Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.

 

[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter

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Tough Guy

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”  Dylan Thomas

When I first told a friend six years ago I was thinking of going to work for a family owned company in Southeast Massachusetts, he paused. Deeply experienced and well placed in the lumberyard network, his knowledge and wisdom is highly regarded. He told me it was a great company with strong ownership, well established and financially sound.  Then he asked with a slight hesitation, “But have you met John yet?”  John, as it turns out, headed purchasing for his brother’s company and was a well-known terror of the vendor community: cynical, tough, quick to criticize in colorful language. At any perceived slight or error that cost John’s company time or money or service to its customers, a supplier could quickly be locked out of new business and roundly bad mouthed to anyone who would listen.  A supplier was either in or out; the line could be easily crossed and difficult to traverse back in the other direction. John could be vindictive and harsh.

John emigrated from the Azores in 1968 with his younger brother Joe when they were teenagers. Both quickly established themselves through intelligence, incredible work ethic and proving themselves to be men of their word. However, their personalities were very different. Joe was quieter, a serial entrepreneur, who started several companies and assembled a business conglomerate in Dartmouth: first a gypsum commercial installation outfit with a hundred employees, later a building material supply company to supply the first, then branching out into residential and commercial real estate development companies, and others. John went to work for Berkshire Hathaway at their textile mill in New Bedford, and with his skills quickly moved up the ladder into supervisory and management positions.

When his kid brother called and asked for his help in his start-up building material company, John, who loved his brother, came there in the nineteen eighties, when Dartmouth Building Supply was a couple of trailers full of sheetrock. Together they built it, inventing it as they went. John was the shipper, truck driver, forklift operator and soon the yard foreman, shipper, receiver and warehouse manager all rolled into one. Tireless, John opened and closed the place. Through the years they built a fifty-million-dollar company with millwork, all manner of building materials and a kitchen cabinet showroom. Over a hundred and ten employees and their families have come to trust Dartmouth Building Supply for their livelihood and a thousand builders and customers trust it to keep their jobs supplied.

“Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.” Robert F. Kennedy

John died in May at the young age of sixty-six after months of a courageous and dignified battle against cancer. My experience with John was not what I expected when I learned of his hard ass reputation. John would stop by my office to talk, sometimes about the lumber market or an issue in the yard, sometimes about fishing on his boat or a trip or his kids and grandkids. Never once in the six years we worked together did he fail to come through when I needed help:  current commodity pricing for a large job, an update on what to expect in the market, buying out a large job to cover the company’s exposure. And while I saw his rough treatment of suppliers and sometimes employees, I never experienced the wrath or the scorn. I was always treated with respect and kindness. John would share his lunch in a minute if it was something he thought I would enjoy.

The company has the benefit of being family owned, and kids, grandkids and pets are frequent visitors to the offices. When John was with his grandkids, the vendors would not recognize the big teddy bear clearly loved unreservedly by his grandchildren as they ran to greet him for a hug and to be carried around.

Joe told a story to a friend and co-worker about when he and John were kids near on St. Michael’s and Joe took pity on his grandfather’s dog, which was always chained to a tree. He released the dog, which bit someone, and John took the blame, catching a beating in the process. I’ve come to believe that much of John’s irascible ways and impatience at work was rooted in the same protectiveness he felt towards his brother. An underperforming employee or supplier was a personal affront, someone taking advantage of his brother’s generous nature. And that is something John could not and did not abide.

At his funeral, a beautiful and well planned Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s in South Dartmouth, there were two large new Dartmouth Building Supply trucks heading up and following the hundred or more cars making the journey with John from the funeral home. The outpouring of genuine, impossible to falsify love from his family moved me to tears. His wife of nearly forty-three years, Fatima, was inconsolable, his son Shawn and daughter Laura stunned and unashamedly weeping. John fought with extraordinary valor against an implacable foe to make sure he could be there for Laura’s wedding in January.

The reputation and the man, complex like all of us, will be remembered differently by many, and surprising to some. With all due respect to my friend who gave to me his best advice out of kindness, the rest of the business world saw a truly tough and sometimes abusive guy.  Those of us, who came to know him, saw glimpses of another John, a guy who liked nothing better in this world than to take the boat out with his son and catch a striper or tuna, and a son who felt the same way. Therein lays a legacy, an obituary worth writing and a life worth living.

 “In that other room, I shall be able to see.”  Helen Keller, speaking of her imminent death.

