My Utopia

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Thoreau went to Walden Pond to escape the world as it was and create the world of his mind. Arthur C. Clarke dreamed of an incredible future and then went to an island to make it come true, at least for him. It is in our natures as humans to muse upon utopian worlds, Garden of Eden style societies in which conflict and want are no more. Unfortunately one man’s utopia is another’s prison. It’s unlikely that we would ever be able to agree on what constitutes heaven on earth much less actually build it. Adam and Eve proved that as have countless groups like the pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock. 

Somehow it is in our natures to disagree. From a religious standpoint we hark back to the first man and woman to see how temptations even in the presence of what should be perfect contentment sway us to stray from the path of perfection. From a strictly psychological and genetic point of view we see that our upbringings, cultures, backgrounds have a profound effect on our perspectives and thus make it almost impossible to find a universal common ground. Not even cults last forever and sometimes they lead to even more destruction than existed before. 

If I were to describe my own utopia it would be quite personal and much like Thoreau’s isolated existence far from most of society. It would be a temporary form of solace because I am realistic enough to know that I would still have to venture out into the world as it is. My utopia would be a haven, a retreat, but not a transformation of all of the world.

In my utopia nature would hold a commanding place. Trees, flowers, birds and all sorts of creatures would live in peaceful coexistence with me and those who choose to go with me. Our setting would be tranquil and free of noise and irritations. Our lifestyle would be simple, quiet, deliberate. There would be no rushing from one appointment to another, no sitting in traffic. I would not be consumed with worrisome thoughts or anxieties about how to get things done. There would be no need for such attitudes because the pace of life would allow us to continually pause to feel our connections with each other and the universe. 

Of course there would have to be access to books and learning. I would spend a great deal of time increasing my knowledge and best of all having Socratic-like discussions without rancor or preconceived arguments with my fellow utopians. We would feed on each other’s ideas, parsing them for truth and understanding. There would be no competitions, only the pure joy of expanding our minds and our tolerance for differences. Ours would be a peaceful place devoid of jealousies. There would be an easy going harmony with each other and with nature.

My utopia would bring good health to everyone who lives there. Our doctors would find ways to eliminate horrific diseases and pain. We would exercise our bodies as well as our minds and eat the healthy bounty of unprocessed foods. Caring for our lovely surroundings as well as ourselves would be a community project and another avenue for bringing us together. More importantly there would be peace and joy and equality. Each person would be a treasure and know that he/she is loved unconditionally. There would be no want going unmet or unjust treatment being accepted. 

Of course I sound naive just describing my utopia. I may as well suggest that there will be rainbows everyday, ice cream covered mountains, and unicorns roaming on our lawns. There is a reason why humans dream of a perfect society but never achieve it. Indeed we are flawed and those flaws lead us to bickering and anger and turn us into green eyed monsters begrudging the good fortune of others. Trying to bring all of our points of view together has never been accomplished and taming the dark side of human nature has never been fully achieved. I suppose that many would not even like my ideas for a utopia. To them my perfect world would be a kind of hell. Thus it is and thus it has always been. 

We have managed to tame our wild spirits with education, peaceful philosophies and certain forms of government but we have yet to be fully successful. A true utopia would not need guns or police or soldiers because we would not fight with one another nor hurt one another. We would be as loving as Jesus was and we would not have hung him on a cross for having ideas that frightened us. 

I dream about a perfect world because I think that it is possible to improve the one we have bit by bit. It’s somewhat difficult to see that right now because of the sickness, divisiveness, injustice, suffering, wars and evil that seem to surround us throughout the world. Still, I find places where it feels pretty darn close to heaven right here on earth. I still believe that when all is said and done most of us are very very good. We are moving in the right direction and I think I can see a slice of utopia way up ahead. 

To Beard Or Not To Beard

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I’ve never studied the history of human hair but I am sure that there is one and that it is fascinating. I suppose that there was a time when people had no real alternative but to let Mother Nature take her course with the growth of that fuzzy stuff that ends up on everyone’s head and on the faces of men. I imagine that at some point the darn stuff grew so long that it became unmanageable. I laugh at the thought of some guy tripping over his beard. I imagine that hair became the victim of the first cutting tools invented by creative souls. 

