Happy Valentine’s Day

Maybe you heard about the snowstorm we experienced two days ago. Down in Portland, precipitation fell as ice, up to a full inch! Fortunately for southwest Washington, we received more than six inches of snow and no ice as temperatures remained below freezing.

That much snow is rare in the Pacific Northwest valleys tucked in between the Cascades and the Coast Range. When any frozen precipitation occurs, the whole area virtually shuts down. That’s because Oregon and Washington have few snowplows and a fraction of the salt elsewhere in the country. Portland would rather use de-icer, accounting for stranded vehicles attempting to traverse hilly areas and increasingly vocal complaints from East Coasters.

So our snow was the most reported in over nine years. Tonight, the weather forecast suggests as temperatures begin to fall, we may get some ice, but nowhere what Portland received. In the week ahead, temperatures should rise and stay in the mid-40s with rain, allowing streets to fully recover in short order. Nevertheless, I felt obliged to shovel a path from my townhouse’s garage to access a navigable street a few feet away.

As I was midway in clearing a paved area where I could freely back out, a little girl, whom I will identify as Penelope, with resplendent red hair and an ear-to-ear smile asked if she could help. I noted she did not ask if I NEEDED help, she asked if she COULD.

Big difference.

I directed Penelope’s efforts, and 20 minutes later told her we were finished, she prepared to run off, yelling “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

No snow melted then, but my heart did. I gave her a five-spot, and told Penelope to share it with her brother.

Although taller than me, Alice happily rested her head on my bony shoulder.

This was my first Valentine’s Day without Alice supervising me, but I know she would be proud.

I think you will, too. From the Rose City (Portland) where my wife and I first moved, then discovering a modest Washington town 60 miles away where residents happily grow up with small-town values, Happy Valentine’s Day!

A Change in Plans to Celebrate Alice’s Life

I apologize, but plans to celebrate at the Coast one year after Alice’s passing have changed.

It’s true I will be at the Adrift Hotel in Long Beach, WA on March 27 to scatter some of Alice’s ashes, as tradition dictates, but I will be more mournful on that day. After 10 months of isolation, my heart says that to hold the kind of celebration Alice deserves, it should occur after the pandemic is under control. It should occur when physical touch is no longer frowned upon. And it should occur in Garibaldi where the sound of the ocean will take Alice on her spirit journey.

I know my eyes will fill with tears when I revisit the myriads of people whom Alice inspired, and that’s the way I want to remember her. Alice will look down and witness the warmth of every hug offered on such an occasion. It’s true what Kailey Cox said, “Alice was amazing.”

Kailey’s intuitive words will stay with me until the end of time. It’s also a comfort to remember how momentous Alice’s love was to me – an itinerant writer and Quaker – who couldn’t help but love her back. Alice showed me something Quakers have yet to figure out. You don’t wage peace; you wage love, and peace will result.

After a panic attack yesterday, I learned I was reacting to the time delineator called March 27 that traditionally means more to our planet than it does to Alice. I shall honor this insight, and plan accordingly.

Thank you for honoring my vision.

Alice McCormick 3/6/44 – 3/27/20

How a Christmas photo Session went Awry

See the Christmas photo above? There’s a story behind it, and you may interpret “behind” literally.

A week before Christmas, 2012 in Alice’s Doylestown, Pennsylvania home, she and I put together a holiday photo session with Josh and Millie, our two cats. I set my camera on a tripod in front of the living room’s distinguished six-foot-tall, trimmed Christmas tree. Alice’s pride of her handiwork in front of the room’s magnificent fireplace was plain to see.

Next, I set the self-timer. While Alice held Josh, I grabbed hold of Millie, but as the shutter went off, Millie was not facing forward.

The sound of the shutter frightened Josh whose claws caused Alice to let go, so I was left holding Millie while Alice went into the kitchen to pour some milk into a bowl.

