The Blivet Bag Life

I guess I’m lucky. I’ve never seen the mythical blivet bag. I’ve heard about blivet bags all my life, but never have I encountered one in person. I googled for an image of a blivet bag so I could show you what one looks like, as well as find out for myself. But even Google fails to come up with any convincing likeness.

A blivet bag, as you may know, is ten pounds of shit stuffed into a five pound bag. You’d think Google would have plenty of pictures of that. But nope.

I got to thinking though that blivet bags are actually pretty common. Just not in the form of bags. Rather, they occur in the form of our lives. Imagine we have five pound lives and imagine that we sometimes try to stuff ten pounds of living into our five pound lives. That’s when we turn ourselves into blivet bags.

We sometimes try to live more life than we’re capable of living. We overwhelm ourselves with things to do. And then all kinds of bad things happen.

We get mad and lose our temper. Just like a blivet bag bursting apart. Or we get distracted and screw up. Just like an awkwardly heavy blivet bag, being fumbled and dropped. And we struggle to maintain control of our lives. Just like a blivet bag that constantly spills open, requiring continuous restuffing and packing.

It happened to my wife and me just recently. We discovered that we had termites. And the bugman convinced us that we would have to tent-fumigate our home. After we signed the contract we discovered all the things we had to do to prepare for the big tent.

All food and medicine had to be removed from the premises, or be double-bagged in the refrigerator. And arrangements had to be made to board our menagerie of dogs and cats. Which also meant we had to get them caught up on their shots and licenses.

And we learned that every drawer, cupboard, file cabinet, chest, trunk, safe, and any other enclosed piece of furniture or fixture had to be left unlocked and open.

A crew of strangers would enter our opened up house and do whatever the hell they wanted, while we would be shut out and unable to monitor their actions.

So to counter this security nightmare, we went through the entire house searching for and collecting any and all valuables, embarrassing stuff, and paperwork with social security numbers and other identifying or sensitive information. This was stored in a separate, locked building on our property, that wasn’t being fumigated.

This took a lot of time. Our blivet bag was running over. We were really stressing.

Finally we decided, to hell with it, and left town for a few days on a mini-vacation, while the house was filled with poisonous gas. We took our minds off of what was happening to our home sweet home. We did our best to empty our blivet bag and relax.

This house has turned into a blivet bag.

Thankfully the house was still standing when we returned. And after a few days we put everything back in its place, minus some junk we decided to jettison. The dogs and cats survived. The valuables are once again secured. And, knock on wood, the termites appear to be dead.

But most importantly, we successfully deflated our blivet bag lives.

Sometimes when my blivet bag life runneth over, I try something I call Slow-Down Meditation. In fact I tried it a few days before the tent went up. I forced myself to do everything very slowly. I could only keep this up for about an hour, but it had lasting effects. It relaxed me. It helped me be more reflective. And it inspired me to clear some of the clutter out of my life and simplify.

We don’t have to meditate. There are many other ways to deflate our shit-packed lives. But the first step is to learn how to recognize a blivet bag when we see one. Google won’t help, but honest self-reflection may reveal just how anxious and overwhelmed we feel. That’s our clue that our life may have turned into a blivet bag.

I advise that as soon as you recognize your blivet bag, take immediate steps to unpack it. Unless there’s a true emergency or crisis happening right now, you don’t need to be doing a million things at once. I advise that you unpack, deflate, and relax. Make your life a pleasure to live, rather than a nonstop race to an ever-receding finish.

I wish your life to always be full. But by that I mean, may it only be five pounds full. For that is the most enjoyable way to live a five pound life.

A Week of Recreational Trips

Last week I came upon a fork in the road. After pulling it out of my foot, I had to decide to go left and pursue a life of crime, or go right, and continue to be the upstanding, law-abiding citizen that I have been throughout much of my adult life.

I went left. And now I am a criminal. I have violated a federal law that is punishable by up to a year in jail and a thousand dollar fine, for the first offense.

You see, I decided to try marijuana. You know, ganja, grass, weed, hemp, airplane, dope, rope, Mary Jane, 420, broccoli, wacky tabacky . . . everybody is familiar with those terms, right? Even a guy like me who never used the stuff.

I was a marijuana virgin until a week ago. I don’t like to use mind-altering substances. And so I also don’t drink, having given that up about 25 years ago. I think it’s wise to stay clear-minded and sober. This makes it easier for me to beat my impoverished mother at penny-ante poker games.

But I’ve heard so much about the forbidden fruit of marijuana that my curiosity got the best of me, leading to the fork in the road. And the state of California has made it easy to go left and satisfy my curiosity. This year it became legal in our state to sell marijuana to recreational users.

And so, feeling recreational and curious, I headed down to the head shop to buy a baggie.

It’s still a federal offense, so I felt a little bit nervous about this whole process. Turns out I wasn’t the only one. Those who sell it are a bit nervous, too.

The head shop was a suite in a strip mall containing a few other businesses, including a tile and countertop shop. I nervously pulled at the door. But it was locked. Was this the right suite? Then I heard a click and it popped open. Someone from inside had remotely unlocked the door. I stepped into a small, cheaply decorated lobby with two couches. A security guard sat in a booth behind a bulletproof window.

He asked if this was my first time here. Oh god, would he find out I’m a marijuana virgin? How embarrassing. It would look so uncool for a guy as old as me to be a newcomer to grass. But how would he know I hadn’t used this substance before at some other place? So I casually put my hands in my pockets and dismissively remarked, “Yes.”

He asked, “Medical or recreational?”

“Recreational,” I replied, while trying to utter this polysyllabic word in the coolest way possible. I think it came off, “Rehhhhhcreationallll.”

He took my driver’s license and scanned it, for reasons I still haven’t figured out and was afraid to ask. He also had me fill out a form, where I gave my contact information.

Then he told me to wait.

About 10 minutes later my reverie on the couch was broken by a young lady who opened a door and called my name. This formality was just like seeing a doctor.

