A Future Yet Unwritten

My cat Baby Boy is the best cat in the whole wide world.  He’s huge.  He’s soft and fuzzy.  His tummy, as is often noted, is the softest thing in the universe. He nuzzles and cuddles just how a person would want to be cuddled – with passion and deep affection.  His purr could rock a baby to sleep.  He is an evolutionary marvel and a stone cold killer.

He is exceptionally good at killing things.  He has his own hashtag regarding this talent – #justfacesandspleens.  Whether for love or for just the pure artistry of it, he routinely curates the bits and pieces of his prey into delicately displayed entrail arrangements.  When it’s a vole, he’ll typically leave just the horribly buck-toothed upper jaw and spleen behind.  Hence the hashtag.  

But this cat is far more than a mouser.  At dinner one evening several years ago, we watched in fascination as Baby Boy came in from the field dragging something as large as himself.  The words, “what is that . . .” had just left my mouth when we realized that he was schlepping  a large male pheasant.  The next words that came to mind were, “what’s he going to do with that . . .?”  The question no sooner left my tongue when the answer came:  he would sit down and methodically devour it.  It was truly a sight to behold.

Something I’m fascinated by is his blithe disregard for any moral matters of life and death.  As an apex predator, I suppose he is preconditioned not to think about whether living or dying has any meaning.  If you have sharp teeth and claws and an appetite for baby rabbits, well, then . . .  I’m reminded of the line of a poem by DH Lawrence used to such great effect in the movie GI JaneI never saw a wild thing sorry for itself…

But I can’t help thinking about those baby rabbits.  

Recently, at dinner, the topic of death came up.  It happened in the way that conversations with tweens often does.  “If you had one hour to live, what would you do?” asks the youngest.  Geez only an hour?  “You can’t really knock anything off your bucket list in an hour,” I reply.  “Watch Star Trek?”  Try again.  “Go swimming in the lake if it’s summer?”  

“It’s winter, Dad.”  The youngest has such a deadpan sometimes.  We went around the table in a chaotic call and response.  Other permutations arose.  What if it was one day?  One week?  Invariably this kind of conversation ends in giant pre-teen eye-rolling when I pull out a quote by Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan or Mary Oliver.  This night it was Dylan:  “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.”  

Daaadddd…!!!  [Eye roll, eye roll, eye roll]

I will never understand the resistance my children have to attempts to bring a little cultural knowledge to their otherwise Tower Defense saturated existences.  The conversation eventually rolls around to the various genetic propensities of my children’s ancestors.  On their mom’s side there are some pretty resilient male descendants.  From me, however, their genetics spell different, shorter, life-spans.  My paternal grandfather died in his mid-seventies from cancer, and, it was noted, my own father probably won’t make it to his mid-seventies.  

This tripped me up in a throat-closing kind of way.  I was fourteen when my maternal grandfather died – the same age as my oldest.  I didn’t know him very well.  I did know he was one tough bugger.  He survived a major heart attack, half a lung removed from cancer, and the loss of one of his legs to gangrene.  

When he lost his leg, he and my grandmother had to move to an apartment in town.  It was just down the street from our house.  I don’t have many memories of them from the time before they lived in that little apartment complex.  Our family developed a ritual around my grandparents, and if I knew them at all, it’s because of this ritual.  

Every Friday around five, whoever happened to be available would drop by for “happy hour.”  Drinks would be served.  High-balls for adults, cokes and icecream bars for kids.  As a pre-driving aged kid, I didn’t have much choice about whether I would attend these gatherings, but I always liked them.  Sometimes my uncle Larry and aunt Bernie would stop by with one of their kids – my much older cousins.  Sometimes my cousin Randy or his father Denny would drop in.  These were the people my grandfather spent the second half of the twentieth century farming with.  There was a familiar yellow glow to the lamplight in the small apartment, and many very loud voices.  My grandfather was also very hard of hearing.  

Grandpa Chuck would get a drink, which he wasn’t supposed to have, and then he’d cajole one of the visitors to make him up another.  There was a candy dish.  It was lovely.  By the time I was old enough to form coherent memories that included context, Grandpa Chuck was old in a way that made it impossible for me to understand him.  My cousin Randy tells the story of when my grandfather bought a brand new truck (1979) and let him drive it to high school sometimes.  He reports loving the feeling of being behind the wheel of that brand new vehicle, that he was pretty hot shit behind the wheel of that thing.  

I knew that truck well.  Like my brother before me, I learned to drive on it.  The final driving test for my brother and I was not parallel parking, it was – can you get down the hill at the lake and back up it in the truck.  Prefer parallel parking.  It was definitively not hot shit.  It was the kind of truck that if you hit something with it (like, hypothetically, the concrete posts that protect the corners of gas stations) and all the doors still close, you didn’t have it fixed.  I’m relatively certain the title listed the color of the vehicle as ‘baby shit brown,’ and while my brother and I loved that truck, it was a beat up piece of crap when I got to it, and the man who’d bought it was many years gone.

Which has me wondering what my children will take away from knowing grandpa Steve?  I looked at my oldest and say, “You’ll probably know Grandpa Steve about as well as I knew Grandpa Chuck.”  This seems to catch him off guard a little because he doesn’t have a ready reply for such a statement.  He can’t know what my experience was, but I catch a glimmer – just a glimmer – of knowing how much life could potentially be in front of him (may he live a long and glorious life!), and how relatively nascent his experiences have been so far.  

It takes a great deal to impart even a little perspective to a fourteen-year-old, and while part of me would keep them innocent and unknowing about the world for as long as possible, the better part of me is glad to see the dots connect behind my son’s eyes.  Ancestors.  Family.  Legacy.  Youth.  Time.  The increasingly gaunt figure of a grandfather.  Most importantly:  A future yet unwritten.       

What’s left of the old brown truck. In a place of honor.

Parallel Moments

When I was twenty, I lived in a house in Missoula that had a claw foot bathtub that fit all of me.  My time there was short, and I didn’t take advantage of that bathtub as much as I should have, but I learned it was possible to have a bath that doesn’t suck.  There’s power in that knowledge.  

The problem is, there’s a lot of me.  Scalding hot water doesn’t matter when it only covers 32% of your body.  I spent the next twenty years without such a bathtub.  With something more than hope, perhaps, I would say to myself, someday, I will own a bathtub that fits all of me.

I now own such a bathtub.  

It took an enormous amount of loss, an incredible amount of serendipity, the generosity of both those I love and a stranger, a plague, dementia, the good advice of a friend, a particularly special sleepless night, and a whole bunch of hard work to make it happen.  I don’t know for sure if we manifest that which we believe can become true or if the universe is random, but when I think about this bathtub, it feels a whole lot like the former.  That I would someday own a bathtub large enough for all of me was something I believed to be true.  It wasn’t a wish or desire. 

After a generation’s time-span of showers, I take anywhere from three to five baths a week now.  It is an entirely baroque experience, and no doubt is contributing to the demise of the planet.  Sometimes I imagine that the vegan years I spent living in an East-coast city not owning a car offsets this indulgence, but that’s bogus.  I know.  It’s bogus.  I do it anyway.  Apologies to future generations.  Sorry . . . not sorry.

I wipe the tub down – a clean bath is essential – then I plug the drain and open only the hot tap.  I let the water run.  It takes some time to fill, so if I’m not in the room, I can tell when I’m close because the sound of water flowing into the tub changes dramatically when the level of the rising water overtakes the faucet inlet.  

The water is cold when it starts flowing in.  Then, it transitions to as hot as my water heater can manage.  The entire tank empties into the tub.  Then, the water coming out of the faucet turns cold again.  The perfect temperature is achieved at one centimeter above the faucet.  Counter-intuitively, stopping too soon will make the bath too hot.  Stopping later will make the bath too cold.  I have tape covering the overflow valve, so I know that when it’s at the right temperature, and I’ve fully immersed my very-large self, the water level will be about three inches below the top of the tub.  No sudden movements.  I add some Epsom salts, then I turn on a podcast and soak.  

My absolute go-to podcast is RadioLab.  Their mission, it seems, is to plumb the depths of wonder.  Which is just my speed.  Tonight’s episode is, in fact, about Speed.  It’s a repeat – roughly ten years old.  The episode contains several stories, which are interesting, but the last of the bunch is probably a top five story.  It’s up there alongside the story about the shrimp who can punch its claw so fast it breaks the sound barrier to stun its prey.  It’s right next to the episode where they interview astronomer Brian Greene about the idea of the multi-verse.  This interview ranks alongside the one where they describe what the end of the dinosaurs would really have looked like.  It’s a killer story.

