In Memory of My Good Friend, Joyce

I met Joyce in “The Commuter” office at the junior college where I began my tenure in higher education. “The Commuter” was the student newspaper, aptly named because there were no residential students at the institution. As I recall, the office was just a small interior room in the student union building, which also housed the offices of student services, a short-order grill, and a room with several billiard tables where I spent way too much time as a freshman resulting in a quarter marked with the stigma of scholastic probation.

By the time I met Joyce, I was gaining clarity and getting more serious about academics, learning to accept some of the responsibility that accompanied the freedom of the college experience. I had also given up on the dream of majoring in biology after encountering chemistry at the college level and discovering it was nothing more than higher math hiding behind glass beakers and Bunsen burners. English classes were always my favorite in high school and where I consistently made the best grades. With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. A wonderful benefit from choosing that path was the friendship I developed with Joyce.

Joyce must have been about 40 years old when I met her. She would have been labeled as a non-traditional student by the college faculty. I’m almost certain she was divorced by then and had several sons, probably ranging from teenagers to young adults. I do not recall if she was returning to school or if she had just decided later in life to pursue a college education. I also don’t remember if she were actually seeking a degree in journalism or just liked writing for the newspaper. I don’t know if she ever received a degree. Our friendship started in 1979, so my recollection of details that long ago is foggy.

Joyce was a contemporary of the two professors, a man and a woman, who ran the journalism program. It was a new experience for me to have a classmate who was halfway in age between me and my parents (I was a “late” child). Junior colleges and community colleges tend to attract nontraditional students, and our institution was no exception. I knew several others by name, but I didn’t associate with them outside our mutual classes, nor did I stay in touch with them after graduating. I knew at the time that Joyce’s life was not an easy one, a stark contrast to my own. She had challenges that I simply could not appreciate at the time – a single mother trying to make ends meet while going to college and taking care of the mundane frustrations of adulthood. Honestly, I will never fully comprehend how tough her journey must have been.

After graduating from the junior college, I left my hometown to pursue my education further at another state school about 45 minutes away; however, I continued to come home on the weekends to work at a grocery store, go out with a girlfriend from high school, wash clothes, and attend church. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church, that last part of the routine was expected and not even questioned. When I wasn’t out on a weekend date, I would often visit Joyce, usually after I left work at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. She lived in an apartment complex not far from my home. Perhaps she still had a son living with her at that time, but I don’t recall seeing anyone regularly.

When I arrived, Joyce would ask if I wanted her to put on a pot of coffee, and I imagine the answer was “please” most of the time. She typically drank instant iced tea during my visits. Even though I was of legal age by then, I was always under the influence of Baptist temperance and never alcohol. I don’t remember ever seeing Joyce imbibe. We would sit at her kitchen table sipping our drinks and smoking cigarettes. Joyce was practically a professional smoker, never letting more than a few minutes pass without lighting up. By comparison, I was a novice, only picking up smoking while being around it so much at work and with the journalism students. Although I never would smoke around my parents (my father had quit when I was a child), my mother knew I was doing it and was greatly disappointed.

I’m sure there were plenty of times when Joyce would rather have been alone or was too exhausted to spend a late evening with me, but she never failed to open the door. I probably never called in advance – just showed up like the impertinent, clueless guy I was back then. I don’t know how many times I stayed past midnight, but it was more than once or twice. We sat at that kitchen table and had conversations deeper than my green intellect and Bible-saturated head could properly process. We talked about life, death, love, sex, religion, and more. She was widely read and had a sharp, critical mind. She was full of compassion and never judgmental, but she hated injustice and had no time for moral superiority. Although I don’t remember, I must have taken my guitar with me a few times and sang for Joyce – probably to get her opinion on songs I was composing. I shudder to imagine what she thought of my efforts, but I’m certain she smiled and encouraged me just the same.

Sometimes Joyce would tell me about the latest trouble one of her sons had landed in, which usually involved an arrest and charges for violations associated with drug use. Her eldest son was the one who no doubt kept her up at night when I wasn’t around. She spent so much time pleading with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and influential friends, always defending him unconditionally regardless of the circumstances. Her love was true and unwavering.

After earning my B.A. in English, I decided to stay on at the same college and work towards an M.A. in history. I started working on campus and had no reason to return home every weekend, which meant my visits to see Joyce eventually ended. However, we stayed in touch through correspondence after I graduated, got married, and started a family. I can recall getting thick envelopes with multiple pages of hand-written letters from her, filled mostly with her thoughts about current events and books or the latest news, good or bad, about her sons. She was a much better correspondent than I was. I kept her letters in a box for many years, and I painfully regret that at some point I disposed of them, probably during a move to a new house.

