. Dead battery, assume it's bad. I call the battery store. No replacement in stock.  The lawn is screaming, "Cut me!"

          I go out the side gate to get to the garage to look for a battery charger. The gate won't shut properly. First time this has happened. I examine the gate. Repairs will require a socket wrench, a hammer and a lot of elbow grease.

          Maybe I can lower my blood pressure by doing something fun. I will print out a picture of our dog to send to a friend. I put photo paper in the printer tray. Hit print. Message reads, "Error, add paper to tray." I just did that. Add more paper. Hit print again.  Same message. Aaarghh!!

          So, do I just crawl in a hole and curse my existence? Might have been a short term solution, but I have to consider the long game.  Stuff happens; deal with it.  God is on my side.

          Turns out Medicare will send me paperwork which, theoretically, solves our billing problem. A modicum of hope.  The e-mail is back on line, but I still don't accept their apology. Under a pile of stuff in the garage, I find the battery charger.  Can cut the lawn in a few hours. Fix the gate in twenty minutes.  Good for a few hundred more swings. While the printer is still saying, "Add paper," I discover another way to print the dog picture using a 4X6 inch setting.

          Thus, the day has been somewhat redeemed. I get a celebratory soda out of the fridge. Only one left. Pop the tab. The pull part breaks off without opening the can. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.


          The other night I had what would rightly be classed as a nightmare.  I found myself in a wilderness area with no other humans within a thousand miles.  I had minimal food, enough water, but no transportation or way of getting back to civilization. I was stuck with myself, forever. Even the local critters weren't coming near. The sense of panic at being stranded without any possible companionship was terrifying, and I woke up very disoriented.  My wife's immediate presence slowly eased me back into the "real world."

          The dream was undoubtedly spawned by a TV reality show called Alone, where ten hearty individuals must survive in a harsh wilderness separated from their companions. In other words, each person is dropped at an isolated location at least five miles from the nearest competitor. They carry in rudimentary items such as a flint, a tarp and a tool like an ax or shovel. The last man/woman standing, or staggering, who hasn't tapped out, wins half a million bucks.

          Having watched almost three seasons of this show, what becomes most apparent is that the harshest challenge is not lack of food, bad weather, or predatory animals such as cougars, bears and wild boar. The biggest obstacle to success, to staying for months at a rudimentary campsite, is lack of human interaction.  Competitors do leave early because of injury, lack of sustainable food sources or fear of predators, but loneliness seems to be the biggest take down. Humans are social animals, and apart from the occasional hermit or psychotic loner, we all need to hear that human voice other than our own.

          The challenge of Alone is one thing, but can you also be isolated when surrounded by people? Of course.  The mental ability to connect with others can be a fragile construct.  That connection depends on shared experience and behavioral symmetry. I would rather listen to a radio station where actual humans introduce the music as opposed to a satellite radio service where the music just appears without context.  If I am in a sports stadium with 50,000 other fans, I can feel a real connection despite not knowing any of them individually. On the other hand, I can be in the same stadium, going through personal turmoil, and feel totally alone, completely isolated.  Context is important.

          Family, hopefully, provides a stability which can alleviate feeling alone.  Healthy familial relationships are often an anchor in a confusing world. However, when such relationships are dissolved through discord or death, the feeling of isolation can be multiplied exponentially.  When a spouse dies after many years of a strong marriage, the remaining partner must often fight through crushing depression.  Is there a quick fix when one is drowning in personal loss or feeling walled off from everyone else?

          Alcohol and/or drugs can be a short term (and often fatal) solution to the angst of isolation, but there must be a better way.  For most, the best shot at achieving continued connection with "our better halves," and others, is a deep spiritual foundation.  Believing in something bigger than yourself can provide the comfort which gives this life meaning and direction. Faith is the ultimate upper.

          In just over fifty days,  the last survivor remained for the first two seasons of Alone.  Two different men who put up with severe depredation and a corrosive isolation.  In both cases they clung to and were sustained by an abiding faith in a personal God. Two Christian men who knew that they were never truly alone.  That the world could take such comfort.