Being Alive

At church yesterday my pastor asked the question “When was the last time you felt fully alive?”  That question got me thinking (as all pastoral questions should), when WAS the last time that I felt fully alive?  That question led in its turn to the question “What does it mean to feel fully alive?”  This new question led me further to wonder “What does it even mean to BE fully alive?”  I’m not at all certain that I know the answer to any of those questions but I believe that they are worth investigating, so I will begin with the last question and work my way towards the first.

I guess that to be fully alive might mean that I am breathing.  Metabolism and cellular respiration are taking place within my body.  I am different from the chair in which I am sitting or the large volcanic rock resting on the patio outside of the coffee house where I sit writing this essay, in that I am alive and they are not.  This revelation would lead me to conclude that the last time that I felt fully alive was the last nanosecond before this current nanosecond.  I do not believe that this conclusion addresses my pastor’s point however.  Under the simple construct “alive equals fully alive” my pastor’s question would have no meaning, and pastors, good ones anyway, don’t ask questions that have no meaning.

Looking a bit further out across the patio I see trees in very large pots.  Those trees are much more like me than the rock is and I believe you could say that it is fully alive.  Water and nutrients are coursing from the roots up the stem and branches to the beautiful red leaves, where photosynthesis is going on to provide the sugar needed by the plant to maintain life.  Yes, I believe that I can honestly say that this tree is fully alive.  What I am not able to say is that it feels fully alive.  I don’t know if the tree feels at all.  Then again, I don’t know that it does not.  I was always intrigued by the line from the 1951 movie “The Thing from Another World” in which an alien that had evolved from a plant origin rather than an animal one is threatening scientists at a research station at the North Pole.  A journalist is amazed by this discovery and a scientist tells him that some plants, such as the telegraph vine, do a certain sort of thinking right here on Earth.  The journalist is mind boggled and then told that he should not be.  “Intelligence in plants and vegetables is an old story Mr. Scott.  Older even than the animal arrogance that has overlooked it.”  Of course, that’s just a movie.  But in truth I don’t know what plants may or may not ‘feel’.  Perhaps they do feel things in some way.  This would be a most unsettling thought for my vegan friends.

So even in my not-knowing I am going to assume that plants never feel more alive or less so.  Animals however present a tougher nut to crack.  I have kept many cats as pets in my life and can testify to their many moods.  I have seen anger, contentment, fear, hunger, playfulness and perhaps even affection in my cats.  What makes the waters more muddy is the question whether the cats KNEW that they were angry, contented, afraid and so on.  I don’t believe that they did.  When a cat was curled up on my blanket-covered lap while I took a nap on a gray winter afternoon, did she ever think “I feel contented now, but I felt more contented last week when I was curled up here after a really big meal?”  I don’t think so.  Plants may feel things and animals certainly do, but I cannot convince myself that either one can reflect on their feelings.  Forgive my human arrogance, but only we can do that.

This brings me to the question of what it means for me to be fully alive, and in order to get to the heart of that I have to ask what if means to be fully me.  That question leads me inevitably into theology, and that should surprise nobody since this whole line of thought began with a question by a pastor in a church on a Sunday morning.  Me, therefore, is a sentient being of the species Homo sapiens (although a charge of containing a considerable amount of Neanderthal DNA has been leveled against me from time to time). I am not only unlike any other non-human lifeforms on this planet, I am unlike any human one too.  I have likes and dislikes, I not only know hunger and contentment and fear but remember other times that I felt them and can grade whether or not I was more hungry then or more afraid now.  I can create and I can willfully destroy; yes, I am unique in the universe.

To what can I ascribe this uniqueness (for better or for worse)?  To chance?  Not likely.  No tornado ever went through a Kansas junkyard and made a jet aircraft, and leaving an old Buick on blocks in the front yard of my house will earn me a few lumps on my head from the hand of my wife but will never evolve into a Lamborghini.  Things left alone go from order to disorder; all real scientists know this.  So I have to conclude that I am designed by an intelligence that is outside of the natural order.

That intelligence has broken into our world and told us a little bit about Itself and why S/he went to the trouble to create me, and has explained that what I am on this day as I write this rambling essay is a very imperfect image of what I was designed to be and, I am promised, some day will be.  I am alive today but not fully alive.  My being, now freed from the iron grip of death, must still drag vestiges of death around as I go about my daily affairs and I cannot help but feel the effects of those ultimately conquered but nevertheless troubling vestiges as I progress towards the day when those final vestiges well be fast off and a new life as what God – let’s go ahead and call that Intelligence what S/He really is – sees me as will begin.

