Aqua Blue Shoes

A big, bearded biker dressed all in black except for his aqua blue shoes. What’s right with this picture?

Dear Good People who follow zen crunch — I’m pleased to announce that Pigeon Review has published my micro fiction piece “Aqua Blue Shoes.” You can read it at

Pigeon Review is a beautiful literary and art journal where you can find fine art and engaging stories. I encourage you to check it out:

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Image from: Lotus Kruse

“Dare we believe that the leaders of the world’s great nations will wake up, will see the precipice towards which they are moving, and change direction?”

—Alva Myrdal

Alva Myrdal

Alva Myrdal was a Swedish sociologist, diplomat and politician. Along with Alfonso Garcia Robles, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1982.
Born: 31 January, 1902 – Died: 1 February, 1986

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Please Explain This To Me

I’m living in an America where a sizeable chunk of the population is devoted to Donald J. Trump. This is a man who admires Hitler. While President, he instituted a policy that separated children from their parents and then had those children housed in cages. Near the end of his four-year term, he wanted to use the military to stage a coup that would keep him in power for his entire life. He also wanted election officials to discount and throw out votes that were not for him.

There isn’t enough space on this or any other page to record all the ways he degraded the office of the president, or the ways he made life a living hell for those of us who believe in democracy, or the multiple ways he worked against American citizens striving to realize a society where we can live peaceably together no matter our race, color, or creed—which, by the way, is the American idea. The American ideal. The American dream. The reason we were once a beacon of hope for so many people all over the world.

Thirty-thousand. That is the number of times Trump “made false or misleading claims” during his presidency. In fact, according to the Washington Post fact checking team, Trump lied more than 30,000 times while President, and half that number he told during the last year of his presidency. Regardless of his propensity to lie, there are millions who believe Trump’s Big Lie – his constant insistence that the 2020 election was stolen. And those same millions want to make Trump their President again.

I don’t get it.

Another thing I don’t get: the people who want Trump back in the White House also want Republicans in the majority in their state legislatures and in Congress.

As I write this, Republican legislatures all across America have been making it harder to vote. They are bent on suppressing or stripping away the right to vote for Black Americans, people of color, older Americans, and young people. These segments of our society are the ones who are most likely to vote Republicans out of office. They are the people who are most likely to vote for Democrats.

Lest you forget or are unaware, President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party want to:

o Fix our infrastructure
o Rebuild our crumbling bridges and roads and schools
o See to it that we have clean water and clean air
o Act to reverse climate change so we don’t burn up in triple degree heat and apocalyptic wildfires or get washed away in horrendous floods and rising sea waters
o Make billionaires and incredibly rich corporations pay their fair share of taxes

Please explain this to me: why do people vote for Republicans? Why do they want politicians who say:

NO to clean air and clean water
NO to rebuilding our roads and bridges
NO to having our children get a first-rate education in schools that are safe and well-maintained
NO to ensuring that everyone has affordable health care
NO to corporations paying their fair share of taxes

When I asked my better half this question, she told me: Republicans stand for small government and minimum taxes.

But—I protested—the small government they want gives us crumbling bridges and polluted air and toxic water and an earth that is both burning up and being washed away.

True, she said. But you don’t have to pay more taxes.

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My Two Cents on Afghanistan

For several days now, media has been all about Afghanistan and the disastrous end of a twenty-year war. It was a war that cost us blood and treasure, a war that ultimately gave Afghanistan back to the Taliban, who took the country—decisively and without gunfire—in a handful of days. Expert opinions about this event are available to you in countless other places, but this is my place to get my two cents in, and I’ll tell you up front that my take on Afghanistan was shaped almost entirely by watching Rachel Maddow on Monday, August 16th.

Rachel—yes, in my mind, we’re on a first name basis—Rachel talked about the billions of dollars we poured into Afghanistan month after month, year after year. She played a clip from July 2010, when she toured a Kabul neighborhood with Richard Engel. This is a neighborhood that didn’t exist before America went to war in Afghanistan. It is a neighborhood built by Americans, paid for by billions of American taxpayer dollars—a guarded, gated neighborhood described as “gangster-sheik,” a neighborhood of gigantic, garish, rococo villas rented out to visiting westerners.