In the mid-1990s, Joyce was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would ultimately take her life. She got in touch with me and asked me to sing two songs at her memorial service that was going to be held at the Unitarian church. I have no idea if Joyce was a member there or ever attended, but Unitarianism would have been about the only brand of Christianity Joyce could have tolerated. Up to that point, death was more of an abstraction to me, manifested primarily in family visitations and funerals. Joyce’s death was perhaps my first real confrontation with mortality. I visited her once while she was in the hospital to talk about the songs. I was woefully unprepared to fathom the finality she was facing, and I remember asking her, “How are you doing?” She could have easily shot back with, “How the hell do you think I’m doing? I am dying for Christ’s sake!” Instead, she told me she was having a lot of anxiety but that the doctor was giving her medication to help. Gracious, as ever.

Her request was that I accompany myself on the guitar and create two medleys of four songs in the following combinations: “Graceland” by Paul Simon and “In Your Time” by Bob Seger along with “Circle” by Harry Chapin and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a popular Christian hymn written by Ada R. Habershon in 1907. I was more nervous singing those songs than I had ever been up to that point. I had to get it right – no mistakes. I suppose I did. I was honored that Joyce had asked this favor of me. But now, 25 years later, I understand clearly that I didn’t do Joyce a favor at all. Like so many times in the past with our late-night conversations, her sage advice, her endless patience, and her enduring friendship, Joyce was giving me one last gift. She was confirming that I mattered to her, and that my modest musical talent was a worthy expression of my love for her. I am forever grateful, and I am a better human being because of Joyce.



Bird Sanctuaries

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with birds. This is not to say that I am a birdwatcher as that term is normally used. I don’t go out into the forests and glades armed with binoculars and a field guide. I might be able to identify a handful of bird calls, but only the most obvious ones that most people recognize. I know the names of a dozen or so species, perhaps more if I give it some serious thought. The point is, I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert on feathered creatures. I simply enjoy watching them. More specifically, I like seeing them up close but from the comfort of my house, mostly from indoors. For over forty-five years I have been creating environments around the various places I have lived that would be safe and attractive for wildlife, a topic of one of my previous posts. More than any other creature, birds have remained the primary focus of my energy in this endeavor.

Cardinal and Chickadee on a frozen feeder
Cardinal and Chickadee on a frozen feeder

My father was an electrician by trade, but he was also quite a talented carpenter. I don’t recall if I asked him to build me a bird feeder or if he just decided I might like one, but he constructed a masterpiece just outside my bedroom window using two-inch metal pipe that formed a cross-like structure with braces at the top, to which he attached a corrugated metal roof about 2×3 feet in size. At the cross bar, about a foot or so below the roof, he attached two square wooden trays with small rims to hold bird seed. He completed the structure with a sheet-metal baffle cone attached to the pipe just below the wooden trays. It would be more accurate to say that my father had built a bird restaurant, which was typical of his approach to all backyard projects. He once erected a woodshed just behind our house that was better constructed than many of the houses in our town and could store enough firewood for a dozen Minnesota winters. We lived in middle Georgia.

Unfortunately, when Dad secured the feeder in the ground with concrete, the baffle wasn’t high enough to stop squirrels from taking a running leap up the pole, bouncing off the metal, and grabbing the edge of the wooden trays to then gorge themselves on seed. To thwart the rodents’ gluttonous invasions, my father once coated the pole with axle grease. Not to be deterred, the furry critters repeatedly and with astounding diligence would jump on the slick pole, slide to the ground, and repeat the routine until their white bellies were quite black and saturated with grease, thus cleaning the pole to the extent that they could once again raid the seed trays. We eventually gave up and just resigned ourselves to buy enough seed to satisfy the squirrels and feed the birds. Later, I started putting seed on the brick ledge below my window that only the birds could reach, allowing me to be only inches away from them as they pecked away at millet and sunflower seeds.

When I permanently moved away from home, I dug up the homemade feeder and carried it with me to at least two of my homes. Finally, the wooden trays began to rot due to my neglect, and I disposed of the feeder. It also took up too much space in my small yards. Moving forward, I elected to buy more traditional feeders at the big box stores and at boutique bird shops. I have mounted them on deck railings, attached them to tree trunks, and hung them from poles. I have watched them be ravaged by squirrels and raccoons. I have seen one completely destroyed by what must have been a black bear, sightings of which were frequent at our home in north Georgia. I was thrilled when stores began to stock their shelves with safflower seeds, which squirrels tend to dislike and leave alone. Our current backyard in southwest Missouri has only small trees, providing little protection for squirrels but plenty of shelter for the birds. The twin feeders we have are equipped with a well-designed baffle high enough off the ground to prevent the pesky varmints from reaching the bird’s dinner. Victory at last. Let them eat acorns like God intended.

