The Juice Ain’t Worth the Squeeze

Maybe once – and this is a stretch – I saw camels up close. Even-toed ungulates aren’t animals I remember crossing my path. When I was young, there could have been a time in a zoo when they sauntered up to my thick patterned orange and brown knitted shirt, brown polyester pants, and crooked bowl hair cut … then walked away. Just don’t know. As an adult, certainly any travel overseas can eliminate the possibility of having a dromedary encounter. I’ve never happily humped my way to the Gobi Desert in China, Mongolia, North Africa, the Middle East, or Australia. Speaking plainly here, flying overseas isn’t my thing – not for a camel sighting … not for a whole lot of reasons.

Yesterday, someone I know pulled out a rubber, bendy straw during breakfast. This thingmajig magically appeared out of nowhere in the hands of a young lady finishing off the final 25% of our booth capacity. She’s not one who joins us regularly at our table, but one who is certainly welcome any time. This sucking device is a reusable mouth gizmo designed to avoid using a plastic straw. She had it, I get it. I get the plan, however, didn’t see it implemented. Hot coffee through a rubber straw isn’t the best idea … even among a table of misfits who could ooze their way out of a clown car and nobody would think twice.

As fascinating as that straw was to all of us for the few seconds it bent its way into our conversation, I’m pretty sure it’s not the one that broke the camel’s back. That said, it can still suck just as much as one single, atomically teeny, Whovillian dustball that collapses a stressed-out emotional steampile.

According to Wikipedia, the straw that broke the camel’s back is from an Arabic proverb about “how a camel is loaded beyond its capacity to move or stand”. It is a “reference to any process by which cataclysmic failure (a broken back) is achieved by a seemingly inconsequential addition, a single straw…

We’re all familiar with this idiom … aren’t we? I’ve had a few back-breakers lately. Two minutes yesterday in the car, actually. No need to explain. Suffice to say the phrase, “What the f– is wrong with people?”, should be enough to give you an idea of my mind set. I’m nowhere near perfect and don’t expect others to reach ideal conditions in their mindset when working with me. I can be difficult, but am always … always respectful and kind when expecting certain results from others. “Here’s the plan … do the plan.”

Two weeks ago, I had expectations and communicated them. He understood, or so I thought. Uhm … ‘nuf said. We had a come to Jesus. Today I’m calmer, but am behind schedule. To quote one of my favorite Seinfeld lines, “Serenity now!”…

Here’s the thing. I had a moment to listen to one of my favorite podcasts yesterday to calm me down. Two twisted idioms from callers perked me up: “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”, and “..Playin’ some (emotional} Jenga there.”. In context of the podcast, the caller used a religious reference in the second quote, but I imagine any problem poke in your life would work.

Taking the second one first, my last Jenga piece pulled caused the whole tower to collapse. We do this, don’t we? We build these towers of expectations then, little by little, disappointments and failures in others cause us to pull away. Time allows second chances so we once again place hope on the tower again. We fail, or others fail us … again. The camel can’t hold the last straw, right? At this point we look over all the pieces strewn about and say to ourselves, “Why do I even try? …”

This is why the first phrase is so wonderful. “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”. I love this. It forces us to look at outcomes, not the process. Putting the straw on the camel in the first place could be the problem. Heaping a pile of expectations on top of an already large clump of calamity, sometimes, may not be the best way to ride through life in a barren desert where answers appear as a mirage more than a reality. Maybe, just maybe, some problems aren’t worth the stress we put on ourselves.

I will find a way to get caught up with what could have been done the past two weeks – and wasn’t. We’re always catching up or keeping up, I guess.

As of 4 a.m., my back is still what it is for an older guy who gets up and types away. Yes, there are two disks not working properly sending signals to my brain and legs – like every five minutes – that trigger a pain response. Regular activity isn’t the same as it was. I’d gladly trade this for polyester pants and a bad haircut. Why didn’t we appreciate youth when it was coursing through our low cholesterol veins? Back in the day, as they say …

Back when Forest Zoo in Gallitzen, Pa still had crowds leaning up against posts and ropes looking at animals … smiling, enjoying the summer days. I do remember going there. No camels were smiling back at me as I walked about with my family and friends. Although, I can’t be 100% confident. Just don’t know..

Basically Frustumated

There were two. Mrs. Garver and Mr. Kachur. One, a Shippensburg University graduate who stood in front of us wearing large round lens glasses and always had a pleasant smile on her face. She squared up a classroom of rather anxious teens for being a smaller framed, but strong, astute lady. The other, a man of equally heavy lenses always tinted with a slight brown hue to match his thick quaff of dark hair parted sharply from the right. Of the two, I preferred the latter. His math class happened earlier in the day when I was happier and open more to the possibility of learning than nodding off later in the afternoon. Mrs. Garver’s class, a year earlier, was numerically exciting – as I’ve always been a math geek – but an eighth period drudgery always caught up with me.

Now, I use the term, “math”, to encompass all numbers, shapes, sizes, formulas, theorems, x’s, and y’s all of us experienced throughout our intersectional, awkward teenage years. Most express disengagement when spouting about math class experiences. I don’t. Never was there an axis I didn’t enjoy crossing, a train-word problem worth unsolving, or columns of numbers that didn’t excite me. Quadratic equations are still intoxicating. Amicable numbers hug my soul. Oh, and the Fibonacci Series, c’mon now … !

Imagine my frustration when the concrete object above caught my attention … and I couldn’t remember/figure out what that darn shape, form, and/or boxy, pointy, square-looking thingy is called !?! …

… So, I sent a text to the artist/sculptor who is marvelously working on this project at the outskirts of town. Oh, you know him. It’s my friend Joel. I’ve mentioned him before in my blogs recently. The picture above is the base intended to hold a large metal sculpture he’s building. I know no details other than that. What I know is what you see. A certain, specific amount of concrete “yards” have been formed into that shape and are currently enjoying time to cure.

