Paradise

I found Paradise. It is in Boone, North Carolina, away in the Appalachians. A longtime friend says he found it in Hyde County, North Carolina, but, much as I love him, he is quite sincerely misguided. To get to heaven, climb up US 421 from Winston-Salem, and take a left.

Paradise is a little cabin in a hollow beside a creek. It is quite small—a living room, bedroom, and a tiny bathroom. Of course, it has the conveniences of a TV, DVD player, and I think wi-fi, but I needed none of those.

Its most salient feature is the porch with two rockers. The rockers overlook the creek, which is shaded by several large trees.

The creek is home to ducks, who waddled up its banks and posed for my smartphone when I arrived, bedraggled from the interstate.

I learned that creeks do not make only one sound of babbling. I closed my eyes and listened. After a while I detected three separate rhythms, flowing in an ever-changing counterpoint. Jazz.

For two evenings, after sightseeing and getting lost numerous times, I rested on the porch, anchored to reality by a Dr. Pepper and KFC.

My soul, weary of the city, took delight. I lost track of digital time, and marked its passing only by my breathing and the sinking of the sun into the woods.

It was so green and calm, embodying serenity, the peace beyond understanding. I could easily imagine my Lord, seated to my right in the rocker, chatting with me about mental upheavals and small gratitudes. Listening to my soliloquies on this charmed stage.

My heartbeat slowed. The buzzing of thoughts and questions gave way to a soft murmur as I shed my many burdens. Water flowed and bounced over the wet stones, as they had since before I was born, as they would long after I was gone.

Here and now, in the sacred moment… Paradise Found.

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Being From Down Heah

I don’t fit the stereotype of southern white maleness.

I am not a NASCAR fan. (I do, though, enjoy the view from the in-car camera, except during crashes. Okay, during crashes too.) I think Budweiser tastes like crap in a can. I am a gentleman to the core, but don’t regard women as fashion accessories. I do not own a single CAT hat, motorcycles annoy me, I don’t think my momma was a saint, and I vote Democratic. I don’t own a dog, hound or otherwise, and my car repair chops are minimal at best. Golf bores me, and I think Rambo and Buford Pusser were idiots.

(However, I love the old twangy country music, console myself regularly with a Dr. Pepper, and will match you chomp for chomp over hush puppies. I think Willis Carrier deserves a Nobel Prize, regard college basketball as a civic religion, and know Opie had a fine daddy.

And I do want to know who your people are.)

Somewhere along the line, I lost most of my southern accent. Doesn’t matter. Ah still got mah groove on.

Mapplethorpe’s Flowers

The late American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe became notorious for controversial images of nude men that acknowledged sexual acts considered by some to be objectionable.

My view is kinder. Before he died of HIV/AIDS in 1989, he switched from model work to photographing flowers. He was practicalhe knew he had little time left and wanted subjects that could be quickly “posed”.

The link below takes you to a flower portfolio in the website of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. The eighth photograph, Tulips 1987, took my breath away. I think you will be glad you found it.

There is a link, “Back to List”, that sends you to thumbnails of his better-known work. The narrow-mindedness of this age compels me to warn you that you may find some of his non-floral images offensive and/or disturbing. If you have tender sensibilities, stick with the flowers. Either way, you will be impressed.

 The flowers.

Seven Things I Will Never Do

This is the opposite of a bucket list. These are things that I will never never never do, that God does not want me to do, that scare the willies out of me.

Skydiving. You must be kidding. Being dragged through the sky by machines with thousands of breakable parts is bad enough without jumping out of one. I have yet to see the words “parachute” and “prudent” in the same sentence.

Connect with a woman who tells me her entire life history in 20 minutes. This is the surest way to kill my curiosity. What can she do for an encore?

Eat mushrooms. Filthy, fungal, dirty, live-on-dead-trees mushrooms. Even the non-poisonous ones are slimy, slippery, and altogether disgusting. Aside from that, I like them.

Bungee jumping. Let’s see if I have this right. Climb a high platform, tie your ankles to a rope, and against every instinct dive face down into nothingness. And this will cost me how much? Send the bill to my chiropractor.

Eat snails, squid, octopus, or raw oysters. See skydiving.

Get laser eye surgery. I remember lasers. A laser almost cut Sean Connery in half. National Geographic showed a laser creating a shower of sparks as it bored through steel. And you want to point it at my eye.