It’s a story about a scientist who can create a sodium cloud ever so carefully, such that the sodium atoms slow down to near absolute zero.  She can manipulate the cloud so that when she shines a laser at it, the light passing through this insanely hyper-cold space slows way, way down.  It moves around 15 miles per hour – about bike-riding speed.  It’s a cool episode.  They talk back and forth with ooohs and aaahs as this scientist unloads one amazing revelation after another.  It turns out, with a few tweaks, she can literally freeze light in place.  Light frozen in place.  Even more preposterously, the scientist says she can use the way the light interacts with the sodium atoms to create an impression of the light, and then she can recreate that light so exactly that it is, in every meaningful sense, the same light.  Then she can store that light, move it around.  She can transport light.  There is a human alive who can freeze and transport light from one place to another.  I find this incredibly moving.

I know exactly where I was when 9/11 went down.  I remember the circumstances of the world when each of my children were born.  I remember the weather outside when my maternal grandfather passed away.  I remember the quality of fluorescent light in empty high school hallways when I received my first kiss.  I remember what ordinary things my mother and I were doing the day my dad accidentally ran over the dog’s face.  The dog was a tire-chaser.  He had it coming. (He recovered.)

I distinctly remember where I was when I first heard this episode of RadioLab.  I remember the day, the time, the weather, what I was doing, all of it.  It occurred to me, in the bath, that this moment I was experiencing was like a kind of parallel moment in time.  I am here, in this time, toweling off after a skin-reddeningly hot bath.  I am driving in my Dodge Caravan back from Gina’s farm in the countryside of Southern Indiana.  

I am finishing a day of remodeling a new friend’s garage.  I am wet and cold and hungry, turning on the hot water faucet before I even set my car keys down.  I am alone in my house.  I am content in a way I haven’t been for decades.  Later, I will fix myself some chips and salsa and I will turn on an episode of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  

I am exhausted from a day of learning how to milk cows.  Gina is teaching me the ways of Jersey cows.  She is a bonafide dairy cow whisperer.  She understands these animals in a way I never will, though I will try.  I smell like manure.  I am surprised to find this isn’t necessarily a bad smell.  I am thinking about Gina’s big-hearted generosity.  She is tall and strong.  She is made for raising animals or political activism, which will be the focus she pivots to when her career as a boutique dairy farmer comes to an end.  

But I don’t know that yet.  My future parallel self knows.  In this moment, I am in the car, driving away from her farm, her six or seven dairy cows, her feral children, her rogue chickens.  Every chicken living is a rogue chicken.  I tune into the NPR station in that part of the country, so far south in Indiana that it is south of Louisville, Kentucky.  I am so happy to find that RadioLab is on.  

I am exhausted from a day of replacing windows, but thrilled that my new business is taking off.  I will be successful, I repeat to myself.  I deserve success, I say.  My talents will help people, I repeat.  I will broadcast my Sufjan Stevens channel on Pandora to my TV via airplay and start to write this essay.  I will open a bottle of the last batch of wine my father made before dementia made such things beyond his reach. 

I am trying to learn anything, anything at all that will help me start the farm that my then wife and I have decided to start.  I am sad to be leaving a teaching job I love, but it’s a job that doesn’t pay well and never will.  I am sad to be leaving friends I have come to love, but I am excited to have a reason to move back to where I’m from.  I am pulled in many directions.  

A few months later, while Gina is contemplating transitioning to a different life in town, we will build a farm on some family land in Montana.  We are poster-children for the meme that if you knew how hard something would be at the outset, you’d never start anything.  We have No Idea how hard starting an organic farm from scratch will be.  Our children will play in fields as we break against the giant waves of soil we will exhaust ourselves wrangling.  By many metrics it will be a success.  It will be a beautiful story to tell – perhaps one of these essays will tell it.  It will be a less beautiful story to live through.  

I am on the road.  The back of my mind watches a little spring rain fall on the windshield.  The voices of the hosts of RadioLab are safe.  They are always safe.  They will always reliably present me with a heaping pile of wonder.  So much of my life isn’t safe.  I’m leaving my job for something very insecure.  My children are very little.  There is something not right between my wife and I that I can’t put my finger on.  

But this moment is safe.  The past version of me isn’t self-aware enough to realize that feeling unsafe the way he does isn’t OK.  Alarm-bells should be ringing.  This episode of RadioLab feels like a refuge.  That life is a place needing refuge from isn’t OK.  It’s not sustainable.  Unsustainable things break.  There isn’t a way to avoid the losses coming.  He has so much fear of loss.  I wish the RadioLab story could be a conduit, that in this parallel moment I could reach out to him and say, it’s going to be OK.  

You can’t stop the loss that’s coming, I would say.  Loss isn’t the end.  It’s not a final judgment.  It will create the circumstances for rebirth, for You finally feeling like You.  Just wait, I would say.  Remember that bathtub?  Remember that one?  The next time you hear this RadioLab story, you will be soaking in THAT tub.   Your life won’t be perfect, you will carry many, many regrets.  But there will be so much to celebrate – so much wonder.  Your heart will be full to bursting, I will say.  

And it is.

Swift and Decisive

By far, the most effective way to eliminate Yellow Jackets is to spray the crap out of them with neurotoxins.  No question.  But if you’re in a situation where that’s not appropriate – at the lake on a sunny summer day, say – where spraying pyrethroids and pyrethrins might be considered gauche, then decisions must be made. It turns out, those decisions must be made quickly.  

Options are few.  

One can hang wasp traps, which work a little, but don’t really solve the problem.  You can just not go outside, but that’s letting the little buggers win, and is also not really a solution.  I imagine a person could sit around in personal bee-keeping attire, but that seems excessive and impractical.  

A strategy that is lore in my family comes from a time when fishing was a more common past-time for my ancestors.  Apparently, my great-grandfather and his buddies would set out a bucket of dead fish that had been sitting in the sun all day some distance from any revelry and burger consumption.  Yellow Jackets would be drawn by the odors of rotting fish like zombies to brains, and thus leave the enjoyers of marvelously mild summer lake evenings blissfully alone.

I don’t know if this story is true or apocryphal, but it is true that the problem of Yellow Jackets always seems to come up out at the lake.  They’re often not super aggressive.  Like us, they just love the smell of food.  Invariably, a few minutes after sitting down, you’ll hear the little buzz of those yellow and black suckers, or more likely, you’ll feel a thwap on the back of your head as one loses its way and its senses to the drunk-inducing aromas of a freshly grilled burger.  

I have it on good authority that my own father was one to simply brave the wasps and just endure.  This strategy would be accompanied by periodically swatting one out of the air like a giant anti-aircraft battery.  Killing wasps one at a time with bare hands isn’t super effective, but it is pretty bad-ass.  When I think of my father, I think of a soft-spoken man of great intelligence.  I do not typically think of a man who, with precision and extreme prejudice, curmudgeonly swats Yellow Jackets out of the air like they are gnats, but there you go.  You never really know a person.  

My time as an organic farmer taught me a great deal about Yellow Jackets and how to address them.  Using wasp spray would definitely be a violation of Organic standards, and so was never an option.  Wasps there tended to congregate in our high tunnels, making it impossible for anyone to work nearby.  It would invariably fall to me to remediate the situation.  

The first thing to do in this situation is to wait until it’s cold out.  Early morning is a great time.  Wasps tend to congregate on their nest and are pretty inactive after the cool of the night.  My general strategy then is to take a plastic bag and carefully encapsulate the whole nest, taking care to close off the opening after getting the whole thing.  This strategy works, but is tense.  There’s nothing in the world like holding a bag full of pissed off wasps.  But when you’re at the picnic, you can’t wait until morning.  You have to act.  By far and away the number one rule when dealing with wasps is:

Be swift and decisive.

Wasps in a bag. Gives me the willies just thinking about it.

If you fuck around, you’ll get stung.  Fun fact about wasps:  They can sting you over and over again.  Honey bees get one shot, and then the stinger pulls out of their butts and they die.  Wasps are the pain that keeps on giving.  So you must act swiftly without any indecision.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t panic.

