Punky Wood (Part 1) –Defeat–

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”.

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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.”

LOCAL VIEW –Singing In The Pain–

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.

LOCAL VIEW –Pyro-chickens–

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.

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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.

LOCAL VIEW –Mining Wood–

In case you young folk want to know where firewood comes from, it comes from “wood mines”.

Wood Mine 1 IMG_0108

My rat-hunting dog begs to differ. She claims they are called “woof mines”.

Wood Mine 2 IMG_0111

The deep snows make everyday deeds, like getting an armload of wood, difficult. The deep snow-cover also seems to confuse the computer-model used to figure out our forecasts.  Temperatures are significantly lower than forecast. The low last night was forecast to be 10F (-12 Celsius) but instead it is getting down towards zero in the dark before dawn. But check out the forecast. Nearly fifty degrees warmer and raining by tomorrow!?

Wood Mine 3 IMG_0113

What a mess it could be! Everything will turn to slush and then freeze solid. Great start to winter. But if the snowbanks by the roads freeze solid it will be more difficult to skid off the roads. They become like bobsled runs.

 

LOCAL VIEW –The Last Brown Day–

Sometimes my focus is too much upon the oncoming, and I miss what I am surrounded by. I am like the driver of a car, wisely focusing on the road ahead but a bit oblivious of the view beside me. This is all well and good until you become oblivious of the person beside you.

I recently heard a story about an old man and old woman driving together in one of those old pick-up trucks with bench front seats. They sat so far apart that the old lady’s forehead was actually resting against the coolness of the passenger side window. In front of them was a battered pick-up truck of the same year and make, but in it was a young couple obviously very much in love; the young lady’s head was resting on the young man’s shoulder. They were driving so slowly the older couple’s truck caught up, and as they did the old lady looked forward and then she sat up, turned to her husband, and reproachfully said, “We used to drive like that. What happened to us?” The old man glanced at her with a wry smile and said, “I haven’t moved.”

As Thanksgiving approached this year I looked forward to two things that to a degree were in conflict; a reunion of family, including new babies and new partners, and the first big snowstorm of the year, which was a glorified warm front but promised to dump a foot of snow all at once.

As the storm approached there were certain things I needed to attend to, such as making sure my snow-blower was running correctly after sitting idle all summer, and getting salt and a snow shovel out of storage and putting them on the porch. I noted the snow-blower’s carburetor was a bit fouled, and a sheer-pin on one blade needed replacing, and this necessitated a drive to a hardware store in the next town for a gasoline additive and a sheer-pin. This resulted in a, shall we say, “discussion” with my wife, because it seemed I might miss an hour of our reunion. What was more important, a sheer-pin or our own children? In the end things worked out, for I slipped away from our reunion and was back an hour later in such a manner that the chattering group hardly noticed I was gone, but beforehand it seemed worse than it was. I was not at all looking forward with relish, and anticipated trouble.

It was at this point, when my brains were working themselves into a tizzy, that I decided I needed to stop and smell the roses, though there were no roses to sniff. I was too focused on the oncoming snow and oncoming reunion, and was missing what was in the present tense. And what was that? It was not snow or a reunion. It was the last brown day before the landscape vanished under a blanket of white, perhaps for months; perhaps until April.

It didn’t take any extra time. I just took the time, as I walked from one chore to the next, to scuff through the leaves, and enjoy the rustling.

With holidays I nearly missed the last,
Brown day. It wasn’t on my Christmas list:
“The last, brown day.” Snow will make it be the past;
The white comes fast; the landscape’s kissed
By wool on trees and roads, but if a drift
Must block my path I wish a pile of leaves
To rustle through. The way sounds shift
From crisp to sift, from leaves to snow, just grieves
My heart, for I know snow is here to stay,
And therefore isn’t like the last, brown day.
Seize the moment, before it slips away.
Seize upon the last, brown day; in a kicking way
Rustle through leaves. Make life be play.
Rejoice all through the last, brown day.

LOCAL VIEW –Carrot Crop–

Sometimes my Childcare work is actually fun, to a degree where I feel a bit guilty for charging people to do it. Such was the case with the carrot crop, this year.

Carrots, like parsnips, are a biennial, and put their energy into forming a big root the first year. If you leave the root in the ground then the second year the carrot puts all the energy stored in the root into producing a beautiful flower (shaped like it’s close cousin, Queen Anne’s lace), and then produces so many carrot seeds that they can become a weed, in certain situations.

Because they are a biennial they handle freezes well, and I tend to harvest them last, for two reasons.

