Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Talking life and death with Keta

Keta Steebs and Jay Zahn, July 2012
One of the most interesting conversations I ever had with Keta Steebs was when she told me about how she’d died. It struck me so that when I got back to my car, I jotted down everything I could remember from the talk.

Four months after she actually passed away, the other day I moved one of my endless stacks of paper and found those notes. And I missed her all over again.

Keta, whose reporting and reflections about her beloved Door County graced these pages for more than 40 years, had taken up temporary residence at Golden Living Center-Dorchester while she recovered from some trouble with her lungs. I went up the hill from the Advocate office to visit her a couple of times. Both times she did her best to be her usual robust self; the second time she was also very pensive.

Not long after my first visit, it seemed, she had come as close to dying as she would before the actual time.

“I died,” she said succinctly, as she would. “It was very spiritual; the family was gathered … but then I kind of bumped back.”

From the look in her eyes, I could see that rather than being alarming or frightening, the experience had given her a sort of peace. All that remains of what she told me about that feeling are the scribbled words, “but not afraid.”

She talked that day about how much she enjoyed the letters she’d been receiving since 1973 from men who admired her work and struck up a correspondence or relationship. “But not romantic,” she said — romance had been reserved for Herman Steebs, her husband of 32 years, taken from her too early at the end of 1982.

She mentioned her dear friends Jay Zahn and Tom Groenfeldt, who often accompanied her to plays or art receptions around the peninsula. “Jay and I, Tom and I have such interesting relationships,” she said with a wistful sigh. “We just enjoy each other’s company so much.”

I remember what appeared to be genuine surprise in her eyes when she confessed, “I’ve become nice.” Reflecting on her early life and career, she said, “I used to be a —” and then she lowered her voice, and I don’t remember if she spelled out “B-I-…” or if she actually whispered the word that rhymes with witch. I can’t speak to the truth of her statement, having only known the nice Keta in the 11 years I knew her.

The conversation turned to her funeral and the accompanying meal — “I think everyone likes sloppy joes, don’t you think?” — how she planned to be cremated and how most important she wanted people to laugh that day. She did get her wish on that count; there were enough Keta stories told after the service for a full afternoon of laughter.

“I’d like to die laughing,” she told me. “Wouldn’t that be nice?” In reality, she died in her sleep, but two nights earlier she had laughed and celebrated her 88th birthday with her friends and family — close enough.

Cross posted to Door County Advocate

Monday, August 19, 2013

In which H.L. Mencken embraces The Imaginary Revolution

Thoughts on government, “Its Inner Nature,” in which H.L. Mencken endorses the themes of my book The Imaginary Revolution, available for Kindle here and in print there.

There is seldom, if ever, any evidence that the new government proposed would be any better than the old one. On the contrary, all the historical testimony runs the other way. Political revolutions do not often accomplish anything of genuine value; their one undoubted effect is simply to throw out one gang of thieves and put in another. After a revolution, of course, the successful revolutionists always try to convince doubters that they have achieved great things, and usually they hang anyone who denies it …

The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone — one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in hell.

Friday, August 16, 2013

A Mencken Chrestomathy

I brought it home from the library and have only browsed so far, but I'm going to enjoy any book that offers in the first five minutes:
I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.

* * * * *

Monarchy was fundamentally not a defender of the faith at all, but a rival and enemy to the faith. Democracy does not promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty. And communism, as the example of Russia already shows, is not a fountain that gushes peace, justice and plenty, but a sewer in which they are drowned.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Beeker Belle - the bell-shaped cat - was bigger than she should have been. This was a function of her habit of plopping herself down in front of a food bowl and emptying it. All of them. At one time we had seven cats, seven bowls. Beeker batted cleanup. Hence her nickname, The Fat Cat.

We met her when she was what? two years old? and residing in the local shelter in 2001. She was saved from what happens to unwanted cats by her uncanny resemblance to my recently passed feline friend Baxter, who (sorry guys) remains my favorite cat ever. My first glimpse of Beeker led me to gasp, well up, and exclaim, "I'm not ready for this." But I was. And we took her home. She wasn't Baxter, but she had a sweetness all her own.

She clearly had been a mother at some point in her life, because she liked to groom the other cats if they'd let her lick. When Hemi took ill last February and lost the ability to walk, and I came to take him to his final vet appointment, she was curled up on his cold back legs, having kept him warm in the night.

