from my journal of 11/3/20 —

“Today, Election Day, is one that many of us have anticipated since 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency in a bitter defeat for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic party, and those who feared the destabilizing leadership of someone who thrived on flouting normal standards of human decency and the political norms governing our country since its birth. A positive outcome is possible, perhaps even likely. But after the crushing disappointment of 2016, many of us are on edge.  The future of the American political system is at stake, and with the Covid-19 pandemic still raging, the safety, health and well-being of millions of ordinary people.”

The edginess I described then didn’t subside until four days later when all major news outlets concluded that Joe Biden had won Pennsylvania, putting him over the needed 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.  Saturday, November 7 was a balmy, Indian Summer day in much of the Mid-Atlantic. It was my wife Andrea’s birthday and we’d decided to enjoy the fine weather by spending a few hours in the secluded woods of a nearby park.  We’d been enjoying the sunshine and remnants of fall foliage as we sat beside a creek when she received a text message from a friend wishing her a happy birthday and congratulating us on the just-announced news of Biden’s victory.  Andrea stood and let out a victory yelp, jumping up and down with unmitigated joy. I joined her in the celebration, both of us laughing and weeping tears of joy. It was the perfect birthday present, the culmination of many months of concentrated effort by us both.

Writing Letters to Infrequent Voters

Back in mid-October we had completed a voter letter-writing project we’d been working on since the spring.  The project was called Vote Forward and was organized by an activist political group called Swing Left. Members of our monthly political group became interested in the letter-writing project and a number of us took the Zoom-based training and began writing. Andrea and I reached our goal of completing 500 letters each,  dropping them off at our local post office on date that Vote Forward had pre-determined.

The Vote Forward project gathers lists of “infrequent voters” in mostly Democratic-leaning localities in important battleground states.  It developed a form letter focusing on the importance of voting in the upcoming election. An essential element of the project is to focus on voting itself and not recommending any particular candidate or political party.  We participants in the project simply hand-wrote the person’s name, a few lines of our own about why we voted in every election, and signed it.  We were responsible for purchasing business envelopes and first-class stamps, and for hand-addressing each envelope to the designated recipient.

I started writing letters in April, initially in batches of five per week.  I was attracted to the project because I recognized the importance I gave to any hand-addressed, first class mail that I received. I imagined myself as the recipient, curiously opening the letter with their handwritten name and address on the envelope. 

Vote Forward allows you to choose which state to write to.  I started with Texas and out of curiosity would use my phone’s map-application to look up the specific locality I was writing to.  That helped me to better visualize who I was writing to, and also helped open in me an empathic connection with that area of the country.

I’m retired and have a lot of freedom to determine my daily schedule. As I began to enter into a positive flow with the letter-writing, I slowly increased my volume, first to batches of 20 per week, and ultimately to 40.  Andrea joined me in the project in early summer, and three members of our monthly political group were also continuing to write.  We encouraged one another when the work felt tedious, reminding ourselves that energy focused on the project helped to alleviate negative feelings about our current political reality. 

A neighbor asked if we knew of any letter-writing campaigns and I was happy to recruit her to the Vote Forward effort.  The project has been in existence for years and has gathered hard data showing that high-volume letter-writing increased turnout by multiple percentage points.  Knowing the extremely close voting margins in many states in 2016 gave us added incentive to stay with the work. In addition, the project was in keeping with the greater Democratic party strategy to increase voter turnout (“We Vote, We Win!”)

Phone Banking into North Carolina

As the letter-writing campaign was winding down, I decided to turn my energies to phone banking. My friend Barbara in our political group was coordinating phone banking efforts to infrequent voters of color in North Carolina.  She gave me a personal tutorial on North Carolina politics and the importance of turning out African American and Latino voters there.  I was able to make calls from home using my own phone.  The project was endorsed by the North Carolina NAACP which gave added credibility to our effort.  As with the letter-writing, I started slowly and deliberately, limiting myself to an hour per day.  I increased to two hours per day by month’s end as I found a rhythm to the work, continually refining and simplifying the script I used at the beginning of each call.   This project encouraged us to leave voice messages, and a majority of my contacts involved leaving succinct, upbeat encouragements to vote.

I spent a few days at the end of October participating in a phone banking project to “cure” mail-in ballots that had been rejected by the local Boards of Election in North Carolina.  Again, Barbara recruited me for this special project. The messaging mostly involved encouraging people whose mail-in ballots had been rejected to pursue in-person voting, either through Early Voting, or on Election Day itself.  This was rewarding work as many people were most grateful to learn of the in-person voting alternative.

Volunteering as an Election Worker

The last election project I undertook was working as an election judge here in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Back in the late spring, with the pandemic still active and Donald Trump falsely impugning the legitimacy of mail-in voting, I began feeling unsettled about the election process itself.  Trump’s ongoing refusal to agree to abide by the election outcome also contributed to this.  Our county had run a successful, 95% mail-in primary election in June.  But for the general election, our governor was requiring more in-person voting. A majority of election judges here were seniors and most of them were opting out of the close personal contact implicit in in-person voting.  I decided to take the training to become an election worker myself.  Although I had my own COVID-19 concerns, my desire to make a contribution to the election process won out.

Most of the election training was online.  It was rigorously detailed and took me a full day to get through it and pass the required quizzes.  An in-person training was required in order to familiarize ourselves with the voting technology at the polling sites. This was a 2-hour session at a county recreation center.  Elaborate COVID-19 self-protection procedures were used, and we were also instructed on how to enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing during the election.

I signed up for two days of Early Voting and for Election Day itself. The posted hours for election workers are 6am to 11pm.  At 71, the prospect of working those long hours was overwhelming, but I was able to secure half-day service on each of the three days I worked.  I’d decided to work as an unpaid volunteer and that seemed to help me get the half-days.

I remember the feeling of anticipatory excitement as I drove to the evening set-up session on the eve of Early Voting.  Maryland was offering eight days of in-person voting just before Election Day itself.  On that Sunday evening, 70 or so of us gathered to set up the election equipment in the big gymnasium at the Bohrer Park Recreation Center about three miles from our home.  We got a pep-talk from a supervisor and got to meet the two Chief Judges at our site, a man and a woman, one Republican the other Democratic though we were never told which was which.  The best part of the meeting was meeting some of my colleagues, most of whom were doing this for the first time.  There was a healthy spirit of camaraderie and cooperation as we worked together to learn what was needed and how best to accomplish it.

My first stint was the second shift on opening day, Monday, 10/26. I reported to one of the Chief Judges at 2pm and she suggested that I roam and observe for a while to see where I was needed.  In the course of the next hour, I was able to get a better sense of the discrete jobs and where I could contribute.  I introduced myself to a few of my fellow workers and asked if I could shadow them for a while. They were universally happy to help me get oriented into the various jobs.  I ended up spending most of my shift at the line of Ballot Marking Devices (BMD’s) arranged on long tables along the far side of the gym.

BMD’s are machines that assist the voter in making their selections, producing a narrow-printed sheet with their encoded vote. The printed sheet becomes a ballot that is then inserted into a Scanner machine which tallies the votes. My job was to orient voters to the machine and help them get started. Voters had a choice of marking paper ballots manually or using a BMD to facilitate the process.  For Early Voting, the great majority of voters were choosing to use the machines. Lines often formed to wait for a free machine, and line workers pointed voters to the next available BMD. 

There were six of us working the 18 BMD’s that afternoon and evening.  When I first came on, it was to relieve people who needed a break. When they returned, I would relieve someone else. Two people left at 3pm in completion of the “morning” shift so I eventually had a more permanent station. I soon became proficient in the routine of politely greeting the voter and explaining how I would help them get started.  We were all wearing masks, of course, and I had to remember to observe social distancing.  I used an alcohol wipe to clean the table and machine surface after each voter was finished.

I enjoyed my first day because I had an opportunity to assist many different people, and also was interacting regularly with my fellow workers.  We had an opportunity to chat when the lines thinned, and were always looking out for how we could help each other to streamline the process.  After voting ended at 8pm, three of us who had worked together for the last hours gathered to compare notes and socialize.  One was a corporate consultant, the other an experienced chef, both of them, like me, looking to make a civic contribution. None of us had previous experience as election workers, but we bonded nicely in working together.  I left that night with a feeling of community and accomplishment. I was also exhausted from being on my feet for so many hours and was glad that my next shift was not until Friday.

I set my alarm for 5am on Friday in order to arrive at Bohrer Park by 6.  When I arrived, I ran into many of the same workers I’d met earlier.  Some were working for the full 8-day extent of Early Voting, eager to get the $100/day bonus that came with that commitment.  I also talked with a state employee who said she was working the election in lieu of her regular state job, earning personal leave time as well as the $180/day stipend that the Board of Elections offered.  Given the grueling hours, it was well earned.

