I have noticed a fair amount of people, both on the left and on the right, are losing their minds in the comment-sections of various posts at various sites. I’ll skip repeating their views, except to say they tend to be one-sided. I’d like to counter this tendency by, in my simple way, reminding people that unity is not one-sided. The strength of being united, whether it be in a marriage, or in a two-party-system, comes from Understanding (with a capital “U”) which neither side can have alone. A cyclops has no depth perception. However two eyes, with differing views, gain a third thing neither eye has alone, when they harmonize. This Depth Perception (with a capital “D” and “P”) is lost if and when we panic and retreat into selfishness, which is seen when people hoard, price-gouge, shun, hate, etc., etc., etc.
Not that we shouldn’t have the common sense to make sure we stock up on certain items, but there is a difference between “stocking up” and “hoarding”.
I heard of one person who bought two huge 60-roll packages of toilet paper, when they used about one roll a week. However their greed attracted greed, and someone shattered the back window of their SUV and stole their two-year’s-worth of tissue. To me this is a perfect example of how greed wastes our time and energy and rear windows, whereas generosity takes one down a totally different path.
We are seeing some hoarding here in New Hampshire. Toilet paper can’t be found. But I’m not worried. Brillo pads work.
All our local schools are closed down for at least three weeks. Why couldn’t this have happened back when I was in grade school? I would have been on cloud nine! But now I’m a bitterly disappointed old man, because my grandson’s basketball team had fought its way to the finals for the State Championship, and then the big game was canceled.
The sad shape of my ex-smoker lungs makes me a prime candidate for extinction, but I refuse to be cowed. Any ‘flu could kill me, and while I take more care to dress warmly than I once did, and eat more wisely and drink less, I think one of the worst things for a man’s immune system is to live in dread, while one of the most stimulative things is hope, faith, and bounding about being positive, (or at least huffing and puffing about being positive.)
We couldn’t really close down our Childcare, as the doctors and nurses are going to need someone to watch their kids. If they are going to accept risk for the rest of us, someone should accept risk for them. I don’t want to run away from germy children the way people ran away from my family, when we all had polio during the final outbreak before the vaccine in 1954, so I am pretending to be a Christian Scientist like an old, French nanny who came striding into my overwhelmed Grandmother’s kitchen and saved the day when I was two. I can barely remember her, other than that she looked like the guy on Quaker Oats packages, but apparently she remained nearly a year, and I spoke French before I spoke English. My father was a surgeon and my mother was a nurse, and as a medical family we tended to look down our noses at Christian Scientists, but we made an exception in her case. What a difference she made!
Kindness has consequences we may not live to see. For example my father might not have even been conceived, were it not for a kindness. Two years before my Dad was born my Grandfather was apparently very ill with the Spanish Flu’ in occupied Germany in 1918, but his commanding officer refused to send him to the crowded hospital (where soldiers died in droves) and instead stuck him upstairs in the building they had seized as a headquarters, so his bed looked out the broken window of an airy room in a castle, and in the fresh air he survived. One thing they learned in 1918 was the people forced to sleep out in the elements in tents, rather than in the wards, had a far higher survival rate.
In any case my wife and I have made our Childcare into an all-outside-all-the-time operation, with no indoor activities. I get a big fires going in the pasture, and erected a tent for napping outside, which heavy, wet snow promptly collapsed. Judging from frantic parents we were expecting 25 kids our first day, (and had to get a waiver from the state, allowing us to go over our limit of 17,) but then only 5 kids actually showed up that day. I expect we’ll just have to fly by the seat of our pants until things settle down.
I read an interesting things about how viruses mutate. They tend to become kinder and gentler, because the most vicious mutations kill their hosts too fast to spread much. The “Spanish ‘Flu” apparently passed through the USA, without much ado, but once aboard crowded troop-ships and in crowded camps and trenches the more vicious mutations got going. The new strains were nasty in Europe, but not so bad as they passed back through the USA, as many had already experienced a weaker version of the same virus, which acted like a sort of vaccine. But when the same virus reached Polynesia more than half the population succumbed, on some islands. In any case, I’m hoping the virus mutates in a kinder and gentler way before I get it.
Also I hope they may have chanced on a sort of cure. In Asia they’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this ‘flu, (as well as prior ‘flues), in essence trying out a thousand drugs, and seeing 999 didn’t help much, but have bungled upon a malaria drug, a sort of quinine, that holds great promise.
So we shall see what we shall see. If my time is up, well, so be it. I just hope I show the class I saw my Mother and Father display when considering atomic war, back when I was around three. (People forget there were not all that many A-bombs back then, and some thought destruction might not be “mutual”, and we several times teetered on the brink of a war which would have been horrific.) (Because this memory dates from the Suez Crisis of 1956 when I was only three I was dubious to its authenticity, so I checked with my mother about what I recalled, back around 1980, and she stated my memory was surprisingly accurate,)
They went down in vast cellar of our three story suburban, Victorian house with an MIT student who was living with us and helping with chores my Dad couldn’t do, (because he’d had polio). Each was sipping an Old Fashioned, and Dad and the student were discussing engineering a fallout shelter, talking about how bricks stop radiation, as my mother calculated the spacing for beds and the oxygen needed for a kitchen. My Dad abruptly became impatient, deciding the shelter was a dumb idea, scowling in irritation at the ceiling and envisioning three stories of burning wood collapsing downwards. (I thought a bomb shelter was a great idea for a fort, and likely got a scowl for chirping my opinion.) But what I recall most was that it was decided the engineering student would head for Canada with us four kids (which sounded like great fun) as Mom and Dad stayed in Boston to “treat the burned.” I’ve always thought that was a classy choice, arrived at during those trying times.
Trying times have returned. Currently the doctors and nurses of the world are all being tested, and most are being classy. I pray they get the appreciation and help they deserve.
If you are in the mood to read the poetry of an unknown ancient poet, involving facing “pestilence”, among other things, read Psalm 91. (It’s where the “In God We Trust” on the money of the United States came from.)
All gatherings are cancelled here, including church. But the preacher I currently enjoy, (a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, now working in my mother’s childhood neighborhood,) preaches online, and his very vocal congregation types in their “Amen’s” (and other comments) from keyboards rather than pews. His first out-of-auditorium sermon was a decent look at Psalm 91, and on having hope in an epidemic. (Skip first 6 minutes to skip music, and skip first 29.30 to get to Psalm 91).
Considering the economy of Maine was ordinarily depressed every year, once the warm weather and tourists departed, and considering the national economy was suffering “stagflation” as it struggled to recover from the Arab Oil Embargo, and considering unemployment was near 10%, you might think thatas soon as I heard there might be work at a sail loft in Portland I would have rushed to be there as soon as it opened the next Monday morning. But considering my tendency to procrastinate, it was somewhat amazing I made it by Thursday.
It may not be fair, but I did the psychologically-correct thing and blamed my mother. She had an amazing ability to derail my initiative. Rather than encourage me she always seemed to see problems in my plans. Part of that problem was that I often couldn’t be bothered with plans. I preferred spontaneity. I felt I was a man who could fly by the seat of his pants, but my mother tended to feel I couldn’t do that unless I first remembered to put my pants on.
It really won’t do, to go into too many details; after forty-five years there are things which lose their urgency; they pass beyond staleness and enter the realm of absurdity. Back-breaking straws are seen as what they actually were: Straws. Let it suffice to say that though we loved one another we weren’t always constructive. Her advice was unwanted, and I was not good at accepting advice.
For a woman over fifty she was remarkably well preserved, smooth skinned and slender, partly due to ointments, creams, lotions and potions that littered her bedroom bureau, and partly due to her insistence upon serenity. A serene face stays smooth. As a trained nurse she could remain calm midst blood and gore. Therefore it was something of a wonder to me that I could age her ten years in a flash, simply with the bad spelling within a poem. And my plans had the same effect.
One way she achieved serenity was to be extremely well prepared. She had grown up during the want of the Great Depression and had experienced the rationing of World War Two, and was careful to keep shelves well stocked, not merely in terms of food, but in terms of hand-lotions and lipstick and soap and detergent and floor wax and vacuum bags and nails and bolts and screws and bandages and medicines and toothbrushes and scissors and paper and pens and brake fluid and spark plugs. If World War Three had broken out, our home would have been the place to loot, (perhaps to prepare for such a contingency, she did have a gun permit, though I never saw an actual pistol.) She had savings and stocks and also other investments which wouldn’t crash if the stock market crashed, and she paid premiums on ordinary insurance as well as some insurances for odd misfortunes which it never occurred to most people to insure, (for example, for obscure diseases, or for earthquakes in New England). She avoided all debt; she and my father had bought their first home with cash, and she’d never had a mortgage.
One preparation she did not make was for nuclear war; I remember she and my father discussing building a fallout shelter, while walking around in our cellar when I was small, but I think they deemed the likelihood of survival too small to be worth the investment; their noble plan was to send us children far off into the hinterlands, if possible, and then to die in Boston treating the burned.
The only other thing I can think of, that she didn’t prepare for, was the waywardness of sons. There was no telling what we might do. Sometimes we might take off just to escape being prepared, because at times her preparedness felt as stifling as an OSHA horse.
Despite the suffocating aspect of being overly prepared, I really liked my mother’s serenity. There was something comforting about being in her presence; you just needed to approach her with care. Sometimes I had the delicacy to say absolutely nothing. I’d walk into a room where she was smoking and reading, meaning to ask her if she’d seen where I left my shoes, and decide not to bother her. Instead I’d pick up a magazine and light a cigarette of my own, and just sit, enjoying the comfort. Eventually she might murmur, “Yes, dear?” But what was really odd was occasions where I had forgotten what I came in to ask, and had become totally engrossed in the magazine, and she murmured, “By the pedals of the piano”. I was absolutely certain I hadn’t said a word to prompt such a response, but when I went and looked, that would be where my lost shoes would be. The woman was mildly psychic, yet was completely unaware of it.
Having now raised five kids myself, I’m more aware of the complete shambles the young can make of the most carefully constructed plans. I had less pity for parents when young, and called my mother “too withdrawn”. But I likely can’t imagine what it was like for an only child (like my mother was) to be confronted with the utter ruination of a parent’s idealism which six children are capable of achieving. However I do now know there are times an exhausted parent simply needs to zone out, to become comfortably numb. It need not involve alcohol or drugs; a good novel or prayer will suffice. In any case, it is unwise to press a parent at such times.
My Dad used to joke that, when my mother was smoking and reading, she would respond “Yes, dear,” to whatever we children asked or announced. If we said, “Mom! The back yard is on fire!” she would dreamily murmur, “Yes, dear.” He also would joke we had a “statute of limitations” and should not confess to fiascos which occurred while camping, or to having capsized our sailboat, until at least a year had passed, because, rather than enjoying hearing of an adventure, the tale would “disturb the peace.” However in the end he himself “disturbed the peace” too much, and was shown the door.
All six of us kids had tested her limits, and were all well aware we could push the serene woman too far. Her dreamy eyes were capable of blazing. It did not happen often, but partly that was because once you witnessed such eyes, you did not wish to ever see them again. As a result there were certain subjects we were extremely careful about, if we brought them up at all.
This resulted in a wrench in the works of communication. We kids were not blatantly dishonest, but there is something which, if not dishonest, is distrusting, about doing things behind a mother’s back.
One technique we utilized was the fait accomli. One brother came strolling in to dinner at age sixteen and mentioned, “Oh, by the way, I’ll be living in Germany this summer as an exchange student; a German kid will be coming here.” Such announcements can be disconcerting, if you are a parent who is big on careful planning.
Another technique was borrowing-without-asking. This caused no problems if the borrowed item was stealthily replaced in good condition, but my mother was not pleased if we forgot to put things back, or used her silver forks for can-openers and put them back looking like they were having a bad hair day. And there are some things you simply should not borrow-without-asking, such as a car or a rich neighbor’s yacht.
But now I was twenty-one, and figured I’d left all the goofs of youth in my past. I was grimly determined to make no further mistakes. I’d studied my dreams and motives with five different psychologies, and had decided that the best psychologists were poets, and Shakespeare was the king. I’d dabbled a bit with reading scattered scriptures, and then abruptly surprised many by dropping Atheism and by stating I was convinced there was such a thing as a Loving God, and that, even if I couldn’t solve every problem, I had a Friend who could. I not only felt I had a clear vision of my own gifts and weaknesses, but also thought I had everyone else weighed and measured, and that included my mother. Therefore it was surprising to me that, despite my supposedly advanced maturity, my mother could still completely derail me.
She might say something innocuous, such as that I’d be wise to get my hair trimmed before applying for the job at the sail loft, and it would feel like a insurmountable stumbling-block, because I had no money for a haircut. I’d then have to have a “session”, (with my self as my psychologist), sifting through all my rude and inappropriate responses for the appropriate one. This could take a long time, if I allowed it to, for I liked looking into the past at childhood memories (and quite obviously do to this day, and am doing it now.) The study of faded traumas, and the cause-and-effects of karma, is much more interesting than getting a job (to me). Also a change-in-life such as getting a job could result in odd dreams, and those dreams, if analyzed, were a gateway to the landscape of poetry, which was (and is) a beautiful place and felt more like home than some grim brick warehouse down towards the waterfront in Portland. However I was also self-aware, when it came to understanding the excuses I could invent to justify procrastination, so I’d be my own drill sergeant and tell myself to get off my butt and quit worrying about my hair. I’d just borrow my mother’s scissors from her hair-cutting supplies, and trim my own hair, and also write a reminder to comb it carefully when I applied for work, tomorrow. Tomorrow. Always tomorrow.
I could have used a bit of coddling, I suppose, but I had become aware of my need for encouragement and was sick of it. I felt I should be able to do the right thing whether people appreciated it or not. Maybe a little child needed reassurance and support, but I was an adult, and had quit promiscuous sex and drugs even though my hippy friends booed rather than cheered. As I looked in the mirror and trimmed my hair my face adopted an expression that was rough, and tough, and sneered.
Another wrench in the works involved the simple fact my shack down by the water had become too cold to live in. Keeping the pot-bellied stove going involved scrounging for driftwood along the shore, and I’d have no time for that, if I was working from dawn to dusk. Therefore I’d have to move up the hill to my parent’s basement, for at least the time it took me to get my first paycheck and could afford firewood.The prospect of informing my mother of this move made me nervous, as it would derange her order, but I was a rough, tough man, so I took a deep breath and tried to be bold without sneering. After all, in the poetry of Aaron Hill, way back in 1750, it stated:
Tender hearted stroke the nettle And it stings you for your pains. Grasp it like a man of mettle And it soft as silk remains.
It often turns out actions aren’t as terrible as one envisions beforehand. I had only gotten as far as venturing, “It’s…um…getting sort of cold down in the shack…um…and…um….I was wondering…um…” when my mother surprised me by swiftly responding, “Oh, good.” Then she continued, “I was hoping to get you to move up to the little cottage and keep its pipes from freezing, at least until I can convince your Grammy to move up from Massachusetts.”
The “little cottage” was one of two cottages crammed onto the hillside between the Main House and the dock. A dark haired waitress named Allison had rented it during the summer, but when the restaurant where she worked closed for the winter she’d been unable to come up with the money to pay the rent, and recently moved to a friend’s. I became busy packing up my papers, typewriter and clothes and moving them up the steep stairs to the cottage, rather than applying for work at the sail loft. In the process I found a couple of rumpled dollars and lots of loose change and, with $6.35 to my name, didn’t feel so broke any more.
Ordinarily it would take me a long time to pack papers. I seemed compelled to linger over each page, thinking and sorting. Also I had a reluctance to put away things undone, and one poem required a rhyme for “orange.” This would then involve taking my Mom’s two dogs for long walks by the water, looking thoughtfully at the sky. (Over forty years later I explained this dilemma to my youngest son, and it took him four seconds to respond, “door hinge.”) (However I’m still looking for a rhyme for “silver”.) Fortunately it was so very cold in the shack I was able to pack papers far more speedily than usual.
I had the good sense to avoid unpacking my papers. I knew that could take as long as packing them could. Instead I took my dirty clothes up to my parent’s washing machine, because I figured I wouldn’t have time for laundry once I was working. Then I headed back down to the small cottage and took out a notebook and planned out schedules and budgets I might adopt, if I got the job at the sail loft. It was at this point I heard a metallic clashing behind the cottage, and went out into the early evening to investigate.
It was Mort. Mort was one of the Tradesman who Tubs and Slim had gotten my mother in touch with, as she shouldered the task of renovating the property, and adding improvements.
Mort rebuilt brick chimneys, and was the perfect fellow to find, for initially every chimney on the property had seen better days, and the chimney for the little cottage was crooked and crumbling and looked like it might totter and fall in the next good gale. Mort had set to work the spring before, up at the main house, which had a three story chimney connected to two fire places and was a major job, and then worked his way down the hill, and now every chimney on the property looked new; to me they almost looked too good, too perfectly orange and straight and flat and neatly mortared and perfectly square; I figured a chimney ought to have a certain roughness or it lacked character, (though of course I kept my opinions to myself).
