Book 2, Meanderings and Mullings, and Why You Might Care

This post may go down as the weirdest author announcement of a new book ever! Related to that, why, you may ask, did I post this announcement over a month after its publication? 

What is not so weird is that my new book, Meanderings and Mullings, is made up almost entirely of some 140 previous short blog posts that I wrote from 2011 to 2017. Those writings span a wide range of topics that are part memoir, part essays, part humor, part travelogue, and part opinion. The stories come now with numerous updates—plus a complete reorganization to provide needed structure. 

Meanderings and Mullings pictured over Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child (2013).

Over a year before the release of Meanderings and Mullings, I told friends my goal was to have it out by October 2017. Amazon’s website says the publication date of hardcover and paperback versions was October 30, 2017, and they show the availability of the Kindle version a month later. That’s why I waited a month to announce the book was out, which is also available through local book retailers, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Kobo, and other major e-book sources. 

You ask, Why are you telling me all this? Well, those of you who are planning, writing, or in the middle of publishing your own books may have a better idea of what to expect when publication time comes. This post may help with that process. 

Here’s what Kirkus Reviews says about Meanderings and Mullings:

“Russell returns to his childhood on a Tennessee farm, but this time he fondly recollects activities ranging from mule skinning and tobacco harvesting to corncob fights . . . The author also exhibits an engaging sense of the absurd. Russell’s affable nature and evident wonderment at the world around him ultimately win the day.” 

Finally, here’s more reader info from the book’s official overview:

Meanderings and Musings is a collection of true stories, short essays, humor, travelogues, and ruminations that entertain, inspire, and stir thought. Russell has a voice that is easy to hear as he takes you back to his animated childhood in the rural South. As he moves through adulthood, there are intriguing takes on academe where he spent his career, poignant observations, and delightful surprises. An intrepid traveler, Russell describes his trips in unusual ways and with characters who come to life. His deliberations engage and challenge. This book is worth taking time to read, savor, and revisit. How could you ask for more?

Russell’s first book, Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child, tells of a life forever changed by his paranoid schizophrenic mother’s death at his father’s hands. In that book and in this one, which Kirkus Reviews notes “is made of more cheerful stuff,” Russell writes with unusual empathy for the struggles of others he comes to know. With curiosity, humor, and insight in this his second book of nonfiction, you will come to know an earlier America now unknown to most, and a world that gets smaller and more precious as we experience it.

May I ask a small favor of you? If you read Meanderings and Mullings, I’d really appreciate it if you would be willing to write a brief review of it on Amazon. That’s where most book reviews get posted and it’s one way you can help expose more readers to Meanderings and Mullings

I will update this post from time to time, as needed. Thanks for your interest, as evidenced by your reading this far! 🙂 

She Doesn’t Like the Four Guys She’s Dating

On a light note, in early 2017 my wife Ellen and I unavoidably overheard a passing conversation after we had run an errand and then meandered to lunch at an outdoor table at Karsen’s Grill in Old Town Scottsdale. A man I’d guess to be in his early fifties was coming along the sidewalk toward us as he talked to someone on his hands-free smartphone.


Image credit: Source

     Just as he passed our table he said to the person on the other end, “She’s dating four guys now and she doesn’t like any of them.” Then his voice faded as he continued walking.

     His comment got me to thinking out loud with Ellen. Was he talking about his daughter? Or his sister? Or a neighbor? Without knowing, he was most likely talking about his daughter because there was a tone of fatherly concern in his voice. As a father, that’s my guess.

     Then I wondered about whomever he was referring to:

  • How could she date four guys at the same time and not like them, at least enough to go out with them?
  • Was it possible that she liked the four of them roughly equally, with one’s weaknesses being balanced out by the strengths of the other three?
  • Did each of the four guys know she was also dating the other three?
  • Does it take four guys to satisfy her needs?

     Of course, I’ll never know the answers to these questions. But I’m likely to continue to ponder them for a while.

