We had our first taste of winter today, with temperatures 15 degrees below normal and reluctant to rise all day and puddles from last night’s rain flat and frozen, and fits of flurries throwing handfuls of white confetti into a stiff breeze, though I saw no reason for confetti. What is there to celebrate? It was a miserable day after yesterday evening’s miserable cold rain.
Last night I faced a night out with good friends, but nearly didn’t go, because, to get to the cheer and the warm hearth of friends, I’d have to venture out into pitch black and pelting, cold rain. It stinks when, in order to have a good time, you must first take a deep breath and run a gauntlet. But that is the definition of winter, in New England.
It is said, “No pain; no gain”, and that is what urges one out, yet at the same time another voice whispers, “No strain; No pain”. And there is much to be said for the second voice. Why risk pneumonia, when you could toast toes by a warm fire?
At some point one is forced to chose between which voice one will listen to. It seems a sort of “tipping point”, or a “fork in the road.” As a writer, often I stay home and am introspective, while others go out. I sometimes stay in even when the weather is balmy. Also as a writer, I often have wound up broke because I stayed home when I should have gone out to work, which later forced me to go out and work lousy jobs in weather others would call insane to work in. Therefore I have a pretty good idea of what both sides of the “tipping point” entail.
In my experience it is almost always better to go out. For example, last night, as I wavered at my front door, there could be no doubt the weather was disagreeable. It was weather best described by Englishmen in London during a North Atlantic gale, when they look out and say, with lordly disapproval, “Simply filthy weather; simply filthy.” Yet two hours later when I stomped back through the same door and hurried to my hearth, I was glad I’d gone. I hadn’t caught pneumonia, and had gained, through the insights of others, an idea I’d never have come up with alone.
One thing that few account for is that the mortal body is capable of ramping up its Adrenalin levels, and altering its entire metabolism, if need be. I noticed my physical frame doing this today. The bitter wind was “lazy” (IE: it cut straight through you, rather than taking the time to go around you) and I was flinching and muttering, “I’m too old for this.” My circulation isn’t as good, and my testosterone levels are lower, than when I was twenty-five. To me that seems a good excuse for staying home by the fire. But, because I’ve been a writer, I’ve worked over a hundred different jobs, and that is no way to earn a pension. So I’m stuck with working when friends have retired. And, because I have to go out when they don’t, I discover what they won’t.
What I saw is that one doesn’t need Viagra to be hot. Apparently something other than testosterone is involved, when the northern body shifts gears in the face of brutal winter. Something in the human frame fights back, when exposed to insults, even when you’re old. It will take science a while to verify this observation, I suppose, but it was undeniable to me: I was warmer after the first nasty blasts of winter hit me than I was when I first saw the forecast.
I didn’t notice how much warmer I was, at first. I walked through my front door after work and pottered about as if it was June, thinking little of it until I went to put wood in the stove. Only then did it occur to me I hadn’t rushed to the fire like a babe to a breast as I came in the house. Contrary as it may sound, bitter breezes made me warmer.
Decades ago I saw the same thing in a different way. A friend complained his wife never got out, and instead stayed at home depressed. In the foolish way that marked my youth, I stuck my nose in the business of others, “to be helpful”. (One friend called me guilty of “dry adultery”: I might not have had sex with friend’s wives, but was prone to emotional meddling.)
My friend was exasperated to a degree where he’d stopped listening to his wife, but I figured that, because I was an artist, I was more sensitive than my pal (who was gruff, tough, and constantly in trouble with the law), and that I would be more able to be sympathetic and empathetic. I believed often that is what emotional people need, in order to escape whatever dilemma they find themselves in.
I was useless. Why? Because it was immediately obvious to me the woman’s problems were primarily caused not by her insensitive, outlaw husband, but by the fact she used him as an excuse to never go out.
Why was it obvious? Hard to explain, but it was like this:
Sometimes your feet are cold because you are sitting too much. What you need to do is stir your blood and get your circulation going. In such a case it does absolutely no good to talk about what caused you to sit, for the longer you talk the longer you stay sitting and the colder your feet become.
Although my friend’s wife very much appreciated the fact I would sit with her and talk with her, she did not like it when I suggested she might benefit if she stopped sitting and talking. In the end I was not “helpful”.
In actual fact the woman helped me far more than I helped her, for she reminded me of myself. Artists often sit and think when they should get up and go. She made me aware a “tipping point” is involved.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest we should outlaw art, because artists sit and think when they should get up and go. (In fact I think too many people get up and go without enough thought.)
Instead I mean to suggest a “tipping point” indicates a balance is involved, and a balance involves two sides. If you succumb to the mentality that takes only one side you are completely out of balance.
At this point we need to define “balance”. In terms of humanity, it is actually a precarious state. Often the people we deem most stable and balanced are knocked completely out of kilter by a feather. For example a bank president may commit suicide when the market crashes. Meanwhile the janitor at the same bank may be the fellow who offers the most help to his fellow employees as the ruined bank closes its doors.