She had lost her prodigious appetite in recent days, and Tuesday night I found her lying in the litter box, not much interested in - or unable to find - a more comfortable place. I placed her gently in the easy chair and planned to check back in the morning. She apparently fell asleep and stayed asleep. Wednesday morning I found her with Boop - another one of our geriatric cats - curled up against her to keep her warm. Boop always means well, but he was unable to warm her up enough this time.

We had seven cats when we decided we had too many and it was time to let attrition take its course. Now we have four. Strangely, each of our losses has been the second-youngest cat. Our survivors are approximately 17, 17, 15 and 6 years old. I should probably introduce you to them now, while their stories are still progressing, instead of when there's nothing left to say.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

You are not a number

One of my life epiphanies came in the last radio studio that I worked in, talking to a gay co-worker about the issue of marriage. I was, and continue to be, of the belief that of course gay people can get married; all you need is someone willing to perform the ceremony.

The issue comes down her strong desire to convince the government to recognize the “legitimacy” of the marriage by issuing a license. And then came the epiphany.

Why do you need a license to get married? Why do you need the state’s permission, in a free society, for something as personal as a lifetime commitment to another human being? Put another way, marriage is essentially a religious or spiritual ceremony; in a country that recognizes religious freedom, what is the government’s business in regulating a religious ceremony?

I am similarly puzzled by the fuss over immigration. Why does the government need to track the whereabouts of peaceful, law-abiding, hard-working people? I understand the need to monitor criminals and terrorists, but most of us are neither. What need is served by “processing” innocent human beings as they enter or leave the country?

I understand it’s more efficient to treat us all like potential criminals and terrorists, but efficiency is not the mission of a society where all are to be considered innocent until proved guilty.

All of this processing tends to group individuals by skin color, or ethnic origin, or sex, or sexual habits, or some other category. What is the point of all this? It is to create a shorthand that obliviates the individual – “those people” tend to act and think in a certain way, and by grouping them into a category, we need not do the hard work of getting to know the individual. She is a black woman; he is a white man of European descent; he is a Republican; she is gay; he is a Democrat; she is a pro-life activist; he is a Jew – from such groupings come a host of assumptions, and you need not probe any deeper to know the person.

Six billion people live on this planet, and it is impossible to know and understand them all, and so the marketer, the government and the bigot seek a shorthand.

It may indeed be true that people who seem to belong in one of these arbitrary categories tend to think and act in a certain way, but you do yourself and the other person an injustice by assuming that he or she actually thinks and acts that way before you’ve gotten to know that person.

Take care before you consign an individual to a group, because where there are no individuals, there are no individual rights – and that may eventually include the individual you meet in the mirror every morning.

In a memorable moment in a memorable bit of speculative fiction, the lead character in “The Prisoner” tires of his captors’ insistence that his name is Number Six and screams, “I am not a number, I am a free man!” That is the whole point.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

If not now, when?

What is it you've been meaning to do?

The time to do it is now.

"It can wait; I have time to get it done." Perhaps. But time runs out.

The time you have left is already under way.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A quiet, urgent voice is stilled

It happened so suddenly, it still hasn’t sunk in. First, the unexpected news from a friend I haven’t seen in years, telling me that David Brandt is deathly ill. A short phone call to tell him I’d see him soon, and then six days later that was no longer an option.

I’d always look for Dave when I dropped in at a contentious Liberty Grove Town Board meeting, and he’d be there, engaged in conversation with someone. He was concerned about the town, the state, the nation, the world, and not afraid to point the way to a better direction.

Last Jan. 13, the little prompt on Facebook asked, “How are you feeling,” and he wrote, “How am I feeling? Concerned. ‘Sad will be the day when the American people forget their traditions and their history, and no longer remember that the country they love, the institutions they cherish, and the freedom they hope to preserve, were born from the throes of armed resistance to tyranny, and nursed in the rugged arms of fearless men.’ Roger Sherman, signer of the Declaration of Independence.”

That was David Brandt: He was no longer afraid, if he ever had been, to tell it like he saw it. He believed in freedom, he believed in God, and he believed in standing up for those beliefs.

I listened to the recording for the first time in seven years the other night. I’d had this idea of doing the definitive series on drunken driving – or had he suggested it? – and I sat down with David and his wife, Kari, in April 2007 to talk about their daughter Amanda.