She also showed us footage of Taliban head-honchos “lounging” in the home of an Afghan government official—bearded young men sitting in plush chairs in rooms filled with ornate gold, rooms resembling the palace interiors of a French aristocracy that was eating cake while the people in the streets were fighting for bread crumbs.

Rococo Sitting Room Parlor

It’s the same old story—we poured billions of dollars into one of the poorest countries in the world and—as we exit the scene—Afghanistan is still one of the poorest countries in the world. We spent billions upon billions, only to have much of that expenditure “shoveled off and diverted” by incredibly corrupt Afghan officials who spent it all on themselves and their cronies.

Yes, we used some of our money to build roads and schools and water projects. But we did not ensure that our billions were spent building the infrastructure that any society needs in order to thrive—the kind of infrastructure that the Biden administration is trying right now to build and improve in America. The schools, affordable housing, good roads and equitable access to clean water and electricity that our billions might have bought mainly went instead to making powerful and corrupt Afghan officials very, very rich and even more corrupt.

In Rachel’s words: “…we incentivized the worst instincts of a fantastically corrupt Afghan elite.” We gave most of our money to the very few who spent it all on themselves, and we invested very little money in most of the people who needed it most of all.

But wait—there’s more. Yes, our billions did purchase something else: “We also bought weaponry.” We built military bases. We bought tanks, trucks, helicopters, mortars, grenades — weaponry of all sorts and sizes. Some of it was destroyed before the Taliban took over, some of it was air-lifted out. But a whole lot of that weaponry now belongs to the Taliban. Thanks to us, Taliban’s fighting force is very, very well-off.

So: lives lost, lives forever changed by the ruination of war, billions handed over to a corrupt elite, and a ton of weaponry in the hands of the enemy we spent twenty years trying to defeat.

Will we ever learn? God I hope so.

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Contemplating Simplicity and Stuff

Today, standing in the doorway, basking in the early morning sunlight, I was thinking about my stuff. I love my stuff, but would like to have a lot less of it. I am so drawn to books about simplifying one’s life and de-cluttering.

Anyway, it occurred to me that if I got rid of my books on de-cluttering, right there I’d have less stuff. My life would be simpler. Well, maybe not my life. But my bookcase, certainly.

Now, you may be wondering—did I go back inside and start sorting out the de-cluttering books? No. I decided to follow Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits guide to changing one’s life—How I Changed My Life, In Four Lines:

Leo’s first line, or first step, is: Start very small.

My small step for today was to realize I could simplify my life by letting go of one or two or some—all would be too big a change—of my de-cluttering books.

One small step for my bookcase. One huge step for simplicity.

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Everything I Need

I have everything I need. A square of sky, a piece of stone, a page, a pen, and memory raining down on me in sleeves.

Harriet Doerr, American Author: April 8, 1910 – November 24, 2002
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True Wealth

On April 30th this year, I saw what it means to be truly rich. That was the day that Amtrak Joe—now our President— traveled to Philadelphia to mark the 50th Anniversary of Amtrak. At the William H. Gray 30th Street Station, Biden addressed the Governor, the Mayor, and the numerous Amtrak employees who had gathered to hear him speak. The President knows and has worked with the politicians and other notables who were there. He also knows many of the Amtrak employees by name.

“You get to know folks,” he said. “I used to have a Christmas party at my home for Amtrak employees, and it got so big we ended up having a summer party because family and retirees kept coming back.”

Biden spoke about the professionalism of Amtrak people, and how hard they work. And he told a story of a time when he was a young Senator with a work-family conflict.

“I remember one night, my daughter was only six years old, and it was my birthday. And we were voting, and I went to Bob Dole and I said, ‘Bob, when’s the next vote going to take place?’ He said, ‘Joe, what—why?’ I said, ‘Well, my daughter is really upset I’m not going to be able to be home for the birthday cake she made for me.’

