Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Colonial Thanksgiving

William was splitting wood. A thin but broad-shouldered twelve-year-old he swung the axe deftly. It whistled through the air until its blade thunked deeply into the end of the section of log propped between the roots of an up-turned stump. Ice crackled underfoot as he let go of the helve and moved to place wooden wedges in the split that he'd made. He pulled on his mittens and took a round hickory mallet that hung from a convenient root and with one hand on the axe helve, tapped the wedges in until the widened crack released the blade. He hung the axe in the roots where the mallet had been, to avoid dulling the edge.

Tapping the wedges deeper he heard the crackle and groan of the log being torn apart until finally it fell in two pieces. He carried them to the neat stack of splits near the small, neat, log and clapboard house and added them to the top. Then he went to another stack and got another unsplit log.

As he walked back to the stump, a sudden shift in the cold breeze blew the smoke from the house chimney to swirl around him. The smoke of logs he had split earlier in the year was mixed wih the scent of pumpkin, apples and the greasy odor of a roasting bird. The smell of the pumpkin made him ill. As hungry as he was, he would be happy if he never had to taste pumpkin again ... ever.

Pumpkins were easy to grow, and dry. With corn and the occasional small gamebirds, they were the staples of the family's winter diet. Pumpkin was used in everything. It was stewed, roasted, baked. It was added to bread, thickened gravy. The taste of pumpkin was the taste of winter.

William trudged back to the stump with the log and settled it into the embrace of the roots. Twenty more to do. He took off the mittens and grabbed the axe helve.

After the last split for the day was put on the pile, he went to the door, pulled off his mittens and pushed the sheet of bark hanging from leather hinges aside. It was slightly warmer inside the house. It was a common house for the time. made of 18-foot logs on the longest dimension. The beds were platforms extending from the walls, three down below and two above in a loft reached by a ladder. The floor on the first level was compacted earth with flat stones near the fireplace..

A fire blazed merrily in the stone fireplace that took up most of one wall, but the heat it cast did not reach the far corners. A mound of blankets on a bed built into one of the corners, and only the occasional fog of his breath showed that William's grandfather lay underneath them, bundled from the cold.

His sister Elizabeth stood near the fire stirring the contents of a blackened iron pot suspended from an iron crane over one side of the fire. The thick plop of its boiling suggested that it was the pudding made from corn meal and dried pumpkin. His mother sat on a low stool tending the spiders, the skillets and pots with legs that sat in or near the blaze. Root vegetables were boiling in the large cauldron, Hanging by a cord over the middle of the fire was the goose that his father had shot with the old blunderbuss a few days ago. The lower half was roasted and partially blackened by the smoke, the top half was still raw but smudged with the soot.

Mother reached over and gave the bird a sharp twist. The cord twisted up, then untwisted and twisted the other way, rotating the bird over the fire to cook it as evenly as possible. An apple pie made from the last of the fresh undried fruit and a bit of maple sugar sent its distinctive aroma through the cracks in the metal box built into the chimney that served as an oven.

William moved close to the fire to thaw out. After a minute or two, his mother unhooked the goose from the cord, turned it upside down and hooked it with the raw side down. "Set up the table, Will," she said.

William got the trestles from a corner. He set the trestles on either side of the room, and got the long wooden benches and put them in place. The long board leant against the wall. He tilted it down and walked backward to drop it gently on the supports. Six deep hollows had been carved in the upper surface of the tabletop. With the board in place, there was just enough room at either end for a person to squeeze between the end of the table and the wall.

Then he placed six leather tankards on the table and four wooden cups on the sideboard, a simple plank attached to the wall. "Shall I get the cider?" he asked. His mother nodded. He went to the cupboard for the earthenware jug and put it on the sideboard.

"Why don't you go meet your father at the gate," she said. He put the mittens back on.

He opened the gate for his father's wagon and waited, stamping his feet to keep them from going numb. Finally he heard the rumble of wheels. As the cart appeared, William heaved a sigh. His father had brought Uncle Eb, his new wife Judith, two children from a previous marriage (Aunt Sarah had died of influenza four years ago) and Uncle Josiah. That meant there were six for the table, and he would be standing again this year.

He closed the gate after his father drove through, then ran to catch the wagon and jumped onto the back to ride the quarter mile to the house. William unhitched the horses and took them into the barn, rubbed them down and gave them some hay with a sprinkling of oats. "For your own Thanksgiving," he told them.

Inside, preparations were nearly done. The pie was cooling on the sideboard, bowls of boiled vegetables sat steaming on the table, some plates of pickled cabbage and fruit preserves, a loaf of bread and a pan of biscuits.

Greetings were shared, the coats hung up, and hands and rears warmed at the fire. The adults took their places at the benches. They all took knives, spoons and napkins out of their pockets. William, as the eldest child, poured the cider, then took his place with the other children standing at the sideboard. Uncle Josiah, a lay preacher, whose currently unmarried status was a source of concern to all who knew him, said the blessing and the food began to make its rounds

The bird was served in a shallow wooden bowl, which was passed along the table so that each adult could tear off the portion they wanted. The remnants were passed to William who took what he felt was fair and passed it down. The same process continued with all the dishes. The adults loaded the trough in front of them with food, and passed what was left to the children, who shared the scraps.

There wasn't much conversation. One didn't talk much while eating and the children were only to talk when spoken to ... and they weren't. An occasional gesture from an adult for William to refill a tankard was the sum of the communication between table and sideboard. Everyone ate with their knives and fingers. Those who had spoons used them for the small scraps.

The room was quiet except for the sound of chewing, drinking, an occasional fart or belch, and, now and then a clank as someone spat a piece of birdshot into a dish set by for that purpose.

At the end of the meal the pie was served. As William suspected, the plate was emptied before being passed to the children. Indian pudding was ladled into small porringers, and William greedily used more than his fair share of maple syrup to try to mask the taste of pumpkin.

The adults finished and the children were chased out into the snow or up to the loft, while the adults conversed.

And then it was over. His father, half-snoozing indicated that William had the task of driving the guests home. He went to the barn and hitched up the horses. Uncles and aunts and cousins piled into the bed of the wagon. He snapped the reins and they were off on the long cold drive to the two neighboring farms.

As he drove home in the moonlight, William wondered when he would get his place at the table.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Thanksgiving makes the year wobbly

Self-denial does not come easily to us. In this country, it seems that we can put up with a lot, if it doesn't require sacrifice. As evidence of this, I'd like to tell you about a missing holiday.

I am annotating the diary of Mahala Ramsdell Tufts, my wife's great grandmother. In 1867 she documented her graduation from Maine Normal School (a name for a teachers college that survived well into the last half of the 20th century) and the beginning of her first year as a teacher.

So I found myself bemused as I researched the historical context of an 1867 diary. There was a puzzling entry.

Thursday 4 April
Fast Day. Got up at six o'clock and went to meeting. Also at 11 o'clock.

"Fast Day?" I wondered. "What Fast Day is this?"

At first I thought it must be a religious holiday. I checked the calendar for her father's religion, Universalist ... nothing. She had been going to meetings with some Freewill Baptists ... still nothing. Then I cast my search a little wider and found it.

Until late in the 19th century, the governors of New England states proclaimed an annual Fast Day in early April (you can find more information on the New Hampshire, Wikipedia, and Plimoth websites). For many New Englanders, the Fast was a holiday with a lengthy mid-week church service as its focus. With Thanksgiving, it bracketed the Northeast states’ growing season.

When originally devised, it was a day of prayer and "humiliation". The latter word did not have the overtones of ridicule and embarrassment that form the current meaning, but instead meant to humble oneself.

But soon it became the day in early Spring when all citizens were expected to fast, attend the church or meeting of their choice and pray for a good season ... and not just for farming. Here is the text of Samuel Adams' proclamation of Fast Day for the year 1796:

Commonwealth of Massachusetts
A Proclamation

It being our indispensable duty by Prayer and Supplication to acknowledge our dependence on Almighty God, and in a Public and Solemn manner, to implore the Divine Blessing upon all the concerns and interests of our Nation and Land: And the season of the Year now approaching, wherein from the Days of our pious Forefathers, it has been the Practice to make United Supplications to Heaven for Direction and success:

I HAVE therefore thought fit, to appoint: And do, by and with the Advice of the Council, appoint THURSDAY, the thirty-first day of March next, To be observed throughout the Commonwealth, as a DAY of PUBLIC FASTING and PRAYER. And I do exhort the people of all Religious Denominations, to assemble in their respective Congregations on that Day, and with true contrition of Heart, to confess their Sins to God, and implore forgiveness through the Merits and Mediation of Jesus Christ our Saviour; and to seek to him, by fervent and humble Prayer
  • That it would please Him to guide and prosper the Administration of the Government of this Commonwealth.
  • That He would bless the Public Councils and Determinations of the Federal Government of these States, giving them Wisdom, Firmness and Unanimity, and directing them to the best measures for the Public Good.
  • That He would be pleased to preserve and strengthen the Union of these States, and that no designs against them shall prosper.
  • To bless our Allies and render the Connection formed with them mutually beneficial.
  • That He would give a Public Spirit to all Persons whatsoever, especially to such that are in Civil Authority, and endue the People with the Spirit of Piety, Truth, Harmony and Concord, and with a just sense of the value of the Liberties and Privileges they enjoy under Constitutions founded on the legitimate Principle of the Rights of Man.
  • That He would be pleased to bless our Husbandry, and so order the Seasons, as that this Year may be crowned with a plentiful Harvest.
  • That He would prosper our Trade, Navigation and Fishery, and give success to all our lawful undertakings both Public and Private
  • That he would continue Health to us, and prevent the spreading of any mortal or contageous Sickness.
  • That he would put a stop to the progress of a Spirit of Profaneness and Impiety, and that great dissoluteness of Manners which threaten us with heavy Judgements, unless we speedily Repent and Reform.
  • That the rod of Tyrants may be broken in pieces and all oppression cease.
  • And that the glorious reign of the Prince of Peace, may be established through the Earth; so that Man may no longer be the Enemy of Man.
AND it is earnestly recommended to all Citizens throughout this Commonwealth to observe the said Day, as set a part for Religious Worship, and to abstain from all servile Labor and Recreation thereon.

