(A lighthearted view of valleys of shadows)
PART ONE: RESPECT
One sign of healthy skepticism is that you take things with a grain of salt, but there is a problem inherent in having this attitude, namely “disrespect.” We are supposed to respect our elders and teachers, and I can’t say my skepticism has always led to such respect.
For example, as a teenager in the late 1960’s I embraced the Jack Weinberg quote, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” in a way that seriously thwarted learning from my elders. To be blunt, the reason I distrusted elders was because I wanted to break the law, and they’d put me in jail if they knew what I was up to. (I wish I could say I was breaking rules for some noble cause, such as pacifism, but that would be dishonest.)
Basically I wanted to do things elders would disapprove of, and didn’t want to hear elders rebuke me for doing things that they claimed were bad for me. Therefore, instead of learning from elders, I learned the hard way that many of the things they said were bad for me were, in fact, bad.
Apparently, if I was going to be skeptical, I should have been more skeptical of the statement, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” however it didn’t seem possible I’d ever be so old. That particular skepticism didn’t sink in until my thirtieth birthday approached, and I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “Oh Lord, I’m about to be one of those people you can’t trust.”
Now that I’m over sixty I thoroughly approve of respecting elders. In fact I have revised the Weinberg quote, and it now goes, “Don’t trust anyone under sixty.” After a significant pause I add, “And I wouldn’t trust those over sixty either.” After a second significant pause I conclude, “For that matter, I wouldn’t trust myself.”
The simple fact of the matter is that humans aren’t perfect. (Some say there are such things as Perfect Masters, but I can’t claim I’ve ever met one on the street.) Sooner or later everyone I’ve met, including myself, makes a mistake, and, by making that mistake they, in some way, shape or form, break the trust. Even a minor mistake, such as being one minute late for an appointment, breaks the trust. Even if you have a thousand excuses, you failed to keep your word. Therefore it is quite true to state that no one can be trusted.
Life would be a complete drag if I took human imperfection to heart, and walked about scowling at everyone. Another attribute of humans is that, just as you can’t trust them to do right, you can’t trust them to do wrong, either. At times the most unlikely people pull off amazing deeds of kindness, strength and heroism. Humans are a lot like the weather in this respect: You can’t forecast them with 100% certainty.
Though you can’t trust humans to be perfect, you can develop a form of government that takes imperfection into account, and, through a system of checks and balances, makes it possible to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. In like manner you can create scientific disciplines that allow one to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. In fact all areas of life, right down to a game of darts, can be governed in a way that allows one to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. All people need to do is accept a system of rules.
This was precisely what I refused to do, as an ignorant, young jerk. People much smarter than I had worked long and hard to create various systems that effectively deal with the fact humans are prone to making mistakes, but their systems involved rules, and I didn’t like rules. I would find a better way, an “alternative lifestyle.” Rules didn’t seem to be the same as freedom, and I wanted to be free, unaware (to a ridiculous degree) that one thing I’d never be free from was making mistakes. Then, when my mistakes became apparent, I, in the spirit of a true do-it-yourselfer, set out to reinvent the wheel. Because I was very lucky, my mistakes didn’t kill me, and I eventually arrived at a solution that looked very much like a wheel.
Now I sit back and wonder, “What in God’s name was I thinking?” I wasted decades reinventing a wheel that teachers were trying to give me for free. What made me such a stupid rebel? What a mistake!
I suppose I could play the blame-game, and say someone else made a mistake that led to mine. America is a nation founded upon rebellion, and Americans are such rebels that even the motto on their money states you can’t trust humans. It was therefore my homeland that put rebellion in my blood.
Or I could blame women, (especially schoolmarms), because it was only when women got the vote that drinking beer became unconstitutional. Prohibition didn’t merely engender a disrespect for the law, but even for the Constitution our forefathers died for, yet, as a young boy, I could hear old-timers laugh about how they brewed beer in the basement, blithely unaware they were encouraging disrespect for the Constitution.
Or they laughed about how they drove 1000 miles in ten hours, though the speed limit signs said sixty-five.
On the fourth of July everyone set off fireworks in my Massachusetts neighborhood, though fireworks were illegal. Does that not celebrate independence from the Law? Is it not in the very nature of Americans to disobey elders, whether they be King George or one’s schoolmarm? It isn’t my fault! I am not to blame for the fact I wasted decades reinventing the wheel!
The blame-game may be fun, but it cannot pull you out of quicksand. At some point it simply doesn’t matter how you wound up to your neck. Getting out of the mess becomes the focus. However, providing you survive, it is a healthy intellectual exercise to look back and ponder the mistakes that got you into quicksand. Even if it doesn’t get you out of the ooze, it might help you to avoid jumping back in. It is in this spirit that I would like to cause trouble, by pointing the blame-game finger at the schoolmarms.
I think I can say, with a high degree of probability, that it is a mistake for schoolmarms to put boys (such as I once was) in rows of desks, and expect the boys to sit still. Boys squirm. Boys kick. Boys dream out the window, dip pigtails in inkwells, shoot spitballs, and fail to memorize six words of Shakespeare even while writing twenty lines of rhyming doggerel mocking schoolmarms, (with hilarious cartoon illustrations.) You are just begging for disaster if you fail to recognize boys will be boys. You will turn a boy who might have been law-abiding into a law-breaker. Boys, by their very nature, need to run wild, and if you squelch this impulse you will have hell to pay.
(I’ve talked with schoolmarms who know this, for they have seen that boys sit most still and learn most right after recess, and right after summer vacation, and squirm worst and learn next to nothing just before recess, and when spring is in the air. However, being schoolmarms and not boys, they don’t even whimper when their government and/or teachers-union urge recesses and summer vacations be banned “so boys may learn more.”)
I actually think it isn’t a schoolmarm’s duty to discipline boys. That job is the father’s. If I wrote the laws, then, rather than a bad boy being expelled to the principle’s office, the boy would be sent by taxi to the father’s workplace. If the Dad was in jail, send the kid there. That would get men’s attention darn fast.
That never happened when I was little. I suppose I should point the blame-game finger at Dads, for when I was young they put widgets ahead of family, and ran away to the rush-hour each day-break, leaving their poor, defenseless sons in the quicksand of classrooms, and at the mercy of schoolmarms.
Due to a weird twist of fate, I grew up dead center in a wormhole in the space-time continuum, wherein I escaped the wrath of schoolmarms when it was expressed by caning, and escaped the wrath of schoolmarms as it is now expressed by drugging. When I made chaos out of their quiet classrooms, all I faced was the wrath of schoolmarms expressed by words.
Much of my skill with the use of the English language was absorbed from schoolmarm’s tongue-lashings. In order to keep order in classrooms of twenty to thirty Baby Boom rebels, they had to exploit adroit sarcasm and cynical sneering, and employ twists of dubious logic and clubbing condemnation. Their wit could be superb and set the entire class laughing, but when you are a little boy and the whole class is laughing at you, you do not think of witty rebuttals as much as you think of getting some sort of completely unholy and uncivilized revenge. An abscess of resentment brewed in me. Schoolmarms may have kept me quelled, when I was small and helpless, but when my hormones hit and I swiftly loomed taller than they, all my study of their use of English came back to haunt them.
They had created a monster. True, Frankenstein is not usually portrayed as jovial, nor as being able to out-argue the doctor who bolted in his brains, but reality is often even stranger than a monster movie. I became an outlaw, but one of the most harmless outlaws imaginable. Initially my sinister activities involved dreaming out windows, wandering into the classroom after the bell, or shrugging when asked where my homework was. It was when I stopped shrugging, and started answering the sarcastic questions, that I think I set some sort of modern record for the most after-school detentions ever received for being cheerful.
Detentions were a half-hour spent sitting in a classroom after school, and were a bad idea when boys are bursting with energy. I could only serve four detentions a day, because the last bus left at four-thirty, and for a time it looked like I might not graduate due to not-having-served the amazing numbers of detentions I was amassing. It was at this point an uneasy truce descended. Likely the teachers dreaded the prospect of another year with me, though perhaps the teachers were also embarrassed by the prospect of failing a student who was going to win the award for creative writing, and not failing him because of his grades, but rather because he cheerfully answered their sarcastic questions. In any case they stopped being sarcastic, which meant I had won.
