Theroux and Cash, at Easter

April 22, 2019

Good Friday. Three weeks ago a much-loved member of the Virginia Happy Trails group passed after a long fight with pancreatic cancer. On Holy Thursday a cousin, a year younger than me, died of breast cancer a few days after entering hospice care.

So darkness descended. As with any death, those who knew the deceased mourn, and their grief stings more sharply when the world moves on at its relentless pace to less solemn, sometimes bizarre events, last week the Notre Dame fire. On Thursday we endured the release of the Mueller Report on Russia and the 2016 election.

The report’s release brought out the clowns grinding their usual axes. The attorney general was fried by the Democrats for mouthing Trump’s “no collusion” sing-song. They booed Mueller for acknowledging he couldn’t decide on obstruction of justice. The Trumpers, sweating until Thursday, announced they “won” for the same reason.

img_20190420_1724172497237261937313629761.jpgI went to the doctor Thursday and came away with orders for a chest x-ray and three prescriptions. This was around noon, when the TV talkers were earning their dough. Strangely, it got me thinking about the South.

On Thursday evening I popped cough drops; Sandy went to Mass. Instead of the TV news I plowed through Paul Theroux’s Deep South, his chronicle of a car trip through the Southern States. I look for good writing about the South because, fiction or non-fiction, authentic Southern writing is American writing. Stories of the South tell us where the country is today. They tell us also why Trump is president more eloquently than Meet the Press, Morning Joe, and the other talking heads.

Theroux, a Massachusetts Yankee, drove around the deep South. He saw the awful poverty of South Carolina hamlets, endemic bigotry in Alabama and Mississippi, the hopelessness of lack of good work, the rituals of gun shows attended by white men too poor to buy the guns they admired. The gun shows, he writes, “left a powerful impression of a prevailing mood of bitter defeat.”

Trump, a New Yorker, yet is a product of these places. Trump himself is only an agglutination of appetites and impulses who doesn’t know why he is president. But if you read The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash, you will know why.

img_20190421_1402571706849475948606326282.jpgCash worked for North Carolina newspapers in the 1920s, and contributed essays to H.L. Mencken’s “American Mercury,” including one entitled “The Mind of the South.” Publisher Alfred Knopf persuaded him to expand it to a book. He spent 12 years writing it.

Cash writes that over the nearly 200 years from the settlement of Jamestown until the Revolutionary War, an aristocracy evolved in Virginia’s Tidewater region, supported by slave labor. The aristocrats acquired property and grew tobacco, rice, and indigo, and forced owners of less-fertile farms west to the frontier. Some of them did well. These prosperous “yeoman farmers” won local elections and eventually became the true ruling class of the South.

That left the poor whites, the masses of white Southerners who didn’t own slaves. These were the people to whom the terms “cracker” and “white trash” were applied—the unsuccessful, the less-industrious and unthrifty. Most lived in isolated places; often large families lived and died in a single room. They raised subsistence crops or worked at odd jobs. Yet they shared with the wealthy planters and yeoman farmers the recognition of the distinction between their own lives, being white and free, and the humiliation of black slavery.

The reality of slavery enabled all Southerners to maintain an exaggerated sense of pride, the feeling that, no matter their own status, another class of human beings was beneath them. Cash argues that the recognition that the slavery was the foundation of the economic and cultural life of the South united all Southerners: plantation owners, cotton farmers, and “crackers” in hatred of the Yankee North. That hatred, he writes, inspired the fanatical courage of the Confederate forces, both officers and the backwoods infantrymen who enjoyed no benefits from slave labor, in a war they could not win.

The lives of the poor whites were harsh, but their cultural bonds with those better off also led them to a sort of romanticism, a belief that they could someday escape their struggles. That romanticism, for Cash, translated to religion. Their religion wasn’t the genteel Virginia Anglicanism. It was simple and emotional, steeped in a sense of sin.

Cash writes that the poor whites’ faith was “of primitive frenzy and the blood sacrifice.” God was a passionate tyrant. These Southerners demanded the God of the Methodists, the Baptists, and the Presbyterians, which he calls the “personal and often extravagant sects, with their revivals, sweeping across the personal and extravagant South.”

