Archive for the ‘Essays – Personal’ Category

Rattlesnakes Are Fair: A New Free Kindle Book

September 16, 2018

My new book Rattlesnakes Are Fair: Stories from Where I Grew Up and Where I Live has just been published on Kindle. The book includes short stories, photographs, anecdotes, reflections, and jokes with a rural-America flavor. The photographs included were taken in Northwest Indiana, where I grew up and in Colorado, Kansas, Ohio and Maine, where I have lived as an adult. Many, including the cover photo, were taken by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Rattlesnakes is available for free on Kindle for five days, September 16 through September 20. You do not need a Kindle machine. You can view it on PC, Mac, or phone. As usual on Kindle, there are many spacing and paragraphing problems that did not show up in the previewer.

Rattlesnakes Are Fair

 

My two previous books will also be available for free, but only for two days, September 16 and 17:

Mikey Works at the Grocery

 

Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders & George Armstrong Custer

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Mikey Works at the Grocery

July 22, 2018

 

My little book of daft humor Mikey Works at the Grocery was published last week. It is now available for free on Kindle for three days, July 22 to 24. You do not need a Kindle machine. You can view it on PC, Mac, or phone. Many of the photographs are by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

Link to Book

 

A 5¢ pay raise! Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

A 5¢ pay raise! Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

 

An Unsettling Day at the Store

I was making jokes like usual, but no one was smiling. Like when you are reminiscing to you wife about some really fun thing the two of you did years ago. But she gets quiet and seems to be listening too closely. And you think, oh wait, who was I with?

 

I told my manager I was getting a colonoscopy. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

I told my manager I was getting a colonoscopy. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

 

Slime in the Parking Lot

During my first break yesterday I got a phone call from a front end supervisor. I heard her say, “Can you come to the front? There is slime flowing around in the parking lot.” Sounded urgent so I advised her to page my partner who was working in the backroom. “What the hell,” I thought. “Could be a septic pumper with a leaky valve!” I hurried down at the end of my break and asked if my partner was still outside. “Yes,” she replied with great seriousness. I went into the parking lot to help. Couldn’t find my partner. Couldn’t find any slime.

I went out back and found my partner at work. “What was in the parking lot?” I asked, excitedly.  He looked puzzled. “It was just one of the yellow floor cone signs we set out in the fire lane. Someone knocked it over. The front end called for me to “take care of the sign that was rolling around in the parking lot.”

I suppose I could get a hearing aid, but life would be less interesting.

 

Waking Up in a Dream

June 8, 2018

 

I worked for a year as a handyman at the power station of Bethlehem Steel in Burns Harbor, Indiana. One day the foreman sent three of us into the fan duct of a boiler that was offline for repairs. We entered through a small door on the side of the boiler. In order to see, we hung up a work light plugged into an extension cord that was plugged into a socket outside. Inside was a little ledge we could sit on before the duct became a shaft that dropped to the fan below. When the boiler was operating the fan blew air up through the duct we had entered into the furnace to feed oxygen to the flames.

Our job was to sit on the ledge and knock off as much scale as we could reach. Not an important job, but the boiler was offline and the boss didn’t have anything else to do with us that day. Certainly it was a better job than cleaning out fish remains from inside the reservoirs under the water pumps.

One of the other guys was doing the regular rounds on the working boilers. He stopped by to look in on us. Being a junior Einstein, like the rest of us, he realized what great fun it would be to close and block shut the only access door to the duct. In the process, however, he also moved the extension cord and loosened the plug in its socket. Our only source of light went out.

The three of us found ourselves in total darkness sitting on a ledge above a drop into a narrowing shaft leading to the blades of the boiler’s fan. In such a situation you must remain cool, joke about your entombment, and plan your revenge on Junior Einstein. I do thank God I was not alone. The voices of the other two helped orient me.

A half hour later Junior returned full of mirth. He swore he had not known the light had gone off. He said he was sorry. So we all went back to work. But with our eyes wide open, not for safety issues, but for a good chance for payback.

Two or three nights later, the dream began. It is always the same. I am trapped alone in total darkness. I can’t figure out where I am. I panic. Stumbling and bumping into things, I begin to explore. In the dark I come up against a wall. I grope my way along the wall trying to find a light switch or some way out. The dream ends when I find something familiar and realize where I am or when someone else in the house turns on a light to see what’s going on. Then I am revealed with my hands creeping along the wall of wherever it is I went to sleep. I am not sleepwalking. I am fully awake when I get out of bed, but the world around me in the dark room continues the world that was around me in the dream. I am awake but still in the dream.