It was at this point, at my moment of victory, that I fell flat on my face. The culprit was drugs, but I’ll talk of that later. For now I want to remain on the topic of respecting elders.
Schoolmarms did teach me a sort of respect for elders, but it was not the sort of respect that leads to one rushing to elders, desiring their attention like a rock-star’s fan desires the star’s autograph. Instead my primary goal in school became to avoid the attention of schoolmarms. They were the Gestapo, and I was the French Resistance. My respect was the sort of loathing respect one has for a bully. After the hormones hit and I won my victory I became like the Norwegian Resistance, and schoolmarms became like the trembling Quislings after the Gestapo had fled Norway.
Now I look back across a half century and wonder: What was it that made them the bad-guy Nazis, and me the good-guy? Why didn’t they seem like millionaires, loaded with knowledge, as I myself was a mere beggar, with the empty pockets of ignorance? Schoolmarms were offering me a free hand-out. What was I fleeing?
I think the answer lies in the single, dreaded word, “Drill.”
PART TWO: DRILL
Drill is a sort of necessary evil, in learning.
What most delight in, when learning, is having a light bulb go off in their head, and experiencing the sense of being on a mountain top and seeing for miles. When you “get it” the enlightenment abruptly makes you naturally high, (without damaging your memory as marijuana does.) (Natural enlightenment doesn’t cost money, either.)
However life has few mountaintops, and I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time down in dark valleys where you can’t see the forest for the trees, plodding gamely forward to cross the valley and get to the next mountaintop, fighting my way through shade so dark and dismal that mountaintops started to seem like they were only a dream. It is this travail that encompasses 95% of life and learning, and which we use the word “drill” to describe. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, drill is the thousands of such boring, banal, trivial steps necessary to cross a valley to reach the next mountaintop.
I didn’t understand this very well when young. Drill in many ways seemed the antithesis to “getting it”. Drill was doing the same dumb thing over and over and over again, and getting the same boring and predictable result. No light bulb went off in my head. What could be the value?
The first value lies in making something habitual, and I will see that value the next time I drive a long way with a lot on my mind, and arrive at my destination with next to zero memory of the drive. I will have paid hardly any attention to what made me brake or what made me speed up, and I’d be hard pressed to describe the colors of the vehicles I passed or the landscape I drove through, yet I could describe in great detail some music or talk on the car’s radio, or the words of the person in the passenger seat, or the musings of my own mind. How is it I don’t hit a tree, considering I’m so inattentive to driving? The answer is that I underwent drill, as a young driver. Back then I paid attention to every car and every curve, over and over and over again, until driving became second nature to me.
Another example is seen in people who are organized. They irritate the heck out of me, but awe me. At some point, years ago, they subjected themselves to the drill of putting stuff away where it belongs, and now it is second nature to them. They don’t even need to think about it. When they see the complete state of chaos I live in, a look of pity fills their face if they are kind, and contempt if they are not.
I have only myself to blame for a lot of the confusion in my life, because I was an escape artist, when it came to drill. I drove schoolmarms to distraction. However I didn’t escape drill, for it turns out life itself is a drill. You may think you can escape certain things, but later on you find yourself in a situation that has an eerie similarity to the situation you ran away from. Life has certain realities we’d all like to avoid, but which are laws as fundamental as the law of gravity. They tend to involve basic realities like food, clothing and shelter, and if you try to avoid them you discover you can’t.
As an example, I’ll confess (and brag) I didn’t much like the idea of paying rent, when young. Why should I have to pay for being alive? I avoided paying any official rent, in terms of dollars, to an amazing degree. It would astound you how little I paid, before age thirty-seven, when I married and couldn’t avoid the problem any longer. However what I learned was that I paid even when I didn’t pay. If you sleep in your car, you pay with suffering. If you live with your mother, you pay in terms of putting up with her. If you sleep on a loading dock, you’ve got to be up by five AM. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
In one way or another we spend a lot of our lives trying to avoid the unavoidable, over and over and over again doing the same thing, making the same mistakes, and coming to the same inevitable conclusion. Is this not a drill?
This brings me to a quote you should be skeptical of: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” People bandy about that quote as if it were some sort of gospel, but who said it? Moses? Jesus? Mohammed? Mark Twain? Benjamin Franklin? Albert Einstein? Nope. Jane Fulton said it. Who the heck is Jane Fulton? She is a fictional character in a novel written by Rita Mae Brown. (Sure sounds like schoolmarms to me.)
In actual fact life drills us, and we tend to do the same thing over and over, but it only seems like we are doing the same thing. In actual fact we are learning by infinitesimal increments.
If you study the music of a great like Beethoven you can hear the sameness and see the increments. His earliest music is youthful, and if you didn’t know better you might think, “This is some young fellow trying to copy Beethoven.” Then, as the years pass, each opus is just the same Beethoven, over and over. However, by the ninth symphony, all those little increments have added up, and you are hearing a true Masterpiece.
It would be nice if these infinitesimal increments were each accompanied by infinitesimal light bulbs illuminating our minds, but quite often they involve failure, and rather than a light bulb one experiences a dud, a little wave of darkness. Rather than scribbling brilliant ideas, you have to clean your messy desk. “Oh well, back to the old drawing board,” and, “You’ve got to pay the dues if you want to sing the blues,” are phrases that express the tedium drill puts us through. It can be a real drag, and the last thing people need is the discouragement of Jane Fulton. If it were really true that, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” then there would be no reason to ever practice the piano.
Drill does bear fruits, and now that I’m over sixty I am seeing a few of those fruits. All the infinitesimal increments do add up, though I doubted they even existed when I was young. In fact, now that I myself am (against my will) the elder, I am in the position to tell modern youth what the elders of my youth couldn’t hammer through my thick skull: Boring drill has value.
If I am going to do this, I need to coin a word for the “infinitesimal increments.” because writing that phrase over and over will soon get old. (There may already be such a word, but my vocabulary lacks it.) Until I can think of a better word, I’ll just call them “infinitums.” I define “infinitums” as the molecules of learning which, when strung together, create a “connection,” which in my symbolism is the journey down into a dark valley and up to the next mountaintop view.
I also, to be remotely scientific, need to spend some time studying how these infinitums initially collect in a child’s mind. It is not enough to merely remember being a child myself; I need achieve a better balance by seeing things from the side of a parent or teacher. Of course, it is hard to get these experiences when you are a dedicated artist sleeping in his car. In fact, while sleeping in your car is proof you are dedicated artist; it is a bad way to pick up chicks, which is step one towards becoming a father and seeing childhood from the other side. Even if you do meet a woman made so crazy by love that she wants you, sleeping in your car will be one of the first habits she insists is bad, and seeks to train you away from. Women often fail to understand the dedication of a manly man, when he’s an artist.
This used to hurt my feelings. While I had a sense of humor about my plight, it seemed sad women didn’t seem to think I’d be a good father, especially as I was so good with kids. I was a sort of favorite-uncle wherever I went, and kids rushed to me like I was a rock star. (Some suggested that this hinted I shared a child’s level of maturity.) Inevitably people would always note my way with children, and helpfully suggest the same thing, “Have you ever considered writing children’s books?” This was a swift way to sour my sense of humor, and turn my face purple and make veins stick out, for it utterly belittled how serious I was. For crying out loud, I was sleeping in my car! Do you think that is child’s play?
A far better question would have been, “Have you ever considered spending twenty years as a father raising five kids, preferably spending at least ten years home-schooling, and making sure you work so close to home you are always available, and follow that time by then running a Childcare business at a small farm for seven years, caring for twenty to thirty small children?” This would have been the perfect way to study how children accumulate infinitums, and how teenagers utilize them.
Strangely, no one asked me that, as I was sleeping in my car in Gallup, New Mexico, 28 years ago. I sure didn’t ask myself that, and had arrived at the conclusion that marriage simply wasn’t in the cards for me, and I should stop chasing young babes, because I was starting to look like a dirty, old man. However I had odd dreams, as one does when sleeping in a car, as an inner voice started nudging me in a direction I never thought I’d go.
PART THREE: CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS
America owns an enormous need for responsible fathers, however there is no glory in a man watching over kids. Men comprise 3% of all “Childcare Professionals,” the pay stinks, the public worries such a man must be a pervert to take such a job, and the women often want to kick such a man upstairs as swiftly as possible. Male “Childcare Professionals” consequently resort to painfully labored bumper stickers to salvage their battered egos, such as the one that reads, “Men that change diapers change the world.” However children, especially boys, do need a man about. They learn through a sort of osmosis at times, and in the past absorbed amazing things just trotting along behind a father at a farm.