I followed her into a tiny room that contained marijuana product displayed in glass cases. She and I were the only ones in this tiny room, and it felt a little intimate and uncomfortable. I said nothing, but just stood there trying to look as cool as possible. Finally she asked if there was something she could help me with. I asked, “Do you sell edibles?”

She said, “Sure,” and began reciting a long rundown of all the edibles in stock. I can’t remember all the different names, but when she said, “Brownies,” it rang a bell. Only cool people consume marijuana-laced brownies. Or so I think I’ve heard.

I interrupted her with, “I’ll take the brownies.”

My baggie of brownies.

She removed a bag of brownies from a refrigerator behind the cash register. They were professionally packaged, with the brand name, “Kaneh Co.” She said they were $15.00, plus tax.

The tax was extraordinary. Tacked onto the sale was a $2.25 excise tax. Plus a $1.73 city tax. Plus a $1.76 sales tax. Although these figures add up to $20.74, the total on the receipt read $20.73. Don’t ask me what happened to the penny, but hey this was a marijuana outfit I was buying from.

I paid cash. I’ve heard they don’t accept credit cards or checks, due to federal laws, so I didn’t even offer to try those methods of payment.

I left the store a federal lawbreaker, in illegal possession of a Schedule I controlled substance. That’s right, marijuana is right there at the top of the list of drugs that our federal government fears the most. Schedule I drugs are considered by the FDA to have a high potential for abuse and/or physical dependence, with no currently acceptable medical use.

Hello, glaucoma? Hello, chemotherapy relief? Hello, are there any intelligent people working at the FDA?

Other Schedule I drugs besides marijuana are, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and Quaaludes. Schedule II drugs, considered less dangerous by the FDA, include cocaine and methamphetamine. Yep, the FDA considers cocaine and methamphetamine to be safer than Mary Jane.

On my way home I wasn’t worried about the dangers of marijuana. I was only worried about being stopped by the law. Yeah it’s legal in our state. But no, it’s not really legal, because of federal law. This is a gray area I felt anxious about. And wouldn’t you know, I passed three cops while driving the back roads home, and they all gave me long hard stares. Or so I imagined. And what gives? I hardly ever see cops on those roads. Or so I imagine.

But the most feared cop of all was at my destination. My wife. She hates any drugs, and has told me many times that she would never be married to someone who uses drugs. So I couldn’t let her know what I was doing. I had several half-baked plans swirling in my head on how to get my broccoli brownies past her nose and into a safe hiding spot.

Fortunately the DEA wasn’t home, so I easily smuggled the brownie bag in through the front door. Then I hid my stash beneath a sweater in a dresser drawer and waited.

Close to bedtime, when my wife wasn’t looking, I consumed my very first brownie and lost my marijuana virginity.

One of the brownies. Looks delicious, no?

Each brownie was about one-inch square, and according to the packaging, contained 10 mg of THC. THC is the active ingredient of cannabis, and it’s what makes you high. 10 mg of THC is 1/2800 of an ounce. It may not seem like much, because you need much more to get high if you’re smoking pot. But it’s a significant amount when it comes to edible marijuana. I’d learned from research I did beforehand that edibles have a much more potent effect than smokables.

There is no leaf marijuana in edible brownies. Instead the THC comes from an oil called concentrated cannabis, or cannabis extract. The state of California allows you to legally possess 28.5 grams (1 ounce) of leaf marijuana, but only 8 grams (~1/4 oz) of concentrated cannabis. I dug out my calculator, and it seems that with each brownie containing 10 mg of THC, and with 10 mg being 1/100th of a gram, you would have to be in possession of more than 800 brownies to violate California’s legal limit.

My baggie only contained 10 brownies, so I was very safely within the limit.

But healthwise, was I safe to eat even one of those ten brownies? I’ve read that some people have bad trips even with that small amount.

The brownie was sweet and toothsome. It was hard to hold back and not devour more. I truly believe that chocolate and sugar should be included in the list of Schedule I drugs. They are very addictive and very easy to abuse. And they cause cavities.

Nothing happened from this one brownie, at first. But within a half hour I began to perceive a very light, fuzzy feeling. I went to bed soon after, but did not fall asleep for an hour. Who says marijuana helps you to sleep? Nonsense.

About an hour after I finally dropped off to dreamland I awoke feeling even more light and fuzzy. I also felt a little dizzy and nauseous. And there were some small hallucinations going on. After drifting back to sleep I began getting brief, intermittent sensations that a pole made of pure crystal was running through my chest. It was a bit disconcerting, and would repeatedly startle me back awake for about half the night.

I felt glad I only ate one brownie.

The next evening I ate another brownie. The effect was far less pronounced than the night before. It made me feel a little light-headed and fuzzy, but that was the extent of this high. It seemed as if I had quickly developed a tolerance.

So the next evening, just after dinner, I consumed two brownies instead of one. I wanted to play around some more with feeling high.

I got my wish. It took a few hours, but suddenly the full effects of 20 mg of THC kicked in. I began feeling excited, and somewhat unfocused. This worsened, until I was having difficulty concentrating on reading and typing, and anything else. I felt a little dizzy, and staggered when I walked. I glanced in a mirror and noticed that my pupils were a little dilated.

After I went to bed, I awoke several times feeling dizzy. I also felt a scratchy throat. And before this I assumed the scratchy throat that potheads get was from smoking. Now I know better. THC makes your throat scratchy no matter how you ingest it.

I also experienced auditory hallucinations. These included the sound of muffled voices, and the sound of rapid, soft thumping in the distance. But the scariest hallucination was a very vivid splish-splash noise that coincided with my heartbeat. It was as if I could hear the actual sound of my blood striking my heart walls.

This was some trip, and I debated whether it would be safe to travel to this high height again.

I had six brownies left. I didn’t want the bland experience from just one brownie at a time, so I went for it. The next day I consumed two more brownies.

It seems my tolerance had not strengthened any further, because that evening’s high was just as powerful as the high of the night before, with hallucinations and everything.

