Category Archives: Personal and family life

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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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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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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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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Christmas 2016

laughing-girlsReflecting on this tumultuous year, quiet waiting during the Advent season for Christmas was a welcome respite from the preoccupations of the last twelve months. Year end is a time of reflection, but this year, recollection seems especially poignant. Where are we?  Where have we been? Where are we going?

The model of the tiny family journeying to Bethlehem beckons us. Their loving unity of purpose and mutual reliance is an ideal, even in their adverse circumstances – away from home on the road, cold, hungry, perhaps frightened by the strangeness of the unwelcoming town.  Husband and heavily pregnant wife come in obedience to an unwelcome government edict, disrupting their lives at a time when they want only to remain protected in their carpenter’s home in Nazareth.

The unity of these two and soon these three, a family, foundation of all that is human, is part of what draws us to them. We tell and retell their story billions of times. Do we covet this unity, this certainty, this peace amidst fragmentation, adversity and loneliness?

We are seemingly ever more divided as we coalesce uneasily into the circles of a complex Venn diagram: sets based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual preference,  educational level, coastal or fly over country, urban, suburban or rural. Scattered and alienated, we define carefully how each differs from the other, competes with the other, criticizing the groups different from us.

When we look around at what is deemed the post-modern culture, is the question what are the characteristics of the American culture? Or is the question whether there is even a cohesive, intelligible American culture? Where do we find the unity and belonging our humanness so longs for?

Christmas, the connectedness of that little family in Bethlehem and within our own families and friends offers us that peace, if we choose to seek it and to live it.

This Christmas invites us into warmth and a well-lighted room. In that room, we will be content by the fire in slippers with our feet up, quietly musing on where we’ve been and who we are. Where is our center, our truth? In that room, we will close our eyes and listen to the music of our hearts. In that room is joyful serenity and Love.

God’s blessings on you and yours.

Merry Christmas and happy reveries.

Love,   Jack and Rita

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An Early Christmas at Rosecliff

gianna-the-mouse“The smells of Christmas are the smells of childhood.” The Christmas Box, Richard Paul Evans

Gianna danced in the Nutcracker this year at Rosecliff. She was a mouse and in the second act, a gingerbread. Both her mother Angela and her aunt Meg danced in Nutcracker for years with Festival Ballet at the Providence Performing Arts Center when we lived there: angels, soldiers, friends of Clara and other roles I may be forgetting. Rosecliff is a much smaller venue, a museum, not a theatre: smaller audiences and more intimate. We followed the dancers around the building for the first act with the family Christmas gathering and gift of the nutcracker in the dining room, snow fairies in the ballroom, the introduction and battle on the signature heart shaped main stairway in the rotunda. The dancers were close to us; we were nearly part of the set. The gleam of perspiration and the pumping of their diaphragms were visible after their splendid exertions, even as their faces held their smiles.

Rosecliff is one of the Newport mansions on fabled Bellevue Avenue with the Cliff Walk overlooking Easton’s Beach running behind it. Commissioned in the gilded age at the turn of the twentieth century by “Tessie” Fair Oelrich of the Nevada Comstock silver lode Fairs and her husband, shipping tycoon Herman Oelrich, it was designed by the infamous Stanford White of New York, architect for Penn Station and the second Madison Square Gardens. Rosecliff is the frequent site of society weddings still and its ballroom has been featured in films and television including the Robert Redford “Great Gatsby,” “27 Dresses” and “Amistad.”

Nutcracker is performed each year by the Island Moving Company of Newport where Gianna takes her lessons. Angela, mother of our four beautiful granddaughters, still dances in classes, but has no time for performances. Because of the small venue, the tickets are expensive and there are two casts with eight performances each. Pete and Angela told Gianna that because of the cost, participating in the cast would be the main gift of her Christmas this year; she readily agreed. What she did not know was that the tickets for her parents would also be their gifts to one another. With that and the many rehearsals, extra expenses along the way and the eight back and forth trips for the performances, it was a major time commitment for the family. They readily agreed as well.