I am going to be superficial and lighthearted and merely skim over this topic, however it is a serious subject, and the men who have labored to awaken America to the dangers involved deserve credit. I’d recommend that people who have time should read “Last Child in the Woods,” by Richard Louv; “Simplicity Parenting” by Kim John Payne; and “Let Them Play” by Jeff Johnson. That being said, I’ll now return to my focus on “infinitums,” and how it relates to drill.
Because I run a Childcare on my farm, I often get to watch small children perform repetitive actions, amassing infinitums without being aware they are drilling themselves. Over and over they will teeter along the same log, learning how to balance in the same way a pianist learns by practicing the same tune over and over.
It swiftly becomes apparent a degree of multitasking is occurring. Children don’t only work on one infinitum at a time: Even as they teeter down a log they may be looking towards another child, coveting some truck or doll, and calculating how to get it. Infinitums involving social skills occur simultaneously with those involving coordination, and it is for this reason I often prefer disorganized sports to organized sports. After all, even among adults baseball seems to require arguments with umpires, and if you hand children a soft plastic ball and bat, and simply stand back and let them play rather than bossing them about, they get right to work on the arguing. Eventually they get around to the game, however more than half of sandlot baseball is, and has always been, the arguing.
It also becomes apparent children are amassing infinitums more swiftly than adults ever do, and often do so unaware the unpleasantness of drill is involved; they feel practice is “play.” Occasionally you’ll see someone throwing stones at a stump or shooting a basketball at a hoop in a manner that looks very much like practice, however some repetitive activity seems different: It is a sort of solace, like an adult playing solitaire or knitting. The unpleasantness only enters the picture when you have to move the child a direction they don’t want to go. Going against a child’s desires is like rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way.
Trickery is helpful. A child who has no desire to eat brown rice will develop an interest if they are told it is an odd foodstuff only grown-ups like. Tell the child it is gross, grown-up food, and they can’t have any, and the child’s interest will perk. Tell the child it is roasted wasp maggots, and they may even plead for a spoonful. If this seems bizarre, simply compare it to the behavior of young adults who won’t go out in a blizzard in December, but will leave the warmth of a lovely June day, heading off in a jet to Nepal to risk frostbite climbing Mount Everest. Common sense often has little to do with whether people desire a thing or not.
An ancient trick is to give the child no option. While children need the freedom to amass infinitums, they also need the security of set boundaries. Too many parents ask questions such as, “Would you like to put away your toys and get in the car?” The child simply and honestly answers, “No.” Soon getting into a car degenerates into a battle of wills, with the child forced to consider adult topics, as the parent asks, “Do you want me to lose my job because you won’t get in the car and my boss is furious because I’m late and we can’t pay the mortgage and lose the house and have to move?” The battle of wills is completely avoided if, rather than the parent, it is some detached power like the Law of Gravity in control, and the Child is simply told, “We must go.” When the inevitable “Why?” is voiced, children accept, “Because it is the law,” or “That is how we do things.” It actually makes them feel more secure to have the structure and regime we call “home.” Too many choices and too many questions and too much freedom breeds anxiety, and the behaviors attendant to fear.
That all ends when the hormones hit. At that point the individual takes whatever infinitums they have amassed at home and heads off to climb some Mount Everest, usually plunging into a valley on the way.
(One bizarre twist occurs when a child is growing amidst the horrors of war and genocide. In such situations a natural, survival-oriented urge to perpetuate the species kicks in, and the hormones hit earlier. What is truly bizarre is that this early puberty is now seen in wealthy American homes, where one would think the children are protected. While some blame the early puberty on additives in food, others suggest modern childhoods are simply devastated by chronic uncertainty and fear.)
The world was far safer when I was young, as can be shown by the simple fact that when the urge to leave the safety of home and scale some Mount Everest hit me in the late 1960’s, I was able to hitchhike. I hitchhiked from the suburbs of Boston up the coast of Maine and then across to Quebec and down towards Toronto when I was only fifteen, sleeping in a sleeping bag under shrubs at the side of the road when I grew tired. The worst I ever faced was a slightly indecent proposition, which I politely refused. Mostly I met friendly and talkative people, and often got rides from families in station wagons. I doubt a fifteen-year-old would experience anything as nice as I experienced, these days.
However, though it is now a different and more dangerous world, the same dynamics still apply. You are setting out with an amassed collection of infinitums, which are basically preconceptions in need of many small adjustments. My advise to a young person heading off to some Mount Everest they see in the distance would be, “Don’t lose faith.” As they plunge down into the first valley the Mount Everest will vanish from view, and all they will see is clawing branches and shadow, and they will be afflicted by doubts, many of which have validity. However this is normal and natural, and part of a mysterious process that gets you to the other side of the valley, and the next view of the Mount Everest.
It is impossible to offer much more advice, for every individual is led by their own guiding light, which is something they alone see. Even among the small children at my Childcare I see a sumptuous variety of talents, yet I never would have the audacity of some government officials, who think they can predetermine talents and put people into the appropriate slots. Such an official might be correct, if they discovered a child was genetically predisposed to deafness, but be completely wrong to steer the child away from a career in music, if the child was Beethoven.
Talents are very real things, and it is quite obvious one child has perfect pitch while another is tone deaf, however how these talents play out in the world is a mystery, and often defies logic. I watched one little boy, who was completely and amazingly incapable of carrying even the simplest tune, display extreme joy over music. He would belt out songs in a most discordant way at the top of his lungs with his face beaming delight, even though all the other little children were extremely discouraging, even to the point of walking away with their hands over their ears. I can’t tell you what talents are at play in that case, or how they will work out over the years, and I furthermore feel anyone who thinks they can tell you a person’s future from aptitude tests is about as reliable as a palm reader.
In the end people tend to be governed not by an external government, but by a voice from within. What’s more, the internal voice doesn’t always mollycoddle and flatter, as I am advised to do as a “childcare provider.” I am advised to always accentuate the positive, and when a child swings at a baseball and misses the ball by a foot I am suppose to exclaim, “Oh! Good swing!” However often the child will look at me wryly and shake their head, as they know they missed the ball by a foot. An internal voice has spoken like a skeptic, and told them the truth.
One time I ate lunch in the shade on a hot summer day by a playground, watching a teenager shoot hoops. He was obviously a basketball fanatic, for all other kids were either repetitively playing video games in air conditioned homes, or repetitively jumping off the diving board at the Town Pool, but this one youth was repetitively shooting hoops. He was much better than I ever was or will be, and at one point he had made ten baskets in a row, but each time he scowled and shook his head, for each shot caught the rim of the basket slightly. Then the eleventh shot swooshed through without touching the rim, “all net,” and he gave himself a little nod, and then moved to practice shooting from a different angle. He was completely oblivious he had an audience of one, and as I watched him I felt like I was watching someone conversing with their inner voice.
It is often hard to listen to inner prompting, for life is full of external demands, and the government is one voice, peer-pressure a second, ones spouse a third, and external things like weather conditions are a fourth. However in the end no one knows the make-up of our personal infinitums like our inner voice does, nor is as able to be the skeptic, pointing out our flaws. Other voices may be more seductive and flattering, telling us what we want to hear, but deep down we know we are not perfect, and have a voice who will tell us so, and drill us to be better. My advice to the young would be not to become discouraged, and to have faith, for some day you will be sixty, and see that you were not led astray. Other voices trail off. Governments fall, and peer-pressures fickly alter with fads, and weather changes, as do the seasons, and even a beloved spouse can depart, (though hopefully not,) and in the end that inner voice is the lone thing with you for the duration. It has a vested interest in your success, and will work to adjust your infinitums in a manner that leads you from the shadows.
However I would add a word of warning which all too few of my own generation seemed to heed: There is one thing that can play havoc with the natural processes that would ordinarily lead you across the valley and up to the next peak, and that one thing is drugs. Avoid them, unless you are interested in falling flat on your face.
