It has been a battle to even build a snowman this winter, with strong thawing so frequent. The children at our Childcare love an igloo, but often they have melted away even before the walls were halfway up. We did complete one in January, but it collapsed in a cold rain and soon was just the white letter “O” on the brown lawn. The one above is our most recent effort, over six feet tall and called “The Leaning Tower of Igloo”. It is also “The Last Igloo”, for two reasons. One reason is that it is March, and the sun is higher and stronger. Though we still have more than a month before pussy willows begin to bud, the snow shrinks so swiftly at times it is hardly worth shoveling it. The second reason is that I’m getting a bit old for such effort.
Not that a man is ever too old for a snow fort. I don’t doubt some stuffy bankers think they are beyond such childish sport, but that is because they never test their resolve. They stick to their daily duty and never dare leave the sidewalks and scoop a handful of sticky snow. If they did they’d realize they were like an alcoholic sipping just a single sip of whisky. Once they started they could not stop.
Nor is it that snow brings out the child in a man. In fact it is the other way around. Snow brings out the man in a child. There is something deeply civilized about the urge to build. After all, what is the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome but Michelangelo’s glorified igloo.
Of course, I am no Michelangelo. Maybe I could be, if I had so many working for me, but I had to move the slushy snow, and my back stiffened up so I couldn’t flex as well, which is why the two sides don’t match.
Nature seemed to approve, as a retrograde gale up in Labrador brought us subfreezing gales and turned the slush to rock, and crusted the snow so the kids could run over the snow without sinking. Rather than melting my igloo nature preserved it. And the kids seemed to approve of the igloo as well.
Not that it will last. But the maple syrup other old men are tapping from trees will not last either. Some things are not made to last, but rather to be enjoyed, and hopefully this sonnet is such a thing.
The trees have sprouted buckets, and also tubes
Of modern plastic, as maple weather
Freezes the thaw each night, and frugal rubes
Get rich off sap. With skin like old leather
They concoct ambrosia, and city people
Escape concrete to inhale fragrant steam
And to worship, without any steeple,
A lifestyle so long lost it's like a dream.
At daybreak a big man can walk upon
A crust on snow that was practically slush
The day before, breathing puffs in the still dawn,
But I don't inspect buckets in that blush.
As winter birds sing spring songs, what I do
Isn't work; it's the play of my last igloo.
I hate to sound like a geezer, but people have become wimps, in my humble opinion. It doesn’t take much to close things down these days. For example, we had a snow today. Less than four inches. No big deal, in the old days, yet this morning school was canceled before even an inch had fallen. I rolled my eyes.
I am not resorting to hyperbole, nor saying I used to walk to school and home from school uphill both ways, when I simply say we used to be tougher. We used to get through ‘flu season without closing down businesses and churches and making everyone wear masks, and we used to get through three inches of snow without closing schools. What the heck has happened to us?
Somehow, we seem to have raised a generation of wimpy weaklings. Not that my own kids are weak; (they had to be tough to put up with me). Yet even they are addicted to modern machines, and poke fun at me because I like to do things by hand. Then, when their machines break down, they don’t know what to do. I do. You do it by hand.
Sadly, I am reaching an age where it is becoming increasingly difficult to do things by hand. I have given up on spading my garden by hand, and resort to a rototiller, but if that rototiller breaks, I know what to do. I just can’t do it. I must hire some young person, but soon discover they can’t do it either. They don’t know how to do things by hand.
In like manner I used to shovel snow by hand. Even as a boy my pockets would jingle with silver quarters after a snow, and as years passed I grew so strong I could beat a snowblower down a walkway, and keep up with a snowblower on a driveway. I made some big money shoveling roofs. You can’t snowblow a roof.
I couldn’t beat a snowplow, but I did less damage than they do, and put the snow where people wanted it put, and never rolled up the turf of their lawns. But those days, when I could shovel like a whirlwind, are now in my past. I now own a snowblower. But when the snowblower breaks I know what to do by hand, and can do it, (albeit very, very slowly).