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Pastoral Pools and Quiet Eddies

“In any man who dies there dies with him, his first snow and kiss and fight. Not people die, but worlds die in them.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko

I noted last month with passing sadness the passing of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He died in Tulsa, having taught there and in New York City for many years. His was the first volume of poetry I can recall buying, before Yeats or Eliot or Robert Frost, I read Yevtushenko. The 1962 paperback sits somewhere among many other books in a box in our basement. Yevtushenko was never a full blown Russian dissident like Solzhenitsyn, but he contributed to the awakening of Soviet Union freedom in the sixties. Babi Yar was his breakout poem[i], and it described the Nazi murders of 34,000 Jews in a ravine outside of Kiev that foretold of millions more. Written as a protest of the Soviet Union’s pogroms and history of antisemitism, and its refusal to erect a monument to those who died at Babi Yar, Yevtushenko cried out an appeal to the Russian conscience:

 

 

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

  Yevtushenko is forever linked to Dmitri Shostakovich, censored by Joseph Stalin, whose Thirteenth Symphony is entitled Babi Yar after Yevtushenko’s poem, which is recited with other Yevtushenko poems during the performance. The most well-known recorded performance of which in America was with Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony with Sir Anthony Hopkins reading the narrative. All of this started me thinking about some recent reading and the decline of poetry, which is little read today even in universities and is increasingly the province of an esoteric small community and obscure journals. And rhyme is infrequently employed, nor has it been in many years.

“Simple human beings like rhyme better than prose, though both may say the same thing, as they like a curved line better than a straight one, or blue better than grey; but, apart from the sensual appetite, they chose rhyme in creating their literature for the practical reason that they remembered it better than prose. Men had to carry their libraries in their heads.” Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams

The marginalizing of poetry has a price. Permit me an inept analogy and story. Dick Leary was the Information Technology Manager for my first lumber company before we called such a person an IT Manager; Dick was the computer guy. We had seventeen locations and seven hundred employees and ran what was a precursor to the cloud – dumb terminals at a hundred work stations all logged into a one lung old remote Sperry mainframe, Unix based with green screens and menus. Dick was a true eccentric and an aficionado of craft beers a few decades before that became fashionable. He lived near Meredith in the lakes country of New Hampshire. The Sperry lived upstairs in the offices at our Meredith store.

Over a beer or two, Dick would bemoan the coming of Windows, GUIs and related technological advancements. He was a lover of concise code back before the rapid growth of storage enabled programmers to ply their craft almost without regard to memory limitation.  He thought that this profligacy lacked imagination and the genius of the early code writers, when every byte was carefully planned – a wasteful proliferation of dead code layered upon dead code like vestigial organs. Dick was admittedly obsessed with what he perceived as a degradation of brevity and elegance, a distinction that escaped the rest of us.

“Again, and again we are told by all sorts of priggish and progressive persons, that mankind cannot go back. The answer is that if mankind cannot go back, it cannot go anywhere. Every important change in history has been founded on something historic: and if the world had not again and again tried to renew its youth, it would have been dead long ago.”  G.K. Chesterton from his book on Robert Lewis Stevenson

The analogy to computer programming breaks down as all analogies do at some point, however, at the risk of seeming a cranky eccentric, the underlying point of Dick’s complaint is more than mere nostalgia and resistance to change. And neglecting history and the wisdom of centuries has more import and impact than forgetting FORTRAN and COBOL.

Our poems and songs were necessary to human memory of who we are for ten thousand years or more. They enabled us to learn and grow. Technology for information storage started slowly with the Guttenberg press, advancing to linotype and typewriters, which was the state of the art when I was in high school reading Yevtushenko sitting on the floor of a bookstore, not so long ago in history really. Currently with the development of nanotechnology and the “internet of things,” the sum of accumulated human knowledge, much of it layered on like Dick’s superfluous programmer’s code, doubles every twelve months, and is projected to double every twelve hours.[ii] Take a deep breath and think about that: the sum of all human knowledge that took us twenty thousand years to accumulate will double every twelve hours. How much of that data is useful or edifying or gifts us with wisdom, counsel, truth and beauty is a matter of concern and doubt, but the volume is imposing.

Trying to “drink from a firehose” has become a favored cliché of news commentators. In the last twelve hours, it has become woefully inadequate. Perhaps the appropriate metaphor is more like trying to drink from the uncontrollable rapids of a flooding river.[iii] Caution must be taken by every person to drink from pastoral pools and quiet eddies: to seek quiet, to think and read what is truly worth our increasingly finite time. Elegance and brevity and the carefully chosen word needs to be honored and preserved in mind and soul or we endanger some of what makes us human, washed away in the deluge.

“A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly it is a thing of love.” St Augustine

[i] http://remember.org/witness/babiyar

 

[ii] http://www.industrytap.com/knowledge-doubling-every-12-months-soon-to-be-every-12-hours/3950

 

[iii] The irony of writing this on my laptop in one of perhaps  millions of blogs is not lost on me.

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Sticky Butt

Sticky Butt[i]

“I don’t know which is more discouraging, literature or chickens.” E.B. White

I killed one of the new chicks  a couple of  weeks ago because I didn’t know enough about ‘sticky butt.’ Thinking the intimate task of vent cleaning could be procrastinated and hoping it would take care of itself I neglected basic chick care. Not understanding that something malevolent was backing up, we discovered our ignorance when early one morning our still fuzzy golden Orpington was lying on her side unmoving with hazed eyes, and the other chicks were unmindfully stepping on her having tired of pecking her.

