An Epicurean, an Epidemic, a Food Pantry, and Government Cheese

I have long thought that Government Cheese would be a great band name. Government Mule was used already by a very cool southern rock group that started back in the mid 1990’s. I’ve had government cheese, though, and it is not anything like cool. Government peanut butter is similarly uncool. Which brings me to the topic of food choices as well as hard times.

I know I am already blessed to have access as I do to tremendous varieties of food and drink as well as the wealth to buy them. During the current pandemic, my work so far has been active, but I know it isn’t promised or guaranteed. I know that everyone has a level of hardship today. This entry is not going to be about how hard it is for me. This writing must be, at least in part, a discussion of the differences between food as mass produced bio-fuel versus food as craftsmanship and even cultural expression.

Bread….

Among the most ancient food products, bread has been made by all people around the world in some form through much of our history. The traditions have been successfully passed on without much loss of integrity in spite of all that we do that normally kills ideas– war, migration, irresponsible agricultural techniques, cultural oppression, etc. Bread is a living connection with our past. It is tied with life itself in religion as well as mythology. And the multitude of forms and varieties it can take on makes it versatile like few other foods. Bread is eaten by the rich and poor alike, though not always the same kinds. With bread, we have so many varieties to choose from, and all of them very different in qualities, prices, and overall goodness.

Growing up I spent many a summer in Germany with family and friends, this being where my mother is from. I would like to explain what the German bread is like, the kind that lives in the memory of my childhood, but comparing it to most American breads is pointless. It’s just too different. I will always remember my mom’s description of the bread she had to buy so often here; gluey-sponge-bread was the name she gave it. There is bread of fair or better quality that can be bought here, but Mom also had a financial proclivity for paying only what she thought something should cost, even if it means the quality suffers. She would never pay the five or more dollars it costs at a modern bakery shop such as Panera for a loaf of “artisan” bread. It’s funny how the stuff that was the simplest peasant food in the past has now become the gourmand’s treat. So she bought the gluey-sponge-bread anyway because it made better financial sense.

Now that I am here, however, before I am judged as a hopeless elitist food snob, I should say that the bread my mom was loathe to buy found its way onto many, many happy plates. There was nothing like the toasted white bread tuna salad sandwich I would make as an after school snack, usually enjoyed with Thundercats on tv. Sometimes that bread held together a BLT from mom’s kitchen. Amazing memories of those BLTs…. But when it came to what Mom wanted to have in the house, the kind of bread she knew in Germany and Europe in general, that was another situation. There isn’t anything else like fresh brotchen.

Brotchen in Germany are like mini loaves of bread in the style of a French loaf, but only about the size of a potato. Their crust is crunchy and the inside is soft. I have never found these simple treasures anywhere in the US. I have looked. The closest I came was in Bobak’s in Chicago, but theirs were not quite right. Something is different about the flour we have here, and this is enough to alter the final product too much. And now I find myself perfectly willing and happy to drive three hours to Chicago for one store’s offerings. I also buy sausages and other meats there when I go because they make it “right” when no one else does. When Pope John Paul II visited America, he would stop in Chicago for the chance to eat Bobak’s sausage. It reminded him of Poland. Actually, though, Bobak’s has closed everything down except for their catering and their direct-to-merchant sales. The other wonderful secret in Chicago was Meyer Delicatessen in Lincoln Square. It’s closed now. A truly sad situation. This was the only place you could buy real veal liverwurst, another favorite from my childhood. I will now go to Andy’s Delicatessen in another area of Chicago. They are good enough for the special trip as well. And more recently I have found a couple of small shops far more locally who carry some of the same products as the Chicago retailers do.

But none of that extra driving or happy food searching has been going on during pandemic times. Lately the food trips are limited to Aldi and Kroger. Just the basics. With financial burdens everywhere, more and more people are relying on help from numerous places, including food pantries from churches and schools. I didn’t have to wear a mask back when I first learned about food pantries, but much is the same.

I really don’t know how often my parents got food from other sources. They left me and my brother out of it mostly. I think the government cheese that my brother and I ate at times when we were kids was a real turning point with my attitude about food. He and I joked about it even then. We knew why we were getting it. Back in the 1980’s, thanks to the deregulation efforts of Ronald Reagan, the trucking industry my dad worked for took a big hit. The company he had been with for twenty years was sold and shut down. Mom and Dad figured out how to supplement the pantry when money got scarce as it often did. We weren’t walking around with some deep awareness of being in need. We just knew that sometimes food came from different places.

