Duty of Care


My wife and I lived way out in southeastern California’s Sonoran Desert for three years, where we saw a constant stream of stray dogs in our little town.  Big dogs, small dogs, dogs of every color and description, loose and cavorting in the middle of the street, jauntily bouncing down the sidewalk or tearing across someone’s lawn.

Some were picked up by the local dog catcher (oops, “animal control officer”), then housed at the shelter behind Ace Hardware, where they became stars ready for their close-ups to appear in the town’s twice-weekly newspaper under the heading “offered for adoption.”  In other words, come quickly, all ye animal lovers, and pay ye the fees for the dog’s shots and license lest this adorable pup (how can you resist such a mug?) be summarily sentenced to death by lethal injection without benefit of judge or jury.

Other dogs, I suspect, were better at eluding the net and remained on the lam for quite some time.  Some were escape artists, taking advantage of opportunities for freedom unwittingly provided by their people.  Dogs were supposed to be kept in fenced-in enclosures or on a leash.  But there were always pets that managed to jump the fence, burrow under it or find a gap to squeeze through.  Much like cats climbing trees without giving a thought to how they’ll get back down, dogs would devise clever methods of getting out, seemingly without giving a thought to how they’ll survive on the other side.

Like the wandering dogs of Sochi that we heard so much about during the televised coverage of the Winter Olympics, we’re pretty sure many of the dogs we encountered were actually abandoned pets, not strays.  It seemed as if no one cared what happened to them, whether they lived or died. Although they once had homes, they were no longer wanted and would be heartlessly tossed out of a car on the side of the road.  When I was growing up, my parents used to do this when one of their cats committed some offense that they deemed unpardonable (usually scratching someone, although I believe tearing about like a hellion qualified as well).  My father was the one assigned to doing the deed, which he referred to as “taking the cat for a ride.”  He’d drive several miles away, by which time the cat was generally sufficiently panicked to jump out voluntarily at the first opportunity.  At least once that I can recall, the cat managed to find its way back home.

As for the stray dogs of the desert, they’d bake in the 115°F heat that we “enjoyed” six months out of the year, desperate for a drink of water.  Some would hang out on the strip of fast food places down by the freeway, hoping for handouts.  Those were usually picked up fairly quickly by animal control officers on their rounds.

One night, my wife and I had to make a quick run to K-Mart just before the store closed, where we found a large dog pacing back and forth by the entrance and exit doors, just hoping that some kind person would grant it some attention.  We went to get it some water, but quickly discovered another good Samaritan approaching with a fast food hamburger and a drink.

There were stray cats, too, and we used to put out our leftovers for them as well as for the many hungry birds that inhabited our neighborhood.

Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about chickens.  Not exactly in the same league with dogs and cats, you may say, but I keep seeing these beautiful birds hanging out at a busy intersection in Yuba City.  To this city boy’s highly untrained eye, they all appear to be roosters.  We have no idea to whom, if anyone, they belong.  However, just like the stray dogs of the desert, we suspect that they were simply abandoned.  After all, they don’t lay eggs and they disturb the neighbors with their infernal crowing, so what good are they to anyone, other than for making soup or drenching their wings in barbecue sauce?  Passersby must be feeding these guys, else I doubt that they’d stick around.  I’m surprised they haven’t been picked up yet, but perhaps the local dog catcher doesn’t “do” chickens.  I am reminded of an incident, several years ago, in which an entire flock of chickens turned up beside a southern California freeway, resulting in much rush hour gawking, some near auto wrecks, and many people posing the age-old conundrum anew:  Why did the chicken cross the road?

So my question of the day is:  Do we have an obligation to care for abandoned animals?  And if so, is such obligation individual or communal in nature?

The Bible (while certainly not the final arbiter for many of us), appears to argue that we do have such an obligation, and that each of us is required to take on this responsibility personally.

“If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.  If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him.”  Deut. 22:1-2

The following verse underscores this point by stating “you must not remain indifferent.”  In other words, community assignment of an animal control officer does not negate our individual responsibility for caring for our fellow creatures.

Granted, the emphasis of these Bible verses is on helping avoid a loss to one’s neighbor rather than on assisting the animal.  The fact that the Scripture refers to animals that have “gone astray” seems to indicate that it would be unheard of to deliberately abandon an animal.  While this may be due to the economic value of cattle, sheep and donkeys kept as work animals or for sources of food and clothing, the concept of animals kept as pets does appear in the Bible as well.  I refer to the parable of the poor man who “had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought,” recited by the prophet Nathan to King David.  “He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children:  It used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.”  2 Sam. 12:3

I find it encouraging that a source as ancient as the Bible, with its emphasis on justice and doing the right thing, recognizes that pets can be members of our families and demands that we care for strays rather than ignore them.  The implication, then, is that the Judeo-Christian tradition finds a moral imperative to attend to the needs of animals, whether we have voluntarily taken on their care as pets or whether we happen upon them along the road.

It is no secret that failure to heed this duty of care is likely to result in the death of animals that have no means to care for themselves.  While I rarely think of donkeys (or chickens, for that matter) as being strays, their mention in Deuteronomy reminds me of the fully-grown donkey that we found dead by the side of a state highway in the middle of the desert a couple of years ago.  We later learned that wild burros and horses continue to inhabit the Sonoran Desert, sometimes causing wrecks when they cross the roads (we had a close call with a wild horse late one night) and often dying of thirst, hunger and disease.