The little cottage’s chimney had been the last one he’d worked on, and there was some minor detail he’d been unable to get to before the arctic blasts hit, and he occasionally showed up during thaws trying to complete the task, which required temperatures above freezing. (Also I suspected he liked chatting with Allison, though she was a third his age.) Now at long last he was done, and was taking his aluminum ladder and two big tool boxes home.
I liked Mort, for he was the only tradesmen who didn’t automatically look at me askance, assuming I was a long-haired hippy and therefore hopelessly effete. Mort seemed strangely blind, in that regard, and always seemed glad to see me, and to chat about a vast repertoire of inconsequential topics. He spoke with a rich, coastal Maine accent, clipped rather than a drawl, and he also had the ability to make nearly any subject interesting. He appeared to be around sixty, was wiry and hale but also a bit arthritic, and usually had a young go-for with him to do the heavy work, such as lugging bricks. They never lasted long, as such lugging is hard work, but he would laugh he never blamed them for quitting, ” ‘Cause I can’t affawd t’pay ’em maw than peanuts.”
One helper, Sammy, apparently would return as soon as he had spent his paycheck, and Mort would chuckle about how mad Sammy would be to find he had been replaced, and how he’d tell Sammy to be patient, for the new help wouldn’t last. Sammy wasn’t to be seen, on this occasion, and other help had apparently all gone back to school, and Mort was regarding his ladder and two toolboxes with a sad, wry humor. Without even thinking, (because I had found religion and believed in random acts of kindness,) I offered to help lug stuff up the hill, saying I had to go up the hill to get my laundry in any case. Mort grinned broadly. For an effete hippy I was very strong, and could hoist the ladder to one shoulder and lift one heavy tool box with my other hand.
As we started up the steep hill Mort wryly and somewhat sheepishly explained in his clipped speech, (wonderfully turning some dropped “R’s” into entire syllables), “I da-yah not puttah my old truck down he-yah, fuh fe-yah, that with the drive icy, I’d be stuck down he-yah ’til May.” Then he glanced sharply up the hill, where another tradesman was shifting the topmost, flat field-stones of an enormous retaining wall. Mort called out, “Good aftahnoon, Mistah Cappatelli. ‘Bout finished?”
“Yep. Fool’s Folly’s ‘ficially finished. And by Gawd, I’m glad!”
“Fool’s Folly” was my stepfather’s name for a rose garden he had promised my mother. Because it was built on the steepest slope of the hill, the field-stone wall had to rise nearly twenty feet to extend a flat garden out thirty feet. The wall Mr. Cappatelli built was the biggest wall he’d ever built in his life, and perhaps taxed his engineering skills. His first effort had come crashing down when nearly completed. Undeterred, he rebuilt a better footing and the wall arose a second time, but it was the talk of the town, (or at least of the post office, where I learned details after I returned from India). It then was back-filled with subsoil, then topped with peat moss, and finally Grubby Douglas, the neighborhood gardener, came and planted a collection of roses in rotted horse manure and covered them with white, Styrofoam cones, to await the spring. Great things were expected, though I thought the white cones made the garden look silly.
Although the job was complete and Mr. Cappatelli had been paid, he seemed to like to come by during the off-time of winter and tweak the positioning of the flat, topmost stones, and also to anxiously regard the doings of frost heaves down by the footing, and perhaps to quietly gloat over his accomplishment, (and lastly, I suspected, to be invited in for a drink).
He was a very strong man, pushing forty, with curly black hair and a flashing white smile. He was not as tall as me but very muscular, with massive arms twice as thick as mine. What was most intimidating about him was his habit of looking you squarely in the in the eye with his big arms folded. No one called him “Raphael”. Even when he smiled I tended to look away.
I looked away as the burly man folded his arms and flashed a grin, stating, “Well Mort, looks like you got better help than those puny runts you usually hire.”
“Aye-yup, but ’tain’t hired. This’s boss’s son.”
“Really!” That was all Mr. Cappetelli said, as he scrutinized me from head to toe. Then he turned to Mort, “The boss has invited us in for a snort of hooch. Will you be joining us?”
“I may drop in t’ chat, but my daughtah’s comin’ by with grandkids, so I think I’ll steeah cleah of booze.” After a pause he added, “And boss tends to twist the wrist ‘n’ tip the lip far ‘n’ long.”
“Oh, he’s liberal all right” agreed Mr. Cappetelli as we passed. Both men seemed to find my stepfather’s trait a virtue.
I lifted the heavy toolboxes into the back of Mort’s battered pickup and hoisted the aluminum ladder to an odd roof-rack made of wood, thinking the ladder looked too modern for the truck. Mort was petting our two black dogs, opining about whether the winter would remain mild, (though it didn’t seem mild to me), and I talked about the jet-stream. Weather was one thing I could talk knowledgeably about. After Mort expertly roped the ladder to the roof we headed in, “to pay owah respects”, as Mort put it.
I had to pass through the kitchen and dining-room to the stair down to the laundry in the basement. I did so slowly, taking in the warm atmosphere. Mr. Cappetelli had already made it in, through the back entrance, and my stepfather was already making him an Old Fashioned. Slim and Tubs were also there with two women I didn’t know but assumed were their wives, along with Grubby Douglas and an elderly woman I recognized as the postmistress. Everyone seemed to be talking at once and laughing a lot. My stepfather gestured towards Mort silently with a big half-gallon of Old Crow, pointing at a glass invitingly, and Mort shook his head and laughed, “Thanks but no thanks. If I had one I’d need six, and my grandkids are comin’ by for dinnah.” I slowed slightly, thinking my stepfather might invite, but just then my mother loudly informed me, “Your psychologist called. I gave him the phone number for the little cottage.”
To me it seemed the room became instantaneously quieter and that everyone regarded me curiously, except for Slim, who took a step back and bit a knuckle. I lost all interest in staying, nodded to my mother with a smile, and continued on to the laundry. I imagine my face became quite different the moment I was out of eyeshot.
I was fuming. Why did she have to use the words “your psychologist?” Any other time she’d say “Audley Bine called”. Was she trying to make me look like some sort of dorkus? Irritated, I seethed with absurd rage when my clothes weren’t in the washing machine. Rather than being thankful that my mother had put them in the drier I was angry that they had cooled before they were folded. Was she trying to make me look all wrinkly when I applied for work? I turned the drier back on with a self righteous twist of the dial, folded my arms, and sneered down long avenues of idiocy as I waited.
It wasn’t until I shouldered through the door of the little cottage with my arms full of laundry that I came to my better senses, because my eyes fell on a motto under a picture the size of a credit card, taped to the fridge.
I had taped the picture onto the fridge as one of the first things I did upon entering the house, though it was a picture I took a fair amount of grief for. One friend told me he thought Meher Baba looked like he could make a good pizza. Another asked me what city he was mayor of. Yet I taped the picture up because I was rough and tough and didn’t need the encouragement of my peers. Also I found it hard to be crabby looking at it. On this occasion, however, it made my shoulders sag slightly.
I walked through the tiny kitchen into a surprisingly large living room, which held a bureau that smelled vaguely of Allison because the bedroom, which also smelled of Allison, was so tiny it belonged in a train. The living-room also held a small wardrobe because the bedroom was too small for a true closet, though it had a flat cabinet you might hang a shirt sideways in. As I hung my four shirts in the wardrobe, which smelled vaguely of seaweed, I muttered to myself, “I can’t believe I let Mom do it to me again”. Then I smirked and mimicked her voice in fallsetto, ” ‘My psychologist’. ‘My psychologist’ Why’d she say that? Audley hasn’t been my psychologist for a year, but with the postmistress there the whole frickin’ town will gab. But…but…but what the hell do I care what anyone thinks?”
Of course it was right then the telephone rang, and of course it was Audley Bine. Instead of “Hello” he said, “Why the hell didn’t you call me!”
“Call you? Was I suppose to call you?”
“That was the message I gave your mother.”
“You did? All she told me was that she’d given you my number.”
There was a long pause, and then he said, “Oh.”
Audley was becoming a bit of a pain. I spent more and more time listening to his problems and complaints, as he grew more and more impatient with mine. If anyone paid anyone for being a psychologist, he should have been paying me; I’d long since stopped paying him, and therein lay a problem.
I had worked for Audley, and it seemed to me that, although perhaps a trainee should pay for the training he receives, that should stop when the trainee is trained; then he should be paid for the work he does. Audley’s problem seemed to be that he wanted to keep being paid, and didn’t like to pay, though he could become quite angry when I told him so. I had become like an apprentice who has become a skilled journeyman, and wants to set up a shop on his own.
Not that I wanted to do what Audley did. He was a idealist who was forever collecting groups of followers and attempting to create a perfect society, but they all tended to be communes that crashed and burned. Being associated with him was a sort of roller coaster ride which I initially found inspiring, (when I believed the communes might succeed), and still found fascinating, (though I suspected his latest commune was failing).
Audley and I had a swift and somewhat brusque conversation. I learned the commune was in crisis, which didn’t surprise me, for that tends to be what you get when you form a commune of people in need of psychological help. Audley wanted to “seize the bull by the horns” and demanded I come down for a “group session”. He could be a bit of a bully when in his go-getter mood, and refused to take “no” for an answer. My problem was that I couldn’t lie. When I told him I was broke and couldn’t afford gas, he asked if I was really broke, I confessed I had $6.35 to my name. Audley did some quick calculating. Gas was 56 cents a gallon in 1975, and my tiny Toyota got 31 miles a gallon. I could drive to Newton and back to Maine for four bucks. What was I so worried about? I needed to get away from my mother’s worrying, because…
I cut him short, because I was in no mood to be psychologically dissected like some sort of frog. We shifted to the topic of whether I should be looking for work rather than saving a sinking commune, and Audley pointed out tomorrow was Sunday and Sunday was not a good day to find work, so I might as well go for a drive. Next I protested I could do no good, and at this point Audley shifted to wheedling. I couldn’t stand that. I didn’t want to hear how I was a “moderating influence” when I didn’t feel moderate, but in the end I caved,
The surprise-ending for this chapter is that I don’t end it by applying for work in a sail loft, but heading south towards the suburbs of Boston. When it came to procrastination, I was a master.
Actually I’ll begin the next chapter roaring south after dark on the Maine Turnpike in a tiny, tinny Toyota that screamed like a deranged sewing machine at seventy mph, for a night highway is a good place to contemplate the phenomenon of Audley Bine. I’ll conclude this chapter with me dashing into my mother’s kitchen and making myself an instant coffee at the boiling-water tap at her kitchen sink, for the drive down.
The party was still going on, but I figured I should tell my mother my plans. “Heading down to Boston. Lights are off, and heat’s down to fifty-five, in the little cottage. Be back tomorrow.” I tried to dart out the door and not see I had aged her ten years.
Over the years I have held well over a hundred jobs, and gradually came to very much enjoy job interviews, as the prospect of rejection grew less intimidating.
I think I first stopped being terribly intimidated in New Mexico at age thirty-three, when I was required to show proof at the unemployment office that I had applied for work in at least three places every week, in order to obtain tiny unemployment benefits of $32.00/week. (The benefits were hardly worth the effort, but I continued to bother spending a day each week walking around fulfilling the requirements, primarily because I knew my getting benefits irritated my mean, crooked former-boss.) It was benign summertime, and the rest of the week I was busily writing in a campground where the rent was $25.00/week; I had absolutely no desire for the interruptions caused by the nuisance of employment. To make certain I wouldn’t accidentally get a job, I applied for work at the oddest places, and adopted an attitude of curiosity where it didn’t matter that it became immediately obvious I wasn’t qualified for the job; I asked questions because I was interested in learning about a job I couldn’t do. I became more like a reporter than an applicant, and for some reason most (but not all) interviewers liked the tables being turned, and being the one interviewed, and we’d sit for half an hour “chewing the fat” over coffee. They seemed surprised a shabby drifter was so articulate, (and I liked the free coffee.)
But when I was young and terribly shy it was a completely different matter. Looking for work was a humiliation and a hell.
It wasn’t so bad when I ran my own little landscaping business in the wealthy suburb I grew up in. I walked up and down streets putting a file-card-sized advertisement in mail boxes, with big lettering that inquired, “Spring Cleaning? Need Muscle?” and then had details and a phone number in small lettering. Then I sat back to wait for others to call me. Rather than like asking others to dance it was more like the phone rang and others asked me to dance. (In my list of jobs-I’ve-had I don’t know whether to count this business as being one job, or twenty-five; rich and interesting people asked me to help with all sorts of interesting tasks, but that is a tale for another time.)
It was quite a different thing when I looked through a newspaper’s classified ads for the help-wanted ads, and had to go fill out an application. Then it was like asking a girl for a dance, and I was never very bold in that respect. In some ways it could be worse, like asking a girl to dance when you didn’t know how to dance, and she’d be required to teach you.
(As an aside, during my first date with my wife we attended a Cajun barbecue with Cajun music, and were both surprised to see people begin dancing in a way I supposed was Cajun. I said I didn’t know how to dance, and she said she didn’t know how to dance, and then we decided to invent our own dance and danced joyously for ninety minutes straight. I knew then I had found someone special. However I was thirty-seven when that happened.)
At age twenty-one I was gruesomely uncomfortable when it came to job interviews and “selling myself” in any way, shape or form. “Tooting your own horn” seemed somehow immodest, even rude. But in January, 1975, I was flat broke, which is a state good at pushing a man past his self-imposed limits.
My mother knew something was up when she came downstairs and found me plunked at her dining-room table, sneering distastefully at the small local paper, which was opened to the help-wanted section. She was, as she put it, “all gussied up”, which meant she was dressed up in tweed to go to some sort of cocktail party; fragrant with subtle perfume; tall; her short, dark hair perfectly styled with gray wings at her temples, and wearing dangling tear-shaped earrings of green jade. She radiated an aura of pleased serenity, but the moment she summed up my situation her serenity became creased by concern. The fact I apparently needed a job suggested there was a problem, and she did not like her children to have problems, especially when she was about to go out to a party.
She veered carefully away from the topic of my prospects, and instead inquired if I would sprinkle some salt on the icy front walk before my stepfather came home. I was glad to escape the dismal want-ads, so I got up to do it, aware he’d be home any minute.
It was just getting dark as he pulled up to the side of the street, even as I sprinkled the salt, which I decided made me look good, as he didn’t often see me working. He smiled at me as he gingerly got out of his Saab, an elderly man with only a fringe of grey hair left, but with his baldness hidden beneath a checked, deer-slayer hat like the one Sherlock Holmes wore. I thought the hat looked silly, but never told him so because he so obviously enjoyed wearing it.
My stepfather was 28 years older than my mother. His friends had told him that marrying her would either extend his life or kill him, and initially we kids did our best to kill him, and he actually did have a heart attack within the first six months of adopting six troubled children.
Immediately after the marriage I’d done my best to be polite, but when the old man accidentally offended me I began to refer to him as “the fossil” behind his back. I deemed him an old fool, and even a home-wrecker, for I preferred being a struggling family on the verge of having to move out of a wealthy suburb, to being mere used baggage bought by an old coot who wanted a trophy wife. But then things changed. Somewhat amazingly I began to feel like a trophy stepchild.
He had been a Harvard Law School Professor, and fit the mold: “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.” He would speak with long pauses, as if he was a very learnéd man and all the world breathlessly awaited his thoughtful opinions. He seemed quite blissfully unaware that the mannerisms he felt were charming were in fact dreadfully dull.
During our first dinners together as a family I attempted to bat my eyes politely as he took forever to say even the most inconsequential things, “I think…..I would like….some mustard.” My ten-year-old and eight-year-old younger brother and sister would have none of it, and would interject silly things into the old man’s pauses, completing his sentences for him: “I think….I would like….to tap dance?” Then they would dissolve into helpless laughter. My stepfather initially was infuriated by the affronts to his dignity, but his manner of punishing them was to rise in wrath and stalk silently away from the table, which made my younger siblings only laugh all the more helplessly, as my mother regarded them with horror. I hated dinnertime. But after six months, and especially after his heart attack, I began to notice something. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but the old man dropped the long pauses.
The late 1960’s was a tumultuous time, with disrespect of elders in fashion. My two elder brothers were away at college, and both dropped out to join a commune two thousand miles away. My older sister had a scandalous relationship with a married, older man and got thrown out of our house, which I thought a bit hypocritical of my mother, considering she too was living with an older man. At age fifteen I decided to tell my mother what she was doing wrong, and was rewarded with a slap across my face I likely deserved.