One long-ago lake mesmerized summer evening, my illustrious cousin (yes, that cousin) and I self-appoint ourselves to be the ones who will take care of the wasp nest.  It’s late afternoon.  Everyone is sun-kissed and content.  The smells of cooking burger waft tantalizingly over gathered family and friends.  But there is this wasp nest.  

We got this.  Plastic bag – without holes – requisitioned.  Okay, I say, okay.  We creep up on the nest.  The bag is splayed over my hands inside out, ready to do its encapsulating work.  It’s definitely not the cool of the morning, and the wasps are definitely active.  They are like the workers in the Lego Movie, just going about their wasp business like everything is awesome.   They are unaware that things are about to become decidedly not awesome.

I imagine that there are rage hormones stored in some little gland right next to the little wasp brain just waiting to saturate the little bundle of neurons that controls wasp behavior.  I picture a little graphic of that brain, like a Just Say No graphic of the human brain on cocaine, all soaked in rage.  Angry Yellow Jackets are no joke.  

But we’ve got this.  Wait.  Wait.  Too many flying around.  Hold still.  Edge closer.  Hold.  Hold.  A voice is asking if this is a good idea, if there are any other ways we could go about this.  It might be my cousin.  It might be my inner voice that cleaves toward reasonableness.  No, I say with confidence.  We must be swift and decisive.  Swift and decisive.  Hold.  Edge closer.  NOW!  Lunge forward with swiftness and decisiveness and wrap the nest in plastic.  Don’t let go.  Don’t let it open.  And RUN, RUN!  Oh crap!  Now panic!

Swiftly and decisively we dodge and escape the wasps not contained by the bag – the ones who immediately realized their hard work was being taken away and crushed by some giant.  Rage hormones fully soak their little brains and no thought of size difference checks their sheer frothing anger.  Nothing in nature has ever been this pissed off, and the remaining Yellow Jackets switch their butt-doom into high gear.

But we’ve been swift and decisive!  We run and run.  We realize we hadn’t discussed what to do after containing the threat.  We decide to drown the wasps in the lake so we take the bag to the shoreline where we both drown and crush the nest.  We are safe.  The picnic is safe.  I don’t have a memory, actually, of how the rest of the evening went, but I assume it must have been mostly uneventful, as I don’t carry the memory of further trauma.  Okay, I admit that’s not a guarantee.

This memory isn’t even my most dramatic recollection of the power of swift and decisive action.  Fast forward a few years and we’re out with the boat.  That would be the old red boat, the one that lived at the lake and spent far more days on its trailer in the woods than in the water.  That boat.  I’m out with my illustrious cousin (yes, that one) and we have a boat full of children.  

My cousin is at the helm and has whispered the magic incantation necessary to get the thing to start.  Miraculously, we’re out on the water.  After a little while, it becomes obvious that something isn’t right.  We slow to a stop.  WASPS!! Shout the children.  There are wasps in the boat!  

Holy crap.  There are F’ING WASPS in the boat somewhere!  They’re coming out of the frame of it somehow.  It’s as if someone has yelled “BOMB” at an airport.  Children dive for whatever passes for safety, wherever they think the Yellow Jackets are not.  Of course, opinions differ, and so the squirmy life-jacketed bodies of children are everywhere and each of those bodies is screaming as though they’ve been captured by witches and are about to be eaten for dinner.  Chaos rules for half a heartbeat, and then years of parenting instincts kick in and my cousin bolts for the dock. 

Take the bomb away from the city.  We drop the children on the dock and then he and I courageously speed out into the lake again.  We agree that we must find the nest and dispose of it before our lives can continue as they have been up to this point.  A careful search is made and eventually the probable location of the nest is determined to be behind a panel opposite the driver’s seat.  We’ve been stopped on the open water for a few minutes now, and the wasps seem to be gathering their wits.   A few minutes ago, they were happily going about their little wasp lives innocently enjoying what to them seemed like a great little home.  Like in Empire when Han Solo realizes the cave they’re in is actually a monster, the wasps have realized their home is in the belly of some beast capable of moving at great speed over open water.  Their reaction is decidedly not to politely negotiate a settlement to resolve our differences.

Confusion, in little wasp brains, is giving way to the trigger that will flood them with rage.  Now.  Being on a boat with a nest full of pissed-off wasps isn’t a great place to be, but we have one advantage.  “Punch it,” I say.  Again, a voice – either that of my cousin, or that of the little part of my brain usually responsible for self-preservation behavior – asks if this a good idea.  We must be swift and decisive, I say.  We must.  You just can’t deal with wasps in any other way.

So now we’re traveling over the water at thirty miles an hour on a boat filled with wasps.  It’s like some kind of twisted character in a Tower Defense video game.  If you send out the Wasp-Filled Speedboat, that’ll save you.  Bracing myself against the pitching of the boat, I remove the panel behind which the wasps live, and there it is, like some kind of demented jewel of the damned.  Crawling with furious wasps, there is the nest.  

The advantage we have is that the boat doesn’t have a cover.  A Yellow Jacket pops off the nest and comes after me.  But what this little drone doesn’t know is that it is only still on the boat because of physics.  As soon as it breaks the plane of the windshield – fwiziinnnnnnng – the thirty mile an hour breeze grabs it and tosses it like a tiny rag doll to our rear and out of harm’s way.  

My cousin, who is driving the boat, and who is hunkered behind the wind-shield, is vulnerable in a way I am not.  He asks calmly if I could please hurry things along.  There are a few wasps who are looking at him like maybe they’ve been wrong all along as to who the aggressor is here.  I take a paddle – you always need a paddle in a boat – and slice the nest from where it is lodged.  More wasps attack.  Fwiip!  Fwiing!  Fwiip!  They succumb to the speed of the water-craft.  Then, in one swift, decisive movement, I grab the nest and toss it overboard.  A few minutes of fanning the boat with a towel to dislodge any remaining raging wasps and we’re back at the dock.  Thanks to swift and decisive action, the bomb, we say, has been diffused.  The city is saved.  Even more miraculously, the heroes are returned, triumphant and unscathed.  We, as they say, have lived to fight another day. 

I am thankful to the wasps, in a way.  The capacity to act swiftly and decisively does come in handy sometimes.  Most decisions come with at least a little time to cogitate over what best practices might be, but some don’t.  Sometimes you have to grab the nest with the bag and just run.

River of Fire

I’m twenty one and am laying on a Ernie Tanaka surfboard just off the coast of Oahu.  I bought it off a college student at UH who didn’t know what he had.  Some of the old guys who knew me from the before-work morning set off Diamond Head alerted me to the board’s provenance.  It was around seven and a half feet long.  Not a longboard, but not a short one either.  It was unique.  I surfed on it for a few months and then passed it on when it was time to leave the islands.  A part of me wishes I’d kept it, but it almost doesn’t seem like it was mine to own.  It fit me as well as anything has ever fit me: my first bicycle – a beat up old red dirt-bike with only coasting brakes, my first car – a beat up old 81 Honda Civic held together with caulk and duct tape – my collection of 60s era fantasy and science fiction magazines – my pair of faded black Summer Solstice Triathlon swim trunks.   I don’t have any of those things any more, either.  This surfboard was comfortable

This is my only surviving image of that Tanaka board. I found this guy half-buried on the beach one day.

It’s morning and I’m on the water with my buddy Drew between waves when not much was happening.  I’m on my belly paddling somewhere when all of a sudden the heavens open and I’m in a trough of some kind and a gentle tropical breeze like a thousand little gusts grabs the water’s surface and a billion billion little wavelets catch and release yellow fire and I’m surrounded by the warmth of a deafening chorus of light.   

In my memory I can see my hands slicing into and through the cacophony around me as though in slow motion, knowing I’ll be leaving for home in a few weeks time, knowing that my future might not bring me back again, knowing instinctively that you can’t ever tread the same path twice, knowing that there could be no way to preserve the moment other than as a memory.  I concentrate with all my will to burn the moment permanently into my soul.  There it has remained for 23 years.  It is one of my most precious and personal memories.  It is a North Star for how I experience beauty.  It is a high-water mark of my mortal experience.