For all of that, Gianna each time was enthusiastic, smiled constantly, danced with energy and trained diligently. She brought tears to the eyes of her parent and grandparents. When she finally wound down from her excitement after evening shows, Peter and I set up a mattress in our downstairs office; she camped out and slept in a bit as her noisy sisters awoke at 6 AM.

“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.” Laura Ingalls Wilder

The choreography was joyful and deft. There have been much darker performances that we’ve seen with scary Rat Queens and Drosselmeyers.  The IMC production is jubilant, elevating and a perfect beginning to the Christmas celebrations in the first week of Advent.

 The principal dancers were professional, talented and well-practiced; their credentials in companies across Europe, Asia and North America were impressive for such a small group. Each danced several major roles – Frau Oelrich was the Sugar Plum Fairy. All of them had other jobs; dancing in other companies, choreographers, owners of studios. I expect none of them is getting rich for all the years of study, the punishment to their bodies, the commitment to the art, yet they continue. For the art, for the beauty, for the music, for the sheer joy of it.

gianna-camping-outThe music alone commends the art to us, and for Rita, Pete, Angela and me, was well worth the time and treasure to expose our children to such things. For as one of our favorite writers, Anthony Esolen, makes clear: if the mind is exposed to beauty and truth expressed in beauty, that formed mind is better able to discern the coarse from the sublime, the human achievement from the dross, the excellent from the mediocre, that which lifts the spirit from that which burdens it.  That mind seeks beauty and is repulsed by the multitude of ugliness they will confront in their lifetime.

When a child has heard Tchaikovsky and Puccini, she has no love of rapping. When she has wandered at leisure in the galleries of Renoir’s and Caravaggio’s, she cannot abide black velvet Elvis. When she has read Yeats or Shakespeare or for that matter Laura Ingalls Wilder, she will be able to better separate the wheat from the chaff, the light from the darkness.

Christmas is first about Jesus, but it is also about light and beauty and the soaring of the spirit and soul. For that, The Nutcracker is a good start.

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”  The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss

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Christmas Trees

“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” Winston Churchill

Our first Christmas tree was not quite a year after we were married. Finishing up my last year at U Mass, I bought our first small tree in Northampton and dragged it up the stairs to our third story walk up railroad apartment. Rita remembers still the sound of the needles rubbing against the narrow stair and hallway walls. We set it up in an alcove off the main hall of our apartment, the only space that had room for one. Our decorations were minimal; they later accrued over the many years-some homemade by our parents or children, some gifts, some bought one by one in small shops or fairs. We still break them out once a year.

Our habit has been to put a tree up later in the Advent season and leave it up past Epiphany. Too late, and we miss the piney smell through the run up to Christmas; too early, and it is a fire hazard by the end.  A sadness overtakes me when I see Christmas trees put out for trash pickup on the twenty sixth like checking off a box, another season survived and behind us.

One of our early Christmases we were living on Mashnee Island on Cape Cod. We had little money, but decided we wanted a live tree that would get another chance the following spring. I took my pickup to Hog Island, state owned, uninhabited, and the site of a large navigational warning sign at the north end of Cape Cod Canal. The sand while frozen was easily broken, and I dug out a small pitch pine, usually called a scrub pine, Charlie Brown never had a sparser specimen. After cutting out a large root ball, I wrapped it in burlap and brought it home. We put it in a large steel washtub in the living room of our rented cottage, kept the tree watered, and hoped when we resettled it after Christmas, the pine would survive the midwinter thawing. When I checked it early in June back on Hog Island, it was green and supple.