Ah, yes … the shape. We “sort-of” figured a four-sided quadrilateral without giving it much thought. I wouldn’t hold him to much of the decision here because I was more concerned about it than he was. As an aside, these kinds of silly little brain sticky-things get lodged in my psyche until some kind of easiness comes to bear – not his.

I did my research, with another friend in tow, and we are confident in proclaiming to the world: IT IS A FRUSTUM !! … and to continue onward with a stupid pun, I’m happy to say there had to be a point – eventually.

…aaaand, here it is: In all my years, I can’t recall a frustum. Base 10 in our numbering system? Sure. Never reaching first base in little league because I couldn’t hit a ball thrown to me to save my life? Yep. Bases that react with acids to form water and salts? I guess, if chemistry is your thing. Bob Cranshaw, in the world of homophonic bass jazz pioneers, if you will. In this case, a frustum base caught me by surprise as I exited town the other day. What isn’t a surprise, however, is the care, artistry, and time Joel is putting into this piece. I am looking forward to the (possible) Arbor Day, April 30th unveiling of a work of art this town of Hollidaysburg should be proud to have on its soil.

It will be, equally, my pleasure to share his progress here on DougHugs as I see it happening. I may not know all the shapes or forms he uses – and that’ll be ok. Art is to be appreciated, not necessarily understood.

This kinda describes our friendship, in a way. Appreciated, not understood.

Take that as advice for your life however it applies. Appreciate something, or someone … or a relationship with something. Don’t try to understand it too much, or at all. In my recent experience, I’ve learned it may end up just frustumating you, anyway.

Benedictine Deliciousness

Yesterday’s hours included a “haven’t had in a long time” morning fare. As the waitress approached my booth with plate in hand, I knew … just knew … the early rain outside wasn’t going to dampen my spirits. It’s been ages since eggs benedict sat wonderfully in front of me. Waiting.

Even though opening was a short three hours away, my prep work behind schedule, and a Sunday tired already setting in on my eyes, this breakfast was going to be enjoyed. I needed a break. A Sunday morning – away from it all – fresh break. A well done Hollandaise sauce calmly dripping over two finely done eggs on a plate was the perfect breakfast to see as a very nice waitress placed smiles in front of me.

Deep breath in, fork at the ready … Didn’t matter what other booths and tables were occupied at my local Eat N’Park. Restrictions prohibit the breakfast bar next to where I sat from being stuffed with fruit, eggs, toast, pudding, and all the other fixin’s we’ve enjoyed over the years. Paper menus have replaced vinyl fold-outs and condiments arrive in little nondescript tug boats instead of large ships of corporate pride. “Every other” are two-word common place signs featured on tables and booths. I get all this. I do.

As I sat marvelously enjoying my breakfast … casually chatting here and there with friends online, listening to Ed Sheeran, etc … I could see others becoming comfortable with all this. A new normal, kinda. Some things we’re getting used to everyday. No one there, shortly after 8:30 on a rainy, cloudy last day in February, seemed to mind distancing, masking, limited paper menus, or very tiny portion cups filled to the 1/2 inch brim with ketchup … anymore. No eyerolling at nice waitresses or complaining about … really … anything.

A quiet acceptance. Sounds of porcelain calm as utensils graced plates short distances away. Not too many folks were around yesterday morning. Even as I progressed into the second of two eggs and made significant effort in polishing off the pile of skillet potatoes, not a lot of fellow citizens came by to eat. Perhaps a couple, or two, and maybe a few families … that’s about all.

Heading out past the middle row of booths, I did happen by a retired reporter friend who is always very pleasant. Phil never had an unkind word working the local courthouse scene as I sidewalked my first hotdog cart for years. We met years ago and have continued a nice friendship since. So nice to swish by him during a morning when “haven’t had in a long time” was being revisited once again.

Life has those moments … and we need them. I wrote about them last time we met here.

I followed my own advice and sat down to enjoy those eggs, deep breaths, and observations. Fun. New? Yes, the Benedictine deliciousness certainly did make my morning stomach smile. I knew they would. Not too rich, they were. Well done. Side of potatoes and a glass of water? Perfect for the day’s beginning.

Something different to begin an otherwise normal day.

I hope you can find a booth to relax sometime. Order something different you haven’t had in a long time. Treat yourself. Life is a bit off for all of us now. We can be a little different once in a while, too.

Mirror Words

If walking in to my special cafe was only this: a casual sit down almost every morning after entering a little after 8 o’clock on weekdays has been my norm. They closed on Saturdays due to the pandemic changing walk-about folks in town … less of them strolling about in our little town.

Never just that. I always need something to capture my imagination or bring out the silly sense of bravery I need to sustain me during the coming hours of the day. My dear friend across from me shifted her stressful self slightly to the left. As I ashamedly slouched in the early morning deep red vinyl bench … this image Kilroy’d itself in the beautiful, beveled glass hanging gracefully – for nearly a century – on the wall. How many reflections? How many men, women, and children examined their lives during the early morning cold, snowy minutes in February … in Hollidaysburg, PA.

I did. Slightly scrutinizing the items on my daily agenda before snapping this picture above, that is. It didn’t take much time to deep dive into a twenty-minute self-discovery because the image in the mirror amused my egg-consuming self. As I began dipping the daily under or overly toasted rye toast into those fried eggs, the mirror resemblance above didn’t go away. I couldn’t allow it. Basic words attached themselves to the depiction staring back at me. Mirror words? Yes. But slightly more meaningful since it seemed I was silently talking to myself.

Maybe it was in my eyes? I don’t really know. I look tired. This isn’t about me, though.

