July 9, 2020

About Rita and Fred and their dog Rex

A few days ago I got a sad email from Rita, a long-time friend. And it got me a-thinking.

Dear John,

Our dog Rex had surgery on his paw a few weeks ago to remove a growth the size of a quarter, and we had to return to the veterinarian for another post-surgery check-up.

What we thought was just “a big wart” ended up being much more complicated as it rapidly grew.

The initial diagnosis was that it was a cancerous growth and required amputation of toe and removal of lymph nodes!!!

Immediately we sought a second opinion from a more specialized veterinary group and they took biopsies and found it was not malignant! And so were able to remove it with a less aggressive procedure.

However, Rex has had to remain very quiet for the past three weeks to allow the incision to heal. It’s in a difficult place. Not easy for a Lab used to walking miles each day.

We’re saying a prayer. I’ll keep you posted.

Our warm regards to you, John.

Well, I’m hoping to get good news from Rita. She and her husband Fred live in Massachusetts where I lived. So I’ve never gotten to see Rex. Not sure how old or how big he is.

What I want you to know is I’ve changed all names here to protect privacy.

Getting back to Rita’s message, I believe Rex is one of the most fortunate dogs I’ve ever heard of. Especially when Medicare doesn’t cover pets yet.

Hey, don’t laugh. Pets might have gotten covered if Bernie Sanders had not lost to Joe Biden and Bernie had managed to kick Trump to Kingdom Come this coming November. Let’s hope!

Now you see the kind of Democratic candidates I’d love to be able to vote for.

Oh, plus pets’ health care can’t be written off on our income taxes, as you know.

But Bernie would have found a way to fix that, too, I’m sure.

I’m having fun joking here a bit.

But as I told you, Rita’s letter got me thinking. I even did some research.

It turns out pet health care insurance does exist. Uncle Sam doesn’t provide it but many companies do. Companies that offer only pet care insurance. Lots of competition out there.

If you have a precious pet, check Google. You’ll find a variety of policies. You might even find some offering a death benefit.

Yes, I’ll bet you would.

Rita and Fred’s vets’ bill must have been huge. She didn’t mention that. I wondered about it but I didn’t feel I should bring it up. Didn’t want to be nosey.

Way back when I was five or six, I had a little dog, Spotty. I loved Spotty. One day he disappeared. I asked but the answer they gave me was vague. Maybe he got hit by a car or something. A big loss for me.

After Pauline and I married, soon she got a pet. A cat, Snow White. Thirteen years she had Snow White.

Also a cockatiel. A puppy named Bijou. Some unusual pets. One night I found her up very late treating a little injured squirrel she had come across. Other pets. Never without a pet. One after another.

Our kids loved them, too.

They sensed rightly these pets were their Mom’s. Not hers and mine.

One day I spotted a dog that was just meant to be mine. And it wasn’t a little dog like hers.

His name was Barry and he was a full-grown St. Bernard. I’m sure you know St. Bernard’s are BIG dogs. I fell for him not because he was so big but because he looked and seemed so loveable.

But when I brought Barry home, it became obvious he didn’t like having become mine.

Or coming to live in an environment very different.

I was a journalist at a big newspaper a 20-minute drive in from the big city nearby. But we lived on a country road with few neighbors.

We weren’t just two adults. We had two little kids. Arthur, then Monique, then in due time, Mark.

Taking care of him was my responsibility. Not Pauline’s, too.

I’d take him on a walk every day. I’d have him on a leash.

One nice warm summer day, I was walking by the Posts. Don and Sylvia were our closest neighbors, about a thousand feet down the road to the left of us.

Our brand-new house, built for us, stood right next to their big dairy farm. They had 50 beautiful Guernsey cows.

I had bought our lot from her dad. He had immediately set up barbed wire on three sides of our lot. Their blue-ribbon Guernseys grazed on three sides of us.

Most times I didn’t stop by. Don was usually at work.

But his car was in the driveway. He’d be home for sure. It would be nice to say hello.

They had a beautiful collie. Nice, friendly dog. I spotted her in the kitchen behind their screen door. She was watching us approach. Wagging her tail.

I was walking up until Barry had his nose practically touching the screen. He just wanted to say Hi to the collie. This would be their first encounter.

Well, Barry reached up with his right paw. He wasn’t being mean or aggressive. Just friendly.

But that big paw of his tore right through that screen. Wow!

Don Post, who’s a very nice guy, appeared at the door in half a minute.

Saw the damage. He was pushing their collie off to one side. Out of reach of Barry.

I didn’t give him time to say anything. I just said, “Sorry, Don. So sorry! Barry was just trying to be friendly. He’s not a mean dog. Really isn’t.

“Hey, please have the door fixed and just send me the bill, will you.”

“No, no, John. It’s not a big deal. No problem.”

“Please, Bob. It won’t amount to much. Please do that”

But he never gave me the bill.

I was so happy Barry’s behavior didn’t spoil our friendship. It could have.

Well, on another nice summer day I was in our front yard with Barry. No leash. About 50 feet from the road.

Our neighbors on the right, some 250 yards away, were the Normans. Nice family.

Mrs. Norman, about 50, came sauntering past our house with her aunt, a Catholic nun dressed the way nuns did back then. She was visiting. I didn’t know her.

My oh my! Barry sprang up and went dashing toward them. They thought he was attacking them. Whew!

I thought they’d have a heart attack!

At the last minute, Barry put on the brakes. Stopped. Dropped to all fours and started wagging and wagging his tail.

Mrs. Norman gave me a really nasty look. Didn’t say a word. Didn’t have to. Her look said it all.

I rushed over and grabbed Barry by the collar. I had a hard time restraining him.

All I could do was give her a feeble smile and try to explain.

Mrs. Norman just nodded solemnly. Her aunt the nun gathered her long gown around her and gave me a weak smile. They continued their walk past our house. Keeping an eye on Barry and a big distance from him. I was still holding him tight by the collar.

Later I told Pauline all about it. She just shook her head sadly. She really didn’t approve of Barry.

She had no such worries with her little poodle

It was clear Barry had to go. I sold him cheap to a farmer who had a big spread. Had a few beef cattle. Was looking for a replacement dog.

I never saw Barry again.

Anyway, our kids grew up with pets in the house.

One birthday, Arthur, our first born, asked for a pet. Not a puppy or a kitty. He was just six years old.

We lived not far from a farmer who raised sheep. We’d stop by and admire them. Arthur decided he wanted one of the little lambs. He chose one and I paid the farmer. Who thought I’d have it slaughtered, I believed.

Hah! We called it Lambchop.

We had that big yard with a big lawn now.

Lambchop was Arthur’s pet and he had to learn to take care of it.

I tied a 15-foot rope to Lambchop’s collar with a gallon jug of water tied at the other end. In the morning, using the rope and jug, Arthur would set Lambchop up on a patch of nice green grass.

And after school he’d move Lambchop to a fresh patch of nice green grass. Perfect.

Well, at one end of our house we had a grape arbor. Nice grass there. One morning Arthur shifted Lambchop there. After school he checked and found Lambchop dead.

What?! Imagine the shock of that.

Lambchop had been munching and had eaten its way around one of the arbor posts. Had circled the post a couple of times and kept pulling and pulling to free itself. But had strangled itself. Sob!

End of that story.

Anyway, this neighbor friend the farmer also had a few horses. One day in visiting him with my teen daughter Monique, she found one she fell in love with. A big pony.

A spontaneous decision on her part.

I had no idea she was interested in owning a pony.

What to do? I had no barn. No easy water supply. No hay. But I bought it for her. She named it Dolly.

We arranged it so she could keep it at the Posts’. Yes, where Barry had smashed the screen door.

Don and Sylvia had a teen-age daughter, Cindy. Monique and Cindy were good friends. Cindy had a pony. And everything needed for it.

Cindy fed and watered her pony. She knew what she was doing. She tutored Monique. She learned quickly.

Dolly turned out to be wild and frisky. So much so that Monique wore a football helmet when she rode her.

Oh, Dolly also turned out to be blind in one eye. Poor Dolly.

I think that the work of caring for Dolly beat the fun Monique got out of her. She didn’t keep Dolly very long. I don’t remember what happened to her eventually.

Our youngest, Mark, loved animals of all kinds. I repeat, all kinds.

He loved snakes. Water snakes. After school he and his school friend Brian would go and try to catch them, then toss them back in.

He had one that he kept as a pet. He took it to bed with him. True story.

Mark, who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, once thought of becoming a vet. Yes, he really did.

His son Lincoln,11, now has a snake in his bedroom. He wanted it. He’s totally responsible for it. Has to treat it kindly. Has to clean its glass box. Has to feed it regularly. One live mouse a week. Mark buys the mice at a pet supply store.

Well, I hate snakes. Even harmless garter snakes.

Mark takes after his Mom. Pauline taught him. Not that she was fond of snakes.

Our home in the country had a big deck in the back. We had big sliding glass doors to the deck. Next to it was a huge oak tree in plain sight.

One day Mark spotted a baby raccoon up there in the tree. No mother raccoon taking care of it.

He put on heavy gloves and clambered up. Then he saw a second baby raccoon. Managed to bring one down, then the other. Showed them to his mom. She was excited. Then to me. They were cute. I thought they’d be released.

She loved them. Adopted them. She scooped them up. Watered them. Fed them.

We’d sit on a couch looking out those big doors. The two little raccoons would sit up there behind us. On top of the back of the couch. Their favorite place.

Pauline would pick one up and hold it for awhile Then the other. She gave them lots of attention.

We’d keep the doors’ screens closed to keep the two little coons from escaping. After all, they were precious pets now.

They were growing fast.

I had done some research. Raccoons can be dangerous. Very. I mentioned this to Pauline.

No problem. Not these cute little two.

I was worried. These weren’t pets. They were wild animals.

We were planning a weekend away.

Pauline arranged for a neighboring teen-ager to come every day. Gave her a key. She’d come and check a few things. And water and feed our coons.

Off we went. When we returned, our coons were gone!

The teen-ager had opened the deck doors for a few minutes. Our coons had bolted. She was distressed.

So was Pauline. I was relieved. I believed what the book said about raccoons becoming dangerous. Good riddance!

I have stories aplenty to tell about pets.

Our Arthur, who loved Lambchop, and his wife, Marita, bought a nice young dog after they settled into their marriage.They named him Dakota.

He is now a lawyer with a national law practice out of Florida.

Dakota became very big. Had him for more than a dozen years.Their three kids grew up with Dakota. He was part of the family. Became very old. Decrepit, sad to say.

Arthur and Marita recently had to make the painful decision to have Dakota euthanized. That was a bad day.

Their three kids had grown up and become independent, two of them living hundreds of miles away.

A pet animal, whatever it is, can become important to our emotional well-being. Especially when kids have grown up and gone. Pets fill a great big void.

And this is what has made pet veterinary medicine such a lucrative specialty. Specialize in pet health care and become rich!

Monique, who loved her frisky pony for a while, has never had a pet of any kind. Excuse me. Now she has David, her hubby of 30 years. It’s remarkable what a wonderful marriage they have. They don’t need a dog or cat or lamb or pony or snake or anything else. They have one another.

Which is also true now for Arthur and Mark and their spouses also.

Mark, who loves animals so much that he seriously thought of becoming a vet, no longer considers having a pet dog, say. He and his wife Stacie are both professors. Very busy. Travel a lot. Have to face reality.

I have thought of having a dog for myself. A cute, little dog. I live alone. It can get lonely.

But I have a hard time taking care of myself. How could I walk the dog? Really, really take care of it? Not a smart idea.

So I’m hoping that my friend Rita’s prayer for Rex has been answered. And she and Fred will have Rex for another long while.

But now, how do you, dear readers, feel about this?

Do you have a pet? Have you had one, or more! What kind? Good experience? Bad one? Details, please.

If enough of you respond, I’ll write it up. Might be very interesting.

Mark Lander, 78, bicyclist extraordinaire

By John Guy LaPlante

My dear friend Mark Lander back in Connecticut loves to pedal and pedal.

Sure, it’s not unusual for teenage boys to bicycle right into their 20’s and their 30’s and maybe even their 40’s. And then they run out of gas, so to speak.

Not Mark. He started biking in March, 1991. He remembers it that precisely — with the threat of snow nearly over.

Biking became his big thing. And he’s never stopped except in winter in the early years.

I lived in Connecticut a long time. I remember the winters.

Every time I post a blog, it’s 95 percent guaranteed I will get a comment back from him. I love to see his name in my Inbox. And it will be an interesting, enjoyable comment. He’s a very literate guy. Sometimes Mark will email to tell me the latest news about the town’s Historical Society. He’s a long-time member. He loves to research local history and write about this or that. Always fascinating. But remember. I’m writing this not because of that but for his bicycling. It’s been a Wow! accomplishment. Amazing.

He just sent me big news that I have long awaited. It’s so big that I am going to bold-face it.

Mark has just reached his 100,000th mile on two wheels!

The big moment occurred just as he pulled into his driveway. He celebrated with a cup of coffee.

How about that?

Mark is a retired high school French teacher. He majored in French at the University of Connecticut.

There’s nothing French about him except love of the language and the culture.

Now some details about his thousands of miles of pedaling. He emailed them to me. Really fascinating.

He started biking not as a kid, which you would expect. He started in March, 1991. He took it up as a replacement for running (knees) and power walking (boring).

He was still working at that time.

His early goal was to ride as often, as much and for as long as he could. His schedule limited him to warm weather weekends and school vacations (April – November). By the time he retired in1999, he had reached almost 15,000 miles.

Then he started riding year-round, subject only to weather. 

His new goal:  To ride farther each month than he had in the same month a year earlier. It worked more often than not.

His annual mileage gradually crept up:  2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 (five times), 6,000 (once).

I’d love to know how many hours on his bike seat that 6,000 miles adds up to.

He reached 50,000 in August, 2007. That was worth celebrating. But he didn’t tell me how.

