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 –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.

LOCAL VIEW –A Burr’s Blessing–

One gift my parents gave me was a sort of idealism that doesn’t seem like a gift. It can seem like a burr stuck in your hair, as this old world can be hard on idealists. Not only do others disappoint us, but we can disappoint ourselves. For this reason many who started out idealists become cynics; the softhearted become hardhearted; optimists become pessimists; the faithful become faithless.

To me such a response always seemed a weakness, and even a sort of sell-out. What sort of idealist quits just because the going gets tough? One should persevere, and have high hopes:

Of course, being so hopeful and optimistic, even in the face of proof such behavior is unwise, did make me a bit of a sucker and a chump. But my parents again set an example, for even when their idealism went down in flames (in the form of their intensely acrimonious divorce), the same stubborn unwillingness-to-compromise (which perhaps led to the divorce) made them stubbornly unwilling to compromise on their idealism after their divorce. Even in the smoking wreckage of a crashed marriage they stubbornly persisted with their views and insisted they were correct, which I found very embarrassing, as a teenager, but which I also respected as a powerful reality, even though I didn’t understand it. Therefore it is only logical that I would follow in their footsteps, and remain true to the dual-idealism I inherited, despite all evidence idealism was unwise.

For example, most bosses initially felt lucky, when they hired me. I possessed the so-called, “Puritan Work Ethic”, and had high standards for my self, and was an athlete and enjoyed working hard. But bosses discovered I also had high standards regarding the behavior of bosses, which made them feel less lucky and made me look less desirable. Eventually, (and quite often so swiftly my rise and fall was like a yo-yo’s), our employer-employee compromise would become untenable, and divorce (IE: Getting fired or quitting) became unavoidable. As a consequence I worked over a hundred jobs, and have great experience concerning bosses, and have acquired reams of knowledge about all quirks and foibles bosses may have. I also have no pension, for I never found a boss worth a compromise of longer than two years, let alone the soul-selling duration-of-decades required for a pension. As far as I’m concerned, any person collecting a pension is either very lucky or very weak. They are lucky, if they lucked into a worthy boss, and they are weak, if they stayed working all those years for an unworthy boss.

Eventually I discovered self-reliance mattered, and the best boss was my foolish self, and I became “self-employed.”  Of course, once you are “self-employed” you still have bosses, but they are called “customers”. So you have to add another hundred bosses to the total I have worked for. I may not have a pension, but I do know a thing or two about bossy people. In fact I know much more than the fellow collecting a pension, for he compromised and worked for the same boring boss for thirty years, whereas I have worked for two hundred bosses. I deserve some sort of master’s degree. The irony is that the fellow with no experience gets a pension, as I, with all my wisdom, get little respect and no money.

What have I gained? It is a difference traced by the poet William Blake, which led him to call a first book, “Songs Of Innocence“, and a second, “Songs Of Experience.” It is a product of the pain of a burr, like the irritation of a grain of sand in an oyster’s tender places producing a pearl. In effect, it is proof hardship has meaning, and that you are getting something deeply significant out of life’s struggles, other than filthy lucre. It suggests the meaning of life, and of spiritual progress, and of real “gain”, is not measured by money.

One sad thing I’ve seen in those who retire, (in some cases far younger than I), is that despite one [or two or even three] fat pensions, they are often dead within a year or two of retiring. There are of course many exceptions to this rule, but such deaths happen frequently enough to be concerning. It as if such retirees realize they compromised too much, and worked their entire lives for emptiness, and the disillusionment kills them.

I don’t know much about this disillusionment, because I failed to live such a compromised life longer than two years, (and loathed those two years, during which time I joined a union, and discovered I then had two bosses at the same time). However I can speak with authority about how to get fired or quit, and how to never get a pension.

This seemed a totally useless authority to speak with, and a worthless wisdom to own, when I was a not-so-young, penniless man of 37, and still unmarried, and quite lonely. Where others bragged about increases in income, I could only brag about getting by on less and less (so I did so, for a man must brag about something). Even those who liked me tended to laugh at my idealistic attitudes, deeming me a mere mad poet. Therefore they were alarmed when I abruptly announced I was about to marry, and not marry a single woman either, but rather marry a woman with three small children.

To be honest, I saw no evidence even my closest friends thought the marriage was a good idea, or would last as long as a year. To some the idea of a person like myself being even a tenth as responsible as a husband and father has to be was not laughable, because it was too painfully embarrassing to even consider. After all, if I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?

Fortunately I had met a woman who on some level was as idealistic as I was, and who also didn’t care about money. Not that she didn’t enjoy the good life, when it was possible, but when the good life retreated from the present tense far into the foreseeable future, she was strangely unperturbed. What did she care for more than money? She cared about children and family, and she’d been through hard times that taught her that you can have the delights of children and family without a cent to your name. Consequently money had slipped downwards, in terms of importance, on her inward “list”.

As we talked we discovered we were on the same page, in a way impossible to describe to those who measure with money. We agreed a beer sipped in love was far superior to champagne without love, and agreed about fifty other things, and all that agreeable agreement occurred during the first hour of our first date. This hour astonished me, for usually I found dates painful, and the talk so stilted and ludicrous that I usually wanted to escape the woman more than I wanted to seduce her. But this woman was different. As I recall, we talked non-stop for a solid week, every chance we could, and, rather than wanting to escape, I wanted more.

We eventually agreed that love is so important it deserves a capital “L”, and this “Love” can also be called “God”, and that, compared to God, money doesn’t matter. We also decided to marry, after only a week. But we knew people would think we were crazy for deciding so swiftly, so we didn’t tell anyone else. We waited a whole three more weeks before announcing our decision. Most people still thought we were crazy.

It is one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk. I have a sense my more cynical friends, (and at this point maybe I should demote them to “acquaintances”,) were sitting back amused, awaiting my humbling, as “the shit hit the fan”. And, to be honest, I myself was afraid of the same, for I’d been through humbling and embarrassing infatuations before. But this relationship was different. We deeply disappointed the prophets of doom. Then, as if it wasn’t a big enough challenge to provide for three children, God gifted us with a fourth, and then a fifth.

At this point I should probably answer the question, “If I couldn’t even work for a boss, how could I possibly work for a wife?” The answer was that we were “Pluggers”. We just kept plugging, never sure we’d come up with the next month’s mortgage or even the cash for groceries. Always the work appeared and the money was earned, often at the last possible moment, which was what we expected, and had faith would happen.

In the eyes of some acquaintances our attitude was irresponsible.  It required a faith they lacked. They suffered from a “burr under the saddle” called “insecurity”, and felt that all responsible people should compromise greatly to be “secure”. They stayed with deplorable bosses for “the health insurance”, and for the “pension”, and for other “benefits”, but we were free of such chains and quicksand. Our security was Love with a capital “L”, and while Love may not have given us lemonade when we only needed clean water, we seldom truly suffered, and usually blithely breezed through reefs and shoals, somewhat to the annoyance of those who suffered awful jobs they longed to quit, and who dourly predicted (and perhaps even secretly desired) our certain shipwreck, because we didn’t stick to the jobs they were glued to.

This is not to say we sat back very much at all. Pluggers must plug, and that involves hard work, even when the work does not pay very well. Faith involves far more sweat than sloth does.

I think this is actually a very American attitude, perhaps derived from the experiences of settlers, who horrified the Native Americans by arriving in destitute droves to farm (and destroy) their hunting grounds. America’s “Homestead Act” merely made official a phenomenon that was ongoing.

But such settlers often failed. They were expected to live for five years on their “free” land in order for the government to officially deem their ownership “legal”, and government statistics show roughly half of such settlers could not complete the five years. One sees little material success in characters such as “Pa” in the “Little House On The Prairie” books, as they move from failed homestead to failed homestead.  What impresses me more than success is the amazing lack of security such settlers faced, uprooting themselves from former lives to face American wilderness, and conditions of extreme hardship.