That Friday was the 5th day of Early Voting and the number of voters was much smaller than the 1st day.  Bohrer Park was one of only 11 sites available for Early Voting in our large county.  But early reports indicated that 50% of the vote in our county was coming in via mail-in ballots.  In any event, my early shift that day was considerably slower paced.  I worked for a couple of hours at the initial voter-greeting table, looking up voters in the a computer “pollbook”, verifying their name, address and birthdate, and printing out a small slip of paper called a Voter Activation Card (VAC), which they signed and I initialed.  The VAC was initialed by another worker at either the ballot table (for getting paper ballots) or at the BMV.  A final worker initial was placed at the Scanning Device (SD) and the VAC was carefully stored there as the voter left.  The SD worker collected the VAC’s in bundles of 25, and regularly verified the number collected with the SD’s indication of ballots scanned.

My hearing and vision are not the best, so I asked to be relieved at the pollbook and took up an opening at one of the SD’s.  I’d trained briefly in that job on Monday.  It was pretty straightforward, collecting the VAC from each voter as they approached and guiding them to insert either their hand-marked ballot or electronically generated ballot from a BMD.  After the ballots were scanned into the machine, a verifying message was displayed, confirming that the vote had been registered. I initialed each VAC and wrote the SD number on it as well, carefully placing it an envelope.  Every hour or so, I’d count the VAC’s and use a paperclip to bundle them into groups of 25.  Being a slow day, I had the opportunity to chat with my colleagues operating SD’s near mine.  One was a 17-year-old high school student who was earning some required volunteer credits that day.  She was eagerly planning to be a political science student in college and was excited at participating in real election work.

For Election Day itself, I had to attend another preliminary meeting for setup and orientation.  This time I was assigned to Magruder High School, about 2 miles from our home.  I had communicated with one of the Chief Judges there the previous week in order to secure a half-day, volunteer position.  She was an older, experienced election judge who shared with me her own dilemma about working during the pandemic.  We were united in our discernment that it was worth the risk.

I worked the second shift on Election Day, starting at 2pm and ending about an hour after the polls closed at 8pm.  It was even slower than it had been on my second shift at Early Voting.  I worked primarily at a Scanner Device again, taking over for a high school student who left at 3.  He was a junior at the high school with a particular interest in computer scientist.  More interestingly, he was from Indonesia and had come to the U.S. with his older brother in order to further their educations.  I was taken with his immigrant story, and with his desire to participate in a U.S. presidential election.  Later in the day, I met an American-born man whose parents had emigrated from Bangladesh in the 1980’s. He was a very successful business consultant who wanted to give back as a volunteer election worker. 

In the three days I worked, I was impressed by the orderliness of the process, and the high level of cooperation among election workers and voters alike. There were a few people who couldn’t or wouldn’t wear masks and they were able   vote outside in the presence of a Chief Judge.  One woman on Election Day refused to wear a mask and threatened retribution by getting her lawyer on the phone.  A Chief Judge calmly talked her down and the woman left.  There were a few instances when a judge had to remind a voter to keep their mask over both nose and mouth. These were all met with compliance.

Renewed Commitment

I decided to write this account as an affirmation of the concerted effort that many of us have made to maintain our country’s democratic traditions, the most precious of which is voting.  As Donald Trump continues to malign the integrity of the election and refuses to concede, I want to stand up for all the thousands of people who worked so diligently to uphold an electoral process that Trump prefers to trample on (unless he wins, of course).

Andrea and I started our small political group after the 2016 election because we understood that we could no longer take for granted the democratic institutions that we’d inherited.  With President-elect Biden’s victory, we know that our work is far from complete, but that we now have a chance to move forward.  The shared energy and enthusiasm of the 2020 election are spurring us on to continue our work.  We’re engraving the recent memories of unfettered jubilation when it became clear that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were ultimately victorious.

We call our group “For The Common Good”.  It’s an affirmation that, as citizens, we need to rise above our purely personal comforts and interests to work with others towards shared goals. Participating in this communal political effort has helped us to remain focused, purposeful, and committed through some very dark times. And we trust that it will continue to keep us together through the challenges ahead.

John Bayerl

November 23, 2020

For the Common Good, Year 4


In January 2017, just after Trump’s inauguration and the ensuing counter-inaugural Women’s March, my wife and I formed a small political group that we named “For the Common Good”.  We had both been politically active for most of our time in the Washington, DC area, but like many, had “coasted” through  President Obama’s second term under the mistaken belief that our beloved President alone could take care of guiding the ship of state.  We did take the 2016 presidential election seriously, donating to both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, displaying yard signs, working phone banks, and presiding at a Democratic Party table at our polling place on election day.  I even signed up to fill the empty position of Democratic Precinct Chair in our suburban Maryland town and attended the trainings and pep-rallies that went with that job.

Andrea and I had re-connected with some old friends during the 2016 campaign.  Most of us had ended up working for Hillary, and all of us were stunned at the enormity of what we had lost.  We had a few informal meetings and dinners at our home to share our grief, support one another, and begin to plot a response.  Andrea and I are longtime supporters of the MoveOn political organization and we also hosted a couple of political meetings under the MoveOn banner in the weeks preceding the 2017 inauguration.

We were inspired and energized by the Women’s March and began planning to dig in for a long period of political resistance. A younger friend (Andrea and I are both retirees) suggested that we investigate a new group called Indivisible that he had read about on the Vox news-site.  I eagerly studied the group’s founding document – the Indivisible Guide – and Andrea and I both responded positively to the political resistance strategy described there.  But more than that, we were drawn to Indivisible’s call for groups of citizens to join together in regular face-to-face meetings, to support one another as friends and neighbors, and to re-invigorate the kind of grassroots, participatory democracy that we were hungering for.

In late January 2017 we met with a dozen of our politically oriented friends and neighbors to discuss the idea of establishing an ongoing Indivisible chapter.  Some had already read the Indivisible Guide online, and everyone was drawn to forming a mostly autonomous small group of friends that would have an Indivisible affiliation.  I agreed to be the group convener, suggesting that we meet monthly and that we limit our numbers so as to be able to meet in our homes.  Andrea suggested a name for us, “For the Common Good”, to affirm the kind of political culture we were most interested in co-creating. Everyone agreed and I proceeded with the simple process of registering us online.

As we enter our fourth year, I’m inspired at how far our group has come.  I’ve taken my role as “convener” seriously and have helped ensure that we meet one Sunday morning every month.  I maintain a list of member contacts, monitor the group’s email discussions, and create suggested agendas.  We’ve lost 3 or 4 people from our founding group, but have added about that number of new members as well. Other group members have come forward to host meetings in their homes and that has added to the feeling of a group of committed political friends.

When we started the group, Andrea and I were interested in co-creating a kind of support group that also took on specific politically oriented projects. About half of our monthly meetings consist of an opening “go-round” in which everyone is free to share virtually anything they care to.  All of us felt burdened by the daily flow of bad news we were hearing and seeing from TV and radio, print media, and increasingly, social media.  Our group gives everyone an opportunity to share these burdens, to feel less alone, and to join in solidarity in projects of our choosing.  As trained counselors, Andrea and I were well aware of the kind of isolation and despair that often emerges when people feel defeated and depressed.  We weren’t running a therapy group, but an important goal was to provide support when any of our members’ spirits were sagging.

Andrea and I lived in Takoma Park, MD in the 1980’s and 90’s when the town had come alive with widespread community involvement in local, national, and international issues.  We volunteered to serve on town commissions, helped organize annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations, and worked to elect progressively minded citizens to the town Council and Mayor’s office.  We adopted the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” and see our work with Indivisible as a continuation of our earlier grassroots experience in Takoma Park.

An early local project that our new Indivisible group took on was a successful, year-long effort to get our county (Montgomery County, MD) to adopt a stronger minimum wage law, up to $15 per hour.  We studied up on the issue, attended public hearings, Council meetings, and rallies, and even set up meetings to lobby individual Council members.  (I’ve written in more detail about this effort on my Blog piece of 11/13/2017.)

Some people in our group were health care administrators and practitioners and wanted to do a deep study of the existing healthcare insurance system and consider some of the new proposals that were emerging — especially Medicare for All. We spent many of our meetings focused on the goal of achieving universal health care, with health care regarded as a universal human right.  We joined forces with an established group called Physicians for Universal Healthcare to meet with Sen. Ben Cardin on two separate occasions. Others of us met with our respective Congressional representatives.  In this we were fulfilling one of the main strategies of the national Indivisible – to meet regularly with our Congress people.

In the 2018 state and county election, many of us attended candidate debates and even worked for specific candidates.  There were a plethora of Democratic candidates in the primaries and our meetings gave us a forum to discuss the pros and cons of individual candidates.