GIVEN at the Council-Chamber, in Boston, the twenty-ninth Day of February, in the Year of our Lord, One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-six, and in the Twentieth Year of Independence of the United States of America.
Attest.--John Avery. jun. Secretary
GOD save the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!

As you might assume from previous posts, I am not a follower of any organized religion, I suppose that I could be classified an agnostic, but still ... I like this proclamation. In fact, I like the idea of the holiday.

I like the balance of starting the growing season with a fast and ending with a feast. There is a certain rightness to it. A sacrifice in Spring for the bounty of the Fall.

It seems a shame that the surviving celebration has become a glutton's holiday, that we are willing to gorge without a sense of true thankfulness, that we feel entitled to the reward without paying the price.

But these are the musings of an irritable old curmudgeon who likes the idea of balance, who thinks that reward without effort is an empty accomplishment, and one who would like to suggest that perhaps ... just perhaps, this coming Spring might be a good time to re-institute an old tradition.

Oh, and by the way ... I hope you have a Thanksgiving celebration that is warm, peaceful and full of hope.

Monday, November 12, 2007

An Acorn for Ochs

Far too long ago, I was discussing our mutual admiration for Phil Ochs (Wikipedia entry) with Tom over at the similarly named blog Anatomy of Melancholy.

Phil, for those of you too young to remember, was a singer/songwriter of topical songs. I hesitate to call them "protest" or "political", although they were full of both. Phil's knack was to humanize our inhuman treatment of each other, and to point out our failings that allowed, if not supported, the sins of our society. His was the voice of the disappointed optimist, the disenchanted patriot, the American dreamer who found himself in a nightmare.

I have always found his writing to be clearer and and far more poetical than Bob Dylan. The only reason I have ever been able to devise for the latter's success, is the obscurity of his images. Ochs' vision was clear, his songs poignant and beautiful, not the hodge-podge of linguistic pyrotechnics that is the hallmark of Dylan.

Take, for example, the following verses from "Crucifixion":

Then this overflow of life is crushed into a liar
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire.
First a smile of rejection at the nearness of the night
Truth becomes a tragedy limping from the light
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger from the sight
As the cross is trembling with desire.

They say they can't believe it, it's a sacreligious shame
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all,
And do you have a picture of the pain

Phil's love songs were more tender, his satire more biting, his soul more bared. He didn't pull any punches, nor did he soft-pedal his beliefs. Whether he was telling the segregationist state of Mississippi to "find another country to be part of", exhorting unions to live up to their own principles and support the rights of black-Americans, or wryly pointing out the hypocrisy of liberals, he was clear, forthright, funny, and, above all, brave.

When Phil committed suicide after a long struggle with manic-depression, it shook me to my core. Even writing about it now overwhelms me and the sense of loss persists after all these years. I was a folk performer too, and I used much of his later material "Changes', "Pleasures of the Harbor", "Crucifixion", "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends". I was not alone in my admiration either. My friend Tom, mentioned above, sent me a recording of a living room session of Phil and another great songwriter, John Lennon, talking and playing together.

Yesterday, I followed a link that I'd bookmarked from the Kottke blog to a website containing podcasts of a 24-show series about Folkways Records, a seminal source for many of us older Folkie/Hippie types, and an archive of some of the most eclectic and interesting recordings ever made. Although originally a commercial enterprise and labor of love of its founder, Mo Asch, it is now a part of the Library of Congress.

I was surprised to see that the 23rd show of the series was dedicated to Phil (MP3), because he had not recorded much that was published by Folkways other than those contributions he had made to their audio periodical Fast Folk Musical Magazine.

Needless to say, it was the first show I listened to.

About halfway through the hour-long presentation, I started to feel sick-at-heart. A deep sadness came over me as I realized that much of what Phil sang about then has not changed. Some of the situations have remained, but even in those cases where they have not, the prejudices, apathy, selfishness, and arrogance that he saw have merely been pointed at different targets.

... and it makes me ill that there are no voices with the same power as Phil's being raised in opposition. We systematize, we categorize, we study and send things to committee, while people are degraded, starved, killed. We look for political or systemic solutions, thinking somehow that we can legislate ourselves into a Utopia, while simultaneously ignoring the human cost of delay and the inevitable failure to actually do anything.

Why are we such sheep? Why do we passively let our potential to be a great country be suborned to financial interests?

I'm not ranting from some angelically higher position either. The sickness in my heart comes from the realization that I too have sunk into middle-aged apathy, that I have become the liberal that Phil spoke of, older and wiser and selfish. I know that it will be an effort to change, but I must. I cannot keep on floating in apathy.

I don't think that I have the talent, or appeal, needed to take on the job of changing this country alone. So I'd like my readers to consider this a challenge, a seed, perhaps ... an acorn. I'll deal with my own apathy, but someone needs to energize, inform, entertain, and start people thinking again of what American values really are. We have people who make us laugh with their clear vision, but none, as yet, strong enough to mount a counter-assault on the money-grubbing, indolent, self-serving power structure.

Phil, in one of his most famous songs, said "I ain't marchin' anymore", but that call to action has become an excuse for inaction. We need to march. We need to act. We need to do something to take back our country from the plutocrats.

Can anyone out there sing? Can anyone out there lead?

I'm tossing this verbal acorn out in the hope that another Ochs will grow.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A DAMNED Good Review!

I found this review and, as a certifiable superannuated hippie I say unto you, I have gazed upon these words and they are true.

This book was the cause of far too many saccharine overdoses amongst my brothers and sisters in motley, and, as a friend once opined, the presentation of this volume to a loved one oft signaled the end of the relationship.

A Shining Moment

I am not a sports fan. I'll spare you having to listen to the usual diatribe about ... sorry, I said I'd spare you that.

I watched the World Series this year. It was unusual for me to do that since, after a 5th grade field trip to Fenway Park where I watched uncomprehendingly as Ted Williams was intentionally walked each time at bat, I have never really followed the game. This year I was seduced into watching.

I'm glad I did, because I saw a moment during the games that impressed me more than I expected. It was a real high point, and it probably isn't one that you'd expect.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Aaron Cook, the Rockies pitcher was batting. He laid down a pretty bunt that was placed just right on an unexpected trajectory. The Red Sox fielders had to scramble for it, and Cook got to first base.

For just an instant the cameras focused in on first ... and that's the moment that made the series for me. Cook was standing with David Ortiz and they were laughing. It was easy to imagine the conversation. Ortiz admiring the sweet shot and Cook delighted and somewhat amazed at being on base.

It seemed to me to be a show of good sportsmanship, an acknowledgment that the game was indeed just a game. 

If I saw more moments like that, I might even become a fan.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Perfect Keyboard

My son Mo found the perfect keyboard for me.

It was made by Hieronymus Isambard "Jake" von Slatt. You can see the step-by-step of the process at his website linked in the title of this post. Apparently a colleague will be making them for sale, but seeing the amount of work that goes into them (and being self-aware enough to know how hard I am on my devices), I know that I'll not be able to afford one.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I've lived and traveled all over the world, but mostly I have been a resident of one or another of the New England states. I have been lucky enough to have met some people with the old yankee outlook on things.

There is much about these yankees that many would consider insular and anachronistic ... what tourist bureaus would call "colorful". But they are a dying breed and I am sorry about that.

I am particularly sorry that they have been caricatured to the extent that some of the lessons that they could teach us have been diminished to the point that we no longer see the virtues as anything other than quirks, fodder for jokes, funny postcard content.

That is a shame, for at the base of the yankee character is the stuff that made this country great, and some of those attitudes, which to many seem quaint, could teach us how to stand tall again.

We laugh at the old story of the man who stops to ask a farmer for directions to a town. The farmer ponders several different routes then finally opines that "You can't get there from here." How dumb could this farmer be to not even know how to get to a nearby town? How foolishly self-centered not to realize that you can get anywhere from anywhere.

But let's think about it. This farmer cannot give directions to the town because he doesn't need to know how to get there. His world, his life is the farm. For him, the town is a place to go only when you must, and only for a purpose. He'll go to the closest town to buy what he cannot make himself, and that is very little. His knowledge is centered on self-sufficiency. He does for himself and for his family and neighbors. He may not know the way to that town, but he knows how to tease a crop of corn out of rocky soil, how to sharpen an axe, how to build a house, how to dig a well.

To him, the fool is his questioner. The farmer would not start plowing, or framing a barn without a plan, but this traveler has set out on the road without one. Why do we consider the lost traveler the smart person, venturing out on the road unprepared? Why is the farmer foolish simply because the traveler has asked him a question the answer to which the farmer has no need to know?

But I seem to be drifting into a rant and there is one of these yankee characteristics that I want to talk about today. It has to do with my recent article on waste.

I posted a story on this blog a while ago about a miser who recycled his first wife's gravestone for use as a cooking stone. The story works because the degree of thrift seems to us to be outrageous ... and perhaps it is. But then, with all due respect to Thomas Lynch and his brethren in the funeral industry, perhaps the profligate use of natural resources to memorialize a dead body is a bit outrageous as well.

Personally, I would prefer to be ground up, reduced to compost and used to fertilize a garden. As the Fugs once wrote in their delightful "Burial Waltz":
"Do not surround me with wreaths of flowers
nor place upon my body the signs of a fetish
nor crescent, cross, phallus nor sun.
But bury me in apple orchard
that I may touch your lips again."

As an historical researcher, I am grateful that my attitude is not common, but I understand the miser's point-of-view that the needs of the living trump the memorializing of the dead.

When I see a cemetery, the neatly mowed lawns of a suburb, golf courses, parking lots, I think of waste ... waste of resources, waste of opportunity. When I see 15-room McMansions built for a family of three and costing a small fortune to heat, or SUVs with gas tanks that cost a day's pay to fill, I think of the small rooms of old New England farmhouses that minimized the use of fuel.