He said, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘I need just time to catch the five o’clock Metro, and I can get the 6:28 coming back,’ because on the platform you can just —in Delaware, you walk from one side to the other. I got off the train. My wife, Jill, was standing there, and my daughter had the cake and candles lit. I blew them out. Gave me a kiss. Walked across and got on the southbound.’”

There was so much conveyed in that story—for one, the fellowship of colleagues that existed in the Senate then: the need of a Democratic Senator to be in two places at almost the same time was resolved with the cooperation and understanding of a Republican Senate Majority Leader. And without addressing it directly, Biden was also lauding the trains running on time and the reliability of Amtrak’s schedule.

But what came through to me in this story—the thing that made the greatest impression—is that Joe Biden is loved. He is a loving man who is loved in return by a great many people.

In that moment of realizing the wealth of love for Joe Biden, I suddenly felt a deep sorrow for Donald Trump, a man who was never loved. All the heartache and heartbreak and cruelty that he brought to this country during the course of his presidency, the carnage he spoke of in his Inaugural speech—a carnage fulfilled in the insurrection of January 6th—all of that had a single root: no one loved Donald. Neither his mother nor his father were there for him. There was no affection or kindness in his dysfunctional family. He had no one who cared enough to show him right from wrong.

I’ve been reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In the chapter titled Hungry Ghosts, she writes, “An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call ‘a hungry ghost’ —forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.”

To my mind, that is what Donald Trump gave us: four years of one long, terrible howl. There is a hole in him that cannot be filled.

Realm of the Hungry Ghosts

Now, on the small stage that Mar-a-Lago provides him, Trump continues to howl. He has no conscience, and no inkling of soul. His ego rules every waking minute of every single day.

Liz Gilbert contends that we all have some version of that hungry-ghost hunger. But there is an antidote. “My saving grace is this…I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul.”

Joe Biden’s main message during his campaign was “…the need to restore the soul of the nation.” And beneath the everyday work of the transformative legislation he is setting in motion, President Biden is set on fulfilling that campaign promise.

Biden is a good man who believes in the goodness of people. He wants to see that goodness available to all of us—he wants to expand its reach so that we all have health and wealth enough for our work and the people we love.

He has a genuine concern for the common good, and a belief that all of us deserve to enjoy the opportunity, peace, and prosperity that is the promise of America. All that love, all that compassion and concern for the welfare of others, makes Joe Biden a truly rich man.

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A Flag for George

This is a guest post by my friend John Raskauskus. His observations and reflections on our country—past and present—offer a unique perspective on the America he remembers when he was growing up, our troubled present, and a hoped-for-future.

On Tuesday (4/20/21), I was driving home and listening to news about the guilty verdicts in the trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. I was also watching a lifted diesel truck a few cars ahead of me, towering above the neighboring cars and “rolling coal” to run the yellow light and speed well beyond the 25mph limit in our 3-stoplight town. A large yellow “don’t tread on me” flag and a slightly smaller American flag were rigged to fly side by side in the bed of the truck above the diesel exhaust and noise imposed on surrounding motorists. I watched the flags snapping in the wind under a clear blue sky as the truck rounded the bend beyond the intersection.

By the time the light turned green again, my mind had returned to George Floyd, a Black man callously sentenced to a terrible death by white Officer Chauvin, in response to a minor criminal offense. If I tried to pass a fake $20 bill like George did and got caught, I’d expect a trial, a fine, and perhaps the shame of a mugshot in the police report of the local newspaper’s website. My kids would suffer the embarrassment for a criminal father, but not mourn his violent death.

A mile further on, I saw a sheet blowing along the road as cars passed over and around it. As I got closer, I recognized it was the flag from the truck. I avoided it and continued driving for about 10 seconds before pulling over. I clicked on the caution lights and watched the flag in the rear-view mirror as it fluttered into the ditch. I got out and walked back to the spot, then down the rocky embankment. The rivets were torn out, the edges were tattered, and the fabric was dirty from the road. I picked it up and began to fold it. First in half, in half again, then from the outer to inside edge, repeated triangular folds, finally tucking the inner edge, leaving the blue field with white stars.