It has been forty-seven years since I worked at that power station, but at times I still wake up in that dream. It’s strangeness has gotten me banned from staying at friends’ houses. Ever since the dream began, I have always tried to sleep with some source of light. Ordinary dreams can be very unsettling but when a dream crosses over into the waking world it is a living terror.

The dream is always with me, somewhere in my mind, waiting its next rebirth, waiting to slip out into my waking world. The dream lives on as a part of me, and we will remain together until we die.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Michael B. Smetzer.

 

The Lighted Hall. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

The Lighted Hall. Photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer.

The “Bomb Cyclone” of 2018

January 4, 2018

Looking out our window I’d say we have a pretty good blizzard going. Good enough that I’m stuck at home. But then I drive an old Ford van with 2-wheel drive and my apartment house parking is two stories below street level.

Like everyone else over forty, I’m thinking, “This bomb is nothing compared to the storms we had years ago.”

I remember one storm when the snow drifted to over two feet above the electric line in front of our house. Terrible storms when I was a kid.

Then again, I believe we actually only got about a foot of dry snow out of that storm. An oil truck went off the road and knocked down the electric pole. But like I said, before the crew came out and replanted the pole, there was a drift two feet above the electric wires. Terrible storms when I was a kid.

Being Ready for the Bad Guys

December 19, 2017

I know a gun advocate I’ll call Bob who carries a handgun in a small camera bag wherever he goes. He wants to be ready to deal with the bad guys. I’ve known him casually for several years. He knows I don’t carry but he also knows I’m OK that he does. The other day Bob asked me if my parents had a gun when I was growing up. I started to say “no.” Then I stopped.

Of course we had guns. We had five of them. We had a family-heirloom muzzle loader that went out to the California gold rush and back. It still worked and Dad sometimes fired it, although the rest of us kept well back. Mom had a .410 that I used to hunt rabbits. I had a single-shot .22 for squirrels. Dad had a pump-action .22 with a scope for squirrels and varmints. And he had a double-barreled 12 gauge for rabbits and birds.

I almost said “no” to the Bob’s question because we didn’t think of these guns as something for shooting people. Obviously we could have defended ourselves. A 12-gauge shotgun is very persuasive. But we had guns in the house for hunting. A handgun or an assault rifle for killing people was never something we considered.

I think of my uncles who fought in WWII and I don’t believe any of them kept handguns or military weapons. They just didn’t seem necessary.

Maybe Bob will someday drop a bad guy. More likely he’ll pull out his .32 and the bad guy will drop Bob. I do understand his anxiety about the world around us. I also understand that Bob feels confident when he carries a gun. But I wish he would put his camera back in his camera bag so we could go birding.

 

Mike in the Woods, Photo by Vera Smetzer

Mike in the Woods, Photo by Vera Smetzer

Who wins a new Korean War?

August 12, 2017

If we have a full nuclear war, everyone loses, but if we have a conventional or tactical nuclear war with N. Korea, who wins? I’m thinking China.

Both North and South Korea would be in shambles.  Whether China fights us directly or not, they would have to intervene in order to restore order in the peninsula. China could then solve their Korea problem by taking over at least N. Korea as they did Tibet and absorbing it into what amounts to their modern Chinese empire. Afterwards they might push for a Hong-Kong style reunification of North and South.

No other world power has the resources to remake Korea and I think China is positioned to do just that.

Rattlesnakes Are Scary but Fair

June 8, 2017

 

A soft-spoken older guy stopped me in the store and I thought asked me if we had potty. I figured he had been watching his grandkids a lot lately. So I pointed him toward the restrooms in the front corner of the store. “No,” he says, “P-a-t-e.” Oh. Pâté. I hadn’t thought about pâté in years.

When I was a kid in Indiana, my family liked to eat at a place called Strongbow Turkey Inn. No question about freshness. They had the turkeys wandering around in a fenced yard right behind the restaurant. It was a great place for a full turkey dinner. One of the things they served with that dinner was a pâté made from turkey liver. I liked it.