Feeling fully alive, then, means to me feeling at least in part how I will feel when I finally am that being that I am intended to be.  When full joy, full love, full compassion, full mercy, finally are the norm for my life I will be more like the tree and the cat: aware of love but not as a variant from full love and aware of contentment but not as a variant from full contentment and so on.  Only hunger, pain, anger, disappointment and the like will be either memories or obliterated altogether.  A life of infinitely variable joy, not variable in the sense of quality but rather in the manner of sensing and expressing it, will be what I will feel when I am fully alive.

So when was the last time that I felt fully alive?  I haven’t yet.  There are a good many times when I have felt pointed toward feeling fully alive; when a child or grandchild was born, or when a kitten is rescued from likely death, or when I see the first shoots of a garden break through the soil with their promise of delicious and healthy food produced by the work of my hands and sweat of my brow.  But I have never felt fully alive and do not believe that I ever will until my earthly struggle is over and I stand perfected in the presence of Ultimate Perfection.

So should I despair that I can never, by my own efforts, hope to even approach being fully alive while in this life?  Not at all.  I get periodic glimpses of what that fully alive life will be like and that is enough to keep me energized and moving forward toward the life to come.  And when was the last time that I had one of those glimpses of being alive?  Today, and yesterday, and the day before that.  Any time that I stop for a moment to savor watching two friends chat over coffee at the table next to me while one of them scratches behind the ears of a gigantic Newfoundland dog, or when I help a friend prepare his garden for planting the spring crop, or read a story to a grandson sitting on my knee, I am looking down that path toward being fully alive, and sensing in a small way how it will be when it is my only reality.

I believe that we all have many opportunities to feel like we are on that pathway toward being Fully Alive every day.  The complexities of life may cloud the view and there’s no point in being a pollyanna about this; some people’s life circumstances make sensing that path to Fully Alive a lot more difficult to see than do other’s  It can still be done however, if we have the desire to do it.  I recommend that choice, as it makes all of our “nows” more bearable.

A Garden of Delights, Part II

After I graduated from high school in 1966 gardening ceased to be a part of my life for a while.  Summer began with me kicking around the neighborhood with my friends, the ones of whom my father disapproved back when I was a child in school.  Now I was a graduate and although my friends were still not welcome at our house, where I went and with whom I went there was now only my own business.  There was a war going on however, and I was pretty certain that the draft board would be calling me sooner or later, so before that summer ended Matt Hanley and I took a bus downtown and joined the Army.

There was little time for gardens at boot camp, and while opportunities for tending a garden abounded at my first real duty station in Texas the impulse just wasn’t there.  I was assigned to a supply company that did not have a mission to supply anything, except warm bodies for any number of really crappy details that needed to be done around Fort Hood.  We would get up in the morning and get dressed, fall out into formation to be counted, harassed, and dismissed to breakfast.  We were then supposed to return to our barracks and await the First Sergeant who would come through and choose “volunteers” to mow and edge the fort commander’s lawn or haul latrines into the field for the 2nd Armored Division or whatever.  The challenge, of course, was to not be found.

Some of the guys had no imagination and just laid around the barracks as instructed.  Those suckers were sent on some really nasty details.  The First Sergeant, or “Top” as we called him, soon tired of sending the same old guys and began to seek out those of us who were less inclined to be willing players in this ridiculous game.  Some guys walked to a snack bar less than a block away and drank Cokes, smoked, played music on the juke box and shucked and jived about how cool they were back home.  They were low-hanging fruit.  Top busted them quickly and just as quickly yielded to the urge to find the more imaginative of us shitbirds.  Some he found at the fort swimming pool, some at the main PX, some at various baseball fields and the fort theater.  Top loved finding a goldbrick just when the goldbrick thought that he was home free and ready to enjoy a day of freedom and goldbrickery.

But Top never found me.  My nickname at that time was Weasel, because if I didn’t want to be seen I would not be seen, and Top hated me for it.  I occasionally took my chances like the other guys at the swimming pool, the theater or the Main Px, but most of my time there in Texas I spent at a branch library little more than a half a block away from Top’s orderly room.  My guess is that Top wasn’t the greatest reader in Texas, and the last place that he would have thought to look for an indolent yardbird like myself was in a library.

I loved that library.  It was air conditioned.  It was loaded with books.  It had access to the books of the main library and beyond.  I read everything that I could get my hands on that was written by Bradbury, Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, et. al.  I would lean back in a comfortable chair, put my feet up on a metal folding chair that the GI’s running the place provided for me, and read and doze for hours on end.  At length, about 2:30 or 3 in the afternoon, I would emerge from my cocoon and stroll back to the barracks for an evening of heavy partying with a kaleidoscope of guys of all races and economic classes and geographical provenance.