PART FOUR; DRUGS
In kinder times the transition from a childhood home to a new life away from home wasn’t so drastic. Rather than a deep and dark valley it could even be a walk away into sunny glades in the same neighborhood, such as a young fox experiences when it trots away from its mother’s den. However this modern world is no utopia, and youth does face a huge and dark uncertainty upon leaving the nest. Despite all its wonderful benefits, progress is a sword that cuts two ways, and the winds of change, over the past century, have had a devastating effect on the certainty once inherent in traditions. It is not merely quaint and rustic tribes that are rendered laughable, and which are in some senses mutilated, by progress; it is everyone.
In my grandfather’s youth a man could make a good living simply growing grass, for all vehicles ran on grass, and a hay farmer was the OPEC of that horse-drawn era. However in my grandfather’s lifetime horses became a rare sight on city streets. Where growing grass was once a way to make a good living, and had been a way to make a good living back into the mists of distant memory, it suddenly became a laughable thing to do.
The pace of progress has sped up and become in some ways frenetic, with the commercialization of computers. Forty years ago repairing electric typewriters was a good living. Now it is laughable. Twenty years ago repairing an Apple 2c computer was a high paying job. Now it is laughable. One becomes obsolete nearly as fast as one can learn.
When the world changes in a whirl, and one needs to run on a treadmill just to stay abreast, it is hard to respect elders. Their knowledge, technically at least, has become laughable. They’ve become anachronisms, and unless they know how to have fun being one, they are miserable anachronisms.
When the wisdom of elders looks laughable, a dark valley appears before the young. It does not matter if they are a young Sioux facing the twentieth century, or a young suburbanite facing the twenty-first. It is the unknown that terrifies. In the face of such dark depression, there is a temptation and tendency to turn to drugs. It doesn’t matter if you are an Indian turning to Peyote in the Native American Church, a hundred twenty years ago, or a Bostonian witnessing Timothy Leary turning to LSD in the 1960’s.
I have first hand experience of both Boston in the 1960’s and the Native American Church, and am under no danger of being awed by drugs, or the individuals who gained fame and wealth by extolling their so-called virtues. I know when a humbug is a humbug, for I was there when the Hum bugged.
Regarding Timothy Leary, when he got booted from Harvard both my father and stepfather taught there, and my eldest brother was a freshman there. I saw a side of that situation, at age ten, that you won’t read about in Wikipedia.
Regarding the Native American Church, my best friend in the 1980’s was a Navajo who had grown up in that church, and knew what it was like to have breakfast prepared by a mother coming down from Peyote, and could describe a side of that church you don’t read about in Wikipedia.
When he and I talked together about the dangers of drugs we did so with a level of understanding that, sadly, I haven’t achieved elsewhere. I count my inability to communicate my understanding of drug’s dangers as being among my greatest failures.
I once heard a tragic tale of a group of ditch diggers who unearthed some roots that smelled of parsnip. A burly man who liked parsnip was going to eat a root, but a slender man told him it was hemlock; (not the evergreen tree but the deadly poison.) The burly man laughed and didn’t believe it, but when he tried to eat the root the slender man jumped on him and tried to physically restrain him. The burly man easily flung him off, laughingly ate the poison, and within a half hour was dead, with the slender man watching and wondering what he could have done differently.
I feel like I know how that slender man felt, only rather than a half hour it has taken a half century. I would guess roughly half the intellectual potential of the Baby Boomer generation has been wasted, and I mean wasted.
I want to avoid going into all the details. What I know about Timothy Leary is slimy tabloid stuff, and worth big bucks. It will be in some forthcoming book, and you’ll have to pay. However the essence of what I learned is quite simple, and free.
The human mind is a marvelous thing, but anyone who pretends to understand how it works, in terms of test-tubes, molecules, and electrical wiring, is fooling himself and anyone who listens. The mind contains something outside of the physical, something beyond science, and beyond art, called “Life”.
Just to prove my point I have decided that, when I die, my deathbed will be on the pan of an extremely sensitive scientific scale. We will be able to see how much I weigh just before I flat-line, and just after, and in this manner will determine how much my life weighs. I hypothesize that the answer will be, “zero.” The only conclusion to such an experiment will be that Life, which is a very important thing to have, has no weight in the scientific literature.
For this reason I must use symbols such as “crossing a dark valley,” rather than remaining strictly scientific. Some may even accuse me of pseudoscience, and be quite correct. I have crossed the line that separates art from science, but before anyone accuses me of glorifying the status of an artist, I hasten to add artists are no experts on what life weighs, either.
The best artists have a huge appreciation of how beautiful life is, but a nasty habit of dying young. That alone proves they don’t understand life, for who willingly leaves what they love?
Even though science can’t measure life, I need to borrow some ideas from science in order to explain why drugs are such a hazard. (Any decent pseudoscience does this.) The concept I need to borrow is the idea of energy existing in an unapparent state, as latent energy or potential energy or whatever. This energy is stored in the things I earlier called “infinitums.”
Ordinarily this energy is gradually accumulated as one crosses the “dark valley,” and is released when one reach the “mountain view” of the far side, and experiences a “natural high.” What I imagine a drug like LSD does is release this energy prematurely, before one has done the necessary work required to “cross the valley.” Because one hasn’t done the necessary intellectual work, they can only flash backwards to a prior view. Symbolically, they walked a little way down into the dark valley, got scared, and ran back to an old mountain view. It may be a gorgeous, spectacular view, but they have made no forward progress.
Over the past half-century I have watched drugs destroy many fine minds, and what destroys them is not that they change, but rather that they don’t change. At age thirty they sound like they did at twenty. At age forty they sound like they did age twenty. By age fifty at the latest they start to crack. Just imagine how frustrated Beethoven would have felt if his ninth symphony sounded no different from his first. It would be maddening.
Of course a true pseudo-scientist doesn’t use common words like “maddening.” Late in his life Freud coined the word “schitzophrenogenic.” Rather than, “It is the maddening that drives people mad” he suggested “the schitzophrenogenic cause schizophrenia..” Pretty obvious, if you ask me, (and I tried to tell schoolmarms as much, back in school,) but in the case of drugs it is not a person or situation driving you mad. It is the drug.
The saddest part is that the one time such mind-altering drugs might actually help is when a person is suffering from natural schizophrenia. In such a case a person has headed down into the dark valley, and hit such a thicket of unsolvable problems their mind can’t take it. In such circumstances they truly need to back off, and return to an earlier starting point. LSD might help, in such extreme circumstances, however when LSD harms the person’s mind to begin with, repeating the drug cannot help. The damage is done, and is irrevocable.
In order to further stress the harm I need to bolster my pseudoscience by stealing another concept from real science, the concept energy is “concerved.” The energy fueling the sense of being “high” doesn’t simply vanish, as the high fades. It is absorbed back into the construct of infinitums. In the case of a natural high this is healthy, (though one never entirely enjoys coming down from inspiration,) while in the case of hallucinogens it is unhealthy.
In the case of natural euphoria, one has done the work to gather the data, and it comes together as an answer. Observations lead to a conclusion. Thesis and antithesis result in synthesis. There are many different ways of describing the process, but in the end it doesn’t matter if you call it a hypothesis or a gestalt, what you have is a completed puzzle rather than a mess of puzzle pieces, and it requires much less energy to hold the completed puzzle in your mind. Abruptly you have a surplus of energy, and are able to see a broad range of implications all at once. Elation fills the air.
Of course, one may then want to dissipate some of the energy by uncorking some bubbly and whooping it up, but one deserves it; one has worked long and hard and now has a reason to celebrate. One has created a tool, and life will be simpler because of that tool. It is not a thing that one will forget when the euphoria fades, (as euphoria will, when the energy is reabsorbed into fresh infinitums as one gets back to work.) What one has accomplished is permanent.
In the case of unnatural euphonia one has done no work, yet as much (and perhaps much more) energy is released. One sees implications up the wazzoo, but there is no completed puzzle behind it all. Instead one merely sees old conclusions more intensely, and, when the energy is reabsorbed, it tends to be reabsorbed backwards towards those old conclusions, and to be lost from the infinitums that led away from those conclusions, “across the valley”, to modified conclusions.
This begs the question, “Why would anyone want to see the old conclusion?” The answer lies in the intensity of vision made possible by extra energy. For example, take a childhood conclusion, such as, “The sky is blue.” On LSD that becomes, “Wow man! The sky is blue!” Afterwards one can’t remember what was so impressive about the sky being blue. One “forgets,” and one yearns to return.
