Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

by Fred Marx

Before I retired, there wasn’t time enough to add something to my life, even if that something was important and I ached to do it. When I retired and moved to Colorado, my activity level did not change as expected and I could not squeeze  anything new into life.

Well, it must be something important — whatever it is — because I received the ultimate notification just recently: ‘You have heart disease and it could kill you. But it won’t, this time. You’ll live a long and healthy life and you’ll get an inarguable second chance to do this thing for once and for all.’

‘Voice-Of-God’ notifications are rare, I think. Too often you and I have seen them used to give legitimacy to a project wanting to be done by the receiver. I don’t know how God uses his voice. So let’s just say that if such a thing were to happen to me, I’d vet it six ways from Sunday and still come out on the doubting side.

My special project is writing a book.

Let the doubting begin.

Who cares!? Everyone I know wants to write a book. I don’t even know yet what the darn thing is about. Yet I cannot stop thinking about it. I must sound like the boy who cried “fire” in a crowded theater so often that no one believed him when one actually occurred. Can’t blame anyone for not believing. Still, the book burns in me.

A confluence of factors brought me here. First, I’ve been telling doctors for decades that there is something wrong with my heart. No one listened until early this year. My new doc heard something I said, ran a test, connected the dots and announced: “Heart Disease.” This was later confirmed by CT scans which impressively showed calcium blockages in three of the major arteries servicing my heart.

Things began to happen fast. A long trip to a major medical center; laparoscopic surgery to determine the adequacy of stents (nope. Gotta be vein grafts; three of them). Two days later, I was on the schedule and on the table. My sternum was zipped open and the surgeon bypassed my clogged arteries with replacements from other parts of my own body. Let the recovery begin.

Of course, any confluence has at least two parts. My ‘part 2’ actually began when I was just 2½ years old; the first time I realized what life on this planet meant to me. I was a gifted communicator. Through the years, I wrote, spoke, broadcast, produced, interviewed, researched, contextualized all manner of material for the good of my fellow man. It was all well accepted by my peers and I couldn’t wait for tomorrow when I’d be able to do it all over again.

Except for that elusive book.

Maybe it’s the enormity of the task. Research, drafts, editors, congruity. Maybe it’s the success rate of books on the shelf. How many books are written only to be ignored at the library or bookstore? So much work. Failure cannot be an option. Success cannot be guaranteed.

Am I even a good writer? Yes. I believe so. Absolutely. But then I am not the reader of my own material, am I? You be the judge. Sunlight Blog and ElderBlog are readily available for inspection. Countless additional materials rest in my own files and in the files of companies for which they were created.

The need to write remains so loudly pronounced that all the if’s are swept off the table. You don’t write because you want to; you write because you have to.

And that brings us back to this moment in time. It’s not a deciding moment; I rather think that the decision has been made for me already. If it’s a book that’s useful to others, I’m good with that. If it’s fiction, well, I’ve always written reality; fiction could be fun and interesting to me.

Whatever it is, it’s time for me to get on with the physical healing of my body. I hear that book tours are murder.

There are historical markers in my life just are there are in yours. Mine include:

  • The Kennedy Assassination — I was in 6th Grade French class when the news was announced over the loudspeaker. My then-crush, Dionne, was sobbing in the next row. That’s how I knew it was important.
  • Watergate — the beginning of my obsession with politics.
  • Exxon Valdez — the spoiling of the waters in my precious Alaska. I took it personally. Still do.
  • 9-11 — the hotel staff was huddled around the lobby TV. I glanced at the screen on the way out the door. A plane hit the WTC. My first impression: “It’s New York. We’re tough. We’ll work it out.”

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t chosen to write about the deeper meanings for each of these events before. Even more surprised am I that 30 years have passed and I’ve never written about the Shuttle Challenger disaster.

I was, at that time, the Marketing and Programming Manager for the big cable system in Anchorage. I was beset with union votes, expansion woes, Mike Tyson fights, and the press queries that go with all of these.

On this morning thirty years ago, the TV was on in the bedroom as I got dressed for that day’s work. The nascent CNN was covering all of NASA’s launches and I watched them all because I like the adventurous aspects of science, space and space travel. A minute after launch, when the words, “Go at throttle up” were spoken, I knew what would happen.

What did happen, of course, was instantly recognizable as anomalous, to say the least. It was visually horrifying.

And I stood there and watched, and said to myself: “It’s going to be a really bad day.”

I was instantly ashamed of myself.