Years later when I was living in Kansas, I worked with a woman I’ll call Betsy Parker. Betsy had moved up to Kansas from Arkansas. She was a settled, inconspicuous woman. Our co-workers hardly noticed her. Her one claim to fame was that she was a third cousin to Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde. She said the older members of her family still talked about meeting Bonnie and Clyde. Said they were a pair of hissing rattlers you knew you had to walk around. Nothing like quiet Betsy.

Betsy had a girlfriend from Boston that liked to make fun of Betsy and her family for eating squirrels. Wow, I can still remember the aroma of my mama’s browned and baked squirrels. Good eating. Well, Betsy invited her friend’s family over one time for a beef pot roast dinner. And for an appetizer she served them pâté. She said they thought it was great. It wasn’t until later she told them she made the pâté out of squirrel brains.

Worth remembering. Copperheads don’t rattle before they strike.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

You want a garden here? - photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

You want a Garden here? – photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Great Aunt Ada’s Gifts vs. the Trump Presidency

June 2, 2017

 

Watching the Trump presidency unfold is one amazing performance after another. It is entertaining. It is riveting. It has comedy. It has dramatic suspense. And it is personally frightening. Frightening because Trump’s theater is the real world and all of our lives hang on his lines.

I wish watching the Trump presidency were more like opening presents from a great aunt I’ll call Ada. Ada either sends English regimental ties when I haven’t worn a dress shirt in years. Or creative hand-knit socks that are like nothing I’ve worn since my mod phase in the sixties.

Aunt Ada means well and she loves me. She’s just out of touch with my life. When my aunt sends a useless gift, no one’s life is destroyed, democracy is not undermined, and the very continuance of civilization is not threatened. The only note of suspense is “will it be a tie or socks?”

Aunt Ada does no harm. I toss the tie or socks in a bag for Goodwill. Then I write her a little thank-you note, adding I hope she likes the present I sent, which I suspect is equally useless to her. And we both get back to our separate lives. Sort of like my relationship with Trump when I just saw him for a few moments on The Apprentice as I was clicking through channels on a dull night.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Sharing

May 31, 2017

 

One summer a few years ago, I poured some old bird seed, a mixture of sunflower seeds and millet, into a child’s wagon in our back yard. I regularly saw five or six squirrels in the area and I thought they would enjoy it. What happened, however, was not the general feeding I expected.

One squirrel soon arrived and began to eat and eat and eat. Other squirrels arrived too and hopped frantically near the wagon. If they got close to the wagon, the squirrel inside jumped out and chased them away. When he was full he set about hiding the rest of the sunflower seeds, still not letting any other squirrel near the wagon. In squirrel world, it seems, there is no sharing even in abundance.

When I went out the next day I found only millet seeds in the wagon. I decided to scatter more seeds around and between our two large maples. Our bully squirrel could hardly defend the whole area. This worked to some extent, but there was still no doubt about who was lord of the bird seed and who had to sneak in and run. Eventually all the sunflower seeds were gone and only the millet remained, which the squirrels seemed to ignore.

Enter a dove with a taste for millet. He was a stranger. No doves had been visiting in our yard. He went contentedly pecking about the millet leavings while the boss squirrel chased the other squirrels about in the trees. As it happened the boss squirrel chased another squirrel down one of the maples as the dove was ambling about at its base. The boss squirrel altered course to jump directly on the dove, sending it flying. In the squirrel world, I guess, there is no sharing even of what isn’t wanted.

But it is not a great thing being a boss squirrel. You generally get enough to eat, but you must constantly fight off intruders. These squirrels seemed to spend half their time chasing each other up and down and through or flipping their tails at each other. No truce is ever called in squirrel land.

But that is squirrel nature. A generous spirit can hardly be practiced when the next month may bring starvation. Any sunflower seeds conceded to a fellow will be missed when there is nothing more to dig up. And millet is really much better than starvation. Squirrel survival depends on a selfish nature.

At first I shook my head at the squirrels because I like to share, within reason. Sharing has great social rewards and it makes me feel good, and I can be pretty confident that I am not going to starve. I have the luxury to share, just as I have the luxury to write these words rather than chase my neighbor Jerry around the trees. Well, all right, he would probably be chasing me. Or he and his wife Judy and their kids would probably be chasing me and my wife Vera and our parrot Walter. The point is it would all be very tiring if I lived a squirrel’s life and I don’t think I would be pondering how to live well.

