Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Last Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

This is pencil sketch from the last portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken April 9, 1865, one week before his assassination. It is from one of a series of photographs by Alexander Gardner.

That same day, generals Grant and Lee met shortly after noon, at the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant, hastening the end of the Civil War.

Lincoln was smiling, either because of the surrender, or because he was sharpening a pencil for his son Tad.

But, is this the true last picture?


Don't believe everything you read.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Over the River and through the Woods

Who doesn't have childhood memories of going to grandmother and grandfather's house at Christmas time? School is out, it is snowing, and a sense of anticipation is in the air.
Stone arch bridge Butler County, Kansas
Double arch stone bridge over Turkey Creek, Butler County, Kansas

On a Sunday before Christmas in December, the old man took the back roads in Butler County, Kansas. The back roads are the dirt and gravel ones off the highway where not much has changed over the years. In summer, cars kick up storms of dust. In winter, the dust is settled and one only has to worry about a loose patch of gravel. Farmhouses are scattered along the road like lost and lonely stragglers in history's parade. Cattle stand in the pastures, the corn has been harvested and a blanket of snow covers the fields where the turkeys peck for what is left over. The snow and ice make driving hazardous. When the old man came across these two stone arch bridges, his thoughts drift back to childhood.

Today, we go to grandfather's house by car or plane. In 1844, the trip was made by horse and wagon, or if it was snowing, by horse and sleigh. Over the River and Through the Wood, was originally a Thanksgiving poem written by Lydia Maria Child in 1844. At an unknown date the words were set to music and the holiday changed to Christmas.

To Grandfather's House We Go
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for 'tis Christmas [Thanksgiving] Day.

Over the river, and through the wood—
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood—
and straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow,
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood—
When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here,
bring a pie for everyone."

Over the river, and through the wood—
now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the cherry [pumpkin] pie!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What color is Santa Claus?

Santa Claus is shown as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, red trousers, and black leather belt and boots, carrying a bag full of gifts for good children everywhere.

But what color is he?

Fox personality Megyn Kelly touched off an uproar last week when she said: “Santa just is white…Santa is what he is.” When the snow hit the fan, and viewers complained, Kelly attempted an apology of sorts, "We know there is no Santa." Bill O'Reilly then weighed in on The O'Reilly Factor, “Miss Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person.” O'Reilly added, “Does it matter? No, it doesn’t matter.”  O'Reilly chalks it up to Fox "baiting", saying, “That’s why Miss Megyn got headlines about a Santa Claus remark that was totally harmless.”

"Bah humbug!" says the old man to naysayers Megyn Kelly and Bill O'Reilly. The old man is reminded of another time and place. It is 1897 and eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon writes the New York Sun, asking is Santa is real.

Dear Editor,
I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in the Sun it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O'Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.

The newpaper's response was quick and printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897.

Does it matter? It mattered then and it matters today, it matters to children everywhere. The old man wants to imagine a nine year old child, let us call her Virginia, and let her ask the question not to Miss Megyn or Mr. Bill but to Francis Pharcellus Church who wrote the newspaper's response to Virgina. Let the child be white or black, brown or yellow, red or green, or a thousand shades and hues in between, the answer should be the same.

VIRGINIA, your Friends at Fox are wrong. They have been affected by the cynicism of a skeptical age. They believe only what they see. And they see only very little. And they have forgotten what it means to be small and impressionable. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little news minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

VIRGINIA, keep in mind, that men and women, and news reporters too, can not even agree on the name Santa Claus - Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and St. Nick are a few names that have been used. Why in France, he is called Noel; in Germany and Austria, Christkind or Weihnachtsmann; in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas; in Russia, Grandpa Frost. VIRGINIA, this list is but a drop in the bucket of kindness. For the naming goes on throughout the world. In every continent on the globe, good men and women recognize good kindness does and the spirit of giving, and so they have identified this spirit in their own unique cultures.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. And who knows what color he is, for he comes only when we are fast asleep. ... Alas! how dreary the world would be if only one country possessed the true Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. And yet we know that Santa is known everywhere in the world, that the spirit of gift giving and kindness is universally shared by all good boys and girls, and by their parents as well. Without this knowledge, the eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

You might as well not believe in Santa Claus! ... You might get your papa to take you to every store and mall in town to see Santa Claus and you will find that Santa, indeed, comes in all shapes and sizes, and all colors. But even if you see portly jolly Santa Claus in his red coat and hat with a white face, what would that prove? These mall Santas embody only the spirit of Christmas and gift giving. Nobody sees the true Santa Claus, but that is no sign of who and what Santa is. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders ... unseen and unseeable in the world.

Does it matter? VIRGINIA, Of course it matters. No newsman or woman can claim Santa as their own. Santa Claus belongs to all of us and especially to the children of the world.

Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A hundred years, a thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to visit ... children all over the world and make glad the heart of childhood.

Maybe, the old man thinks, it is time to turn off the television and grab a good book. And remember this Christmas and Holiday season, to look for Santa in your heart.

Monday, December 16, 2013

RIP Peter O'Toole

This is live television.
Live, live, what does live mean?
Wait a minute. ...You mean it all goes into the camera lens and just spills out on into people's houses.


