Cache Us If You Can

By early 2021, we had reached the breaking point.  The seemingly endless pandemic-induced lockdown had long since lost its survivalist charm.  We had assembled (and reassembled) a plethora of jigsaw puzzles, fallen asleep while trying to find something new on Netflix, and engaged in the occasional squabble about what day of the week it was.

Clearly, we needed a breather and, since people were starting to venture out in public, we decided to “mask up” and take some cautious steps off the front porch as well.  We didn’t want to dive into the deep end right away, of course, so we looked around for something that would get us out of the house, involve some physical activity, and keep us away from crowded places.

For us, the solution was a simple one … we decided to join the multitude of others playing what amounts to the adult version of hide and seek.  Known as Geocaching, this rendition of that venerable childhood game is equal parts treasure hunt, problem solving, and outdoor exercise, and it has become our “go to” weekend pursuit.

Geocaching, as an outdoor activity, took shape in May, 2000, when  24 previously secure global positioning satellites were made available for civilian use.  With that change, folks could locate items anywhere in the world based solely on their GPS coordinates and, without a doubt, they have done so … there are now more than 3 million active geocaches hidden in 191 countries on all seven continents (even Antarctica)!

The “caches” we search for are generally small capsules or containers holding a piece of paper that, when signed, will register your find.  And though there are varying degrees of search difficulty one can select, we lean toward those that are relatively easy to locate without a great deal of extraordinary effort.  But be warned … people who hide these things can be very clever … we have found caches among the branches of trees, under rocks, and hanging from fence posts.  That, of course, is part of what makes this such an enjoyable activity.  

The process for tracking down a cache is simple: (1) check the geocaching.com web site for caches hidden in a particular area, (2) select the one you would like to look for and, (3) follow the directions on your phone or GPS device.  This will bring you very close to your goal and, usually, it is then only a very short walk (and search) before locating the cache.

In addition to the obvious benefits of being outdoors engaging in physical activity, geocaching has taken us to beautiful and unusual locations we had not previously visited, and immersed us in the fascinating history of the areas we have explored.  In short, we are smitten.

And if you are looking for us next weekend, you know where we will be.

Spam … Wonderful Spam!

Growing up, Spam was a regular part of our family cuisine.  Spam sandwiches … spam and eggs … and on special occasions, my mother would dress up a chunk of Spam with some cloves and slice of pineapple before tossing it in the oven.  When that delicacy showed up on the dinner table it was, for me, the culinary equivalent of a hickory-smoked spiral-sliced ham with all the trimmings.

Today, though, the word “Spam” has become shorthand for, among other things, the relentless barrage of unsolicited emails stretching the capacity of my inbox while offering everything from financial advice to Russian brides.  On the other hand, a recent proposal from a Nigerian prince looks promising … he promises to make me wealthy if I will just help him transfer a large sum of money out of his country.  I will let you know how that turns out.

Spam phone calls are, of course, a major problem as well but, for us, the remedy was simple … we cancelled our land-line phone.  Not only did that decision save us some money, we are also spared the deluge of political campaign calls that crop up every election cycle.  We now rely upon our cell phone caller ID which allows us to answer when we recognize a name or number, while ignoring those without an identifier.  That way, if someone wants to talk to us they leave a message and we call them back.

There is, by the way, an interesting back story about how annoying calls and emails came to be named after the famous canned meat product.  In a 1970 sketch from the Monty Python comedy series, a waitress reads aloud a menu in which every item but one includes Spam, while a chorus of patrons drown out all conversation by repeating “Spam, Spam, Spam … Lovely Spam!  Wonderful Spam!”  Thereafter, the term was adopted to describe abusive users in early chat-rooms who would flood the screen with the word “Spam” or other annoying text to drive away newcomers or prevent rival groups from chatting.  

Some clever “home remedies” for dealing with Spam calls have evolved, including one senior citizen with a talent for making his voice sound like Donald Duck.  The YouTube video of him using that famous cartoon character’s voice to talk with a Spam caller is hilarious, especially when it results in the telemarketer, in frustration, finally hanging up on him!

That priceless bit of video shows that we can have a bit of fun while deflecting nuisance callers.  To that end, I am perfecting my imitation of Woody Woodpecker in anticipation of the next person who interrupts my dinner to talk about my car’s extended warranty.