One local issue that occupied us in Year 3 was the State’s proposed construction of added lanes to our congested traffic arterials in the DC-Maryland area.  Our members have attended the State’s formal presentations as well as those of local citizens’ groups opposed to specific aspects of the highway widening.  Earlier this month, we engaged in a successful letter-writing campaign for the state Board of Public Works to delay moving forward until local elected officials had a chance to weigh in.

We had a special holiday meeting last Sunday that included a potluck brunch after a shortened group discussion.  We were all in a festive mood as we were joined by two of our younger members as well as two spouses of established members. Some of us reported on our attendance at a local “Impeach and Remove” rally on the night before the historic House vote for impeachment on 12/18.

The group has clearly become what Andrea and I were hoping for – friends who have come to more deeply know and trust one another, and who are willing to invest time and energy to protect, defend, and advance our precious democratic traditions and institutions.

John Bayerl, 12/26/2019


Autumn Leaves and Cosmetic Lawn Chemicals

trees-lawnIt’s early November in central Maryland and some classic fall weather arrived with the turning back of the clocks last Saturday night. The clear, crisp days this week were perfect for my ongoing efforts to deal with the abundance of fallen leaves on our half-acre suburban property. Our lot has more than a dozen tall hardwood trees – mostly oaks, with a few maples, wild cherries, and hickories. A hard rain over the weekend brought down a plethora of leaves, with many more still clinging to overhead branches.

In the early stages of autumn leaf-fall I use my lawn mower to simply shred them where they lie. This has become “best practice” for many environment-minded suburban property owners. The finely shredded leaves are further broken down by the fall rains and become a useful soil nutrient.

As the season progresses and the lawn gets saturated with leaf residue, other strategies are needed. Some people rake the leaves and place them in large, special-purpose paper bags for curbside pickup. I’ve done this in the past, but my 70-year-old lower back now prevents me from doing so. Instead, I often rake the leaves onto large tarps and drag them to the back of my yard where I use the mower to mulch them in piles. After a year or two, the resulting leaf mulch becomes a useful soil additive for my gardens and planting beds. We were travelling a lot last fall, so I resorted in the late stages to hiring a contracting crew to blow the remaining leaves to curbside for removal to our nearby dump/recycling center.

I was finishing a morning of mower-mulching in place today when an older neighbor-friend came by to say hello. We shared strategies for leaf removal and also talked about hiring lawn treatment companies for next year. As we were talking, a younger man arrived and approached us. Serendipitously, he was the new site-inspector for the lawncare company I had contracted with this past year, Save-A-Lawn. He introduced himself as Ryan, apologized for the interruption, and said he only wanted to inspect the state of my lawn before drawing up a proposed contract renewal. We both agreed that the lawn had benefitted from the bi-monthly fertilizing and “hybrid-organic” weed and pesticide treatments. The full lawn aeration and over-seeding done in September had resulted in a filling-in of many bare spots as well.

After his inspection, Ryan proceeded to tell us that a recent court decision, sustaining our county’s anti-chemical strictures on lawn treatment, was now in full force and was dramatically affecting the entire lawncare industry in Montgomery County, MD. No chemical pesticides or herbicides would be allowed for lawn treatment next year. Ryan reminded me that I already had a “hybrid-organic” treatment in effect, but that the requirement for 100% organic treatment was a major challenge to implement. He was confident that his company would be able to fulfill the new law, but he wondered about the large-scale companies like Tru-Green and Chem-Lawn who currently had no organic alternatives within their chemical-driven offerings.

I count myself as a political and environmental activist and was chagrined at my ignorance of what had transpired with the lawn-care “cosmetic chemical” ban. I’d been motivated to upgrade my mostly raggedy lawn last year after starting to consider selling our “empty nest” 4-bedroom home. My wife and I take frequent walks around our neighborhood and were keenly aware that the appearance of our own lawn was not up to neighborhood standards. We didn’t want to go over to the full chemical pesticide/herbicide approach, but we did want to upgrade our lawn’s appearance. We were happy to have found a smaller lawncare company that offered some organic alternatives.

The Web made it easy for me to get up to speed about what had transpired. Our local lawncare chemical ban was actually passed by the Montgomery County Council in 2015. We were the first major jurisdiction in the country to have passed such a ban. The measure targeted certain chemicals that have federal approval, but which contain substances linked to cancer. The law exempted agricultural land and golf courses and didn’t actually ban the sale of the chemicals within the county. Upon its 6-3 vote passage, the measure was immediately challenged in court by a group of lawn-care companies, a trade association, and some private citizens.

In 2017, a county Circuit Court judge agreed with the plaintiffs, concluding that the county measure was preempted by state law. A Maryland Court of Special Appeals overruled that decision in May 2019, opening the doors for county enforcement of the chemical ban for “cosmetic” lawncare use. The measure had the strong support of the county Sierra Club chapter as well as a large number of local environmental activists and Councilmembers.

The opposing trade association lamented the state court’s ruling and promised to consider other options for possible appeal. The state judge’s ruling simply asserted that localities had the authority to create regulations on potentially harmful chemical products. His ruling states:

“We conclude that the citizens of Montgomery County are not powerless to restrict the use of certain toxins that have long been recognized as ‘economic poisons’ and which pose risks to the public health and environment.”

I for one am fully supportive of our county’s lawn-care chemical ban, despite its radical effects on the lawn-care industry and on the pristine state of suburban lawns. Ryan told me that his company’s need to find fully organic fertilizers would likely mean an immediate price increase for next year’s lawn care service. That’s a price I’m happy to pay.

John Bayerl, 11/7/2019

Colorado Vacation – Part 2

The “family” part of our trip began on the Saturday we arrived in Estes Park.  My sister Meg and her husband Luiz had driven up from their Denver home that afternoon.  The five-person Buffalo group flew into Denver that morning and rented a van to drive up from the airport.  It included my sister Marian and her husband Bob, my brother Tom and his wife Karen, and my sister Anna.  My sister Meg had rented a three-bedroom “cabin” for the week where she, Luiz, Marian, Bob and Anna would stay.  Tom and Karen had a room at the same family resort motel as Andrea and me, about two miles from the rest of our family.


 Settling In

Everyone was happy to get settled in their respective digs.  The Buffalo crew was especially fatigued from their long-layover flight and ensuing drive from Denver.  Communication was a challenge in that only half of us had reliable cell phone service.  Once we figured out who did and who didn’t, we were able to agree that we would all rest for the evening and get together on Sunday.  Andrea and I connected with my brother Tom and his wife Karen and made a date to do some grocery shopping that evening.  They were without their own car for the week, and we were happy to help with their logistics.

 First Forays into the National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) encompasses 415 square miles of mountain wilderness in northeastern Colorado. It includes some of the Rockies highest peaks along the Continental Divide – the geographical backbone of the North American continent. The entire park received official “wilderness” status by the U.S. Congress in 2009, further safeguarding its pristine natural state.

mapAndrea and I made our first drive into the park on Sunday via the Fall River entry station on Route 34, about five miles west of Estes Park.  A welcoming Park Ranger greeted us at the booth, scanning our recently acquired National Park entry card and driver’s license.  We’d heard of strictures on the number of car s entering but the Ranger assured us that we could go up as far as we wanted that late afternoon.  Our goal was to drive in just far enough to get a taste of what was in store.  Route 34 becomes Trail Ridge Road at the Park, the highest continuous 2-lane highway in the country.

The excellent RMNP brochure and map accurately describes three distinct natural environments.  The large area below 9,000 feet is called “Montane”.  We entered this area at around 8,000 feet and immediately passed through an expansive meadow area with good views of the approaching peaks.  After a few miles we entered a heavily forested area and really began to climb.  The trees were mostly aspens and tall ponderosa pines whose fragrance wafted into the car.

It wasn’t long before we entered the next major ecosystem, the “Subalpine” level of 9,000-11,400 feet. This is a generally wetter environment with smaller size spruce and fir trees and lots of undergrowth.  I made a note about an intriguing turn-off to “Hidden Valley trail” as we continued to ascend on a series of switchbacks that offered great vistas and a somewhat scary view straight down from the steep edge of the 2-lane road.  We remained in the Subalpine level for another five miles or so, stopping to park and walk at two well-known vistas: “Many Parks Curve” and “Rainbow Curve”.  Both offered fabulous views of some of the highest peaks and we were happy to join the parade of other tourists, mostly families with children, eager to catch the view and stretch our legs.

The official RMNP brochure describes our experience well: “To ascend Trail Ridge Road is to leave this world and enter another.  It carries you, breathless with wonder and altitude, into a wild yet fragile alpine realm.”  We took a lot of photos, but none of them do justice to the expanded feeling brought on by such altitude and such intimate proximity to this wild, rugged mountain range.