This is going to be easy.
Maybe for you, not for me.
I am not an actor, I am a movie star.

Universal explanations

Lake El Dorado, Kansas, today it is 60 degrees

Look at the picture of the trees submerged in El Dorado lake in December and you will notice a gap between the ice at the base of the trees and the water level. If you understand the principal of water freezing, you will know why the ice is above the water level.

Do you understand?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Time's Runner-up Man of the Year

This is not about Time magazine's Man of the Year, the compassionate and deserving Pope Francis, but rather the runner-up, Edward Snowden, who rocked the National Security Agency and the Obama administration in 2013 with his leak of secret documents about the government's surveillance activities. A trial, if there ever is one, will reveal if Snowden is a traitor for showing our adversaries what our spying capabilities are, or hero for telling us "Big Government" is watching.

In the meantime, let's remember William Allen White's letter To an Anxious Friend Published in The Emporia Gazette July 27, 1922.

You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people - and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. ... You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice. ... So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold .... Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.
 Full letter.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A prayer on a winter's grey day

The old man is busy, what with Christmas drawing near and guests arriving soon. The weather has turned frightfully cold and the clouds shut out the sun. All the old man can do is write this short haiku.

Lord deliver me
From this winter's grey despair
The sun my soul seeks 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Freddie and Henry Fent

It is already December, in a year that has flown by.

It doesn't take much to remind one of the brevity of life - the thinning calendar, the cold grey weather on a December morning, the kids who are growing up and moving on in life. "Damn it," the old man would love to stop the flow of time for a moment, but that won't happen. It just keeps rolling along like the keys of the computer as I write these words.

A month ago, or a lifetime, I took a trip along Highway 177 to Cottonwood Falls. There was no special reason other than a desire to get away and enjoy some peace and quiet with the dogs, Sammy and Toby. Along the way I stopped at Matfield Green. There I parked the car and got out to stretch my legs and let the dogs wander. We visited the well-maintained Matfield Green cemetery.

Among the many beautiful limestone headstones was this one for Freddie and Henry Fent, children of Elam and Lucinda Fent. Freddie, age just shy of 2 years, and Henry, 3 years and 3 months, died within 2 years of each other in 1882 and 1881.

Freddie and Henry Fent
What story lies behind the brief lives of Freddie and Henry and the tragedy their parents suffered I do not know. We do, however, have a bit of a peak at what life in Kansas was like from this article in the Chase County Leader, Cottonwood Falls, May 26, 1881:

What a wonderful change for the May of 1881 over the same month one year ago? Then dry, and the wind hurled the dust in drifts. The little, pale wheat, oats, rye and corn thirsted for water as an Arab would in the desert, and with hope deferred again and again the heart grew sick. Our clouds were clouds of dust, carried about by the tempest. How often came the husbandman from the field, righted things and made ready apparently for a heavy rain. Although the clouds appeared dark and heavy, the wind and thunder all indicated rain; a light shower, the clouds broke, the wind ceased; still hope deferred. Our season, this month, all that man could wish: wet enough and not too much.

Dust Storms of Kansas, Kansas Historical Quarterly

"Stupendously suffocating" clouds of dust, drought, heat, and the coming of grasshoppers in biblical proportions, this was often the fate of the Kansas farmer. But through it all, the farmer and his family struggled on for another day might bring fair weather and a bountiful crop.

Freddie and Henry, children of Elam and Lucinda Fent

What of the history of the Fents? Grandfather William Fent (1817 – 1884) and his wife, Eliz­a­beth Trim, came to Kansas from Iowa after 1870 and home­steaded land on Lit­tle Cedar Creek, east of Matfield Green in Chase County, Kansas. Father Eleanor  "Elam" T. Fent and his wife Lucinda stayed on the farm after his parents' death.

Found in the Chase County Historical Sketches, Vol. 1, and online history of William Fent.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Thanksgiving Day Prayer

Lord, there is much to be grateful for this Thanksgiving Day.
But most of all, may we be thankful for serendipity, family and friends.
Serendipity, the good fortune to discover life’s blessings,
And with family and friends enjoy them.

The origin of serendipity. A letter from Horace Walpole to Thomas Mann,  28 January 1754.

This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Wal-polianae, by which I find everything I want, a pointe nommee [at the very moment], wherever I dip for it. This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word, which, as I have nothin better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called the three Princes of Serendip: as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right — now do you understand Serendipity?
One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs. Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Clasped Hands on headstone in a cemetery

Clasped Hands on a cemetery headstone can have several meanings. Most often, it represents an enduring marriage, especially if two graves are near the monument.

Matfield Green cemetery
On a trip up Highway 177 from El Dorado to Strong City, I stopped at Matfield Green, the population of which is 119 (year, 2010). Just to the south of town is the Matfield cemetery. These headstones caught my eye.

John and Mary Lansbeurg are, most likely, husband and wife. John died November 28, 1873, at the age of 77 years, 11 months, and 8 days. The Grand Army of the Republic star can be seen to the left in the photo, marking the grave of a Union veteran of the Civil War.

John was born in 1796. In 1861, the first year of the Civil War, he would have been 65 years old.