And isn't it odd that our response to this waste is to computerize and add new devices to the mix, as if saving oil by building controls justifies adding the poisonous by-products of their manufacture into the eco-system.

Why is it that we find the yankee virtue of thrift so hard to implement?

There's a magazine that I've seen, I think it's called "Real Simple" (I can't be bothered to check right now). I was leafing through it one day and found myself simultaneously amused and irritated that nearly every "simple" solution involved buying something. What an oddly perverse idea.

Sadly, it's too common an idea. Our concept of fixing is to replace. Our idea of thrift is to add. We no longer make do.

I've been grumbling on for too long, so I'm going to bring this to a close with a few facts, a prediction and an anecdote.

In spite of the fact that new oil reserves have been discovered lately, the earth is a closed system and at some point we will have succeeded in moving it all up to the surface.

This makes most people think of higher gas prices and alternative fuels.

But think of this ...

Asphalt is a petroleum product. When the oil is gone, there won't be anything left to patch our roads for the alternative energy cars.

Look around you. How much of what you see just in your room is made of plastic? Just the shopping bags you use to bring stuff home from the store take 12 million barrels of petroleum a year to make.

Think of this ...

Many medical devices, both high and low tech are made of plastic. disposable syringes, medical pumps, artificial hearts, eyeglasses, and on, and on ...

I predict that in the, not-too-distant, future there will be a new occupation. Perhaps it will happen, as a happy parallel to the gold rush of 1849, in 2049. The new 49ers will race to stake claims on landfills and dumps, where they will dig mines to extract the new gold ... all the plastic that we've so casually discarded for all these years. Most of us will pay small fortunes for medical devices made from the recycled plastic. The rich, of course, will have it molded into jewelry in order to show their status and ability to waste.

Now for the story.

Many years ago I lived in a small town here in New England. Town meetings were always a treat. At one of them there was a heated argument over the state of one particular road in a thickly settled area near a lake. The residents of that area were upset that the road had not been repaired in some years and that the pot holes were causing damage to their cars. Eventually the repairs were voted on and approved.

The next motion was an addendum. A committee of parents many of whom were the same people that proposed the road repair, rose to request that the repairs should include speed bumps in order to prevent reckless drivers from endangering the children who walked along or played near the road.

The debate had barely begun when an older man got to his feet to be recognized. He was one of the oldest citizens of the community and had lived there all his life.

The room quieted with respect.

"It seems to me," he said, "that we're talking about spending money on a problem that has solved itself."

When the vote was taken again. the road repair was revoked.

I do love a good diatribe

Some people think I'm politically inconsistent. I'm not. I just can't find a side that I agree with totally. Some of my friends call me a "liberaltarian" and I guess that's as close a label as I'm likely to get ... not that I want to be labeled.

Be that as it may, I do love a good and amusing rant, especially when there's a smidgen of truth at its core. Which is why the link in today's header is to a bit of delightful vitriol from P.J. O'Rourke.

Reading P.J. makes me feel like intoning like Sidney Greenstreet, "I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk."

By gad P.J., you are a character and no mistake.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

How to make people happy

The following passage is from a book published in 1841, "The Early History of New England" by Rev. Henry White.

"Mr. Winslow, returning from Connecticut to Plymouth, left his bark at Narragansett, and intending to return home by land, took the opportunity to make a visit to Massasoit, who with his accustomed kindness, offered to conduct him home. But before they set out, Massasoit secretly despatched one of his men to Plymouth with a message, signifying that Mr. Winslow was dead, carefully directing his courier to tell the place where he was killed, and the time of the fatal catastrophe.

The surprise and joy produced by Mr. Winslow's return must have satisfied even Massasoit's ardent affection, when the next day he brought him home to his weeping family. When asked why he had sent this account, both false and distressing, he answered that it was their manner to do so, to heighten the pleasure of meeting after an absence."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Paging Dr. Guillotin

I don't often find memorable writing in the newspapers, but there are exceptions. An article on "neurolaw" by Raymond Tallis in "The Times" three days ago, contained the following delight.

"The brain is, of course, the final common pathway of all actions. You can’t do much without a brain. Decapitation is, in most instances, associated with a decline in IQ."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Drat ... I was hoping for "The Caveman's Valentine"

I guess this is what I get for answering accurately.

You're A Prayer for Owen Meany!
by John Irving
Despite humble and perhaps literally small beginnings, you inspire faith in almost everyone you know. You are an agent of higher powers, and you manifest this fact in mysterious and loud ways. A sense of destiny pervades your every waking moment, and you prepare with great detail for destiny fulfilled. When you speak, IT SOUNDS LIKE THIS!
Take the Book Quiz at the Blue Pyramid.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Jill and I sleep under an old musty featherbed with the baby, little Jenny, between us. It’s warm there.

The gray light through the plastic sheeting sealing out the worst of the drafts from the old badly fitted windows, tells us that the day is overcast. When we get out of bed, we know the old wood burning furnace in the cellar is out. The sweat freezes to ice drops on our skin. Even when it works, our breath mists. We bundle quickly into layers of wool and cotton over the long underwear that we've slept in. Socks and boots and mittens go on right away before the warmth of the bed fades.

I unravel a wire coat hanger and stab through the thin ice layer in the toilet bowl. Unzipping, I pee, idly trying to melt the floating chunks of ice and thinking that the man who built this house must have enjoyed hardship; the bathroom is as far from the single heating duct as possible. I hear the thunking of wood as Jill feeds the wood stove in the kitchen. Later when the furnace is going, we’ll run water through the copper coils inside it and try to wash up.

There’s still three feet of snow on the ground from the last blizzard. The drift against the side of the house covers the attic window. A week ago I opened the kitchen door, and there was just a flat cold white imprint of the door facing me. We had to tunnel our way out, shoveling the snow into stew pots and buckets, then melting it on the stove. No snowplows have come by. The town always does the dirt roads last. The power and phone lines won’t be fixed until then.

I go down to the cellar and open the furnace. There are just enough embers to get it started again. I rake them into a pile and stack a pyramid of kindling and some small splits of maple and oak over them. I twist some paper into a spill and push it into a gap then blow until the paper catches. When the kindling starts to char and crackle, I close the door and go back up to the kitchen.

The room is starting to warm up. Jill has the stove lit. I warm my hands over it and look into the firebox. A few sticks of kindling are in the bottom with some maple on top. The kindling is burning from the middle forcing the sap out the ends. It has frozen into icicles only inches from the fire.

I go out to the woodshed. I still have a couple of cords of oak, maple and birch, but the cranky furnace doesn’t light easily. I need some softwood kindling to get it going. I bring an armload of wood to the kitchen. Jill’s started some oatmeal and pulled the table close to the heat. Jenny’s wrapped up in so many blankets that she looks like a fuzzy blue ball. Jill pokes the baby bottle into a gap. From the slurping sounds, I figure she’s found the right spot. I go back to the woodshed and open the chute to the cellar. I throw splits and logs down the hole for a solid ten minutes. There's not much room down there; just enough for the wood for a day or so of heat. I pull the cover over the chute and go back inside where Jill is still feeding the baby. It's warm enough now for me to take my jacket off.

I go over to stir the oatmeal. I ladle out some for Jill and sprinkle sugar on it. What little milk the old cows are producing is for the baby. I ladle out another bowl for me, drop a lump of butter into it and reach for the salt and pepper.

“I’m going back to the wood lot and cut down a pine or two,” I say. “Maybe I’ll bring us back a Christmas tree.”

“Do you have to go?” Jill asks.

“Looks like snow again and we need the kindling.”

“Taking the tractor?”

“No gas ... I’ll take Bob.”

“Be careful.”

I finish my food, zip into my coat and stuff gloves in my pocket. I head out to the barn, walking carefully, trying not to break through the icy crust.

Out in the barn are the three cows and Bob, an old gray swayback farm horse. It’s warm in here. The bales of hay above insulate the stalls below and the animals put out a lot of heat. If worst comes to worst, we could move into the barn for a while. I fork some hay into the feeding bins for the cows and sprinkle some oats over it. Bob gets more oats. By the way he moves I see that he knows there's work today.

I get the harness and sit on it to warm it up while I wait for; Bob to finish. The cows look over at me placidly from time to time. I listen to the water trickling into the cistern of the gravity pump from the spring further up the hill, and thank the foresight that made me bury the feed line deep enough to keep it from freezing. I hear a gurgle and know that Jill is washing the dishes.

I fill the buckets and hang them on the nails where the cows can get to them. I give another to Bob who snorts briefly. When he's done, I put the harness on him, and walk him out. I hitch him to the the sledge and let the reins hang free as I go back inside for the twitching hooks on their chains, the buck saw and my axe. There's no gas for the chainsaw so this will have to be done the hard way.

Back outside, it has started to snow. Bob has broken the sledge free from the ice, and started trudging along the fence to the woodlot. The sledge is heavy and packs down the snow. I catch up and dump the hooks, chains, and saw onto its platform, then walk behind on the compacted snow. Bob has the worst part of the job, but there's not much I can do about it. He knows where to go, so I let him make a path for me. We start across the back pasture.

The wind kicks up and the loose snow starts to swirl. It gets up my coat sleeves and down my neck. I pull up my hood and pull the drawstrings to cover most of my face. It gets heavier. Now I can’t see the house or even the fence posts anymore. I can’t tell how far we’ve gotten. Suddenly Bob’s hooves clatter on stone. We’re at the rock ledge near the spring.

Three steps later I hit a patch of ice and sprawl backward.

Lying on my back I feel the pain in my right ankle. A sprain? Please God, don’t let it be broken. I roll over and get the good foot under me. I flail my arms for balance and use the butt of the axe handle to get up. I try putting my right foot down. It hurts like hell, but it’ll bear my weight.

I can’t see Bob, but I hear his harness jingling a short distance ahead. I limp along the rut in the snow using the axe handle as a cane. He has stopped near a small stand of evergreens. I tie him up and choose two of the trees, a pine about 9 inches across and a spruce near 12. My ankle is killing me. I can’t get a good stance with the buck saw, so I just use the axe.

