Archive for November, 2007

Facts v. Opinions, Part II — Illegal Immigration

November 29, 2007

More erroneous emails arrived this week; these concerned about illegal immigration. One writer was all worked up about illegal aliens receiving social security benefits and getting more than “my Mom” who, because she was born in 1924 and, “there is a catch 22,” didn’t get as much. The other email purported to have called the “CARIBE” administration to learn that US citizens don’t qualify for their program, “And all the while, I am working a full day, my son-in-law works more than 60 hours a week. . . .” That writer then wanders off on a tangent about “they” wanting to sing the National Anthem in Spanish. Who the “they” are or how many of “them” there are is not made clear. But the writer nonetheless insists the Anthem should be sung, “word for word the way it was written.” [A recent Harris Poll found that 61% of American citizens don’t know all the words to our national anthem; the melody of which came from an English drinking song praising wine and love called “The Anacreontic Song”. Francis Scott Key’s brother recognized that the poem Key had written fit the tune perfectly. You can read about it and hear a version of it at the Smithsonian’s web site.]

The writer was also exercised because, “Nowhere did they sing it in Italian, Polish, Irish (Celtic), German or any other language because of immigration.” Of course, most of those immigration movements were complete by 1931 which was when the song became our national anthem. Before then we didn’t have a national anthem.

So, once again, I order some facts to charge a machine gun nest of opinion.

1.) Although they pay into the Social Security program in the form of withholding taxes withheld by their employers, illegal aliens cannot collect benefits because — drum roll, please — they are not here legally.

2.)The CARIBE program is a small program specifically for refugees from the Caribbean who are here legally. U.S. citizens don’t qualify because — drum roll, please — they are not refugees.

Finally, these emails announce IN ALL CAPITALS that if I don’t agree, I AM PART OF THE PROBLEM [sic] which brings me to the second piece of the illegal immigration debate ongoing in the United States right now: Not only are we conducting it with opinions based on misinformation; we are conducting it without compassion, either for ourselves or the people here illegally. Labeling someone “illegal” does not render her sub-human. Nor does it mean we should always and uniformly enforce our immigration laws. I remember, for instance, the ship St. Louis and its 900 Jews we refused to allow into the country because they lacked the proper pieces of paper and so sent them back to Europe to be slaughtered — except for those who were accepted by England — by the Nazis. Moreover, it is not realistic to think that we can round up and deport 14,000,000 human beings who are here illegally. And why would we want to? It would significantly harm the economy.

Nor does it make any sense to me that some of the people most up in arms about these “illegals” are those who benefit most directly from their presence. They are not an economic threat to the middle class. In fact, they add to our net worth. Moreover, we didn’t raise our sons and daughters to be hotel maids or meat packers so who is going to do that work?

But I have the answer to the entire issue. The Free Market. You read it here first. We get control of our border when there is no longer a financial incentive for Mexicans and other Latinos to come here. When they have good paying jobs at home they won’t have to leave. We do that by helping build their economy. Mexico needs infrastructure: modern highways, hospitals, schools, pipelines, industry. And they need American capital to build all that. They need American engineers and doctors and teachers to lead the way. They want the jobs down there. There is short term as well as long term profit for American corporations just waiting. Imagine how much more the US economy will be worth when Mexicans have enough disposable income to buy our products rather than sneak across our border.

Our goal should be a Mexico that is as prosperous as Canada. Then Mexicans will be just like Canadians who don’t need or want to be here. They’ll have their own jobs and won’t want to come because of our ethnocentrism. (A Canadian once told me that living next to the United States was like living next to an adolescent elephant.)

In the meantime, we would all do well to remember why our ancestors came here and forced the Native Americans to admit us illegally: They came not only to escape bad lives somewhere else but also because the United States is a place of prosperity and because it is a place of promise and because it is a place of freedom. I would rather have the “illegal alien” problem than live in a place where no one wants to come.

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There. Having solved this problem, I’m off to fix global warming. Then I’ll go get Osama bin Laden since the government seems unable to do it. Then I’ll bring peace to the Middle East. So much to do, so little time. But, when I have time, I’ll do the third post in the series which will examine why facts melt in the face of opinions. Part I is here.