A search of the Roster of the Grand Army of the Republic did not reveal the name, John Lansbeurg.  The name should not appear here as this roster is as of the year 1894, 21 years after John's death. Kansas Skyways' list of Kansas Veterans for Chase County does not include John Lansburg, but does include John Bansbury in the Matfield Green cemetery. (possibly a misspelling?)

John Lansbeurg
Mary Lansbury is buried next to John. She was born May 13, 1898 (sic, 1798). She died February 11, 1885. Mary was two years younger than her husband John. After searching the United States for the surname "Lansbeurg", I came up with only a single match. "Lansbury" is more popular as a surname.

Mary Lansbury
Chase County Probate Department includes a will filed by John Lansbury in 1873, naming a wife Mary K. Lansbury and five children.

The answer to John Lansbury's Civil War service and to his name change may exist in the Chase County Historical Sketches, Landsbury John, pages 150,151,354. vol. II.

Matfield Cemetery, Matfield Green

Monday, September 9, 2013

Original Sin

Original Sin

I often wish my life more complete

Sadly still, I rise each morn, see I have to work to eat

Instead I’d rather sit and think

How nothing matters, how life stinks.

Good God Almighty, you gave us paradise

And took it back in a trice.

The problem, You say, is original sin

I think the logic a little thin

What sin was mine to lose it all?

Was not the problem Thine, that caused man’s fall?

If an apple is a tempting fruit,

Knowledge is a loftier pursuit

I really ought to quit this silly quest,

But first I thought a final question

A plaintive plea from me to Thee

Blame Adam or Eve or the snake if you must

Dammit, why me, why make my life a bust?

Monday, September 2, 2013

Walk with St. Jerome


If you are young and you are reading this, here is a scary thought – someday you will be married more years than not. To reach this dubious milestone, you will have to learn to work out the problems of living together. St. Jerome, best remembered for his bad temper, says, Solvitur ambulando, – “to solve a problem, walk.”

I have been married to my wife now more years than not. The kids are grown and we are too often alone. It seems like we are a little too quick to criticize, to complain about things that don’t really matter.

I acknowledge, I am the problem.

To solve my problem I follow St. Jerome’s advice – I walk. I load the two dogs up into the back of my GMC Yukon and off we go in search of solitude and adventure. Normal haunts include the old quarry pit at Lake El Dorado where Toby, a mixed Jack Russell Terrier and Mountain Cur, and I like to swim. Toby barks like a seal when he swims. I try to stay out of his way for I liken his constantly moving paws to the killer shark in Jaws. Sammy, a German Shepherd stays mainly on the shore. Sometimes, if it is really hot, she will daintily tread into the water and make a spin before returning to the shore.

There is also Pawnee Prairie Park on the west side of Wichita where we go to chase deer. The deer, flags raised are off in a flash. The dogs give futile pursuit but quickly tire and come back tongues lagging from their mouths.

Finally, there is South Lake where we go when time is limited. It has the clearest water of all the lakes, ponds, and creeks in and around Wichita. It has the disadvantage of being the most crowded spot and, sadly, the most trash, beer bottles, coke cups, and empty bait cups that fishermen and party-goers leave behind. In spite of the trash we still go. The clear water lures us and the hope of finding a kindred soul or canine.

On all of these sojourns, the two dogs and I will occasionally come across someone worth talking to. And if we are lucky, someone will have a dog or two for Toby to play with. Sammy is always leery of other dogs, and so she growls and barks for a time before settling down to an unsteady peace.

 Recently, the dogs and I changed the time that we would arrive at South Lake. In spring we went in the midday sun. Being summer now, we wait until the hour before sunset. It is cooler. It is also prettier. The setting sun casts colors of red, blue, and violet across the lake.

Half way around the lake we came across a pack of five dogs and their three owners. The owners, two women and a man, stood on the shore, while their five pets, ran to and fro. Being ever so polite I asked if we could join them for a while. Toby ran and swam and had a grand old time. Sammy growled and barked, but eventually found her manners. We spoke like strangers do, of dogs and the weather and sunsets.

“Walking is man’s best medicine,” says Hippocrates.

It was nice. The dogs got their walk and I had a moment without giving or getting criticism or complaint. And the sunset was gorgeous.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013



The technical term for "dilly-dally" is reduplication - that is, a word that is repeated exactly or with a slight change. Babies say them, " mama, papa, no-no, bye-bye, choo-choo, night-night,  pee-pee, poo-poo." Even adults use them, "chit-chat, hokey-pokey, honey bunny." We repeat ourselves because we like to say, "I told you so."

Today we interpret the dilly-dally to mean, "To waste time, especially in indecision; dawdle or vacillate." See the FreeDictionary.

The OED dates the first use of the word from 1741, it showed up in a romantic novel, which is appropriate, but the word must have been in common use. In the 13th century, the French invented the word dalier, meaning "to amuse oneself,"quite possibly romantically, for the English created the word daliance, today's dalliance, to mean a romantic affair merely for pleasure.

detail of Salvador Dali, by Philippe Halsman, 1954

"Dilly" rhymes with "silly," and what is sillier than an old man who engages in a sad sweet dalliance that goes nowhere and ends badly. That makes him twice the fool.

Why Salvador Dali, you ask?