Finches feasting
Finches feasting

In addition to feeders, I have added water features to our gardens. Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing. They are also attracted to running or moving water, probably because it facilitates bathing and usually indicates freshness. Currently, we only have a store-bought metal bird bath; however, at previous homes I built two garden ponds, each equipped with a cascading waterfall. Songbirds would often splash around in and drink from the small pools formed by the cascade. Even when we lived on a lake, we had one of these ponds in the yard, and ducks became regular visitors. They liked paddling around in the water.

Ducks at our pond
Ducks at our pond

There are certain elements of nature that, for lack of a better expression, are good for my soul. Most of these are grand in scale, such as beaches, high mountains, waterfalls, noisy rivers, public gardens, or sprawling vistas of the desert southwest. I have witnessed all of these many times, and they never disappoint me. But, I also get hours of pleasure by simply sitting in a chair on the deck or peering through the window and watching Cardinals, Chickadees, Bluebirds, Yellow Finches, Grosbeaks, Woodpeckers, and many other birds (yes, even sparrows) as they chirp, flit around, perch, and fill their bellies with seed and suet. They are like flowers that fly. It gives me great joy to help care for them.

Sparrow nesting on the porch
Sparrow nesting on the porch

New Orleans: A City With A Soul

Why do we visit cities when we travel? Are we looking for specific attractions? Does the history of the place intrigue us? Does the city host unique activities or events? All these features and more make certain cities special destinations. The most memorable ones I have visited fit this description, but the ones that stand out have something else that is less tangible but even more appealing. They have a soul. Perhaps there are more appropriate words to express this quality, but I believe most people know it when they experience it. For me, the city that best embodies this kind of magic is New Orleans.

Vegas has its casinos; L.A. has its tinsel; New York has its skyscrapers; well, you get the idea. Admittedly, the sites of New Orleans are not necessarily distinguishable from those of other major cities in the U.S. There is the National World War II Museum, the famed Garden District, the Louisiana State Museum, the Mississippi River, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Zoo, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. These attractions are fine, but the rich history, the clash of cultures, the musical heritage, the religious undercurrent, the culinary delights, and old-world architecture all come together to breathe life into New Orleans.

Canal Street
Canal Street

New Orleans certainly has a soul, but it also has a heart: the French Quarter. Dating from the early 18th century, this neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city. It is famous for its fine restaurants, charming hotels, the French Market, quirky antique stores, and of course, the bars. It is an area steeped in tradition, and millions of visitors to the city each year can’t resist taking advantage of opportunities like a late-night run for mouthwatering, powdery beignets and coffee served at Café Du Monde, an establishment dating back to 1862!

Café Du Monde
Café Du Monde

The heart of New Orleans has a sound, and it is music. As is true with most large cities, almost all musical genres are represented here, from full symphonic to alternative rock and country. However, it is jazz that people from around the world most associate with New Orleans. Although its roots come out of Africa and some areas of Europe, jazz as a formal style was born in New Orleans in the early 20th century. Perhaps the best-known jazz spot in New Orleans is Fritzel’s European Jazz Club, hosting live traditional performances every night of the week. We took my older son to New Orleans in 2010 to see one of his favorite bands, Pearl Jam, perform at an annual weekend festival that offers a wide variety of musical forms but pays tribute to the city’s original creation. The event is officially called New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but most folks know it as JazzFest.

JazzFest 2010
JazzFest 2010

What keeps the heart of New Orleans beating? Anybody who has ever been there knows, without a doubt, it is Bourbon Street. The street is not named for the whiskey, as many people assume, but for the French royal family ruling at the time this district was established, decades before the birth of America as a nation. Perhaps the most familiar street in the country, this thoroughfare extends thirteen blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue and is lined with bars, music halls, boutique hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and a menagerie of street performers, artists, musicians, and bohemians. Just about anything goes – if you can’t find it here, you won’t find it anywhere.

Bourbon Street
Bourbon Street

Our sons are grown men now, but we still look for opportunities to all get together whenever possible, especially near the holidays at the end of the year. In 2016, we decided to splurge and enjoy a nontraditional Thanksgiving away from home. We chose New Orleans for the occasion, and it was fabulous. We stayed at Hotel Chateau Lemoyne, a historic property one block off Bourbon operated by Holiday Inn that had its own little jazz bar. What a treat! We had Thanksgiving lunch at Red Fish Grill, which was transformed into a magnificent buffet with various “stations” located throughout the restaurant – the food was amazing. We took in several of the sites near and around the French Quarter mentioned earlier, including a cocktail at the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. Mostly, we spent our time meandering down Bourbon Street, “drinking” in the atmosphere of the places, and listening to the heartbeat of this wonderful city.

Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone
Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone


Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

Say What? Thoughts on the Absurdities of Speaking and Hearing

I have written about language and communication in previous posts on this blog, mainly because they interest me and because a good portion of my professional life has focused on these topics. The most popular blog post I have published to date is the “Southern Word of the Day” (there are five installments so far), which is a rip-off of Jeff Foxworthy’s hilarious observation of the thick southern accent. I have also taken a more serious approach of examining how sophisticated written language sets humans apart as a species in a post titled “What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage.”

We all know that language is sometimes inadequate in expressing thoughts and emotions, illustrated in the common expression that words fail us. At times, this shortcoming is terribly frustrating and even heartbreaking. We are also aware that our brains, along with the mouths and ears they control, are occasionally responsible for epic blunders that can lead to hurt feelings or even catastrophe. Fortunately, most of these miscommunications just end up being incredibly funny, at least after some time has passed.


The worn-out party icebreaker game of Pass the Message or Chinese Whisper illustrates how anyone can mishear a statement and pass it down a line of listeners, ending up with an absurd distortion of the original message. I think there is a funnier, real-life example. With the advent of the Internet it happens less often now, but who hasn’t had the experience of singing a song for years only to discover that you’ve been singing the wrong words all along? Perhaps the most memorable one is the line from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song that most people from my generation misheard as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” My favorite personal experience goes back to my teenage years when my father was trying to acclimate himself to pop music. One day, out of the blue, he asked me, “Have you heard that song where they keep singing ‘shake your fool head?’” Of course, he had been listening to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.”

It’s fascinating to me that human beings are so impressionable when it comes to language, especially with accents. Someone who was raised in Minnesota can spend a few years in Alabama, and upon returning to his home state, he finds that his old friends are recognizing a southern twang in his voice. However, sometimes that effect can be more immediate – much more immediate in the case of my mother. She went to the emergency room one time complaining with pains in her upper abdomen. The doctor on duty that evening was most likely from India, and his distinct accent was characteristic for someone raised in the subcontinent. He asked her, “Where does it HUT?” Pointing to her lower chest, my sweet mother replied with no intention whatsoever of mocking her physician, “It HUTS right here.”

When thinking about strong accents, I am always reminded of the nasal magnolia brogue of the Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor. There are recordings of her reading from her own work and being interviewed on television, where we can hear her deep southern pronunciations in words like “wrytah” (writer) and “stawries” (stories). There is the now apocryphal though not unbelievable account of the occasion when O’Connor, as a student at the State University of Iowa, walked into the office of Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop. She introduced herself, but her strong accent forced Engle to ask her to repeat herself several times. In a state of exasperation, he finally told her to write down what she was saying so he could understand her. Supposedly, she wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist.” Apparently, this was her way of communicating to Engle her desire to give up pursuing a journalism degree and to be admitted into the Workshop.

Anecdotes of the breakdown of language are probably endless, but I will close these comical contemplations with one of my favorites of all time. Noisy conditions, bad phone connections, and poor hearing are just a few contributing factors to misunderstandings and even the dissemination of inaccurate information. However, sometimes communication is sabotaged by inexperience, carelessness, or downright stupidity. I won’t attempt to classify one of the best examples of being misunderstood that ever happened to me. I will leave that to the reader’s judgment. I was being interviewed over the phone once by a reporter from a local small-town newspaper. At the end of our conversation, the young woman asked me for my title, to which I replied, “I am the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” The story in the newspaper the following week identified me as “the executive decorator of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” Some of my friends thought I had gotten a promotion.

Housing Faith

My attitude toward organized religion has changed considerably over the last few decades, and my opinions are usually not so favorable. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I am more familiar with Protestantism as it is practiced by that denomination; however, I have studied other Christian traditions and the major world faiths. I disagree with the modern atheists who argue that religion is superfluous and will ultimately become obsolete. Religious practice dates back long before written history, and although it is waning in some parts of the western world, it is thriving in other areas. Many people obviously possess a need for belief in the metaphysical, whether it’s in the form of organized religion, personal faith, or spirituality. Perhaps religious practice is even an evolutionary trait in humans, an idea that has been explored by sociologists, religious scholars, and even some biologists.