Also in like manner, when it comes to heating my home, I know how to use an ax and cross-cut saw and bucksaw, and how to split with a maul, and how to stack wood so it dries, and how to triangulate the wood in the stove. But I’m old, and therefore purchased a propane furnace, and also confess to owning a chainsaw. But when the economic machinery of home-heating malfunctions, and the price of propane gets too high, I know what to do by hand. And what’s more, I have actually done it, albeit very, very slowly. Under Biden, our economic machinery has malfunctioned, yet my propane bill is half of what it was, though the price has soared, because I slowly, slowly split wood by hand.
The fact old folk know how to do things by hand is not a reason to send them all outdoors. In actual fact, the old folk are supposed to be honored, and pampered, and they should sit around by warm stoves indoors telling good tales full of good advice. (Which is what this essay in fact does.)
The truth is: It is a bad idea to send old folk outside when things get slippery. In the past two days I’ve seen two old-lady-friends get badly hurt, because they needed to venture out. Night before last one slipped and fell and broke her thighbone up by her hip, which will require surgery. Today another hard-working woman was sent home from work at a hospital early through the snow, (not for weather reasons but for coronavirus-panic reasons), and, as she drove home, she hit an icy patch, rolled and totaled her vehicle, and ended up back at her hospital’s ER. Why were these elders out in the cruelty of winter? Why were they not safe at home?
I’ll tell you why, (and be grumpy about it). It is because the young are wimps, and can’t face what is at hand, nor do things by hand.
What is at hand is that the “grownups” are getting old, and it is high time for the young to grow up. But many youngsters are too feeble to do it. I am no longer shocked when it is grandparents, and not parents, who bring children to the Childcare I run, because the parents have problems, (or have actually died due to drug overdoses). And, if parents can’t even care for their own children, how can they care for their own parents as they become grandparents sinking into “second childhood.”
In some ways I suppose old-timers are reaping what they sowed, for when they were young hippies, they did not honor their elders, and said things like, “never trust anyone over thirty.” Now they are over thirty, indeed over sixty, and are learning turnabout is fair play. But please exclude me from that bunch. I was meek and did honor just about everyone older than me, (including some utter scoundrels). If it is true that “Nice guys finish last” I didn’t care, because it just seemed nicer to be nice. Now I cling to a hope given by Jesus when he stated, “He who is last will be first”, because it sure does seem that that the winners, the so-called “elite”, have made a total mess of things.
Things are shutting down for the flimsiest reasons. It doesn’t matter if it is the coronavirus or global warming or three inches of snow, people seem to use whatever as an excuse to be incapacitated. It seems the opposite of a “Can do” attitude.
However, it is amazing what you can do when you have to. In fact, there is a difference between a “Can do” attitude and “Must do” attitude. A “Can do” attitude still has an option to do otherwise, and in a way lives out in the suburbs of theory. A “Must do” attitude has no option because it lives in the slums, and the option is death.
Now that my spoiled generation of Baby Boomers is getting old, the option of death is drawing closer and closer, and it is getting harder to be suburban. The approach of death can turn even a mansion into a slum, and even people who never lived through the “School of Hard Knocks” are facing the “Must do” mentality.
What is that mentality? It is that when things shut down, you can’t just sit around looking hapless. If you remain hapless either you die, or (worse) you find a way to make haplessness pay, which only keeps you hapless: The beggar remains a beggar, the welfare-dependent remains a welfare-dependent, the slave remains a slave. Freedom requires more. The hapless must fight to be something besides hapless.
And what is that thing? Well, in a simple way it is merely to do things by hand. When the machines have failed, what else can you do? When the computers fail, what else can you do?
Allow me to give a simple example from my rural life.
Just because the Public Schools can close for three inches of snow doesn’t let me close my Childcare. Taxpayers pay Public Schools even if they close, but no one pays me if I close. So, I must manage to stay open, which involves moving three inches of snow. However, my snowblower ‘s drive-belt slipped off the pully, so I called my repairman. He informed me his wife had just slipped off the highway and rolled her vehicle and was in ER at a local hospital. (So, I learned about her story.) In any case, there was no way to repair the machine. What option was left?