Meanwhile, for poor whites, social and family life coexisted with drunkenness, gunplay, moonshining, and blood feuding, and warnings of damnation from backwoods pulpits. Yet they believed devoutly that their lives were guided by pure Christian values, even while blind to the evil of human bondage. Life’s daily struggles, Cash says, contributed to a social schizophrenia that robbed the Southerner of any sense of a need to adapt to the vast economic and social changes that over generations transformed the nation.

img_20190420_174047551_hdr2707488085971869167.jpgDefeat by the Yankees and Reconstruction, Cash points out, left the rigid Southern conviction that the North was determined to destroy the South economically and spiritually. Distrust and hatred of Yankees, he writes, united the poorest whites and the ruined planters and cotton farmers, overcoming once-uncrossable class boundaries.

This evolution of a “solidified South” was abetted by the pastors who preached that the god of the Yankees was not a god at all but the Antichrist.  For them, Cash writes, the Southern people were chosen by God to stand against the Northern pagans. They argued that the South in its virtue was assigned the moral duty of caring for the souls of slaves.

This sense that Southern Christians were victims of Northern oppressors moved Southern churches closer to a strict Calvinism that taught that slavery as an institution was ordained by God. The churches looked on the Yankees as threats to their missions as arbiters of Southern morality.

Cash hanged himself six months after The Mind of the South was published. He recognized, at a time steeped in Jim Crow, Southerners’ resentment at being lectured at by Northern politicians and churchmen about how to vote. Today, pondering Cash and Theroux, we find the South a metaphor for all those hopeless, angry places where that resentment still simmers. We see too in Cash’s perceptions of the pseudo-spiritual fervor he found the concrete-solid support of today’s white “evangelical” sects for Trump.

Theroux tells how he took a seat at a group table in a restaurant in Vicksburg, Miss., introduced himself, and mentioned he was from Massachusetts: “A woman muttered in a resentful way, ‘You know what you did to us?’”

This is heavy, depressing stuff at Easter. Barr probably didn’t have any reason for releasing the Mueller report on Holy Thursday. I still take consolation in the message of the Redemption. So for this weekend I didn’t take Theroux and Cash to heart. But today we should.

Pacific Northwest

April 15, 2019

Sandy and I got up early Tuesday, rode an Uber to National Airport, and flew an interminable six hours to Seattle to visit my sister Regina and her husband Phil. They moved to Redmond, Wash., from St. Paul five years ago. Regina’s daughter Kate, Kate’s husband Robert, and their three girls live nearby. We also planned to see my cousin Holly, her husband Alex, and their two daughters.

Cascades, plane view

It was our first trip ever to the Pacific Northwest. So long ago, when we cheerfully planned our last-summer road trip, our idea was to drive to California then up the coast to Seattle. Of course that was crazy—it’s something like 1,600 miles up the Pacific coast, to add to the trip out there. No way it was going to happen.

I talk a good game. I want to go here, explore this park, visit that city. My track record doesn’t measure up. We talked with Regina for years about visiting. But then I had a window in the medical schedule. So it was time: we’re going.

Regina and Phil met us at the Sea-Tac airport. It was rainy and chilly. I was wearing a thin sweater and a tee-shirt and shivered walking to the car. Still, it was exciting to subtract a state from our “never-visited” list.

The next day we rode a bus into Seattle, avoiding the rush-hour traffic. At each stop jeans-wearing, backpack-toting young people boarded. These were the Microsoft people, Phil said. Apart from the four of us, no one spoke. Typical for a local commuter bus. I looked to the rear of the bus. Every rider’s eyes were glued to their phones. Developing “apps,” I guessed.

Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and hundreds of ancillary businesses around Seattle have created thousands of high-tech jobs paying six-figure salaries. They also have transformed the region by pushing housing costs beyond the means of non-tech people, consigning many to a growing homeless population. The companies do try to make amends with donations to local charities.

img_20190410_130120601-25529897631969100442.jpgArriving downtown, we walked through the famous Pike Place Farmers Market that abuts Puget Sound. We gawked at the mountains of ice-packed fresh fish, acres of colorful flowers and fruit in neat stacks taller than me. We stopped at the first Starbucks, branded with the chain’s original  logo and packed with tourists like us. We then surrendered to the blustery wind sweeping off the Sound and headed for the bus.

