You Can Sing the Blues

I read once, on Guy Davis’s website, that white people can’t sing the blues. In fact, Davis’s web site article seemed almost downright mad that white people would even think about singing a song in a genre exclusive to Black America.

Sorry, Guy… but that ain’t right. Anyone can sing and play the blues; it doesn’t matter whether you’re pink, green, orange or purple. All you need to be is human. Put an 8-bar or 12-bar pattern together with three chords, throw in a few (or a lot of) wrong notes, and sing like you mean it.

All you gotta do is wake up in the morning and look around for your shoes, or go down to the crossroads, or find out that something you never thought you’d lose is gone. If you’ve ever walked along the railroad track, tried to find your way back home, or made your way to the middle of nowhere… you can sing the blues.

If your best friend done stole your partner, or your partner done found another… you can sing the blues.

If you once had money and now you don’t and all your friends took off ’cause now you’re broke… you can sing the blues.

You can definitely sing the blues if:
• You’re fixin’ to die
• You shot a man in Reno
• You stabbed a man in Memphis
• You’ve been in jail
• Your best friend is the bottom of a bottle
• You thought you had it made but now you don’t
• Even your mama don’t remember your name

I’ve also read that teenagers can’t sing the blues, ’cause they ain’t “fixin’ t’ die,” and because they ain’t older than dirt.

Baloney. Anybody can sing the blues.

Ever been sent to the principal’s office? Ever had someone turn you down when you asked them to a dance? Ever found yourself on the playground feelin’ so lonesome you didn’t know what to do? Ever woke up in the morning and felt that things were just gettin’ ready to go wrong?

Anybody and everybody can sing the blues. We all start singing them on the day we’re born.

Realistically, though… there are some rules. You shouldn’t be singing the blues if:
• Your name is Brittany, Tiffany, or Moonbeam
• You drive a new BMW, HumVee, or an Audi
• You never shop at the Dollar Store
• You have a membership to the golf course next door

As long as you don’t have any blatant “out-of-context” qualities, you can sing and play the blues. Just get a guitar, or a harmonica, or just sing with a moanin’ in your heart.

That’s the Blues.

The World That Was

Think for just a moment… or for even a moment after that first moment. What happened in 2020? Two things made news: the COVID-19 pandemic, and Trump with his Republican Party cohorts. That’s all that made the news. But think; what else?

So much more happened which we can barely fathom, but which never made front page. We heard about a few other things, but not being boisterously apparent like Trump, or as deadly as COVID, we probably passed aside those other things that made only the back pages of the newspapers.

The press reported the total number of deaths effected by the virus, but did not publish the names of the 300,000 people who, with their deaths, left at least double that many people grieving and wondering how they would manage to fend for themselves in a world gone haywire. How many of those people were mothers or fathers to multiple children, were aunts or uncles to a multitude more. The unknown number of affected people tears at the heart.

That is news.

In your lifetime, certainly not in what remains of my lifetime, Oregon, Washington, California, Colorado will never display the beauty of their once magnificent forests. The parts of each of those states that we most enjoyed are gone: beautiful lakes stipped clean of the trees which once stood watch among their shores are gone, trees which, if sturdy enough, stand only as charred sticks in the brittle ground that may wash away in the floods which will come with the spring thaws.

How many notable deaths――scientists, musicians, literates, conservationists, proponents of human equality? The list seems longer than those of the previous five years:

• Mario Molina―received the Nobel Prize for his work on the effect of CFCs on the Earth’s ozone.
• Julian Bream―master of the classic guitar.
• Eva Szekley―survived the Holocaust to win the gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke in the 1952 Olympics.
• Arthur Ashkin―invented the “Tractor Beam.”
• Debra White Plumne―defender of the Oglala Lakota Tribe.
• Barry Lopez―naturalist and conservatiuonist writer…
… and the list goes on: Bill Withers, Terry Gilliam, David N. Dinkins, Priscilla Jane, George Bizos, Charlie Pride… .

How many of us know these names? How many of us understand the significance of these names. They were reported, but only as an afterthought of political spewing and the virus that hacks at the guts of the American Dream――chops away the dreams of so many people on this planet.

But what is it that holds us all together, as one people, stuck on a rock circling a star that glimmers in a universe so infinite that time does not know we exist, never needed a reason to care that we inhabit a mote that has never made the news?

My hope is that the “lockdowns” of COVID have given us enough time for introspection, a study of ourselves that reveals each of us is a part of larger whole that seeks to survive amidst the turmoil we inflict upon ourselves.

Santa Clara Valley Wine

The Ohlone were the orginal inhabitants of the Santa Clara Valley, thriving from San Francisco Bay to Monterey Bay and Salinas. They did not consider themselves a distinct people, instead divided into separate land-holding groups (tribes) which interacted freely in trade, marriage, and religious ceremonies. They suffered an occasional squabble amongst themselves, but for the most part lived peaceably, hunted and fished in what they called “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

Their lives changed forever when the Spaniards arrived in 1769 to construct a collection of twenty-one missions, from San Diego to Solano.