Millie immediately chased after Josh, so I decided to re-position the camera so Alice and I could sit on the floor and allow the cats to find our floor-friendly location more animal-friendly.

Alice managed to get comfortable, but as I hurried to get into position, the shutter started clicking away. As you can see, I was over 60 and no longer adept in moving quickly.

By the time the camera’s shutter clicked again, something untoward happened: I farted — involuntarily and loudly, resulting in the photo at the top of this post.

Alice couldn’t contain herself, and as she laughed unabashedly at the implausible situation, so did I. I could never be indifferent to Alice’s infectious laugh, and neither could anyone we met.

It helps my state of mind to celebrate Alice this time of year, and now you know why our expressions look why they do.

Immediately after the photo was taken, we realized how well the camera captured our spontaneous joy, so we ordered copies of the infamous photo and placed them inside Christmas cards to all our friends.

Now you know the full story of a photo session gone awry, but it’s one of my favorite memories. Merry Christmas!

The End of Musical Innocence

Forty years ago, I lived in Miami, Florida, a resort city where I grew up, although born in Manhattan. Being a Miami Dolphins fan had become part and parcel of a true Miamian, although the team was experiencing a so-so year. Nevertheless, the usual mild December weather, savvy tourism officials and our usually competitive gridiron team attracted ABC Sports to reschedule the Dolphins’ intra-divisional rivalry with the New England Patriots onto Monday Night Football.

Those were the days of local pro-football TV blackouts if games didn’t sell out 72 hours before kick-off, so fans like me who couldn’t afford to squeeze into the Orange Bowl were relegated to listening to the radio broadcast on station WIOD-AM.

On December 8, 1980, through the third quarter, the game had been lackluster, each team only managing to put up 6 points on the scoreboard. I lay restless on the bed, my imagination only stirred by the vivid play-by-play narration from Rick Weaver as Hank Goldberg added color commentary. As the quarter ended, the usual two minutes of commercials filled the warm night air.

Before the perfunctory station ID could be heard, though, a stern voice announced, “We interrupt this program for a news bulletin.” About 10 seconds of “dead air” followed, until the sound of a microphone moved across a table and an out-of-breath announcer uttered, “John Lennon has been shot in New York City in front of the building he loved, the Dakota, by Central Park.” He paused only a moment to clear the emotion from his voice to add, “We have confirmed that he was shot dead, killed by an unknown assailant. We now return you to our regularly scheduled program.”

I was stunned. Apparently, so were approximately 80,000 “Dol-fans” packed inside the Orange Bowl who, like me, were listening on transistor radios. It became impossible to tell the audio feed of the game’s broadcast had returned, because all one could hear was silence. The usual buzz of the shocked crowd disappeared, and it was heart-breaking. Simon and Garfunkel had it right; “Hello darkness, my old friend.”

“The Sounds of Silence” were deafening.

Tony Auth’s editorial cartoon

Two days later, I contacted the clerk’s office of the City of Miami Commission to get myself on the next meeting’s agenda. In my grief, because I heard a move was afoot in New York to reserve a section of Central Park called “Strawberry Fields” as a remembrance for Lennon, I hoped to do the same locally. A lot of “snowbirds” from New York migrated to our city during the winter. The park downtown had been officially named Bicentennial Park in 1976, and because of the newly established “New World” theme being sought for the area, I wanted to rename the park, “John Lennon New World Park.”

I contacted Miami’s top deejay, Rick Shaw, and asked him to join me at the commission meeting to stir the community into action. I also contacted Tony Auth, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, because his stunning depiction of the “scales of justice” vividly showed how one bullet outweighed the litany of music Lennon created. Auth generously blew up his cartoon and mailed it to me, which a local artist supply shop then framed.

Rick Shaw and I were virtually ignored. We sat through two hours of interminable commission procedural nonsense, our pleas ignored until our cause was referred to an obscure committee, who refused to hear the petition. Miami is not known for its progressive ideology, and the idea of a memorial to a radical “leftist” was summarily buried along with his memory.