For the next two nights I continued with two brownies per evening, as a postprandial indulgence, and continued to have strong highs.

But after that my baggie hidden under the sweater was completely empty. And then I had no more brownies, no more THC, and no more highs.

Now I faced the real test. Would I just have to have more cannabis? Would I miss the light fuzzy feeling, the wild hallucinations, the tripping high? Would I be in a hurry to rush back down to the head shop and purchase more brownies?

Or even worse, would this turn out to be a gateway drug, like so many anti-pot zealots have claimed? Would I want to start doing heroin now? Or LSD? Or Quaaludes? What kind of dissipated dope addict might I descend into?

The good news is, I’ve been drug-free for four days now, and have no craving to return to my debauched druggy lifestyle. My self-imposed rehab program is proving successful.

Heck, I’m just not interested in getting high from drugs. The high from marijuana feels unnatural and kind of unpleasant. I’ve experienced much more pleasant highs from doing more natural things. Things such as napping, meditating, and napping while meditating. I may be a nap addict, but I’m not yet a drug addict.

I doubt I’ll ever do marijuana again. Nor will I somehow stumble through a gate and start experimenting with other drugs.

But even if I did, so what? I want everyone to be responsible for their own oblivion. I don’t think we need nannies like Uncle Sam to protect us from ourselves.

I’d like to see all drugs legalized. This was my opinion before using marijuana, and remains my opinion after. It seems like such a waste of human life to throw people in jail, just because they obtained a high through unnatural means. Let them be.

Let everyone be. Let us experiment and pursue our happiness in any way we see fit, as long as we don’t hurt anyone but ourselves.

My experiment has taught me the power of the natural high. The unnatural high from marijuana doesn’t even come close to matching it. But I would not have learned this if it wasn’t for that baggie of brownies.

Thank you, state of California, for allowing me that freedom.

Trump vs. Hitler

I’ve heard many people compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I don’t think that’s fair, and I’m not about to do it. I think there are a lot of differences between the two.

For instance, Hitler colluded with Russia to acquire Poland. However Trump colluded with Russia to take Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. That’s a big difference.

Hitler died in 1945. Trump was born in 1946. So at the most, Trump is merely Hitler reincarnated.

Hitler parted his natural-born hair on the right, and combed it over to the left. Trump parts his TRANSPLANTED hair on the right, and combs it over to the left.

Hitler was unmarried, but had mistresses. Trump has had mistresses, too. But while married.

Hitler invaded Russia and stole their oil. Trump went to Finland and unctuously poured oil all over the Russian president.

Hitler used Jews as scapegoats. But Trump uses Mexicans, instead.

Is this Trump or Hitler, as a 12-year-old boy? Or do I even have to ask?

Hitler was a master orator. Trump is a master debater.

Hitler was an artist, and inspired the German people with his design of the swastika flag. On the other hand Trump doesn’t draw. He did inspire the American people with his book, “The Art of the Deal,” but it was ghost-written by some guy named Schwartz.

You see? And the differences go on and on.

And that is why I will never confuse Trump with Hitler.

Cowboy Caveman

“Dad, I hate school. I don’t ever want to go back. Please! Please! Please! I want to do something else!”

“Well, what do you want to do?”

“I want to be a cowboy.”

And so Jim White, Sr. pulled his 10-year-old son, Jim, Jr., out of school. He drove him 400 miles from their ranch in central Texas, to a cattle ranch in southern New Mexico. And that’s where he left him, to fulfill his cowboy dreams.

Damn! Wouldn’t it be great to have a dad like that?

Five years later, Jim White, Jr. was riding his mustang through the Guadalupe Mountains, searching for stray cattle. Suddenly he encountered something that stopped him and his horse dead in their tracks. It looked like a column of black smoke pouring up into the sky.

Was it a volcano? Jim wondered. Nope, not noisy enough. How about a tornado? Couldn’t be. There was no wind, and the nearest thunderhead was miles off.

He ventured closer, finally tying his bronc and pushing and hacking his way on foot through thick chaparral. That’s when he made a discovery that would change his life, and southern New Mexico forever.

It was an enormous black hole. And belching from the mouth of this maw were thousands upon thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats. The bats were whirling frenetically in a counter-clockwise direction just above the hole, then rising into the sky and spinning off into space in a spreading dark cloud.

The cave Jim White discovered, although without the paved walkway.

Night was falling fast, but this 15-year-old’s curiosity was piqued. He just had to see more.

Jim rode back to the ranch. He didn’t stay long. He returned a few days later with a hatchet, fence wire, a homemade kerosene lantern, and some matches.

He used the hatchet to cut rungs from the surrounding brush, and wove these rungs through the fence wire to create a wire ladder. He lowered this ladder down into the darkness of the cave. He lit his homemade lantern and descended the rungs of the ladder to a ledge 50 feet below. Then he scrambled down a slope another 20 feet and began spelunking for the very first time in his life.

When Jim White looked up, after climbing down his wire ladder, this is pretty much what he saw. By the way, those aren’t bats flying at the mouth of the cave. Rather, they are swallows. Hundreds of swallows have made their home here, and work the day shift eating insects. The bats take over at night.

What the hell gets into the heads of kids, to do dangerous and foolish things like this? Some kids just think they’re immortal, and that nothing can happen to them. But tragically, some of these same kids find out, all too late, that they are not. Would Jim be one of them?

His were the first human eyes to view the grandiose elegant underground beauty that we now know as Carlsbad Caverns. He began his adventure by using his lantern to explore the bat cave. Then he about-faced and descended a dark, broken declivity into the bowels of the caverns.

Carlsbad Caverns is a petroleum product. The Guadalupe mountains are made of limestone. About 5 million years ago the groundwater level here was much higher, reaching up to near the surface of the earth. Petroleum reserves below this groundwater produced hydrogen sulfide, and this hydrogen sulfide seeped up into the groundwater, causing a chemical reaction that produced sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid dissolved the limestone, forming the caverns.