And rarely do I ever come close to experiencing that degree of intense, burning beauty.  I’ve been to the tops of mountains, along coral reefs, at the edge of blooming deserts, in endlessly throbbing night clubs, at the edge of vast tropical rain forests, on the precipice of ancient ruins.  I’ve seen my own children born and held their slimy squirming bodies as they take their first breaths and held the hand of a beautiful ancestor in his last moments, feeling his pulse fade away.  These experiences have been powerful and moving, and I honor them, don’t get me wrong.  But never have I come close to the kind of transcendentally transformative experience of pure simple beauty of that moment on the water in the Spring of 2000.  

Until last weekend.

In these essays I’ve been trying to eke out some kind of truth or lesson or idea from the meanderings of my middle-aged mind.  Not this week.  This week it’s just my best attempt to describe a moment of sheer, crazy-inducing beauty.  

We’re standing on a frozen lake.  My cousin and I spent the morning fording a river in pack-rafts and hiking with full packs on snowshoes, six miles into the Wilderness.  The lake creates a long valley –  more of a canyon really, running east/west for around three miles. We made it to our camp spot in the early afternoon and spent the next few hours setting up an amazing winter camp.   The sun is setting at the foot of the lake, while we’re closer to its head on the north side.  

The mountains like sentinels.

With only a few hours of light left in the day we turn to building a fire near the edge of the lake in a spot where the snow will be thin under the fire, but a few feet away it is deep.  We dig chair shapes in the snow near the fire and place our foam pads on the cold surface like the most rugged La-Z-Boys imaginable.  After the hike that day, these “chairs” feel amazing.  We have a campfire, good company, snacks of various kinds and deliciousness, and the mountains opposite rear up, gleaming like giant knights in new armor made of snow and stone.  The moon, nearly full, rises through the spears of jagged cliffs into a pristine blue sky.  This is pretty. It’s also cozy, but it’s not the moment.  

Returning to the La-Z-Boy lounge after the sun finally went to bed for the night.

Exhaustion sloughs off us and we notice after a bit that we’re in the shade.  The sun has gone around the corner of the mountain.  But there’s a line on the lake ice, clear as day, where the sun still shines while retreating.  We decide to put down bags of trail mix and jerky and go follow the sun set across the lake.  

A few steps take us to the line.  Of course, we’ve all seen the sun set before, but this line where the switch takes place – slicing from cool blues and cold to bright yellow and warm is unusually compelling.  Day and night are in a dance – retreat, advance, retreat, advance.  It hasn’t snowed in a few days, so the ice has been blown mostly free of snow.  On the shore, post-holing into 18 inches of snow is how you get from the tent to a place to pee.  On the lake, it’s scrubbed clean with a rough wind-blown texture, which makes following the sunset easy.  It’s ironic that the very most beautiful moment of a weekend that was generally characterized by struggle is also the easiest moment of the trip.

The line between day and night. Which must be followed.

If all this weren’t enough, the ice of the lake was also singing.  We figured the ice was around ten inches thick, but the day had been warm, and the ice was cracking and shifting subtly beneath our feet.  This created periodic thwommm sounds which were shaped and amplified as though in the sound chamber of an ancient Spanish guitar by the natural acoustics of the canyon.  The effect was beyond magical.

And then we stumbled on it.  The river of fire.  Some weeks or days before a single cross country skier had transected the lake.  In doing so, they compressed the snow where their track was.  Compression made that little track both smooth and resistant to the forces which eroded the snow around it.  The sun was setting, relative to us, right at the western end of where the track disappeared into perspective.  

Two thirds of the way across the lake, already soaked from head to toe in mind-numbing beauty, we discovered the track.  

It’s probably hubris to try and describe how beautiful a moment that was, and the photos are cool, but don’t do it justice.  We’d already had an amazing day, and the night would continue to impress with giant sparks of firelight wrestling with Orion for supremacy in the cold night sky.  Later we would hear the low mournful howl of wolves echoing through the canyon from far away.  We would feed my cousin’s portable wood stove in a repetition of millenia-old night fire tending rituals.  There would be stories of love and loss and The. Most. Delicious. Ramen. Ever.  But that moment, when the river of fire overtook us as the sun raced to bed, stands out in stark relief.

It took me three days to physically recover from how taxing this trip was, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.  It stands out as one of the most personally moving times of my life.  To my dear, dear cousin who put up with my smoke-stuffed up nose – he recalls my snoring in the night was, “like I was fighting with sleep itself,” my slowness on the trail, my physical ailments, and all the other things he put up with to drag my sorry ass out there, I extend my deepest gratitude.  He is a person of such quality unlike any other and I feel truly humbled and honored to know him.

And like that morning so many years ago, I have commanded my neurons to permanently record the event.  I will hold it close to my bones and seek comfort there, and may it be my last breath that ever compels me to let it go.

All that’s left of my F&SF magazine collection. It was neat.

Fair Police

A while back, my mother made a collection of aphorisms that my grandmother knew, or had heard from her mother.  There were around two hundred of them.  They are wonderfully old-fashioned and marvelously saccharine.  I don’t know if it’s the times, or what, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know that many.  Among them, one has stuck out for me:  “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.”  This feels true, but I don’t know if it is always true.  Some losses feel so potent, we’d wish them away in a heartbeat.   

What I can say is that I am a very, very lucky parent.  I know this deep in my bones.  Like any family, ours has challenges and we face frustrations every day.  And like everyone, I face a great many challenges in my own life.  I acknowledge that not every problem is a “first-world problem,” and that many which get griped about on social media truly are.  Again, I’m not here to judge.  

The following essay is an examination of one kind of frustration, and is not intended to judge, or compare other people’s challenges, or even to compare among my own challenges.  It is not my intention to indict what other families do.  It is simply something I’m thinking about right now.  Okay, disclaimer over.  Here’s the essay.

One of the things we spend the most time and energy on in my household is: The Rules.  It was many years ago that the invocation of the “Fair Police” came to be.  To the great consternation of those in charge, when the Fair Police showed up, suddenly everything had to be fair.  The Fair Police spawned much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, terrible puns, and general discord because, of course, life isn’t fair, and no parent can dole out justice in a completely fair manner.  The Fair Police are a plague upon this house and are swatted away wherever practicable.  Yet, the specter of unfairness swirls in the hallways and corridors of this gentle domicile like the unwanted several-day-old after-smell of a dispatched skunk.   

Fairness, as an idea, seeps into every corner of our lives.  My youngest typically goes straight to pointing out things that aren’t fair.  My oldest has adopted a hyper-stoic posture about fairness in which he will routinely say with blithe matter-of-fact teenage sarcasm that, “It just doesn’t matter, it’s not fair and that’s the way it is.  We just have to accept it.”  He doesn’t yet grasp the subtlety that by saying things like this, he is in fact still invoking the Fair Police – perhaps more so than if he was just out and out whining.  

Nowhere is there more invocation of the Fair Police than around the dreaded ScreenTime.  As the kids have gotten older, ScreenTime has become an ever more urgent topic for the Fair Police to consider.  Other kids get unlimited ScreenTime, don’t you know?  It’s not fair, we got ScreenTime yesterday, but not today.  Can we pleeeeeease have more ScreenTime.  My favorite is when they offer the “carrot” that if I relent, I won’t have to deal with whining any more.  Sooooo problematic.  Recently it got so bad that my youngest, in response to a school assignment in which he was tasked with writing a short persuasive essay, wrote a whole paper on why they should be allowed 20 minutes of ScreenTime each and every day.  It was his best writing to date, and he clearly put his whole heart and soul into it.

Which isn’t to say that we’re Luddites here at Casa Cummings.  We watch movies and TV together all the time.  The microwave popcorn spawning undiscovered ecosystems in the corners of my couch are testament to the amount of time we spend watching screens.  But, in my humble estimation, there’s a difference between watching the latest Marvel movie together as a family in the living room with seltzers and popcorn and my child up in a room somewhere playing endless iterations of Balloon Tower Defense.  Call me old fashioned.

What to do?  

On the one hand, 20 minutes of unfettered (though parentally monitored) personal ScreenTime seems more than reasonable.  On the other, I think beating your head against the wall would be a better use of time than Balloon Tower Defense.  Still.  I’m no stranger to wasting time on video games.  Far from it.  When I was 14, I could beat the whole game of Metroid on the original NES in 45 minutes flat.  Is Balloon Tower Defense any worse than defeating King Hippo on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out?  Something in me says that it is, but I can’t seem to find any logical explanation as to why…

One of the things that came with the Fair Police was a proclivity to strictly and literally interpret the Rules.  This seems to be an inherent attribute that children develop – especially eldest children.  My mother recounts that when we were kids, she asked my brother to please stop banging on the table, his reply was to immediately start banging the table from the underside.  Hilarious, I’m sure.

