Archive for May, 2011


not dead yet

When I was a kid, I never thought I’d live to see this day. Hell, six years ago I was sure I never would. But here I am, alive and kicking, and not feeling old at all.

I’m sixty-three today—officially at 9:20 p.m. tonight—but I’m taking the whole day off. Never did like to work on my birthday.

As a run-up to this milestone I’ve been watching a lot of old TV shows lately—George Burns and Gracie Allen, Winky Dink and You, The Kate Smith Show, Ding Dong School, Queen for a Day, My Little Margie, Jack Benny, What’s My Line, Dobie Gillis, Ozzie and Harriet, December Bride, I Love Lucy, Sergeant Bilko, The Honeymooners, I’ve Got A Secret, Wild Bill Hickock, Spin and Marty, Sky King, The Cisco Kid, The Little Rascals… lots of others, too.

It’s surprising how quickly old memories come back with just the least encouragement. It’s all still there: the smell of my mother’s perfume, the taste of Blackjack Gum, the sound of my great grandmother’s voice, the feel of grass under bare feet, the fun of playing with my best friends’ toys. Seems like only last week, the memories are so fresh.

Here’s the great thing, though. I have no desire to go back because my life right now is in so many ways the best it’s ever been. When I was younger, life seemed to be a mainly unpleasant grind punctuated by happy moments; now it is exactly the opposite. Now there are long sustained periods of happiness punctuated by only a very few challenging moments.

The biggest difference between past and present is that I have grown up and learned to be free. I desire only those things I’m likely to receive, and I am satisfied with what I already have—even if it isn’t much by some folks’ lights. I am surrounded by sublime beauty every minute of each day. My life is chock full of people I love and who love me. I do what I want when I want and am prepared to make whatever effort’s necessary whenever required. I’ve attained a simple existence that I can best describe as being in harmony with the life and energy around me, a heaven on earth.

I am not bragging, mind you. I’m thankful to have discovered that the Universe is a bountiful thing if you only desire what is already within your grasp and you’re prepared to share and give away what it has already bestowed. Then one is ready to receive its greatest gifts when they may come.

I’m thankful to be an “old guy” and not dead yet, thankful to still feel young and alive to the possibilities for renewal in each and every new day, to know that the stars are already in the palms of our hands.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Donald Fagan performing “New Frontier”



Over the last few days I have been seeing a small red single-engine plane flying over the property several times a day. I suspect the pilot has been hired by the county to look for early signs of brushfires—a good purpose admittedly—and yet I resent being submitted to any government’s literal oversight.

I will confess that I have had thoughts of shooting at the aerial intruder, but this would draw unwanted official attention and interference—if the pilot even knew he was being fired at. To get his attention you’d have to actually hit the plane, and that seems a bit over-the-top.

A better way to warn him off might be fireworks—you know, those loud ones they always use at the beginning of a display to get your attention (the ones that leave blossoms of black smoke reminiscent of flak bursts in the path of a B-17). But that would probably, no certainly, start a war with all levels of government. Fireworks fired at aircraft undoubtedly violates not only the county’s burn ban, but federal aviation rules and laws… and I don’t have any fireworks here, anyway.

But it is a delicious thought.

So instead I have taken to stepping outside and flipping the guy the bird. I still have my first amendment rights… I think… for the time being, anyway.

Yesterday when I was in town I visited with a man who had just been busted for welding without a permit. The guy in the red plane called in the deputies, and three of them showed up in two vehicles. They didn’t exactly arrive with guns drawn, but they did slap the welder with a ticket carrying a $500 fine for violating the county’s burn-ban rules. “When they shut down my job site, they’re interfering with my livelihood and my family’s welfare,” he said.

Yeah, tell me about it. Jerry and Eva are still shut down, with costly requirements demanded by inspectors increasing every week. Putting small business people out of business is a stupid way for government to be behaving at a time when economic recovery is needed, and it makes no logical sense until you understand the behavior as government putting the squeeze on citizens in ways that will generate fines and fees to justify the salaries of inspectors, clerks, cops, and other public employees.

One of these days a squeezee (who’s less restrained than I) will take a shot at some government meddler, and maybe even take him out. There will be a predictable blur of television stories showing the grieving widow and kids, bagpipers, and long columns of police cars, lights flashing, assembled from far and wide.

Yet there will be widespread silent delight among viewers who approve of there being one less “public servant” fattening himself at the trough. I have heard a couple people joking about how a group burial of inspectors may be the best solution to the Grub Shack closure.