In retrospect my stepfather seems slightly mad to have walked into such a buzz-saw at retirement age. Having been a stepfather myself, I now have a better understanding of the problems stepfathers face, but at the time I had no mercy. I loved my father, felt my mother should have stood by her man, and saw my stepfather as an interloper.
My father had been a famous surgeon who had at least five major trauma’s simultaneously occur in his life, not the least of which was the fact the woman he’d had six children with didn’t love him any more, (and perhaps had never loved him), which led him to begin raving and drinking too much. But the specific trauma that intellectually hit me hardest was the simple fact he couldn’t do what he once had done. He’d been an amazing surgeon, able to suture the ends of severed arteries back together with twenty tiny stitches and tie the knots with one hand. No other surgeon could do what he could do, enabling him to make what, in modern terms, was roughly a half million to a million dollars a year. But then, (in the same manner that even Babe Ruth reached an age when no team wanted him), my father hit the wall at age forty-four.
This contributed greatly to my desire to become a writer. I wanted to find a vocation I’d never be too old to do.
My stepfather went through a similar crisis, which for obvious reasons I watched with interest, (if not compassion). When he hit age seventy Harvard College retired him. He was as mentally sharp as ever, but it was simply the college’s policy in 1970: When you hit seventy you were out the door; no discussion.
I was somewhat incredulous that he should be hurt or angry, and puzzled that he became as crabby as he became. In my eyes getting a job was more likely to make me crabby. He had a fine pension and plenty of money saved and could just kick back and laze as happily as a clam, but instead he was miserable. Was it possible a man could want to work?
Then something nice surprised him midst his bitterness. Three of his former students had formed a law office in Portland, Maine, and they came to him and very humbly inquired if he might be so good as to consider helping them out by becoming the law office’s senior advisor. I have never seen an old man stop being crabby so fast. He seemed to feel like a man granted a reprieve on the gallows, and accepted the job as a very great blessing, and seemed to never forget he was blessed, gently twinkling like morning stars in the afterglow of glory.
I think it was my older sister who first understood that the old man deserved appreciation, which was a bit surprising, as she’d become a fiery feminist. She made me walk on eggs, for fear I’d offend her. I didn’t think she’d put up with anyone over thirty. Yet when she visited she took to greeting the old man with demonstrative hugs. He most definitely was not a man prone to hugging, but he seemed to like hers, especially during the days when he was unemployed and crabby.
I myself didn’t hug the man. I’d tried it one time, the first breakfast after we became a new family. I came downstairs and gave him a hug as he sat at the table reading the paper, and he gruffly stated, “Don’t feel you have to do that ever again.” I recoiled, and it was only after four years, (when involved in some sort of “express your inner feelings” pop-psychology), that I confessed I’d been hurt, and he apologized, saying he only intended to free me from feeling I had to display any sort of artificial affection. At the time I took him at his word, and stayed away from him.
I didn’t approve of my younger sibling’s irreverence at the dinner table, and tried to frown at them, although they were so funny I sometimes couldn’t manage it. For my part I politely discussed weather and sports with my stepfather and then excused myself; I left the table as swiftly as I possibly could. I assumed he didn’t care for me. At age sixteen I ran away from home for a week as a sort of grandiose gesture, and was a bit taken aback that he never really noticed, because my mother never told him; he just assumed I was off visiting friends.
Only gradually did we become interested in each other. I think the first common ground we discovered involved a love of puns. Then, because my mother had a large dictionary on an ornate stand by the dining-room table, we shared an interest in the derivation of words. The closest I ever came to being so bold as to argue with the man involved words. One time I ventured I didn’t approve of the word “niggardly”, and he protested the word had nothing to do with race, so we looked the word up. Usually he was correct and I was not, but, on the rare occasions I knew something he didn’t, he always behaved appreciative rather than offended. That surprised me.
Then, as I became a hippy and began hitchhiking around the country, he actually supported my adventures rather than attempting to prevent them. The police tended to investigate smooth-cheeked hitchhikers, to see if they were runaways, and I was able to show them a permission-slip from my stepfather that I carried in my wallet. (I don’t think it was the illegible handwriting that impressed the officers, as much as it was the fact the stationary read, “Harvard Law School”, at the top.)
Though I hitchhiked because I was restless, and the suburbs were sterile and bored the hell out of me, I always pretended I was doing it “for a school project” or “for an English paper.” This caused a bit of a problem when no such papers were forthcoming. However I did produce one paper, a “senior project”, which drew a strange response from the old man.
What I did was to overcome my shyness and interview every member of my senior class I could get to talk with me, during lunch in the cafeteria. I asked them to describe what cliques they had belonged to, going back as far as they could remember. Then I wrote a paper with the title “The Evolution Of Cliques In A Suburban High School” which I got in trouble for, (because I handed the same paper in to both my English and Social Studies teachers, blithely unaware such redundancy might present a problem). The paper contained a fair amount of sarcasm, and was vain, for it described hippy poets as the “most highly evolved” clique, and my stepfather was completely enchanted by it. He took it in to Harvard and showed it to all his friends, even making extra copies of the badly typed document. We never talked together about the paper, but I could see the man was delighted. I found the experience strange, for I didn’t tend to think of myself as being delightful, at age seventeen.
When I was eighteen one of my older brothers “borrowed” a rich man’s yacht and we sailed it south, intending to load it with marijuana in Jamaica and get rich quick. We made it as far as Nassau before the Law caught up with us. We deserved jail, but my stepfather fought for us, and he got us off with a slap on the wrist, though it cost him a pretty penny. Sometimes having a stepfather who is a boring professor of law isn’t all bad.
Now I was twenty-one and had known the old man for seven years, and not only had I failed to kill him, but against my own will I found myself liking him a lot.
He had become very careful and methodical in his old age, to avoid falling or losing things. He stretched little ice-grips over his boots, and followed a three-step process when leaving his Saab to make certain he did not forget his briefcase, keys, or to turn his headlights off. Even though I had salted the front walk, he took all the care of a man on a tightrope, gingerly walking to the front steps, and then, after entering the house, went through a similar process, reminding me of Mr. Rogers in the way he always hung up his coat and deerslayer hat in an identical manner. He was particularly slow and deliberate when hanging up his car keys on a particular hook. Then I shadowed him to the dining room table, where he would open his briefcase and remove the Portland Press Herald and the New York Times. He was well aware of my tendency to lurk like a vulture, and handed me the papers with a smile.
He was also slow and deliberate with his questioning (though he had dropped the long pauses,) and was very observant. As a lawyer, he knew how to cross examine, and despite his caution he’d learned to think quickly on his feet. A lot seemed to happen in his silences, at times giving me the sense he was psychic.
On this occasion he must have noted I didn’t reach for the Times, and instead for the Press Herald, and noticed that rather than opening to the weather map I opened the paper to the “Help Wanted” page. He also may have noted the town newspaper was already open to “Help Wanted”, on the table. He looked interested, and inquired, “Any work?”
I pretended to find the situation humorous. “Well, there are three jobs in the local paper. I can pretend to be a mechanic at the cannery, or pretend to be a cook at the diner, or pretend to be an expert at veneering the decks of yachts, at the marina. The trick would be to get at least one paycheck, before they fired me.”
My stepfather didn’t say anything, but he did give me a slightly unnerving, very penetrating glance with his very blue eyes, before my mother came bustling in and said it was time to go.
Then abruptly the house was gruesomely silent. A sterility I knew all too well was pressing in from the black windows, as I faced a Friday night alone. I swiftly glanced through the help-wanted ads in the Press Herald, not expecting to find anything and having my expectations confirmed. Then I began to pace around my parent’s house, trying to find something to think about, to escape my despair.
Sometimes escapism is too obvious. I could click through all the shows on the T.V., and nothing would grab me. I could glance over the spines of all the books in the ceiling-to-floor wall of books in the living-room, and every author would be dull. I could go to the piano and try to lose myself in a song, bellowing at the top of my lungs because no one was home, but my heart wouldn’t be in it. All the symbols of wealth in the plush home were sucked dry of value, and became empty trinkets. There was no escaping a poverty that came creeping in from black windows like ghouls, so I put on my jacket, hat and gloves and went out to walk in it. Something about walking in the darkness was soothing to my soul (and it wasn’t because, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”).
The soothing was a bit of a mystery to me, and still remains a mystery, when I see a young man striding along a highway when I’m out driving after dark. I’m sure the police are curious as well, but when they pull over to ask a young vagrant what he’s doing or where he’s going, I doubt they get a good answer. (The best answer is “going for a walk”, because then you don’t have to explain). However the real answer is, I have decided, something which involves levels of our being beneath the superficial skim we call our intellect or our “our rational”. Even in the pitch dark we are “communing with nature”.
I found hiking-in-the-dark annoyed psychologists, for they were like the officer questioning the vagrant, and always wanted to know exactly what I was communing, demanding specifics when there were no words. (Also perhaps they were annoyed because when I went for a walk I didn’t have to pay them to be healed). But what (or who) the healing involved was always a mystery. In a sense it was like talking-in-tongues, words that sounded like babbling but were the super-conscious speaking to the subconscious, without granting the conscious mind permission to eavesdrop. Or that’s the best I can do to explain the inexplicable. The simply fact is: After-dark hiking made me feel better without any excuse for feeling better.
One psychologist explained that I “burned up excessive hormones through physical activity”, and I’ll allow that, if it makes him feel less insecure, but he was never in my head in that darkness.
There definitely was a physical component, especially as the walking became striding (which hippies called “trucking”). I’d become caught up in the rhythm, the way feet sounded scuffing over the tar, the way the streetlight pools came and went and bobbed up and down as I strode, the way my striding shadow shortened and then lengthened. Then out of the rhythm would come lyrics, and sometimes the melody of a song. Often it was an old song, for example I might find myself humming a song that came to me when walking home from my girlfriend’s, (back when I had a girlfriend), the evening before I set sail as an outlaw with my brother, when I was well aware I might die at sea.
The night is cricket’s velvet. My cigarette is glowing. A police car whispers by. I have no way of knowing Will my baby cry When she finds me going Going going…
The world is swimming softly. The cool night air I’m drinking Brings me softly down From my happy thinking. I cannot turn around Though the happiness is shrinking Shrinking shrinking…
The streetlight pools are nodding. The steady pavement’s flowing Surges as my march is on. Can she see I’m knowing This could be my ending song? Oh am I really going Going going gone?
Other times the song would be a new song, and I was always a bit mystified where they came from. Not that I worried about such things. Instead merely I enjoyed the sensation. I now blush a little to think how unselfconsciously absorbed in my own emotions I became, and wonder what people sleeping with their window open thought, as a crooning crazy-man approached on the street outside, and then faded away. But I myself became wonderfully carefree, sort of drunk without alcohol, and within a bubble where I felt most like myself, and free of the person I had to pretend to be when applying for some job I really didn’t want to do.
On this particular occasion it slowly dawned on me that there was nothing I could do before daybreak; there were no offices accepting job-applications after dark, and therefore it was a waste of energy to worry. It then occurred to me that, if I couldn’t find a job, perhaps I could join the clam-diggers I saw slogging out over the mudflats from the window of my shack, as the tide went out. In the bitter winds of January it looked like a miserable job, and I had noticed there were fewer and fewer of them as the weather grew colder and colder, but as I paced in the darkness I found the idea strangely appealing. It would be a job with no boss. But they didn’t dig clams in the dark, so it was no use starting right away.
Eventually I found my way along the waterfront to my shack on the dock down below my parent’s house, but it was bitter cold inside. The fire had gone out in the pot bellied stove, and I’d neglected to get firewood or split kindling. That was another problem to deal with in the morning, but in the meantime I decided to grab my notebook and to head up the hill to my parent’s warm abode, and to jot down a poem that had come into my head as I walked, and eventually to sleep in their warm basement.
When my parents returned from their cocktail party they found me scribbling and smoking at their dining-room table, as if I’d never left. I was feeling much better, for my poem pleased me, and also I had decided I had a job. I’d be a clam-digger. My mother didn’t ask about my poem or job, but rather to please clean up all the newspapers on the table, so I did it, after clipping the weather-map from the Times. As I did I idly inquired if the party was fun. They both seemed a little flushed, and I suspected they’d had more than one cocktail.
My mother rhapsodized about some client of my stepfather’s she had met who had opened a place that made sails, in Portland. My mother could be quite dazzling at a party, but she was equally charm-able, and I gathered the businessman had charmed her.
Listening more carefully I learned she had absorbed details of the sail-making business like a sponge, and could even become righteously indignant about people who had caused the businessman a problem and to require a lawyer. Apparently there was some government grant aimed at enticing businesses to Portland, to lower the high unemployment rate, but some disgruntled employee had tattled about some “i” the businessman forgot to dot or some “t” he neglected to cross, in order to qualify for the government grant. The man found American employees very ungrateful for the work he had brought to their city, and it was then my ears perked up. I immediately assumed the man must be from some foreign place that had Queen Elisabeth on their stamps, and must speak with one of several British accents that my mother could never resist, (even if they weren’t the King’s English). Sure enough, when I inquired I discovered the businessman was an Aussie.
For the most part my stepfather had remained silent, merely nodding and smiling as my mother chattered in her musical voice, but suddenly he turned to me and I realized he hadn’t forgotten me, even at a cocktail party. His face grew serious and he said two dreadful words. “He’s hiring.”
I sat back, a bit stunned. Me? A sail-maker?
Oh well, I hadn’t really wanted to dig clams in January, anyway.
I have heard what the United States is currently politically enduring described as: “A battle between a chihuahua and a saint”. On one side you have a chihuahua incessantly yapping, and on the other you have the saint displaying unending patience. The yapping just goes on and on and on, and gives you a headache. Increasingly you wish the saint would just give the little dog a boot.
Most annoying to me is the fact that no matter how carefully you explain what the facts are, the “other side” behaves as if you said nothing. For example, the United States spent two and a half years and millions of dollars determining that there was no conspiracy between Trump and Putin to “steal the election”, yet in his opening statement in the Impeachment Hearings Adam Schiff went on and on and on about Russia, as if the years and millions had never been spent.
This should wake people to what saint-like sea-ice Skeptics have been enduring from Alarmists, during discussions about sea-ice, over the past quarter century. Originally the Alarmists at least made an effort to debate scientific facts, but as the years have passed they have increasingly abandoned debate and discussion, and resorted to innuendo, shaming and threats, with Greta Thunberg, an emotional young dropout, replacing James Hanson and Michael Mann, supposed scientists in white lab-coats, as the Alarmist’s spokespersons. In the end all a Skeptic’s long-suffering patience, and carefully explained truths, seems a colossal waste of time. It truly has been like attempting to debate with a yapping chihuahua.
Forgive me for expressing how exasperated and disgruntled I feel with a sonnet:
I search their faces, hunting for the hints And clues contained in clouds, but they are blank. The clouds have no faces, and seas don’t glint With sunshine. There is nothing left to thank With bursting song, and when I sniff the breeze There is no scent. When two sniffing dogs greet They exchange more news, and news is more sweet Than in the zombie blankness that seeks to seize With deceit’s hate. Disrespecting what’s real, What’s tried and true, and all of the facts For lust, gold and power, they try to steal The jewel of peace with lead’s restless attacks. What can I do but bow and beg with prayer? Truth remains true, though I can’t see It’s there.
So what is “true” these days, in terms of sea-ice? The truth is the sea-ice “extent” is at the highest level, for the specific date of January 24, that it has been at in the past five years.
Therefore, yet again, the “Death Spiral” theory has been debunked. Not that it seems to matter. Greta Thunberg blathers on about the sea-ice melting away. Because she dropped out of school, she apparently has no use for charts and graphs.
It is sort of sad, but I increasingly have to do the Alarmist’s arguing for them, as they apparently can’t even be bothered debating any more. For example, in the above graph it should be noted that, though this year is the highest of the past five years, it is still “below normal”. Then, having stated the Alarmist side, I cross over and state the Skeptic side, pointing out that the “normal” is determined using the time period 1981-2000, when the AMO was largely in its “cold” phase, and then suggesting that a slightly lower “normal” should be adopted when the AMO is in its “warm” phase, as it now is, (but may soon be shifting out of.)
Switching back to the Alarmist arguments, if the “extent” graph doesn’t work, one should shift over to the “volume” graph, which does indeed currently show very low levels. A true Alarmist then suggests the current sea-ice is thinner and more “rotton” than it formerly was.
The Skeptic response to Alarmist excitement over low volumes was more difficult in February 2017 or in March 2018, when Alarmists could use the word “unprecedented”. However between March 2018 and July 2018 the volume (navy blue line in above graph) went from lowest in recent times to highest (for each specific date) which tended to suggest the “trend” was not in one direction, and that “volume” involved factors and fluctuations that hadn’t been discussed, and which needed to be considered.
The “truth” is that “volume” is very difficult to determine, and involves great efforts on the the part of the true climatologists working on the subject. The numbers we use are “modeled”, which is to say there are no actual people out measuring how thick the sea-ice actually is, in the midwinter darkness.