FIRST GRAPES

Over time, history becomes blurred, sometimes becomes legend, and often becomes myth. Not so much with wine, because the grapes and the vines upon which they grow have a documented geographical genealogy, which is often attached to a specific human genealogy. Wine grapes are a legacy passed from one generation to the next, and the bloodlines that link people to grapes remain strong — particularly when the vines are relocated half a world away from their origin.

The Spaniards had mapped and claimed California in 1542, but for nearly two hundred years the entire region remained ignored, left to the indigenous people who had lived here for ten thousand years. But in 1769 Spain decided to expand its colonialism and appointed Franciscan monk Junipero Serra as President of the Missions, and gave him the mission to establish missions in Alta California (land north of Baja).

Serra began in Baja California and walked his way north. July 1, 1769, his expedition arrived at what become San Diego. Fifteen days later he founded Mission San Diego de Alcalá. He also planted mission grapes, California’s first winegrape vines. One year later, Serra founded a second mission — Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Carmelo — on Monterey Bay, and it was there, just seventeen miles west as the crow flies from where some of the richest history of California winemaking would take root, he planted more mission grapes. Over the next thirteen years, Serra founded seven more missions… and planted more grapes. Father Fermin Lasuén, Serra’s successor from 1782 to 1798, also founded nine missions. He planted grapes. Three other Franciscan monks established three more missions from 1804 to 1823… and they planted mission grapes.

With the establishment of twenty-one California missions, the legacy of the Santa Clara Valley wine industry had sprouted in the fertile valley soil.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Spain’s primary control of Alta California lay rooted in the missions, but because the monarchy had no burning desire to expand much farther beyond San Francisco Bay, Alta California remained largely remote, left to its own devices.

In 1821, after an eleven-year struggle, Mexico won its independence from Spain, but the revolutionaries who gained Mexico’s sovereignty had no plan or strategy for self-governance, thus the makeshift governments remained in disarray and in bitter conflict with themselves, unable to effect any substantial political clout in its newly acquired landholding — Alta California.

The Franciscan monks managed to retain control over missions lands, and continued to convert the indigenous people, but the Mexican war of independence changed things. Alta California experienced an influx of immigrants from the U.S., France, and Russia, who began to form trade routes and established permanent outposts and settlements. Those who came were mostly trappers, traders, and more significantly farmers.

Even before the war, secular vineyards were already established in Alta California. Only five years after the war, Joseph John Chapman (a Massachusetts pirate-turned-farmer) planted his privately-owned Mission grapevines to establish the first commercial vineyard in California.

In 1833 the Mexican government managed to effect the Secularization Act, which divided mission lands into individual land grants. Alta California wasted no time with its new mindset of privatization and ownership. Neither did the world. The region experienced an even greater influx of immigration and commerce, and in 1846 — ignited by the U.S. annexation of Texas — formed an army and declared itself the California Republic, independent of Mexico.

Two years later, it was just that. At the end of the Mexican-American War California was an official U.S. territory — and just two years after that California became the thirty-first of the United States.

And just moments after that, California became ripe with the legacies that propelled it to the fourth largest wine producing country on Earth.

THE OTHER GOLD RUSH

The California Gold Rush (1849) proved to be the catalyst for the growth of wine growing and production in the Santa Clara Valley. California was pregnant with precious yellow metal, but not all who ventured west to seek a fortune had the gumption and wherewithal to stick with it. Mining was arduous work, sometimes a crapshoot, and too often involved danger from looters and robbers. Many who came for gold arrived from other countries, and knew how to do more with their hands than slam pick axes into rock and dirt and to sluice rivers. They knew how to farm. Besides fruit orchards and vegetable crops, they understood the cultivation of wine grapes, and they brought with them centuries-old winestock from France and began to cultivate more varietals than the mission grape planted by the Franciscan monks.

They saw another kind of gold in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight.”

A community of Frenchmen who arrived at the outset of the Gold Rush settled in Santa Clara Valley, because of the comfortable climate and the richness of the soil. Among them was Etienne Thée, who in1852 purchased eight thousand acres of the Rancho San Juan Bautista land grant. He planted vines of mission grapes. That same year, fellow Frenchman Charles Lefranc — who would later become the “Father of California’s Commercial Winemaking” — went to work for Thée. The two formed a partnership and founded New Almaden Winery (what was once the oldest winery in California). Lefranc, unimpressed by the luster-less body of the mission grape, replaced the mission vines with superior French varietals he brought from the “Old World,” and produced California’s first Bordeaux. He married his partner’s daughter, Marie Adèle in1857 and inherited the business. Three years later, New Alamaden was the first and largest commercial winery in California.

Lefranc also instilled innovation into the Growing California wine industry. In particular, he used redwood barrels, which impressed the California Agricultural Society, which reported the barrels were “… half as costly, and will last longer than casks made from the best of oak. Worms never touch them, and they impart neither taste nor color to the wine.”

The wine industry began to ripen into the future.

NO WINE BEFORE ITS TIME

The future of California wine arrived in 1878, when Paul Masson migrated from Burgundy, France, to Santa Clara Valley and became the winemaker for Charles Lefranc at New Almaden — a productive and financially successful, nine-year relationship.