We had a lot of fun regardless of the financial climate, and so we made jokes about the cheese or other bulk food containers that sometimes made it home. It was clearly different from other cheese. The plain, no-frills government label was like any other military type packaging. It was big, heavy, and very yellow. It wasn’t hard to make jokes about it. We also received on occasion fantastic packages of venison and other meats from my grandma’s freezer. Grandpa wouldn’t touch the stuff. His loss was our delicious gain. What I learned from the food was that the government was not very interested in providing great food to its people, only food good enough to pass the inspection. No awards for quality, just a blue stamp on the box.

Now when I buy groceries I usually shop like my mom did, paying attention to sales, buying off brands, watching the receipt, but not always. I will pay more for bread that doesn’t plaster the inside of my mouth. Cheese will sometimes be purchased at a premium just to give me or my kids something interesting and happy to eat, and to remind me that the waxy yellow blocks from Uncle Sam might show up again one day, so I should indulge a bit while I can. The pantries are open now, and really always have been. I have brought food home from church pantries before, and I will again as needed. It’s important not to have too much pride in these matters. It is equally important not to judge others who receive things that were meant to be given.

I am happy that my kids know about the varieties of food in the world. They know that foods have special and interesting names, and that cheese is not just known as yellow or white. My older daughter has had brotchen and other breads in Europe, but the other two have not yet had the pleasure. They will, though. I have pictures of each of them at various ages eating toast with Nutella, their smeared faces smiling with the brown cream in their teeth. Pirate teeth we used to call it. Arrrr!

Food is a daily necessity, and so you can’t go gourmet every day. Sometimes food has to be about bare necessities. My kids are not food snobs, but I want them to know that there are lots of things people eat that bring them happiness. Having a powerful connection to a food linked to memories of the past can be a wonderful thing. They also know that every population, every culture, has its own wonderful foods that are waiting to be experienced. You may not like them all, but a few of them may stick with you for life. Part of living life means experiencing new and different things, and one of the easiest ways to do this is through food. Seek those experiences out.

Live well.

The Primal Call of Fire

I can’t remember ever fearing fire. I am drawn to it.

I know how destructive it can be, and how deadly it can be. For these reasons I respect fire. During this time of quarantine and social distancing, I have kept the television off. I get news reports and happenings via the internet, but most of the time tv disappoints me. There are several shows I enjoy, but to just sit for hours in front of the glowing screen seems to lack a certain truth. There is something about making fire and keeping it maintained and in control that is deeply comforting.

Where does this feeling come from? Some people also find the same feeling by the water. Is there something about the primal elements coming under our control that makes it so appealing? With my fires I make in my fire pit, I don’t feel like I am controlling fire as much as I am calling on it to join me for a while. I am asking for something. I need heat, light, and maybe just the peaceful environment it can offer me.

When people find peace in the water I imagine it comes partially from the ancient knowledge that water is a provider. “If you are here,” the water whispers, “then you will not want.” But just as fire has its deadly persona, so, too, does water.

Fire fascinates me. I can and do sit by a fire for hours like others will for television. I see things in the fire- visions. If I am at peace I can sometimes understand things better because of what the fire says. I imagine it is the same practice that the old soothsayers or shamans found so helpful in their arts. There is tremendous power in the connection between fire and magic. Fire itself might be the last bit of magic left from the old world that we can still conjure with relative ease.

Many times I have gone to the ashes of the fire from the previous night, or even longer, and have been able to stir a flame back to life. This feels like magic to me. If I want one after that small flame comes, I can turn it into a grand blazing pyre once again. And there I can sit and listen to nature. My property joins a minor flood plain to the back end. My fire pit is just on the edge of this little ecosystem. During this time of year the spring peepers come alive from the earth, another bit of old world magic, I’d say. They fill the air with their music. On nights such as these I can relax in peace surrounded my the frog concerto and my fire.

Nature takes notice of fires, too. Often while I sit, something comes along the edge of the light, not quite close enough to be seen, yet certainly not worried about being heard. Maybe it’s young kits wandering away from the fox den. It could be curious coyotes. Whatever it is, I don’t fear it. I think this is why it comes so close.

Finally the scene becomes most impressive because of the moon and stars. The moon, sometimes brilliant in a clear sky, traces her well-known path through the night. The stars, not as plain as they must have been in the past, lay out their mysteries for the most clever sages to solve. All of this for a bit of effort and industry. I hope the fires never cease to impress me. I hope I don’t ever forget how to see them, and how to listen. There is so little magic left in this world. What a pity it would be to never see it.