Mason Loika, limo driver.

When I left Miami in 2003, I found a new home base in the outskirts of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where I began to make a name for myself as a photojournalist for the Bucks County Herald. I was only paid a pittance for my work, some of it making the front page, so I kept the wolves from the door by working as a limousine driver.

Bucks County is regarded as a playground for bored Manhattanites, boasting residents best described as well-heeled who commute to the Big Apple, only 80 road miles away. That’s how I became a regular driver for a prominent public relations partner on Madison Avenue firm who owned an apartment at 1 W. 72nd Street, better known as the Dakota building, where Lennon was assassinated.

Although I drove the six-passenger limo shown above on “nights on the town,” I regularly negotiated the Hudson River’s crossings in a Lincoln Towncar, my heart leaping into the throat each time I pulled into the building’s secure alcove, avoiding the stare of camera-toting tourists looking to impose upon the building’s apartment owners.

One night while awaiting my passengers to arrive, a well-dressed, dark-haired woman with exotic features spoke to me:

“Hello there,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”

I looked around; my passengers had yet to arrive. “No, I don’t think so,” I stammered.

She answered her own question, saying, “I’m Lauren Bacall.”

My mouth dropped open. Lauren Bacall? Out of the blue? Humphrey Bogart’s heart-throb?

Before I had a chance to find my voice, my passengers arrived, and I was summarily engaged to load their bags for my humble position as a chauffeur in Bucks County. As I carefully backed out of the Dakota’s alcove, I looked around at the cameras clicking as tourists were drawn into the macabre circus-like sidewalk where Lennon was killed.

What a coincidence, though. I never bragged about my attempt to honor John Lennon back in Miami. I doubt my passengers would have cared; they lived in a world far different than me. But I will never forget the hallowed ground on which I walked, because John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s artistic expressions made a difference in this war-weary world in which we live. And their activism caused me to recognize my Quaker identity.

All they were saying – 40 years ago – was, “Give Peace a Chance.”

A Socially Distant Family Thanksgiving

Last week my niece, Kessa, reminded me what family means by saying 13 simple words, “I love my dad – he’s the best I could have ever hoped for.”

Her unconditional love toward Chris revealed the same bond I felt toward my mother, Thelma. Mom wrote a remembrance about how she married a talented New York City big-band musician and started a family in South Florida on my website, called “Virgil’s Story.” How she single-handedly kept the family in one piece testifies to her ingenuity, persistence, warrior spirit and maternal love.

In 1969, brother Chris Loika Englert married a girl who lived two houses away – not quite the girl next door, but pretty damn close. I found his hand-written marriage invitation earlier this November, which was sent to my Los Angeles address as a birthday card. “I’m getting married April 4 (Friday). If you can, come on down and see another person led to his doom. If you have any doubts as to who – it’s MaryLou.”

Nine years later, I enthusiastically followed my brother’s lead. Instead of a neighbor, I married “a nice Jewish girl,” who carried the seed from at least 30 nights’ passionate lovemaking in a North Bay Harbor Island condominium above Biscayne Bay. When presented with the moral responsibility I faced, my expectant wife-to-be’s family proposed an instant marriage before a Justice of the Peace in Golden Beach, a quaint town north of North Miami Beach.

I didn’t reject the idea of responsibility; after our matter-of-fact ceremony, I soon awaited a doctor’s confirmation of her pregnancy and planned a celebration immediately thereafter. That’s when I encountered the ultimate betrayal. My wife underwent an on-demand abortion in the city’s ghetto side of town accompanied only by her mother.

While I sat at the foot of the stairs for two-and-a-half hours outside our Miami Shores apartment building, trying my best to keep a bottle of celebratory champagne chilled, I waited, and waited, and waited some more. Then in confusion, I went upstairs where a phone call from my bride’s mother an hour later revealed the awful truth.