Masson married his boss’s eldest daughter, Louise, in 1887. Two months later tragedy struck. Charles Lefranc was trampled to death in a freak horse-and-buggy accident. That same year, Masson and Henry Lefranc (son of the wine pioneer) formed a partnership, and they began to concoct a bottle-fermented sparkling wine, which they released in 1892 to unprecedented acclaim. With that triumph, Henry sold his share of the partnership to Masson, who took sole control over New Almaden, though the children of Charles Lefranc retained ownership of the winery.

Masson eventually grew dispirited with Almaden, yearned for his own vineyard — one situated on a hillside, which he believed would yield a more crisp, robust grape. In 1896 he quelled his longing and purchased 573 acres acres in the Saratoga hills. He christened his new creation Le Cresta, and planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He aimed to establish a hallmark of sparkling wines, and toward that end formed the Masson Champagne Company.

Masson’s dream became his legacy. His sparklers became what wine expert Charles Sullivan has dubbed “The Pride of California.”

CALIFORNIA CATASTROPHES

The California wine industry shot like a rocket toward success, but when navigating uncharted territory anything can happen, and beginning in 1873 anything bad that could happen did… for the next fifty years.

Phylloxera
Phylloxera is an aphid-like insect that feeds on the roots and leaves of grapevines. The effect on the vine is devastating. The infestation was noticed in California in 1873, ten years after the scourge decimated European vineyards in much the same way the plague wiped out people.

At first not much was done about the blight. Many winegrowers were slow to acknowledge the problem, perhaps not wanting to reveal their vineyards were infested. Whatever the reason, no one could mistake the reddening leaves, the dried bunches of grapes hanging dead on the vines, and the black rotting roots. By 1880, the problem could no longer be ignored. California had already lost acres of vineyards by the thousands.

The blight became such an epidemic that the California legislature created the Board of State Viticulture Commissioners and the Department of Agriculture at the University of California in Berkeley. Both institutions were tasked with finding the means to mitigate the massive destruction wrought by phylloxera. They discovered that vines which grew in dryer climes were resistant to the infestation, and proposed the solution to graft vines onto vines which proved resistant to the nasty bug.

Though not a cure, the technique of grafting gave winegrowers more than a fighting chance to stay in business.

San Francisco Earthquake
Phylloxera claimed many vineyards in Santa Clara Valley, had chewed a large whole in the valley’s wine production, but the fraction of the winemakers who remained began in ernest with the new grafting technique to regain their previous success.

The newfound hope, however, was shortlived. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake became an even heavier blow to the California wine industry — one which pinned winegrowers to the ropes, and dropped many to the canvas.

San Francisco had become the hub of the wine industry, with warehouses, wine houses, and enough ports to transport California wine toward world recognition, but when the two largest tectonic plates on the planet decided to no longer play nicely together, the city of San Francisco crashed to the ground. What little remained standing burst into flames — dubbed by writer Jack London as the “Great Fire.”

Seventy percent of the city smoldered in ruin.

The earthquake ravaged everything from Santa Clara County to Sonoma. Almost nothing was spared, which brought the California wine industry to just a skinny husk compared to its former rising glory. The California wine Association lost eight million gallons of wine all its own. Hotels, restaurants, pubs… all of it was gone. Fifty million gallons of wine was decimated in San Francisco. Two-thirds of California’s wine was gone. What remained of much of the wine in San Francisco was used to put out fires.

Still, the California wine industry, all but uprooted and completely trampled, kept whatever hold it could on the fertile soil and released new sprouts whenever it could for the next eighteen years.

Prohibition
Wet or dry? During the two years that followed the end of World War I, that question had nothing to do with the weather. It spoke about the heated division in the United States between those who wanted to ban alcohol and those who did not.

On January 1st 1920, the U.S. Congress and the House of Representatives ratified the Volstead Act, to set Prohibition into motion for the next thirteen years. Two days after ratification, the country went dry.

Prohibition made it illegal to manufacture, import, sell, and transport alcohol, though It did, allow the homebrewing of wine and cider, and the use of wine for religious purposes.

It did not, however, provide a means to enforce the law, thus deferred all enforcement and legal aspects to the Individual states.

California, ever a state which loves to enact laws into its books, had its share of bills written to provide the financial means to enact the national law. All but one was voted down by referendum.

It is ironic the one bill California did enact, and which had potential to end winemaking in the State altogether, was authored by T. M. Wright, the assemblyman from Santa Clara County — the same county which can lay claim as the birthplace of commercial winemaking in California.

Almost immediately, the country began to ease the restrictions imposed by The Volstead Act, but turning the wheels of government is a slow process, and by the time the U.S. repealed prohibition, only 25% of California’s previous wineries and vineyards remained.

Yet, a few sparks still glowed in Santa Clara Valley. Paul Masson survived prohibition with great success by making “medicinal” champagne. Some growers made wine for sacramental use, and others dried their grapes into raisins or made juice to ship across the country. A few remained under the radar and bootlegged their wines to any of the speakeasys prevalent in San Francisco.

