The most miserable times of my life were when my parents separated, and told me nothing because they wanted to “spare” me. (As if a child doesn’t notice a disappeared father.) I think the second winter was the worst, likely because I gradually was worn down by the unceasingly insidious depression, and very quietly underwent a childish breakdown, culminating in a ferocious case of influenza that laid me so low I spent two weeks in bed, including a couple of days of hellish fever dreams (which made me very able to understand and even help people having bad trips on LSD, a half-decade later.)
The good part was that, when I was finally allowed out of bed. it happened to be the first day of winter vacation, so I missed three weeks of school, altogether. Sometimes I think this may have contributed to my recovery more than anything else, for school was poison.
I’d been skipped ahead a grade, which made me the youngest and smallest boy in my class. Being skipped ahead was suppose to challenge and uplift me, but I didn’t find school particularly uplifting. It was a time of life when twelve months makes a big difference, and all the other children had gone (in my eyes) utterly mad, due to the onset of hormones, while I retained the sanity of childhood. Not that I didn’t boyishly blush when girls smiled at me, but they had stopped doing that, because I seemed to shrink to a point where I practically looked up at their kneecaps when I danced with them. I can’t really blame them for not wanting me to ask them to dance, but, at a time I really could have used some affection, I became the opposite of a status symbol at school. It was no fun going there. A sick bed was preferable. Perhaps even dying was preferable.
I’m sure I sound melodramatic, but it truly was a time when affection came in crumbs, few and far between. My mother had always been distant, and now she was overworked as well, a single-mother pulling twelve-hour-shifts as a night-nurse. The heat was turned down to save on the oil bill, and we suddenly had only 40 watt bulbs, and the darkness and cold was creeping in on me. I never got hugged. It was a very big deal when I got a “Mighty Max” winter coat. That felt almost like a hug, but then the fever hit.
I know affection mattered, because the day I suddenly thought I might be feeling much better was the day my mother efficiently brought the daily hospital-tray with soup and crackers to my sickbed, and matter-of-factly mentioned, “Some girl named Sandra asked about you at the market. She said she hopes you’re feeling better.” I suddenly felt warm and fuzzy. Sandra and I went back a long way.
It is strange what small things can separate times when you constantly feel chilled and shivering, from times you feel so warmed that you can play for hours in the snow and never feel the cold at all. As a boy a girl’s smile could do it, but I never even saw Sandra’s smile, and her parents took her off to Florida for that vacation.
Vacations were always a blessed break from the humiliations of school, but that particular vacation seemed especially blissful, as I did all the things that boys do well, and skipped all the humiliating botheration of dances and sporting teams and homework and tests.
Towards the end of that vacation I did one of the dumb things that boys do so well, which usually make girls detest them. I meant to get a pretty girl’s attention with a snowball, but she turned at just the wrong time and stooped, and the snowball plastered her face like a pie. She was tearful and also absolutely furious, and I felt pretty bad about the attention I had successfully earned, but just then a stroke of genius flashed through my brain. As she ineffectually attempted to fling snowballs into my face I pretended terror, and backed away further and further up a roadside snowbank, until I pretended to fall off the top into a snow-covered bush, uttering a long, drawn-out wail. When I popped my head up through the snow to see how effective my act had been, I saw the girl laughing, with a warm light in her eyes, and, at the very least, knew I wasn’t loathed any more.
Though my small success didn’t put me up there with Don Juan or James Bond, I felt pretty good about myself after that. To my surprise the sensation lasted even after school started. I didn’t suddenly get “A’s”, or abruptly become the shortest person ever to make the basketball team, but my mood was so good I did manage to stay out of troubles I found for myself, back when I felt bad. There is something about a cringing person that makes you want to give them a swat, but no one wanted to swat me any more, and in fact I was so charming and cheerful that even my fantastic excuses-for-undone-homework brought out the mercy in the grouchier teachers. It amazed me, and I felt like I was on what gamblers call “a roll” and baseball players call “a streak”. It is a wonderful thing, but no one really knows how it happens. In my life it always seems like a warm avalanche overwhelming, set off by the smallest pebble of kindness.
On that long-ago March First a warm west wind was blowing and the air was filled with the hope of spring, and I climbed to the topmost branches of a tall hemlock next to my home and swayed in the wind, pretending I was up the mast of a clipper ship, and thinking how great I felt, and how great life was, and how odd it was to be free of the gloom that had plagued me all winter. For the first time in my life I felt the urge to express joy in a poem. I ran out of gas nearly as soon as I started, but I still have the poem:
Spring is here;
It’s that time of year.
Snow will melt quick
And turn into ick.
Another thing to say
Can wait for another day.
Another day came, and went, becoming another decade that came and went, until now it is more than a half century that has come and gone, and still the First of March always gives me a strange sense that hope can appear from darkness, whether the darkness be night or winter or sickness. There is something miraculous about dawns and springs and healing. It is something beyond the dour mathematics of intellectual pragmatism. It defies the tax-accounting, insurance-adjusting mentality, which sees the ravages of time and speaks only of depreciation. Instead it speaks of appreciation.