On Thursday Phil and Regina drove us out to mid-state to see Kate and Robert and the girls, who were spending the week at Robert’s family’s cabin near Plain, Wash., next to the swift-flowing Wenatchee River. The ride took us through the soaring Cascades. The vista of the snow-covered peaks had a calming effect on me, while Sandy hunkered down in the seat with her eyes closed. After a two-hour jaunt along U.S. 2 we arrived. The girls ran out to meet us. We had a happy visit, even while I recognized that it’s been six years since I’ve seen them. The youngest daughter wasn’t born then. The girls were sweet and welcoming, showing me their museum of stones, some gathered by Robert as a boy. We munched on grilled-cheese sandwiches.

Afterward, we drove south to Leavenworth, a once-tiny hamlet that a few years ago approached the University of Washington business school for help in keeping the place from falling into depression. The business students proposed the town reinvent itself as a “Bavarian” village to exploit the Alpine-like Cascades that rise behind it. Business owners were required to redesign buildings with mock-Bavarian features: peaked roofs, signs in Gothic Script, dark wood or fake-wood facades. New structures had to conform: bars, pet shops, Mexican restaurants, everything. Today, in Leavenworth, you may as well be standing in Munich.

Seattle is the center of the Sea-Tac region. It offers the razzle-dazzle of leftwing politics, stunning technology innovation, unique natural beauty. It extends northwest along 100-mile-long Puget Sound and west across the broad Kitsap Peninsula, which encompasses Olympia National Park and National Forest. Seattle actually is a long way, close to 100 miles, from the Pacific coast.

The steady rains through the winter and spring (meaning now), cultivate a vast rainforest on the Peninsula and eastward to the Cascades, where the jagged peaks rise alongside cold, boulder-strewn, angry rivers. Here and there you find a small community, a cabin, a steep mountain trail.

img_20190411_101709314_hdr8794557859335840955.jpgThe forests are dark, tangled thickets of Ponderosa pine, saplings, vines, semi-tropical ferns, and other flora that drink the soaking rain, which produces explosive growth over the rocky terrain, blocking sunlight and making foot transit impossible. Deep-green moss gathers thickly on tree trunks, limbs, stumps, and spreads across the forest floor, amplifying the ghostly dimness.

In a quiet moment, I thought about our experience. We wereimg_20190411_121213656_hdr4801078112999107344.jpg happy to reconnect with Regina, Phil, Kate, Robert, Holly, Alex, and the kids. Then my impressions came. Away from the suburbs, where rural roads extend east and west, the wilderness dominates. It evokes for the visitor—or me, at least, nursing my private paranoia—an undefinable, threatening sense of isolation, of loss of certainty.

The rainforest, evocative (to me) of the magical, brooding darkness of Brazil’s or maybe Peru’s, conveys the unnerving sense that this wide, borderless expense of wildness, creeping within 100 miles of a major urban area, represents the true character, the being of this place. Next to the haunting power and poetry of the rainforest and the mountains, the next software gimmick or corporate takeover are trivial sideshows.

We went to Mass for Palm Sunday. The service comforted me and gave me strength, even (I think) helped break my wrenching week-long chest cough for a little while.

We stopped at Holly’s and Alex’s place in north Seattle. I had not seen them since 2012, at my niece Annie’s wedding. Another quick but happy visit, full of reminiscences. We left hoping they’ll come see us someday.

A week after arriving we’ll be heading home to Virginia’s warm spring and the routine of uncertainty we escaped for a short time. It’s Holy Week, time for reflection and more appointments. Our journey into the chilly Northwest brought us closer to family. Also to some new perspective on the unknown, and how to face it.

Beach, Woods, Past, Future

April 8, 2019

We headed for Virginia Beach on Tuesday, just as the rain started. As we tried to make good on our promise to boldly leave town whenever we can, VA Beach seemed like an easy target. It’s not the soaring Rockies, or the legendary Texas Hill Country, or the ancient White Mountains. But it’s only three hours from home, with a pretty beach that compensates for the overall tackiness and, since it’s still off-season, isn’t obscenely expensive right now.

Virginia Beach has a family hold on me. I had an aunt and uncle, Eileen and Joe, who moved there from New York many years ago. They had two lovely girls, Grace and Kathy. My mother  stayed close to Eileen, her sister. We’d visit them over the years after we moved to Virginia. We rented a house at Sandbridge, just south of VA Beach, they’d come out to see us.