The Importance of Skepticism in Education and Beyond

Teaching is a profession with heavy responsibility. Students, especially younger ones, are all too eager to believe or accept what you say as fact. They want to know that what you say is true. They want to know that what they see is true. Most of us are generally willing to join in that mode of thought.  The only problem with thinking this way is that it gets to be too easy. Without an attitude of skepticism we risk believing in mistakes or outright lies. In our eagerness to accept the truths that are being given, we lose our responsibility to be demanding of the information being presented to us. 
Consider your own circle of influence. How many well-meaning people have shared information in social media without checking in any way for verification? Is this a problem? It should be. In addition to wasting time and energy, you announce to your friends, coworkers, and associates that you’re lazy at best, and a likely gullible at worst. In the same time it takes to share the article, you could easily run the topic through a fact-checking site such as snopes, and then you’d at least know that you’re possibly about to perpetuate and carry on a hoax. 


In the classroom I can always count on getting everyone’s attention by showing them a video clip of something interesting and seemingly impossible. The reaction is predictable. There is a lot of noise from the camp of disbelievers, and an equal amount of talk from those who express their disbelief, yet clearly have accepted what they just saw. When David Blaine had produced his first big tv special, he included the levitating man illusion. In those first shows he had taken on this tv persona of the authentic mystic. He later, thankfully, abandoned that role for the more honest and effective fully exposed illusionist and street magician. But back to levitation. 


I remember talking with my students at that time about their reactions to the claim of levitation, and then to the apparent visual proof of it. Some students were angry with me that I made the suggestion that it was anything other than what it seemed to be. They wanted to believe it. So I asked them why. Why do you believe that this man, a man who is promoting and selling his own tv show, actually has the impossible ability to defy gravity? You don’t know him. He is not even claiming to have these abilities via any supernatural means. He just arrives and performs the trick. What happened to questioning or investigation? I talked with them about the outrageous and dubious camera work and the overproduced quality of something that was supposed to be a live recording. We learned about post production editing tricks. Still, there were some who struggled with the idea that they had been duped. 


The Amazing Randi has had a standing offer for many years that offers a million dollars to anyone who claims to have paranormal or supernatural abilities and is willing to undergo scientific testing to have them verified and proven.  No one has ever collected on that offer, and it has now since been stopped. James Randi is a magician himself as well as a skeptic. It is because of his skeptical nature that I have often used him as an example in teaching. I try to teach about what it is to be a skeptic. It does not mean you believe nothing, trust nothing, or accept nothing. It does mean that you should learn to question and investigate rather than blindly accepting everything. You should especially investigate or question things that seem to be untrue, unlikely, or impossible. 
Skepticism is really about having a profound concern for truth. This search for truth extends into daily life. Advertising of products is a constant game of truth and lies. Teaching people to question is not the same as teaching them not to trust. What we should teach is that trust is something that should be earned.

With the nature of social media constantly moving toward more and more video content, and always shorter clips, it is increasingly important to stand for truth. Consider what happens when I ask students to watch a video for an online assignment, such as CNN10, a news summary program, then ask a few questions about the content. The news program is literally ten minutes long. Every time. Yet there are always students who will offer up answers that have nothing to do with the content of the program they were supposed to watch. Their answers are based on opinion, feelings, a tiktok video, or who knows? Did they even watch it? It’s impossible to say. And so what does skepticism demand of this situation? Answers need to be given with solid references to the content. The content itself can, of course, be questioned, too. But just avoiding the responsibility of thinking for yourself should not be an option.

It’s so hard to be critical in such a responsible way. But it is possible, and it must be taught. In the midst of a global pandemic, we must be demanding of our sources of information. Check sources. Demand to know what the sources are. Investigate before sharing. We have access to more information than anyone in history, but we are becoming overly trusting with those who present it to us.

When there are world leaders who are openly derisive of scientific data, it falls to us, the consumers of information, to have higher standards. It isn’t good enough to passively accept what you’re told or are shown. David Blaine wants you to believe that he can pass a long needle through his body and remove it, all without leaving a mark or spewing blood. If you believe in this, you haven’t done much harm to anyone. In fact, it’s entertaining to believe in the impossible. That’s how illusionists like Blaine make a living. But if your lack of critical thinking leads you to do things to harm yourself or others in your care, it becomes a problem that needs attention.

Where to begin? Educators must do more to teach about and then encourage civil discourse. We need to move away from the notion that we can’t be questioned. There are certainly good and bad ways to question, but this, too, is part of the teaching. Instead of being offended or viewing a contradiction as an attack, the effective teacher show the way. Demonstrate to the class how questioning can be done politely, respectfully, or also in a disrespectful manner. Do this well, and students learn that it isn’t the questioning itself that so often isn’t appreciated, but rather the manner of the questioning. The responses and manners of the teacher, of course, must match as well with this lesson. Parents can assume this same role in the home.