We watch movies of historical times and often forget that the means of grooming were often quite limited for most folks, including royalty, for a very long time. Powdered wigs became the rage among those wealthy enough to afford them because the pate underneath them was probably a rather nasty mess. At some point in time men used blades of some sort to achieve a clean shaven look, perhaps to rid themselves of one more spot on the body that might house uninvited guests like insects. The measures of hygiene that we enjoy today were not always available to the average person even as late as the early twentieth century. 

My grandfather often spoke of his boyhood and the lack of basics like running water and gentle soaps that we take for granted. He laughed about the once a week baths that his grandmother gave him with a scrub down of lye soap that burned his skin. He claimed that nobody really noticed the general lack of cleanliness because it was a given for everyone in his little circle of country folk but he admitted that they must have been a rather foul smelling group.

Today our bodies are pampered with daily showers, baths, soaps, creams. We seek out professionals to style our hair and, for men, to shape our mustaches and beards. People can cut their locks and shave their faces or let them grow long and lush. Styles come and go but in the present time our tastes appear to be open to just about any way of dealing with that stuff that grows from our scalps and chins. In particular there is a kind of resurgence of beards of all kinds among the males. 

I think that a nicely shaped and controlled beard can be quite attractive. It works particularly well on men who have chins that are not particularly commanding. I personally prefer closely cropped versions of beards and goatees rather than big busy styles and I definitely dislike the long straggly versions that look at though no effort has been made to give the hair some character. Sean Connery wore beards rather well but some men can’t seem to get enough thickness to their facial hair to make it attractive. 

On the whole I prefer the clean shaven look on most men but I am not against facial hair when all of the factors come together to create a good look. I’ve learned that the art of the beard is time consuming and expensive, requiring just the right implements for training the hair and keeping it looking healthy with cleansing agents and pomades. The best beards require a great deal of work. 

I’ve visited men’s shaving shops with my husband and we browse the many products for beards even though he does not have one. He has stuck with the clean look for most of his life because his attempts to grow a beard or mustache have failed miserably. The beard is not problem for him but his mustache tends to be thin and of a different color than the hairs on his chin and head. He ends up looking unkempt and not nearly as attractive as he actually is. I’ve had to give him a thumbs down more than once when he tried to join the bearded set. Still, he is fascinated with the art of shaving and I see him longingly studying the implements and products designed for growing and managing a beautiful beard. 

Our friend Bill had a trademark goatee that served him well. He always looked rather dashing with the look that he adopted and kept for most of his adult life. My brother grew a beard during the pandemic that is a very good style for him. He now cuts his thinning pate close to his head and sports a closely cropped beard that draws attention to his twinkling eyes in an effect that serves him well. When done right a beard can be a nice way to enhance a man’s looks but those long straggly out of control bushes are just downright horrible to me. The men from Duck Dynasty might actually be handsome underneath all of the growth but for now they just look ridiculous. 

I suppose that I have a bit of a fetish about hair of any kind since I struggle so with mine. I have spent a lifetime attempting to find a style that works for me with very little success. I might look great in the salon after the work of a professional but I can’t reproduce the effect at home. A woman’s hair makes all the difference in how the world perceives her and mine sadly all too often looks boring and sometimes even as awful as a man with an out of control beard. I imagine that facial hair can be just as tricky for the guys as a head of bad hair can be for a woman. 

We humans are a funny lot. We’ve created an obsession with our looks that probably did not need to happen. We spend untold amounts of money each year on products and styling in the hopes of stumbling upon the ultimate look that will transform us from ordinary to incredibly attractive. How we ultimately decided what constitutes beauty is a mystery but they say that even tiny babies respond more positively to individuals with certain physical features. So we continue on our quest to be viewed a looking nice with emphasis on the aspect of our bodies that we always see first, our faces. For men that includes the hairs that pop out of their chins with daily regularity. To beard or not to beard is a very personal choice and brings a bit of variety into our lives that can be fun. I’m all for anything that makes someone feel good.

