Category Archives: Personal and family life

Snow Ball Fights: Passion and Peril

“The aging process has you firmly in its grasp if you never get the urge to throw a snowball.” Doug Larson

800px-Rhode-island-mapIn the beginning, there were snowball fights after every storm, even though they presently are illegal in eight towns in Rhode Island, including nearby Newport and Jamestown. Not illegal here in Portsmouth, however, our town has a long history of dissent and rebellion against unjust laws and was founded in 1638 by Anne Hutchinson and others who wanted freedom from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Portsmouth was the site of the largest Revolutionary War[i] battle in Rhode Island. After the French Navy assisting in the effort to free Newport from the occupying British Army were scattered by a huge two-day storm and limped back to Boston to regroup and repair, the colonials were forced to withdraw.

The British occupying Newport attempted to overwhelm the Colonial Army retreating from Aquidneck Island. A series of bloody, but ultimately indecisive skirmishes with the British and their Hessian mercenaries were fought on August 29, 1778, on nearby Turkey Hill and behind stone walls that still exist on Quaker Hill where our home is now. Some mornings I’m struck with the realization that desperate men fought and died right here to help defend our freedom.  After successfully holding off the attacks, General Greene’s troops were then able to evacuate in an orderly manner and without further loss back to the mainland in North Tiverton.  But I digress.

Snowball fights in Portsmouth have so far escaped the oversight of the town ordinances, however, I think there is a state law on the books that prohibits throwing snowballs at a moving car, an offense which is punishable by up to a year in prison. I have not heard of it ever being enforced. Late last week two approximately five-year-old boys recklessly broke the law, but we declined to charge them. We were driving on Wapping Road to get to our walk along Second Beach and view the aftermath of the morning snowstorm when the two miscreants jumped up on the old stone wall behind which they had been hiding and accompanied by loud, wild war cries, let fly. Fortunately, we survived intact as the missiles fell about fifty feet short of their intended target.

Rita warned me about the attack after we had passed by them. I might have pursued the villains, but she talked me out of it. I wanted to tell them that leading the moving car properly was the key to success. Throw ahead of it and let the car run into the trajectory of a well-timed strike. As I remember when we often threw at cars and trucks as kids, at least half the thrill was being chased by our victims after we pummeled their vehicles.  The second key to success throwing snowballs at cars is not to do it from your parent’s yard and flee as soon as the brake lights go bright. I should have stopped and conducted some much-needed advance training.

We spent many determined hours building snow forts preparing for battle in the plowed embankments of our street while growing up in Massachusetts when snows were more frequent and deeper. Elaborate ramparts, observation, and attack towers and after a big storm, we could burrow some escape tunnels. If one of our architectural wonders caught my father’s eye, occasionally he would help after he got home from work and finish hardening the citadel with buckets of water to ice it up solidly. Construction was followed by many hours of snowball fights until the early winter sunsets overtook us and mothers called us home. Most frequently our retreats under cover of darkness were as indecisive as the Battle of Rhode Island and we withdrew in an orderly manner, tired, wet, and cold, but without further damage.

A second big thrill of our winter was sliding down Killer Hill on sleds both manufactured and improvised. The hill never killed any of us to my knowledge, but one naïve young friend broke his leg after we dared him to try it in a barely controllable flying saucer. Teddy struck the big oak tree at the bottom of the hill smack on at about two hundred miles an hour. Or so it seemed. As we ran down to help him, we were terrified that by challenging hapless Teddy, we had justified the name of the hill.

We never outgrow our primal impulse for snowball fights. One favorite was a memorable encounter at the UMass Amherst. The grand evening began as we slid down one of the steep slopes on campus on sturdy plastic trays purloined from the cafeteria.  Well before social media crowd sourcing, a big storm drew two large rival men’s dormitories out into the cold with very little provocation. We clashed in a major battle after the six-inch heavy, wet, snowstorm provided like a godsend the makings for perfect snowballs – must have been at least a hundred guys on a side.

One splinter company broke off and tried an ill-advised assault on a sizeable women’s dorm. The besieged occupants wisely stayed behind their stout red brick walls. Laughing and pointing at the pitiful attackers, they could be seen in sweatshirts and bathrobes through the windows strategizing their defense. The attacking force was easily repelled with wastepaper buckets of ice-cold water, poured like boiling, flaming oil from the parapets upon the hordes.

Eventually, campus police sent a couple of troopers in a patrol car to break up the conflict. The cops remained safely in their mobile unit when two hundred snowballs released on a count of three buried their car. Since there was little risk of a riot breaking out, they drove back to their warm office shaking their fists and laughing. Cold hands, undone papers due in the morning, and the late hour quelled the ardor of the combatants, and we retired back to our rooms to nurse our wounds and fire up the illegal hotplates to make hot chocolate and coffee.  I learned it is very difficult to evade a hundred snowballs thrown in unison.

“Every man should lose a battle when he is young, so he doesn’t lose a war when he is old.” George R Martin

[i] Battle of Rhode Island

Illustration by: Michel Capitaine du Chesnoy, A.d.C. du Général LaFayette, Public Domain, Wikipedia

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Christmas Letter 2021

                                                                                                                          

“Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,

Lead Thou me on!

The night is dark, and I am far from home,

Lead Thou me on!

Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see

The distant scene; one step enough for me.”                                                                     

St. John Henry Newman                                                                                         

Christmas 2021

NativityA rainy December Saturday is the perfect time for reflection and to get a short Christmas letter together. We said last goodbyes to some good friends in 2021, three in the last two months. We’ll miss their company and just knowing they are there. We’ve joined in prayer for each that they have been welcomed home. “Well done, My good and faithful servant.” Each one was unique and precious and unrepeatable and irreplaceable. As we turn the corner into our fourth quarter century, this Christmas and end of year season, natural for reflection, has special poignancy.

Not to lapse too deeply into Irish maudlin, but at nearly seventy-six, we are mindful that the road ahead is nowhere near as long as that which is receding in the rearview mirror. This stretch of road is not a regret; but as Bill Belichick would tell us, “It is what it is.” We benefit greatly from the perspective of how dear each new sunrise is. Another Belichick aphorism is, “You are what your record says you are.” Again, not as troubling as it once might have been. Well into our eighth decade, what once seemed so critical to happiness, success, keeping score, and keeping on track has simplified and become less frantic, more at peace: small acts of kindness are not so small, a smile from a stranger, a smile from a friend, a smile from our beloved so much more meaningful. And each of you ever more significant to us.

Our former pastor at St. Patrick Church on Smith Hill in Providence, Father James, presided over one such funeral this week. He reminded us that happiness comes not from temporal achievements or the praise of others or the accumulation of stuff or success at bending the will of others. Happiness is derived from virtue, wonderment and gratitude. Wonderment at the true and beautiful that envelops us with natural marvels and good companions for the journey. Gratitude in our hearts as often as we can gather it to ourselves. None of it limited by time.

We have much to be grateful for surrounded by the wonder of natural things here on Aquidneck Island. Not the spectacular Colorado mountains where we lived so many years ago or the mountains and lakes of Maine where we lived many years after that, but the salt marshes, farmland and wooded trails, and, of course, the river and the ocean beaches. We scarce can take it in.

And more. So much more. Four grown children who have made many more good choices than lamented ones and matured into decent, loving human beings. Seven grandchildren from one to thirteen, each rare and wonderful with their own grace, eccentricities, goofiness, wonder of life, and childlike beauty. A parish church we can walk to with plenty to keep us spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally well-nourished with purposeful activity, friendships, worship, and life. And our greatest blessing right here in our two-bedroom downsized bungalow: fifty-five years shared together in our cherished marriage next month. The radiant heat from the woodstove heats our home on blustery cold New England winter days, and plenty of wood is cut and split in the woodshed. Twinkling, joyful, brightly colored lights around the doors, in the windows, and along the rail of the deck. The wooden creche made for us with careful attention by Rita’s Dad and filled with the exquisite ceramic figures of the Nativity made by Jack’s mother so many years ago.

Life is full here in Portsmouth.

Let us resolve to be makers of peace, gratitude and love for one another; may we be welcoming havens for each other and unafraid of the future and not regretful of the past. God is good.

God’s blessings on you and yours and a most Merry Christmas,       

 Love in Christ,

—– Psalm 46:10     Be still and know that I am God —–

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All of Nature is God’s Art

“All of Nature is God’s Art”  Attributed to Dante Alighieri.

“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”  Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Norman Bird SanctuaryA local townsperson from forty or so years ago in Mount Vernon, Maine, taught in the English Department at the University of Maine. She grumbled to us once at one of her parties that the brilliant fall gold and red display of maples and birch and poplar was disturbingly garish, a vulgar excess that lures the tourists. The leaf peepers travel by the busload to northern New England and upstate New York each year to gawk and to raise the rates in the hotels and restaurants, filling the hospitality business gaps between the summer lakes splendor and the ski season. The leaf colors are enabled by the slow final ruin of the chlorophyll [ii]at summer’s end. The splendid trees benefit the local economy, but their beauty backs up the lines at the breakfast haunts of the regulars, so I understand her peevish response. Small inconvenience, really, though, and a good trade off anytime.

I have come also to appreciate more the muted burnt umber and crimsons of the late oaks and the more refined yellows of the beeches of late fall. The maples, ashes, birch, and poplar have abandoned their now brown leaves to lawns, gutters on our house, and forest floors. The oaks too slowly give up their summer, and the winter branches appear with their intricacy, delicacy, order, design, and strength displaying ever more clearly. The latent beauty in the structure of the tree emerges, the form developed year over year, cell by cell, a miracle of biology and geometry and design. Rarely in nature are purpose, structure, and function unrelated; what serves beauty, serves also for essence, form, and survival. The winter sky provides a perfect backdrop to feature the winter bare tree branches. As much as I take delight in the fragile spring green and flowers, the lush summer foliage, and the autumn brilliance, the spare precision of the naked branches is most welcome. Their quiet and deep peace signal the annual winter retreat.

“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”  Galileo Galilei   

Ellie's winter tree in pastelsIt has been written that the Holy Spirit is the Love proceeding from the Father and the Son within the Community of Love that is the Trinity of the Godhead.  One of the key stories in the Christmas narratives occurs when Mary comes to help her also pregnant cousin after Mary began carrying the Christ child within her. In the presence of the baby Jesus, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; she was participating in the mysterious inner life of God. Human beings as their most noble calling possess the capacity to share in that inner life.

So how do these seemingly unrelated thoughts connect to the fall displays in New England and our capacity to be taken by them?  I suggest this: that human beings possess the power of creating beauty and appreciating natural beauty by the same capacity that was imbued in them as being made in the “image and likeness of God.” This capacity is not simply a function of neurons and synapses but is spiritual in its origins; our relation to beauty is miracle.