“It still feels weird to spend money on Christmas trees. Back when Mom was alive, we’d go out “tree hunting.” That’s what she called it, anyway. I think other people might use the word “trespassing.” Jenny Han, Fire with Fire

The ten years we spent in Maine provided us with many memorable Christmas trees. When our two older children, Amy and Gabe, were still small, I would load them on a sled, put on my bear-paw snowshoes, and we would go tree hunting. We first cut on the five acres surrounding our first Mount Vernon house, and later found our trees on the hundred acres we bought with a friend in New Sharon. I preferred Balsam Fir, but once settled on a Canadian hemlock and only once on a Norway spruce. Neither one kept its needles long enough for our preferred elongated season; when we finally took them down, threadbare and forlorn, we had a lot of sweeping and vacuuming to do.

Many years the highest temperature of tree harvesting day would remain resolutely in single digits, but bundled up with big mittens, the kids would complain only if I trudged too deep into the woods and took too long in our quest for the perfect tree. Tree cutting was always followed by hot chocolate back by the wood stove. Decorating was done in stages after we’d get the tree up: a couple of days with the tree in its natural state of beauty, the scent filling the house. The tree would draw up large amounts of our doctored water, feeding and bringing it back to life until the branches fell to their accustomed levels. Next came a day or two of just lights, then another day or two of our favorite decorations and candy canes, and finally the addition of strung together popcorn or cranberries. We eschewed tinsel of any kind, preferring to leave the tree unconcealed, not hidden behind manufactured glittery shininess. The evergreen foreshadows life eternal, renewed each day and year.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

One of my most enduring memories of Christmas was our second in our first house in Mount Vernon. That year’s tree was a monster, rising almost to the cathedral ceiling in our dining room, a full twelve feet. I had cut a large Balsam fir. We used the lower branches for other decorations and the eight-inch trunk of the tree was used in the spring to help construct the pole barn woodshed I built. But the top twelve feet somehow were pushed through the front door and stood upright against the window.

My folks came up for a pre-Christmas visit. A half a dozen years prior to my father’s passing, he remained a vigorous sixty, and my mother still an Irish beauty. As was their custom with little room in our small converted barn, they preferred to rent a room in nearby Mrs. Hall’s bed and breakfast and not climb a ladder into one of our sleeping lofts.

We celebrated my mother’s birthday on St. Nicolas Day. She had begun work on the hand painted ceramic Nativity set that still adorns our Christmas celebrations. The first year brought us Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Eventually there was the full panoply of kings, shepherd, sheep, camels and a cow. She made several figures every year as Christmas gifts. Each year we carefully unwrap them from their newspaper protectors and set them out again in a central spot in our home. The carefully made wood manger itself was designed and crafted by Rita’s father, Dave, a skilled woodworker and furniture maker. The combination of the two – figures and crèche are treasured and a symbol to us of the permanent marriage of our two families.

That year after overcoming Rita’s objections to the giant tree and the extra sets of lights, in the end, our perfect Balsam fir is an indelible remembrance. After we got it in the house with much effort, trying to save as many needles as possible in the narrow entryway, my father insisted on climbing the ladder and helping with the decorating up high, including the angel at the top. I will not forget him doing this while Christmas persists in our hearts.

 “…freshly cut Christmas trees smelling of stars and snow and pine resin – inhale deeply and fill your soul with wintry night…”  John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

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Three Year Olds and Socratic Learning

“I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.”  Lou Holtz

Angela and Meg 1988

Angela and Meg 1988

When our youngest daughter Meg was around four, we were walking around our old neighborhood in Providence. As we approached one house, we were accosted by a malodorous intrusion.  My first thoughts were ‘broken septic pipe’; my second was that all smells are particulate, which was not comforting. I realized that Meg was just trying to reconcile an unpleasant incident and her previous experiences with smells outdoors.  “Dad, is someone having a yucky cookout?” I read that the average four-year-old asks four hundred questions a day. I thought that was an exaggeration until we encountered Meg, a mischief always ready to throw something or run from a call home and always ready to ask a question, most of the time with five follow up questions. She outdid the most dogged of journalists.