“Balance” is often seen as “security”, which can draw people out of balance. For example, “political correctness” draws people into postures they may not be comfortable with, but which they feel are “safer” stances than what their conscience knows to be Truth. Such compromises seem “balanced” up until Truth jars them with a rude awakening, and they become aware “political correctness” has lured them into being led by some sort of despot, such as Stalin or Hitler. Then what seemed like “balance” abruptly shocks people into the awareness they are miles past the “tipping point”, and are plunging into disaster. This sort of shock is like the first blast of winter into New England. When it hits you, nothing that came before matters. Truth has arrived.
Artists, who have (in theory at least) put Truth ahead of “political correctness”, are less perturbed by such abrupt and shocking arrivals of Truth. They tend to respond more like the Bank Janitor than the Bank President. At some point they faced a “fork in the road” and, as the poet Robert Frost stated, the choice they made “has made all the difference.”
Often I find the biographies of artists as interesting as their art. Not that they had easy lives. Often they faced winters. Van Gough is an example of a a man who lived a rough life, yet he painted Truth which millions, perhaps billions, now admire.
One biography that fascinates me is that of an American master of the genre, “short story”, named William Sydney Porter, who took on the pen-name of “O. Henry”.
What intrigues me about Porter is that he seems to have been more like a person who goes out, than a person who sits by the fire, and therefore he seems unlikely to ever become a writer. But he did like to sit in a bar after work and tell a good tale. Then one thing led to another.
Though Porter’s tale-telling can be seen to gradually develop, (as pieces he sent to newspapers, newspapers which he increasingly was interested in and involved with), he was too practical to depend on writing for his livelihood, and supported himself, and later his wife and daughter, by working as a pharmacist, sheep-herder, cowboy, draftsman, clerk, and teller at a bank.
While working as a teller he apparently strayed from doing things by-the-book, using his heart more than his head, for political and perhaps other reasons. He lost one bank-job when a new political party came into power, and was fired from a second when “irregularities” in his bookkeeping were discovered. In disgrace he move from Austin, Texas to Houston, Texas, and then for the first time focused on writing. He was making headway, getting raises and seeing his newspaper-column become more popular, when Federal Auditors snooped into the doings of the bank back in Austin. They didn’t want to hear any excuses for a former employee who used his heart and not his head; $854.08 were unaccounted for and, roughly two years after he had left Austin, Porter faced five years in jail for embezzlement.
Because he was a man of action, the day before his trial Porter fled to Honduras, where he associated with exiles, coined the phrase “Banana Republic”, and did a lot of work on the collection of intertwined short stories called “Of Cabbages and Kings”, (which was as close as he ever came to writing a novel.) He hoped to make money writing and had made plans for his wife and daughter to join him, but then discovered the tuberculosis (which he knew his wife was suffering from, before he married her) was now killing her. At this point he returned to face five years in jail, to be at her side as she died.
She died, and then he went to jail, where he was valued and worked as a pharmacist. However he still had a daughter to support, and became involved in sneaky ways to make money by writing without people knowing the writer was a jailbird. That is when he adopted the name “O. Henry” (Which some suggest is a condensed version of “Ohio Penitentiary”.) (The name first appeared attached to a charming tale about a hobo who becomes a hero but chooses to remain a hobo, called “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”. In retrospect the hobo’s love-of-freedom is especially poignant because the writer himself was in jail, though of course readers of that time didn’t know that). “O. Henry” became increasingly popular even before Porter was released from prison, (two years early, “for good behavior”).
What I find fascinating about that part of Porter’s life is that he did not intentionally retire to the fireside to write. In essence he was forced to the “fireside” of a jail-cell, after facing the bitter winter of his wife’s death. Largely he was not a retiring man.
After he was released from prison in Ohio he traveled to Pennsylvania to where his daughter was staying with his in-laws. As a widower and ex-con he did not seem all that accepted or happy, and drank too much. He moved to New York City to be near the market for short stories, and basically drowned himself in work. Porter would write in the morning and conduct research after “the sun passed the yardarms”, with the “research” consisting of visiting restaurants and bars where, rather than telling tales, he often got others to tell him tales, late into the night. Then he’d head home and jot some notes, and work on a tale the next morning, often facing a Friday deadline. He produced a total of 371 tales, some masterpieces, in roughly seven years, before his liver gave out. What is interesting to me is that even while writing so much, he didn’t sit by the fire. By noon he was restless, and had to get out.
It likely impossible to state the effect Porter had during the time he was most productive, when my Grandfather was young. There was no radio or TV, and people were avid readers. My Grandfather’s generation awaited the next “O. Henry” story in magazines and newspaper-Sunday-supplements with the same eagerness my own generation awaited the next song by The Beatles, and it is difficult to translate that eagerness across time. I do not belabor my grandchildren with talk about the Beatles, and my Grandfather never told me why he had eight volumes of O. Henry short stories in the bookshelf by his living-room armchair. But I noticed them. Though the tales were panned by critics of that time (and by some fellow writers as well) they are more than a wonderful window to the attitudes and realities of another time; they contain descriptions of human frailty and nobility that are timeless. When I finally got around to reading them I felt like I’d discovered a gold mine.
However that is not the point of this essay. The point of this essay is to suggest that, sometimes, facing the blasts of winter, men do not merely survive, but become downright prolific, as O. Henry did, facing the winter of his life.