So who knows? Maybe one of those news stories could originate here—but probably not. There is a lot of anger out there everywhere about parasitical government. So the appearance of at least one such story is inevitable.

But I will restrain myself to flipping that pilot the bird. He’ll probably not notice the gesture but it will make me feel a little better.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Mildred Bailey performing “Don’t Fence Me In”



I woke up this morning in a foul mood. The words of Gretl Plessinger, a Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson, were running through my head: “We did a violation of probation and it will be up to the courts now to decide what happens to Offender King.”

“Offender” King?!

I have been offended by the actions of the Florida Department of Probation (a division of FDOC) ever since February when I spoke to Melissa Cornelius, Alex’s probation officer, who informed me that her supervisor directed that the question of whether Alex had actually violated the terms of his probation would be deferred to the courts rather than her department more rightly and responsibly exercising judgment about whether Alex had actually done anything wrong—or at least something wrong enough to justify what has already resulted in three months of cruel incarceration and derailed his education.

Yesterday Alex told me he is fighting depression and is not getting adequate help from his captors. This is par for the course. In my opinion, the State of Florida has compounded Alex’s misery from the day he was taken into custody as a 12-year-old by callously and continuously inflicting trauma on him which has had—and will continue to have—lifelong effects on his wellbeing.

Alex fled the scene of a fender-bender because in the moments following the accident he did not have the capacity to think about it as any normal person might have. Flight was an involuntary response resulting from nine years of inhumane treatment by the state through Alex’s most formative years. I have visited both of the facilities in Okeechobee where Alex was held, and I know firsthand what awful places they are. I cannot blame Alex for wanting to escape, and I am horrified that the state continues to inflict harm on Alex now, more than six years later, for having spent a night in a classroom rather than in his cell. Florida justice lacks any sense of proportion, understanding, or compassion.

In fleeing, Alex mindlessly did what he was conditioned to do—but of course, the state holds itself blameless for its role in this situation and is proving itself eager to exploit circumstances to continue Alex’s victimization which began, mind you, when a 40-year-old pedophile conceived the murder of Alex’s father and manipulated two troubled and confused boys into commission of the act.

This offensive and perpetual cycle of state-sponsored abuse must be brought to an end. Alex must be allowed to get on with his life and to salvage from it what happiness he can.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Nine Inch Nails performing “Hurt”


back to school

Today I visited three fifth grade classes in San Antonio (by phone) to answer students’ questions about Paul Henry, and learned a good deal in the process.

Their teacher Jamie Hansen contacted the Paul Henry Gingerich Trust last week to tell us that he and his kids had discovered Paul Henry’s website and were engrossed by Paul Henry’s plight. They wanted to know more and I was happy to oblige. I think it is important for kids to understand their world as it truly is, rather than the confection of myths the system serves up.

“I realize that my students are young and also are not able to understand the complete case, but they do know what’s fair and what’s not fair,” Jamie wrote to me afterwards. “We all feel the unfair setting that Paul is going through.”

“This whole story helps my students in other ways to understand: Bullies; Who to run to for help (someone they trust); Caring people are still out there; Make sure your parents are present when police ask you questions; Do your best to make sure that you are not in a situation where you will get in trouble for your friends’ actions; Don’t always trust the media—there is always more to the story,” Jamie said.

For my part, I was surprised by the number of questions that presupposed self-defense is a bigger part of the story than I had assumed. These fifth-graders put themselves in Paul Henry’s place and obviously felt threatened by Danner’s aggression. As an adult, I had not given this enough weight in my own thinking.

Today’s experience with the kids was like running a focus group and gave me a glimpse of what would happen if Paul Henry were judged by a jury of his peers.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Catfish Keith performing “Sign of Judgment”


you’re it, too

If almost anyone else had said such a thing, I would have been pissed off.

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Jeanne said, “Tag, you’re it!” meaning that is up to me to walk in St. Damien’s shoes.

If anyone but Jeanne had said it, I would have answered, “Thanks a lot, that’s easy enough for you to say. But I can’t do this alone.”

Yet Jeanne has been there for Jordan almost from day one—at any rate, she was helping Jordan before I ever did… sending him books and magazines, games and toys, and all kinds of small things not just once but repeatedly. She remembers Jordan on his birthday, at Christmas… all the time.

If anyone but Jeanne said “Tag, you’re it,” I would have asked, “Well, why don’t you get off your ass and do something, too?”

But I have learned from Jeanne’s example. She has been an inspiration to me. She is someone I try to keep up with in terms of compassion and generosity. She is also the first in what I hope will become an army of saints who will embrace and support these outcast young people who have so gotten under my skin.