After all, childhood conclusions are often lovely (if you skip all the fears and tears and all the ungovernable fits of frustration and rage over weakness and inability.) Children view the world with a sense of wonder we are foolish to forget, yet do forget. Perhaps children simply have more mental energy available because they have such a colossal amount to learn, or perhaps we have a colossal amount of energy invested in what we have learned, and have very little left over, which leaves us jaded. In any case, people want to take LSD again, so they can again remember how blue the sky is. It is then that they note they cannot get as “high,” nor can they even remain high at all. Where alcohol allows a tippler to maintain a steady state, drugs do not.
This suggests a whole range of avenues for further thought, concerning how mental energy moves and is stored, however, considering we are discussing pseudoscience here, and there is no scientific way of verifying any of these ideas, I think I’ll just leap to my conclusions.
Perhaps the most insidious difference between natural and unnatural inspiration manifests in terms of the shackles we call habits. Because natural inspiration results in an actual tool, a conclusion you can use, life is naturally altered, and quite naturally habitual behavior also alters. In the case of unnatural inspiration habits can be suspended, but only the weakly held ones, (such as doing the dishes), are lost. The more obnoxious ones return, and sometimes return with a vengeance. (Initially LSD was seen as a cure for criminal behavior, and Peyote as a cure for alcoholism, but the hopes faded as the long-term results came in.) (One of the founders of the Native American Church later became disillusioned, and concluded, “Peyote is a trickster.”)
In the spirit of full disclosure I need to confess I did experiment with drugs as a teenager, and am quite sure I would have destroyed myself had it not been for sheer good fortune. I was quite convinced I was seeing more, and was an American pioneer venturing into a new frontier. (My inner voice was telling me otherwise, but I refused to listen.) Then I blundered across stretches of time and through several living situations where drugs were simply not available. This gave me a chance (that I was not seeking) to compare how my mind behaved on and off drugs, and also to compare my mind with the minds of close friends who were in living situations where drugs were always readily available. In any case, I became vehemently opposed to drugs while still a teenager.
In all the decades of arguing since then I haven’t talked a soul off drugs. In my opinion it is like trying to tell a glowing young man his new girlfriend is bad. However I do know all the arguments, and many are absurd. The same people who argue your experience isn’t valid because you haven’t tried a drug will tell you your experience is drug-deranged after you try it. About the only argument worth a hill of beans is., “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” And the best answer is, “Then why enslave yourself?”
In conclusion I will venture a couple of thoughts regarding those who persist in taking drugs. First, despite the fact they make it extremely difficult for their selves to “cross a dark valley,” they have a longing to progress, and they continue to think about the future. However, because they have so little practical experience of genuine progress, the future they talk about holds less and less contact with that which does exist, such as airplanes, and involves more and more stuff that does not exist, such as starships. If you tell them they are not pragmatic they respond you are not progressive. They see themselves as visionaries, but lack the common sense and experience necessary to evaluate the validity of the future they envision. (And if you think I am drifting toward the topic of Global Warming, and its vision of the future, you are catching my drift.)
Second, some have arrived at a point where they believe the concept of “crossing the valley” is impossible. They lose faith. They do not believe you can develop a form of government that takes imperfection into account, and which, through a system of checks and balances, makes it possible to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. They furthermore do not believe you can create scientific disciplines that allow one to make, recognize, recover-from and forgive mistakes. In essence, because they, for whatever reason, could not cross the valley, they feel crossing the valley is a humbug, and act accordingly.
True, some arrive at this faithless conclusion without drugs, but drugs can only greatly increase their number. They then own a dangerous concept, for rather than attempting to solve problems they attempt to remove problems. If the problem is hungry people, their solution is not to grow more food, but rather to reduce the population. If the problem is the burden of a twenty-year-mortgage, they cannot conceive of shouldering the burden and making 240 monthly payments, but rather they claim we have to do something about the banks. If the problem is debt, the last thing they think of is actually repaying the debt. And if you think I’m drifting towards the topic of our government, you catch my drift.
However I think I’ll skip drifting there. It is depressing to talk about weak people who see humanity and life through weakness-colored glasses. I’d rather talk about someone who was strong.
Late in his middle age Mark Twain suffered from a disastrous investment, and swiftly went from being an independently wealthy success to being a deeply indebted pauper. Rather than making excuses he hitched up his belt and went on a grueling, world-girdling speaking tour, though he far preferred writing at home, and once described stepping out into the lights of a stage as “walking out into darkness.” He persisted as months turned to years, and despite the deaths of those he loved, he in the end repaid every cent he owed. Why? I suppose he believed in a thing called “honor,” and that, just because a person had made a mistake, it didn’t mean he couldn’t cross a dark valley to see a better view.
Drugs were the greatest mistake of the Baby Boom generation, but after mistakes are made they can be recognized, recovered from, and forgiven. Perhaps the hardest part is the recognition.
PART FIVE: OPTIMISM
Sometimes, when bragging about the dark valleys that I’ve crossed and the Mount Everest I’ve aimed for, people give me an odd look and wonder how I can be cheerful, considering my adventures sound fairly grueling, and don’t always involve the highest aspects of human nature. I suppose there are various short answers, but I prefer a long one. Also, because to tell the same story over and over the same way is a bit boring, I never tell the tale the same way twice. This aggravates historians, and I apologize to them in advance as I invent this new version of how I became optimistic.
You wouldn’t think I would grow up talkative, for I was born amidst a bunch of bookworms. Everyone at home read a lot. The only talk was during wonderful dinners with wonderful guests, but in those days “children were to be seen and not heard,” and often I was fed and put to bed early, and only know how wonderful the talks were because I snuck out of bed and eavesdropped from as close to the dining room as I dared to get, (which on one occasion was right under the table.) The rest of the time a lot of reading was going on. Even when there was a family “project,” it tended to be done with people intently focusing on it in the same manner as people focus on a book.
In a household with six kids, projects could involve noise, and my parents learned to concentrate on their reading with an intensity it was difficult to penetrate. We used to joke that we could shout, “The back yard is on fire,” and we’d get nothing but a grunt, or a, “yes, dear.” In fact the only thing that could budge my parents was total silence. That got them up, because they knew we kids were up to something. However silence took a good five to ten minutes to get their attention, and at a very early age I learned the best way to get their immediate attention was to hand them a note that read: “The back yard is on fire.”
I’m not sure I could write more than that, (fires happened on several occasions,) but at some point I got dragged off to test my intelligence. My mother was convinced my ability to write, “the back yard is on fire”, was proof I was a genius; however the schoolmarm seemed to think it was proof I was a pyromaniac. In any case it had to be decided if I should attend a one-year smart-kid-kindergarten or a two-year slow-kid-kindergarten called “transition,” and testing was involved.
The first test involved drawing something with crayon, and I produced an elongated green pickle the schoolmarm scowled at disapprovingly. Then I asked, “Mom? How do you spell alligator?” As she gave me the letters and I wrote them down, she glanced at the schoolmarm triumphantly, and the woman looked worried, and moved me on to an actual written test.
What interested me was you had to fill in ovals with a special black pencil, and rather than a human grading it, a machine was going to do it. It was state-of-the-art IBM technology for the late 1950’s, but I soon tired of it. I’m not sure of what occurred, but dimly recollect I read a few questions, but I think after that I began filling in the ovals for inappropriate reasons. It may have had something to do with a war between red ants and black ants in my imagination. At some point the schoolmarm gently informed me I could only fill in one oval out of each row of four, and I then had to do some erasing. Then I handed the test in, it went through the machine, and it was discovered I was in the top 97%-to-99%, and I was put ahead into the first grade. This moved me from being the same size as my peers to being the class midget, and also to my first meeting with Burlwart Knuckledrag, who had stayed back a year, was two years older than I, and loomed up towards the ceiling.
That’s not his real name, by the way. I’m just adroitly avoiding a lawsuit. Not that Burlwart would sue me, for he taught me many good and useful things, such as how to run for my life. I also learned how to smile disarmingly, and how to talk very, very fast, with insane cheerfulness.
Roughly nine years later I suddenly began to grow very quickly and abruptly stood six feet tall, while Burlwart only grew to five-foot-five, but by then it was too late. My character had been formed, and I talked very, very fast, with insane cheerfulness. (This history may also explain why I am not fond of intelligence tests.)