He then determined that 100,000 was possible.

In that time he rode in about 250 towns and14 states plus the District of Columbia.

He pedaled in four countries:  USA, Canada, Holland, and France. Has been to France often.

He has used four primary bikes, each one replaced by an upgrade. His current bike is a hybrid.

I didn’t know what a hybrid is. I looked it up. Seems to be a very strong but very basic and light-weight bike — no fenders or anything like that — with the seat quite a few inches higher than the handlebar. You visualize that?

It made me think of a racing bike more than an over-the-road bike.

I wish I had a photo of him and his bike. I’m sure you’d like to see what he looks like. I’d love to see what he looks like.

He told me he wasn’t up to taking a picture and emailing it to me. I understand that.

He said he survived two crashes but was back on the bike within days, despite injuries.

Best day:  85 miles
Best week:  350 miles
Best month:  802 miles
Best year:  6,100
Longest overall ride:  About 350 miles — from Newport, Vermont, to Connecticut in five days.
Most interesting ride:  The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, 184 miles, paralleling the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. I believe he started in Cumberland.
Worst ride:  20 miles in a blinding rainstorm
His lifetime average:  Approximately 3,400 miles per year. Which is just about what he is biking now.

In his statistics I wish he had given his monthly totals.

His pet peeve:  Drivers and other cyclists who don’t understand the rules of the road as they pertain to cyclists. Plus cyclists who don’t wear helmets.

His future resolve is the same — to keep riding as often as he can, as much as he can, and as long as he can.

He says maybe he’ll switch to a trike. Or a tricycle recumbent.

He is well aware that I, a two-wheel biker into my 70’s, pedal my wonderful trike through the neighborhood every fair afternoon. Especially now in these days of Covid-19. The fresh air and the exercise are wonderful.

Then he surprised me:  Maybe he’ll get an e-bike somewhere “down the road.”

That’s a bike with an electric assist. You can turn it on to ease the pedaling.

I say to him, “Go for it, Mark!”

That’s the smart thing to do for an old guy starting his second 100,000 miles on two wheels in not so flat Connecticut.

I consider his accomplishment inspirational. Might spur other older men to take up cycling to stay fit. Yes, sir.

My Friend Wu and Me

By John Guy LaPlante

I have lots of friends, lucky me. But my friendship with Wu is one of a kind. Yes, unique. In fact, extraordinary.

He is Chinese, from Shanghai. His name is Wu Bin.

If I were Chinese, my name would be LaPlante John. I did not know that. He feels Wu is an easier name for foreigners like us to handle.

About our friendship, consider the following. I am old. He is young. He could be my grandson.

I’m American. Don’t speak Chinese. Good thing he speaks English. Otherwise, our friendship would have been doomed.

We met in Nairobi, Kenya, of all places. It is a black nation. That’s on the eastern side of the African content. Nairobi was a major stop on my solo trip around the world. It became a chapter in my book, “Around the World at 75. Alone, dammit!”

And as always, whenever possible, in Nairobi I was staying at a hostel. Wu had checked in the day before. He had the bed across from mine.

He was 30, on vacation. A graduate of the University of Shanghai. He was completing a month in Kenya and adjoining Tanzania. Came because of his interest in anthropology.

I met him with special interest. When I was in college, I had a Chinese pal by the same name, Wu. He was the first Chinese I ever met. I mentioned that to this new friend of mine. He chuckled. He said Wu was a very common name in China. As common as Smith or Cohen for us.

Wu Bin, no relation to my boyhood friend, was a microchip engineer working in marketing for a big company supplying chips to companies around the world. Including some of our best known computer companies.

I asked him, “Isn’t it rare for young Chinese to get out of China and travel for pleasure?”

“Yes, I am very lucky to be able to travel like this.”

He said he earned a high salary by Chinese standards. That impressed me.

He said he had just treated himself to a balloon ascent over a famous historical site.

“It cost $300. Very expensive. But I have very nice pictures to take home.”

Told me he had traveled to Europe, India, and many other parts of the world. Part of it was for his company, but not all.

Also rare was that he was not yet married at age 30, he said.

“Everybody tells me, Marry! Marry! I say no, not yet. I want to wait. When you marry, everything changes.”

He did say he had to find a way to raise extra money for this trip. He brought along five digital cameras. Very hi-tech cameras – complete, with chargers, AC adapters, the whole works. Had sold four of them so far.

“No problem. Many rich people everywhere.”

There were quite a few Americans in Nairobi. I thought he might be the only Chinese in this huge city. I left the city sure we would never see one another again.

But what happened is that like others who were interested, he continued to receive email updates from me about my big trip.

But, so unusual, he would always respond.

By this time, I was back in the U.S. I was in Los Angeles, living with milady Annabelle. We were a committed couple.

When I wrote that I was planning to write a book about my trip, and would include many photos he became

Very interested. In fact, excited.

One day he wrote, “John, I will publish the book in China!”

What a wacky idea! So I thought.

But he mentioned it again. “Yes, publish it in Mandarin. That is our most important language.”

I was interested, of course. But I thought nothing would come of it. But he kept it up.

One day, he made me an offer in dollars. Wow! To put an end to this, I wrote, “Wu, we have a lot to discuss. Come on over!”

I was sure he would make an excuse. Probably too busy at work!

End of discussion.

After all, making a round-trip to the US is expensive. And complicated. He’d have to take time off from work. Get a visa. On and on.

Well, he flew over. We picked him up. He stayed four days with us. No mention of the book. We showed him around. Fed him.

He was a lot of fun. Then he left for three days to visit Yosemite National Park, then came back for a few more days with us. Still no mention of the book. Just a scam, I decided.

Two days before his flight back to Shanghai, he said to me, “Now, John, let’s write our contract.”

Wow! Could this be for real? It was. We sat down and I drafted the contract. I included the sum of dollars he had offered. Plus a provision for royalties. Oh, I also had a DVD of photos I had taken on my big trip. He also bought that. I showed him what I had written.

“Excellent,” he said. “But this contract must be written Chinese style.”

“No, no, Wu. If you put it in Mandarin. I will not be able to read that, and I would not be able to sign a contract like that, of course.”

“No, John. Not a problem. This is very good, but for us Chinese every contract must start with the words, “After friendly discussion….”

No problem, I told him. It was indeed a friendly discussion.

Then I shook hands with him. He did not understand that.

I explained that shaking hands at the end of a business deal is an American custom. He chuckled. “I love some of your American customs!”

And I said to myself, “I really like this guy!”

Annabelle and I drove him to the airport. We shook hands. Annabelle gave him a hug. He was all smiles. And he flew home.

We have been the best of friends ever since. For many years. It’s been an active friendship. I could give you many details but I have to speed up my story about him. No way can I go into the many details.

He went ahead and published my book in Mandarin. Translating it was a big job. I like to think that the translation was a good one.

He decided to give his book a big PR kickoff.

Big surprise! He invited Annabelle and me to attend. Unfortunately, she could not come along. A bad knee! She suggested I bring my sister Lucie along. A great idea. I am a few years older than Lucie.

She’s a very good sport and lots of fun. And very charming. She and Wu clicked the minute they met.

For the kickoff he had rented a large assembly room in a major hotel. And invited many guests, including journalists and TV personalities.

He wanted me to give a talk, and he would translate in Mandarin.

We practiced a couple of times.

I was very nervous. Who wouldn’t be? Then answered questions from the floor. And all went well.

From China, Lucie and I went on a tour of a dozen Asian countries. That was a decision I made after Wu’s invitation.

She told me she would love to come along but said right then and there she’d have to fly home early because of a major happening back home. We had a fine time together. I was very sorry to see her fly home.

I wrote up that big and wonderful trip in my book, “Around Asia in 80 days. Oops, 83!”

A very popular book at that time was “Around the World in 80 Days!” That’s how I got the idea for the title of my book.

Well, I have been to China four times, all because of Wu. That’s been very wonderful.

The second time was for Wu’s wedding. He invited milady Annabelle and me. She was better now and jumped at the chance.

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine at that time. I got permission to go.

From Kyiv, the capital, I flew easterly to Shanghai. Annabelle flew west from Los Angeles. We arrived at the huge Pudong Airport only 90 minutes apart, and Wu was there to greet us.

Such an interesting and beautiful wedding. And the dozen days that followed. All thanks to Wu.

Then Wu took us back to Pudong Airport. Annabelle flew east home to Los Angeles and I flew west back to Ukraine.

Wu made another trip to the United States and visited us. It’s wonderful.

Wu, and my sister Lucie, of course have been in close touch all these years.

We were very pleased to hear of the birth of his son. And his steady climb up the ladder in his field.

Annabelle got to see a lot of that. She died a year ago, sad to say. In just a few words, what Wu has become is a super salesman with an intensive engineering background.

His specialty has been LED lights. He told me once, “John, go to your local Home Depot and you will find my LED lights there.”

As such, he has traveled to many countries in his business, in Asia and countries in Africa.

No need any more to bring along hi-tech Chinese cameras in order to make extra money.

Over the years, thanks to what I could see from Wu and could figure out by myself I became so impressed by China’s growth that I invested in a Chinese mutual fund, and that did very well.

History tells us that it has been in the last hundred years that our USA became the wealthiest and mightiest country in the world.

Well, I believe it’s now in these upcoming hundred years that China will become the wealthiest and mightiest country in the world.

You may be thinking that yourself.

In these years of our friendship Wu and I have remained in close touch through the Internet.

It’s always been a great pleasure to see an email from him in my inbox.

Recently I got to thinking that our friendship is such a different and extraordinary one that you might be interested in hearing about it. So here it is.

With his worldly experience, he has strong opinions and doesn’t mind sharing them.

He’s always doing extraordinary things. Recently he learned to fly a helicopter. How about that!

Now a French company is building a huge chemical plant in China and Wu is the official translator and interpreter. That’s a big job indeed.

I mentioned to him that I would like to write about us.

And I realized that there were many things about his everyday life that I was not aware of. And I asked him a series of questions. Some quite personal. And he has answered them. That impressed me.

Here they are. I believe that you will enjoy them. And learn a bit about China.

Hello,Dear John,

The follows please find my answers.

How many hours is the normal workweek? 8H* 5Day= 40 hours

How many days off do workers have per week? 2 Days

How many days of vacation every year? About 5-20 days, depends on working experience By the government? Same in the whole country

By private companies? It’s hard to say, in the South or in the North, are totally different.

Is there a standard retirement age? For man, 65. For woman, 60.

Do people receive a pension when they retire? Yes.

From the government? From the government.

Or private corporations? NO.

Or both? Only from the government

Are most schools free? For the public school system, it’s free. Are most universities free? No, need to pay the tuition.

We have 50 states in the USA.

How many states does China have? We have 32 provinces in China.

Don’t 99 percent of the people live in large apartment buildings?

In the city, that’s true. In the suburban area, people mainly live their own house or rent an apartment.

Do they own their apartment? Case by case, about 60% people own their house.

Do you own or pay? I have my own apartment. Actually Lucie and you even stayed in it. Are you employed by a corporation or are you self-employed? Employed by the company. At what age do you plan to retire? 65

What kind of work would you like your son to do when he is a man?

Doctor, teacher, architect, any job he likes indeed, and he could do something useful for the society. Meanwhile, be kind to the friends, neighbors.

Wasn’t your father a public school teacher? Yes, he was a teacher before 

At what age did he retire? 65

I know how generous and loving you have been to your father and mother. How comfortable would their retirement be without your financial support?

I am their only one kid, it’s nature to support them as I could.

Is there a standard vacation for workers every year?

For me, about 12 days.

Do sick people have to pay to go to a hospital? Yes, some people without social security need to pay it.

Is there a government insurance plan? No, mainly we have a personal insurance plan by ourselves, not the government.

At what age do people begin to vote? At 18

Can women vote? Yes, for sure.

Are some kinds of people not allowed to vote? All Chinese citizen can vote who is over 18.

What do you think of Xi Jinping? He is capable to handle the current issues. He is not perfect, but acceptable. Isn’t he your president for life? No, I don’t think so.

Do you like him? For me, he is OK for the country.

How many major political parties are there? About 9 parties totally.

Are you a liberal (for us, a Democrat?)

I am a liberal.

Or a conservative (for us, a Republican?)

Do most people believe in God? People have different definition on God. In China, it could be the Buddha, Guanyin God, or Local City God. We have local gods in our mind. If you live in China longer, you can see that.

Here are 2 pictures for your reference.

That’s a temple in Southern China, which also popular in Southeast Asian countries.

“Are you really a writer, John?”

“Did you write to earn your bread and butter, Mr. LaPlante?”I’ve fielded these questions more than once. My answer to both is “Yes”.

And I have proof for you right now. All thanks to my loving daughter, Monique.

Take a look at the photo. It shows a 3-ring binder. I’ll explain in just a minute.

I had a big birthday recently. My 91st!

I got Happy Birthday! emails, cards, a bouquet of flowers, gifts. Monique’s was a humdinger. She gave it to me at a birthday dinner at their home. Her hubby David handed a big box to me. It weighed a ton. Beautifully gift-wrapped.

“What is thís?” I asked. “An encyclopedia or something?”

No answer. Just a smile.

I ripped off the fancy paper. Well, what I was looking at were two huge identical binders. They both had the same picture of me on it. Taken in Guangzhou, China six years ago. It’s the same photo that appears on my website.

The words on both were the same: “To blog or not too blog? You bet I’m going to blog!”

One book said “Volume 1” and the other “Volume 2.”

And inside were print-outs of every blog I’ve posted since I started my website back then. All in perfect chronological sequence. The first was on April 8, 2013 and the latest on April 26.

She was watching me carefully. “Like it, Dad?”

“Like it? I LOVE it, Monique! It’s fantastic! But gosh, when did you start assembling all these articles? What a huge job!”

“No, no, Dad. I began not long after you started blogging. I could see blogging was important to you.”