In such a scenario playing in the dirt would have made me entirely too visible, and so I had to abstain from the pleasure that I am certain that gardening in the Texas dirt under that glorious Texas sun would have been.  There was room.  There were seeds.  There was time.  I was both in Texas and the Army, so there was no shortage of bullshit.  But the thrill of reading great science fiction and eluding Top at the same time was more than I could overcome, so gardening had to take a distant back seat in the train of my life at that time.

I left Texas in September of 1967, a little more than a year after leaving home on that bus, and spent most of the next two years in Vietnam.  As one might imagine, the garden was not on my list of higher priorities while I was over there, but one plant was added to my short list of consumables:  marijuana.  I had smoked some in Texas but the intoxicating weed became a staple for me as I self-medicated in order to ignore the reality that surrounded me, and after my two tours in ‘Nam I returned home and began to grow my own stash as an alternative to the more expensive ten-dollar bags that were readily available in the drug community.

I had a partner in this crime.  Wes, my oldest friend, had developed a green thumb while I was away.  How that happened I have no idea, but as soon as we reconnected we began to farm our seeds and seedlings wherever we could.  Like little Johnny Appleseeds we would traipse up and down the unused canyons of Balboa Park or we would walk parallel to the shoulders of the two lane road that led from east El Cajon up the face of a hill to the appropriately named village of Crest, planting our crop.  Once, after a large forest fire denuded a huge patch of the Laguna Mountains, we volunteered to help replant evergreen seedlings in the scorched area.  We would plant two seedlings and two marijuana seeds, then two more seedlings and two more marijuana seeds, and so on until we had exhausted our supply of both.

Once we tried our luck closer to where we lived.  On a chaparral covered hillside on the north end of Mission Gorge, not far from Wes’ mother’s house, we crawled through the dry, prickly brush and found a flat area that got good sun.  We planted seedlings this time and watered them from our canteens.  A few days later we returned to water again and as we approached our little garden we were greeted by the unmistakable whirr of a rattlesnake warning us to seek our fortunes elsewhere, which we did at nearly the speed of light.

All of these gardening endeavors fell short due to our inability to tend to our crop.  Weed, just like tomatoes and cucumbers, needs to be cared for in order to succeed.  It was therefore easiest to grow our stash as close to where we lived as possible, and that ended up being in our back yards.  This presented no problem for Wes, since his mother almost never ventured into their back yard, and she wouldn’t have cared anyway.  My situation was different, since Dad was in the back yard nearly every day.  I planted my seeds anyway and told Dad that they were a variety of tomato.  Dad bought it, and even helped me to cultivate the little devils.  This was a first class stupid and self-centered act on my part.  My father was a public school teacher and the repercussions from finding pot growing in his back yard could have been crushing.  I am not at all proud of that little move.  Pop helped to grow some dynamite weed though.

Real gardening returned to my life when Wes, Clarice (who was to become my wife), and I moved into an apartment in El Cajon in 1971.  Across the parking lot was a large and mostly unused back yard covered with weeds and junk.  Wes caught the attention of the owner one day and asked if he would mind a small corner of his yard being used as a garden.  The owner agreed and soon Wes and I had dug pup, fertilized and planted a 20′ by 20′ plot, cut in two.  I grew tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans, while Wes did the same and added squash and peppers.

The garden was successful, and out kitchen was full of produce, as were those of the other tenants in our building.  This occurred while Wes and I were completing our two years at Grossmont Community College, where we were taking a world history class together.  We were both completely invested in that class and so it is not surprising that we jokingly made little alters to various Mesopotamian agricultural deities, with Wes selecting those from Assyria and me preferring those from Sumer.  None of this signified anything like a theological impulse.  I had given up on God while still a teenager when He stubbornly refused to dance the way I wanted Him to whenever I whistled a tune, and my resumption of a relationship with the Great Gardener would have to wait more than a decade to be achieved.

We build shrines out of bottle caps, an old tennis shoe, a bent fork, in fact any silly little thing that we could scounge up out of our trash can or the junk that littered the barren yard.  And we had a great harvest too!  Of course the steer manure and slug repellant and daily watering and tender, loving care that we administered while we sat back in the garden under the warm San Diego sun, nearly naked and smoking pot while working on our homework assignments probably had something to do with the harvest as well.  We moved out of that apartment before the end of the season and I don’t know what came of the garden.  If anybody cared to pick up the responsibility for it, I know that they were well rewarded.