Not long after that I began hitchhiking, and to me it seemed I should pay for the ride by making cheerful conversation. I learned how to tell different versions of the same story, depending on whether the person giving the ride was a truck driver or a preacher, and also learned to make stories up, however even that got boring, and it was then I discovered the really interesting thing to do was to get the other person to talk, and tell me a story. I learned how to ask cheerful questions.
It was difficult to get some people to talk. Some people only picked me up because they were dead tired, and needed someone to keep them from falling asleep at the wheel. They tended to be dour, and in no mood to tell stories, but, because I did a lot of hitchhiking and because there was nothing else to do while riding, I gradually learned various ways of asking the right questions. At this point I learned I could not only get a grumpy person to talk, but could make them more cheerful.
That was a bit of an ego trip at first, but became a problem. Back in my hometown my friends discovered I was good at cheering up grumpy people, and, because drugs were starting to enter the picture, I was the person they brought teenagers having a bad trip on LSD to. (They wouldn’t take a friend to a hospital, as that would involve the police and jail, or perhaps shock treatments in the psychiatric wing.) The job was mine, and I think I was pretty good at it, for cheering up a person on a bad trip mostly involved distracting them with things like music on the stereo, or fireworks, or tricks my dog could do. However it was draining.
Eventually my friends disillusioned me, mostly because the emotional exchange was a one-way street. It seemed they only came by when they were sad about losing a girl or a job. I cheered them up, and soon they’d have a new girl or job, and then I wasn’t so attractive, likely because they then had money to spend and I didn‘t. It was only when they were as broke as I was that my free psychiatry became attractive. I didn’t like the side of human nature I was seeing, and eventually summed it all up with a brief stanza, which I like to this day:
When you have trouble I am there.
When I have troubles, what?
When I am in my direst need
I find your doors are shut.
Splendid tidbits of self-pity like this might have expressed my heartache, but they tended to make my friends indignant. They had assumed I was listening to them moan and groan because I was a friend, and not because I wanted something back. They would accuse me of being manipulative, and so on and so forth. (Baby Boomers talked a lot about “interpersonal relationships,” even while proving they weren’t very good at them.)
I never made a red cent with my free psychiatry, (or with my poetry, for that matter,) however I suppose it was one way I avoided paying rent. People liked having me sleep in their garage, and having someone to moan and groan to, even if they didn’t want to hear any of my moaning and groaning. However I started to feel lonely, even in a crowd. People must have listened to me, in order to be cheered up, but there was a entire part of me that felt unheard, and was in some ways suppressed. My way of escaping that suppression was to get away and become a hermit. True, I was an extremely talkative hermit, but I was a hermit all the same.
This led me to living in a rent-free shack upon a dock on my stepfather’s property in Maine, which may sound idyllic but which, like most rent-free situations, could be extremely uncomfortable. For example the toilet was a hole in a chair over a hole in the floor, and the way of flushing it was high tide. This toilet wasn’t all that different from the heads in rich men’s yachts out in the harbor, and the local folk referred to the brown objects floating about in the harbor’s water as “harbor trout.”
Summers in the shack were not all that bad, (summers never are,) but winters were another matter, especially as the 1970’s passed and they became brutal. During the first few winters the harbor barely skimmed over with ice, but during later winters the ice extended far out into Casco Bay, and I could walk out to the islands. Water for the shack was a single cold water tap, and though I could keep the water going into November by running the tap constantly, the threat of frozen pipes meant the water had to be shut off in December, which made staying clean interestingly complex. One winter I simply gave up on the bother of doing dishes, and knew it was spring when they started to smell.
I went elsewhere to do laundry, which I had to do often, as I didn’t have much clothing. I was trying to emulate Henry Thoreau by having few possessions, and this meant I had one pair of pants I wore, and a second pair in the wash. This may sound very economical, but it had some shortcomings in wet weather. It caused me physical suffering, especially in terms of my socks and my feet. This occurred because the floor of the shack was amazingly cold.
The walls and ceiling of the shack were insulated, and it was heated by a pot-bellied stove, which kept the loft where I slept toasty warm, until the fire went out at two AM. The floor was freezing, despite a cheap carpet. I alternated between warming my feet by the fire and writing at my desk with my feet against the cold floor, and the warm, felt-lined boots I wore alternated between making my feet sweat and making them cold and clammy. After a while my feet turned a shade of maroon and began sweating profusely, and I discovered I had developed something called “trench foot.” The cure was to make sure your socks were always dry, and involved buying lots of socks, which I could barely afford. I had to change my socks quite often, and the carpet could be littered with sweat-drenched pairs. It was when I discovered the sweaty socks were all frozen to the carpet that I began to rethink the wisdom of my “alternative lifestyle.”
The shack had an interesting history, for it had begun life up atop a nearby embankment, as part of a summer retreat for Christian ministers, but had been blown down onto the ice on the harbor by a colossal gust of wind during a winter storm in the early 1900’s. Never a people to waste anything, the locals informed me they had slid it ashore, jacked it up, and built a dock under it.
I learned this by getting the locals to talk, which was an amazingly difficult thing to do. They had no need for free psychiatry and absolutely no interest in “interpersonal relationships.” Gossip was another matter, but you had to be part of the gang, and when I walked in to such a group, (usually at the local post office,) a dead silence would fall. By then I owned a car and had lost the advantages of hitchhiking, and I might never have gotten anyone to talk to me at all had I not had to do this odd thing called “get a job.” It then turned out that a workplace was the equivalent of spending long hours sitting beside a driver in a car, and I began to hear some stories. Once I knew a few stories I could retell them, and you can get even taciturn people talking if you cheerfully retell a story they know, and get a part of the story wrong. Sometimes I did this intentionally, but sometimes it only occurred due to my habit of embellishing.
At some point I wondered aloud if the shack had “spiritual vibes,” due to the fact ministers had once vacationed in it, and that made locals laugh and tell me about old Eddie, the laziest man alive, who had lived in the shack during World War Two. Back then, with German submarines lurking off shore and trying to shut down Portland, Casco Bay was abruptly a busy place, with concrete gun emplacements going up on every island, and the small, local ship-building yard suddenly important, because it lay in an inlet submarines couldn’t reach. Ships had to be built at top speed to replace the ones the Germans were sinking, and the harbor was dredged deeply and the mudflat beside it grew much taller, so even the maps changed. Everyone was working and doing their patriotic duty, except Eddie. Eddie would walk from the shack up to the street and down to the shipyard each morning, and punch in at the time clock. Ten minutes later he’d emerge from a cellar door and walk back to the shack along the water. At quitting time he’d walk back to the shipyard along the water, enter the cellar door, punch out, and walk home along the street. As far as I could gather, this was Eddie’s entire contribution to the war effort, and after I heard that tale I said nothing further about the shack having “vibes.” They might be “Eddie Vibes,” and I suspected I might have been told that tale because some felt I’d been infected by those vibes and had inherited Eddie’s title of being the laziest man alive.
After the war the government checks vanished, unemployment skyrocketed, and the locals suffered. A lady once pointed at a three-story, Victorian house by the water and told me it had sold for nine hundred dollars in 1950. However the shack went right on existing, through booms and busts and many a storm, until 1978.
People remember the great snows of February 1978, and the way the Boston waterfront was battered, but the local anchorage in Maine was protected from the northeast gales. It was a warmer, earlier gale from the southeast in January that lined up its winds perfectly with the mouth of the harbor, and taught me what the sea can do.
The shack could be a noisy place in a gale, and shook a little as the waves sloshed beneath it, but that January morning I awoke to a definite slam. When I looked down from the loft I noticed the carpet looked wet, along the cracks between the wide floorboards. Soon afterwards I noticed that, as a wave drove beneath the shack it compressed the air, and the carpet rose up on the floor as air whistled upwards through cracks, and then the carpet slapped down as the wave sucked out. I considered moving out, but knew the shack had withstood every storm for seventy years, including some hurricanes. I checked my tide chart, and saw the tide was high, and soon would fall. Another wave thumped against the side of the shack, and I looked out the window towards the entrance of the harbor.
It was a crazy scene through panes of glass smeared by pelting rain, of gray, foam-streaked waters, with waves more like the open sea than a harbor‘s chop, but strangest of all was the sense I had that I was looking uphill. That, then and there, decided me, and I started packing in a hurry.