~ ~ ~

     Sometime later I posted the above story on my Facebook page, with this note to my friends, “If any of you have likely explanations for this puzzle, please sound off in comments!” Three of the comments included alternative ways of viewing the overheard conversation:

Jean Theresa said, “She might consider them to be just friends and her father (if that’s who he was) thinks she’s dating them. Or maybe she has just had a date or two with each . . . good not to put her eggs all in one basket, but four baskets could make for a complicated ride.”

Eileen Gentile wrote, “Maybe he was talking about someone he is dating and was trying to wrap his brain around her dating three other guys at the same time. This is all foreign to me since I started dating Jim when I was 16, dated only him for two years, and have been married for fifty-five years.”

Then Cory MacDonald really got into this with an extensive quote:

“And to complicate it further, terminology has changed. From the way my 25-year-old son explained it to me, there’s “dating,” “seeing each other,” and “going out.” “Dating” is the most casual of the three, really more like friendship with the potential of a make-out session here and there. “Seeing each other” is a little more exclusive to one person, but it’s understood by both parties that it’s still not a truly committed relationship. “Going out” is a one-to-one committed relationship. So, when you hear “dating” in reference to today’s terminology, it’s a casual thing. I think one of the younger people needs to do up a chart for us to follow. 

     So there you have it. If you are as out of it as I am on modern dating lingo, we are duly updated! I wonder if the guy whose phone conversation Ellen and I overheard as he walked by our table is still in the dark on all this. Probably.

     You never know what you may inadvertently hear when you’re out in public. But once you do and it burrows into your mind, you can’t unhear it. That’s what lawyers and judges worry about when a witness blurts out an inappropriate remark in the presence of a jury—such as, “She’s dating four guys at the same time and she told me she doesn’t like any of them!” The judge then orders it stricken from the record. But the jury has already heard it, and they can’t unhear it.

     Of the thousands of things we inadvertently hear people say, few of them leave any impression at all. But this overheard snippet over that January lunch at a sidewalk café became extra food for thought after it entered my brain and percolated there. A perfect example of a meandering and a mulling.

Embarrassing Myself

This tiny story is a perfect illustration of how adept I am at embarrassing myself. You will soon know what I mean.

            I booked an apartment for Ellen and me for a week in the lively Pearl District of Portland, Oregon. Oakwood Worldwide, a company that specializes in temporary housing primarily for corporate clients, owns the building.

Sign in a cupcake shop in Portland's Pearl District.

Sign in a cupcake shop in Portland’s Pearl District.

            Shortly after I made the reservation by phone, I received helpful follow-up emails from a young woman named Ty. She invited me to call if we had any questions. Since this would be an apartment stay rather than a hotel stay, I called Ty to ask about cleaning services, directions from the airport by light rail and streetcar, and related logistics. I could tell by her voice that she was a young woman, very friendly and customer oriented.

            When we arrived at the building early on a Friday afternoon, we let ourselves in using a code Ty had provided. No one was at the front desk, so we waited a bit. Momentarily a young, professionally dressed woman walked into the lobby.

            I stepped forward and said, “Are you Ty?”

            She said in a lovely voice, “No, I’m Chinese. But you’re close!” Then she disappeared around a corner too fast for me to apologize or explain.

            Ellen, not knowing Ty’s name, said to me in a heightened whisper, “Why on earth did you ask that woman’s ethnicity?” I said I didn’t but only wanted to know if that lady’s name was Ty!

            I was instantly embarrassed. Quickly I explained to Ellen that Ty’s name is spelled T-y. Ellen immediately got it and we both broke into sidesplitting laughter, though I still could feel my embarrassment burning my face.

            A moment later a young woman walked into the lobby and greeted us as she walked behind the front desk. I said, “Are you Ty?”

            She replied in the affirmative with a broad, room-lighting smile. We identified ourselves as the Russells checking in. Ty welcomed us warmly and I immediately told her this little story.

             As Ty laughed heartily with us, she said she thought she knew the young woman I had greeted moments earlier. If so, that young woman also knew Ty, so Ty was surprised that the woman did not realize whom I was referring to when I said, “Are you Ty?”

              Ty was so adept at putting me at ease after my blunder. This was the start of a lively, fun visit to Portland. 

              Later this story reminded me of the famous Abbott and Costello baseball skit, “Who’s on first?” But neither Abbott nor Costello was embarrassed about that. 