Shaking the Family Tree

If you are like us, navigating this past year has required imagination.  We have assembled a lot of jigsaw puzzles, watched hours of Netflix, caught up on our reading, and enjoyed day trips to lovely and interesting areas around North Texas.

One activity that has really captivated us, though, has been the exploration of our family trees.  An ancestry.com account has proven to be a worthwhile investment, for it has allowed us to unearth old and obscure pieces of family history, and bring renewed focus to many vaguely remembered people and events.

Fortunately, we possess a number of family genealogical documents, written records and even an oral recording of my beloved grandmother relating stories that would otherwise be unknown.   When we were able to add the trove of information from ancestry.com … photos … immigration records … grave registries … the results were fascinating.

As strong supporters of our military, we are pleased to report that men – and women – in our family have served honorably in every conflict since the Revolutionary War; sadly, some were lost in battle.  And sprinkled, liberally, among our forebears are postmasters, judges, educators, clergy and politicians.

I would like to be able to report that our ancestors descended directly and unblemished from royalty, but, unfortunately, such is not the case.  Like many families, there are a few individuals whose names, understandably, do not come up at family reunions.  And for those rascals who thought their misdeeds would remain forever hidden, well, ancestry.com and the Internet have lifted the veil. 

For as someone once said: Every family tree produces some lemons, some nuts and a few bad apples.

Step Away From The Donut!

For the youngster heading off to college for the first time, one of the perils of on-campus life is something called the “Freshman Fifteen.”  This, of course, refers to the extra weight the student can expect to pack on during that first year away from home.

That said, it seems being housebound these past twelve months has affected me in similar fashion … I am referring, unfortunately, to my newly acquired “Pandemic Poundage.”

Looking back, I know some clues were missed.  For example, with limited social interactions over the past year, my wardrobe has consisted of rotating the same four t-shirts; I now know their increasing snugness had nothing to do with our brand of laundry soap.

In my defense, I have tried to remain disciplined about my diet.  But then the doorbell rings with a kind neighbor dropping off freshly baked banana bread or an extra piece of chocolate cake.  And even a trip to the market poses a dilemma as I am forced to walk (unsuccessfully) past Girl Scouts selling cookies.  Sadly, in the face of these temptations my resolve falls by the wayside. 

Recently, the extent to which I have lost control of my diet was made clear.  Stepping on the new talking scale I received as a Christmas gift, I heard a mechanical voice warn: “Stop … One Person at a Time, Please!

Ski Texas!

When discussing March weather, we often use lighthearted wildlife references … “it came in like a lion, and went out like a lamb” (or vice versa).  This is, of course, a popular old maxim but, given that I live in Texas, a different meteorological animal has been on my mind of late … Punxsutawney Phil who, on February 2, predicted “six more weeks of winter.”

For most of the United States, that venerable groundhog’s forecast likely provoked little more than a smile.  The state of Texas, though, seems to have heard Phil’s prognostication less as a prediction and more as a challenge declaring: “Six weeks is for sissies!  Here in Texas we are going to compact those six weeks of winter into a mere six days!  Just watch us!”

And, as we all know, the stretch of Arctic-like weather that descended upon the Lone Star State was one for the record books!  

Power outages … frozen water pipes … impassable roads … food shortages … temperatures below zero!  And while some may have flashed back to the 1968 movie “Ice Station Zebra,” it wasn’t long (thankfully) before the snow melted and the shorts and sandals reappeared.

While those frigid days were daunting, they served to remind me why my family moved here from the Northeast more than thirty years ago.  Simply put, anybody who has lived in upstate New York knows something about cold weather … the four seasons in those parts are: …  Almost Winter …. Winter … Still Winter … and Road Construction.

Making the Family Proud

Anyone with children has undergone the rite of passage of a youngster who, with a roll of the eyes and a barely suppressed sigh, stalks away from the parent in utter embarrassment.  Usually this teen-aged behavior is brought on by the parent having said or done something the child is certain will cause lasting shame for him or her (not to mention the family).  And it doesn’t take much to bring about this sort of crisis  … a mistaken observation about a current teen idol … wearing clothes deemed too old fashioned … or even emphasizing that: “be home by 10:00” means “be home by 10:00.”