The path to knowledge, or even truth, must certainly be marked with questions. Keep on questioning. Keep on learning. To steal a tagline and paraphrase the great Cecil Adams, I’ve been fighting ignorance since 1993. It’s taking longer than I thought.

Twenty-one Lessons From Chess

  1. Those who know the rules of the game and play by them best usually win. Every group or organization has its culture. Every potential deal has its players and personalities. In addition to simply wanting something, you have to learn about the rules which dictate the play of your particular problem. Take time to learn about each game’s unique environment.
  2. The outcome can often be determined by your opening moves. First impressions matter. You will be remembered by others from those early first meetings. If you fail to impress early, you risk falling behind permanently. You have no idea how many potential interactions and deals ended before they began due to a failed first impression.
  3. Every action you take creates new circumstances which must be considered. Every single one. You will not know how you have changed the people around you with your words and actions, but know that change happens because of you. Try to make that change positive.
  4. You can only hope to accomplish well one objective at a time. Focus on your main goal with every move you make. Eliminate wasteful and non-productive actions and thoughts whenever possible. Say to yourself, often, “how is this helping me?” Don’t misunderstand. I don’t advocate a selfish outlook here. But also know that helping yourself succeed is absolutely essential. In promoting your work, you advocate for yourself. It matters greatly that others see in you a sense of pride in what you do.
  5. Understand that there are countless ways to achieve your goals. Chess exists on a sixty-four square game board with a total of thirty-two pieces in the beginning. There are nearly infinite combinations of moves possible within the confines of a single game. If one path leads to an unfortunate end, then try another way. Finding an unsuccessful combination of moves does not mean you failed. You lost your queen, but didn’t intend to. It doesn’t have to be a disaster. That combination might work in another situation, or with different people. Failure is an attitude of self defeat. Eliminate it from your thinking as much as you are able.
  6. You’ll face many setbacks and challenges, but learning to expect them helps to keep a healthy perspective. Challenges show us our weaknesses and help us to become stronger. Planners are not only planning for good things. My grandmother’s garage filled with food she canned herself was her expression of planning for bad times. These things will happen. In chess the successful players learn to think about multiple moves ahead of them, not only the one they are about to make. The same is true in successful living in many ways.
  7. Nothing is entirely new. Life has been happening in much the same way for a very long time. Learn about what to expect from the others who have gone before you. Read about it. History is an excellent and patient teacher. There are masters in every discipline who can teach you how to navigate throughout your journey. Often what makes you visible is how you react to something that is quite normal. Creativity is all about choosing a fresh approach.
  8. Approach your challenges with a calm spirit. There is no wisdom in indulging fear. The calm and focused spirit will not fail. In bushido, the way of the warrior, one is taught to accept death in order to face it calmly, and by extension to conquer it. Fear will come. You will never be completely free from it. Learn to work well in spite of it. Reacting with a calm spirit to chaos is the mark of a powerful being. Smile and nod at these people. They know.
  9. Know your assets and strengths, then use them. You have skills. You must learn what your strengths are and to acknowledge them. Be humble, certainly, but don’t be ignorant of your own talents. Offer them up when situations present themselves. Do you know how I once became an “IT expert” in a school? I raised my hand during a meeting. I volunteered. Sometimes it really is that easy.
  10. Understand that games occur in stages. Don’t give up. The end will be clear enough when it comes. Don’t quit early. So often when teaching chess to young people, I see players who are super aggressive as the game opens. I watch them almost bully another player into submission. Yet when I step in and tell the aggressive one to finish the job. Where’s your plan for checkmate? I find out that they don’t have a plan. If the opponent knew this, and had the skills, they might have overcome the early moves and followed with a win of their own.
  11. You can’t rest on an individual good play or count on one successful step to make the rest easy. Be consistent and push on until the game has been won. And if you ultimately don’t win, you can certainly be proud of your efforts along the way. That is worthy of celebration.
  12. Never underestimate anyone. You can’t know what they know, and only fools think they have nothing to learn from others. Everyone is worthy of your time and attention. For years I would work with a partner teacher in the Social Studies department on a grade-level chess tournament. It was one of those things that didn’t really fit into the state curriculum, but then, the curriculum is pretty boring. So, we ended up teaching chess to every sixth grader in the school. I am proud of that. Sometimes people hear that and wonder why, and others wonder why it isn’t always the case. But every year there would be a kid who was able to shine with chess. This kid would be one who had never stood out before in any way. No one thought about him or her at all, maybe. But as I wrote the names on the board of those advancing in the tournament, kids would read the names. I would hear them say in disbelief, “him? I didn’t know he was smart.” And I would usually chime in with an additional casual comment to build up the dark horse. But so it goes. Everyone has something to offer. Look for it. Listen for it.
  13. Your most challenging opponent will likely be yourself. Your own carelessness or lack of attention will bring you more harm than anything brought on by others. Calm your inner voices. That relentless and cruel critical voice is from within. It is the ego doing its best to keep you “in your place” of comfort. The ego isn’t you. It is only a made-up construct of you. It likes to complain and whine and criticize, but not to change much. It wants to stay put and wait for something to happen, passively. Shut it down. The ego is a liar. The more you do this, the easier it will become.
  14. Being gracious and respectful is as important as anything else you do. You will almost always encounter people more than once. As you build experiences with others you are also building your reputation. Don’t take personal encounters as random throw-away events. When you live in the now, you will see that your full attention given to each interaction will lead to far more positivism than ever before. Respect the moments.
  15. There is no gain to be had from greed, bragging, or gloating. Sure, there are immediate gains from this, but in the long game, such behaviors do far more harm than they are worth. Cutting someone down is hurtful. It’s hard to imagine how that could ever lead to any kind of lasting trust, admiration, or really anything positive. Meaningful gain is better overall. Humility is better than gloating every time. Understand that all things require sincerity. False humility is no good. I do not like to sing my own praises, so when I am praised, the humble responses I give are sincere. I know I can do better than whatever I was just praised for. It isn’t an act. I will always want to do better.
  16. Shake hands. Ok, maybe not during a viral pandemic. But that outward show of respect is critical. I love watching fighters in the octagon show respect and love after doing their best to render each other lifeless. It shows that they respect and understand their particular game.
  17. Being distracted is a success killer. Stay focused. I don’t mean that you can’t watch tv, but if you are bingeing shows for hours every night, you might be losing out to distraction. Opportunity can come and go quickly. If you’re watchful and focused, you will be ready. If not you won’t know what you missed.
  18. You can probably fake it for a while, but someone will eventually call you out. Never stop learning. Never stop trying to get better at your game.
  19. There will always be someone better than you. Don’t fear them, find them. They are the ones who can teach you. You don’t learn much by engagement with those who not as skilled as you. You still learn, but when it comes to gaining valuable knowledge about your work, go to the pros. Hang out and chat with them. Go to their trainings. Listen to their talks. Read their books. They are successful in a way that you want, so figure them out.
  20. When you fail, try to identify the weaknesses of your own actions rather than on what others did. The others will not always be there. You are the only constant in your story. You are always you. So take time to hold counsel with yourself. Think clearly about what you did, both right and wrong. Write about it. Talk about it with your inner circle. Learn from the momentary failure. This turns it into something better. When it is a lesson, it brings you something better than all of those negative defeatist commentaries.
  21. Look around for the ones who are watching you for guidance. They are counting on you to teach them well. Don’t pass up a chance to give back what others gave you. Help others along the way. This is never wasted. Give of yourself. Keep giving. It’s the part of life that leads to fulfillment.