After Matt read yesterday’s post, he too left a comment and made contributions to Jordan’s and Paul Henry’s trust funds. He takes time from his own family life and writes letters of encouragement to Jordan, Paul Henry, and Alex. Matt is walking in St. Damien’s shoes. He is part of our small band that I know will one day swell into a multitude of saints.

It has often been commented that Damien is a particularly accessible example for modern people to emulate. During his homily at Damien’s 1995 beatification, Pope John Paul II said that “holiness is not perfection according to human criteria; it is not reserved for a small number of exceptional persons. It is for everyone; it is the Lord who brings us to holiness when we are willing to collaborate in the salvation of the world.”

Tag. You’re It, too!


Groove of the Day

Listen to Chicago performing “You’re the Inspiration”



Yesterday—Friday the 13th—I received some disappointing news from my friend Mary Ellen at the Pendulum Foundation: the man who had promised to back the development of our parricide initiative backed out. There was no explanation—only a short, cryptic message: “Maybe later.”

Probably not.

After the fact I learned that he had done this once before. I never had any contact with this guy and I know next to nothing about him. But what I do know is that it would be foolish for us to rely on his commitments or to invest any special effort in seeking his help in the future.

We need to build a base of support that will not abandon the kids we serve. These kids are among the most vulnerable and fragile people in our society. They have typically been failed by everyone in their lives that most of us take for granted as the bedrock of our existences. When we get involved in the lives of these kids, we cannot let them down—ever.

As Mary Ellen and I were debriefing about this disappointment, I repeated a cautionary warning a knowledgeable friend had shared with me: that nobody (save adult prisoners) is lower on the food chain for charitable contributions than kids in prison. They have the same status in society that lepers suffered for thousands of years before curative drugs were discovered just sixty years ago… feared, reviled, untouched, unloved, abused, victimized, banished, forgotten… even by their own families.

Kids in prison—parricides especially—are treated by society as the lowest of outcasts and, as such, they occupy a special place in my affection. As I think of the times in my own life when I have felt the most alienated, sad, unloved and hopeless and imagine a whole lifetime of such feelings, this helps me to approximate what it must be like to be such a wretched and unhappy child.

If no one else will come to the aid of such children, we will do so if only to assert that, contrary to anything else they may have experienced, they are God’s favorites.

This morning I needed a little inspiration, so I researched the life of a 19th century priest named Jozeph De Veuster who is more widely known and venerated as Father Damien or St. Damien of Molokai.

Born in 1840 in Tremelo Belgium, Damien became a priest in 1864 and won recognition for his ministry to people with leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease), who had been placed under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokai in the Kingdom of Hawaii. After sixteen years caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, he eventually contracted and died of the disease in 1889 at the age of 49.

Damien is widely considered a “martyr of charity” and is the patron saint of lepers and outcasts.

Mahatma Gandhi claimed Damien to have been an inspiration for his social campaigns in India that led to the freedom of his people and secured aid for those that needed it. “The political and journalistic world can boast of very few heroes who compare with Father Damien of Molokai,” Gandhi said.

King David Kalākaua bestowed on Damien the honor Knight Commander of the Royal Order of Kalākaua. When Princess Lydia Lili’uokalani visited the settlement to present the medal, she was too distraught and heartbroken by the privations suffered by Damien and his flock to read her speech. The princess shared her experience with the world and publicly acclaimed Damien’s efforts. She never gave up supporting the outcasts on Molokai. Consequently, American Protestants raised large sums of money for the missionary. The Church of England sent food, medicine, clothing, and supplies. Yet Damien never wore the medal the princess gave him.

When Damien was born, few people in Europe had any firsthand knowledge of leprosy. By the time he died forty-nine years later, people all over the world knew about this disease because of him. Through his works they learned that human compassion could soften the ravages of the disease.

Compassion will soften the ravages of children’s broken lives, too, and will liberate them from their anguish.


Groove of the Day

Listen to The Righteous Brothers performing “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration”


smoke haze

The wind is blowing from the northeast and I cannot see the mountains to the east, there is so much smoke in the air from wildfires.

Two fires are burning about 90 miles from here near Marathon. The fire you see to the left is the “Iron Mountain Fire”; some friends may recall that I lived on Iron Mountain Road when I lived there.

I spoke briefly this morning with our County Judge Val Beard, and she told me the Marathon fires have already burned more than a thousand acres.

Last night the Iron Mountain Fire was 50% contained, but there have been strong winds today which is bad news for firefighters. Highways around Marathon are closed because the smoke has reduced road visibility so much.