I am now an Episcopalian, mainly because the Episcopal Church seems to be so inclusive and focuses energy on advancing causes of social justice and charity, especially for people we often identify with the margins of society. There are probably other inclusive faith traditions with similar characteristics, such as the Congregationalists, Unitarians, and others from outside the Christian world. Admittedly, the cultural, intellectual, and even social aspects of religion are more appealing to me than the supernatural. St. Paul wrote that these three remain: faith, hope, and love. I cling less to the first than the other two.

One common criticism I notice expressed against organized religion concerns the number of resources spent on designing, constructing, and maintaining houses of faith, such as cathedrals, mosques, temples, and tabernacles. I understand the issue and the disconnect between the message of charity and the often-obscene wealth exhibited in these magnificent structures. At the same time, I can also appreciate what these places of worship mean to parishioners. Beyond their religious significance, these architectural masterpieces also serve as cultural icons, fine art repositories, points of community or even national pride, tourist attractions, and centers of activity.

I am conflicted about the money spent on such palatial houses of faith when there is so much poverty, examples of which are often present right at the doorstep of the structures. Still, I find myself attracted to their beauty and will make every effort to visit them when we travel to places known for ecclesiastical architecture. They are just too amazing to miss. And as formidable as these edifices are, occasionally we are all reminded how easily they can be destroyed, such as the horrible fire that consumed Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019.

Here I have posted photographs of some of the most spectacular houses of worship we have visited during our travels. I look forward to seeing more.

Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame, Paris, France


Notre Dame, Paris, France
Notre Dame, Paris, France


Westminster Abbey, London, England
Westminster Abbey, London, England


St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy
St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy

Getting There Is Half the Fun: An Adventure Deep in the Ozarks

One of the more interesting responsibilities of my current job is participating in an oral history project exploring the history and culture of the Ozarks, a physiographic region of the country located in portions of southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and small portions of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. I have solicited interviews from several people so far including a retired NASA astronaut; a farmer who moonlights as a musician; a folklorist and musician; and most recently, a woman who is a visual artist, a writer, and a horticulturist growing ginseng in the hills of northwest Arkansas. Since this is a personal blog, I won’t reveal her identity but will call her Ms. Ozart for the sake of convenience.

Ms. Ozart had a career in environmental science, but she also pursued artistic endeavors from an early age. Now that she is no longer working away from home, she can focus most of her time and energy on what she loves most: growing native plants, gardening, painting, and writing. She was not raised in Arkansas but lives here now with her husband, a couple of horses, and a dog who at one time kept her chickens safe from predators. The dog is old, deaf, and retired. Ms. Ozart no longer has chickens.

It was her fascination with one specific plant that attracted Ms. Ozart to this part of the country. Ginseng is a perennial herb native to deciduous forests, especially in places like Appalachia and some parts of the Ozarks. It thrived in these locations and throughout many other areas of the country until it was grossly overharvested in the 1970s, mainly because of the purported medicinal benefits of the root. It is now considered an endangered species. The demand for the plant’s root has been high in China for centuries, and plants from the U.S. are still routinely shipped there. Ms. Ozart isn’t interested in harvesting the roots or selling them. It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for the root to develop to a marketable size. She is much more interested in propagating the plant and selling the seeds so other people can do the same.

At her invitation, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ms. Ozart at her beautiful property. Because ginseng is rather valuable, and poaching is a constant threat, she prefers to keep her exact location as private as possible. Respectfully, I have included no photographs of the area with this post. In our preliminary correspondence, Ms. Ozart asked me if I would prefer to meet her in the nearby town and have her drive me to her home. She told me if I had a nice car, I probably wouldn’t want to go far beyond the town. Images of being blindfolded in the trunk of a large sedan came to mind. She warned me that my phone’s GPS app may have trouble finding the address, especially if I happened to exit the program in route from the nearby town. Cell service doesn’t exist this deep in the Ozarks – no bars . . . nada. I am fortunate to have a Ford F-150 pickup, so I decided to take my chances and trust my phone to get me there.

I have spent most of my life in rural areas. The last town where we lived in the northeast Georgia mountains was in a county with several small towns and a total population of just over 40,000. It was a booming metropolis compared to where Ms. Ozart resides. The “little town” several miles north of her location where she offered to meet me consisted of a tiny square that was like an appendage off the side of the two-lane state road. There were about six buildings housing such enterprises as a bank, a café, a feed store, and an art gallery where some of Ms. Ozart’s work is on exhibit and for sale. I continued farther out into the countryside until my riding companion, Siri, instructed me to turn left onto a dirt and stone road – not gravel, large stones. Sometimes, the rocks were semi-submerged boulders. The shocks on my truck will no doubt need to be replaced soon.