Luckily, these sorts of teen-aged behaviors are transitory in nature.  Most often, the youngster comes to understand that Dad and Mom are okay after all, and that they do not present as much of a threat to one’s dignity as originally thought.

This all changes, of course, when pictures of Dad appear in the national media showing him strutting through the United States Capitol carrying a lectern purloined from the office of the Speaker of the House.  And, let’s face it, dinner table conversation can be difficult when Dad tries to explain why he lost his job as CEO of a digital marketing firm after being charged with a Federal crime.

Following the outrage in Washington on January 6, a number of individuals have been arrested, while many others, no doubt, wonder if they will be the next taken into custody.   As things continue to unfold, though,there has been a shift in tone of social media posts by some who took part.  One real estate agent, who initially described the rally as a “prelude to war” while vowing to “break windows,” has more recently said she thought she was going to be taking part in a peaceful political march, while condemning the violence that occurred.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, the prospect of federal agents knocking on the door can focus the mind wonderfully.

When facing difficult choices, it is always useful to ask oneself a simple question: “How will I feel if my actions are exposed to the light of day?”  In other words, will I be able to defend my actions if others learn what I have done?  Can I explain my decision to my family?

For those already arrested, the process of having to explain one’s choices before a judge has begun.  There are many others, though, whose actions were recorded on January 6, but who have not yet been identified or taken into custody.  For them, one can only imagine the difficulty of explaining to a child why he just saw his parent’s face among a crowd of individuals committing criminal acts at the United States Capitol.

As one business executive said following his dismissal for taking part in the outrage in Washington: “This was the single worst decision of my life.”

Indeed.

Speaking Truth to Power

Kudos to Rev. Jim Gigliotti of St. Andrews Catholic Church in Fort Worth, Texas.

During a sermon in early November, 2020, he made his views on President-elect Joe Biden abundantly clear, referring to him as a “man without value.”  Pointing out that Biden is pro-abortion, Gigliotti reminded us that this stance is in direct opposition to a fundamental teaching of the Church.  He went on to describe Biden as “not a good Catholic.”

Sensing that not all in attendance would agree with his position, Gigliotti underscored that it was his responsibility as pastor to speak clearly and forcefully about a basic Catholic belief such as abortion, and that he was doing so with the understanding that it might upset some people.  To that end, he said, he was prepared to “let the chips fall where they may.”

It takes courage to speak out publicly – to speak truth to power – when a leader fails short and, for that, Father Gigliotti deserves our praise and admiration.  In his widely publicized remarks, he left no doubt that, in his mind, Biden’s beliefs – at least on the topic of abortion – deserve only scorn and repudiation.

That said, it occurs to me that in addition to abortion, there is at least one other issue within the Catholic church that Gigliotti might consider addressing with equal force: the multitude of children who, for years, endured sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic Clergy.  In his sermon he could also articulate and deplore the continuing abject failure of Church leaders to deal effectively with this scandal, and the horrors inflicted upon our most vulnerable.

Clearly, it is time for another of Gigliotti’s “scorched earth” sermons.  And while he hesitated not a moment in directing his recent scornful remarks at leaders in Washington, this time he ought to identify and excoriate failed leaders in another important location … the Vatican.

At the end of his recent sermon in Fort Worth, Gigliotti expressed his airy willingness to “let the chips fall where they may.”  In applauding his willingness to speak out as he did, though, one is left to wonder whether he would be equally cavalier about the manner in which critical remarks about the Child Sex Abuse Scandal might be accepted and responded to by Church hierarchy.   

If past history is any indication, the outcome would not be pretty.  

The Man Next Door

Our new neighbor seems nice.

He appears to be of retirement age and, though he moved in about a year ago, he keeps pretty much to himself.  Somebody said he came here to the Midwest from one of the New England states, and that he had spent a number of years in the Navy.  He lives alone.

A large American flag flies over his front yard, and he is frequently seen in his garage working with his large collection of tools.  He doesn’t socialize much, but he has a couple of buddies with whom he goes golfing and boating.  It’s nice to see retired guys enjoying life.

He must be a religious sort, for there is a statue of Jesus on his front steps and a sticker on his car reading: “I’m Catholic and I Vote.”  He volunteers at a nearby convent where he drives ailing nuns to medical treatment, and he recently began working with a local community theater group offering programs for adults and young folks.