Inside Powell's Books on a lazy Thursday morning.

Inside Powell’s Books on a lazy Thursday morning.

Rarity of the Commonplace

We returned to visit New Mexico after being captivated by it on every previous trip to the State. New Mexico has a rare quality that nearly everyone has trouble articulating, and that nearly everyone experiences when they go there. It is similar to many other parts of the American West, but at the same time no other part of the region is like it.

            One of the most common attempts to explain this uniqueness about New Mexico are expressions such as, “There’s something about the light.” But no one I know has been able to describe it in a way that makes it understood. It has to be experienced.

            Ellen and I were in Albuquerque several years before that for a few days. One evening about a half hour before dusk, the western sky appeared to be on fire. We had never seen such a sunset and we were so captivated by it we jumped in the car, headed west on Interstate 40, and tried to drive into the blazing sky. We drove in waves of awe of the changing reds, oranges, and yellows of the most spectacular sunset we have ever seen.

            There was something about the light on this later trip of about a week that we spent mostly in Santa Fe. We saw it repeated in countless ways, at various times of the day. The light in New Mexico makes it a rarity among the United States, while so many dimensions of its landscape, its people, its food, its history, and its culture remind us of similarities to other places. But there seems to be an indefinable quality of these dimensions taken together in New Mexico that makes it like no other place on earth. 

            A less mysterious but nevertheless rare experience met us on the afternoon we drove into New Mexico from the Texas Panhandle. For about fifty miles we kept seeing large billboards along Interstate 40 advertising the dizzying array of items for sale at a well-known store ahead called Clines Corners. One billboard touted their gifts and souvenirs. Another their restaurant. Another their candy store. Another their video games. Clines Corners has been a stop for decades along the old Route 66 that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles, but long since broken up by the Interstate Highway System that began in the mid-1950s.

            We took the Clines Corners exit and stopped at the Phillips 66 gas pumps, fittingly along old Route 66, in front of the large store. As I put gas in the car, a friendly man named Paul Caillier walked up and told us we were the first customers to buy gas at the newly constructed gas station! Paul was the contractor for the yearlong project. He said they had just cut the ribbons down seconds before we pulled into the pumps.

            This was indeed a rare occurrence among the estimated 4,000 stops I have made at gas stations in over a half century of driving. Never on any of the previous stops had I ever been the very first customer to buy gas at a new gas station. Unfortunately we were not awarded a free tank of gas as first customers. Paul was the construction manager, not the store manager.

            After getting gas, we went into the largest gift store in New Mexico, with over 30,000 sq. ft. of retail and restaurant space. Among the myriad merchandise were children’s and adult sizes of red long johns, with the traditional trap door in the back. We learned the store relocated there in 1937 with the opening of Route 66/U.S. 285 and has grown ever since.


Ellen with proud contractor Paul Caillier at the new gas station at Clines Corners, New Mexico.

Ellen with proud contractor Paul Caillier at the new gas station at Clines Corners, New Mexico.


            From there we headed north on a short drive to Santa Fe where we did a home exchange with a young couple who came to Austin for a wedding. The adobe house was a 10-minute walk to the historic Santa Fe Plaza, five minutes to the historic Railyard District, and numerous popular restaurants and shops. Traffic was light at all hours during the day, at least compared to Austin, and people were calm and not rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off.

            Santa Fe is beautiful and peaceful, with friendly and lively people of all stripes. An example of the latter was a Sunday afternoon at The Cowgirl restaurant near the Railyard. The food was wide-ranging and delicious, thanks to suggestions from locals as we sat at the “Community Table.” Great food, engaging conversations, accompanied by music by the talented Santa Fe Revue—all these made for a rare three hours of very special time in Santa Fe.

Two of the fine dancers at The Cowgirl in Santa Fe, with music by Sante Fe Revue. Great combo!

Two of the fine dancers at The Cowgirl in Santa Fe, with music by Sante Fe Revue. Great combo!


            We made soirées into Taos, our second visit there, and to Angel Fire to visit friends who also had a home near us in Austin. The drive there at September’s end revealed perfectly golden aspen trees on the otherwise green mountainsides. Our friends have a view of those aspens, and black bears sometimes climb up on their deck railings and sit there peacefully.