The thickness is gleaned through satellite measurements which tend to miss the the finer details because they are so far from the surface. For example, a “pressure-ridge”, formed when two flat floes collide, can heap up a considerable volume of ice in a relatively narrow area, and be missed by the satellite many miles overhead. In fact a satellite may miss the significant difference between flat sea ice (created by a calm winter) and sea-ice crisscrossed by pressure-ridges (created by a stormy winter).
We were able to observe this around seven years ago when funding was more plentiful, both for funding cameras on the ice, and for funding young adventurers upon the ice. Where satellites, even with close-ups, saw smooth ice, our on-the-ground explorers saw and were blocked by new pressure-ridges which one experienced arctic-skier once described as “crazy ice”. Like mini-mountain ranges, pressure ridges can thrust up ten to thirty feet, and, (because nine-tenths of an iceberg is under water), also thrust down ninety to two-hundred-seventy feet, holding considerable “volume” in what, from outer space, is, even in a close up, thinner than a hair if not downright invisible.
Later in the melt-season, when the pressure ridges tend to crumble and spread out, the “volume” can even appear to increase although the sea-ice is melting, as the satellites can start to “see” ice they formerly couldn’t. (Later on in the melt-season there may be different problems, as melt-water pools are “seen” as open water.) All in all volume measurements need to be taken with a grain of salt, (although the fact we even have such tools to work-with should earn the scientists involved kudos).
This year likely has seen the formation of many pressure ridges towards the Atlantic side of the sea-ice icecap, for there have been many North Atlantic storms, and on occasion they have remained powerful even after progressing into Barents Sea, where they usually weaken.
Such North Atlantic storms are enormous. Although they lack the eye-walls and intense inner winds of a hurricane, they are often larger and have tropical force winds over a larger area. The bigger ones have hurricane force winds far from their centers and central pressures below 28.00 inches (950 mb). I think they may actually “expend” more energy each year than hurricanes and typhoons do, and likely play a large part in keeping the planet from growing too hot, and in transferring heat from where it accumulates at the equator to where it is lost to outer space at the Pole.
In essence hurricanes and typhoons transfer bundles of energy from Hadley Cells up to Ferrel Cells, and North Atlantic (and North Pacific) gales transfer bundles of energy up to the Polar Cell. It is part of a majestic and elegant system which (in a simplified form) works in the manner pictured below:
As beautiful as the above portrayal of our atmosphere’s workings may be, reality is in some ways more messy, or perhaps more intricate. Above is a picture of things in balance, but wrenches get thrown into the works.
Some of the wrenches are predictable, such as the fact the sun moves from shining on the North Pole on June 21 to leaving that Pole in darkness and shining on the South Pole on December 21. Also the swings from a spotted sun to a sun with a clear face and back is a fairly predictable cycle of eleven years. These cycles likely interact to create oscillations, such as the AMO and PDO and the fluctuations between El Ninos and La Ninas which, even if secondary in nature, are wrenches-in-the-works in their own right. Furthermore there are dramatic events, such as the eruptions of enormous volcanoes and even the strike of a major meteor, which disturb the poise of the planet.
One cycle, perhaps predictable or perhaps not, is what may be a 200 year cycle from a quiet sun to an energetic sun and back to quiet again. The last “quiet sun” was the Dalton Minimum, around 200 years ago, which was marked by Global Cooling, and leads some to feel that current concern about Global Warming is patently absurd, and that we are donning bathing suits on the day of a blizzard.
It seems to me that, no matter what it is that whacks things out of balance, the planet has ways of recovering its balance, and I’m curious to identify what these “ways” are. It seems to me that if we had a list of phenomenon or sequences to expect, we might be better prepared, irregardless of whether the wrench-in-the-works was an El Nino, the AMO switching from “warm” to “cold”, an extended solar minimum, or a whopper of a volcano.
For this reason I watched with interest the past few winters as the above scheme of atmospheric circulation seemed disturbed, for rather than descending air and high pressure at the Pole, there tended to be an anomalous area of low pressure (which I dubbed “Ralph”.)
Of course, often, when you are looking for one pattern, that pattern refuses to show its face. “A watched pot never boils.” This winter has seen little of “Ralph”, and things have swung back to a more ordinary pattern, but with intriguing variations that make things unique, wonderful and puzzling.
While high pressure has generally owned the Pole, it has been displaced to the Pacific side, and there has been an interesting hubbub in the North Atlantic.
The typical Atlantic gales tend to peak around Iceland, which has led to such low pressure being dubbed “The Icelandic Low” (complimented by the matching “Aleutian Low” in the Pacific.) After stalling out around Iceland its remnants tend to wander away to the east, sometimes as secondary and tertiary storms along the trailing cold front, and sometimes as “kicker” storms on the warm front. In the fall, before sea-ice forms, such remnants of the Icelandic Low can be traced as they roll on along the arctic coast of Eurasia all the way to East Siberia and Bering Strait, but as the sea-ice forms such residual systems seem to be starved for moisture, and fade away earlier and further west.
During the past few winters the east side of huge Icelandic lows brought mild, surging “feeder bands” of Atlantic air north into the Arctic Sea, resulting in the formation of various incarnations of “Ralph”, but this year has seen little of that. Instead the warm air has come north only so far, before being sucked in to intensify the Icelandic low, but the low hasn’t anchored itself by Iceland, and instead has peaked as a 950 mb giant as far east as the western border of the Kara Sea, and as far west as (recently) the east coast of Labrador. In essence the Icelandic low has had a bad case of wanderlust.
To shift where the Icelandic low anchors itself and “peaks”, locating it more than a thousand miles east or west, must utterly derange the typical temperatures, stratification, and currents of surface waters.
First, such enormous storms suck heat from the ocean and transport it to the top of the troposphere, for even when the seawater is below freezing (because it is salty), when such water is whipped to sea-spray, it creates moist air at 29º F which is so much warmer than overlying arctic air of -40º F that “bombo-genesis” results, with lapse rates favorable to amazing updrafts. Heat from the ocean is removed to the edge of outer space, with further heat removed as latent heat released during the phase-change from vapor to liquid and from liquid to crystal, and that heat is left behind in the upper atmosphere as cold snow falls back down. (Though gas cools as it rises, expands and decompresses, solid does not warm as it falls for it does not re-compress. Therefore what goes up does not come down. The heat uplifted is lost to outer space.)
Second, such enormous storms have such extremely low central pressures they cause water to up-well beneath them, as if they were a large mouth sucking on a soda-straw. Passing hurricanes leave a stripe of cooler water in their wake, and the same event occurs in the arctic, though less obvious. This is bound to derange the stratification of arctic waters in terms of temperature and salinity.
Third, such enormous storms have “fetches” that can be hundreds of miles long, and fetches of even a thousand miles have occurred. When such a fetch is from south to north it transports warmth north, and when such a fetch is from north to south it transports cold south. If the Icelandic Low is over Iceland it has a southerly fetch between Iceland and Norway, but if the Icelandic Low is displaced to the border between Barents and Kara Sea, as occurred earlier this winter, the southerly fetch becomes northerly, and a derangement of ordinary currents occurs.
“Fetch”, as a five letter word, fails to adequately describe what occurs in such storms. One needs to be out in a small boat in such a gale to appreciate the power involved. I, as a foolish young man, was once south of Cape Cod in a 28 foot yacht heading for New Jersey, and had the misfortune to observe how swiftly the sea changes (as does ones intellectual Atheism). Because I had the good fortune to survive I can pretend I was scientific and that I took rational observations, and was aware the storm I was experiencing was downright puny, compared to the storms up by Iceland. (Actually I was sick as a dog and my scientific objectivity was reduced to swaying between groaning curses and whimpering, “Mommy.”)
They say the seas “build”, which is another inadequate five-letter word. What is fascinating is how the rather disorganized points of wavelets get their act together and become lines of marching waves, growing taller and taller until you can’t see over the oncoming wave until you are lifted to its top. The tops are torn and breaking in the wind, creating streaks of foam on the water and flying spray in the air. The storm I experienced was a force 9 gale, (though when I tell the tale to grandkids I make it be force 12) and for me 50 mile an hour winds and thirty foot seas were enough. I have no desire to scientifically investigate true Icelandic bombs.
Yet what is odd is that, while the power and energy involved is tremendous, and so blatantly obvious one would be a fool to deny it, it has an elusive quality. It can slip under the radar in certain ways, in certain computer models. Why? Because in the midst of chaos the temperature may be stable, and the barometer may have bottomed-out in be flat-lining; according to those two instruments nothing is happening. Also the water is theoretically barely budged by a wave passing through it, a cork on a windless swell describes an up-and-down circle and makes little progress, (in the same manner the sound waves of a song don’t stir the air they pass through very much). A wave may have little effect crossing thousands of miles of sea, as if the sum of its passage was zero, and such a wave only reveals the power it holds when it crashes into the cliffs of a distant continent and crumbles solid stone to sand. Great power and energy is there, but, because such power cannot be measured by a thermometer, barometer or even anemometer, it is neglected, and not included in some discussions about “Global Warming”.
A perfected climate model would need to include formulas I haven’t seen written down. For example, we may know how much energy there is in a sunbeam, but how many sunbeams are in a fifty knot wind? And how many sunbeams are in a thirty foot wave?
Because some forecasters bear the burden of warning sailors and “boaters” (who aren’t really sailors) when the seas may build and become dangerous, some good science has developed formulas that work fairly well. If you know the fetch is a hundred miles and the winds will rise to forty mph for three hours, you can plug those three numbers into your equation and come up with an answer telling you how big the “average sea” will be, and by adding around 80% to that figure you can arrive at the size of the biggest wave. Though such numbers are now automatically fed into computers, with wave heights popping out to be read by clerk-like meteorologists, the invention of this formula took a lot of hard work by dedicated scientists over many decades.
The invention of submarines meant further hard work needed to be done to determine how far down into the stillness of the depths the great agitation at the surface extended. (It is not as far as I originally imagined.)
Further hard work is needed, for the situation turns out to be far more complex than it may appear. For example, although waves move through the water without moving the water much, the wind does more than make waves; it bodily moves the water at the surface. When a fetch extends many hundreds of miles and then runs up against a shoreline, the water can pile up and create especially high tides. Also, because low pressure sucks water upwards, a mound of higher water exists at the center of a storm which can create a different sort of especially high tide, should the center cross a shoreline. Both of these events involve the shifting of huge amounts of water, which we notice when our beach house gets washed away, but tend to ignore when it occurs far from shore, in the middle of nowhere.
One thing we have never studied in great detail is what occurs in the North Atlantic when the “warm” AMO swings to “cold”. This lack of knowledge is due to the fact the last major swing of this sort occurred sixty years ago, when satellites were just being invented. (The first satellite, Sputnik, flew 63 years ago.) These early birds had no cameras, and then had very poor cameras. But one thing we do know, from the reports of fishermen, is that some mysterious shifts in cold and warm currents were involved, which caused fishing grounds to shift hundreds of miles, to the great concern of fishermen (until they tracked down the fish.) We know it happened, but how it came to pass is sheer speculation, at this point.
Besides satellites, an array of buoys has been set in place in the North Atlantic and in Barents Sea to measure temperature and salinity at various depths. (I wish I could study the data they are gleaning.) This is the beginning of the hard work a new generation of scientists will do to further our understanding.
It is somewhat irritating when some Alarmists state “the science is settled” and fill the young heads of uneducated dropouts like Greta Thurnberg with panic, for the science is not settled and much awaits discovery (and some Alarmist “science” is just plain bogus, rather than “settled”.) Worst is that the funding seems to be being dramatically cut back, partly because, “who needs scientists, when they can hire a bimbo like Greta?” Also it seems much of the funding was entangled in the “Swamp” mentality of “pay to play”, involving kick-backs and other forms of corruption, more concerned with power than with Truth. There seems to be a sort of push-back now occurring against such nonsense, which is making the money tighter in the “Swamp”, and far less trickles down to the true scientists, or even to the pseudo-scientists who….well….perhaps I won’t go there…….
To return to the subject of the North Atlantic, the wanderlust of the Icelandic Low did have some effects I could see. While the movement of currents below the surface and the stratification of those waters can’t be seen by satellites accessible to the public, we can watch the sea-ice.
When the Icelandic low formed up in Barents Sea, becoming a monster with a central pressure below 950 mb, stalling for days and only slowly crawling east towards Kara Sea, south winds on its east side scoured the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, pushing the edge of the sea-ice (which had been advancing south) many miles north, actually creating a slight downward blip in the sea-ice “extent” graph. This downward blip might have been greater, but on the other side of this monster storm sea-ice was driven south, with a polynya of open water actually forming on the southwest coast of Franz Joseph Land, as sea-ice crushed up against the east coast of Svalbard and moved into Barents Sea south of there. There even seemed to be an increase of sea-ice on the west coast of Svalbard, which is often kept open by a warm tendril of the Gulf Stream that sneaks into the arctic along the easternmost side of Fram Strait. It seems likely that the flow of this warm tendril was interfered with, not only by north headwinds in the strait itself, but by contrary gales along the entire route this tendril takes as it moves north from Norway.
While I cannot dignify such observations by calling them “data”, I do park them in the back of my mind, for it seems probable that anything that impedes the inflow of warmer water into the Arctic Sea could eventually encourage the current formation, and impede the later melting, of sea-ice.
Further to the east, the general positioning of low pressure to the west, in western Siberia, and high pressure to the east, towards Bering Strait, created steady south winds between the two. Such south winds are not warm, for they come from the cold heart of Siberia in the dead of winter. In fact even without these south winds there is a tendency towards offshore winds along the Siberian coast during the winter, because the cold and sinking air over the interior is drawn out over the water as, even when ice-covered, the sea creates warmer air that rises; the south winds only enhanced this tendency, and the south wind was so persistent that the heart of Siberia was drained and did not get as terribly cold as it sometimes does.
The tendency for offshore winds seems to usually be greatest smack dab in the middle of the Siberian coastline, in the Laptev Sea. Because these wind push the ice away from the coast, forming polynyas of open water which skim over with fresh ice which in turn is also pushed out to sea, the Laptev Sea tends to be the greatest exporter of sea-ice to the Central Arctic of all the marginal seas. This year that export has seemingly been enhanced. The skim of ice near the Laptev shoreline has been exceptionally thin, while the ice has piled up to an exceptional degree where it runs up against thicker ice in the Central Arctic, forming a long band of thicker ice from north of Svalbard to north of Wrangle Island, and now a second band seems to be starting to form closer towards Eurasia.
The piling-up of this sea-ice towards the Pole is interesting (to me) for a number of reasons.
First, a feature I’ve sometimes noted during the melt-season, and dubbed “the Laptev Notch”, (a triangle of open water based at the Lena Delta and pointing towards the Pole,) seems apparent as thinner ice, even though the formation of ice continues for three months. This baffles me, for all the theories I’ve come up with to explain the Laptev Notch involves things such as the Lena River Floods that involve warmer weather. (Time to eat some humble pie).
Second, the piling-up of this sea-ice is alarmingly close to where they bulldose a blue-ice airstrip for the yearly “Barneo” research-station dash military-base dash tourist-trap. There has been trouble holding the event for the past few years due to quibbles between Norway, Russia and Ukraine, and last year the event was cancelled because some rule (which never existed before) abruptly decreed that an airline could not land jets north of eighty degrees latitude. Among other things this meant several hundred members of the elite could not joyously squander roughly $30,000 each, spending a couple days at the Pole. Now that the people involved have had a year to think about how roughly ten million dollars they could have fondled slipped through their fingers, they perhaps are rethinking their need to quibble.
Third, the fact this piled-up sea-ice is so visible in a satellite-derived model suggests it is far more than a few pressure-ridges, which are all but invisible from outer space. The “thickness” maps are an average-thickness, and do not speak of the variations in thickness in the piled up area. When the sun rises over this sea-ice in March, the area will become discernible to the naked eye via satellite, and we will be able to squint at close-ups. Sea-ice has a geology all its own, and it will be interesting to see what it looks like.
Fourth, it should be noted that the Naval Research Lab “Thickness” maps show nowhere near the same size and thickness, for this piled-up area. The Danish Meteorological Institute model seems to show sea-ice six feet thicker, which hints at problems with the reliability of models. It will be interesting to see which model is more correct, when daylight dawns at the Pole in March.
Fifth, The MOSAiC Expedition ship is locked in the sea-ice between this piled-up area and the Pole. If you don’t mind people who drink too much coffee and who strain at gnats, a surplus of information about the expedition’s findings is discussed at Nevin’s sea-ice site here:
It will be interesting to see if the piled-up sea-ice interferes with the resupply of the MOSAiC expedition by icebreaker, next June.