I think it is a good thing that this mood hits me at this time of year, because it is at this time of year I have to face my taxes. I absolutely loath the paperwork, (perhaps because there is no excuse for not doing homework, at my age), yet I often grumble the IRS is wise to hit us right when winter has us at our weakest, and we’re least prone to revolt. However even in April you can push a people too far. Taxes are due April 15, and April 19 remembers Lexington:Some think such nonsense is left in the past, but it isn’t. Patriot’s Day is no picnic any more.
Once the prospect of war would have made me thirst to enlist, (even if I enlisted to be bloodied protesting as a pacifist), but now the glare tends to leave me glum and depressed, and fails to uplift me to the mood I felt as a boy up at the top of a hemlock. The gradual deepening of shadows across the landscape of our times depresses me, and reminds me more of being a boy in my sickbed, fearing the shadows in the corners of my room. I feel old, less strong, less able to take on the lunacy I live amidst. Once I’d take on a tiger on a dare, but now I’m not so sure that would be wise. After all, I’m getting to an age where I’d get some odd looks, if I climbed a hemlock to feel the wind in my face. Even a snapped-off hemlock leaning at a 45 degree angle might test me, though I confess I was tempted, as I watched a boy scramble up one today.
It would be nice if the government treated us elderly geezers with respect, but the elderly might as well be a pack of Rodney Dangerfields. We get no respect.
As soon as a parent or parents has at long-last gotten a child through college, the government increases his or her (or their) taxes, by taking away the “benefit earned” by having a “dependent” on tax returns. (That word “benefit”irks me, for I am not the one “benefiting” from paying taxes. The government is.)
Not that the economy has much to offer our young graduates when they leave college. Many are unemployed, and they are not avoiding getting a Real Job as I once did, (claiming my real work was to be an “arteest”). Modern youth would work a Real Job if they could, (and in fact they must, to pay off their absurd college loans), but no such Real Jobs exist, thanks to the stupidity of the government’s economic planning, (and the stupidity of they who taught. In fact I think colleges should only be paid with a percentage of graduate’s actual earnings.) In any case, the parent must continue to help out, if they really care.
I think this is now a financial fact, and living-with-parents no longer should involve the shame it once did, (as long as the young adult doesn’t waste themselves away, playing video games in their parent’s basement.)
My middle son graduated with a (seemingly) fairly useless college degree in Biology, but he isn’t sitting around waiting for the perfect job to open up (where he would get paid for studying The Songbirds Of Paradise). He’s constantly sending out applications for such dream-jobs, while working two humbling jobs (at a hospital and coffee shop) just to meet the mortgage-sized payments on his college loan. So of course I am not going to charge for a spare bedroom. The colleges get the money, as the parents get the shaft.
One thing I am particularly envious of is my son’s energy. After two jobs he keeps right on going, charging off to do something that interests him, such as borrowing a “camera trap” to set up in the woods. (He only seemed slightly discouraged when this effort only rewarded him with 63 pictures of Gray Squirrels.)
Recently I pottered outside to see this odd stuff strung from trees in my snowless backyard:And this was on my back porch as well:
I know this is the newfangled way of tapping maples and making maple sugar, and begrudgingly confessed it was amazing that my son had done so much with so little money. He basically bought cheap plumbing-tubing and borrowed stuff. However he soon had a crowd of friends laughing on that porch, as they boiled sap on a Sunday, and I had to be careful changing out of my Sunday-go-to-meeting pants in my own bedroom, because the crowded porch was just outside that bedroom’s window. All the noise and laughter made me grumpy. Largely I think I was just plain jealous.
Mostly I was envious of the energy of youth, and the ability of youth’s hope to forge ahead without seeing all the glitches and pitfalls inherent in hopeful plans. (My son now has a hundred gallons of sap and no free time to boil them). (But we do already have a half gallon of maple syrup; I’d never have the energy to do that; it took me all season last year to get a half gallon, because I only tapped a single tree.) (As I get older my projects get smaller.)
In conclusion I simply have to confess I’m confused. I’m not sure how much of my grouchy mood is mere jealousy, because I don’t have the energy to do what I once did, and how much of my grouchy mood is justified, because I’m an elder, and I deserve respect, damn it all, and not increased taxes, damn it all. Though my body may be depreciated, I deserve to be appreciated.
TWO SONNETS; POWERLESS AND POWER-MAD
Your will be done, but I tire. The long drought
Stretches like a dry winter: No snowscapes
Catch full moonlight. No victorious shout
Proclaims impossible dreams. Now I pout
Like a child disgruntled, or a dull Jack
Created by too much toil. Let Your song
Be freed. Let me sweetly fall back in love,
For what is work without love? I long
For the quick glance I’m always singing of,
But You seem indifferent. Give one glance.
For I know the difference one glance can make.
It’s been years, but beaming eyes can lance
The dragon of despair, and make a heart break
The chains of aching gray, as sweetest tears
Flow freely. Look at me. It’s been years.
I have seen how tiresome are the trinkets
Of wealth and fame, and how foolish are those
Who trample to gain, who sow cruel thickets
Of penned pain, and reap thorns without a rose.
They tramp pompously strutting through the lush landscape
Of my life, proof positive that to win
By grabbing is about as sweet as rape,
And the only smiles gleaned are a skull’s grin.
I’d rather remember the kind, whose deeds
Gained not wealth nor fame, but blossoming smiles
Even from soured faces. Such caring truly feeds
The hungry; heals the sick. As I cross the miles
Left to cross, I want to see that flower.
So give me not wealth or fame, but that power.