While most of us do not have the means of caring for every stray that shows up on our doorstep or is found wandering forlornly on a roadside, it is my belief that it is immoral to ignore these animals, hoping that perhaps someone else will step up.

Nor is it an excuse to insist that this is why we pay taxes to support animal control officers.  A communal conscience is certainly a good thing, but when stray and abandoned animals are likely to either be killed (I find the phrase “put to sleep” to be obscene) in so-called animal shelters, or to be run over or starve to death before they are rescued, it is difficult to deny that the responsibility for these creatures is ours alone.  Closing our eyes to this duty of care casts a dirty shame upon our supposedly enlightened society.



Reno sign


Virginia Street runs through the heart of downtown Reno, but no longer through its soul.

Where once a vibrant crossroads stood, partyers spilling out of casino doors onto the sidewalk, now only a shadow remains.  Alas, poor Yorick, I knew you well.

Sure, many of the casinos are still around:  Circus Circus, with its overhead skywalk to the Silver Legacy; the Cal-Neva, where my wife and her friends used to get 99 cent breakfasts; Fitzgerald’s.  But the Virginian is long gone, its abandoned facade grotesquely greeting visitors like an insect’s cast-off exoskeleton.

Saddest of all is the lack of people.  An old man in a wheelchair waits to cross the street; a woman wanders about in a glassy-eyed stupor.

But mostly the sidewalks are empty, the revelers of yesterday having moved on to greener pastures.  We creep down this once thriving artery, hitting every stoplight and gawking at what once was.  The pickup in front of us has a half-full bottle of water sitting on its bumper; the traffic moves so slowly that it remains upright and unjostled.

Past the federal and county courthouses, a few signs of life begin to appear.  A butcher shop features a large overhanging sign:  Walk-ins welcome.  There are tattoo parlors, vintage clothing boutiques, pawn shops, tiny convenience stores, Indian and Korean restaurants, fleabag motels with names like the 777 and the Lucky Strike.  But Zephyr Books, with its thousands upon thousands of eclectic volumes filling endless shelves and heaped upon tables, is gone.

Farther south, the urban vibe vanishes, as Virginia Street takes on a decidedly suburban cast.  Smallish shopping centers line both sides of the avenue:  Burlington Coat Factory, Kohl’s, Outback Steakhouse, Foley’s Irish Pub.  Wal-Mart.  A branch of the public library.  Border’s is gone, of course, but Barnes & Noble is still there, along with BJ’s Brewery, Olive Garden and the multiplex movie theaters.

Check-in time at our motel is 3 pm; we showed up at 3:05, hoping to settle in before heading out for the evening.  When I provided our reservation information to the desk clerk, she seemed perplexed.  She wasn’t sure whether our room was ready yet.  Over a crackly walkie-talkie, she asked the housekeeper whether 127 had been cleaned yet.  An unintelligible squawk issued in reply.  The clerk looked at me sheepishly.  “She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, ” she ruefully admitted.

I realized that I would have to help her.  “Just say ‘Cien veinte-siete, ¿esta propio?'” I coached her.  Ignoring me, she tried again in English.  She took the return crackle as a “yes” and proceeded to check me in.

What is wrong with this picture?  I have always believed that the barriers we throw up between each other block the empathy that is the essence of humankindness.  But have we really descended to this?  Have we reached the nadir at which employees are unable to understand each other sufficiently to perform the jobs for which they were hired?

Like the desk clerk at our motel, I don’t speak Spanish.  With the encouragement of my mother, I studied French throughout junior high and high school.  This was back in the 1970s, when Spanish was widely pegged as the “easy” language, suitable for study only by business track students.  The college bound were expected to study French or German, the languages of academia.  Also, I grew up in New York, where the vast migrations from Latin America hadn’t yet made the kind of impact that they have today in California.

And yet, as a resident of my adopted Golden State, I have made it a point, in middle age, to pick up enough Spanish to at least be able to ask “Where’s the bathroom?” or “What’s the price?” or, I don’t know, perhaps “Is room 127 clean yet?”  What kind of world do we live in when we can no longer communicate our most basic needs or even say, “Good morning, how are you?”

At a Scrabble tournament a couple of years ago, a good friend of mine bemoaned the fact that he was unable to communicate to the Spanish-speaking housekeeper that the public rest room was out of toilet paper.  “Papel hygiénico,” I coached him.  But he was clearly uninterested in even trying.  What little Spanish vocabulary and nonexistent Spanish grammar that I can lay claim to, at least I know how to say “toilet paper,” for heaven’s sake!

I hear so much talk these days about how immigrants to the United States should learn to speak English.  Perhaps so, but shouldn’t we meet them halfway?  Wouldn’t it be a kind gesture to at least learn enough Spanish to make our neighbors feel that we are making an effort?

After watching the Olympics for the past two weeks, I couldn’t help but notice that athletes from the four corners of the world speak excellent English, while their native tongues remain shrouded in mystery to Americans.

So here in Nevada, we stopped at a convenience store to fill up our gas tank a couple of nights ago.  It quickly became apparent that the clerk spoke very little English.  I’m sure that a little Hindi, Tamil or Pashto would have come in handy.  Lacking any knowledge of these languages, we were still able to get across the message that we wanted the clerk to turn on Pump #1 so we could fill up.