Emilio Guglielmo made a daring move in 1925, in the belly of Prohibition, and started his 15-acre winery in Morgan Hill because of the rising demand for wine at the time, and because he knew the back-firing law would eventually end.

But though embers remained, only a smattering of wineries still existed in the Valley, and many of those had fallen into disrepair, or were unable in the coming years to reclaim their former glory. It would be another thirty years before the Phoenix of the wine industry rose from the ashes left by Prohibition.

The Dark Age
The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam… The path to recovery for the California wine industry later Laden with obstacles, and that too many of the post-prohibition wineries grew grapes that could be fermented into what connoisseurs called only belly wash.

But the fertile Santa Clara Valley soil remained just that, and sprouted three significant people with a pocketful of dreams, who kept the embers of Santa Clara Valley glowing through the dark years of rehabilitation.

Louis Benoist of San Francisco purchased Almaden Vineyards in 1941, and with help from renowned wine writer and connoisseur Frank Schoonmaker managed to distribute Almaden wines across the country — enough to make them one of the most popular wines in the U.S.

Martin Ray, a protegé of Paul Masson, purchased Masson Champagne Company in 1943 and wasted no time reinvigorating the stature of Masson wines — even established the Santa Cruz AVA. Ray was a boisterous, egotistical fellow with an overzealous passion for wine. Anyone who came in contact with him became implanted with that passion. It could be said he was responsible for the rebirth of modern winemaking in Santa Clara County.

Emilio Guglielmo, who founded his winery against all odds in the midst of Prohibition, also remained to lay claim as the oldest continuing winery in Santa Clara Valley, and was ripe for the planting of the future.

JUDGEMENT OF PARIS

The defining mark for all of the California wine industry came in 1976 with what is now called the “Judgement of Paris.”

For too many years only three wines existed: the good stuff (French), the very good stuff (also French), and everything else. Primarily the world felt the best wines came from “old world” vines, which remained landlocked in France. What few in the world of wine remembered, however, was that stock from those vines was imported to the US in the mid 1800s, and survived the phylloxera infestation, the San Francisco Earthquake, Prohibition, and more than 30 years of revitalizing the California wine industry.

Good winestock to be sure, but France could not lay claim to exclusiveness of those vines.

Steven Spurrier, a renowned British Wine Cellar and educator, organized a blind wine-tasting competition held in Paris, France. His goal was to pit unlabeled French and American wines against one another, and have them judged by nine French experts. The competition was poo-pooed by journalists worldwide. Only one reporter (from Time Magazine) covered the event. The results of the blind tasting, however, became global news, and tossed the world’s wine market on its ear.

May 1976, ten French white wines were set side-by-side with ten white wines from the United States. Ten French red wines were also set side-by-side with ten American reds.

When the final tastes were spit into the cuspidor and all the scores were tallied, the U.S. wines had bested the French wines. Of course France rebuked the results, and even tried to ignore them. But the results of the competition did make the news, and did more than bolster the continued growth of wineries in Santa Clara Valley.

Even today, new Vineyards appear in the soil which retains a history from before California was even a state.

Personal Accountability

Trump is whole-handedly responsible for the insurrection January 6, 2021. He is also responsible for the five deaths that occured during the incursion. With his particular phrasing, the worst POTUS in American history purposefully incited violence and “wild action,” and kindled that violence over the course of months. Just as troublesome is that Trump could not have incited anything had he no followers. Thousands of people stormed the United States Capitol and took control of it for several hours. Would they have amassed in what many of them called “revolution” without someone giving them cause, on a specific date, at a specific place, for a very specific reason vocalized by Trump since his failed re-election in November?

Probably not, especially after knowing how the police handled the riots in Portland, Oregon (tear gas, baton beatings and rubber bullets in the eyes).

The ruction at the U.S. Capitol, however, was brewed over the entirety of Trump’s four-year term, his bombastic lies empowered by a political party that refused to uphold its duty to defend truth and the U.S. Constitution throughout his tenure.

The showdown January 6 was bound to happen, because the Republican Congress pushed it that direction. Had our Republican senators and House representatives not willingly acquiesced Trump’s ineptitude in the highest position in the United States, had they not aided him in perpetuating obvious and dangerous lies, and had they stepped up to the plate like Vice President Mike Pence to act contrary to the wishes of their “savior”――to uphold the United States Constitution and American Rule-of-Law――Trump’s ability to “enlist” thousands of people to his personal cause could not have happened.

Trump did lie throughout his calamitous term in the White House; his false claims were exposed day-after-day by reported fact-checks across the country. Statements he made claiming the 2020 election was rigged were determined by more than a handful of U.S. justices to “have no basis in fact and law.”

Still, people followed him, and continue to follow him.

Trump led the charge to “Make America Great Again” during his presidential campaign in 2016. It is ironic that upon his exit Russia laughs and points fingers at us, claims we are now an example of how democracy crumbles. Iran now calls us “fragile and vulnerable.” China touts itself as more safe than the United States. So many other countries have expressed pity for our plight.