He crept like a cat, negotiating treacherous ledges, and avoiding terrible dark, deep precipices. His skin bristled in horripilation at the sound of clattering rocks dislodged by his feet, echoing and echoing as they tumbled down inky black pits. He scrambled and slid over limestone boulders, wet from condensation caused by the constant 56 degree temperature.

Finally he debouched into a huge room, thousands of feet long, and hundreds of feet wide and high. Monstrous stalactites dangled from the ceiling, and similar-sized stalagmites met them halfway up from the floor. And many other weird speleothems dazzled Jim’s eyes from the glow of his lantern.

The groundwater level dropped after the caverns were formed, leaving these massive cavities beneath the surface. Within the last million years, a hole eroded, opening up the caverns to the outside world.

He became so engrossed in this splendid strange scenery that he forgot about something very important. Kerosene. Without warning his lantern burned through the last of this light-giving juice and lost its flame. Jim was instantly enveloped in total darkness and left completely and helplessly blind.

The bravery and foolishness of this immortal explorer were about to kill him, for he needed light to find his way out of the cave.

Who knows, maybe many other caverns were formed within the Guadalupe mountains, that have not yet opened up to the surface.

But Jim had a backup plan. He grabbled about, searching for a canteen filled with kerosene that he’d brought along, just in case. Then he fumbled through his pockets for some matches. After a bit of effort he refilled and relit the lantern. The darkness pulled back.

Jim beat it out of there before the last of this spare kerosene was consumed.

But he wasn’t finished spelunking. A short time later he returned with a young Mexican friend. They exercised surprisingly good foresight by bringing along a large ball of string, which they intended to use to trace their way back to the cave’s exit.

Stalactites hang from the ceiling, whereas stalagmites grow from the floor. They were formed through a process called speleogenesis. Speleogenesis requires water, so most of the speleogenesis at Carlsbad Caverns ceased about four million years ago, as groundwater receded.

They spent about three days exploring the intricate innards of the caverns. No one knows just how much this duo discovered, but in the 1980s some splelunkers discovered the words “Jim White 1898” scratched into the rocks, far deeper and further than anyone had ever suspected they’d reached.

Of course Jim and his Mexican friend freely reported their fantastic findings to anyone they encountered above the surface. But they were just kids. Adults would laugh at them, and chalk up their tales to overactive imaginations. It took years for Jim to convince anyone to come take a look for themselves.

A paved trail currently winds through much of the same areas that Jim White and his Mexican friend explored.

But after a while a few did take Jim up on it, and got their own eyeful of this massive, wondrous cavern. They told their tales, and before long, word began spreading far and wide over the countryside, just like the bats emerging for their evening feast.

Once word got out and people started believing it, Jim White never worked as a cowboy again. The cave took over his life. He became a guano miner, hauling batshit out of the depths and sending it on to fertilize orchards in California. He also worked for a few years as a park ranger at Carlsbad Caverns, when it was a National Monument.

This formation, and the formation at the middle right, are rated R. No children under the age of 17 are permitted to view them.

A book about his life was ghostwritten for him, which he sold inside the famed Underground Lunchroom of the caverns. And he earned a few bits now and then guiding tourists through the cave system.

He never got rich from this natural wonder, and in fact barely scratched out a living. And then in 1946, this cowboy turned caveman suffered a heart attack and passed away. He was 63.

Each of the 400,000 plus visitors per year unwittingly sheds a minute amount of lint from their clothing as they walk the trails. This lint adds up after a while, and can combine with condensation to damage cavern formations. But once a year a lint cleanup is conducted, where workers use special brushes charged with static electricity to pick up the lint.

We can thank Jim White for his discovery, though it’s likely someone else would eventually have found this cave, with it’s tell-tale evening bat “smoke”. But it’s unlikely anyone would have had the derring-do to discover it Jim’s way.

Who else would have dared to venture alone into such unknown depths of darkness? And who else would have been savvy enough to bring along a spare canteen of kerosene?

In my view, Carlsbad Caverns is much more interesting when Jim White’s story is included. Jim White was never rich in money or education. But he had a tale to tell that no one could match. His adventuresome spirit and temerity made him wealthy in ways that cannot be measured. Except with the help of the glow from a homemade kerosene lantern.

You can use an elevator to descend into the caverns, or you can hike in through the natural cave entrance. I recommend the natural cave entrance hike if you can handle it. You’ll see much more. And you can always take the elevator back up and out.

Zen Garden Mind

The largest gypsum dune field on Earth is located in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico. It’s been around for 7,000 to 10,000 years, and humans these days call it White Sands. These dunes are composed of gypsum crystals, from gypsum that washes down from the surrounding San Andreas and Sacramento mountains.


I recently visited White Sands National Monument, in New Mexico. Or as I like to call it, the world’s largest Zen garden.

Within Zen Buddhism there are two main traditions, Rinzai and Soto. They’re kind of rivals.

Most sand dunes are composed of quartz crystals, not gypsum. Gypsum dunes are very rare, because gypsum is highly water soluble, and rarely has a chance to crystallize. But this gypsum is carried by rains into lake beds that have no outlet to the sea. And so it remains in situ, desiccating and forming large selenite crystals up to three feet long. These crystals are broken down by weathering into fine white sand crystals.

Rinzai Zen is a little strange, due to its recondite nature. It advocates achieving enlightenment through meditating on koans, and supposedly solving them. Koans are mystical riddles such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“Who the hell cares?” is my mystical answer.

You’ll get third degree burns on the soles of your feet if you try to walk upon quartz-based sand dunes in the summertime. But gypsum sand is inefficient at absorbing solar heat, making it possible to stroll barefoot on the sand on the hottest summer day. These are my bare feet on the first day of summer, with the outdoor temperature at 100 degrees.

Soto Zen is odd due to its simplicity. Soto Zenners think they can get enlightened just by sitting cross-legged on a zafu, letting go of their thoughts, and following their breath. For them it’s a gradual journey to enlightenment. It takes a long time, and can’t be stumbled upon suddenly by solving some occult riddle.