Seven lives had been snuffed out. I wasn’t thinking about their loved ones. I was thinking about the press calls I would be fielding throughout that day.

If I could paint this damning story in a positive light, it would be to say that I learned, in that moment, to think outside of myself. Sure, I’m important. But I am not alone.




-23ºF. That’s the kind of temp that earns Minnesota its reputation. Factor in the wind chill, and it’s -60º. That’s the kind of temp that earns Antarctica its reputation. Yet, here I am … at home in Minneapolis with my wife and 500 channels of cable and a Christmas Tree that won’t come down until March, and a wind chill of -60. I’ve heard so many adjectives, I don’t know which apply: crazy cold, dangerous cold, historic cold, this-ain’t-fun-anymore cold.

Now, I’m pretty smart and I know a lot of things. I won’t bother you with the trifles you’ve been getting from  the media about cold weather consequences. What I know is that when things get this cold, things break. Take my car, fr’instance.

My little car has twice as many miles on it than it was originally designed for. Yet it keeps on going. Going so well that I’ve actually come to trust it; a trust hard-earned — we’ve done tens of thousands of miles on unpaved, dusty, gravel-y roads together. The car gets regular service, and I get chiropractic adjustments. The car has often taken me through dangerous weather, sometimes with precious cargo (wife). Just the other day, we drove for 24 hours through extreme cold from the middle of Montana to the Twin Cities. As its reward, I got the car’s tires rotated.

Then it happened: the power steering went out. All of a sudden, I was driving my mother’s red and white ’59 Nash Metropolitan again. A simple left turn was a smack-down wrestling match. This would not do, of course, as I had ceased wrestling so many decades ago. So I drove my little car (not the Metropolitan which was so much littler) straight to the shop. That was Friday.

This morning came the call. I was thinking cracked pulley; stretched belt; a couple hundred bucs; back to Montana tomorrow.


Oh, the pulley was cracked alright, and the belt was stretched. But the actual official professional diagnosis was “Timing Belt Tensioner Assembly.” The guy needn’t have said another word after Timing. I was already sorting through my vast storehouse of knowledge and had arrived at the critical datapoint: this was going to be expensive. And, of course, I was absolutely


$741.82 parts & labor. And they won’t fix it till tomorrow because of all the other cars that broke due to the weather.

Now let me pause for a moment to say that I’ve been blessed with a car that got us here safely before it broke. And I’ll say further that I am blessed with $741.82 to pay for the repairs. Even further than that, the world won’t stop spinning on its axis if I don’t travel back to Montana until Wednesday.

Being a naturally curious person, though, I Googled the parts and found them available for as little as $212.00 plus shipping. And herein lies the problem.

I am also blessed with supreme intelligence and a newly-discovered ability to do things with my hands (like building furniture, loft beds and such). Intelligence + ability = I can do this myself. And so I set about preparation for the job. I’d need

  • a rental propane space heater for the garage (frostbite, hypothermia. Hello?)     $37 for one week plus $25 for gas
  • a rental hoist with which to pull the entire engine out of its cavity     $150/wk
  • a rental set of tools (mine are in Montana)     $200/wk
  • a rental pickup truck to haul the above to my garage     $39 twice (here and return)

It was to be another fun project in which I would learn and accomplish a new thing. It all seemed reasonable and doable, too, until I streamed a YouTube video on how to replace the Timing Belt Tensioner Assembly for my car. It was doable alright, if you knew what you were doing – which I don’t. And this easy-to-do four-hour project could easily take me four days taking into account the redo’s to fix my mistakes. And, I realized, there were yet further costs: $0.97 for the bandaids, and an extra $150 for Sunday’s offering plate to cover the colorful language eminating from behind my garage door.

Since this post is a well-disguised lesson in calculus, I must correct my original formula: ‘Intelligence + ability = I can do this myself’ is incomplete. The complete formula is: Intelligence + ability + experience + tools = I can do this myself. (If using this formula in your college thesis, please attribute to Fred Marx.) Put another way, Intelligence + $741.82 = let-the-pros-do-it-right-the-first-time.

So here I am, at home in Minneapolis with my wife and 500 channels of cable and a lovely Christmas Tree that won’t come down till March, and a wind chill of -60. Maybe it’s crazy cold or dangerous cold or historic cold or this-ain’t-fun-anymore cold. But I don’t really care. I’m safe, warm, loved and blessed. Life just don’t get much better than this.

And I’m ever-so-slightly smug in the knowledge that the application of the second expression of my formula is actually the right one. It pays to be supremely intelligent.

