I'm a changeling (see me change)

I’ll take your Doors vinyl
As old as my father
As old as you

I’ll take your box of
Lizard faces
Engraved on pages of
Unwritten words

I’ll spend your time
Carelessly, like
Money for blow or smokes

When the music’s over
I’ll ghost away,
Tossing words of embroidery
Over my shoulder

Never noticing the thread is
Coming unraveled and you’re
Sharpening scissors.

The wrinkles inside my brain

It’s 10:15 a.m. when the coffee kicks in. I look at the floors. I have to run the vacuum cleaner over them, even though I ran it at 6 last night and they’re clean.

The bathroom’s white tile floor will need the most work. I’ll vacuum it once to pick up each speck that six dogs and three people track into the room. Then I’ll go over it again.

And then I’ll get on my hands and knees and clean each tile with a disinfectant wipe, even though I did it yesterday. I’ll use several wipes, even though I cleaned the floor last night. I’ll open the windows and close the door to make sure a whiff of the wipers doesn’t whisper into the rest of the house.

When the coffee kicks in, I’m sitting at my desk and see dust on the office furniture, so I add cleaning it to the day’s must-do list. I’ll have to empty every shelf and clear every surface, wiping them down with spray cleaner and a paper towel. Then I’ll have to polish it, just in case I left behind any streaks from the spray cleaner.
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'We are all the stuff of the stars'

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream," Vincent van Gogh said.

Stars don’t make me dream as much as they remind me how amazing the universe is. Take starlight, for instance.

Looking at starlight is like traveling back in time because, depending on a star’s distance from Earth, its light can take as little as four years to get here, or as many as 7,000.

Think about it the next time you’re looking at the Big Dipper. Light from its closest star takes 79 years to reach Earth. For the farthest, it’s 123 years. When I’m stargazing, I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that I’m looking at slices of history.

Still, we can make some sense of the night sky. Constellations help us see stars as groups rather than as scattered points of light.

Last summer, I spent more time stargazing than I ever have, and I began trying to learn constellations I didn’t already know. Many people can recognize at least a couple. The Big Dipper is probably best known. This time of year, easy-to-spot Orion (the Hunter) dominates the south sky.

I learn constellations by starting with ones I know and then trying to learn their neighbors. If a constellation has a bright star or distinct shape, it’s usually easy to figure out.

Once you can pick out the Big Dipper and Little Dipper, for example, it’s easy to find Draco (the Dragon) snaking between them. Once you know Orion, it’s easy to spot Canis Major (the Great Dog) scampering at Orion’s heel.

And after you use the brightest stars in Orion and Canis Major as guides to find the relatively obscure Canis Minor, you’ll be hooked. It’s a great way to relax.

You may be content with lying back on a blanket or folding lounge, looking at the constellations and planets, and watching for satellites and shooting stars. Or maybe you’ll want to look for more: nebulas, star clusters and galaxies other than our Milky Way. To see them, though, you need a telescope.

The most common advice for newbies is to buy a good beginner’s telescope instead of paying hundreds of dollars more for a better one, because it may turn out you won’t use it as much as you expect.

With warmer spring weather coming—and, I hope, clearer skies—I just ordered a small telescope. It cost less than $140, including shipping.

As I use it, I’ll be reminded of just how small our place in the universe is. But despite the smallness, we are still part of it.

Owsley Stanley, a key figure in the West Coast countercultural movement in the 1960s, said, "We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars."

Perhaps that’s why we look up at night—to be reassured that eventually, we’ll return to where we started and shine again.

Donald at the bat

The outlook wasn’t brilliant down in Washington that day.
The score stood three to nothing with one inning more to play.
There were two outs and no one on. The crowd had no hopes that
The Donald, mighty Donald, would soon get a turn at bat.

But Bannon strode up to the plate—the bottom of the order—
And asked the catcher, “Did you sneak your way across the border?
“I know you are a Mexican—a most unsavory man.
“And once this game is finished, we’ll deport you if we can.”

Bannon stood beside the plate and hate filled up his mind,
He smashed a pitch and put it just inside the right-field line.
The fielder’s throw held him at first. He flashed an evil grin
And shouted, “All we’re going to do is win and win and win.”