Don't dilly-dally Dali. Many of Dali's paintings showed a melted time clock, a symbol of the relativity of space and time.Then, there is the story of how Salvador was named for an older brother, also named Salvador, who died 9 months before Salvador was born. When he was a young boy, he was taken to the grave of his brother and told he was a reincarnation. That makes him a reduplication in my eyes.

Friday, August 16, 2013


Hay at Lake El Dorado Kansas


That's where I should leave it. Then one could interpret the image as a visual cue for a greeting. Or, a comment on the end of summer in Kansas. A mathematician would think of perspective, and a neural scientist the effect of color on the brain.

A poet would enjoy the image for what it is, beautiful.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Vanishing Point

Is reality what we perceive? Perhaps, reality has its own existence beyond our human ability to see and know, but, if so, how would we know?

a dusty Kansas road in Sumner County, Kansas, 2013

A vanishing point in a picture is a point beyond which we cannot see. An artist would understand that it is a matter of perspective. Perspective meaning how in space we relate to worldly objects. The artist observes that all longitudinal lines point to the vanishing point, a point beyond which nothing can be see. The horizon is, of course, the exception. It stretches infinitely in a 360 degree arc to our point of reference.

The old man was at the Lake of the Ozarks this last weekend with friends. The conversation gently moves from wine and women to the subject of string theory. Sting theory, in a nutshell, is man's attempt to understand how non-dimensional points become one-dimensional objects. The old man's friend attempted to explain string theory. So, we must begin with Einstein's famous equation E = mc(2) . "At some point," the friend explains, "matter disappears and only energy exists." "If this is so," says the old man, then,  "I can pound my fist upon the table until the energy's force creates matter."

Saturday, August 3, 2013

All Men Are Created Equal

The history of civilization is brief. A scientific analysis of artifacts from a cave in South Africa reveals that man were carved bone tools, using pigments, made beads and even used poison 44,000 years ago. And a study of the nearly 2,000 figures of the more than 17,000 year old paintings of the Lascaux Caves in southern France, reveals symbolic dot clusters within figurative images that correlate with the heavenly constellations of Taurus, the Pleiades and the grouping known as the "Summer Triangle". But, if we limit our search to historic times apart from prehistoric times when "records of the past begin to be kept for the benefit of future generations" then we need not look further than 5,000 years ago when city-states arose in the Middle East along the Tigris and Euphrates, in the Indus Valley, and in the river valleys of China.

I say civilization is brief, for, anatomically, modern humans first appeared in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago.

We have come a long way, slowly. And, it is all the more remarkable to know that America has only been around for less than 300 years.

America is unique in the annals of human history, for it stands for the proposition that "All men are created equal".  This revolutionary idea certainly sounded good to the Founding Fathers, and to Thomas Jefferson, who included the phrase in the Declaration of American Independence.

American, and the ideal of equality, has been built generation by generation. We are a new breed, rooted in all races of the world, colored in all the colors of all the races, with all their varying creeds and beliefs - a sort of ethnic anarchy. I am reminded of this fact every time I take a taxi, driven by someone with an unfamiliar name, or visit a restaurant that offers up dishes from every continent, or walk down the main street America and see and hear someone who is unlike me. We are different, and from our differences we draw our strength. And yet, somehow in time, these differences become less and less, until we realize that we are more alike than we are different.

This fact, that, though different we are the same, comes to me every time I visit a school and watch the children of the many different races learning what it means to be American. It is the same process that countless American generations have gone thorough. And, so far, it has stood us in good stead.

All men, and women, are created equal. America is still working on this ideal.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


The question has been around forever - "Does reality exist?" In other words, is there a world outside of our own thoughts?

Here today, gone tomorrow, but what happens to the world when we are gone? Does the merry earth continue to turn, the sun to rise, and the comedy and drama of life itself go on? To the self-absorbed, it doesn't matter. As for the old man, he hopes so.

Rene Descartes' simple declaration, "I think therefore I am," got enlightened philosphers asking the question anew. (Over 2,000 years ago, Socrates raised the question several times.) Descartes' original phrase was in French, "Je pense, donc je suis.", and appeared in his Discourse on the Method (1637). The phrase translated into Latin, becoming the familiar, "Cogito ergo sum."

The brevity of the Latin phrase has made the idea popular in W3estern Civilization classes in university campuses across the country. Of course, what Descartes meant by the five French words and the lesser three Latin ones, is what makes for a college course on philosophy.

So, if we take Descartes at face value, I exist because I am a thoughtful (and hopefully kind and caring) human being. But, what of the negative logical complement?

"I no think, no am I." I don't exist without thought. Of course, logicians would argue that Descartes only speaks to the individual, that the world goes on because there are other thoughtful individuals out there carrying on. And they might be right. But Descartes observed correctly that one can not vouch for others, only himself. Logicians themselves are illusions of rationality in an irrational reality.

The French were of course not the only ones to raise the question. Anyone of sane mind in any culture wonders from time to time whether this crazy world is real.

Across the English Channel, George Berkeley (1685 – 1753, titled Bishop Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne), advanced the theory he called "immaterialism", denying the existence of matter and suggesting that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas, and cannot exist without being perceived. As all graduates of western civilization classes know, Berkley was plagarizing in toto this idea from Socrates. Today, Berkley would be kicked out of university.