I suppose, if they could close the schools, one option was to close my Childcare. I could weep and wail and pass the buck. The only problem is that younger people are better at weeping and wailing, and some have important jobs such as snow-removal or patching up people after snowstorm-car-crashes at hospitals. They weep and wail I can’t close; somebody’s got to watch their kids. So, I had to adopt a “Must do” attitude. And this left me with a pathetic option. When the machine breaks, and you must remove snow, what is your option? It is an old-fashioned object called a snow shovel.
I will confess I felt foolish, in this modern age, as I walked out with a primitive shovel to attack the mountain of snow the street-plows had made across the entrance to the Childcare, from only three inches. But I began. The young fellows zooming past in their four-wheel-drive pick-up trucks-with-plows looked at me, an old man with a white beard, incredulously, as I shoveled. But, very slowly, I shoveled. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
I paused often to huff and puff and examine the way the snow fell, or watch an upside-down nuthatch peck at a tree, but I didn’t stop. To keep the toil from causing mental atrophy, I pictured the weather map, which had shown a weak low pressure heading out to sea over Cape Cod. It was a weak storm just sinking past 990 mb, nothing like the bomb between Cape Farewell on Greenland and Iceland, which had bombed out to an amazing 936 mb, a lower pressure than most hurricanes.
Now, if we had a storm bomb out like that off Cape Cod, we’d have a reason to close schools, but this dinky little thing? I watched the snow lazily drift in the wind, noticing the wind was shifting from the northeast more to the north. With Hudson Bay finally frozen, we’d get our first single-digit temperatures (Fahrenheit) of the winter, but the wind wouldn’t howl. In fact the snow burdened the trees, untroubled by winds. A nuthatch flew to a twig and dislodged a small avalanche of powder, bringing back a mood.
I reminisced, recalling a walk I shoveled as a boy in 1963, and the face of a person I haven’t thought of in years. But I kept shoveling.
Two hours passed. It’s amazing what you can do, when you have to. I’d cleared the drive’s entrance, and up the drive past the Childcare’s front gate and into the parking area.
Just then a thundering diesel pick-up truck pulled into the space I’d cleared. It was a child’s father. I informed him his kid hadn’t shown up. Hadn’t his wife told him? He said he knew, and it was a big mistake to keep the boy home, because his wife worked at home and couldn’t get her work done with the rascal bouncing off the walls, so they’d decided to chuck the kid outside, but couldn’t chuck the kid out in his pajamas, so first the dad had to retrieve the child’s snowsuit, which had been left at our childcare. He bopped inside and came back out with the snowsuit, and then, as he left, and because his truck had a plow, he dropped the blade with a clang and plowed a path to the exit. Then he backed up and did a second swipe, pneumatically tilting his plow to spill snow to the left, and then backed up and swiped a third time, spilling snow adroitly to the right. Then, with a jaunty wave, he drove off.
I weakly waved back. The man’s random act of kindness had, in three minutes, done the work my feeble shovel would have needed another two hours to do. Even as I weakly waved I muttered, under my breath, “What a show-off.” Then, just to show his machine did not diminish what my hands-on attitude had done, I walked about tidying up around the edges, muttering how messy plows are. However I confess I did feel a bit diminished. I would have had something to brag about if I had shoveled the entire lot, but he’d stolen my thunder. But not all of it. I had kept the place open; his mercy had only made my mercy easier.
I got over my muttering. As I drove back home I decided I actually could manage to be glad I didn’t have to shovel another two hours, and could even be grateful for the young man’s kindness. I got to sit by my fire, which is what old people are supposed to do. So maybe not all young people are hapless, (which disproves my original premise).
After all, if he hadn’t been merciful, I wouldn’t have the two hours it has taken me to write this post. And this post? It my mercy for roughly 40 viewers on WordPress who actually like my stuff, and also mercy for more than seven billion people on earth who don’t have to read it.
But the rest of the world? What are more than seven billion doing? They are closing down. They are saying schools must be closed. They are saying churches must be closed. They are saying restaurants must be closed. They are saying stadiums must be empty. For what?
After staring into the dark a while, I doubted seven billion would actually do that. It’s just not in human nature. So there. And that defeats my original premise as well.