She smiled. “One thing I was sure of! You wouldn’t up and quit! “Well, you would publish one or two and I’d print them out. So I’ve been at it practically since you started. And of course I realized it would be a nice family thing to have all your articles together like this.”

The minute she said that I thought of something else.

Years ago back in Connecticut where I was then living I wrote stories for a weekly newspaper, “The Main Street News.”  It was a good weekly. A lot of people read it. I began writing for it. I wrote a lot for it. News stories. Feature stories. Many. And during that time I took two long trips driving through our 48 states. Alone. I covered 60,000 miles on highways and backroads. In a small, compact RV — a wonderful VW Microbus.

I was a vagabond. A happy vagabond.

I’d write about interesting things that I got to see and interesting folks I encountered.

They would get published as lead articles in the Travel section of the Worcester Sunday Telegram in Massachusetts, where I had been an editor. And some in The Main Street News.

Back home finally, I boiled all that down for an article that got published In the Travel section of the Boston Sunday Globe. The Globe is the largest paper in New England.

That Sunday edition was a full inch thick. Huge.

On Monday a friend called me. “John, I read your article yesterday. The whole thing. And I checked something. It was the biggest story in the whole paper!”

I was tickled.

Oh, during those years I also took a big trip to a dozen countries in Asia. My sister Lucie was with me through several of them. She had told me in advance she’d have to come home early.

On the road over there I’d write reports and email them back to Connecticut for publication.

They became the guts for my book, “Around Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83!”

Lucie was one of those I dedicated it to.

Well, back then one day Monique had given me a boxful of those reports. Again, each one printed out and arranged in its right order. A precious gift.

Now and then I open the box and leaf through it. It’s a fantastic walk down Memory Lane for me.

And now her two 3-ring binders will be my second fantastic walk down Memory Lane.

As I told you, the first of the two binders is full.

The second one has lots of room still. It will be easy for her to slip in additional blog printouts. For instance, this one I’m writing right now.

I’ll bet Monique has already thought of that.

Right now they total 200 blog posts. That’s my estimate.

On average they run 2,000 words, I’d say. So, 400,000 words! My oh my!!! I do think that’s worth three exclamation marks.

But that’s over just the last few years, mind you.

But I’ve been writing professionally since I graduated from Boston University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1954.

And the next week went to work on The Thomaston (Conn.) Express, a fine weekly. As its editor, mind you. I was 25 years old. Less than two years later I was hired by the Worcester (Mass.) Telegram & Gazette, which published morning, evening, and Sunday papers. After Boston, Worcester is the second largest city in New England. I went from correspondent and reporter to bureau chief to feature writer to editor of its big Sunday magazine. Even wrote a weekly column for it for 10 years without missing a single week. Even wrote it from my hospital bed one week.

And I’ve been writing and writing ever since.

These scribblings have included new feature stories, travel and adventure write-ups, essays, reminiscences, three nonfiction books published, three not. Hey, even a few poems.

Think of the millions of words all this must add up to.

Of course, some of you may be quite new to my work. Well, to give you a decent idea, I’ve gathered a few of these blog posts for you. Not the whole, long pieces. No, no. Just the title of each that I gave them plus a few paragraphs to clue you in. Hope you enjoy them.

And here they are.

“I learned to play chess 77 years ago.” Yes, I did. Sorry, that’s not true. I began playing chess back then. I’m still learning.”

“I thought my circus days were over.” Not so. I was interested but I said “No!” to Monique and David when I found out there were no animal acts. How could you have a circus without elephants and lions and prancing ponies? I was wrong. I loved it!

One day in one post I found out I had erred. So I wrote the following.

“Did I confuse you? Could be.” In my last post I wrote, “Do your duty. Vote!” But maybe better, “Don’t vote!”

But I should have written, “It’s your duty and my duty to not vote when not clear about an issue or a candidate.”

Here are more.

“I just finished my toughest test yet.” And I’ve taken hundreds of tests. The toughest was the California written driving test. I flunked it the first time. So humiliating!

“Why don’t they just ask me my name?”

I was at the drugstore for my prescriptions. I started to say “I’m John …”

“No, no. What’s your address?”

Another day I was at a big-box store. “I’m John …”

“Sorry. What’s your phone number?”

At a government office, “I’m John … “

“No need. Your Social please.”

Hey, why did my Pa and Ma ever bother?!

“Seven years ago I was still living six months a year in Connecticut and six here in California.” I’d drive 6,000 miles across and meander to see this and that. It was great!

Well, I just met Bill Fairbanks, a retired Ph.D. professor. In his 70’s. He walked across the U.S.A. It took him six years. He did it in stages. His wife tagged along in their car.

“Do out him it’s okay to ban books?” Our public library just had an exhibit on banned books. A long list. Some famous, some less so. There were 20 possible reasons. Too much sex. Or too Communist. Or too this or that. And sure, they all got banned. But all can still be bought here or there. But anyway! Here in our free USA who has the right to ban books from me or you? In my opinion, nobody.

“My friend Bill Alpert, impassioned fiddler.” There are two kinds of passions, as we know. Good ones and evil ones.

His is a good one. Making music. As a concert violinist and now a sidewalk fiddler.

Bill fell in love with the violin when he was 11 in sixth grade. He’s collecting Social Security now and still playing. The same violin for 31 years, by the way–a Caressa made in France in 1901.

He practices every day. One day he got a great idea. Why not practice before a live audience?

So on nice days now and then he practices in front of Albertsons Supermarket. His practice sessions are better because some customers stop and really listen. And some like his music so much they even toss money into his violin case. Pretty good, methinks.

“Have you had narrow escapes? Close calls?” I’ve had a few. The most terrifying was when I was traveling alone through India on a long, jam-full train and

I got caught in a riot. And a couple of thugs came looking for me, and all because I was a lone American.

“I go to our county jail to visit Prisoner 846975.” Jack is an old man now. I’ve changed his name and number. He’s a friend, sort of. I like him.

He was picked up by the cops for failing to report in monthly to his probation officer as he is supposed to 12 months a year. He is a convicted sexual abuser. He is awaiting trial. Couldn’t make bail.

He’s told me the story. He was 19. She was a bit under age. He felt she wanted it and he gave it to her.

He admits to other law problems but small stuff. That initial crime has ruined his life. People know and he knows they know.

He has to check in every month, or else. Getting decent work hasn’t been easy. He’s been a house painter mostly. He can’t even be within so many feet of a school. On and on. AndI repeat, he’s awaiting trial.

The big question is, does that conviction of his really fit his crime? She was a bit under age and he felt she wanted it and he was just a dumb kid of 19 ….

And now he’s a convicted sex offender for life?! Can’t there be a smarter, more sensible way? For people like him and society?

“A dream Airstream in Albertsons Supermarket parking lot.” Yes, I spotted a gorgeous, gleaming silver Airstream trailer. It’s famous. The first really fine travel trailer. Luxurious. Pricy. Still an unusual sight. Designed, built, and popularized by the great Wally Byam.

He would lead price-is-no-problem Airstream owners on scenic caravans across the USA and even across Africa.

But for a young family man like me there was no way I could ever hope to own a top-of-the-line Airstream.

Yet the day came when with my wife Pauline and our two little kids in a home-made tent trailer I could take six weeks off. Drive across the USA from Massachusetts to California and back. And mind you, in days long before Interstate highways. And see great cities and famous national parks. And humble burgs and splendid museums. And talk with a fabulous mix of Americans. And write about all that and get it published. Wow!

Now you have seen a small sampling of my works. Well, to get back to the big, original question I get asked, am I a writer? Do I qualify? What do you think?

Truth is, writing is a must for me. I believe I was born to write, among other things. It’s the only way I can explain it. Hope I can keep it up….

Now I must repeat one essential thing.

As you know now, this huge project of printing out and assembling these blog posts was totally my daughter Monique’s doing.

I had no clue. Bless her!

She has a husband. A big and demanding job. Lots of responsibilities.

This was not just a project for a week or two. She got started shortly after I began blogging.

It was one more way for her to say, “I love you, Dad.” Notice, I said one more way.

How fortunate I am.

T0day, April 26, I turn 91. Wow!

By John Guy LaPlante

So of course today will be the first day of my 92nd year on this planet. Amazing.

Know what? I never, never thought I would live this long.

Like lots of people over 65 or 70, now and then I’ve wondered how long I’ll be around.

So recently I researched it. I checked at the Social Security website — 3.7 more years for me. and 4.5 for ladies. But those are averages. Some will live longer, some shorter. 

Then I wondered, what are my odds of reaching 100? No idea.  I haven’t come up with that number yet. Actuaries know that. I don’t know any actuary.

I do believe I have a better chance to hit 100 by living here in peaceful and quiet and crime-low Morro Bay than in so many other places.

Anyway, here are a few reasons why I do think I might live to become a centenarian.

I’ve never smoked, well, since the age of 17.

I’ve never drank — oh, at Sunday dinner maybe, or on a special occasion, but just a small glass of Manischewitz.

And very important, I’ve always, or nearly always had work of the kind that I enjoy. Writing. Which is what I am doing right now. Although I no longer get paid for writing. Shucks.

As we know, so many people work at something so humdrum that they just can’t  wait to call it quits and start collecting Social Security. 

So do I hope to hit 100? Not if I have to end my days suffering through some awful, monstrous, hopeless whatever.

Or in pain. Or being kept breathing through a machine. Or being a burden. Or with no loved one by my bed to hold my hand.

No problem there. I have three kids, and they are great, as are their spouses.

Of course, there is more doubt about all this now than there would have been a few months ago. The fearful Covid-19  pandemic!

I’m a perfect candidate for that, by the way. I’m very old as you know. And I was recently hospitalized for double pneumonia. From what I’ve read, that’s a very ominous possibility.

At times now and then, like you I’m sure, I’ve wondered what life is all about.

Is it an adventure? A highway we are plunked down on for better or worse and can’t get off of until we run out of gas, so to speak?

Is it a religious prelude to heaven or hell? 

Or a good opportunity to use whatever talents we have been handed to make a better life for ourselves?

Or just a mystery, a very tough one, to try to fathom?

Or a bit of this and that? Please, what do you think?

And the big, big question now, is life over when it’s over? Or is there another life for us?  People with their smarts working have been pondering that question for eons. I believe it’s over. But I may be wrong.

Anyway, one thing I’m sure of is I’ve been most fortunate.  And in many ways.

I was born male. I never questioned that. I was fine being male. In recent years I’ve been astonished to find out many males are unhappy about that. So unhappy they will go to great lengths do change that.

I was born to a wonderful father and mother. They nurtured me in many ways. Loved me and showed that to me time and again.

I was born white, which many consider a big plus in our mixed society. 

And was born American, which I’m sure you won’t disagree is more desirable than being born Nigerian or North Korean or Haitian or Costa Rican or citizen of so many other countries. 

And I was born with an IQ a wee bit higher than 100, so I’ve been told . That’s a pretty good plus. 

And have been blessed with better than average health over these many years.  

And so lucky to have been privileged to get a good education. And of course that opened the door to numerous opportunities. And certainly saved me from ever having to stoop to cheating or trying something criminal to make a living.

Also, so fortunate to have become a vegetarian. Increasingly that’s considered a more healthful way of life. Yes, definitely, though I did that also because I liked the idea of not having to kill animals to fill my stomach.

And I’ve always had a lot of friends. I feel good about that.

Now another big question. A great big one. Have I thought of how I’d like to die?

Have you? Well, it may be you’re not old enough yet to have a question like that come to mind.

I have indeed given that some thought.

For sure before my health fails to the point that things really start to become hard and difficult. My sixth sense tells me that may not be that far off. 

But definitely not the way my good friend Cam died ten days ago. No, no.

We met as freshmen at age 13 and were friends all through prep school and college. Early on, we found out we were born on the very same day, April 26, 1929! That became a special bond that kept us close these many, many years.

I became a journalist plus other things. He a Catholic priest. He loved being a priest and for the very best of reasons and he became a fine one.

Cam–never did I ever call him Father Cam–retired only some 15 years ago, long after he could have. And did so quite reluctantly.

We always kept in touch. It was important to us. Rarely did we miss on April 26.

Well, eighteen months ago Cam began slipping. A kind and gentle man, he began turning people off, fellow priests and longtime friends and even his own loving sister. Alzheimer’s! And it got worse. Hard to believe, but he had to be institutionalized. And then quickly he died. 

May I be spared an awful ending like that.

His death was a huge emotional jolt to me. I’ve thought about it time and again.

On a couple of mornings I thought of him the minute I opened my eyes .

As for me, I’ve written my will and done everything else that goes along with that.

So, getting back to that big question, how would I like to die?

Well, while still reasonably healthy. Before the pain and the misery kick in. I’d like to go to bed here in my home one night and close my eyes … and simply die. 

That would be nice and easy for me, and for my family and friends also.

But not, not quite yet. 

So, friends, how does that sound to you?

And right now, what?

Well, it’s a beautiful day. 

As usual this afternoon I’m going to hop on my tricycle and pedal it and pedal it.  For the exercise and fresh air and the fun of it. I do that on every fair day.

Often I’ll stop at Albertsons Supermarket for groceries. I have a big basket on the back of my trike, which is great for that.

Of course I put on my face mask for that and am careful about social distancing. Which I do whenever necessary.

Then I’ll pedal to McDonald’s for my daily cup of coffee. McDonald’s is take-out only now, of course. I used to like to read the paper in there. No more.

And today, my birthday, I’m sure I’ll be able to squeeze that in. But I’ll skip Albertsons. I will pedal longer to celebrate the fact I can still do that.

If things were normal, there would be a party, and there would be a birthday cake with a lot of candles on it, maybe even 91. Some jokester might do that. And I’d be expected, even cheered on, to blow them all out. No way!

Oops, not to worry. There’s not going to be a birthday cake. There’s not going to be a cake. No candles. And no party, either.

Social distancing!

 But I’ve been getting birthday cards and phone calls and emails. And that’s been wonderful.