I have always loved Samuel Johnson's response to Bishop Berkley's suggestion. The reply is reported by Boswell in The Life of Johnson (1791). The argument is short and I reproduce it in its entirety:

"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus."
Woody Allen made a joke of the question, “I hate reality but it's still the best place to get a good steak.”

All of this leaves the old man observing that some questions exist simply for the sake of argument (and college credit). Reality is a tough nut to crack. As with the day the World Trade Center was attacked by Al Qaeda, one wishes it all a dream. The same holding true for all natural calamities, epidemics, disease, personal difficulties, and death.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

To See

We tend to see in life what we expect to see, looking only to affirm what we firmly believe to be true. In that tendency we are too often deceived. For, if all our beliefs and opinions hold true, the old man muses, then we cease to learn, to grow in spirit and wisdom.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3, the opening verse of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly called the Beatitudes, begins with the statement, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

The old man has always had a tough time with this one. Why should the "poor in spirit" be blessed? If "spirit" suggests faith and belief in the resurrection, then why should this be good? Why not, instead, "rich in spirit" or "full in the faith of the Lord"?

Yet, the old man thinks, "spirit" does not refer to faith, rather, it refers to physical condition. Perhaps, the old man speculates, the answer lies in the deeper meaning of the Beatitudes. Christ's sermon is directed to the poor and the destitute. To these followers, he suggested that humility is preferred over pride. Then, as now, "blessedness" was a catch phrase for wealth, for to be blessed is to be wealthy. Yet Christ is turning the phrase around and saying, "wealthy are they who are poor."

Still, unsure of himself, the old man sighs and thinks that he will never fully understand the words of Jesus.  That is okay, for being unsure in the ways of the Lord, perhaps renders the old man "poor in spirit" and that is his ticket to heaven.


"[T]here is properly no history; only biography." Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay 1, History.

Time, May 20, 2013

Time magazine points out that history is actually an autobiography.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Horace - To Varus

Nothing, Varus, should be planted before the sacred vine
In the gentle soil around Tivoli and the walls of Catilus;
A hard god, to those who do not imbibe,
offers nothing better to waylay our woes, ...

Ode 1.18

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 BC – 8 BC), next to Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 BC – 19 BC), was Rome's greatest poet during the reign of Augustus. In 23 BC Horace published the three books of The Odes. Ode 18 of the first book was written to Varus. Horace locates the ode at "mite solum Tibruis et moenia Catili", "the mild soil of Tibur (Tivoli) and the walls of Catilus".  The city was a favorite summer residence of Romans, located in the Sabine Hills 20 miles to the east of Rome. According to legend, it was founded by three brothers who fled from Greece - Tiburnas, Catilus, and Colus.

The Varus Horace writes to is possibly Publius Quinctilius Varus (46 BC  – 9 AD), a general under Emperor Augustus, one time governor of Africa, twice governor of Syria - today, remembered infamously for losing three legions of Roman soldiers to Arminius in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. But, these events were all in the future when Horace wrote this poem.

About 20 BC, Varus married the daughter of Agrippa, (Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa 64/63 BC – 12 BC) hero of the naval battle of Actium, which decided the civil war once and for all in Octavian's favor. Varus was friends to both Agrippa and Augustus. In 13 BC, Varus was elected consul junior partner of Tiberius, Augustus' stepson and future emperor.

Near Tibur (Tivoli) Varus was to build a grand villa, whose foundation and remnants of three walls can still be seen today. The villa sat on a ridge overlooking the several waterfalls of the River Anio, across from Tibur (Tivoli),  To the west was a panoramic view of the plains reaching Rome and the blue Mediterranean Sea.

Waterfalls of River Anio, photo by Lalupa

Sic transit gloria. 

At the time Horace wrote this ode, he knew not what dizzying heights of glory that Varus would rise to, nor his ignominious end. We are simply reminded by the passage of time that, "All glory is fleeting."

Horace, like Varus, owned an estate near Tibur (Tivoli), a trip of several hours by horse from Rome.  Perhaps Horace wrote it as simple advice, at a time when Varus was happy to sip a glass of wine, sitting in the shade of a tree on the veranda enjoying life. Who knows what troubles tomorrow brings.
Ode 1.18 To Varus

Nullam, Vare, sacra vite prius severis arborem 
circa mite solum Tibruis et moenia Catili; 
siccis omnia nam dura deus proposuit 
neque mordaces aliter diffugiunt sollicitudines.

Quis post vina gravem militiam aut pauperiem crepat? 
Quis non te potius, Bacche pater, teque decens Venus? 
Ac ne quis modici transiliat munera Liberi, 

Centaurea monet cum Lapithis rixa super mero debellata, 
menet Sithoniis non levis Euhius, 
cum fas atque nefas exiguo fine libidinum discernunt avidi. 
Non ego te, candide Bassareu, invitum quatiam nec variis obsita frondibus sub divum rapiam. 
Saeva tene cum Berecyntio cornu tympana, 
quae subsequitur caecus Amor sui et tollens vacuam 
plus nimio Gloria verticem arcanique Fides prodiga, perlucidior vitro.

