Archive for March, 2015

My Spiritual Journey (to date)



By Bob Litton (except for credited quotations)

NOTE TO READERS: I want to alert you to the fact that the preface in this post is 645 words long, and the post’s body itself contains 4,675 words. With that warning before you, you can better decide whether you want to read it all. I hope you do, and I hope that you benefit from that reading. I guarantee you that it is not an April Fool’s Day joke. Enjoy!!!


Next Sunday is Easter Sunday. I had not paid any attention to that fact of life until today (March 30), when the notion popped into my head to publish a testimony I had delivered on Pentecost Sunday in 1997.

But first I believe it would be fitting to preface the testimony with a brief backstory. At the time of this event, I was much involved in the local United Methodist Church; I was even helping the pastor teach a 34-week Bible study course called Disciple. I discovered then that I was a pretty good teacher; so did the pastor and some of the eleven other class members. (Classes were limited to twelve members to mirror the number of the original disciples.) I think that realization was probably the seed for the “event”.

One day, the pastor asked me if I could substitute for him in the following Sunday’s service; he explained that he needed to be in El Paso (237 miles west) that weekend for his son’s graduation from the university. Then, on Friday, while I was describing my sermon topic to a Dallas friend, she exclaimed, “Why, that’s Pentecost Sunday!” I had not even been aware of that fact, for the liturgical aspects of religion hardly mattered to me. However, this time, my friend’s information struck me “between the eyes”, for Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit was introduced to the disciples; and the principle topic of my “testimony” was my first conscious contact with what Christians call that mystical being. Other faiths have different titles and descriptions of the same “person”, but their own experiences have been and are largely consonant with those of the historical Christian mystics. That is why, I believe, most mystics have not been much accepted, during their lives, by their religious leaders.

When Sunday came I was surprised to see the pastor in the sanctuary; I have forgotten (if in fact he ever explained) why he was not in El Paso. However, I have since suspected I had been the victim of a ruse; the pastor and one of the Disciple class members had pushed me (metaphorically speaking) into the pulpit. But then, the pastor, having noticed I had some sheets of paper in my hand, introduced me by disparaging the reading of sermons. The problem with his criticism—although I agree unread sermons are generally more effective than read ones—is that I am really weak at thinking and speaking “on my feet”; also, my talk contained several quotations which I needed to read to the congregation.

Before the service started, the pastor stuck a small microphone on my shirt. After I began the testimony—which I prefer to call it because I did not feel qualified or authorized to tell people how to live through a sermon—the microphone malfunctioned, now working fine, now not working. I faced a dilemma: whether to remove the microphone or persevere regardless of what it did. Did the Holy Spirit not want me to read the testimony? Or did the Holy Spirit not want me to share with others our relationship? I persevered to the end, willing to accept any retribution the Holy Spirit deemed satisfactory.

A few months later, after I had returned to Dallas, I gave a copy of the testimony to Bob Cooper, former associate chaplain at Southern Methodist University and an old friend of mine. Soon thereafter Bob Cooper met with me in a coffee shop and critiqued it. He said it contained much interesting and worthwhile content. However, he remarked, “It is too long and has too many long quotations in it.”

“But,” I responded, “I timed myself the day before, and it took only twenty minutes.”

“Then you read too fast.”

Dear readers, see how fast you can read my testimony on the Holy Spirit.

Testimony of a Spiritual Journey

(A sermon delivered at the First United Methodist Church of Alpine, Texas, on Pentecost Sunday, May 18, 1997)

Text: Romans 8:18-27      

I consider that the sufferings of this present generation are not worth comparing with the glory that is revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now, hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Good morning! My name is Bob. I am a sinner. Do you wonder why I introduce myself in that way?  I hope so, because I intend to tell you. There are three reasons.

The first has to do with my credentials for speaking here today. I know you are sinners. I want to make you feel comfortable by admitting I am a sinner also. We have at least that much in common right from the start.

Secondly, I need to remind myself that I am a sinner. I think you should remind yourselves of that, too. When we attend church every Sunday, contribute to our community through various volunteer programs, and try to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, it is easy for our sense of sin to get crusty—to glaze over—so that we cannot see it without extra effort.

But we are in the world, and—no matter how generally holy we become—we can’t help but slip once in a while. Think of the world as a huge fallow field with all sorts of weeds as well as beneficial grasses in it. You can’t walk through that field without a few grass burrs clinging to your pants legs.

The third reason I announce my sinfulness is that sin, in general, is about as close as “normal people” can get to the gift shared by alcoholics—their disease. That’s right. I said the alcoholics’ problem is a GIFT—or it can be if he or she ever rises above the denial stage.

You see, when an alcoholic realizes his true condition, especially if he’s a hard case who has already lost his family, his job, and maybe even killed someone in an auto accident he gets scared. If he still has a modicum of his wits about him, he searches for help. HIS VERY LIFE IS AT STAKE.

Thus, people in a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, for the most part take their program very seriously. Before each one in a group speaks he introduces himself in this manner: “Hi!  My name is John (never a last name); I’m an alcoholic.” They turn to God—even to a God they may not really believe in—as well as to other alcoholics for help. They pray; they diligently work the twelve steps; they make themselves available to other alcoholics going through a crisis at any time of the day or night; they facilitate 12-step meetings in jails and wherever else they might be needed.

I was in AA for two years. It was one of the best, the most growth-filled, experiences of my life. I was an agnostic when I went in—in rebellion against the God of my youth. A year into the program, I was probably the most spiritually-minded person in that group.

However, while spirituality is the foundation upon which a 12-step program such as AA stands, it is not the primary purpose of the program. No, the primary purpose is to stay sober or to give up gluttony or to forgo promiscuous sex or whatever the addiction is. So, the thing to do is to talk about your addiction, not about God—at least not solely about God. (The first three steps are called the God steps.)

After a few months into the program, the spiritual atmosphere of that group began to affect me.  I had never really given up my search for God—God as a tangible experience, as something more than a concept in a book written thousands of years ago. I began to have spiritual experiences, charismatic experiences. Some of them were weird. I began to read the classic spiritual writers—St. Augustine, Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Jacob Boehme, William Law. I saw that others long before me had experienced the same sort of spiritual gifts I was experiencing. I wanted to talk about these experiences. But AA no longer seemed the appropriate place to discuss spirituality per se.