You never know when life looks back at you … suddenly. Moments – like early morning look backs in a very familiar town’s cafe – jump back in your face suddenly when friends shift slightly. Movements by others across from you, during comfortable conversations, can turn in heartbeats. Familiar words and places abruptly change. We know. Boy, do we know, right?

I know. This week, friends of friends lost a loved one. I didn’t know the young man who passed away suddenly days ago. He lived out of state, but was closely connected to a local family and, by extension, to a close friend of mine. She was sitting with me when the news of his passing pinged on her phone a few days after I sat in the comfortable morning booth. She’s a different friend than the one across from me the other day. Different place, change of scenery and seating accommodations, but a life-sudden look back for her that sent an unexpected chill down her spine. There was no mirror. Just two friends eating turkey subs beside a surprisingly warm high-top table for two near a large window facing out into another cold, winter day.

She was momentarily dazed – as expected. I would have expected nothing less, not even knowing the man who passed away. The text came in instantly – as news does these days – through her texting service, I believe, so I respected the moment’s demands and sat silently for a few seconds – perhaps a minute or two – until she respectfully replied back. Mere words, yet meaningful to those receiving on the other end. Folks in shock – as she was making a connection.

My friend Rick W., a fellow musician, posted the following on Facebook:

“Yes, you have all heard this many times. But, sometimes repetition drives the thought home. Life is indeed fragile, and can be over as quickly as one turns a light off. Embrace, love, be thankful for your family and friends, and most importantly, give yourself a hug because you truly deserve it!”

The death of the young man inspired Rick to type those words due to his close association with the family. HIS look back. His mere words that are not just those meant for his reflecting back on us. Helping us to remember one who is suddenly no longer here. A Covid death among the many.

One man no longer here I never knew. One man – out of state – who is, now, joined to me because I have a habit of walking into a favorite, old cafe where so many have gone before me. Tired eyes looking back at me I’ve seen so many times before … and always with a message of hope in some weirdly shaped glass bottle washing up from the ocean of our experiences. Glass from a mirror with mere words meaning so much more as each day passes.

We have hope that these reflections keep the memories of those gone suddenly are still alive in our memories. They changed our lives while they were here. Yes, an overused cliché. Yes, admittedly in my early morning brain, I could come up with better words perhaps, but there aren’t any. Life is precious.

I have a few in my life that make the moments very special. They are here. Now. No words are really necessary to express how special they are.

As I look back at myself – looking at myself looking at myself – it’s just a silly picture. A casual sit down almost every morning after entering a little after 8 o’clock on weekdays is my reality.

For years upon years, the morning ritual of a bathroom mirror reflection has been so commonplace for ALL of us. We forget how special our lookbacks can be. It takes that special little shift to the left of a friend for us to realize how special our lives are … not only to us, but also to those who call us friends.

But, these are just mirror words. Go live. Find your eyes and take a picture. Sit back and enjoy a few minutes of the joy that is your life. The now.

Horatio, Valentina, Nobuyuki, Evgeny, and I

I don’t own the rights to those pictures, nor do I have any idea how these artists do what they do with their hands.

Allow me to amend that last sentence. I know exactly how they play (exception below) – being a pianist myself. Chopin, Liszt, Mozart, Scriabin? … Name the composer or era, and I either dabbled with the piece or listened to it masterfully played by an artist. Horowitz was my go-to early on. Later on, Misha Dichter, Andras Schiff, and Awadagin Pratt gracefully entertained my ears during lonely evenings. So much talent. So much skill beyond my level.

I’ve played some difficult pieces in concert. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, chief among them. For me, four months of concentrated, dutiful practicing culminated in a long, wonderful concert including Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Chopin – filling my heart with exhaustive pleasure once the last note fell on the stage. I was empty. Marvelous.

The title above was uncomfortable to type. I don’t belong in the company of those masters, humbly so. They are my peers, yet they know not how their music affects me when I watch … and listen. I know their skill. I know the how. Ten fingers, eighty-eight keys. The unknown to me is how Nobuyuki’s blindness does not interfere at all in his ability to execute flawless technique. As well, Valentina’s ease at the end of her long frame is so graceful and effortless. Evgeny was, simply, a child prodigy whose encore pieces are, alone, worth the price of admission. Horatio’s back story as poor Cuban immigrant draws me in. These four artists don’t know me, but we have a bond. Music. Specifically, a black and white adherence to what is good in the world.

The goodness comes when I need it. Be it a young man gently placing a 33-LP of Horowitz’s Chopin Ballade in G-Minor on his Technics turntable for the twentieth time, or a pandemically fatigued man who hasn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks, piano music played by the masters always … always … fills my time, soul, and need for exhales. YouTubing through my mom’s earbuds with notable fancies the past fourteen days has been refreshing and a nice respite away from words.

I hope you have a go-to.

I have a person in my life now. A go-to musician who is in the midst of a major life struggle. We have a music-bond that, hopefully, will develop into a beneficial endeavor soon. Like, real soon. Yesterday, we took the first step in planning a set list of happy songs I’m so excited to start working on behind my Baldwin sitting quietly off to my left. She has a beautiful voice and a personality to match. I’m very familiar with her crazy family and, strangely, some of her zany friends, so placing all the pieces together for a concert shouldn’t be a complicated puzzle. I am a solo artist at times, but enjoy my role as an accompanist more … so this will be my absolute joy to walk with her along this path.

This is hometown, not international fame and fortune. This is music as it is for most of us. We’re not prodigies or folks who do acrobatic finger hopping for the masses. Our role is to sit back and enjoy their effortless skill when we need it … as I have lately.

To some of you, a novel. Perhaps a walk, painting, cooking, … maybe even writing. Whatever your go-to, be glad in it. Embrace it. Love it.