American settlers had great (and often unrealistic) faith in their own ability to produce a lush, bumper crop from, in some cases, semi-arid wastelands. Their attitude was in some ways the opposite of those modern men, many of whom are meekly ensconced in the modern welfare state. Many modern men apparently trust cringing, and distrust daring. But what was this thing I call “a settler’s attitude”?

An “attitude” is often a difficult thing to intellectually describe, and this is especially true because “Pluggers” don’t tend to be intellectual. However that which you cannot say in words can sometimes speak in songs, and the spirit of American settlers echoes in their music, and in their song’s humorous attitude towards misfortune.

For example, In “So long,  It’s Been Good To Know You“, Woody Guthrie sings,

The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An’ that dusty old dust storm blowed so black
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An’ he folded his specs,

an’ he took up collection,
Said:

So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.

In the older ballad “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a verse croons,

Well they soon reached the desert where Betsy gave out 
And down in the sand she lay rollin’ about 
While Ike in great tears looked on in surprise 
Sayin’, “Betsy get up; you’ll get sand in your eyes.”

Singin’, Too-rally-too-rally-too-rally-ray… 

But one song that (to me) best encapsulates the attitude of settlers springs from the unlikely root of a priest of the Church of England, George Herbert (1593-1633). Among other things he collected proverbs from other lands (“outlandish”), and seven years after he died his collection was published, and we derive from it some sayings we still use, such as “His bark is worse than his bite.” One saying we no longer use is, “To him that will, ways are not wanting,” because it morphed into, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” which first appeared in the English publication “The New Monthly Magazine” in 1823. It was then picked up by the humorist singer-songwriter “Handsome Harry Clifton” (1832-1872) and became a song heard in English music halls in the mid 1860’s, and then crossed the Atlantic and moved with settlers out into the prairies, after the American Civil War.

This life is a difficult riddle
For how many people we see
With faces as long as a fiddle
That ought to be shining with glee.
I am sure in this world there are plenty
Of good things enough for us all
And yet there’s not one out of the twenty
But thinks that his share is too small.

Chorus:
Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

Do you ever hear tell of the spider
That tried up the wall hard to climb?
If not, just take that as a guider;
You’ll find it will serve you in time.
Nine times it tried hard to be mounting
And every time it stuck fast
But it tried hard again without counting
And of course it succeeded at last

Chorus

Do you think that by sitting and sighing
You’ll ever obtain all you want?
It’s cowards alone that are crying
And foolishly saying “I can’t”
It’s only by plodding and striving
And laboring up the steep hill
Of life that you’ll ever be thriving
Which you’ll do if you’ve only the will.

Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

Laura Ingalls Wilder  (of “Little House On The Prairie” fame), used the above song to happily conclude her most harrowing book, which described a railway-town’s near brush with starvation when blizzards and deep drifts cut the town off from trains, from January until May, during a particularly brutal Dakota winter.

But what is fascinating about the attitude Wilder describes is that it was not the typically American, Horatio Alger (1832-1899), concept of “rags to riches”, epitomized by Alger’s best-seller “Ragged Dick” (1868). Rather it was opposed to such ideals of material success, for “The Long Winter” basically describes an entire town of fugal, moral individuals reduced from riches to rags. Their reward was not a fortune, nor a pension, but merely to survive to see another spring. And what do they do in that springtime? They sing.

This Plugger’s-response resembles the “Whos of Whoville”, in Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (1904-1991) best-seller “How The Grinch Stole Christmas.” (1957). After the “Grinch” had stolen every materialistic proof of Christmas, the Who’s still gathered to sing. I can remember sitting in my father’s lap on Christmas morning in 1957 and having that brand-new tale read to me. Over a decade later, as a teenager, I’d argue (only partially in jest) that Geisel (AKA “Dr. Seuss”) was a great American poet, whereas most of my fellow poets, in our snide groups at snide colleges, sucked the split lips of our artificial suffering with a moribund mentality that produced only snivel. Dr. Seuss, despite the genuine suffering of his own life (his chronically-ill wife eventually committed suicide) produced a bright, cheerful children’s poem that influenced America. Why did it have such influence? Because it described what Laura Ingalls Wilder also described in her best-selling children’s book, “The Long Winter”.

And what is that?

It is that there is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.

Laura Ingalls Wilder left the third verse of Handsome Harry Clifton’s song out, when she quoted it to end “The Long Winter.” The third verse goes:

Some grumble because they’re not married,
And cannot procure a good wife;
Whilst others they wish they had tarried
And long for a bachelor’s life.
To me it is very bewild’ring,
Some grumble, (it must be in fun),
Because they have too many children,
And others because they have none.

Then what is the use of repining,
For where there’s a will there’s a way,
And tomorrow the sun may be shining
Although it is cloudy today.

The fact of the matter is that there is always a reason to complain, if you look for it, but if you take that road you may miss many reasons to smile. On the Path one faces a choice between complaining or entertaining. In a sense it is a situation that reminds me of a Junior High School dance, (which were gruesome experiences, for me).

I would stand on one side of the gym, with lots and lots of beautiful young woman on the other side, and be miserable. Lord! If you could put this old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I would have skipped across that gym happily and asked girl after girl to dance. Sadly, I instead found reasons to complain. In fact I was so miserable I often wondered why in the world I ever went to such events.

Usually, because I was prone towards being a one-woman-man, I ignored all sorts of opportunity, because there was a particular girl I was fixated on, and she usually was already dancing with some far taller boy who actually grew peach-fuzz on his upper lip, and had grown above five feet tall. I was four-foot-ten, which put me at a disadvantage, [except in “slow dances”, when my face would have been buried between young woman’s breasts.] [Man, Oh Man! If I could put my old man’s mind back in that boy’s body, I don’t think I would have called being-short a “disadvantage!”]

Probably I should leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring up dances because in a way it is like looking for a job. Just as I hung back in the Junior High dances, finding reasons to complain despite the lovely girls across the gym, I found reasons, when young, to avoid even attempting to look for work.

Rather than a particular girl across a gym I was infatuated by, who made all other girls worth disdaining, there was a certain job I was infatuated by, that made all other jobs worth disdaining. And what was that job? It was “poet.”

Now the funny thing is that, when you are looking for work, you never see employers looking for a “poet” in the Want Ads. A poet wants to express himself, but that is his work, and not another’s. Others have other work, different from “self-expression.” Therefore, if a poet expects a paycheck, he had better learn to sing while washing dishes.

This was something I learned before I got married. However I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was thirty-seven before I became so wise. Earlier it was agony to push myself out and apply for a job. It was like crossing the gym and asking the most undesirable girl in the universe to dance, and to be honest I sometimes couldn’t do it. I’d rather be homeless and sleep in my car.

How odd it seems that I later found it fun to apply for jobs. I didn’t care if I got the job or not; I just found it fun to fill out the job application in a poetic way, and then watch the face of the fellow considering me as he glanced over the form, interviewing me. Even if I wasn’t the man for the job, the interviewer had fun rejecting me. We’d laugh and tell stories, and I like to think the interviewer never had so much fun rejecting an applicant, before he met me.

I learned this art the one time in my life I was on unemployment, in 1985. I’d only receive $32.00 a week, (or nine hours of pay, at minimum wage, $3.35/hour at that time), and in order to receive this paltry amount I had to provide proof, to the government of New Mexico, that I had looked for work in three places the prior week.

I never actually applied for the job of brain surgeon at the local hospital, but I did apply at other absurdly impossible places, and discovered it can be fun to ask, even if rejection is inevitable.

This was a revelation to me. It was like discovering it is good fun to cross the gym and ask a glorious girl who would never dance with a shrimp like you for a dance, and finding out, even though she will not dance, that you can talk and laugh and learn, all the same. And rarely, (but often enough to lift your spirits), the girl will decide, what the heck, she will dance, just one dance. In like manner, some employers will sometimes hire you, if only for just one day.