An eleven-year-old girl[iii] has the same spiritual capacity as Michelangelo or Da Vinci or you and me.Ellie's chipmunk None of us likely has the same degree or skill or eye, but the capacity for beauty exists by our nature. Imago Dei, in the Image of God, are undeserved gifts to us in our nature and our souls. The senses are there; the mind is there; the heart is there; the soul is there for all of us.

Let us rejoice and wonder and be grateful as our eyes, our hearts and our souls are full.

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. Anne Frank, “The Diary of a Young Girl”

[ii] As the days shorten and the nights lengthen at the end of the summer, this signals the trees to create an abscission layer which hardens the tender ends of the twigs to protect them when the leaves finally fall. This response to the diminishing light cuts off the supply of nutrients necessary to replenish the chlorophyll in the leaves. When it stops replenishing, the leaf begins to die. Chlorophyll constantly breaks down as it participates in the photosynthesis that produces nutrients for the tree and remarkably replenishes the sweet air that we sense near them as the photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide and water on the input side and “exhales” pure oxygen along with the glucose that provides the tree with all its energy. Chlorophyll also makes the leaves green. As it breaks down toward the end of the season, the carotenoids and anthocyanins show forth. Carotenoids were present all summer but were masked by the power of the green. In the fall, they get to show off their stuff before the leaves wither and fall.

[iii] Drawings by Elena Barek, who is eleven. Granddaughter with an eye, a heart, and a soul. Winter tree in pastels and Chipmunk in pencil.

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Well Scripted

laurielipton_brave_new_world“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World[i]

Back in the mists of the early seventies for about a year I was a correspondent for a regional daily paper in Boston. I remember well the cigarettes smoldering in our ashtrays and cold coffee and typewriters at eleven at night trying to beat a deadline with coverage of a local town’s selectmen or planning committee meeting or a story about a local politician’s failings. Two fingered typing rapidly to fit in with the newsroom – men typed two fingered staccato; women reporters used all ten. They were faster.

The editor was young, male, and long haired, as was I. He wielded a good red pencil and sharpened our writing skills. He was also an ideologue who made it clear that stories favoring progressive issues would be given a pulpit; those that did not would suffer a brutal red pencil until we left out anything favoring opposing opinions. We took the message quickly to heart without it ever being clearly stated. It was not that we fabricated facts, but that we selected those facts that helped the cause and neglected those that didn’t. Since at that time I was sympathetic with the editor, I found no fault with the editing.

One of my most vivid memories of the job is a phone call I received from the wife of a planning committee member and local prominent conservative with whom I had had some run ins. Her husband was a condescending patrician with his reading glasses normally perched on top of his fashionably cut blond head and possessed of an expensive private school whiny drawl. I’d long harbored an aversion to the type. As he was a local developer, I found a conflict of interest in his decisions and comments during meetings when they jumped another builder through many hoops. The applicant was a rival of my planning board guy and was trying to get a subdivision approved that would compete with one in which the committee member was selling lots. Predictably, in my judgmental crusader persona, I savaged him in a couple of articles while my editor cheered me on.

His wife called my home, not screaming, but hurt, outraged, and in tears about the generous unpaid long hours and expertise that her husband graciously donated for the well-being of the town. And how could I do that to him and tell those lies so publicly? I didn’t understand his refined nature or his decency and goodness. Now, I didn’t share her view of him, but she did whole heartedly believe it.

I learned viscerally that while I was feeling self-righteous and clever, real people were affected and embarrassed. She was a good-natured, unpretentious woman with whom I had shared pleasantries before at an event; she thought we got along well. My ideological convictions conflicted with my feelings. But I soldiered on, nonetheless. My facts were right. The goals of my ideology overtrumped my emotions. The ends justified any necessary means. If I could short circuit the nascent political career of this man, well, all’s fair. Objective journalism was not my intent, nor my ideal. I may have been able to string together cogent sentences, but I was a bad reporter.[ii]

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not free –to be under no physical constraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel and act.” Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A Gallup poll[iii] this week chronicled the level of public trust in the media (or rather the lack thereof). It was the second lowest such poll ranking for this metric on record. Journalists compete for truth telling trustworthiness with back of the truck health supplement hawkers. Thirty six percent of the public retains a “great deal of” (a meager7%) or a “fair level of” (29%) trust that what they read in the newspapers or see in their evening news is reliable and accurate. Which, of course, means that sixty four percent do not trust what they read or see to be truthful, unbiased, and free from ideological distortion. The breakdown is more revealing: thirty one percent of independents, eleven percent of Republicans, and sixty eight percent of Democrats have confidence that what they see and hear in the mainstream media (MSM) is honest and factual. That seems to show that Democrats are dimwitted, incredibly credulous, or that their confirmation bias is operating on full wattage. I believe the last explanation to be most likely among them.

Other data show that over ninety percent of MSM reporters and editors that contribute to political campaigns contribute to Democrats and progressive causes. The seemingly obvious conclusion is that what we read and hear and see that passes for news is progressive indoctrination – we are regularly and consistently submitting to what Huxley called a “conditioned” state. No doubt this suits sixty eight percent of Democrats just fine. And sixty nine percent of independents and eighty nine percent of Republicans are not happy about it.

But the indoctrination gets worse, much worse. More to follow in the next post.

