Imagine the View

The weather on Tuesday provided a lovely spring night, mild and dry, with a crystal clear sky. Disappointed at having missed the lunar eclipse on Sunday night due to clouds, I set up my telescope to take a few photographs. The best picture I captured shows the Great Hercules Cluster, known formally as Messier Object 13, or M13. The Hercules Cluster lies 22,000 light years from earth. It spans 145 light-years, and its volume contains approximately 300,000 stars. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a globular star cluster, it was probably this one.

Imagine living on a planet orbiting a star near the center of M13. The closest stars to the planet’s own would be just over 2 light years away. There would be a half-dozen or so at that distance, and dozens more at 4 light years, the distance of our sun’s closest neighbor. The night sky would appear as a dense star field, perhaps even too crowded with lights for observers to define constellations. A few close, bright stars would be visible during the day. If we lived on that planet, under those stars, our entire view of the universe would have developed very differently from the view we hold here on Earth. Creation stories, legends, scientific theories, and our sense of divinity would all differ completely from what we believe. And we would believe those different things fervently.

With a prompt and a moderate amount of imagination, you just contemplated a radically unfamiliar view. Not the details of the view, rather the plausibility of its existence in light of an unfamiliar set of conditions. Ironically, the existence of a fantastically different perspective is easier to imagine than the existence of a subtly different view.

We can picture a star-filled sky as seen from a world thousands of light years away, and how that setting could engender a sense of existence different from our own. Why then, is it difficult to appreciate that people here on Earth, under the same sky as us, might hold different beliefs? Why do we default to assumptions that others should share a worldview with us? They obviously wouldn’t if they lived on a different world, under a different sky. They don’t under this sky, either, even when they stand right beside us, searching for our respective fates in the exact same stars.

M13, The Great Hercules Cluster
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Pushcart Prize Nominations

I didn’t submit many poems to print or online journals in 2021. Fortunately, several of the poems I did submit were accepted, and in three instances the editors nominated my poems for a Pushcart Prize. Poems nominated in 2021 that are selected to receive the prize will appear in The Pushcart Prize XLVII: Best of the Small Presses 2023 Edition in December 2022. Keep your fingers crossed that one of mine makes it into the anthology.

While I wait to learn the results of the Pushcart selection process, I can share the poems here and spotlight the outstanding small presses who published my writing.

First, iamb ~ poetry seen and heard, a beautifully curated online journal that includes voice recordings of authors reading their work, published “Own Fault.” This contemplative piece considers the nature of relationships–between two people, between humans and the natural world, and between an individual and the task at hand. Alongside “Own Fault,” Mark Antony Own at iamb also published “Storm,” and republished “Driftwood — Olympic Peninsula,” which first appeared in River Mouth Review.

Next, Orange Blossom Review published “Like Ones We Took.” Editor John David Harding also recorded and posted a video of me reading the poem.

Finally, “This Room” appeared in the anthology Dark Confessions, by Black Bough Poetry. The wonderful publisher at Black Bough, Matthew M. C. Smith, also included “This Room” in an author spotlight, the Silver Branch series, in July 2021, along with several other of my poems.

I am grateful to these three editors for including my work in their publications, and for nominating three of my poems for a Pushcart Prize. Please check out their websites and the most recent editions of their publications for some of the best contemporary poetry available. I am flattered to be in the company of the fine poets whose work they publish.

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Leaving Marshland

Sunset at Marshland

Sadly, our time at the place I’ve called Marshland has come to an end. Debbie and I have gone our separate ways. We’ve sold the house, and I will move to a townhouse near here later this week. Our plans for a life together didn’t pan out out as we had hoped.

I miss—and will continue to miss—what might have been. Now it’s time to rethink what will be. As I close this chapter, writing has helped organize my thoughts. The poem below is one of the results.

The idea that was Marshland will remain in mind as I consider new possibilities. I will experience possibility the way each of us realizes the future, collapsing probabilities into a reality one choice at a time. My reality, someday, will be a New Marshland. I’ll write to my friends from there, as well as from points along the way. Maybe I’ll see some of you as I travel, or hear from you as you make your own way. Until then, take care. I’ll do the same.