Or so we thought.  Although I pumped more than $30 of petrol into our vehicle, the clerk handed us a debit card receipt reflecting only ten dollars.  Despite our arguments to the contrary, he insisted that it was correct.

When we later checked our debit card statement, we found the $30 charge on there.  Along with the mysterious $10 charge from the clerk’s receipt.  When we returned to complain, we were told that no manager would be available until Monday.  In the end, I’m sure we’ll have to work it out with the bank.

Welcome to Reno, Tower of Babel.





It seems a bit like returning to the scene of the crime.

The Reno area used to be our playground.  Even when we lived six hours away, we’d plan long weekends here.  For a while, I competed in at least one Scrabble tournament here each year.  But then we moved too far for even a long weekend trip.  So we’ve been away for about two years now.

My wife and I honeymooned here all those years ago. Suffice it to say that things have changed a bit since then.  For one, we no longer need to hoard rolls of nickels to play the poker machines.  Within an hour or so, our fingers would be black from handling the coins.  Today, there are no more slots or poker machines that take nickels or quarters.  The days of neatly piled buckets next to each machine are long gone.  Now, most of these gambling machines take paper money only and record your wins electronically rather than spitting out coins into a hopper.  To collect your winnings, you pull a credit slip from a slot, which can be redeemed for cash at another machine elsewhere in the casino.  I do miss the ping-ping-ping of the falling coins hitting metal.  Today, slot machines emit an entirely fake “coin” noise at cashout that fools no one.

When I was much younger and lived in New York, I used to take the day tour bus down to Atlantic City to play the slots at the Boardwalk casinos.  I’d start at Bally’s, where the bus dropped us off, and make my way down to the Playboy, enjoying the salt air and crashing waves along the way.  Back then, we called slot machines “one-armed bandits” and, indeed, pulling that handle was a unique thrill.

There are no handles anymore.  Nowadays, you just push a button.  Somehow, all the romance has gone out of it.

Here in Reno, we try to stay away from the tourist meccas on the Strip.  We tend to spend most of our visit across the river in Sparks, either at Baldini’s on Rock Boulevard (our favorite locals’ joint) or at the Nugget or Grand Sierra.  Or we head out to South Reno, where we enjoy a small railroad-themed casino called Tamarack Junction.

Baldini’s has a particular charm, fueled by local residents, many of them retirees.  This is a place where your player’s card will get you a full breakfast (which includes unlimited pancakes) for $2.99.  A burger, fries and a soda will set you back a whopping 99 cents at the Brickyard Cafe upstairs.

We usually play penny poker at Baldini’s.  With my wife and I playing at side-by-side machines, it took us more than two hours to run through ten bucks apiece.  And they’re constantly running contests and promotions where you swipe your player’s card and your name goes into a hopper and they call out winners of free play prizes at various times of day.  Baldini’s is just a fun, relaxed kind of place.

We usually try to save money by staying at cheap, basic motels instead of the overpriced rooms at the resorts.  Of course, everything is a trade-off.  It’s Saturday night and there is a party going on a few rooms down.  Some of these people appear to be drunk and preparing to start a fight.  You have to take what you get.

One thing about the Reno area has definitely not changed over the years, however.  This place is a good five thousand feet up in the Sierra Nevadas.  As we live in California, we tend to forget that it’s winter, despite the February page on the calendar.  But here, the temperature is in the thirties, and the brisk air is accompanied by just the tiniest bit of snow remaining unmelted at the roadsides.

It’s good to get away for a few days every now and then.



Yappy Hour

A nondescript black-and-white dog is our neighbor just across the chain link fence situated a few steps from our front door.  I’m sure he is a wonderful pet and a good friend to his people.

There is just one problem:  He is a barker.

I’m not talking about once in a while either.  Just like us, dogs get excited, upset or hungry.  And just as I have become accustomed to my one-year-old grandniece expressing these emotions by screaming her head off, I fully expect our canine friends to express themselves in the only way they are able.

But not every night.  And I mean all night.

I suspect that this dog is lonely.  Most of the time, he is outdoors in a wire dog pen, by himself.  I don’t think I’d be too happy about that either.

Dogs are gregarious creatures, just like humans.  The former naturally travel in packs with a defined pecking order, while the latter naturally congregate in families and communities.  So leaving dogs alone for extended periods of time doesn’t seem fair to me.  They just want to be with their people.

My wife says that some dogs are just yappers.  While this is undoubtedly true, I don’t believe this is the case with our canine neighbor.  I know this because when he is taken inside, blessed silence descends upon hearth and home.

Honestly, I am amazed at this dog’s capacity for barking.  I am blessed to be able to sleep even with television, music and conversations going on all around me.  I’m guessing that the explosion of a bomb or two would not wake me up (and if it did, I’d go right back to sleep).  My wife, however, is not quite so lucky.  That dog’s infernal barking will wake her up at one o’clock in the morning, and at two, at three and at four.  One would think that, at some point, the poor dog would start to get hoarse and would eventually lose its voice, er, bark.  Do dogs get laryngitis?

Several years ago, I read horrifying reports that some apartment dwellers in my native New York City were “debarking” their dogs to prevent their pets from being evicted from the high-rise rabbit warrens where they reside in close proximity to many hundreds of neighbors.  I recall being confused at first.  To me, the word “debarking” has always meant to step off a conveyance such as a ship or a train.  It is the opposite of “embark.”  I was taken aback when I learned that, in this case, “debark” meant to surgically alter a dog’s larynx so that a full-throated bark is converted to a tiny squeak.  The phrase “cruelty to animals” comes to mind.  And no, I don’t approve of declawing cats either.  How would you like to have your fingernails forcibly removed?  Barking and scratching are natural functions of dogs and cats and, well, if one’s current living situation isn’t conducive to these activities, I’d suggest purchasing a goldfish. 