Lastly, if sea-ice levels are determined by cycles of the AMO and PDO, then at some point we should see the levels of sea-ice begin to “recover” at the Pole. Such a recovery would put a final nail into the “Death Spiral” theory. Could we be seeing hints of the mechanisms involved?
Moving further east along the Arctic Eurasian coast we leave the influence of the North Atlantic gales and move into the orbit of the displaced high pressure which we see in the middle of a traditional “Polar Cell”. Besides wobbling to and fro between the Pole and Bering Strait, this high pressure has wobbled from side to side in Bering Strait. When it leans toward the Siberian side very cold air drains south through Bering Strait, and when it shifts to the Alaskan side the winds reverse and Pacific air flows north through the strait.
What I have noticed is that the cold air draining south, besides growing sea-ice south of the strait in Bering Sea, has (along with cold air pouring into the Pacific from western Siberia) chilled the “warm blob” in the Gulf of Alaska a lot. This may explain why, when the winds shift around and Pacific air comes north, it is not as mild as I expected. In fact, if this shift in sea-surface-temperatures continues the northern Pacific will start to take on the characteristic of a “cold” PDO, (which is also occurring, interestingly enough, on the Atlantic side, with a hint of the “cold” AMO appearing.)
This is quite a change from last November:
While the sea-surface-temperatures remain confused, and don’t seem to want to resolve into anything definite, there is clearly some chilling occurring in the northern pats of both oceans. (As these are anomaly maps, the chilling is actual, and not merely because it is winter.) One thing that seems interesting is that both the Gulf Stream and the Kuroshio Current are above normal to the south, which suggests that the continental cold is heading out to sea further north. This is more indicative of a “zonal” flow than a “meridional” flow around the Pole, and suggests that although the high pressure is displaced towards the Pacific, much of the winter cold is being trapped up at the Pole rather than escaping south as arctic outbreaks, (which, because the cold stays over the Arctic Sea, may result in thicker sea-ice).
Another indication that the cold was trapped to the north was cold temperature records being set in Alaska over the New Year.
I found the cold in Alaska troubling, especially when the trajectory of the air-mass seemed to be from the Pacific, and therefore seemingly should have been warmer. I supposed I could dismiss it as “home grown”, due to the very long nights and brief days. However if I followed the trajectory of the “Pacific” air further back it often had poured off Siberia, and while that air may warm at the surface as it crosses the Pacific the warming isn’t all that deep. (Even as far south as California there is a difference between “Pacific” air that originated in Siberia and air from Hawaii.)
Besides the air from Siberia that crossed the Pacific there was Siberian air that bled across the Pole itself, due to the contrast between high pressure in Bering Strait and low pressure in the North Atlantic. This air did “warm” as it crossed the “warm” sea-ice, (if you can call temperatures rising from -50º to -25º “warming”), but these surface temperatures also seemed shallow, and as soon as the air bled into the Canadian Archipelago it reverted to extreme cold.
As a result it looks to me as if the central section of the Northwest Passage is frozen very solid, and if things were left to nature I’d say a sea-ice breakup would be unlikely this summer. Of course, we do have icebreakers helping with the breakup these days, so all bets are off.
Despite all the cold on the arctic coast, not all that much managed to charge south to my neck of the woods in New Hampshire, and frost has not been a worry in the orange groves of Florida (though one time they had just a touch.) Our cold air has tended to be “home grown” in Central Canada, due to snow-cover and short nights, or it has sneaked down through Quebec along the east coast of Hudson Bay, timid compared the roaring blasts of arctic air which we’ve experienced other years.
This supports my contention the flow has been zonal, albeit in a confused and indecisive way. Perhaps the factoid most supportive of the idea the cold “stayed north” is that an all-time cold temperature record was set on the icecap of Greenland. (On January 3)
This record was not merely the record for a single date, but for all time. Nor did it beat the old record by a small amount. The old all-time record was -81.9°F, and the new record is -86.8°F, nearly a five degree difference. (Inform Greta.) I find this especially amazing because, due to the fact various oceanic oscillations are in warm modes, the average humidity of the planet is slightly increased, and this makes a big difference in polar regions.
(Basically, if you measure humidity in terms of volume, a small volume (say a tablespoon) of water evaporated into the air at the equator makes very little difference, in terms of relative humidity, but makes a far greater difference at the Pole. IE, if you boiled a cup of water in a tropical kitchen you’d hardly notice any change in humidity, but if you boiled the same cup in an arctic igloo at -40° the room would fill with fog. A small amount of moisture raises the dew point a lot at the Pole, and, because the dew point represents a sort of basement to temperatures, (because latent heat is released as fog forms), a slight increase of moisture at the Pole results in a big jump in temperatures.)
Anyway, if you had asked me I would have told you would will see no record cold at the Pole until the oceans cool and the planet’s air gets drier. And I would have been (and was) wrong. The new record set in Greenland really raised my eyebrows.
In terms of temperatures at the Pole, they have remained a few degrees above normal, but so far have lacked the spikes we saw in recent years when huge surges of Atlantic air rushed north as “feeder bands” to feed a “Ralph”. To me the difference is noteworthy. (2017 left; 2020 right.)
This brings me all the way around the Arctic Circle to the North Atlantic again, and returns me to my wonder about why it is that some years the milder “feeder bands” continue on up to the Pole, whereas other years they get spun up into an Icelandic Low with wanderlust further south. And the honest answer is, “I don’t know”.
And perhaps that is the difference been the way I am now, as an old man, and the way I once was, when I was a spoiled but frightened teenager like Greta Thurnberg. Now I know I don’t know, and it doesn’t bother me much, whereas back then I thought I knew everything, and was troubled. (I’m not sure, but perhaps this hints that even a chihuahua may hope to someday become a saint.)
(Note: If I get time I’ll include an update with all the DMI maps I’ve managed to save, but my old computer crashed and I’m inept with my new laptop. It takes me a long time to post maps, and time is in short supply in my life, for sea-ice is my avocation, and I have a vocation to run.
I should mention that the maps do show some incarnations of “Ralph”, though they aren’t of the well-fed Atlantic variety. One sort comes through Bering Strait, as an extension of the Aleutian Low, and seem to occur when the high pressure shifts from one side of Bering Strait to the other. Another sort seems to come up through Baffin Bay along the west side of Greenland, and puzzle me a lot as they seems to have a cold core and haven’t much of a warm “feeder band.”
Here are the most recent DMI maps, showing more quiet than usual in the North Atlantic, especially in Barents Sea, and a weak “Ralph” that came through Baffin Bay fading away over the Pole. The “feeder band” curving up west of Svalbard through Fran Strait towards Francis Josef Land is a new feature, drawn north by the fading Ralph, and will be interesting to watch.)
Slim was a man of around forty who I knew forty years ago when I lived up on the coast of Maine. He was skinny but strong; wore unfashionable glasses with thick, brown rims; had light brown hair graying at his temples, greased back like Elvis; chain-smoked; had a leathery, tanned face; and had the sort of pointed jaw, missing mass in the cheeks, that made me wonder if he had any molars left to pull, though it was hard to tell, for he hardly ever opened his mouth. I hung on his every word, which was easy to do, for he rarely spoke any. I know he had some coffee-stained front teeth, for he occasionally would grin helplessly, despite his shyness. Usually he was smiling due to the palaver of a fellow he worked with named Tubs, who was Slim’s opposite: Short, round, balding, jolly and very talkative. The two men seemingly had only one thing in common: They were hard workers, able to take on a wide variety of jobs and complete them with speed and skill.
I think I first saw the two men working in 1974. It was a simple job, delivering my mother a pick-up truck load of firewood. I admired the speed of their unloading. It took less than five minutes. Slim never touched the logs, because he used a couple of small hooks with wooden handles, specialized tools I have never seen anyone own or use since.
The two men worked like it was some sort of race, with the musically clopping logs flowing off the tailgate of the truck like water. They never needed to stop for a break because they completed the job so swiftly, nor did they grunt and grimace as if it was some big effort. As they worked Tubs was telling some story and Slim was nodding and smiling. Then they saw me watching and immediately became suspicious.
This was to be expected. In 1974 the Vietnam War wasn’t over, and I had long hair. Slim had seen action serving in Korea, some twenty years earlier. In fact some of his shyness may have been due to post-traumatic stress. I imagined my long hair automatically made me be an unpatriotic draft-dodger in his eyes, which made communication between us difficult.
The irony of the situation was that I was not what my long-hair suggested; I had unexpectedly broken my connection with the so-called “counter culture”, and perhaps was in some ways more conservative than Slim, and certainly more conservative than Tubs.
I had not intended to become conservative. I had started out by doing the expected and the acceptable (to hippies) things hippies did: Hitchhiking long distances; joining some loose confederations and cults called “communes”; becoming involved in (and eventually repulsed by) unsavory adventures involving sex and drugs; and, as a sort of conclusion, traveling to India to seek “enlightenment”. (The “Beatles” did it, Peter Townsend of the “Who” did it, and Melanie Safka did it when she was disillusioned).
To be blunt, “enlightenment”, as I then envisioned it, was a sort of Disney-world hallucination lacking the harshness and schizophrenia of LSD’s. I had somewhat vague hopes that some door would open in my forehead, and I would be swept into an experience of shimmering colors and lights, resulting in bliss. Others claimed they’d had such experiences. I hadn’t, and to be honest I really was uncertain where I was going or what I was after, as I headed to India. All I was really sure of was that I didn’t want to work a Real Job.
Instead of visions, or a meeting with any sort of con-artist-guru who promised such things, I had the good fortune to blunder into somewhat boring “good advice”, from the disciples of Meher Baba. (Meher Baba stated he was the Avatar.) Largely the advise they gave was not the sort that would get me out of working a Real Job, so I was not all that gratified.
For example, they stated I should not neglect “attending to my worldly responsibilities,” which initially sounded OK, because I felt a poet’s “responsibility” was to nibble an eraser, gaze dreamily at the sky, and avoid getting a Real Job. Then they seemed to suggest such behavior was deemed “responsible” only if God permitted such behavior to pay my bills, (via hard work, and also fate or “karma”). This amendment soured me slightly, though I kept my opinions to myself. Yet their advise was delivered in such a lovingly down-to-earth manner that I found myself not caring all that much about the subjects we discussed, and instead admiring their down-to-earth delivery. I started to think being down-to-earth might actually be a good thing, and not necessarily be unimaginative “conformity” and a sign I was a “square”.
I must have been a very odd American for the disciples of Meher Baba to have to deal with. Here I had traveled half-way around the world, yet I asked no questions. Somehow I felt asking questions was disrespectful. So I just observed, and kept my questions to myself. I was scheduled to visit for two weeks, but my TWA ticket allowed me to delay my departure, so I kept delaying, and observing. After nearly three months I headed home, because I knew my family and especially my mother would be upset if I skipped Christmas. Also I was flat broke and had run out of people to borrow from. Now I look back and want to slap my forehead, because I asked so few questions, but at the time it was just the way I was, namely a three-letter word: “Shy”.
Because I never asked for advice I can’t say I ever received any, per se. Perhaps I did hear others ask questions I felt were rude to ask, and listened intently to the answers they received. But largely the “advice” I received was contained in the “example” Meher Baba’s disciples set.
I think what impressed me most was that the followers of Meher Baba were not “groupies”, like hippies tended to be. Perhaps hippies were dead set against wearing uniforms, but they tended to be copy-cats and “uniform” in other ways. For example the “Dead-heads” (fans of the rock-group “The Grateful Dead”) agreed about certain things, and if you veered from their “norm” they could be disagreeable. They tended to be birds of a feather who flocked together. The disciples of Meher Baba, on the other hand, were strikingly individualistic, definitely not birds-of-a-feather. They were as different as different could be, yet strangely not in conflict. How was this possible?
That was the question I should have asked, but was too shy to ask. It was on my mind because I had witnessed hippy communes, made up of very similar and on-the-same-page people, disintegrate over minuscule differences tantamount to straws that could not even break a field mouse’s back, let alone a camel’s. How could Meher Baba’s disciples manage what hippies could not? But I never asked, and instead observed.
Meher Baba himself had died nearly five years earlier, on January 31, 1969, yet it was obvious his influence was still profound. However I was not satisfied with “influence” alone. I didn’t want to only see the sunburned people after the Sun had set. I wanted to see the Sun. I suppose I was like Doubting Thomas, refusing to believe in Christ until he himself could finger the wounds on a risen Christ’s hands.
I was not gifted with Thomas’s experiences, and it was frustrating to me, for I constantly met people who had experienced a “risen” Meher Baba.
There was some event called “The Last Darshan” that Meher Baba had been planning-for, scheduled between April and June, 1969, which you might think would have been cancelled when he inconveniently died in January. But people went ahead and the event was held, and the people (from all over the world) who attended the event stated Meher Baba was present in spirit, and that all sorts of amazing stuff happened. However I was not informed and did not attend and wasn’t a witness. I was not gifted with such grand experiences.
In some ways I am like the dour man from Missouri who always says, “Prove it”. I demand certainty. Even back at age twenty-one I had too often been played for the fool, too often been the laughable sucker and embarrassing chump, and I’d be damned if I’d allow it to happen to me again. But I received no countering certainty or “proof”, in terms of supernatural events.
This is not to say I didn’t own a private, secret, inner world, nor didn’t have intimate, muttered conversations with God. I just didn’t hear answers delivered in a booming baritone. My personal “miracles” tended to be coincidences, such as a butterfly landing on my nose, or a certain song coming on the radio, which couldn’t withstand determined cynicism. My “visions” were dismissable as being the result of an overly active imagination; the same psychologists who were amazed at my ability to “free-associate” completely shredded any hopes I might have that my fantasized images might mean something positive. They subjected my poetry to a sort of ruthless cross-examination, hyper-analyzing every symbol, supposedly to increase my self-awareness, but in fact increasing my doubtfulness. In the long run the awareness I developed was that I should keep such thoughts to myself. Rather than making me more outgoing psychology hardened my fortress of shyness.
All the same, hanging around Meher Baba’s disciples was a deeply moving experience. Perhaps people-who-were-highly-individualistic-and-different-yet-who-managed-to-lovingly-get-along struck me as a bit “supernatural”, in its own right. After all, my own parents were brilliant, charming, and in some ways very similar people, but got a divorce. And the political “hawks” and “doves” of the USA were not getting along, and the so-called “alternative” hippy lifestyles were crashing and burning everywhere I looked. Meher Baba’s disciples were different. I saw, in these kindly and generous foreigners, an example I desired to follow, and people I wished to emulate, though I was highly individualistic in my own right, and couldn’t see how I could be a true “follower” of Meher Baba. One might say I was attracted, and perhaps a “follower-from-a-safe-distance”.
Oddest was the lack of “rules” they gave me to follow. The “good advice” lacked all the commandments which many scriptures make into an elaborate and detailed system of “laws”. In some ways I found this disturbing, for in some ways I was aware that the most productive times of my life had involved some sort of brutal drill sergeant demanding discipline and laying-down-the-law, whether the “drill sergeant” was a strict school’s headmaster, or an inanimate and savage storm at sea.
For the most part Meher Baba seemed to forego issuing commandments, and instead to merely describe the problems inherent within addiction-to-creation, and describe the benefits of escaping creation into the embrace of the Creator, without (in my view) mapping out what rules and laws one should obey during the transition. But I did gather, without asking any questions, two things which might be called “laws”, although they were “good advice.”
I should not take drugs and should not indulge in promiscuous sex.
Absorbing this good advice, and accepting it, put me at odds with my hippy peers. Though I was dreaming about harmony, I was plunged into opposition.
When I returned to the United States I discovered I didn’t fit in where I had once fit in. I wanted to share what I had glimpsed to the cult-like groups I was associated with, but seemed unable to find the right words. I didn’t want to reject anyone, but was inarticulate, and felt I had a very slow mouth among very fast talkers. After experiencing ridicule for suggesting sober, prudish, down-to-earth behavior might be wise, I felt hurt, rejected by my peers, and gradually began to search for a different society, where I might fit in.
Looking back, it seems it would have been for the best if I had made the separations swift and dramatic, and as complete as the separation between civilian life and boot-camp. But I was not a quitter, and always held out hope for improvement in relationships that, in truth, were withering away. Unfortunately this meant that, rather than removing a forearm-band-aid swiftly, I made it a long, slow, painful, hair-plucking, and drawn-out process.
To me it seemed loyal and faithful to give people who had in some way betrayed me a second and third chance to betray me. I prolonged my misery, for I felt forgiveness was spiritual, and was confused about when one should “shake the dust from your heels” and leave people in the past. I felt I should forgive people “seven-times-seventy times”, and consequently handed “my pearls to swine”. Last but not least, I was in some ways atrociously arrogant, and it was inconceivable to me that others wouldn’t realize how marvelous I (or at least my poetry) was, understand the enormous error of their ways, and profusely apologize. I felt that, if I only was forgiving long enough, they would mend their ways. “Someday they’ll be sorry.”
