LOCAL VIEW –Coffee, Aspirin and Planting–

People who want to garden for pleasure should make certain to keep their gardens small. The smaller the better. I recommend a single planter. Otherwise gardening is more like jogging five miles in the morning: When you face the hill at Mile-Three you question your own sanity.

There will be, of course, the exultation. That is what runners call a “second wind”, but, before that “second wind” comes, one sees their mind fill up with quarreling, as if a buck private was screaming back at the screaming sergeant at boot camp, or even like a patient picking up a knife to defend himself from a surgeon approaching with a scalpel. It is such a mental ruckus that its occurrence mystifies all those who have idealized ideas about gardening.

In fact many who begin “gardening for pleasure” in April abandon the enterprise as a bad idea by June, and by July they are getting nagged by bureaucrats on the local zoning board for their patch of towering weeds. Be forewarned.

To me the actual pleasure of a big garden involves a more fundamental and ancient joy, called “avoiding starvation”. It has been 400 years since my first European ancestors stepped onto these shores, and the first 300 years saw most Americans rooted to the soil, living lives that made it very obvious that if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. There was no real escape; if you went broke you didn’t receive welfare; you went to the “poor farm” and went on working.

Currently our society is going through a period of confusion wherein many think they can, like ticks and leeches, suck off the lifeblood of others. Not merely the poor man on the dole; but the wealthy politician profiting from other’s taxes; the slippery investor on Wall Street; and even the retiree collecting an oversized pension, may be attempting to reap more than they sowed. This is bound to create resentment among those who reap less than they sow. The spectacle of a bloated Union Boss driving a fancy car and wearing pinkie rings, as the worker on the factory floor he represents pays dues and wears pants with frayed cuffs, does not inspire confidence, or even the desire to work harder. If anything it suggests laziness pays, and inspires sloth.

It is good to escape this confusion into the more real world of a vegetable garden. It is a reality which persists even when it is easier and cheaper to buy food at a market. And, if the societal breakdown ever collapses to a degree wherein the shelves are empty in the markets, perhaps the connection to the ancient joy of survival will be less of a mere concept, and more real. Money is worthless if the markets are empty, whereas dirt has value when it holds potatoes.

However, in the rush to finish spring planting in June, the “joy” is most definitely unapparent. It is then one is most like a jogger approaching a steep hill, muttering to himself, “Why do I do this? Jogging is STUPID!”

Perhaps the most difficult moment is arising from bed in the morning. The physical work involved in small-scale gardening made me achy even as a young man, and as I approach age seventy the pain seems more constant; I never seem able to “get in shape”. Also I seem to work in slow motion. I spend far more time leaning on my hoe than actually using it. Not that anyone is going to want to hear the violins of my self pity. They’ll just affirm the voice in my own head: “Why do you garden? Gardening is STUPID”.

Rather than whine to others, I turn to the blues, and try to make sonnets of my grouching:

. FIRST COFFEE SONNET

Who knows if songbirds are ambivalent
When they first awake? Who fathoms bird brains?
Perhaps they need some bird-equivalent
Of coffee, before cascading refrains
Of music fill our forests. Perhaps…perhaps…
I hate to think of birds as superior
To a poet, yet dawn’s a complete collapse
Of my morale, and I’m inferior
To birds, before my first cup of coffee.
I glower at pert birds; call each a twit;
Resent their singing. They seem to scoff me
As I drag to the pot with zero wit
And the only thing I’m able to praise
Is the coffee in
this cup I now raise.

. FIRST ASPIRIN SONNET

All I get from gardening is my lame grunts
As I rise in the morning. Pathetic!
I feel I won’t survive the few hot months
Before harvest. Reward? Others will get it.
My harvest’s to limp to, (before coffee),
My aspirin bottle…and guilt, as before
Coffee and pills God should look down and see
Me at prayer. I guess, with my limbs sore,
I could pray for a morning that’s pain-free;
For mercy, and miraculous healings,
And dirt with no big rocks as I spade it;
Yet I suppose that might hurt God’s feelings.
I should thank Him life’s just how He made it:
Old men plant saplings, although they won’t see
The apples that some day will hang from the tree.