They’re all gone now. Grace and Kathy started their own families and moved away. Eileen and Joe and my folks are gone, too. The years race by and disappear, memories remain. On our second and last night, looking for a restaurant, we turned a corner. Across the street was Our Lady Star of the Sea church, where Grace and Kathy were married and Eileen laid to rest. It had been renovated top to bottom, completely transformed. I stopped and stared.

Before we left, I had to keep a doctor’s appointment. Then we hit the late-morning rain. It was coming down sideways as we passed Williamsburg. By the tunnel from Hampton it was monsoon-intense. We crawled into the Fairfield Marriott at 4:00 PM, crouched against a damp, raw wind.

The hotel, while a Marriott, reminded me of some places I’d rather not stay. In my dark mood, the Bates Motel came to mind. The desk clerk seemed to have just awakened. We asked about a restaurant—we don’t have one, he said, handing us a fistful of flyers for pizza joints. No one else was around. The room was OK, though.

From the hotel room window the ocean looked angry enough to swamp the hotel, the perfect spot for one of those TV weather reporter “on-the-scene” updates on hurricanes, when the audience wonders when the fellow—or gal—is going to be swept to a tragic end.

Wednesday AM

It seemed nice when we woke up, the forecast was for sun and seventies. These days that’s not good enough for me. For our post-breakfast walk on the beach I pulled on my thick wool sweater, winter parka, and grabbed my wool cap, Sandy was fine with a light jacket. We strolled on the brown sand near the water until we got to the fishing pier adjacent to 15th Street. We paid a few bucks to walk out in a stiff breeze and sit on a bench and watch some young fellows fish. Below, a half-dozen surfers sat on their boards, bobbing in the calm ocean.

Above us, Navy fighter jets curled in from the sea toward the Oceana Naval Air Station, filling the sky with sonic thunder. The chorus line of beach hotels, rooms facing seaward, stood in formation out to the horizon. Despite the tourists milling about, the brilliant blue sky and water, the beach seemed a lonely, barren place.

Finally the breeze was too much and we plodded back to the hotel by the street, surveying the cheap souvenir shops, T-shirt emporiums, and fast-food shacks. Worn out, I fell asleep. I felt better when I awoke and had an idea: First Landing State Park, at the far northern end of Atlantic Avenue, beyond the chic North End neighborhood not frequented by summer people. We found the park and the Trail Center. It had warmed up enough for a second walk. I ditched my winter coat. So—the 1.5-mile Bald Cypress Trail or the three-mile Osmanthus Trail?

img_20190403_134428469_hdr7108721966864465760.jpgThe first led into the second, we kept trekking. The trail was carpeted with pine needles, we passed silent bogs of dark water and stands of cypress hung with Spanish moss. The sun warmed our shoulders. We enjoyed the soft swish of the pine needles underfoot as the trail wound ahead of us through the sun-speckled forest. We paused at benches, savoring the silence. A few others overtook and passed us. We moved on at old-guy pace, glad—relieved—to feel a touch of spring. I followed the map on the park brochure—no distance markers, but do you need them on a three-mile trail?

The trail wound on, we came to a sharp north-curling turn. I had thought we were on the northern loop—I had ignored the spur to the southern loop—so we now were halfway or at 1.5 miles, heading back, Sandy getting a little antsy. After all, distances seem longer on unmarked trails than on your neighborhood streets.

I compared this cute, comfortable, manicured State Park walkway with the rugged Massanutten Trail (last week’s post), an invigorating, heartening world. Has it come to this? I liked this humble, pretty trail, but was getting tired, wishing I could do better. TBD, I reminded myself. Still fighting the stubborn residue of 40 days of treatment. I wondered: is this all I’ve got left?

Yet I’m better than I was two weeks ago, and friends and family are pushing me. All this nonsense will be behind me. I’m registering for the MMT Trail Work party next month, and for trail marking for the big race a week later. Everyone I know and love believes I’ll get there.

We finish the Osmanthus Trail, a little winded, but with the sun still high. We drive away, marking this place in our minds. It was fun, a gentle, soft-spoken kind of fun. We need to focus now on getting whole, and getting to all those other places we’ve bragged we’re going to see.