Graphic novels, comics, and Wilhelm Busch

One of the earliest memories I have about reading is of my dad reading the newspaper every day. This is something he still does, but I don’t recall ever seeing him read a book. My mom, though, read daily. She read books in German, English, and continued to read some things even in Polish or Russian since she had been raised around those languages. She spoke German at home and in her home community, but, because of the political environment of the time, her education in school, the German part at least, was greatly limited. She was taught in Polish. Living near borders during war time can certainly have an impact on the lives of people. But in spite of those conditions, my mom learned very well for herself, and she wanted the same for me and my brother.

The newspaper, once my dad was done with it, was up for grabs. Before I could really read, I grabbed it and went into the comics pages. This is pretty normal, I suppose, but I was doing two things- figuring out words, and learning that drawings and words work together. I practiced drawing the characters. I made my own panel boxes with a ruler. They always fell short of the published cartoonists, my early efforts, but I knew I liked the art form.

Mom had for us her own set of influences. From her we consumed German text and drawings. The books I remember most were a German alphabet book, wonderfully illustrated, and then the great collection of stories by Wilhelm Busch. It was Wilhelm Busch that led me to comic books and graphic novels. The patters and engrams were set in my brain by that famous German creative mind. The characters, known around the world, beloved in the German-speaking nations, Max und Moritz, became as familiar to me as Snoopy, Dagwood, and Garfield. Without realizing it, I was forming a circle of influences. I was bringing together drawings and art styles formed in the 1800s and reading them next to their modern day creative descendants.

The German stories written by Busch were morality tales; however, they were set up on the pages in much the same way that comic books would later adopt. There were panels, captions, and onomatopoeic phrases and words. He used poetic language and devices to make the text memorable. And it certainly was memorable. As I write this at the age of forty-nine, I can still remember the stories I first took in when I was probably four. Not to retell them all, because you really need to see it for yourself, I will just comment briefly on Max und Moritz.