Acclimating to Estes Park

The National Park was certainly the major draw, but definitely not the only source of fun and relaxation for the week.  For one, the cooler, drier, clearer weather all week was a welcome relief for those of us who had been enduring still another hot, wet, humid summer back east.  Waking up to temperatures in the 60’s was a real delight.  Some afternoons made it to the low 80’s, but the humidity seldom went over 60%.  Heavy clouds masses would often blow in from the western mountains in the afternoon, and we even had an impressive hailstorm on our second day. But by evening the skies had usually cleared and temperatures dropped.

We had some delightful times at our own family resort as well as at my family’s rented “cabin” on the other end of town.  Andrea and I are both swimmers and our daily afternoon dips in the outdoor pool never failed to refresh. The adjoining hot tub was an added bonus.  I’d been suffering with some chronic neck pain and discovered that I could position my neck on the tub’s jets in a way that was amazingly relaxing.  I also purchased some CBD oil that the resort had for sale and received a noticeable decrease in discomfort after twice daily doses for the week.

The family cabin was actually a very comfortable 3-bedroom, 3-bath home set on a hill with a great view of the surrounding Rockies.  The cabin was  owned by the Clatworthy family, who had been a major force in bringing a culture of quality photography to the region in the previous centuries.  On Monday, we all walked from the cabin into town along the impressive Big Thompson river.  There was a weekly artists’ market open along the Riverwalk downtown, and we all enjoyed the scenic walk down, as well as perusing the quality arts and crafts there.

Clatworthy photos


Excursions to Hidden Valley and Kruger’s Rock

On our second trip into RMNP we returned to Hidden Valley, at a signpost I’d noted Sunday.  We set out in the afternoon again and the clouds began building up up to menacing greys and blacks.  By the time we arrived at our destination’s parking lot and trailhead, thunder was rumbling loudly.  The wind picked up and it started raining quite hard, forcing us to wait in our car for over 30 minutes.  The rain stopped, the clouds lightened and soon the afternoon sun was shining down again, creating a sparkling play of waterdrops on grass, brush and trees.

Hidden Valley is a classic Subalpine environment.  We took the mile-long trail out and back, crossing a strong running creek, stopping to take photos in the magnificent light.  It was a great pleasure being there in the magic time after the storm and we lingered on for a good long while.

Before leaving we took note of a National Park sign describing the history of Hidden Valley.  It turns out that it had been a popular ski area for many decades.  But beginning in the 1980’s, snowfalls became progressively less until snow-making machinery had to be used.  By 1992 even that wasn’t enough snow and the ski area closed down for good.  It was a sober reminder that even this pristine natural paradise was not immune from the climate crisis we are already far into.

We took a different exit from the park and drove south to Estes Park’s famous YMCA Conference Center.  A friend had told us he attended a spiritual retreat for over 900 people there some years ago. As we entered the large campus with surrounding mountain vistas, I had to alter my prior conceptions of YMCA as an urban phenomenon.  Here was a massive summer camp environment with large dormitory buildings, conference rooms, and dining halls.  It was supper time when we arrived, and we were happy to join the thronging kids and few adults in one of the cafeteria lines for a high-quality meal at a reasonable price.

The next day we got up early to hike a trail up to Kruger Rock, a 9,000-foot promontory overlooking Estes Park, contained within a local county park (Hermit Park) about five miles south of town. There were far fewer people there and we enjoyed the peace and quiet of morning in the Montane with a bounty of multi-colored wildflowers and fragrant ponderosa pines.  We found a great lookout spot shy of Kruger Rock itself and relaxed on the rocks to take photos and examine the town below with binoculars.


Coming down we came upon a boy furiously peddling his mountain bike up the steep, rocky path.  He looked overheated and upset and Andrea stopped to ask if he was okay.  He wondered if we had seen other mountain bikers going up.  We said no and he said he’d gotten separated from his family.  She suggested he might have taken a wrong turn at the fork a few hundred feet below.  We were actually able to text his grandfather and saw the boy a little later re-united with his family in a pickup truck laden with mountain bikes.

Lily Lake and the Church on a Rock

One morning mid-week we all gathered at the cabin for a ride up a nearby cable car to Prospect Mountain, another peak over Estes Park. When we saw the long line, we decided to postpone that ride and drove instead to a beautiful mountain lake about 10 miles south on Route 7.

Lily Lake straddles RMNP but is accessible without entering the park itself via a large parking area off Route 7.  The lake features a flat, mile-long hiking path on its perimeter which was perfect for a family jaunt (we even encountered people in wheelchairs).  The lake was surrounded by a meadow bursting with wildflowers, with the towering Longs Peak visible to the west.  The easy hike gave us an opportunity to socialize and take photos.

We all drove (in our two rented cars) a few miles further south on Route 7 to what Meg was calling “the church on the rock”.  St. Catherine of Siena chapel is indeed a small stone church perched above a large outcropping on the side of the road.  We all got out to visit the inspiring little sanctuary and adjacent visitor’s center.

Church on rock

Ascending to the Alpine Heights

Near the end of the week, Andrea and I took a morning drive back into RMNP via Trail Ridge Road. This time we stayed on past the Rainbow Curve lookout, making our first stop at the Forest Canyon overlook.  This was the Alpine realm (above the tree line at 11,400 feet) and the air was noticeably thinner and the views all the more spectacular.  The canyon was cut by the Big Thompson, the same river we’d been delighting in all week at the Estes Park Riverwalk. (We thought of our friend Linda trekking down into the Grand Canyon that very week.)

Andrea connected with two older gentlemen from Estes Park who were volunteering as aides for the Park Service at the lookout.  She asked about the patches of dead pines we’d seen a few miles back and they described an infestation of pine beetles that had appeared with the warming climate.

Our last stop on the Trail Ridge was the Park’s Alpine Visitor Center at just above 12,000 feet.  By this point there were numerous snowfields on the nearby hills and cliffs.  The parking lot was almost filled but we found a spot and toured the impressive gift shop and café.  Fortified, we ascended the trail to the 12,400-foot summit where we had a fabulous 360-degree view of the Continental Divide.  The climb left us light-headed but happy, the culmination of our summer mountain adventure.


A Last Meal on Lake Estes, and Further “Chance” Encounters

We had a memorable last meal back in Estes Park at a quality restaurant with a great view of Lake Estes.  Our family from the cabin joined us that Friday evening as we savored the last of our time together.  Andrea and I had eaten there earlier in the week and met a charming Russian waitress – a student working there for the summer.  Meg’s college son Inti was a Russian major at PENN State and was currently in St. Petersburg in an intensive language program. We were happy to have the same waitress that evening, and to share in the surprise and serendipity of our Russian connection.

Earlier that day, Andrea and I had stopped for coffee in a charming shop near Mary’s Lake.  There we encountered a man from the DC area, like us.  After a few minutes of sharing pleasantries, we discovered that this gentleman was a close friend of a couple we knew well back home. We celebrated that synchronicity by taking selfies and texting the photos to our DC friends, much to their surprise and delight.

On the plane ride home from Denver the next day, Andrea happened to sit next to a man who she discovered was a close business associate of some other close DC-area friends.  A memorable delight of our trip were these “chance” encounters that gave a magical feeling of connection and mystery.

John Bayerl, 8/23/2019

A Colorado Vacation, Part 1

My wife and I just returned from a marvelous 10-day vacation in the Colorado Rockies.  My youngest sister, Meg, a longtime Denver resident, arranged the trip for us and three other siblings and significant others.  Meg is the only westerner among the ten of us Buffalo-born sibs and she really enjoys showing off the splendors of the mountains to her East Coast family and friends.

 Arrival in Denver

Our 4-hour, early morning flight to Denver was uneventful. But while waiting for our rental car at Denver airport, we met another retired couple who lived just a mile from us in Rockville, MD.  It was fun sharing travel plans and celebrating the serendipity of our encounter.  This would be the first of three chance encounters that added spice to our trip.

2 Shaded characters

Our first stop was the Denver home of one of Andrea’s old Oberlin college chums.  We successfully navigated a missed exit on the freeway to arrive at Debbie’s lovely home in southeast Denver. Debbie is an active retiree but made time to prepare a delicious pizza and salad for us.  She also took us on a short walk of her neighborhood, allowing us to begin taking in the decidedly different flora and landscape.  We became aware of the mile-high elevation as we quickly tired in the thinner air.  Our only regret was that we couldn’t visit longer.  Andrea had booked concert tickets for us that evening in nearby Boulder and we were eager to check into our hotel there and get settled before our night out.