            Another day we went to Abiquiu, a tiny desert town and the last home of renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe. She moved there after the death of her husband, famed photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, in New York. At Abiquiu it is easy to see why she found New Mexico so fetching as a place to create art, a place where there is something about the light.

Georgia O'Keeffe with one of her dazzling New Mexico paintings. (Source: PBS)

Georgia O’Keeffe with one of her dazzling New Mexico paintings. (Source: PBS)

            As we departed Santa Fe a few days later, we headed straight south toward the mountaintop town of Cloudcroft. On our way, at mid afternoon, a few thunderstorms passed over, followed by bright sunshine. A couple of hours north of Cloudcroft, as the sky brightened after a shower, we saw the most unusual ground-to-ground rainbow we have ever experienced anywhere. The few other ground-to-ground rainbows we have seen were relatively high arched, sometimes reminding us of the landmark Arch in St. Louis.


The low-arched rainbow north of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, unlike any we had previously seen.

The low-arched rainbow north of Cloudcroft, New Mexico, unlike any we had previously seen.

              The rainbow we saw that afternoon in New Mexico had a very low arch, brilliant, and almost hugging the ground. It was another “Can you believe that?” experience. The sky behind the rainbow was roiling, while the foreground rangeland was a brilliant gold-green with dappled sunshine.

             There is something rare about the commonplace in New Mexico. There is something about the light.

Football Injury That Lasted

I am an American with a football injury that lasted for fifteen years, physically, and it will remain unforgettable. Many Americans, some of them former professional football players, are having second thoughts about letting their children play football, and I don’t blame them.

            But that second sentence is diversionary, off topic.

            My football injury was to the ball of my foot. I was not playing football, but walking along a street wearing a new pair of heavy-duty, thick-soled running shoes. Ellen was walking with me as we waited for a mechanic to finish work on my son’s balky car the evening before his driver’s license test the next morning. We wanted to be sure he had a fair test without his car dying in the middle of the road test.

            A short distance from the garage near downtown Champaign, Illinois, we walked along a shaded street near the auto repair shop. I stepped on a sharp stone lying on the concrete sidewalk. As I walked over the stone, I felt a sharp pain in the ball of my right foot. The stone was over an inch thick at its tip. The pain did not stop.

            For several days, maybe weeks, I walked with a slight limp due to the constant pain when I was standing. It did not take long before I saw a doctor about my “football injury.” Saying that made me sound like a jock, which I am not. But it was better to laugh about it, and to claim, rightly, that I had a foot ball injury. Listeners could not see the space between “foot” and “ball” so that I could fake people out for a while. Explaining what really happened produced a lot of laughs over the years.

            Several visits to podiatrists and orthopedic specialists, over a period of years, led to my wearing custom orthotics and other padded insoles in all my shoes. Their diagnosis was that I had injured the front of the metatarsal bone where my second toe connects to the ball of the foot. Officially the condition is called metatarsalgia. Every step irritated it, making it extremely slow to heal.


Image of selected bones of the foot. My injury was where the circle is. (Source)

Image of selected bones of the foot. My injury was where the circle is. (Source.)


            Long story short, the pain diminished gradually, and as I said it took about fifteen years before I noticed that the old injury did not hurt anymore. My son nearly doubled his age while the pain lasted.

            I still like to tell people about my old football injury. It still produces laughs. I’ll do just about anything for a laugh. 

Music in the Cemetery

From a distance it appeared as though a bearded, bushy-haired man in a tuxedo was walking through the far side of the cemetery carrying a beautiful upright bass. He stopped in front of a tombstone, stood still for a time, and began to play his instrument.

            Ellen and I could not hear the music. We were sitting in a sunroom of the landmark Tadoussac Hotel, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, regaining our bearings after a three-hour whale-watching trip. We had accompanied about twenty other people on a sometimes high-speed Zodiac boat on the St. Lawrence and its nearby tributary, the Saguenay River, in Quebec, Canada. Our pilot resembled a young Tom Cruise, and he handled the boat with a “Top Gun” type of derring-do that sometimes had us flying into the air above our seats, while being sprayed with cold salt water from that part of the St. Lawrence.