There are many kids here on our quiet cul-de-sac, and we parents keep a close eye on them.  Our own children are well-mannered … when they are playing outside, they wave at our neighbor and say: “Hello.”  He always waves back at them.

We don’t know much about this fellow, but it doesn’t seem like we should be concerned about him.

Should we?

This “new neighbor” is not an actual person.  Instead, he is a composite of details unearthed by the Associated Press (AP) in a recent search for 1,700 disgraced former Catholic clergy living clandestine lives in unsuspecting communities across the United States.

In their exhaustive October, 2019, report, the AP located fallen clerics employed as school teachers, sex assault counselors, nurses and volunteers working with at-risk children.  Some of these individuals lived near playgrounds and day care centers and, since leaving the church, many have been charged with crimes including sexual assault and possession of child pornography.

And, most distressing, these individuals … each of whom had been removed following credible allegations of sexual abuse … were living in unwary neighborhoods absent supervision by the Catholic Church or notification to any government entity.

When asked about this sad state of affairs, Church leaders maintain that once a priest is dismissed there is no way to keep track of him.  But this is simply not true.

In November, 2018, for example, the Archdiocese of New Orleans released the names of 57 clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors over the years in southeast Louisiana.  In revealing the names of the abusers, the Archbishop said surviving former clergy on the list were notified that their names were about to be made public; he went on to note that efforts were undertaken to notify family members of deceased former religious as well.

It should come as no surprise that other Dioceses and Archdioceses have that same ability.  Consider, for example, the many accused clergy who continue to receive pensions or health insurance from the church … it has been suggested that dioceses should devise a system making those benefits contingent upon defrocked priests self-reporting their current addresses and employment

No longer can we allow Catholic leaders to assert that fallen clergy removed from ministry are not their problem.  The failure to monitor predator priests and report their presence in our communities is inexcusable for, as American author Dean Koontz warns:

Evil is no faceless stranger, living in a distant neighborhood. 

Evil has a wholesome, hometown face, with merry eyes 

and an open smile. Evil walks among us, wearing

a mask which looks like all our faces.

Stop … Just STOP!

Well, we just finished watching the news and, as usual, my impulse is to unplug the television once and for all.  The stories this evening were virtually identical to the ones with which we were bombarded yesterday, and there is little doubt that tomorrow’s will be much the same:

Blah, blah, blah, Coronavirus, blah, blah, Protests, blah, blah, Unemployment, blah, blah, Trump, blah, blah, Biden, blah, blah, Quarantine, blah, blah, Fauci, blah, blah, Hoax, blah, blah, Stock Market, blah, blah, blah… and so on.

And if, for some reason, the punishment brought by the 4pm news is insufficient, we can tune in and inflict it upon ourselves again at 5pm, 6pm, and even 10pm.  And this, of course, is only the local network version of things … a variety of cable news channels are accessible round the clock, with choices sufficient for virtually any point on the political compass.

As if being virtually housebound these days is not stressful enough, the 24-hour news cycle with “this just in” and “breaking now” bulletins is wearing me out.  And, frankly, a “users guide” would come in handy in deciphering this new vocabulary permeating conversations all around us.  Yes, I get it when someone uses words like hoax, hate, conspiracy, leftist and far right.  But where did “QAnon” come from?  And “Antifa” … what is that?  What about “Cancel Culture”?  Near as I can determine, my lack of familiarity with those terms means I am not fully “woke” … whatever the hell that means.

Hunkered down in our little abode, we have adopted some strategies to keep ourselves safe and (relatively) sane in navigating the pandemic.  We wear masks … wash our hands frequently … use hand sanitizer liberally … maintain social distance … and avoid exposure in public spaces.  We have also found it important to limit the amount of news to which we subject ourselves.  For us, one half hour of local news is just about right, with the same amount of time allotted for national and international broadcasts.

In adopting this regimen, we have also limited our interactions on social media platforms such as Facebook.  As a reflection, perhaps, of the very contentious political divide in our world, some “friends” seem less reluctant than ever to express incendiary points of view and, as a result, an electronic meeting place that used to be, for the most part, enjoyable, is now a minefield that cannot be safely traversed.  As an aside, it may be time for a discussion of the very definition of “friend” in the context of Facebook, especially since that word, itself, has now become a verb rather than a noun.