In Maine, we kept laying hens, but they were given to us when they were about six months old by a friend who was moving to Alabama. By six months they are laying eggs every day and the deadly sticky butt is no longer a threat. As we have learned since, hens caring for their chicks keep them warm, show them where the food and water are and clean their little butts. Humans must learn this expertise along with many other forgotten skills necessary to take care of our egg providers.

“The most solid piece of scientific truth I know of is that we are profoundly ignorant of nature. “  Dr. Lewis Thomas [ii]

Rita’s grandparents were first generation immigrants during the Great Depression before the welfare state. Egg laying chickens and broilers were kept along with an annual pig and a large vegetable garden. They knew how to slaughter and dress them, how to make sausage, render the fat and store hams and bacon, preserve meat, can vegetables, and all the intricacies of soil, sun, bugs, composting and keeping the soil sweet where it’s needed and acidic where tomatoes grow. Egg shells for calcium to keep the tomatoes from rotting as they ripen: so many skills and such deep knowledge of the earth and self-provision. Skills and knowledge, we do not have.

Our immediate forebears knew how to hunt, how to field dress, take home, prepare and cook game. They knew where to find tasty edible mushrooms that won’t poison us, what sort of ground hosts wild blueberries, where the black raspberries could be picked. How to repair almost anything in their house was second nature—from basic carpentry, plumbing and electrical to finding, cutting and splitting the wood for their stoves. The relationship of tides to harvesting the plenty of the water, what blooms when, the differences in using and identifying oak from maple and walnut. How an apple tree is pruned and when, a pear tree, a cherry. How to plant gardens and a wide variety of trees, flowering and fruit bearing shrubs. How to grow grapes and make wine. How to put in a good fence or a rock wall. What do we do when the shovel hits a rock or a root or solid ledge? When do we till the soil and how do we put it to bed in the fall to prepare it for the next spring?

Mostly through work experience and home gardens, I have learned quite a bit about some of these things and some about all of them, however, my acquaintance with them is full of gaps, and I had little hands on learning curve around the house when I was young. I was above average mostly at mowing the lawn. Felling trees, heating a house with a woodstove, framing and finishing a house, gardening, raising chickens and fixing a variety of tools and household problems came later with some expensive on the job training. As a friend of mine who managed skills and knowledge teaching for a large corporation once told me: we pay for a training program whether we have one or not.  From what I’ve seen, most Americans, especially the majority who are urban dwellers are similarly disadvantaged.

Most troubling is not the lack of basic survival skills that were familiar and natural to our most recent ancestors and almost all of those before them, but the distancing of ourselves from natural things. We have made incoherent efforts to further distance our children, whose experience of nature is even more bound up in a high definition screen, and a lot of the time transfixed and passive in front of that screen is burnt up with distraction, games, pop culture and worse.

The remedies are simple and difficult: shut it off, learn to lie on the ground and look up at the sky again, to feel dirt, vegetation, rocks and roots under our feet. Reacquaint ourselves with sweat, sun, weather pleasant and adverse, sore muscles not made so in a gym with loud music and large screen TVs. Reacquaint ourselves and our children with the constellations and planets in the night sky someplace with no ambient light from sources having any connection to an electric power plant – just illumination with light that has been journeying toward us for a billion years. Fill our spirits and imagination with real things created by divine Imagination, not disjointed visions written by strangers in bytes, zeros and ones.  Our minds were designed to seek and know natural wonders, beauty and truth. Find them.

“Statistically, the probability of any of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”[iii]  Dr. Lewis Thomas

[i] As named at the Agway store where we bought the chicks. In the chicken whisperer book the condition is called “pasty butt.” Whatever its name, it cannot be taken lightly when one is responsible for the care of chicks. Probably not all that good for people either, should the symptoms present themselves.

[ii] Lewis Thomas, physician, essayist, poet and more was a profound influence on many, including me. His elegantly written books “Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher” and The Snail and The Medusa: More Notes of a Biology Watcher” taught me many things when I was young that have not been forgotten.

[iii] It has been calculated that the probability of human existence is statistically practically null, ten to an exponential power with 183 zeroes after it. If the temperature of the universe in the first seconds after the Big Bang varied by a millionth of a degree in either direction, no carbon would have ever been formed. Similar limits exist for the formation of free water molecules. No carbon, no water, no evolution, no life. Odds of say, the city of Rome or Chicago suddenly dropping from the sky full born ex nihilo are less. If this “anthropic principle” does not indicate design to us and hence the presence of a Designer, there is a willful blindness, a credulousness based on contorting perceptions of reality to fit locked down preconceptions, at least so it seems to this slogging blogger.

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Brothers in the Morning

“Remember upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.” Alexander the Great

Last week on a cold early morning with a sharp wind coming up from the bay, I stopped at my favorite coffee watering hole where a small crew has been framing an addition in the back of the restaurant. Two of the carpenters were walking from their pick-ups parked in back, dressed for the weather, gloves without fingers, tool belts over their shoulders, talking quietly with easy familiarity.

