Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and for some reason extraordinary stuff always seems to happen on her birthday, no matter how much we try to keep it quiet. One year we chose to have a quiet take-out dinner on a beach on the shore of a lake, and as we ate there was not only a spectacular sunset with a thunderhead shooting forks of amazing lightning, but the obligatory double rainbow to boot, vivid against deep purple clouds.
Another year we were just about to leave for the beach, when a pipe burst in the cellar. (Not a usual thing in June). The miracle was that we found a plumber who showed up within minutes and had the pipe fixed so fast we still left for the beach before noon.
This year the problem was again in the cellar, and began the night before my wife’s birthday. The hot and humid weather had condensed water on cold pipes, which drizzled down into the pressure switch of the water pump, causing a shorting that filled the cellar with smoke, and melted the switch into the “on” position. Usually the switch clicks off when the pressure reaches 40 psi. Now it was increasing past 40 psi, past 45 psi, past 50 psi, past 55 psi…
I was oblivious, typing at this word processor. I have developed this ability, because I have a granddaughter in the house, and if I don’t develop extraordinary powers of concentration I’ll never get a word written on this blog. This is especially true because any time my granddaughter demands attention my dog Elsie gets jealous, and Elsie has this weird response where she barks frantically and chases her tail. I can’t tell you how often this stuff is going on in the background, as I write the words you read.
Night before last my wife and daughter were attempting to convince my granddaughter to get into the bathtub, which my granddaughter was vehemently objecting to. The dog was chasing its tail and barking. The water was shooting into the bathtub with extraordinary power from the faucet, and a strange smell was arising from somewhere. And I was completely oblivious, concentrated as I was on details on a computer screen pertaining to sea-ice, and a critical comment made by a troll on my website.
My wife sweetly managed to get my attention by evacuating the house, including a naked three-year-old. As she departed she noticed I was looking down a cellar staircase filled with smoke, and inquired “Should I call 911?” I said, “No,” and headed down into the smoke, whereupon her advice was, “Hold your breath.”
In the cellar I could find nothing burning, and in fact after I opened the windows the smoke seemed to be dispersing. My daughter came down and helped me look for something burned, but we could find nothing. Then she mentioned the water coming out of the faucett more vigorously than usual, as she was filling the bath, which seemed odd, so I went upstairs and turned on the water in the kitchen sink. It shot out with amazing ferocity. So I went back down and looked at the water-pressure gauge, and saw it going from 110 psi to 115 psi to 120 psi…
It then occurred to me that maybe I should check the pressure switch, but it was in a dark area and I couldn’t see very well. so, with the cover removed, I gave it a nudge with the plastic handle of a tool. This produced a vivid blue ball of electrical arcing about the size of a turnip, followed by a smaller tongue of orange flame, at which point it occurred to me I should turn off the circuit breaker labeled “pump.”
Problem solved. I could get back to what I was writing. I mention this only because some young writers say they cannot write without a grant. And they are not even married, and run no business, and have no problems worth mentioning, (except maybe a bad choice for a girlfriend). I doubt they could stand five minutes in my shoes, dealing with the distractions I deal with, yet I do write, (and sometimes write too much, according to my wife).
Let this be a lesson to you young poets. You have no excuse for not writing. If you are going to whine, make a music of your blues. You can do it if you really want to write. If you want money, well, that is a different matter, and you probably should seek some other occupation.
Less artistic and more pragmatic readers will have noticed that, while I solved the problem of smoke in the basement, a new problem, involving no water in the house, had raised its head. This was no way to be beginning my wife’s birthday.
I planned to head off for a new pressure switch as soon as the closest hardware store, twenty miles away, opened in the morning. However company arrived early, to wish my wife happy birthday, and I had to smile and nod. As soon as I could enact a diplomatic escape I drove twenty miles, bought a $16.00 pressure switch, drove twenty miles back, and went down into the cellar and replaced the fried switch myself. A plumber would have charged $300.00.