Weathered Old Glory Flag USA — Photo by Les Cunliffe 2019

I know how to fold a flag because my grandfather and my parents taught me how. My grandfather saluted this flag through a lifetime of undiagnosed PTSD from World War II. My father also served as a Navy pilot in the 60s and 70s. I believe my mother served equally, though her service went unrecognized. She willingly uprooted her life every time the Navy required a move, driving belongings across the continent while my Dad’s squadron flew to the new base or carrier. She worked, maintained a home, supported whatever community she found herself in, and worried about my Dad. Crashes and deaths were not uncommon among his colleagues. In the present, my wife and my brother are both teachers. The work they do is at least as important to the future of our country as anything my parents or grandparents did, and this year is the most difficult year they have ever had.

I stood in the ditch holding the flag, considering these family connections, but also considering George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, the fearful man driving the $75,000 lifted truck, the unhealed wounds and ongoing injury from a system that subtly elevates a man like me, and not so subtly holds a man like George Floyd down. I thought about this past year of pandemic, a re-awakening of purpose-driven protests and political engagement, but also outrage and riots, fires and smoke. I thought about my relative who is a Portland Police Officer. He’s a good man and takes pride in serving the community, but he is exhausted from a year where he’s been pelted by rocks and screamed at by people intent on breaking the same downtown windows over and over again. His wife worries about him too.

I held the flag and remembered when the honor guard at Willamette National Cemetery handed one folded the same way to my Dad at his father’s funeral. An inherited symbol not big enough to hold all the meaning ascribed to it. Meaning that has gotten more complicated as the country and I grow older. Tattered around the edges, but still holding vast potential if we can learn and take responsibility for our mistakes, remembering to listen and look each other in the eye. Giving those in need a hand up instead of holding them down. Making this country better instead of just saying it’s the best. That would be meaningful.

I decided the flag is for George and took it home.

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Ordinary Equality

“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems, are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”

— Alice Paul, American Quaker, suffragist, feminist, and women’s rights activist

Alice Stokes Paul (January 11, 1885 – July 9, 1977)

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Blow That Horn

Six days ago I had an experience of pure exultation, sheer joy, and unmitigated happiness. I spent several minutes dancing and jumping around, saying, “We won! We won!”

All that crowing was followed by a handful of hours when I felt like I was walking on air. Remember this feeling, I told myself.

Many of my friends, and some of you who know me through social media, already know about the news that gave me an afternoon of exhilaration: I had just learned that Tallulah, a film I wrote and directed, won the 2021 Audience Award for Local Films at the 10th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival.

For me, it was the equivalent of winning an Oscar. I let my cast and crew know we had won, thanked them again, and again felt a sense of pride in the talent, skill, work, and dedication they had brought to our film. I also thanked the friends who helped our film all along the way.

Now I understand—in a visceral, rather than an abstract way—those people reeling off a list of names and saying thank you to all of them as they accept a trophy.

It takes a village to make a movie, even a short one.

I’ve heard that you have to blow your own horn, so that’s what I’m doing—Tallulah won the popular vote, and that means the world to me.

In an essay by Brian Doyle, I came across this quote by Samuel Johnson: “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices…..must be generally decided all claim to poetical honours.”

I rejoice to concur with the common film-goer.

Subtitled A Tale of Transformation, Tallulah is a romantic comedy about a young, uptight Victorian woman and her shy fiancé. For those of you who have yet to see our light-hearted romp, here’s the link:

And here’s more horn-blowing for other folk:

For my fellow filmmakers who don’t know about the McMinnville Short Film Festival, check them out. The team there—with a special shout-out to the festival founders Nancy and Dan Morrow—are a really fine group of people who put together a terrific festival, with films submitted from both local and international filmmakers.

And here’s a link to my personal pick for Audience Award winner in both the “Animation” and “Just for Kids” categories at the 2021 McMinnville Short Film Festival: Steve Cowden’s Chocolate Cake and Ice Cream makes me happy every time I look at it.

Wishing you all happiness and myriad reasons to blow that horn for yourself and others.

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