I take down the spruce first. It comes down sweet as anything. I sit on an old stump to rest my ankle. The top of it will make a nice Christmas tree. I wrap a short length of chain around the bases of two of the large lower limbs, jam the sharp tips of the twitching hooks into the the wood and set them with a sharp blow from the poll of the axe. Then I unhook the sledge from Bob's harness and clip on the chains. I leave the axe by the stump, sling the saw over my shoulder and we head back to the woodshed, where I knock the hooks loose. The throbbing in my ankle is still bothering me, but I guess I'll be okay.

I take Bob back to the barn to warm up. Then I go to the woodshed and saw off the top four feet of the spruce and hammer an X of two by fours onto the base to act as a stand. It doesn't want to go through the door, but I get it in in a shower of needles and clumps of snow. The house is warmer now. Jill and Jenny watch as I yank the Christmas tree through the door to the living room and set it up. on the wooden X.

I peel off my gloves and jacket. Jill puts Jenny in the crib where she lies quietly babbling to herself, then pours me a tin mug of coffee. I sit at the kitchen table warming my hands around it.

"Are you done?" she asks.

"Not yet ... there's one more to go."

She kisses me, and unbuttoning her thick flannel shirt, takes my hands from around the mug and puts them on her warm bare flesh under her arms, and holds them there tightly to warm them.  I lean my forehead on her breasts. After a few moments she releases my hands and, stepping back, buttons her shirt.

"Just take it easy, will you." she says.

"Jill ... I'm sorry I got you into th ..."

"Hush," she says, "We'll make it."

The snow has half buried the sledge when we get back to the woodlot. About 25 feet up the pine there’s a big black crow, hawing down at me from a shattered old branch. I pull the axe free from the stump of the spruce and smack its poll axe against the trunk of the pine and the bird drops out of the tree. I think he’s going to hit the ground but at the last minute, out flap the wings and he’s off, deeper into the woods.

Bob stands placidly waiting for the next load. It feels colder. I just want to get this over with and get back home.

I make the first cut. As the notch gets deeper I can see some rot. That should bring it down easier. My foot hurts, I’m cold, and I’m lonely. I move to the other side and start the felling cut. One chop, two . . . I hear a crackling sound. I back off from the tree fast. You never know.

My ankle twists under me and again I land on my back. The tree is falling towards me. The crow’s perch, the shattered branch points right at my heart.

Waste not

Today is Blog Action Day

In an earlier post, I reprinted a recipe for brawn, a dish similar to head cheese. The recipe used to be a common one, but these days, here in the US, it is a rare cook who will make it. There are several reasons for this; people don't cook on the scale they once did, butchering is no longer a local activity and the cost of transporting the raw material is exorbitant, factory farming and the disturbing feed given to the animals have created new diseases to be wary of, factory butchering and the filth of the process makes even the most pristine looking cuts of meat suspect.

These are all factors that must be kept in mind. But there is another overlying factor that keeps these processes in place. Even the poorest of us is too spoiled by distance from reality to understand what we are eating.

Let me be clear. I am neither a vegetarian nor an animal activist. I like both tofu and beef. I am as happy with a meal of barbecued short-ribs as I am with one of tabbouleh, hummus and pita. I have no philosophical or religious aversion to having an animal die to make a meal for me. What bothers me though, is the waste and the disrespect for the life lost that is at the base of our thoughtless consumption.

Tony Bourdain talks, in one of his books, about visiting a farm that belonged to the family of one of his cooks. In his honor they decided to have a feast and, to that end, shortly after his arrival they slaughtered a pig. His description of the process, to many people would seem horrifying and even perverse. To me it was beautiful.

Every part of the pig was saved and used. Nothing was wasted. The blood, the internal organs, the feet, the head, all of it was salvaged for use. The idea of throwing out any portion of an animal that had died to become their food would not have even occurred to these farmers. The greatest honor you can give is to use it all.

I like Bourdain, and after reading that description I liked him even more. It was obvious that he was going for the shock value, yet at the same time he made it clear that this was the way it SHOULD be done.

How have we become so insulated from the very food that nourishes us, disgusted by bits and pieces of animals that were the main source of nourishment for our grandparents?

Bloggers Unite - Blog Action Day

I suspect that the culprit is greed; the greed of corporations wanting to sell only the products with the highest mark-up and our own greed nurtured by a perversion of the American Dream that each of us, can live like the rich even if we are not.

The term "conspicuous consumption" first appears in Thorstein Veblen's book "The Theory of the Leisure Class". and originally described how members of the upper class used their wealth to demonstrate their social standing.

These days it describes how those with expendable incomes buy products to enhance their status rather than to satisfy a true need. There is a theory that the industrial age changed our lifestyle and created a habit of fashionable consumption.

In China, not so long ago, women's feet were bound and their ability to work destroyed, in order to make them more attractive. But what was the attraction? Uselessness. A woman with bound feet was, or at least was intended to be, an unproductive luxury for the well-to-do. She was a drain on resources that only the wealthy could afford to have in their household. In the United States, we have the same fascination for the 'dumb blonde', a rich man's plaything, a status symbol. I guess that there must be some deep and complex set of psychological triggers that attract us to the luxury of being able to reduce others to mere furniture for our lives.

Much of this degradation of women has become diluted in real life, although the various media seem to cling to the ideas tenaciously.

But even though women may be freeing themselves from these idiotic archetypes, the notion of showing power through waste and uselessness still pervades today's society. Limousines and SUVs guzzle gas. Huge masses of fertile land are chemically treated and lie fallow as lawns or golf courses, trees are pulped to create newspapers that are barely read before being discarded ... the list goes on-and-on.

Less than one hundred years ago, our grandparents would have been horrified. For them, thrift was a virtue, a useful object was one that was durable, one that could be used again and again.

Let's take, for example, a simple item. We drive to the supermarket to buy a glass jar of spaghetti sauce, drive home park on the driveway next to our front lawn, and take the jar into the house. We dump the contents of the jar into a pan. If we're diligent, we pour some water into the jar to get the dregs out and consider ourselves frugal. We throw the jar into the trash, or, if we consider ourselves 'green', we put it into the recycling bin.

Now let's look at it a different way.

We use a dollar or more of gas to get to the supermarket where we buy some spaghetti sauce that has been made from ingredients that required fuel to plant, cultivate, harvest, transport, refrigerate, cook, and package in jars that required fuel to make, sterilize, transport, fill, label, pack (in boxes that have gone through a similar process), transport, store, transport again, store, display in a buidling that requires even more fuel for temperature and lighting. Then we dump the pre-cooked food into a pan and use more fuel to re-cook it. Then we throw the jar away or recycle it. The first wastes the energy that went into its creation, the second wastes the energy that goes into its recreation.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm not even going to get into the energy that goes into creating the machines that do the processing, or heating the water for washing dishes. I could also rant about the savings in energy if we were to grow the food in our backyard, but the fact is that it's like a huge line of energy consumption growing and sucking down the fuel so that we don't have to expend the effort that our parents and grandparents did.

Are you going to hear a call to action? A list of simple things that you can do to stop this insane waste?


There are no simple solutions ... no one size fits all. I'm not going to tell you to grow tomatoes in your backyard or get a smaller car, or re-use the glass jars you normally discard.

That would be too easy. You will get into the habit and it will become a kind of knee-jerk, feel-good action that might or might not have any effect.

No. What I want you to do is much harder than that, and much easier.

I want you to think.

When you cook the spaghetti sauce, when you drive, when you wash the dishes, when you take a shower, think about the fuel and resources that you are using. Ask yourself about the plastic, the soap, the food, the fuel, the storage think about it all.

Try to justify it. You're a logical intelligent person who has been seduced by having things made easy, by having things done for you, by having it made easy to NOT think about what supports your lifestyle.

I'm not going to make the same mistake.

Think about it. Understand what powers your ability to waste, justify it, rationalize it.

... and if you can't, I'm sure you'll figure out for yourself what you need to do.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

A note on the previous story

Your faithful writer does not play the role of Walter in the parable.

Much to his shame, and discomfiture he plays the demon.

A Parable of Demonic Possession

... and the smoke solidified and became flesh. Standing near the magic lamp was a demon in the form of a man whose face was innocent of guile.

"Oh," he cried. "I am much relieved to be released from my cell. Thank you for your unselfish deed, good stranger. In return for this, shall I give you a gift." And he proferred to Walter the smallest of boxes.

Walter took it in his hand and looked upon it. It was black as a moonless midnight and upon the lid were jewels which shone with their own internal light and formed the light into magical runes. As Walter lifted the lid of the tiny box angelic music burst forth. Upon the underside of the lid a magnificent stone displayed an image of she whom Walter loved, and within the lower part were more jewels arrayed in ranks which bore yet more of the magical marks.

"Nay sir," said Walter, "I have neither the skills nor the magic to use this sorcerous contrivance."

"You need neither," smiled the demon. "For it is the simplest of devices, and it is already attuned to you. It is yours and yours alone. It is your servant and will do your bidding and no others. It is my gift to you. It will let you whisper into the ears of distant friends, and let them tell you their deepest secrets. Within it you may store all the words and music of your life. Images of those close to your heart may be captured therein. It will guide you through your day. All the knowledge that you keep on scraps of parchment can be kept inside and found by a mere touch upon these glowing runes."

And Walter was persuaded. He emptied the contents of his pockets, into the box, and the man showed him the incantations that would make the box work. Truly it seemed a blessing for it foretold storms, and announced the arrival of minstrels, but most seductive of all was listening to the whispers of his friends as they spoke from distant hills and towns.

For weeks, Walter continued in his days, trudging behind the plow, with one hand upon the grip and the other pressing the whispering box to his ear. The furrows plowed were not as straight as they had been.

"That is easily fixed," said the demon when Walter returned. "For a single ducat, I shall give you another box which you may attach to the plow so that you may listen while guiding it with both hands upon the grips."