I returned to the church of my youth—the Methodist Church, or, as it was now called, the UNITED Methodist Church. I hadn’t been inside a church (except for weddings) in 40 years. And I was shocked. There weren’t many people there, and the few who were didn’t seem interested in spirituality as I understood spirituality—at all. As one woman put it, “Half of us come here out of habit, and half to get some social life.”

I began to ponder why. AA was spiritual and the people in the church were for the most part not spiritual. Several possible reasons came to mind, but the one most pertinent to today’s message was that THE CHURCH PEOPLE DIDN’T FEEL ANY THREAT TO THEIR LIVES. The alcoholics had their disease to scare them and to unify them in their search for God. The church people had nothing except possibly a nebulous sense of sin—a sense too vague, honestly, to scare them and only barely strong enough to unite them, after a fashion.

What was I looking for? I was looking for God. During my sojourn in AA—what I call “my term among the Essenes”—God had set some lures, however slight, to attract me to him.

One day, for instance, while on coffee break at an insurance company, I was reading a book about poetry. The author provided by way of example of simile a fragment of verse which read:

……………………….. And music,

Yearning like a god in pain.

I thought I recognized the scrap of verse, but the author didn’t cite the poet. “That looks like something Shelley might have written!” I said to myself. I went home and skimmed an anthology of British poetry. I couldn’t find the line in any of Shelley’s poems. Then I tried Keats. And there was the line in Keats’  “Eve of St. Agnes”.

Then, one day not long afterwards, for some forgotten reason I was reading Jeremiah. In his 31st chapter, verses 18 through 20, I read this poignant dialogue between God and Ephraim. Since this is a dialogue and I don’t want to disturb the poetry by specifying who is speaking when, please take the Revised Standard Version Bible from the rack in front of you and turn to Jeremiah 31:18 and follow along as I read aloud.

I have heard Ephraim bemoaning:

“Thou hast chastened me, and I was


like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

For after I turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”

                     Is Ephraim my dear son?

                     Is he my darling child?

           For as often as I speak against him,

                    I do remember him still.

          Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,” says the Lord.

There was that word again—YEARN—that had such a strange hold on me. Why did it attract me so?

On another day soon afterwards I was reading Gilbert Murray’s book on the Greek dramatist Euripides, and I came upon this paragraph where he describes the religious origin of Greek drama, particularly of the chorus:

The word ‘chorus’ means ‘dance’ or ‘dancing ground’. There were such dancing floors on Greek soil before ever the Greeks came there. They have been found in prehistoric Crete and in the islands. We hear in Homer of the ‘houses and dancing grounds’ of the Morning Star. The dance was as old as mankind; only it was a kind of dance that we have forgotten. The ancient dance was not, like our ballets, rooted in sexual emotion. It was religious: It was a form of prayer. It consisted in the use of the whole body, every limb and every muscle, to express somehow that overflow of emotion for which a man has no words. And primitive man had less command of words than we have. When the men were away on the warpath, the women prayed for them with all their bodies. They danced for the men’s safe return. When the tribe’s land was parching for lack of rain the tribesmen danced for the rain to come. The dance did not necessarily imply movement. It might consist in simply maintaining the same rigid attitude, as when Moses held out his arms during the battle with the Amelekites.The dramatist may make his characters express all that they can properly feel; he may put into articulate dialogue all that it will be. But there still remains some residue which no one on the stage can personally feel and which can only express itself as music or YEARNING of the body. This residue finds its instrument in the chorus.

And I read in the writings of the Quaker William Law, an early mentor of John Wesley, the following:

Every man that has any feeling of the weight of his sin, or any true desire to be delivered from it by Christ, has learning and capacity enough to make his own prayer. For prayer is not speaking forth eloquently, but simply, the true desire of the heart….

It is not silence, or a simple petition, or a great variety of outward expressions that alters the nature of prayer, or makes it good or better, but only and solely the reality, steadiness and continuity of the desire; and therefore, whether a man offers this desire to God in the silent LONGING of the heart, or in simple short petitions, or in a great variety of words is of no consequence. But if you would know what I would call a true and great gift of prayer, and what I most of all wish for myself, it is A GOOD HEART THAT STANDS CONTINUALLY INCLINED TOWARDS GOD.

And in St. John of the Cross’s classic work Dark Night of the Soul I read:

…there soon begins to make itself felt a certain YEARNING toward God; and the more this increases, the more is the soul affectioned and enkindled in love toward God, without knowing, or understanding how and whence this love and affection come to it, but from time to time seeing this flame and this enkindling, grow so greatly within it that it desires God with a YEARNING of love……

Finally, as we heard today in the scripture reading from the 8th chapter of Romans, St. Paul said:

The creation waits with eager LONGING for the Revealing of the sons of God…. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.  And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

That “longing” and that “groaning,” (as Paul calls it) is the same as the “yearning” described in the previous passages I read to you, and what I very often feel. That is the Holy Spirit helping us in our wordless, constant prayer.

To try and further convince you that the Holy Spirit is alive and well and working in our lives right now, I will testify to some other aspects of his showing to me. I must first emphasize that these revelations or graces or consolations were not granted me because I deserved them. If I had deserved them they would not have been graces, but rewards. Like Paul, I had rebelled against God until He said, “Enough of this!  You’re getting old, Bob, and I have work for you to do.  Stop behaving like an untrained calf!”

On at least two occasions I have smelled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I did not know what it was when I smelled it. On both occasions I was in parking lots, one near the AA group’s meeting place and the other at my apartment complex. On both occasions I looked about me to discover where the sweet aroma was coming from. There were no flowering plants, no perfumed women in the vicinity, only oak and pecan trees and a whole bunch of concrete. I wondered what could have caused the briefly lingering fragrance, but I didn’t at the time attribute any supernatural cause to it.

In St. John of the Cross I read that such a fragrance is one of the consolations God grants new converts, to further lure them to seek him, a sweet milk of spiritual favor granted before he withdraws it, weaning the convert, much as a mother (in those days) spread bitter aloes over her breast to wean her child and lead him toward a more solid diet.

And in Father John Arintero’s The Mystical Evolution I read:

Now Jesus Christ, in everything that he touched during his mortal life—as poverty, abjection, the cross—left a sweet odour, a delicious savour, but few souls have their senses sufficiently purified to perceive this odour and to taste this savour, which are altogether supernatural. The saints have “run to the odour of these ointments”.