There was a lurid red warning on the pressure switch instructions that stated the switch should be rewired by a qualified electrician. Pish tush! What plumber heeds that warning? And if they don’t, why should I?
Not that either an electrician or plumber could figure out the wiring of a 250-year-old house, where electricity was an afterthought. In a modern house the wiring for the pump is right next to the pressure switch, and four wires are involved, but in my house the wiring for the pump is far across the room, and only two wires are involved at the pressure switch. It’s no big deal; just a different way of achieving the same end. But small-minded people and government regulators likely would freak out, because they insist there is only one way to skin a cat. They would likely tear the whole house down and rebuild it to “specs.” Me? I just put the switch in, adjusting for only two wires.
The pump worked and my wife got to shower before noon on her birthday. We saved $270.00, and I figured we could go out to some semi-classy joint and buy ourselves a fine meal with expensive drinks for $270.00, but instead we were invited to a special birthday late-lunch by friends who don’t drink. So we saved $270.00 twice.
I was slightly annoyed, because the way things were turning out I had no time for my art. I’m not referring to this blog, for I did sneak in a few replies to comments here, but rather to another form of self-expression, which is my wood carving. You see, I am a small-town version of Michelangelo. Much smaller. More like a Mike. And I did want to find the time to finish a birthday present for my wife. I didn’t.
Now here is another lesson for young poets. You don’t need to despair when you don’t have time to finish a poem, and you don’t need to whine for a government grant that might allow you to finish. Just call your unfinished work “a fragment.” People who really love you will see where you were aiming. They will give you the leeway to fulfill your promise.
For example, one year my wife gave me a scarf she was knitting me, though she had only the time to knit a third of it. The next year she gave me the same scarf, only two thirds completed. And the following year I got the finished scarf, and it means more than any other scarf to me. I still have it to this day, and still use it though it is tattered. In like manner, my wife was surprisingly pleased by the carving I hadn’t completed.
I will admit it bugs me to have a carving uncompleted. (Not that Michelangelo didn’t leave some amazingly cool stuff only partly carved.) However the reason it bugs me is a reason that may scare the socks off some young poets. And the reason is this: The only way a carving can get better is to lose more.
In any case, we headed off to our late lunch, and lingered long, and just as we were leaving that lunch at sunset we received a text from a neighbor stating our smoke detector had gone off. We texted back we were on our way home, and that the smoke detector could go off in humid weather, and they shouldn’t worry. But then my wife remembered the pressure switch I had put in, and we decided we’d drive a bit faster.
As we passed the fire station we noticed all the trucks were gone, but the place was lit up and around thirty people were happily milling about. When we arrived home we couldn’t see the house, because three firetrucks were in the way. There was also a police cruiser, adding blue lights to all the red lights.
I have to admit I was thinking about the pressure switch I’d replaced. Had I crossed wires? Was my home, beyond the looming firetrucks obstructing the view, a pile of ashes?
Nope. That morning my daughter had set off the kitchen alarm, burning the toast, so she removed the alarm from the ceiling and put it on the window-sill, whereupon it went quiet. Why it chose a later time to blare out, I don’t know, but it was basically a false alarm.
The odd thing was, no one was annoyed. Life must get boring in my little town, for all these volunteer firemen had showed up, dressed in sixty pounds of fireman clothing, and they all seemed positively delighted they’d found an excuse to get out of the house on a warm summer night. Rather than anyone angry about a false alarm, it was a happy social event. We all laughed about smoke alarms, (apparently they’d been called out the night before because someone threw a smoke alarm away, and it went off in a dumpster,) It was the typically unusual event that always seems to happen, on my wife’s birthday.
Eventually everyone went home, and I entered the house, to meet a very guilty dog. Apparently Elsie felt she was to blame. Usually she barks her fool head off when anyone knocks at the door, (and I’d wondered why she was so silent with three firetrucks outside).
