Thursday, June 30, 2011


My grandmother was a stereotypical grandmother for the early sixties. She had raised her ten children in the big house on the hill and now she was raising one grand-daughter who's mother had died during childbirth. She raised all her own vegetables as well as some chickens and a turkey or two. (Ask my mother to tell you the story about the turkey that chased her up the woodpile.) Of course, she cooked everything from scratch. When we came to visit, she would wake us up every morning to eat the huge breakfast of biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs, juice and toast she had made while we were all still asleep. I always marveled at how much she got done before the day even began.

When I finally did watch her make biscuits, I saw that she did it as quickly and easily as we open a can today. She didn't measure anything. Just took some handfuls of flour, some 'other stuff' and mixed it all up right on the counter. Grabbed off some wads and put them on the baking sheet. When she was done there was just a light dusting of flour left on the counter which she would scrape off onto one hand and put back away.

Not all food was this easy, though. Some even took a team effort. Many an hour have I spent snapping beans and shelling peas. Especially black-eyed peas (which are really beans, but who cares). I helped my aunt Toni (the grand-daughter they adopted by the kind of common law that was common back then) pick bushels of apples, peaches, raspberries, and blackberries from their trees and thickets. From which, Grandma would make the tallest pies you have ever seen. How she could make the crust the same way she made biscuits and not have it come out tasting like biscuits was something I couldn't understand.

But all of these picking skills didn't come naturally. I had to serve an apprenticeship first:

I couldn't have been but three or four years old. I remember there being some conversation over how I had never tasted a strawberry before. Why my mother had been negligent in this duty I'll never know. But I don't hold it against her. Well, my Grandma was resolved that I should not be denied this, one of life's finer pleasures, a moment longer. As is common among many of us of German decent, she was also resolved that, if I was going to do something, I was going to learn to do it right. So I guess it was a few moments longer.

My grandmother took me out to the strawberry patch. The rows seemed to stretch for a mile. It was probably closer to twenty yards. She showed me how to find the berries that were at the peak of ripeness. Large and firm. "The ones with the green 'n' white on 'em ain't ready yet." She reminded me to check for the soft spots that meant they were starting to turn rotten. "But don't mash too hard or you'll bruise 'em." Once we had a basket full we went in to the kitchen and she showed me how to rinse the dirt off them. She didn't even think to use pesticides back then. She cut off the leaves with one of those paring knives that Grandpa kept razor sharp. Plucked out those spongy white cores that are only attached at the top. And then, while they were still wet, she sprinkled just a little bit of sugar on them.

Finally, she picked the biggest, reddest one in the whole basket and held it out for me to take a bite out of. The thing was bigger than my little fist. I could only get a bite of the pointy end but that was all it took. How could something be so lightly sweet, a tiny bit tart, and taste cool without coming out of the refrigerator? I remember looking at my grandmother, my eyes getting wider and wider as the taste took over and awakened more and more of my mouth. I looked at my mom and back to Grandma. She had this look on her face that comes from the pleasure of giving pleasure to others and said, "Good! Ain't it?"

"Yeah" was all I could muster as I took the rest from her hand and began to take even larger bites. Well. needless to say, we finished the whole basket right there. From then on I had to have some strawberries every time we went to visit. I guess I thought Grandma's was the only place I could get them. Imagine my surprise when I learned you could buy them in a store. Not as good as the 'original' but a suitable imitation nonetheless.

As I said earlier, I don't resent that my mother had never given me a strawberry before then. In fact, I'm glad it slipped her mind all those years. If I had had them all along, perhaps I would not have appreciated that one nearly as much. Just imagine if I had never tasted one until today. As a fan once said to Samuel Clemens of his book Huckleberry Finn, "I wish I had never read it . . . So that I might have the pleasure of reading it for the first time all over again."

The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Deception Pass

Everlasting beauty in a fleeting gesture. A fall of the hair. A conviction. There's a grasshopper sitting on a brass fire hydrant. I can see its reflection. Can it see mine? The mist clears just enough to see the Olympic Mountains minutes before the sun sets. That burning feeling in your lungs after a hard day's ride on Pacific Coast Highway that lets you know you have really maxed it out. The nurses letting you hold your new baby minutes after he is born and letting him suck on your finger for the first few hours of his life while his new mother sleeps. Singing great old blues tunes at the top of your lungs with the car windows down and having a beautiful woman tell you it's great. A shy smile. Take a long walk barefoot and just feel where you are. Four, five, six, or even a million dimensions is still limited thinking. Some truths are self-evident but you still have to write them down down to make them real. I will never figure people out and they will never figure me out. But who cares? Flaming red hair and cute little red Ked's. Long philosophical discussions where no one is right and no one is wrong.

On Whidbey Island I know of only one beach with regular sand. I didn't go there much. There is a "beach" with nothing but small boulders and washed up deadwood. When you run on it you have to watch where you place every step. With each of those steps your legs get stronger even as they grow more weary. Heightened awareness till your feet almost place themselves. You now know where every stone and branch is without looking - almost. But each step could still break your leg.