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Ambition

November 26, 2007

Comment would be superfluous.

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Top 10 List

November 22, 2007

It is Thanksgiving here in the United States so it is time for a Top 10 list – in no particular order, except for Number 1 – of what we are thankful for here at the Goldenstate. This list is in addition to the most important ones such as family, friends, pets, good food, shelter, and love.

10. Presidential Term Limits

9. The Constitution of the United States

8. Lawyers willing to defend the Constitution

7. Wilderness

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6. The trout which live in beautiful places.

5. The birds which live in beautiful places.

4. Trains, all kinds and sizes

3. Shakespeare

2. This cup of coffee

1. Readers of this blog.

Facts v. Opinions – The “Stella Awards”

November 21, 2007

Facts have no chance against opinions. They are like World War I infantrymen ordered again and again and again to mount mass charges against machine gun nests. The generals who ordered those suicidal attacks – and were not there – had the opinion that massed human bodies should be able to overrun those machine guns. The facts belied those opinions and so the generals ignored them.

I hasten to add that we all are subject to this phenomenon, including me. For instance, I have the opinion that George W. Bush is the worst president in American history. [1] Therefore; when evidence presents itself that he has done something right, I tend to discount it. For instance, wiping out Al Q’aeda’s Afghanistan training camps was the right decision, but I always seem to add my regrets that we distracted ourselves with Iraq before finishing the job in Afghanistan. I am unable to give him unqualified credit for anything.

On the other hand, my opinion is that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president. Therefore, I tend to overlook the disastrous mistake he made appointing Stephen J. Field to the Supreme Court; a mistake for which we continue to pay the price. But that will have to wait for another post. Today’s is about the “Stella Awards.”

The “Stella Awards” constitute nothing but that persistent email that keeps showing up in our in-boxes about supposed stupid juries who award stupid plaintiffs gigantic sums of money for the stupid things they supposedly did. I got one of those emails just this morning. I could attach it to this blog, but I refuse. It is my piffling attempt to halt the stupid thing.

The email is named after Stella Liebeck, the plaintiff in the long-ago McDonalds hot coffee case. You remember the case. Mrs. Liebeck supposedly was driving a car and while driving put a hot cup of coffee between her legs and spilled it while attempting to get the lid off giving herself third-degree burns. The jury awarded her almost $3 million dollars.

No one ever mentions the actual facts of that case, which is the only real case in the email which, as I said before, is stupid.

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A. Mrs. Liebeck, 79 years old at the time, was not driving. Her grandson was. Almost 16 years ago.

B. The car was not moving. The grandson had stopped so Mrs. Liebeck could put cream and sugar in her coffee.

C. McDonald’s required its stores to serve coffee at a temperature between 180 degrees F and 190 degrees F.

D. You serve your coffee at home at temperature 40 to 60 degrees cooler.

E. Liquids at 180 degrees F cause “full skin thickness” burns (3rd degree) in 2 to 7 seconds. Mrs Liebeck had 3rd degree burns over her inner thighs, groin, peritoneum and genitals. She was in the hospital for 8 days during which the burns were debrided several times a day and she then had to have subsequent skin grafts. At the age of 80.

F. From 1982 until 1992, the time of the trial, McDonalds had more than 700 cases of third degree burns from its coffee reported to it.

G. McDonalds’ defense was that, while it knew of all the burns, it was going to leave its coffee at that temperature because “it tasted better.” Their own quality assurance manager testified that it was too hot to drink at that temperature and would cause burns in the mouth if anyone tried to drink it at that temperature but McDonalds’ own research purported to show that people drove home or to work before they tried to drink it or put cream or sugar in it.

H. The jury awarded her $200,000 in medical expenses but reduced it to $160,000 because they found Mrs. Liebeck 20% responsible. That was less than what she owed her medical insurance company.

I. The punitive damage award of $2.7 million was McDonalds’ revenues from one day of coffee sales. The judge ignored the jury verdict and reduced that award by $2.3 million. While on appeal the parties entered into a secret settlement. One hopes she got enough to pay her medical bills.