Vote Republican. I have Republican friends, and they are good people. I just don’t trust them in groups.

A rational person would pursue none of these experiences… but for my irrational readers: have at it.

Beautiful

I am blessed with female friends. One of them you have met (Nancy). The others are all fine people.

I have male friends, but the majority of my friend-time is spent with women. I could analyze that to death, but it all boils down to this: of the two genders, I like women more. I am more simpatico with them, as a rule. I have several significant male friends in my life, but guy stuff has only limited appeal to me.

All of my women friends are beautiful. I am not speaking of looks – looks fade – but of soul.

Because I like being with them, I like looking at them. When I look at them, I remember why they are my friends in the first place. I remember their intelligence, their humor, their warmheartedness, their wisdom.

Somehow I was taught to value the intangible. I learned to balance the male propensity to gravitate toward pretty women with an appreciation of the inward qualities. (Similarly, I am less impressed by a man’s popularity and worldly success and more impressed by his manner and his treatment of others,including women.)

I am, of course, stating an ideal. Like most of my compadres, I paid more attention to Miss January than the girl next to me. Time has taught me better. And besides, expanding my conception of good looks widens the dating field, always a good thing in older adulthood.

All of my women friends are beautiful. They have integrity and they are real. They teach me and sometimes, when I most need it, they comfort me.

In the eyes of God, all women are beautiful, and all men. If we could only see ourselves as our maker does. He or she sees beyond our skin and our shape to gaze upon our essence. God sees our hopes and dreams and joys and sorrows and our aspirations. She or he sees our longing for wholeness and our love of uplifting others.

Looks fade. Skin sags, eyes droop, wrinkles deepen, hair thins. What remains? The best of us.

Films I Love

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Roger Ebert

I agree. Here are some of my prayers:

Wings of Desire (directed by Wim Wenders). Angels wear black coats and smile kindly on mortals. Of course. A lovesong to human existence, Wings of Desire swoops in and out of divided Berlin, pausing to listen with understanding and compassion. A radiant tenderness compensates for its story weaknesses.

First Reformed (Paul Schrader). The agony and no ecstasy of a small-church pastor. First Reformed walks us through the disintegration and resurrection of a doubting man of faith, guided by a stunning performance by Ethan Hawke. Not for the faint of heart but well worth repeated viewing.

Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker). Channeling Mad magazine, Airplane!, leaves no comedic stone unturned. It never aspires to be more than bad jokes and visual puns hung on a disaster storyline. That is its glory.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola). Bill Murray’s weariness has more energy and wit than any ten youngsters. This lovingly slow film wanders through culture shock after culture shock, and charms us like few others.

Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick). My cinephile brother and I could have an entire conversation consisting of nothing but this film’s greatest lines. Watch it or you will be held accountable to the Coca-Cola Company.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg). Science fiction writers speak of a sense of wonder. Spielberg evokes the child in us, and the modern desire to meet an extraterrestrial Other.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve). Amy Adams stands in for humanity in this most human of visitation films. A film of rare intelligence and subtlety.

Pirates of the Caribbean (Gore Verbinski). If you want a movie that is fun from beginning to end, choose this. (Actually about 20 zillion ticket buyers already have.) The Citizen Kane of pirate movies, built around the fine-tuned insanity of Johnny Depp.

Intolerance (D. W. Griffith). Every, but every cinematic device of the 20th century appears in this classic of 1916. Yes, it’s preachy and heavy-handed, but Griffith weaves together four stories with lightning authority.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick). No one leaves this film unchanged. A cold-water bath of filmmaking, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke ask the questions central to sentience.

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock). Driven by Bernard Herrmann’s sublime music, Vertigo takes you further into the human mind than most people care to travel.

Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami). Filmed in Iran under strict censorship, Taste of Cherry locks down the camera, drives along endless dusty streets, and leaves you gasping, with one of the great ambiguous endings of film history.

Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov). Yes, this 90-minute film shot in one long take is a stunt. But along the way, you are privileged to gaze upon a gorgeous pageant of Russian history.

Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky). Remade decades later in English, Solaris plumbs depths of emotion and longing that few directors ever find. Told in Tarkovsky’s remarkable visual language, the ending of Solaris is quiet and terrifying.

Start streaming today.