I remembered thousands of mornings that began each day with similar working friendships: fence crews, carpenter crews, landscape crews, workshop crews of various kinds for fabricating doors, windows, cement forms, nailing pickets on fences, and most especially and fondly tree climbing crews. So many tree climbing crews, large or only two or three men, in Massachusetts, Maine, Colorado and Rhode Island. Convivial or occasionally contentious, we mustered each morning in weather fair or foul, and set about doing something together that needed doing.

We rarely spoke of politics or the news and never in meaningless loaded bludgeon words like inclusivity or diversity or multiculturalism; we talked about the coming tasks that day – the seventy-foot dead silver maple hanging over a swimming pool or roof or power lines, and how to get the damn thing safely on the ground without injury to property or persons, about chainsaws and handsaws, peaveys and winches, ropes and knots, solid high crotches in the tree to tie into, safe and central. We spoke of trucks, saws and chippers that broke down and trees that had almost killed us. We talked about wives and girlfriends and children and good looking waitresses and beer. In the trucks on the way to the morning’s job, we planned for and complained about the cold, the heat, the wind, the rain, the snow and ice. Sometimes we bemoaned the previous night’s disaster for Red Sox, Bruins or Patriots, or we celebrated a hard-won victory and the miraculous catch the center fielder made climbing the wall to save the game and how the bull pen finally closed out the late innings with no damage.

We spoke of real things, not in slogans, not cant and constructs, but in clear sentences to convey to one another our thoughts, hopes, fears, lives and plans.

“Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.” Kenyan proverb

The more experienced taught the new guys, and, of course, some mentors rode the rookies derisively for their lack of skills. But they watched out for them, nonetheless. Stopped them before they fell or cut themselves (or their ropes). The rough humor was constant. I remember getting into trouble about forty feet in the air with an ill-advised decision that left me dangling precariously. My foreman Bill yelled up that since Rita was such a beauty he and others on the crew would make sure to go over to console her if I couldn’t get myself out of the mess I was in.  Another day when I was coming down with my rope securely tied in, Bill lay in wait because I was coming down in an open area well clear of the trunk of the tree. He sprung from the bushes and grabbed my rope. With a quick expert roll, he wrapped my feet, preventing further descent. Then he spun me until I was horizontal and my mouth snapped open with centrifugal force.

The jokes were part of the training, training in skills, knowledge and teamwork. When the foreman issued an edict, debate was not considered. The seniors knew what they were about and taught as they had been taught, and their teachers before them. Bill was a gifted athlete and a savant climber, respected and liked. He taught neophyte climbers like me how to fall if necessary (he was a veteran of the 101st Army Airborne) and more importantly to avoid falling. Tension would build in the crew when truly unnerving challenges arose. Bill had a gift for defusing fear and self-focus; it was about the team, covering each other, keeping an eye out for each other’s safety, the ground men making sure the climber’s lines were never tangled in brush should he need to get out of harm’s way in a hurry. Lunch might include rock throwing or axe throwing contests, foot-lock climbing for height and time, arm wrestling or story telling of demented tree felling events in the histories of the more experienced.  The stories always had lessons.

Men have learned and worked together in such crews, each person with a necessary role in the team, since they hunted with spears and clubs. Worker’s guilds and medieval artist guilds evolved from those groups. The first universities were born of these patterns of order based on experience and talent; the teacher’s organization and the masons who constructed the buildings were so modeled. Men relate differently to and with each other in such crews than they relate to women or in mixed gender gatherings.  For those who have not experienced that brotherhood in crews, teams, the military, it cannot be fully understood.

“The anthropologist Lionel Tiger, in Men in Groups, earned the wrath of feminists when he suggested that men had been primed by the exigencies of the hunt to form hierarchically organized groups, with each man performing a particular task, all of coordinated in a team movement to bring down the mammoth or the wild boar. Some feminists countered by saying that women too had to form groups in order to locate and gather berries, which was a strange way of proving Tiger’s point. Berries do not run forty miles an hour. Berries do not have antlers, hooves or fangs.” From the section, “The Triumph of Brotherhood” in Dr. Anthony Esolen’s latest, “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture”, which I highly recommend.

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Milk Run

“There is no better way to understand an animal than to milk a cow twice a day. Every day.” Anonymous

 cows-loungingRay Hall was a spare, reticent, tall man, slightly stooped with practical plastic framed sturdy eye glasses and a baseball cap. He was a dairy farmer on the North Road in Mount Vernon, Maine, who, when he chose to deploy it on necessary occasions, had a warm smile. His farm was clean, well-organized, closely scheduled and had many cows with breeds I can’t remember; I think Guernsey and Holstein. They decorated the fields and hills behind the barn in paintable pastoral beauty.