And the Holy Spirit has entered my heart or mind—I know not which, if there is indeed any difference.  In most cases these silent communications appeared at first to be simply my own thoughts, yet thoughts I was compelled to utter aloud, even though no one was around to hear me. What I am saying, is that I have prophesied. Curiously, however, in many instances these “prophecies” were what I would consider inconsequential. I will relate here two of the more significant episodes, one from the first of my spiritual journey and the other from near the end of the consolations period.

The first is from my journal entry dated October 5, 1990.

Leaving my apartment on this clear, cool, clean day, I heard a mockingbird singing in the small oak tree that shades my pickup from the morning sun.  At least I believe it was a mockingbird, for I could not see it; it apparently was perched on the other side of the green-leafed branches.  Remembering my resolution to try and hear God’s voice through other beings besides humans, I paused by my truck’s door, my hand resting on the door handle. The bird had an impressively inclusive repertory, by which evidence I concluded it was a mockingbird. Yet, willing as I was and trying as I might, I could not distinguish any message for me from God—or even from the bird qua bird. Finally, I smiled, shook my head, and said, “Sorry, God.  I guess I’m just not there yet.” I got into my truck and drove away.

Two mornings later, on October 7, before rising from bed, I reached over to pick up a New Yorker magazine I had bought the night before.  After scanning the cartoons (always a first priority when it involves the New Yorker) I started reading the poems.  One poem, by Lars Gustafson and translated from the Swedish by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, was about an 86-year-old Mexican woman who had recently died.  When the doctors examined her they discovered she had been carrying around a dead fetus in her womb for 60 years.

Stuck right in the middle of the lengthy poem were the following lines about a bird who apparently had annoyingly caught the attention of the poet as he was trying to compose his poem. They are an interruption in the poem, yet a part of it:

….. Mockingbird, what do you want?

You have so many voices, and I don’t know which one of them to take seriously.

The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes —

then there’s a kind of clucking,

on certain days in early spring,

when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,

as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.

Mockingbird in the green oak tree!

What’s the secret you sit there trying to


Now for the second incident, which as I said earlier came at the end of my consolation period.  I was in a dark and lonely mood as I took my morning walk around a section of White Rock Lake in Dallas. I said to God something to this effect, “Oh Lord, I know you’ve withdrawn your favors from me so that I can become a spiritual adult. But I’m still weak. Please, just one more grace to let me know you’re still with me.”

I was walking up an asphalt road toward a coffee shop. Off to my left I could see a small dark cloud which looked as if it seriously had rain in it, even though it was ridiculously small and there were no other gray clouds up there. Suddenly a gust of wind, the sort you feel just before a rain starts, blew towards me. It stirred up a dust devil from the grit on the street. The grit hit me in the face. I said, “Okay, God, I can take a hint!” I thought that was His comical answer.

The next day I went to my job at a bookstore. I walked into the buying area in back. There alone was one of the other employees, a man named Ernest (name changed in respect of his privacy). He was looking over some used books, pricing them. “Are you wearing perfume?”  Ernest asked.

“No,” I replied and kept on going. I punched in my time card and looked at the schedule to see what time my register duty was. Then I thought a moment, came back to Ernest and said, “Ernest, I’ll tell you what you smelled. You exhaled the fragrance of the Holy Spirit. I know because I’ve smelled it before, too.”

I explained that God was simply trying to get his attention and build up his faith. He was calling him to Himself.  I told him that he could expect more strange occurrences in the coming days—episodes which many people might try to explain away as coincidences, but he would know better. I showed him a couple of paragraphs in a book of letters of spiritual direction by Louis XIV’s chaplain, Archbishop Francois Fenélon, that I thought might be clearer than my amateur explanation.

“This really speaks to me,” said Ernest, after reading one page. I loaned him the book so he could read the letter at his leisure and ponder its message.

The next day I asked Ernest if he had read the letter, and he replied, “Not yet.”

That astounded me. I mean, if I had been told by someone I thought trustworthy that God was trying to get my attention, I would have eagerly given my attention.

The third day I asked him again, “Well, Ernest, have you read that letter yet?”

“No,” he replied, “but a strange thing happened yesterday. A guy came in to sell some books. As we looked through them, he picked one up and said, ‘What’s this book doing here? That’s not my book!’

“It was Fenélon!” Ernest continued, adding, “I took two steps backward.”

I was just as surprised as Ernest was. Sure, I had prophesied what would happen to him, but I had no idea what particular experience he would have or when. I had simply extrapolated a probability based on my own experience.

A few days later I again asked Ernest if he had read the letter.

In a voice of exasperation, he said, “No, I haven’t, Bob.” Then, looking kind of panicky at me, he said, “Bob, you’re scaring me!”

I pondered the situation a couple of days, trying to figure out what God was up to and why Ernest was reluctant to respond. (Months later memories of one or two startling, even awful,  experiences that had happened to me, too, came back to me but they were much heavier than this situation.) Ernest seemed to be running from the Holy Spirit too soon, while I had been complaining that the contact had ended too soon. Finally, I went to Ernest and apologized for scaring him and I told him that perhaps that episode hadn’t been meant for him. Maybe it had been meant for me. I had asked for a consolation, a reassurance that all my own experiences were not figments of my imagination. Perhaps God wasn’t going to grant that prayer directly, but indirectly he would allow me to witness a grace given to someone else.

“Yes,” said Ernest, when I related this to him. “It validates you.”

A remark by Meister Eckhart seems apropos here:

The mind can never rest except in the essential truth which is locked up in it—the truth about everything. Essence alone satisfies, and God keeps on withdrawing, farther and farther away, to arouse the mind’s zeal and lure it on to follow and finally grasp the true good that has no cause. Thus, contented with nothing, the mind clamors for the highest good of all.

The “lure” is a prominent theme in Meister Eckhart’s writings.

Shortly after that, I entered the “dark night of the soul”,  the time when God withdraws, just as Meister Eckhart and St. John of the Cross had described it. Since I had read about the “night” and thus been forewarned, I thought it would be an easier experience for me. But it wasn’t, at least I don’t think it was. The graces—the consolations—ceased. “Too soon,”  I thought. “I’m still a child, a novice at this, Oh Lord,” I prayed. “Give me just a little more time!” But that wasn’t the way God works. He decides when a convert has had enough of the manna of his graces.