Ms. Ozart had warned me that it would take about 15 minutes or more to travel from the paved road to the base of her driveway where she would meet me. When I looked at the map and discovered the distance was only a few miles, I thought she was exaggerating. She wasn’t. Had I attempted to ramp up my speed to over 20 mph, my truck and I would have been launched airborne into either a tree or flowing water, both of which were in abundance on either side of the wide path that was given the designation of the county name followed by a four-digit number. The transportation department didn’t even bother with naming it for a prominent family that had carved out a living here generations ago, which is a common practice for farm roads in Georgia. I crossed over the same river twice and a few tributaries on surprisingly sturdy concrete bridges that were more like large culverts. I was expecting rickety wooden structures, which of course would never be able to support farm equipment and heavy trucks that undoubtedly traverse this byway every day.

I was traveling through a rather mountainous terrain compared to much of the Ozarks, with high ridges rising from rolling valleys fully furnished with fence lines, crumbling rock walls from long-abandoned structures, small creeks and branches, clusters of trees and shrubs, rock outcroppings, and grazing cows — lots of cows. I am convinced the livestock in northwest Arkansas have social security numbers. Even in December with the predominant hardwood trees undressed for the approaching winter, it was like an opening scene from the Daniel Boone television program from the late 1960s. Aside from the occasional power lines, the countryside probably looks much as it did in frontier days.

Notwithstanding the absence of cell service, most of the folks living along this county road are not really off the grid. They have electricity, running water, propane gas, satellite television, perhaps even slow and spotty satellite Internet service, and other amenities that people enjoy in the most remote parts of the country. Although Ms. Ozart has dreams of someday being a true homesteader, she freely admits that most of her provisions these days come from Walmart and the occasional delivery truck whose drivers risk life and limb to reach her door.

When I arrived at the base of her driveway — the cross section of a creek, a road intersection, and a pasture gate — Ms. Ozart was waiting for me in her small, well-seasoned red pickup truck. “You might want to ride the rest of the way with me,” she said. “Your truck probably doesn’t have four-wheel drive, does it?” And here I was, thinking the wagon trail that had gotten me this far was hazardous. I transferred my recording equipment to her truck, and we headed up the ridge on a rutted, winding trail just wide enough for one vehicle.

We stopped after about 100 yards to look at one of the locations where ginseng is growing on a raised plateau just across the creek from the “driveway.” The plants are dormant this time of year, and the leaves are gone, but she wanted to show me the spot just the same. She gingerly scampered across several rocks to reach the other side, warning me to secure my footing on the slippery surfaces as I followed. I could just imagine conducting the interview in blue jeans soaked in icy creek water. Luck was on my side. I remained high and dry.

We safely made it back to her truck and continued our trek toward her house located about a half mile up the hill. We were no longer crossing creeks and branches. We were going through them. She was describing the habitat for ginseng and its companion plants while showing me the more interesting features of her property, including lovely cascading waterfalls and massive rock outcroppings in tall ravines. At one point she stopped the truck to point out another hillside where she had discovered ginseng growing wild. I admit it was difficult for me to concentrate as I was keenly aware that she had parked the truck directly in the middle of a flowing creek. I kept waiting for the sensation of sinking and drifting as we sat there, but after she finished her story, she simply engaged the four-wheel drive and slowly maneuvered forward out of the water. I was thankful for her truck. I was more thankful I wasn’t driving.

We arrived at Ms. Ozart’s house and set up at her kitchen table for the interview. The room was comfortably warm with the help of a gas space heater. She had chili bubbling in a slow cooker that filled the house with a mouthwatering aroma. She put on a pot of coffee, graciously served me a cup, and sat across the table from me and my video camera for a 45-minute conversation that was fascinating and entertaining. She pulled out of her refrigerator seedlings of ginseng and other native herbs she overwinters packed in moss in plastic storage bags. She demonstrated how she makes pigments for paint by grinding rocks from the local creeks into powders of various hues and textures and mixing them with oil, honey, and other suspending agents.  She talked about how the Ozarks region is an inspiration for her writing and her visual art. She and her husband have built a rich life in this isolated slice of wilderness, which I find quite remarkable and admirable.

After we finished and I packed my equipment in her pickup, she drove me back to my truck. “Do you really get supplies delivered to you out here?” I asked as we bumped our way down the hill. “Oh sure,” she said. “Lowes delivered my washer and dryer too.” Admittedly, I was a bit surprised by this news, given how narrow and rugged her driveway is. When we reached a sharp curve where the creek widens next to the road, she pointed toward the stream and said, “I came down early one morning and found a FedEx truck tilted sideways and halfway in the creek right there. The driver had made a delivery to my house the night before, and lost control going back down on this turn. He showed up later that morning with a wrecker. It took the better part of the day for them to get his truck out of the creek, but they did it.”