In September of 1972 I travelled north to Rohnert Park, north of the San Francisco Bay, to attend Sonoma State College.  During the fall and winter I was busy with school and making new friendships, but with the arrival of spring the sap began to flow in my limbs once again and I felt the urge to get my fingers back into the dirt.  On a corner of the property where the two buildings of my apartment complex came together was a large square of field grass that was mowed but otherwise ignored.  I contacted the owners and inquired whether I might put a garden there.  They agreed and even produced a pick, shovel, rake, and some other hand tools, and I fell quickly to work.

Initially my efforts drew little attention, but as the grass was hacked out, the dirt turned over, and squares and hills fertilized with manure purchased out of my meager G.I. Bill check, more people became interested in my project.  Jan and Sheila, a couple who lived around the corner from my unit, were vegetarians and very interested in my idea.  I told them to pull weeds and help me water the beds, and then to help themselves to all that they wanted.  One day, while I was employing a pick in the act of expanding the plot and sweating profusely, Lisa and Esther happened to come by.  Lisa and Esther were a couple who lived in Building B and had spent time in Israel on a kibbutz, and thereby came to respect the growing of one’s own food.  They came down to admire “a sweating man.”  I enjoyed the attention but knew that neither of these very pretty ladies had much in the way of romantic interest in men, sweating or otherwise.  They were good people though, who pitched in and then helped themselves to the bounty.  They remained friends until I left northern California for good.

That garden was hugely successful.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, carrots, onions, peppers, even eggplant (from Jan and Sheila’s contribution; I still don’t consider eggplant to be food) were some of the vegetables that poured out of the garden and into our student kitchens.  I was good at eating cheaply, with beans and hamhocks and rice making much of my diet.  The addition of the green stuff helped to stretch things even further.

And then came the long drought.  I returned to San Diego in the summer of 1973 while the garden was producing in full force and began to do construction work with Brad, my brother.  Many years, a couple of different careers, and a marriage or two would come and go before I would once again have the opportunity to reestablish my relationship with the dirt and the things that can grow in it.

That drought came to an end sometime in the late 1990’s when I could no longer stand to see my back yard barren of any edible vegetable life.  At this time I lived at the edge of a low hill and my back yard sloped in two directions; one towards the road cut to the west and the other towards the creek to the north that trickles westward towards the Columbia River a few miles downstream.  This double slope was ungardenable, and therefore it took several years for me to haul, by hand, sixty and twenty pound concrete blocks into my yard in order to build up five terraces of usable level ground.  Over twenty yards of dirt was dumped on my driveway and rolled, one wheelbarrow at a time, into the back to fill my terraces with the dirt that would soon put food on my table.

I wanted clean dirt, but there was no way of knowing where my dirt had come from.  Perhaps it came from a new cut into a hillside, or maybe from the back lot of an auto wrecker.  Heck, for all I knew it came from the Love Canal.  None of this mattered much to me; I had my dirt and I would make it into what I wanted, and four-way mix and steer manure and maple leaves and grass clippings; all were worked into the rock-infested clay that they had dumped in my driveway, and year after year the soil grew looser, the earthworms thicker, and the yields more plentiful.  In fact today, as I write this in April of 2016, there are a few green beans and blueberries yet in the freezer that grew in last year’s good earth.

And now, at last, I have the farm that I used to dream about with my father.  With the addition of a 20′ by 20′ plot at a nearby community garden to my five productive terraces in the back yard I am able to grow enough food to fill my freezer, cover my table, and give away to neighbors and friends to my heart’s content.  With earplugs in place to block the street noise I will sit in the midst of my gardens all summer, pulling weeds, feeding and aerating plants, and being entertained by the pollinating work of the honey bees.  I’ll watch as the tiny wasps and bigger Tachinid flies flit in and among the flowers planted especially to attract them, knowing that they are feasting on aphids and cabbage worms.

The best part of my gardening life now lies in sharing my experiences with younger gardeners, mush like my father shared his with me.  Neither of my children developed a passion for the soil like I did and that’s OK.  They have built there own lives and done a fine job of it.  It feels good though to pass on my knowledge to people who may pass it on in their own turn.  Perhaps I’m sharing a little of my Dad, who shared his father with me and so on.

Oh, and there’s not a tennis shoe or a bottle cap to be found in any of my gardens.  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

A Garden of Delights, Part I

The sun came out yesterday and in my corner of the Pacific Northwest we seldom take that for granted, especially anytime before July 4.  Yesterday happened to be April 8, and so this happy event was relished all the more because of its early date.  To me such a blessing is not one to be ignored nor allowed to pass without being enjoyed to the fullest, and in my world that means spending time in the garden.  In 1963 the Beach Boys sang about a sanctuary to which they could flee from the troubles of the day.  In their song “In My Room” they sang “Do my dreaming and my scheming. Lie awake and pray.  Do my crying and my sighing. Laugh at yesterday.”  In 1963 I liked that song.  In 2016, when I’m in my garden, I understand that song.