A Day-and-a-Half in Boulder

The 45-minute drive to Boulder gave us our first glimpses of real mountains. We’d also heard a lot about Boulder as a cultural and educational mecca and were eager to have a day-and-a-half there to explore.  After checking into “The Broker Inn” and resting, we dressed for our evening concert at the Chautauqua Auditorium, about two miles down the road.  It was one of the last classical concerts of the annual Colorado Music Festival, and featured Beethoven’s well-known Pastoral Symphony (#6) and a violin concerto by Phillip Glass.  Andrea had communicated with two old friends of ours who had moved from the DC area back to Boulder some years ago.  They actually lived within the Chautauqua community in Boulder and had alerted Andrea to the concert.

The auditorium was a cozy 19th century barn-like structure located on the sprawling campus of the Chautauqua community.  We were happy to find street parking about a half-mile away and settled in for a first-rate performance, introduced and conducted masterfully by the Canadian musician Peter Oundjian.  Beethoven’s 6th symphony is a beautiful and lively evocation of the natural world and includes a famous depiction of a gathering thunderstorm.  Shortly after the piece came to an end, a hard, steady rain began to fall outside, curtailing our intermission excursion.

The ensuing concerto was deeply evocative and stirring, played by the accomplished violinist Robert McDuff.  The stated theme of the concert was minimalism in music.  The composer Phillip Glass is a master of using simple repeated chords and phrasings to build music of substantial depth and lyricism.  Mr. Oundjian had provided some background about the piece, dedicated to Glass’ father, a man unlettered in musical complexity.  We enthusiastically joined the standing ovation for the masterful performance of this modern piece that uncharacteristically communicated great depth of feeling.  The expanded feeling of the concert helped us to navigate the steady rain falling on us as we walked back to our car.  Soaked but happy, we found a fast-food restaurant on the way back to our hotel where we could dry off and eat a very late supper.

We slept well that night and got up to the hotel’s full breakfast offering in an ornate old dining room overlooking one of the University of Colorado’s sprawling campuses.  Our ensuing drive to the downtown area took us past further expanses of this impressive public university.  With limited time we had to forego a tour of the university in favor of visiting the old historic area of Boulder.  We parked and walked to the tourist-friendly pedestrian mall along Pearl Street.  It reminded us of a similar car-free area in downtown Charlottesville, VA where we had recently visited.


It soon became clear that the increased elevation of Boulder was taking a toll on both of us.  We had to stop regularly to sit and rest on the benches and in a coffee shop along the Pearl Street mall.  A highlight of our morning was visiting the exquisite Rembrandt Yard Gallery, a glass-walled building with wonderful views of the downtown area and surrounding mountains.  The gallery was featuring an exhibit of original Maori paintings.  The natural light-filled ambience of the gallery, including a sound system playing late-Beatles, psychedelic music, transported me to a relaxed, expanded state of awareness in which the “primitive” paintings communicated profound, universal messages.

Maori arrows

On the walk back to our car, we stopped to buy just-made quesadillas from a Mexican American food truck.  They were delicious and substantial, impressing on us the pervading Hispanic cultural presence all around us.

After a refreshing dip in our hotel’s small outdoor pool, we rested for a while before going out for dinner at our old friends’ home back at the Chautauqua.  Rob and Alice are Boulder natives who were happy to “retire” to their hometown after successful careers in the DC area.  We had gotten to know them more deeply after spending three weeks together on an extended retreat in Brazil four years ago. They warmly received us in their renovated “cottage” located next to a hiking path up to the “Flatirons”, Boulder’s highest ascent.

It was a wonderful evening sitting out in their back patio for a delicious supper.  Their mid-twenties daughter, Naomi, was visiting and it was good catching up with her as well.  She and our son had been classmates at the Washington Waldorf School for a few years.  As with many good friendships, we were able to pick up the conversation from where we’d left off.  Rob and Alice have similar cultural and spiritual interests in addition to shared friends and history.  How rich for us to arrive in a new place and feel so known and taken in!

Arrival in Estes Park

After a post-breakfast stroll through the Univ. of Colorado campus across the street from our hotel, we loaded our rental car for the 90-minute drive up into the mountains.  The city of Boulder quickly gave way to bare, brown hillsides and longer and steeper ascents on Route 36.  Driving the 2-lane road became challenging when we encountered the bicycle leg of an “Iron Man” triathlon, with spread-out riders hugging the shoulder.  We were mightily impressed at the riders’ stamina on the long ascents in the thinning atmosphere.  There was a bona-fide traffic jam on arriving at the town of Lyons, but the cyclists diverged there, and we were soon moving again.  As we continued to ascend, occasional mountain vistas began opening up.  About ten miles from our destination in Estes Park, we got a good look at some snow-covered peaks.  As we pulled into our modest motel-resort on the outskirts of town, the Rockies presented themselves in all their raw majesty.

Lake Estes mounts

We arrived around noon.  Our room wasn’t ready, but the warm, welcoming desk woman suggested a short drive down to the town’s visitor center where we could park and explore the town by foot.  The visitor’s center proved to be a hive of activity as it was the embarkation point for hikers waiting for buses into the nearby Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP).  The impressive Big Thompson River ran behind the visitor’s center with crashing whitewater rapids.  We joined a small stream of other visitors for a stroll along the town’s famous “Riverwalk”.  The half-mile-long walkway is a landscape architect’s paradise, with benches and rocky inlets and sculptures and cleverly designed children’s play areas along the riverfront.  The opposite side of the walkway faces the rear entrances of a stream of up-scale coffee shops, restaurants, and gift shops.  We had a nice stroll, stopping to take photos and appreciate the wonderful zen-like atmosphere.  At 7500 feet, we also noticed our growing fatigue and made stops for coffee and lunch before heading back.

Our room was almost ready on our return and we took some time to explore the comfortable grounds, which included a large outdoor swimming pool and adjoining, enclosed hot tub.  This was clearly a family-oriented resort, with open playgrounds and green space and lots of kids in the pool.  It was laid out as a quadrangle of traditional one-story motel units around a large central green space.  In addition, we were just a stone’s throw from the picturesque Lake Estes. We were happy with our spacious digs that included a front sitting room, comfortable king size bed, and rear dining area with table and chairs, small refrigerator, microwave, and adequate bathroom.  This was our home for the week and we were quite pleased with it.




Cutting the side lawn with my noisy gas mower, I feel a sharp sting on my left heal, then the right calf then the belly.

I let out a roar and run speedily to the house.

I still hear buzzing as I remove t-shirt, pants, shoes, socks. The vagrant Eastern Yellowjacket hits the glass door in flight, drops to the floor, where my wife and I sweep him out.

Tending to the stings and their growing welts with ice packs and healing clay, taking anti-inflammatories, sitting still.

Stopped in the tracks of my to-do list.

Stung to attention by a life form for whom I was an existential threat.

Remembering the yellowjackets I had seen earlier in the week.

Remembering how they like to nest in burrows dug beneath decomposing tree stumps.

Remembering how I had mowed right over one such stump patch, and how the stinging started soon after.

Wikipedia tells me that Eastern Yellowjackets can become actively aggressive in the face of assaults on their nest. Otherwise, they are relatively benign.

It also says that Eastern Yellowjackets are generally welcomed by gardeners for their consumption of vegetable-chomping insects.

I slowly come to peace, accepting the hours-long discomfort that my obtuseness has brought on.

Delaying Gratification

hot dogs on grill

It’s the day after the 4th of July and my wife and I just ate a picnic supper at home: her delicious homemade coleslaw, corn on the cob, and uncured beef hot dogs, cooked on our new outdoor grill. Though the food itself was great, cooking the dogs on the new grill was actually the most gratifying part of the meal for me.

We purchased the grill on the evening before the 4th with hopes of breaking it in for the big holiday. I’d finally hauled our 20-year-old workhorse Weber to the local dump during our spring cleaning. We’d seen a friend’s nifty new, compact, table-top gas grill and agreed that was the way that we aging down-sizers wanted to go.

After shopping around online for a week, we finally decided to buy one at a local big-box sporting and camping goods store. The one we liked had a heavy foldup base and was bigger than we originally had in mind. A young employee was happy to cart the bulky 50-pound box to our car. We left it in the car overnight so that I could assemble it in the morning in time for our annual 4th of July cookout.

I have to say that assembling objects is not my strong suit. I had to psych myself for the task the next morning. Before leaving for a long hike with a friend, my wife encouraged me to be patient and read the instructions carefully.

I followed her advice and carefully unboxed the grill, removing loads of styrofoam and cardboard packing materials. Detailed instructions with pictures were included and I carefully inventoried all the parts. Most of the assemblage involved the fold-up base, and I got through all that with only minor hitches. Within an hour, I had a standing grill that I could wheel from the garage to the back patio. I read the instructions for connecting a small liquid-propane canister to a regulator and then to the grill itself.