And in 365 days, the gods willing, let’s hope Covid-19 will be over. And then on my birthday, I’d love  a little party and a cake with candles on it. Yes, sir.

Maybe 8 or 10. But please, please, not 92!

My seven hard months of being out of sight and mind

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — I’m so, so happy, my friends, to tell you I’m back home finally. Living on my own again, by myself, in my mobile home.

This after some five months of being in a hospital, two nursing homes, and an assisted living facility.

Strangely it seems I was away in those institutions much longer than five months. Methinks because a lot of it impressed upon me the reality of being very old.

You know, I never thought I would live in a mobile home.  Six years now.

Over my many decades I’ve lived in houses and apartments and condos, most of which I’ve owned.

This mobile home is perfect for me in my very old age. I said “very” old age because very soon, on April 26, I will be 91 and starting my 92nd year!

Notice the exclamation mark. That’s because turning 91 is a surprise, a very nice one. Truth is, I never expected to live this long.

What’ pleases me a lot is that most people who know me seem to agree I still have my wits about me. A lot of people my age do not. Very sad.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about the huge medical crisis that kept me out of circulation those many weeks. Until I moved back home nearly two months ago.

But this is not supposed to be about my mobile home. I’m telling you about it because it will make you understand why I wanted to come back to it. Plus I feel it will be interesting to you.

It happened as a result of my my moving to California from Connecticut to be with my daughter Monique and her husband David. That was some eight years ago. They are wonderful.

Morro Bay is a lovely small city about half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles. No ice or snow here. The harbor and the broad Pacific are just down the hill a mile and a half or so. Very low crime rate. Very peaceful. Only 15 miles from much larger San Luis Obispo with its hospitals, airport, university, big stores, on and on.

I moved here permanently, intending to live here until I die.

I knew zilch about mobile homes. I suspect few of you do. I’m telling you about it so you’ll understand why it’s so important to me. Besides, it will interest you, I believe.

Then I will get back to my humongous medical crisis.

I bought my mobile home six years ago. It’s number 19 in a mobile home park of 55 units. The park is called Morro Palms, so named because of its towering palms trees.

The median price of houses in Morro Bay is a bit more than $500,000. This may sound very expensive to you but that’s what it is.

Right now the average price of a mobile home in Morro Palms is about 20 percent of that. So $100,000 or so. But I paid much less than that five years ago. Prices have been going up and up.

As is the custom in all mobile home parks, or so I’m told, you own the mobile home but pay for the lot it’s on. They call it ground rent. This ground rent was a big novelty to me. You pay that ground rent monthly, along with the utilities. Those utilities are gas, electricity, and water.

Living alone as I do, those utilities are quite modest.

I feel I have a wonderful deal here, indeed I do.

Now a little secret. I believe that deep down I had a prejudice against people living in mobile homes. I didn’t know better.

Well, my neighbors are fine, upstanding folks. I have one who is a retired university professor. Another who is a half-retired contractor. Another who was a chemist. His wife was a psychologist. Another who is the assistant manager of a very large chain hardware store. Another who had a big state job certifying new state buildings just completed. Quite a few are like that.

They all like the idea of saving a lot by buying a nice mobile home.

The location of our Morro Palms park couldn’t be better.. Besides being very safe and very quiet, it is so, so convenient. Just a 10 to 15-minute walk to supermarket, drugstore, bank, post office, public library, senior center, restaurants, and all the shops and services typical of a nice small city of 10,000 people.

My neighbor Francis walks down to our harbor’s Embarcadero every fair day.

Our park has strict rules. You have to be 55, and you can’t have children of any age living here. And you cannot rent it out to anyone.

About 20 percent of the mobile homes are used as a vacation and weekend home by their owners. All because they find Morro Bay such a pleasant and interesting community.

About 20 percent of the mobile homes are used as a vacation and weekend home by their owners. All because they find Morro Bay such a pleasant and interesting community.

About 20 percent of the mobile homes are used as a vacation and weekend home by their owners. All because they find Morro Bay such a pleasant and interesting community.

About 20 percent of the mobile homes are used as a vacation and weekend home by their owners. All because they find Morro Bay such a pleasant and interesting community.

About 20 percent of the mobile homes are used as a vacation and weekend home by their owners. All because they find Morro Bay such a pleasant and interesting community.

For me the big, bg plus is that Monique and David live only a seven or eight-minute car ride away. So I see them and enjoy them often.

Yes, sir, how fortunate I am to have discovered Morro Palms Mobile Home Park.

Finally, finally back to my huge health crisis.

That crisis sprang up in early October and that’s why you haven’t been receiving my blog. It put me out of business. Not the right expression because my blogging has never been a business, as you know.

I was scared. Terribly worried. Did not have the energy or the zest for anything else. Was totally preoccupied with getting better.

Truth is, I had a close call. Far closer than I realized when David and Monique drove me the 18 miles to French Hospital in San Luis Obispo.

David is a very fast driver. Believe me, he got me there faster than any ambulance would have. Lucky no policeman spotted us. Right to French’s big emergency care department.

By the way, there’s nothing French about the hospital. It’s called French only because the gentleman for which it is named was a Mr. French.

I thought I’d be there for two or three days and that would be it. I’d be sent home. I had no idea it would be five months before I got back home. And that’s why only a few of you got to hear from me directly in all that time.

When Monique realized that I was worried about you not hearing from me, she took it upon herself to do something about that. She contacted you through my blog and told you about my bad news.

My key diagnosis turned out to be double pneumonia. It was compounded by a couple of other problems. Well, I spent 13 days at French Hospital. They did a good job. That’s for sure. Of course I expected a big bill. But I was shocked, nearly fell over when I got it.

They hadn’t done any major surgery or gotten me started on heavy chemotherapy for a life-threatening cancer, or any other huge problem like that.

So yes, I was nearly knocked off my feet when I spotted how much those 13 days had cost. Wow!

It was $135,000!  Now divide that by 13 for the 13 days that I spent there. More than $10,000 a day!

But because I had Medicare plus Medex, which is a good supplemental policy I have, all French asked of me was a $50 copay. How fortunate I was.

Now here’s something interesting. When I have asked friends to estimate what the huge tab had been, they put it at a mere $20,000 to $30,000 for my whole stay. Crazy, don’t you think?

They seem to have no idea how hospital care has become shockingly expensive.

Well, I insisted on an itemized statement from French and finally I got it. It ran many pages long. But it was written in such impossible technical gobbledygook that no way could I understand it.

 Anyway, from there I was transferred by ambulance to San Luis Transitional Care. It’s a rehab facility. It’s operated by a local chain called Compass.

It made me think back some 30 years when I spent a couple of weeks at a rehab center in Connecticut. That had been a very good experience.

San Luis Transitional Care also turned out to be a very good experience.

I was one of two men in hospital beds in a double room. Which was standard. My companion had been there a few days. I’ll call him Charlie. A good guy. I got to like him a lot.

0ur beds were barely five feet apart. We ate our meals propped up in our beds. We pushed a button by our side and quickly someone would appear to tend to our needs.

Sometimes a nurse and sometimes a nurse’s aide. Nearly always the nurse was a woman. Half the time the nurse’s aide would be a man. 

Often I preferred the man. Why? Some of the care I needed was embarrassing, and I liked it if the aide turned out to be a he. True for Charlie also.

I’d have to use a urinal or a bedpan and that was no fun. When finally I got to use the toilet and passed stool, I wouldn’t be allowed to flush it until an aide came to see how much it had amounted to. That was the rule.

But if a woman responded and got the drift, she’d take it in stride, and just laugh and say,”Not a problem, John. Not a problem.”

After a couple of days, I felt these various caregivers were new friends, sort of.

We got care day and night, through all three shifts, including our blood pressure readings and our prescribed medicines.

But how irritating it was to have somebody tapping my shoulder at 4 a.m. to wake me up and give me an injection or a couple of pills or do whatever else they had to do.

I was being given a variety of pills and the nurse would make sure I swallowed each and every one.

Very soon I realized I was getting very good care right around the clock. A nice feeling.

Charlie agreed.

But the TV set we shared turned out to be a problem. I had little interest in what was being shown except the news reports. He could have kept the TV on 24 hours a day. Regardless of what was on. Finally he’d turn it off at 10 p.m.

But he had to do that because it was the rule. Thank God.

Quickly I was encouraged, like every other new patient, to get up out of bed and start using the wheelchair by my side. It seemed every patient had a wheelchair.

Not only to get around but for meals. Our meals would be served to us on a tray that they placed on our bedside table. I’d edge up to it in my wheelchair.

And no more urinal and bedpan, by the way. I’d wheel myself to the toilet.

I was given a shower twice a week, and I really enjoyed that.

After three days or so I was encouraged to navigate my wheelchair out of the room and down a couple of corridors to a dining room. And sit and dine with other patients at tables for four.  It was very nice to mix in like that.

And the food was quite good, I am pleased to say. I am a vegetarian, and I was sure that would present a problem, but it did not.

And in a few days I began spending an hour or an hour and a half in the physical therapy room. It became the most important part of my day.

A couple of dozen patients would work out in there in a typical day.

The exercises were individualized to us, depending on our specific needs.

There were seven or eight of us in there, both men and women. We would be started on sets of exercises using machines, the exercises becoming more and more demanding. I did it seriously. It was paying off.

I was surprised by how many men and women were in there working out after a knee or hip replacement. Or falling and breaking a bone.

My needs were much simpler. The usual workout was one hour. I’d try to squeeze in extra time and quite often I’d get away with it.

What was wonderful was that right from the start I began receiving visits from Monique and David. Sometimes Monique, sometimes David, sometimes both. They are busy people. How fortunate I was.

Sometimes l’d tell them, “No need, no need,” but they never missed. How good that made me feel!

And I’d get calls from my son Arthur in Florida and my son Mark in Wisconsin.  Wonderful!

Just about every one of my nurses and aides got to know Monique and David. And vice versa. It was all very friendly.

I must tell you that there was not one of these nurses or aides that I did not get to like.

Well, I expected to spend two weeks at San Luis Transitional Care and then be discharged to go home. That was not to be.

The problem was that my medical insurance would pay for just two weeks. The two weeks ended but I was lucky to get an extension. But those extra days ran up my bill considerably. 

Yet even with the extra days Monique and David felt I was still not ready to go home. And I agreed with them. Absolutely.

Then we got good news.

If I shifted to another rehab center, my insurance would cover that. Strange but true.

And so I was accepted at another Compass rehab center. It was called Bayside. I went in in better shape and I adjusted easily.

I expected to stay two weeks but I ended up spending a month.

And in its services and the good attitude of its staff, it was very comparable to San Luis rehab. Very commendable

One nice thing was that Bayside was much closer to home.  Now it would take Monique and David less than 10 minutes to get here. As opposed to 30 or 40 minutes. They were still coming every day.

Now I was really getting better.  I looked forward to wrapping all this up and finally getting back to my mobile in Morro Palms.

No, not yet, I was told. I was upset when I heard that.

Monique and David agreed that I had improved a lot. But not enough. I disagreed.

The problem they saw was that at home I would be living on my own 24 hours a day. They felt I was not up to that. It would be very risky.

A couple of times I have fallen at home.

Even have had to be taken to a hospital. I’m extra cautious now.

Finally I agreed to stay. But reluctantly.

Well, Compass has an assisted living home nearby. In fact, it was in the same building I was in now. Yes, Bayside. It was just a couple of corridors down from Bayside.

I repeat, this was not another rehab center. This was an assisted living community. Big difference.

Familiar with that? I wasn’t. It turned out to be interesting.

It was called Casa de Flores, which is Spanish, I think, for House of Flowers.

I had no intention of living there. But I was curious. One day I wheeled myself right into Casa, as everybody called it. Nobody bothered me. I took a good look at this and that. I did that another time. I learned a lot.

Casa’s specialty was serving elderly people who weren’t able or no longer wanted to live at home. Most were widows and widowers, with more women than men. But there were a few couples also.

Casa, as insiders called it, was a comprehensive package of services.

Residents got room and board and laundry service, received their daily medicines–nearly everybody was on medicines–and were treated to a wide variety of interesting things to do. Concerts, movies in its own little movie theatre, nice excursions here and there.

And most important of all, an ongoing program seven mornings a week of mental and physical exercises in its Activities Room. With trained leaders who did their best to make it pass as fun.

 I would not be staying here. I did explore it quite thoroughly..

I wheel-chaired my way right into what Casa called the Fireside Room. Named for the beautiful fireplace in one corner. 

It had chunks of sawed firewood in its hearth, but they were just impressive imitations of the real thing. And they were always burning, or so it seemed. But the fire wasn’t started by striking a match. No, no. It was gas-fired.

And the fire was always going even when the room’s temperature was automatically set at 75 degrees.

Residents of Casa would enjoy sitting by it and enjoying it, as make-believe as it was.

The Fireside Room was beautiful. It looked like the main sitting room in an expensive hotel. The beautiful carpeting. The fine couches and armchairs. The mahogany side tables. The paintings. The grand piano.

I even got to see the two dining rooms. They were planned and furnished to look like high-class restaurants, with menus and uniformed waiters and waitresses.

I picked up one of Casa’s brochures.

Every week, at least twice there would be concerts and solo performances by artists.

Monique and David suggested, in fact very strongly recommended that I spend a few weeks at Casa.

True, a very nice place for anybody that needed such a place. Not me. I’d be going home.

I do feel they protested for my own good. They loved me. It was that simple. They were totally sincere in their concerns.

I thought differently. I felt that I did not need Casa and insisted I did not want it. It was expensive. More than $3,000 per month, and all that Medicare and Medex would cover would be the medications that I would be given. Which would be minor.

Nevertheless I could afford Casa I just didn’t need it. Didn’t want it.

Reluctantly I said okay, I would move in but for just a few weeks. I was firm about that. I wanted to go home. I signed a contract with Casa that was many pages long.

Oh, I must tell you this. While at Casa, one of the therapists that I got to see was the occupational therapist. 