“The question is whether privileged elites should dominate mass-communication, and should use this power as they tell us they must, namely, to impose necessary illusions, manipulate and deceive the stupid majority, and remove them from the public arena” Noam Chomsky

[i] [Image credit: (“DELUSION DWELLERS”, charcoal & pencil on paper, ©Laurie Lipton)]

[ii] I was not a bad reporter because I was telling lies – I was not. I was not a bad reporter because I was deterred by the hurt feelings of a subject – I was not. I was a bad reporter because I allowed my ideology to determine my subjects and the facts that I chose to include and not to include. There were plenty of other target subjects available and plenty of other facts. As the cliché goes, watching local politics is a target rich environment. But I focused that week on this planning committee member because I didn’t like his politics.

[iii] October 7 Gallup poll on the public’s trust of the media.

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I Met a Guy

“But how could you live and have no story to tell?”  Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights

Hope - Flower in a parched landHow many of our stories start with “I met a guy?” Just as this one will. We were in the backyard of my daughter’s home in California earlier this spring during a birthday block party and cookout in the cul-de-sac out front for a neighbor turning ninety. One of their neighbors drifted in to see some of the yard improvements completed to adapt to the needs of two small active girls during a pandemic. Rodney’s daughter came as well, and the three girls ran helter-skelter testing the limits of swings, water tables, trapezes, trampolines, and slides. While the children joyfully yelped and played, we became acquainted in the way strangers sometimes do in unplanned encounters.

He was a tall African immigrant with an open demeanor and a pleasant face well accustomed to an easy smile. In early remarks, Rodney told me he was a field implementer for a large software company who pre-COVID travelled frequently to help customers install their manufacturing and business controlling software. He educated owners, trained managers, and taught line employees how to get the most out of their expensive investment.

I told him I had worked with folks like him and been involved several times in my career with traumatic “go live” transitions to new company operating systems. We agreed immediately that the most vexing challenge was employee resistance to the whole trying process of redoing almost every aspect of how everyone does their job, accesses the data they need, and controls what they need to control. Even if their old operating system was obsolete and nearly useless, line employees and managers developed their own “work arounds” for its deficiencies and were comfortable with, proud of, and dependent on those accommodations. His is a tough job. A positive outcome, despite huge investment and commitment from owners, is not guaranteed and can fail, causing no end of unhappy employers and employees.

We struck a quick and mutual understanding with that short, comfortable chat, and he decided to open the door to a deeper conversation, for which I will be grateful for a long time. Rodney emigrated from the United Kingdom when he enrolled at Boston University, majoring in finance. After graduating, he took a job with Fidelity researching corporations and evaluating potential investments. He told me he was disheartened in an aggressive and highly competitive position; after three years of difficult paid post graduate education in the ways of business, he found a new job as a trainer and manufacturing software implementation project manager and enjoyed it. All a typical exploratory career path story — understandable given his laid back, sunny personality, and obvious strong communication skills. He relished engaging with real people and helping them.

Then came the rest of the story. He grew up in a prosperous home in Uganda, one of twelve children of three wives, and the son of the man who occupied the desk analogous to the one held by the Chairperson of the Fed in the United States. His father’s boss was Idi Amin, one the cruelest of African dictators and a murderous psychopath[i]. Complicating his position, his father remained grandfathered in his job from when his tribe and religion (Catholicism) had held sway prior to the coup and takeover by Amin’s tribe and Muslim religion. He precariously balanced there for a while due to his merit, experience, and profound understanding of the complexities of currency and finance.

Rodney explained to me that in Uganda, as in many African countries, tribe and religion were defining characteristics that established all relationships. If your tribe and religion were in power, your job, lifestyle, prosperity, and social position were comfortable. Corruption is a given, and to survive you must acquiesce in it. If you were not well connected to the current government, you were lucky to feed and shelter your family at a subsistence level. When politics and power changed hands, often violently, prospects could transform overnight, not just those at the head of the government, but everyone down the line.

Amin accepted Rodney’s father because of his reputation and skills, but incrementally ratcheted up pressure to increase the money supply and leverage in an inflationary, ruinous manner to fund Amin’s vision of power, armaments, and control. Rodney’s father advised, cajoled, and ultimately refused to ruin the country’s economy. Shortly afterwards, he was disappeared. Rodney never saw his father or two of the wives again. His own mother and all twelve of the children fled in the middle of the night with the clothes on their backs, running for their lives. He was ten years old.

They shuttled from sanctuary to sanctuary in small Catholic parishes, traveling on foot always at night for several hundred miles until they finally crossed into Kenya and found relative safety in a crowded refugee camp. For the next year, they met with authorities and worked to find a permanent home. Several times his mother was offered the option to split up the children – four to the UK, four to Canada, and four to Australia. Each time she insisted that they stay together. Eventually her determination won out, and they emigrated intact to England. From there he rebuilt his life, pursued his education, and began his career, eventually meeting his wife in the United States, and together settling with their children in California.

“Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”  Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993

When next I am tempted to self-pity or whining about some petty inconvenience or slight, I will recall his story. Rodney’s inner joy, trust, and upbeat demeanor are not put on, nor is it a pollyannish denial of the cruelty and alienation inflicted so often on the defenseless. He has seen it in person. Not flimsy optimism, but hope, and hope as a virtue and a soul deep choice in how he faces forward each day.

We talked for another half hour or so. He remains a practicing Catholic, and his faith and trust is not just a Sunday habit; he has a devotion to the Eucharist that sustains and strengthens him. He and his wife volunteer at a local refugee center affiliated with his parish, ministering as best they can to the flood of immigrants, documented and otherwise, that live in Southern California. The distress and fear he encounters do not dishearten him; they ennoble him.