Moving

I’ve found the keys and locked the doors,
left a note saying this is yours.
Take care of it; of course you will.
I see dust in air grown still.
This house was once my home.

The kids are grown, or mostly so.
It’s as good as any time to go.
Let me have a look at all the trees,
the grass and flowers, even weeds,
and one last drink of water from the well.

At my new place, I’ll entertain—
invite the moon, though out of phase.
Will my guests know how they should behave?
Lake and stream might look the same;
the sea will feel confused.

Slow and easy, I’ll walk the shore,
waking with the day once more.
Find a shark’s tooth or a shell;
Think of someone, wish her well.
Sun and shadows bracket waves.

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Better Government

My older son received a jury summons today. He can’t serve because he’s in college out of state. That’s too bad: he would be a terrific juror. But so would a lot of people. It won’t be hard for the county to find someone equally qualified to determine the legal fate of another person. For all of our human flaws, we do a decent job of serving as jurors.

I wish the U.S. had representative government that was more like the jury system, in which ordinary citizens were chosen to serve, did their conscientious best, voted based on common sense without blind partisanship, and went home when the job was done.

A representative government modeled after our system for selecting jurors wouldn’t be perfect. But I feel sure it would be more perfect than the cronied, corrupt, mistrusted system of legislative representation we have now. And isn’t “more perfect” the kind of Union we adopted the Constitution to ensure anyway?

If I received a summons to serve in Congress, I would serve. And I would do my best, guided by my conscience on each issue that came up for consideration. And I would trust you to do the same. And when you came home, I would thank you for your service.

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Overcoming Division

One of our favorite national stories tells us we come together in times of crisis. It’s a good story, and often true even if not always true. It rings most consistently true when the crisis comes from outside. From attacks like we suffered at Pearl Harbor and on 9-11. But what about when the attack is nearly invisible, and it brings about division itself as the crisis? That’s what we face now, a national division manufactured by—and certainly amplified by—the efforts of Russia. Other countries fan the flames, but Russia bears most of the blame.

In his recent book, Battlegrounds, retired Lieutenant General and former National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster explains how the Russians under Putin have fomented division in the United States (and other countries, also). He explains it at length, without political bias, and better than I can. I encourage anyone who wants a better understanding of our current national crisis of division to read General McMaster’s book. Whether people read it or not, I encourage everyone to consider how we can overcome the divisiveness that pervades American society right now.

My strongest recommendation for achieving reconciliation is for everyone to swear off broad, blanket statements about groups of people. I’m not asking for people to like everyone, or even to like anyone. I’m simply encouraging people to exert the effort required to understand individual points of view; consider that to the person expressing the view, it has some validity; and seek an understanding of the common ground you might share with that person, regardless of their viewpoint.

I read a comment on Facebook today in which an acquaintance said, “My problem now is that I truly have no respect for people who vote for the #$%@% party (name withheld, because it could be either one) and all that they stand for. Never thought I would feel this strongly but I do.”

Well, that is a problem, and not just for that person. It’s a problem for all of us. It’s exactly the attitude the Russians delight in reading. We will never achieve this country’s potential for strength, social health, and individual wellbeing if attitudes like that persist. The Russians will see to it. If that statement represents your current attitude toward Americans with political views that differ from your own, then you are supporting the Russians and the weak America they are working to ensure, not the strong America you think you’re supporting.

As this year winds down, encourage people to treat each other as individuals, worthy of respect, and discourage the practice of painting entire groups of Americans with a broad brush.

Thank you for reading this far. And Merry Christmas.

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Poetry Updates

I have completed a long-overdue update to my list of published poems. Click on the ‘Poetry’ tab in the menu bar to see the list, with updated links to the poems that appear online. Thanks to everyone who has encouraged these poems and read drafts along the way to publication. All readers and all comments are greatly appreciated. Thank you for spending some time with my poems.

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Now Would Be Good

I was born on a Thursday. Thursday’s child has far to go, according to the nursery rhyme. Originally, that meant the child would go far in life. In modern times, the phrase has caused people to think the child has suffered a setback right from the start. I have felt evidence to support both interpretations, yet I remain optimistic. I have been fortunate and privileged for reasons beyond my control.