Going back ten years before Brian Wilson wrote that song it would have been hard to peg me as a guy who would grow up to love growing edible things.  At five years of age I was already engaged in a war with my father over what I would and would not eat, and nearly anything vegetable other than corn, tomatoes and potatoes clearly fell into the ‘would not’ category.  I couldn’t understand why my mother would buy those odious weeds and cook them when she knew, plain as day, that I would not eat them and then there would be the devil to pay.

“Just try a bite” my mother would say.  “They really taste better than you think.”  I knew a bald faced lie when I heard one, and my mouth would temporarily remain free of whatever nauseating plant matter Mom was trying to foist onto me.  “Eat those peas!” Dad would growl.  “I’ve seen Chinese people row their boats up to the garbage chutes to get what the sailors threw away—.” I wanted to ask Dad if he ever threatened the other sailors who were enjoying their right to chose what they did and did not want to eat the way he was threatening me, but Pop would not put up with backtalk from his offspring, so I would bite back hard on my disgust and insert about half a teaspoon of peas into my mouth and roll them over to my cheek, where I would store them like a chipmunk storing nuts.  Dad would continue to insist, I would continue to insert, roll and store, and eventually the dinner table experience would melt down and conclude in a most painful and unpleasant manner.  The next day Mom would cook something more congenial to my taste buds and I would enjoy a little caloric intake in peace.  Eventually, however, she would have to produce something more consistent with my father’s taste and the tension would begin anew, ending in the next eruption.  No sir, nobody would ever have guessed that I would ever want to grow those ghastly plants, least of all me.

Dad wanted to grow them however, and when he wasn’t involved in the aftermath of the Korean War or the opening stages of America’s intervention into the affairs of an obscure corner of Asia called Indochina that was engaged at that moment in throwing off French rule, Dad was planning the garden that he intended to create in our back yard.  Dad was just the guy to do it too.  He was born and raised on a Georgia farm, and when he joined the Navy after completing high school it was to escape the Great Depression, not the rigors of farm life.

In fact, Dad intended to return to Georgia after his six year hitch in the Navy but a little impediment to his plans called World War II popped up and at that point all thoughts and plans of civilian activities were put on hold for the duration.  The duration came to an end in early August of 1945 in the form of mushroom clouds over two unlucky cities in Japan, and not long after that the U.S. armed services began to draw down from their swollen wartime numbers.

“Take Brad and return to Tifton” my father instructed Mom in a letter sent from somewhere on the other side of the world.  “I’ll meet you there and we’ll buy a farm with my savings and severance pay.  You can stay with my family until I get there.”

That wasn’t a good plan.  My mother would have probably done OK on a farm, her early life having been lived in the rough and impoverished coal mining hills of eastern Kentucky.  She knew how to wring the neck of a chicken, grind sausage, make preserves and some of the best gravy known to man and so on, but putting my Mom into the orbit of my father’s family was like throwing water onto a grease fire.

I don’t suppose my father’s family was all that different from anyone else’s, but there were one or two peculiarities that stood out to me about them.  My grandmother suffered from some sort of mental/emotional disease; I don’t know what you would call it now but I’m sure that it has a name and a chapter or two in a textbook somewhere.  I just thought that Grandma was crazy as hell, and she scared the shit out of my young self whenever I was back there.  And then there was my uncle who once sent Brad to fetch his guitar out of a closet so that he could sing and play for us.  “Why does Uncle Fred have a sheet hanging in his closet?” Brad asked when he returned with the guitar.  I don’t recall hearing what Uncle Fred’s answer was.  Finally, after Grandma died in an automobile accident and Grandpa was forced to live with his kids, I secretly read a letter that Dad had received from his sister, who complained that Dad was not paying enough to support their father.  I knew Dad pretty well and knew also that he was, in his own complicated way, a generous man.  I’m sure that the language my aunt used in contradicting that assertion was sufficient to turn that old sailor’s ears red.

So off to Georgia Mom went, carrying a one year old and a battered suitcase, and it wasn’t long before the inevitable explosion left Mom and Brad in the only hotel in Tifton until she could get together enough money from Dad or Grandpa or her own family in Kentucky to purchase a ticket on the Greyhound bus back to San Diego, from whence she informed Dad that he could join here or not as he chose.  Dad chose to remain united with Mom, and with his Georgia farm plans now lying in smoldering ashes he re-enlisted in the Navy and made it a twenty year career.