Nothing, Varus, should be planted before the sacred vine
In the gentle soil around Tivoli and the walls of Catilus;
A hard god, to abstainers,
offers nothing better to waylay our woes
After wine, who cares to speak of the gravity of wine or poverty?
Rather, who would not prefer to speak of thee father Bacchus and thee lovely Venus?
Oh, but don't overleap the gift of moderation yee children of Bacchus


Monday, July 1, 2013

Maximilian I

Maximilian I, 1519, painting by Albrecht Durer

Maximilian I, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King of Germany, of Hungary, Dalmatia, Croatia, etc. Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Lorraine, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Limburg, Luxembourg, Gelderland, Landgrave of Alsace, Prince of Swabia, Count Palatine of Burgundy, Princely Count of Habsburg, Hainaut, Flanders, Tyrol, Gorizia, Artois, Holland, Seeland, Ferrette, Kyburg, Namur, Zutphen, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, the Enns, Burgau, Lord of Frisia, the Wendish March, Pordenone, Salins, Mechelen, etc., etc.

Maximillian I (1459-1519), emperor-elect of Germany, died at the age of sixty. He was described by Machiavelli as "a wise, prudent, God-fearing prince, a just ruler, ..." He loved music, literature, and art. He spoke Latin, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Walloon, Flemish, and English. He married Mary of Burgundy (1457-1482) the daughter and only child of Charles the Bold. She died in 1482 at the age of 25, while falconing with Maximilian near Brugges. Her horse tripped, threw her, and landed on top of her breaking her back. Their son Philip the Handsome married the future Queen Joanna of Castile in 1498, and established the Habsburg dynasty in Spain.

Max was a contemporary of King Henry XVIII. He lived in an age of discovery. Christopher Columbus and Vasco Da Gama ventured forth to discover new worlds and new ways to the Orient. Johannes Gutenberg invention of the printing press in Europe began the age of mass communication. The printing press in large measure made possible the Protestant Reformation that shook Europe at the end of Maximilian's reign.

"Earth possesses no no joy for me," Max concluded near the end of his life. The things that matter are not of this world.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

High Flight

Major Tom
Sometimes, you need to get away. Alone!

John Gillespie Magee, Jr. (1922–41) was born in China, to missionary parents—an American father and an English mother. Magee did not get to be old, he died at the very young age of nineteen, but he did get to experience the feeling of getting away, of being alone. Raised in China, educated in both England and the United States, he won a scholarship to Yale, but instead joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in late 1940. He flew in a Spitfire squadron.

He composed this poem on September 3, 1941, while 30,000 feet up; and was killed over the skies of Britain on a training mission three months later on December 11, 1941.

With this thought in mind, here is his poem High Flight:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
[I do not believe the poem is copyrighted.]

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Writer's Block

Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, "Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know."

Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia, could have been the title of this short article, but then only a food scientist would understand.

Sphenopalatine Ganglioneuralgia is a brain freeze, the pain you feel when one takes a big gulp of one's favorite frozen concoction on a summer's day or one chomps down on a Popsicle fresh from the freezer. Boom - there is a massive pain in your forehead. Blood vessels dilate as you hold the icy cold in your mouth, pain receptors release prostaglandins, increasing sensitivity to further pain, and the trigeminal nerve signals the brain to the problem. Stop what you are doing, but you don't.

A brain freeze is not unlike what happens to writers when they can't think of what to say. And the harder you try to think, the worse the block gets. Boom - one gets a headache just thinking about thinking about something to write. Writers call it writer's block.

Hemingway had some good advice on writer's block. Stop what you are doing, relax and let the mind take over. And, this is important, write what is true.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


“Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.” Lily Tomlin

From time to time, the old man waxes philosophic, wondering, "What is reality?"

Megaloceros, an ancient deer, Lascaux from Wikipedia.

The Lascaux caves in France hint that man has been puzzling over this question since homo sapiens first climbed down from the trees and out of the forest. The intricate paintings these early homo sapiens left over 17,000 years ago suggest that man has been searching for intelligence in the universe from the very beginning of recorded thought and before that.

Almost 17,000 years later, the ancient Greek philosophers put the question to stylus and sheepskin parchment.

"What exists is what matters," Thales of Miletus (c.624-548 B.C.) suggested. Then again, Pythagoras of Samos (c.580-507 B.C.) found the nature of things not as important as their mathematical relationships. Others, including Socrates (c.469-399 B.C.) and his pupil Plato (c.427-347 B.C.), instead argued that it is "mind over matter," reality is in the "essence" of things, which brings one back to the punch line from a joke attributed to Satchel Paige (1906-1982). When asked by a reporter how old the old pitcher was, he responded, "Age is mind over matter, if you don't mind, it don't matter." Back to Lily Tomlin, who muses that answers don't really matter, for everyone has their point of view. What matters in life is to find someone who will listen.

Comedians seem to have a better grasp on the realities of life.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


MACBETH Act I, Scene I

          A desert place.
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Second Witch
When the hurlyburly's done,
When the battle's lost and won.
Third Witch
That will be ere the set of sun.
First Witch
Where the place?
Second Witch
Upon the heath.
Third Witch There to meet with Macbeth.