The series got lost in the shuffle when I transferred to Green Bay for three years, but the Brandts got their message out anyway about Amanda, who was killed Sept. 25, 2006, with another girl when their car went out of control on Wisconsin 42 after a night of heavy drinking. She was 19 but somehow managed to convince a bartender to help her reach three times the legal limit.

David was heartbroken and angry, but he spoke quietly – his voice wavering – as he questioned people’s reticence about telling young people not to make the mistakes it seems young people have been making forever.

“The notion that because ‘I was there,’ because ‘I did this when I was a kid,’ that somehow I’m a hypocrite for saying to my own kids ‘Don’t do that,’ well, that’s ridiculous … I’m sorry, that’s a lame excuse.”

David and Kari appeared in a video, “With Whom Will It End,” that the Door County Sheriff’s Department uses to show young people the physical and emotional damage done by drinking and driving, and they have been frequent speakers at the Victim Impact Panels that convicted drunken drivers must attend.

Every so often the phone would ring and I’d see David’s name on the screen, recognizing that I was about to get a meaty news tip or an encouragement to follow up on a story. Sometimes I was slow to move on those tips, and I’d apologize, but he never seemed impatient – “You’re busy, I know,” he’d say, in a gentle tone that made me realize I shouldn’t be too busy to get the news out.

I’ll miss those calls.

He had a seizure, and they found tumors in his lungs and brain, and they told him he had three or four months. It was more like 10 days.

I was at a loss for words – this is the third week since he passed July 20, and only now the words are coming, in part because of what he said on the recording six years ago, about a friend who approached him months after Amanda’s death.

“She said, ‘I wanted to call but I didn’t know what to say,’” David said. “I just said, ‘Well, for what it’s worth, I don’t know how to respond.’ You know, sympathy … whenever it’s offered genuinely, it’s always helpful.”

They’ll celebrate David’s life at 5 p.m. Thursday at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay. The Cowboy Church band plans a musical prelude beginning at 4:15 p.m.

This was a man.

Cross-posted to Door County Advocate

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stop Looking Back

I spend way too much time in the mode I was in Monday, fretting about what I have not done in the past. I wrote the book A Scream of Consciousness to remind us all (including me) that all we have is the present and the only way to avoid fretting about the past is to do something now.

I wrote this song for much the same reason.

Stop Looking Back

When I was an old man, I wanted wealth and fame.
Now that I’m a young man, I only want to sing.
Stop looking back, that’s yesterday.
Stop looking back, this is today.
When I was a wise man, I needed to play the game.
Now that I’m a foolish man, I don’t need anything.
Stop looking back, it doesn’t pay.
Stop looking back, this is today.

Go on, get up and straighten your head.
Great tapestries start with one single thread.

When I was a rich man, the streets were paved with gold.
Now that I’m a poor man, I walk with good, true friends.
Stop looking back, that’s not the way.
When I was a dead man, I was afraid of getting old.
Now that I’m a live man, I know how the story ends.
Stop looking back, that’s yesterday.
Stop looking back, this is today.
This is today — stop looking back!

April 11, 2009 (Concept and some words 2004)

Monday, August 5, 2013

25 victims of the procrastination monster

The procrastination monster is sitting on my shoulders, big time. As I’ve written before, procrastination is one expression of fear.

What am I afraid of? Who knows? At this point, who cares? I just need to kill the beast.

I sat down over the weekend to see what the procrastination monster is blocking. Some projects have been waiting as long as two or three years, or more.

The list of WPB projects that are still awaiting the light of day includes:

√ At least eight adventures of Myke Phoenix, including three in various stages of completion.

√ Packaging and marketing the Refuse to be Afraid audiobook, which I recorded long ago.

√ Recording, packaging and marketing the A Scream of Consciousness audiobook.

√ Recording, packaging and marketing the Imaginary Revolution audiobook.

√ Producing the next 13-week series of the Uncle Warren’s Attic podcast, episodes 81-93.

√ Finishing the second novel in the trilogy that began with The Imaginary Bomb and concludes (?) with The Imaginary Revolution called The Imaginary Lover. I've conceived a different ending than the one I tossed out in a past musing.

There’s more, but you get the picture. The lack of production is not a result of having no ideas and nothing to do.

It’s the monster.

Probably I should do the Curly thing, just pick one and get on it.

Perhaps I should ask: What would YOU like to see (or hear next)?