That was the terrible price I paid when my newly discovered three-member family, who descended from Egypt, expected me to completely reject my mother’s influence. After I couldn’t awake from an expectant parent’s ultimate nightmare, I filed for divorce in two weeks, and the court approved our annulment nine months later.

Last week in the Covid-19 world of 2020, I spent the day after Thanksgiving with my cousin, Margaret, surrounded by socially distant well-wishers from our Johnston clan, and I was served ceremonial turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, rolls and two heaping portions of love.

While reflecting on my mother’s Southern roots, I wondered why it wasn’t acceptable to become attached to both families. Was it our two religions? I later married for a second time – a marriage that lasted 22 years – whereupon Wife #1 phoned one night seeking to have an affair while I was relatively happy. Was she serious? Did she expect a repeat performance?

What nerve! How awful! How painful!

This year, Thanksgiving 2020 was filled with lots of needless curiosity about my preschool years, which came to an abrupt end, thanks to my niece’s unabashed expression of a daughter’s love for her father. Somehow, I began reflecting on the innocence lost from my first passionate marriage and the child I never knew. Perhaps the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but I miss having a son’s and/or daughter’s affection.

Who knew tragedy could co-exist with a horn of plenty adorning a holiday table? What a dichotomy.

I Cry for My Country

I am supposed to be knee-deep in my memoir, but the last two weeks were too much. Through the miracle of television, the same medium my grandmother and I watched the 1956 Democratic and Republican conventions together, I fell prey to the frenzy of America’s 2020 election.

If I would have been old enough to vote 64 years ago, “I liked Ike.” He would have protected us.

As I grew older, my mother told me about David Rhys. He was a distant Welsh ancestor to our Johnston family, who after immigrating to America, changed the spelling of his surname to Reese. That was noteworthy because in 1775, David Reese signed the Declaration of Independence in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, one year before the USA declared its version. No wonder I was able to validate for myself that I was a Quaker – and a patriot.

I cry for my country.

The last time I felt so much hope for America – 1963 –  JFK was assassinated. I was on my way to a history class at the University of Florida when a fellow student asked me if I knew what just happened. I gave him a querulous look, so he replied, “Jack Kennedy just was shot.”

“That can’t happen,” I reasoned, but my disbelief was shattered when I saw a fellow classmate break down in tears. I cried too when Walter Cronkite’s voice broke while reading the hurriedly scripted report that Kennedy succumbed to his injuries.

I cry for my country.

What I thought was a worthwhile way to live became a nightmare again – and again – and again. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave birth to a dream, but his physical being was terminated in 1968. Next was Robert Kennedy, and I was shell-shocked.

Football was no escape for me. While listening to a radio broadcast of the Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game in 1980, a breathless announcer told America that John Lennon had been summarily executed. Why? For preaching peace?

I cry for my country.

Political Celebration
An interesting photo showing Biden with an aura about his head.

Joe Biden was elected president in a bitterly contested election and is due to govern on January 20. I’ve seen this celebration before. Already, the current occupant calls the contest “corrupt” and is asking Republicans to destroy the outcome. As a first offensive he filed numerous lawsuits, particularly in Pennsylvania.

I want to believe again, I want to stand up and praise the U-S-of-A, and rail against terrorism because of 9/11, but what does America stand for? Is it our territory or a transitory idea? To watch a so-called president attack the nation’s most fundamental function – a fair election in the birthplace of our country – makes my Quaker blood boil.

#45 sets the stage for a fundamental evil that pervades this “land of the free.” He is guilty of treason, an enabler for future terrorist attacks on everything I hold near and dear. How can he continue to spout his poison? Is this free speech?

I cry for my country.

Postscript: On January 6, 2021, my worst fears came true, as the news media chronicled a failed attack on our Democracy and its Capitol.

How it was planned, who was involved, need to be uncovered, examined and dealt with in such a way as to hasten our late emergence into the 2000 Millennium. Few of us will survive in a new Civil War where mass destruction is possible.