Lead Me, Guide Me, Along the Way…

Uncertainty, pain, and suffering are woven into our DNA. American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, author, essayist, scholar, and activist, knew this. He prayed:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Days of Miracle and Wonder

These are the days of miracle and wonder… Don’t cry baby, don’t cry, don’t cry…

Maybe it’s the accordion, lilting in a jaunty rhythm. Maybe it’s the bass, sharply plucked, loping its way into your cortex. Maybe it’s the voice, rich and melodic.

“The Boy in the Bubble” opens Paul Simon’s masterpiece, Graceland. Released in 1986, the album opened American music to the extraordinary sounds emanating from Africa.

Maybe it’s the lyrics, each line a carefully-crafted epiphany of surprise and euphony: A shattering of shop windows… Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts. Medicine is magical and magical is art… There was a dry wind…[and it] curled into the circle of birth… A distant constellation that is dying in a corner of the sky… A loose affiliation of billionaires and millionaires…

It’s the rare pop song that speaks of terror, globalization, and astronomy. It was apropos in 1986 and it reminds us how nothing has changed in 2018, and in some ways gotten much worse.

The loose affiliation of billionaires and millionaires runs the world and shows no sign of letting go. The circle of birth has been corrupted, deserts advance, disease runs rampant.

Simon’s song is catchy, bouncy, and tickles the ear in a thousand ways, but not far beneath the surface is Bad News.

The sum total of our miracle and wonder is transforming human society utterly. There has never been such an outpouring of music, art, and sport. We peer through the constellations into a Universe of unimaginable splendor.

But only the naive are sure of where we are going.

We live in an age of miracle and wonder. And yet we cry.

Antipathies (Part Two)

The sound of your cat throwing up in the dark. Paper napkins with a holding capacity of one grease molecule. Militant atheists. Spilling your drink during the first thirty seconds of your first date. Spilling your drink during the first thirty seconds on your date. The willingness of conservatives to fight dirty. Radio announcers who o-ver-e-nun-ci-ate. The cheese strings that dangle from hot pizza. That sudden, audible crick in my neck when I move just so. The post-Lennon songs of Paul McCartney. Sex joke overload at the movies. Drivers that dart like dragonflies in traffic. Black vinyl car seats. Racist jokes. People who say, I hate to say this, and then say it. That tone of voice. You know, that one. Trying to find something, only to be told it’s “under the thing”. Surly cashiers. Wait staff that ask too often if you are enjoying your meal. People whose conversation consists solely of random personal questions. The Lutheran song This Is the Feast. Dry sermons. Candles that resist lighting. Clipping my toenails. The hairs that sprout from my ears, yes, ears. Quotations marks used for emphasis. Nonexistent words, such as alot and alright. The death penalty. Using the name of Jesus to beg for money. The sound of ice cubes being crushed in someone’s mouth. Men who assume a God-given right to smoke their cigar in a crowded room. Junk mail from the Democratic Party with continual warnings of Armageddon. Songs on the radio that fade out too early. Using kids and dogs to sell cars. Using the flag to sell cars. Zealotry of any stripe. The game of charades in which I successfully mimed Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and nobody knew of the movie. Being asked questions I can’t possibly answer. Plastic bottle caps that fail to separate. Moon landing hoaxers. Flat earthers. Birthers. Being interrupted. Facebook posts that dare me to scroll by. The cancellation of Apollo flights 18, 19, and 20. The idiot network executives who ordered endless repeats of the Challenger explosion. The woman whose reply to that tragedy was, so what? Louts who crowd parking spaces for the handicapped. People who send long texts sentence by sentence and phrase by phrase, pinging me every ten seconds. Excessive naivete. The typesetter who ruined my typing rhythm by pointing out that I only used eight fingers. Menus and windows that appear at random when I mistype near the shift key. Buzz Aldrin’s thirst for publicity. Online articles that jump spasmodically with the appearance of every ad. The overzealous sensor on my smartphone that pops up confusing screens when my fingers move a millimeter in the wrong direction. Your used as a contraction. Can’t they make drier peaches? Running out of the red stuff when eating watermelon. Ring tones that mimic the old telephone sound. The moment the original Lost in Space went from serious to stupid (hint: episode one). Overly large TV credits from the Seventies. Not being able to watch the original Star Trek in the Raleigh market during its initial run. Channel 11’s decision to ax The Prisoner after only one episode. Jet travel.

The sound of your cat throwing up any damn time.