My snow blower didn’t work this morning. I plugged it in and hit the self-starter button which old fellows like me use, (because we’ve learned from our sons how to be lazy,) and all it did was make an anguished whine. So I decided to be old fashioned and pull the starter cord, and the cord wouldn’t budge. The engine was frozen. I checked the oil and saw it was low. (Oh, all right, I’ll confess: It was below low.) I put oil in, and tried again, and it made the same anguished noise. I then made a few anguished noises myself, thinking I’d been stupid and destroyed yet another engine. Internal combustion and me simply don’t get along.
I looked out at a purple, predawn dusk of swirling flakes and used a bit of bad language. The Childcare was going to open in an hour, with more than a foot of snow on the drive and in the parking lot. It was time to show my leadership skills, and come to a swift decision.
I could have closed the Childcare due to the storm, but I take pride in the fact we’ve never been closed, no matter how bad the weather. I also balked at the thought of calling all our customers.
I could hire someone to plow, but it was a bit late. All the fellows I know who plow would be out plowing regular customers. My oldest son, who plows, would be plowing twenty miles away, and my younger sons are away at college. Anyway, I hate the way that plows put the snow exactly where I don’t want it, including atop a leech field, which needs no extra stress. Also they rip up chunks of lawn and sidewalk, and other stuff you never find until the huge piles that plows make finally melt, usually in May.
I concluded I’d have to do the job by hand. The snow was surprisingly light and fluffy, and despite the fact the parking lot is nearly 3000 square feet, and both the entrance and exit drives are twelve feet wide and sixty feet long, I was in such a rage I decided go for it. It’s amazing the level of adrenalin even an old geezer like me can muster, when he’s angry at his snow blower.
After about fifty seconds of digging like a whirlwind I paused, breathing heavily, and considered the little hole I’d made in the white, and then I gazed over the vast, un-shoveled desert ahead of me, and contemplated our earliest customer in their tiny car, which has a road clearance of not much more than a slip of paper, arriving in twenty minutes and plowing through a foot of snow.
I then decided to demonstrate my leadership skills by doing something all great leaders do, which you seldom hear about: I called my wife.
We decided that, as I shoveled, she would use our truck, which has four-wheel-drive, to pack down a lane, so people could at least get through the mounds which the town plows heaped by the street, at the entrance and exit.
As I shoveled I noticed she was really enjoying herself, as she drove in the entrance, through the lot, and out the exit, circling around a number of times. Then she drove back and forth in the exit, which has a steep rise to the road and is where people usually spin tires, until that part was packed flat. Then it was seven o’clock, and time to open, so she parked the truck and hurried to click on lights and turn on the heat and be ready for the children. As she passed me on her way in she was still smiling, which cheered me, as I was still in the mood to curse the snow, the snow blower, and quite a number of other things. When I mentioned it was nice to see her smiling she paused, and said she’d been remembering being a child, and being taken out with her grandfather as he plowed.
I decided to remember things that made me smile, and as I went back to work in the swirling flakes the first thing I remembered was learning how to pace myself, nearly forty years ago.
I’ve always had an all-or-nothing sort of temperament, prone to binges of furious activity followed by profound dejection and inactivity. Back then my condition was called “manic-depressive,” until research couldn’t prove such a state existed, and it got debunked, whereupon, because there was such good money to be made in treating the non-existent condition, it got rediscovered and renamed “bi-polar,” (which is currently being researched and debunked.)
In any case, I had my “ups and downs,” and was going through a “down.” I’m not sure what it was about. Likely either I had gotten rejected or one of my poems had gotten rejected, (and probably both.) In any case, if I could now go back to that time I sure wouldn’t be depressed, but back then I was young and didn’t know any better.
One thing I did do right, back then, was that, whenever I decided to be a suffering artist amidst agony and despair, I tended to choose idyllic surroundings. On that occasion I was like many young people: When I crashed and burned I landed back at my parent’s, however, because I knew only weenies went back to “live with mommy,” I didn’t live in her and my stepfather’s house, overlooking the beautiful Harraseeket River on the coast of Maine, but rather down in a little shack on a dock at the foot of their property. I can think of few places lovelier, to be bummed out and broke in.
One problem I had with being bummed out and broke was that it was boring, and I couldn’t stick with it long enough to die young and be famous. Also people tended to interrupt. On this occasion it was a church lady who thought I ought be redeemed.
I didn’t take kindly to being redeemed, especially when it turned out to involve eating lots of healthy tofu and vegetables, and also jogging. Writers are supposed to sit, smoke, drink Irish coffee and think, not run about like a chicken in a sweat suit. I doubt I would have been budged from my typewriter and ashtray, had not the church lady been young and attractive. However that’s another story for another time. I am talking, (in case you forgot,) about learning to pace myself, which is something you learn, if you jog a hilly landscape.
And so, after leaning on my shovel and smiling off into the distance for a bit, I began shoveling, slowly but steadily.
That was not the way my Dad taught me to shovel snow. He had a grit-your-teeth, Macho attitude, partly because that’s how men were back then, and partly because he’d been struck down by polio at age thirty-four, and the only way to come back from that calamity was to strain. Even to walk, he had to strain. When he faced a staircase his jaw got grim, and he climbed the stairs with the intensity of a weight-lifter setting a personal record. Therefore, I suppose, he had little sympathy for people who complained when they didn’t have to strain. Because of him I tended feel straining was a natural state. It became half of my all-or-nothing temperament.