The hospital in Atlanta where I was born lies four blocks from a small brick building known as Ebenezer Baptist Church. Its minister was not at the church on the day I was born. He was in Alabama, leading the third—and ultimately successful—attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. The minister led a group of marchers to protest the abuse of civil rights of African Americans. When he and his followers reached the steps of the capitol building in Montgomery, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a speech that has taken on the title, How Long, Not Long. It’s the speech in which King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I have seen that arc curving through my life, searching for the point at which it will intersect the ground where we walk.

We walk on ancient ground. Roads near my birthplace bore Cherokee names because they followed the routes of Native American trails. The house I lived in as a child sat on a battlefield where we found Civil War projectiles in our garden. Our predecessors left marks on the land. We incorporate those marks into the world we build, or they fade altogether and are forgotten. What will become of the marks we make?

Many cities in the southeastern U.S. have a road named for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Cities honor the man so we don’t forget his name. Yet other things we do dishonor what Dr. King taught. The privileges that one race enjoys over another, based on implicit bias and written into laws, municipal zoning ordinances, school funding decisions, and corporate policies have been slowly undone, but they are not gone. Their effects persist, as does the bias that produced them. It’s as if we’ve decided in the past half century that some of Dr. King’s teachings were wrong and we’ve politely ignored them. His metaphor about morality bending toward justice, for example. Our failure to incorporate morality into justice in matters of race suggests that we’ve discovered a different natural law: the arc of the moral universe only bends toward justice like an asymptote, approaching but never touching it. Dominant culture has driven the meaning out of Dr. King’s words even though we still pay lip service to them. This is what we do with Native American names for roads and rivers, honoring a people who were driven from their own lands so our predecessors could secure the privilege of land ownership for themselves. And us. We honor to make ourselves feel better about dishonoring.

Roads today bear new names, new markings. A road in Washington, DC now bears bold yellow letters, taking up all of the lanes and stretching blocks. The letters spell out BLACK LIVES MATTER. That’s easy to write or say; our challenge is to honor the statement. Our challenge is to honor Dr. King by doing more than naming roads for him or erecting a monument. Our challenge is to recognize the ground on which we stand, and the present moment of our individual and collective standing, as the moment when we finally bend the moral universe sufficiently to intersect justice. Dr. King asked how long it would take to realize the moment. He concluded, “Not long.” It has probably taken longer than he expected, and certainly longer than he hoped.

I share a date in history with the March from Selma to Montgomery. The speech after the march was a watershed moment in the history of the Civil Rights movement, and the birth of the idea that morality was still only approaching justice. Thursday, March 25, 1965. Thursday’s child has far to go. Now would be a good time for the moment Dr. King envisioned to arrive. Let’s make sure it does.

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A Risk Manager’s Thoughts on the Corona Virus Outbreak

Risk is the chance that something can go wrong, that something bad can happen. The term “risk management” is a misnomer. No one can manage risk, only do things to reduce its likelihood or severity. We can’t manage risk, therefore the field of risk management focuses on managing controls designed to reduce risk. Effective controls can help prevent bad things from happening.

When we think about the possibility that something bad will happen, our thinking can skew our judgment about controls. In his excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman describes errors in judgment such as the “possibility effect,” which causes highly unlikely outcomes to be weighted disproportionately more than they deserve. Conversely, the “certainty effect” causes outcomes that are almost certain to occur to receive less weight than their probability justifies. Kahneman writes, “When you take the long view of many similar decisions, you can see that paying a premium to avoid a small risk of a large loss is costly… Consistent overweighting of improbable outcomes—a feature of intuitive decision making—eventually leads to inferior outcomes.”

As the world confronts the corona virus and COVID-19, scientists and medical professionals appear to be the only ones equipped to make a rational prediction about probable outcomes in various scenarios. They have determined rather conclusively that the corona virus presents a large risk of large loss. The rest of us should heed their guidance instead of speculating about improbable outcomes.