His name was Arnold. He was 45, so a lot of experience to his credit.

I mentioned to him that I wanted to go home. He said he understood, sure, but was I up to going home? Could I handle that safely, comfortably?

I said yes.

So one day he picked me up and drove me to my mobile home. He said he had a long checklist of activities to put me through.

To make sure I could walk up the four front steps. Unlock the door. Use all the switches and lamps. Walk around safely.

He checked me out in every room.

In the kitchen, the stove, fridge, microwave, pantry. He asked if I cook my meals. I said hes. Could I wash the dishes afterward plus all the clean-up?

My bedroom. I already had a hospital bed as my bed. Not because I need a hospital bed. But because I enjoy reading in bed, and its up and down electric switch make reading in bed so much more pleasurable. He smiled when I told him that.

Could I hand up my clothes in the closet? Yes, Wash them in my washing machine and dryer? Yes.

The bathroom, all-important, with its toilet, counter with wash basin, and particularly its integrated tub and shower.

My toilet by the way was a raised model. I had it installed two years ago. It makes it easier for me to get up. Excellent, he said.

He suggested a couple of modifications for the tub / shower. One was trivial — an easier on / off shower nozzle.

The other was a novel bench for the bathtub. Well. novel to me.

He said the bench would make it easier for me to get in and take a shower and to get out, all by myself. I assured him I would get one.

He looked at my office with computer, file cabinets, bookcases, on and on. .

I was impressed by his thoroughness.

Finally, I said, “Well, Arnold, what do you think??”

He didn’t hesitate. “You’ll do fine, John.”  And he gave me a thumbs up.

Wonderful!

Later David bought and installed a new shower nozzle for me.

And went to our senior center. It has a room full of donated wheelchairs, crutches, bedside bars, roller carts and other good things for needy senior citizens.  And returned with the type of bathtub bench Arnold had recommended.

But at Casa de Robles suddenly a problem. They said they couldn’t take me in for a few days. Red tape of some kind.

So Monique and David took me to their home for a week And finally Casa was ready for me. And so I became a resident.

I got a very nice studio apartment. It was really a simple room with a big picture window offering a nice view of the outdoors.

It had a large clothes closet, a kitchen cabinet with a sink. And a small refrigerator.

In a corner was a small bathroom with toilet, lavatory, and bathtub and shower.

I, like all residents, would have to supply everything else, just about all of them items from home. 

David and his friend Gregg who had a pickup truck moved it all in for me. then organized it neatly. My own hospital bed. My malls kitchen table plus two chairs. TV set, radio, lounge chair. Plus other small items.

Casa would supply the bed sheets but I’d have to supply the blankets.

A chambermaid would come in in the morning and make up my bed and tidy everything.

A male aide would come in to help me take a shower two evenings a week and would do my laundry once a week. He would return my items my items nicely folded, with bigger items such as trousers and sweaters and jackets neatly lined up in the closet.

I could eat my meals in my room occasionally when I was so disposed but there would be a special charge for this — $5, I believe it was. I enjoyed eating with my new friends in the dining room.

Oh, other nice things were offered to all residents as an included service. Outings to interesting places nearby in Casa’s small bus.

In fact, you could ask to be taken somewhere. To a doctor’s appointment, say. 

In my normal life I frequented the Morro Bay Public Library.

One day I asked to be taken there. That happened. The driver asked when to pick me up. I said in two hours. He returned to pick me up. I did that twice. Once I combined it with a lunch at our Senior Center. Quite nice, don’t you think?

And once a week, sometimes twice, concerts in the Fireside Room. Every week a movie in its own small movie theater. Twice, as a matinee and an evening show.

It had a library with a nice selection of books.

Oh, this is interesting. Word had gotten around that I had been a journalist and was still an active writer scribbling about a variety of things. And that I had written some non-fiction books, including my “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!”

I was invited to give a talk. And I said yes, but hesitantly. I’ve given many talks over the years.

But hesitantly I’m an old man now. Sometimes when I’m talking I run up against a mental brick wall. I want to say a certain word but I can’t think of it.

I was antsy about that. I had just read about a new medicine for people who suffer memory loss due to aging.

I had no intention of buying a bottle. But I made a joke about it. It sounded too good to be true.

I got a nice turn-out of residents in the Fireside Room. A number of them were friends of mine now.

And I started by saying to them, “Hello, my friends, first there’s something important I must tell you.

“As for a lot of old folks, my memory is not 100% anymore. For instance, sometimes I want to use a certain word but I don’t remember it. Does that happen to you sometimes?”

Some people nodded. A couple chuckled.

“Well, friends, I found out about these fantastic new pills. They’re magic for old folks with this problem.

“Know what? If I had known I’d be speaking to you this evening, I’d have bought a bottle and started taking these pills three times a day!”

Lots of laughs. I went on to answer lots of questions. It was clear my friends had enjoyed my talk. I went to bed quite happy.

After seven weeks at Casa, I went home finally. Monique and David were still apprehensive. I had to respect them for being forthright about that.

Of course they had been sharing their concerns with the rest of our family including my sons, Arthur and Mark, who totally agreed with them and quickly and emphatically made their concerns known to me.

“What’s the rush, Dad?  Casa de Flores is a fine place! Perfect! You are doing so well there. Stay there till you’re stronger!!”

They were speaking out of love. I was sure of that. God bless them!

I told them how I had been a bit apprehensive myself. And told them how Arnold the occupational therapist had checked me out at home/ But they had their heads made up. Darn! But they were complaining because they loved me.

Well, I’m in my third month at home now. I’m doing quite well. In fact, I am proud of myself. And I’m happy.

I’m a realist. Yes, I am. As I’ve said, very soon I will start my 92nd year on this earth. Of course I will continue slipping. That’s natural. Expected. In a year or two or three, if I see the necessity, I will return to Casa de Flores. For keeps.

Oh, one more thing to tell you. While at Casa, now and then I would call my sister Lucie in Connecticut to chat and keep her informed. She did not know much about assisted living places like Casa and kept asking questions. She was interested.

She’s in her eighties, very sharp, was a high school French teacher for nearly 40 years, is a strong and enthusiastic bridge player, and, this sounds crazy, loves to tango and even flew to Argentina with girl friends to take lessons. Yes, with some of the best tango dancers in the world. You should see her tango!

One other thing about her. Some years ago, I decided to fly to Asia and visit a dozen countries. It led to my book, “Around Asia in 80 days. Oops, 83!”

I invited Lucie to come with me and she agreed, but only halfway because she was committed to a special happening back home.

We had a great time together. Excuse me, adventure!

As you can see, we’re very close.

One day a few weeks ago she called and said, “Jean-Guy,” using my French name, “I’m flying to Morro Bay to see you!”

Gosh! How wonderful!

I told her that among other interesting things we’d do, we’d visit Casa de Robles so finally she could check it out.

She came. Stayed with Monique and David. We did nice things together. Had a wonderful time.  But I could not take her to Casa because of the enormous fear Covid-19 had become. 

Frightened as we all were by Covid-19, Lucie lost little time flying home to Connecticut.

The pandemic has certainly made life very, very difficult for all of us, and in so many ways.

I’m practicing social distancing. Washing my hands. Not touching my face. And wearing a mask when I go into crowded places.

Lucie is doing the same. She seldom leaves the house, and only to go to the supermarket or keep an important appointment. No more competitive bridge!

I used to see Monique and David every day.

But no more Get-togethers are rare. We do speak on the phone every morning and every evening.

But I am still pedaling my tricycle. I feel the exercise and the fresh air are very good for me. I buy groceries once a week. I stop by McDonald’s every afternoon for a coffee, but take-out only. Dining room closed!

I have read that Covid-19 has hit some nursing homes and assisted living communities very hard, with some residents succumbing to it.

Of course I have been concerned about Casa. Worried, really. I’m told security has been greatly intensified and Casa is still Covid-19 free. Great!

But this pandemic will pass though not before many lives are lost. But it will certainly pass.

I remember when polio terrorized us. I have read about the Spanish influenza. There have been pandemics that go back to the medieval ages. They all passed.

There is not much consolation in knowing this. Unfortunately.

Corvid-19 has already killed so many in so many countries in the world. And it rages on.

Medical science all over the world is searching for a preventive and a cure. They’ll find one. But it will take a while. Many more will die.

Meanwhile, what to do?

Some people practice the tips we’re being given about social distancing, masks,  and so on.

Some people also pray. Some just keep their fingers crossed. Some say, we have to deal with the cards we’re dealt. Some say, that’s life!

Me? I’m using all the tips that make sense. And hoping for the best. And right now, just going out for my daily tricycle ride and some fresh air.

Well, how about you?

To the Friends of John Guy LaPlante

 

This is his daughter, Monique Nelson. I am sure some of you are concerned. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from him – John is ill. After 12 days at French Hospital in San Luis Obispo, he’s now at a rehab center. Here’s what happened.

John is 90 years old and lives alone in his mobile home. He never, never thought he’d live in a mobile home. Today he feels it’s the best home possible for him at this time in his life. It’s all on one floor and, wonder of wonders, most of his mobile home has light coming in on three sides which makes it bright and cheerful. It’s in a very fine community of 55 such homes, and there’s a lot of friendship.

Now here’s what went wrong.

He was changing his clothes when he slid off the bed and landed on the floor. He couldn’t get up. His Great Call button didn’t work. It took him a long time to reach his cell phone and even longer for help to arrive. He waited on his back for a few hours before my husband, David, and I got his message and rushed over there. The paramedics showed up a few minutes after us. John was shaken up but, luckily, not seriously hurt. He came home with us for the night, but felt able to go home the next day.

The same thing happened again the next day! He slid off his bed and couldn’t get up from a sitting position on the floor. At least this time, Great Call worked. They called David who went right over and, with the help of a neighbor, raised him to his feet. Again not seriously hurt, but some big bruises on his arm and knees.

John insisted on staying at home, so we made some changes to his bedroom to make it safer and prevent any more accidents. We also went back to check on him that night. Things went smoothly and we all thought the problem was solved.

…Until the third time he fell, the following day. I found him this time, again on his back in his room. I called David who came right over and helped right John. This time we insisted on bringing him to the Morro Bay Fire Department to be checked out by the paramedics.

The paramedics felt it urgent that John go to the Emergency Room. David took him. The paramedics wanted to take him the 20 miles by ambulance, but John felt David would get him there faster. It turned out he had pneumonia and related problems. John spent the next 12 days in the hospital. He’s now at a very nice rehab center continuing to recover from the pneumonia and regaining his strength.

What’s interesting is that a few of you go back to his young manhood days. Some of you live in many different parts of the United States. Some of you in other countries. You are all important to him.

He looks forward to being in contact with you as usual.

You may know about August, 1619. You may not.

By John Guy LaPlante

I did not.

We all know about October 12, 1492, don’t we….  About July 4, 1776. On and on. More recently, December 7, 1941. And who can ever forget 9 / 11 in New York City?

But 1619? Well, in August the ship White Lion arrived from far-off Africa and made landfall in Virginia, one of our colonial territories at that time.

And the White Lion left off some 20 captive black men and women. Did that in exchange for supplies and goodies to take back to Africa.

That day in1619 can be considered the real birthday of America.

Why? Because that modest financial but historically significant sale of some 20 black people ignited social changes. These great changes magnified and intensified for some 250 years, marking our very way of life as Americans.

It led to the Civil War which nearly split our country into independent, self-governing halves. The changes continued, affecting us in many ways, some bad.

Our black people have been afflicted severely. Here is just one example. It has been calculated that presently the average white family now has a net worth of $171,000. But the average black family has a net worth of a mere $17,600. Shocking, don’t you think?

And we’re so familiar with so many other differentials. Lower levels of education for blacks. Low ceilings for opportunity. More unemployment. Higher rates of broken homes and out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Inferior housing.

The list continues. Higher crime rates and far more imprisonments. More people on food stamps. More on welfare. More homelessness. Poorer medical care. Shorter life spans. And so forth.

Yes, there is progress. But it has been s-l-o-w.

No wonder that the institutionalizing of slavery four centuries ago has been called “our original sin.” And how.

Yet interestingly, way back at that time there did exist a system that was more rational and more decent for poor newcomers to our shores.  Men, not women. White men, not blacks.  It was the system of indentured servitude. Here’s how it worked.

Hoping for a better life in America but too poor to buy a ticket across, they would sign a contract.

They would work for 4 to 7 years here for basically just room and board and clothing and that would pay for their long journey across the Atlantic and getting set up.

They did so in the hope that finally they could then get started on their own. And depending on their talent, their energy, and plain good luck they could also prosper in this new land.

But this is not what happened to those first black men and women in Virginia. No, no, no.

They were sold. Whoever bought them was a white man. Would always be a white man.

They would live wherever he put them. Would do whatever work he demanded. Would do that from morning till night, day in and day out if he so desired. Would eat whatever he fed them and wear whatever he gave them.

Not for just 4 to 7 years. For their whole life. Until they died.

They were chattel property, to be valued by their owner just like his horse or mule or tools and implements or anything else he owned.

He could mortgage his slaves. He could flog them for any reason. Brand them. He could sell them off to another white man. He could kill them if he judged them impossibly lazy or hopelessly ill. Or to punish them and intimidate other slaves. Lynchings became the final solution for behaviors considered offensive.

He could get sexual with them. He could rape them. No problem.

Well, know what? Studies have shown that the average black person today is 17% “European” / meaning 17% white. That’s how blacks got their “whiteness.”

If two of his slaves became “man and wife,” he could say okay if that profited him.

But if he felt it would work out better for him, he could sell the black man off, and the black woman also, both to the same slave owner or separately to different owners. He could do that arbitrarily, with zero discussion. Back talk was not tolerated.

And think of this. When a slave child was born, the child did not belong to its father and mother. Yes, they would raise the child but from birth the child became the property of the slave owner. It was a built-in guarantee of prosperity. The more babies, the richer the owner!