I prefer Soto Zen and kind of practice it, though I threw out my zafu years ago. And I wouldn’t dare sit cross-legged ever again. It’s bad for the knees. And it’s very hard to nap meditate when your knees are throbbing.

I like Soto Zen for its simplicity, just as I like White Sands National Monument for its plain whiteness. The simplicity appeals to my laziness.

All kinds of critters live on these dunes. These are the tracks of the Pogo-Hopping Desert Gerbil, a small rodent that hops about on a stick to avoid being eaten by sand crabs hiding just below the surface.

But for me, meditating successfully is difficult. Because I cheat a lot at it. I lay supine. I snooze. I scratch my nose. I shift my restless legs. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. I don’t always follow my breath, but instead follow more interesting things. Sometimes I try to solve problems instead of letting them go. And on and on I go, breaking one rule after another.

This gigantic Zen garden in southern New Mexico reminds me of all the tricks my mind plays upon me while meditating Soto style, both when I follow the rules and when I cheat.

There was a time when I followed the rules rigorously. Back in my less lazy days I could create stretches of sterile wordless peace within my meditative mind, just like the dry lake beds that break up the dunes of White Sands. But those lake beds are what actually produce the dunes. And so my mind would rebound, producing a gigantic array of words, just like the billions of gypsum crystals within a sand dune.

Lake beds like these catch the gypsum runoff from the mountains, and convert it into sand crystals. These alkali lake beds were first visited by Europeans in the 1500s, when Spanish miners drove ox carts here to collect salt. They used the salt to process silver ore extracted from mines in central Mexico.

These days, when I cheat, thoughts, strong emotions, and belly-burning motivations steal upon my mind like the white dunes that swallow up cottonwood groves. I forget that I’m meditating, and become lost in various fantasies. And then I remember that I’m supposed to be meditating and let go again. And the thoughts recede like so much swirling sand.

In this area of White Sands, the dunes have swallowed a grove of Rio Grande cottonwoods, that weren’t able to run away fast enough.

Or maybe I’m bragging. In fact, my mind is often like one of those unfortunate cottonwood trees at White Sands, that’s completely buried in the dunes. My mind is so distracted by all the cares and delights of the world, that attempting to meditate is futile. Just the same, I attempt anyway. Why? I attempt in order to attempt. Besides, cheating makes attempting easy.

Sometimes the cottonwoods are completely buried, and stand no chance of survival.

Other times a little mindfulness keeps me barely aware of my swirling thoughts. This is when my mind is like those cottonwood treetops of White Sands that poke out just above the drifting sand.

These cottonwoods gasp for life, with just their treetops able to reach above the surface of the sand.

And believe it or not, there are times when my meditative metacognition is stronger. And then my mind is like one of those White Sands’ cottonwoods that are half above the sand and half below. At these times I well know that I’m daydreaming even while I continue to daydream. My meditation is both lucid and lapsing. Disciplined and wild. Aloof and befouled.

This cottonwood has managed to free itself from much of the dunes’ suffocating grip.

And there are those rare times when I fool the gods and get away entirely with cheating. My mind is completely free, with all wandering thoughts swept away by the wind of my breath. Just like a fully freed cottonwood in all its verdant glory, shimmering in the breeze, having conquered the dunes of White Sands. At least for a little while.

This Rio Grande cottonwood has completely escaped the dunefield. It stands tall and free, at least until the next dune comes along.

A day will come when I’m no longer hagridden by the cares and delights of this world. Perhaps I’ll stop cheating and slip into an honest meditation as I float away. And all that I let go of will never return.

Perhaps then my mind will be like the cottonwood that stands free and clear from dunes of sand, but has lost its last leaf.

Rio Grande cottonwoods are very hardy. But nothing lasts forever except change.

Its only remaining cotton being a few ethereal white clouds, caught in its branches, only to slip free to dissipate in the sky.

How a Book Killed a Poet

A Picture of Oscar Wilde

Well, it began with a book. The only novel that the poet, Oscar Wilde, ever wrote. The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890, when Oscar was 36 years old.

Until that time Wilde had been a renowned poet and playwright. But he was also controversial. He liked to party and indulge in vices, and make a show of his iniquities. This led critics to view him as immoral and hedonistic. And they accused him of doing the provocative things he did, all for publicity.

But after The Picture was published, a new “picture” of Oscar Wilde began to emerge. This novel contained many off-handed, subtle references to homosexual behavior. And while it did not overtly portray or promote anything homosexual, it averred to it strongly enough to raise the suspicion of critics and moralists throughout England.

Homosexual acts were very illegal in that Victorian era. They could earn a perpetrator prison time with hard labor.

Wilde remained popular with his reading audience, but even they couldn’t help but suspect he might be a dreaded homosexual, after reading his book. In fact, anyone and everyone in the know began to suspect it.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

In 1891 Wilde began hanging out with Lord Alfred Douglas, the 20-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The Marquess was a brute of a man, who had taken credit for creating the modern rules of boxing, known as the Queensberry Rules (although the actual writer of the rules was a man named John Graham Chambers). The Marquess feared that Wilde might be seducing his young son into a homosexual relationship.

He confronted Wilde several times over the next few years, and their relationship grew more and more tense. In 1894, a sort of war was declared between them, when he apprehended Wilde in a restaurant. He declared his suspicions about Wilde’s sexual orientation, and issued an ultimatum with the following words: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you!”

The ever-clever Wilde riposted: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

In a sense, it was Lord Douglas who was seducing Wilde, and not the other way around. Alfred introduced Oscar to the underground world of male prostitution. And Oscar relished in it. It felt exciting and dangerous. Just Wilde’s wild style.

A few months later, in February, 1895, the Marquess left a calling card for the poet that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” It’s actually spelled “sodomite”, but brutes aren’t well known for their writing skills.

Lord Alfred Douglas had been feuding with his father, and he wanted to hurt him bad. So he persuaded Oscar to prosecute his dad for criminal libel. After all, calling someone a sodomite was an insult. And insulting someone was against the law in England. Unless, of course, the insult was true.