Grinding Our Gears

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Back when we were still young and adventurous my husband purchased a pickup truck with a standard transmission. I had to learn how to shift those gears and at first there was no hiding my inexperience as they would grind with an horrific noise that announced my lack of skill to the world. With practice I drove the beast with a confidence that was as smooth as silk but I’ll never forget how annoying and even embarrassing my first efforts were. I was proud to learn something new and I often think about how much more willing to try new things we seem to be in our youth. As we grow older we often become more reticent to consider novel ideas. I suppose that if I were to be honest I would admit that we older folk are all too often totally set in our ways and that attitude grinds my gears as badly as I did with our old truck.

Everything around us is constantly changing. The world of today is so different from the one into which I emerged as an infant. Heck, it had changed significantly by the time I was in my twenties. The strain between my age group and our parents came to be forever known as the generation gap. Our intentions were often misunderstood by our elders who wanted desperately to cling to older ways of thinking and doing things. History shows us that the dichotomy between the young and the old has often been this way. In our youth we are focused on the future and infinite possibilities. As we grow older we simply want to enjoy the world in peace just as it is. it’s feels more difficult to keep learning new things and we are sometimes too tired to bother.  

In another time most of my generation would already have departed this world. Modern medicine and a higher standard of living has increased the lifespan of most societies in remarkable ways but all too often the older folk cling to the past tenaciously and resist the newer ways of the young. Of late we have even tended to hold onto the reins of power far longer than ever before, creating a kind of lopsided command of businesses, wealth and even countries. The flow of opportunity to the younger adults is not as certain as it once was. 

Longings for the old ways are not innately bad but they do have the effect of sometimes stifling new ideas. They have the potential of slowing down progress in favor of just staying the same or even going back to a time that actually no longer exists. The tension between the old and the new stretches us to the max and creates frustrations in both camps. Meanwhile pressing issues remain on hold with no reasonable solutions in sight. 

I grew up with exceedingly wise elders. My grandfather was a fan of change because he had seen the fastest proliferation of it during his lifetime. He understood how difficult life was for most people during his youth at the end of the nineteenth century. By the time of his death in the nineteen eighties he had witnessed the birth of electricity, running water and plumbing inside homes, the invention of the automobile, the plane, the telephone, moving pictures, televisions, space travel, Medicare, Social Security. This list seems almost infinite and my grandpa praised everything that had happened while often saying that “the good old days” were in the present, not the past.

My mother often quoted the Bible in urging me to remember that there is a time and a season for everyone. She criticized my generation for holding onto our power so tenaciously. She felt that we should step aside and allow the next generation to try their hand at leading. Shortly before she died she reiterated her concern that we demand too much control without providing our young a way to have a say in how things should be done. She disliked that we all too often criticize their efforts instead of attempting to learn more about the rationale for their thinking. She urged us to respect our children and grandchildren and even pointed to the fact that most of the founders of the United States who rebelled against King George were in their twenties and thirties at the time of the revolution. She saw great irony in the fact that we so often point to those founders to keep things the same.

I understand the desire to just be left alone with the way things have always been. i don’t want to learn how to use new machines or learn difficult concepts. It takes me longer to do those kind of things than it did when I was in my prime. My seventy two year old brain struggles in ways that it never did when I was young. Nonetheless I consider stretching it to be as important to my health as keeping my body moving. I don’t want to become a dinosaur, so like my grandfather and mother I choose to be open to thinking that challenges my own. I spend a great deal of time reading and researching even controversial ideas and philosophies. 

A current idea that at times sound absurd and even unfair is to provide free college tuition to anyone who wants a higher education. Like many in my age group I think of how hard I had to work to pay my way through both an undergraduate and graduate degree. Later my husband and I took out loans to send our two daughters to college. It took us many years to repay those debts. It took great sacrifice and it does indeed seem a bit unfair to suddenly give everyone a “free ride” as some call it. Nonetheless I also see how the inflation of college costs has been exponential. I paid under a thousand dollars a year to attend a university. By the time my daughters were in college that cost had increased to seven thousand a year. Now the average cost for a year of college “is almost thirteen thousand dollars and year and that amount keeps rising. 