J. McDonalds now serves its coffee at 150 degrees or thereabouts.

K. Mrs. Liebeck is dead. McDonalds lives on.

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All the other cases in the email are complete fabrications. Lies. The emails always include the same ones: the woman who is tripped by her own child in a store, the guy whose hand is run over while he attempts to steal the hubcaps on the car, the thief trapped for eight days in the garage of his victim, the dog bite victim bitten while he was shooting his neighbor’s dog with a pellet gun, the women who fell in the bars; one on a coke she had just thrown at her boyfriend and the other attempting to sneak into the bar bathroom window to avoid paying the cover charge and that most wonderous urban myth – now more than 30 years old – of the driver who set the cruise control on the Winnebago and then got out of the driver’s seat and went to the bathroom; then sued Winnebago for injuries after it ran off the road because no one was driving the thing.

Here are the facts: Not one of those “cases” ever happened. Not one. They are propaganda; total fabrications. Lies. No such case would ever see the light of day in a real American courtroom. The email attempts to diminish our respect for our fellow citizens and our judicial system which has the consequence, whether intended or not, of helping large corporations avoid responsibility and hurting all the rest of us. Which gets me back to Stephen J. Field, but he has to wait.

There. I feel better. Sort of like those World War One generals. I just sent some facts out in a hopeless charge against the machine gun nests of opinion.

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[1]I struggle with James Buchanan who achieved his incompetency in just one term. It took George W. Bush two terms. Does this mean that Buchanan was better at incompetency than Bush or worse?

Killing all the Lawyers, Reprise

November 19, 2007

I see that the newly constituted Pakistan Supreme Court has decided, big surprise, that the legal challenges to General Musharraf’s continued rule must fail. Here is the Washington Post article. Musharraf, whose father had less foresight than George W. Bush’s, had to fire and arrest most members of the Pakistan Supreme Court after “suspending” Pakistan’s constitution because he knew they would rule that the suspension was illegal and because he was afraid they would hold that he could not stay in office under Pakistan law after his current presidential term is up.

Which is why our post about killing all the lawyers sums up Musharraf’s – and all other tyrants’ – view of lawyers.

Meanwhile, our fear-bound foreign policy keeps making up excuses for Musharraf’s dictatorship. And that bastion of human rights, Secretary Negroponte, runs off to Islamabad to pretend that we care.[1]

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[1] Negroponte praised Musharraf as a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban but also urged him to lift the emergency.

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Fear and American Foreign Policy

November 14, 2007

Since the end of World War II, fear has been “The Decider” in the foreign policy of the United States. We see it again now in our Pakistan policy. Once again, we pursue a reactionary policy; bent on maintaining a status quo that cannot last and will create even more ill will towards the United States.

There is irony here. We are the most powerful nation in the history of the world with less to be afraid of than any nation in the history of the world and yet we are afraid. All the time. In Pakistan we support an anti-democratic military dictator because of our fear. We fear that if General Musharraf is not in office, Pakistan might descend into chaos and someone might steal one or more of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – weapons we helped them acquire and that were peddled to Iran, North Korea and Libya while four American administrations stood by and watched. But we’ll leave that for another discussion. Too much irony in one day causes cognitive dissonance.

Not for the first time since the end of World War II, we find ourselves at the wrong end of history. Musharraf is a military dictator who thumbs his nose at the Bush/Cheney Administration while accepting billions in military aid. A.Q. Khan peddles nuclear technology and equipment to rogue states and Musharraf refuses to make him available to either the United States or the International Atomic Energy Agency even for questioning. Pakistan has more than 50 nuclear warheads and, though we provided – for free – the technology and equipment to secure them, we don’t even know where they are. This is the result of what we now know is foreign policy about Pakistan which is run out of Vice-president Cheney’s office.

Worse, because of that policy, we have no good alternatives in Pakistan now. Once again we are locked in a policy that requires support of a reactionary dictator whose days in office are numbered, who is unpopular with his own people and hates democracy. Small wonder that the Moslem world distrusts and dislikes us.