I adore my friends above even though they don’t know me. Of the four, Nobuyuki impresses the holy freak out of me. I just don’t know how he does it. With all my facilities intact, I can’t come close to his execution. Here’s a 4 minute treat for your eyes and ears:

With that, I’ll leave you to enjoy what’s pleasured my minutes the past two weeks.

They, among the few geniuses, are what makes my world happy when I need their music. Go-to it today and always, my friends.

You’re a Heuro and Didn’t Know It

If Donald Trump can be elected President, a specific word used less often adjectively – and most assuredly not in conversations in the West Wing prior to January 20th, 2021 – should be afforded a wide berth in usage and form. My suspicions of non-usage would hold true under the most rigorous of examination … as would your wonderment.

Any casual observer of Presidential speeches over the past 4 years bears this out. It is not a personal attack on his character or a dip into my political pool of ideas. This is simply a listener’s ear reflecting on the words heard. His words were simple, repetitive, disjunct, unfocused, and possibly the least inspiring I’ve ever heard from a President in my lifetime. Before you throw me into the deep end, I do have positive, conservative presidential planks upon which I stand.

Today is about word usage. A “thing” the Donald did not latched onto and probably had no capacity to do so. It wasn’t in his character. He’s a rather strange business guy who happened to win the Electoral College, but not the popular votes, with a simple MAGA message. You can argue “marketing genius”, and I’d be hard-pressed to deny you a victory. Hey, I applaud the effort. None of the other candidates had the gumption to do what he did. America wanted a change … and, boy, we got one.

Anyway, my word? Heuristics. Show me one instance when this was spoken at, in, or above 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I’ll admit my fault posthaste. What I won’t apologize for is my so titled “You’re A Heuro” wide berth usage.

Making an educated guess here. You may – or may not – have ever heard of a heuristic technique to problem solving … but you’ve done it thousands of times. It’s, practically, the easiest way through human anti-OCD dilemmas such as when to add ingredients to boiling water, pinches and dashes vs micro-measuring, and the investing rule of 72. On a more personal level, my monthly checkbook high wire act follows this noun’s wonderful guidance on a 30-day cycle because pennies don’t zero out in my three-ring checkbook circus.

Simply stated, we use this technique to shortcut … to estimate … to approach problem solving that is not supposed to be perfect or rational. We can reach a short-term goal that is sufficient this way without the need for exactness or perfection. In a two-word phrase: “Mental Shortcuts” … The true definition of what we just saw f..ou ..r years …well, more on this shortly.

In the 1970’s, researchers Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman identified three key heuristics that help us problem solve: representativeness, anchoring and adjustment, and availability. I’m glad Tversky and Kahneman narrowed the field down to these three ’cause the sands of time in my hourglass move quickly through.

Remember the show, “The Paper Chase”? James T. Hart enters law school to study contract law under the professorship of Charles W. Kingsfield. Musty old buildings and hazy early morning button down sweaters hung perfectly off the shoulders of young students whose lineage included Wall Street lawyers expecting perfection from their offspring. Professor Kingsfield, actor John Houseman, spoke eloquent, exacting words down to his opening remarks after the theme song: “You teach yourselves the law but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Strange to me then, but not now. The word mush. Every time I watched the show, this word was emphasized by Mr. Houseman. Of course it was … every time. Duh? I can hear it as I type. Thirty words above – over and over – scripted in brilliance for a show built around a fictitious law school embedded in my mind. … and mush sticks! I never missed a season or episode. “Mr. Haaart”, as Professor Kingsfeld would say, Thomas Craig, Willis, Elizabeth, and Jonathan – all the characters contractually bound to my evening’s entertainment. A professor’s thick English accent echoes in a teenager’s recall inside my, uhm, older skull. When I hear an older gentleman speak with an English accent, he must be brilliant and of high stature. He must be filling young skulls full of mush somewhere … somehow. I know it without any further examination. He fits a category familiar in my mind. This is Representativeness heuristic.

In as much as I don’t want to use him as an example, I must. U-turn into politics here (if politics is even the word …). It’d be harder to insert a used car salesman here, believe me – and that’s sayin’ a lot. One phrase, “We’ll build the wall and Mexico will pay for it!”. Using that as an anchor along with all the other git-with-me slogans, he ascended to the highest office upon a horse … and saddled us with some really sloppy language along the path. I’m no Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, or Alcott here, but I do know more than four adjectives, so judgement is available to me.

From that lofty promise, and woke to the reality that Mexico wasn’t going to write a single check, Trumpers swerved into weird trade theory that, oh, the money will come via excess deals favoring the ole U.S. of A. With that, cement began to pour and photo-ops continued up and until the day before the inauguration of a new President. The wall more unfinished than completed. Arguably, this should be the motto of his Presidency.

Setting that goal during his campaign was lofty and an anchor. Really, at the time a far-fetched, unattainable one … and he probably knew it. He also knew – being a marketing “guy” – that setting a high water mark makes lesser promises look good even though they are well above reasonable. This isn’t genius. It’s a sales technique. It was a way to become President when the country wanted change for the sake of change. In fairness, Barack Obama was able to ascend to the presidency through the message of change, but his path wasn’t through deception. It was grass roots change at a fundamental level.

President Trump set an anchor, adjusting goals and expectations from there. Most of these, however, ended up being far above rational and reasonable which, in the end, cost him a second term. As the coronavirus crisis hit us, he doubled down and raised the bar, defying the science, ignoring Governors’ requests for a unified response, PPE distribution errors, lack of a world-wide cohesive strategy with allies, .. on and on … When we needed a leader with specific goals and expectations and not a salesman, he failed.

Setting a high starting point in a negotiation can lead to wonderful results – a higher settling price, for example. Starting lower most often results with a different, lower outcome. I get The Donald’s initial enthusiasm. As a reality star entering the race against 15 other candidates, he had to sell himself to America as a candidate, not just a t.v. personality. As Melania reportedly said to him, “If you do this, you know you’ll win …” and win, he did. He just never stopped being that salesman. Anchoring and Adjustment heuristic.