And consider this. Slaves were prohibited from learning to read or write. No way would they be allowed to become uppity.

Sure, some owners were nicer than others. But even with the nicest, a slave was a slave. Period.

One result of all this is that the words “slave” and “black” became synonymous. Automatically blacks were considered slaves.

Slaves became all-important to the development and prosperity of the South. They labored primarily in agriculture, notably in Georgia (cotton) and Mississippi (sugar).

Slavery was the granite foundation of the culture and the economy.

Slavery was considered such a good idea that it spread throughout the colonies. In New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies, where agriculture was of minor importance, they were locked into working in the low-pay and long-hours jobs of the various industries that were rapidly developing.

Thanks to slavery, some of the wealthiest men in the colonies were men in the Northeast.

Think of this. Back in1860, slaves were estimated to be worth 3.5 billion dollars in the dollars of that time. That was more than the total dollar value of manufacturing and railroading combined, the two biggest industries up there..

Yes, our great and brilliant Founder Thomas Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal.” But he meant white men. But equal in what ways? How?

I don’t see much equality among us. You may say, well, equal in the right to vote. For white men but that’s been iffy since the start. It took many decades for women to get suffrage.

Jefferson owned slaves. They built his mansion, made his plantation the very successful business it was. But he was typical of slave owners. He cavorted with at least one of his slaves, and fathered at least one child with her.

It is commonly believed that years later President Abraham Lincoln started the Civil War to free the slaves. Wrong! He did it to keep the South from seceding.

He thought that slavery was an abomination, a necessary evil that had to be put up with.

In fact, just a few years earlier, he had seriously proposed as the perfect solution that slaves be sent back where they had come from. That was totally impractical, of course.

By the way, there were some 4.5 million people in the United States and 3.9 million were slaves. Sounds incredible, doesn’t it?

Finally Lincoln decided that slavery was just too evil to keep on the books. He drafted his great Emancipation Proclamation and got it passed, freeing the slaves and ending slavery officially.

And that is how he became the president that we honor today as one of our very greatest.

But true emancipation, meaning treating the blacks as equal to the whites, has still not been realized, with a long way yet to go.

So why am I writing about this? It was not on my blogs-to-do list. Blame the New York Times.

At the public library, I was reading the Sunday Times of August 18th. It included a 100-page magazine entitled “The 1619 Project.”

I dipped into it, began jumping around in it, and thought, “Wow, this is interesting!”

I was allowed to check it out and take it home, have found it full of fascinating revelations. And here I am blogging about it.

It is chock-full with more than a score of articles and essays and photos on every phase of this convoluted subject.

The Times has said it considers The 1619 Project so important that it is going to be publishing more about it during this anniversary year.

It is the impressive work of what seems to a hundred historians, scholars, journalists, and photographers, all of them black, I believe.

And it’s another tangible example of what I believe makes the New York Times our finest American newspaper and surely one of the world’s most important.

If my humble efforts today have interested you, I urge you to look up “The 1619 Project.”

But I must tell you about a follow-up by The Wall Street Journal. I stumbled on it in the Journal’s “Review” section of September 21-22.

Obviously it was inspired by the Times’ special report. Smart move by the Journal!

What interested me especially were two fine, major articles on two aspects not yet covered by the Times. Along with powerful photos and illustrations.

The first is headed, “The Long History of American Reparations.”

It’s the growing belief that today’s blacks should be compensated for the suffering inflicted on their ancestors which sadly has devolved on them. Very controversial. Many strongly argued angles.

The second covers a subject totally new to me. Incredible. Shockingly so.

It’s entitled, “When the Slave Traders Were Africans.” Meaning blacks enslaving blacks and getting them shipped off to America for sale to whites. Would you believe?!

But among some African tribes, that was considered smart and legit.

You can also look that up along with “The 1619 Project” at your library.

Despite these slow but steadily compounding gains over the years, there is reason to rejoice and be hopeful.

More and more blacks are rising to positions of eminence and success in every segment of our life and culture, across the very width and breadth of them, right up to the Obama White House.

Symbolic of this progress has been the opening at the Smithsonian in Washington of our National Museum of African American History, an outstanding museum, from everything I’ve read.

It was built under the direction of Lonnie G. Bunch III, its founding director, a black man, of course, an eminent scholar in his own right. In fact, he is now the director of all the Smithsonian museums.

And what an important matter of pride and encouragement is this progress to the younger blacks moving up. Indeed, to all blacks. The road up is getting easier.

Now a personal note.

It’s surprising how little direct exposure I have had to blacks over the years. I mean person to person.

How come? I’ve given this a lot of thought.

I have traveled to all 50 states. I have been to many of them many times. But consider where I have lived in our country for chunks of years. Rhode Island. Massachusetts. Connecticut.  Newport Beach, California. Now here in Morro Bay on the Central Coast of California.

And in all those places, in sections with a very light population of blacks.

Here in Morro Bay, a city of more than 10,000, I am not aware of a single black person. Mind you, there is no sign, real or suggested, that says, “Stay out!”

True of those other locales where I lived.

I am confident that any black or black family moving in here would be accepted. The big barrier, I believe, is the cost of housing. Personal prosperity is the solution to that. Blacks are doing better. Blacks will move in. Blacks will do okay here.

On the other hand I have gotten to know blacks in my travels abroad. Got to be friends with them. In Cairo, Egypt, and Nairobi, Africa, and Durban and Johannesburg in South Africa (the land of “apartheid”), and in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  And one outstanding experience in my Peace Corps service in Ukraine. Wonderful experiences for me.

I would gladly welcome the same opportunity here. Or anywhere. It’s part of being a real American.

~  ~ ~ ~ ~

Never have I seen such a magazine

By John Guy Laplante

I know magazines. I gobble them up — a great variety of them.

I just saw my first issue of this one. Yet it’s been around for more than 40 years!

I just spent two wonderful hours enjoying it. And I’ll get another good two hours out of it.

It’s very different. So different that I’ll call it unique. “No other like it.” That’s a word that should not be used lightly. But unique I believe it is.

There’s one thing that amazed me right off. It’s that it has had the same editor / publisher since its first issue. Sy Safransky.

These days, editors, particularly, seem to last 12 to 18 months, then they’re gone. Then the new editor toys around with the editorial content. So the magazine retains its name but it’s hard to believe it’s the same magazine. Are you with me on this?

How did I hear about it? Good question. As I said, I read many magazines.

I am 99 percent sure Sy Safransky, eager to build circulation, went to a mailing list company—there are many—and shopped for a list of verified magazine subscribers, with their addresses, of course. At $$ per thousand names. I was on the list he got.

I got a letter from him, enjoyed his spiel and he sent me a sample copy, the September one.

As I’ve said, I’ve seen only that one.

Now I’ll describe it in detail for you, but for the moment I won’t tell you its name.

As I continue, maybe one or two of you will figure it out and say “It’s the such-and-such magazine!”

That would please me. And I’d ask you, “How did you ever get to know it?”

After all, its subscribers number only some 70,000. And for a national, I repeat national, magazine that’s been around that long, that isn’t much.

Its cover price is $5.95. It makes a point of saying its Canadian edition is also $5.95.

Its format is 8.5 by 11 inches, which is the same as the New Yorker, Time, the Smithsonian, the Atlantic, Harpers, and so on.

It carries zero advertising. Yes, zero. I know of no other commercial magazine like that. Ads are essential to them. No ads, they die. But this one has thrived.

Everything in it, except for its name on the cover, is black ink on white paper. “Process color,” which is the technical name for printing publications in color, is hugely expensive. My guess is this is why this magazine forgoes it.

Not that it suffers as a result. Not one bit. My opinion.

And this September issue is 48 pages. That’s big for a magazine without ads.

Are some of you beginning to pick up on these clues?

This just happens to be issue 525. I just noticed that. That’s an enormous number to have been produced under the direction of one man.

Its content is divided into “departments.”

The first department, a big one, is called “The XXX Magazine Interview.” It seems to be a feature in every issue. It’s nine pages long. Very meaty.

The interview has three photos, including one of the author, Alex S. Vitale. There’s an intro about him that runs better than a thousand words.

He is a professor of sociology and coordinator of the Social Justice Project under the umbrella of CUNY, the City University of New York.

The headline of his interview is “To Protect and to Serve / The Overpolicing of America.” I repeat, overpolicing.

He says things, and cites things, that are very, very troubling. Worth reading.

The second major department is “Essays, Memoirs, and True Stories.” F0ur articles, three of them very substantive. By four writers.

The first is “Cop Diary,” by Edward Conlon, a former detective with the New York City Police Department. I read it. It’s an eye-opener. A shocker.

He has written for the New Yorker, Harpers, and such. Impressive.

The second is “Now I look for you.” By Natalie Kusz. A one-pager, a mere 200 words or so. She’s looking for someone, in one bad place after another. Her final line: “If I find a vestige, I think, I will rest.” Poor lady.

Editor’s note: “Natalie Kusz is the author of the memoir ‘Road Song’ and the recipient of a Whiting Award , a Bush Foundation Fellowship, and other honors. Her Plan B career would have been hairdressing, and on certain writing days she wonders why she went with Plan A. She lives in Spokane, Washington.”

I think Sy Safransky’s Problem A was he needed a one-page filler, and his Solution A was he found Ms. Kusz’s “Road Song.”

I wish he had known of me. I think I could have supplied him with a decent one-pager. Just joking.

The third is “Stolen Time,” by Saint James Harris Wood. A writer, musician, and father of three sons. He will soon be released from prison after serving 18 years for bank robbery.

Unusual for an ex-con to get published like this, don’t you think?

I read the whole thing. Very worthwhile.

The fourth is “Unexpected Things” by Marion Winik. She is the author of eight works of nonfiction, teaches writing at the University of Baltimore.

I haven’t read it yet.

The third major department is “Photo Essay,” another regular monthly feature.

It is entitled “Old School Boxing,” with photos by Thom Goertel. There are nine. An editorial note says he became a photographer when his dad gave him a camera as a kid. And he’s been taking pictures ever since.

The text is by Jim Kuhnhenn, a White House correspondent for many years and a fellow of the National Press Club Journalism Institute.

His text is a couple of thousand words long.

It’s about Buddy Harrison, about sixty, owner and trainer at Old School Boxing.

He teaches boxing to any male interested. Black,white, or Latino. Hoping to make pro. Or for self-defense. Or to keep fit. Or the brutal pleasure of it.

Big muscular men. Teenage boys, too. School dropouts. Policemen. Professional men.

Buddy Harrison is an ex-con also. Found religion. Really straightened up the day he became a dad.

He doesn’t do it for the money, we’re told. At times he’s had a hard time coming up with the rent. He’s a natural and impressive do-gooder.

The article is a great read. Glad I read it.

The next major department is Fiction. It features a short story by Jennifer Swift. We’re told she recently completed a master’s in fiction writing at John Hopkins University.

Her story is entitled “Stories We Tell Now.” But it’s not that short. Several thousand words.

I only glanced at it. Looks good.

Well, do you have any idea yet what magazine this is?

The next department is Poetry.

“Ode to my kind,” by Jim Moore, Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is from his ninth collection of poetry.

His poem is a long introverted reflection. It’s some 40 lines long. No two lines the same length. No two lines that rhyme.

I only glanced at it.

Mr. Moore should have composed it as a paragraphed essay. My opinion.

To me, true poetry must have a definite structure and a definite rhyming pattern, and it must make sense. If it doesn’t have these, it ain’t poetry.

I don’t think I’ll get around to this one.

There’s another poem, entitled “Feeling Fucked Up,” by Etheridge Knight.

A very dark, painful poem, so called. He is bitter. Angry. Furious.

He died of cancer in 1991. So his poem is decades-old.

He was a black man. Dropped out of high school. Wounded in Korea. Became addicted to pain meds. Turned to crime to support his addiction. Served eight years in prison.

Yet eventually he was honored for his poetry by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. Very impressive.

His poem is a long rant — “Fuck this, and fuck that, and fuck that, and fuck that, on and on and on.” A kind of terrible super-diarrhea.

Very powerful. I can understand why the magazine published it, and why he had been so honored.

I feel very badly for the poor man. A tragic figure.

But again, not my idea of poetry. Sorry. Maybe making it look like poetry makes readers think it is poetry. Not so.

So you can see by now why this magazine cannot call itself a family magazine, à la Readers Digest or the Saturday Evening Post.

The next department is “Readers Write,” which is another regular monthly feature.

In this issue the theme here is “Endurance.” Readers can submit anything in which “endurance” plays a role. Some 15 readers sent in personal life experiences in which “endurance” had been a key factor. Some are hundreds of words long.

A note says they may be edited for clarity or whatever. “Writing style is not as important as thoughtfulness and sincerity.”

Some are signed. Some say “Name Withheld” to protect the writer. They are wildly different.

Apparently the number published is a small percentage of the number received. Writers who get published receive a one-year free subscription. No $$$.

I’ve read half a dozen. Very interesting. Very powerful. I found this the best thing in the magazine. Definitely I will be back for more.

The theme of “Readers Write” for the October issue will be “Accidents,” and that for November, “The Weekend.”

It’s a very clever concept. Never saw such before

I did mention that the cover price of the magazine is $5.95. That would be $72 a year.

However, the subscription price for 12 issues is $32. A bargain. And that includes free digital access to everything published since 1974.

I found it interesting that it has published four anthologies covering the best of what it has produced in its four decades.

The anthologies have individual prices, but all four go for $50, which is 30% off.

That seems a cheap price given the high quality of its content (except of its “poetry”) and how very interesting and enlightening much of it is.Well, finally now, do know what magazine this is?

It’s “The Sun.” Just that. “The Sun.”

I’ve looked and looked but have found no explanation why it got named that.

Now here’s some background about it.

Its offices are in a two-story house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. That’s famous for the state’s university. But no connection.

It was founded in 1974 by Sy Safransky and a friend, Mike Mallets.