Wilde’s friends cautioned against it, because they knew the insult really was true. But how do you convince the love-struck? Wilde enjoyed indulging his young lover, so he granted Douglas’ wish and went ahead and filed charges.

John Sholto Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and credit usurper of boxing’s Queensberry Rules.

Soon the Queensberry Rules man found himself on the ropes and facing trial. If convicted he faced two years in prison. His only defense was to prove that what he wrote on the calling card was an accurate fact.

The Marquess of Queensberry knew how to fight. Hell, he stole the rules on fighting. And he delivered a sockdolager punch. He hired detectives to look into Oscar Wilde’s lifestyle, and they uncovered his activities in London’s gay brothels.

Two months after the calling card incident the trial began. It was a circus, with Wilde’s prosecution unraveling in the face of a mountain of evidence amassed against him. And the defense attorney cross-examined Wilde about the moral content of his works, including The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s witty retorts won him laughs but left him looking more and more like the true guilty party.

Then the turn came for the defense to present its case. In his opening statement, the defense attorney announced that he had located several male prostitutes who were going to testify that they had sex with Wilde. Wilde sensed great danger and knew he couldn’t win, so he quickly dropped the libel charges.

But it was too late. The court ruled that the words on the Marquesses’ calling card were “true in substance and fact”. And under the law, Queensberry’s acquittal left Wilde liable for Queensberry’s legal expenses, and the cost of his detectives. It was a lot of money, and it bankrupted the poet.

But Queensberry wasn’t finished punching, even while Oscar lay still on the mat. He immediately gave Scotland Yard the evidence his detectives had uncovered on Wilde.

The next day Wilde was arrested and charged with sodomy and gross indecency. And on May 25,1895, he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor.

In prison he was forced to walk a treadmill, and separate oakum fibers from old navy ropes. His bed was hard, and the food was of poor nutritional quality. Within six months his health was destroyed. He managed to stagger into the prison chapel one day, where he collapsed from illness and hunger. He hit his head when he fell, and broke his eardrum.

A prison reformer visited him and had him transferred to a new jail, where his treatment might be better. But during the transfer a crowd jeered and spat at him at a train station. This was when Wilde fully realized he had become one of the most reviled men in England, now that everyone knew for sure he was homosexual. He felt devastated.

In May, 1897, after two years of torture, he was released from prison, with his health in tatters, his finances ruined, and his fame reduced to obloquy. He immediately sailed for France and never returned to England.

He was penniless from his bankruptcy. In France he wrote a poem under a nom de plume that was an instant success and earned him a little money. But it was not enough to lift him out of poverty.

For the next three years Oscar Wilde haunted the boulevards of Paris. He continued to write a little, here and there, but finally became so depressed about his fate that he quit writing altogether. He turned to alcohol, which only worsened his health and left him more deeply impoverished.

The eardrum he broke while in prison continued to bother him. A surgeon performed a mastoidectomy, and soon after he developed meningitis. On November 30, 1900, this brilliant poet who had delighted millions, only to become the object of their homophobia and cruelty, passed away in a dingy hotel room in Paris.

He died at age 46. But it was at age 36 that he published the book that eventually killed him, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In this book, Dorian Gray remains constantly young and innocent-looking, while engaged in a pleasurable lifestyle of debauchery. However a portrait of him grows older and uglier from dissipation, with every hedonistic act indulged in by Gray. Literary scholars teach that the picture is symbolic of Dorian’s true inner self, growing increasingly evil and corrupt as he delved deeper into hedonism.

That may be, but I wonder if Wilde also intended another meaning.

Perhaps it had been a fantasy for Wilde that he could get away with coming out and subtly revealing the truth about his sexual orientation. And maybe Dorian Gray’s picture was meant to be symbolic of Wilde’s ever-deteriorating, seedy reputation.

Oscar’s career had already thrived for many years, in spite of what morality critics thought and wrote about him. So he wasn’t afraid of a bad reputation, and maybe he felt tempted to push the envelope further. Perhaps he calculated that his writing career could be like Dorian Gray, continuing to thrive successfully in spite of his reputation (the picture) looking worse and worse every day.

If so, it was a disastrous miscalculation. He could handle a besmirched reputation. But he didn’t count on the people of England destroying him.

After Dorian Gray dies, his portrait returns overnight to its original unsullied image. But such transformation wasn’t so fast for the reputation of Oscar Wilde. For a long time after his death he remained a pariah in the minds of the masses.

It has taken many years for society to accept homosexual people and embrace gay rights. And in fact there is still much more progress to be made.

But the poet’s reputation and popularity did eventually recover. Today Oscar Wilde is regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time.

And the book that killed him also recovered. Several films have been made, based upon The Picture of Dorian Gray. And it has inspired plots for quite a few other works of didactic fiction. These days, The Picture is regarded as a great literary classic.

In 2017 the British Parliament passed the Alan Turing Law, which pardoned an estimated 50,000 men who had been convicted of criminal homosexual acts.

Oscar Wilde was among those pardoned. Like Dorian Gray’s picture, his reputation was finally restored.

Preparing for the Afterlife

Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize a good trail to the Afterlife.

It’s a question that had bugged him since childhood. “How do I prepare for the afterlife?” There he lay on his deathbed after more than 80 years of entertaining this question and never finding an adequate answer. He felt frustrated. He felt resigned. He felt hopeless. He realized it was too late. He knew the answer would never come to him, and even if it did he would not have time act on it.

The darkling fingers of death snatched his soul away the very next morning. Through labyrinthian tunnels, voids, and lights, this manqué spirit was whisked. Off to the unknown. Off and away to somewhere he had never been. Off without his toothbrush, or any other form of preparation. He felt exhilaration, mixed with dread.

And then the afterlife opened up before him. A magnificent world of glowing colors, teeming with sylphs, wights, and wraiths. Love resonated through the atmosphere like the thrum of a harp. Benisons blessed the air. And a music of harmonious activity excited his soul. He felt warm. He felt welcome. And his heart filled with joy and peace.