Curious Mary

Curious Mary 2015

Our third granddaughter Mary may outdo her Aunty Meg with questions. She gauges the temperature in the room, especially when she thinks she may have crossed a line. “Are you mad?” “Are you sad?” “Are you happy?”  A couple of months ago, she wanted to clear up an issue of compelling interest to her at the moment. When she was instructed to stop picking her nose (which is a remarkably cute one), she immediately asked, “Can I pick the other one?” She needed to know if the prohibition was nostril specific – not an unnecessary clarification for a three-year-old. Curiosity is what leads us first to knowledge, then to understanding, and then perhaps with “know thyself” good fortune, wisdom – that most necessary of gifts.

The wisest teach with questions, many times not providing all the answers themselves, but leading each inquiring mind to seek the truth. Not to say that truth is solely subjective, but that finding elusive, objective truth is not for the weak of spirit or mind. Socrates taught with questions and reminded us that only by coming to grasp with our own ignorance do we scratch out the beginnings of wisdom. In the biblical history of Jesus of Nazareth, we observe that in all His recorded utterances, He answered directly only ten of the one hundred and eighty-seven questions He was asked. He related parables and stories. In those same scriptures He asked three hundred questions.

“Try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question.” Rainer Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

We have learned as a people and as individuals mostly by asking questions: the right questions. For those most difficult to understand questions, a lifetime, perhaps many lifetimes, are necessary, and the illumination of history helps. This is most difficult, for to understand our history, wisdom is learning what the events of history were to those who lived them, not in the revisionist light of our own interpretation. The corollary is also dismayingly true. As contemporaries within our own defining events, we don’t know how they will turn out; what the outcome will be in a hundred years or twenty of this cultural phenomenon or this movement of our rulers or this election, we cannot know.  Our understanding while living within these events is indispensable, and the decisions we make elucidated by that understanding equally so, but we cannot know, definitively know. We can surmise based on what has happened to others in similar cultural changes, making analogous choices perhaps. While consequences are to some degree predictable, absolute certainty is not ours to have.

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”

So let’s ask a few:

  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that industrial capitalism and consumerism needs reform.
  • Is that needed reform to descend into revolution and chaos as the so-called Protestant Reformation did when the sixteenth century Church required reform from its excesses and faults? Is that reform to be clumsily centralized by a coercive government or localized to the town, the association, the parish, the congregation, the family and the person? Will we learn from the last century’s bloody experiments of “reform” of capitalism with fascist and communist usurpation?
  • It is clear to all honest thinking people that the hedonism and self-absorption of a culture cannot lead anyplace good.
  • Will we regain our footing and recover a culture that seeks happiness planted in the rich soil of wisdom rather than in dissociated pleasure, shallow rooted in ephemera and trifling entertainments and sexual license? Will our inclinations lead to further degradation of the dignity and individual worth of every human life? Will our lives tend towards despair or hope; fear and anger or persistence and courage; bitterness or joy; ignorance or faith; hatred or love; humility or the condemning certainty of the self-righteous? Will we spend our precious time in regrets about the past we cannot change or neglecting the present for the chimera of the future while today is all that we have?

 “As you get older, the questions come down to two or three. How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” David Bowie

The final questions I leave to those much wiser than I.  From Hilaire Belloc’s brilliant book, The Great Heresies, “But sooner or later every human being who thinks at all, everyone not an idiot, is faced by this Problem of Evil; and as we watch the human race trying to think out for itself the meaning of the universe, or accepting Revelation thereon, or following warped and false partial religions and philosophies, we find it always at heart concerned with that insistent question: Why should we suffer? Why should we die?”

And from John Henry Newman: “On my deathbed, issues that agitate me most now will then interest me not at all; objects about which I have intense hope and fear now will then be nothing more than things that happen at the other end of the earth. They will have no life in them, those things that once consumed me. They will be as faded flowers of a bouquet that do nothing but mock me. What will it avail me to have been rich or great or fortunate or honored or influential?”