It is estimated that those who earn degrees often leave college owing in excess of one hundred thousand to two hundred fifty thousand dollars. At the same time salaries have not kept pace so that many young adults are dying under the strain of being upside down with debt that far exceeds their incomes. Perhaps it is time to consider this issue without thinking of it as a handout to “lazy” individuals who are “unwilling to work as hard as we did”. Somewhere along the way the cost of education seems to have run away from us and we need to do something to help rather than simply asking our young to just deal with it. We won’t resolve this and other issues until we earnestly talk about how to do so with good intentions and outcomes for everyone. 

Progress and change is difficult sometimes but it is also the way the world moves forward. All of us need to be more open and flexible and willing to compromise to keep our world looking into the future rather than being stuck in the past. One we practice this those gears will begin to move without grinding. The smooth functioning of the human journey has always demanded a willingness to think out of the box and a need to honestly communicate with one another with respect. Only when we open our minds will things operate as they should.

Reaching For the Heavens

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Our back door was rotting and allowing rain to enter our home during heavy rains which are commonplace here in Houston, Texas. We decided to replace it with a new one during our springtime cleaning and repairing routine. The man who came to install the door looked as though he had endured many hardships. He was a silent type who did his work without much commentary. It was apparent that he knew exactly what he was doing as he tore out and rebuilt the decaying structures that framed the entryway. Watching him at work was almost magical because he was indeed a craftsman who slowly but surely made every part of the door and its locking system fit like a glove. The seal was air tight with no sign of leaks that might allow water to come inside. The mechanisms were smooth and perfectly fitting. His work was artful, beautiful if one is inclined to get excited over such a seemingly simple thing. 

Humans are designers, builders. The world is filled with the efforts of skilled craftsmen who elevated structures that have lasted for centuries. We revel in the medieval cathedrals whose vaults and buttresses seem to be reaching into heaven. We are stunned by castles that have weathered the ages. Architecture imagines and engineering brings dreams to life. It is in the way our society builds that we see the marvels of human intelligence and skill. 

My grandfather was a finishing carpenter. With his huge, strong hands he made certain that the buildings on which he worked were as perfect as possible. He searched for flaws and repaired them with a kind of love for quality and perfection. All of his work had the mark of an artist who was proud of his craft. 

Not long ago one of my former students who does home construction projects including everything from roofing to pouring concrete driveways was bemoaning the fact that many people would rather pay less and get an inferior product than do a job with longevity in mind. He spoke of losing bids to contractors who cut corners and use subpar materials but offer low prices. His work is designed to last and it is frustrating to him to see people doing sloppy work that will end up creating problems in the future. Pride in one’s craft is the key to long lasting results.

I have always been fascinated by architecture and its many styles. I am in awe of builders who take the time to produce structures that are literally works of art. One of my favorite pastimes is traveling to view the great buildings in the world, including old native American villages like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. I marvel at places like Chichen Itza that have survived centuries of weathering and human abuse. I think of how basic the tools were for constructing the Parthenon and wonder at the difficulty in creating and building such an incredible place. 

I tend to fancy all great works of architecture rather than those of a certain style. One of my most favorite Saturdays was spent on the Chicago River viewing the marvelous architecture of that city. Later I visited homes in Oak Park that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. From art deco to Shaker to Romanesque to Greek revival to mid-century modern I love the ideas that spring from the human mind. 

My father-in-law lives in a Sears kit home that was built in the early twentieth century. Back then Sears offered plans for several different types of home along with the materials to build them. The home that my father-in-law owns is one of the Victorian styles with a a wrap around porch and a huge attic suitable for renovating into more living space if desired. It is a home that was built to last and indeed it has for over one hundred years. 

My husband and I stayed with my father-in-law during hurricane Ike and even at the height of the storm the windows in his home barely rattled as winds tore through the city downing huge trees and breaking most of the glass in downtown buildings. I stood with my faither-in-law marveling at the strength of the walls and feeling as though I was watching the storm pass over us in a movie rather than real time. 

Later when I spoke with others who had weathered the storm I heard stories of windows seeming to be on the verge of buckling and roofs that tore from the tops of their homes leaving leaks that brought down ceilings and flooded rooms. Not so with that Sears kit house which was as sturdy as the day on which it was first built. A big bad wolf might huff and puff but never be able to bring that house down. 