But this is just another in a long line of fear-based foreign policy missteps the United States has made since the end of World War II. A few examples will have to suffice; this is a blog, not an academic treatise. Because it is a blog, I can throw out oversimplified hypotheses and theories with half-baked analysis of what were complex foreign policy decisions and do so with impunity.

Let’s begin with 9/11. 9/11/1973 that is. The day we orchestrated a military coup in Chile which ousted its democratically elected President Allende and installed that marvelous, enlightened despot General Augusto Pinochet; who immediately suspended all civil liberties in Chile and started murdering anyone who disagreed with him. Why did the United States assist in overthrowing a democracy and replacing it with a murderous military dictatorship? Fear. We were afraid of the Russians taking over Chile. Why? Because President Allende was a socialist. Never mind that hardly any chance existed that Allende would turn Chile into a vassal of the Soviet Union. There was a one percent chance – to use Vice-president Cheney’s brilliant reductionist formula of foreign policy – of Chile being absorbed into Russia’s “sphere of influence” so we abandoned our Nation’s principals and aligned ourselves firmly on the side of repression and historical backwardness. And gave Chile two decades of misery. [1]

Or we could look at Vietnam. The overriding consideration in American minds from the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 until our ultimate withdrawal two decades later was fear. We were deathly afraid of Vietnam becoming Communist because, you see, that would result in dominoes falling: All of Southeast Asia would become communist. Vietnam did, of course, become a Communist country and no dominoes have fallen – except our great bugbear the Soviet Union.

Or we could talk about Korea. Or Panama. Or Honduras. Or Nicaragua. Or even Cuba which is the only example where the fear really was justified. For a few months. Four decades ago. But our democracy continues to be safe from Cuban cigars, even now. We could even talk about the Carter Administration’s decision to stop effective economic sanctions against a repressive military dictatorship in Pakistan so we could funnel arms and munitions through Pakistan to Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan for a proxy war against the Soviet Union.

But, as I said earlier, too much irony in one day is bad for you.

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[1] I see that conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer attempts to justify this unqualified disaster for American foreign policy by praising our wisdom. Chile, you see, wasn’t a mature country and was unready for Democracy so we actually helped them. He applies the same whitewash to our long time support of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Balderdash.

However; Mr. Krauthammer’s view of our current options in Pakistan seems about right.

Addition of November 22nd — In today’s Washington Post Robert Kagan has a perceptive piece about our history of supporting dictators. It always causes me cognitive dissonance when I find myself in agreement with a Neo-Con but there it is. Facts are facts. See the article here.

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Veterans’ Day

November 11, 2007

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Although we don’t officially celebrate until tomorrow in the United States, today marks the 89th anniversary of the end of World War I.  Here is one of the best pieces of writing about that war that I know.

HERE DEAD LIE WE

Here dead lie we
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure, is
Nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.

A. E. Houseman

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This week’s Prairie Home Companion suggests a fine idea:  Use this day to honor our veterans of all wars by praying for peace.

Let’s Kill All the Lawyers

November 7, 2007

President/general Musharraf probably has one of those T-shirts emblazoned with “Let’s Kill All the Lawyers.” That must be one of the most quoted lines of Shakespeare but hardly anyone quoting it knows its context. Dick the Butcher, a low-life in 2 Henry VI, [1] utters the famous line to Jack Cade, another low-life attempting to lead a rebellion against the legitimate government of England. Cade’s idea is that he is a hero who will abolish money and will kill anyone able to write. In our modern idiom, he is an ignorant terrorist. And why does he want to kill all the lawyers? He recognizes that lawyers defend a system of ordered liberty and will stand against his insurrection.

Which is why General Musharaff would like to kill all the Pakistani lawyers rather than just beat them and throw them in jail.

Lawyers have a honored history in Pakistan’s short existence. One of its founders was a barrister and created the legal argument that resulted in the Partition from India. Actually, the legal argument provided some cover for what the British always did when their empire was falling apart. They got out a map and drew some lines on it and got out as fast as they could. Iraq and Pakistan are prime cases in point. Wildly different tribal areas were lumped together by fervent but ignorant believers in Democracy who were busy laying down “white man’s burden” so they could go home.