The next man up was Spicer, who was batting next to last.
You’ve never heard a ballplayer talk more loudly or so fast.
His eyes bugged out, he ground his teeth, he snarled and he sneered.
The catcher heard the umpire say, “This guy is pretty weird.”

Spicer was a pitcher and was known throughout the land
For his combative throwing style. When pitches left his hand,
They made opponents laugh and mutter time and time again,
“I’ve never seen a pitcher who was so inept at spin!”

Spicer stepped and dug his cleats into the batter’s box.
His turns at bat were always news—especially on Fox.
Spicer hit a grounder and somehow the ball got through.
Now Bannon stood on second and Spicer was safe too.

With two men on, the fans were hoping for a winning play
When from the on-deck circle stepped Kellyanne Conway.
Her first swing clipped the baseball, but it went flying foul.
Rules say strike, but she said, “No, it’s alternative ball.”

The pitcher threw a knuckleball, and Conway swung and missed.
The fans began to mutter, “We don’t like the looks of this.
“Her batting average isn’t good, and though she has the nerve,
“She misses on the change-ups and she cannot hit a curve.”

With just one pitch now standing between victory and defeat,
Conway chopped the baseball right toward the pitcher’s feet.
The pitcher tried to fire to first. Instead, his effort floated.
It got there late. Conway was safe, and bases were now loaded.

The fans full knew the consequences of the pitcher’s blunder,
And up arose a mighty roar that sounded loud as thunder.
The women waved their handkerchiefs, the men tossed up their hats,
For Donald, mighty Donald, was assured a turn at bat.

The Donald raised his hand aloft to silence the crowd’s din,
And said, “This is a victory that I alone can win.
“Hillary was a loser and Obama was one, too,
“But all will watch in shock and awe at everything I do.

“I know that we’re down three, but I inherited a mess.
“What other batters would do now is lose the game, I guess.
“But I will stand here at the plate, and with a mighty swing,
“Will hit a winning homer and make baseball great again.”

The Donald swung at the first pitch, but all he hit was air.
He ran his little fingers through his oddly colored hair.
The pitcher quickly threw again and Donald watched it go.
“Strike two!” the umpired shouted out, and Donald shouted, “No!

“Fake strike!” he hollered. “Phony ump—for sure your eyesight’s failing!
“It’s all Bill Clinton’s fault!” he cried, all sputtering and wailing.
He kicked the dirt, he kicked the plate, spat on the umpire’s shoes,
Which led the ump to say, “I’ve almost had enough of you.”

The Donald scowled and then he turned to swing another time
And looped a flaccid pop fly high along the left field line.
The ball flew like a dying bird and drifted toward the stands,
Where it was caught by a young boy, who grabbed it with his hand.

The Donald stood there pouting in a raging consternation.
“These crooked pitches all require investigation!”
Then he turned to face the pitcher, who smiled wide, then he
Fired a fastball past the Donald. The umpire called, “Strike three!”

In the postgame locker room, Donald spotted a reporter,
And with an energetic wave, he shouted, “Come on over!
“It must have been a thrill for all the media to see
“How I turned defeat to a win—and singlehandedly!”

The sports guy said to Donald, “What’s all this you talk about?
“You didn’t win the game at all. In fact, you made an out.”
The Donald said, “You loser! Did you watch the game at all?
“I hit a winning homer high above the left-field wall.

“It was a hit the likes of which the world has never seen.”
The writer said, “You hit a foul. I think that you must be
“On drugs or drink. A youngster caught that ball with just one hand.
“And now you say that your weak sauce was really something grand.”

The writer turned and walked away. The Donald muttered, “Sad!
“I won the game all by myself. He must not understand.”
But all his teammates glared at him, and one began to shout,
“It was no homer that you hit. The Donald has struck out.”

Trying to live a life of respect and joy

This is my latest column for the local newspaper. It appeared today.

A Facebook friend and I have been discussing America’s future in light of the tone of our times.

It’s easy to predict nothing but gloom. Washington lacks leaders who can unite and inspire us. Instead, politicians divide us. Because of this leadership vacuum, people worry about their futures.

It’s not as bad as it seems.

For some perspective, watch the CNN series "The Sixties" on Netflix. Anxiety hangs over us, but 55 years ago, a turbulent decade started with the Cuban Missile Crisis—a confrontation over nuclear weapons between the United States and Russia. We stood at the brink of apocalypse.