In fairness, I should disclose that, even here in rural northern California, we don’t exactly live in the quietest of environments.  Freight trains come through here at all hours of the day and night, as do eighteen wheelers exiting the freeway just a few blocks away.  As for our neighbor dog, he does not confine his incessant barking to the nighttime hours any more than the vehicular traffic or the freight trains do.  Every hour is yappy hour.  Here I sit in the middle of the afternoon; as I am not wearing my headphones, my background music consists of my little grandniece’s Elmo video and an endless chorus of “Woof woof woof!  Woof woof woof WOOF!”

As you may imagine, we’ve been mulling over the possibilities for handling this situation appropriately.  When I say “appropriately,” what I mean is a course of action that would be fair to both the dog and us, preferably something that will not unduly upset our human neighbors who care for the dog.

The problem is that we don’t even know our human neighbors.  Admittedly, our track record with neighbors is not the best.  In Modesto, we tried to be at least nominally friendly with the woman and her tattooed-from-head-to-toe boyfriend whose welcome mat was about three steps from our own.  Until, that is, we stopped seeing him around and learned that he had been arrested for beating her up.  In Fresno, we lived directly below two sisters who made a habit of getting drunk, having horrific, screaming arguments and breaking things.  We finally called the cops on them.  Out in the desert, the couple directly across the street from us disappeared with their two kids right after we learned that he had been hauled off to prison, charged with molesting his daughter.  So you can see why I am more than a little bit gun shy at the prospect of just showing up with a smile and a hearty “Hi!  I’m Uncle Guacamole from across the fence!”

One would think that I would occasionally see the neighbors come and go as they make their way about their daily business.  But I haven’t.  I’ve never so much as seen them step outside to feed their dog.  None of the expected waving across the fence has occurred, much less the syrupy cup of sugar borrowing behavior popularized by Jane Wyatt and Donna Reed on the family sitcoms of my youth.

I suppose we could just walk around the block and introduce ourselves.  While this might be the most direct and reasonable approach, none of us seems inclined to this course of action.  As my nephews and nieces would say, “Awkward!”  Rumors are that the property was previously occupied by decidedly unsavory tenants, that drugs were involved, etc.  So I think it’s fair to say that we are not likely to show up on their doorstep with a freshly-baked pie.

We could always contact law enforcement and file a nuisance complaint under the noise abatement ordinance.  That is, if such a law even exists in this county.  I have no clue.

Looking online for suggestions regarding how to quiet a noisy dog, we found ideas ranging from spraying the dog with water (if I were a dog, I think that would just annoy the crap out of me) to blowing a whistle set at a pitch that only dogs can hear (I’d just bark more if my ears were killing me) to tossing an open jar of peanut butter over the fence.  I had to laugh at this last one.  The dog might think he’d died and gone to heaven, at least for a little while.  But without a single glass of milk to be found, well, I’d say this tactic would likely be an effective method of bark reduction.  Maybe we should try it.

Of course, the age-old question remains unanswered:  Creamy or chunky?



Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may recall that, before I was laid off from work, my wife and I used to travel a lot between my job in the far reaches of southern California and our families up here in northern California.  Among the skills I acquired in the course of our travels was how to write a blog post on my phone.  While doing so is a pain in the patoot, I must admit that it has come in handy.

Like right now, for instance.  Because my faithful, trusty laptop has officially been jacked.

I don’t mean hijacked — just plain jacked.  As in the cheese from Monterey, the card between the ten and the queen, the tool you use to raise up your car when it has a flat tire, the fast food clown who serves breakfast 24 hours a day, and Jill’s companion in going up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

No, my computer hasn’t been waylaid to Cuba.  It’s still right here, although confined to sick bay.  In the capable hands of my wife the computer doctor, my computer is receiving a massive dose of antibiotics and getting some well-deserved rest.  We shall see how it is responding tomorrow.  We hope to avoid having to take it to the computer hospital.

Apparently, one of my apps sneezed and my computer contracted a Trojan virus.  Either that or it was having safe sex while I was out grocery shopping.  I figure that’s the only time it could have happened, because I’m always using it unless I’m asleep.  And then I’m dreaming about using it.

I’m really not sure how this happened.  I mean, I know my computer had a really rough Valentine’s Day.  You see, it had recently broken up with Mr. Orange, known affectionately as Orangey, the phone charger that always remained plugged into it.  It was so convenient to be able to charge my phone while I was using my computer.  But alas, nothing lasts forever.  Orangey began to fray, no longer did its job very well, and had to pass on to the happy phone charger grounds in the sky.

Still, it really hasn’t been that long since the breakup, so I certainly didn’t expect my computer to be going for the Trojans so soon.  As much as it saddens me, the conclusion is inescapable.  My computer is a slut.

Get well cards recorded in the comments section will be delivered to my computer promptly.  The little hussy.



I haven’t written about our homeless friend lately, which is partly due to the fact that I don’t really know what he’s doing these days and partly because I haven’t been able to find the right words to use.