My next blog post will be titled “Less Is More (and other conundra)“. I’ll let that post explain itself. This post is an explanation of my selection of the word ‘conundra.’

I like words and I like to use them properly. My thinking is that proper usage promotes clearer communication. But I am not a word snob; I’ll throw a “mis-remembered” into the mix just to lighten things up.

My next post will draw contrasts: then versus now, cost versus value, new versus newer … you get the idea. All of it will have to do with The Oil Patch, and little of it will make clear sense. Hence, conundra.

We all know that a conundrum is a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem; a dilemma — unhelpfully mitigated with the use of a pun. If I’m losing you here, don’t worry; “Less Is More” will be far less obtuse. But since I will be illuminating several issues in one post, I need a plural for the singular conundrum. Is it ‘conundrums’? or ‘conundra’? Does it originate from the Latin or from the Greek? Do you want cole slaw or fries?

Naturally, I went to the dictionary to Google for my answer. What should have been a 30-second exercise turned into a 30-minute diversion filled with snobbish laughter. Usually, when you read an article online, it’s followed by comments. Usually, these comments are written by trolls who still live in their mother’s basement. Inasmuch as I don’t appreciate troll syntax, I don’t read the comments. This time, I did. And what I got was a full dose of overbearing word-snobbery intermixed with word-snob creativity. You can enjoy this too. Here’s the link.

My baby brother – with whom I will someday write a book – isn’t a word snob. What he is is a college professor, so he has to grade lots of papers. And what’s the fun of grading papers if you can’t eviscerate the writer’s use of words? Michael recommends a resource called Plain Language to keep things on the up and narrow.

Quite obviously, none of the snob commenters on the aforementioned weblink have read Plain Language or anything approximating plain anything. As verbose as I can sometimes be, I’m a piker when measured against these word-heads.

Hilarity ensues from the second comment, but it’s educational. We learn things like the plural of octopus; like ‘Matters are complicated by a further convention that the 2nd declension nominative masculine ending omicron sigma is Latinised to “-us”‘; like the plural of hocus pocus is ‘hocii pocii’ which, of course, causes us to put the right foot in and put the right foot out…; like when not to wear a diphthong. Call me crazy, but this is laugh-out-loud stuff. Humorist Dave Barry would guffaw in his grave (if he were dead).

And what of the premise of this dissertation? I no longer care. I have laughed, and that makes me happier than a hexadecapus (plural for octopus). (Obviously!)

My heart swells at the sight of our flag, but it sinks with news like this — a just-released Pew Poll reveals that almost half of us don’t know that the Supreme Court approved the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) six days ago.

How can that be? Network or cable news, online sites or blogs…the number one topic for months has been the ACA and the consequences of the Supreme Court ruling both before and after the fact.

This is why politico’s can lie to us and get away with it (death panels?). They know we’re barely paying attention. And if we vote at all, it will be with impressions derived from “issue ads” funded by anonymous deep-pocketed special interests.

All of the bunting is well and good. But after we celebrate our country’s birth, we must re-commit to its growth — a work-in-progress, and one that requires the engagement of all of its people.

Of course, I’m preaching to the choir.

My relationship with radio goes back to my earliest days on the planet. Today, I remain an insatiable information junkie. Given the amount of time spent behind the wheel, I find myself hungry for a meal that can only be served up by NPR. No bloviators for me: give it to me straight…I’m smart enough to interpret. Such has it been for some twenty-five years.

I have been both blessed and cursed with opportunities to live in many places in this country. Thus, I have the means to compare. When I get to a place, finding NPR is a priority. The Twin Cities operation is top-notch. My most recent experience (in the Triad of North Carolina), not so much.

And now I’m in North Dakota; the 48th least-populated state. I have, therefore, a commensurate expectation for the NPR affiliate/network here. They call it Prairie Public. First, the bright spots.

Three ND cities have two Prairie Public transmitters each. The second signal has been dubbed, Roots, Rock and Jazz. It’s a hodge-podge of low- or no-cost syndicated programing covering the Blues, Jazz, and non-pop Rock…the kind you won’t hear anywhere else. There is also a local DJ who quite obviously has a pedigree in each genre. Mike Olson will string together a number of records along a theme. It could be Negro Spirituals performed by contemporary artists; or lesser-known songs of Bonnie Raitt or Neil Young. Olson has done strings of songs about the sky up above; about dysfunctional love; about Puerto Rican girls.