After graduate school Safransky had spent three years traveling cheapo through Europe and parts of the United States.

He had worked as a general assignment reporter for two years at a newspaper in New York City.

Somehow he made his way to Chapel Hill. He became friends with Mallets, an illustrator. Kicking ideas around, they got the idea for a little magazine.

The story goes Sy begged, cajoled family, friends, anybody to write stuff for it, then typed it all up. Mallets came up with the illustrations.

Another new friend printed it for free providing the two fellows furnished the paper.

Desperately they sought ads for it.

The price was 25 cents a copy. Sy hawked it around town.

After a year or so, Sy and his buddy Mike split up. No idea why.

Oops, I just caught myself calling him Sy again. Not just Safransky or Mr. Safransky. Just Sy.

Well, I’ve never met him. Never heard of him. He’s totally new to me. So how come? I think it’s because I like him. Admire him.

Well, to continue, at times on the side, to keep it going, Sy had to find a real job, sometimes hard physical labor. More than once he thought he’d go broke. He persevered. He slowly hired some talent. Kept going.

After 10 years he had built up the circulation to approximately 10,000. Sy dropped the ads.

I’m sure many thought he was nuts.

He has said that as a 100% reader-supported magazine, The Sun automatically got more respect and credibility.

I don’t know of course, but he must be very close to retirement age, or into it.

I like The Sun. I’ve subscribed. I hope he maintains the course.

I’m going to donate my well-read copies to our local public cornucopium. That may generate a few more subscribers.

If this interests you, you can learn a lot more at www.thesunmagazine.org.

That’s another interesting thing. It’s .org. Not .com. It turns out that The Sun has become a non-profit and counts on donations to help keep it going.

Truth is, Sy Safranski and his magazine and his philosophy about all this, along with his passion and even lifestyle, have fascinated me.

I’ve spent more time digging and poking around than I want to admit. There’s a lot out there. I had a good time.

If you also feel curious about all this, go to it. It’s all very fascinating. You’ll find a log more at Google. Also Bing. Also Wikipedia. You’ll have a good time, too.

Yes, “The Sun” is unique. Hey, maybe that’s why it got named that. We have only one sun, right? If you know of another magazine that parallels this one, please let me know. I’d love to take a look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love our public cornucopium

[Read more…]

I learned to play chess 77 years ago.Yes, sir.

By John Guy LaPlante

+Sorry, that’s not true. I began playing 77 years ago. I’m still learning.

Here I am, struggling to figure a winning move. Is this really fun?

Way back then I learned a painful feature about the game.

Most board games played by two people involve luck.   Sometimes it’s good luck. Sometimes bad luck.

When you lose, you have a nice excuse. You can say, “Dammit! I had bad luck today.”

Not so in chess. There ain’t any luck. You beat your opponent because you played smarter. You lost because he or she played smarter. That’s the brutal reality. That’s assuming you are evenly matched.

Oh, some say there can be two teeny weeny bits of good luck.The first? If you lock minds with a weaker player. But that’s true in any kind game, isn’t it?

The second? Well, at the start of the game, if you get to make the first move. But that really doesn’t amount to much of an advantage.

Maybe you are not familiar with chess. If not, I’ll explain the game a bit.

Chess involves two warring “armies.” Each with 16 troops, so to speak, including officers and soldiers.

In chess they’re all called “pieces.” One army has white pieces. The other black pieces. Not racially. No, no. Just to tell them apart.

At the start of the game, on one side of the cheeseboard all the pieces are white and on the other side they’re all black.

As you’d expect, the most important piece is the king. You win the game by “getting” your opponent’s king. He wins by getting yours. It’s called “checking” the king, and you do that until he has no way of escaping. That’s called “checkmating” the king.

You start the first game with a ritual. It could be by you, or your opponent. Doesn’t matter. Let’s say it’s by your opponent.

He or she will hold a white piece in one clasped hand and a black piece in the other. They’re clasped so you won’t see which hand has the black and which has the white.

You must tap one. If you tap and get white, that means you will make the first move. If you tap and get black, your opponent will start the game

Let’s say you got the white. So you make the first move and he makes the next one. That goes on until one of you checkmates the other’s king. Game over.

Anyway, I’ve played the game off and on since I was a teenager. “Off” at times for many, many months for one reason or another.

How good am I? I’m sorry you asked. It’s embarrassing. I have been a mediocre player.

I wish I could say a prayer to strengthen my game, or take a pill, or smoke something, but none of that would work.

That doesn’t mean that playing hasn’t been worthwhile, or that I haven’t enjoyed it. Just the contrary.

I play chess these days in a different set-up. I don’t play against another person. I play against players long dead. Sounds crazy, I know. Stick with me. I’ll explain in due time.

And I must tell you that works out nicely. It could work out for you also even if you’re a raw beginner. Sound good?

So in my games now, there’s zero possibility of an opponent rubbing in my defeat or humbling me.  I love that.

Win or lose, I reap a fine double pay-off. I enjoy it. And I’m exercising my brain.The same would be true for you.

But first, let me tell you about my experiences playing over the years.

Way back in prep school, my classmate Roland Blais taught me the game. We were freshmen. He had a chess set. We played now and then right until we graduated.

In the beginning he beat me all the time of course. I got better and better. But at the end, overall he had the edge.

As I look back on the long years since then, I believe I lost more games than I won. Losing hurts even when you’re  playing for fun.

By the way, in those four years Roland and I were pals. I might never have taken up the game if he had not offered to teach me.

Oh, later I found out that he did not come back to start college because his mom didn’t have the money. That was a black day for me.

All that was back in Worcester, Massachusetts. But home for me was Pawtucket, Rhode Island. That was some 40 miles away.

My uncle Emile, my mom’s brother, lived a mile from us.  He was an immigrant from Quebec also.  He was a short-order cook in a diner. A big man and big-hearted too. He smiled a lot but didn’t say much. Easy-going. I liked him a lot.

One day at the beginning of my summer vacation, he brought up the subject of chess. He told me he hosted a chess club at his house every Thursday evening. That was news to me.

He lived a few blocks away in a nice, neat little white cottage with his wife Yvonne.

“Come play with us, Jean-Guy,” he told me. Just the way Roland had invited me. He brought it up more than once.

But I didn’t want to. I’d be way out of my league. But he was my uncle. No way could I say no. So  I showed up one Thursday evening. I was the first to get there. He took me upstairs. Up there was one big empty room.

He had a lot of folding card tables set up, each with two chairs.

His friends began to arrive. French fellows like us, but also Irish and Polish and Italian and whatever. A plumber and an accountant and a salesman and so on. What brought them together was they loved to play chess.

I found out that on those evenings Aunt Yvonne would go visit one of her friends.

Uncle Emile introduced me around. I was the only kid.  I just sat by this table and that table and watched games going on. I enjoyed watching.

They were all good players. Later I began playing a bit.  I was out of my league but that was okay.

Everybody was nice. They all knew how come I was there.

After a month or so, one Thursday I got to see something brand new. A chess master showed up to play all of us. Yes, all of us. Even me. Simultaneously.

Each of us set up a chessboard, but with no player opposite us. All of us would play white against him.  We’d make the first move, starting with whatever piece we deemed best.

Mr. Chess Master would take a few steps to one of us players. Let’s say it happened to be me. He’d look at my move, then make his move.

Then he’d go to the next player and do the same thing.  He’d keep going around and around. Eventually he’d beat one player. Then another. By the end of the evening he’d have beaten all of us except maybe one. If so, we’d all clap nice and loud for our successful colleague.

Then, following my uncle’s lead, we’d all applaud the chess master.   He deserved that. He’d smile and say, “My pleasure!” or something nice like that.

Oh, at the start everybody had dropped money into a cigar box. Whatever we felt like. My uncle gave it all to the chess master.

No way could he make a living at this. He just happened to be a player who had become extraordinarily good, doing this mostly for the pleasure and challenge of it. I never found out what he did for a living.

My uncle Emile dreamed of becoming a chess master, I think. He was a strong player. I had heard he had beaten the chess master once or twice. I was proud of him. But he never made it to master.

I wish he had. That would have given me big bragging rights.

One day he amazed me by saying he played correspondence chess. I didn’t know what that was. When I found out, wow!

A number of men all over the country played correspondence chess. It was called that because they played by mail.

At that time he played with three men in different locations far away. I never found out how he got the meet them.

He would start a game with each one. He’d make the first move, jot it down on a penny postcard along with a few friendly words, and mail it off. And keep a record of that.

In time he would get a postcard back with his friend’s move. And note that down. Then send off another penny postcard. He said it could take forever to complete a game.

How astonished he’d be to see how people nowadays play correspondence chess by computer now.

They may be hundreds or even thousands of miles apart, but they can complete a game as quickly as if they were sitting facing one another.

They can also play against the computer, choosing an easy, moderate, or hard game.

Well, speaking of myself, as the years went by and as I lived here or there, I’d play now and then as occasions came up. Sometimes I’d win. Sometimes I’d  lose. It was just a very nice game.

When I married and our three kids came along. I taught them the game. Just as I taught all three how to type, how to sail a small boat, how to drive, how to do this and that.

I mentioned that to my daughter Monique as I was writing  this. And she corrected me. She said no, no. She had learned the game, yes, but not from me. Well, things must have been very busy or something.

In my years of wide traveling, in the United States and in many other countries, I would play now and then.

I would often stay at hostels. Hostels are wonderful. A hostel is a natural place to meet other travelers. Often from other parts of the world. Lots of hostels have a chess set as standard equipment.

I’d invite somebody to play. Or one would invite me. Some hostelers would have limited English.  No matter. Not a word of English was needed. People all over the world know the game.

Win or lose, by the end of the game I often felt I had made a new friend.

Well, in my years living in Deep River, Connecticut, there was a senior center nearby and it had a chess club. Again, all men, all red-hot enthusiasts.

A man named Roger told me about it. Invited me. He’d play five days a week.I would go one day a week and would play a game or two with him. And would most often lose.  We became good friends.

One day I said to him, “Not today, Roger, I just don’t feel up to it.”

“Okay. But you’re getting better, pal. Come back tomorra and we’ll have a helluva good time.”

Know what? Roger had never even graduated from high school. He couldn’t even spell tomorrow.

It just showed that schoolbook learning had nothing to do with it. It was all about having a certain type of IQ.

For me chess really became regular week in and week out fun when I met milady Annabelle.

She would live with me for six months in Deep River, Connecticut and then I would live with her in Newport Beach, California for six months.

The senior center there also had a chess club. Again all red-hot enthusiasts. As in Connecticut, I would win a few, but lose most. Not much fun.

Well, it turned out Annabelle loved the game. Played well. And we were quite evenly matched. Very nice.

Oh, she also played Scrabble. Was good at it. Taught me the game. Scrabble is a great game. Often we’d play chess one evening and Scrabble the next.

That became part of our way of life. We also played a lot of ping pong. I loved to ride a bike. She did, too.

By the way, chess seems largely a men’s game. Why is that?! It shouldn’t be. Would one or two of you women out there please explain that to me.

Milady Annabelle and I were together for some 25 years. Yes, that’s what I always called her, Milady Annabelle. As some of you know, she died earlier this year

Now in my very old age I play a game now and then.  But as I told you I no longer play against a live opponent. I play with men long dead. That’s because now I do chess puzzles.

What the heck is that? Well, a chess puzzle consists of the last, or the two last, or the three last moves made in some famous game,  perhaps played 50 or 100 years or even 150 years ago.

I have two such puzzle books. My favorite is “Chess: 5,334 Problems, Combinations, and Games.” By Laszlo Polgar. Yes, 5,334!  The book has 1,104 pages! Can you imagine that?

Enough puzzles here to keep you busy for a lifetime. Interested?

Basically all of  them are puzzles, regardless of the words Grand Master Polgar uses in its title. They consist of the windup of the game, so usually there are only a few pieces left on the board.

The puzzles start easy. The first are under the heading, “Checkmate in one move / white to start.”

Well, it sounds easy, but it isn’t. Takes concentration. The book has 306 “Checkmate in 1 move” puzzles. Then it has 3,717 “Checkmate in 2 moves.” And then 173 “Checkmate in 3 moves.”

Each of the puzzles is numbered, starting with number 1 and going up and up to number 5,334.

Let’s say I’m struggling to solve Puzzle 334. I’ve been struggling for 20 minutes and I still haven’t figured out the solution. I give up. But I want to know what the two correct moves were.

I look up Puzzle 334 at the back of the book. That game was won by E. Szentgyorgyi in 1928. The year before I was born. He won by using his knight to take the pawn on e6. There are 64 squares on the board. Each is coded. That pawn was on square e6.

But know what? His opponent is not even mentioned.  For sure he was a very strong competitor. Poor guy! That is true of every loser. That doesn’t sound right to me.

Now here is an astounding thing. If  every day you did just one of the puzzles in this book, yes, just one seven days a week, week in and week out, it would take you 14 years and 164 days to work your way through the whole book.

Maybe there’s somebody out there trying to do that.

Oh, the last big question now is, why do I do these chess puzzles? Yes, why?

The simple answer is that it’s fun. It’s challenging. It doesn’t cost a penny. And best of all, it’s a terrific brain exercise.

I believe that the brain is a muscle. And like our other muscles, it needs a regular workout. Mine definitely does.

There are other ways of doing that, of course, but chess is super.

What’s also nice is that if I fail to solve one or two or three of the puzzles, which happens at times, I’m the only one who will ever know that humbling fact. Never have to blush.

If you’ve never sat down to a chess puzzle, do give it a try. There are numerous chess apps out there. You can download one to your computer or smartphone. You won’t even have to buy a chess set. You can program it to Easy, or Moderate, or Challenging.  Work your way up.

In case you’re interested,  I do two other types of brain exercises. Variety!

The New Yorker, as we know, is acclaimed as a good and very serious magazine for its content. It’s also famous for the wacky, crazy, silly cartoons with captions that it sprinkles through every issue.