This striving attitude involved all aspects of our home, including shoveling our driveway. Though we were quite wealthy (for a while,) and lived in a wealthy neighborhood, my Dad didn’t want us growing soft, and didn’t hire someone to plow our drive or buy one of the new-fangled labor-saving devises called a “snow blower.” Dad didn’t want to save us from labor, and instead felt labor would be good for us, and handed us snow shovels.
It wasn’tso bad for me, for my shovel was small, but my older brothers might have preferred to grow soft. They tended to get the job done as quickly as possible, which inadvertently led to peculiar pride. Our driveway often was snow-free before the road was.
Because our driveway was on a hill facing south, and paved with the blackest asphalt, it tended to catch the sun, and even on cold days the snow would melt, or swiftly sublimate, over the black asphalt, until the driveway was snowless and bone dry even when the street was still covered in slushy ruts. To see a snowless stretch of pavement so soon after a storm looked downright odd.
Then came a winter when my Dad had vanished and my older brothers were away at college and I was not so small and we were not so rich. It seemed to take much longer to shovel that hill all alone, but doing the job was invested with a strange symbolism. It was in memory of a happier past, and secretly in honor of a somewhat disgraced Dad.
Though growing like a weed, I wasn’t strong, yet I attacked the job like a weight lifter setting a personal record, and when the job was done, and I looked up the hill and saw the blacktop already starting to melt through the white remnants of snow in the wan post-storm sunshine, I imagined all the cars driving by contained people who marveled at the way our driveway was clean and dry, even as the street was still slushy. I imagined they had always marveled, and we were the talk of the town, and I was keeping up a family tradition.
In truth, passing motorists likely were focusing on avoiding skidding, and likely couldn’t have cared less about our driveway. However that was reality, and I wasn’t all that interested in reality, as a young teenager. I lived in a world of moods, and the mood of pride I felt, looking up that hill at the shoveled drive, felt a lot better than the mood of mingled shame and disgrace that accompanied my father’s departure.
My mother’s psychiatrist had explained it was wrong to remain married “for the children.” He said quarreling parents hurt children, and therefore children would blossom if divorce amputated all quarreling.
I did not blossom, but kept quiet about it, as best a teenager can keep quiet about anything. I did not want to draw attention to the fact I wasn’t blossoming, because I had a strong sense that, if you are not blossoming and the gardener is a psychiatrist, you don’t want any more of his fertilizer.
Back then divorce was much more rare. Now there are many more case studies to compute, and it has become evident that children do not statistically blossom when their parent’s divorce. They statistically spend a lot of time detoured in anguish.
I could have told them that, but they never asked me (and didn’t read the anguish I called poetry.) However I too made things difficult. They want statistics, and, although I’ve been many things in my life, I’ve always had a reluctance to be a statistic. (Forty years ago they called this reluctance “resistance” and “denial.”)
As I thought about this stuff I was starting shovel faster, and forgot to pace myself, and had to stop and lean on my shovel and gaze through the snow sweeping across the pasture.
Because my mother got such bad advice (and also bad drugs) from her psychiatrist, I tend to distrust outsiders butting into a marriage. I don’t like “The State” telling a man and a woman how to raise their kids. I am very careful, at my Childcare, not to stick my nose in where it might not belong. However “The State” insists I trot off to sixteen (soon to be more) hours a year of what The State calls “Continuing Education.”
As I enter these classes I have a bad and even pugnacious attitude, but often am surprised to find I am with people who care deeply about children, and about the social chaos we are all living through. During one such class I asked when a child should be removed from a home and put in foster care, and heard an astonishing revelation.
Given the choice between superb foster care and bad parents, the child, far more often than not, will deeply desire the bad parents. This is true even when both parents are in prison. It does no good to tell the child they are stupid to feel the way they feel; their heart desires what it desires, and to go against these desires causes all sorts of problems. Therefore the solution seems to lie more in the direction of educating the parents, than in the direction of removing the children.
I began shoveling fast again, and my wife came out through the snow to tell me to slow down. She’d come out several times before to tell me certain customers would not be coming, due to the snow, and I thought I was going to hear of another customer cancelling. When she told me men of my advanced years sometimes drop dead of cardiac arrest due to shoveling too fast, I told her I didn’t think I’d be so lucky. She laughed, and told me to stop thinking of myself, and that I should think of my wife.
A couple minutes later I figured out this was actually a compliment; she didn’t want me to drop dead. That put me in a better mood, and I shoveled slowly and steadily, and pretty soon was remembering singing “John Henry” when I was aged ten, and chopping and splitting wood.
Years later my neighbor told me the spectacle of a boy singing, in a falsetto voice, “This hammer’s goin’ t’be the death of me, Lord, Lord. This hammer’s goin’ t’be the death of me,” held a charm seldom seen in a suburb.
At age ten I didn’t feel charming. I felt incredibly manly, swinging the ax and seeing the wood split in half, or the chips fly. Come to think of it, though it was a half century later, I still felt a bit manly, humming that song, shoveling, and not dropping dead with a snow shovel in my hand, Lord, Lord…Dropping dead with a shovel in my hand.
As if on cue, our first customer arrived just then, more than two hours after we ordinarily open. She was driving one of those politically incorrect vehicles that laugh at snowstorms, and the cab was so high we were eye to eye. She was looking about in disbelief, and was amazed I’d done “the whole thing” by hand.
Actually “the whole thing” wasn’t quite done, but she tickled my vanity, and I didn’t mind finishing the job at all. I was in such a good mood that I decided that, though I may creak and groan getting out of bed tomorrow, it was a blessing the snow blower didn’t start.
When I was finished and putting the shovel away I, out of curiosity, walked over to the snow blower and pushed the starter button. It started right up, of course. What a racket those things make! It was far better to shovel in the sweeping silence of a snowy wind.