Such statements and sentiments are not how other countries refer to “great” countries.

The United States has fallen from its high global perch because so many people allowed themselves to believe Trump’s lies, and too many still perpetuate his latest last-ditch fabrication.

Unfortunately, even after life-threatening sedition at the Capitol, one hundred fourty-seven congressmen still upheld Trump’s false claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, though the United States Supreme court decreed this was not true.

In Colorado, all nine of its congressmen admonished the January 6 attack on the Capitol, yet two of the State’s House Representatives――Rep. Doug Lamborn and Rep. Lauren Boebert――voted to sustain Trump’s assertion of voter fraud and electoral miscounting. Such equivocalness makes no sense; a person cannot condemn that which she or he helped perpetuate.

But that is the state of my country: divided by too many in positions of authority who persist without factual foundation to ignore truth, justice, and the American way.

Personal Cleansing

It is said fire purifies, and for that my wife and I perform a ritual every New Year’s. We write all the things we want to forget of the previous year on strips of paper and burn them. This year, when we stepped into the frigid cold one second after midnight, my wife held a toilet paper tube crammed with thin stips of denunciations. My tube looked identical.

We stood oblivious to the weather and joined in the cacophany of our neighbors as we all whistled and cheered and yelled obscenities about the previous two hundred ninety-one days. Every few seconds small fireworks blossomed overhead, rekindled our shouts and catcalls, and though all of us appeared as only shadows beneath the streetlights or remained unseen in the darkness of our own yards, we howled united in a common cause–death to the Year of COVID.

I lit a small fire in a small portable barbecue grill. My wife laid her tube in the flames. I laid mine beside hers. We watched the tubes turn to ash, as if the rising smoke could wisp away all we had burned.

Against our better judgment, we stayed up two more hours, hoped the next time we opened the front door the world would be different, like Dorothy stepping into the color world of Oz. My wife and I knew better, but still we hoped.

It is said fire purifies; this year it cannot. Like so many others in the world, my wife and I carry too many unhealed wounds from last year: the loss of her dream, a yoga studio that celebrated its second anniversary only days before California issued “Shelter in Place” directives; leaving thirty years of our lives behind in a move from the West Coast back to the Colorado Rockies; the passing of a dearest friend, and the passing of the cutest little fella we’ve ever rescued from the SPCA…

… and the devastating fires in the western United States, and all over the world; the shooting of innocent people by policemen; the political destructiveness of a madman in the White House and the misguided elected officials who furthered (and for another two weeks will continue to further) his dastard, narcissistic plans…

… and the pandemic which killed nearly two million people, forced too many people into unemployment, has closed so many of the businesses that supported so many people, and which will persist in shutting down so many more as it continues its wave of global depredation into this new year.

The fire did not erase all my wife and I hoped to forget. We knew that as we stepped out beneath a clear blue sky New Year’s day and crunched through snow toward the path which follows alongside the Cache la Poudre River, one of only fourteen wild rivers remaining in the United States. Years ago the river was sacred to us, and once again has become another of our rituals, our stream of hope for the future that flows from the majestic Rockies.

After a thirty-year absence from Fort Collins–the home of our college alma maters, the town where met, and the birthplace of our daughter–we have returned full-circle to start fresh.

Something inside me says the mountains and the waters of our past will cleanse us. Maybe 2021 will be better than last year.

Coming Upon Winter

The green of summer is gone, the reds and yellows of autumn faded. All that remains above the Poudre River are brittle brown leaves that await their final fall into the flow. Seventeen inches of snow fell one week ago, but the only the bones of the storm remain in gray piles along the roadside, like roadkill wanting to disappear.

‘Tis the season of change――in the air, on the ground, in our lives.

In Colorado, Hell erupted to the surface of the Earth in more ways than several. The entire West is burned to char, and still burns. Violence among people still boils over the rim of the “melting pot,” and the POTUS proliferates violence and ideas of civil war.

Guns in public, aimed at the buses of a presidential candidate opposed to the maniacal, insane antics coming from our “sanctified”: White House.
Who could have imagined that, one hundred fifty-five years after the War Between the States, the modern United States would relive one of the worst catastrophes in its history, a catastrophe indicative of Hitler’s rise, Mussilini’s rise, Kaddahfi’s rise… .

Rome burned and lost its foothold on the world because of Nero’s insanity. My hope is that history can repeat itself so many times before people wake up.

My wife and I rode our bikes alongside the Poudre this afternoon, and at the bridge just before the intersection leading into Old Town Fort Collins we heard a steel tongue drum, beautiful and so much attuned to the slow rythym of the river. I stopped on the bridge to listen, and to watch the fella who sat beneath gray trees and played the music. I stood longer, bowed my appreciation to the player as he bowed his appreciation that I listened. He restarted the melodic enchantment for my enjoyment. At the end, I waved good-bye. He waved good-bye. No sound; only the music.
It could have been an eternity. Maybe just a few minutes. He shared his music, I shared my enjoyment, and together, in silence, we shared our appreciation of one another.