The first is that I have a tendency to procrastinate whenever possible, not because I am particularly lazy, but rather because life is so full of fun things to do that I always over-schedule. Usually I am busy doing one thing, but even when I am busy with one task I am procrastinating in terms of ten or twenty other tasks. This tends to get me in trouble, but also makes me highly skilled when it comes to inventing excuses for procrastinating. The best excuses are those which disguise the procrastination as part of a “plan.” And this brings me to the second reason for harvesting carrots last.

One year, as I was procrastinating in my usual way, I continued my usual habit of pulling a few carrots every day for my wife’s needs, and noticed that as the carrot greens finally browned (and they are one of the final things in the garden to give up on greenness in the autumn) that the carrot roots beneath the greens abruptly grew substantially larger. I suppose the carrot pulls all energy from those greens down into it’s roots. This was a great thing to discover. No longer was I procrastinating, but instead I was being a wise farmer and “ensuring my carrots achieved their optimum size.”

This year I nearly paid the price for this procrastination. The first hard, carrot-browning freeze of winter was not a “Squaw Winter” followed by an “Indian Summer”. (Yes, I know such terms are now politically-incorrect, but it is also politically-incorrect to criticize the traditions of an indigenous people, and, as the Yankee have been squatting here stewards of New England for 399 years, I figure we deserve to be called “indigenous”), (especially by globalists who have no culture nor traditions whatsoever.)

This year the cold came with unusual ferocity, and the first blast was followed in short order by a second, and then a third. The autumn began to remind me of the start to the winter of 1976-1977, where the “Squaw Winter” came without an “Indian Summer”, and turned out to be “Real Winter” and froze our socks off all the way into February.

Usually our temperatures drop steadily through November; our lows bottom out around freezing at the start of the month and sink to around 24° (-4.4° Celsius) by the end of the month. But this November, during the three savage, arctic blasts that hit us, the high temperature was 24°, and the lows set records, around 12° (-11° Celsius) even back at the start of the month.

This led to a problem, when I took the children out to the “carrot harvest” at our Farm-childcare. The ground was frozen hard as iron, and the carrots were stuck in it like rivets. At first I thought I’d need a jackhammer to dig them out, but I managed to jump on my shovel with such zeal I broke through to the unfrozen earth, and then could pry up slabs and plates of brown, frozen earth, roughly three inches thick, with the tapered ends of orange carrots protruding from the bottom. By whacking and smashing these plates the plates could be broken into chunks, and the carrots wrenched free (and they tasted just as good when thawed) but to me it seemed like an awful lot of work, per carrot.

Of course, when you are dealing with children two, three and four years old, they have no idea that this is not how things are always done. Also they find it sort of fun to smash plates, and not get in trouble for it. Prying up the plates had me huffing and puffing, and I would have given the job up, but the kids were having such a blast I continued to pry up frozen slabs of earth even after I was too weary to break them up, and they kept up their smashing and prying-carrots-loose until we had filled a grain bag with some forty pounds, and they also all had small bags holding their “favorite carrots” to bring home with them.

I could not, in good conscience, allow them to think this was a usual carrot-harvest. We had done less than half of the twenty-four foot double-row in twice the time it would usually take to complete the entire harvest. I attempted to get across the idea I had procrastinated too long, but they’d had too much fun to understand Aesop’s fable about The Grasshopper and the Ant, and so I abandoned my moralizing and just told them I was going to try to “soften the soil”, to make the rest of the harvest easier.

Then I found an old, black tarp to cover the rest of the carrots with. I figured the black would absorb sunshine and might even thaw the soil. Most of the children were not the slightest bit interested, but this year I have one small boy who tags along with me and has an owlish interest in everything I do. He even reached out with his small hand and felt the black tarp along with me, noticing the slight warmth it gathered from the low November noon. He then owlishly listened as I reminisced, (like the garrulous old coot I am), about the winter of 1976-1977. There may not have been an Indian Summer that November, but I seemed to recollect the blasts did relent to a degree where temperatures were normal for a while, edging above freezing every noon. Perhaps the soil around our carrots could thaw.

I seem to get a small sidekick like this owlish boy every few years. They are precociously articulate, and what is especially nice is that they are deeply concerned about my well-being. They seem very aware I am hapless and need help, but they own this awareness in a manner that is amazingly respectful. For example, when I am rummaging through the staff’s packs for a missing flashlight (which we need for November’s early-evening darkness), this particular boy will first inquire what I am looking for, and, second, point out a flashlight I’d never notice at the back of a counter on the far side of the room.