Deception Pass is right around the corner. You should see it in the evening. The sun casts a shadow of the bridge against the cliffs. If you jumped off that bridge it might take a full minute before you hit the surging tide. Not that I've timed it, but it is a long drop. The cliffs go up a couple, three-hundred feet and then the redwoods go up another fifty or so. When you round that corner with exhausted body and hyper-aware mind, those cliffs, the shadow, the ocean, the redwoods, the mountains, and that delicious air consume your whole being. Some would call it a spiritual experience. I just call it wonderful and know that I miss it. What's curious is that I am only just now learning to leap through life the way I leapt across that beach.

Written Jan. 7, 1996.

The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

The Sidewalk

I wrote this piece some time around 1995 or '96. It had been several years since I had seen my son, Benjamin, because his mother had a tendency to move around a lot. This made it pretty impossible for someone with little means, such as myself, to "track them down" as was so often suggested by people who have watched too many soap operas. I was sitting and thinking about all this one day when this came out:

Benjamin used to love to walk on the sidewalk. I would come home from work and give him his first taste of independence. At first I would only let him go a foot or two by himself. But I did let him go. Other parents didn't seem to let their kids go anywhere, ever. I let him go. But only so far. "Hey Beee Jaaay!" I would sing-song after him. He would stop and turn around. Another sing-song of "Come baaack!" would bring him waddling back to me for a big hug.

I often wondered why he never just took off like those other kids I always saw parents chasing after. I guess, because we started giving him some freedom early, he didn't feel the need to "break free" any time he got the chance. One year olds are just like teenagers and the down-trodden masses. If you restrict them too much they are bound to rebel. We decided early-on not to be the kind of parents who said, "No!" to everything.

After a few days I would let him get a step or two further before I called him back. Then a step or two more. After a while he would stop on his own and look back. Sometimes I would call him back. Sometimes I would let him go another few steps. Before long I could trust him to go all the way to the end of the block and still come back when called. I'm sure it was because I let him go at all. He was about a year and a half then. I like to tell myself that today I would trust him with my life.

I sit here and think, "Perhaps I've discovered the secret. And it's so simple." But then I realize (or remember) it's been five years since I've seen him and he could be completely changed. He's fourteen now. I know lots of kids just a little older than he is. They have seen a hell of a lot of life already. Not all of it good. I'd like to think he has seen it too but risen just a little above it all. I want him to be a good person, but not because he isolated himself like I did.

What is he doing? What is he like? Does he think I've abandoned him and hate me for it? Does he understand? He seemed to when he was nine, but that was a long time ago. I can't get the years back. I can't do it again. A scalpel and some sutures have seen to that. Besides, I could never make another one like him. I think that's one of the reasons I totally discount the notion of a vasectomy reversal. I feel as if I made one casting and broke the mold. He may not be perfect but in my mind he's as close as it gets. When I finally see him again will he fall off the pedestal? Probably. Will I be proud of him? I'm sure. Should I try to contact him now? I don't know. Will he eventually contact me? I guess so. Will it be worse or better if I act or wait? I have absolutely no idea. I used to kiss him on the top of his head. I wonder if I will ever be able to do that again.

The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"you" May Not Have Free Will but "YOU" Do

This post is in response to Sam Harris' article on Huffington Post: You Do Not Choose What You Choose.

With apologies to Strother Martin: What we have here is a failure to equivocate.

In other words, this entire argument is based upon a fallacy of equivocation, defining a word in different ways within the same argument. Sam Harris narrowly defines the word "you" to mean "one's conscious self" at some points of this argument, but uses it to mean "all of one's body and brain" in other parts of his argument. In fact, he does so within the headline itself.

By stating that one's conscious self is not aware of or able to directly control the mechanisms by which one's unconscious self makes decisions, Mr. Harris seems to believe he has made the point that we have no free will. Instead, he has merely made the point that a small subset of what we commonly call "me" does not have free will. I will accept, as much research has shown, that my conscious self is usually - if not always - not directly aware of what is going on on the back burners of my brain. My conscious mind is not able to direct which synapses form where or how strong or redundant the connections will be.

However, I do not accept that my conscious mind is all there is to "me." Perhaps the distinction is between "me" (with a little 'm') and "Me" (with a capital 'M'). Both are nevertheless part of the collective "ME." I assert that - even though my conscious self may not be aware of what is going on - it is still "ME" who is ultimately making the decisions. My conscious self may not choose to choose "rabbit" instead of "elephant" but my unconscious self did. My conscious self may not know why my unconscious self chose one over the other but my unconscious self may. Or it may not. It is still "ME" that is making the decision. Even if that decision is entirely random and based on the quantum state of a couple of molecules of neurotransmitter. Those molecules are still part of "ME" and I claim them as my own.

In the end this "free will" debate is moot. Like creationism, free-will arguments will always be "gap-based" arguments. Anything that can't currently be explained will be treated as proof for one side of the argument or the other. We are unlikely to ever be able to definitively settle the dispute. What ultimately counts is our perceptions (as well as the reactions within our unconscious minds which those perceptions trigger). As long as our collective perception is that we can actually do something to make ourselves and our world better then I will be satisfied.

The contents of this post is Copyright © 2011 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.