Spirits swept by to greet him. Most were strangers, but he recognized some. His mother. His father. Grandparents. Siblings. Old friends. Old pets. He felt thrilled with this reunion, but even so he could not hide a piece of sadness from these greeters. Communication and understanding was instant. And they discovered that he felt sad due to not having properly prepared for arrival to such a beautiful place as this.

“But you did prepare,” they urged. “And you prepared well. You lived the difficult, painful life of a physical being. Yet you never hardened your heart toward others. You spent your challenging physical life loving people, animals, and all other living beings. You were kind when you could, and cruel only when necessary. So you lived your life basically the same way we lived ours. And for that reason you will feel comfortable and at home with us here in this place. Otherwise you would have wanted to go to some other place.

“We are evidence of your preparation. For we would not be greeting you so cheerily, nor would you want anything to do with us, if you had not prepared.”

He had not been a saint. He had never championed a cause or engaged in heroic action. He had never been very religious or civic-minded. He’d just lived an ordinary life, with ordinary character. A basically good citizen with a healthy mix of love and wariness for his neighbor.

So don’t fret over preparing for the afterlife. Just try to be kind to others, and avoid cruelty as much as possible. Follow your natural instincts. Respect all living beings. And do your best to understand and live harmoniously with both friend and foe.

If there is a hereafter, I suspect there is no better way to prepare for it than just this.

Rate My Rant

Have you noticed lately that every time you do business with someone, they ask you to complete a customer satisfaction survey, or write some sort of review? At one time, not too long ago, I encountered this only occasionally. Once in a while I’d get a survey in the mail to rate my family physician. Or I’d be asked to write a review of a product I bought online. But only once in a while.

Now it seems to happen every friggin’ time.

It seems survey mania has crept over us, and now the solicitation of a survey after every transaction or interaction has become standard business practice.

Back in the day, when this only happened once in a while, I had no problem completing surveys. In fact I felt delighted at the chance to rate someone like my doctor. Until he sent me a letter begging me to always rate him with 10’s on every category.

That’s when I became cynical about surveys. It seems that if you give someone anything less than a 10, even if it’s a nice generous 9, it jeopardizes their job security, and puts them under heavy scrutiny from their superiors.

So I just stopped doing them. I chuck them in the trash. I close their pop-up boxes online. Fuck all those bastards who expect their employees to be perfect.

Besides, I just don’t have time to fill out all the goddamned surveys everyone wants me to complete.

Now that I’m finished with this rant, I need your feedback. How good was this rant? Did I express my complaint clearly? Did you feel my passion? Were my writing skills up to par? Please rate me on a scale of 1 to 10 in the following categories. But remember, any rating less than a 10 could result in my suspension from WordPress and banishment from social media altogether. And you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?

Overall ranting effectiveness (1-10):
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Rating Equivalents:

1=Completely insincere or incompetent.
2=I’ve got better things to do than read this crap.
3=Such feeble effort. You sound like Don Knotts.
4=You whine like my 3-year-old grandchild.
5=Okay, so you’ve made your point. Yawn.
6=I’m gonna write my Congressman! Just as soon as I . . . zzzzzz.
7=Wow, you rant like a grumpy old man!
8=Where’s a straitjacket? You insane, man!
9=You’re Hitler incarnate!
10=You’re a Trump-Tweeting Tyrant!

Thank you for taking the time to complete this godawful long survey.

Thanks, Canada

Recently the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, stated that Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada were “kind of insulting” and that Canada would not be pushed around.

Trump responded with vituperant vilipending, and has called Trudeau all kinds of names, and has said Trudeau’s statement will cost him a lot of money.

Wow, what a war of words we have brewing here.

Now social media has jumped into this imbroglio with Americans launching a #ThankCanada and #ThanksCanada Twitter campaign.

Americans love Canada, and we don’t want anyone messing with our favorite country to the north. Not even our own president. Hands off, Trump!

But I have some words of caution for PM Trudeau. I believe he’s on a losing path. From my observation no politician, domestic or foreign, has ever bested Trump in a war of words. He could very well be the worst president we’ve ever had, but he’s absolutely the best at one thing. He’s a master of the ad hominem attack.

Any trade deficit we have with Canada will be quickly overcome with a surplus of well-crafted insults from our Commander-in-Chief. You can’t beat him this way, Justin. Sadly, you just can’t.

But there is one way to beat him. You have to go after Trump’s big weakness. His kryptonite. It stops this guy in his tracks every time. It’s called “facts”. Nothing is more cryptic to Trump than facts.

Trump simply cannot handle facts. Justin, don’t go about saying vague things like Canada will not be pushed around and blah, blah, blah. Trump will blow you out of the water with his ripostes. No, just stick to the facts, and this bully in our White House will run for cover.

For instance, Justin, you could point out that while the U.S. has indeed had a trade deficit with Canada of about $15 billion per year since 2015, that’s about a fifth what the deficit was in 2008. You could also point out that our deficit with China has been running about $350 billion per year since 2015, which is nearly $100 billion more than 2008.

If you would just say something like that, Trump would squawk and yelp and shout “Fake news! Fake news!” (unaware of the fact that these figures come from our own Census Bureau) and then quickly try to change the subject.

Just the facts, Justin, just the facts. Stick with the facts, while avoiding vague language, and you will win every time.

I don’t have a Twitter account, so I can’t participate in Twitter’s #ThankCanada campaign. So instead I’d like to finish this blog by saying my thank you’s here:

First, a big thank you to my Canadian blogging buddies. For example, Gibber Jabberin’ always comes through with hilarious comments to spice up my posts. And Joanne Sisco, I love your photography and fun little write-ups about Toronto.

Thank you Canada for offering us Americans a place of refuge from time to time. For instance in the 1960s and 1970s, when you welcomed young American men who opposed fighting in the Vietnam War, to escape to your country. And also thank you for the affordable prescription drugs ailing Americans have been able to obtain across your borders. You have saved many American lives.