 Can’t help but wonder what’s happenin’ to my companions
Are they lost or are they found?
Have they counted the cost it’ll take to bring down
All their earthly principles they’re gonna have to abandon?”
  Bob Dylan, “Slow Train”

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Noise

 “There is a silent self within us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent: it can’t be spoken. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it. Our culture is geared in many ways to help us evade any need to face this inner, silent self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

Webb Lake wall panelsSteve Griffin, owner of Island Carpentry, has done much precise, beautiful work in our house in Middletown. We have come to know and value Steve’s friendship. Last year when he directed the installation and did the carpentry to install our gas fireplaces, he built a box over the mantle of one of them to mount our television. Bartering for our replaced electric kitchen stove, Steve’s wife, Mary Ann, created with Steve a four panel door to hide the box. Using old photographs Rita gave her, she painted a composite scene of our many summers spent in a rented old camp on Webb Lake in Weld, ME. This week she finished.

One of the many gifts Webb Lake gave us was solace and silence, especially early in the morning when the lake was mirror calm. I’m an early morning riser and have been for at least fifty years. Silence for private time, prayer and reading that leads to reflection and meditation is a before dawn activity for me, as it was on Webb Lake in the canoe. Here it is birdsong and sometimes the distant, muted foghorn in Newport Harbor which carries in the pre-dawn stillness. Is there anything more grand than that first cup of coffee in the sunroom looking out over the garden, the eighteenth century stone wall and Rhode Island Nursery across the lane? As Thomas Merton wrote, “our culture is geared…to help us evade any need to face (our) inner, silent self.” Yet this “inner, silent self” is where we most need to wander at leisure if we ever expect to find our peace, our self-knowledge, our connection.

“We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. We are more or less there.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

To Merton’s constant semi-attention in the last few decades, we’ve layered on omnipresent emails, texts, Facebook, Snapchat, Tweets, YouTube, television with a thousand channels, Pandora, videos and video games on demand, the insistent phones on our belt and on and on.  And on.  We don’t have to do much to completely avoid our silent, inner selves and the meaning of our increasingly preoccupied lives. In truth, we seek commotion: for after all, within those distractions persists our ability to avoid what we truly need to engage. For the ‘unexamined’ life is frenetically busy, exhausting even, but on the surface painless, while vaguely troubling underneath is a deep discontent like a tumor without symptoms yet. Without recognizing our core, what is left wanting, and what change is prerequisite to peace, we are left without a center at rest. Human beings are born with restless hearts, with a hole in the center. Do we seek what will truly heal it or do we squander our time by obfuscating with the deluge of stimuli?

” A great strong wind was rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire the sound of a gentle blowing. When Elijah heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold a voice came to him and said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  1 Kings 19: 11-13

“What are you doing here?” is the only relevant question we all must answer.

Garden 2016As I was going through the painstaking process of pulling the disassembled tomato support cages from the ceiling joists of the shed, straightening out the bent members, cobbling them back together for one more year and erecting them around this season’s hope for red tomatoes, Rita remarked to me that I was a patient gardener. I have never thought of myself as particularly patient; Type A, driving for perfection, impatient with myself especially. But times and souls change, especially when we spend the time to fill the hole in the middle.

I realized planting the last of the pole beans, the yellow bush beans and peas today with Gianna and Ellie, our two oldest granddaughters, that the hours pass quickly. We laugh, teach, learn and plant. They tell us where to put the pumpkins and sunflowers, their favorites. We can also be quiet together. Gianna is eight and now is the official reader of seed packets, discerning depth and spacing. Why are cucumber and the various kinds of squash planted in rings called hills? Why are some seeds planted an inch deep, and some only a quarter inch? Why is the squirrel eating the new corn and cucumber sprouts? If we see the baby rabbits out there in the garden, will I turn into Mr. McGregor?

I further realize that the overriding sensation of the garden in the sun with sore muscles, dirty feet, red knees and calloused hands is contentment, deep, abiding contentment. And that is enough.

“We are not fully present and not fully absent; not fully withdrawn, yet not completely available. We just float along in the general noise which drowns out the deep, secret and insistent demands of the inner self.” Thomas Merton, Love and Living.

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