The previous week a Somalian[ii] man came to him for help pursuing a refugee status. Should he be deported back to Somalia, where persecution and murder of Catholics and other Christians is commonplace, he would most likely be killed and die in a prolonged and painful way.

Somehow the Somalian had cobbled together enough for an unorthodox plane ticket and managed passage to Brazil in an overcrowded plane. Once in Brazil and COVID desolation, he found no further aid or direction for a new life, so he started walking. And how he walked. He walked through the rest of South America to Columbia, crossing each perilous border. Pressing ever northward, he traversed the entire span of Central America: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and finally across the heavily guarded border into Mexico. At every juncture, he risked prison, deportation, further exploitation, or death – foraging for food along the way – over 4,300 miles. Once in Mexico, there followed another 1,900 miles of dusty, hot roads through that dangerous country, always headed toward his dreamt about promised land of the United States. Rodney told me that after he and his wife heard the harrowing details, they arranged for another friend, an attorney, to try and help the distressed man stay, but his new friend’s security is far from assured. Rodney told me that he had to leave the room soon afterwards so his tears could not be seen.

Rodney told me if ever he ever went back to Uganda, he would necessarily have to adapt to living a corrupt life of bribery and kickbacks as the only means of survival, so absent unimaginable cultural transformation there, he will never again return to the magnificent geography and biological diversity of the land of his birth. 

Remarkably, he carries no burden of bitter resentments over the murder of his father or the ordeal of hundreds of miles of fear filled night walking. He nurtures only gratitude for the strength and courage of his mother and the help given along the way of their desperate pilgrimage by poor rural parishioners risking their lives to provide shelter. The opportunity and promised freedom in the country that adopted him drew them ever onward, was real, and they made it[iii]. And our country is better for welcoming him.

 Most especially, he treasures the miracles of his wife, his family, and the faith that saw him through. He is compelled by love to give back some of the love he received and serve those who are suffering similar calamities. He recognizes in them a yearning for freedom, a yearning with which he can empathize in his heart as few others can.  

“The theological virtue of hope is the patient and trustful willingness to live without closure, without resolution, and still be content and even happy because our Satisfaction is now at another level, and our Source is beyond ourselves.”  Richard Rohr

[i] Supreme Commander/President Amin assumed control Uganda in a military coup in 1971 when his military record of corruption was about to be investigated by the first Milton Obote administration. One of Amin’s favorite methods of “fraternal correction” was personally administered with a three-pound hammer, which he would wield with his strong arm until there were very few square inches of unpulped flesh left on the poor soul being disciplined. Or the screams stopped. Whichever came first. During his reign of terror, Uganda was appointed to join the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, joining China, Russia, Pakistan and other stalwarts of human freedom.

[ii] Persecution of Christians in Somalia: https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/somalia/

[iii] The latest Homeland Security data compiled through 2019 shows over 549,000 immigrants from African nations were granted permanent resident (green card) status in the United States from 2015 to 2019, and an additional 816,000 primarily minority green card holders from Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti. At an average of 1.1 million total green cards issued per year, just these two predominantly black demographic areas account for about 25% of all new legal permanent residents in that five-year period. Apparently both the immigrants and immigration officials seem to be blissfully unaware of the “systemic racism” for which the U.S. is so often condemned in academic lounges and political rallies. https://www.dailysignal.com/2021/05/13/coming-to-america-africans-caribbeans-flock-to-systemically-racist-us/

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Maximum Benefit, Minimum Wage (Part One)

“The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.” Elbert Hubbard

The greatest legacy from my parents was watching them do their jobs, whether that was in a formal workforce or at home. They did not raise any lazy kids. We were all blessed with a variety of humble jobs when we were young. For me, I started as a paperboy, then shoveling snow for neighborhood driveways. After caddying at the local nine-hole golf course for a summer, I had a relatively miserable weekend job bagging groceries at the grocery store in the center of our small town.

 I enjoyed much more some side cash jobs cleaning dead bugs off and waxing airplanes at the local airport, splitting the per plane fee with my friend, and unloading railroad cars piecework with the same friends on weekends for a local lumber wholesaler. All cash jobs. Boxcars fully loaded with fir gutters were the hardest challenge to “break the car” (get started by sliding all the way into the car on your back at the top to kick out to your buddy the first few forty-foot pieces jammed up against the roof.)  OSHA and Department of Labor enforcement and the nanny state was not as omnipresent then. We learned about planning to attack the load and how to remove splinters from various parts of our anatomy.

Next followed by a wonderful six weeks before turning sixteen on a dairy farm during haying season. A buck an hour cash in an envelope on Friday evening – never – before or after – was I richer. We would follow a relentlessly moving flat wood trailer being pulled by a slow-moving tractor, passing bales of hay from the rows on the field to the foreman, who stacked them high. When the trailer was stacked high, we hopped on the back to ride to the barn. We then reversed the process, handing the bales up to the foreman in the barn to be stacked for winter forage. Going home sunburned and covered in itchy hay dust and sweat after a day in the company of similarly tired, affable friends, I do not know if I have ever since experienced as full a sense of pride, job satisfaction, and a foretaste of manhood.

When I turned sixteen, the work rules allowed me to get an “on the books” job that my dad lined up for me through a friend at a local family-owned fence company, paying minimum wage of $1.25 an hour. A quarter more an hour than haying, but much less after taxes. It is the first job that shows still on my social security history statement. I worked there summers and weekends through the rest of high school and my first two years of college. Over the many years since, the indelible lessons learned there and on those early jobs helped form me for tree climbing arborist jobs, truck driving, newspaper reporting, and ultimately lumberyard work from the bottom up in a millwork shop to executive jobs managing multiple yards with hundreds of employees.