I can only hope the U.S. election a week ago brings our country closer to an appreciation of one another, more appreciation of itself, and more appreciation of other countries.

Inferno

Dante wrote his famous epic poem, Inferno, in the early 1300's. It tells the story of the narrator (Dante) on a journey through nine concentric circles (worlds) which comprise Hell. The poem begins in March. Dante steps through the gate of Hell, over which is inscribed "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." Immediately upon passing through the Gate of Hell, Dante recognizes a man of considerable political power whose selfish thirst for his own welfare serves as the metaphor for the door through which too many have entered into delusional salvation. For the next 190 pages or so, all hell breaks loose.

The poem is religious, but times, attitudes, beliefs, perspectives, and scientific revelations change. What a great plot for a modern story.

Oh wait. It's not a story. It's happening right now, seven hundred years after the original version, and because after so many centuries the poem is no longer protected by copywrite, my version of Inferno differs.

My main character could be any man, woman or child who walks out their front door, and who discovers their once-familiar portal to the outside world is now the gateway to Hell, in all its flame and fury.

The Inferno is here. Pick a calamity, any of which is a massive story by itself:

1) An inland hurricane in Iowa, which destroyed 43% of the state's corn and soybean crops.

2) Tornadoes in Massachusetts, not unheard of, yet rare.

3) Fires in California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado which have scorched the West to ash and cinder.

4) Unconstitutional civic behavior and violence condoned by the White House.

5) Racist murders on our city streets and within our homes, justified by the White House under a mandate of "law and order."

6) Corruption and international meddling in the upcoming election.

7) Social media so loaded with lies and altered photographs one cannot decipher what is or is not true.

8) A dangerous person in the White House, and too many misguided souls who want to extend his residency.

9) COVID-19.

... and now an additional level: 10) the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

My story begins in March, just like Dante's tale, yet this updated Inferno is not a story I can write. This series of unfortunate events writes itself daily, sometimes hourly, and each new plot twist becomes so surreal I could never conceive such madness; this story reaches beyond my understanding and creativity. Even if I could, my writing is dark; the ending would be extremely bleak...

... and I don' want this new Inferno to end that way.

Ignorance

The profoundness of ignorance becomes a devastating tsunami when we look around — to the front, to the sides, then over our shoulders — and realize without having to think about it we did not know. Ignorance pervades, because, after looking around, we do not recognize where we are and have no clear recollection of how we arrived. It is our own fault for always moving. We know that, we admit that (“back in the good old days”), then we “keep on truckin’.’

Yet along the Oregon coast, islands of rock, so steadfast in their defiance of the never-ending surge of a rough sea, have stood against the loneliness of midnight for more ages than man has memory. Still, we cannot sit still in one place for more than a passing thought. Each new idea that seeps into our collective consciousness, or that strikes us like a bolt from a heavy sky, sets us again in motion, embarks us once again upon our mortal pilgrimage toward unknown destinations we hope will ease our loneliness, or will be spectacular enough to ease our pain.

How long has it been since humanity stopped to hear the song of the trees? There was a time when the people of the land understood the language of the forests and of the brooks.

It was common — long ago — to walk through the forest and experience things that can never happen again, or to see things that will remain eternally hidden, and for which we cannot piece together a rough recollection. Some things about the forest could never happen, though we were there and saw it, because we stood motionless in awe and wonder.

But we no longer sit to breathe, we try to authenticate our existence only with movement — leaps and bounds — which we justify as progress. Still, we ain’t goin’ nowhere.

Old to New

Then none were for the party,
Then all were for the State,
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great:
Then lands were fairly portioned,
Then spoils were fairly sold… .
――Thomas McCauley, “Horatius”

At a point in time a homeowner decides a certain room or other living space no longer suits the needs of the day, and contacts my boss and his wife. They all congregate to devise a new plan: an updated kitchen, a finished basement, a bathroom that, since the original construction of the house, has never quite been as easily accessible as it could be. A style is chosen, plans are drawn, colors are picked… and then it’s showtime.

My boss and I walk cocked and loaded into the particular living space we’re contracted to remodel. We rip away the walls, leaving only the bare bones of framing. If necessary, we tear up the flooring and lay down a new subfloor for whatever change is to come. We use crowbars, hammers, electric saws, drills, the heels of our boots… whatever it takes to empty the space to its essential, original nakedness. Sometime we eliminate entire walls. It’s laborious work; lots of sweat and a couple of “owies” are always involved. When our demolition is complete, it’s showtime.

Updated electrical systems have been installed, plumbing may or may not be rerouted, a new floor is laid, new cabinets are hung, a stove and range may have been relocated from a dark corner against a wall to an open island we built between the cooking and dining areas, and all appliances are updated. When we’re finished, the place looks like a brand new house.

The biggest deal: the remodel functions better than what the homeowner lived in previously.

The House, the Senate… good gosh the entire country: Democracy in the United States is dead. We need a constitution not written by candlelight. The Bill of Rights has been ignored since the day it was ratified (1791). Three branches of government to “ensure” checks and balances so a dictatorship could not raise its evil head above the banner of democracy――lately that doesn’t seem to be working as planned. In plain sight, mailboxes are being removed so the current government can remove our basic right to vote. Racisim runs rampid in murderous numbers.