It was time for me to work toward spiritual maturity. I developed a mental indigestion from my reading of the spiritual classics; I quit reading them. I found it difficult to pray. I was strongly tempted to return to my previous dissipated lifestyle. But something was blocking me from doing that. It seemed like I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward either. I was stuck in neutral.

Even worse, I had a strong sense of my sinfulness. It is a paradox that while I was wallowing in worldliness, I had little to no sense of sin; but as soon as I began to grow spiritually—­even very slightly it seemed—I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wickedness. At that time, I couldn’t perceive my condition in the way that Richard Foster describes it in his Celebration of Discipline:

It is true that those in the first flush of faith often are given unusual graces of the Spirit (Foster writes) just like a new baby is cuddled and pampered. It is also true that some of the deepest experiences of alienation and separation from God have come to those who have traveled far into the interior realms of faith.

St. John of the Cross likens this experience of spiritual dryness to the situation of a person in a dark dungeon for many years. There is a window there, but it is grimy with soot and no light gets in, so that the person spends much of his life in darkness. Then, suddenly, a mysterious force starts washing the window. Bright light flows in, blinding the prisoner. When his eyes finally adjust somewhat to the light, he notices all these dark specks—motes—floating around in the air. The motes, so numerous, which he had never seen before, are his sins; and he is overwhelmed with self-depreciation.

Here is what Thomas Keating has to say about the Dark Night in his book, Open Mind, Open Heart: the contemplative dimension of the Gospel:

One of the first effects of contemplative prayer is the release of the unconscious. This process gives rise to two different psychological states:The experience of personal development in the form of spiritual consolation, charismatic gifts or psychic powers; and the experience of human weakness through humiliating self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is the traditional term for the coming to consciousness of the dark side of one’s personality.

The release of these two kinds of unconscious energies needs to be safeguarded by well-established habits of dedication to God and concern for others. Otherwise, if one enjoys some of the spiritual consolation or development one may inflate with pride; or if one feels crushed by the realization of one’s spiritual impoverishment, one may collapse into discouragement or even despair. The cultivation of habits of dedication to God and service to others is the indispensable means of stabilizing the mind in the face of emotionally charged thoughts, whether of self-exaltation or of self-depreciation.

This message, lengthy as it was, is but a brief summary of my spiritual journey to date.  I wanted to share it with you.

Bob Litton

DEFINITION of “yearn” from Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Vol. XX.

II.6.  intr.  To be deeply moved; to be moved with compassion; to have tender feelings; to mourn, grieve; to long for.

JEREMIAH, King  James Version

31:18 > I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke; turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.

31:19> Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.

31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he a pleasant child?  For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy on him, saith the Lord.

JEREMIAH, Revised Standard Version (© 1946, 1952)

31:18> I hear Ephraim bemoaning

Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastened,

like an untrained calf;

bring me back that I may be restored,

for thou art the Lord my God.

31:19> For after I turned away I repented;

and after I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh;

I was ashamed, and I was confounded,

because I bore the disgrace of my youth.

31:20> Is Ephraim my dear son?

Is he my darling child?

For as often as I speak against him,

I do remember him still.

Therefore my heart yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him,

says the Lord.


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Innovation Lust

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Back in the 1970s, I began to wonder just how much longer we humans could continue to produce things without the world becoming saturated with those things. I am not speaking here of pollution—which presents its own problems—but of the possible end of ingenuity. At first I thought I was probably alone in my concern because I had never heard or read of such a potential issue. However, in 1977, while waiting in a company’s break room for a job interview, I saw in a magazine an article concerning product saturation. Unfortunately, the interview began after I had read only a couple of paragraphs, and the magazine was not my own so I could not take it with me. I have occasionally wondered what the author’s thesis and conclusion were.

Since that time, I have been observant of any new products and trends in product changes, curious what they imply for my country’s economic future. What I have seen has been a fascinating historical arc. But before I get involved here in modern innovations, I want to share part of a brief history I recently read about a much older start-up: the Pony Express. I see in that story a very evocative pattern for what has happened since the Pony Express was inaugurated in April 1861.

According to the Pony Express Museum’s website, the mail service was started by three men—William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors—as one response to the threat of the Civil War; the purpose obviously was to speed up communication between the East and the West. The acceleration of mail delivery would not be very impressive by today’s standards: the first westbound ride, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, took 9 days and 23 hours, while the eastbound journey clocked 11 days and 12 hours, almost a day and a half difference. The service lasted only 19 months, until Oct. 24, 1861, when completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for it. Despite its usefulness in providing Californians with relatively contemporaneous news of the war’s progress, the Pony Express was not a financial success, and its founders ended up filing for bankruptcy. On a positive note, however, only one mail delivery was lost.

The main reason I mention the Pony Express, beyond its romantic history, is to provide a fairly simple, clear example of how an innovation develops and how ephemeral it can be. The express was fairly quickly perceived as a solution to an urgent problem; it was started by a small group of men willing to risk their livelihoods on its success; it was reliant on the energies and bodies of men and animals; and it lost out to a mechanical innovation. (The Pony Express was not unique, however. Marco Polo reported that, during his trip to China, he had witnessed a mounted mail service created by Genghis Khan.)

Over the roughly fifty-five years of my adulthood, I have witnessed various innovations come and go.

While employed at my first journalistic job—publications manager for the Texas Electronics Association in Fort Worth—I noticed that home repair of television sets had died out (or was dying out). The people who sold TVs in the past had usually also visited homes to work on roof antennas or replace tubes in the sets. Now all they did was sell TVs; and it was usually more expensive to repair a TV set than to buy a new one. Also, the number of American TV manufacturers had dwindled from about twelve to four; the Japanese were winning the TV set war. Moreover, American electronics retailers were reliant upon a new popular product: the CB radio.

In less than a decade, another innovation was on the market: the “beeper”. Originally and perhaps more descriptively known as the “pager”, a beeper was a little plastic box with its own phone number by which a person could be alerted that he or she was needed to call the number shown by an LED on his pager. The beeper is pretty much passé now, although a group of “entrepreneurs” was reportedly working last summer on a prototype for a more sophisticated version of the beeper.