There are stories in our buildings. Their styles suggest personalities and dreams. The Kings College chapel at Cambridge University was a breakthrough in design and build with its soaring glass windows that light the interior in ways that make it heavenly. It is more than just a structure. It seems to be alive. Its designers created a glorious and triumphant work of art that has also withstood the ravages of time. Their spirit lives inside every stone, every vault, every piece of glass. 

I am barely able to nail two boards together so I am awestruck by the great builders and even the man who installed my backdoor and my former student who insists on performing high quality work. The pride and the glory of building well done lives forever and tells the story of humankind. It is our way of reaching for the heavens.

Unicorns and Dragons

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My father introduced me to a world of fairytales and lovely poetry that wove word pictures in my childlike mind. I imagined life in the times of King Arthur and Guinevere. His stories of Atlantis spoke of near perfection in the human spirit only to be destroyed. Fantasy exposed me to unicorns and dragons that somehow both seemed exciting and possible in my childlike reasoning. To this day I am fascinated by such tales and even the history of times when much of this is said to have actually unfolded. Instead I know that there are no such things as described in legend but a different sort of unicorns and dragons live in our midst nonetheless. They are not mythical creatures but very real indeed and just as beautiful and frightening as we imagine those creatures to be. 

Today’s dragons are humans who have cold hearts and feed on others to wield their power and ability to frighten and confuse. Like all such creatures they are more interested in themselves than in others and they thrive on intimidation. Their brains are fixated on feeding their own egos and appetites rather than learning how to share and adapt to a peaceful community. History has seen many horrifying dragons and even today we know they exist. They are the spawn of selfishness and hatred. They eliminate anyone and any group that threatens their ascendancy over others. It takes a village and more often a unicorn to expose and defeat them. 

Unicorns are rare, lovely, gentle creatures in our midst who are unafraid to fight for justice. They are heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parks who are willing to face incarceration and even death to defend the abused and suffering among us. Sometimes they never become famous beyond the confines of their own tiny worlds but those who encounter them recognize them for their unique beauty and courage. They are the voices that shout sometimes unpopular and inconvenient truths to the world. They are glorious in their righteousness and unswerving allegiance to all that is good. Sometimes we call them angels among us or saints after they have left this earth. 

St. George was supposed to have slayed a dragon. The legend tells us that the dragon dominated the people of a village, demanding tribute of livestock to feed its ever growing appetite. When he had devoured all of the food that there was he decreed that the citizens must send him a human sacrifice each year. When the creature eventually selected a beloved princess St. George freed her and killed the dragon as well, saving the people form the horrific cycle of servitude that had so devastated their lives.

Dragons vary in their fame. Some dragons are quietly cruel inside the confines of a home. Children and spouses have endured the fate of living with a dragon. Dragons may be bosses or teachers or police officers who use their power to demean and hurt under the guise of being helpers. Some dragons kill with words while others are actually murderous and lusting for blood. They are the stuff of nightmares and are so cagey that we sometimes do not know they are even among us until we are bowing under their threats of evil. 

I have personally known many unicorns. They are beautiful souls who do not hesitate to run into the lurch to save the people around them. The earliest unicorn I ever witnessed in action was a neighbor named Kathleen who saved a group of children whose dragon father had just murdered their mother. Two decades later I witnessed another unicorn facing down another dragon who was beating the members of his family in view of the entire neighborhood. I watched a fellow teacher unicorn stand before the faculty and defiantly boast of his homosexuality in a time when doing such a thing was dangerous for him. He not only survived but was revered for his courage. I had the pleasure of being a friend to a unicorn named Bren who dedicated her entire life to educating us about equality and justice. 

I suppose that the world will never be entirely free of dragons. Of late it feels as though they are coming from their lairs in greater and greater numbers. It is like an invasion not unlike the unleashing of hordes of cicadas that happens every seventeen years. Dragons are all around us and some of them are tiny viruses that invade our bodies. Others are despots who invade our minds. We sense that we need unicorns more than ever because there is danger all around. 

Who will our unicorns be? From whence will they come? Surely they are not extinct but rather simply waiting for the moment when they know they must appear. There are rustlings telling us that they are on their way. As far back as mankind has recorded history they have joined our frays and been victorious in beating back the dragons. I have every confidence that they will not abandon us now.