Just my opinion, but I think it’s time for a complete remodel of the United States, because the house in which we now live no longer suits the needs of the day.

――Alfred Lord Tennyson,
“The Idylls of the King: The Passing of Arthur.”

Time to Replant the Garden

To Her Lost Breath

My wife made a good run of it, but then was done. A month after the second anniversary of her yoga studio, the world shut down to acquiesce the COVID-19 virus. The government mandated "temporary" closure of her studio, along with every other business not deemed "essential." A damned shame, because her studio had just begun to take off: five teachers, twenty-one classes of various techniques―with plans to add more―and a membership that began to grow weekly.

People in the area had begun to realize the benefits of yoga in their hectic, Silicon Valley lives. My wife was excited; her dream was coming true.

Then... nope... the virus... doors closed... indefinitely.

I continued to manage an office supply store. My work selling plastic crap that did not work long enough to invoke an extended warranty was deemed essential. Seven of us worked ten to twelve hours a day, while nine of my employees opted to use their accumulated sick and vacation time to remain at home until the end of the "Shelter-in-Place" (SIP) mandate issued by the State of California, and vehemently enforced by Santa Clara County, where my wife and I lived and worked... or rather, where she had once worked.

The end of March, the mandate was extend to June. My wife made a decision: her studio could not last four months without income. She closed her studio permanently. We cried endlessly for several weeks. For awhile my wife wondered if she had closed prematurely, particularly when the State said it would do an an early re-assessment of the restrictions on businesses. May 1st it did, though business owners were stunned by the restrictive restrictions that remained in place. Gym and yoga studios were not included in the re-assessment; were to remain closed until the next re-assessment the following month.

For the next two weeks, my wife and I could not count on our four hands the number of yoga studios that closed their doors permanently. A husband and wife, who I knew, closed their gym and left town. June came, and "fitness" businesses were allowed to reopen, but only at a third their capacity. Once again, my wife and I could not keep track of all the yoga studios that decided to close permanently. The yoga studio owners group she belonged to online dwindled from thousands to hundreds.

My wife and I felt sorry for how much it cost the other studio owners who thought they could hold out. By closing down when she did, my wife saved herself a heavy financial loss. The yoga studios that remain open in California offer classes outside. It has cost them a ton to do so. Unfortunately, the smaller memberships they now experience will dwindle even more when the winds and rains of October and November remind people that yoga and working out ain't all that and a bag of chips when the temperature outside drops to 46 degrees Farenheit.

Will the restrictions on yoga studios be fully lifted by then? My wife and I don't think so.

Vikings and their Historical Footprint

Vikings — the first images that come to mind are of barbaric marauders ravaging, looting, and terrorizing the coasts of northern Europe. That may be accurate, to some degree, but not entirely. The Vikings gave the world sagas, collections of stories and poems that shaped the way modern fantasy and science fiction are written today. Without the old literature of Iceland, there probably would not have been J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit.

The Vikings also gave the world the enduring legacy of the Alþingi , the world’s first parliamentary government. What we know of Norse mythology and Scandinavian history was written in Iceland.

To sustain themselves with food crops and livestock, they would have needed a calendar, and therefore a knowledge of the stars. To know the cosmos is to also understand mathematics.

Beyond literacy, political savvy, and agriculture, the Vikings were also a people who traveled the globe far and wide, in boats, which could only have been done with their knowledge of the stars and planets, and mathematics. In other words, the Vikings also knew science. To cross the ocean for global exploration and trade, in boats that could also serve as warships in shallow tides, the Vikings had to know more than just thumping people on the head.

And they did.

Fierce warriors, to be sure, they were feared opponents, but they were also sought after for trade, and for imparting their technological advancements. Kings in Scandinavia and other parts of Europe commissioned Viking longships, because in the years between 900 and 1100AD, no one could craft a sea-going vessel to match the Viking longship.

Their art, delicately crafted and intricately tooled, has been unearthed in archaeological sites across the globe. Their literature paved the way for current best-selling books and blockbuster movies. They gave the world a government which serves as foundation for governance in countries all over the current world.

In truth, the Vikings gave to and educated the world as much as the Greeks and Romans.

As you discover Iceland, with its hard, finicky weather, its rumbling mountains and tectonic activity, blue ice glaciers, and its isolation from the rest of the world, you have to image that the people who could settle in such a land, and who could be successful, must have been a bit smarter than the average polar bear.

From any Icelandair Hotel, you can easily tour and explore a world that marries fire with ice, and you can visit museums and landmarks to learn more of Viking history. If you stay long enough, you might even become a Viking yourself!

Hi-Ball on a Roll-by

—I don’t mind hanging lonesome, ‘cause I’m a hobo myself sometimes, and it’s easier to hit the grit alone than to feel accountability for others, and jumpin’ from a cannonball ain’t no fun.—

12:00 a.m.