You may recall that we had been allowing him to use the church rest room.  I thought this an eminently reasonable course of action, and I was proud of Pastor Mom for making the decision to do so.  After all, if nature calls and you’re forced to duck behind a bush, you always run the risk of being arrested for indecent exposure or public lewdness.  While the common law defense of necessity has allowed some homeless people to be exculpated of misdemeanor charges associated with peeing or sleeping in public, the majority of jurisdictions continue to refuse to recognize this defense.

Well, nothing lasts forever.  We had to start locking the rest room after we learned that our insurance policy prohibited us from leaving it unattended.  Although our homeless friend could no longer access the rest room at will, he would come to the door and ask for the key when he needed to use it.  This worked fine for a while, until one day Pastor Mom happened to be in the rest room replacing supplies.  When she opened the cabinet below the sink, she found a large sleeping bag stuffed in there, along with a long-bladed hunting knife.

Of course, we were horrified.  This rest room is used by children and adults alike during church services.  What if a little kid had found that knife?

We hadn’t seen our friend in more than a week, so Pastor Mom returned the sleeping bag and the knife to his family, who live just across the fence from the church.  Our friend is estranged from his family for some of the same reasons that many homeless people no longer have any family members upon whom they can depend for help:  Mental health issues, drugs, problems with the law.

For a while, our friend had lived with his mom and grandma.  Then his grandmother, who owned the house, decided that he was no longer welcome.  He spent many nights camping out on a corner of the lawn far from the house and close to the church fence.  We tried to help by buying him some warm things, a new pair of shoes.  When his grandmother died recently, our friend’s sister moved in with his mom.  While they deigned to allow him indoors on the occasional cold night, most evenings he slept in his sister’s car.  Then the car was sold and he was back outdoors again.  The sister’s husband was released from jail and moved in with them.  Another person simply was not wanted, particularly since our friend is prone to fits of rage replete with language that would singe the hairs off your head.  He found that his family was good for the occasional meal but that his presence was not desired.  He had burned his bridges.

I kept wondering why our friend doesn’t just walk the few blocks to the freeway, stick out his thumb and kick over the traces.  Make a new life for himself in another state.  Start over.

The answer is:  It’s complicated.  With the homeless, it always is.

For one thing, this community is all he knows.  It’s what he is familiar with and, whatever his mental and emotional problems may be, he is not equipped to step out of his comfort zone.  For another thing, our friend is on probation and has to report to his P.O. on a regular basis.  Even this is a challenge, as we live in an outlying community situated several miles up the freeway from the county seat.  He can take the bus if he has the fare.  Most of the time, he doesn’t.  Sometimes he begs it from us.  Other times, he’ll hitch a ride or, if it’s not raining, he’ll just walk.

And it’s not just the scheduled meetings with his probation officer that pose transportation problems.  He has to go into town for almost everything, from medical appointments to visiting the recycling center with his collection of cans and bottles to pick up a little cash.  We’ve provided him with a ride on more than a few occasions.

Not long after we returned our friend’s knife and sleeping bag to his family, he came to our door asking to be let into the rest room.  We had to tell him no.  We asked him to think about what would have happened had a little kid found that knife.

“So am I supposed to pee on the lawn?” he asked.

Pastor Mom explained that this isn’t our problem.  We had tried to help him repeatedly, even allowing him to sleep in the rest room some nights.  But he had repaid us by violating our trust.  Just as he did with this family, he had now burned his bridges with us.

Will our friend be arrested if he’s caught peeing behind a tree or in some dark corner?  Sooner or later, he probably will be.  Which won’t go well for him, particularly since he’s still on probation.

Most people have never heard of the common law defense of necessity, and for good reasons.  For one, it’s a dirty little secret (like jury nullification) that the legal establishment doesn’t want you to know about.  For another, it’s just not sexy.  Unlike “affluenza” or “the Twinkie defense,” the defense of necessity is not a splashy media sensation used in ill-fated attempts to get wealthy defendants off in media circus murder trials.  The bottom line, however, is that the defense of necessity is primarily used to help the homeless, and who cares about them?

In a nutshell, the common law defense of necessity states that, as members of the animal kingdom, humans lack control over basic bodily functions.  Our bodies will eliminate the waste they produce, whether we have a rest room to use or not.  After we stay awake for a certain amount of time, we will fall asleep regardless of whether we have a private place to do so.  In other words, the homeless are physically incapable of adhering to the law no matter how much they may want to do so.  In the end, the body will always win.

For the most part, the courts don’t recognize this defense because allowing the homeless to pee and sleep in public offends the sensibilities of moneyed homeowners, “the good citizens of our community.”  After all, we don’t want our town smelling like Mumbai and the River Ganges.

These objections are cast in “nicer” terms, of course.  There is a public health danger associated with public urination and defecation.  (But it’s not unusual to find dog turds on public streets, sidewalks and lawns.  Apparently, dogs aren’t expected to control their bodily functions, but humans, robots that we are, must.)

And then the big guns come out.  The effects on children are cited, with the aim of horrifying the public.  If a kid sees a guy peeing in public, she will be scarred for life!  Think of the nightmares that will result from seeing a bare backside in the act of pooping!  And, heavens, once the penis comes out of the pants, can sexual offenses be far behind?

So, yes, I do expect to see our friend’s name on the local police blotter before long.  In the meantime, I hear he’s been alternating couch surfing with sleeping out of doors.  I’m sure he makes use the rest rooms in local businesses to the extent that they let him get away with it.