The Trail

April 1, 2019

Dave picked me up at 3:00 AM and we headed for the Massanutten Mountains in western Virginia. We jumped on Prince William Parkway to I-66, then at Front Royal turned west on U.S. 55 to Fort Valley Road, which descends south through a vaguely bordered region called Fort Valley. We talked a bit. I nodded off until I heard a screech of brakes as Dave swerved to avoid hitting three deer on that dark, winding mountain road.

Dave was acting as race director or, as he says, “run manager” for the third training run (35 miles) intended to help prepare trail runners for the Massanutten Mountain 100-mile run (MMT) in May. Dave, himself a hardcore trail runner, arranges three of the training events, which he insists are noncompetitive runs, not races. We kept the times to keep track of the runners.

Run manager Dave

We reached the start, at a horse-parking lot at Camp Roosevelt, 25 miles south of Front Royal about 5:00. About 20 cars already had arrived, the runners mostly asleep. We waited a bit, then Dave and Tom, a longtime friend and a tough-as-nails veteran of these things, took charge of moving about 20 more cars into the tight parking space. Dave checked in the 55 runners. They wandered forward, a sea of headlamps. He barked some directions. In the darkness they flowed out of the lot and up the Massanutten Trail.

The northern segment of the Massanuttens, although only about 90 miles west of D.C., is an alien place. Casual hikers and picnickers mostly stick to nearby Shenandoah National Park, with its well-kept trails and comfortable picnic areas along the popular Skyline Drive. You don’t see families out for a fun woodland experience on the Massanutten trails—occasionally a few campers and hikers, maybe.

img_20190330_121237485_hdr2244592147017866575.jpgThe northern segment consists of two 100-mile-long ridges over which winds the thickly forested 71-mile Massanutten Trail, an oval-shaped north-south loop marked by orange blazes on trees, blocked in places by boulders and tree falls, and carpeted with razor-sharp rocks that tear skin and break bones. A southern extension loops 10 miles south of U.S. 211.

The Trail is the primary course for the MMT and other trail-running events, when these unique people, trail runners, slog up high ridges at remote places called Duncan Hollow, Kern Mountain, and Bird Knob.

Tom, Larry

Three years ago I snapped my ankle three miles out on this same event. Stepped on a wet rock and heard it crack as I went down. A big guy, another Dave, gave up his place in the run and in two hours hauled me back to the start. I drove home, then headed to the ER for X-rays.

The Virginia Happy Trails group has its greyhounds who can cover 100 miles in 18 hours. But most of the people in this late March event are not elite athletes. They’re men and women who resolve, for their own reasons, to attack these brutal trails, tramp over the endless rocks, climb thousands of feet of elevation, fall, get up, and move forward. Why? Desire for physical fitness doesn’t capture it. Closer: the determination, somewhere in their hearts, to confront a forbidding, unique, dangerous challenge, and succeed.


Dave, Tom, and another volunteer, Larry, and I stopped in Luray for breakfast, then headed to the Massanutten Visitor’s Center to set up the first of two aid stations, at roughly the 13-mile point. Trail-running guru Quatro joined us to work the station. Around 9:00 the fast guys came through, paused briefly for Gatorade and cookies, then headed up to Bird Knob, the highest point on the MMT course. Over the next 90 minutes the rest of the pack arrived, glad to see the aid station. A few dropped and cut the course short, most headed out to start climbing.

img_20190330_1212290041828914410614650871.jpgThey’re all “trail runners,” although much of the trail is too steep and rocky for running. The climbs up Bird Knob, Waterfall, Kern, and others: Habron, Signal Knob, and Short Mountain, take short step after short step in “granny gear,” making for 15- to 20-minute miles. Thighs, hamstrings, calves throb. Shoulders and backs ache from bending forward, water and mud leak into shoes where rushing creeks threaten runners’ balance. Hunger and exhaustion creep in, miles from aid stations. Limbs chafe where straps meet skin. Perception and brain function get fuzzy. The thought of one more banana or energy bar prompts nausea.

It’s possible to get seriously lost in the thick Massanutten forest. The trail is marked only by the tree blazes, which are easy to miss. Runners sometimes take crossing trails and disappear for hours, in the winter risking howling winds and temperatures in the 20s or below. Cellphones don’t work for most of the trail.

