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Ken Hartke

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I'm retired and living solo "out west" in the New Mexico desert. I've been an observer and blogger for years and usually have four or five blogs going but wrote for myself or for friends. A lot of it was travel stories or daily random postings -- but it was a good experience. Red Room allowed me to share things on a wider scale and with its demise, I (maybe) found a more public voice.

The Panel of Experts

You have seen it many times. Clusters of men or women engaged in converation. These are often retirees or the elderly members of a community. I seldom see yoiunger folks taking the time to engage in long conversations. They are too busy looking at their iPhones of hurrying somewhere. It is a shame that the art of actual conversation seems lost to many of them. 

Over the past few months I have become part of a casual weekly cluster of friends -- all male -- who spend a couple hours together just engaged in conversation. By the time you reach your 7th decade you have seen and done and learned and messed up a lot -- and you have a lot to talk about. Among of the five participants, we have two with intense military experience, a laser weapons developer, two who worked in prisons, a couple avid genealogists, a real estate developer, a social worker, an off-road race car driver, a NASA project engineer, two accomplished photographers, an auto mechanic, a historian, a palentologist, and a long distance bicycle competitor. All have been married at least once, all have grown kids, all are well read. Only one was born and raised where we all now live in a largely Hispanic community.  It is a very diverse group that I jokingly call this group "the Panel of Experts". If you have a question or a technical or mechanical problem you can get an answer. But it usually comes with a story and it takes a while. All of that recently eminded me of something I wrote about six or seven years ago on The Power of Conversation.

The Power of Conversation

Conversation is a lost art…lost long ago…and it is becoming a lost personal skill. Human evolution on the mega time scale and personal development of individuals in a micro scale, from the cradle to the grave, depends on meaningful human interaction. We have to be able to carry on a rational conversation with our doctor when we are sick or having a check-up. That is just one example but we have maybe a dozen events during a typical  day when we have to speak with and listen to another person and communicate in a rational manner.

I recently went to a meet-up — one of those scheduled social get-togethers where strangers introduce themselves and converse over drinks or a meal or maybe engage in a common activity, like photography or dominoes or whatever. There were twenty people there and several were attending for the first time — like me. Some were familiar with each other and they fell into a friendly and joking evening of conversation. I was sitting next to and across from people who were not familiar with the group so we just talked among ourselves. The young guy next to me was a zookeeper at the city zoo. He was a bird man but at other zoos where he worked he had different assignments with different animals. The retired woman across the table recently returned to the US from a thirty year career abroad, mostly in Germany. She was a civilian employee of the military. Our conversation, over about two hours covered travel in Europe and specific countries (Portugal in particular), various foods, zoo operations in different cities, zoo emergencies and emergency preparations.

It turned out that the zookeeper was the guy on call to drop a rogue or escaped animal before it attacked too many visitors. Too many, he said…it seems to be a given that someone is likely to get hurt before the situation is under control. This was, to me, a very peculiar aspect of zoo management…one I had never considered. He said that the chimpanzees might be the most dangerous of animals if they escaped. Most animals would try to run away and not intentionally hurt anyone but the chimpanzees can become very aggressive. They apparently have a plan at the zoo as to what caliber bullet will take down what animal. This was news to me and this fellow was very serious.

The lady across the table was very fond of Portugal but not very complementary regarding Italy. To her way of thinking, the Italians are too ego-centric and can’t see beyond their borders. If something wasn’t Italian it was unworthy. I was surprised at that perception because it didn’t agree with my own experience. On the other hand, she was very impressed with the little towns and villages of Bavaria where she spent several years on assignment. Never having been to Bavaria or Portugal, I was interested in her experiences.

I personally didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation other than to ask questions  and follow along. The zookeeper wasn’t much interested in Europe and the retired woman wasn’t much interested in the zoo or animals escaping. Somehow, I became the glue that held the conversation together by asking questions and giving an account of a few experiences I had in Italy or at the zoo. We had a fairly enjoyable evening.

Another night this week I went to my local brew pub. This is something of a regular Tuesday night event with me and a friend spending a couple hours mostly talking about music or our past careers…we are both retired but had very different jobs. I was a little late this week but when I got there my friend was engaged in a conversation with another patron, I’ll call him Al, who we see from time to time at the brew pub. Al is a force of nature as far as conversation goes. He has the broadest range of interests and is fairly knowledgeable on all sorts of topics. He is a retired mechanical engineer. He can talk for hours but he has a special skill in drawing others into the conversation. You can’t sit on the sidelines. I knew when I walked in it was going to be a wild ride.

The topic, when I arrived, was the various pros and cons of brewery and brew pub business plans. This morphed  into how the craft brewing industry seemed to be falling into several different categories and how some were “selling out” to big brewing conglomerates while others were intentionally staying small and flying under the radar. It even briefly touched on Margaret Thatcher in the same context.