 “We work to become, not to acquire.” Elbert Hubbard

The fence company was a small conglomerate run by a father, Vito, and three sons, Bobby, George, and Dickie (affectionately nicknamed “Space” for his cranial volume without any noticeable filler). Vito’s brother, Crazy Charlie, hung around and lived up to his name. Charlie enjoyed bossing everyone about without any defined authority to do so. Bobby ran the fence company, although his handsome visage, easy charm, and capacity to party occupied his most focused attention. He was as likeable a character as one could hope to meet. Bobby was very competent to run the place when he chose to do so. Bobby was a good friend to the Songin brothers, one of whom frequently stopped by the shop. Butch, Queey, and Harold were local sports heroes and gifted natural athletes. All of them played minor league professional hockey with the old Providence Reds. Butch was the star hockey player, although all three were very good. Butch was also the first quarterback for the old Boston Patriots before they had their own stadium.

George was the most visibly competent of the owner’s sons and built sound houses, which he framed himself; he was even tempered and a good trainer. Dicky was, well, he was Dicky, and he installed swimming pools, paved driveways, and occasionally had a contract for a tar and gravel commercial roof. While I spent most of my time at the fence company, the workflow for the family businesses sometimes moved us to framing houses with George or paving driveways with Dicky for a week or two. I especially liked nailing off spruce roof board sheathing for George and the challenge of humping bundles of roof shingles two at a time up a ladder.

“No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

The fence company, though, was the incubator for many skills. My first job was dipping fence posts in the creosote bucket buried in the ground next to the wood drip drying rack. Both the rack and the buried bucket have long been EPA banned, and the stuff permanently stained blue jeans and boots in a few hours. I soon moved up to feeding the other end of the posts into one of two also now OSHA banned machines by hand. One was a high-speed router that we would spin the posts into to cap them with an eased edge all around. No guards or impediments to touching the blades should one be careless. The second post cap machine was a heavy honed blade on an eccentric wheel that turned the longer posts for picket fences into a semi sharpened rough design like a pencil sharpened with a pocketknife. The machine ran like an automated guillotine, and we would feed and turn the post until all sides were hit. I never witnessed anyone feeding an arm into the thing, but there was nothing to prevent someone from doing so.

I learned to run the press to drill properly spaced holes into the posts according to the size of the fence they were to accommodate. Different spacing for different heights with marks on the table as visual stops to position the top of the post. Small posts had two. Over four feet high had three holes or six at right angles for corner posts. Posts for the middle of the line were drilled through. End posts stopped halfway. After a week or two, I learned all the jobs and could perform them reasonably efficiently as needed to produce enough pieces a day to keep the boss happy.

Making the fence panels was a step up. I learned to properly crown the rails with the flat side up and fit their doweled ends into a slotted metal table with the proper spacing for each panel height. We placed the cedar pickets and hand nailed them on with six penny galvanized nails. Twenty-two-ounce framing hammer. One stroke to set the nail, and one to put it away flush.  The key to speed was the left hand feeding the nails, a skill that was also essential to nailing off George’s roof boards later. One to set, one to put the nail flush without dinging the picket. Spin and set up the next nail between your fingers with the head ready while the right hand swung with power. Six nails to a picket to fix it to all three rails. Each picket was about three inches wide, so an eight-foot fence panel needed about thirty leaving small spaces between them and the doweled end of the rail left unpicketed to slide into the posts during installation.

Spread the pickets a bit at the top because there was a slight taper from the bottom to the top of the picket so that they stayed plumb.  A hundred and eighty nails approximately a panel. One to set, one to put it away. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Spin the nail. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Four or five panels an hour. Feed smooth with the left-hand fingers. Tap, bang. Tap, bang. Arm strength builds up until there is no more soreness at the end of the day. Find the rhythm. Keep focused and the day goes by with concentration, not distraction. Eye hand coordination developed to perform the work without destroying your feed hand. Immediate gratification when I pulled a finished panel off the table and stacked it ready for the job site trucks. Find the rhythm. Spin, tap, bang. Spin, tap, bang.

The next summer I was the second man on a field crew working for Elmer, the most experienced and talented crew chief. You were lucky to get one outing with Elmer. If he perceived any laziness, you never got a second. I was fortunate to work the whole summer for him and weekends after school started again. I learned to dig post holes narrow and thirty inches deep through New England rocky clay soil with a sharpened bar, shovel, and post hole hand scoop digger. Secure the posts in plumb and true with a homemade welded tamper. Nail in the panels. Hang the gates. When I turned eighteen, I ran my own crew and drove the truck to the sites. We were paid by the foot installed with a varying rate for type of fence and extra for gates. A hundred and fifty feet a day, and I made an adult’s weekly wage in the summer, a wage capable, if full time, of supporting a small family or paying fall tuition with a summer’s work. Not minimum wage anymore and never again in my life. I could install a fence today without a hitch, albeit a lot slower.