Nonetheless, Pakistani lawyers, many educated at elite British and American law schools, have fought the military and the bureaucracy ever since Pakistan’s creation. During the two decades of military rule in the 1950s and 1960s the idea of an independent rule of law energized the opposition. In 1968 lawyers were instrumental in the ouster of Ayub Khan.

Even though Pakistan’s judicial system is far different than ours, those lawyers make me proud to be one myself. At substantial physical risk, they are standing up to a tyrant. Reminds me of some lawyers who did the same thing in 1776.

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[1] The discussion with Cade occurs in Act 4, Scene 2 and the quote is from line 75.

Earrings Along the Colorado

November 6, 2007

moonrise-comanche-point-1-of-1.jpgAs my consistent reader will know, I am not as young as I once was and sometimes I whine about it. Usually I whine tongue-in-cheek. I have nothing to complain about: I am in good health, all my parts are in working order, I am happy and have an altogether good life and am certainly not “old.” But the fact remains, I am older than I once was and whiffs of mortality float by from time to time as two did on my recent Grand Canyon trip.

I went with five other men and none of us are as young as we once were. We spent more time talking about health insurance than we did about women. Thirty years ago we would have talked more about women. But on this trip, none of our wives would have found anything objectionable in our conversations.

Well, except the earrings.

The earrings were attached to the ears of a young woman who was quite pleasant to look at and who was in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and had hiked to get there. With a pack. We were triply impressed: She is beautiful, she backpacks on rugged, primitive Grand Canyon trails, seems to enjoy it and has the presence of mind and dignity to wear earrings while she does it. This, in our experience, is a rare combination.

In fact, the six of us, long time backpackers, had never seen anything quite like it. Apparently she backpacks because she enjoys it. Her husband was with her, they have two sons; one already ten years old, so she isn’t doing it to impress him. She has landed him and has no reason to pretend to like backpacking just to please him. The earrings were miniature rock cairns which he gave to her. We concluded that she must really enjoy backpacking.

Let me be clear: All six of us live with fine women, one of whom is an athlete. It is just that they are not as crazy about backpacking as we are and they choose not to go. Many other women backpack regularly, but we are not married to them; so we find it refreshing to meet a couple who backpack and, as far as we were able to tell, really enjoy each other’s company while they do it.

In short, we were envious. Her husband, while not quite as pleasant to look at, was delightful company. He even joined us for a beer in Flagstaff the night we came out of the Canyon and we all count him – and his wife – as new friends. May they have decades of happy trails to hike. fates10.jpg

But she did not come up in my conversations or musings on the way out of the Canyon. These days, if I think about women at all while hiking, I am more likely to remember Juvenal who wrote in his Satires, “. . .while the hair is but newly grey, while old age is still fresh and erect, while there is still some yarn for Lachesis to spin, I can stand on my own feet without leaning on a stick.” [1] Or a titanium trekking pole. With Montaigne, “I have often found that we men have overlooked weaknesses in [womens’] minds on account of their bodies, I have yet to see one woman willing, on account of the beauty of a man’s mind, however mature and wise, to lend a helping hand to his body once it has even begun to decline.” “Why,” he laments, “is not one of them ever moved by desire for that noble Socratic bargain of body for mind, her thighs for a philosophical relationship?”

He concludes that men have more discriminating tastes as they age, thus want more but have less to offer. Love is not available,
“. . .for this poor fellow who is on his way out, rushing towards disintegration.”

Hogwash. We all came home to loving women. They just don’t like to walk all day with a heavy pack; down hot, rocky dusty trails, to eat dubious food then sleep on hard ground without a shower. I wonder why?

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[1] Lachesis was the second of the Three Fates. Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis measured it out and Atropos cut it. Lachesis’s measurement determined how long the person whose thread it was would live. In less attractive guises, they were the Wyrd Sisters consulted by Macbeth. The first painting is by William Blake (ca. 1795) and the second by Friedrich Paul Thumann who painted during the Victorian Era when it was acceptable to depict bare breasted women so long as they were mythological and not real. The photograph at the top is the moon rising over Comanche Point taken from the shores of the Colorado River about 5000 feet below.