There seems to be an unbalanced emphasis on electronic innovations, particularly in the field of communications. Every year, Microsoft or Apple or one of the other electronics giants has a show where they display the latest gadget, usually some added feature for the ipad. And within a few months, huge lines develop outside stores where eager customers have waited since the wee morning hours to buy the latest gadget.  We have all noted, too, how many of us consumers seemingly cannot drive down a road or sit through a movie or share a meal out with a friend without one of those cell phones in our hand. This madness has called forth innumerable cartoon satires as well as warnings from health officials.

But the TVs have not been entirely neglected: they have gotten wider, thinner, more inundated with channels, and more definitional. They and streaming FM radio channels have pushed the old juke boxes (which I miss) into the cubicles of flea markets. The saturation of TVs in many bars (I counted five in one of our local hangouts) has caused the description of those venues to be changed to “sports bars”.

Movie houses have become sparser because people can view films, initially on VHS tapes and then on DVDs, through their home-based big screen TVs within six months after their initial showings in the movie houses. For a couple of decades, many cities and towns could boast at least one “video store” where the tapes and DVDs could be rented, but the entrepreneurs who established those stores made the common entrepreneurial mistake of expanding too fast and too far, and then their businesses became threatened by the innovation of online movie rentals.

And this mad race to “build a better mouse trap” and replace the proverbial “buggy whip maker” presents a scene of a very nervous humanity racing not just to “keep up with the Joneses” but to out-pace, even supersede, them. It constitutes a prospect of a not very healthy, integrated community, very different from the cohesive communities of the days when buggy whip makers prospered.

All of these major innovations have occurred within the span of the last fifty years. I witnessed them. A fellow named Alvin Toffler published a book back in 1970 titled Future Shock. In that book, Toffler described “‘future shock’” as “‘too much change in too short a period of time’”. (I confess that, although I was aware of Toffler’s book when it came out, I never read it because I had read a review describing its thesis—with which I agreed—and saw no need to read it. What I have quoted here is derived from the Wikipedia article on Future Shock.)  “He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock.”

Toffler’s book was published forty-five years ago. I have witnessed much of the changes he wrote about and can attest to his veracity, for I feel “‘disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’”.




“Un Coin de Table” by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836 – 1904). At this gathering of some of the literary lights of late 19th century Paris sit the scandalous couple in the left corner of the painting: Paul Verlaine and his young protégé and lover, Arthur Rimbaud. It was not a very convivial group; notice how no one is looking at any other member of the bunch, and that the vase of flowers has been stuck in at the last stage of composition as replacement for Albert Merat, who refused to pose for the same painting with Rimbaud. The painting was shown at the Paris Salon of 1872. (Source: Google Images/Encyclopedie Larousse)

©Text Only: 2015 By Bob Litton 

I don’t know why it is that topic ideas come floating into my brain at the oddest times, especially just after I have concluded that there is nothing left for me to write about; I have, after all, virtually written my autobiography through most of the pages in this blog; and I have drained the well of my accumulated knowledge and wisdom, dispersing it all to an invisible world. But there it was at 2:45 in the morning: Corners!!!

At first it was just a reflection—as I lay in bed, gazing at one of the corners where two walls and the ceiling collide—on a Hank Ketchum “Dennis the Menace” cartoon I had viewed the day before, one showing Dennis in one of his frequent panel scenes, sitting in a corner and hugging his teddy bear. Dennis complains to his mother as she walks away, “Confession may be good for the soul, but it sure is taking away from my playing time.” Is that supposed to be punishment—a substitute for spanking? I wondered. Hardly severe enough! She should at least have carried off his teddy bear!

Then more reflecting: Many of the “Dennis” scenes are of him sitting in the corner. And the same is true of Wagner and Dunagin’s “Grin and Bear It”, where a bruised boxer is sitting on the stool in his corner, but he is recovering, briefly, from punishment. (I couldn’t locate a recent panel to illustrate the kind of complaining remarks the boxer usually makes about his over-sized or more adept opponents.) His corner is the boxer’s retreat, his only safe zone.

Then, of course, many of us are acquainted with that old analogy about “painting ourselves in a corner”. In this case, we are not discussing self-portraits but rather our figurative manner of saying we have inadvertently created a dilemma for ourselves from which there seems to be no way to extricate ourselves without developing it into even more of a problem.

Even Wall Street has its share of shady corners. Surely you have heard of major plutocrats such as the Hunt brothers, who “cornered the market” in silver in 1980. They borrowed heavily to buy as much silver as they could, and they wound up with about a third of the world’s supply. When reaction set in, they were unable to meet a $100 million “margin call” (basically a demand to surrender collateral). The price of silver dropped from an inflated high to less than 50 percent of its “bubble” value within days and led to a panic. The Hunts’ estimated $5 billion fortune declined to about $1 billion by 1988 and eventually they filed for bankruptcy.

Another popular phrase occurs to me: “Cutting corners” to get one’s way despite the legal risks. Although I have heard and read that said about others, particularly in the business and political worlds, I don’t recall having ever tried to “cut corners” myself: probably not enough imagination to venture into it.

Awful lot of negative stuff there about corners. Their self-image must be depressing.

Let us return to art works and try to be more positive. Consider the painting below:

Luncheon_of_the_Boating_Party__85799.1395676758.1280.1280__39347.1405477724.1280.1280 (1)

“Le Dejeuner des Canotiers” (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). Now, this crowd is definitely more congenial–nay, convivial–than the set depicted above by Latour. Almost everyone is at least glancing at another person. And again, we have corners being accented: the two men in boaters’ shirts and hats, the table’s end, and, oddly, the pole in the center rear that seems to divide the composition in half. I love this painting!!! (Source: Google Images/The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

I have perhaps said all I know to say about “The Boating Party’s Dinner” in the cutline under the reproduction above. One could draw an “X” across the canvas and reveal the compositional structure.

Notice that the same is true of Latour’s painting. The  men’s varying heights (which I guess are actual) and their positions allow them to form two rough diagonals across the canvas. And as for corners, the literary gentlemen are not only crowded at one corner of the table, they are also squeezed into one corner of the room. Even the Impressionistic landscape painting on the back wall helps to accent the corner motif. I suppose Fantin-Latour was just trying to be economical, but all he has accomplished is to cram eight staid portraits into a single frame.