If the sidekick is a female, it is like I have the secretary I’ve long yearned-for but could never afford, in the form of a four or five-year old girl. This small boy is like having a butler. He is unnaturally interested in my interests, and unnaturally helpful.

Where the other children forgot all about carrots under the onslaught of other interests, this young fellow popped up the next day, smiling and helpful, and querulously wondering in a piping voice if the soil had started to thaw under the tarp. This was helpful to me, for, under the onslaught of other concerns, I might have forgotten all about carrots myself. We checked the soil daily.

In any case, we lucked out. An Aleutian Low crashed east into Alaska, interrupting the southward delivery of arctic air and allowing us just enough sunshine and thaw to soften the soil under the tarp. (And if you don’t believe me, ask my small butler. Though born in 2014, he will inform you, “This may have happened in 1976 as well,”) (because he asked me.)

Because the soil under the tarp did thaw, the rest of the carrot-harvest was much easier, though at first the other children were less than eager. If you look at the picture at the start of the post, you’ll notice only two children are working, and the rest are standing around. Perhaps they were a bit desultory because there were no “plates” to break, but they soon got over that, which is why there are no further pictures. I was soon too busy “providing child care” to take pictures.

The first problem involved breaking up fights about who would get the shovel next, and be the next to get to dig carrots. I attempted to teach them about “taking turns” and “sharing”, but they were too impatient for that. They skipped off in all directions and returned with more shovels than I knew our Childcare possessed, including tiny shovels ordinarily seen when building sand castles on a beach. One girl couldn’t be bothered with a shovel, and scooped with her hands in a manner that puts badgers to shame.

The second problem was that dirt was flying in all directions, and I had to instruct the young in ditch-digger-protocol, and teach them how to dig without flinging a face-full of dirt at a neighbor. Despite my instructions, I had to pause to attend to eyes weeping muddy tears, but even that tearful, offended face swiftly became riveted on the next carrot.

No two carrots are alike. This seemed to intrigue the small children and make them dig faster. They were constantly exclaiming over how a carrot was especially fat or long or round or small or crooked, and would dissolve into gales of laughter over a carrot that forked like two legs (which made me cringe slightly, for, in prior years, a small, tertiary fork between the two “legs” has resulted in child-like hilarity and frank discussions, which can present problems to child care providers.)

I hardly dug at all, so busy was I with other issues, but I instructed the children to place the gold they dug up in a single pile. The pile looks small, in the picture at the start of this post, but it grew and grew. When I put all the carrots in a second grain bag it amounted to a second forty pounds (minus carrots children took home.)

Forgive me for being a bit smug, but I can’t help myself. We had a great time. Not a child whined all morning that they were bored or that they wanted to go home. Nor did my staff or myself need to concoct a “plan” or belabor a “curriculum”. The “curriculum” was “dig carrots”.

And what did this “curriculum” teach? At the very least it taught where carrots come from. (The first year my wife and I opened our Farm-childcare a small child asked me, “Why do you dig dirty carrots when you could get clean ones in plastic bags at the store?”)

Good things come from dirt. I don’t know why this is such a revelation. But a mother did give me a disapproving look, as she picked up her daughter after our carrot-harvest. She had just washed her daughter’s play pants, and already the knees were brown.

LOCAL VIEW –First Arctic Blast–

We had our first taste of winter today, with temperatures 15 degrees below normal and reluctant to rise all day and puddles from last night’s rain flat and frozen, and fits of flurries throwing handfuls of white confetti into a stiff breeze, though I saw no reason for confetti. What is there to celebrate? It was a miserable day after yesterday evening’s miserable cold rain.

Last night I faced a night out with good friends, but nearly didn’t go, because, to get to the cheer and the warm hearth of friends, I’d have to venture out into pitch black and pelting, cold rain. It stinks when, in order to have a good time, you must first take a deep breath and run a gauntlet. But that is the definition of winter, in New England.

It is said, “No pain; no gain”, and that is what urges one out, yet at the same time another voice whispers, “No strain; No pain”. And there is much to be said for the second voice. Why risk pneumonia, when you could toast toes by a warm fire?

At some point one is forced to chose between which voice one will listen to. It seems a sort of “tipping point”, or a “fork in the road.” As a writer, often I stay home and am introspective, while others go out. I sometimes stay in even when the weather is balmy. Also as a writer, I often have wound up broke because I stayed home when I should have gone out to work, which later forced me to go out and work lousy jobs in weather others would call insane to work in. Therefore I have a pretty good idea of what both sides of the “tipping point” entail.