The title characters are really quite horrible. They play terrible and hurtful pranks on various adults in their lives, all the while hiding in the short distance, laughing at the chaos they created. Honestly they would be guilty of serious crimes today. Busch seemed to imagine them as merely precocious, or high strung rather than malevolent. In the end, though, as morality stories go, the boys meet a grisly and fitting end. We don’t have to be inconvenienced with wondering about the boys’ parents, nor really much about them at all. They are just characters meant to teach a lesson. When they end up being ground into pellets and fed to the ducks, we just think to ourselves that they got what they deserved. I do remember thinking early on that I would not like it very much to be friends with such boys.

Wilhelm Busch has been recognized for his influence, importance, and contributions to multiple literary genres. Some of the recognition was given while he was still living. He didn’t think very much of his creations for children. He wanted to be known for his other literary and artistic efforts. But fame is not so easy to direct. In the same way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes, Busch wanted to leave his children’s stories alone, but it was not to be. The characters have since been celebrated around the world, translated into dozens of languages, made into toys, minted on coins, and shuttled through the post on stamps.

Countless children like me learned how to read and appreciate illustrated pages with his words and art. He influenced writers and illustrators, animators, publishers, painters, cartoonists, and untold others. The books, still printed, still enjoyed, are an important part of the history and heritage that led to many other story telling art forms. You can read more about Busch and his works on the featured link below, or in many other curated sites and centers. If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit Hanover, Germany, you can visit the Wilhelm Busch home and museum.

https://www.lambiek.net/artists/b/busch.htm

I will always appreciate those earliest influences on my reading. I still enjoy reading the newspaper, including the comics. And I am a firm believer in the value of comic books, graphic novels, and illustrated stories of any genre. They are literature. They belong in the hands of readers with as much enthusiasm and respect as any other type of literature. I argue this point with fellow teachers more than I care to relate. I hope one day I can mention comics, graphic novels, manga, and collections of comic strips among teachers and educators without having to defend the value of the genres. The perception of the art forms as throw-away or cheap was held by Wilhelm Busch as well. But if he could see now what his works have led to, I suspect he would be proud.

Why We Need Superman

I was fortunate enough to visit the Heroes Museum that was located in downtown Indianapolis. The tense is past because the one man behind the show was not making enough money to keep it open. This is a shame. It was a small part of the proprietor’s personal collection of stuff related mainly to Superman, but with an impressive Batman section as well. It was also hard to find. It was in one of the buildings that once held Kipp Brothers Toys and Novelties, where I worked for many summers long ago. The wholesale district of town is changing. In comic books the heroes do their work in the heart of the city. Indianapolis should have worked harder to keep Superman.

Superman represents the best and most noble aspirations of each of us. He protects and serves like the police, but he will not be killed by criminals’ guns. He works for no company, government, or group, so his motives are pure and free of corruption. Superman fights for the good in the world because he can, and not for glory or paycheck. He has compassion for the weak and innocent. His enemies are the powerful, greedy, and self-serving of our world. Certainly the comics and graphic novels have thrown supernatural villains of all descriptions at the man of steel, but the villains who always remain are those who are hardest to stop, the human oppressors.

While Superman could destroy these misguided men, he chooses instead to work within our system of legal and moral guidelines, the same held by his earthly adoptive parents. They were imagined as humble farmers in rural Kansas. As his alter self, Clark Kent, he tries to use media exposure to stop corrupt individuals from doing more harm. His biological parents were scientists who, in another world, tried to stop their government from harming their planet beyond repair, but the damage was already too great. The world of his birth was destroyed.

Yet even with the powers he possesses on Earth, he also must live with the burden of his own limitations. He reminds us that the best of us, even one better than all of us, is still only one person. Superman fans know that power and influence is only worthwhile if it used to guide and inspire others to use their own power responsibly and wisely. We all have power.

In a Superman book called Peace on Earth the artist, Alex Ross (the greatest hero artist of the modern era), shows Superman whisking around the planet trying to tackle the human crisis of hunger. In one segment he carries a cargo boxcar filled with food into an unnamed African or Asian setting where the soldiers of that nation open fire on him. Later in another country where the people are allowed access to the food he has brought, they claw at him and mob him so that he simply has to get away. He realizes that bringing food to the starving is the wrong kind of help for such a massive problem. Superman cannot help them. He cannot assume control of corrupt governments, nor can he destroy them, for what might take their place?