People who want to garden for pleasure should make certain to keep their gardens small. The smaller the better. I recommend a single planter. Otherwise gardening is more like jogging five miles in the morning: When you face the hill at Mile-Three you question your own sanity.
There will be, of course, the exultation. That is what runners call a “second wind”, but, before that “second wind” comes, one sees their mind fill up with quarreling, as if a buck private was screaming back at the screaming sergeant at boot camp, or even like a patient picking up a knife to defend himself from a surgeon approaching with a scalpel. It is such a mental ruckus that its occurrence mystifies all those who have idealized ideas about gardening.
In fact many who begin “gardening for pleasure” in April abandon the enterprise as a bad idea by June, and by July they are getting nagged by bureaucrats on the local zoning board for their patch of towering weeds. Be forewarned.
To me the actual pleasure of a big garden involves a more fundamental and ancient joy, called “avoiding starvation”. It has been 400 years since my first European ancestors stepped onto these shores, and the first 300 years saw most Americans rooted to the soil, living lives that made it very obvious that if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. There was no real escape; if you went broke you didn’t receive welfare; you went to the “poor farm” and went on working.
Currently our society is going through a period of confusion wherein many think they can, like ticks and leeches, suck off the lifeblood of others. Not merely the poor man on the dole; but the wealthy politician profiting from other’s taxes; the slippery investor on Wall Street; and even the retiree collecting an oversized pension, may be attempting to reap more than they sowed. This is bound to create resentment among those who reap less than they sow. The spectacle of a bloated Union Boss driving a fancy car and wearing pinkie rings, as the worker on the factory floor he represents pays dues and wears pants with frayed cuffs, does not inspire confidence, or even the desire to work harder. If anything it suggests laziness pays, and inspires sloth.
It is good to escape this confusion into the more real world of a vegetable garden. It is a reality which persists even when it is easier and cheaper to buy food at a market. And, if the societal breakdown ever collapses to a degree wherein the shelves are empty in the markets, perhaps the connection to the ancient joy of survival will be less of a mere concept, and more real. Money is worthless if the markets are empty, whereas dirt has value when it holds potatoes.
However, in the rush to finish spring planting in June, the “joy” is most definitely unapparent. It is then one is most like a jogger approaching a steep hill, muttering to himself, “Why do I do this? Jogging is STUPID!”
Perhaps the most difficult moment is arising from bed in the morning. The physical work involved in small-scale gardening made me achy even as a young man, and as I approach age seventy the pain seems more constant; I never seem able to “get in shape”. Also I seem to work in slow motion. I spend far more time leaning on my hoe than actually using it. Not that anyone is going to want to hear the violins of my self pity. They’ll just affirm the voice in my own head: “Why do you garden? Gardening is STUPID”.
Rather than whine to others, I turn to the blues, and try to make sonnets of my grouching:
. FIRST COFFEE SONNET
Who knows if songbirds are ambivalent When they first awake? Who fathoms bird brains? Perhaps they need some bird-equivalent Of coffee, before cascading refrains Of music fill our forests. Perhaps…perhaps… I hate to think of birds as superior To a poet, yet dawn’s a complete collapse Of my morale, and I’m inferior To birds, before my first cup of coffee. I glower at pert birds; call each a twit; Resent their singing. They seem to scoff me As I drag to the pot with zero wit And the only thing I’m able to praise Is the coffee inthis cup I now raise.
. FIRST ASPIRIN SONNET
All I get from gardening is my lame grunts As I rise in the morning. Pathetic! I feel I won’t survive the few hot months Before harvest. Reward? Others will get it. My harvest’s to limp to, (before coffee), My aspirin bottle…and guilt, as before Coffee and pills God should look down and see Me at prayer. I guess, with my limbs sore, I could pray for a morning that’s pain-free; For mercy, and miraculous healings, And dirt with no big rocks as I spade it; Yet I suppose that might hurt God’s feelings. I should thank Him life’s just how He made it: Old men plant saplings, although they won’t see The apples that some day will hang from the tree.