The Halls were generations deep in Mount Vernon; Ray’s son built a ranch house on the property with his wife, preparing to continue the traditions. Milk was collected each day in a separate small room off the big barn into a spotless chilled stainless steel tank that had an interior slowly rotating mixer to keep the cream from separating. Fresh cold milk has the improved character that new eggs with tiny feathers stuck to them have for those who have raised hens (as we have) or have had the good fortune to live near an egg farm. The taste, the color, the wholesomeness is qualitatively better than the stored, pasteurized, homogenized factory product.

Several of us might gather in Ray’s milk room and catch up on gossip while we waited our turn to refill our bottles. In a town like Mount Vernon, we enjoyed every opportunity to stay current with the goings on of our neighbors; most of the talk was benign. Folks wanted to be able to help if needed, or at least be aware of the sensibilities.

Ray sold his milk to Cumberland Farms, which would send the tank truck to haul off the day’s production for processing and bottling. For the locals, however, who brought their own clean bottles, there was a spigot on the tank and an honor system cash box nearby. Seventy-five cents a gallon, as I remember, but it was a long time ago. The milk had to be shaken before pouring to blend the cream back in unless we let it rise to the top and skimmed some for coffee or whipping or recipes. We’ve never had better milk before or since.

 “My father..liked to be a farmer. He enjoyed his dairy farm and felt the calling. So there was a dedication. I was dedicated as a child to the service of God, and so there was this continual centering of a greater purpose than your own.”  Phil Jackson

In the spring of 2010, armed federal marshals and state troopers raided the Amish dairy farm of Dan Allgyer called Rainbow Acres. Almost a year of expensive investigation preceded the raid. The customers were not deceived, understood the potential risks, trusted the farmer and made the informed decision that raw milk unprocessed by machinery was healthier and tasted better; some people cannot drink milk that has been heated, bagged and tagged in a factory. The Federal government thought differently, showed up with a warrant, then bagged and tagged Dan instead.

Two aspects of this struck me; they are closely related, perhaps ‘inextricably entwined:’

We have been distanced incrementally from the sources of our food and consequently from authenticity. We are increasingly an X Box, artificial intelligence (oxymoron?), virtual reality culture. Rita’s grandparents on both sides raised their own vegetables and fruit, made their own wine, raised, slaughtered and dressed chickens and an annual pig, making sausage, bacon, hams and the thin sliced cured ham miracle called prosciutto; neighbors would line up at their house for it. The skills commonly known to our grandparents to milk cows, grow gardens, hunt or raise our own animal protein or merely wander at leisure in fields and forests are being stripped away to be replaced with LED screens and speakers. Much time and energy is spent to entertain and distract ourselves from the human contact, work and real life dirt, calluses and sweat necessary to sustain us.

 bureaucracy-cartoonSecondly, we surrender ourselves and even welcome a self-perpetuating huge bureaucratic Federal apparatus which has been granted more and more free rein to rein us in. The monolith desires to protect us from any freedom that could possibly cause us harm as perceived by a progressive nanny state. We far too frequently don’t get to decide what level of risk we are willing to pursue to live more closely in touch with real things, events and places. In this usurpation of liberty, we drift ever closer to the Borg and distance ourselves ever further from the vision of the Founding Fathers for an independent, virtuous and knowledgeable electorate.

Journey down to Washington, DC and walk past the astonishingly large gray office buildings housing the minions and machinery of the bureaucracy. It just might give you pause.

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint… But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in cleaned, carpeted, warmed and well lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy…” C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters.”

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Alternate Facts

Alternate Facts

“The lowest form of popular culture—lack of information, misinformation, disinformation and a contempt for the truth or the reality of most people’s lives – has overrun real journalism.” Carl Bernstein

newspapersPaul was an officious stiff, unattractively convinced of his own self-importance, as lawyers can be sometimes, but I did feel guilty when his wife, whom I had never met, cried over the phone when she tried to make me understand that he was just trying to do the right thing for the town and how could I write such awful things about her husband?  Didn’t realize a guy like that might have someone who loved him. So maybe I didn’t have the stomach for it after all.

The night before, working as a stringer for a daily paper, was typical. Attend a local planning board meeting; take copious notes in my official reporter’s pocket notebook, secure in the back of the hearing room as a cocky upstart of the fourth estate.  Run back to my 1956 Chevy pickup and drive to the newsroom office and join four or five others beating a midnight deadline for the morning paper. Bad coffee out of the machine with chemical cream, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray and banging away with two fingers, we raced to keep it short with few adjectives, none of them purple, and long on finding some sort of headline to draw the reader’s interest and the advertiser’s money. Controversy was desirable, if not mandatory[i]. Though in high school and college I had gained typing proficiency with all hands-on-deck, in the newsroom only women reporters exhibited those skills. The guys eschewed full fingered participation, so I quickly revised my technique and picked up speed on the old shared typewriter using twenty percent of the digits available to me. Macho vanity has few limits. Editing was red lined, then cut and pasted with actual paste and scissors, sentence by sentence and paragraph on the final copy submitted to the typesetters.