            But back to the story.

            In a moment developments with the musician in the cemetery took another twist when we saw a man and a woman accompanying the musician as they carried sophisticated lighting and other photographic equipment. Was this a photo shoot for a magazine spread or a TV commercial? Was the Tadoussac Hotel developing a promotional piece? But in a cemetery? Probably not.

            After a time our curiosity got the best of us. Dozens of people had walked past as we sat in the sunroom, several noticed the musician and photographic crew, and no one had approached them. But we did. 

            As we walked up to the threesome in the cemetery, while mindful of the graves we passed, the woman asked me, “Would you like to take a picture?” I replied that I would if that was okay with all of them. Each eagerly gave me their permission, with welcoming smiles.

Alex the bassist, playing in a cemetery in Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada, August 1, 2014.

Alex the bassist, playing in a cemetery in Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada, August 1, 2014.

            It turns out that this whole idea was the creation of the Montreal-based photographer and videographer, Alexandre Claude. He and his partner Nika were vacationing and this music-in-the-cemetery shoot was, according to Alexandre, “a personal project.” While crouching on the hillside, peering up through his camera at Alex the musician, he continued, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this, but I have an idea.”

            Nika interjected with a laugh, “He is a professional photographer. We go on vacation and what does he do? Photography!” Something about this remark seemed familiar to me. Ellen sometimes expresses puzzlement that we take vacations to various places and I have to carve out time to write, as I am doing at this moment in Quebec City. Oh, well, Alexandre and I can’t help it.

            No one knows what this music or musician in the cemetery idea will become. Alexandre and I exchanged cards and I hope one day to see the end result. It clearly is a creative work in progress. Alexandre’s website impresses with the scope and quality of his work. My guess is that he will give this personal project the same care he gives to his professional projects.

            But Alexandre said this is a personal project. It really is none of my business. The project may never appear on his professional website. After all, it is personal.

            Before Ellen and I left the hotel sunroom to talk to Alexandre, Nika, and Alex the bass player, I mulled over the idea of a musician playing a piece of special meaning to the dead. The special meaning could be for the musician, or for the deceased. Music in the cemetery could be a way to cherish a memory.

            I began to wonder, if I were a musician, who I am most definitely and unfortunately not, what would I play for Mother, Daddy, and my older brother Nolen Robert. Would I play their favorite song? But I don’t even know their favorite song. Most likely, they had many favorites.

            Or, would I play one of my favorite pieces of music that I think they would have enjoyed? Would it be somber or cheerful? I think it would be cheerful, something that reminds me of a special time with each of them.

            I am grateful to Alexandre Claude for triggering such a line of thought. Music in the cemetery is not part of my experience. Somehow it strikes me as a good idea, but implementing it would obviously require some forethought—or it should.

            For example, music in the cemetery should not, it seems to me, be a place to continue nursing a grudge. Think of a wronged surviving spouse visiting the grave of a deceased partner and singing “Your Cheating Heart” at the foot of the grave.

            Also, a violin or a flute may be a better instrument to play in a cemetery than a drum or a cowbell. An instrumental may be more soothing to the senses than a vocal piece. So much depends on the choice if the idea of music in a cemetery has lasting merit.

            While these thoughts reveal some of my personal musical biases, and some of my biases about death and the lives of survivors, I have enjoyed this mental exercise and hope you have, too.

            Again, I’m grateful to Alexandre Claude, his partner Nika, and the bassist Alex in Tadoussac for being open to my writing about this unexpected travel experience. They’re good sports, fine human beings, and maybe people who will start a movement of music in cemeteries, thereby bringing life and death into closer harmony.

            Sounds good to me anyway. 

Writing Change of Pace

Long mulling led me slowly to today’s musing. Just writing that sentence caused a little chill to go up my spine because of a rising giddy feeling. This seems right.

Today begins a change of pace in publishing my blog posts. Since April 2011, I have posted a new story, short essay, commentary, or bit of humor mostly on Fridays. There are about 175 of them. Readership around the globe over the past year has risen steadily, a highly rewarding thing.