Our homeless guy now claims that a friend has given him his dog.  He stopped by with the dog on a leash one day.  Later, he came by asking for a dollar to buy dog food.  He said he has Food Stamps, but that the dog refuses to eat people food.  We told him that the dog will share whatever he eats if it gets hungry enough.  (We know that the dog is not his and is being fed elsewhere.  We wonder what he really wanted the dollar for.)

Another day, our friend came by asking to use a phone.  Last we knew, he was in possession of a pair of cell phones, but apparently he no longer has service.  My wife allowed him to make a call on her phone.  As he left, our friend instructed my wife to delete the number from her phone.  I figure he was making contact with his drug dealer.

Then there was the day he came by asking for a dollar for cigarettes.  We told him no, we don’t approve of smoking.  He was upset, saying he should have lied about what he needed the money for.

A few days later, he came by asking for a dollar for gasoline to fill a neighbor’s weed whacker.  He said he’d been hired to clean up the guy’s lawn but that he needed a little bit of gas to do it.  He said he’d be paid the next day and would bring back the dollar.

We turned him down.  We knew there was no weed whacker and no job.

A few days ago, I heard him again.  It was a nice day and we had the door open.  From across the fence, I heard the sounds of dogs yowling while the curses, arguments and yelling floated over on the breeze.


We All Fall Down


I’ve been playing in an ongoing email Scrabble tournament for more than a decade now.  My opponents are from Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, Israel, Australia, multiple nations in Europe and Asia, as well as from here in the United States.  We start new games every two weeks.

Sometimes I draw just the right tiles and pull off some nice wins.  Other times, not so much.  This week, for example, I was rolling right along, maintaining a nice vowel/consonant balance in my rack, making some decent plays.  Nothing spectacular, mind you, but I was staying ahead of my opponent by a healthy margin.  I was confident of a win.  Then, toward the end of the game, my opponent pulled off a big play and I found myself left with nothing but junk on my rack and a tight board.  And so, after doing great all game long, I choked.  Lost the game, and not by a few points either.  Grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory.  Or, as I explained it to my wife, “I pulled a Shaun White.”

Watching the Olympics has been just plain painful.  Sure, there have been some wonderful moments, such as the gold medal feats of Katy Farrington and Sage Kotsenburg.  By and large, however, the performance of the U.S. Olympic Team has been rather embarrassing.

Here I was prepared to cheer loud and long when the Americans take the podium to win one gold medal after another.  It’s nice to know that we did win a few.  But so far, there haven’t been many.  I keep wincing as I see our people stumble and fall on the snow and ice.

To be fair, it’s not only the Americans who are playing the fall-down guys and gals.  I just finished watching Swedish snowboarder Henrik Harlaut fall on his head in the slopestyle.  And this was after he lost both his skis and his pants during qualifying rounds.  There was Li Nina of China, who fell on her head in aerials skiing. Ditto for Lydia Lassila of Australia.  There were all the collisions during the speed skating events.  Then there were the eighteen competitors in the women’s Super G who failed to complete the course.  Count ‘em, eighteen

American snowboarders Nick Goepper and Bobby Brown both crashed in first round qualifying, improving in the finals.  And now here goes American skater Jeremy Abbott sprawling and crashing into the wall on the landing of his quad toe jump.  He ought to be awarded the gold medal for courage after he got up and successfully performed the rest of the jumps in his short program.

Here goes Gus Kenworthy, falling on the last jump of his slopestyle run.  And Emily Cook falling on her landing in aerials. 

I hear my conscience saying:  “You think these tricks are easy?  You try it!”  And some say I have no grounds to complain, with the United States having scored 15 Olympic medals at Sochi so far, tied with the Netherlands for second place and only one medal behind the leader, host nation Russia.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate that these are some of the most difficult athletic feats known to man.  It’s just that these are supposed to be the finest athletes in the world, the best of the best.  So you can understand why I didn’t expect the Olympic Games held in the winter to have the theme of “fall.”

And of course I expect my American team to show up the rest of the world.  So I am more than a little disappointed when the scoreboard keeps telling me that the United States came in eighth, fourteenth or twenty-first.  Particularly when we so often start off strong, then suffer a fall or run out of steam right at the end.

I wonder if Shaun White plays Scrabble.


Hearts and Flowers? No, Thanks.

So, it’s Valentine’s Day.

I’ll warn you now:  There are probably a lot of women out there (and some men) who shouldn’t be reading this.  Because I’m going to be brutally honest and tell you that I think Valentine’s Day is highly overrated.

Like Christmas, Valentine’s Day is supposed to have deeper personal and family meanings, but has become so commercialized as to have been reduced to nothing but a boon to the economy.  At least Christmas has a great religious significance; despite the “Saint” in its name, Valentine’s Day has been effectively stripped of its religious origins.

This season is marked by insipid radio and television advertising that encourages wasteful spending on trinkets.  I am offended that these commercial interruptions, which insult our intelligence, have even invaded my Spotify music stream.

Most of these ads are oriented toward men.  The predominant modus operandi is one of subtly instilling guilt and browbeating men into preemptively avoiding the negative consequences that are bound to result from failing to adequately bestow expensive tokens of affection upon one’s beloved.  At times, it feels as if my fellow males are being hit over the head with a truncheon, but I say “subtly” because the ads are generally couched in terms of the carrot rather than the stick.  Either way, the message is abundantly clear:  If you mess up, guys, you ain’t gettin’ none.