Ross also paints Superman in a most human light, physically. He is shown looking weary, dejected, almost defeated. No matter how pure his intentions, no matter how awesome his powers may be, he still protects a world of pain and suffering. But in that moment we readers understand that this is what really makes Superman the hero he is. He does not give in to despair. He does not give up his efforts or call them hopeless. He does not harbor hatred for humanity. He keeps fighting for the greater good. He fights on because he can. It was why he was put here.

Ultimately, we need Superman to remind us of our own obligation to fight for the greater good. Superman can’t do everything, but he does his best to do whatever he can do to push the balance a bit more in favor of goodness. And precisely because Superman is not real, writers, artists, and others keep his story alive. If we each strive for greatness, each of us fighting as we can to put down injustice, corruption, and deception, there would be no need to tell his story.

In all that you do, strive for greatness.

-originally published on 10/4/2008

Reaching Our Goals

Each time I enter data into the food diary of my Lifesum app, if my kids happen to be around, I can expect an incoming snarky comment or two. They are entitled to mock now and then because they know it’s safe to do it, and because they know it’s important to me that I stay with what works.

Keeping the data helps me to monitor what I am taking in. The exercise portion of the diary keeps track of what gets burned. The old formula works- calories in / calories out. My meals get rated according to their nutritional values as well as in reference to my preset goals.

I am working on weight loss as well as strength increases. Both of these are happening. There is nor much left before I break the 200 pound mark. As numbers can mean many things, 200 pounds for a man is interesting. If you are an athlete or not, the weight really depends more on a combination of factors. If it’s true that 69% of the population is overweight, then there must be some data to suggest what particular marks we are missing.

Body Mass Index, while it is better than just a number on the scale measuring simple mass, is problematic, at best. The number combines height, weight, and also age. It doesn’t, however, measure a person’s muscle mass, density, problem areas, personal aesthetics, or even other metrics connected to body type. Bone density is not uniform either. These variables all matter.

What type of body composition do you have? The scale doesn’t measure body fat percentages, but these can be measured. Does a heavily muscled man who weighs 250 pounds still rate as obese? Does it matter what you call it if the heart is weak or compromised?

When my mother died in the summer of 2015 I learned a lot about heart health and what it means to lack such health. A weak heart or a compromised cardiovascular system will debilitate anyone, regardless of outward health numbers like weight or BMI. So what I decided at that time was that a whole health approach would be best for me. I got badly sidetracked in that pursuit, but I am back on track. The health app on the phone doesn’t do anything for me that I don’t first do for myself.

I have supporters, one in particular, who checks in with me and helps to motivate me. A support system is essential for me. My kids are part of that system. Even if they support me by including me in some harmless teasing, they still do it with love and concern. When my oldest daughter listens patiently to me as I explain highland games techniques, or equipment I need, that is priceless support. When she walks with me to the local sports field to practice with the stones, that is beyond caring.

I spoke my goal of competing in highland games into existence. I knew I needed a vision. It isn’t for anyone but me to appreciate, but without it, I knew I would repeat again the same destructive patterns I had for far too long. I have never done the games, but I have been a fan for a long time. I have always loved strength sports. But I also quietly whispered to myself that I wasn’t good enough to participate in them. I listened to critics and their negative messages for decades. So now as I sit in quarantine, contemplating how to continue making gains, I see the vision of myself in athletic competition.

I chose the age marker of 50 for the games because it also seems to be one of the turning point numbers for many men. It is seem by many as the other side of the hill. I will have to disagree with that assessment. I am feeling stronger than I have in many years, and I don’t see an end in sight. The other day as I was walking one of my “sandbags of doom,” I came across a couple of high school guys, presumably footballers, pushing a car along in a parking lot.

I was walking along with a 78 pound sandbag on my shoulder. I don’t know what they thought about me, and it’s not my business. But I felt like I had something to say without saying anything. The white hair mixed in with the dark remnants can tell the wrong message. The man carrying the weight is comfortable doing it. Look at his expression. He is calm and confident. He has a long way to go, but he knows that the journey is important, too.

Maybe they eventually got in their car and laughed at the crazy old guy. When I was seventeen I would have appreciated the efforts of the man. I would have admired his determination. I would have thought, I hope I can be hauling sandbags through the park when I am that old.

Hmmm… I guess I am.

When I reach the set of goals I have set for now, I will reset them again. I like this pattern. This routine I don’t mind repeating. Peace to you, friends. Let me know you were here. You know how.

Life In Phases

Life has a way of handing over some focus even if you aren’t asking for any. I wouldn’t have guessed when I turned 49 that I would be living through a pandemic on orders to stay home and keep two meters away from others, but here I am. Seeing people I know fall victim to an unseen enemy, I have taken some time to evaluate and reflect.