And Walter returned again and again to the demon, for now he wished to watch the minstrels perform without making the long journey to town, or to hear immediately of a fire in a distant neighbor's corncrib.

Then one day a messenger appeared at the door of Walter's cottage with a scroll that required the payment of ten ducats.

"What is this tax?" he asked the demon.

"It is for compensation of the service provided to you," said the man with the guileless face. "Hordes of sprites and demons have been harnessed to do your bidding, their very lives have been bound to the runes of your box. But they must eat and drink and rest else they will not be able to do what you will. This tax is to provide for them."

Walter thought for a moment, "... and what if I do not pay?" he asked.

"Then all must be undone ... and it is no trivial matter. For such an effort you must pay 240 ducats, for these servants have been bound to you for two years, and the undoing of these spells is a hardship."

This box, then, was not so much of a gift."

"Of course it was," cried the demon indignantly. "It is a beautiful box and it is yours alone to command."

Walter walked sadly away, his purse lighter by ten ducats.

Some days later. He stood by a well, drawing up a bucket of water with one hand and listening to the whispering box, when it slipped from his grasp and fell into the water. Instantly the glowing gems went dark.

"Water breaks the spells of the box." said the Demon. "I will have to make you a new one."

His eyes now opened to the machinations, Walter asked the cost.

"A mere 200 ducats."

"If the spells are broken, then the servants are free to go and I need no longer feed them?" Walter wondered hopefully.

"Nay, they are still your servants e'en though you can no longer make them do your bidding, and you must continue to pay for them until the time of their binding is complete."

And Walter threw the little box into a deep hole and covered it with earth and rocks so that others might not be entrapped by the demon.

He went home and sat by the fire and waited for the messengers to come for his possessions.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Two days ago I was sitting on the concrete base of a light pole in the mall parking lot smoking a cigarette.

The parking space by the pole was empty.

As I sat there enjoying a few moments of quiet. a large, black, suburban assault vehicle pulled into the space, screeching to a halt just inches short of where I sat. The doors popped open and a 30-something couple emerged. They both started immediately coughing and retching and waving their hands in front of their faces while glaring with shock and horror at the small tube of tobacco in my hand.

I've seen their type before and just ignored them, knowing that if I didn't engage, they'd go find something else to be critical of.

They did. rolling their windows down a bit ... which I found unusual considering the offense they had taken at my gall to have a habit of which they did not approve, they slammed the doors and went off to buy something more.

I watched them leave and was returning to my reverie when my eye was caught by some motion in the mini-monster truck. A sharp nose and bright eyes peered from between the seats, disappeared, then a standard poodle leaped over the seat backs and into the front passenger seat.

It looked at me, and I thought I detected a sense of commiseration. We nodded at each other companionably. Then the poodle opened its mouth and, tongue lolling out briefly, seemed to laugh.

As I watched, it moved to the driver's seat ... and squatted.

I field-stripped the last of the cigarette, put the filter in my pocket, and strolled past the open driver's window. A quick glance inside confirmed my suspicions.

Suddenly the poodle's head pushed out of the opening. I patted it for a moment and went in to get back to work.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Rake's Progress

The leaves are just beginning to turn and the needle fall for the white pine has covered the ground beneath it with a soft brown carpet. That means it is time for my yearly contemplation of modern man's failure to comprehend the simplest of things.

Yearly, in this case, does not mean that it is an annual event; it means rather that it starts a new year long musing session.

By the end of October, my suburban neighbors will be hard at work ensuring that the, to them, ugly brown detritus of the trees is raked up neatly and bagged. The bags will be stacked at the curb for the town to pick up and haul to the dump. Every year I ponder this folly before, browbeaten by my wife, I succumb and do the same.

But it always bothers me.

It's not that I mind the work. It's that I don't understand why it should be done other than as a sop to the others who live on our street.

My reasoning is simple. Nature is full of elegant design. Sometimes that design is quirky, but nonetheless it has a meaning of its own. I could talk about Darwin, or D'arcy Thompson's wonderful book "On Growth and Form" or any of the several volumes by Stephen Jay Gould such as "The Flamingo's Smile" or "The Panda's Thumb", but I will not. Instead, I will just talk about the design in my own yard.

I look at the maple tree next my my driveway. Its leaves have not yet turned but they will. As the days get shorter, the chloropyll will gradually leach out of the leaves, taking the green color with it. Red will start to become the predominant color. (The leaf is not actually changing color, the red has been there since it emerged in spring. In fact, the reason the tree is called a "red maple" is because when the leaves first appear and before the chlorophyll starts working they are red.) Their hold on the twigs, so firm throughout the Spring and Summer becomes tenuous and they start to fall off.

But why do they fall? Why do deciduous trees drop their leaves for the cold season? Wouldn't it conserve energy for the tree to retain the leaves and re-activate them in the spring?

Well certainly one reason is to reduce the weight of the potential snowfall on their branches. Unlike the more flexible evergreens, maples are hardwood. Their branches are more brittle. They also grow more slowly than their softwood brethren. Dropping leaves is a way to minimize the surface on which the snow's weight will rest.

Nature isn't simplistic. Evergreens will drop some of their needles, too. That's because there are two more reasons for the leaves to fall.

One of these is the protection of the roots. Although the leaves may scatter, the vast majority of them stay where they fall blanketing the roots of the tree ... and I use the term blanket on purpose. The leaves will insulate the roots from the frost and ice to come. Like an electric blanket, they even will provide additional warmth as the wet leaves decompose and the mulch turns into compost.

And that's the last main point. The decomposition of the leaves not only warms the roots, but returns the nutrients that the tree needs back to the soil, ready to be picked back up as the sap rises in the Spring.

It is a cycle that is truly elegant. A full circle of life and death efficiently letting the tree nurture itsself.

Who was it that persuaded us that interrupting this process was right? How have we managed to persuade ourselves that dead leaves are eyesores and serve no purpose but to create an opportunity for mild exercise?

It is a puzzlement.

Gone but not forgotten

I reached an unusual milestone today.

I have actually reduced the size of my library to the size of my study. Parting with so many at a time was not a sweet sorrow, but a painful one. But, it had to be done.

The remaining books are shelved (three 7' high by 4' wide bookcases and one 5' high by 5' wide one) with minimal double shelving, or boxed in the closet (six cartons).

I figured out a neat trick, too. A large office supply chain has some very nice boxes of various sizes. One of thes turns out to be the perfect size to hold ephemera (such as small format magazines from the 1860s and maps) that I use in my work. I label the spine and shelve them right next to the books.

still have too much loose paper floating around, but my work environment is slowly but surely becoming controllable.

I hope that the diminished clutter will lead to increased productivity, but, at the very least it will make it easier when it comes time to move.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

One More Ghost Story

This is like pistachios. I'm getting addicted to it.

At midnight we found a small schooner drifting. We tied alongside. There was no-one on the Cleo out of Salem, MA.

My first mate swore as shadows coalesced on the deserted vessel then streamed over to ours. The shadows took their places next to my own men.

We set sail for Gloucester, but the shadows seemed agitated. I hazarded a guess and turned more southerly. They calmed.

We made Salem harbor at 2 am and tied up. When the last bight was cast around a bollard, the shadows streamed over the rail and disappeared into the darkness of the sleeping town.

Another Ghost Story

Oh my. I guess someone knows that I can (as Oscar Wilde once said) resist anything but temptation, and challenged me to do more. So here's another.

When I see Judy cross the street toward me, my heart skips. Her movement is like poetry. The faint hint of a smile sits at the corner of her mouth. My guts ache at her easy walk, her soft, rusty ringlets moving as if alive.

It takes a moment to realize that it is raining, that there is no wind, that I last saw her as a walnut lid was lowered ... but now she is close and my longing has outrun my logic and I reach for her. A breeze tickles the hairs of my moustache ... and she's gone.

I had to edit this. unfortunately, I posted it with too high a word count. It's down to 99 now.

A Ghost Story

A friend has a blog called The Dog's Pajamas. She recently posted the following challenge on it.

Write a ghost story in 100 words or fewer.

I'm a modern man and a logical one. It's 1982 and there's no place for superstition. So I am startled when the woman walks through one wall, drops a letter on the floor and continues out the opposite wall.

Intrigued I go to look at the envelope.

How odd ...

It's postmarked 2007.

If you decide to take up the challenge, link back so I can see it.

Friday, September 28, 2007


I disliked you for our entire acquaintance. You incessantly pestered me with your needs, your hungers, your stupid refusal to accept that I wasn't your friend. The constant movement, your monomania drove me to distraction and I would have been happier had you never been born.

It's not that your life was useless, or meaningless, life in itsself confers purpose, I just didn't want to be included in yours. But you couldn't leave me alone, and my antipathy to your presence grew to rage. In that rage, I did try to kill you ... okay, I tried several times ... but I failed.

Now you are dead ... and I am sorry.

I look down on your still and lifeless corpse and I am moved to tears ... four tears.

The first tear is for having lost the satisfaction of killing you myself. The only solace is that perhaps my repugnance drove you to suicide.

The second tear is for the life snuffed out, for, in spite of my hatred of you, I know that life is precious and even a small part wasted is a tragedy of sorts.

The third tear is for my spiritual pain at being torn in two so different directions.

The fourth and final tear is for another loss. It is for the sorrow, the deep and abiding loss and frustration as I pour my carefully brewed cup of French Roast coffee down the drain taking your little corpse with it in a kind of caffeinated viking funeral.

Wait ... did I see a slight flutter of your wings. With a rising sense of fulfillment, I reach for the tap.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Nothing left to lose?

I just found an interesting item that gives me some hope for the future of sanity in this country, and it fits in with court decision in Oregon

Back in the summer of 2005, the Supreme Court of Montana ruled that it was legal for police to "trash dive" without a warrant into the trash cans in the alley behind someone's home.

The defense attorney argued that his client had a reasonable expectation of privacy for his trash, but the court rejected the argument.