I forget the details, something about a set-back requirement for an addition that was being infringed by a foot or two, and the board, led by Paul, barring a zoning appeals board effort, was about to cost the homeowner a large amount of money. I turned up what I saw as a conflict of interest from a previous kerfuffle between Paul, in his law practice, and the homeowner, while rummaging through the files at the newsroom doing a quick background search on old stories (real paper files way before Google or Lexis Nexis were even imagined, much less verbs). Throwing that perhaps unrelated story into the second paragraph, heedless of what effect the unproven connectedness of the two issues might have on the parties involved, I submitted the story, pleased the local news editor and went home. I had, after all, called Paul’s house for a comment, but for some reason they didn’t answer their phone at ten thirty.

I had established early on that to please an editor with his brutal red pencil, one had to write cleanly, try to get the facts straight, but be careful about which facts were included and which ones were avoided, especially if they conflicted with the editor’s ideology or preferences about local personalities. I was a fast learner. After a year or so, I understood I truly didn’t have the stomach for it and needed a real job for my small family.

“When I started working for Rolling Stone, I became very interested in journalism and thought maybe that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t true. What became important was to have a point of view.” Annie Leibovitz

Recent polls have public confidence in news media at an all-time low. About fourteen percent of the population believes that they can believe what is in the papers or on the screen. I grew up thinking that although the New York Times and Boston Globe and CBS might have a leftward bias in their editorials, they strove to get it right in their news coverage. The “Gray Lady” wouldn’t tip the scales in their reporting of events, of facts, of actual happenings, right? Look at all those Pulitzers. As it turns out, I was wrong then, which was verified in my brief dalliance with the business, and now the public has such deep skepticism, we have no bulwark against propaganda, no filter for what is true and what is a campaign. Then we had at least the comfort of journalists being circumspect, but subtlety is no longer a veil that is even pretended: not even a pretense of objectivity nor an apology for the vacuum. The gloves are off, and no one has faith in anyone’s facts.

To our great detriment, the media feeds on disinformation and distrust, which in turn fans the flames of divisiveness and anger. Where do we turn? Whom do we believe?  Who do you trust? (With apologies to grammarian readers). Facebook rants and 140-character flatulence fills the void.

“Journalism, as concerns collecting information, differs little if at all from intelligence work. In my judgment, a journalist’s job is very interesting.”  Vladimir Putin [ii]

                                                                                       –30–

[i] The pressure on periodicals, newspapers and electronic media to attract readership and viewers has only  gotten more intense with a life and death struggle with social media competition for advertising dollars. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/02/the-mark-zuckerberg-manifesto-is-a-blueprint-for-destroying-journalism/517113/

[ii] [ii] Ask Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov how interesting Putin thinks journalism is. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/01/29/kremlin-inc

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A Fair Hourly Wage

“God sells us all things at the price of labor.”   Leonardo da Vinci

The first job that paid me was delivering newspapers when I was eleven or twelve. The tools were a large, double stitched, sturdy cloth bag, a list from the newspaper distributor, a zipped folder to track collections and hold cash and a bicycle.  Each day but one (because an adult with a car delivered Sunday), the truck from the newspaper distributor would drop a large bundle of afternoon papers at the corner of our street. I would unfetter them and put them in my bag.  My route consisted of four streets and around forty stops. There were five papers of varying design and thickness: the Boston Globe, the Boston Evening Traveler, the Boston Record American in a tabloid format, the Walpole Times delivered by subscription on Thursdays and the Norfolk County Free Press free to everyone on Fridays.  Almost all customers took one of the Boston papers and most took the Walpole Times, a weekly local paper.  Everyone took the Norfolk Free Press, but I suspect most took it to look quickly for grocery specials, if any neighbors were embarrassed in the police blotter or to train puppies and line bird cages.

Most papers were left between the storm door and the inner door, front or back per the customer’s preference.  Saturdays, I would go to each house and collect payment, then bike down to the distribution office and pay my paper bill. If the tips were good (ten cents a week from a customer was good), I’d net seven or eight dollars, a princely sum for a twelve-year-old in 1958. A non paying customer who refused to answer their door was on me. Wet, beat up or late papers earned me a reprimand from the distribution manager who took all complaint calls. More than a couple of these, and I would be without employment.  I learned that promptness, diligence and friendliness along with a clean paper without blemishes earned me the most money. Ironically years later, I was back in the business with the daily Patriot Ledger for which I worked as a local stringer, writing columns about town politics and events.

The next rung up the ladder was climbed when I gained the strength to carry two golf bags by caddying on the local course. Getting a double would earn six or seven dollars and three to four hours of work depending upon the skill and patience of the customers. Most days I spent waiting for customers, and some days came up empty, playing desultory cards in the caddy shack, practicing spitting and obscene language, innocent of its real meaning.  If I only had a single bag with another caddy and a couple of golfers pulling their own wheeled carts, I could work a whole day to make three or four dollars, five with a good tip. I learned patience, getting along with older caddies, remaining calm and helpful with manic and demeaning customers and expanded my vocabulary considerably.