This is not to say that, after aspirin and coffee, old gardeners can’t find joy in new gardens. There is the joy of old efforts from prior years; the rhubarb and asparagus that spring up without my raising a finger, from old roots. And there is the first handful of flat snow peas, small servings at dinner twice as delectable as any store’s, and all the more delectable because I beat other local gardeners by two weeks, and harvested first. And then there’s the faithful old standby, so good for children as it can be harvested in a mere twenty days, the radish.
What could be fresh and new about a radish? Glad you asked. I can recall growing radishes as a rugrat back in the 1950’s, yet in all these years I never knew you could eat the greens. Last night I had a mess of delicious radish greens fried up in olive oil with garlic, which goes to show you every spring hold’s something new, and also that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
For example, strips of black plastic make for less weeding between potatoes during July heatwaves. Black plastic may be ugly, newfangled stuff, and likely screws up the ecology of soil chemistry in some unforeseen way, but old men are allowed to resort to cheap tricks to avoid bending their creaky backs….I think…
Children need contact of many types, and one sad thing is that certain schools-of-thought tend to frown at contact. This is especial true of male Child-care-providers, who are rare and whom children swarm when they appear, like a bunch of mosquitoes to a nudist colony. The frowns are either because people fear some sort of sexual child-abuse may occur, or because people fear some sort of bullying is occurring. There is a “zero tolerance” for rough-and-tumble-play although it is as natural as puppies or kittens rolling about play-fighting, and is play which likely has importance in terms of “learning limits”.
I’ve seen two young men quit the Childcare profession because of crap they took from nervous parents, but I think I get away with more because I’m older. Perhaps an old fossil represents less of a sexual threat, (though I’ve known some disgusting old men in my time.) However being old also is a bit of a liability. I can’t withstand pummeling as well as I once did.
In teaching about “limits” I often joke, “Do I look like some kind of punching bag?” and “My mother didn’t raise me to be a punching bag.” In fact the children have memorized the two statements. But it doesn’t slow them down a bit. When I stoop to tie one child’s shoes, I often am blind-sided by two or three children who see my stooping as an opportunity for “rough and tumble play”. My wife tends to be a bit stern when she witnesses me being mauled in such a manner, but personally I think it keeps me in shape. I have never been the sort who goes to a gym to work out, and might be fat if it weren’t for being constantly attacked by children. However sometimes I wake in the morning and wonder what work I did the day before that left me so stiff and sore, and it takes me a while before I remember wrestling with ten three-year-olds at once, the day before.
A few days ago I was talking with a four-year-old girl who is willful and doesn’t like to follow instructions. I can give her orders, ask her to repeat what I just said, and she seems completely unable to repeat my instructions. This can cause trouble when it comes to feeding farm animals the wrong foods. I can tell her old, buttery corn cobs are bad for the farm dog, but she simply ignores the instructions and does what she pleases. I was wondering if she had some sort of so-called “learning disability”, and decided to give her a sort of test, in terms of her memory skills. One day, when she was the last to leave, I asked her to remember the dance class she attended the prior afternoon. She then not only recalled every detail of the class, (definitely no problem with memory), but instructed me to do all the various motions, including various stretching exercises. In the early darkness of a November evening, as her mother’s headlights swung into the driveway, she spotted an old man prancing about the yard.
The next morning I swung from bed and groaned. Lord, was I ever stiff! I scratched my head, trying to recall some effort such as digging potatoes or cutting wood, but drew a blank. Then I remembered the dancing I’d done the day before.
Of course as soon as the girl saw me that day she wanted to “play dance-class again”. Rather than faux-grumbling, “My mother didn’t raise me to be a ballet dancer”, I grouched, “Old men don’t stand on tiptoes. That’s not what old men do.”
Then I said it again. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. “Old men don’t stand on tiptoes. That’s not what old men do,” and made a song for the kids. I wondered if I could even make a sonnet from it.
Old men don’t stand on tiptoes. That’s not what Old men do. They’re gruff and tough and all that Stuff that comes from craggy views. Eyes are shut And hearts are closed; they’ll lose their keys and hat, If order you confuse…so why am I on Tiptoes just to sneak a peak at You?