So the problem is two-fold.  First, do I allow the requested ScreenTime?  Okay, okay, I relent.  To my dear children, if you must waste life’s minutes defending your tower, so be it.  The bigger problem, however, is how do I implement The Rules in such a way as to avoid a visit from the Fair Police?  It occurred to me that there is a profession for which a kind of language exists to prevent just such abuses.  Why, that would be the legal profession.  

My father was an attorney, and by all accounts a very skilled one.  He was a master of language which precluded misinterpretation and accounted for all variables.  As a younger person, it was impossible not to notice the detritus of his life, surrounded as he was by briefs, discoveries, memos, injunctions, depositions, not to mention the volumes and volumes of Montana Code Annotated my brother and I moved in the days before the internet when his office changed locations.   Since I was small I have always been amazed at the language lawyers used.  It’s so . . . weird.  But also kind of marvelous.  

I’m not an attorney, and as far as I know I don’t need to be a member of the bar to attempt to use some of this language to outline the rules around ScreenTime in my house. I just thought it would be fun to try.  Also, my inner draconian loves this.

Article II

All residents not yet of the age of majority as outlined by the laws of the State of Montana and who reside at the domicile whose physical location is: __(my house)__ shall be entitled to twenty (20) minutes of ScreenTime per calendar day.

Definitions:  ScreenTime shall be defined as time spent with a personal digital device such as, but not limited to, tablets, smart phones, desktop computers, laptops, or televisions, and will pertain to any activity which engages the visual senses.  

General provisions:

  1. Homework & Studying:  Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of homework and studying for exams, quizzes, or other scholastic tests of knowledge. 
  1. Family Events:  Overriding preference shall be given to the attendance of family events.
  1. Chores:  Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of any and all assigned chores whether such chores are assigned verbally or in written list form.
  1. Privilege:  Article II is designated as a privilege and may be revoked at any time for cause by, and only by, the head of household.
  1. Screen mirroring:  Screen mirroring or otherwise projecting ScreenTime shall be allowed at the discretion of the head of household.
  1. Educational Activities:  Time spent on screens utilized for the purposes of participating in educational activities such as, but not limited to, remote learning activities, typing practice or Math 180, shall not apply to the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
  1. Shared Family ScreenTime:  ScreenTime as part of family time shall not infringe on the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
  1. Time keeping:  Residents of this household shall use a timer or other reasonable method for keeping track of their ScreenTime.  Time shall be kept on the “honor system.”  Abuse of the “honor system” shall result in the revocation of Article II.
  1. Transferability:  ScreenTime is available upon the day it is issued, and shall not roll over to subsequent days.  ScreenTime is issued to individuals only and may not be shared, traded, bought, sold, or otherwise transferred between individuals.
  1. Auditory use:  Auditory applications such as, but not limited to, music or podcasts will not carry time limitations.
  1. Head of Household:  Final jurisdiction for arbitration of any and all disputes regarding the applicability and implementation of any and all provisions contained within Article II shall lie with, and only with, the head of household. 

Lessons of Catan

What things cost in Settlers of Catan.

Dim yellow propane lamps bounce 19th century rays of soft light around wooden logs of the little cabin I’m sharing with four other large dudes.  The antiquated atmosphere seems to accentuate how dark and cold it is outside.  We’ve just finished a giant, thoroughly scrumptious pot of chicken chili.  A crackling wood fire sends essential heat to the occupants of this cabin, but also dries multitudes of paraphernalia hanging from well-placed nails in the rafters. Each nail holds the damp detritus of gear towed by sled over nine miles, up a thousand feet, by cross-country skis into the back country near the North Fork of the Flathead River.  The cabin is small, cozy, luxuriant.  

I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table in front of a travel-sized version of Settlers of Catan waiting patiently as our fearless leader, who brought the game – generously packed those nine miles into the wilderness – explains the rules and offers advice to the uninitiated.   The rules of Catan are multitude, but I’ve played a million, million times, and I think I probably have a good shot at taking the game.  I break into his explanatory exposition, exhorting to the noobs how critically important initial settlement selection is.  Our leader nods sagely.  He is a patient man.  He continues his diatribe on the finer points of trading sheep for wood, and etc.  The game is about to begin.  

I would take a moment to briefly, and vaguely, so as not to incriminate anyone other than perhaps myself, mention the existence of grown-up imbibements at this juncture.  This is not an aspect of the game I have ever navigated when playing with my children, but that’s the thing about grown-up imbibements, they often convince us in the moment we’re something we may not be.  Never-the-less, I feel ready.  The amber glow of everything acts like a sedative, but I’m pretty sure, given a decent set of starting conditions, I can win Catan in my sleep, so we’re good, I convince myself.

I get the roll to start the settlement selection process.  Going first isn’t great, because it also means I have to go last for the second pick.  Pros and cons flit in and out of my mind.  To this point, my own personal beliefs about Catan have been that the initial starting locations of your settlements pretty much determines the outcome of the game.  It’s generally a resources game.  More resources equals winning.

Then, just as I’m about to place my first settlement, our leader, and Catan host, says something that I will not be able to shake.  ‘Here’s another piece of advice,’ he says.  ‘Don’t fight what the game is giving you.’

He means, if the resources you’re accumulating suggest a certain course of action, follow it, don’t fight it, holding out for some resource you think you need but aren’t getting.  Don’t hold out for something you’re not getting.  Holy crap.  If I had a nickel . . .

I’m thrown back to a different time, bending low over a row of cruciferous vegetables searching for big answers and also a podcast to pass the time, and landing on an amazing episode of Freakonomics where the hosts of that show discuss the concept of the Fallacy of Sunk Costs.  Essentially, this idea says you shouldn’t evaluate your future decisions based on how much time/effort/money/etc you’ve sunk into whatever it is you’re deciding about.  Be future looking.  Be honest.  I take a good hard look at the broccoli.  

I realize that not fighting what the game is giving you is a version of this – though much more compact, more relatable as advice.  It means that if you are getting a bunch of sheep, wheat, and ore, even if you’ve invested several turns in the attempt, stop trying to build settlements (which need wood and brick) and start buying development cards (which need exactly one sheep, one wheat, and one ore).  Before this game, I would have given this line of action very short shrift.  Almost no one wins by buying a bunch of development cards.  

I slowly build my empire.  Six points, then seven, then eight.  I can get to nine on the next turn.  Meanwhile, our leader is following his own advice.  He buys development card after development card.  I think this is imprudent, but I try not to be a dick about it.  Now he has the largest army (2 points) while the thief is in almost permanent residence on my properties, cutting off my resource flow.  

I’m taken back again to a different time, when I was on the high school policy debate squad.  A few years before my time, an extraordinary duo from my high school went all the way to final rounds at nationals.  There is a legendary (apocryphal?) story of a round of debate in which this duo, arguing on the negative side, ran into an affirmative case that was so incredibly esoteric and just out there, that they had almost nothing in their toolbox with which to fight it.  Their ultimate triumph came from following this very rule – don’t fight what the game is giving you.  They ditched everything except ‘topicality’ which is an argument that the other team loses because they aren’t debating the prescribed topic.  A brilliant, if risky, move.  Also an ultimately a successful one.

All of which is much like the outcome of our game of Catan.  Whether it’s the soporifics of substance or ambiance, or whether it is simply pride, it comes as a surprise to me when our leader, who had “squandered” his precious resources repeatedly buying development cards, claims victory at 10 points.  What a great lesson.  Don’t fight what the game is giving you.

I roll over and over this now as I think about the business I’m starting – what are the skills and talents I have that I love to use?  I mull what the game is giving me as I think about my dad going into a care facility and what that means for me and my family.  I think about the relationships in my life that have come and gone – what was I holding onto that the game was telling me to let go of?   And I look at my beautiful children and wonder what I might have to offer as a parent that I can lean into instead of trying to make up for the mistakes I’ve made.  