At around 11:00 we broke down the aid station and set up another, at the 24-mile point, at the junction of the toughest part of the course. Another volunteer, Tim, brought his gas grill and made quesadillas. The fast people came and went.  Then it got slow. The temperature rose into the seventies and beat runners down. Intervals between runners got longer, most showed the strain as they slogged in, some bent with exhaustion. They plodded on, ten miles to go. Then another long gap. Three runners out. When they showed up they were done, happy to take a lift to the finish.

There, back at Roosevelt—victory. Arriving runners shed their packs, sat, savored the achievement. This 35-mile stretch is MMT’s toughest. They had overcome it. They trickled in from the road, walking, then breaking into jogs when they saw the crowd. Time for refreshments, maybe a cocktail, time for stories, plans, first aid applied to cuts and bruises. For most, another bad one in the books. Dave’s “Chocolate Bunny” all-night run is coming up next month.

In the Fast Lane

March 25, 2019

Our TV weathermen have started their annual happytalk about the cherry blossoms, the ritualistic late-March deliberations about when they’re going to be in full bloom around the Tidal Basin—or not. It may be later this year. No wait—some of the trees have already bloomed, that sort of thing. Same every year. I went 20 years ago, that was enough.

Not to be grumpy, I was looking for real signs of good news, and got some: the last radiation session on Monday, recognized by the staff with a little pin and a rubber bracelet engraved “Survivor.” Had lunch with friend Alex (see this blog, Nov. 4, 2018), we talked about the chance I might join him for a jaunt out to the Shenandoahs—hiking, not running. The key word is “might.” Also, a highlight: the kids came up from S.C., Marie, Mike, grandsons  Noah and Patrick, our oldest daughter Laura. We visited and talked. Mike and I took the boys to the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, always a treat.

Noah at National Museum of the Marine Corps 

I did finish (for now) an acrylic of a Shenandoah mountain scene looking east, after hours working to get right that mysterious blue-white mist that wells up between those gentle peaks. Problem for me is the depth, it looks whiter closer in, or is that my imagination? Still, time well spent. Beats complaining.

Friends have checked in. Dan, a tough, standup Happy Trails guy whose wife fought off cancer and knows the drill I’m marching to, invited me for a mountain run with him. Dave, another friend, is taking me with him to help out at next Saturday’s Massanutten 50K (kilometer) run, my first time working this one after running it four or five times.

I’m struggling a little with aftereffects of treatment, but staying upbeat. We got a hint of spring, not every day was bitingly raw and damp. Still, most days are indoor days, and with no longer a doctor’s schedule to keep, time is available to think about and focus on the future, some of which is about changing the scenery, sure, but in the real world, the here and now.

For years, our obsession was old-age security. We attended enough financial planning sessions, or watched them on TV, to be seriously scared at the prospect of a senior “lifestyle” consisting of a cramped apartment, crushing medical bills, soup and beans every night, then being corralled into a barebones gray-walled nursing home run by neo-Nazi attendants.  A couple of medical close calls for both of us added to that: Sandy’s heart, my rhabdomyolesis last year.

We came within an inch of slashing our life policy to pay for long-term care insurance,  which I was convinced we had to have. It only takes one insurance company briefing to truly scare you about growing old: outliving your savings, developing nightmare health problems like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, the ones in the TV ads, then being forced to spend yourselves into poverty to qualify for Medicaid. Then Sandy was laid off. We junked the long-term care idea. The fallback is to “self-insure.”

Things are different now. We’re not richer. But close calls concentrate the mind, as the cliché goes. Our benchmarks on the future have changed. It now seems ridiculous to listen to those brokerage commercials that project we’re both going to live into our mid-eighties and then how important it is to have a “nest egg” put away for our nineties. My insurance policy won’t mature ‘til I’m around 100. Come on.

So having gone through all these medical appointments and paid all those bills (with help from insurance) we’re freer, in our heads, anyway, than we have been in years. What would we like to do? Travel—isn’t that what we should do? Well, where do people like us go? London, Paris, Rome? Hawaii, Hong Kong?

Laura, our oldest, spent a summer in Russia, later hiked to Macho Picchu. Our son Michael and daughter-in-law Caroline have been to New Zealand twice. Middle daughter Marie spent a year of college in Ireland, a month in Japan, then visited the U.K. many times. Kathleen, the youngest, went to Hawaii, Europe, Guatemala, and camped all over the Western states.