When I first entered I couldn’t even find her. The poor cur was cowering in the bathroom. She barely poked her nose out when I walked in the neighboring room, and when I said, “Hey there, old dog, come here”, she didn’t rush out for reassurance, but rather slowly backed from sight. Why? You figure it out. Apparently dogs take responsibility for things we cannot comprehend.
The same is true for young poets, but I haven’t time to elaborate much on this idea.
Instead I chose to point out that I, at long last, without any government grants to free me from worldly distractions, did sit down here at my computer to blog. The first thing I did was to check the WordPress “stats” page, which shows me how many people have visited, and what nations they have visited from. Also I can see how many “views” I’ve had since I started this blog in December, 2012. It said I’d been “viewed” 200,006 times.
I sat back to think about that number. Not that any particular view means more than another, but it was a bit like when your odometer rolls over in a car. It gives you pause.
My mind went back to when I was a young poet, and very much wanted to be noticed, but no one seemed to want to do it. In fact I had the ability to help people remember appointments they were late to, simply by clearing my throat, lifting my index finger, and mentioning I’d written a poem. The only people who would stay and listen required that I listen to their poems in return, and that was a pretty steep price to pay. In the end I became discouraged and decided the world could go to hell. If they refused to be lectured to, about a way to end all wars and make everything nice, they could just go get stuffed. I became a hermit of sorts.
That got old. Not that I didn’t have some mystical experiences born of deep thought, but they were few and far between, and mostly I was lonely and felt like my brains were shriveling up. No man’s an island, and we need the input of others. Also if you never go out you wind up broke. Eventually I hit the road.
A while back I came across a folder of my letters that my mother had saved from my days as a drifter. She had a tendency to worry too much, so the letters were always upbeat, even when written from difficult periods in my life. One letter in particular made me laugh.
My mother was worried I was too isolated and too much a loner. I told her I thought God agreed, and therefore God had arranged for me to make 10,000 people smile, on an individual basis, one after another. It then listed the series of jobs I’d had in the prior six months, pumping gas, serving burgers, serving donuts and running the register at small markets, and explained how I took it upon myself to get customers to smile. (I didn’t mention the failures.) At the bottom of the list was the number 10, 242. I figured this would ease my mother’s worry about me being a loner. Also I added that I’d decided I wasn’t a poet; I was the American sort of writer called a “humorist”, a sort of modern Will Rogers, defying depression with a “I never met a man I didn’t like” attitude.
I then concluded that while some gain acclaim by making a crowd of 10,242 laugh, it is also great to create the same number of smiles by dribs and drabs, unnoticed by the crazy media, but perhaps smiled at by God.
I’m not sure this convinced my mother; she did seem to like to worry; but the important thing is that it convinced myself. Furthermore I became aware I was not alone. As I drifted through the heartland of America I became aware there was a vast body of people making smiles, even when it was raining. It was something I failed to notice when I was a hermit, and down on humanity, and, if I saw anything in society, it was the mentality of a mob. Not that such bad things don’t happen, but it is more than countered by the fact God is in everyone, and shines out from faces if you make the effort to cheer people up.
And this is my final bit of advice to young poets. Don’t be fooled by fame. It isn’t necessary, and judging from people afflicted, is actually a hazard. Also, for every singer who makes the big time, like the Beatles, there are thousands in small places, singing in remote church choirs or to children or with friends, and they make an enormous difference. Without them life would be stark.
Not that it isn’t nice to get 200,006 views. It was especially nice that it happened on my wife’s birthday. She’s the one who has to put up with me when I get a far away look, and don’t notice the cellar is on fire. And when there isn’t a fire, she sometimes has to light a fire under me to get me moving. I wouldn’t blame her for wondering, at times, if I am wasting my time at this computer. 200,006 views is therefore a sort of reassurance.
And you never really see the effects of small and random acts of kindness. It only takes a grain of sand to start an avalanche, and our influences go onward even after we have left the scene.