The morning was hot and humid, and I had broken into a healthy sweat by this point. I was looking forward to test-firing the grill and covering it with a tarp before returning to barbecue burgers for our evening meal. Before doing so, the instructions recommended one last step: removing the grill’s top to make sure that the gas lines (“venturi tubes”) from the regulator terminated right at the burners. This involved removing 6 small metal screws and I considered skipping the step. But the instructions said that this step was especially important when the grill had been transported, which I had just done. I bit the bullet and carefully, patiently removed each of the 6 screws and pulled the top off. Inspecting the “venturi tubes”, everything seemed in order and I replaced the top. It was a tight, metal-on-metal fit and the two pieces had to be perfectly aligned so that all 6 screw-holes lined up. It took some concentration to complete this re-attachment, but I finally succeeded.

The time had finally come to test the grill!  I turned the gas valve to “HIGH”, waited 4 seconds as instructed, then pressed the red igniter button repeatedly. I could see little sparks coming from the electronic igniter, but the burners failed to light. I stopped and tried again a number of times. I even tried with a long butane lighter. Still nothing. At this point, it had started to thunder and raindrops began falling. Reluctantly, I decided to cover the grill up with a tarp and try again later. I was genuinely perplexed and discouraged. I reviewed the instructions and felt that I had done everything correctly, including the last check of the gas lines. I was now tired and sweaty so wisely decided to give it up and take a shower.

It rained torrentially for much of that afternoon but started clearing in the evening. As supper time approached, I went out to try lighting the grill again but the results were the same. We ended up cooking our burgers on the kitchen stove.

This afternoon I decided to take one more shot at lighting the grill before calling the company for assistance. I painstakingly removed the 6 screws and opened the top to inspect more carefully. The venturi tubes still looked correctly aligned, but I did notice that the propane-regulator connection to the grill looked like it wasn’t fully tightened — there were treads showing. The instructions had warned against overtightening here. But I decided to turn the connection tighter until it was genuinely “hand-tight”.

Sure enough, after carefully re-aligning and screwing in the grill-top again, the grill lit right up. I let it burn at maximum heat for 15 minutes to burn off the excess oils as directed. Then I got those hot dogs and cooked them to perfection. As I took them off the grill, the term “delayed gratification” came to mind.


I remembered reading about “delayed gratification” from my investigations into childhood attachment theory. Early attachment psychologists like John Bowlby had noticed that one of the common characteristics among happy, organically maturing children is their resilience when encountering obstacles. These children registered some level of disappointment and frustration when their needs were initially unmet, but didn’t devolve into tantrums nor defeated resignation as other less happily parented children did. Instead, the healthier children bounced back from their frustrations, secure in knowing that things would right themselves eventually.

I had recently attended a Takatina session where I had dealt with this theme. Takatina is a form of group rhythmic creation in dance movement, clapping, and chanting. My friend Marcus Sims had trained for many years learning to lead these sophisticated rhythmic experiences and I’ve learned a lot from participating in the sessions. A major theme of last week’s session was about “letting go” of our false needs to always control our reality. Learning how to move and chant and clap in synchrony and harmony with others requires a kind of “focused emptiness.” You have to stay very present and aware, yet “let go” to the rhythm at the same time.

A Takatina session is hard to describe, but involves learning to coordinate some dance steps with well-defined rhythmic clapping and chanting. Everyone makes “mistakes” in the process but the idea is to keep on going, correcting yourself by coming back into harmony and rhythm with the leader and the group as a whole. In the last session, I found myself able for the first time to hold down the dance steps and clapping for long periods. I really enjoy the chanting and in the past my joining the chanting had meant giving up on the clapping. My nervous system went to “tilt”. This time I decided to stay more with the clapping, chanting only at those times when I felt secure in the rhythm. For some brief intervals, I was actually able to bring my dancing, clapping and chanting together at the same time. It felt very satisfying.

What I’m learning in Takatina is to delay the gratification of mastery by slowly building on my improving capacity to stay present in focused emptiness. Within this context, my “mistakes” are just neutral occurrences that I seek to correct without any sense of shame, or self-blame, or undo discouragement.

At the end of each Takatina session, we lay down in silence to rest but also to integrate what we have learned. Marcus’ mantra is that we do Takatina as we do the rest of our lives. When we can enter into the rhythm of our own lives, we live in a zone of inter-connection, purpose, and creativity. Our shortcomings and mistakes become simply grist for the mill. We may hit places of challenge that are not easily dealt with, yet our growing resilience allows us to learn from each mistake, without shame or blame, and carry on.

I believe that my work with Takatina has increased an inner sense of resilience that allows me to delay gratification more readily. I remember times in the not too distant past when incidents like the problematic grill would have sent me into a tizzy for days, cursing the manufacturer and my own incompetence, making myself miserable and spreading the misery to everyone in my orbit. By simply pausing, breathing, relaxing, and trusting, I was able to salvage a satisfying holiday for me and my life partner.

John Bayerl, 7/5/2019

Gaithersburg Book Festival (GBF) 2019

The GBF celebrated its 10th anniversary on the grounds of the City of Gaithersburg’s municipal buildings this past Saturday. It was a fine summery morning as two of my sisters from western NY and I set off for the short drive over the railroad tracks from Derwood. This was the fourth year that they had made the long drive down the day before in order for us to attend the festival together. We’d spent the previous evening reviewing the GBF’s schedule grid, identifying the authors we most wanted to hear from. Over 100 authors would be speaking at ten outdoor, covered pavilions over seven hourly time slots.


Testimony to Recovery

We went together for the first two presentation slots. Our first author was local writer and motivational speaker, Maria Leonard Olsen, whom we had heard two years earlier. Ms. Olsen is an accomplished Filipina-American woman whose previous book dealt with the challenges and joys of raising multi-cultural and multi-ethnic families. Her latest book, “Fifty for Fifty”, is about the challenges she faced entering her 50’s; challenges that included a divorce, overcoming alcohol problems (her own and her son’s), and a more existential issue regarding her personal identity and her right to define herself apart from the many social expectations she had taken on.

Ms. Olsen pointedly described the inner and outer chaos of her life at the time of her divorce and alcohol abuse. She slowly worked her way back to sobriety and a sense of purpose via 12-step recovery groups. Al-Anon in particular provided a sense of ongoing community support that helped her to discover her own “higher power” and to share her newfound serenity and purpose with others. She learned to become a better person, more accepting of herself and others without having to carry the many unnecessary burdens that she had falsely assumed.

The culmination of Ms. Olsen’s recovery work was the formulation of fifty desired projects and goals for addressing her mid-life crisis. Many of these involved risk-taking endeavors that she had always wanted to try but had held back from in fear. She bought her first motorcycle, sang solo in a karaoke bar, even set off for a months-long sojourn in a mountain village in Nepal. She came back from that trip with a deep sense of gratitude for all the things she had taken for granted: clean water, healthy food, a weather-proof home, friends and family. The 12-step message of gratitude, acceptance, and serenity became her daily practice and led ultimately to deep self-renewal and inner change.


Like Father, Like Daughter

Our second author was Anne Hillerman, daughter of the prolific, Navajo-inspired detective/mystery classics’ author, Tony Hillerman. My sisters and I had read a number of her father’s taut, engrossing mysteries about police lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his assistant Jim Chee, all set on the sprawling Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. Tony passed in 2007 and five years later, Anne, a professional journalist in Santa Fe, took up her Dad’s legacy and penned the first of her four Leaphorn-Chee sequels. My sister Marian had listened to “Spider Woman’s Daughter” and convinced us that daughter Anne was the real thing.

Well over fifty of us filled the Dashell Hammett Pavilion where Ms. Hillerman was interviewed by talented local writer and arts critic, Whitney Fishburn. Ms. Hillerman began by saying how pleased she was to be a participant in the GBF, extolling the pastoral outdoor setting and the friendliness of the organizers and attendees. She said she was active in the Santa Fe cultural scene and had long been advocating for such a small, quality book festival there.

Ms. Hillerman spoke fondly of her beloved father and how he was inspired to create his series of 18 Navajo tribal police mysteries, written between 1970 and 2006. Anne was born in 1949, the eldest of six children. By her account, her Dad was a loving husband and father; a World War 2 vet from Oklahoma who found his way as a writer after finishing college in New Mexico and staying on to teach there. He became avidly interested in Navajo people and their culture by attending their many open ceremonies and talking with Navajo anthropologists at the Univ. of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he settled.

Anne recalled the pleasure her Dad took in reading aloud his just-completed chapters. He had his creative roadblocks and struggles, but enjoyed a wonderful relationship with his wife, who became his literary confidante and lifelong editor. Anne marveled that her Dad’s writing inspired him to the very end, and that he took great pleasure and satisfaction in each of his carefully plotted novels.