Macbeth and Banquo Encountering the Three Witches on the Heath,
Musee d'Orsay, by Théodore Chassériau, 1855. The Atheneum.

The old man's son is in college now. He is home for the summer having survived his first year away from home. Asked what he learned, the son replies, "All stories, my English teacher taught, can only be understood in the context of the time in which the story is written." He continues, "The other questions that must be asked are, 'Who is the author writing for?' and 'What is his purpose in writing?'"

Good points, the old man thinks.

Macbeth has always had an attraction for fans of William Shakespeare. Written between 1603 and 1607, the play tells the story of a brave Scottish general, Macbeth, who is told by a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland.

Do these witches have some magical powers that allow them to foretell the future?

In the forty years prior to writing the play, some eight thousand women were burned as witches in Scotland. In 1597, King James VI of Scotland published Daemonologie, blaming witches for love or hate, disease, storms, and the power to kill. In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England, and, one supposes the question of witches was fresh in the minds of James' new English subjects. Not that Elizabeth I, who preceded James, was innocent of superstition, but she only executed eighty-one women for the crime of witchcraft during her reign. Perhaps she was distracted by weightier matters of state than the hysterics of accusers and the rantings of old women who were tortured into confessing crimes they did not commit.

William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth no doubt to curry favor with the new king. The conscience of Shakespeare's play turns out to be Banquo, a relative of the future king. Banquo is present with Macbeth at the meeting with the three witches. He is promised by the witches, not the crown, but the future crown. This promise surely put Macbeth to wonder about Banquo's loyalty, and thus, Macbeth, after murdering the king, subsequently murders Banquo. Banquo continues on in the play as a ghost and as father of Fleance and ancestor to the future King James I.

After the performance of the play, Shakespeare's troupe became The King's Company and Shakespeare and company were on their way to fame and fortune.

Shakespeare was an unqualified success because he wrote in an age of superstition. The mass of spectators who paid a penny to stand and watch a performance, which included witches and ghosts, regicide and suicide, battles, and blood and gore, got their money's worth. And those who paid three-penny's worth for a seat, were richly treated to more thoughtful prose.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Carpe Diem

They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.

John Keating from Dead Poet's Society
The dogs, Sammy and Tobie, and I spent a cloudy spring Sunday driving through the southern part of Greenwood County. Sammy is a German Shepherd, Tobie is part Australian Shepherd and part Mountain Cur. Me, I guess I am a mix breed too, but then aren't we all? My wife and kids just call me a cranky old man. But I am not all that old and I don't think of myself as cranky.

The dogs like car trips because they run free through the fields of grass and flowers and splash in the streams. Being city dogs, they don't always know what to make of the cattle and horse. I like the solitude of history.

The dogs and I live in Wichita, Kansas. We do our best to get along with the wife and kids, but it isn't always easy.

Wichita is the largest city in the state of Kansas. Founded in 1870, it has grown from cow town on the Chisholm Trail to a leading manufacturer of airplanes. It is also home to Koch Industries, a privately held by Charles and David Koch and based in Wichita. Koch has subsidiaries in manufacturing, trading and investments. Charles and David Koch - one lives in Wichita, the other in New York - own Invista, Georgia-Pacific, Flint Hills Resources, Koch Pipeline, Koch Fertilizer, Koch Minerals and Matador Cattle Company, to name a few.

Wichita is also home to the Wichita State University, whose men's basketball team came within a hair's breath of beating Louisville in the 2013 NCAA basketball tournament in Atlanta. But enough bragging about one's home town.

If you leave Wichita and head east on Highway 400, the trip takes you into Butler County, past Augusta, Leon, and Beaumont. The road gently rises through the Flint Hills and off to the right and left, where the highway has cut through the hills, you can often see the layered chert and limestone that lies below the soil. Beaumont is at the summit of the Flint Hills. In fact, its hotel was once called the Summit, before taking on the name Beaumont.

detail Greenwood County, Kansas Atlas 1903

Greenwood County begins at the eastern boundary of Beaumont. From there the highway descends down into the Otter Creek valley. The old Frisco railroad which used to parallel the highway is now gone and its tracks removed. Today, the population of Greenwood barely tops 6,600. And that wouldn't even fill Charles Koch Arena where the Shocker basketball team plays. At its peak, when the Frisco ran, the population stood at 16,495. It has been down hill since then.

Just inside Greenwood County, down the hill from Beaumont near one of the many rivulets that form Otter Creek, sits an abandoned limestone one room schoolhouse, number 83.  Only two sides of the school remain. The doorway on the north has fallen down as has the roof and west wall. This must count as the smallest school in Kansas. I imagine that two children standing shoulder to shoulder with arms stretched out could touch from side to side. From the Kansas Atlas for 1922, I discovered that the school sat on land belonging to James and Anna Edgar. But that is all I have discovered. The story of the school and its students is lost to history.

Kansas' smallest schoolhouse, no, 83, Greenwood County
Sammy and Tobie enjoyed the break from the monotony of the car. Nearby a spring flowed fresh water from the hills and a creek flowed clear water. As with all spring water, it was cool and clear.