A Perfect 10

Today is a special day. A very special day. A momentous day. A life-changing day.

On this day, September 24, 2010, I met Alice McCormick for the first time. And I became blessed with 6-feet-and-3-inches worth of unbridled Amazon love.

Tonight, a perfect 10 years later, I will celebrate the night I learned about true love. A longer version of how we met is planned for my forthcoming book well underway, “How I Became a Lesbian (and other stories).”

September 24 turned out to became so memorable that we planned a commitment ceremony to take place exactly one year later, September 24, 2011, guided by Keith David’s book, “The Complete Guide to Gay and Lesbian Weddings,” in support of same-sex couples.

Our vows to one another were witnessed by 25 close friends adjacent to Alice’s backyard pool home, accentuated by a screened-in gazebo and bubbling fish pond where brilliant-colored koi swam their approval. The ceremony was led by David DiPasquale of Pebble Hill Church and Danawa Buchanan, a self-appointed chief of the Allegheny Cherokee tribe who recited an Apache prayer uniting Alice and me.

September 24th thus marked our two-time anniversary, and Native tradition reminds me to hold dear this day in our hearts by celebrating inside Teri’s Restaurant in Longview, Washington, which became Alice’s favorite place on the West Coast to dine, dance, imbibe and hang out until closing time.

Alice may not be with me in person – at least, not in the physical sense – but her spirit is strong, and I expect a moment tonight when I feel a chill as she massages my heart. I honor her, and in doing so I honor the timeless love that Creator gifted me late in my years.

If a tear should appear in my eyes tonight, it will not be from grief; it will come from gratitude. Happy anniversary, Alice.

Awakening my honey on a Samhuinn morning, the “time of no time” according to Scottish Gaelic tradition. Also celebrated by Christians as Halloween.

The NFL: Where Billions are at Stake

The forests of California, Oregon and Washington are being decimated. But pro football is back, so who cares?

The West Coast is suffering a growing crisis. The death toll has yet to be totaled, because health effects from breathing this particular toxic air are yet to be estimated. While people in the rest of the country have been paying attention to Covid-19, the West Coast is showing the world a climate-change fact of life. Fires are decimating Western forests and air quality far out West has turned beyond unhealthy.

That’s why I have been running my air conditioner constantly, even when the temperature outside never makes it above 70. Longview, Washington is on the northern periphery of the Western air-quality crisis, and my A/C recycles high-quality air inside the apartment, keeping bad air out.

The adjectives used to determine air quality are as follows: 0-50 is good, 51-100 moderate, 101-150 unhealthy for sensitive groups, 151-200 unhealthy, 201-300 very unhealthy, and 301 and above hazardous. Longview today registered 384; Tualatin, near where my cousin lives, 411.

Turn your attention, please, to San Francisco, where the NFL dictated the 49ers play football against the Arizona Cardinals today. Hmmm, the City by the Bay’s air-quality number was 193, qualifying as “unhealthy.”

But deep down why should we care? These players are being paid handsomely, right? So why not send weekend warriors into the smoke-filled confines of Levi’s Stadium, amid “lucky” ticket holders who can see the made-for-TV spectacle in person (minus the commercials, of course) and simultaneously fill their lungs with carcinogens? What better way to convince a bored, quarantined America that it’s good to play outdoors under “unhealthy” conditions.

Yes, as long as football graces American TV screens in the fall, everything’s okay. Just like we can depend upon the CDC for the most accurate guidance going forward. Perhaps some of football’s millionaires can give us more guidance after smashing their noggins against one another for three hours.

Today is no longer Sunday, but please pray for America.

Gratitude in a Pandemic

Welcome to my office.

Here I engage in written discourse with those considered to be friends and supporters. Atop the left side of my computer hutch is the same Christmas photo Alice and I mailed out in Doylestown. The red ribbon next to it graces an accurate caricature of Grandfather Many Crows (aka Ed Fell).