“Just one day of work” is not enough to satisfy a person who feels insecure without a pension and other benefits, but it is a bonanza for a drifter living hand-to-mouth. The person who wants “security” and “certainty” misses the bonanzas the insecure understand. As odd as it sounds, the people who are “secure” and “have it made” are missing bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. Blessed are the poor.

Most “Pluggers” don’t intentionally seek to live “on the edge.” They simply were born into childhoods without a silver spoon in sight, and things such as “security” and “certainty” have not been their lot in life. They may hope for the perks of the privileged, the same way many hope they will win the lottery, but such things are like an apple dangled in front of a donkey to keep it plodding forward. Most Pluggers doubt they’ll ever really reach and taste that apple, and therefore the real reason they have the strength to keep plodding on can’t be from the apple they never reach, but rather from the bonanzas they experience, which the “privileged” know little or nothing about. Blessed are the poor.

There is something counter-intuitive about the statement “Blessed are the poor”, for we tend to associate the word “blessing” with wealth, bounty, riches. Wrong.

This is difficult to say, and will sound clumsy as I write it, but it has been my experience that the poor are richer than the rich. Why? Because nothing matters more than contact with the One who blessings come from. In fact blessings themselves have no worth, compared to the One who gives them.

In other words, the Plugger has a heightened sense of what constitutes a “blessing”, due to living so close to the edge. One doesn’t truly appreciate a glass of water until one has been parched by the desert sun. Therefore a person with “security” has a dulled awareness, whereas a Plugger has his awareness heightened. Not that some Pluggers can’t become so discouraged that they become bitter people, but many experience “coincidences” and develop what the “privileged” deem superstition, but which the Plugger feels, often in an unspoken way,  is a communion with the One from whom all blessings flow.

I should probably leave this subject, before I get myself in trouble. I only bring it up to explain the difference between putting your faith in a pension, and putting your faith in something far better, something besides money, something I vaguely called “freedom”, waving my arms inarticulately to the west and pointing at a cloud.

Most Pluggers have a hard time intellectually stating their stance. After all, most are responding to circumstances beyond their control. To people who have a cushion of wealth, and the leisure to construct a stance, a Plugger seems like a person who can’t take a stand or even make a point. A Plugger points like a weather vane, constantly shifting. For a Plugger does not think man controls the climate; he responds to it. He is like the captains of the sailing ships of yore, very respectful-of and responsive-to the wind, whereas the man with money and security and a pension thinks he has a stink-pot cabin-cruiser which can plow straight upwind and ignore all weathers.

Now, if you capitalize the words “wind” and “weathers” in the above paragraph, you can perhaps glimpse how a Plugger might be responding to their Creator, in a manner which might be inarticulate and even unconscious, but which the Creator might notice. And, if you were a Creator whose nature was love, who would you respond to? The Plugger responding to You, or the wealthy with all their attention away on their portfolio, counting the stocks and bonds in their pension like a miser counts cold coins?

This is not to say Pluggers don’t long for comfort, and a life of ease, but they can sing and dance even with such gratification indefinitely postponed.

 

This brings me back to the early days days of my marriage, which I now fondly recall, but which were not so easy to struggle through, at the time. What is good to recall is the amazing faith my wife and I had that we would “get by”, and how that faith was not misplaced, for we did “get by”, (though I should perhaps use the words “squeaked by.”)

Now that I am older and wiser I look back and roll my eyes. I say rude things, like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” Yet we sailed through situations like an elderly woman on a tricycle passing through a terrible ten-car-pile-up on a major downtown intersection without a hair in her bun jarred out of place. In retrospect one cannot look at such history without mentioning unscientific things such as “guardian angels” or “the grace of God” or even, “Manifest Destiny”. However, somewhat amazingly, we each thought we were very practical, and the impractical one was our beloved spouse.

In retrospect our quarrels were delightful, (for our reconciliations created two delightful babies), but, moving on to the specifics, our quarrels were about very interesting stuff, although I don’t imagine the elite really think about such stuff. Unless you have ever faced an empty refrigerator, you cannot deem groceries a topic worth much attention, but I and my young wife had a yearly quarrel, which I will dub the “Harvest Quarrel.”

During the summer we had too much work: I, as a landscaper, and my wife, as the small town “Recreation Director” of the local playground and swimming pool. As winter approached her work vanished, as did mine, (after I made a final bundle raking leaves). We were shifting from having plenty of groceries for our three, then four, then five children, to having none. The stress of this situation resulted in the yearly “Harvest Quarrel.”

The quarrel had two fascinating steps, wherein at first my my wife displayed a flippant disregard for groceries, and then I myself displayed the flippant disregard.

The first step involved the fact that, even after working in the gardens of others all day, I always found time to have a garden of my own. Besides producing a paycheck, I produced actual food.  I would proudly dump dirty produce in my wife’s clean kitchen, and she wasn’t always appreciative. Some of my fresh produce went into delicious dinners, but a shocking (to me) amount seemed to barely pause in the house before heading out to the compost pile.

I had an old-fashioned belief that my wife should be like my mother and grandmother, who had Great-Depression-aversions to seeing even a scrap of food wasted. My grandmother was especially good at making the labor involved look easy, like something she was doing on the side with her little finger, while focused on a more interesting conversation, either with a person working with her, or on the radio. She preserved food while berating the Red Sox for losing again, her work deft yet unconscious, like a taxi driver manipulating through intense city traffic while discussing politics.

During summer’s surplus, when food was cheap, my grandmother canned vegetables in glass jars, or pickled them, or made a sugary jams of fruits. Refrigeration was not necessary. She knew all the old tricks for preserving food, such as corning beef or turning cabbage to sauerkraut, and where to store onions as opposed to where to store potatoes, and had various pantries and cellars delegated for the storage of food. By the time winter rolled around she was ready.  Children were incorporated into this bustle, and I don’t recall grumbling much about it, and at times enjoyed it. My mother might stop at a farmer’s market and score a bargain on a big basket of past-prime shell beans, and this meant I’d sit with my siblings on the back porch shelling them, separating the bad beans from the good, talking about whatever, watching the twittering chimney swifts soar overhead as summer clouds built in the sky.

If there was any grumbling involved, it was about wasting food. Woe unto the child who didn’t finish their dinner. Garbage went to the pig, (or, if you had no pig, to the pig farmer, who made money on the side picking up your garbage), and when the pig was slaughtered  “everything was used but the squeal.”

So much was this constant activity part of my grandmother’s make-up that even when she was old and my grandfather had saved enough to allow her to be a lady of leisure, she could become restless. When the herring were swimming upstream in the spring she seemed a bit offended no men brought her pails of silver fish for her to salt down in big crock-pots.

My wife was not the same. If I plunked a pail of fish down in her kitchen she did not look the slightest bit delighted. The same went for heaps of grubby carrots or dirty potatoes. Only occasionally would she make some jellies or jams, seemingly more for amusement than out of any sense of necessity, and when I brought baskets of red and green tomatoes in before the first fall freeze they sat around on just about every downstairs windowsill, ripening and sometimes rotting, on their way to salads or sauces or the compost pile, but never to canning jars.

This rubbed my fur the wrong way at times. Call it my Yankee heritage if you will, but I just felt winter was a danger we should prepare for, and always was very busy splitting and stacking wood in the fall. My wife could make me a little crazy, for she wouldn’t even rush out to shop before a major winter storm. She preferred to shop right after the storm, and the one time I accompanied her I could see her point; after a storm the store was wonderfully quiet and there were no lines at the register. I could also see her point about tomato sauce; it was much easier to pick up a jar at the market than to can it yourself. All the same, it just didn’t seem right.

I got my revenge by rubbing her fur the wrong way, in my own manner. This occurred when my landscaping was officially ended by the first fall of snow. Even if there were still leaves on lawns, they were buried by white, so I’d put my rakes away and sit by the warm fire, and gaze dreamily out the window, working on a poem about falling snow. After months of hard work it felt good to just compose, but it drove my wife crazy. We had no income, and I was just sitting there, nibbling an eraser. She’d interrupt my composing with some inane question, such as, “What about groceries?” I’d say, “I thought you just bought groceries yesterday.” She’d respond, “But what about next week?” I’d heave a deep sigh, for I knew it was time for our yearly Harvest Quarrel.