We’ve never done any of that. Sandy’s idea is to fly to Utah and see the five national parks there. I’d like get back to Texas and Florida. Then drive to Baxter State Park in Maine and climb Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Then drive south through New England, stop at St. Anselm’s in New Hampshire, a friend’s place in Connecticut, then ferry over to Long Island and visit a bunch of cousins there.

We then have Sandy’s nephew’s wedding in Georgia in September and a cousin’s wedding in Virginia Beach. Life in the fast lane for Ed and Sandy. We get around.

Hard Questions

March 18, 2019

On Wednesday we walked the Burke Lake trail. A 4.5-mile loop that circumvents the lake just off Rte. 123 in Fairfax, it’s a flat, well-manicured trail popular with runners, bikers, and walkers with or without dogs. I’ve run it many times with the THuGs.

I thought it would be a good way to get some fresh air and exercise, since I haven’t had much of either lately. Sandy was up for it, and she’s more of a walker than a runner. Doing something rather than nothing always is positive. And we’re trying, these days, to stay positive.

The trail started out dry, but after the first mile we found muddy water, and much of the last three miles meant skipping around it or through it. Not a dealbreaker, but the mud did remind that we’re still slogging, literally, out of a raw, nasty winter that has taught that life is fragile. More than that, a few hiccups in your formerly robust health can give you a case of what I call the “poor-mees.” You find yourself wondering what you’ve accomplished of value as the years flew by, and if you’re honest, maybe you’re not so happy with your score. And you wonder why.

img_20181029_1336102121112026330501721638.jpgThe outdoors does that for me. The Burke Lake trail wouldn’t appear on anyone’s list of the most thought-provoking, creativity-inspiring places. It’s just a mitten-shaped lake and a trail for people who live mostly in subdivisions. For serious hikers, the degree of difficulty is about one in ten. We finished, gasping a little, but happy for doing it.

That was Wednesday. Thursday the mass shooting at the mosques in New Zealand occurred, with all the features of these slaughters that still horrify but no longer surprise: automatic weapons. Tactical clothing. Video, live-streamed on social media platforms. Eloquent condemnations by most world leaders. And this time a “manifesto” that credited President Trump as a “symbol of white identity and common purpose.”

Because the killer’s words were so unhinged and paranoid, and yet carefully prepared, the predominant response to his announcement of his hatred for Muslims and non-European peoples was not only outraged horror, but also warnings about the growth of right-wing terror. Such warnings have been making the rounds even before Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment about the Charlottesville riot of August 2017.

His moral equivalence following that event set the tone for the popular response to it, and now to Christchurch: shock, outrage, but also resignation that it will happen again. Elizabeth Bruenig, in The Washington Post, went further, fixing on the nature of evil, neutering it, somehow, with abstraction: “evil is unreflective, shallow, empty … it never really perceives itself, though it always considers itself an exacting and scrupulous judge of others,” she wrote.

In an early February piece she suggested that “the nature and essence of being an individual—what we’re really like, whether we’re really good or evil or suspended somewhere in between—goes largely unexamined.” She resurrects the case of serial killer Theodore Bundy, a rapacious murderer who also impressed as charming and shrewd.

But this turns evil into what? A character trait, maybe, that individuals may choose to indulge. In the February column she cites actor Liam Neeson, who revealed that at one time he looked for a black man to murder to avenge the rape of a friend, then suddenly came to his senses.

The problem of evil leads us back, once again, to the problem of the existence of God, with the perennial question: if there is a God, why does he permit evil? It’s the question asked, to name just one case, by the widows and widowers of 9/11 who stopped believing after they lost their spouses.

The Christian understanding may be the simplest: if we conceive of perfection, then evil also must exist. We know the “good” if we recognize its absence. In the Christian coda, God alone is perfect. It then follows that all else is imperfect, in an infinite series of degrees, e.g., from St. Francis of Assisi to Hitler. All men are flawed, corruptible: some people pilfer office supplies at work, others commit mass murder.

Sure, we all recognize that “nobody’s perfect.” And to credit “goodness” as a counterweight to the existence of evil seems neutral, banal. We need to feel anger, outrage, fury, at the existence of Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the Christchurch killer. To isolate evil as a kind of quirk, an indulgence, a bad habit, is to represent it as distinct from human nature, which is impossible—for example, to wonder whether if he had had a better education or better parents he wouldn’t have killed those people. And we know it will happen again, because we acknowledge that good in man’s nature foreshadows and coexists with evil. Where we ourselves reside on that infinite chain from sainthood to someone like Tarrant is forever a mystery.