This is not to say that, after aspirin and coffee, old gardeners can’t find joy in new gardens. There is the joy of old efforts from prior years; the rhubarb and asparagus that spring up without my raising a finger, from old roots. And there is the first handful of flat snow peas, small servings at dinner twice as delectable as any store’s, and all the more delectable because I beat other local gardeners by two weeks, and harvested first. And then there’s the faithful old standby, so good for children as it can be harvested in a mere twenty days, the radish.

What could be fresh and new about a radish? Glad you asked. I can recall growing radishes as a rugrat back in the 1950’s, yet in all these years I never knew you could eat the greens. Last night I had a mess of delicious radish greens fried up in olive oil with garlic, which goes to show you every spring hold’s something new, and also that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

For example, strips of black plastic make for less weeding between potatoes during July heatwaves. Black plastic may be ugly, newfangled stuff, and likely screws up the ecology of soil chemistry in some unforeseen way, but old men are allowed to resort to cheap tricks to avoid bending their creaky backs….I think…

The Old-Men-Don’t-Stand-On-Tiptoe Sonnet

Children need contact of many types, and one sad thing is that certain schools-of-thought tend to frown at contact. This is especial true of male Child-care-providers, who are rare and whom children swarm when they appear, like a bunch of mosquitoes to a nudist colony. The frowns are either because people fear some sort of sexual child-abuse may occur, or because people fear some sort of bullying is occurring. There is a “zero tolerance” for rough-and-tumble-play although it is as natural as puppies or kittens rolling about play-fighting, and is play which likely has importance in terms of “learning limits”.

I’ve seen two young men quit the Childcare profession because of crap they took from nervous parents, but I think I get away with more because I’m older. Perhaps an old fossil represents less of a sexual threat, (though I’ve known some disgusting old men in my time.) However being old also is a bit of a liability. I can’t withstand pummeling as well as I once did.

In teaching about “limits” I often joke, “Do I look like some kind of punching bag?” and “My mother didn’t raise me to be a punching bag.” In fact the children have memorized the two statements. But it doesn’t slow them down a bit. When I stoop to tie one child’s shoes, I often am blind-sided by two or three children who see my stooping as an opportunity for “rough and tumble play”. My wife tends to be a bit stern when she witnesses me being mauled in such a manner, but personally I think it keeps me in shape. I have never been the sort who goes to a gym to work out, and might be fat if it weren’t for being constantly attacked by children. However sometimes I wake in the morning and wonder what work I did the day before that left me so stiff and sore, and it takes me a while before I remember wrestling with ten three-year-olds at once, the day before.

A few days ago I was talking with a four-year-old girl who is willful and doesn’t like to follow instructions. I can give her orders, ask her to repeat what I just said, and she seems completely unable to repeat my instructions. This can cause trouble when it comes to feeding farm animals the wrong foods. I can tell her old, buttery corn cobs are bad for the farm dog, but she simply ignores the instructions and does what she pleases. I was wondering if she had some sort of so-called “learning disability”, and decided to give her a sort of test, in terms of her memory skills. One day, when she was the last to leave, I asked her to remember the dance class she attended the prior afternoon. She then not only recalled every detail of the class, (definitely no problem with memory), but instructed me to do all the various motions, including various stretching exercises. In the early darkness of a November evening, as her mother’s headlights swung into the driveway, she spotted an old man prancing about the yard.

The next morning I swung from bed and groaned. Lord, was I ever stiff! I scratched my head, trying to recall some effort such as digging potatoes or cutting wood, but drew a blank. Then I remembered the dancing I’d done the day before.

Of course as soon as the girl saw me that day she wanted to “play dance-class again”. Rather than faux-grumbling, “My mother didn’t raise me to be a ballet dancer”, I grouched, “Old men don’t stand on tiptoes. That’s not what old men do.”

Then I said it again. I liked the way it rolled off my tongue. “Old men don’t stand on tiptoes. That’s not what old men do,” and made a song for the kids. I wondered if I could even make a sonnet from it.

Old men don’t stand on tiptoes. That’s not what
Old men do. They’re gruff and tough and all that
Stuff that comes from craggy views. Eyes are shut
And hearts are closed; they’ll lose their keys and hat,
If order you confuse…so why am I on
Tiptoes just to sneak a peak at You?