In those early jobs I learned to wield framing hammers and sledgehammers, five or six different kinds of power saws and handsaws, hatchets, wrenches, shovels, picks, a welding torch, and various types of drills – power and hand bit braces, even a machete and many more. But the more important skills were even more transferrable to becoming an adult: how to get up in the morning every day and get to work on time. How to cooperate and get along with co-workers of all personality types, intelligence levels, and moods. What it is like to work for a great mentor and boss. What it is like to work for an unreasonable, volatile, self-important tyrant, who sometimes throws hammers. How to persevere through occasional twelve-hour days and sixty-hour, six-day weeks in reasonably good spirits, resolute. How to solve a hundred problems a week. How to satisfy unhappy customers, even when they are clearly in the wrong. How to supervise and motivate, encourage, train, discipline, and praise authentically. And maybe most importantly to value and respect the work and those who do the work. So many lessons.

There is no substitute for what we learn in those early jobs.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”  Plato

 

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Sufficient Wisdom

“It takes a husbandman with spade and hoe

To teach the learned, who profess to know…”

       from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” in the eponymous book of poems by Father Arthur MacGillivray S.J., 1943, Bruce Humphries, Inc., Boston

 

Robert Frost and Father MacGillivray on right

Someone once told me that part of all of us remains nineteen for the rest of our lives, which I think is true. For many in my generation, that time of greatest disillusionment and the shock of early adulthood occurred in 1968 in the terrible three months of the assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy. For other unfortunates, the amber in which they stuck like fossils was the “summer of love” and Woodstock in 1969. For me, at only seventeen years old, it was 1963 outside the book depository in Dallas[i], and my freshman year at Boston College. On the afternoon of the assassination after the university cancelled all the classes, we drifted in the streets of an almost silent Boston, stunned like everyone else. Small eclectic groups of neighbors and strangers gathered around car radios or televisions in homes, bars and shop windows following the events in disbelief.

There are much happier memories though of that year after high school. Father MacGillivray with whom I studied for my first two semesters is one of them[ii]. I was recently reminded of him through a conversation with my brothers about E.B. White, author of beloved children’s books like “Charlotte’s Weband “Stuart Little,” and one of the most accomplished essayists of the American mid twentieth century. We studied White with Father MacGillivray, especially his “Elements of Style” and an extensive analysis of his definitive long essay about the Big Apple, “Here is New York[iii].” To say he opened worlds and gifted us with an irreplaceable formation previously unimagined would be a woeful understatement.

Before we started, we were assigned a freshmen summer reading list, including Thomas Merton’s “Seven Story Mountain,” James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” There was a fourth book, I think, which eludes me.

He was somewhat dramatic with a trained theatrical voice he would employ to great effect doing readings of plays, essays and poetry. On winter mornings, he would sweep around campus in a red lined black cloak greeting all with an ironic smile, sparkling eyes and a friendly nod. We read and analyzed in some depth Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” which we memorized and recited. I still remember parts of it. “I fled Him down the nights and days; I fled Him down the arches of the years: I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter…” .

We studied among many works “Macbeth,” Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man” and the “Road Not Taken.”  We spent almost a month on T.S. Eliot’s[iv] “The Hollow Men,” “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” “Ash Wednesday” and finally “The Wasteland,” many of the allusions in which were wasted on me.

“He seemed to know that all the choicest fruits

Mature by early tugging at the roots,

That once the earth is clear of stick and stone,

‘Tis wisdom to leave well enough alone.” 

          from the poem “Sufficient Wisdom” as above.

 

After a series of emails with my brothers and sister, I grew curious and regretted not having done research earlier. Father MacGillivray had published his own poems in 1943 in his book “Sufficient Wisdom,”  which he never mentioned to us. I learned he had exchanged letters with Eliot and knew Robert Frost well from a series of lectures Frost delivered at the college, facts also previously unknown to me. I found a picture (shown above) of him with Mr. Frost cutting an 82nd birthday cake, which was Frost’s last. The Boston College archives has a book left to it in 2000, when Father MacGillivray died: a first edition of Frost’s inscribed to him and with some lines in Robert Frost’s own blocky hand printing. At first the book generated great excitement, as it was thought the short stanza was an unpublished Frost poem, however it turned out to have been from his earlier work, “Kitty Hawk”:

 

“But God’s own descent

Into flesh was meant

As a demonstration

That the supreme merit

Lay in risking spirit

In substantiation.”

 

Father MacGillivray’s own book was long out of print, but I was able to locate a used copy, which I promptly bought for $12.50, through Abe Books in a small bookstore in Ohio. In wonderful condition with the original dust cover, a first (and probably only) edition, it found its way to Ohio from the library of Admiral Richard Byrd to whom it was inscribed by the author. He met the famous explorer  and Medal  of Honor winner on a train trip to Connecticut in 1956 six months before Byrd’s own death in March of 1957. The inscription in Father MacGillivray’s strong cursive was on the inside flyleaf: “For Admiral Richard E. Byrd with grateful remembrance of our train-meeting on your way to Bridgeport – October 19, 1956, Fr. Arthur MacGillivray, S.J.”  I fantasize a brilliant serendipitous conversation between the two, wiling away the monotony of a three-hour train ride.

 

His poems are full of tree and farming metaphors, of seasons and weather and nature’s gratuitous order and beauty. I will persist as time allows to learn why. I marveled at some of them, harkening back vivid memories five decades old. Father M was a miner of minds. He cunningly and carefully placed his charges and detonated them with perfect timing. When the noise quieted and the dust cleared, he exposed clean veins of insight in the ego encrusted bedrock of our seventeen-year-old selves. Veins that have yet to be exhausted.

A small treasure of a book that I never knew existed. Makes 2020 already a good year.

 

“Every moment and every event of every man’s life on earth plants something in his soul.”