“X”es are in fact basic at least to representational art. Another great artist who bears out my assertion here (if any bearing out is required) is N.C. Wyeth. The compositional strength of his bold, muscular illustrations can be immediately grasped by the viewer who imagines a large “X” penciled across most of his works. To me, they are very pleasant to look upon. I suppose that it is not too far-fetched to claim that the “X” in art is kin to the “X” in home-building: they both support their creations. In fact, perhaps I should have titled and developed this essay as “X”es and corners.

Ah, corners and “X”es, how would we ever get along without you?


POSTSCRIPT:  For another treatment of basically the same subject—mundane motifs in art and literature—check out my April 19, 2013, essay Secular Epiphanies on this blog site.

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

A Little Shop Talk, or A Meditation on My Native Language

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

And then Elise—certainly that was her name—told us, merrily, that the brown spot on her waist was caused by her landlady knocking at the door while she (the girl—confound the English language) was heating an iron over the gas jet, and she hid the iron under the bedclothes until the coast was clear, and there was a piece of chewing gum stuck to it when she began to iron the waist and—well, I wondered how the chewing gum came to be there—don’t they ever stop chewing it?
 — From O. Henry’s story, “The Fool Killer”                                       


Now, I realize that looks like clumsy prose, dear readers; but it is not; it is just O. Henry getting settled into a character who is also the narrator in one of his tales. William Henry Porter—a.k.a. “O. Henry”—was in fact a gifted writer, with a vast, exact, concise vocabulary and a vibrantly rhythmic sentence flow. It is just that not all of his characters were similarly gifted.

But the reason I have quoted such a long sentence from one of O. Henry’s less successful stories is to bring to your attention the phrase I have underlined, for it frequently fits my own perspective on my native tongue, both when I try to compose in prose and in poetry. The rest of this essay will be a somewhat wandering description of the trials and tribulations I encounter in writing, sometimes reaching the point—as currently—of wanting to ditch the whole effort. I have not yet figured out why I cannot do so.

The problem with which the narrator quoted above is wrestling concerns the grammatical issue of pronoun reference. The poor fellow is faced with a sentence in which he is discussing two women and wants to limit referring to them more particularly as much as possible. He wants to employ the feminine pronouns, but that puts him in the uncomfortable predicament of needing to clarify to which “she” or “her” he is referring. Okay, it is not a major issue, but it is that very minimal value that is most frustrating for any writer because of the time it takes to rectify; if the troublesome question had been grander, then he would not have minded toiling with it so much. I find myself in similar grammatical choke-holds way too often.

A similar problem involves repetition of words in adjoining sentences. (Note as an example the word “similar” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph and in the first sentence of this paragraph.) The irritation is not due to any inappropriateness in a particular word—the term might be perfectly exact. No, rather than a lexicographical or grammatical problem, it is an aesthetic issue. Boy howdy! I discover much too frequently that I have repeated the same word in two adjacent sentences, and very often the discovery occurs after I have already published the blog post or sent the email: after the fact, it jumps right out at me as with a protruding tongue. Part of the annoyance results from the fact that I cannot quickly think of a synonym with which to replace the second use.

We also have some words the replicative forms of which I cannot explain. The only ones I can think of are “filibuster” and “cataract”, although a few others could probably be located by a really diligent searcher. I looked up both terms in an online dictionary and found these definitions:

Filibuster: (1) the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority. (2) an irregular military adventurer, especially one who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.((Aaron Burr is a good example of that sort of fellow, I think.)) Now those two words are spelled the same, but for the life of me I cannot perceive any similarity between them other than the adjective “irregular”.

Cataract:  (1) a descent of water over a steep surface; waterfall, especially one of considerable size. (2) an abnormality of the eye, characterized by opacity of the lens.

Now, we have many shorter words—such as “lie”—which are laden with unrelated meanings; and that is natural, I think, because there are only so many syllables available to us; but “filibuster” and “cataract” are not at all short: what is the connection?

Then there is the matter of orthography—or, as it is more commonly known—spelling. Do not take this pronouncement as authoritative, for my acquaintance with languages is limited to English, Spanish, French, and Chinese (in none of them, except perhaps English, am I fluent); but I have heard and I believe that English is the most difficult of all modern languages to learn. Even the Asian languages come in second in terms of difficulty, despite the complexity of Chinese characters. But that comparison topic is fodder for another essay. In this place I want to note some of the spelling hurdles learners of our language face. There are two basic ones: (1) the descent of much of our vocabulary from classical Greek and Latin (e.g., psychology, February) as well as borrowings from more modern languages such as French and Spanish (e.g., boulevard, rodeo); and (2) the effect of nationalistic pride that caused us Americans to alter the forms of some words from their Franco/British originals (e.g., theatre to theater, savour to savor).

The same nationalism affected American punctuation rather stupidly, as I noted in the “Preface” to my CD-ROM book A West Texas Journalist, (several articles from which are included on this blog site): our use of quotation marks in the United States differs significantly from that in the United Kingdom, and not in any positive way.

Anyway, all these factors have impacted on English writing. In some aspects I prefer the American mode; in others, the British. Of course, there are other hazards related to prose-writing, but I will leave those for some possible later essay.

As for poetry, it presents its own problems. I haven’t written what I classify as “poetry” in more than a year. I think that probably my poetry-composing days are over. Here are a few of the reasons why. Rhyme is out-of-style right now. In fact, even meter is ignored often enough, gauging by what I have seen in the New Yorker magazine the past few years. Many of our modern “poets” appear to favor what has been defined as “prose poems”. They are prosaic pieces that often enough do not say anything, and when they do say something it might be vulgar (like two lovers caressing each other’s tongues) or it might be almost as vapid as “the wind and sun have dried our clothes, you see”. (That is not a direct quote; it’s just something I threw out for you to note the way even iambic pentameter can be employed to dramatize the dully mundane.)

When poets using English do venture into composing something with rhyme, they are almost always forced into at least one weak, forced rhyme match. It’s a wonder I still have as much hair on my head as I do, because, so many times, I have faced that intransigent line that has no perfectly fitting word to even approximately sound like the end word of a previous line. Of course, a perfectly acceptable way to avoid this issue is to write in blank verse, which Robert Browning employed quite marvelously. However, even when I have done that, I have encountered the ironical situation when the exact word that fits also rhymes with some word in the previous line; I rhymed when I had not intended to do so. For the purist, I tell you, poetry is a pool of quicksand!!!