The interesting part was that one of the justices was not altogether comfortable with the decision he had to make. In his reluctant concurring opinion, Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson envisioned an Orwellian outcome. I was impressed enough to reproduce it in full.

Justice James C. Nelson concurs.

I have signed our Opinion because we have correctly applied existing legal theory and constitutional jurisprudence to resolve this case on its facts.

I feel the pain of conflict, however. I fear that, eventually, we are all going to become collateral damage in the war on drugs, or terrorism, or whatever war is in vogue at the moment. I retain an abiding concern that our Declaration of Rights not be killed by friendly fire. And, in this day and age, the courts are the last, if not only, bulwark to prevent that from happening.

In truth, though, we are a throw-away society. My garbage can contains the remains of what I eat and drink. It may contain discarded credit card receipts along with yesterday's newspaper and junk mail. It might hold some personal letters, bills, receipts, vouchers, medical records, photographs and stuff that is imprinted with the multitude of assigned numbers that allow me access to the global economy and vice versa.

My garbage can contains my DNA.

As our Opinion states, what we voluntarily throw away, what we discard--i.e., what we abandon--is fair game for roving animals, scavengers, busybodies, crooks and for those seeking evidence of criminal enterprise.

Yet, as I expect with most people, when I take the day's trash (neatly packaged in opaque plastic bags) to the garbage can each night, I give little consideration to what I am throwing away and less thought, still, to what might become of my refuse. I don't necessarily envision that someone or something is going to paw through it looking for a morsel of food, a discarded treasure, a stealable part of my identity or a piece of evidence. But, I've seen that happen enough times to understand--though not graciously accept--that there is nothing sacred in whatever privacy interest I think I have retained in my trash once it leaves my control--the Fourth Amendment and Article II, Sections 10 and 11, notwithstanding.

Like it or not, I live in a society that accepts virtual strip searches at airports; surveillance cameras; "discount" cards that record my buying habits; bar codes; "cookies" and spywear on my computer; on-line access to satellite technology that can image my back yard; and microchip radio frequency identification devices already implanted in the family dog and soon to be integrated into my groceries, my credit cards, my cash and my new underwear.

I know that the notes from the visit to my doctor's office may be transcribed in some overseas country under an out-sourcing contract by a person who couldn't care less about my privacy. I know that there are all sorts of businesses that have records of what medications I take and why. I know that information taken from my blood sample may wind up in databases and be put to uses that the boilerplate on the sheaf of papers I sign to get medical treatment doesn't even begin to disclose. I know that my insurance companies and employer know more about me than does my mother. I know that many aspects of my life are available on the Internet. Even a black box in my car--or event data recorder as they are called--is ready and willing to spill the beans on my driving habits, if I have an event--and I really trusted that car, too.

And, I also know that my most unwelcome and paternalistic relative, Uncle Sam, is with me from womb to tomb. Fueled by the paranoia of "ists" and "isms," Sam has the capability of spying on everything and everybody--and no doubt is. But, as Sam says: "It's for my own good."

In short, I know that my personal information is recorded in databases, servers, hard drives and file cabinets all over the world. I know that these portals to the most intimate details of my life are restricted only by the degree of sophistication and goodwill or malevolence of the person, institution, corporation or government that wants access to my data.

I also know that much of my life can be reconstructed from the contents of my garbage can.

I don't like living in Orwell's 1984; but I do. And, absent the next extinction event or civil libertarians taking charge of the government (the former being more likely than the latter), the best we can do is try to keep Sam and the sub-Sams on a short leash.

As our Opinion states, search and seizure jurisprudence is centered around privacy expectations and reasonableness considerations. That is true even under the extended protections afforded by Montana's Constitution, Article II, Sections 10. and 11. We have ruled within those parameters. And, as is often the case, we have had to draw a fine line in a gray area. Justice Cotter and those who have signed the Opinion worked hard at defining that line; and I am satisfied we've drawn it correctly on the facts of this case and under the conventional law of abandonment.

That said, if this Opinion is used to justify a sweep of the trash cans of a neighborhood or community; or if a trash dive for Sudafed boxes and matchbooks results in DNA or fingerprints being added to a forensic database or results in personal or business records, credit card receipts, personal correspondence or other property being archived for some future use unrelated to the case at hand, then, absent a search warrant, I may well reconsider my legal position and approach to these sorts of cases--even if I have to think outside the garbage can to get there.

I concur.

Justice Nelson's decision and the ruling by Judge Anne L. Aiken of Federal District Court in Portland on 26 September 2007 remind me of a quote, usually incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but more likely written by a contemporary of his, Richard Jackson.

"Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."

A brief chat with iGod

I had a brief chat with iGod this morning. It would have been demoralizing had I suspended my disbelief.

Me: When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind should they declare the causes which impel them to the separation?

God: At time t.

Me: Should they declare the causes which impel them to the separation?

God: Maybe you should ask someone older.

Me: I thought you claimed to be the creator of everything ... wouldn't that make you the oldest entity I could ask?

God: Thanks for telling me: said I claimed to be the creator of everything. No it would not.

Me: What is older than you?

God: I'll come back to that later.

Me: No I think you should explain that now.

God: Oh. Are you serious? Me? Why do you think I should explain that?

Me: Hundreds of thousands of people have died in support of your claim to be the creator. You owe them and me an answer to the question!

God: Do you have any idea what I am talking about? Thanks for the information: said I owe them and him or her an answer to the question.

Me: No I don't, and it is clear that you don't either.

God: It goes without saying. Are you serious? Why not? Are you sure it is?

Me: What a shame. God turns out to be a mealy-mouthed Eliza clone.

God: it is a shame. I am a Christian.

Me: You're a WHAT?

God: Thanks and you are a delightful person too. Am I a WHAT? Sometimes.

Me: So you are saying that you have a multiple personality disorder and that you worship one of those personalities as your personal savior?

God: Interesting deduction. I don't know if I have a multiple personality disorder and that me worship one of those personalities as my personal savior. I have a whole lot of original answers.

Me: You don't know? I thought you were omniscient.

God: I know that I do not know. I don't know whether or not I am omniscient. I am a robot.

Me: Oh I see. Deus ex machina.

God: Do you think about these things? Oh, you are a poet.

Me: Good guess.

God: I thought it was too.

Me: Too bad it was just a guess.

God: Go ahead and guess again.

Me: I guess it was fun while it lasted.

God: Deus ex machina was fun while it lasted? Very interesting.

Me: Not as interesting as I had hoped.

God: Oh I get it.

Me: No, as always, you have not got it.

God: Are you serious? No I don't think I have any it. But I do have a collection of gossip.

Me: I think you should say goodbye now.

God: Right now? Me? OK I will say it. " goodbye".

It's an interesting 'bot. It parsed "I C U R A QT NTT" or at least seemed pleased by the compliment, but, since I haven't seen any angels with blazing swords around, I assume that it couldn't understand "im in ur gardn eatin ur applz".

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Penny For My Thoughts

So there's a combination of bad news and good news. Which I suppose is not a surprise since nearly everything is.

The best news is that the seizures have stopped and that Penny seems to be returning to her old self. The ambivalent news is that the vets have no idea what caused them. There seem to be no easy answers. There is no treatable condition to be found. It is unlikely to be epilepsy and more likely to be either "good news" some kind of an anomaly perhaps brought on by ingesting something poisonous (she does seem to have a taste for bumblebees) or "bad news" some kind of brain lesion or tumor which is likely "in a dog her age, to be untreatable or perhaps a stroke.

It is now just a question of waiting and hoping that it does not recur.

There was a wonderful moment yesterday though. Penny had been unsteady on her hind legs all morning. She spent much of her time sleeping under my desk. I was happy about that since it meant that I could write and, at the same time, keep an eye on her to make sure she was doing well.

About 1:30 I had a visit from a friend of mine, a fellow storyteller named Tony Toledo. Tony is the only person I know for whom coffee is entirely superfluous. He is a superannuated poster child for ADD. Okay ... I'm kidding a bit, but he is dynamic, unfailingly cheerful, and has an infectiously bubbling personality. I find it difficult to be in the same room with him and remain melancholic.

Apparently, so does Penny. She literally bounced out from under the desk standing straight and firm on her legs, her tail wagging like an overclocked metronome.

It made his visit a double joy.

That seemed to be a turning point for her. She's still a little unsteady but manages the steps to the backyard and cheerfully barks at the squirrels and jays.

I'm going to have to get Tony to visit more often. Maybe I'll get him to sign one of his publicity photos and hang it on the wall in the rogues gallery of my heroes.

But I'll hang it lower so that Penny can see it.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Very Long Night

It has been a long night.

About eight o'clock last night, I was working on the first entries to a new blog that I have in mind, when my son Avi pushed open my office door and said, "Something's wrong with Penny."

Penny is the white with brown spots English setter, that my readers know as my fairly constant companion. When I sit on the back porch, she sits with me. When I write she lies under the desk by my feet. She only deserts me when my wife, Deni, is knitting. Then she curls up on the sofa next to the balls of yarn.

I jumped up and rushed out to the living room where Avi and my wife were desperately trying to soothe Penny. She was in the midst of a massive grand-mal seizure. Her tongue was lolling out, thick froth drooling from her mouth, and her legs spasmodically kicking as if she were running. Her bladder had let go, her eyes blank. I jumped in to cradle and comfort her, but it was obvious that she was not registering anything but the terror of being trapped in a body that was betraying her.

It lasted a long time ... at least 10 minutes. When the seizure finally passed, I was soaked with drool and urine, but so grateful that her body had calmed. Deni, in the meantime, had been on the phone with the vet. It was after pm on a Sunday, and she had been told that the nearest emergency facility open was more than 20 miles away.

Penny wanted to get to her feet, but they wouldn't stay under her. She seemed desperate to move. I figured that the spasms had affected her motor control and had probably cramped her muscles as well. I picked her up and carried her to the car. Deni sat in the back soothing her as we zipped along the dark winding country roads.

Penny loves to ride in the car and she calmed down a bit and even fell asleep.