You can’t concentrate on philosophy if you have to constantly guard your seeds. So I am grateful that I have so much leisure in my life, that I have the option of spreading some seeds around without starving to death. I could share everything I’ve got and still get by. Human society makes that possible. And I thank you all.

Fortunately being generous doesn’t absolutely require asceticism or washing the sores of lepers. I’m not ready for that. But I think I could give up some of my seeds and make more space in my tree. I have always wanted to be more consistently open with people. That’s why I write. And personal openness is probably the kind of sharing that people with full stomachs value most.

I am going to try to be more open when there are actual people around, not just while constructing sentences on the page. But don’t expect too much. I’m just a holiday hiker on the road to spiritual fulfillment. If I really knew where the answers lie, I wouldn’t still be squirreling up all these verbal seeds.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

An earlier version of this essay was published in 2010 in Brother Michael This Morning.

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Spiritual Signs

May 28, 2017

 

Have you ever asked for a sign?

When I lived out in Kansas, a Chicago-raised friend reported seeing a red-tailed hawk while driving from Lawrence to Eldorado. She interpreted the sighting as a sign that a major positive development was about to happen in her life. She turned around mid trip and went back to her apartment to wait. Nothing happened. Native Kansans laughed about this, since on the plains you can hardly look out a car window without seeing a hawk.

Hawks in Kansas are nothing remarkable. But this person driving to Eldorado was focused on her inner struggles, on her unforgiving past, on her unreachable dreams. The existence of hawks outside her car was nothing special, but for her to look out and actually see a redtail was indeed magical. It was a legitimate sign for her on her journey, although for native Kansans it was just another hawk on a post.

Now my friend received many signs in her life. She followed her signs into one disaster after another. Signs are magical but they are seen with human eyes, the eyes you bring to the seeing. You cannot trust the signs you see unless you can trust yourself. My friend was not spiritually grounded or emotionally balanced. She was confused and desperate.

During the Peloponnesian War the ancient Athenians sent a massive expedition to Sicily. Things went badly. Confused, divided and disheartened, they prepared to return home. That was when they saw their sign: a lunar eclipse. Not auspicious in the ancient world. The priests understood this to mean that they should not travel at that time but stay another 27 days, until the start of the next lunar cycle. A carefully reasoned conclusion but wrong.

True, it seemed very reasonable to people who did not want to return home as failures, to people who still longed for heroic victory. The result of this delay was a disaster in which the entire force was destroyed, eventually contributing to Athen’s defeat in the war. If the blotting out of the moon foretells imminent disaster and your city state is at war, wouldn’t a wise person hightail it for home? Since when is it a good plan to dawdle in the face of danger? Off balance and emotionally stressed, the Athenian priests must have experienced spiritual confusion. Or perhaps their approach to signs was simply too rule bound.

A sign is not like a prescription we can take to any pharmacy and have filled. A sign is like a mirror. It shows us something in ourselves we would not otherwise see. To apply the sign we need wisdom. Without wisdom, we are misled by what we see.

Miracles are different. Miracles may come to anyone regardless of preparation or merit.  Consider the unclean man whose demons Jesus cast into swine. He was stripped of all merit and hopelessly unprepared. But he was miraculously restored to humanity by God’s grace.  Understanding and wisdom followed.

Signs require a fertile and wholesome ground before they can bear fruit. In chapter 5 of Daniel, King Belshazzar and his advisors were befuddled by the writing on the wall, but Daniel had the spiritual preparation to understand the sign. He not only saw the writing on the wall, he knew it in the unity of his heart and mind. This sign wasn’t really for the debased King Belshazzar. It was too late for him anyway. The sign was for Daniel. A sign opens itself for the person who has clarity of vision. Its meaning comes freely, without struggle or effort. For those who are prepared, signs are transparent; for those who are not, they are opaque.

Most signs are also personal. I can’t know for certain what my friend’s redtail hawk meant. The sign was for her. I do know that when I last saw her, some years later, she was still not at peace with herself. I wonder if she ever found out what her hawk meant.  Did she see her hawk again? Did she go back and finish her trip to Eldorado?

 

This post is a revision of a personal essay first published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Swimmers, painting by Mike Smetzer