The tracks in Fort Collins, Colorado, paralleled the main street, divided the town equally between east and west. My three band mates and I lived on Mason Street, one block west of the main drag. The rails ran through the center of our street. We always knew the time because the 2:30 northbound to Laramie, Wyoming, passed us every afternoon but Sunday’s. Funny, the whistle sounded so lonesome when the train made the city limit, four miles south of where we lived, but then sounded like a hell-chained dragon right outside the front door.

We spent a lot of time on our front porch, jamming and practicing for any gig we could scrape together. We got few, so we spent more time on the porch than anywhere else. We often hankered to be somewhere different, and so at 2:30 p.m. we’d step to the curb, wave to the hogger as he rolled by, and would then watch down the line for the first vacant flat, always on the lookout for the rare open boxcar.

The slowest man went first. If he stepped steady onto the stirrup, caught the grabiron, and made the flip, the next fastest guy would go. I went last. Two hours later, we’d be in Laramie, killing time until the 7:30 southbound came rolling. Being young, we never thought much about greasing the track.

Corvallis, Oregon
(2009-2017)

I’ve forgotten how many runs we made in my alma mater–been over thirty years since I’ve hopped a train. But every morning and every night here in the heart of the Willamette Valley, the train runs through town at irregular intervals. I hear the whine just a mile away in Corvallis, and when the train hollers that close to my house I start feeling like a hobo.

Yet, all I want is to settle down, once and for all. In the seven years since moving back to Oregon, Corvallis has never really felt like home, even though I own one. I still feel as though I’m only passing through, mainly because I’ve yet to find a job that suits me well enough to stick around for more than a few years, and because I’ve yet to meet people who can fill the shoes of the friends I left behind in California.

I’m on my fourth means of employment, and am hoping to find permanent employment in the Golden State before summer. (Jobs do not define a person or create friends, but they do provide a solid rail that allows one a chance to concentrate on the journey, instead of how much coal gets shoveled into the boiler.)

I don’t think I’ve burned any local bridges. My visits to the stations I left behind here have been enjoyable, cooperative, and productive. I was consistently upfront about my intended goal to be more than what they could offer.

And at this moment, as I listen to the whine of a midnight train, I’m hoping my hobo thoughts go away in another week. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I get this new job, and that it turns out to be the steady track to  a destination more suited to where I thought I would end up…

… ’cause I’m gettin’ older, and it’s getting harder to hop trains, though I can still shovel coal with the best of ’em.

Morgan Hill, California
(2017-2020)

Ten years after first writing of this blog post–thirty years since my years in Fort Collins)–I am still reminded of my days hopping trains in Fort Collins, Colorado. The whistle of the speeding train last night reminded me of my past “rail days,” and reminded me that at the end of this month, July 2020, I will return to the town where I learned to hitch an empty boxcar. I am going full-circle.

Of the seven times I have moved since leaving Fort Collins in 1991, I have always said, in every town, “This is finally where I will bury my bones.” I could have been satisfied to leave my bones here in Morgan Hill, but it just can’t happen. This return leg across the Great Divide… I hope my wish will someday come true. I will be happy to leave my bones in Colorado dirt.

Upon returning to Fort Collins, I will stand beside the tracks that run down the middle of Mason Street, and I will wonder if I am too old now to hop a train headed to Laramie or Cheyenne, Wyoming. I suspect I am, only in the sense that I no longer run as fast as in my youth, and it would be more than possible to grease the tracks at my age.

But I will dream as the trains through Fort Collins pass beside me, just inches away from where I linger beside the rail. Who knows, maybe on one of those days I will catch solid hold of the grip, will secure my foot in the stirrup, and I’ll toss my skinny ass into a rare empty boxcar, just because I want to test my youth. I want to set my pace alongside the train to find the right car at the right moment, to re;live the thrill of hopping a train. Who knows, maybe some day in the near future I will get a free ride to Laramie.

_____

Highball: all clear ahead, proceed at full speed.

Roll-by: means just that (and it’s a might friendly if you wave while the train rolls on by).

Hobo: someone willing to work, but only enough to get what he needs or wants, always moving down the road, looking for the next thing. Most hobos are honest and trustworthy.

Hitting the grit – to be thrown from a fast moving train.

Cannonball: a fast train.

Hogger: engineer.

Stirrup: first step on a freight car, under the lowest grab iron.

Grabirons: handholds on all railroad cars for ascending onto or descending from the car.

Flip: the motion used to hop a moving train.

Grease the track: fall beneath the train and die.

Put in the hole: when a train is stored on a side track to keep the main track clear.

Boomer: someone who drifts from one job to another, staying only a short time.

Crossover: switching from one track to a parallel track.

Ditch: jump from a moving train.

Mileposts: markers along the line (at regular or irregular intervals) to indicate where the train is at different places on the line.

Big Rock Candy Mountain: hobo heaven.

Currents

Do not judge these words with spouts of anger. Vizualize these sentences and paragraphs in the way you see water, in all its forms. Go with the flow, immerse yourself in the currents and eddies, linger upon the shore… but do not cast stones, for they cause only ripples, which is karma.

We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm, on the same journey toward whatever individual conclusions we want to believe.

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