Oh boy, the news. Geesh. Aaaand… Facebook. The more you see, the more you’ll see. If you happen across an increase of cute puppy adoption news stories, chances are good more cute puppies will seem to cross your path in the coming days. We see what we expect to see based on recent related events and situations in our lives. If you don’t think the news effects your life, think again.

We used to practice affirmation cards in sales years ago. These little one phrase “Get up and go …” words and incentives to increase blood flow all the way through the contract signing pens used to complete quota-satisfying regional manager’s goals. I never quite realized I was using the Availability heuristic technique because – between shaving the few whiskers I had and trying to plan my work-arounds with a big, black Ford Thunderbird – there was little time to go deeper into Earl Nightengale’s quotes other than: “You become what you think about”. I thought about the huge gas and oil expense about to be burned up in my tank and the number of “no’s” ahead on the other side of closed doors.

Fortunately, doors began to open after a few years and I enjoyed my career. Also, what was frequently in front of me did influence what I saw. You are urged to quickly arrive at a conclusion based upon a number of related events or situations that come to mind. You may over/under estimate the probability of something happening in the future, however, so be careful how you evaluate the information.

There’s a lot of information here. Less descriptive than I prefer. I like puppies, rainbows, and unicorns more than politics, 70’s t.v. shows, and dead motivational speakers. Heuristic is a great word, and if I accomplished one thing – that being your increased awareness of this one magical term … it was well worth sacrificing two early morning hours.

You’re my heuro for putting up with this today. I write because I need to. Make good decisions today. We can’t all be President, but we can certainly solve our problems in a practical way. Not guaranteed to be perfect, the heuristic techniques we use every day help us through the immediate problems we face.

I’ll end with my favorite. “Live the story you want to tell”. A bit of mush to feed the soul? You bet, “Mr. Haaaart”!

Being Human

What is it about being human that’s so difficult?

I watch fellow and fellow-ettes stumble through the moments – distracted by life’s immediate concerns – surviving, it seems, to get to the next unchecked box … all the while piling this thought on top of the silent, maniacal agenda of one-thousand to-do’s inside my brain. We’re on the go. Constantly. Listening to the lists in our brains. The never ending go-heres and do-thats are always in control. We give them permission to spin our hamster wheel of time.

Today, on Facebook:

“What kind of crazy world is this? I had no time to check Facebook, text messages, or my email while in a fast food drive-thru line this afternoon. Five cars back from the order speaker when I pulled in the lot. I thought I had time. NOPE

After ordering, between that speaker and the pick-up window. I thought I had time. NOPE

At the pick-up window … PLEASE just ten seconds to check my texts? I thought I had time. NOPE

At least today, the efficiency of Taco Bell on Plank Road reminded me I rely waaaaay to much on my phone. One day. One day all of us may look up from our phones and notice someone may not be there … and say to ourselves, “I thought I had more time.”

I know these three burrito supremes by my side right now, texts, and social media misses may not seem so important then. I also am aware this isn’t an original thought – just a reminder our time is short and we should long for what is important in our lives: friends and family.”

I pulled over to write those words – seconds after a warm bag of burritos were handed to me through the Taco Bell window. Ironically, five small paragraphs into an impersonal cell phone. This very machine, so distractingly oblivious to my plea, rested comfortably in my hand. I was alone with human thoughts – as the overly used saying goes. Oh, and very hungry.

Go back to December, 2020. Psychology Today magazine published a small article written by Camilla Pang titled, “How to Be Human”. Whether it was the smell of Mexican fare sitting off to my right or the kindness of the young lady at the window only minutes prior, notions of humanity – that is, “being human” – struck my fancy. Specifically, Ms. Pang’s article flew back into my mind as I remembered her pose as well as the articulate, short column she wrote about relationships and chemical bonds.

Chris McAndrew, Psychology Today, December 2020

I see this look a lot. It’s so familiar. Being human, to most in my life, is responding non-verbally in this manner. The blank, unfazed, stare of unbelief … that is, a look of, “Did I just hear what I just heard?” … I almost always humbly interpret as, “That was so genius, I have no words …”. (Insert face plant emoji here). Seeing her face printed on the very last page of a periodical last month – inserted between a two minute read of humanism – left a mark on my memory that drippled on my lap today, over to my phone, now into a blog.

Being human means relationships with others. Therein lies the difficulty. Early on in life, Ms. Pang asked her mother “… whether there was an instruction manual for humans”, because she laughed when no one else did and specifics weren’t clear when others talked (“I’ll be back soon” … How soon?, she’d inquire). Through a battery of tests, she was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety, and autism. As would be the case in her pursuit of a doctorate in bioinformatics, she dug into the science of relationships. That is, the chemistry supporting two people either dancing toward each other in a daisy field or lazily sipping octogenarian tea on a warm porch summer life look-back.

There are so many difficulties along the way. Ms. Pang doesn’t address those. She can’t, of course, in a one page article. Leading with her one challenge, however, was huge. Not being able to understand human relationships on an emotional level … well … who can, really? Her personal petri dish approach was perfect for her and, maybe, we can learn something.

She continues, “In terms of relationships, I think about chemical bonds. You can model the tightness, the flexibility, the distribution of effort in different contexts”.

Bear with me for a decades review of my Sophomore chemistry class. The classroom wasn’t very friendly to this, err, quite bored musician who – at best – only cared to know how to light the bunsen burner safely without planting classmates on the drop ceiling hanging above my less than patient foggy-goggle teacher. Covalent Bonds form when electrons are shared between atoms and are attracted by the nuclei of both atoms. In pure covalent bonds, the electrons are shared equally. Ionic Bonds are chemical bonds where two atoms or molecules are connected to each other by electrostatic attraction. Finally, Weak Force is a fundamental force of nature that underlies some forms of radioactivity, governs the decay of unstable subatomic particles such as mesons.