In my experience it is almost always better to go out. For example, last night, as I wavered at my front door, there could be no doubt the weather was disagreeable. It was weather best described by Englishmen in London during a North Atlantic gale, when they look out and say, with lordly disapproval, “Simply filthy weather; simply filthy.” Yet two hours later when I stomped back through the same door and hurried to my hearth, I was glad I’d gone. I hadn’t caught pneumonia, and had gained, through the insights of others, an idea I’d never have come up with alone.

One thing that few account for is that the mortal body is capable of ramping up its Adrenalin levels, and altering its entire metabolism, if need be. I noticed my physical frame doing this today. The bitter wind was “lazy” (IE: it cut straight through you, rather than taking the time to go around you) and I was flinching and muttering, “I’m too old for this.” My circulation isn’t as good, and my testosterone levels are lower, than when I was twenty-five. To me that seems a good excuse for staying home by the fire. But, because I’ve been a writer, I’ve worked over a hundred different jobs, and that is no way to earn a pension. So I’m stuck with working when friends have retired. And, because I have to go out when they don’t, I discover what they won’t.

What I saw is that one doesn’t need Viagra to be hot. Apparently something other than testosterone is involved, when the northern body shifts gears in the face of brutal winter. Something in the human frame fights back, when exposed to insults, even when you’re old. It will take science a while to verify this observation, I suppose, but it was undeniable to me: I was warmer after the first nasty blasts of winter hit me than I was when I first saw the forecast.

I didn’t notice how much warmer I was, at first. I walked through my front door after work and pottered about as if it was June, thinking little of it until I went to put wood in the stove. Only then did it occur to me I hadn’t rushed to the fire like a babe to a breast as I came in the house. Contrary as it may sound, bitter breezes made me warmer.

Decades ago I saw the same thing in a different way. A friend complained his wife never got out, and instead stayed at home depressed. In the foolish way that marked my youth, I stuck my nose in the business of others, “to be helpful”. (One friend called me guilty of “dry adultery”: I might not have had sex with friend’s wives, but was prone to emotional meddling.)

My friend was exasperated to a degree where he’d stopped listening to his wife, but I figured that, because I was an artist, I was more sensitive than my pal (who was gruff, tough, and constantly in trouble with the law), and that I would be more able to be sympathetic and empathetic. I believed often that is what emotional people need, in order to escape whatever dilemma they find themselves in.

I was useless. Why? Because it was immediately obvious to me the woman’s problems were primarily caused not by her insensitive, outlaw husband, but by the fact she used him as an excuse to never go out.

Why was it obvious? Hard to explain, but it was like this:

Sometimes your feet are cold because you are sitting too much. What you need to do is stir your blood and get your circulation going. In such a case it does absolutely no good to talk about what caused you to sit, for the longer you talk the longer you stay sitting and the colder your feet become.

Although my friend’s wife very much appreciated the fact I would sit with her and talk with her, she did not like it when I suggested she might benefit if she stopped sitting and talking. In the end I was not “helpful”.

In actual fact the woman helped me far more than I helped her, for she reminded me of myself. Artists often sit and think when they should get up and go. She made me aware a “tipping point” is involved.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest we should outlaw art, because artists sit and think when they should get up and go. (In fact I think too many people get up and go without enough thought.)

Instead I mean to suggest a “tipping point” indicates a balance is involved, and a balance involves two sides. If you succumb to the mentality that takes only one side you are completely out of balance.

At this point we need to define “balance”. In terms of humanity, it is actually a precarious state. Often the people we deem most stable and balanced are knocked completely out of kilter by a feather. For example a bank president may commit suicide when the market crashes. Meanwhile the janitor at the same bank may be the fellow who offers the most help to his fellow employees as the ruined bank closes its doors.

“Balance” is often seen as “security”, which can draw people out of balance. For example, “political correctness” draws people into postures they may not be comfortable with, but which they feel are “safer” stances than what their conscience knows to be Truth. Such compromises seem “balanced” up until Truth jars them with a rude awakening, and they become aware “political correctness” has lured them into being led by some sort of despot, such as Stalin or Hitler. Then what seemed like “balance” abruptly shocks people into the awareness they are miles past the “tipping point”, and are plunging into disaster. This sort of shock is like the first blast of winter into New England. When it hits you, nothing that came before matters. Truth has arrived.

Artists, who have (in theory at least) put Truth ahead of “political correctness”, are less perturbed by such abrupt and shocking arrivals of Truth. They tend to respond more like the Bank Janitor than the Bank President. At some point they faced a “fork in the road” and, as the poet Robert Frost stated, the choice they made “has made all the difference.”