Railroads change names frequently. And the Frisco railroad has had many names over its lifetime. During its time in eastern Kansas, the Frisco was officially known as the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad. The St. Louis part was real but San Franciso was a dream, for the tracks never got to the west coast. In Kansas, before the climb to Beaumont and on to Wichita, the Frisco had stops in Piedmont and Severy. Piedmont, as the name suggests, is at the foot of the Flint Hills, before the climb to the summit at Beaumont. Severy is another 10 miles east. Beaumont, Piedmont, and Severy were all railroad towns, meaning they thrived because of the railroad and the business it brought.

Piedmont 1902, Kansas Atlas, Greenwood County 1902
If you have the time, visit Piedmont. By Mapquest.

Highway 400 does not announce the turn off to Piedmont in large letters. The city sits about a mile off the new highway, tucked back in the trees, lost in time. Piedmont, once a booming town of 300, now is down to less than 100. Once it had a hotel, a grocery store, and other businesses. Now it has none.

Piedmont High School, 1922
Piedmont certainly has, or perhaps "had" is a better word, the largest high school for a city its size. This abandoned three story structure could have housed the entire city and then had room for more. The roof is gone, so are the students.

Empty schools get me to think, and my thoughts eventually took me to the 1989 movie Dead Poet's Society where English teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams) inspires his students to a love of poetry and to seize the day.In one memorable scene he takes his students out into the hallway and to the trophy cases. There are all the golden trophies attesting to the physical prowess of the high schools sports teams. There are all the team photos. And when the students lean in to peer at the images and faces of the students gone by, is when the teacher whispers "Carpe diem, sieze the day boys."

Kansas Atlas 1922, Greenwood County
I didn't have the old yearbook for Piedmont High School. I did find online the Kansas Atlas 1922 for Greenwood County. And in the back of the book are a few reminders of the people who once proudly called Greenwood County home.

John Howland, family
Cedar Lawn Stock Farm, Severy, Kansas
You have to take your time, you have to look closely, but they are saying the same thing as John Keating, "Carpe diem, sieze the day."

Sammy Tobie and I enjoyed Piedmont. What is not to like about a city where the dogs can run loose, where a dad can take his son four wheeling down the main street, where everyone knows your name, and strangers are welcome, if you are friendly in return.

Down the road to Severy, it is not a far piece to drive. Back in the day, buy horse and buggy, it would take an hour. When cars started arriving in Greenwood County around 1910, the trip was shortened to half the time, but only if the car didn't get stuck in the mud on the dirt roads.

Severy too has been bypassed by Highway 400. To get there one has to leave the fast lane and take the old county road one mile. Severy is larger than Piedmont. It has a grocery store, a cafe, even a burger place, and several businesses which keep the town thriving despite the loss of the railroad.

As I turned my car around to go home, one other thought struck me - that is that even as I watch these once thriving towns grow smaller, it is a testament to the passing of time. "To everything there is a season," as Ecclesiastics says. The rugged settlers who came to Greenwood County in the 1870's themselves replaced an older group of people. Though it is not marked, Highway 400 marks the route of the Osage Indian Trail. And along this same highway four times a year the Osage Indians would travel to the hunting grounds of the buffalo along the Walnut and Arkansas river valleys.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” Then, he also said, "Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true." Emerson continued, "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." He had many more such adages, but I think it fair to say that, "Life is not about the giving and taking of advice, it is the living of life that matters."

The old man has always tried to follow this advice. So, "Sally forth!"

What Emerson expressed in words, Thomas Cole expressed visually in his series The Voyage of Life. View The Voyage of Life show by the National Gallery of Art.

Cole was the founder of the Hudson School of Art, a mid-19th century group of artists who combined realism with a touch of romanticism. The old man merely mentions this because elsewhere he is writing of the early Dutch settlers along the Hudson River. The old man knows that we all start life with a romantic notion that life will be beautiful. It is reality that rears its head and reminds us of the daily struggle to keep that notion of beauty and good in a world that sometimes can be evil.

Detail The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole, infant

The first time the old man saw the series, The Voyage of Life,  by Thomas Cole, he was living in Washington D.C.. The old man was still young, not yet thirty, working at the Department of Justice as an attorney. The job in the Criminal Tax Division took him to Alaska and Oregon. It was a great way to travel and see more of the world, and only occasionally taking someone to court if they had not paid their fair share in support of the American way of life.

Detail, The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole, youth

When not on the road, and in Washington D.C., the old man used to wander across the street from the Department of Justice to the National Gallery of Art. Thomas Cole painted the series of four images in 1842. The paintings follow a voyager on his journey through life - child, youth, manhood, and old man. The voyager is accompanied on his journey by a guardian angel, but as the paintings depict, the voyager is not always in control of his journey and the angel is not always there to help.

Detail, The Voyage of Life, by Thomas Cole, manhood

 Hold on! The ride is exciting, but the outcome is not always certain. We have to navigate through some tricky currents now and then, but would you want it any other way?

The old man won't tell you how it ends. To learn that the old man would have to be omniscient, which he is not. But then maybe the not knowing is what makes life worth living.

[ Note. All images in the public domain. The National Gallery of Art has a wonderful website where you can see many of the images in its collection, but not these. Instead, one can go to Wikipedia Commons and find all four in the series.]