“No man e’er was glorious, who was not laborious.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin

Next came one miserable summer when I turned fifteen as a bundle boy at the local grocery market, a branch of the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (the A&P).  My tools were an A&P apron and company supplied paper bags and metal framed, pressed board carts that would roll on a wheeled manual conveyor through an opening in the front wall to a similar conveyance for pick up by the customers in their cars. Some days I would pack bundles and send them on their way; others I would be outside under an inadequate canopy, which protected no one from windblown rain. Very occasionally there would be a tip. Otherwise it was $1.15 an hour and accommodating unhappy front of store managers and customers. I learned how to pack a paper bag, the heavier items on the bottom, squaring off the bag with lighter items on top to not overload one. A ripped bag with groceries on the ground was liable to get you sent home without pay. I learned to come to work on time, work steadily, try to help the beleaguered cashiers and occasionally clean up a spill in aisle six.

grass-hay-bale-animal-feeding-grass-hayThe penultimate job of my young life was haying for Ma Green on her dairy farm in West Walpole the next summer. A dollar an hour for agricultural work, but cash without denuding the take with the government’s cut.  Two or three of us would follow a tractor drawn wood cart around freshly mowed and bailed fields, loading and stacking hay. Once the first level was built on the cart, the lead hay worker would mount the cart and stack them high. The farm manager would pace the work driving the tractor.  When the cart was full, we would ride on top of the hay back to the barn and load the hay into the loft. No breeze there, hot, sweaty work with hay dust covering our bodies and clothes. I loved the camaraderie, the banter and the feeling of aching muscles and a shower before supper. Sunburns all around until we tanned, we labored without shirts and started to build strength with its accompanying physical confidence to last a lifetime – a grown up job, a man’s job, a wonderful job with lunch under a tree shared with my fellows.

“Heaven is blessed with perfect rest, but the blessing of earth is toil.”  Henry van Dyke

 

These jobs preceded many others over my younger years: tree pruning and topping, fence building, house framing, landscaping, truck driving, asphalting driveways, working in a concrete factory making septic tanks and pipe sections and others.  Not one of them failed to teach me something about work, co workers, bosses and subordinates. They prepared me to manage many lumberyards and commercial construction subcontracting.  We’ve raised a family and four children, educating them to the best of our ability, all enabled by ennobling work. All my jobs led me to a lifelong appreciation and respect for those who earn their way with their hands, their backs, their daily courage and commitment, their diligence and skills. “A hand that’s dirty with honest labor is fit to shake with any neighbor,” rings true to me, bespeaking the dignity of work.

I would be disappointed not to see some exceptions for new or young workers from minimum wage laws that might preclude employers from being able to afford and hire inexperienced, but hopeful employees. Such employment teaches us to show up on time, to respect ourselves, our employers and fellow workers; we learn that faithfulness to small tasks leads to larger ones and the ability for self determination and opportunity.  For this there is no substitute.

 “To labor is to pray.”  Motto of the Benedictines

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Harkening

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.” From Robert Kennedy’s gravesite at Arlington from his speech in South Africa.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 27: Thousands of people rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. The march is a gathering and protest against the United States Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 27: Thousands of people rally on the National Mall before the start of the 44th annual March for Life January 27, 2017 in Washington, DC. The march is a gathering and protest against the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

When I asked Rita what she would like to do for our fiftieth anniversary, she did not hesitate: The March for Life in Washington. The last time she went, she roomed with Dr. Mildred Jefferson; this time there would be a severe diminishment of intellect in that roommate, but she would have the consolation of a lifetime of companionship.  In consideration of being in our eighth decade, we lined up a sensible fly/stay package, deciding not to take the bus from Providence with seventy or so young people who do not require sleep. The young people, as it turns out, were the outstanding feature of this event.

We spent a couple of days walking around renewing our acquaintance with that mesmerizing city. Put flowers at the WWII Memorial for our dads and other family members. Visited the Holocaust Museum for the first time. Strolled in awe around Arlington Cemetery again and sat on the porch of the Robert E Lee house at its highest point, overlooking the Potomac, the Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson Memorials along with the dome of the Capitol in the distance. It was Lee’s farm that was forfeit to bury the dead.

But the highlight of our visit was the March. Six hundred thousand strong, nearly three quarters of whom were young people from all over the country. The contrast with the Woman’s March of  the week before  (link to comparison-language warningwas immediately apparent. No anger, no vitriol, no vagina costumes and obscene signs, no empty-headed egos full of their own celebrity contemplating bombing the White House. There was joy, genuine joy to be together, singing, laughing, dancing on the grass of the Mall before the March. The energy of these tens of thousands of young faces, their clear-eyed intelligence, their look you in the eye candor and confidence brought tears to my eyes. The torch has been passed and is on the move. For the first time in the forty-four years of this March, a Vice President spoke. He spoke of gentleness and love for the babies and for the mothers with an unexpected and challenging pregnancy. He encouraged us never to condemn, but to offer our lives, our treasure and our love to help. A willing audience to this call cheered and chanted, “We are the pro-life generation.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Opening paragraph from the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson

Tmarch-for-life-close-uphe young people there have the indefatigable enthusiasm and idealism of the young. They see themselves as survivors; twenty five percent of their generation didn’t make it out of the womb alive. Faith and prayer were evident with many, but science was the topic of discussion. The science is settled now. With ultrasound and fetal development studies well established, no uncertainty exists about the nature of the embryo, fully human from the start, a continuum, a personal story, needing only food, oxygen, nurturing and protection to join the rest of us in conversation and song and pursuit of happiness. The genetic inheritance of a thousand generations before them sets them apart from all other species.