Often I find the biographies of artists as interesting as their art. Not that they had easy lives. Often they faced winters. Van Gough is an example of a a man who lived a rough life, yet he painted Truth which millions, perhaps billions, now admire.

One biography that fascinates me is that of an American master of the genre, “short story”, named William Sydney Porter, who took on the pen-name of “O. Henry”.

What intrigues me about Porter is that he seems to have been more like a person who goes out, than a person who sits by the fire, and therefore he seems unlikely to ever become a writer. But he did like to sit in a bar after work and tell a good tale. Then one thing led to another.

Though Porter’s tale-telling can be seen to gradually develop, (as pieces he sent to newspapers, newspapers which he increasingly was interested in and involved with), he was too practical to depend on writing for his livelihood, and supported himself, and later his wife and daughter, by working as a pharmacist, sheep-herder, cowboy, draftsman, clerk, and teller at a bank.

While working as a teller he apparently strayed from doing things by-the-book, using his heart more than his head, for political and perhaps other reasons. He lost one bank-job when a new political party came into power, and was fired from a second when “irregularities” in his bookkeeping were discovered. In disgrace he move from Austin, Texas to Houston, Texas, and then for the first time focused on writing. He was making headway, getting raises and seeing his newspaper-column become more popular, when Federal Auditors snooped into the doings of the bank back in Austin. They didn’t want to hear any excuses for a former employee who used his heart and not his head; $854.08 were unaccounted for and, roughly two years after he had left Austin, Porter faced five years in jail for embezzlement.

Because he was a man of action, the day before his trial Porter fled to Honduras, where he associated with exiles, coined the phrase “Banana Republic”, and did a lot of work on the collection of intertwined short stories called “Of Cabbages and Kings”, (which was as close as he ever came to writing a novel.) He hoped to make money writing and had made plans for his wife and daughter to join him, but then discovered the tuberculosis (which he knew his wife was suffering from, before he married her) was now killing her. At this point he returned to face five years in jail, to be at her side as she died.

She died, and then he went to jail, where he was valued and worked as a pharmacist. However he still had a daughter to support, and became involved in sneaky ways to make money by writing without people knowing the writer was a jailbird. That is when he adopted the name “O. Henry” (Which some suggest is a condensed version of “Ohio Penitentiary”.) (The name first appeared attached to a charming tale about a hobo who becomes a hero but chooses to remain a hobo, called “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking”. In retrospect the hobo’s love-of-freedom is especially poignant because the writer himself was in jail, though of course readers of that time didn’t know that). “O. Henry” became increasingly popular even before Porter was released from prison, (two years early, “for good behavior”).

What I find fascinating about that part of Porter’s life is that he did not intentionally retire to the fireside to write. In essence he was forced to the “fireside” of a jail-cell, after facing the bitter winter of his wife’s death. Largely he was not a retiring man.

After he was released from prison in Ohio he traveled to Pennsylvania to where his daughter was staying with his in-laws. As a widower and ex-con he did not seem all that accepted or happy, and drank too much. He moved to New York City to be near the market for short stories, and basically drowned himself in work. Porter would write in the morning and conduct research after “the sun passed the yardarms”, with the “research” consisting of visiting restaurants and bars where, rather than telling tales, he often got others to tell him tales, late into the night. Then he’d head home and jot some notes, and work on a tale the next morning, often facing a Friday deadline. He produced a total of 371 tales, some masterpieces, in roughly seven years, before his liver gave out. What is interesting to me is that even while writing so much, he didn’t sit by the fire. By noon he was restless, and had to get out.

It likely impossible to state the effect Porter had during the time he was most productive, when my Grandfather was young. There was no radio or TV, and people were avid readers. My Grandfather’s generation awaited the next “O. Henry” story in magazines and newspaper-Sunday-supplements with the same eagerness my own generation awaited the next song by The Beatles, and it is difficult to translate that eagerness across time. I do not belabor my grandchildren with talk about the Beatles, and my Grandfather never told me why he had eight volumes of O. Henry short stories in the bookshelf by his living-room armchair. But I noticed them. Though the tales were panned by critics of that time (and by some fellow writers as well) they are more than a wonderful window to the attitudes and realities of another time; they contain descriptions of human frailty and nobility that are timeless. When I finally got around to reading them I felt like I’d discovered a gold mine.

However that is not the point of this essay. The point of this essay is to suggest that, sometimes, facing the blasts of winter, men do not merely survive, but become downright prolific, as O. Henry did, facing the winter of his life.