Tin-Foil Giving

April 29, 2019

Hunkered on the sofa, my usual spot while I’m popping cough drops, I heard a sharp knock on the front door. I muttered a few choice words, assuming it was a salesman for windows, siding, roofing, firewood, home inspections, or maybe fundamentalist proselytizers, who find our house an easy target. Sandy won’t answer door knocks, she tries to pretend no one’s home. I think though that at minimum, somebody knocking deserves to have the door answered, even it it’s just to get a blasted “No thank you!”

But today it was Paul, our neighbor across the street, holding a tray with a couple of aluminum-foil-covered plates.

“My wife made this,” he announced cheerfully. “She just wants everyone to be healthy!”

I was stunned at this surprise expression of kindness. I don’t typically expect it.  I had to struggle to withdraw from my already-formed indignation readied for a salesman or pamphleteer.

“It’s a pork dish,” he said, cocking his head to indicate one of the items. “The bowl is soup. Also a bottle of blackberry juice!”

“This is very kind, Paul,” I said. “We appreciate this very much.” I took the tray and thanked him yet again, he waved so long. I told Sandy and placed the items in the fridge. The soup was hot, I spilled some of it, but got them safely put away.

It was generous, but it also was spontaneous, unplanned, un-self-conscious. Human goodness in its purest form. I was almost embarrassed to be the beneficiary.

img_20190428_1210477052350099191485507008.jpgPaul and I aren’t close friends, even though we’ve been neighbors for years. I see him walking his dog. Sometimes we wave. I try to be neighborly, within limits. Narrow limits—that’s who I am. I do know that he has cancer because Sandy told me, because she talks to his wife and their elderly next-door neighbor, who lives alone and seems to know everything about everyone on our block. But I don’t know the details of what kind of shape he’s in. Not something I’d ask about. Nor would I volunteer anything about my own situation to any of our neighbors. Sandy does, though.

The elderly neighbor also has given us foil-wrapped meals. So have several guys in our running group. And Sandy has packaged food for neighbors.

I appreciate the charitable gesture. But I’m still surprised by it. Our neighborhood seems oriented against such unconditional, open-hearted kindness. Is that just my bad attitude? I’ll admit that for years I’ve never made much effort to get to know the neighbors. This subdivision always has been kind of a military-civil servant-contractor ghetto, a sensible place from which to commute to the military posts and federal offices in Northern Virginia and D.C. I did for years. But most of the neighbors eventually shuffle off to other assignments. I recall when we first moved here we had a few of these transients over for dinner. They came, but seemed puzzled, and never invited us to their own homes.

After the first few years we stopped making the effort. Except for kids on swim teams or in Brownies, neither we nor almost anyone else had much to do with neighbors. It’s the burbs, sure, but this place always has reminded me of those movies about big-city apartment buildings where tenants are scared to death of each other. We accepted that people kept to themselves and we adapted. We’ve never had block parties or neighborhood Fourth of July picnics here, things you hear about elsewhere.

We stayed while others moved away. Paul, his wife, the lady across the street, and a few other old fogies also stayed. Like us, they homesteaded here, meaning they found the place tolerable and didn’t, or don’t, have any reason to leave.

Yet when you find you have more gray hairs than brown ones, or few of any color, and you’re not planning right now on selling your home and moving away, you take more notice of those around you who still venture outside. If you have health problems, you can guess that others around your age probably do, too. And when they bring you home-cooked meals, you accept and enjoy the meals but also ponder why they brought them. Or at least I do. Is it pangs of conscience about tolerating for years the spooky impersonal atmosphere of the neighborhood? Long-latent neighborliness surfacing after years of yard chores and work? (Paul still works.) Or maybe, try this—it’s the honest-to-God recognition that bringing meals to neighbors in poor health is a fundamentally natural, fundamentally joyful thing to do.

Let’s face it, whipping up something in the kitchen, walking across the street with it, and waiting until the neighbor answers the door isn’t that hard. You do have to be prepared for the neighbor to not want to answer the door. But the point is that the preparer and deliverer of the dish have overcome the presumption that the neighbor isn’t expecting it, so won’t miss it, so why bother?

I’ve come to recognize that people do these things, even if they don’t know you well, because their nature calls them to perform acts of goodness, to respond to the instincts of charity that emerge unambiguously from the message of Christ, or perhaps from some other mystical direction.

And so we know the inclination to do good for others exists, and finds ways to express itself—to give something humble, like a meal, but more important, to overcome indifference to others that has too easily become ingrained in our daily lives. Whatever the source, to give from the heart and soul without thought of self, enables joy first for those others we assist in these small ways, but in the same way, for ourselves.


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 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.