In our defense, we are not Luddites … we read three newspapers each day, and follow several reputable news sources.  And, as it turns out, having to sort through the plethora of conspiracy-oriented and downright outlandish claims populating the airwaves has turned us into better consumers of the news.  Now, when a piece of information strikes us as questionable, a quick visit to a non-partisan fact-checking internet page helps separate the wheat from the chaff.

Neither are we strangers to the world of electronic communication.  Consider, for example, the networking platform Zoom which, during the pandemic, has given us the opportunity to interact with and enjoy family and friends simultaneously in multiple locations.  And despite my earlier criticism, we have come to know Facebook (when properly guided) as a superb place for folks to meet and share information.  We administer two Facebook groups and the key to their success and welcoming nature has, in part, been the express limitation on political discussion.

In the 1976, movie Network, Peter Finch played the part of Howard Beale, a disaffected and deeply troubled news reporter overwhelmed by what he saw as social ailments and depravity in the world.  As fans of that movie will recall, Beale’s signature lament was: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more.”

Unlike Beale, the relentless media circus surrounding us doesn’t make me “mad as hell” … it makes me tired.

Looking back to a college class taken almost fifty years ago, it occurs to me that the young, irreverent professor in that room had the perfect solution for dealing with a contentious and confusing debate.  A master at provoking active discussion on a topic, his skill often resulted in two (or three) sides to an argument holding firm to their positions.  Then, when the argument seemed to have reached its peak, he would look around the room and declare: “Ah, to hell with it … let’s go get a beer.”

That was excellent advice then, and it is excellent advice now.

 I’m going to go get a beer.

Putting the “Hip” in Hippie

Pity the poor flower child who, in August, 1969, decided to take a little jaunt up to Bethel, New York, to join in something called the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival.  After loading a few friends in his car he set out, fully expecting a leisurely drive to Yasgur’s Farm, where he would pull into a parking lot next to the concert stage.  Instead, when our worthy young friend took the exit onto Route 17b, in Monticello, New York, he came face-to-face with a world-class traffic jam … everything headed toward Woodstock was completely stopped, with abandoned cars as far as the eye could see.  

Very quickly, two things became clear.  First, if this fellow was going to partake of any peace, love  and music over the next few days, he was going to have to walk.  Second, the distance from Monticello, New York, to Yasgur’s Farm is eleven miles.  And, if you are keeping score, that is eleven “country miles.”

For those in attendance at the original Woodstock Festival, having to trudge long distances amidst hordes of unwashed strangers likely qualifies as part of the experience … the “charm” … of the event.  And when you are young and caught up in the moment, well, the prospect of walking eleven miles was not a big deal.  But that was fifty years ago … how many of us would be up for that sort of a forced march today?

Let’s face it … the body of an aging hippie has endured a lot over the years.  Remember those long rides crammed in the back seat of somebody’s VW Beetle with three other folks?  Or those afternoons sitting in the lotus position while absorbing cosmic truths from Moonbeam and Zephyr?  Some of those memories may have faded (marijuana is reported to have that effect), but your hips and knees remember what you put them through and, lately, they have been demanding attention.

In the process of getting older, a number of those who sat for three days in the mud at Woodstock have likely already sought relief through the installation of a new hip.  If so, it may be time to form an organization called HIGH (Hips In Geriatric Hippies) to let others know how much that surgery improves quality of life.  Like, for example, being able to walk – pain free – round that meditation labyrinth in the backyard.  And for that dyed-in-the-wool hippie who has kept a list of the myriad of substances he put in his body over the years, a new hip provides one more … titanium!

As an aside, many of us likely remember the good old days when the words “joint replacement” had nothing to do with hips and knees.  Back then, that term simply meant you had to light up another doobie because the one you passed to your left around the campfire never made it back.

In 1985, the Bellamy Brothers released their classic work “Old Hippie,” in which they sing of a fellow clinging to his 60’s lifestyle as he cultivates “a little garden in the backyard by the fence.”  The good news is that a hip replacement frees us up to get back to tending that private crop we have so carefully nurtured over the years.

Because, goodness knows, these days we all need something to help take the edge off.