It did no good to say “calm down”, for those two words never work, and indeed often have a strangely opposite effect. It also did no good to point out that if she had canned like my grandmother she’s have no worries about groceries because she’d have months of food on the shelves, because if I said that she’d just point out that if I was like my grandfather I’d have a job that lasted through the winter. Neither did it do any good to wax spiritual and preach that we should have faith in God, because she would open her Bible to “Proverbs” and quote, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man“. Lastly, it was equally unhelpful to suggest that if I was left alone to complete my poem about falling snow the result might be a one-hit-wonder that would make us rich, for she would just say I had already written a hundred wonders, and I should be out selling them.

She gave me no peace, and became a complete burr-under-the-saddle. My Dad advised me women look better if you “make them lively”, and I was succeeding in making her lively. (She became especially lively if I used the word “harangue.”) What I actually wanted to do is write about the peace of falling snow, and find a rhyme for the word “silver”, but it was always obvious that only way I was going to get the peace and quiet necessary was if I went out into the snow and drove through it. That was always the conclusion to the Harvest Quarrel.

What then happened always amazed me. I’d very soon come clumping back into the house with snowy boots, shoot my wife a smug look, and say, “I start work at six tomorrow morning. Happy now?” Then I’d go back to the fire, pick up my uncompleted poem about falling snow, and again begin nibbling my eraser, well aware my wife was itching with curiosity.

What amazed me was the ease with which I found work. There had been other times in my life work wasn’t to be had, and I’d roll my eyes to God wondering what He expected me to do.  Other times I rolled my eyes to heaven with a different, happier expression, when I found work with amazing ease, and these were those other times: I’d look down a heartless street steeling my nerve to go to business after business, expecting to experiencing painful rejection after painful rejection, but the very first place would hire me. It happened with surprising frequency, and always felt like the part of a cartoon where someone charges a locked door, lowering their shoulder to smash it down, and just as they reach the door someone opens it.

Not that the jobs were good ones, but I’d lived on the edge so long that heights no longer bothered me. Where some fret about a pension thirty years in the future, I was more concerned about today, and more willing to let tomorrow take care of itself. Also I was less sensitive about rejection, less prone to burst into tears when a job wasn’t available (although that might be an interesting tactic), and less willing to morbidly dwell upon the offence of being refused. I was more curious about other people and midst this curiosity was more able to utterly forget myself and my own problems. Perhaps I was like a sailor who has seen his ship can come through a storm unscathed, and who no longer feels he can only sail in sunny weather.

In fact, when I looked in the mirror, I realized I had changed. When I walked into a business my demeanor was different, switched from overly sensitive and doubtful to cheerful and confident. Nor was it an act. I definitely had in some way matured, and in some ways I now got jobs too swiftly; I now liked job interviews, and, when I had been happily contemplating a couple weeks of interesting discussions with managers over coffee, it could be disappointing to only experience one interview, before getting hired.

It did puff my ego a little to be able to assuage my wife’s worry about groceries so quickly, but it was hard to be too swelled up, as the pay was usually so minuscule that it took some adroit budgeting to make it to spring. We’d have to run up a tab until April, wherever we could. Also, when I sat and thought about it, I really couldn’t take much credit for changing. The “School Of Hard Knocks” had matured me.

But who was the professor? This question seemed more interesting to contemplate than my poem about falling snow, and the page of the notebook in front of me filled with stray doodles, and the scribbled numbers of sketched budgets and altered schedules.

Such a silent guide You are that I never
Knew it was You leading me to follow
Your lead. But black sheep are not so clever
As they believe. When my heart grew hollow
I turned away, and thought I was leading
Myself, but who is really the professor
When slings and arrows leave students bleeding
In life’s School Of Hard Knocks? Yet how tender
You are; how patient, as with the pace of snails
I learned. I called my guide, “my own Free Will”,
But captains are not the ones who fill sails
Like fat bellies. I blundered on until
My free will finally learned how to dance.
Your silent love is what leads this romance.

I should probably stop there, but need to add a coda to finalize the theme about “burrs”.

I think that one thing that makes the attitude of a Plugger so much more upbeat than that of a worrier, (who frets at a threat to a pension far in the future), is a Plugger’s  simple discovery that good things come in bad packages. A Navajo friend once wrote, “Boot camp is a very good thing to have happen only once in your life,” which is an essay in only fifteen words; IE: Certain discipline may be as palatable as cod-liver-oil, but turns out to make you feel better in the end. The pains, bad tastes, foul smells, and itchy burrs are the curriculum of the School Of Hard Knocks, whether or not you believe there is a Professor in charge of how such discipline is dispensed.

Once you have been through such burrs even once, and see that you more than survived, but were actually strangely matured, then burrs in your future seem less repugnant. You are made able to face situations, which once filled you with dread, without fear, or with far less fear. Not that you don’t know enough to come in out of the rain, but if you must stay out you are singing in the rain.

When I walked into a business my demeanor was utterly different when I was forty, completely changed from an overly sensitive and doubtful 18-year-old’s. Some jobs were demeaning, such as folding and collating pages of inane pamphlets containing bosh and humbug, but I could sing in such rain. My fellow workers tended to be “temps” (short for “Temporary Contract Labor”) who worked for less than the regular workers, without benefits, and the regular workers tended to resent temps. But temps were interesting people to talk to, for they tended to be down on their luck, and usually there is a good story behind a downfall. However despite their downfall, and despite being exploited by bosses and disdained by regular workers, temps didn’t retreat in self-pity, nor expect welfare and charity, but rather were the sort who would work a rotten job to claw their way out of their poverty. They were true Pluggers, and I saw a hidden benefit in jobs that had no benefits, for I got to interrogate and interview interesting Pluggers I otherwise would have only a slight chance of ever meeting. The odd thing was some of these people had no idea anyone might find them worth interrogating and interviewing; my interest was something that lit them up; they blossomed under the feeble sunshine of my innocent, simpleton queries. Such a flowering, under the dingy light of forty watt bulbs, made me look over my shoulder, for I knew I’m not so bright, and I wondered why their faces lit up. From whence came the light? It intrigued me, yet, even as this intriguing stuff occurred, all we were doing was folding and collating pamphlets of guff.

This is not to say I didn’t yearn to be out in the falling snow like a boy yearns to escape Algebra class, but so did the other temps; you could see it in the longing light in their eyes as they passed a window. We were all in it together, and there was a sort of camaraderie reminiscent of that seen in soldiers in deplorable circumstances, which led Wilfred Owen to write, “I too have seen God through mud.”

This brings me back to what I stated earlier, which was, (in case you have forgotten), “There is something worth singing about in simply surviving to see another day. Life is beautiful and precious, in and of itself, irregardless of whether you succeed or fail. In fact the burr of suffering seems strangely beneficial, for it proves that Life persists in spite of adversity, and that Life is indomitable and unquenchable and independent.”

The problem with such a realization is that it robs you of some motivation. Once you realize you already have what is most valuable, namely Life, what more do you need? Why even get a job, let alone a pension? Beethoven proved beautiful music doesn’t even require the ability to hear. Nothing is necessary for happiness but Life.

Fortunately Life does contain burrs, which direct us. Your beloved will bring you a concern which, if you have a heart, you will respond to.

Just as my young wife brought up concerns, disturbing my content as I sat by the fire contemplating falling snow, she could disturb my content as I enjoyed folding and collating pamphlets of guff, by urging me to get a better job. Even when minimum wages were raised from $3.35/hour when we met to $4.25/hour when she was first pregnant, it wasn’t enough.  It wasn’t that we were greedy; we were running-up-a-tab at the market, and on our utility bills, even with me working full-time. Running-up-a-tab was a parachute that slowed our decent, enabling us to survive until spring,  (when I’d make $10.00/hour landscaping). But if you made too little in the winter your parachute would be too small, and when you hit spring you’d be up to your neck.