Old men are not romantic. That’s not dawn In their cave. What’s the use of splashing spruce through Whiskers as they shave? Too late to start, With one foot in the grave; old men can’t be Romantic as they haven’t got the heart, That’s not how they behave, yet what I see Is prompting me to pick a final rose And offer it to sky, standing on tiptoes.
While looking at the ravages time carved onto the face of Robert Frost I decided plastic surgery is for fools. I suppose some, who are maimed, might require such surgery, to avoid repulsing people with an unpleasant superficiality, but most of us are strangely improved by the battering of our features time gifts us with. This seems especially true of people who retain their sense of humor, and of beauty, despite hardship. Crafted into each wrinkle of their face is a hint that God is real, and death is not.
Robert Frost knew much about desperation, despair and darkness. He outlived his wife and four of six children, and had witnessed those dark landscapes made of a pain far worse than physical pain, misnamed “mental illness”, even experiencing a son’s suicide. How he got through it all is his secret and his triumph, and is written in his face more clearly than in any poem.
The best and most beautiful poem is but an attempt to express the self that already exists. I have no idea why it feels so sublimely satisfying to do this, for it is merely to copy. In fact I was always scolded for copying, when in school. However there are few things so fulfilling as speaking your heart, in a sense tracing what already exists with a tracing paper called “poetry”. Later, when the tracing paper is removed from the Truth you attempted to copy, you see all the imperfections. However when you first are focused on what the Creator has already created, it is completely absorbing, and you forget all your problems, even when you are tracing a problem called a heartache. That is why there is such a rhapsody in singing the blues.
An old face is no different from any other old object; it has a sort of patina that gives it value, as an antique. A young face is sort of raw, in comparison. It lacks something very beautiful the old have earned.
I was looking at my face critically the other day, noting how amazingly aged a couple of hard winters have made me, and I started to stretch my skin smooth, making the face in the mirror look like those bizarre old people, quite common in Florida, who have paid money that might have fed the poor to make themselves look weird. I burst out laughing. And when I laughed all the wrinkles gathered and made my face have far more character than I had when I was young, and was little more than a pretty boy poet.
Call it sour grapes if you will, but I suddenly felt sorry for the young, and glad to be wrinkled. Usually I cut off my beard when the weather warms, and a free scarf is no longer necessary, but this year I may keep my scruff, for a gray beard makes me look even older, and age is no disgrace. It is a badge of honor, given by the Creator. If nothing else, this attitude will save me a lot of money, and my boycott may put plastic surgeons in the position where they will have to save lives rather than egos.
One reason my attitude towards wrinkles has changed is due to sitting my granddaughter in my lap, and seeing her attitude toward wrinkles. I gather you have to become older than she is to be scared by age, for she finds wrinkles fascinating, and her observant eyes search my face as her little fingers poke. In a sense she reminds me of a student probing a poem, searching for the meaning in the lines.
Another reason may be that spring is absurdly early this year. I’m not fooled, for I’ve seen many a warm March give way to April snows, but one seed that can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked is peas. Usually we plant them on Patriots Day, April 19, and I’ve often planted them in snow, but this year I thought I’d see if it was possible to kill even a tough plant like peas, by planting them more than a month early, on March 16.
Of course there is something about spring and planting seeds that seems alien to wrinkles. Maybe it reminds the old of sex, when they were young, and tempts them to gobble that plastic surgery of the penis, Viagra, popping some Prozac as well to plasticize the brain. However here too I burst into laughter, which was what Abraham and Sarah named the child they made in their old age. That is the only real reason for sex: Procreation. All the other reasons people give are proof they are using sex as a poor excuse for genuine poetry. If you really want the sublime self-forgetfulness of creation, make a child if you are young, but write a poem if you are old.
I never really wanted to be worldly. I wanted to space out, and be away From schooling that abused me, and then hurled me Out onto a world of greedy gray. My teachers had no clue of how men make a buck. They dwelled in ivory classrooms, stuffed with must And never dared depart from muck, when stuck, And clung to coins that hoped, “In God we trust.” Me? I roamed a world which didn’t pity me And toiled with bleeding hands and bleeding heart Facing worldly responsibility Though I disliked this world right from the start Until now, life ebbs, and laughter stings For I’ve become a man of worldly things.