Gustave Flaubert discovered in the 1880s what I discovered in recent years. (Source.)

Flaubert discovered in the 1880s what I discovered in recent years. (Source.)

A few months ago I started my second book. It will be another book of nonfiction, but it’s too early to classify what type. Over the coming months I will devote more time to completing the manuscript and finding a publisher. Some of what many of you have read in my blog over the last two years will become part of the second book.

This blog was also instrumental in completing my first book, Cold Turkey at Nine: The Memoir of a Problem Child. It continues to gain readers far beyond what I had reasonably imagined when published last year. Reader feedback has been most gratifying. My publisher chose it for special exhibition at the Frankfurt Book Fair, October 8-12, 2014, in Germany. This is the largest publishing industry event in the world, so my memoir’s selection for it is highly gratifying as well. 

I may publish new blog posts when a special urge bubbles up, but my main priority will be on the second book. Further, I will continue to tweak previous posts to keep them relevant and in tune with new developments, as well as continue to respond to comments posted about them. They will remain dynamic, not static. Most importantly, I hope they will continue to interest and benefit others in some way. 

In addition, I will repost previous posts, often revised ones, on various social media sites. Some have been popular enough to warrant getting them out to new followers, and some are often read more than once by regular readers. It’s unclear to me whether these re-readings are because the posts are good, confusing, dumbfounding, or what.  🙂 

So stay tuned!

P. S.  Join me on one or more of these social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.

Hot Flash from Texas–Rick Perry, The Onion

Was anyone really surprised that Rick Perry, former Governor of Texas and Energy Secretary in the Trump administration, tweeted ideas to Mark Meadows about how to overturn the 2020 election? Well, I wasn’t, but I can be a bit nostalgic about it. 

For good or bad, Texas occupies an outsized role in American public life. This may be due to its geographical scope—large enough to lie over and cover many other states, or its large population and consequent congressional representation, or maybe still its huge role in Western legend and lore, or more likely, a combination of this and other factors.

Back when we lived in Austin a number of years ago, a relative in the Great North said to Ellen and me, “You have a good governor down there.” We paused, shaken a bit, and I said, “Well, he has really nice hair.”

Texas Governor Rick Perry, wearing his nice hair. My baldness makes me really jealous. (Source.)

Texas Governor Rick Perry, wearing his nice hair. My baldness makes me really jealous. (Source.)

So with that little hint of my views about Rick Perry, I took special note of a quote in an Austin Sunday paper when we lived there–before we escaped Texas politics to move to Arizona, and before we moved to our current adopted hometown of Dallas to work for the defeat of current Perry-like Governor Greg Abbott. I’m not the first to find Rick Perry quotes amusing.

The quote was picked up by writer Daniel Kurtzman who published Dumb Quotes and Gaffes by GOP Presidential Candidate Rick Perry. Here’s the example: “Juarez is reported to be the most dangerous city in America,” according to Rick Perry, referring to a city that is across the Texas border in Mexico, February 28, 2011. BuzzFeed posted a collection of what it called “34 Deliciously Ridiculous Rick Perry Quotes.” One of their examples is, “There’s nothing wrong with America that an extra dose of freedom won’t cure.”

Anyway, the Austin American Statesman quoted then Governor Perry on June 22, 2014, in a comment he made to Mark Leibovich, a writer for the New York Times Magazine. Mr. Perry was quoted as saying, “I’m more Jewish than you think I am. I read the part of the Bible that said the Jews are God’s chosen people.” 

That comment struck me as more than a bit odd, as it may have appeared to the magazine’s editors. When I read something about a group of people, does that somehow make me more similar to them? Don’t most religious groups feel in some manner that they are God’s chosen people? Does not the religion-referencing Mr. Perry, an avowed Christian, feel that he’s a member of God’s chosen people? Maybe his remark was just a type of pandering that is common in political candidates.

So it’s somehow no surprise that he denied texting Mark Meadows with ideas about overturning the last election, when texts showing exactly that have now been uncovered by investigators combing through Meadows’ text messages. Perry signed one of his texts to Meadows with “Rick Perry” at the end, along with his phone number. A tweep described Perry as having the intelligence of an onion in responding to this most recent revelation. 