When we reached my truck, I thanked her for her hospitality and told her how grateful I was that she drove the last leg up to her house. She chuckled a bit and said, “I thought that would work best.” I watched her from my rearview mirror retrieve the mail from her mailbox at the driveway entrance and then climb back in her truck to head home again. Somehow the rocky road leading back to the state highway didn’t seem quite as treacherous this time. The cows appeared just as disinterested as they had earlier. I recognized a few landmarks that I had remembered to look for on the way back to make sure that I wasn’t lost. I allowed myself to look around and soak up the pastoral vistas along the way, but I slowed down considerably and took great care crossing the bridges.

Mal de Débarquement Syndrome

When my sons were in elementary and middle school, their mother and I took them on a Disney cruise, along with a group of other families we were close to from our church. We set sail from a port on the east coast of Florida, spent several days out in the Caribbean, made a few land calls, then returned to shore and headed back home. I resisted taking any seasickness medication when we boarded, thinking I could get adjusted to being on the ship; however, after 24 hours I caved and wore a patch that most everyone else was using to absorb medication into my system. This was our first cruise, and for me, the last. For about 2-3 weeks following our wonderful vacation at sea, I had a terrible time getting back my “land legs,” a phrase that refers to the ability to adjust one’s sense of balance and motion to walking on land after a sea journey or flight.

It was hard to describe the sensation when I finally went to my family doctor seeking a remedy. My symptoms didn’t match those described by people suffering with vertigo, a horrible sense of spinning that my poor mother suffered with for years before her death, resulting in some pretty serious falls and injuries. I never felt as if I might fall, nor was I dealing with nausea. It was more like a subtle but constant feeling in my head that I was gently rocking forward and backward, up and down, simultaneously – almost matching the feeling I have always had when riding in a speedy elevator. The side effects included a dull headache and difficulty concentrating, especially while staring at a computer monitor for hours at a time, which my job often required. Oddly enough, the sensations abated and even temporarily vanished while I was driving or riding in a car.

My doctor told me the symptoms would likely fade away soon, but he prescribed medicine to combat the dizziness. Under certain conditions, I can get drowsy taking ibuprofen. Give me an antihistamine, decongestant, cough syrup, or muscle relaxer, and I will almost be comatose within the hour. I could not function during the day while taking the medicine my doctor prescribed, and I didn’t have any problem sleeping at night. So, I pushed through until, slowly and gradually, the symptoms finally disappeared. No one on that cruise got a better value than I did – they were at sea for four nights. I was on that damned boat for over three weeks!

As a result of my unpleasant experience, I decided to forgo cruises in the future and stick with other modes of transportation – cars, trains, and planes. In 2009, I was invited to give a presentation on Flannery O’Connor at a conference in Rome, Italy. My wife and I had been married one year and were lucky enough to spend our first anniversary in the Eternal City. (After all, they said “Take her some place nice.”) I expected to deal with jetlag, given the six-hour difference in time zones between our home in Georgia and Italy. However, my jetlag soon morphed into the post-cruise symptoms I remember all too well from the Disney excursion. Not good news.

Since 2009, I have dealt with this issue multiple times after flying, but not on every occasion and not with the same severity. For instance, I had a miserable few days after landing in Salt Lake City in the summer of 2015, but I had little or no problems following our flight to and from Paris in 2016. Late in 2015 I began taking a regimen of Dramamine, beginning three nights before my flight and continuing until three nights after my return home. I combined the medicine with the use of rubber ear plugs designed to reduce pressure changes at high altitudes. This approach seemed to work for a while, but then a few times it didn’t. In a state of increased desperation, I did what all savvy Americans do when faced with a medical challenge. I consulted my close friend and physician, Dr. Google. Through considerable determination and more-than-usual side paths, my Internet searches ultimately led me to a malady that I had never of before.

Most websites and articles I uncovered in 2015 were describing something labeled Disembarkment Syndrome, although it is now most often identified by the French term, Mal de Débarquement Syndrome, translated “illness of disembarkation.” Fortunately, my research led me to an occupational therapist named Gaye Cronin working out of an ear clinic in Atlanta less than two hours from our home in north Georgia. She had considerable experience in vestibular physical therapy and was familiar with cases of Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. She ran me through a battery of tests, checking my eyes, ears, balance, and coordination. In addition to a prescription for meds to take before and after flying, she also gave me a series exercises designed to train my eyes and ears to adjust to the conditions of flying.