Of course the flower and candy hawkers are in deep.  But no one has as much invested as the jewelers, which specialize in showing us the adoring looks of the female recipients of their wares.  Sometimes, they even bring the children into this schlock:  “He went to Jared!”  But my favorite is still the sexual hard sell:  “Every kiss begins with Kay!”

It is true that my remarks are dripping in sarcasm like some type of perverse chocolate icing.  Many feel that I overreact, that Valentine’s Day is essentially a harmless, lighthearted holiday and that there is no need to read so much into it.

Now, I’m all for the lighthearted approach endorsed by my fellow blogger, Linda, in her post A Word about Valentine’s Day for Children.  But this is not how I was raised.  While others exchanged handmade heart-shaped cards with their elementary school chums, I attended a strictly religious Jewish school in which any day that started with the word “saint” was anathema and simply was not discussed.  Accordingly, I was blithely ignorant of Valentine’s Day traditions until I hit my public secondary school education.  By that time, peer pressure demanded that the things of childhood be put away, including the little paper hearts.  Valentine’s Day was largely ignored, which suited me fine.

In the home in which I grew up, Valentine’s Day was a nonstarter.  I never saw either of my parents bestow any type of affection upon the other, which Dr. Freud would probably say accounts for a lot of my standoffishness in adulthood (although my little grandniece is starting to change that).  In any event, I never saw so much as a Valentine’s Day card or a flower pass between my father and mother.  I mention this both in the name of full disclosure and to provide a broader context for my remarks.

I do realize that, in the United States at least, my curmudgeonly stance on Valentine’s Day places me in a tiny minority.  After all, every girlfriend and wife expects to be remembered with candy, flowers and bling on the fourteenth of February, and woe to the man who forgets.  Not that the shrill advertising in every media outlet will let anyone forget.  It makes me sick to think of all the money I wasted back in my single days on all manner of Valentine’s Day junk and flowers that died and were thrown in the trash two days later.

But then I think of a friend of ours who was so upset today because her husband gave her nothing for Valentine’s Day, not even so much as a card.  Even if the occasion means nothing to him, it seems to me that he should have taken her feelings into consideration.

I am everlastingly grateful that my wife and I are like-minded regarding Valentine’s Day, as we are on so many things.  I make dinner reservations, we have a nice meal out, and that’s that.  Neither of us believes in wasting money to enrich Hallmark, the florists and the diamond hawkers.

This in no way diminishes our appreciation of each other.  Why should we wait until a particular overcommercialized date on the calendar to express our gratitude?  And why should we demean our importance to each other with meaningless tcotchkes?

After all, my wife is the greatest gift and blessing I could ever ask for, and I get to enjoy her company every day of the year.


February Holidays

February has always been a strange month.  Well, let’s say a unique month.

After all, January is a hard act to follow, with its celebration of the new year, noisemakers and fireworks, hope and resolutions.  By comparison, February is the poor kinfolk.  It’s the dead of winter, which has been going on for two months and we’re pretty sick of it already (particularly if you live in the northeastern United States and have to shovel snow again).

As if looking out the window or sticking one’s head out the door weren’t enough to confirm the deep freeze, we start out the month with Ground Hog Day.  We really needed to be reminded by a rodent (from Pennsylvania yet) that we have to put with six more weeks of this crap.

As the month progresses, we celebrate true love on St. Valentine’s Day and, here in the U.S., honor our first president (famous for crossing the Delaware with his troops in the dead of night on Christmas Eve and taking the partying Redcoats by surprise in New Jersey) and our sixteenth president (famous for the Gettysburg Address, freeing the slaves and holding the nation together during a time of deep divisiveness).  When I was a kid, we celebrated by having two days off school, Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s Birthday on February 22.  But by the time I hit high school, the two holidays were more or less merged into one, Presidents Day always being celebrated on a Monday to give us a three-day weekend.  Then, somewhere along the line, the holidays seem to have been split again, Presidents Day becoming synonymous with Washington’s Birthday.  Thus, at my last job, each year we were off for Lincoln’s Birthday (on February 12, which frequently fell in the middle of the week) as well as for Presidents Day/Washington’s Birthday on the third Monday of the month (giving us our three-day weekend).

I honestly can’t think of a single tradition associated with Washington’s Birthday, other than shrill TV and radio ads for department stores and used car dealers.  Lincoln’s Birthday seems to have a loose association with the eating of cherry pie, based on the outsized myth that, in his youth, “honest Abe” could not tell a lie and hence admitted to having chopped down a cherry tree and accepted the consequences therefor.  In fact, the importance of cherry pie appears to have increased over the years to the point at which it now has its very own holiday, divorced from Honest Abe’s birthday.  Yes, that’s right, February 20 is National Cherry Pie Day.

Cherry pie isn’t February’s only comestible rock star, however.  Apparently, the month is loaded with food holidays.  The Nibble informs us that the day before National Cherry Pie Day is National Chocolate Mint Day and that the day after is National Sticky Bun Day.  This weekend, we have National Gumdrop Day on Saturday and National Almond Day on Sunday.  I need to make a supermarket run for some Jelly Bellies and a can of mixed nuts.