Anne had toyed with the idea of writing a Leaphorn-Chee mystery of her own after her Dad died. She’d been a published non-fiction writer for many years and even collaborated with her Dad on some travel books of Navajo country. Finally, she was inspired to take the plunge, publishing “Spider Woman’s Daughter” in 2013, to great critical acclaim. Three more Leaphorn-Chee novels followed, culminating with “The Tale Teller” this year.

Anne knew that her own attempts needed a slightly different perspective from that of her Dad’s. She achieves this by highlighting one of Tony’s minor characters, a female Navajo officer, Bernie Manuelito Chee (wife of Jim Chee). I knew from dipping into “Spider Woman’s Daughter” that Anne had succeeded in maintaining the taut, no-nonsense flavor of the narrative while opening it up to include the somewhat softer, more intuitive perspective of Bernie. Leaving this lively and inspiring presentation, I knew that an Anne Hillerman novel would soon be my selection for our family book group.


“A Good American Family”

My wife joined me for David Mariness’ talk about his new book, “A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father”. Mr. Mariness is a career editor and writer for the Washington Post and well-known author of biographies of Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente. He began by saying that his latest book was his most personal and the one he cared most deeply about.

Mr. Mariness was another 1949 baby (like Anne Hillerman and me), born in the post-WW2 era when the Cold War had already begun and anti-Communist fanatics here in America were set on destroying the lives of men like his father. Mariness Sr. was a career journalist, too, active politically since his student days at the University of Wisconsin. At one point he joined the Communist Party, supporting its goal to improve the lives of minorities and working people during the economic ravages of the Great Depression.

Mr. Mariness’ mother was also a left-wing political activist whose brother fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist forces of Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. Mariness Sr. volunteered for the U.S. Army during WW2, attending officer training school and becoming a leader of a brigade of African American soldiers who fought at Okinawa.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was formed to investigate alleged Communists within the United States. Mariness Sr. was called before the Committee in 1952 and pled the 5th Amendment. He had long since abandoned the Communist Party and had returned from the war to start a family and resume his career as a journalist. Mariness Sr. had prepared a brief statement but the Committee would not allow him to deliver it unless he provided the names of “fellow travelers”. He refused to do so, and his statement remained undisclosed until his son David discovered it in his FBI file at the National Archives almost 65 years later. Part of that statement reads:

“In the 34 years of my life, in war and peace, I have been a loyal, law-abiding citizen of the United States. One week after this nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941, I enlisted as a private in the Army of the United States and served for more than four years, climaxed by the campaign inn Okinawa. I was honorably discharged in January 1946 with the rank of captain.

“Upon my discharge I returned to my job as a newspaperman with the Detroit Times. I am a homeowner, a taxpayer, and parent, father of two boys and a girl.

“I was taught as a child and in school that the highest responsibility of citizenship is to defend the principles of the U.S. Constitution and to do my part in securing for the American people the blessings of peace, economic well-being, and freedom.”

Mr. Mariness was a young boy at that time, remembering mainly that his family moved a lot in ensuing years. In fact, his father was blacklisted from his job and spent many years moving from town to town pursuing work. Finally, Mariness Sr. was hired by a liberal-leaning newspaper in Madison, WI and enjoyed a long, satisfying career there. David remembers growing up mostly happy and secure — the product of a “good American family”.

Mr. Mariness had been aware only of the general story of his father’s public denunciation and blacklisting. His two years of careful research brought home in detail the ugly realities of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, realties he sees all too graphically being reproduced in our Trump era.


A Daring Prequel

After meeting up with my sisters for lunch, and for book-buying in the Politics and Prose bookstore tent, I decided to rejoin them for one last author presentation. My sisters and wife were long-time fans of the “Anne of Green Gables” series of novels by the Canadian author, Lucy Montgomery. They were eager to hear from a young author, Sarah McCoy, who had just published a prequel, “Marilla of Green Gables”. Marilla is the 50-ish adoptive mother of Anne and Ms. McCoy’s novel is an extended exploration of Marilla’s life before Anne’s arrival.

Ms. McCoy was expertly interviewed by another local writer, Nicole Hertvik, who had launched a popular cultural Web site for the DC area, DC Metro Theatre Arts. She congratulated the author for daring to write a new novel for a series that was so much loved and venerated. Ms. McCoy confessed her naiveté in entering those sensitive waters but said her own love for the Green Gables books propelled her forward. McCoy was fascinated with the character of Marilla and used throw-away details in the original to construct the character’s earlier life. She made multiple visits to Prince Edwards Island both to finetune details but also to get the sanction of the Montgomery family estate.

Ms. McCoy’s bubbly enthusiasm was contagious, and I became intrigued. She had made reference to a new re-casting of the Green Gables story in the Netflix series, “Anne with an E”. Later that evening, after a fine supper out at a local Peruvian restaurant and our traditional tropical ice cream dessert at York Castle in Rockville, we watched the first episode of “Anne with an E” and were all taken with the freshness and creativity of the re-write.

This year’s was the 10th incarnation of the Gaithersburg Book Festival and it has become a family highlight for the last five of them. I’ve encountered no other venue where it’s possible to hear published authors at such close proximity, ask questions, and engage personally. My sisters and I are in an active book club together and the annual GBF has provided us with memorable experiences that often bear fruit in the selections we choose to read for the year. The Washington DC area has such a plenitude of cultural offerings that events like the GBF are often overlooked. I have to confess to being of two minds about publicizing it more, since its small size and intimacy are a big part of what makes it so special.

John Bayerl, 5/21/2019

Celebrating a Life, No Matter What

My wife and I drove to Charlottesville, VA last Saturday to attend a memorial service for the 37-year-old son of two old friends.  I wasn’t looking forward to the 3-hour drive there, and then back home to Maryland.  But my deeper resistance had to do with knowing that Gabe had taken his own life.

I felt terrible for his grieving family and friends.  We had experienced the suicide of another 37-year-old man six years ago and remembered all too well the emotional devastation that his parents suffered.  In addition, I felt my own sadness and discouragement at the thought of someone that age so hopeless about life that he would commit suicide.

Saturday turned out to be a spectacular spring day, clear and cool, with the Virginia countryside blooming at every turn.  We enjoyed the drive down, arriving early enough to walk through the splendid pedestrian mall area in downtown Charlottesville, close to the The Haven – the nondenominational church where the service was held.

As we entered the church we greeted Gabe’s father, expressing our condolences to him with heartfelt hugs.  The church pews soon filled with upwards of 200 people, most of them around Gabe’s age, including many couples with children.  The printed program featured a big smiling photo of Gabe with flowers in hand and a goofy handmade rooster on his shoulder.  It included an outline for a “Celebration of Life” inside the church, a “Second Line” New Orleans style funeral march to the nearby IX Art Park, and an outdoor “Wake” of live music, food and drink.

The memorial was almost two hours long and included very moving “Remembrances” of Gabe by his father, his brother, and half a dozen close friends.  A middle-aged woman minister served as a kind of MC, beautifully holding an atmosphere that was deeply spiritual without being overly solemn.  Gabe’s father spoke first, holding back tears to read a moving tribute that he had composed and sent out a few days after the death.  My wife and I didn’t know Gabe himself well, but we had spent a lot of time sharing with his parents some of our mutual parenting challenges.  Gabe’s father described the many talents and accomplishments of his son, including his world travels and knowledge of languages, his deep Buddhist spirituality, his creativity as a sculptor and musician, and his love of being a big-hearted prankster.  But he also described Gabe’s lifelong struggles with his bipolar disorder, including a number of hospitalizations and periods of deep depression, the last of which led to his decision to take his own life.  I admired my friend’s ability to speak so deeply and honestly about both the light and dark sides of his son’s life, affirming his love throughout.

There were a number of musical interludes between the ensuing remembrances.  These were songs performed by Gabe’s musician friends and including touching renditions of Gabe’s favorite tunes.  The spoken remembrances by his closest friends, young men and women who knew Gabe in many different contexts, were all deeply moving.  We learned a lot about Gabe’s larger-than-life personality, which often disguised his darker, more brooding side.

At the end of the church service, the minister invited us congregants to speak out one word that described our feeling in that moment.  The word “gratitude” arose immediately in me – gratitude for Gabe’s life, for all the people he had touched with his creativity and love, but mostly for the opportunity to share in this remarkable remembrance with his family and friends.  All my earlier resistance had dissipated.  As we marched out together into the gorgeous spring afternoon singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, I felt deeply gratified that we had come.

As our “Second Line” pedestrian funeral march continued for 4-5 blocks to the Art Park, people were talking and sharing about what we had just witnessed.  As we arrived, we were invited to gather around a large bronze sculpture that Gabe had created.  It’s called “The Messenger” and its photo had appeared on the cover of his father’s published memoir.  It’s a magnificent creation of an angelic form and it was enclosed within a four-pillared wooden structure.  We were all invited to visit this site during the wake, where we could write out our deepest heart’s desire and then offer it to the spirit of the Messenger.