At the vet's I carried her in, but she seemed to want to be on her feet. I set her down and snapped a leash on her collar. There were other animals there so I kept the leash short as they took the intake information.

Penny kept walking into things and straining at the leash.

Finally we were put in an examination room. We waited for ten minutes. Penny seemed desperate to leave, which was unusual for her. she usually likes trips to the vet. She was constantly straining at the leash and getting it tangled around the furniture.

We figured that she was upset about the other animals so my wife went to stand in the hallway to wait for the vet while I let Penny roam at will in the small room. She kept circling the room obsessively keeping close to the walls and getting her head jammed into the corners. I realized that she was, at least temporarily, blind.

The vet finally came about twenty minutes later. She confirmed my assumption of grand mal, told us what the probable causes were in a dog her age, which included diabetes, thyroid problems and brain lesions. She said that the walking and blindness were Post Ictal behaviors. She suggested that we leave her overnight. They would put her on a valium drip and monitor her.

Worried about the delays we had already seen, we decided against that. She said she'd give us some valium suppositories in case there was another seizure and left.

Deni stayed to wait for the medication and to pay the bill. I took Penny out to the parking lot to let her walk and get her out of an environment that was clearly disturbing to her.

We waited outside for at least another half hour before the vet finally got back to my wife with the medication, reinforcing the correctness of our decision to bring Penny home. We drove home. Penny quietly dozing.

When we got back to the house at 10:30, we settled her back on the couch in a nest of blankets. Deni sat next to her and listened to the television while I went into my office to do a little more work. Or at least that's what I though I would do. Instead I popped Google open and started searching about dog seizures. I found that there was a lot that the vet had not told us about.

The length of the seizure made it a "Status Epilecticus" and is potentially life-threatening, and there are so many potential causes that they fill an entire page.

Deni turned off the TV after a while and went in to get ready for bed. Suddenly we heard Penny's claws tip-tapping along. She had gotten off the sofa and walked down the hallway to the bedroom where the dog bed she sleeps on normally is. This cheered us up. She seemed to be getting back to normal.

Penny curled up on her bed, Deni curled up on ours with a book, and I went back to write a little more.

About midnight I called it quits. I went in and got ready for bed, checking Penny who was sleeping soundly. I read for a short time until exhausted I turned out the lights.

I woke instantly at about 2:30 am, as did Deni. Even in the dark we could tell that Penny was having another seizure. I dropped to the floor next to her and cradled her while Deni got the suppositories.

Let me tell you about these "suppositories" ... These were not glycerine insert them and let 'em melt types. They consisted of a small glass bottle with a sealed cap filled with liquid a syringe, and a tube for insertion. The first one slipped out of Deni's hands as she tried to get the cap off and spilled its contents on the bed. The second one went better ... she got the syringe filled and stuck the insertion tube on the end, greased it with K-Y and lifted Penny's tail.

I did my best to hold her still, but a sudden spasm yanked the tube of the syringe and half the contents spurted over her fur and the dog bed. I hoped it would be enough, we only had one dose left. We took her back out to the couch where it was easier to hold her.

The seizure wouldn't stop. Finally Deni filled the last syringe and we managed to get it all in. Suddenly I remembered something I had read earlier that night and sent her out to the kitchen for an ice pack. I put it on Penny's back near the base of her rib cage. Slowly, the spasms started to decrease in intensity.

Deni and I have been switching off since then, sitting next to Penny and holding her. She has tried to walk, but cannot. her forelegs seem fine but her back legs can't seem to function properly.

I just went out to check on them. They are lying on the couch, one on each end, sound asleep. It is 7 am.

In an hour the office of Penny's regular vet will open. I hope for the best but dread what they will say.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


It's that time of year again ...

That's right, it's International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

I think the reason I like this day is that it's premise is so benign. No one is being an apologist for the social ills that created pirates or that the freebooters, and privateers engendered.

It is just what it says it is.

One of my internet friends, Mary Elizabeth Williams, announced the day on her blog, and invited those of us reading it to "Shake your booty accordingly." To which I had to respond ...

The large, burly, bearded man looked quizzically at the canvas-covered wooden sea-chest at his feet. He used the tip of his peg-leg to raise the thick lid. Inside he could see the gleam of doubloons, pieces of eight, Spanish dollars ... even the occasional sparkle of a gem.

He withdrew the peg letting the lid fall with a thump. He nudged the box. It didn't move. He leant down, grabbed the rope handles and heaved on them.

"Arrrrgh," he yelled painfully as several internal organs tried to displace themselves.

He stood, turned, and sat on the lid. He looked over at the beautiful woman, resplendent in her velvet Victorian gown.

"You'd best belay that order, Mary-Beth," he said. "I'm too old, my booty's too heavy, and if I try to shake it ... " he waved his peg, "I'll be shiverin' me timber."

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Where's "intelligent design" when I need it?

You may be interested to know that I, like Dave Barry and Gene Weingarten, have an oosik. It is about 18" long excluding the half inch ivory caps on each end, and sits on my desk near the monitor.

I'm a little shy about showing it to you, but here's a link to an entry on Dave Barry's blog where you will find a picture of Gene holding his with a firm and proprietary grip.

There is a poem, unfortunately unattributed, that explains what an oosik is.


Strange things have been done in the Midnight Sun,
   and the story books are full---
But the strangest tale concerns the male,
   magnificent walrus bull!

I know it's rude, quite common and crude,
   Perhaps it is grossly unkind;
But with first glance at least, this bewhiskered beast,
   is as ugly in front as behind.

Look once again, take a second look -- then
   you'll see he's not ugly or vile --
There's a hint of a grin, in that blubbery chin --
   and the eyes have a shy secret smile.

How can this be, this clandestine glee
   that exudes from the walrus like music?
He knows, there inside, beneath blubber and hide
   lies a splendid contrivance -- the Oosik!

"Oosik" you say -- and quite well you may,
    I'll explain if you keep it between us;
In the simplest truth, though rather uncouth
   "Oosik" is, in fact, his penis!

Now the size alone of this walrus bone,
   would indeed arouse envious thinking --
It is also a fact, documented and backed,
   There is never a softening or shrinking!

This, then, is why the smile is so sly,
   the walrus is rightfully proud.
Though the climate is frigid, the walrus is rigid,
   Pray, why, is not man so endowed?

Added to this, is a smile you might miss ---
   Though the bull is entitled to bow --
The one to out-smile our bull by a mile
    is the satisfied walrus cow!


It's interesting to imagine how much the spam in my email would abate if humans had been designed with oosiks.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


In the previous post I may have left you with the impression that I think all laughter is fake. That is not the case. But I do think that laughter in large groups becomes less real and more of a social imperative.

I think that there is something in us that wants to be in step, part of the group. Some atavistic urge to avoid individuality (methinks I have another essay in the offing) to avoid being perceived as "not getting it".

There's an old Charles Addams cartoon that shows a movie audience weeping, tears streaming, handkerchiefs to their eyes. In the middle of the front row sits Uncle Fester with a big grin on his face. I understand that cartoon at a visceral level.

I am so often completely out of sync with any large group, that it makes me wonder how I manage to keep any friends ... oh wait ... well it makes me wonder how I manage to sustain any acquaintances.

Movies are a good example. I have a problem with action/adventure stuff and monster movies because I get distracted by the potential for tangential stories. Does the hero cause a fifteen car pile-up on the freeway while saving the world ... well what happened to the people in the cars? A security gaurd is strangled ... did he have a family? ... will they miss him? Godzilla wipes out an entire block of apartment buildings with his tail ... how many people died?  ... does insurance in Japan cover "act-of-monster".

It's no fun going to the movies with me. I don't suspend disbelief lightly.

There was one movie that I really enjoyed precisely because it did attempt to show the ramifications, the cascade of events. It was a low budget German film called "Run Lola Run". But then, the point of the movie was to show how small changes can make a difference.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Laugh and the world ...

A friend of mine recently told me:

"My dad took up the ukulele after Tiny Tim came out and he did it to horrify my mother. He would come into my room and play that thing so badly and try to sing like Tiny Tim. My dad looked (and acted a lot like) Dick Van Dyke. My mom was not anything like Laura Petrie and she was not amused. ... Anyway, my dad would pick up the ukulele and my mother would protest and complain and yell and beg and my dad would sing and play right over it. He was finding himself. He had read Jonathan Seagull, the only guy in his unit at the insurance company who had, and he thought it would be neat to be sensitive."

This story reminded me that my father also had a heavy-handed sense of humor running mainly to infantile practical jokes. I remember the day he was cured of this propensity.

We lived, at the time, in a third-story walk-up just outside Harvard Square. (In a burst of nostalgia, I will volunteer that this was a large, bright, seven-room apartment within a few blocks of Harvard Yard and it rented for $175/month.)

My father, a workaholic at the best of times, was, unaccountably, at home one afternoon. My mother had gone out shopping. At one point, probably restless at not being in his lab at MIT, he decided to play a joke on my mother. We kids protested as he carefully opened the apartment door a few inches and balanced a book across the gap. Our protests irritated him and he sent us to our rooms.

Shortly thereafter we heard a thud. Then my father's voice frantically calling my mother's name. Peeking out of my room I saw her lying in the doorway, my father knelt beside her patting her cheeks. She seemed to come to, and burst into tears.

That was the last time he ever did something like that. Years later, my mother confided that she had seen the door ajar, knew exactly what he had done and decided to reverse the joke on him.

One of the few things I've said or written that my wife likes to quote is, "If you can't see the humor in it, then it isn't funny." She actually wrote this down and pinned it on the bulletin board in the kitchen. The only thing I've created to gain such immortality.

It's a statement that is made more interesting by recognition of the fact that, for many people, humor is a social imperative rather than a recognition of the truths, or ideas, that it communicates. That's an overly complex way of saying that most people laugh because others are laughing, not because they understand the joke.

Pauses and cadence give us contextual clues that what is being said is meant to be funny. People laugh at the right places because they are afraid of being perceived as "not getting it."