Ever since Alice passed over in March, I have lived alone without the benefits of what a partner offers. If it’s the wrong kind of partner, being by oneself can be a relief. But with dear Alice, it was being part of an entity that told me when I was being an asshole, and when I was living up to our aspirations.

I miss those moments.

Two and a half weeks ago, I was sitting where you see me above. I shifted my weight from the middle to the left side of my hip, encountering a sharp jab of pain, so severe I drove myself to the emergency room two nights later with worries related to past cancer surgery. Fortunately, X-rays and a CT scan showed nothing serious or suspicious, and today my Kaiser Permanente medical team is keeping on top of my problem and its expected pending cure.

Nevertheless, I am hurting until this malady is permanently treated. And I’m doing so alone.

A few words about Kaiser Permanente: If you judge quality of care by the ratio of patients to primary care doctors, you will be misled. From my experience in the Pacific Northwest, front-line doctors serve as intake experts to a damned good healthcare system. Doctors regularly interact online with a range of specialists, overseen by a cadre of behind-the-scenes physicians who check and double-check. No one slouches or goofs off at medical facilities here. This is 5-star healthcare.

I’ve experienced healthcare in South Florida; much of it is corrupt, and its healthcare workers have become sadly cynical. And up North, specifically Bucks County, Pennsylvania, while recovering from a punctured bowel in the highly regarded Doylestown Hospital, I would not have survived without a visit from a well-respected sculptor named Harry Georgeson. He singlehandedly alerted a matter-of-fact weekend nursing staff of my critical sepsis, who then came running and moved me into the ICU in minutes.

(I remind Harry on occasion that he’s responsible for keeping me around to annoy others.)

When medical people visit the Pacific Northwest, experience the majesty of its landscape and meet prospective peers, they fall in love with the place and the quality of healthcare that mirrors the glorious outdoors. My brief three-hour experience during the midnight hours in Longview, Washington’s PeaceHealth Hospital met the same high standards as Alice’s three times there, including one stay of eight days. Not one healthcare worker whom I came across showed indifference or boredom in the midst of a demanding overnight shift. Everyone was on high alert.

Despite my travails, I am still working on the book with two esteemed volunteers from Alice’s aphasia support group. But I’m also making sure my cuisine options remain plentiful, 95 percent of which I prepare myself. And having a dishwasher, washer and dryer, as well as a splendid view, keeps life personably manageable.

But getting back to this hip thing? It’s painful enough that I’m welcoming – and fearing – the thought of the long needle I would have to stare down soon. The way I feel, it can’t come soon enough.

We love Washington!
Once I open the blinds, I see that a mile away Longview Heights sits on a “hill” 886 feet high..

Graham’s Granddaughter Speaks Out

When I was 5 years old, my mother, Thelma, took me to a Billy Graham “rally” in a Hialeah, Fla. auditorium that turned into a commitment to faith. Attendees were urged to respond to the words of Jesus Christ and be “born again.”

I stood up as tall as I could, and in that packed auditorium where Billy Graham and Cliff Barrows held sway, I pledged to live my life as a Christian.

Today, I read the words that Graham’s granddaughter, Jerushah Duford, set forth earlier this week in USA Today, and they resonate in my soul. Considering I’m 50 miles north of the epicenter of last night’s killing of a so-called “Patriot’s Prayer” counter-protester, it’s appropriate that I reaffirm what she wrote.

“Our president continues to perpetuate an us-versus-them narrative, yet almost all of our church leaders say nothing,” Duford writes.

“Trump has gone so far as to brag about his plans, accomplishments and unholy actions toward the marginalized communities I saw my grandfather love and serve.

“He held a Bible, something so sacred to all of us, yet he treated that Bible with a callousness that would offend anyone intimately familiar with the words inside it. … The entire world has watched the term ‘evangelical’ become synonymous with hypocrisy and disingenuousness.”

Signaling a prospective religious war, this is a shot across the bow. Pray for America.