Therefore I, (and indeed most “temps”), required “overtime” to get by. Once you worked over 40 hours your pay would be “time-and-a-half”, (shifting from 4.25/hour to 6.38/hour.) I freely confessed this requirement when I was first hired, during the initial job-interview, not minding much if being so demanding meant I wouldn’t be hired. Yet sometimes it was what got me hired. The boss had some job he urgently needed done in a big hurry, and he desired people who would work overtime, but his regular employees not only might be unwilling to work extra hours, but might have the “benefit” of an earned vacation coming up. In such situations “temps” stepped in to save the day, but, once the day was saved, “temps” would be promptly laid-off. Unemployment may seem a cruel reward for a job-well-done, but I could only fold and collate so long before the work got stale, and I tended to depart such jobs whistling, and looking ahead eagerly to the next chapter.

If I was in the mood to complain then looking for work would have been a burr, and getting laid-off would have been a burr, and my wife’s concern would have been a burr, and I could have been very sour. And I confess there were times I was sour, usually first thing on Monday morning. However I did notice my mood was mysteriously better by Monday’s midday, and a hundred times better at age forty than it had been at age eighteen. Furthermore, being in a better mood about burrs seemed to bring benefits hard to explain. It made sense that an employer might be more likely to hire a cheerful person than a person who radiated shyness and fear, but I seemed to sense a more amazing aspect was involved.

Call it a superstition if you wish, but I felt the “burrs” were actually the prodding of a Good Shepherd’s crook.

It is said God can be hard as steel and soft as butter. The earlier times in my life, when I couldn’t find work no matter how hard I tried, seemed a sort of hard-as-steel time of tough love, as I was educated by the School Of Hard Knocks. For some reason it didn’t make me feel angry at God, but rather utterly dependent, like a small child wearing pajamas with feet. However I also felt that was the normal state of the cruel world. I didn’t expect any soft-as-butter stuff, and was deeply mystified when I went through a time when I was hired wherever I applied.

One autumn, after my wife and I had been through our typical Autumnal Quarrel, it occurred to me, as I stomped out the front door, that it would make life easier if I got a job within walking distance of my house. Both my truck and my wife’s van were old clunkers, and it seemed likely I could save both on gas-money, and on the bother of dealing with break-downs, if I didn’t commute. The problem was that I lived in a small town with few businesses, and the economy was poor. But a friend had told me I might try one place that hired temps for the Christmas Rush. It was a New-Agey place I wouldn’t ordinarily consider, a business that bought herbs and spices in bulk quantities, and broke them down into small packets and jars to sell to retailers.

I figured I’d test my luck; if I was on a streak of getting hired the first place I applied, I might as well try a place roughly a half mile from my front door.  I walked in and filled out an application there. My luck held. I had barely walked back into my house when the phone rang, and the owner asked if I could walk back for an interview. It was a bit of a drag to have to make a U-turn and walk back when I was planning to sit by the fire, but burrs are burrs.

I got the job, of course, but the interview struck me as wonderfully bizarre. The first question I was asked was, “Did you know a mad poet from Harvard named X?”

It just so happened I did know X, and for a time had considered myself a close friend of X’s, over a quarter century in the past when I associated with such crazies, and wasn’t a responsible father of five. I had been a senior in high school and X was a senior at Harvard, and we associated with pot-smoking intellectuals and had amazing conversations about wildly speculative things that one doesn’t usually bring up, at a job interview. To be honest, the question seemed a trick question, and I became very guarded. But honesty compelled me to answer, “Yes, I knew X”.

The second question was, “Do you know what happened to him?”

X was one of those flamboyant people who you may not want to partner with, but who dares things you don’t dare, and goes places you don’t go, and therefore, even though you don’t want to join them, you want to know where their flamboyance led them. I too was very curious, (and secretly fearful X had died in the horrible AIDs epidemic of the 1980’s), but could only answer my future boss with, “I don’t know. I last saw him in 1976, and our last phone-call was in 1984. Later I heard from a friend that he had headed south to join the Sufis of Washington D.C., around 1985, but in the decade since I’ve heard nothing.”

My future boss looked very disappointed, but hired me and told me show up at nine the next morning to learn the ropes of the herbs and spice business. He arose, and I arose, and it seemed the interview was over, but then, as if to explain something, he hesitated, and then added, “X told me you were the greatest poet since Shakespeare.” Throttled by astonishment, I couldn’t think of how to reply. I’m not sure what I said. Likely it was something dismissive. Then I walked home through the snow.

That was a strange walk, in the falling snow. I mean, how many job interviews do you walk into, for some simple job such as packing herbs and spices, without any sort of recommendation, where you get an unasked-for recommendation from someone you lost contact with over a decade in the past, who might even be dead? Not that the recommendation that I was “the greatest poet since Shakespeare” had anything to do with packing herbs and spices. I’d long ago learned poetry had little to do with feeding yourself, let alone feeding a wife and five children.

I’ll confess the strange interview did stir a hope in me that our interview was one of those “chance meetings” you read about in the lives of authors and poets, wherein they are “discovered”, and rise “from rags to riches” overnight, publishing some sort of “one-hit-wonder”.  But this was not the case. We never spoke of X or of poetry again. However there was a strange, unspoken understanding: We had shared-roots in a wild past when mad poets were especially free, and didn’t need to work Real Jobs.

We did have some interesting talks, but I was far more interested in him than he was in me. I learned that when young he had a vision of learning of herbs and spices that could be wonder drugs, perhaps even finding a herb which cured cancer, and that he had labored long and hard, studying botany at Harvard and even travelling to the Amazon, seeking herbal mysteries, but that when push came to shove, and he had a wife and daughter to support, such study didn’t pay the bills. The herbs and spices that paid the bills tended to be mundane things like powdered Cinnamon and Garlic. To make a living he imported bulk quantities of things not locally grown, to sell to people who required smaller amounts.

Someday I’ll hopefully do a better job of describing what a wonderful job I lucked into, because I was too lazy to fix my limping truck and become an ordinary commuter. But for now I’ll give a couple examples of how wonderful the job was.

One of his best sellers was cinnamon. He sold several types, and four-inch-sticks and three-inch-sticks, but most people wanted the powdered stuff. It came in two-hundred pound barrels.  Most households, when they buy powdered cinnamon, want to buy one or two ounces. A restaurant will desire perhaps a pound, and a busy doughnut shop ten, and even a frantic bakery will desire at most twenty-five. No one wants to pay the price of two-hundred pounds, even though the wholesaler basically doubles the price, selling to the retailer. My job as a muscular poet was to man-handle barrels most cooks can ‘t budge, and then break-down the contents to smaller packages.

The second example is bay leaves. All cooks understand the positive effect a leaf or two of bay can have on a soup or stew. However bay does not arrive from Turkey a leaf or two at a time. It arrives in huge, fragrant bales, weighing at least fifty pounds.

My first job, my first day of work, was to manhandle a huge bale of bay-leaves, and then break it down, and amidst the sweet, rustling aroma of this occupation I did not think of the customer, who would receive tiny packets, but rather I was transported to Turkey. Perhaps it was only because I, as a landscaper and farmer, was aware a lot of hard work went into picking and drying and baling and exporting the leaves, but the scent as I worked was evocative of a landscape I had never seen and of people I had never met. Images drifted through my imagination. It was much better than folding and collating pamphlets.

My family approved when I came home smelling of bay, but I was less popular when I had to deal with enormous amounts of garlic powder. For the most part my work involved around twenty everyday herbs, which likely produced around ninety-five percent of the business’s profit. But besides those twenty barrels of herbs there were perhaps a hundred others, holding mysterious herbs I had never heard of. When I filled orders I was swift to learn where to go to find Cinnamon, but sometimes at the bottom of the order there would be an item I had never heard of. Then I would have to search through the barrels in the back of the warehouse for a pound of some such thing as, “Saint John’s Wort”.