Old men are not romantic. That’s not dawn
In their cave. What’s the use of splashing spruce through
Whiskers as they shave? Too late to start,
With one foot in the grave; old men can’t be
Romantic as they haven’t got the heart,
That’s not how they behave, yet what I see
Is prompting me to pick a final rose
And offer it to sky, standing on tiptoes.

LOCAL VIEW –Rejoicing Over Wrinkles–

While looking at the ravages time carved onto the face of Robert Frost I decided plastic surgery is for fools.  I suppose some, who are maimed, might require such surgery, to avoid repulsing people with an unpleasant superficiality, but most of us are strangely improved by the battering of our features time gifts us with. This seems especially true of people who retain their sense of humor, and of beauty, despite hardship. Crafted into each wrinkle of their face is a hint that God is real, and death is not.

Robert Frost knew much about desperation, despair and darkness. He outlived his wife and four of six children, and had witnessed those dark landscapes made of a pain far worse than physical pain, misnamed “mental illness”, even experiencing a son’s suicide. How he got through it all is his secret and his triumph, and is written in his face more clearly than in any poem.

The best and most beautiful poem is but an attempt to express the self that already exists. I have no idea why it feels so sublimely satisfying to do this, for it is merely to copy. In fact I was always scolded for copying, when in school. However there are few things so fulfilling as speaking your heart, in a sense tracing what already exists with a tracing paper called “poetry”. Later, when the tracing paper is removed from the Truth you attempted to copy, you see all the imperfections. However when you first are focused on what the Creator has already created, it is completely absorbing, and you forget all your problems, even when you are tracing a problem called a heartache. That is why there is such a rhapsody in singing the blues.

An old face is no different from any other old object; it has a sort of patina that gives it value, as an antique.  A young face is sort of raw, in comparison. It lacks something very beautiful the old have earned.

I was looking at my face critically the other day, noting how amazingly aged a couple of hard winters have made me, and I started to stretch my skin smooth, making the face in the mirror look like those bizarre old people, quite common in Florida, who have paid money that might have fed the poor to make themselves look weird.  I burst out laughing. And when I laughed all the wrinkles gathered and made my face have far more character than I had when I was young, and was little more than a pretty boy poet.

Call it sour grapes if you will, but I suddenly felt sorry for the young, and glad to be wrinkled. Usually I cut off my beard when the weather warms, and a free scarf is no longer necessary, but this year I may keep my scruff, for a gray beard makes me look even older, and age is no disgrace. It is a badge of honor, given by the Creator. If nothing else, this attitude will save me a lot of money, and my boycott may put plastic surgeons in the position where they will have to save lives rather than egos.

One reason my attitude towards wrinkles has changed is due to sitting my granddaughter in my lap, and seeing her attitude toward wrinkles. I gather you have to become older than she is to be scared by age, for she finds wrinkles fascinating, and her observant eyes search my face as her little fingers poke. In a sense she reminds me of a student probing a poem, searching for the meaning in the lines.

Another reason may be that spring is absurdly early this year. I’m not fooled, for I’ve seen many a warm March give way to April snows, but one seed that can be planted as soon as the soil can be worked is peas. Usually we plant them on Patriots Day, April 19, and I’ve often planted them in snow, but this year I thought I’d see if it was possible to kill even a tough plant like peas, by planting them more than a month early, on March 16.

Planting peas IMG_1927

Of course there is something about spring and planting seeds that seems alien to wrinkles. Maybe it reminds the old of sex, when they were young, and tempts them to gobble that plastic surgery of the penis, Viagra, popping some Prozac as well to plasticize the brain.  However here too I burst into laughter, which was what Abraham and Sarah named the child they made in their old age. That is the only real reason for sex: Procreation. All the other reasons people give are proof they are using sex as a poor excuse for genuine poetry. If you really want the sublime self-forgetfulness of creation, make a child if you are young, but write a poem if you are old.

I never really wanted to be worldly.
I wanted to space out, and be away
From schooling that abused me, and then hurled me
Out onto a world of greedy gray.
My teachers had no clue of how men make a buck.
They dwelled in ivory classrooms, stuffed with must
And never dared depart from muck, when stuck,
And clung to coins that hoped, “In God we trust.”
Me? I roamed a world which didn’t pity me
And toiled with bleeding hands and bleeding heart
Facing worldly responsibility
Though I disliked this world right from the start
Until now, life ebbs, and laughter stings
For I’ve become a man of worldly things.