It didn’t happen, but I am getting ahead of myself. At age twenty-one I was still full of optimism, and assumed I was moving to Maine only for a brief time. I felt I needed to retreat and regroup, and “get my head on straight,” but imagined that soon my self-imposed isolation would resolve into happy reconciliations and reunions, and the “communes” would become new-and-improved, and we would all stride forward together into the bright uplands of happy-ever-after. (My prediction was that world-wide crises would come to a climax in five or six years, around 1980, and happy-ever-after would happen soon afterwards.)
In some ways I was expectantly waiting for cold stones to get up and warmly dance around singing, and such situations are bound to become frustrating, as you wait, and wait, and wait. Worst is the simple fact that patience of this sort doesn’t pay a positive dividend, but rather one starts to see a sort of rot set in. “All things come to they who wait”, but the best lumber turns into punk if it sits unused. It is through action that spiritual truths are revealed. I was just beginning the process of learning this Truth the hard way, when I moved to Maine.
In conclusion, I was not the typical “long-hair” Slim and Tubs thought I was. I was an ex-hippy with a newfound respect for the down-to-earth, and Slim and Tubs were the very sort of down-to-earth people I respected, but they felt zero affinity towards the likes of me.
Actually an odd affinity did exist, because Slim and I were both very shy, though I suppose Slim would have been horrified (and perhaps even insulted) if anyone suggested there was any sort of similarity between the two of us. He had worked and paid his way since he was sixteen, whereas I mooched off my mother.
I didn’t actually live in my mother’s basement. My step-father had bought a lovely piece of property overlooking the ocean to retire upon, which had two smaller cottages a short ways down a steep hill from the main house, and then, down an even steeper embankment, a dock, and on the dock was a shack. The moment I laid eyes on the shack I felt it was perfect for a poet. It was a lovely abode, (when the weather was warm), but in the eyes of Slim and Tubs living there merely made me a shiftless layabout mooching off his mother.
I tended to sleep late, because I usually had stayed up late the night before writing. I had strong legs and good lungs, and, clutching a tall, oversized, bright-orange coffee cup, would sprint up the staircase from the dock and jog up a steep drive to my mother’s house, to take advantage of the fact her kitchen had an extra faucet that delivered boiling water. This skipped the bother of waiting for water to boil in my shack (which did have electricity.) I’d stir instant coffee and four spoons of sugar and cream into my oversized cup, and often was back down in the shack at my typewriter within minutes. I’d guzzle the coffee, and often sprint back up to my mother’s house only an hour later.
Because I was so addicted to caffeine, my visits were frequent, and from time to time I’d barge into my mother’s kitchen as she had coffee with various people. (The kitchen opened into a dining-room with a beautiful view.) On such occasions I felt it was rude not to pause briefly and pretend to be sociable for at least as long as it took to smoke a cigarette. (Smoking inside was commonplace back then.) Once in a while the persons my mother was having coffee with were Slim and Tubs.
Some women of wealth have an egalitarian streak, or perhaps a mere curiosity, which has them inviting the hired help into elegant dining rooms and serving them coffee from expensive china. I have often been flattered by such generosity, in my own time as a gardener and handyman, and have always tried to reciprocate by being polite, (and as witty and charming as I dare), and asking questions and nodding at the replies. Back in 1974 I knew far less about being “hired help”, and was fascinated by Slim and Tubs holding coffee cups with their pinkies raised, and chatting comfortably with my mother.
My mother was amazing when it came to making people comfortable, which at times made me uncomfortable. Certain aspects of her hospitality didn’t seem entirely honest. For example, she spoke with an elegant English accent, when in fact she was a poor girl who had grown up in a broken home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. A few times when, as a teenager, I had pushed my luck with the good woman, I had heard that English accent completely vanish, and in surprise had backed away from a fierce Fitchburg wench whom no gentle poet would ever want to mess with.
Despite the fact I was aware there was a side of my mother she did not expose to the general public, I clung to the incongruous and childish belief she was innocent and saintly. For example, I assumed hippies knew more about sex, although my mother had given birth to six children. For another example, I felt hippies were more “experienced” because they had taken LSD, although hippies had amnesia about what they glimpsed when drugged, while my mother remembered with vivid clarity, and had 29 more actual years of actual experience than I had. There is something audaciously comical about youth deeming their elders naive, but I felt my mother was naive and needed my protection.
Not that I had a clue of the wheeling and dealing that was occurring beneath the polite chit-chat, as my mother had coffee with Slim and Tubs. The two men were to some degree on the lookout for a rich lady who would supply them with their next paycheck, and she was on the lookout for local, Maine-Yankee carpenters who could do good work for a tenth of what an interior designer from Boston would charge. I had no idea such skullduggery was involved. I assumed they were above-board and up-front. To be honest, I was incapable of protecting my mother from tricky salesmen, and equally incapable of protecting Slim and Tubs from tricky Moms, because I myself was living in the clouds of idealism.
One cold,January morning in 1975 I came bopping into her kitchen, rumpled and yawning, with my tall, orange cup, and discovered them deeply involved in a discussion about maple wood. The low winter sun was flashing through winter clouds, slanting in through a window that showed a beautiful view of a harbor.
They didn’t look out the window, for the view was old to them, and instead they sat midst sunlit blue curls and wisps of cigarette smoke, intently discussing kitchen counters.
I quickly determined my mother didn’t like the orange Formica counters on the island between the kitchen and dining room, and wanted to replace them with maple. She didn’t want straight-grained maple, neither the creamy sapwood nor the buttery heartwood, and desired a grain less uniform, with “character.” Therefore they were discussing the prices of bird’s-eye, burl, and fiddle-back maple boards, all of which were expensive and made my mother look very disappointed and vaguely critical. As they spoke Tubs did most of the talking, sitting back and expansively ruminating with a jovial and optimistic expression, deferring to Slim when my mother wanted prices. Slim sat hunched forward with his hands folded as if he was praying, for the most part nervously smiling and nodding as Tubs spoke, but occasionally barking the prices of maple boards of various types in an authoritative way, at which point my mother would scratch out calculations on a yellow, legal notebook on the dining-room table, coming up with answers that she looked at with disapproval. Then they apparently arrived at some sort of insurmountable quandary, at which point Tubs sat even further back, locked his fingers behind his neck as a pillow, and looked out the window with deep seriousness, his face unusually grave, as if determining the fate of nations. Then his face lit up and he turned towards my mother with an unspoken idea. At the same point Slim winced slightly, and shrunk down a half inch, as if silently willing Tubs to keep his big mouth shut, but Tubs spoke.
Apparently there was a sort of sugar-maple lumber which not many people knew about. It came from a maple tree near the end of its life, when the growth rings became skinny but before the rot set in and the wood became punky in places, and therefore became unusable. Slim had a word for it. (I want to say “checkered maple”, but search-engines produce no such word.) It was typically light yellow maple wood, but had dark, broad veins of deep brown and even black running through it. When a sawmill sliced up a maple log which produced such boards they tended to cast them aside as relatively worthless, though the planks were solid. Tubs knew where he could get such boards for next to nothing. He wondered if he could bring some boards by, for my mother to look at, to see what she thought of the unusual coloring.
My mother looked intrigued. She always liked being unique, and I could tell she liked the concept of having kitchen counters unlike anyone else’s. She also liked the price. She looked out the window thoughtfully. Tubs smiled serenely. Slim chewed his fingernails as if the suspense was killing him. Then my mother turned to Tubs and said she was very interested in seeing what such maple boards looked like. Tubs nodded and smilingly said he’d bring some boards by. Slim sagged from stiff tension to palatable relief. Then the topic turned to the molding up where the wall met the ceiling, and I headed back down to the shack with my coffee, toying with a poetic idea involving maple planks, which I thought I might insert into a long poem I was laboring on.
The year was not 1829, and I was no Alfred Tennyson. There was absolutely zero market for long poems in 1975, but I thought I could create one. I fostered this illusion because my hippy friends spent hours listening to record albums (video games hadn’t been invented). We would sit and listen to a just-released album together, and have long discussions about what the songs meant. Sometimes, rather than spending an hour listening to an album, I would read them a long poem. (As I recall such readings came about due to a particularly enthusiastic friend demanding I do it, and had nothing to do with me overcoming my shyness and “selling myself”.)
What then happened was extremely gratifying, for, rather than appearing bored stiff or stampeding to the door, people would listen with wide-eyed, rapt attention, laughing at all the right places and growing misty-eyed when I became maudlin. They urged me to write more, looked respectful and interested while I wrote, gathered around to listen when I announced I was done, and never once told me I should get a Real Job. Then, in India, I had written a long story-poem in a wonderfully inspired fit, and it was well-received among total strangers when I read it to them. Due to this encouragement I had the idea I could sell my long poems, if not as printed pages, then as record albums (because people liked the sound of my reading voice.)
But by retreating to Maine I had cut myself off from such encouragement, and I found myself fighting “writer’s block”. I didn’t like admitting I needed encouragement, seeing such a desire as a weakness, as being susceptible-to and swayed-by flattery, but it was obvious that I craved attention. Isolation left me feeling marginalized, ostracized because I had changed my attitude towards sex and drugs, and a sense of profound loneliness descended and began staining my inspiration with gray.
I fought this bleakness with all my might, for most of my poems were in one way or another about how life is brimming with beauty, and I intended them all to be pep-talks for the disillusioned. For example, I might write about a person depressed because their garden was full of weeds, and then describe a friend showing up and weeding with them, turning the dreary task into a rapture about botany, and bugs, and the beauty of cumulus and sunshine and sweat, until weeding seemed like a delight people would pay for, (the way people pay to labor and sweat in a gym.)
The poem I was currently struggling with was called “Armor”, and was based on the premise that people become so emotionally hurt, through undergoing traumatic experiences, that they psychologically don protective armor that makes them clank around clumsily in emotional steel, incapable of touching-with and being touched-by love.
The plot involved two old knights who had died in battle. One then reincarnates as a innocent child with no armor. Because the child has a new brain he has amnesia about past pain, but while wandering dreamily in a garden behind his childhood home he finds a doorway in time, and goes through it and meets his old friend, who still has his armor on and is refusing to be born again. The two then get into an argument about whether or not it is worthwhile being born again, and that is where my imagination ground to a halt.
I tried to force myself to finish the poem with sheer willpower, but had “lost the thread”. The plot refused to go the direction I intended. The old knight with armor was a real sourpuss, but he came up with excellent reasons not to be born, while the boy came across as a bit of a twerp, and his logic was lame. I grew frustrated, whereupon the boy in the poem lost his temper and seemed on the verge of putting armor back on and….and…and where the bleep was my poem headed? The poem started to disintegrate into seemingly pointless sidetracks; for example, I might find myself writing about planks made of maple trees, and how the grain of wood changes as the rot sets in.
Frustrated, I crumpled up a page and trudged moodily back up the hill with my orange coffee up. Tubs and Slim were up by the street, leaving, and I could see them regarding me from afar. Tubs was saying something to Slim, nudging him, and Slim was shaking his head sadly. I didn’t imagine they sympathized with the agony of an artist. As they drove off I felt very alone. Inside the house my mother was smoking and pouring over the numbers on her yellow, legal notepad and looking pleased, and, as an aside, without even looking up at me, asked me to drive to the Post Office and pick up the mail. Our postbox was only a half mile away, but I managed to play self-pitiful violins during the drive. Then, in the mail, I saw a light blue airmail letter addressed to me, from India.
I felt a surge of hope. I can’t really say what I was expecting for I wasn’t expecting such a letter. I suppose the simple fact a blue letter had appeared out of the blue suggested I was going to be recognized in some manner. I tore the letter open, and my hope immediately crashed. Indeed I was recognized, but what was recognized was $50.00 I owed.
I was hit by shame. The debt I owed was utterly different from owing a hippy $50.00. Several hippies owed me $50.00, (which was one reason I was flat broke), but I didn’t think it was a big deal. In hippy terms, in 1974, $50.00 was what you made washing dishes for half a week. Minimum wage was $2.00 an hour, (worth roughly $11.00 now, in 2020). But one thing that I had been shocked by in India was the huge disparity in standards-of-living between “them” and “us”.
I became aware being poor in that land meant working for roughly a penny an hour, though there didn’t seem to be a “minimum wage.” Many seemed to subsist on an income so small they could only buy one meal a day. It gave, “Give us this day our daily bread” a far more poignant meaning. However when they sat down for this “bread”, (often a pancake of millet flour called a chapatti, with a gravy made of lentils called “daal”,) they seemed far happier than hippies managed to be, though hippies ate far more.
It is embarrassing to owe money to a person in a “third world nation”. I handed my mother her mail without mentioning my disgrace, and headed back to my shack forgetting to refill my coffee cup. As I slumped by my typewriter my poem “Armor” seemed pointless. It seemed worse than pointless. After all, of what concern are the problems of a couple of imaginary and dead knights named “Siegfried” and “Heinrich”, to the people of India? I had no excuse for failing to repay the money I owed. All the excuses I used, (which other artists had taught me to utilize on Americans), became utterly hollow when I tried to use them on people who suffer under hot sun for a penny an hour. The people of India didn’t need some ridiculous poem. They needed $50.00. And this meant I needed to work a Real Job.
Worst was the fact the repayment was needed immediately. I glanced around the shack for something I could sell, but I really didn’t own much of value besides my car. I had a pile of LP albums, but no record player. Beyond that I had nothing but old clothes, books and papers. In fact, as I looked around, my entire life seemed more or less worthless.
I saw it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out the shack wasn’t inhabited by an illiterate clam-digger, and rather by some sort of intellectual. I always felt a clean desk was the sign of a lazy mind, and had six projects going on concurrently, but now they seemed like six silly ways of avoiding the fact I was doing nothing: The busy-work of a man suffering solitary confinement.
My interest in meteorology was demonstrated by notes of the daily readings of my max-min thermometer, and a graph of these readings as opposed to the average, with the time above-normal carefully shaded red and the time below-normal shaded blue. There were also numerous New York Times weather maps (far better then than they are now) clipped from my stepfather’s discarded papers and taped in chronological order on the wall. But what was the use of an avocation without a vocation?
There were also a few charts clipped from newspapers on the desk showing unemployment was rising to 10% in Maine as the Gross National Product crashed 84 billion dollars in the past year. I had an interest in economics, and had even passed my English university-level “A level exams” in economics (due to two terms frantically cramming under the tutelage of a pleasantly mad teacher in Scotland), but I had no clue how to turn such knowledge from an avocation to a vocation. However it did remind me to turn on my battered, crackling radio to listen to the noontime financial report.
I tried to forget my problems and focus on the news. They called the crashing GNP “stagflation” because prices were soaring even as economic growth slowed. It seemed obvious to me prices would soar, considering the Arab Oil Embargo had doubled the price of oil, but the snooty experts on the radio looked everywhere but at the obvious. One fellow stated that the government’s efforts to “stimulate” the economy made people buy bonds rather than investing in businesses, pointing at the component of GNP called “investment”, which had fallen to barely more than half of what it had been. Another fellow blamed women for getting fed up with being home-makers, and joining the work-force in such droves that it shrank wages and increased unemployment. A third fellow blamed “jittery” investors, because the communists in Vietnam seemed unlikely to abide by the terms of the peace-treaty Nixon and Mao worked at, with Nixon now disgraced and Mao now drooling at death’s door. The only good news was that exports, a minor component of GNP, had shot upwards. This was especially good news for coastal areas like Maine, but I shut the radio off, suddenly struck by the utter worthlessness of contemplating billions of dollars when I couldn’t even come up with fifty. Ordinarily I’d be intrigued by President Ford’s idea that tax-cuts might end the “stagflation”, but of what use are tax cuts when you make no money, and therefore pay no taxes?
My eyes roamed further along the desk to an absurd chart I had devised to better control my moods. It was based on my feeling that modern psychology was pathetic and in need of drastic improvements, and also on the then-popular idea of “biorhythms”. I was attempting to chart my inner weather the same way I charted the weather outside, thinking that, if I knew what my moods would be before they happened, I’d be better able to handle them; I’d be one step ahead; I’d have an umbrella if the forecast was rain. Now it all seemed worthless. You cannot predict the weather with perfect certainty, nor the economy with perfect certainty, nor your moods with perfect certainty, but one thing was perfectly certain: I needed fifty dollars.
I thrashed in irritation, and my eyes next chanced upon five separate volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and a novel from the local library. My stepfather had noticed the five holes in his bookshelf, and had asked me to return the encyclopedias the night before, and also I could not afford even library fines when flat broke. With a sigh I prepared to gathered the books up and embark upon the journey back up the hill. Hell if I had time to pursue historical research, if I had to get a Real Job, but merely thinking that thought paused me yet again.