Dad was to remain estranged from his farm in Georgia but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t have a garden in San Diego, so when we moved into the house on Highland Ave. in that city a garden was one of the first things that he wanted to begin.  As fate would have it, he didn’t get to start right away.  Our old, square stucco house needed a lot of work to bring it up to Dad’s standards, and faulty electrical work and inadequate plumbing and the demands of a Navy that still insisted on sending him on six month deployments forced him to put off the ground-breaking that he desired, and so I was six or seven years old when the plan began in earnest.

Dad’s plan ended up being more of a project for Brad and me in the beginning.  The adobe clay of our back yard was hard as concrete and thick with rocks which varied in size between pea gravel and bowling balls.  Dad still had plenty of other work to do so, as punishment for all of the screwing-up that two little shitbirds like Brad and me could get ourselves into, we would frequently be banished to the back yard with picks, shovels, hoes and rakes and made to break up that unforgiving clay and extract the rocks which would then be heaped into piles and later hauled away to a landfill.

How  we didn’t kill each other I haven’t a clue.  Brad and I would be simultaneously attacking the dirt with picks and with other sharp metal tools, and rocks and pieces of rocks and our own metal tools would be flying everywhere.  Then one of us, usually Brad, would attack the large clods of dirt with a hoe while I would crawl in the dirt and pull out the biggest rocks.  Finally we would rake through the rubble of what could have once passed for a perfectly good parking lot and remove the smaller rocks.  At the end of a prescribed period of such punishment a small square of broken dirt and a large pile of rocks would be the result of our efforts.

The punishment worked as such on Brad; he really hated having to work in the back yard.  It was not in Brad’s personality to work with the dirt.  At all!  Brad was very good with mechanical things and would have been perfectly happy to have been told to change the oil or perform a tune-up on the family car, or even to wash and wax and vacuum it out.  I guess that’s why Dad called it punishment; it wasn’t supposed to be fun.

The funny thing is that Dad’s plan didn’t work on me.  I initially groused and whined about the inhumanity of it all because that’s what Brad did, and he was as much of a role model to me as was my father, if not more so.  It slowly dawned upon me however that I liked digging in the dirt and hauling rocks off to the dump.  I hid this knowledge from my father however because it its a wonderful thing when you have penance to pay to be sentenced to perform what you like to do anyway, although by my teen years Pop had that scam pretty much figured out.  By the time that I was eight years old the back yard duty mostly belonged to Dad and me, and that’s when I really began to love the dirt and what it could do.

The first thing that Pop had to do to make our back yard soil suitable for something other than making bricks for Pharaoh was to work organic material into it.  Dad knew just what was needed and after a few trips to a dairy in Mission Valley he soon had a pile of cow poop in our back yard that would bring a smile to any Georgia farmer’s face.  The only drawback to that was that our neighbors; Mr. Robertson, the Butlers and the crazy Italian lady to the south of us, weren’t Georgia farmers.  The fine, rich aroma of a couple of yards of fresh cow shit wafted up out of the picked, shoveled, hoed and raked area that had previously been a surface that could stop a bullet, but at least didn’t stink.  Mom was aware of the grumbling that was beginning to circulate throughout the neighborhood but Dad, who had endured five and a half years of naval warfare in the Pacific and was possessed of a naturally truculent attitude anyway, could not have cared less.  In fact, I suspect that he enjoyed it.

We worked that manure into the garden area time and time again that summer and fall, and also spent a lot of time sitting in a big bench swing that Dad had built back there or on folding chairs right in the middle of the garden.  We would eat peanuts and watermelon and other such treats and throw the shells and rinds,  apple cores and potato peelings and everything else that a kitchen might produce into the garden where it would rot and enrich the soil.

It was in these times that Dad and I would enter into a fantasy world.  Pop would open a beer and tell me stories about being a boy in rural Georgia.  I would help myself to my portion of the beer and we would dream of building a cabin in the forest or maybe a farmhouse on 160 acres somewhere in the countryside.  I remember talking about taking one green bean seed and growing from it one pant.  I would sell the fruit of that plant and use the profit to purchase more seeds, which I would plant again until, sooner or later, I would become a sort of Green Bean Rockefeller.  Dad seemed to enjoy my fantasy as much as I did, and I don’t know whether he approved more of my incipient capitalist leanings or just my love of the idea of growing green beans.  Maybe it was both in equal measure.  In any case, in a childhood where my father’s moods could turn him from Dr. Jeckyll to Mr. Hyde with little warning, these were times when I felt as close to my father as I ever would.