Escalante Escape

November 3, 2007

The Escalante Trail begins west of Tanner Wash in the Grand Canyon. It and the Colorado River cut through the red Dox sandstone formation there. The Dox is about one-half billion years old and comparatively soft rock, so the river meanders through it and numerous side canyons erode upward and away from the river. The trail climbs into and crosses those side canyons. Except for the first two and a half miles west of Tanner Rapids, the Escalante is a steep and difficult trail. But for a short distance it is as level and beautiful as any trail you could imagine. It was there that I had my only experience of deep silence on my recent trip.escalante-trail-1-of-2.jpg

Silence, it turns out, is more difficult to write about than mortality. Perhaps that is because while we all experience mortality, few of us get a chance to experience silence. And, not to get all preachy about it, we would all be less afraid of our mortality if we could just get some real silence from time to time.

Or maybe it is an issue of language: “Silence” is a more abstract noun than “death.” Shakespeare could write about both. In four words. He put them in Hamlet’s dying mouth, “the rest is silence.” However, he was Shakespeare; I’m not. It is easier to compose a coherent sentence about death than composing one about silence. We know more about death than we do about silence.

Silence can be found in the depths of the Grand Canyon. Not perfect silence; internal combustion engines attached to helicopters and fixed wing planes mar the day occasionally, taking tourists for sanitized and noisy views of the canyon and jet engines fly over from time to time. But such irritating man-made noise is intermittent, transient. The rest is nature’s silence.

If you quit moving that is. If you don’t, you envelop yourself in a subtle envelope of your own sound which separates you from nature’s silence. Your footfalls on the trail, those titanium – or in my case hickory – walking sticks, clicking on the rocks, your clothes rustling, your pack creaking, all make enough noise to separate your synapses from nature’s silence and time.

Notice I said “nature’s silence.” Nature is hardly ever purely silent. Breezes rustle leaves, rivers murmur or roar their way to oceans, birds call and sing, insects buzz. But the sounds of nature are not the cacophony of modern man-life. They do not wall us off from the numinous, from the transcendent, from the universe. Rather they slip through our consciousness into our deeper selves, the selves that are made up of the same elemental particles that the Canyon, its life and its silence are made of; all created billions of years ago inside star furnaces.

I am not good at achieving these transcendent moments. For me they require silence and a lot of time. Since my weak-kneed self was already slowing my fellow hikers I could hardly stop for an hour or two on the trail. Besides, one cannot dawdle for too long on a desert trail where there is no shade and no water. Dying of heat stroke or dehydration would be a little too much transcendence.

But, because the knee and legs needed rest and hydrotherapy in the Colorado River, I had the chance to take a day-hike on the Escalante Trail. In that vast bowl of sky and rock I sat down in the middle of the desert for a couple of hours. Or at least I think it was a couple of hours. The desert has no clocks. As usual, I spent the first 15 minutes squirming, the next 15 inventing reasons to get up and move and another 15 bored to death. But then I started noticing things and time stopped. Two butterflies flitted in ground-hugging purple flowers. A Red Tailed Hawk soared overhead. Pale green bushes grew in a talus slope across the river where nothing should. Two ravens caught a thermal across the river and rode it out of sight. A breeze stirred some of that red Dox sandstone into my nose. A small piece of Cardenas Lava, one billion years old, revealed itself just beyond my feet. I held it for a moment. A disc of pale green Bright Angel Shale, almost the same color as the bushes across the river and washed down from slopes high above, was in easy reach, available for caressing. Then a two inch lizard climbed up on the toe of one of my dust covered hiking boots and perched there for a minute or so. I watched it as it sat on that boot-promontory, resting on dust that is a billion years old.

Then, just for a moment – an eternal moment – there on the Escalante, came a moment of grace. All creation reduced itself to a lizard and someone with my name; sitting in an implacable immensity of rock and sky and time and silence.

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