I glanced out the window at the harbor, thinking of how my mind always got sidetracked. I had two catagories for this sidetracking in the “mental activity” of my “biorhythms” chart, and I swiftly jotted a 1.25 in the “wondering” column and a .75 in the “wandering” column. Then I laid my hands on the pile of books without picking them up, thinking how my “research” had sprung from a visit Slim and Tubs paid after a prior job.
Both my mother and stepfather loved books, but when they first moved into their new home the inner living room wall only held two garish pictures, and a small table between them with a garish vase. My parents wanted the entire wall turned into floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and my stepfather wanted a wall of his study made the same. Enter Slim and Tubs. After they were done they dropped by for a small, final payment, which could have been mailed, but they’d rather have coffee in the process of being paid. (Considering how cozy the local diner was, they were flattering my mother greatly by preferring her coffee, though they may have also been on the lookout for future employment).
Outside the landscape had been shuddering under the first arctic blast of winter, and Tubs came in overdressed as Slim entered as if he didn’t notice the cold. Tubs wore a very puffy parka that made him all the rounder, a sheepskin “mad bomber” hat with enormous ear-flaps down to his shoulders, and a gaudy scarf of a crimson plaid. Slim wore a baseball cap, a plaid shirt, and had his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his jeans. Perhaps his plaid shirt was a bit thicker than usual, but my mother exclaimed, “Poor soul! You must be frozen!” Slim smiled, but Tubs teased, “After minus forty on Chosin Reservoir, zero seems like a heat wave, to Slim.” Slim winced and shot Tubs an irritated glance, and my mother looked surprised, and then adopted a sympathetic expression that confused me. I couldn’t read the Greek on their faces. I should have asked some questions, but instead I was shy.
I retreated, and got the “K” encyclopedia to look up “Korean War” and see if I could find a mention of the “Chosin Reservoir”. It would have been far easier to simply ask Slim, as he’d been there, an actual eyewitness, but shyness made me into a parody of Sherlock Holmes, sleuthing when it was unnecessary.
Now such private-detectiving can be done via the internet. If you are too shy to talk to actual humans you can sleuth with the click of a mouse. But back in 1974-1975 I had to run up and down a hill, sleuthing with volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then visit the local library, employing the Dewy Decimal System and card catalogs to discovered an obscure history that likely never sold many copies, with some name I can’t remember, (such as “The Chosin Few”).
What I discovered was a wonderful way to sidetrack; engrossing historical trivia which made it hard to be practical, and easy to forget to put wood in the shack’s stove until I noticed my nose was getting cold. Not that I would have discovered much, within the Encyclopedia Britannica. There were things not mentioned in the “K” volume that I found in the “C” volume, under “Cochin Reservoir”, and things not mentioned in the “C” volume that were mentioned in the three subsequent volumes I browsed, but I always had more questions than answers. The obscure autobiography from the local library was a wealth of information buried midst atrocious writing, but if I wanted better I surely should have interviewed Slim, but I was too shy.
In school the Korean War had been described as a “conflict” and a “stalemate”, which made it sound like nothing had been achieved, and even as if nothing had happened. Midst the drab facts of the encyclopedia I saw drab dots, but I could connect the dots, and saw that, as always, war was hell. Through that hell Slim, as a teenager, once walked.
To me the leaders on both sides appeared to be a bunch of idiots, with the UN particularly moronic in terms of gathering intelligence, and Mao particularly moronic in terms of logistics. For example, the UN forces had marched victoriously from the very south to the very north, and assumed they were “mopping up” the final North Korean troops. They even named a maneuver “Operation Home-By-Christmas.” But in fact they were facing 120,000 Chinese troops. Yet Mao, in his haste to prove Chinese could fight better than Europeans, proved Chinese leaders could be equally stupid as Europeans, (though perhaps not quite as stupid as the English at Verdun), for he sent 120,000 of his finest troops south without food and in summer clothing. The cold swiftly killed more of his best men than the UN forces did.
The plight of the foot soldiers on both sides was extreme. At minus forty nothing worked right. Batteries failed and tanks wouldn’t start and walkies-talkies went dead and diesel fuel turned to jelly and guns jammed. Confusion reined on both sides. (One drab phrase from the encyclopedia seemed especially lacking in compassion to me: “Failed to fortify their positions.” It may have been factual, but failed in its own right to comprehend the desperate extremes both sides faced.)
At one point the starving and freezing Chinese troops overran a UN base, and logically assumed the hugely outnumbered and routed UN troops would be hightailing it south. What they didn’t understand was that the UN didn’t understand. Rather than seeing they had been attacked by a huge army, the UN thought the attack was the deeds of desperate North Koreans near the end of their rope. If the Chinese were noted it was assumed they were only a few “advisers”. Therefore the tiny force counter-attacked the huge force, and found the Chinese had “failed to fortify their positions”. Why not? Because they were doing what men do when at their wits end and on the verge of starving and freezing to death: They were rummaging through captured supplies for warm clothing and food. Many had dropped their guns; and they were as surprised by the counter-attack as the UN forces had been by the initial attack, and the rout became a counter-rout. But this then fostered the illusion among the UN forces that they should continue attacking north, when what they should have done is to use the snatched reprieve to swiftly organize a defended retreat south. In the fog of war they probed north, and they soon again met the might of superior numbers and a counter-counter-attack, and were overrun a second time. Units were encircled and cut off, unable to retreat south, with Chinese troops on all sides, and in one of these trapped units was Slim.
During the day the air was filled with the nearly constant droning, roaring and booming of American airplanes and jets, attacking from a base to the south and five aircraft carriers, but as the sun fell and the cold grew fierce all became quiet, and under the dim glow of flares Slim awaited the inevitable Chinese attacks. The dark had a nightmarish quality; you snatched sleep during the day. The encyclopedia showed neat lines and arrows of red and blue, but the battle was an extended melee, a derangement.
Just days before Slim had been patrolling northward through a landscape much like Maine’s, right down to the scattered wood-frame houses and long stretches of wilderness between towns. He was wary, and scared of snipers, but only heard shots and explosions far away. The weather was brisk and autumnal, and he’d been dreaming of being home by Thanksgiving, when suddenly weather colder than he had ever experienced and Chinese troops came storming down from the north.
A man never knows what he can do until he has to. Slim saw sides of himself he never knew existed: Horror, terror, grief, and the rage of a cornered rat. He saw bravery isn’t what you want to be, but what you have to be. But even more disconcerting was elation and hilarity midst all the horror, brotherhood midst bestiality.
One time Slim spotted two Chinese laying in ambush. He was uphill, but they were looking down as a patrol of Slim’s comrades crossed the slope further down. Slim raised his gun to shoot them, but the gun jammed in the bitter cold, so Slim drew his knife and crept up behind them, his pulse thudding in his ears. Then he realized they were frozen to death. Slim heard his own voice first giggle, then sob a single sob, and then growl to himself in the voice of a sergeant, “Keep moving, Private. Move!”
To bolster courage every other word became “fucking”. “Fucking get fucking ammo fucking fast!”
During hand-to-hand fighting airstrikes dropped napalm, and in he hellish heat some Americans roasted along with the Chinese, and a man cursed, “Fuck if I ever fucking pray to God to make it fucking warmer, ever fucking again”. For some insane reason midst insanity this sarcasm caused Slim’s squad to dissolve briefly in paroxysms of helpless laughter, before they all abruptly regained their grimness.
Surrender didn’t seem to be an option for either side. This went against the history of the Chinese warlords, who had tended to defect whenever it was to their advantage, as squads and even as entire divisions, both when fighting Japan and in their own Civil War. Now they fought to the final man, perhaps because Mao had executed the warlords and all were unified under him, or perhaps because his troops knew if they stopped moving they’d freeze, and prisoners would be forced to stand still. Meanwhile the Americans had seen or heard that Koreans were brutal to prisoners: The South Koreans slaughtered the North Koreans as predictably as the Communists “purged” the Non-Communists. The fighting was do-or-die, with the Chinese determined to bottle up and wipe out the UN forces, and with the UN (largely American) forces desperately attempting to break out and force their way south. Retreat was not a matter of backing up. One American officer famously stated, “We’re not retreating. We’re advancing in a new direction.”
Slim’s unit had been ordered to take a hill overlooking the road south, but it hadn’t gone well and they’d been driven back. Slim squinted south with the highway blocked, doubting he’d ever see home again. His gun didn’t shoot and his commanding officers were dead . Half of his unit was dead or wounded, and it was so cold the medics had to thaw the small tubes of morphine in their mouths before they injected the wounded. Many of the fellows he was with were teenagers like he was, eighteen and nineteen years old. What to do? Plan A hadn’t worked; what was plan B?
In this desperate moment Slim glanced sideways over the Chosin Reservoir. It reminded him of a big lake in Maine, and midst a tidal wave of melancholy and nostalgia he remembered ice fishing, and a little voice in his head wondered, “Is the ice safe for fishing yet?” Then he abruptly shrieked, “That fucking ice has got to be fucking thick. It’s been fucking colder than a fucking witch’s tit for fucking days.”
It’s unclear who gave the orders or whether there was any order at all. It simply seemed smarter to move out over the ice, which could hold even jeeps, and go around the Chinese rather than fighting through them. So that is what was done, with the wounded brought along, some walking wounded and some dragged. As the Chinese froze, laying in ambush along the road, hundreds and hundreds of troops escaped over the ice.
Arriving at a hastily-constructed airbase at the southern end of the reservoir, with more than half of his comrades dead (1450 of 2500) Slim was surprised to find himself one of the few judged “able bodied” (385), and while more than a thousand were helicoptered out he was assigned to hold the base’s perimeter along with cooks pulled from the kitchen and clerks yanked from their typewriters, as the marines retreated south from the other side of the reservoir, and reinforcing marines battled up from the south. Slim got to spend a week in this lovely landscape.
Rather than praise, Slim found his army unit belittled by the marines for retreating in a disorganized manner. Slim vowed to pound the heck out of the first marine he met in a bar, but the bars were far to the south, and first they had to break out of their base and fight south through “Hellfire Valley”. The Chinese three times blew up a bridge on the road south, but the engineers kept replacing it, supplied by “flying boxcars”.
If it were not for the Air Force they would have been overwhelmed, but in the end Slim made it to the port of Hungnam after two weeks of solid fighting, and then spent another two weeks defending the perimeter of that port as an evacuation like Dunkirk proceeded. The civilians had no desire to stay, and as Slim prepared to depart he saw 14,000 Koreans crowd aboard a cargo ship built to accommodate 12 passengers. (SS Meredith Victory) The next day, on Christmas Eve, Slim got to see North Korea astern, with massive fireworks occurring as the engineers blew up the entire port, so Mao couldn’t use it.
And now here I was, a quarter century later, and we were still fighting Mao, now in Vietnam. It had been going on since before I was born, and Slim had been there at the beginning, when Mao chose division over a United Korea.
I sighed and looked out over the mudflats. The tide was low. Even at winter you could smell the dead clams.
Actually, I mused, it had been longer than a quarter century. What year did Mao begin the Autumn Harvest Uprising? 1927? Nearly a half century ago. For nearly fifty years the drooling old man had been unable to make peace with his neighbors. For nearly fifty years he had been incapable of seeing any ideas but his own as worthy of anything but destruction. All traditions were his foe, all cultural variety was his foe, any power but his own was his foe, was “counter revolutionary”, and anyone outside was an “imperialist”. What an arrogant and paranoid madman! And what stopped his cancer from spreading? Shy teenagers like Slim.
If only people would, as John Lennon sang, “give peace a chance!” What a different world it would have been if people had chosen to get along, rather than choosing divorce, rather than choosing fifty years of murdering millions upon millions.
I shook my head and gathered up the books. Who was I to think I could solve the world’s problems? No one would pay a penny for my poetry, and I needed fifty dollars.
My mother shot me a curious look as I stomped into her house with a grim expression and began replacing the encyclopedias on the shelf. I was known for taking things out, and not for putting them away, so she knew something was up. However I was not about to tell her I needed fifty dollars. She’d fret, and I thought I’d rather face Chinese troops at forty below than face my mother’s worry.
As I drove to the library to return the book I pondered the fact that getting a Real Job would be admitting defeat, in terms of writing and being a poet. But Slim had been defeated at Chosin Reservoir, and it wasn’t the end of him, was it? I needed to adjust my attitude, and see my retreat was actually “advancing in a new direction.”
One neat thing about the internet is the ability I gain to hear what people in other places are grousing about. For example, some are complaining their winter hasn’t had snowstorms and there will not be a White Christmas in their locale. This strikes me as ludicrous, for two reasons. First, winter will not even start for another two days. Second, here we are reeling from winter’s blows and many around here are already fed up with winter, before it has officially started.
The cold air masses that plunge down from Canada apparently “lift out” and are pulled back north before affecting many to our south, but we seem to always get clipped. Where to our south they get all rain we get some snow mixed in.
One storm I posted about two weeks ago gave us three feet of snow, though areas not far to our north and south got less than six inches. If it wasn’t trouble enough dealing with such depths of white, the following two storms passed to our west and gave us flooding rains, made all the worse by the fact culverts were clogged with snowbanks. A wash-out littered the end of my driveway with cobbles the size of my fist.
After dealing with deep drifts I had to make sure roofs didn’t collapse under sodden snow, and dealt with a flooded cellar. Then it seemed that the departing rain-storms always pulled down just enough cold air to create just enough backlash snow to force me to deal with clearing it; (at times three inches can be as annoying as three feet).
At the risk of sounding like Rodney Dangerfield, I was starting to feel I’d never get a break. Forget about finding time for Christmas shopping. I was finding it hard to find time to even keep the home-fires burning, or to start the campfires out in the pasture at our Childcare that makes sledding in the cold far more enjoyable for the children. It is hard to even start a fire when the firewood is under three feet of snow. Then children don’t want to sled when it is pouring rain. Then the arctic blasts that followed the rain turned the slopes into sheer ice, and supersonic sledding is downright dangerous when it involves three-year-old and four-year-old kids. (Not that the kids aren’t willing.)
To be honest, I’m getting a bit old to be involving myself in such nonsense. I should be staying home and complaining about the aches and pains brought on by low barometric pressure, not be out in the storms making aspirin salesmen happy by attempting to shovel and split wood like a young man, and to go sledding down bumpy slopes like a child. When the kids demand an igloo I moan. Then, when the igloo is half-built, and the rain ruins it, I start sounding like Rodney Dangerfield.
Despite all the pain, I can find myself singing. I can’t claim credit for lifting spirits, for I do some things by rote, in a purely mechanical fashion, about as cheerful as a robot. I depend on children aged three and four to display the spiritual wherewithal. They are the ones who muster the cheer. They never fail me.
For example, when we ran out of campfire wood I lugged my chainsaw out to the pasture. I know most childcare-professionals turn green at the very idea of small children being within a mile of a chainsaw, but I happen to know, from experience, that children delight in being invited along to the felling of a dead cherry tree or pine.
I take all sorts of precautions, keeping children out of harm’s way even should the tree falls the exact opposite direction I aim it to fall, and the children seem to comprehend the gravity of the situation. I don’t even need to gently rebuke the especially young and naive, because a five-year-old does it for me, like a small sergeant.
A hush descends when I shut off the saw and state the tree is about to fall. Then, when I lean against the trunk, and with a rending crack the tree starts to topple, and I shout, “Timber!”, the children jump up and down more than they do for fireworks, and when the trunk thuds to earth you’d think I’d just invented sliced bread. I keep my eyes on them as much as the log as I cut up the trunk, for they tend to edge closer, eager to load the logs on sleds. Then I likely violate child-labor-laws as badly as Tom Sawyer did when getting his Aunt Polly’s fence whitewashed, for children seem to fail to recognize moving hundreds of pounds of wood to a campfire on sleds is work. For them it seems a romp. But I do nothing to make the work be fun. The children do that work as well.
Another thing I do by rote is to show children what the Christmas carol that begins, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” is talking about. Some modern children have no idea what a chestnut, (or even an open fire) is. So I telephone grocery stores until I locate chestnuts, go get several pounds, build a fire and breed a bed of coals, and finally roast some chestnuts. Originally I used a flat rock or bricks, but we’ve gravitated to using the end of a broken shovel.
I never have to lift a finger to make the kids be interested. If anything I use reverse psychology, saying things like “This is grown-up food and you probably won’t like it” and “Chestnuts are too hot for little kids to peel the shells off of”. Even the most doubtful and suspicious will be busily shelling hot nuts, crouching like a squirrel (sans the tail) within an hour. The children supply the eagerness and excitement, as I plod about doing it all by rote.
However even the most idyllic setting can be wrecked by bad weather. Yesterday evening I had a splendid fire going out in the pasture, but noted that the sunset, usually ten minutes after four this far north, abruptly darkened. The wind swirled, and sparks flew from the fire, and then we were hit by an arctic snow squall. Such squalls immediately plaster small faces with wet flakes, and in a gusty wind even the warmest snowsuit can’t counter a freezing face.