Ms. Pang parallels the above chemical bonds with relational bonds. Friendship and marriage being the Covalent Bond, of course … an equivalence and stability. An agreement between two people concerning who takes out the trash, scrubs the dried adult play-doh off the walls, babysits the kangaroo, and restacks all the oversized fuzzy dice toppled over from last night’s toga party. Ionic Bonds are fantastically intense and energetic … that moment when a complete stranger or lifelong friend trips over your shoelace, looks up with a grateful smile, silently thanking you for catching them mid-fall, … and you realize a frozen second’s time is a lifetime ahead for you to just hold that face in your heart. You don’t want to let go of their arm, but have to because another human saved them from themselves a while ago.

Instincts and gut feelings round out the three as Weak Bonds. Radioactive decay – manifesting as gas lighting and manipulation – create a very toxic environment and this is where being human is so difficult. As Ms. Pang ends the article, “…the relationships that don’t sit well in your stomach. Forces like those (three) can challenge your own evolution – whether you should stay put or leave. It’s not just about making bonds but also about breaking them and continuing to grow”.

So it comes down to this: “Should I stay or should I go?”, according to the 1981 English punk rock band, The Clash. Why bring this up? Did Ms. Pang? Nope. Highly doubtful she knows the band or the song and I’m quite sure the line, “This indecision’s bugging me”, part way through would drive her a bit buggy. I also am not sure she knows the English line, “Bond, James Bond”. James, chemistry, double-oh-seven, or investment grade triple A … all bonds aren’t the same.

I see the bonds we make on a larger scale. Being human gives us opportunity to bond with our opinions about politics, religion, evolution, immigration, universal healthcare, capital punishment, gun control, animal rights, vaccines, … really anything that has two sides. We develop an emotional connection with our opinions – to a fault – and this is where there’s a slight separation from Ms. Pang. Not from her three chemical swabs in the lab, but in their application. Her thesis connects two people, mine connects one human to an opinion. At no time in our history more glaring than the past few months.

Some have a very strong Covalent Bond to their opinion. They’re married to it for life. No amount of logical, sane, calming, influential, reasonable dialogue will ever convince them to leave that matrimonial commitment to their ideals. Those ideals, in return, provide them a sense of comfort through others who feel exactly the same way.

An Ionic opinion bond happens when a person of one political, religious, or social crowd is convinced, suddenly, by the power of his or her peers, to join the majority because “it’s the right thing to do for the good of (insert higher cause here)“. Majority defined, of course, by only that influencer, not by science.

Lastly, the difficult Weak Bond. The toughest among the relational bonds and the boldest and bravest to exercise on the list of opinion-bonds as well. Recognizing the opinion that doesn’t sit right in your stomach … the gut feeling that won’t go away every time an influencer of ill-will tempts you to say and/or do something quirky … that “uh-oh” kinda red light blinking in front of your conscience … should be the warnings to walk away.

Ms. Pang’s final words challenge our own evolution and put us in charge of the same. We’re human, after all, and are bound to our opinions and relationships until we decide to change them. Both are a hamster wheel. Constantly difficult and always on the go. I know of no human who doesn’t struggle with life at some level. Just today, I met a young lady who was distraught over the impending death of her dear mother – who thought she had time.

Sharing those few moments is humanism at its most raw form and was a time of Covalent Bonding between two strangers who are now friends. No opinions exchanged. Just emotions shared.

Sometimes being human is nice.

Find Your Light

“The breeze inside isn’t a warm summer facial this time of year. As I stand in between two open windows preparing the day’s food, this concession trailer reminds me what its version of comfortable means. Ventilation is required as burgers, sausage, and dawgs fill the inside air with smokey droplets that need an escape. As much as I need an escape from life’s troubles these days, these little white buggers need it more. With that, I must endure being uncomfortable for a time as the winter breeze cuts across my grill watching face.”

That paragraph was constructed inside my head hours ago. I now sit – past the hours of a lunch rush crowd pushed against one of those windows – within the eight feet expanse where there’s no longer a breeze. Windows shut. Heaters on. No more smoke … for now.

If you had a chance to look in my wordpress queue, however, you’d find plenty of drafts. Thirty-eight to be exact. Three of them enlisted within the past two days. Not-so-a-musings I decided not to publish because there’s too much negativity out here in opinion land. They were stilted on two very unsteady subjects these days: politics and religion. The amens and amen-dments we were told to stay away from … with good reason. I felt horrible energy flow through my body simply typing in the words.

One post did get through, however. “It Can Be So Simple” was my response to a rather nasty comment directed at me through social media. That done, I’m over it like melted cheese on a juicy, hot angus burger. No more bitter apples to chew on while getting hooked into someone else’s can of worms. I’m done.

I care about lighter things. Jokingly, but not dismissivly, puppies and rainbows have been outflowing from my mouth lately, figuratively speaking (true magic would be the only other way). Happy, non-human delicious things of this world are capturing my attention.

Thinking, two-legged, top-of-the-food -chain breathers – like me – well, we’re not doing ourselves a whole heap of good these days. Heavy, laboring diatribes … expected to move mountains of opposing opinions … are only echoing in the valleys of similar ones. To argue for arguments sake is the tag line of every Facebook post headline. Lighten up, I say. Only a suggestion.

Fo me, I’d rather look up … and see the light.

Isn’t this magnificent! Take a minute, or two, and … just … look at it.