During the 1960s, our nation faced upheaval—often violent—related to civil rights, racism, the war in Vietnam, and the slaughter of leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Democracy itself was threatened in 1968 by thuggish police brutality at the Democratic National Convention.

And the Cold War loomed over all of it.

Yet we endured—not without bruises, but nonetheless, we endured.

Today, with polarization roiling the land, Americans are wondering about the future of hope. What can we as individuals do to restore it?

It begins with small acts of individual kindness. When I taught at St. Bonaventure, I learned about the university’s Franciscan values. To me, the most important one is to recognize the dignity and worth of every person.

This value transcends religion. It can be part of all of our lives.

How can we put this value to work? By saying hello to strangers. Smiling. Lingering to hold doors open for the people behind us. Paying compliments. Listening, instead of waiting for our turns to talk. And by reacting to life with joy—another Franciscan value.

We can each hope for a miracle that results in our bringing about sweeping, positive change. But it’s more realistic to believe each of us is a sandbag, working together to protect society from a flood of turmoil.

As the Sixties showed, democracy is tumultuous. It’s more clamorous today because everybody has a megaphone, thanks to social media, and social media grants anonymity to cowardly expressions of hate.

But in the ‘60s, Americans made society better—not perfect, yet better.

We are in bruising times again, yet we will endure—again.

Reading the creek, hearing the water

There's a creek about a five-minute walk from my house that the state stocks with trout. I've fished in it just twice, longer ago than I can remember, so I decided to revisit it last week to see how much it has changed and whether it's worth fishing in again.

Change: That's all streams do. Moving water cuts new channels, and old channels dry up. Trees, bushes and weeds fill the vacancies; often, it's hard to tell where the stream bed was. Once-deep pools fill with gravel and silt. And beaver dams can utterly change a stream's character.

This is not, though, a post about fishing. It's a post about trying to purge the never-ending din of living out of my head, if but briefly.

Walking along a woodland trout stream is hard work. Really. Growing trees line the banks; fallen trees need to be stepped over, making walking in a straight line impossible.

I have to pick my way through, under and around low-hanging branches. Vines catch hold of boots, arresting steps, causing stumbles and falls. Many of those vines have thorns that will draw blood even before I can say "ouch!"

When I don't wear a cap, branches scrape my bald head. Short-sleeved arms are left scratched and gashed. Fallen trees require a lot of stepping over. There are banks to climb, some of them steep. A tumble down them and a serious injury are a mere slip away.

There's always the possibility of stepping unawares into a woodchuck hole and breaking an ankle or leg. Cell phone reception to call for help is spotty at best.

In short, walking along a trout stream requires attention, caution and effort. The other day, my hundred-channels-of-noise brain quieted down to two channels. One was The Voice—the writer's voice. It's the voice that transcribes what I'm doing at the moment. It's almost always on. The second channel kept repeating a riff before the outro to the song "San Ber'dino" by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.

That's about as quiet as my heads gets.

The temperature was in the mid-60s, and I caught a couple of whiffs of the land waking up after winter. Just hints, though. The land is still sleeping off the cold.

The first hundred yards of the creek revealed promise for holding fish after I read the water for a while. It's one thing to look at water flowing by; it's another thing to read it. To read a stream is to look at it, to look beneath the surface and figure out where fish are hiding by watching how and where the water moves.

Once I worked my way upstream from that stretch, though, the water slowed down. It went silent. A silent stream holds no trout. Where the fish lurk, the water is always talking. The runs, the riffles, the splashes, the current sloshing against rocks—it's always there, speaking a language that says nothing and everything.

Once the stream quit talking, I noticed the noise of passing cars and trucks on the well-traveled, nearby county road. I realized how much I was sweating, how many gashes the thorns had torn in my arm, how tired my legs were, how thirsty I was.

The din of life's voices began to fill my head again. How I wish the water had kept talking.

'I don’t much care for the media, but this is just nuts.'

When I taught introductory newswriting at St. Bonaventure, I would ask students two questions about stories they had written: What’s new here? What’s different?

Coverage of President Trump’s press conference last week reminded me of those questions. Reporters told us how contentious the event was, and Trump reprised his “fake news” complaints.

This isn’t news anymore. So why was it part of the coverage?
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Nobody's home

I am fighting to evict someone from a house in my head.