Before we were finished that evening the topics went from the initial subject to the Theory of Relativity, E = mc 2, and string theory; laser technology in several forms; Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines; the future of Chinese economics and consumerism; my home brewing prowess and home brewing in general;  gravity and mag-lev technology; migratory bird perception and sensing of the earth’s magnetic field; variations of time on different planets and in space travel in general; the Doppler Effect and the properties of sound under different atmospheric conditions; and a half dozen other topics I don’t even recall now. Granted that this was a brew pub but we were so engaged in conversation that not a great deal of beer was consumed. This was about a three hour conversation and we were exhausted when Al left but energized at the same time. He has a way of stretching your engagement and keeping your interest. My friend and I have had these types of conversations with Al a few times before and sometimes we try to go off on a parallel or tangent topic and he will go along for a minute or two but then circles back to the course that we were on.  I haven’t had conversations like this since graduate school and only a few back then came close or equaled our discussion that night.


I have had similar long conversations with fellow passengers on Amtrak travelling cross-country although the topics usually were not so wide ranging. Actual face-to-face prolonged conversation is invigorating. There are some topics that can get people enflamed and angry but over these two recent evenings and about five hours of talk we never touched on politics or religion or immigration or anything that normally gets people enraged.  I will go to a popular chat forum about once a day and just look at the topics and some of the comments. People are very willing to stick their thumb in your eye in a verbal sense on these forums. Civility is the first victim in many of these forum conversations because the parties are anonymous and feel they can say anything and not suffer the consequences. In real live conversations that isn’t the case and people measure and filter their words and their topics seem to keep some civility if not cordiality.

Social interaction doesn’t have to be prolonged or deep. Two people talking about the weather at a bus stop could turn out to be the bright spot of your day. I have become somewhat chatty over the last few years and people will usually be happy to talk. I can recall only one occasion in the last year where someone refused to be at least cordial and respond to a simple verbal encounter.

So, your assignment is to go out there and talk to strangers or engage your friends in a substantial conversation. Report back on how it went.

*     *     *

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Marvelous, Ken. Though I would be an unlikely practitioner.
Tuesday, 30 January 2024 21:19
Rosy Cole
Some interesting thoughts here. There's the art itself, which some acquire in engaging small talk, and then there's the substance.... Read More
Thursday, 01 February 2024 15:51
Ken Hartke
Too often, in other group settings, people seem to want to be heard more than actually listening or comprehending what is said in ... Read More
Saturday, 03 February 2024 06:01
138 Hits
4 Comments

Fishing Solitaire

Fishing is a solitary thing.
At least for me.
Over the years, I cherish
most those solitary hours.

 IMG_0743

I recently had a few hours
alone on a small stream
meandering through
a mountain meadow.
The setting was almost
beyond description.
A high meadow,
set part by itself.
Fishing was slow.
The wind was difficult.
The ground was boggy.
It was wonderful.

One is totally mindful
at such a time.
Every second —
every movement counts.
The sun. The wind.
The current. The shadows.
The sky. The grass.
The fish. The strike.
In my deep concentration,
with only a few rising fish,
I heard an odd sound.
Was I not alone?

 IMG_0740

There – I heard it again.
I was in an open valley.
I could see for miles.
I saw no one.
Cast. Drift. Retrieve. Repeat.
You get into a rhythm.
Each cast promises success.
But few are perfect.
There it is again.
What am I hearing.
I moved a little.
Upstream. Downstream

My company has mostly been
those Red-winged Blackbirds.
They seem to own this
valley and the stream.
They scolded on my arrival.
Unhappy – they complain
of my very existence.  But
that is not what I hear.
Fishing is slow. I catch one.
Too small – liberated, it
swims away. I moved farther.
I go upstream by a bridge.

 IMG_0734

Here is a quiet, grassy pool
with a current flowing out
from under the bridge.
It looks promising.
There – I hear it now.
Much closer. There — again.
I look around — searching
the shore and grasses.
It’s an unfamiliar sound.
And just then a Coot
paddles out from the
streamside grasses.

IMG_0732

A solitary Coot. Black
in color, with a facemask
bill. Not a duckbill. More
pointed and pronounced.
It reminds me of the
months – years – spent
with our pandemic masks.
He – I assume it’s a “he” –
seems much happier than
the Blackbirds. He does
his thing and I do mine.
I stop and watch.

We coexist for a while,
moments on a quiet pool
high in a mountain meadow.
On the most beautiful day
of the year. He paddles a bit.
I fish a bit.
He calls once or twice.
He and I are placid
companions on this stream.
Neither of us have a complaint
or a care. I pass to the other
side of the bridge. He watches.