Olson’s shows are fun because he never announces a theme: you are implicitly challenged to figure it out. And he never tells you when it’s done; he just (deftly) transitions to a new theme. He is not your polished DJ-type either; he’s just a low-key cool dude sharing his musical world with you.

The other bright spot is on the statewide network of news stations. Danielle Webster has the presentation skills and intelligence you should expect from an NPR local affiliate. If she continues to work at her own high standards, she could well find herself at a larger market.

And that’s the problem: standards. NPR News delivers at the highest level of excellence from Washington. Its affiliates are challenged to work up to the same standard as best they can…some succeeding more than others. Prairie Public has either low standards or no qualified leadership. The drive-times are occupied by mumblers and stumblers who, it seems, have never read the copy they’ve torn from the papers. An hour-long daily interview program is given over to a guy who has no interviewing skills.

A ‘special assignment’ producer delivers the dullest reports from what should be the most exciting area of the state: the Oil Patch. Irrelevant syndicated features are inserted into the most-listened-to newscasts to fill time in a state that, frankly, doesn’t have too much other news. All of this is stitched together by a ubiquitous sponsorship reader who hyper-enunciates her horrific regional accent.

Then, like other lower-budget affiliates, Prairie Public fills the daytime and overnight hours with classical music.

I’m sure it’s a tough thing, running a listener-supported, non-profit, highly-visible enterprise like an NPR affiliate network. On one hand, there’s never enough money. On the other hand, there are audience expectations. And if you don’t deliver on those, they don’t give you their donations. And the circle goes ’round again.

But no experienced radio industry professional could credibly blame listeners for a station’s poor performance. Therefore, the responsibility for this awfulness rests squarely on the shoulders of management.

Radio’s greatest strength has always been its ability to communicate on a one-to-one basis with its listener (and there’s only one: you). If a station dishonors this relationship by delivering crap, you turn it off. I’ve waited months to write this review thinking that, given time, I would find a way to appreciate Prairie Public‘s effort. But little effort seems apparent, so I reflexively reach for the volume button each time NPR News finishes its segments.

A cold rain fell, and the flags snapped smartly in the breeze. I was parked at the town square where I could get a consistent cell signal. It was a good day, I figured, for catching up with friends.

As I gabbed, a well-choreographed event unfolded around me. The city’s two police vehicles blocked off the street; lights flashing. Then, from around the corner appeared the U.S. and state flags followed by their holders and twenty or so assorted marchers; most of them very young. The fire truck brought up the rear. No band. No sirens.

They reached the square and, without formal ceremony, placed a wreath there. And as quickly as it began, it was over.

There is nothing about Sidney Montana that won’t improve just as soon as I adjust to living here. Little things like today’s parade might help. When you think about it, our war heroes have been as honored here as they have been in any larger city. And after all, isn’t that what Memorial Day is all about?

An amazing thing happened today. A Canadian-made robot arm secured a space capsule and then attached it to The International Space Station which is comprised of operational units shared by cosmonauts and astronauts, and is managed by NASA. What was interesting was not the tricky ballet high above, however; it was the collaboration of cultures that made it work down below.

You’ve seen Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There’s the huge room with wall-sized screens displaying video and data. There’s the well-anchored rows of science positions, each with a specific responsibility, each with access to real-time information to aid in critical decision-making.

And you’ve seen the engineers in their white shirts and slender ties. Today, women were notably in charge. The big room operated at a pace and with a proficiency we’ve come to expect. Theirs was the job of consummating the outer space marriage.

Meanwhile, at SpaceX in Hawthorne California, another control operation was flying the same mission. It seemed, at first glance, to be a primitive copy of the JSC. But quickly you noticed many more differences.

The well-ordered rows of scientists were sitting at long tables with collapsible legs…the kind you find in a hotel ballroom. Each operator peered into two or three flat-panel computer screens just like yours. There were no buzz-cuts as in Houston. The dress code here was: whatever. Jeans and sneakers. Hoodies, t-shirts, a Batman sweatshirt.

To this group went the job of designing, building and launching the first-ever privately-funded, reusable cargo-bearing spacecraft.

When the capture was confirmed, there were handshakes and hugs in Houston. When the capture was confirmed, there were chest-bumps and hugs in Hawthorne.

Epic accomplishment though it may be, the real takeaway is that disparate cultures with a common goal can work together to produce a great thing. This applies to every area of endeavor: the assembly of a car; the building of a sandcastle; the running of a country.

Mike Daisey is a monologist. He’ll stand before an audience for ninety minutes and tell stories. Upon leaving the theater, you’ll likely feel that you received the value of your ticket and then some. He engages you; speaks to issues you care about; informs you; motivates you. Many of his works can be seen on YouTube.