Although I no longer eat seafood or dairy, at one time I would have been delighted to learn that February 9 is National Bagels and Lox Day, just two days after National Fetuccine Alfredo Day.  I may have missed Homemade Soup Day back on the fourth, but I think I made up for it this week by enjoying a pot of my wife’s wonderful vegetable soup with cabbage.  Thank you, dear!  Oh, and could you please replenish a supply of our favorite green nuts in time for National Pistachio Day on the 26th?  Particularly since our last can, um, disappeared before I could get any?  Not that I mind, but hey, it’s a holiday don’t you know.

Needless to say, Uncle Guacamole is particularly pleased that February is National Avocado Month.  Just think of it, an entire month to honor my favorite fruit!  Good thing the 24th is National Tortilla Chip Day.

And lest we be accused of selfishness, let’s not forget to set aside a special day to celebrate with Rover this month.  How about, say, February 22 (Walking the Dog Day) or 23rd (International  Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day)?

It’s not all about food, though.  It may be time to visit the dentist (since the ninth is Toothache Day and the last day of the month is National Tooth Fairy Day).  Then there’s National Battery Day on the 18th (I know I have some triple-As here somewhere), Polar Bear Day on the 27th (sorry, I’m not taking a swim in the freezing cold ocean) and, bringing up the rear at the end of the month, Public Sleeping Day (when I get to find a park bench and practice being a vagrant).

When I found out that February 20 is National Hoodie Hoo Day, I had to look that one up.  On that date, apparently North Americans are supposed to step outside at noon, wave their hands over their heads and holler “hoodie hoo!”  I swear, I am not making this up.

I see that the tenth was Clean Out Your Computer Day and that the sixteenth will be Do a Grouch a Favor Day (I may visit Oscar from Sesame Street and make it Clean Out Your Trash Can Day).

But my favorite February holiday of all, and one I fully intend to celebrate, is Random Acts of Kindness Day, which is marked this coming Monday.  If you find yourself in line at a drive-through window on that day, don’t forget to pay for the meal or coffee for the car behind you.  Then drive away as fast as you can.

Trust me, the smile on your face will warm up even the coldest day in February.


The Social Network, Medical Style

Both Denny’s and our local diner are gathering places where friends meet for breakfast and lunch, community groups hold meetings and neighbors run into each other and share coffee and gossip.  But the vibe at Duke’s oozes authenticity, while Denny’s gives off the distinct aura of kitsch.  After all, it is a national chain.  And as much as Denny’s aspires to the genuine, it can never be anything more than a poseur.

Case in point:  Denny’s has begun to decorate its restaurants with wallpaper silk screened with not-so-pithy aphorisms that approach the boundaries of idiocy.   Here’s what I mean:

  • “A diner is a restaurant with its shirt untucked.”  (Thank goodness for that.  Here in rural northern California, I was getting tired of dressing up in suit and tie for dinner at Lutèce every night.)
  • “Bacon and eggs:  All in a day’s work for the chicken, a lifetime commitment for the pig.”  (Please don’t insult my intelligence.  Disneyland is thataway.)

Then there are the sayings that focus less on the restaurant itself and more on its customers.

  • “A diner booth is the world’s smallest neighborhood.”
  • “A diner is the original social network.”

I get the message that Denny’s is attempting to conjure up an old-timey feel that probably didn’t exist back then and certainly doesn’t exist now.  The irony of using the phrase “social network” in creating an image of yesteryear is not lost on me.

But today I discovered that it’s all a lie.  It simply isn’t true that a diner is the world’s smallest neighborhood or the original social network.

The doctor’s office is.

Early this morning, I accompanied Pastor Mom to her cardiologist appointment, where she had radioactive dye pumped into her veins and her motor revved up way beyond the legal speed limit.  Last time, the procedure made her ill, so we wanted to be sure that she wouldn’t have to drive home.  Armed with my book, my phone and my water bottle, I spent two hours ensconced upon a leather couch in the doctor’s waiting room.

The first thing I noticed was that Pastor Mom was by far the youngest patient there.  She was called in right away and I had plenty of time to bury my face in my book while I surreptitiously eavesdropped on the conversations going on all around me.  And there were plenty of those, the cooking show demonstrating the preparation of eggs benedict and hash brown potatoes on the wall-mounted TV being universally ignored.

The two elderly gentlemen seated behind me were discussing the relative comedic merits of Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason.  The two old ladies seated on the couch catty-corner to my own were lamenting the departure of Jay Leno from The Tonight Show, agreeing that the new guy, Jimmy Fallon, is strictly for the younger crowd.  Who can even understand the references that these young guys make?  Then the topic moved on to the Olympics, how spectacular the Opening Ceremonies were, and whether it’s better to stay up late to watch all the action or to record it and play it back early in the morning.

One patient using an oxygen tank waited her turn in a wheelchair; another came through the door using a cane and being supported by the arm of his wife.  Most were in the eighties or beyond.  I saw no iPads or PCs, few cell phones and plenty of old-fashioned, hard copy books.

Some of the patients appeared to know each other.  They inquired after the health of family members, catching up on who had moved out of town and who had died.  Perhaps they had met in this very waiting room on other occasions, or perhaps they knew each other from around town.

But what quickly became clear to me was that many of the grandmas and grandpas with whom I shared the waiting room had simply sat down and began conversations with their neighbors, taking advantage of serendipity and time to kill to make friendly connections with others who they may or may not ever see again.

So suck it, Denny’s.  You are not the world’s smallest neighborhood nor yet the original social network.

The cardiologist’s office is.