Thanks Canada for Dr. James Naismith, who created the game of basketball.

Thanks Canada for your beautiful scenery that we Americans drink in by the millions when we vacation in your lands. I’ll never forget the time my wife and I got off a cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska. We rented a car and drove through the northwest corner of British Columbia, and into the Yukon. We had to stop at a border checkpoint along the way, but the Canadian officers were very polite and even gave us helpful advice. We always felt safe on this motor trip, and were treated decently by every Canadian we met.

Bennett Lake at Carcross, Yukon. Thanks Canada, for amazing scenery like this!

Thanks Canada for cars, oil, food, computers, gold, diamonds, and so much more. And thank you for helping us with our conscience. When we buy Canadian we can always rest assured that nobody was enslaved or horribly exploited in the making of the product.

Thanks Canada for setting a good example with your healthcare system. If only we had the guts to follow it.

Thanks for Horseshoe Falls. I’ve never been there, but I’ve always heard it’s the best part of Niagara Falls.

Thanks for these things, and so much more.

Thank you, Canada.

Swallowing Capistrano

Votive offerings before the goddess Mary, at Serra’s Chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano.

Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb? President Ulysses S. Grant, of course. Where is Mission San Juan Capistrano located? Why, in San Juan Capistrano, California, of course.

Which is where my wife and I headed a few months ago, on our mission to visit all of California’s historic Catholic missions. This was our eighth, of 21 missions visited. We began this quest back in the 1990’s, so please be patient with our progress.

The gilded altar of Serra’s Chapel.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was established in 1776 by Father Junipero Serra. That year he built Serra’s Chapel, a small church that is still in use today, and is the oldest church in California.

Ahem, let me correct that factoid. Father Serra did not build the chapel. The Native Americans he enslaved did the actual labor. He just supervised and made sure they did a good job, while edifying themselves with good old fashioned godly hard work.

Serra’s Chapel is very long and narrow. That’s my wife standing near the back. Ain’t she purty?

And they did do a good job. So good that this autochthonous tribe was conscripted into the construction of a far larger, Great Stone Church. Their backbreaking, salvation-earning moil and toil began in 1797. Nine long years of sweat, struggle, and hernias later, the magnificent cathedral was completed.

A wall of the Great Stone Church.

Finally the exhausted slaves christians could rest. No more hoicking heavy stones. No more long, agonizing hours beneath the burning sun. And no more beatings and whippings for the slow slackers.

This mighty monument to the mercy of the Lord stood 180 feet long and 40 feet wide, and came equipped with a 120 foot bell tower that could be seen for many miles. It was something to be proud of for the Spanish, and even for the natives who built it.

Worship within the walls of this wonder began in 1806. But just six years later, on December 8th, 1812, the San Andreas fault erupted with 7.2 magnitudes of jolting, destructive power. The cathedral’s stone arch roof had been constructed poorly and could not withstand the shaking of a major earthquake. This grand structure that took nine hard years to build, was wiped out in a matter of seconds.

Ruins of the Great Stone Church. The altar seems to have been the only safe spot during the shaking.

If the purpose of this cathedral was to bring Native Americans close to God, it succeeded wildly. When the earth began to move, Mass was being held. Forty native worshipers perished beneath the falling stones of the collapsing roof. And two boys in the toppled bell tower were also killed. I suppose they got as close to God as anyone can possibly get.

Ancient mission bells, with ruins of the Great Stone Church in the background.

The Great Stone Church was never rebuilt, but worship continued in Serra’s Chapel, eventually converting more than 4,000 native souls to christianity.

A campanario (bell wall) was built a year after the 1812 earthquake, that connected the ruins of the Great Stone Church to Serra’s Chapel.

After Mexico’s independence, and the United States’ thievery of California from Mexico, Mission San Juan Capistrano fell into labefaction. Then, in 1910, Father John O’Sullivan took over the mission and began its restoration.

These brick ovens were employed for feeding the multitude of christian slaves immured at the mission.

Father O’Sullivan is credited (or rather, he credits himself) for a singular miracle that has made this site world famous. He claims to have brought the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano.

During his tutelage of this mission, people began to notice that thousands of swallows were building their nests on the mission walls. Every Spring, these birds would migrate 6,000 miles, from Goya, Argentina, just to make the mission their home.

And then in 1940, the Ink Spots put San Juan Capistrano on the map with their hit recording of the song, When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.

Why did the swallows start coming to Mission San Juan Capistrano? According to Father O’Sullivan, it all began one day when he was walking about the town outside the mission.

He noticed a shopkeeper flailing about with a broomstick, knocking down mud nests from under the eaves of his shop, while panicked birds zoomed all around him, shrieking madly.

“What in the hell is going on?!” shouted Father O’Sullivan. Well maybe he didn’t quite use those particular words. Here’s the actual dialogue, according to the good Father, from his book Capistrano Nights:

“What in the world are you doing?” O’Sullivan asked.

“Why, these dirty birds are a nuisance and I am getting rid of them!” the shopkeeper responded.

“But where can they go?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he replied, slashing away with his pole. “But they’ve no business here, destroying my property.”

O’Sullivan then said, “Come on swallows, I’ll give you shelter. Come to the Mission. There’s room enough there for all.”

The very next morning, Father O’Sullivan discovered the swallows busy building their nests outside Father Junipero Serra’s Church.

In the early 1920s Father O’Sullivan began a tradition of celebrating the return of the swallows to the mission every March 19th (Saint Joseph’s Day). This tradition now draws thousands of tourists every year to join the celebration.

However in the 1990s the mission underwent remodeling. The nests of these dirty birds got in the way and were a nuisance. So the construction workers knocked them down. And after that the swallows stopped returning to Capistrano.

Many attempts have been made to lure the swallows back, but to little avail.

It seems that even for birds, hypocrisy is a hard thing to swallow.

These artificial nests were placed in this archway to entice the swallows to return. They’ve only been modestly effective. Very few birds have swallowed the bait.