Ultimately, I think not fighting what the game gives is about grace and bravery.  It’s about having grace for yourself and others when things don’t go how you planned/expected/hoped, and having the bravery to move into the space you do occupy. Read what the game has handed you, and fully own it – be brave enough to redefine what success actually means and to redefine the paths to that success. Then put your shoulder into that path.   In my life I’ve always subscribed to the kind of paths to success Olympic swimmers embody.  Push with relentless persistence and hope for the best.  A better way, perhaps, is to learn to pivot to something that fits better.  I’m not a great pivoter, I have always resisted change, but I’m not that old a dog – there’s always time to grow and improve.  

All of which isn’t to say that unbounded persistence is necessarily bad.  Brute force resource accumulation did get me to that ninth point, which isn’t a slack game of Catan, but not before the player who leaned into what the game was giving them got to ten.        

Receiving a fifth place medal in the 100 yd backstroke from an actual Olympic gold medalist swimmer in 1996. About the highest I ever achieved as a competitive swimmer.

Snagennif Paradox

From the deep vault. I think this is the cast of “Our Town.” Ca. 1994.

“I th – th – think maybe this is a b – b – bad idea . . .”  

It’s two in the afternoon on a Saturday.  Dusty, yellow light filters through large windows.  It’s the time of year in the Flathead when you can’t go hiking or skiing and a winter’s worth of accumulated gravel is still on the road.  I’m sitting across from a class-mate and we are performing a science experiment.  Cups of coffee is the dependent variable.  Heart rate is the independent variable.  I’m fifteen.  This all makes perfect sense.

Resting before us on the laminate table top are three pots of coffee.  Lids have been removed to more quickly cool their contents.  We have a watch and a notepad.  When the coffee is sufficiently cooled, I start drinking a cup every two minutes.  My partner takes my pulse.  Numbers are recorded.  Many trips to the bathroom are made.

The waitress doesn’t even blink.  Two people want three pots of coffee?  Okay.  It’s probably not the strangest thing she’ll see this day.  Depending on when she came on shift, and how long she’ll be there, she will have seen young people, still up from the night before, hazily watching creamer swirl into their coffee.  Later, she’ll see families in for a late brunch with babies screaming and throwing things.  She’ll see transient guys spending a few cents on bottomless cups of coffee just to get in from out of the cold.  That evening, she might have to find space for twenty-three members of the cast of the local high-school play.  She’ll serve order after order after order of deep-fried mozzarella cheese sticks.  

We are of course, at Finnegan’s.  Or, as a dear friend once suggested, Snaggenif which is just ever so much more fun to say.

It was just a diner, but it also was much more than a diner.  It was the epicenter of every teenager’s world in the 1990’s.  At least, every teenager I knew.  Not to romanticize, but it was just true, we didn’t have cell-phones.  If you wanted to know what was going on, it was a good bet you could find out at Finnegan’s.

Nights sometimes stretched out indefinitely there, like some kind of strange David Lynch film.  On some weekend evenings, you could show up at nine and maybe not leave until, well, until your friends had to go home.  Those of us with generous, or even no curfews, sometimes stayed until the bars closed.  As a youngish teenager, it wasn’t generally a good idea to be hanging around Finnegans when the bars let out at two AM.  Drunk adults took over then.

But at 10:30 on a Friday night?  The place would be lousy with kids just barely old enough to drive.  We didn’t really have anywhere else to go, especially during the cold of the school year.  And we apparently had vast stretches of time to blow, drinking coffee and just hanging out.  

There’s some pretty good science around the perception of time, and how our minds remember experiences, but one observation is that humans tend to remember things as going by quickly when our experiences didn’t include a great many novel events – that is, if nothing much happened, our memories tend to catalog those experiences as flying by.  The converse is true.  If a remembered event contained a great deal of novel experiences, our memories record those times as stretching on and on.  

This, then, is the paradox of my Finnegan’s memories.  My memories of these nights is that they were long, sprawling, nearly endless occasions.  However, people came, people went, but not much happened other than the banal delivery of new pots of coffee or baskets of cheese sticks.  Why then are my memories of this time so expansive?  We literally sat in diner booths for hours doing nothing that my adult self would register as noteworthy.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as another change has happened in my life.  In the last year it has become increasingly the case that I am with middle-schoolers.  Among other things like the pungency, the mess, the braggadocio, the microwave burritos, is a kind of verbosity I had sort of forgotten about.  These kids talk non-stop.  There is never not anything to talk about.  

Which isn’t a complaint.  I do find the verbiage exhausting at times, but I also think what they find interesting to be absolutely fascinating.  I’m honored, if not grossed out, when they include me in their expository extravagance. There are so many facets to what they go on about, but most of it is about who did what at school.  

That’s clearly the answer to the Finnegan’s paradox – it might look to an outside observer (my present-day self) like nothing was happening, but like my kids, we were probably talking –  communicating – non-stop: lingering for hours under yellow fluorescent lights, breathing far too much second hand smoke, drinking way more coffee than is good for any one person, creating, breaking, recreating, rebreaking, re-recreating connections.  

I don’t remember what a pot of coffee and an order of mozzarella cheese sticks went for back then, but whatever it was, it was well worth the price.

Generations of Ghosts

My “Sonata Chime” Mantle Clock from the Seth Thomas Clock Company. ca 1914.

I’m a sucker for nostalgia, especially when it comes to things.  It’s a streak in me that winds around my every sensibility and has undue influence over the decisions I make.  I hold onto shoes far longer than is reasonable.  I’d much rather use a rugged old heavy toolbox that came from my great-grandfather than a lightweight flexible one from Harbor Freight.  Growing up, I was surrounded by the things built, bought, or plain scavenged from previous generations. Rocking chairs, beds, blankets, old china, wood stoves, prints, juice pitchers, you name it.  There were new things, but new things were relegated to a position of disposability.  If the new electric pancake griddle crapped out, toss it, get a new one.  No big deal.  If the several generations-old green shag carpet needs replacing, well that requires convening a committee of cousins on how to replace it in the most aesthetically similar way possible.  

This attitude was definitely born of the pre-WWII era.  The generation of my grandparents had an outsized influence on the generations to come, and certainly on me.  Their attitudes were formed by twin understandings.  On one hand, this generation grew up during the scarce times of the Depression, followed by the scarce times of the War.  They lived by the motto: use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without.  On the other hand, they lived during a time before cheap plastic crap.  Their bicycles might have been heavy, but they were sturdy.  The same was true of everything built before the War, from bookshelves to bed frames.  I don’t know if the members of my family from that generation actively venerated well-made old things or not, but they certainly kept well-made things for a long time.  Part of me wonders if it’s simply a matter of, if you wanted a warm coat in the thirties, your choices were:  wool or wool.  Stuff was well made because there really wasn’t an alternative, and all the better if there was a serviceable old version that could be brought into use.  

Meanwhile, I love building and fixing things.  My cat needs a way to get from the basement floor up to the cat door at eye-level?  Build a clever ramp.  Need more counter space in the kitchen?  No problem – just build it.  And of course there are shows for that.  My absolute favorite are the YouTube videos of people who “rescue” old rusted swords and knives and axes and make them beautiful again.  I can disappear down that rabbit hole for a long time…

The Venn diagram overlap of these two sensibilities came to a crashing head recently.        

The other day, I was admiring an old wall clock at my brother’s house.  We got to talking about how hard it is to maintain these old clocks, how our community does have a fellow who repairs old clocks, but that his talents are a rare commodity and when he retires, we’ll all have to send our clocks to Seattle or Portland to get them fixed.  Ah ha!  A little light-bulb went off in my head.  I maintain an old clock too, and it was long overdue to be oiled.

It’s one of my most prized possessions, though a quick search of the interweb shows that it’s not really worth that much in dollar terms.  I’ve noticed that the value I put on old, well-built things is usually far in excess of what they would actually fetch on the open market.  This clock came to me by way of my paternal grandmother, who, in turn came by it from her mother, who received it as a wedding gift from her brother in 1914.  

That brother would number among the more than 26,000 Americans who perished in the Argonne region of France in the last days of WWI.  This little bit of information is a good example of what drags me so deeply into the singularity of nostalgia.  When I look at the clock, accurately ticking away in my living room, I am in direct contact with those lives who also looked into its silvered face, who also dusted it’s adamantine shoulders.  When I wind it’s mechanisms, my hand is operating the same levers my grandmother operated and her mother before her.  It’s as real as I think ghosts can be.