There is much more I could say about the tribulations of prose and poetry, but I will save them for, perhaps, another day.


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

“Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette”

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette
Puff, puff, puff and if you smoke yourself to death
Tell St. Peter at the Golden Gate
hat you hate to make him wait
But you just gotta have another cigarette.
                      — From “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette” (1947)
by Tex Williams and Merle Haggard

I inherited about a dozen LP albums from Mother. One of them is “This is Glenn Miller”, released in 1956 by RCA Victor. The record is slightly scratchy, but not too bad. The cover has been repaired with Scotch® tape. All of that is understandable and acceptable, considering the album’s age.

What is not acceptable is the photograph on the cover: it shows Glenn Miller walking, at night with no visible scenery, toward the camera. Hidden overhead is the source of the circle of light that allows our view of the man. He is wearing an overcoat and thick gloves, and carrying in his left hand a small bag or case which presumably contains his overnight toiletries or a small musical instrument. In his right hand, which covers the lower half of his face, is a cigarette from which he is drawing a lungful of smoke. We just have to take the album title’s word for it that this really is Glenn Miller.

And there is that posed studio photo of Errol Flynn on the cover of his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which my regular readers might recall seeing on the blog post about Flynn I published last January 23rd.  Flynn is sitting there, well-dressed, well-coiffured, with his left hand resting nigh his torso, a cigarette between his fingers. Couldn’t the fellow even do a studio portrait shoot, to autograph for his fans, without hoisting a stick of nicotine as a prop?

I tell you, folks, I get exasperated when I see such uncouth photos. It is not because I am a crusader against smoking; I don’t care if other people smoke, as long as they don’t do it around me. Also, I played around with puffing back in my youth. On a couple of occasions in my pre-teens I even bought small pouches of tobacco and papers (kids could do that back then!) so that my friend and I could play cowboys and “roll our own”. As a teenager I smoked cigarettes a few times until I realized that, not inhaling them, I got no pleasure from them and was smoking only for show. And, as a still fairly young adult, I would get a hankering during the fall to try a pipe—to keep my hand warm and sniff the smell of Cherry Blend, which I liked, although others did not—until I became annoyed with the mess the tobacco residue was making in my coat pockets and the pipe began to stink; scraping it helped only a little. Can’t recall when I finally eschewed tobacco for good, but it was more than three decades ago.

But back to my central theme. A few years ago, while watching old 1930s and 1940s movies on TCM, I began to notice how frequently the films’ characters “lit up”; and I wondered why. What do the actions involved in lighting a cigarette, cigar or pipe contribute to the storyline? None that I could imagine.

Do the tobacco companies own a lot of stock in film studios? I wondered. A humorous sidebar is pertinent here. One old film I enjoyed was Topper (1937), which starred Constance Bennett and Cary Grant as a married couple of ghosts who haunt Topper’s home, and Roland Young as the title character. A TV situation comedy series with the same title and characters, starring Leo G. Carroll as Topper, and Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys as the ghostly couple, was on the air from 1953 to 1955. Intrigued enough by some now forgotten motive, I read the Wikipedia articles on both the film and the TV show. A very curious paragraph in the article on the TV show revealed that the show’s sponsor, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, stipulated in their contract that the three main characters would be shown—at the beginning of every episode—seated at a table smoking Camels. Also, commercials during the episodes would be integrated into the narratives, just as Carnation concentrated milk commercials were integrated into the “Burns and Allen Show”.

But the tobacco industry’s investment apparently was not reserved to movies and musical productions. I have already referred to the book cover photo of Errol Flynn dangling a cigarette. If you can locate some old novels or poetry volumes in your attic or at your local library, you will likely find portraits of the authors on the backs of the jackets; and chances are good they will have cigarettes between their lips or fingers. And if the author or poet had any pretensions to academic notoriety he will be sporting a pipe. Such photo portraits of the late British mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell usually do have a pipe bowl prominently displayed in his hand. I used to admire ol’ Bertie, but he lost some of my admiration when I read a quote attributed to him about how he had smoked a pipe all his adult life and never suffered any ill health due to the habit. And this guy was a logician?

Smoking is not allowed in many public places these days. That helps. I remember when tobacco smoke was almost inescapable, particularly in places were alcoholic beverages were also consumed. I recall waking up in the mornings after nights of drinking in Dallas pubs and being unable tolerate my shirt or coat because they reeked with the foul stench of stale tobacco smoke.

But I want to return to my wonderment at all the incidental references in the media to tobacco consumption. Were all those images paid placement ads? Were they intended to entice the movie stars’ fans or the authors’ readers into emulating their heroes even in the small matter of puffing up nicotine?

I am sadly bemused to recall the last days of movie stars Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum and how they spent their last breaths urging their fans not to trod down that tobacco road that had led them to their own cancerous deaths. Same held true, most ironically, of the famous “Marlboro Man”.


Obama Among The Best

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

I am a pessimist when considering humanity’s future. I believe the chance for our survival for even another century is less than fifty percent. Therefore, I will acknowledge before writing any further that the assertions in this letter will probably be moot in a few decades or less. I simply want to argue that future historians—if there are any—will reach a consensus that Barack Obama was the greatest American president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Here are the reasons why:

Obama faced an extremely antagonistic Congress when he was first elected in 2008, yet he tried to negotiate and compromise with the Republicans in the beginning. At the outset, Speaker John Boehner declared he and his henchmen would insure that Obama’s first term would be his last. The Republicans in general “pulled at his pants legs”, placed stumbling blocks in his way, continuously. They blocked or stalled his appointments time after time. They sought out every little flaw in his proposals and, instead of taking rather simple steps to rectify them, used them as excuses to toss out the entire proposals. (I am thinking specifically of the Affordable Care Act here.) It was classic racism from the get-go.