The Burke Lake trail was unusually empty Wednesday, as we navigated the mud, our minds led to distant places, resigned to more challenges and choices in months ahead. Thursday came and summoned agonizing questions that all of us, once again, struggle to answer.

In the News this Week …

March 11, 2019

In this first week of March we observed Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. The evening of that solemn day we leaped to the CBS Evening News lead story on R. Kelly, a singer charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. For three consecutive nights, at least, the newscast showed the guy, while being interviewed, angrily denying it all while stomping around the room.

Am I the only one in America who had never heard of him?

In the same way I admit now to never having heard of another fellow whose face filled the evening news for more than a week, Jussie Smollett, the actor who has been charged in Chicago with filing a false police report about being assaulted by racists in the middle of the night.

The news show producers only have so many minutes in which they can cram stories, and the rules for organizing them to hold the viewer (or in the case of print news, the reader) haven’t changed: go with the gripping, attention-grabbing headline.

It wasn’t just CBS, these stories were everywhere. Is everyone else in the audience hipper, more tuned in than me? Is my cultural aptitude that stunted? Having just exited my 60s last week after the standard 10-year term, I know I’m in the advertising demographic trash heap. But the evening news is what “we” watch, based on the commercials for chemotherapy aids, bladder control, COPD support and similar stuff. I don’t enjoy them any more than the thirty-somethings. They may not watch the evening news, but they know about Kelly and Smollett.

Not to perseverate, but I didn’t lose sleep over my ignorance of these fellows and the trouble they found themselves in. Nor did anyone else I know. But watching the reports (until I changed channels) reminded me of the wide gap, at this moment, between my priorities, and the priorities of those whose cultural beacons are tuned to the Kelly/Smollett frequency.

img_20181125_121008511-27402437319582304364.jpgBy week two of radiation/chemo, we settled into the 8:15 schedule. The Monday through Friday visits to the radiology oncologist’s office became a ritual, like work used to be. The three young techs who run the operation run it as a friendly assembly line. The 8:00 AM patient leaves the lead-lined treatment room, we say hello, I go in. The techs ask me, every day, my name, birthdate, and the area being treated—a certification requirement.

They line me up with the laser markers crisscrossing my chest. The linear accelerometer starts spinning. I feel nothing. Six weeks after the first session I have a circle of sunburn on my chest and another on my back—the radiation passes through the body—and an internal burn on my esophagus, which is directly in front of the tumor and has been dried to the texture of a prune. Morphine helps.

Before I found myself in this fix, I knew nothing and understood nothing of the lives of others who face it every day, every moment. The silent faces of those sitting in the oncology waiting rooms reveal a mix of fear, resignation, and acceptance. They typically resemble me: late sixties and older, but not exclusively. My partners in the chemo pen range from early thirties to way up there, of a diverse mix of ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds: old white guys with Irish surnames to young black, Hispanic, and Muslim women, and everything in between.

The staff people are great, as they usually are in those professions. The nearby hospitals offer dozens of support groups, which I haven’t explored (Yoga for Cancer looks interesting). We met with a bright, caring social worker who loaded us down with brochures, way different from those we picked up at the Sunny Retirement trade show at Tyson’s last week.

What I’ve learned, too, is that my group here in Woodbridge, Va., cared for by one field office of an oncology practice with a dozen facilities in northern Virginia, is only a tiny cell in a population of millions of cancer patients across the country.

I’m betting that not many of my fellow patients are paying much attention to the problems of R. Kelly and Jussie Smollett. They may not even watch the evening news. They most likely do know, or appreciate, that roughly a half-million people die of cancer of all types each year in the U.S., mostly because their disease wasn’t detected in time for treatment to be effective.

I don’t mean to pile on CBS or the other popular media. They do report health-care news, mostly if it’s fast-breaking, like a flu epidemic or other wide-appeal stories which, again, is the bottom line in news. But never, ever will you see three straight days of lead-story coverage of the lives of cancer patients. Fact is, the patients don’t care. They’re more likely to be preparing for Lent.