I enjoy them. Often what I like to do is look at a cartoon, ponder it, and write a new caption for it. Just for my pleasure. Sometimes I chuckle at my own caption. Now and then I’ll show a few to a friend or two. If they chuckle spontaneously, and not because they feel I’m hoping they will, that makes my day.

I have dozens of such re-captioned cartoons.

Another brain exercise I do is writing poems. Especially limericks, which by definition must be humorous. I’ve done lots of them.

As for serious poems,  I insist that they make sense. If one isn’t easy to understand, it just ain’t a true poem. My opinion. A lot of garbage out there.

I find all this very challenging. A lot of fun. And a good way to keep out of trouble.

Writing something like this is also a pretty good brain exercise. Well, I think so.

Of course, daily physical exercise is also essential.  These days old age is taking its toll on me. Normal. Expected.

Very difficult to get physical exercise. I’m hard put to walk a hundred feet. And that’s haltingly, and with a walking stick. Which I always do with a Great Call Medical Alert hanging on my chest, plus a whistle, in case I take a spill and hurt myself and can’t get up.

Thank goodness I’ve got my tricycle.  Every day I pedal it for the exercise, but also for fun and my errands. Love it. It’s a bad day when rain keeps me inside. Sometimes I won’t use my car for a week or so. Never thought that would ever happen.

I had no intention of telling you this personal stuff. But then I thought, gosh, it may help one or two of you out there. That would be nice.

Oh, an amazing PS about Laszlo Polgar!

He’s the author of my favorite chess puzzle book, as you know. What an incredible, impressive, fine man.

Not only a chess genius! A psychologist who believed that any child, yes, any child of normal intelligence, can become a genius.

And by all accounts, he and his wife did that, proved that, with their three daughters, who remained very nice gals despite their eventual great fame.

If they had had sons, he and his wife believed they could have achieved that same thing. He married her only when he was convinced she’d be the perfect teammate.

They thought of adopting a black child very young. Wanted to prove that race is not a factor. It’s all about upbringing.

Do look him and her up on Wikipedia.

Hey, they might have made me a stronger player.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought my circus days were over. Not so!

By John Guy LaPlante

I loved the circus. The whole great and marvelous extravaganza of it. Went every time the three-ring big top came to

town.  I’d even go to see them set it up. That was nearly as exciting as the circus itself.

Loved every stunt, every act. The flying trapeze and high-wire daredevils, guys and gals.  The clowns. The lion tamer. The human cannonball. The magnificent elephants. Whatever came up next. The sideshow. Wow oh wow!

Well, the wonderful Cole Brothers Circus died. Then the even more wonderful Barnum & Bailey Circus died.

So, so sad.  That’s it, I thought. My circus days are over.

Years ago I never thought one day the circus would fold. Nobody did. Then things changed.

The day came when TV provided us with terrific amusement every day of the year. Right in the ease and comfort of our living room. So why spend money at the  circus? And maybe wind up with a bad seat!

There was another big reason — Cruelty! Yes, the growing clamor about the circuses abusing their animals.

Lots of animal lovers kept complaining louder and louder that circuses were abusing their animals. Abusing them horribly. Abusing all the animals. The elephants. The lions and tigers. The camels and horses and ponies. Even the  trained dogs. Even the bunny that the clown pulled out of his hat.

Some animals more than others. The poor elephants got the worst of it.

The protests became so loud and so many that they put the big and best circuses out of business.

Apparently the circus owners didn’t have the vision, the imagination to see that a circus without animals could do well.

Sure, there may have been isolated abuses. Nothing is perfect. I myself thought there was gross exaggeration.

I thought the owners and trainers and everybody else involved took good care of the animals. Loved them. Hey, they would have been stupid to mistreat their animals.

After all, the animals cost them big bucks to maintain and train. Their animals were their bread and butter. These were savvy businessmen. They weren’t idiots.

Bottom line, those animals and all the fun and pleasure they gave us were a main reason why we bought tickets.

Hey, I love animals. That’s one reason I’m a vegetarian. I don’t believe in killing animals to eat them. I hate even squishing ants when they infest my kitchen a month or so every year.

I wouldn’t support anyone or any outfit that grossly mistreats animals.

And I’ve had pets over the years for myself or our kids. A poodle once. A great big St. Bernard. Cats. A pony once. Did I have to be cruel to make them behave or do some little thing?  No, sir. How about you?

Sure, the circus people have to train their animals. The same way a farmer has to train his horse to pull the plow. Or his cows not to kick up during milking.  That isn’t abuse and cruelty.

Anyway, I loved the circus from the first time my family took me as a little kid. Took all of us kids. We all loved it. Couldn’t wait for the circus to come back to town.

Hey, I took my wife Pauline when we were dating. We went after we got married. We took our children when they came along.

And as the years went by, I continued to go to the circus, even when I was alone because there was nobody left around to take with me.

Even when I went off to Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer I went to the circus when I got the chance.

As you may know, I was 77 when I did that. And  I found that Ukrainians loved circuses.

A bit of background. Peace Corps posted me to an important city in Ukraine, Chernihiv, 300,000 people. Impressive city. I could have rented an apartment and lived by myself. That’s what most Volunteers did. Instead I chose to live with a family for a while, then another family, then another. Three in all.

Why? I felt each family became a window for me to learn  about the people and their culture and how they lived. And that’s the way it worked out.

Every spring a circus came to town and pitched its big top. And in the fall another came. They weren’t great big three-ring circuses like ours. They were one-ring circuses. But marvelous circuses.

I would attend. And I’d bring somebody from my Ukrainian family at that time. We had a great time. I have great memories of them.

One time I had to go to our Peace Corps headquarters in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Kiev is an interesting city. Magnificent. It would remind me of Paris. Ten times less expensive, by the way.

And I learned of a very big circus  Not in a big tent. It was permanent, year round in its own big building. So impressive you it could have passed as a famous opera house. A terrific circus it was.

And I learned something important. Had never thought of. Ukrainians, like people in the other countries once in the Soviet sphere, considered circus stars not just performers. They considered them artists. The clowns, the acrobats, the animal trainers. All artists. True artists. I bought that.

And on a trip to China, in fact in Shanghai, I had that same experience. Again it was in a great big, impressive, year round building of its own. With wonderful circus performers of all kinds. All thought of and respected as artists.

Well, for me, now living in Morro Bay, with those wonderful circus experiences all past tense, I have been content to live with the happy memories.

Then my daughter Monique surprised me when she called and said, “Dad, David and I are taking you to the Circus Vargas. We’ve made reservations. It’s one of your Father’s Day presents.”

“Gosh! Sounds great, Monique. Thank you, thank you. But circus what?”

“Circus Vargas. Wonderful circus! It’s been around quite a long time. Started by a man named Vargas. It plays just the western states. Terrific acts, we’ve heard.”

“Any lions? Elephants?”

“No. It did have animal acts till about 10 years ago. No more. But a great show. We were lucky to get tickets.”

Of course I was disappointed. That  wasn’t a real circus. But I didn’t want to come off as an ingrate. Monique is such a sweetheart.

“Wonderful, Monique. Please thank David. Can’t wait!”

Curious me, 10 minutes after her call, I Googled  Circus Vargas.

Well, it talked about itself in such an interesting and colorful way that I got excited that Monique and David were going to take me.

In fact, here’s what I read. I felt you’d be impressed, too. I put it in italic to make it stand out for you.

The Big One is Back with “The Greatest of Ease” bringing acrobats, daredevils and flying trapeze!

 Join us in celebrating Circus Vargas’ 50th anniversary extravaganza, an homage to the golden era of circus in America!!

All aboard our spectacular circus steam engine as we ride the railways back in time, to relive the nostalgia of yesteryear!

Marvel at the sights and sounds emanating from the big top, just as audiences did decades ago!

The hypnotic call of the Calliope, the sawdust, the sequins,the spangles! Hurry, Hurry, Hurry! Witness the unusual, the astonishing, the unimaginable! Wonder at the daring and the beauty! Experience the phenomenal, the extraordinary!

 Run away with the circus, for two unforgettable hours of nonstop action and adventure, as we transport you back through the ages of circus history and tradition!  A magnificent, mega-hit production guaranteed to thrill and enchant children of all ages …only at Circus Vargas, where memories are made and cherished for a lifetime.

 Well, we went. Very lucky. A perfect evening after a nice sunny day. Circus Vargas’ tent was huge. . The most beautiful big top I’ve ever seen. It stood out with colorful circus trucks around it. This was a big circus. It dominated a great big field. Much bigger than the circuses that came to my city in Ukraine.

We arrived early. There were already cars beyond number parked. Thank goodness there was one handicap parking spot left. Essential for me.

People were streaming in. We were lucky. We got seats with perfect views. At one point I looked around. There were at least a thousand men, women, and children here. A full house! And the roaming and rushing popcorn and fluffy candy hawkers were doing a land-office business.

But zero animal acts! Not even one with a puppy. Or a canary.  Waiting for the show to start, I wasn’t optimistic.

But know what? As one act followed another, I was having a ball. And so were Monique and David. I loved Circus Vargas, They loved it. Despite zero animals. Never thought the day would come.

The clowns were terrific. The trapeze acrobats were amazing with their split-second timing. A juggler came on who could juggle 5 balls, then 10, then 15, then 20. No way, no way could he hold them all. And he didn’t drop one!

Daredevils tiptoed along the high wire, a really high wire, even standing and balancing on one foot. Not only men. Gals, too!

One great act, then another. Then intermission.

Then the second half opened with a great big circus train engine coming right toward us, its big headlamp blinding us, a cloud of steam billowing up. It blew its huge horn and stopped. Wow!

It was towing a big freight car.  A dozen feet high, it seemed. And four daredevils appeared on top. All guys. And they began tumbling off the roof,  two from one side, two from the other, simultaneously, mind you. Then somehow, I couldn’t believe it, somehow sprang way back up to the roof of the car. Did that six times! Did they have springs in their shoes?

Next, a half-sloshed clown clumsily wiggled down into a big cannon and Boom! The cannon exploded and he got blown out of it. And down he plunked, somehow managing to land on his feet. Well, not quite. It was so, so funny. You should have heard the laughter.

Gal daredevils were doing stunts of their own. Such split-second tricks. I couldn’t help thinking that a big accident could happen. This was risky stuff.

Then a huge sphere of steel mesh was set up. Must have been 15 feet in diameter. It was easy  for us to see into it. An attendant opened a door. A guy on a jazzed up motorcycle drove in. Then another. The attendant closed the door.

The two gunned their engines and began whizzing around in the sphere.  Up, down, and around, time and again. One  guy this way, the other the opposite way. Then they stopped. Dangerous.

The door was opened again. Two more cyclists entered. Now there were four. One by one they started up their motorcycles. Suddenly all four were zooming around. In different directions! Unbelievable! Wow! I’d hate to be the dad of one of those guys. Sure, I’d be proud. But scared to death, too.

There were other stunts and acts, too. I gave you a sampling. It was a fantastic show. Delightful.

Afterward, as we all streamed out, we ran into the whole cast, assembled for a meet and greet. Every performer in the circus was there. How nice. People were taking pictures of themselves with the acrobats and clowns and trapeze artists and motorcycle daredevils. Chatting it up.

I found myself face to face with a gorgeous daredevil gal. ln a spangled silver skin-tight suit, mind you  One of the high-wire walkers. About 20 or so. And she was smiling. So friendly.

“You were terrific!” I said.  “But tell me. How did you get into this?”

“Oh, I was just a little girl.” Then added proudly, “I am eight generation in a circus family. I grew up doing this.”

I wanted to chat more, but shucks, she turned to face a fellow who was pressing to take a picture with her.

Eight generations! That had to be a hundred years traveling and performing in circuses. At least. There had to be some bad moments. An awful accident or two.  And all those years on the road.  Three days here. A week there. It seemed incredible that eight generations of people would stick to it.

Then I thought, these people are artists. Think of their drive to excel. Their dedication. Passion. Really are artists. Deserve to be regarded as artists.

Then another thought. It’s likely some of her forebears must have performed with animals. Maybe her dad and mom. Did they feel they had to be cruel to make their animals wow us?

I was sorry I didn’t get the chance to bring that up. That would have been interesting. Oh, well.

On the way home, what amazed me is that I had such a great time. Yes,  in a circus that Barnum & Bailey and even the Cole Brothers would have considered a joke. A sham.  And so many other circuses as well. With not even one elephant or bear or monkey or puppy.

I never thought this would ever happen. Yet I was very glad to have soon so many wonderful animal acts.

Anyway, I hope Circus Vargas comes back. I’d love to treat Monique and David. If it opens close to you, do treat yourself.

Now a P.S. that I must include for you.

A bad thing happened as Monique and David and I were walking out in that huge throng of people.

During the circus I had taken my phone out to snap pictures of acts. That hadn’t worked out.

Now I checked my pockets to make sure I had my phone. I did not! I double checked. What happened? I was frantic.

I told Monique and David. Immediately they pivoted around. And with me in hand, fought their way through the heavy outgoing stream of people back into the tent. Right back to where we had been sitting.

David looked under our seats. No phone. Maybe somehow it had fallen between the floorboards down onto the ground.

Well, he circled back and around. Got down on his hands and knees. And crawled his way to where we had been sitting. Very little headroom. Very dark down there. Kept feeling with his hands. No phone.

Oh, boy! I was antsy, believe me.

Without saying a word Monique pulled out her cell phone and dialed my number. David heard the call come in on my phone.  And was able to put his hand on it!

I hugged Monique. I thought that was so darn clever.  Hugged David. He tried so hard.

On the way home I thought of what a fiasco that wonderful evening at Circus Vargas would have become if I had lost my phone.I use it a hundred times of day for this and that.

As they say, all’s well that ends well.

Circus Vargas turned out to be a great and memorable Father’s Day present. To my surprise.

~ ~ ~ ~

 

To subscribe or unsubscribe Click Here