Nevertheless, Obama, in his first year on the job, went so far in accommodating the Republicans that he began to worry me and other liberal supporters, including New York Times columnist and Harvard economics professor Paul Krugman: we felt Obama was “giving away the store”. However, the President grew out of that mindset before his first term was over and began to hold his ground more firmly until, in his 2015 State of the Union address, he really became feisty. Many people, including some TV commentators, thought he went a little overboard there, espousing goals that they viewed as a “bucket list”. I did not. I saw it as a range of desirable goals we all should work hard to achieve.

Obama and his team managed to track down and kill Osama bin Laden, a task which George W. Bush shunted not many months after a blustery vow to subdue the master terrorist. Over an eight-year period, the George W. Bush apparatus never caught or killed Osama bin Laden. The terrorist was killed during the night of May 11-12, 2011—the third year of Obama’s first term.

Obama patiently led the nation during a long and frustrating campaign to dig us out of the worst recession since the 1930s. Our economy is generally healthier now than it has been since Bill Clinton’s presidency. Unemployment has declined to a manageable level, our trade deficit has improved, and our national debt has begun to recede. Obama worked against strong resistance and great technical difficulties to create a national health program. Similarly he struggled to solve the immigration problem while Congress deserted Washington, heading for the hinterland to fight for their continuances. These were tasks several past presidents and Congresses promised to address; but, except for Clinton’s failed effort, none of them ever did.

We still have problems with social class and wealth disparities, low wages, and an increasing number of homeless people. However, these are problems Obama—and to some extent even Bush—inherited; the difference is that Obama has tried to push Congress above sloganeering and into practical actions to eliminate those problems.

I am not claiming that Obama is perfect. I have read and heard reports that he is aloof, even arrogant, but so was Lyndon Johnson. (Hell, for that matter, so am I.) He has been criticized for indecorous moments—such as saluting with a cup of coffee in his hand and wearing denims in his office. I think his aides should have prevented the first, and the second complaint is silly: I don’t care if Obama works in his office in his pajamas, as long as he is not engaged in an official meeting there. Now, the third such incident—his entering an international conference room while chewing gum—did strike me as uncouth. But then I recall Tom Jefferson’s two-faced conniving, bankrupting spending habits, and slave-ownership; and Obama’s little peccadilloes don’t seem worth noting.

But the most admirable of Obama’s achievements has been what I perceive to be his unflappable patience. After having read about and witnessed the endurance of most of our Black folk over the centuries, I have reached the point of believing endurance and patience are part of their genetic makeup.

Although I recognize and try to accept that we do not have enough future left for any potential historians to agree with the above remarks, because too many of us humans—everywhere—are ducking our heads in the sand, I feel some gratification in having this opportunity to share my applause for Obama with the community.


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.

The Crazy Quest for Extended Lifespans

NOTE TO READERS: At ease, folks. This is not another of my ancient newspaper pieces. It is, instead, a letter I mailed recently to Tom Ashbrook, host of’s radio program “On Point”. I listen regularly to “On Point” because Mr. Ashbrook does, I believe, an excellent job of moderating discussions of issues I consider significant, so please do not get the impression from my initial remarks that I negatively view his program. Some of you might think it peculiar that I would employ a letter as a blog post. Well, all I can say to that is that I feel very strongly about this subject, and I see what I wrote to Mr. Ashbrook as sufficiently appropriate and well enough composed to fit this space.

∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗

Hi, Mr. Ashbrook:

I called this morning shortly after your discussion of the quest for extended lifespan began; held on for more than thirty minutes before being told by a lady that you wouldn’t have time for me today. More than the lost time on my phone minutes allowance at Consumer Cellular, I regret missing the opportunity to express my disgust with the whole notion of extending life beyond the rounded-off figure of “three score and ten”. So, I opted for this alternative method, even though I realize it won’t go any further than your and your staff’s eyes.

First, let me render the requisite “disclosure”: I turned 75 last December 29th. How I managed to pass into year 75, I have no idea, for I exercise little and have led in my youth a slightly dissolute life. Also, I have been in several accidents of various sorts and have been threatened a few times because of my opinions. And I suffer from a low-level but nearly constant type of depression known as dysthymia. But enough of that; let’s get to the issue before us.

I have no problem with people wanting to make their lives more healthy, active, and joyful. Nor am I against trying to ameliorate the pains of those dying of cancer and other gross diseases, although I suspect that a plausible philosophical case might be made for viewing that as a negative goal; it is something I have not considered much and is not really pertinent here.

My main issue with extending lifespans is that I believe the intelligent and prosperous among us have a duty to birth and a duty to die. I have to plead guilty to violating the first part of that principle, since I never married, never had a child. However, I see myself as partly excusable in that my father was a lousy male role model, and I doubt that I would have been any better father than he.

Now I fear that I might violate, unintentionally, the second part of my principle as well. Although I walk with a cane’s help and have a deteriorating memory, I don’t feel incapacitated in any other way. Is Alzheimer’s around the corner?

In 1984, Richard Lamm — then-governor of Colorado — sparked a controversy when he said, “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” He earned the nickname “Governor Gloom” over that remark, but I agreed with him then and I agree with the substance of his comment now. Our young people are having a hard enough time of it finding jobs, so the debate is developing over whether a college education is really worth the money and time spent in classes.

Moreover, recently I saw a TV news report (don’t recall what network or the exact date) which showed a graph of the increasing gap between lengthened lifespans and the decline in birthrates. Odd that a few decades ago we were concerned over the “population explosion”; but that explosion, apparently, is due to extended longevity, not entirely to increases in births. At the rate we are going, retirement residences, medical facilities, and Social Security will certainly become exhausted.

And then there is the situation with our declining resources. The ocean is becoming a death trap for most of the sea life, the Amazon forest is being cut down for gold, silver and oil, our top soil is blowing away, prime agricultural land is being developed so people can escape the smog in our cities. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking reportedly said recently that we must find a home on another celestial body within the next 1,000 years or humanity will become extinct. People with the money are lining up to buy one-way tickets to Mars.

I think it is selfish as well as foolish to hanker after the moonshine called “extended lifespan”. Well, there, at least I got it off my chest, even though I couldn’t get it onto the airwaves. By the way, lest I leave you with the false impression that I am antagonistic to you or to your program, be assured that I gain much from listening almost every day. You are very competent at following through with the mode suggested by the name of the program, keeping interviewees focused “on point”.

Best regards,
Bob Litton


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to hear any helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page (see button above the title of this post). Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.

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