My boss’s wife was a bit scornful of such items, because “turnover” was so slow. If you bought a bale of some obscure herb it might be five or even ten years before it was sold, but my boss would not listen to his wife, and would reorder. He seemed to like being an herb-and-spice-place that had the items other places lacked. Also his insistence seemed to be like my own poetry; a thing he did even if it wasn’t profitable; a thing connected to his original reason for focusing on herbs and spices.

I could sense, my first day on the job, that I should be careful when bringing up a question such as, “What is Saint Johns Wort good for”? My boss’s wife would snap, “Absolutely nothing,”  and my boss would look meek, and button his lip. It was obvious she was a burr to him, just as my wife was a burr to me when I wrote poems about falling snow rather than looking for work. And he was a burr to her, by insisting on restocking, just as I was a burr to my wife by insisting on writing poems.

I think it was during the first week that I discovered that, among the obscure items he had in the barrels in the back of his warehouse, he had burrs. Or not the burrs, but the root of the plant that made the burrs, called “Burdock”.

As a landscaper I tended to see Burdock as a rank and obnoxious weed. This was not only because, when my daughters happened to get burrs in their hair, tears resulted, but also because the plant could spring up with amazing vigor, with a tap root which made carrots seem small, and leaves nearly as fat and wide as Rhubarb’s. Here is a Burdock jumping up between my garden’s Rhubarb and Asparagus:

It is hard to be fond of such a rank and persistent weed. My Asparagus and Rhubarb have strong roots which are perennial; there are cases where grandchildren have fed off the plants their grandfather planted fifty years earlier, but burdock is a plant that can invade such a long-standing patch and, with roots equally vigorous, weaken the desired crop. It is hard to see such a burr as desirable.

Yet my new boss was making a small profit selling such roots. This of course piqued my interest, but unfortunately I asked my question when his wife was in earshot, and heard the brusque reply, “Absolutely nothing is good about Burdock.”

I already had concluded that, but was trying to escape my prejudice. My escape occurred soon, due to the fact the warehouse had a tiny “retail shop” in the front of the warehouse. It produced less than 1% of the business’s profit, but I had the feeling my new boss liked talking to people about herbs and spices, and the “retail shop” was more of an excuse to talk than it was a way to make money. However he was out, and I happened to be the only person available, so I had to deal with a customer though I knew next to nothing about herbs and spices.

The customer was a lady from Japan, where burdock root is often used in their cuisine. However she was not looking for fresh and tender roots, suitable for cuisine, but dried roots, for a tea that she claimed had amazing benefits. I became her student, as she praised burdock, but I became her professor, when I told her it didn’t need to be imported from Japan.  After I sold her a pound of the dried root, we stepped outside and I pointed out a few examples of the invasive weed.

Some businessmen might think this a bad policy, for she would have no need to buy dried roots, if she knew she might harvest them from her own yard. All I can say is she did return, from time to time, over the next five years. For that is how long I lasted at this job as a “temp.” It was not a steady job, but one I could count on being steady before Christmas.

As I stated before, it would take another post to tell the tales of this on-again-off-again job. But this post is about the benefits of burrs.

Now it is twenty-four years later, and I am running a Childcare, and part of our haphazard curriculum is a course on “the benefits of Burdock”. Usually I am not officially on duty when this class is taught, but kids find the sight of an old man working in the garden more interesting than what my staff has planned, and they often come drifting over to pester me.  Because my hard-working staff can use a break, I often involve the children in my work, (at times having them cheerfully make mincemeat of child-labor-laws, for example when I have to move a hundred bricks). Other times, for example when I am weeding, I weed less, and create a spontaneous curriculum involving what weeds are very poisonous, such as buttercups, and what weeds are edible, such as chickweed. At some point I always seem to involve them in digging burdock from the garden, and saving the roots.

These roots must be washed:

And then, (after trouble which always occurs when small boys have control of a hose), I show the children how to remove the bitter outer bark of burdock root from the slightly-sweet inner root:

Then they munch. I have a rule, regarding wild foods, which states that they are allowed to spit out anything they don’t like, which is a freedom they seem to enjoy. (Also I become very stern, and put on my most ferocious glower, regarding eating any wild thing without first asking me if it is edible.)

I’ve learned there is no accounting for children’s taste. The most fussy eater may demonstrate a peculiar fondness for some odd plant like Burdock, while the most voracious child may detest the same plant. Also a child who initially spits out a plant may, after watching his small peers munch away and ask me for second helpings, be seen surreptitiously picking up the root he cast away and giving it another chance, or, if he can’t find it, may whine to me for a second helping. Lastly I’ve discovered a sure-fire way to get kids interested is to tell them they won’t like the plant, because “only grown-ups like it.”

I don’t talk much about the medicinal benefits of a plant like Burdock, that I first heard about from the lady from Japan. For one thing, our society seems too focused on pharmaceuticals, and for another thing, the ownership of such knowledge seems a gift to me, and I am not particularly gifted in that regard.

I’ve known people who have an uncanny and often unconscious ability to prepare salads and stews that make people feel better, and cause the recipients to state “you are a natural chef” or “you put love in your cooking”, without thinking the cook is an herbalist or some sort of witch-doctor. But I sense a gift in such people. I think the gift likely has ancient origins, dating from when we were a nomadic people living off the land. Unfortunately the gift, like all gifts, can be misused, (in which case it may be withdrawn), and there are also fraudsters who lack the gift but are gifted in selling snake-oil. During the time I was involved with selling herbs and spices I met some New Age types who managed to make the entire topic of herbs repellent and downright disgusting, because their poorly-hidden desires seemed to be all about orgasms and hallucinations. Just as I like poetry yet avoid poet-societies, I’m interested in herbs but generally avoid herbalists.

Because I lack the true gift, I tend to be more pedantic and scientific, and conduct secret experiments, involving only myself. For example, my son might visit, and notice a glass of greenish sludge by my coffee cup at my computer. Wrinkling his brow, he’ll ask me, “What the heck is that stuff, Dad?” A bit evasively I’ll reply, “boiled Burdock root.” A bit of a smile will cross his face, and he’ll be unable to resist asking, “And?”

There’s no way around it, and I have to confess the secret: While wandering the web and reading about Burdock root I chanced upon a claim it “stimulates the hair follicles of the scalp.” My old follicles could use some stimulation, in my humble opinion, so I decided to conduct an experiment, keeping it secret because I don’t want people to know I am vain. I told my son that so far I had noticed nothing, which is a good thing, because such experiments can backfire and cause immediate baldness. He chuckled and walked away shaking his head slightly.

I sat back and contemplated the blessing of burrs. Even if my thin, gray hair doesn’t start to explosively grow, (making me look like a large dandelion gone to silver seed), it seems the weeds of my life later are revealed to have actually been herbs, and the burrs that made me uncomfortable moved me to my benefit.

Life is far more complicated than our puny minds can grasp, even when we attempt to control it and to guarantee ourselves fat pensions. Repercussions cause repercussion’s repercussions, with events clicking like complicated shots in a game of billiards, with complications clicking onward even years later. When I talked with the mad Harvard poet X at age sixteen, who could foresee it would land me a job at age forty, or that the job would result in me teaching little children about Burdock root, at age sixty-six?

As I thought about it, it seemed those who fixate upon control miss a lot. They miss bonanza after bonanza after bonanza. It seemed better to be a Plugger, leaving control in the hands of the only Mind that sees all repercussions.

As for me, I just do what comes next, and what came next was to start writing something titled, “A Burr’s Blessing.”

UNLESS YOU BECOME AS A CHILD

I’m getting old. I think I may even be starting to show symptoms of “second childhood”. Despite a return to cold and wet weather I failed to muster the proper attitude of dour, sardonic sarcasm, and instead continued to potter about the Childcare’s garden quite contentedly. Lots went wrong, but it failed to piss me off. Children ran through freshly seeded plots, and I shrugged it off. The radio reported politicians behaving like idiots, and I chuckled rather than raved. What was wrong with me?