The smoke haze here is beginning to dissipate in the wind. It makes me a little more confident we may avoid trouble down here—for now. Hopefully the rains will come soon and dampen the tinderbox that is West Texas.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Jo Stafford performing “Smoke Dreams”


here today

I’m back home at my desk after a day away. Yesterday I accompanied my friend Michael to the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Big Spring, a five hours’ drive from Terlingua. He needed to go there for a couple hours of tests.

Michael’s partner Lynn had to work yesterday, and she did not want Michael to make the long roundtrip alone. Even though my services as a relief driver were not needed, I have the impression that my services as a listener were. Michael had a lot on his mind and we ended the day knowing one another much better than we did at the beginning of the day.

Michael is living out a life that I missed almost fifty years ago when I avoided military service during the Viet Nam War. He suffers extreme pain every day and night from his wartime injuries and is experiencing serious degenerative physical effects from them, as well. Four or five decades ago, Michael and I may have been on opposite sides of a huge rift in our society; today we find ourselves on the same side of the gulf which separates our little society out here from the big bad world out there. He’s one of the people I most love and admire out here,  one of my heroes.

“Do you think we would have been friends back then had our paths ever crossed?” I asked.

“I don’t think you would even have noticed me back then,” he said. “I was a pretty shy and retiring kid who always stayed in the background.”

I smiled as I recalled that Michael was a sniper in the Marines. In the background yes, but always assertive. Not a man to be ignored.

I like to think we both would have found ourselves talking in a quiet corner of a crowded party back then… but probably not. Michael and I lived very different lives. It’s unlikely we would ever have been invited to the same parties or even showed up at the same concerts. When Michael was getting shot at in Viet Nam, I was attending a May Day demonstration on the Mall in DC.

We needed the Big Bend to bring us together.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Paul McCartney performing a song he wrote as a tribute to John Lennon, “Here Today”


day saved

The day yesterday started off badly.

I received a call informing me that certain people engaged in our youth advocacy work have been discovered to have been doing so under false identities, and that at least one of them had apparently been doing so with the purpose of disrupting the work.

I got another report of more official weirdness in connection with the handling of James Prindle’s case in Memphis which suggests once again that something nefarious is afoot there.

I received an e-mail from a man in Pennsylvania who persists in sending hate messages to the Jordan Brown website and is now threatening me.

And  at the same time I was dealing with a commenter who seemed to me to be trying to divert attention from the fact that our government is conducting a “war on drugs” and all the while secretly dealing and profiting from the very same drugs the “war” is supposedly against.

The confluence of all this in just one morning was a little overwhelming. It got me to thinking that the evil in this world is apparently greater and more pervasive than I’d previously believed. I’ve tended towards cynical views of human nature and reality, but this morning I had begun wondering if I actually haven’t been naïve all along.

Try as I might I couldn’t shake off the pall. I called a friend and discussed a plan for responding to hateful e-mails (the number of which I expect to increase as the youth work continues). That didn’t help.

Alex called and we settled on a plan for today’s plea hearing on the traffic charges. That made me feel better, but it didn’t dissipate my dismay at his relentless and unforgiving persecution by the state of Florida, which in my view is unmitigated evil.

I had a productive day working on a development plan for our parricide initiative, but even that didn’t put my mood right. So I finally dealt with my sense of discouragement by simply pulling back and taking a nap.

Shortly after I woke up I received a call from Alex’s public defender, and I liked the guy. He sounded personable, interested, and smart. He told me about a plan he and Alex had discussed involving the payment of about $480 in damages to the other driver which, in combination with a couple procedural things, he hopes will minimize the danger of the traffic infractions being used against Alex in his upcoming probation violation hearing. This sounded very good to me and put me in a better frame of mind. None of the private attorneys I’d talked to had suggested this approach. As I said, I liked this guy a lot.

Yet even so, it was not until the end of the day that my discouragement was finally exorcised, and I’ll tell you how it happened… the heavy sense of evil that had been burdening my day was finally dissipated by a small kindness by a stranger. Otto and I drove down to the lodge to do a load of laundry, and I stopped after hours at the restaurant there to buy an iced tea.

“Our till is closed,” the woman said as she handed me the cup, “but you can stop back another day to pay for it.”

It was just a dollar and a quarter—a small sum. She didn’t know me. But she trusted me. She was nice.

It made the grimness of the day go away and restored my hope for the world.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Jackie DeShannon performing “What the World Needs Now”


the switch

I have a good friend who has lately been refusing my invitations to come over for a visit. He says he is experiencing dark moods and keeps telling me he would not be “good company.”