By the next spring the manure had composted enough to allow planting, and plant we did. Seeds for tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, radishes, turnips and anything else that tickled Dad’s fancy and could be fit into our rather small garden were stuck into the ground and there was great joy when the first little shoots poked their heads up out of the warm, damp earth and into the sunshine.  We babied those shoots; further fertilized and protected them with snail and slug bait, and supported them with wood frames for the tomatoes and high crossbars dangling strings for the pole beans to climb.  I would spend hours of solitary time in that garden, watering and examining for pests, and at last drew the duty of taking Mom’s stainless steel ‘produce bowl’ into the garden to bring in that day’s bounty.

Most of that stuff I still wouldn’t eat, but how I loved to bring it in anyway.  The war at the table raged on unabated until, about age 13 or so, I was given the option of eating what was prepared for me or starve.  After literally starving myself Dad threw in the towel, and my love of growing only increased once I was released from the obligation of eating what I had grown.

Fewer evenings of my later teen years were centered on the back yard garden with Dad.  On the occasions when we were there we would share some beers and speak of politics, the war that had taken center stage of most people’s attention, Dad’s life as a youth and my thoughts on what I would do after high school was finished.  The truth was that I had no plans really, and I’m sure that my lack of aim and goal bothered Dad, who always had some sort of project in mind.  He hid any anxiety well enough however, and on those increasingly rare occasions when I wasn’t goofing off with friends of whom Dad wisely disapproved, or wasn’t pining over a pretty girl who would rather go out with a banana slug than an awkward, skinny, tongue-tied kid like me, I was probably digging my fingers into the rich, fertile dirt of the back yard garden and drawing inspiration, perhaps even in ways that I didn’t then understand, from the steady and solid promise of soil well tended with amendments, work and love.

Trap for a Raptor

Technology has changed our lives in more ways than I could possibly count.  Every aspect of our lives has been affected by innovations in our workplace, recreation, the kitchen, and everywhere else that you can think,  and in no area has technology made a larger impression on our lives than in communications.  In my lifetime we have gone from monaural record players, big box black-and-white televisions, telephones which shared four parties on one number (wait your turn and let emergency calls break through, and nicely at that, or Ma Bell will kick you off of the party line), and letters written in long hand (a secret code that only older people know), to a dizzying digital kaleidoscope of change and innovation such that I am not remotely qualified to even begin to try to describe it.

When I was young, many of these innovations were described as “labor saving devices”, a boon to housewives seeking a better way to cook a roast and remove grass stains from their children’s clothes (children once played outside) and a matter of suspicion to factory workers not at all sure that the robot tightening bolts and welding seams on the assembly line was in their best long-term interest.  A good many production line workers found that their suspicions were more than justified, and that was not the only area in which technology’s contribution to our society was less than positive.  Not by a long shot.  The newest innovations have changed for the worse one of the oldest problems in the history of humankind; the sexual exploitation of women and children.

“It’s the world’s oldest profession” is the way that some people describe prostitution, and that cliche does seem to lend a sense of inevitability and perhaps even a sideways respectability to the sale of a person’s body for the purpose of another person masturbating into it.  Perhaps there is even a class of women, mostly, and maybe a few men, who actually receive a ‘decent’ amount of money for their peculiar service.  None of that however is a fair characterization of the problem of sexual exploitation that exists in the United States and most of the rest of the world today.  The vast majority of women and children and the few men who are used as toys by others are paid little if anything by their handlers, and are frequently raped, beaten, photographed, and threatened with their own death or the death of a family member, or exposure on the internet if they dare try to escape their bondage or even fail to perform with an acceptable facade of enthusiasm.

How could this be?  How could men, and men are the consumers of this ‘product’ 99.9% of the time, possibly believe that sex with children as young as nine years old is right in any way?  How on earth can our society spawn this level of aggression against women and children?  Where does this impulse come from?

Really?  You have to ask that question?  The impulse for sexual gratification exists in virtually everyone, to one degree or another, and especially in men.  We are wired that way, just as we’re wired to interact in a community and in a thousand other ways common to human beings.  The true question should be “What has gone wrong with the 15% of men who have responded to that impulse in a negative and damaging way as regards themselves and the people whom they consume?”

And that is the percentage of American men who act on their fantasies at least once, according to one knowledgable source with whom I spoke, which would be a depressing number if the flip side wasn’t the fact that 85% of American men want nothing to do with the sex trade.  Further good news comes in the revelation that no more than 3-5% of men are serial abusers, or ‘hobbyists’ as they call themselves.  This puts a much more manageable light on the problem, although I do not mean to imply that management of the problem is anywhere close to being realized.  All the same, it’s a far sight better to have to deal with a problem of 3-5% than it is to wrestle with one of 100%.