When the United States sent an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, and Iran sneered it could take the carrier out with missiles, and I didn’t immediately thrash about in agony over my failures to be prepared for Armageddon, I checked my pulse. I wasn’t dead, so then I wondered if someone drugged my coffee. It just wasn’t like me to remain calm.

You see, according to my original script, by now my Farm-childcare was suppose to be more developed than it is. Using the extra income I’d make from either a best-seller or a hit-song, I’d be able to afford restoring the land to the productivity it achieved around 1860, when it produced enough to feed perhaps a hundred people (and make just enough money to raise a family). That may not be enough to profitably compete with modern agribusiness, but it would be a boon to my community in a wartime situation, when food supplies from far away might be cut off. It is a complete failure on my part that, even after years of effort, the farm at best could feed two or three. Ninety-seven neighbors might starve, because I failed to write a hit song.

Shame. Shame on me. How dare I potter about whistling? I should be cursing my weakness, and the failure of my society to pay me millions for my poems. I should be pacing like a tiger in it’s cage, not happily running like a hamster in its wheel.

What ponders the hamster, watching its wheel
And wondering if it should go for a spin?
It knows spin goes nowhere; sees that the deal
Is non-profit. Does it grin a small grin
All the same? And how about my labors?
My poems unpublished? My soil’s hilled beans?
My good deeds done for nobody-neighbors?
I grin a small grin when I think how it means
So little compared to what’s Eternity’s,
Then think how God may be pleased if I spin
My wheel right. Solomon’s futilities
Be damned. It simply isn’t a sin
To stretch my old limbs in the wheel and get sore
When my dance is for God, and not to gain more.

Perhaps part of second childhood is having a decrease of motivating hormones. There are ads on the radio stating “erectile dysfunction” is some sort of serious problem I should seek help for, like a drug addict seeking detox and rehab, (though, looking back, it seems “erectile function” got me in far more trouble than “dysfunction” ever did.) Hormones seemed to fuel desire, and then lots of frustration when desire wasn’t fulfilled, (and some joy but also a strange dissatisfaction when I got what I wanted), yet both sides of that desire-coin can be avoided when you skip the desire altogether. Not that I sought desirelessness like some Yogi in the Himalayas. It just happens when you get older, to some a curse but to others a blessing.

I happened to be in a state of mind where second childhood felt like a blessing even in the rain, and then the sun came out.

With the sun as high as it is in early August, the delayed spring exploded, with buds bursting to unfolding leaves. If you have ever dealt with farmers when “June is busting out all over” you know they enter a state of manic frenzy.  But I just couldn’t quite do it. I continued to potter, and failed at farmer-frenzy.

Formerly failure stung like a whip, and like a whip it spurred greater effort, but after fifty years that gets old. A man does his best with his gifts, and beyond that he can do no more.

What I just wrote is more profound than it looks, and young artists should take heed: If you are fated to be a Norman Rockwell then fate will supply you with help, and a Saturday Evening Post will appear to make giving your gift easier. Study the lives of artists who achieved fame and success and you’ll see none made it alone. The coincidental meetings and “lucky breaks” are astounding, and may make young artists jealous that they see no “lucky breaks”, yet such jealousy only occurs because they don’t see fame and success can be a pathway to misery, nor see that it can be very good luck to avoid all that, and instead lead a quiet life with a good spouse, unnoticed and untroubled, and blessed with far more tranquility than fame ever offers.

It has started to occur to me that it is lucky I never became a one-hit-wonder and gained the cash that would allow me to demonstrate how productive my “failed” farm (and hundreds of thousands of other “failed” farms) might be. Such success sounds like ceaseless work of the restless sort, when I prefer work of the pottering, restful sort. I understand I am blessed, (though some might call my luck a blessing in disguise, a sort of silver lining in the gloomy clouds of failure).

One failure many farmers face is that cute, lovable chicks become horrible beasts called “pullets”. They are basically dinosaurs hiding their reptilian nature with feathers. They neither cluck nor lay eggs like hens, and instead are the annoying adolescents of the chicken world.  They make the innocent and adorable peeping of chicks into a peeping so annoying you want to kick them. Therefore all the people who were so eager to help me when the birds were cute chicks lose interest when they become gawky, demanding pullets. Therefore you’d think pullets would like me, their only loyal and true friend. But no, the word “thank you” is not in their vocabulary, and if I am at all late they rush to the door of their pen hurling peeping insults at me, crowd about my feet and never thank me for not stepping on them, and then dig into their food without a look backwards in gratitude. (Even dogs at least wag their tails at you while gulping down their dinner.)

Some farmer’s wives, through prolonged patience and kindness, can can eventually civilize these dinosaur pullets to a degree where, as hens, they strut into a farmhouse and hop up into the kind woman’s lap to be petted as she watches TV in the evening. However, as pullets, they are all far from such civilization, and few farmers have the patience and kindness necessary to generate warm and fuzzy feelings towards a dinosaur. Yet something about getting old and gray allows me to like the birds even when they only pause from fighting each other over food to give a glare with all the beaming warmth of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

If I can feel pleased by even a pullet’s glare, then I can be pleased by other things, more easy and favorable, and less reptilian.

For example, I neglected some things last year, such as my patches of Rhubarb and Asparagus, and therefore I should be punished this year with failed crops. However Rhubarb and Asparagus do not forget the wheelbarrows of manure they were fed in prior years, an overcame the competition of last summer’s weeds, and grew even more prosperous, with root systems becoming even more vigorous. In fact this spring, for every shoot of asparagus I cut, three more spring up.

Here’s another example of how my weakness (being old and lazy) strangely blesses me:

I’ve sadly faced the fact I can’t weed like I once did. Nor can I hire the young and strong to sweat in the sun like I once did, (because I haven’t sold my hit song yet). Therefore I decided to buy a fabric that rich people use around the base of their their roses, to prevent weeds. It costs a pretty penny, but with hourly wages rising the fabric costs much less than a human. Also in theory the fabric is less work; you sweat under the sun laying it but then get to sit back, where old-style weeding was a constant battle. Then I discovered it had a further benefit, besides blocking the growth of weeds. Because it was black, it absorbed the sunlight. Even on a cloudy day (because the sun rides as high as early August) enough radiance penetrated clouds to make the fabric slightly warm, even when rain mixed with sleet, and therefore, because the soil beneath the fabric was made warmer, my peas germinated more swiftly, and are two weeks ahead of friends who planted at the same time without black fabric. Who would believe being lazy could have such a benefit?

In conclusion, the decrepitude of old age is turning out to be more pleasurable than I expected.  Who would think failure could be such fun? It makes me stop and think, for it is so contrary to logic. How can an old geezer’s impotency have such potency? How can becoming desireless give me what I desire?

I don’t claim to fathom what I’m glimpsing. But it does seem my second childhood has some of the qualities of the first, and, because I run a Childcare, I have ample opportunity to study children as they get utterly stoned on the narcotic called “Spring”, and then to think about how Jesus stated we must become like such irresponsible little individuals, if we are to ever taste bliss.

How to regain joys barefoot boys heft
When they’re walking whistling down summer’s road
Freed from school’s failures, from “F” after “F”
And all that shame? They have shed such a load
Of ignominy. They are free, free, free of it.
The final school bell ends a fifteen round fight
And they’re the loser, but they don’t care a whit
About such unforgiving displays of might,
And find forgiveness in summer sunshine.
How can they be so certain they’re embraced?
They’ve achieved nothing, and yet a divine
Compassion is their fate. Surely they’re placed
On the level of angels. Their whistling
Is praises to God, who smiles, listening.

LOCAL VIEW –Pampering Chickens–

Put down your coffee before you read on, for I am about to say something astounding, and I wouldn’t want your coffee to come out of your nose or spray the computer screen.