He probably won’t be asked to explain some of his other quotes that are a matter of public record. Like, what were the three departments of the federal government that he would eliminate when he was a presidential candidate a few years ago? Maybe he decided that question was just too difficult to face on national TV when his brain froze. 

But for now he’s a Texas hot flash who has ignominiously returned to the national stage. 

Related posts: 

League of Women Voters or League of Informed Voters? 

Shutdown: Ineptitude at a High Level

Climate Change and Political Paralysis 

Heaven and Hell—Been to Both

Life events made me a questioner. A doubter. No doubt about it.

What I took for fact in my youth and young adulthood looks far from it today. While different faiths use different ways of referring to heaven and hell, my early experience included fiery sermons during summer revivals, Sunday school classes, scripture, and some family conversations. All of these drilled into my head the blissful heaven above the sky and the burning hell below the earth. Heaven was signified by sweet utterances of blissful everlasting life and an upward pointing index finger, and hell was signified by a jabbing finger pointing down to the inferno of writhing sinners, signified by damning words and voices.

Visions of Heaven and Hell by John Bunyan, a 17th century English author.

Visions of Heaven and Hell by John Bunyan, a 17th century English author. (Source.)

Such formulations were part of my life, even as their intensity waned as I entered my early thirties. The waning began irrevocably with the tragic death of my mother at my father’s hands and the hell on earth that befell our family. Hell began for me when I picked up a newspaper late on the day she died, and continued the day after her death when I entered the home in which my older brother and I were born. Hell was kept alive by my brother’s accidental death a few years later. While some construed these tragedies as “God’s will,” neither of them was the will of any God I had worshipped. I could not believe in such senseless reasoning.

Now, decades later, I almost chuckle at the formulations of the heaven and hell of my youth, meant to govern my behavior, my thinking, and my being. What were foisted off as words to save souls were nothing more than attempts to control people, gain power, and build status. Maybe leading proponents of heaven and hell thought they were doing good, improving humanity, and feeling proud of their place in it all. After all, that is what many clergy were taught to believe in their training. 

Proponents of heaven and hell today really miss the point of life, in my view. They diminish humanity rather than enhance it. They promote denial and suffering in this life for the reward of a heavenly afterlife.

What’s Changed?

Life experiences have changed all those early conceptions of heaven and hell in my mind. The realities of life replaced dogmas of the past. Here’s what I now believe about heaven and hell, and why I believe it. No, my beliefs aren’t facts, except that they exist in my head and life.

  1. Heaven is happiness; hell is anguish. Heaven is the smile on the face of a happy child; hell is the stricken face of a child with a broken heart after parents divorce. 
  2. Heaven is feeling worthy and useful to others; hell is feeling helpless, useless, and depressed. Heaven is making a positive difference in the lives of others; hell is dragging others down and tearing them apart.
  3. Heaven is love for others and from others we care about; hell is being ignored and treated as invisible and worthless. Heaven is feeling whole in the presence of people we care about; hell is feeling rejected by those people. 
  4. Heaven is being free to think, speak, and live in comfort and safety; hell is a stifled spirit, a muzzled existence, and a life of grinding poverty and insecurity. Heaven is freedom in a world that values other lives and other ways of living and thinking; hell is oppression, hunger, and looming death at any moment.
  5. Heaven is a good life on earth; hell is misery and suffering on earth. Heaven and hell are not the old conceptions of sages, but the real life experiences of each of us.

Early conceptions of heaven and hell were centuries old before the age of science. Earth was conceived as the “only world,” and it was believed to be flat. In humanity’s grappling to understand life then, it seemed logical that heaven was beyond the sky and that evil resided in the hell beneath the earth. 

Now we know that what is often called “the heavens” refers to planets, stars, galaxies—billions of them, and the universe. We are surrounded by the heavens above our heads, below our feet, and in all directions in between.

Today I live what I view as a heavenly life. Love is abundant in my marriage, family, and among my friends. I enjoy the freedom to think, say, and write what I like. I live in ample housing, have needed clothing, and plenty of food. My health permits me to have an active life. All of this is heaven and I am grateful every day. But hell could return at any time. Accidents, disease, natural disasters, and violence are part of life the world over.