But let’s look a little more closly at the problem.  As previously stated all men, or the vast majority of them at least, have a sexual impulse.  Most if not all societies have established norms for sexual behavior, in large part to regulate that impulse and reduce the friction and  disruption of society that sexual interactions between men and women can lead to.  Sadly, those norms have only rarely been established for the primary benefit and protection of women and girls, but usually that vulnerable segment of society does enjoy some side benefit that would not exist in a society which sanctioned unrestricted competition for the gratification of sexual desires.  The law of the jungle is a poor model for social expression of sexuality.

In the United States we have a fairly well developed model for sexual interaction which would protect the vulnerable if that model was more perfectly implemented (to say the least).  Most men know that rape is bad.  Most men know that sex with children is wrong.  Most men know that sex outside of a committed relationship can be dangerous on multiple physical and emotional levels.  Many men will experience the urge to take the leap anyway, and although most won’t follow through on that urge, some will.  Why?  What on earth conditions a man to take such a foolish and wrong action?

One small but important factor in explaining that ‘why’ can be provided by turning on one’s television.  American entertainment is saturated with sex.  Male and female soldiers killing giant bugs on an alien planet MUST have sex.  Turn the channel and you have the Titanic bearing down on its iceberg with the leading actress hanging her bare breasts in front of the cameras for the male lead to paint (and every man watching dream about).  Another turn and large lizards or malevolent robots or, worse, industrialists with expensive lawyers, are being challenged with explosions and gunfire and very hot babes.  If you choose to watch any, or all, of these entertainments you will be regularly assaulted on 12 minute intervals by actors and actresses oozing sexuality and trying to persuade you to buy their brand of car, their medication, their fast food or their antacids to counter the effects of that previously mentioned product.  As I said above, American entertainment is SATURATED with sexuality, and never, or at the very least rarely, is it accompanied by any genuine message of caution or moderation.

Can you hear it already?  “What are you, a prude?  Quit trying to shove your morals down everyone else’s throats.”  My response would be that in the first instance it depends upon how you wish to define “prude”, and in the second I would maintain that it is the entertainment industry that is shoving it’s morals down the throats of others, and not vice versa.  I chose not to watch the movie “Titanic” not because I was afraid to look at the actress’ breasts but rather because I was embarrassed for her.  She has a father and a mother, perhaps brothers and sisters, a husband (several, really) and children.  How do you suppose they would feel if they were viewing the movie while  a guy with his tongue hanging out was seated next to them?  How would you feel if she was your wife, mother, child or sister?

No, I don’t believe that the word ‘prude’ would apply to me in this instance, unless it was used as another word for ‘respect’.  In my opinion that word is one used by people with an agenda to beat other people into silence while they continue their work of making billions of dollars by selling images of unrestrained sexuality and in the process desensitizing their audience to the damage that unregulated, unleashed sexual indulgence does to the weakest in our society.  If images do not affect behavior, then billions are spend on Madison Avenue each year for no reason at all.

But enough about the problem.  Let us now turn to one solution.  A bold group of men, some of whom I know, have decided to use the tools of the sexual exploiters to turn the tables on them.  The trick goes like this: an advert for sexual favors is placed where predators go to find their victims.  When the phone number listed in the ad is called the caller does not get ‘Jennifer’ but instead is greeted by ‘George’ (nobody’s real name, as far as I know), who informs the caller that his number is now known. A conversation is then attempted to explain to the man the reality of what he is doing.

Most of the time a conversation does not ensue, and on those occasions when a conversation does ensue it is frequently a bitter and nasty thing:  evil hates being exposed.  Sometimes, however, a man on the other end of the call will engage and state that he had no idea of what the reality of sexual exploitation actually entailed, and sometimes one comes away with the hope that one man, one consumer, will turn away from buying sex.

How effective is this?  That is a valid question.  And the answer is that in the western city where this program was piloted researchers have noted that the market for sex peddled on-line and over the phones has plummeted, and currently nine other cities around the country are beginning the experiment too.  This is only a drop in the bucket, I know.  But each time a consumer of sex is scared or shamed or – better – educated into discontinuing that practice the victims have one less customer/oppressor and, perhaps, a family has a husband and perhaps a father who will turn away from an activity which will someday destroy it, and perhaps that husband and/or father will learn that he needs help, and will seek it.

The problem of sexual exploitation of women and children in America is a big one, but it is not beyond solution.  Most men are part of the solution, and the small percent who are active oppressors need not be left anonymous and untroubled.  By exposing sexual consumers to the light, healing at last might begin.