I can’t say that Cronin’s solution has eliminated my symptoms every time I fly, but the situation has improved considerably. I am also more aware of what will trigger problems, such as reading or looking at mobile devices or getting up and walking around during flight. My best chance of avoiding the syndrome’s ill effects is to stay as still as possible during flight with my head facing straight. As annoying as this problem is, it hasn’t ever reached the point where I am unwilling to fly, especially considering that I only do so a few times a year. I probably couldn’t accept a job that required me to fly regularly, but my wife and I like to travel domestically and internationally. I am willing to endure the occasional week or two of post-travel discomfort in order to keep traveling.

I am quite fortunate in that my discomfort always abates after one or two weeks. Sadly, there are people whose symptoms stay with them for weeks, months, and even years. As of now, there is no known cure for this malady; however, there is ongoing research and plenty of information available about Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. I am pleased that there is a Foundation that promotes international awareness of and research on the syndrome. I encourage anyone who suffers from this problem to check out their website.


Riding the Rails Through the Rockies

I visited Colorado for the first time this summer in 2019. Although my wife has made numerous trips to Colorado, the state has been on my wish list for many years. I particularly wanted to see the Colorado Rocky Mountains, so we flew into Denver, rented a car, and drove southwest to the ski resort town of Breckenridge where we enjoyed several days of relaxing, shopping, eating great food, and taking a few sight-seeing side trips. Fortunately, my wife planned for us to take an out-and-back train excursion that runs from Leadville, Colorado, up the side of the nearby ridge.

Train station at Leadville, Colorado
Train station at Leadville, Colorado

The Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad climbs roughly 700 feet as it winds its way through the trees of the San Isabel National Forest and over steep ravines pointing toward Freemont Pass until it reaches an old water tank that was used by the historic mining trains many years ago. Then the train heads back down the track and ends up back where it started at the depot 2.5 hours later. The views of the Arkansas River are incredible from the train’s vantage point 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The conductor on our trip was fantastic, providing us with entertaining stories, facts, and figures on the way up the ridge, then letting us enjoy the ride back without commentary – only the magnificent vistas.

French Gulch Water Tank – end of the line at elevation of 10,840 feet
French Gulch Water Tank – end of the line at elevation of 10,840 feet

At an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States. It still has the feel of a frontier mining town, with saloons that attracted legendary wild west characters like Doc Holliday and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Several of the highest peaks in Colorado, exceeding 14,000 feet, are visible from the small town and during the course of the train ride. There are many ways to experience the beauty of the Rockies: driving, biking, hiking, climbing, and more. I highly recommend the novel approach afforded by the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad.

Amazing views from the Leadville train excursion
Amazing views from the Leadville train excursion

Missouri Botanical Garden

I am a big fan of public gardens and visit them as often as possible, especially when traveling to new places. With the move to Missouri in 2018, my wife and I have taken opportunities as often as possible to explore some of the wonderful resources the state has to offer. One of the most remarkable places I have seen so far is the Missouri Botanical Garden just outside St. Louis. Founded in 1859, the 79-acre facility is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and is now a National Historic Landmark.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

According to the Garden’s website, “more than 4,800 trees live on the grounds, including some unusual varieties and a few stately specimens dating back to the 19th century, when founder Henry Shaw planted them.” The Garden also features the nation’s most comprehensive resource center for gardening information, including 23 residential-scale demonstration gardens. There are various themed gardens throughout the site: Chinese, English, Woodland, Ottoman, and Victorian. There is a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, one of the largest in the country.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

A notable feature of the Garden is the conservatory with a lush, vibrant tropical rainforest complete with waterfalls, tanks of fish, and a walkway winding through incredible exotic plants. I will most likely never visit South America or any other part of the world where I would see a tropical rainforest, so I am always grateful for the privilege of even seeing one in miniature. The one at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the best I have seen so far.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden

There are so many elements of the Garden that make it a destination. The trails are carefully constructed to take advantage of the landscape and lead visitors to one breathtaking vista after another. The plants are grouped and positioned throughout the property to appear as if they evolved there naturally. There are tree-covered byways with every shade of green imaginable; sunny sections with an explosion of color during the blooming season, including a rose garden; and terraces with mixes of perennials and annuals. There are natural lakes, running streams, and constructed water features.  I was also fascinated with how well the flora is enhanced by statuary, glasswork, and structures.

St. Louis has so many attractions: Gateway Arch, Busch Stadium, a first-class art museum, and a zoo for starters. The Missouri Botanical Garden is every bit as impressive as any of these places. It is undoubtedly a point of pride for the city and for the whole state. I look forward to returning every season of the year to see what surprises the Garden has in store.

Missouri Botanical Garden
Missouri Botanical Garden