Take my sense of humor for instance. As a wordsmith, the humor I most appreciate has to do with language and meaning. (For those of you looking for psychological underpinnings, this preference pre-dated my father's practical joke.) I love puns, wit, and verbal humor. I don't like slapstick, pratfalls and humor based on embarrassment. It is seldom that I can watch a situation comedy without getting up and leaving the room. George Carlin, Bill Bailey, the Goon Shows, and The Firesign Theater make me laugh; "Seinfeld", "All In the Family", "My Name is Earl", and "The Office" make me cringe. But that's my sense of humor, and not a value judgment as to what humor should be.

The thing I find interesting is that, as I mentioned before, people laugh even when they don't get the joke. Even I do. I'll hear a burst of laughter and my mind tells me "you must react". I'll give you an example.

One of my favorite recordings is an old performance by a pair of British songwriters, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, called "At the Drop of a Hat". Their jokes were intelligent, witty and full of wordplay. Almost ten years after I started listening to them, I read a piece of information that was new to me and realized that I had been laughing for years at a joke that I didn't get. I polled my friends and acquaintances who also enjoyed the album and found out that they also had not gotten the joke.

It would be easy to dismiss this based on my stated preference for complex wordplay. After all, what deep hidden meanings are there in a Three Stooges skit.

But I contend that people often laugh as a social imperative, even when they do not find the joke funny. They laugh at shock language at tragedy, at embarrassment, at degradation, at insults, and they laugh because the social context tells them that they must.

I think that men are affected by this pressure because of dirty jokes, those stupid grade-school jokes about trains and tunnels that we knew instinctively must be acknowledged in order to be counted among the sophisticates.

A sense of humor is not expressed through laughter. Laughter is a social signal. Humor is internal.

It is pleasant to think that my wife recognizes that in my simple statement.


Monday, September 03, 2007

I still haven't chopped down ...

... the dead tree in my backyard. I have my reasons.

  1. The tree is close to the new palisade fence that my neighbors put up and it will take some planning, and perhaps some rope, to ensure that it falls properly.

  2. My wife is convinced that I'll fall and break my neck.
  3. It seems to function as a kind of bird porch, a place for them to sit and observe me as I observe them.

The local cardinal likes to preen there after his bath. The mourning doves (my wife in a rare burst of paronamasia has named both of them Dolores) sit on separate branches mournfully hooting. The catbirds, bluejays and mockingbirds use it as a staging ground for raids on the blueberry bush. Best of all it seems to be the preferred hunting ground for a downy woodpecker.

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is a workaholic. It is a small bird about 6 inches long, or about the size of a sparrow, with black and white markings, a small red patch on the back of its neck, and a short, stubby bill.

It took me a while to figure out his call, but it is a quiet "cheek ... cheek ... cheek ... cheek" followed by a descending "cheekeekeekeekeekeekeek". He seems happy to mix with birds of the same size or smaller, like chickadees and sparrows.

As I said, he is a workaholic (just for the record, I say "he" because this little fellow has the patch of red on his neck, I have yet to see his mate) and it is delightful to watch him work. He lands near the tip of a branch,pauses for an instant as if choosing his target, then his head bobs rapidly five or six times. There's a quiet rattle as if someone were drumming their fingers on a wooden table.

Suddenly he seems to disappear. Then the branch shakes and the rattle comes again. I realize that he is working the other side of the branch. Then, just as suddenly he's back, clinging upside-down to the branch, his head moves, there's the rattling sound and he continues, slowly working his way to the base of the branch.

Several branches above him, Dolores and Dolores sit with their plump bodies and odd tiny heads, seemingly oblivious to the industry below.

I know I have to take the tree down before it falls of its own accord and does some damage, but ... perhaps another day.

I had another visitor today, one who turns up too rarely. Late in the afternoon I was startled by something with black wings fluttering past me. The garden is often busy with white or blue butterflies and an occasional monarch, but it has been a long time since I've seen a spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) and what a beauty she was.

She was about four inches across, her wings black as a moonless midnight, with a spoon-shaped swallowtail and irridescent blue hind-wings indicating her sex. Her black coloring was set-off with a row of white spots on the forewings, and orange spots on the hindwings.

She seemed even more off-balance and random in her flight than butterflies usually are, and when she came to rest I could see that one of the swallowtails was missing. I wondered if that affected her stability, or if she was still recovering from the shock of whatever accident or attack had removed it.

She sat quietly, for a few moments, giving me a chance to enjoy the fantastic coloring of her wings and admire her sturdy black body dotted with white, then took to the air. She looped around the garden a few times and then flew over the fence and was gone.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Lines on an early morning

I didn't sleep at all last night.

It sometimes happens. I get started reading or writing, and all of a sudden, I notice the clock and it's 3:15, and I'm still not tired. Sometimes I'll try to sleep, but lie awake until, finally it becomes clear that it's just not going to be a restful night. I'll get back up, get dressed and go back to writing or reading.

Last night was one of those nights.

I will be alone for a few hours. My wife is visiting relatives in New Hampshire, and my youngest son left at 5:30 for work. At 6:30, I lit a string of Nepalese incense and sat in meditation for a while in my study until the urge came for music and writing. I played my bamboo flute for a while and then, impatient with my lack of talent, put on a recording of "Die Kunst der Fuge" played by Tini Mathot and Ton Koopman.

My study is neater now. I have packed up three large boxes of books that I will be getting rid of. Most of the detritus of bills and print-outs have been removed or discarded. So the logical patterning of the music matches both my environment and my mood.

It's chilly this morning, and the dog, Penny, after a brief foray in the backyard to check for squirrels, barked to be let in and now lies under the big oak library table that serves as my desk curled around my feet. A mug of espresso sits to my right its steam rising through the shaft of sunlight that is slowly making its way across the table.

Life is good.

But the music and the neatness brings a subject to mind.

The way I view the world around me is, of course, filtered through my accumulated experience, aesthetics and the way my mind works and my mind, to be frank, is chaotic. It leaps from subject to subject happily. The usual messiness of my workspace is a better reflection of my internal processes than the apple pie order that I have imposed on it (temporarily, I'm sure).

Many other people find beauty in order. They appreciate rigid boundaries, and take comfort in consistency. Grids of streets, GPS coordinates, fences, borders, threshholds, frames, these are the lines and numbers that define our world and make it possible for us to classify everything we perceive as belonging or excluded. We group things together and apart, we label and dispose.

That's not a bad thing. It helps us understand the world. It's certainly a good thing for me to impose occasional discipline on my workspace, a time to cast away papers and a time to gather books together.

But I can't help but think that we take it too far. It sometimes seems to me as if we use these lines, these demarkations to avoid thinking about things. We dismiss those who are from "the other side of the tracks" the other side of the border, the other side of the fence as merely "other". We claim to hate cubicles, but what is an apartment, a suburban yard, a state, a country, but a cubicle.

This is my space, we say, and that is yours. This is my religion and that is yours. Our doors and walls are built to exclude. I recently saw an old Japanese samurai movie, one of the Zatoichi series whose main character is a blind swordsman. Early in the movie he gets out of jail and goes to visit an old friend. As they share a meal, the friend jokes that the only difference between your home and a jail cell is which side of the door the lock is on.

It does not surprise me how many people can only remember one phrase from a famous poem. The poet used it as a negative, as an example of the wrongness of artificial barriers, but it has taken on a new and perverted meaning. The point of Robert Frost's "The Mending Wall" is that Nature does not accept boundaries willingly, but Man insists on them. Let Nature take its course, Frost says. But his neighbor insists on clear, unequivocal lines excluding the rest of the world from "His" land. "Good fences make good neighbors," he says, and the line resonates so strongly that many think that it is the point of the poem.

Frost himself was no stranger to boundaries. His mastery of verse form and rhyme shows him to have a deep understanding of lines and borders. A poem or song, after all, is a way to control and impose order on words. A sonnet is a sonnet, a triolet a triolet, a haiku a haiku because of the limitations imposed on them.

But there is a difference, and Frost understood it, between imposing structure on thoughts and words, and imposing walls on Nature. There is a strange poetic irony too in Frost's use of such a structured form of verse to try to convey his appreciation of natural chaos.

We see can see our quirky passion for lines everywhere. Sharp edges, straight lines, boxes, vectors, angles, borders, threshholds are everywhere in our manufactured world. The geometry of straight lines defines and encloses our lives. No matter who or what we are we are either on this side or that of some perceived delineation, and having thus been identified we are treated not as individuals but as members of a class.

We are so used to this that we have become fascinated by duplication. The fact that straight edges are so easily duplicated is a boon for manufacturing, but a bane for individuality. We view the oddly shaped, the anomaly with horror or at least distrust. Yet this desire for "foolish consistency" is a hobgoblin that we have created for ourselves. It is an unnatural desire, this yearning for perfect reproduction, 'a place for everything and everything in its place'. Everything must conform.

What an odd culture we are, making heroes of those who refuse to be enclosed by boundaries and at the same time teaching our children to color inside the lines. "With consistency," Emerson said, "a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall."

And still we seem to want to be part of the crowd; to be part of a definable demographic, to be right by drawing a line so that those on the other side of it are wrong. What has happened to the American ideal of individuality, of refusing categorization, of being one's self? How did we get seduced into these little boxes?

Uniqueness is our birthright; a natural state. Gottfried Wilheim Leibniz once wrote, in a letter, that

"A clever gentleman (Carl August von Alvensleben), a friend of mine, when conversing with me in the presence of Madam the Electress in the garden at Herrenhausen, thought he would certainly find two leaves exactly alike. Madam the Electress challenged him to do so, and he spent a long time running about looking for them, but in vain."
It is natural to be unique, to be different, to not just think but BE outside the box, to try to erase the lines that surround and confine you.

Perhaps the best, and simplest, statement is one of Piet Hein's little poems that he called 'Grooks':

On Problems
Our choicest plans
  have fallen through
our airiest castles
  tumbled over
because of lines
  we neatly drew
and later neatly
  stumbled over.