The ensuing outdoor buffet supper had the feeling of a wedding reception rather than a funeral.  Everyone seemed to be in a highly sociable mood.  We met a Charlottesville couple at our table with whom we shared mutual friends and interests and happily exchanged our contact information.

As we drove home that evening, the feeling of gratitude continued to grow in me.  Celebrating a life in all its manifestations of joy and grief was indeed possible!

[Below is the front cover of my friend’s memoir, Sacred Source, with a photo of his deceased son’s magnificent scultpure, “The Messenger”]


Vultures Roosting in Our Backyard


My spouse Andrea and I returned from our annual winter vacation on the ocean in northwestern Puerto Rico in late February. We’d rented an oceanside home situated on a high cliff with a magnificent 180-degree view of the tropical Atlantic. At that elevation we were frequently at sight level with high-flying hawks, falcons, osprey, frigate birds, and pelicans. We kept binoculars handy to better track these flight-loving raptors. Burgeoning birders that we were, we’d brought our much-used guidebook, Birds of Puerto Rico, studying up on the habits and nesting preferences of each species that we identified.

Soon after returning to our home in Maryland, we started noticing a preponderance of turkey vultures around our suburban home in the early evening hours. We regarded this phenomenon with curiosity and interest. It seemed to be an extension of our two-week encounter with the sea raptors of Puerto Rico. The early March weather felt colder and harsher after our stay in the tropics, so our only venture outdoors on many days was our evening walk.

One evening we noticed that a number of the vultures were resting among the high branches of our backyard loblolly pine grove. The grove is on the northwest corner of our 1/2-acre property and consists of about a dozen tall, mature pines, planted fairly close together such that their upper branches intertwine. We noticed a few pair of vultures occupying adjacent higher branches. My only thought was, “Well, that explains what we’ve been seeing each evening!”


We’d been home for two weeks at that point and most of my interest and attention were still turned to indoor pursuits. However, I began noticing large white splatterings of bird poop on our driveway, increasing in volume and frequency as the weeks went on. I went out a couple of times with a hard-wired brush, hot water and strong detergent to clean the driveway. That experience tied me to those vultures in a different way. I began thinking of them as pests, even though my ecological mindset kept reminding me of the essential role that vultures play in our suburban environment. In addition, I’d always marveled at the site of vultures soaring in the late afternoon sky, riding thermals for the sheer joy of it. My sweat lodge teacher used to call them “peace eagles” and that’s how I tried to think of them.

Whenever Andrea and I talked about the vultures, we ended up agreeing that we had little choice but to “wait and see”. But then one evening I was standing in our backyard as the “kettle” of vultures (about 12 of them) began descending on our property. For the first time, I felt pangs of fear in my gut as I took in the size and purposefulness of these large flying creatures. They flew down in what appeared to be an orderly way, following a lead “scouting party” of three larger birds. The sight of their 3-4 feet wingspans circling our home rattled me. I experienced them as invading hordes, guests who had overstayed their welcome.

My feelings of being invaded stayed with me for a number of ensuing days. I felt hemmed in, trapped in my own home, unable to imagine a way out. I went outside one morning to another massive effluent of vulture poop, not only on the driveway now, but also on the back patio and the entire area below the pines. A strong odor emanated from that area — that of an extremely acrid urine.

That morning I rallied myself to get more information about what was happening. I sought out the “vultures” entry in Wikipedia and spent some hours learning about their nature and habits. I was particularly taken with the description of a vulture’s digestive system, which secretes corrosive acids capable of digesting the carrion that was the species’ primary diet. But nowhere in the long discussion of vulture biology did I see any mention of issues like mine.

I next googled “vultures in the suburbs” and before long, came upon an excellent story in an old Audubon Society magazine. The story detailed an event in Leesburg, VA in which over a hundred vultures had established their roosting place. The residents became perturbed and called their local officials. Eventually, city officials agreed to contract with a special unit in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help remove the vultures. The crew came in with air-horns, fireworks and effigies of dead vultures that they hung from the trees. The vultures took flight but later returned and the whole process was repeated. Finally, they left for good.

That process seemed a little extreme to me. After all, we had a much smaller number of birds. After more searching on the Web, I found the phone number for a Wildlife Information Hotline provided by our state’s Department of Natural Resources. I called and was transferred to another line. That line had a recorded message which was actually quite informative about vultures. After carefully listening to it a couple of times, I left my number to have an agent call me.

At that point, my resolve was set. One thing I learned online was that vultures liked to roost in tall pine trees, and that they would lay their eggs there in springtime. Once the eggs were laid, the parents would warm them for up to 60 days before the little ones broke through and eventually fledged. It felt important to act before any eggs were laid.


That afternoon I went down to our basement to retrieve two large hoop drums that we had used in our many years attending sweat lodges. As the sun dropped in the west, I took the drums onto our back patio, close to the pine grove. I knew that the vultures would be returning soon, but now I was ready for them. As the first three “scout” vultures descended, I commenced playing one of the hoop drums as loudly as I could with a strong, steady beat. They soon veered off from the pines but made a large circle and returned. I continued drumming strongly but this time the lead vultures landed anyway. Even as I continued to drum, the rest of the kettle soon arrived and began settling in the pines. I persisted and began hooting and hollering as well. I took the second, larger, louder “buffalo drum” and began striking it strongly. Within a minute, one of the vultures flew away, and the rest followed in quick succession. I continued playing the drum for another 5-10 minutes, but at that point I was growing tired. My wife came out and drummed for a while and, as it became dark, the vultures failed to return. We both felt relieved and buoyed by our success.

The next evening we were out there again. Again the three lead vultures appeared and descended to their perch in the pines. But this time, the force and persistence of both of us drumming was enough to drive the lead birds away. The rest of the kettle stayed away as well.

I had a neighborhood civic club meeting to attend at 7:30 and a neighbor drove into our driveway to pick me up. As I approached his car, I heard drumbeats coming from the backyard and realized that the vultures were returning. I invited my neighbor to join me in the yard where my wife was drumming fiercely. She approached our neighbor and handed him the other drum. To my surprise, my mild-mannered neighbor started drumming with a frenzy of his own. After some time, the vultures left again and we went on to our meeting, laughing heartily at our unexpected adventure.

On the third evening my wife and I were going out to friends’ for supper. I was worried that the vultures would return, but I had an idea for keeping them at bay while we were away. I retrieved my old 1980’s “boom box” radio/tape player from our basement and set it up on the patio using a long extension cord. I pointed the two speakers straight up, put on our favorite FM jazz station, and turned the volume all the way up. It was loud! I worried about our neighbors, but it was a chilly evening and windows were closed. Our friends lived within a few miles and I reasoned that we would return early enough to avoid problems.

While telling our hosts about the situation that evening, they suggested that we use an electronic timer to control when the boom box went on and off. We implemented that the following evening, setting it to go on at 6:30p and off at 8. Using the radio/timer for the next few nights, we saw no sign of vultures and thought our problem was solved.

The man from the Wildlife Information Hotline called me back and said that I might have to be even more persistent. He said that vultures loved clumps of tall pine trees. The fact that they had been roosting there for at least four weeks before we acted indicated that they well might return. And sure enough they did. One week later, observing the beautiful dusk out our back window, I saw the lead birds descending once more to make wide circles around our house. I immediately went out with a drum and within a few minutes, they left without ever landing. That was two weeks ago and we’ve had no sighting of them since.


Thinking back over this experience, it occurs to me that my encounter with the vultures can be described in four stages: denial, awareness, acceptance, action. My initial fascination and interest in the vultures were real and important to me, yet it prevented me from realizing the effects of hosting these creatures indefinitely. Gradually, my daily observations led to an awareness that these wild creatures’ nesting at such close proximity had undeniable negative ramifications for my wife and me. It was difficult to accept the negative aspects because I am an ecologist and believe that all God’s creatures have inherent worth, dignity and purpose. By denying my negative feelings, however, I was becoming a victim of them. Accepting the unacceptability of having the vultures as close neighbors indefinitely allowed me to act. As I stood out in my yard with my drum that first evening, I felt energized and aligned with my deepest instincts. As the vultures swooped down, I felt their energy and grace and responded with my own energy, and determination. I’d grown to deeply admire and respect these creatures, and yet felt no guilt about shooing them away to a roost that didn’t impinge directly on my space. I could still affirm the Lakota Indian prayer that I’d learned in the sweat lodge — “We are all related” – AND that I had a real need to sometimes enforce a respectful distance.

John Bayerl, 4/17/2019