The lease is with a guest long vanished, but the house’s contents remain intact.

Inside lights have been dark for a year.

Snow on steps is free of footmarks. Rain overflows leaf-clogged eaves.

Newspapers flap against porch railings like trapped birds. Mail overflows the box.

This will happen:

Sun will bleach siding, exposing its grain, and it will gnarl in rain.

The roof will leak, warping floors.

Pipes will burst. The furnace will die.

The foundation will crumble; the house will list and fall. Rubble will tumble into the cellar, hidden by weeds and thriving vines.

This I will say:

The house was mine, but the tenant ruined it.


DeVos or Miley Cyrus: It's all the same

Betsy DeVos: as clueless as a cup of yogurt

Any U.S. senator who votes to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education should be jammed into a burn barrel and launched into the Potomac River.

DeVos is as qualified for the position as a paperboy is to dispose of nuclear waste at West Valley. Worse, she is foaming at the mouth for a chance to gut the American educational system to make way for profiteering at the expense of kids’ educations.

She was as clueless as a cup of yogurt at her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday. As Charles P. Pierce reported at Esquire.com: “Committee chairman Lamar Alexander locked the committee into a one round of questioning in which the members each had five minutes,” adding, “The strategy of putting DeVos' nomination on a rocket sled so as to avoid exposing too much of her abysmal lack of qualifications was so obvious as to be insulting.”

Her defenders probably would support Miley Cyrus for the position had she been nominated. After all, Cyrus shakes things up! She’s an outsider! The best qualification is having no qualifications at all!
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Cyrus also has enough cash to buy confirmation votes. As Politico reported, “DeVos and her husband, Dick, have donated to the campaigns of 17 senators who will consider her nomination — four of whom sit on the Senate education committee that oversees the process,” adding, “DeVos’ contributions to the lawmakers who will decide her fate stand out in a year in which President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington politics.”

DeVos ducked the dollars when Sen. Bernie Sanders asked how much money her family has contributed to the Republican party over the years. As Forbes.com reported, she said she didn’t know. Sanders said he heard it was $200 million. DeVos: “That’s possible.”

It must be nice to have so much money that you can’t be sure where $200 million went.

She responded with a barrage of bafflegab when Sen. Patty Murray asked, “Can you commit that you will not work to privatize public schools and cut a single penny for public education?" That question could have been answered with a simple yes or no—but here’s how DeVos replied:

"I look forward to working with you to talk about how to address the needs of all parents and students, and we acknowledged today that not all schools are working for the students assigned to them. I am hopeful we can work together to find common ground in ways we can solve those issues and empower parents to make choices on behalf of their children that are right for them."

Those 70 words contain as much substance as cotton candy.

Fox News reported DeVos “has for decades used the family’s influence and wealth in her home state of Michigan to advocate for charter schools and promote conservative religious values.”

In Michigan, about 80 percent of the state’s charters are operated for profit, according to the New York Times. Who is going to stop profiteers from cutting costs for the sake of profits, shortchanging kids in the process?

Here’s how charter schools should work: Every child in every school district should be selected for admission based on a lottery. Districts should be required provide transportation to those schools so poorer students can get there.

In that system, let’s see what parents of the remaining students say about taxpayer dollars being diverted from public schools to charter schools.

Then there’s DeVos’ love of the idea that parents should be given vouchers—public funds—so they can afford to send their children to private schools, especially ones that promote the conservative religious values she espouses. It’s all about student choice, she says.

Here’s the choice parents should make: Choose to send your kids to a public school, or choose to find ways to afford sending them to private schools. Don’t ask taxpayers for handouts.

As for church-affiliated schools, religious values should be taught to students at home or in churches. The government has no business spending money to promote those values.

For those who fear government overreach in education, consider this from Logan Albright, writing for Conservative Review: “Yes, federal vouchers would allow you to take your child to a private or religious school you otherwise might not be able to afford, but it also hands the federal government the purse strings of those institutions. If a school teaches something the government doesn’t like, there is always the threat of reclassifying the school in order to deny it voucher money.”

If the full Senate confirms DeVos, it will be an insult to students, parents, teachers and anyone who cares about public education. Instead, she should be considered for the post of secretary of the interior.

After all, she seems to know something about bears.