Only ten minutes drive from where I sit, and a few feet above where I sat as music director for shows in this spectacular, historic landmark, … this! A brilliance I don’t want to describe too much due to your imagination being foremost in my mind. Let the limited dimension of that picture take you to unlimited, non- political, a-theistic universes where no judgements upon you will be administered. You are allowed that space … and time.

Why? Last year was a mess. The past seven days of 2021 haven’t done any of us any favors either. Those aren’t negative words (as I promised I wouldn’t write), they’re simply facts – truths to support why we need puppies, rainbows, and a lot more light in the world right now.

The Misher has been dark for a while due to covid restrictions. My friend, Glenn Davis, gave me permission to post his photograph because he’s a kind man … a light among men. A human who, in the midst of all this, saw that light and shared it with the world.

Find your light and share it. If it’s a candle, however, beware of any draft. They’re nasty this time of year.

Guys Who Cook

I run a concession stand, but don’t really cook. Sure, every week there are quarts upon quarts of very fine chili sauce marinating upon my stove – though I don’t consider that cooking. Anyone can mix up their grandmother’s tomato base, special spices, ground beef, and onions recipe in a stainless pot … turn the burner dial to medium/low heat, … to free the simmer-scent from its previously packaged existence. Right? One of my good days, casually placing meat on a grill, or condiments in a bun, doesn’t top off a Gordon Ramsay measuring cup bad day. There are guys who cook-cook, and then there’s … me.

I’m not a guys’ guy, either. In the outdoors checklist of life, there’s empty boxes beside camping, fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, llama-sighting excursions, white-water rafting, or rock climbing. I have one vice in storage we found in my grandfather’s toolshed when cleaning out his estate; therefore, you can accurately assume no tobacco or alcohol products have danced across my lips (save the one drag at age twelve and once a year if that wine cooler). It’s a life.

To be honest here, I do give in to a risk/reward obsession. This is the one clamp around my personality I call a life. Casinos, pre-pandemic, and more than occasional stops to the local convenience store – during our viral experience these days – is what checks my boxes. Yep, there are way too many slips of paper and cardboard squares in my past with losing numbers on them. It’s my go-to for semi-validation, probably, and entertainment. All of us do what we do every day … week … to get by. Understanding ourselves is the key. Let’s not do a nasty on our back and pretend it’s a nice spring rain. This was my 2020. It was, I’m sure, a lot of our 2020’s.

I’ve known about my tilt into financial risk taking. I survive by taking those chances. Some work out, some don’t. They’re calculated, yet chancy, and I don’t ever place anyone in harm’s way. Nearly two-thirds the way through a life of wonderful experiences, I’m still here celebrating on the first day of a new year. You are still surviving a life you choose to live, too – with your faults and vices in tow as well.

Maybe you’re cooking today. I’m not. Guys that can are dutifully carving up delicious meats and smiling over stew pots as evidenced by my social media feed pictures. I am envious. I sit here writing words while friends internally glance over memorized recipes in their manly brains. Seasoned pork, shrimp skewers, taters my mom wouldn’t even try, silvery cutlery embedded in meatloafs and pies … all reaching out, yet ungrabable by me. A semi-opened bag of nacho chips within reach here my only friend at the moment. Wanting more is risky. A risk even I cannot take due to the, now, beginning icy road conditions and, additionally, I have some – but no exacting idea – where any of these culinary masters live. (As an aside, the uninvited issue wouldn’t bother me. Maybe them. Not me.).

The early afternoon hours of a new year bring renewed thoughts of community. A time of honesty about ourselves, others, and where we are, especially beginning in 2021, seems so appropriate.

I saw a quote run through the comment section of a friend’s post this morning: “How uncomfortable are you willing to be, so that someone else can feel comfortable?”. This gets right to the point of us – together – as a community. If we’re to be honest with ourselves, are we doing what we need to do for the benefit of someone else? What risks are we willing to take on to benefit someone else? Is unease an ingredient we’re willing to mix in to our recipe of compassion for others?

All pretty deep questions during a day when empty bottles are still rattling around on the table and paper party hats hang from lamp shades even now calmly warm from early morning festivities. Gangs of loved ones celebrating the end of a simple December day. None of us know what this new year will bring. We want nothing special from the fourth digit flip of a zero to a one, other than no more pain and suffering in the lives of those we love. Belonging to us is the hope of a new year crowded with hugs and smiles in person – not millions of 1’s and 0’s transmitting faster than a Covid-19 virus in an empty grandparent’s holiday home or local family restaurant.

The purpose here isn’t to unmask any answer. I don’t have the Gordon Ramsay magic and, thankfully, his colorful language to shock you into a new way of thinking. No meme, cute saying, or puppy/santa picture (although I do have one queued up) elegantly inserted here will either erase your memories of last year, or have you take the next happy exit ramp. Today is Friday, January 1st, 2021. “One day at a time.” is about all I can drop into the party, unannounced.

…which is really what I’d like to do soon as I’m getting hungry and there’s at least a dozen guys who can cook close by. Ah, but I do have a few other options. Friends. Friends who UberEats. I’ll allow them the pleasure through “contractual risk transfer” – despite the possibility that they’ll never know a contract exists. A simple knock and a nod blocks away by a friend could return pork and shrimp back to me. I have ways of finding addresses previously unknown. Little risk / yummy rewards. Well, I may lose a friend in the process, which would be sad. I have to think how uncomfortable I am willing to be … in order … “. Oh man! The trap we set by our own words. How about I simply invite my friends over soon to my concession trailer for a burger, or cheese-steak? At least I know I can cook those.

Start this new year knowing who you are and who you can help. Two really cool commodities that may serve you well going ahead into a time of perfect uncertainty. Level off your measuring cup and stay calm. If you’re a guy who can cook, hat’s off, my friend. Please post pictures for me to see with an address to avoid my searching google maps and, by all means, leave the front door open. I don’t want to lose any friends.