 IMG_0736

 *     *     *

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Tranquil. Energising. Tows a deep sense of refuge with such a delicate hook. Thanks for sharing. It's what we all need these days.... Read More
Monday, 12 June 2023 11:07
Virginia M Macasaet
One with nature! Beautiful photos and writing..
Monday, 03 July 2023 01:04
Stephen Evans
I had to look it up to see what a coot was, though I have heard the phrase you old coot before and never knew what it referred to.... Read More
Friday, 07 July 2023 00:04
403 Hits
3 Comments

Hummingbirds at Night

Experts tell us that Hummingbirds are not nocturnal creatures.
They need their sleep -- surely as much or more than I do.
They are amazingly energetic and have abilities that other birds
can only dream of. They are acrobats and flying aces with
aerial combat and near constant feeding.

DSCN5395xx

But one night recently, it was under the Sturgeon Moon, I found
myself sitting outside under the portal. The super moon was bright
and making it hard for me to sleep.  I have trouble sleeping
under a full moon as I grow older. There is an urgency that keeps
me awake on those nights. It was very late, or maybe early.

 

On this night, the planet Jupiter was shining bright just a short
distance from the moon, or so it seemed. It was at the ten o'clock
position in relation to our moon.  The moons of Jupiter are
visible with a zoom lens on a point-and-shoot camera.
I had my camera with me and was visually alert.

 

DSCN5406xy Jupiter2

I soon began to see Hummingbirds. Several of them. They
were visiting my Desert Willow, now in partial bloom with its
sweet-pea flowers. It is a little late in the season but there are
still some late blooms. My home is a refuge for late bloomers. The
Willow tree and the Hummingbirds, and me, perhaps.

 

Were the Hummers stimulated, as I am, by the bright moon?
Once I saw one silhouetted against the moonlit sky, I saw several.
They are territorial creatures and protective of their space but they
seemed to be at peace with each other as they visited the blossoms.
I sat and watched in amazement.

 

Of course, I tried to get a photograph but to no avail. They were a blur
if I caught them at all. The combined effect of the moonlight and the
silhouette of the birds and the blossoms against the gray-blue expanse
of the universe was not to be captured in any way other than my own
memory. That was fitting on such a night.

 

The hummingbird is sometimes considered to be a spiritual messenger.
I have lost several friends this year. My own thoughts have been locked
in on my own loss of almost fifteen years ago, to the day. American Indian
folklore holds that seeing a Hummingbird at night foretells an encounter with
someone bringing great joy and happiness. I'll go with that.

 

DSCN5395x

 

     *        *        *

The Home Place — 2022

Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
Lovely! Captures the spirit of birds so blindingly fleet, they almost look still beside the flowers. I do hope your American India... Read More
Saturday, 20 August 2022 22:23
Stephen Evans
"My home is a refuge for late bloomers. The Willow tree and the Hummingbirds, and me, perhaps." Love that phrase.
Sunday, 21 August 2022 14:39
Ken Hartke
Thanks for the kind comments. You make me blush. I love to watch them but I'm a little wary of Hummingbirds after one mistook my ... Read More
Monday, 22 August 2022 00:12
662 Hits
4 Comments

The Clock Tells the Time – the Bells tell the Century

Umbria, 2010

It seems like a timeless place. But in the old town in the hills, the bells count the hours and the quarter hours, as they have for generations -- for five or six centuries. The broad cobbled Corso winds through the town. The main drag we might say. It passes through the centuries old city gate, much older even than the bells, goes through the piazzas and past the market stalls and the sidewalk cafes. Past the worn and repurposed palazzos. The town folk enjoy their evening stroll. They meet old friends and relations and pause for a glass of wine, an espresso, or a grappa and share stories or the news of the day. There are those obligatory kisses, and near misses. Much of the business of the place passes in the evening hours on the Corso.

The old clock in the town hall sounds its bell -- a dull clanging sound. Not a sonorous or pleasant tone. It was meant for business: get up -- get out -- take alarm. The old city fathers were a most frugal lot and knew not to spend scarce city money on a large bell. A long minute later, after the clanging has died away, the great bell in the cathedral rings out its time. That is where the tithe money went, centuries ago, to call attention to the cathedral. Mostly to impress.

The clocks have been slightly off for generations. They just are, but don't have to be. They could be timed better and synchronized… or they could settle on one. But there is a purpose and an intent to the minor discrepancy. It is an ageless dialogue. A slight discord but the Church has the last word. This place was once part of the Papal States. The town hall may clang away at the precise and proper time, but the church bell responds and commands attention.  There is a certain stubbornness to this old rivalry that marks the quaint and timeless character of these hill towns. Such is Italy.

 

561_0401.JPG

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
Sounds, charming.
Saturday, 14 May 2022 20:22
Rosy Cole
Bells are so atmospheric and evoke layers of history, putting us instantly in touch with the past without a single word being utte... Read More
Wednesday, 18 May 2022 16:34
830 Hits
2 Comments

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