I didn’t even wait for the wailing to begin. We immediately abandoned the fire and headed through the swirling, heavy snow for the “warming room” back at the stables, which was a bit like herding cats. The wailing was in full chorus by the time we arrived. Temperatures were crashing as yet again we got “clipped” by the coldest air so far this season, and again temperatures dove towards zero ( -17 Celsius.) By the stable’s infrared lamps the wailing soon ceased.
This morning’s bright sunshine did little to warm things, as the north wind roared in the pines.
Today I thought I might get my Christmas shopping started, but a member of my staff suffered a misfortune and I had to cover for them. Rather than being spiritual and feeling pity for them, I was Rodney Dangerfield and felt sorry for myself. (It is hard dealing with a bunch of small children bouncing off the walls when you can’t do the logical thing, which is to throw them outside.) (I’d rather “delegate”, and watch my staff deal with such chaos.)
Actually, children want to go out despite the cold, especially when the low, December sun is white in a vivid blue sky, and looks inviting through a window. Rather than quarreling I tend to dress them up in their snow suits and allow them out to learn for themselves that their fingers and toes are swiftly bitten by an invisible creature. I keep an eye on their cheeks, watching for the healthy pinkness to tinge to purple, which is a sign the white patches of frostbite may soon follow. I also teach lessons that northern people should know, such as staying out of the wind, or staying close to the sunny side of a barn, which happens to be right by the warming room at the stables. I want to be by that room for I know that, despite all the clamoring to go outside, and all the work of putting on snowsuits and boots and hats and mittens, in as few as five minutes the exact same children will be clamoring to go back in. I prefer that they go into a room where I don’t have to take their snowsuits off. Some settle in the warming room and play with toys or color with cold crayons, but other go in and out, in and out, all morning long. By lunch I’m exhausted, and glad to hand the children off to an arriving member of the staff who will usher them indoors to lunch and settle them for “quiet time”.
But what about poor old Rodney Dangerfield? What about me? Who will usher me or settle me? No one, because I’m a grown man. I’m macho. But machismo didn’t make me all that happy today. I felt the pain but didn’t feel like singing.
It was too late for shopping, (as I also had an afternoon shift), but I had other tasks to catch up on. The woodpile on the porch was getting low, and I needed to cut some short logs from the long lengths of wood up on the back hill behind the house. It shouldn’t be so hard, now that recent rains had reduced the three feet of snow to six inches. I hoisted my chainsaw and headed off stoutly in that direction, and heard the pines roar, and then was hit by a blast of wind that made me wince and cringe away. Instantaneously I decided the saw was too dull. Rather than cut wood I should sharpen the saw. When I touched the blade the fabric of my gloves froze to the steel. I decided I should do the sharpening inside by the hot wood stove.
I think it was at this point my mood changed. Perhaps I don’t always need three-year-olds and four-year-olds to supply the spiritual wherewithal. Perhaps I can rouse something called “a sense of humor”, and muster enough poetry for a sonnet about sharpening a saw.
I know my wife don’t like machines within Her tidy, warm house, but Wife wasn’t home. The cold would freeze chainsaw’s steel to skin And so I brought the chainsaw in, but own Brains bright enough not to place Saw on polish Of Wife’s Table. Instead I bent Old Back And creaked down to the floor, a smallish Rat-tailed-file in hand, and by Stove began Attack On Dullness, tooth by tooth. Hearing grinding My old dog came over to see what bone I gnawed, down on her level. Then, finding None, she licked my face. So, now I own That simplicity’s not all that boring, Stuck inside with arctic winds roaring.
I am an idealist and have fairly high standards, but life has had a way of humbling me. Often I fail to live up to my own standards. For example, I feel I should drive a fancy sports car, but in fact drive an old clunker. I feel I should be rich and famous, but in fact am poor and unknown. Not that I am less optimistic. I keep right on plugging ahead, rolling with the punches, and refusing to allow a few piffling set-backs to get me down.
In some senses I suppose this makes me a hypocrite, for I state standards should be high while looking a bit low. Also I seem to have a disconnect from reality, only managing to accomplish 5% of what high standards require, which seems a sure recipe for failure. However I sail through debacles and fiascos I seemingly shouldn’t survive, and through the grace of God emerge unscathed, at times reminding myself of Mr. Magoo.
One characteristic of Mr. Magoo is that he is so near-sighted that he is constantly misinterpreting what he is seeing, and driving the wrong way down one-way roads in any number of ways, but he also possesses blind luck, and miraculously never is killed in headlong collisions, and in fact is often blissfully unaware of the dangers he’s just escaped by the skin of his teeth, (though he is able to take offense at what his poor eyesight sees as a rude gesture from an onlooker, when it is actually an inanimate coat-rack.)
To misinterpret what you are seeing is like a baseball player expecting a fastball when a curve is coming, or a banker expecting a boom just before a bust, or a weatherman predicting sunshine just before an storm. We all experience such failures, and recovering from them is part of life. However I have noticed some fascinating things happen during that period of recovery, which causes me to think the grace of God is involved.
One thing we seldom see coming is particularly bad weather. This makes mincemeat of our high standards, for a thing like three feet of snow makes things we don’t schedule or even think about, such as walking from the front door to our car, suddenly an unexpected task, a thing we didn’t include in Plan A or Plan B, and because we had no contingency plan in effect we are an hour behind, just shoveling our way to our car.
Another thing we seldom see coming is the absence of a crucial employee we count upon. Because we must fill-in, there is other work undone, and we soon are another hour behind.
These hours add up, until one must give up on high standards, because certain deeds cannot be completed, and are either postponed or cancelled outright. Standards start slipping. For example, after a big storm one thing I notice at the local market is that most women are having bad-hair-days.
As soon as standards slip, danger increases. One wants to cover every contingency, but simply lacks the stamina. And it is at this point people start to pray, (albeit under their breath, if they are Atheists). Also at this point many who think they have faith because they attend church regularly discover their faith is weak, and mutter doubts such as, “If God existed he wouldn’t allow it to snow three feet.” In conclusion, three feet of snow tests the faith of Atheists in their Atheism, and Believers in their Belief, for there is nothing like the whiff of danger to peel away the thin skin of our intellectualizing, and expose our hearts.
On a farm, the increasing danger caused by slipping standards is painfully obvious. Crops can wither or rot or be smothered by weeds or consumed by vermin, and animals can be injured or die. Because farmers are not perfect, they are subject to punishment and guilt for every imperfection. They feel waves of anger and pangs of grief over the death of a chicken, (even without the help of animal-rights-activists, who seem primarily concerned about guilt).
My chickens, on the other hand, care little about me. They just want food. They rush me even when I’m on time, and if I’m late their onrush makes it difficult to walk. In fact, rushing me is such a habit that, even if I have just fed and watered them, they rush me on general principles, when I drop by to try to make their coop warmer. Not a single chicken makes my work easier by handing me a hammer, and in fact they tend to make work more difficult by pooping on the hammer’s handle.
The winter-quarters I have built them utterly fails to meet my high standards. I had a Mercedes planned but have flung together a Model-T. I could give a long list of excuses, but in essence I failed to plan for December to pounce upon us early, in late October. Hit by arctic blasts, huddled in their summer quarters, the chickens formed a ball of feathers at night that looked like a single extra-large chicken, made of eight. Therefore I built and moved them to their winter quarters in a frantic rush, planning to make improvements when I had “extra time”, which, due to things like three feet of snow, I never had.
I built them nesting boxes, but the ungrateful birds refused to use them. I could tell by the size of their combs they ought to be starting to lay, but the only egg I saw was a lone one, on the floor in front of the boxes. ( I had no “extra time” to conduct an Easter-egg-hunt.) I lengthened their time of daylight with conventional lighting, and warmed the nesting area by slapping up a heat-lamp, but they seemed completely unwilling to thank me by paying rent with a few eggs.
Instead the ungrateful chickens seemed to feel the heat-lamp wasn’t enough. They needed a bigger fire. One flew up and attempted to sit on the heat lamp (which I confess wasn’t fixed in place according to fire-department codes), and knocked the lamp to the floor. For some reason the bulb didn’t break, and instead shone onto the pine-shavings, making them hotter, and hotter, until they began to smolder. Rather than bursting into flame they formed an expanding area of red coals that ate away at the floor boards and floor joists. Rather than the smoke rising it weirdly was sucked down into the crawl-space and exited to the rear of the stables where no one could see it. Rather than flying out through the goat stalls the culprit chickens remained, perhaps planning to rise from ashes under the delusion they were phoenixes. The expanding pool of red hot coals expanded under the wall of the coop into the straw bedding of the goats, which was powder dry.
And what was I doing? Doing even as the coals expanded outwards, on the verge of bursting into flames and likely consuming the stables in a flash, and probably the adjacent barn as well (because our local fire-department is cruelly called “The Cellar-hole Savers”)?
What was I doing? I was settling down to take what I felt was a well-deserved siesta, patting a swollen paunch loaded with a big bowl of chili with beans.
I hate to admit it, but I was feeling smug. Not that I wasn’t giving glory to God, but one cannot help but feel a bit smug after Mr. Mcgooing through a situation, only doing around 5% of what should be done to uphold high standards, yet coming through it alive. After all, at age 66 I shovel and snow-blow snow in a manner which, compared to how I worked at age 30, is definitely sub-standard. Yet I’d dealt with three feet of snow, and also the fact the snow-blower broke at the height of the storm. I also dug up and split firewood to keep the home-fires burning. And, when the storm was followed by a thaw and deluge, I dealt with a flooding cellar and malfunctioning sump-pump. To top it off, I substituted for missing staff at our Childcare, and hoisted and coddled and romped-with three-year-olds despite the fact my aching body protested. Not that I did 5% as well as the missing staff might have done, and not that a better man would have done a better job of maintaining his snow-blower and sump-pump, but, through the grace of God, I’d made it through the snow and flood. I deserved a brief nap, but just then my cellphone rang.
I learned a storm door was refusing to latch at the Childcare, and was bothering napping children, by slamming in the wind. My immediate response was not texted back. It was, “What about napping old men? Should they be bothered, too?”
Glancing out the window I could see the wind was swiftly dying down. I concluded the problem could wait. I can gain astonishing refreshment from a fifteen-minute “dip”. But some odd intuition hit me. I had a “feeling” I would “dip” better if I dealt with the door first. So, stretching and yawning, I lazily drove over to the Childcare, inspected the latch of the swinging door, jury-rigged some wires to halt the swinging until I found time to fix the latch, and slouched back to my car to head home for my “dip”. But just then another odd intuition hit me, and I wondered if my chickens had laid any eggs.
Just to make such an odd impulse look slightly sane, I should mention I’ve had egg-eater chickens in the past. It had occurred to me one reason I’d found only one egg might be because I had another egg-eater on my hands. One way to become aware of an egg-eater is to check nests more regularly, before egg-eaters have had a chance to eat. So I lazily wandered over to the coop.
The moment I opened the door of the coop my consciousness was hit by a series of jarrings which, because my belly was full of chili and beans and I was feeling soporific and yawning, I cruised through without fully waking up. It took about thirty seconds, but will take far longer to tell.
The first ten seconds involved me hearing the clonk of goat hoofs at the top of the partition that separates the chickens from the goats, and being faced by Lydia, my alpha-female goat, giving me a most-definite “look,”
Now I will have to explain what a “look” is. It is how the alpha-female silently communicates to the alpha-male that he may think he is boss, but her opinions matter. You often see it while herding goats because goats are not “grazers” like cows and sheep that are happy eating grass all day long, but “browzers” like deer that require variety. Often the alpha-male might be perfectly happy munching acorns under oaks, but the alpha-female has decided it is time to move on to munching goldenrod. Rather than just heading to the goldenrod, she starts to give the alpha-male a “look”. She stares at him intently, without wavering, until he notices. He practically jumps when he sees the “look”. Almost immediately, pretending to be casual and that it was his own idea, he leads the flock away from the acorns.
We have not had a male goat around since we gave up on our dairy, (my wife doesn’t like their powerful musk), and therefore Lydia has seemingly decided I am some sort of surrogate alpha-male. I am forever getting the “look” from her. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I inform her I am not a goat and will not be moved, I keep getting the “look”. And, to be honest, it is a bit uncanny how much can be communicated by eyes, without words. Where I have to use a whole slew of words to describe a mere ten seconds, a goat can communicate volumes with a single glance.
The glance I got from Lydia was unlike any I ever saw before. The closest I’ve ever seen was a look my mother gave a brother when he brought home a girl she didn’t approve of: A distillation of worry. If goats had foreheads, Lydia’s would have creased with concern. My soporific consciousness could only manage a nonintellectual, “What the…”
The next ten seconds involved stepping forward, and noticing the red glow of a heat-lamp was not up where it should be, but down low behind the door of the chicken coop. Two more steps and I opened the door, and witnessed what the above picture shows, but with a lot more red and orange. The above picture is a reenactment produced after the fire was out. At the moment I was not thinking of taking pictures. What appears to be a dark hole in the above reenactment was a circle of red coals crossed by a red line which were coals that had once been the floor joist.
Due to the bizarre drafts, the coals reminded me a smoker’s pipe. (Not that I have seen a man smoking tobacco in a pipe in thirty years.) The coals blazed red, and then as the draft slackened smoke would puff up, and then the coals would blaze again as the draft resumed.
I have not heated with wood for decades without developing the ability to discern when a smoldering fire is about to burst into flame. This fire was right at that point, and the closest faucet was over at the Childcare. However my laziness saved me. Because I don’t like going all the way to the Childcare to get water for the chickens, I’d stuck a bucket under the eves to catch rainwater during the deluge.
The third ten seconds involved me leaping to that bucket, bringing it to the fire, and cupping my hands and throwing a couple of handfuls on the coals.
I have not heated with wood for decades without knowing it makes a world of difference to a smoldering fire if you lower your lips to pucker and blow on it, nursing it to life, or throw a single handful of water on it. Talk about a so-called “tipping point”! Five minutes later and the coop and stables might have been blazing to a degree where the entire bucketful of water would have been a laughable attempt to put the fire out, but because I was in time I deeply discouraged the fire with the first flung handful.
I made sure the last coal was out, spending a long time sprinkling handfuls of water and then feeling with my fingers to locate heat I could not see. (Long ago I heard a tale of a man who awoke at night with his house on fire, fought the fire until he thought it was out, and then went back to bed unaware an ember still glowed. The next time he awoke he was in the next world.) It was interesting how the coals ate like worms down tunnels through the old wood and tinder-dry bedding, especially under the partition and into the bedding on the goat’s side. But at long last, after many handfuls, I could find no warmth and see neither steam nor smoke.
But during the process of poking about I did discover more than I ever expected:
At this point my sense of absurdity kicked in. I was feeling a bit ashamed over my stupidity, kicking myself for putting a heat-lamp where a pyro-chicken could knock it to the floor, and figured I deserved to have my stables and barn burned down. Instead I was rewarded with a dozen farm-fresh eggs. Oh Magoo! You’ve done it again!
However, beyond the irrefutable proof of my own absurdity, I felt I had glimpsed God’s grace. After all, it is quite unlike me to postpone a nap, especially when I have worked hard for an old geezer, and think I deserve a nap. What in the world got into me? Why on earth did I listen to some voice in my own head, and delay my nap to go attend to a door slamming in the wind? And what was that voice?
If you use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo and type in “still, small voice”, you may find yourself back in the Old Testament, when Elijah was disagreeing with Jezebel, and found himself in deep do-doo. When hopelessly outnumbered in a debate with her rump-swabs, he infuriated Jezebel by basically trouncing her rump-swabs with Truth, and consequently had to run for his life because Jezebel wanted him dead. Elijah himself wanted to die, but on his own terms and not on Jezebel’s terms, and, while Elijah was deep in this suicidal despondence, exiled in the wilderness, apparently Truth had a talk with him. What is interesting to me is that Truth did not speak in a deep, booming baritone. Instead the encounter is described as follows:
” A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper.”
This makes me wonder about the “soft whisper” that strangely motivated me to act so out of character, and, rather than procrastinating with a nap, made me procrastinate the nap itself.
You cannot deny, as I describe things, that the whisper made a huge difference. Yet it has no obvious substance. It is about as intellectual as the glance I get from a goat.
Why should God concern himself with big things When the small pebbles that cause avalanches Will do? Big Icarus sought big wings And big lights and got clipped, like the branches In vineyards thrown into the fire. The snips Of God’s shears are heard in quiet places: On shaded side streets; humble homes; small ships Netting small fish. And the bright faces Touched by His light are turned away from fame, Which is His shadow. What changes our lives Is often silent. Those who seek acclaim Seek to be stunted. The vineyard that thrives Hears the quiet tread and sees quiet deeds Of One who knows best what the tavern most needs.