I pull the clock from it’s overlook and set it out on the table.  I’ve laid a towel on the table so no little dropped parts will go bouncing off the edge.  In a fever-dream a week before, a few clicks on Amazon bought me a little bottle of synthetic clock oil and a book on how to repair clocks.  The book is dense, written by someone who doesn’t write books.  It has interesting information, but is far less handy than the hours of YouTube videos I have watched in preparation for this moment.  I take a deep breath.  Am I really going to do this?  Am I really going to put this object at risk of my, admittedly, shaky hands?  I am.  I figure, the worst that can happen is that I’ll have to take my clock to the old clock repair dude to be put to rights.  

I open the back of the clock.  The innards stare back at me.  They look insanely complex.  After a minute or two, the chaos settles down and I can see two different sections – the chime and the movement.  The chime runs the chime.  The movement runs the movement of the hands.  I realize that if I can successfully get the face of the clock off, I won’t have to take out the movement.  The chime also looks easy to remove, though I decide not to this time.  

This is the guts of the thing from the rear. Chime is in the foreground, the movement is behind.

Ever so carefully, I pull the pin that holds the hands to the face of the clock.  Then I slip two washers off followed by the minute hand and finally the hour hand.  I lay them out on the towel in the order I pulled them off.  Then, from the inside of the clock, I find the three little brass screws holding the face to the wooden body of the clock.  I find my long skinny flathead screwdriver and begin to back them out.  When it seems like they’re almost free, I carefully grab the heads of the screws with my needle-nosed pliers as I turn them the last little bit of the way so they don’t fall into the clock’s innards.  With a click, the face comes away from the clock.  

This is what the movement looks like from the front with the face off.

My goal is to clean and oil the little spots where there are gear bearings on the front and back plates of the movement.  YouTube has told me that the little applicator on my bottle of oil will put too much oil into each bearing.  Each bearing hole is around 1.5 mm in diameter – oh so very tiny.  If too much oil is applied, it will spill out and down the face of the movement.  Because of physics this dripping will pull all the oil out of the bearing and the bearing will dry out, leading to wear and ultimately the end of the movement.  

I get out the needle I use for extracting kiddo slivers.  If I’m careful, I can lodge a tiny droplet of oil on the end of the needle.  Then, ever so gently, I apply that drop to the bearing.  It is insanely pleasing to watch the oil suck into the bearing and hold there.  Every day contains multitudes of beauty.  This is the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in a long time.  The movement, which sits right behind the clock face has a dozen or so bearing points.  Caught in a robust flow moment, I fill each hole.  None leak.  The bearings look good.  

This is a bearing about to be oiled by that tiny little drop. Getting it right is sooooo satisfying!

I only drop the needle into the depths of the clock body once.  The clock is like the TARDIS from Doctor Who – it seems much larger on the inside than it looks from the outside.  There are many horrible places my little needle could land when I drop it.  It finds a merely moderately inaccessible spot to land.  My heart pounds in my neck as I carefully fish it out with the needle-nosed pliers.  Clock repair people have a special tool for applying oil to bearings, which I swear silently to myself that I will acquire before my next foray into the heart of this beast.  

I oil the couple bearings on the chime, which I don’t ever use, and sigh deeply.  A few anxious minutes later, I have the clock face back in place.  What’s left is adjusting the hands to show the correct time and setting the internal pendulum in motion.  A day later, the time is holding correctly.        

About half the time, I wake up in the morning to a very quiet house.  In the stillness of the first lights of day, the only sound, aside from the small breathing sounds my cat makes, is the ticking of this old clock.  It is a heartbeat.  It is the sound my grandparent’s house made when all was still.  I feel that sound as a permanent childhood memory.  The ticking of the clock sends me straight back to that living room – the light from the big south windows, scrolled edges of the sofa, yellow reclining nap-chair, baby grand piano, agate-topped coffee table, my grandmother setting the table for lunch, my grandfather stirring pea soup.  

I wonder about the living room my grandmother would have remembered, hearing that sound.  What stirrings of daily life held residence in the corners of her memory?  Did she hear that clock and think of her mother fussing over dinner, her sister fussing about having to practice the piano, the hours of joy she found playing the same.  Did she think about an uncle she never met?  Did the sound bring her peace, the way it does for me?   And of course, I hope, beyond hope, that my own children will absorb this sound as a memory of my living room – games played, meals eaten, fires built, episodes of Star Trek watched – and with that memory I hope they feel connected, as I do, to generations of ghosts that came before.  

Invisible Chasms

Bayliss just a few days old.


        Our paths lead us through and over chasms of light and dark.  There really isn’t another way.  Some are deep and wide and perilous.  Some are lightly filled with honey-meringue and joy.  Some look right, but aren’t.  Some look brutal, but are really blessings.  All of them are invisible until we traverse them.  And thank goodness.
        A common thing a young adult will hear from slightly older young adults:  “You just can’t know what it’s like to have a baby until you have one.”  And it’s true.  No matter how much you don’t want it to be true, it is.  Sure, some of us are more prepared than others.  If, for example, you grew up as an older child with a baby in the house, you have a leg up.  I most certainly did not.  On the night of the birth of my first child – two nights after labor began – I found myself alone in a drab Philadelphia hospital room.  In my memory it is like any other hospital room from the Netflix show Stranger Things.  
        Mother had just undergone surgery to bring our beautiful child into the world and was passed out on drugs.  The nurse said many things very quickly that I didn’t catch or at least caught and released, and then left with a click.  Then there was just me.  And a baby.  And the baby started crying.  And I looked down at this beautiful child with horror.  My first day as a parent – the person who is supposed to do whatever it takes to bring comfort to their brand-new, completely dependent being.  
        I panicked.  I called the nurse.  “Yes?” she said.  “Um, the um, the um . . .” I said.  “YES?” she said with growing annoyance.  I’m sure she was busy.  “I, um, he’s um, he’s crying.” I stammered.  I was holding him – cradling really – and rocking back and forth.  The only thing I could think was that I didn’t have useful nipples, and so what could I do?  The nurse said with annoyance, and I’ll never forget this, “Yes, he’s a baby.  They cry.”  “But, I, um. . . how do I . . . ?” I was going into shock.  “Babies cry when they need something,” she said.  “Can mom nurse him?”  “No. No.  She’s . . . um . . . she’s . . . um . . .”  “She’s sleeping?” It’s like I needed her to speak for both of us.  “Um . . . yeah . . . what, um . . . what do I do?”
        This question:  What do I do?  What can you do?  When you don’t know and you’re thrust into the ring, what can you do?  I have a friend who signed up for fight night one time because you got paid $50 for even just stepping into the ring.  That’s a chasm I’ll never cross, but I recognized the fear in his voice recounting the tale.  That fear was in my voice over the phone to the night nurse.  “Change his diaper?” she suggested.  “Um, yeah . . . um, I . . . um . . .” Another deep sigh.  “I’ll send someone up.”
        That chasm seemed dark, but fast forward a few years and a couple kids later.  Without stepping across to another invisible chasm, I will say that it was decided to do cloth diapers.  And I am now a cloth diaper wizard.  I can capably change a cloth diaper in an airplane bathroom.  Ain’t no thing.  Chasm crossed.  I can turn around and look at it, see the crenelations and spires, trace the outline of every blind crevasse, every dark night filled with worry.  This chasm is straight up invisible to the me who hadn’t crossed it.  There’s no getting around it.
        I wondered recently what a list of invisible chasms would look like – a list of things that were unknowable until experiencing them.  It would have wonderful and exciting things on it like kissing, taking a plane on your own, visiting a place where a very different language is spoken, learning to drive, training for some physical feat that is very hard, seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope.  