He is an introvert and says he prefers to be alone, and I respect his wishes. Yet I do keep inviting him over because I want to keep reminding him that he is valued and loved by others, no matter what he may think about his desirability as a social companion. So we chat by e-mail, and as long as the conversation continues, I don’t worry about him.

The other day I told him that he reminds me of the way I once was a long time ago: a man who loves his misery. I speculated that he may be so habituated to depression that he might be holding onto it like a security blanket… if the pain were to stop, he might ask, would he feel anything at all?

I suspect he fears an empty void and the prospect of annihilation.

I know from my own experience that, were the “security blanket” pulled away, he would see its darkness had been suffocating a small spark of light all along, and that this spark would grow into a flame if he would only allow it the breath of life.

I’ll leave it to you to surmise what that spark actually is, but I do believe that brain chemistry is a reflection of one’s spiritual health.

Those who would seek to exploit his depression would tell him his feelings are the result of a chemical imbalance that could be set right by taking pills for the rest of his life. They would take his money and tether him to drugs that would further muffle and obscure that spark and numb him to its possibility.

The idea of a “chemical imbalance” being the cause of depression is a lie, but not because the liars cannot actually measure such imbalances and offer scientific proof of them. Imbedded in the lie is the simple truth that the human body manufactures the chemical mix according to specifications which we ourselves choose. The chemical imbalance is not a cause but an effect of a deeper thing which reduces down to being a simple matter of choice and free will.

This choice is a simple binary switch that can be flipped for instantaneous change. I vividly remember the “light switch” moment in my own life. Nine years ago Otto and I had just arrived from Minnesota in Marathon, and had parked the roadster in front of the post office. That was the moment I flipped the switch.

Before this point I had been clinically depressed and suicidal. After it I was happy. I was surprised by how simple and easy it was and is to change.

I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I’d lived through so many years of pain before discovering this simplistic truth. Why had I made such a big obstacle of it? Why had I squandered so many opportunities for happiness over such a very long time?


But I got over this in a hurry and began exploiting that moment of insight as a portal to a spiritual adventure which now consumes my waking and dreaming life. I will talk more about this another day.

For now, however, my focus is on my friend who does not believe that such a switch even exists. He does not see it, nor that his fingers are already touching it.

His predicament reminds me of a story by C.S. Lewis that I have mentioned before: The Great Divorce (1945). The Great Divorce is the story, told in the first person, of an English professor who inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city (the “grey town”, which is either Hell or Purgatory, depending on how long one stays there).

The narrator eventually finds himself waiting at an excursion bus stop on a rainy evening. He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. To his surprise, the bus travels straight up, and he soon discovers that the bus is en route to Heaven.

He surmises that his fellow passengers—who are perhaps a bit impatient and pushy, but otherwise average folks—are inhabitants of Hell. (He subsequently learns that those in Hell are able to visit the outer reaches of Heaven—the “foothills of Heaven”—and may stay in this high country if they choose.)

When the bus reaches its destination, it’s surrounded by the most beautiful country they’ve ever seen and where the “people” on the bus—including the narrator—are gradually revealed to be ghosts. We witness their surprise and dismay that every feature of the landscape (streams of water, blades of grass, etc.) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves. The ghosts experience piercing pain when they walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift.

Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on earth, come to meet the ghosts and to urge them remain there and enter the higher realms of Heaven. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become more solid and thus feel no more discomfort. These figures (called “spirits” to distinguish them from the ghosts) offer to assist the ghosts in the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise.

The interesting thing is that very few ghosts decide to remain in Heaven.  Almost all of them choose instead to return to the grey town. They give various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of Lewis’ story lies for me in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of all the excuses the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though doing so would bring them “joy forevermore.”

This reminds me of the way my friend is clinging to his pain.

The parallel between his situation and the experience of the souls in the foothills resonates with my belief in reincarnation, that we experience Heaven or Hell in this life and not a “hereafter.” Lewis’ story tells that choosing the goodness of Heaven would have worked backwards into the souls’ lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experience on earth to an extension of Heaven. Conversely, for the ghosts who return to the grey town, even the happiness they experienced on earth would lose its meaning, and their earthly experience would have been Hell.

None of the ghosts realizes that the grey town is Hell. For them life in the grey town is not that much different from the life they led on earth: joyless, friendless, and uncomfortable. Life in the grey town just goes on forever.

Their eyes are as blind to this recognition as their fingers are numb to the switch.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Sandra McCracken performing “The High Countries”