Beside Rusty Roads

Best guess is a late 1940’s Chevrolet panel truck, thanks to my good friend Joel. Beyond any spit and polish for next summer’s picnic outing, a happy heap caught my eye. It sat only a few feet back from a two-lane road heading south from a bustling intersection where folks jammed their modern machines bumper-to-bumper at a McDonald’s drive-thru lane. A crossroads just a few minutes drive away from a lot where one could park their automobile and wait, … and wait, for a loved one to be discharged from the small local hospital. The waits are, indeed, longer now that 2020 has been in our lives. Normal time stopped being normal back around March, … here in Western PA.

Bumps, bruises, and scrapes still happen in this borough. Little ones are being born while others are saying their final good-byes in the same, small, white, one-story building known as the Conemaugh Nason Medical Center. It’s where my mother – thirteen years ago – began her five year cancer journey with the discovery of a little, stage three shadow. Her wait ended in 2012 while resting comfortably in less intimate surroundings. Time was kind to her. Happy as life was, she didn’t live long enough to see us 6 feet apart without hugging each other, or smiling behind masks. Yes, this is a time when she wouldn’t need to see the 2020 things I see – except, maybe, the really cool things like this:

I think it’s on private property – comfortably far enough away from the residence sitting yards back from the road where I pulled off the highway. Definitely not far from a shotgun’s range, however, had the owner been so inclined to aim my way during the 30-second’s time I was snap-happy with my camera phone. Hey, to get a Time Magazine worthy photo like this, one must take risks, right? Honestly, though, driving by – headed south on my way to an appointment – I made a mental note to stop on my way back through an hour, or so, later. “On the left in the woodsy patch … past the white farm house, green road sign, with the two hay bales by a rusty tractor … and three cows (if they haven’t moved) – in reverse”, firmly embedded in my mind. A lot for this mid-50’s mental confusionaire to remember, mind you, but certainly doable under the day off circumstances. And so, I did – less than an hour later. Remembered … and done.

Time, certainly, is a great word for this jalopy. What pandemic? Do you think masking and distancing bothers this guy? I drove the remaining twenty minutes to my home thinking about how slowly time progressed for him since the shiny days when life was new. Bumpers fresh, hood up and down without a squeak in earshot, hubcaps clicked in on rubbery black-mirrored tires, and 30-cents per gallon gas filled up to the top of his tank. Oh the pleasures that must have crowded into the secretive section past the front third of the, now, rusty vacated engine block? What hidden tales are still there as of yet discovered?

Seventy years. Seven decades of life breathed into this metal structure … most years sitting by the road, I suspect. In all probability, used functionally until the mid-to-late 60’s then set aside. Benefit of the doubt here: Forty years out of commission. Two scores unused, done; However, appreciated and admired more now than before – if not by others, me.

Thousands of cars drive by. This is a busy road … one of the busiest in PA – a two lane highway on the way to our Turnpike and a couple major interstates. One could find alternate routes, but time and money are valuable resources, so travelling this road is easiest and most convenient. How many passengers in Prii, Hondas, and Fords – myself included – have whizzed by over the years without noticing such wonderful friends beside the road? You’ve done it in your borough, town, and state as well. The everyday sights are so, … well, everyday, we develop an immunity to the appreciation of all that’s around us.

We look at it casually, but don’t see it for what it is. I fear this happens when we look at others, too. Those who are aged, perhaps, or less fortunate. Some who don’t look like us – sitting by the road, a bit rusty around the edges, hollowed out by a life that left them years ago when gas was more affordable for them. This is not a summons for us to appear in court for crimes against our neighbors. It is simply a typed reminder to myself, and possibly others, that responsible compassion toward others should be something we need to keep in our minds.

I drove the remaining twenty minutes simply replacing that 40’s Chevrolet with two gentleman in my neighborhood. How many times do I drive by? A lot. Can I stop every time? No. What should I do for them, especially now, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic at worse, or a really bad flu epidemic at best? I don’t know. They do have some advantages over a fragile, rusty Chevrolet. Social safety nets are in place to help the unfortunate, however, weather hasn’t been kind to them – 70-year old cars, or sidewalk folks with, seemingly, no hope, food, or family. If either are pushed, they may crumble. It’s a definite conundrum.

Whatever the look-ahead scenarios may be, we’re not excused from seeing what it is. The reality has to be noticed as it is and addressed. It starts with compassion. Responsibly recognize their bumps, bruises, and scrapes in life and help out when and where you can. I’m not advocating giving irresponsibly, or being taken advantage of by someone who doesn’t want to be helped. My Uncle always said, “You can’t push a rope” … and this is so appropriate here. Volunteer at a food bank, donate money, give of your time to a cause helping the needy … I don’t know what else may be available in you community.

This rusty guy in the picture above had some life way back when. Maybe, as I type and think, “he” maybe was a “she”? The owner loved her so much, possibly the barely legible letters once read, “Foxy lady” on the side. Last thing I wanted to do was walk up a muddy path to ask. I suspect the original owner isn’t alive to ask, anyway. The thirty-seconds along side a busy road was enough time to hop out of my Honda, take a Pulitzer-prize winning photo, then leave. My appointment went well, the bottle of tea I bought two hours prior was warm, and ten minutes ahead I had to face the memories of mom, once again, being told – for the first of many times – “cancer is your new normal”. Just ahead, Nason Hospital.

Just ahead for us? More of the same, no doubt, but with a few changes. Some vaccines will give us a light. A change in Washington coming – a slight one, perhaps, as the same old gridlock in Congress gives me little hope for reform. Some financial relief for Americans, save the billions in pork spending. Another time, another day for that.

For now, let’s keep looking – and seeing – the rusty wonders around. Be giving and compassionate toward those you see along your path. Busy road, or solitary journey, you can make a difference in their lives I’m sure.