        Seeing the rings of Saturn is a great example of an invisible chasm that seems like it shouldn’t be one.  We’ve all seen pictures of the rings of Saturn a million times.  Why would it be different through a telescope?  Because it is.  It just is.
        But this is life.  And life consists of jagged and ugly crossings:  losing someone close, getting divorced, losing a beloved job, car wrecks, persistent anxiety.  You’re in the emergency room and it’s all going to shit, and there’s nothing you can do.  So much of these kinds of chasms are about enduring loss.  
        We can’t know what loss is until we are faced with it.  As a young person, I didn’t even know I was accumulating things that could be lost later:  Love, friendships, exuberance, ideals, passion, trust.  My grandfather died when I was barely into my twenties.  It took decades to unwind that loss.  When my marriage unraveled a few years ago, it felt like a ghost hand reached into my guts and tore out the best parts of me.  Watching my middlest – when he was all of two years old – disappear into an operating room surrounded by people dressed as aliens ready to attempt to make his little heart function correctly was terrifying.  What really matters is what we do with the chasms.  How do we catalog a life?  Should we even try?  
        Our options are limited.  Denial was a popular response of my younger days.  This isn’t happening.  Everything is OK – take the Calvin and Hobbes route – live and don’t learn.  Usually this is unconscious – a defense mechanism.  I have never met a person who was intentionally in denial about something hard.  We can self-medicate.  Another popular choice of my youth.  Again, we don’t usually understand what we’re self-medicating for until the self-medicating becomes its own difficult invisible chasm to cross.  

        What’s magical about being a person is that we can choose to look down into the gaping vastness.   At a certain point, if we’ve crossed enough of these chasms and, importantly, haven taken the time to look at the crossing, we can start to relate a little.  Take a minute to look back over your shoulder at the space you’ve crossed, or even to just look down because the chasm you’re in will span a lifetime.  Once, a friend confided in me about her experience with chronic anxiety, about sitting in a stairwell outside work trying to breathe and cry and just pull it together enough to put one step in front of another.  I’ve never had that experience.  But I know what it is to be ugly-crying your guts out and then have to go be a person.  Some don’t, but everyone has the opportunity to if you’ve ever chosen look down at the crags and crenelations.  And there’s a shining, beautiful path that will take you by surprise until you’ve experienced it – what it feels like to endure a loss, not on your own, but alongside another who loves without judgment or criticism.
        There’s another invisible chasm which is like the zeroeth chasm on the list.  Looking hard into those dark inner topographies is critical to experiencing joy.  Stepping into the suck makes the bright chasms sparkle and shine.  My memory of my first kiss is ever so much more sweet because I choose to look hard into the loss around last kisses I’ve known.  The joy of attending my eldest’s Christmas choir concert is brought into relief because I choose to feel the loss of my grandfather’s piano playing at the annual Christmas sing.  It can’t be any other way.  You don’t get to have honey-meringue without brutal emptiness.  Knowing this is, in itself, an invisible chasm.
        Some chasms are the result of choices we make and don’t know the ends of.  They are like strings held on one end, blowing unpredictably in the wind on the other.  We have some agency after all, though I would guess less than we think we do.  Others are simply a part of being a human – the mile markers of biological existence: walking, puberty (gah), aging, the final chasm we all will get to cross: dying.  I hated puberty.  (Who loves puberty?)  Getting old sucks ass.  But I wouldn’t get rid of any of those experiences for anything.  Old Dr. M.E.K. had it right when, after my grandfather passed, he said as he was helping our family navigate those final days, “He’s experienced the last part of his life.”  I love that.  Dying as a final part of living.  To quote a Shins song: “the years are short but the days go slowly by.”  May there be ever so many more invisible chasms to cross between now and then.      

Bayliss this year.

UnGoogleable

        Silver, dancing light penetrates the dark, thick night air.  We’ve all had dinner.  We’ve all had our second shower, according to both custom and necessity.  I sit on a plush rug.  Not far away, sounds of night – a miasma of insects buzzing, food cart hawkers, motorcycle traffic, the beep of bajaj – filter into the living room from a section of the house that isn’t roofed.  I don’t specifically remember, but there might have been Teh Botol.  There probably was Teh Botol.  In my memory it’s a weeknight, maybe a Tuesday.  I’m happy that there is something my host-brother, Uyi (far left, above), and I can share.  
        Why, it’s Kung-Fu, of course.  One night a week, one of the couple television channels that Jakartans had access to in 1995 would play a Kung-Fu movie.  I suspect the movies were produced in Hong Kong, but I’m not sure.  What I can say, is that these movies were filmed in Mandarin, dubbed into English, then carried Indonesian subtitles.  Aside from the obviously utilitarian feature of helping to teach me the language, I found these films fascinating and beautiful.
        My favorites were the ones set in a deeply mythologized Chinese past.  If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you’ve seen the Hard Rock Cafe version.  These films we watched were the Somers Bay Cafe version.  They were low budget productions: chintzy sets, gaudy and over-the-top costuming, uninspiring plots, terrible dialog (which, in fairness, could have been a problem of translation).  But the thing which made them incredible was the fight-scene choreography.  
        Pretty much any life situation could land in an all-out Kung-Fu fight.  Taking a walk by moonlight with the pretty village magistrate’s daughter?  Better get out your Kung-Fu.  Fight scenes were long and involved.  There were many considerations to take into account.  How many villains are there?  Is the main villain attacking or has he sent less-experienced lackeys?  What style of Kung-Fu does the hero have?  The villain?  Which style is stronger?  Strength alone doesn’t guarantee victory.  Which style is more ancient, more honorable, reflective of highest virtue?
        My absolute favorite was a movie where at one point the hero is trapped in an ancient cave.  He knows a respectable style of Kung-Fu, but has been bested by the villain, whose style is seemingly unbeatable.  The cave appears to be his last resting place, but no!  Inside the cave are ancient and wise stone tablets that allow a person who is true of heart and spirit and who already knows a style of Kung-Fu to learn an unfailingly powerful style in only a few minutes of study.  The hero, of course, learns the style, escapes the cave, bests the villain using these new/old techniques and saves the day.  
        I don’t know why this memory is so compelling for me.  I tell the story of it any chance I get, and this plot line appears in the Crimson Hen tales coming down the pipeline.  But all I have of it is a memory – a twenty-five year old memory.  I have spent hours Googling what I know of the plot, but I haven’t got enough to make a successful search.  It’s essentially a discrete thing which is unGoogleable.  
        Over tea with an excellent friend the other day we got to talking about this kind of tangible object.  He told a story of a long lost pop music CD he brought back from Italy as a teenager.  He can describe in vivid detail the album art, but nothing useful enough for a Google search.  I’m sorry for the fact that our memories remain stuck in the ether, but I am also so glad these memories exist.  They bring a kind of pastel, washed-out color to the world that can’t exist online.

        In the movie, “While We’re Young,” Ben Stiller’s character pulls out his phone after the group can’t identify an unimportant fact and says, “oh, hey, I’ll look that up.”  Adam Driver’s character – who is playing the part of the hip young up-and-comer – stops him, saying, “no, that’s too easy, let’s just choose to not know.”  It’s a kind of hearkening to a simpler, apparently cooler time when no one really knew anything.  But, there’s a difference between choosing not to Google something and coming across something that can’t be.  
        It struck me later that this is yet another way our lives are different now.  Of course, unless you’re Taylor Swift or Elon Musk, we all live most of our lives in an ineffable, non-searchable mode.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  The Kung-Fu movie in my memory is a thing which should be searchable, but for whatever reason, isn’t.  In the not-so-distant past, every new definable consumable was a found object, either the product of amazing serendipity or the careful curation of sources – like dictionaries.  My mother would jump up from the dinner table, finger in the air with an audible “ah-ha”, and race to the dictionary when a word came up for which there was difference of opinion as to its correct definition.   My brother would come home from college and we’d compare notes:  what, if any, music had you found through whatever random late-night college radio program you might have listened to, or zine you’d stumbled across at Rockin’ Rudy’s back when it was just a record shop?
        It wasn’t necessarily the internet that ended this way of being.  MTV did a fair enough job of beaming whatever was new and hip straight into our suburban homes.  Just one episode of 120 minutes with Matt Pinfield and you’d heard enough contemporary music trivia to fill a very large hole.  But where MTV was a preprogrammed fountain of culture, the internet is really the ultimate democratized searchable bringer of all things.
        And, of course, I wouldn’t change that.  I really like being able to use Google Earth to find street-level pictures of the house where I spent a formative year of exchange in Jakarta as a teenager.  But it’s nice to think that like Harry Tuttle, the renegade heating engineer in the surreal dream movie Brazil, there are objects of our memories that defy search algorithms.  It’s a small thing – a little humanizing, snow globe of memory that is part of the fabric of me that I cherish.  
              
        
              



It’s actually #10, but that’s the house! So cool. Thanks Google! Map data © 2022 Google Earth.
Street food cart vendors. There on the right is a sate ayam cart – my favorite! WikiCommons.