Laypeople posting on social media have questioned the economic impact of the response to COVID-19. They cite the number of deaths from causes such as heart disease and obesity that are often preventable but that people, through conscious choices, fail to prevent. They suggest that our society accepts a certain amount of death even when death could be avoided. This line of thinking has two critical flaws. First, leading a lifestyle at increased risk for heart disease or obesity is largely a personal choice that cannot directly cause the death of another person. Second, weighing loss of life is appropriate in a very few situations, and unethical in most others. A military leader planning an invasion might rightly make a calculation in terms of acceptable loss of life. A leader protecting citizens from attack by an invader—human or viral—should not. For a leader to accept loss of innocent life when defending people from attack is unethical.

Well-written op-ed pieces suggest that the economic toll of measures put in place to flatten the curve of corona virus infection may be too steep a price to pay to prevent COVID-19. In fact, we will never know. In risk management, it is never possible to compare the actual cost of mitigation to the actual cost of unmitigated loss. Successful risk management and loss are mutually exclusive. When risk management is completely effective, its cost will seem excessive. If risk management fails, the losses it allows may be unbearable.

I worry about not having sufficient information to make informed decisions regarding the threat posed by the corona virus. I worry about my family, extended family, and friends. We face the risk that something bad will happen. Bad things are happening; the risk has become not just possible but real. And in this environment, people no better informed than me are second-guessing experts. The actions of a few people may undo effective controls and increase the risk we all face. That should worry everyone.

The brilliant journalist Rebecca West wrote, “After any disturbance … we find our old concepts inadequate and look for new ones. But it unfortunately happens that the troubled times which produce an appetite for new ideas are the least propitious for clear thinking.” Let’s rely on experts for their clear thinking during this extreme social, medical, and economic disturbance. Let’s follow their advice. When we come out on the other side of the crisis, we can get together—in person—to develop new ideas about how to do better next time. There will be a next time.

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Quiet

A poem I wrote late one night when my children were very young and everyone in the house was asleep came to mind recently. I found myself awake late at night, reading intermittently, and thinking about my family and friends. Everyone I know–everyone we all know–is subject to a new way of thinking about the world. About where we go, what we do, and with whom. We will get back to our old ways, and we’ll adopt some new ways of interacting. But until then–and afterward–we will find a measure of peace when we know our family and friends are safe.

 

Quiet

All whose addresses I know,
all whose numbers I could call,
and all who rest under this roof
tonight, sleep. Chests rise and fall
in unconscious rhythms, hearts
race and slow to the adrenaline
of dreams. Not the geological
sleep we wander toward. In
relative silence rather than
absolute lies the quiet I love.
I hear God humming at his work
undisturbed by thoughts of us.

 

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Volunteering—Remote Area Medical

In downtown, the coffee shop is closed on weekends. Train tracks shine silver, polished twice each day. The Hall of Justice is the nicest new building in town. A lighted sign on Center Street advertises the free medical clinic this weekend in a warehouse that serves as a church.

We left our hotel in pre-dawn darkness. My wife and son and I arrived an hour before the clinic opened. The parking lot in front held more cars than for an Easter Sunday service. People waited in line at the door. We drove to the back of the building to park in a field with volunteers from three states away.

While my wife recorded vitals and completed patient histories, my son and I worked our unskilled station checking for completed forms and directing people to medical services, to dental for extractions and prosthetics, or to vision for eye exams and glasses. When I reached for one woman’s form, she shook my hand and thanked me. When my son thanked a limping veteran for his service, the man got tears in his eyes.

The rush subsided by mid-morning. I sat down, pulled out a Kindle, and started to read. A young boy waiting on his grandfather asked, “What’s that?”

More patients trickled in. A few sat with interpreters who listened and explained what to expect. A woman borrowed a pen from my son to sign her treatment form. When she handed the pen back, it was wet. My son discretely cleaned it.

The boy who asked about my Kindle watched me write in a notebook. When I saw him again he had a church pen and a pad of sticky notes. The pad advertised a payday lender. He peeled off a note and handed it to me. His message said, “I hop You a hape DA.”

I thanked the boy and wished him a happy day, too. He smiled big. His grandfather, wearing new glasses, called to the boy. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s find your sister and go home.”

#ramusa #remoteareamedical

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