They know in their hearts and in their minds and consciences what is at stake, and ask with wonder, “Can we not at least be honest about what abortion does?” It is the deliberate taking of the most vulnerable human life by a larger, more powerful human. Of that, there is no doubt. No doubt there are many serious reasons why many try to justify that taking, but it is a taking nonetheless. For these young people, this is an evil worth an uncomfortable ride for a day or two on a bus to declare their commitment to protecting this tiny life. They grew up hearing their parents from a statistically much less pro-life generation read to them from Dr. Seuss.  I saw several signs repeating what they heard as children from that eminent philosopher, Horton, in his definitive work, “Horton Hears A Who:” A person’s a person, no matter how small.

This generation’s majority cannot abide a culture that sees ending innocent lives as a necessary evil or even a desirable freedom.  “Freedom from what?”, they ask. They cannot reconcile the hypocrisy of a society that preaches fairness, kindness and tolerance, but fails to protect its tiniest citizenry from immolation. The starkness of its sheer bloodiness cannot be abided. Planned Parenthood must bring a lunch; these kids are not going gently into that dark night.

“I have given suck, and know

How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it is smiling in my face,

Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dashed his brains out, had I so sworn to you.”

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Act 1, William Shakespeare

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Half Way To A Century

“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Simone Signoret

wedding-danceFive years ago, we celebrated our forty fifth anniversary; I looked back on our time together and did my best to tell of the marvel who is my wife, Rita. (Anniversary Waltz) Five years later, I haven’t changed my mind. Today, I look ahead a bit.

Somerset Maugham once wrote this, “We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.” At the risk of disagreeing with one of the most important novelists of the last century, the concept of the constantly growing, evolving human person is evident; however there is continuity as well. A person lives in a story, their story, and their essence remains constant. Rita remains a mystery while I know her as intimately as one person can know another. She has learned, matured, grown as all persons do, but her essence is that of the same young beauty I loved as a twenty-year-old. Changed and unchanged, far further along in the plot of our shared story, but constant in fundamental character, she remains my beloved wife.

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” Franz Shubert

I think now it is the little things I most cherish. Her expressive face with a thousand subtleties cannot hide her inner being: serene, joyful, stormy, worried, love filled, skeptical, pensive and many shades between.  I sometimes see these uncanny nuances in her children. I especially love the sleepy face with tousled hair when she puts on her well-worn blue fleece bathrobe and emerges from the bedroom to greet me with a long hug and a short kiss while I’m usually reading or praying on the couch. There is the amused smile when I do something stupid or utter a remark to evoke that smile along with the pointy fist banging into my chest when I cross the line into outrageous. Her many sounds are so very familiar, her laugh, her business voice, and she makes a smile come through the telephone. I love to sing next to her at Mass and hear her soprano. Her husky, quiet voice when she shares her secrets or fears or her love and concern for her children. The scent of her on the pillow next to me lingers. Her warmth when we spoon early in the morning or late at night. The softness of her skin remains, and though time and child bearing has changed her, her feminine ways will be lovely to me forever.

Dancing together once againOur shared time together is invaluable: mutual chores, walks, quiet conversations, reading near each other, occasionally interrupting each other’s reading to share a passage, poignant or insightful. Our closely linked heritage and faith, so dear to us both, helps bind us. Fifteen thousand nights sleeping together, sometimes restlessly, sometimes exhausted, sometimes so familiar it aches. Waking next to her; I feel her stillness next to me and her calm breathing. Forty thousand meals together, some are shared with others in good company or now mostly just the two of us.

Her silly goofiness that we share like a secret; there are aspects of our relationship that are so knowing, so intimate, they can be understood only by other couples with long, deep friendships. Disagreements, now always short lived and usually without too much fire, but it wasn’t always so.  We’ve lived a history both before and since our marriage that is irreplaceable: new places together, twelve different homes, sorrows, mistakes, joys and grieving the loss of parents. Four children, daughters and son, so different from one another and yet sharing commonalities they will never lose. And now four granddaughters of delight and wonder.

There is no substitute in this life for such a marriage. My gratitude cannot be expressed either to the Author of our lives or to His greatest gift to me. There is nothing left to say.

“My most brilliant achievement was my ability to persuade my wife to marry me.” Winston Churchill

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