Working until I am statistically on death’s door just doesn’t compute. I think what I do matters. Teaching is an essential profession, and a rewarding one. Even so, what I do can be done by others, and will be done by others immediately after I move on. It doesn’t have to be done by me. At the time I plan to leave the profession, I will have put in 33 years. That sounds like enough. What comes next?

When I was a kid I watched a lot of tv. One of the shows I enjoyed was Grizzly Adams. Looking back on that show, I really like the idea of being able to make a place for yourself somewhere in the world. I like the idea of being left alone to do what isn’t harming anyone. As a kid I liked the friend bear concept, too, but now maybe a couple of stout dogs would be just fine. The open wilderness isn’t much of a reality now, but having a place that is isolated can still happen. Life doesn’t have to include neighbors who can see you every time you open a door or window. It doesn’t have to include neighborhood associations and indistinguishable cul-de-sacs. Nor is the only alternative an apartment or a condominium. There are options.

One of the options lies in the ability to move from here to there. I’ll be on the hunt for the place that will be my last address. When I find it, I will not worry about leaving where I am and going to a new environment. At that point my kids, should they want to be with me, can certainly make their way. I can help with that.

This new place will be new to me, but not new to the world. There are beautiful homes with personality and character that may be over 50, 75, or 100 years old, but gorgeous all the same. There are no perfect places, I understand this, but there are places perfectly fitting for me. I will find mine.

On the property of this existing old home, I will need to have certain amenities. An old barn could be converted into several types of spaces. The home gym and training area will be important. In addition to hiking, walking, and chopping wood, I will need to maintain different training regimens, depending on the needs of the time. This area would need to be apart from standard living spaces. Solitude and laziness are not productive partners.

Gardening will be a must. The gardens will have spaces for vegetables, herbs, and flowers. And a greenhouse could be in order as well, since I will not likely favor a hot climate zone. This provides food, medicine, and peace of mind. The flowers also will be important for the bees. Elsewhere on the property will be the apiary. Keeping and supporting bees is, quite literally, saving the world.

My happy compound will also have a place for chickens. Happiness has often come to me in the form of fresh eggs. This all sounds like a lot to the observer, but it is what I want. Everything has a purpose. Certainly there are other items on the list, too, that I will not write about just now. The place I imagine will require a lot of time, but that’s what I will have more of later on.

Waiting for this place to appear on my daily routes would be folly. I will have to go somewhere to find it. Waiting for the perfect time is equally foolish. There is nothing but now. And while I will be waiting for very practical reasons, I will not wait for perfection or rare opportunities.

In this next phase of life I will still be working. There is no need to pretend that money will be irrelevant. But work in the job sense of the word, will resume a much more subdued role in life. I’ll have a working situation, but no more than is really needed. There will still be wants as well as needs, but peace and solitude will be mine. Real estate friends, do your thing.

Are Preppers Gloating?

You might know something about preppers from personal experience or maybe from tv shows like “Doomsday Preppers.” These are the folks who have made preparations for some sort of disaster, threat, or apocalyptic scenario. They have food storage, power systems, water reserves, and, of course, defenses for their strongholds.

A few weeks ago everyone would have had a laugh, or maybe a dismissive comment regarding Preppers. Now I imagine the attitude toward them is shifting a bit toward admiration and away from derision.

I don’t know anyone who has gone to the extremes depicted on the tv shows, but I am reminded of my grandparents. When they were alive, I remember walking in their garage. It was equipped with shelving from top to bottom. Most of the shelves held the jars of food that they had canned themselves.

In addition to the canning jars, they had a large chest freezer stuffed with meats. They had lived through the Great Depression. They knew something about shortages, hunger, and want.

My grandma told me once when I had asked about all of the food, why she kept it all the way she did. She said in her plainspoken Kentucky way that because of what she had lived through, no one in her family should ever have to be hungry. I understand that now more than ever.

I don’t advocate hoarding, but I do think we can learn extremely valuable lessons about preparedness from our elders. We shouldn’t become so devoted to societal conveniences that we forget our most important qualities of independence and self-reliance.

Quarantine

Quaranta means forty in the Italian speech,

Which makes me write this poem, understandably, a reach.

In forty-four minutes get twice the “Rick and Morty.”

It’s your third point in tennis, if you happen to be sporty.

The gang of thieves was just huge that ran with Ali Baba;

The Titanic got the warning from that other ship, Mesaba. (So, the message was sent at 9:40pm, warning the crew about the ice, but no one was monitoring communications at that time. The message never made it to the bridge.)

quarantina- forty days

We’re in the Holy season of Lent,

And the number of days of fasting that Jesus spent.

If we have to stay inside for that particular stretch,

I’ll write more poems like this, or better yet, sketch.

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