His most recent work, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, tells of Daisey’s experiences in China as he collected anecdotes from factory workers who make Apple products. He paints pictures of Gestapo-like guards, slavish conditions, horrendous injuries, sardine can-like living quarters, suicides, underage labor…all in the name of the iPad, iPod and iPhone.

This stage presentation was so compelling that it attracted the attention of Public Radio International’s This American Life who asked Daisey for a 40-minute version of the story for presentation on that NPR show in January.

I heard it. And then I listened to the rebroadcast a day later. And then I listened to the podcast. This was activist storytelling at its very best.

When the show’s host and producer Ira Glass Tweeted last Friday about a problem with the Daisey show, I was curious, but thought initially that some journalistic technicality had been discovered and TAL needed to do a ‘mea culpa’ in order to maintain its integrity. TAL would never air such a thing without rigorous vetting: standard operating procedure (and an audience expectation) for the show.

The problem is that Daisey lied his way through the vetting process, and TAL did not fact-check his assertions adequately. It then aired a show on NPR that was packed with fabrications.

To its credit, This American Life devoted its entire hour, this weekend, to an illumination of the problem. The program included an extensive interview with Daisey, asking the tough questions in the way I would’ve asked them: ‘Did you lie about…?’  Most telling were the long periods of silence during which Daisey considered the way in which he’d spin his answer. Glass was an excellent surrogate in this situation: he confronted Daisey boldly; he told Daisey that he felt lied to.

It should never have come to this.

No NPR listener expects journalistic integrity when Garrison Keillor launches into his tales of Lake Wobegon. The place doesn’t exist in reality, and we understand that the characters so lovingly portrayed are composites of people we might very well know if they weren’t fictitious.

Such is not the case with This American Life. As Glass, himself, explains, listeners should expect his show to adhere to the same journalistic standards as any other NPR program: complete truth – verified.

I fault Mike Daisey for lying to TAL. I do not fault him for this debacle. He is an artist who pretended to be a journalist in order to gather material for his performances. He then stitched disparately-gathered information together to suit his purposes. 

The real fault belongs to This American Life. Ira Glass manned up and accepted responsibility for airing the program. You could hear him thinking that no one would ever believe him again. You could hear him feeling like he’d failed a sacred trust.

He did.

Now we listeners have to wrestle with forgiveness. Do we discard our relationship with a program we’ve loved for seventeen years, or do we figure that its producers have been sufficiently – and publicly – punished? I’m leaning toward the latter, though I will admit that it will likely be a while before my anger subsides.

Most of the back roads around here don’t have speed limit signs. This one did: 45mph. I had to laugh…it’d be pushing if I exceeded 15. Another thing the back roads don’t have is pavement. There’s dirt, gravel and potholes.

One thing we have in abundance here is back roads. And that’s where my current project finds me. I have an armload of contracts needing the signatures of certain landowners – most of whom live on homesteads and farms way off the beaten path.

I’ve found myself feeling sorry for a thing: my car. This is a new experience for me. And it.

I’ve treated my little car well since acquiring it over 75,000 miles ago. But as I rumble over the countryside in pursuit of my mission, I have living nightmares of nuts and bolts vibrating loose and parts falling off the frame. I have visions of vacuuming inches of accumulated dust from the choked-up air filter compartment. I wonder how soon it will be before the windshield will need replacement. I inspect the tires each time I approach the car and wonder how the donut will fare when it is inevitably deployed.

A quick check with the locals offers no reassurance: the worst-case scenario is the reality of life in the wild west. And in a world replete with things to fear, the single most-dreaded thing here is scoria.

A scoria roadbed

Imagine red bricks, partially crushed. It’s in chunks now with jagged, sharp and pointy edges. That’s scoria: a substance that has never met a tire it didn’t destroy. Scoria makes an excellent road bed; it compacts well and can handle heavy trucks. But it’s supposed to be covered by softer, rounder gravel. The fact that it isn’t is a product of our times — the oilfields have drawn away the workers and other resources needed to complete jobs like road building.

And so, the vehicular torture happens whether I minister it in fast- or slow-motion. The best I can hope for is that the doors don’t fall off.

There is an upside to all of this: the people I get to meet. I’ve been thinking for hours how I’d characterize them. All manner of tired cliché came to mind. Instead, I’ll describe them like this:


I saw this picture in three kitchens just today. It describes – better than words – the reward I get at the end of every rough road.

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