All any of us can do is our best, take each day as it comes, make plans for what we want to accomplish, and deal with whatever happens. Life does not come with a guarantee. 

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Chimps as Persons

Most of us have thought at times that chimpanzees seem similar to humans in many respects, that they often behave like us, that they show kindness and aggressiveness, when we view them live or see them on nature shows. A BBC Nature report says chimps and people are similar in five big ways:

  • Neuroticism – characterized by such things as worry, moodiness, envy, and jealousy
  • Extroversion – indicated by developing social connections and seeking leadership opportunities, among other things
  • Openness to Experience – characterized by intellectual curiosity, preference for variety, an active imagination, among others
  • Agreeableness – shown by such things as kindness, cooperation, sympathy, and consideration
  • Conscientiousness – indicated by a desire to do things right, being thorough, careful, or vigilant.

But some say we are projecting our human biases onto chimps and other animals. Psychology professor Clive Wynne at the University of Florida tells BBC Nature, “Human beings have a very natural tendency to project human agency into almost anything that moves. It is very deeply ingrained into our ways of trying to understand the world around us.”


Chimps retired from captive situations live out their lives in sanctuaries. Photo by Jude Gogi Gabe Vick. (Source.)

Chimps retired from captive situations live out their lives in sanctuaries. Photo by Jude Gogi Gabe Vick. (Source.)


The late comedian George Carlin had a wonderful skit about how people mistreat plants. He argued that hanging plants are scared out of their minds by the heights at which they are hung to please people.

But chimp-person similarities have recently taken on a new phase. A 2012 study at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland was designed to remove human bias in assessing human-like qualities of chimps. Mark Adams, one of the researchers, concluded that chimpanzees “have the same social problems that we do, they want to make friends and find mates and sort of gain position within their society.”

A New Twist

Lawyer Steven M. Wise, founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, represented four chimpanzees in the New York Supreme Court in recent months, asking the court to declare chimps “persons” under certain circumstances. At first people thought these cases were some kind of joke or publicity stunt, but as the cases progressed people began to follow them with serious interest. This included the judges.

Wise began working on this issue in 1985 after getting his degree from Boston University Law School and an earlier degree in chemistry from the College of William and Mary. He has taught Animal Rights Jurisprudence at Harvard Law School, as well as at a number of other law schools. Steven Wise is serious, not joking at all. We all have biases about one thing or another, and I felt compelled to give some extra thought to Wise’s biases toward animals.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer released the following video showing a number of chimps that have been released from captivity into a sanctuary for retired chimps.   It’s worth a look here.

Reuters News Agency reported the story about three lawsuits in New York in a December 2, 2013, article. The lawsuits were on behalf of two 26-year-old chimps and two young chimps. Wise told Reuters that chimpanzees “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings.” He added, “There’s no reason why they should not be protected when they’re found in chimpanzees.”

Case Outcomes

Wise did not win, and he was not surprised by the outcomes. However, one of the judges expressed appreciation for the work brought forward in one case. Another said he was not ready to be first to legally declare a chimp a person, suggesting that other legal grounds could be found to bring subsequent appeals.

The Nonhuman Rights Project is preparing those appeals now, with plans to file them in the coming year. These appeals will no doubt be interesting to watch, with potentially wide implications.

Some Thoughts

Chimps are not chumps. They are clearly related to us from accumulated results of studies across disciplines over many decades. They possess ninety-eight percent of the genes that humans possess.

It is not hard to imagine chimps as our relatives when we watch them interact. In fact, some chimps appear much nicer than some humans we all have known. When a chimp attacks a person, the chimp should be incarcerated, just as we incarcerate people who act violently toward other people.

Chimps even seem more law abiding than many humans. They don’t participate in mass killings. They don’t drive cars recklessly. They do not carry out Wall Street robberies of the type we have seen all too recently, by the greedy who consider the rest of us chumps.

Now our challenge is to figure out how to treat our close relatives the chimps properly. This is not only a challenge of the legal and scientific communities, it is a challenge to our old assumptions about humanity.

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