It was as I was heading towards the door with my fourth cardboard box of bad poetry that the carpet arose with a whistling whoosh, a wave slammed the side of the shack, there was a loud crack, and suddenly there was a step-up in the doorway. I stepped up and out with my box, and turned to see my shack go gurgling down into the seething sea with all I owned. Gone were my Jimi Hendrix albums. Gone was my extra pair of pants. Gone was my granola.
The tide did eventually go out, and I did get my pants back, but the Jimi Hendrix albums were toast. It turns out storm driven mudflat mud is persuasive stuff, and once that grit gets in the grooves of a phonograph record, no amount of tender washing can make them play again. My life was facing some changes.
That was a wild winter, with February’s storms and my stepfather’s death ahead, but one nice thing was the tact of the locals. They didn’t ask me if I needed help or make me feel I was getting charity. Instead when any person needed a house sitter, I abruptly was on top of the list. And housesitting was much more comfortable than that old shack ever was.
You might think that was the end of the shack, but it wasn’t. It was jacked back up and the dock rebuilt more sturdily. You also might think I had learned my lesson, but I hadn’t. I figured the lesson was to build the shack two feet higher, and once that was accomplished I moved back in, and eventually faced a final winter of frozen feet.
At this point I had reached the hoary old age of twenty-six, and life was starting to look different to me. The world hadn’t changed that much, (it never really does, though progress changes the world’s outfits,) but to me the old people seemed smarter, and the young radicals, even my own self, didn’t look so smart. It was difficult for me to lay my finger on exactly what the change was, but it seemed to have something to do with the relationship skepticism had with optimism.
Formerly skepticism had seemed the enemy of optimism. Optimism was the can-do attitude, while skepticism said, “it will never work.” Now I was starting to see skepticism could be a friend of optimism. How this realization dawned on Marblehead is a bit of a mystery to me, but having my shack sink was helpful. It informed me that Truth was not merely an inner voice pointing out my mistakes; truth was also an outer reality pointing out my mistakes.
It didn’t keep me from being skeptical of authority. After all, authority had stated the shack hadn’t been sunk before, and therefore was unlikely to sink, but “unlikely” wasn’t the same thing as “never could.” In fact it seemed the only time a skeptic should use the word “never” was when they said, “Never say never,” and therefore a true skeptic couldn’t tell me, “It will never work.” Consequently having mistakes pointed out went from something I feared to something I desired. The problem was getting the taciturn, old, Maine Yankees to actually talk.
Back then the old Maniacs relished their independence and individuality to a degree that made even Hippies seem a bit ordinary. It involved less loud clothing, and was expressed more in their attitudes and the way they lived their lives. It also involved the way they treated me. If I wanted to live in a freezing shack that occasionally sunk, that was my business, and “it was no skin off their nose.” That may have explained why they had nothing to say. They might roll their eyes and mutter they’d never chose what I chose, but they didn’t criticize much. You had to work hard to get them to say exactly why they wouldn’t choose what you were choosing.
As I came to slowly start trusting people over thirty I tended to like the old outdoor-people more than the old indoor-people. Even their wrinkles were different. The indoor-people had thin, papery wrinkles, while the outdoor-people had thick wrinkles of leather. Also they had been to sea, and knew all about being wrong, because the coast of Maine is full of the currents and weathers and twists and turns that define the word “unpredictable.” In fact another reason those gruff old Yankees might not have ventured an opinion was because they didn’t like being wrong, and they knew that prediction often puts you in those boots.
To my dismay they proved invulnerable to my various cheerful techniques of getting people to talk. Often even a straightforward question would be answered with a mere shrug. In some cases they knew the value of their knowledge, and were shrewd, and waiting for an offer to be made and paid. In other cases they were busy, and it was hard to get them to stand still and talk. Lastly, I’m sure in some cases I annoyed them, and, because I was not a hitchhiker stuck beside them in a car; they could get away from me. In any case, when one actually said something I was all ears.
The sea-ice of the prior two years had been rough on sea-going men. The price of fish, lobsters and clams tended to rise in the winter, and they could make better money then, but the ice trapped them ashore. Not that they complained, for “security” was not a word they were very familiar with. When a storm blew up out of nothing, the weather bureau might have blushed at a botched forecast, but the sea-going men had to drive home through it, yet they treated it as a daily occurrence, like a commuter might treat a bad rush hour.
This was long before GPS, and most didn’t even have the clumsy electronics of LORAN aboard their boats, as electronics didn’t do well when drenched. They navigated by compass and primitive depth-sounder and an amazing memory of not only the shoreline, but the underwater landscape. Their ability in fog amazed me.
One time I was with a group of people who had missed a ferry out to an island, and a lobsterman took us out through the fog (for a decent fee, of course,) and the fog was so thick you could barely see a hundred feet. He seemed rather bored by the trip, glancing at the compass from time to time, and only once seemed the slightest bit concerned. He glanced at his watch, looked off to the left, (or port, if you insist on correctness), and abruptly wheeled and anxiously asked, “Have any of you got metal in your suitcases?” Even as he spoke a white shoulder of stone appeared to the left (or port) caped with deep brown seaweed and speckled with grey and silver gulls, and even as we gave our slightly guilty answers he steered starboard, and forty-five seconds later the island’s wharf hove into view.
The man’s concern was due to the fact metal near a compass can mess up its reading. However if you ever wonder why, in older poetry, the word “compass” has such an exaggerated importance, at times even symbolizing God, this story ought tell you the answer. At sea your compass was your best friend. (I suppose in the future people will wonder why the acronym “GPS” has importance in our modern poet’s poetic symbolism.)
Compared to these amazing, sea-going men I looked very poor, as I was no longer living on my stepfather’s land. The land had become my Mom’s, and no man can feel like a swashbuckling buccaneer when living with Mom. Not that she moved into the shack; she lived three houses away, but something about the situation swiftly became just plain humiliating.
Not that I could just leave when she was grieving. I had to be sure she was back on her feet. However no one gave me credit, and most lectured me about being scared of real jobs and getting out on my own, and how I was a wimp to be living so close to my mother.
I had other reasons for self-pity as well. You may have noticed this tale has no “romantic element.” That is because my romantic life was a complete shambles. (It was actually a hilarious shambles, but I have noticed lawsuits usually have no sense of humor, so I’ll skip including the details.) Add to this heartbreak the fact my poetry only earned rejections slips, and the few people who actually read my poems were more appalled than appreciative, and also enter the fact all my summer jobs ended and no winter jobs appeared, and I was broke, and on top of all that, include the fact my nature owned the stupidity of a spurned young man attempting to slake an unquenchable thirst for beer, when he couldn’t afford very much, and perhaps you get an inkling of how difficult it was to be cheerful, my final winter in the shack. The violins of my self-pity were howling in full chorus.
Looking back thirty-five years, my behavior back then now looks rather silly, but back then I didn’t know what I now know. (You never do.) I didn’t feel I was crossing a dark valley. I felt I was walking into death itself, and when I finally did leave Maine my maudlin nature compared my predicament to that of Oates, during Scott’s ill fated Antarctic expedition of 1910, when he sacrificed himself hoping others might live, leaving the tent in a blizzard with the words, “I am just going outside and may be some time”.
Obviously the comparison was ridiculous, unless Oates walked to a warmer clime and lived past age sixty. If I had it all to do over again I’d spend a lot less time drinking beer and trying to get enough Dutch courage to face my fears of the future, and a lot more time appreciating the beauty of that land, those people, and even of my younger self.
I do give myself credit for having the courage to get over my fear and step out into the world, but also subtract some points because, for a person who was so big on optimism, my faith was so small. Fortunately just enough survived to whisper to me that making a mistake was not necessarily my end, but could be my friend.
The fact of the matter is that even during times of darkness the mind goes right on gathering infinitums that later turn out to have value. The observer goes right on observing; the skeptic goes right on noticing discrepancies to the expectations of theory. In a very real sense one is amassing a treasure while penniless. If youth only knew this they’d spend far less time singing blues, and far more time appreciating being young.
Perhaps I did know this, intuitively, for I never quite lost my sense of humor. If anyone said, “Youth is wasted on the young” I’d immediately respond “And wisdom’s wasted on the old.” I might be down but I wasn’t dead.