Sometimes, even though I am the air-headed poet, I am the only pragmatic and efficient person around. This is very stressful. Poets should not be exposed to such seriousness and gravity. Poets are suppose to skip and traipse, but perhaps it is part of the suffering of a poet to occasionally have to trudge and plod; to occasionally have to be the practical, efficient and boring person in a situation.

Partly this is due to mixing farming with poetry. I wanted to be like Robert Frost. Though he did have the misfortune to get incarcerated at an University later in life, some of his best poems were written when he was younger and got his hands dirty:

                  MENDING WALL
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Robert Frost; (1874-1963) Published 1914

My wife would strongly disagree that I am ever the practical one, being of the belief I need to be inspected before I go out into the world, to be certain my shirt is right-side-out and I remembered to put my teeth in. Sometimes she seems to remind me not to forget things no man has ever forgotten in recorded history. It used to exasperate me, but I have come to see it as caring. What exasperates me is the insinuation that she is never the impractical one, and in need of caring, due to her own sort of poetry.

My wife’s poetry involves a tendency to see a reason for celebration in somewhat mundane events. I probably would limit holidays to Christmas and Fourth of July, to avoid all the bother of cleaning the house, but my wife has a joyous streak, and finds a reason to party to a degree where she sometimes resembles a burn-out. For example, I present to the court the following evidence:

My youngest grandchild just turned one. This may be a sentimental day for my daughter, as the boy is her first child, but I figure the child is at an age where he won’t remember the event, and is more interested in tearing wrapping paper than in what is underneath. It seems to me that one should limit the time and energy put into such an event, especially when we need to plant the potatoes. But does my wife put on the brakes?

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It is around this time I become the pragmatic old grump. I mean, do we really have time to blow up 200 balloons? And what are you going to do with 200 balloons when the party is over?

And should the children at our Farm-childcare be running about joyously playing-with and popping 200 balloons? What, pray tell, does this have to do with farming? With using the brief sunshine of a rainy spring to work out in the muck that is the garden?

I mean, as much as I’d like to dress in a white linen suit with a black-ribbon-tie like Colonel Sanders, and drink mint juleps on a plantation porch as others do the work, I haven’t sold a hit song yet, and until I make my million I must be practical.

One thing we did to make our Farm-childcare more interesting, in the constant rain, was to buy some cute, fuzzy chicks. But they grow with amazing speed, and as their cuteness shrinks their reek increases. Someone must build a coop away from the main building. Being the only practical poet around here, the job fell on me.

 The long, rectangular structure is fronted by thick, hardware-cloth of strong wire, which will allow the chickens to sleep without being nabbed by foxes or weasels or coyotes or raccoons. (A bear would be another matter.) The chickens learn to walk to the coop and roost in there even before the sun sets, (as they have very poor night-vision, and are all but blind in twilight). I then shut and latch the door, making their pillbox impenetrable. In the morning I will let them out, and they will be “free range” chickens in my garden, eating various bugs, until around the time tomatoes get red. Chickens are attracted to red, and peck holes in ripe tomatoes, so I built a pen to coop them in August, roofed with mesh to protect them from a chicken-hawk that lives nearby. (Chickens have what seems to be an instinct to keep an eye to the sky, and free-range birds hurry for cover, if anything large,even a vulture, passes over.)
The structure is simple and pragmatic, but I soon noticed peculiar additions. Why are those branches tied to the side? And do chickens really require swings?
And what’s that thing down at the bottom of the post?

A xylophone!? A flipping xylophone!? Are these chickens going to be as musical as thrushes?

And do chickens really require a bench with gnomes? A hummingbird feeder at the top of a post? How do you know chickens even like hummingbirds? Did anyone ask the chickens? The hummingbirds? And hey! That’s my grandfather’s old wooden step-ladder! Did anyone ask, before turning it into an elaborate perch!?

I’m not sure I approve of what kids are learning at my Childcare. I’m not sure I approve of what the chickens are learning, either. But I will confess that it does the soul of an old air-head good to, once in a while, be the sensible one.

As the clouds rolled back in I did make progress in the garden.

 

NOSTALGIA –The Wursthaus Sonnet–

(This is for “Tom O”, who prefers poems with rhyme and rhythm.)

                 THE WURSTHAUS SONNET

As I ghosted through Harvard Square just before dawn,
My old face stretched out by a fracturing yawn,
My thinking was jolted from cravings for toast
For there by the street stood a fat fellow ghost.

A hitchhiking ghost, so I stopped. He got in
And beamed me a totally familiar grin
I couldn’t quite place, though I knew that I knew it.
My memory stirred, and I thought I’d pursue it.

He seemed to know that I needed a nudge.
With a laugh like a shout, he made my brains budge.
As far in the east daylight started to dawn
He asked, “Where’s the Wursthaus? Where has it gone?

Where is the cider and sausage and laughter
And young men who cared not a hoot what came after?”

CAMBRIDGE, MA – FEBRUARY 2: Patrons sit at the bar of the Wursthaus in Cambridge, MA’s Harvard Square on Feb. 2, 1983. (Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Opened in 1917, the Wursthaus closed in 1996 to make way for a bank. (sigh).

http://archive.boston.com/blogs/yourtown/boston/dirty-old-boston/2014/02/for_better_or_wurst.html

LOCAL VIEW –Day Of Pure Sun–

 

How like a trickster is the April sun,
When for days it hides in purple gloom
Where a raw fog, complete with sleet, can stun
Even optimists towards discussing doom
And death, but then that same sun bounces up
On a day with no clouds. I’m made surly
And walk with a snarl to my coffee cup,
For that slap-happy sun’s suddenly early
In rising, beaming my bed so I squint.
And what’s that I hear? Summer birds singing
In the dawn? Robins are back. Shake the lint
From my brains. Prankster April is bringing
A day without clouds. A day of pure sun.
A day to make dour men remember the One.

As an old poet I’ve learned that the world of poetry is, at the very least, on a tangent point between the physical and the spiritual, and at times is farther off in an air-headed place that has so little to do with the physical that bill-collectors, and sometimes your friends and your parents and your spouse and your children may be irked by your failure to face “reality”.

What such well-meaning advisors fail to see is their “reality” is going to quit on them. We must face our worldly responsibilities, but a day will come when this world will fade. In fact it fades every day, when you go to bed exhausted. Even if you stay up to all hours doing your taxes, being very, very responsible in a worldly way, when you are utterly exhausted the world becomes utterly ungrateful, for it vanishes. But another “reality” is more faithful. Pragmatists disdain the other world as a mere “dream”.

I would like to encourage young poets by telling them poetry is not a mere “dream”. You young poets have bungled into a battle which is occurring on a sphere the worldly simply can’t admit exists. Yet it does exist, and you do do battle, even if it looks like you are just sitting and nibbling an eraser.

Want proof? Consider Beethoven. Music, to physical pragmatists, is a physical reality involving sound-waves and the physical ability to hear. But Beethoven became deaf. In terms of physical pragmatism he lost all physical reasons to produce sound-waves. Yet he not only persevered with his art, but produced music most musicians confess is astounding.  This is not possible unless a non-physical reality exists.

You young poets may have been tricked into poetry because it seemed easier to daydream than face the sweat of a Real Job, but at this point I have to inform you of sad news: Worldly responsibility must be faced, even if you are a genius. As amazing as Beethoven was, he still had to come up with the rent.

Now, before you young poets charge off into a rant about how unfair it is that Beethoven, who gave so much, had to scrimp to pay for shelter, (and how, by extension, it is unfair that you too have to pay rent), be aware Beethoven had his physical side. He loved a young widow he couldn’t marry because he was a commoner, and she would lose her children if she married beneath her class. Therefore much of the passion and tragedy in Beethoven’s music may have been born of frustration.

As long as we have any entanglements with the physical world there will be consequences. The only way to avoid dirty dishes is to give up eating altogether. Therefore young poets should expect interruptions. Be cheerful when asked to take out the trash. But do not be tricked into thinking the physical world is the only world.