Also I never lost my sense of wonder, which seems vital if you intend to gather infinitums. Though as ingrown as the worst toenail, I never was such a hermit that I didn’t want to go out and see things, and, if not to communicate with humans, to commune with nature. In fact I now can see, looking back, treasures I gathered though I thought the time was full of emptiness.
One drizzly day I wandered down to the town landing and slouched there listening to the fishermen I’d grown to respect, and saw one make a mistake. I was no saint, and owned that snide human attribute that enjoys seeing wiser and better people slip on the ice. In this case it was proverbial ice, for the leather-faced old man made the mistake of forecasting the weather more than three days in advance.
It had seemed that at last we might catch a break, and return to having the harbor mostly free of ice during a winter. The water was cold, and a skim of ice kept forming, but then storms would pass to our west and we’d be on the warm side, and the waters would be churned and the ice be melted. Melting all the ice kept the waters cold, and a new skim of ice would form, but even a small lobster boat had no trouble plowing through such a skim. The waterfront crowd rumpled their brows a bit as the skim thickened the first week in January, but then an enormous storm stalled to our south, with its warm sector swiveled right around like a triangle to the north, and we got rain and strong winds and the ice was again melted. Furthermore as the stalled storm occluded it sucked in so much mild, maritime air that we were forecast to get days of drizzle and mildness before arctic air could return, and it was at that point the old salt made his foolish forecast: “If the hahbor hasn’t frozen ovah by the fifteenth of January, tain’t likely to freeze at all.”
Unless a man is Moses, he should be wary of making pronouncements in voice like Moses‘, for the weather seems to hear, and it immediately sets out to show the man who is boss. Although most occluded storms weaken and fade away, this one sucked in some sort of reinforcements and stayed strong, slowly drifting away to the north to Labrador, where it tapped into some air up over Greenland’s icecap and directed it straight down to Maine. Nor did it do so for just a day or two. For a fortnight the north wind shuddered the landscape, and the TV weatherman first remarked over how many days had passed with the temperatures staying below ten degrees, and then how many days had passed with the temperatures staying below five degrees. (-15 Celsius)
When the blast first hit I again went down to the town landing to slouch and hear the news, and the same fisherman was there. The harbor was rapidly skimming with ice right before everyone’s eyes, in broad daylight and under a bright sun, and though no one asked the old salt for an explanation for ice forming after January 15, perhaps he felt one was due, for he stated, “I’ve nevah seen a stoam remain as potint as this one’s doin‘.”
I’m not sure why this clicked in my mind the way it did, but there was something about the way the man could be incorrect without saying he’d been wrong that seized my imagination. For, in fact, he’d never spoken a falsehood. He’d merely spoken the truth he’d seen, and then spoke a truth he’d never seen before. This made me feel a lot better about how my own version of the truth had landed me in a mess.
My life was indeed a mess, for the blast of cold caught me off guard, and my shack was like an icebox, as I’d neglected to gather enough firewood. Faced with this dilemma I said the heck with it, and walked three houses away to sleep on a couch in my mother’s basement. (Cold that vicious swiftly drives pride into the background.) I only returned to the shack during the day, with an armload of her firewood, so I could pen poetic self-pity without worrying her. Then a tax refund appeared like a miracle in the mail, and this allowed me to buy a case of beer, and also to rent a chainsaw. A dead tree had fallen onto a mudflat down the shoreline, and I cut it up and had enough firewood to warm my shack, which allowed me to consume the case of beer outside of my mother‘s scrutiny. (She didn’t worry when I vanished, for she could see smoke from the shack’s stovepipe from her study window.)
I then became very cheerful, but after the two enjoyable days and nights of writing poetry and singing the blues had passed, dawn broke on a Marblehead more full of self-pity than ever. Seeking some sort of solace I guzzled a coffee and then stepped out of the shack to look at the sunrise, but rather than inspirational it was just yellow: Spun brass in a bitter north wind. So I walked down some wooden steps, and down the sloping, stony shore to the mudflat. Even my bleary eyes could see the new ice was still thin, only an inch of clear glass over the mud of battleship blue-gray. The coffee must have been kicking in, because I abruptly realized I was being offered an unique opportunity to study mudflat worms.
First I needed to test the ice. I noticed a driftwood branch up the stony shore, and, after kicking it a time or two to free it from the new ice, which tides had draped over it, and had affixed it to the stones with; I had myself a testing tool. Using the stick I carefully tapped the ice. It seemed surprisingly sturdy. I decided this was due to the fact the ice was supported by the mud beneath. Reassured, I crouched down and, carefully spreading my weight, began crawling out over the mudflat, looking through the ice for sea creatures in the mud.
Some familiar with Maine mudflats might know that, if I had broken through the ice, the mud likely would have only been ankle to calf deep. Clammers shluck through such mud on a daily basis. However I was very familiar with those mudflats, and knew several “honey pots” lay ahead of me. They are places where springs bubble up under the mud, are made of liquid clay of pottery-quality, often are covered by a leathery skin of harder clay that can’t quite hold up a man, and, when clammers break through such skins, they sometimes plunge over their heads and die. The ones ahead were only waist deep, I knew from experience, but they were nothing I wanted to re-experience on a morning when wind-chills were below zero. This explains my caution.
I was disappointed by the total lack of life I saw in the mud, and nearly quit and headed back to my shack. However curiosity drew me on. I was inventing various reasons for the lack of life when I noticed a peculiar hole in the ice, a foot wide, dead ahead. What was peculiar about the hole was that, though the ice I crawled upon showed mud an inch below, the hole showed water an inch down. What was it? A spring without a honey pot?
Very cautiously I crept close and looked down. What I saw was a rock on the mudflat, five feet down through shadowy water. Stunned, I realized I was not crawling on ice on a mudflat. I was crawling on ice over five feet of water.
What had happened was that, when the ice was an inch thick, it settled on the mudflat at low tide and the bottom was painted by mud. Then it arose with the next tide, grew to be two inches thick, again settled on the mudflat, and again the bottom was painted by mud. This happened over and over, and, judging from the muddy stripes on the sides of the hole in the ice, it had taken sixteen tides to grow the ice a foot thick.
(In case you are wondering how such a hole could exist, it was due to the fact that, when they dredged the harbor in World War two, they dredged up not only mud but stones and even small boulders. A small boulder with a pointed top made the hole in the ice. Each time the tide dropped the ice on the mudflat, that boulder poked a hole in it.)
I sat back on my haunches and just laughed over the mistake I had made. I had used all my skill and determined the ice was an inch thick, when in fact it was a foot thick. I stood up and began jumping up and down with all my might, still laughing, and it was like I was jumping on granite. How incredibly stupid all my care and caution then seemed.
This seemed a good image to use in a poem, and I put my elbow in one palm and my chin in the other to think about it, and as I looked down I could see an imprint of my knees, from when I sat back on my haunches to laugh. Tracings of white powder formed them. I’d noticed that white powder drifting over the ice in the wind, and had assumed it was snow, but something about how it drifted was different, and I squatted back down to have a closer look. Then I dipped a finger and tasted it. It was salt. I suddenly realized how very cold it was. Rather than salt melting ice, salt was extruded from ice. The realization made me shiver, and I headed back to my shack to get the stove going. As I walked I noticed the old men over at the town landing were watching me, and became aware they’d seen me jumping up and down laughing, and I blushed a little.
Looking back after all these years I can see even then my mind was picking up infinitums, which seemed useless at the time, but are handy to have now.
For example, during a recent discussion about core samples from the bottom of a bay, people were going over all the possible things that could deposit the yearly layers of mud, and no one mentioned mudflat mud on the bottom of ice, so I did. During another discussion about freshly fallen snow blowing around on top of the ice at the North Pole no one mentioned salt being blown around with it, so I did.
However back then such infinitums seemed worthless, like a repertoire of trivia. What really made me happy was having a new idea for a story or poem. The idea now buzzing in my brain seemed like a good one, for most tales involving thin ice involve people falling through. This one seemed different, and more hopeful, and perhaps even symbolic of life itself, for what had seemed could not possibly hold me up didn’t let me down.
Brimming with good cheer and optimism I trotted up the wooden steps and into the shack for my second cup of coffee, vowing that someday I’d find the words and write the tale.