–Thomas Merton

 

[i] I once wrote a blog post on the Kennedy assassination. November 23, 1963, if you have interest. The same day was also the date of the deaths within hours of Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis. That coincidence was the subject of a book I enjoyed by Dr. Peter Kreeft, who is a longtime professor of philosophy at Boston College: Between Heaven and Hell, A Dialogue Somewhere Beyond Death. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Between-Heaven-Hell-Somewhere-Kennedy-ebook/

[ii] The English Literature course with Father M was three of the eighteen credits that were considered full time. For me in addition were a lab biology intensive (my initial major), French, Old Testament theology, Logic as a prelude to Epistemology and Pre-calculus/calculus.

[iii] https://www.amazon.com/Here-New-York-B-White-ebook/

[iv] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/t-s-eliot

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Diner Revisited 2020

Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Art Institute of Chicago

“A poet could write volumes about diners because they’re so beautiful. They’re brightly lit, with chrome and booths and Naugahyde and great waitresses.” David Lynch (Interview with Brian Hiatt in “Food and Wine,” March 2015)

Josef Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, while a million are a statistic. I thought of that this week when I read that New York City restaurants are suing the city for two billion dollars due to the losses incurred by the COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Estimates are that forty-five to fifty percent of restaurants here on Aquidneck Island will not be able to reopen when the dust settles over the corona demolition explosion imposed, necessarily or excessively, by a flourishing bureaucracy. Months, maybe years, and much analysis may determine eventually the wisdom of all the moves. Lives and businesses are holed and many shipwrecked by the torpedoing; some will recover and heal over time. Some will not.

We also heard recently that Reidy’s Family Restaurant in Portsmouth, which closed temporarily in March when the state shut down restaurant dining, will not reopen. Two years ago I posted on this blog a piece titled simply “Diner” on our first visit to Reidy’s and our affection for all good diners. We enjoyed quite a few breakfasts there, especially after Mass on Sunday, so their demise is a bit personal, as it is even more to many others. Crowded, hectic, friendly with a special regard for military veterans and with a crew of regular servers and customers.

While not a ‘regular’ daily visitor as some were for morning coffee and muffin and reading the Newport Daily News, a closed restaurant leaves a hole, especially for the owners, but also for the customers who frequent them and build a stop into their routine. Conversations with other first name regulars, sharing intimacies sometimes not even shared with family. Some of the NYC restaurants signed on for the lawsuit are large corporate affairs, but many are not. However, a place like a fifty something year old local diner has neither the resources nor wherewithal for such legal strategies.

Each such enterprise has an ambiance, carefully designed, or evolved; a vision, someone’s dream and fruit of long, exhausting days and nights. A neighborhood gathering place. Exhilarating days with a collapse into bed afterwards. Hopes rewarded. Years of challenges, disappointments and recoveries, victories, anxiety, and obstacles overcome; persistence rewarded. Friends made with familiar faces. The nearby Dunkin Donuts has a group of its own regulars, who while they cannot yet go inside to their accustomed booth, still gather every morning for an hour or so outside in the parking lot sitting in lawn chairs they haul over in their cars. Reidy’s familiars do not have that option. There is no facility or room for a drive through to sell their great coffee to go. So, what was a large part of a schedule, for some a lonely schedule living alone, is no longer.

As ol’ Joe said, each death is someone’s tragedy, and I wonder today, if with more prudent management and attention to some of the collateral damage from a state bureaucracy and progressive governor,[i] how many of these little deaths were essential to public safety.

“I just feel like the most important conversations I’ve had in my life have been at a diner counter.” Ramy Youssef

[i] The state of Rhode Island despite hour upon hour of public relations daily press conferences is fifth in COVID mortality in the country and worst in the country with over 80% of COVID deaths taking place in nursing homes or assisted living facilities among its most vulnerable when 94% of COVID deaths occur with those having one or more comorbidity factors. All the sanctimonious posturing notwithstanding, the state remains the only state in the northeast still on other area state’s mandatory quarantine list. Meanwhile, so many local businesses are shuttered. It seems the governor paid attention to the wrong vulnerabilities, both among its businesses and citizens.

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Transitions

Guest blog post – Rita Parquette

In the mid-seventies, I worked as an obstetrical nurse in the labor and delivery rooms of Augusta General Hospital in Maine. Post Roe v Wade, the transition was well underway from abortion as a rare medical necessity to save the life of the mother to common. We witnessed the practice grow from rare to wildfire – sixty million in the U.S. since those early days. The near religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby seeking ever fewer constraints placed on killing their offspring, at first was a small minority, but well financed. They rode a wave of ironically named ‘liberation’ and ran over all compunctions and objections. Roe was the most liberal decision regarding abortion in the world at that time.  It allowed abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

During that time, nurses were sometimes demeaned by a few doctors, but they held firm as they were able. One firm stand for many of us was abortion. We observed with justified concern the decreasing empathy and hardening treatment of both mothers and babies from those doctors who shared one characteristic in their practices: they added abortion provider to their resumes. The doctors plying the termination trade were having difficulty finding OR nurses to attend them in the Augusta General operating room in the basement; at one point the head nurse on the upper OB floor asked us to “help out our doctors.” We refused. Our job was healing and preserving, not deliberately taking life. This was not a religious decision, but a humanitarian one and conformed to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

“Those eyes that had hardly opened to the light of the earthly sun forever and ever were closed to the light of the earthly sun…” From “God Speaks,” “Holy Innocents” Charles Peguy

One anecdote remains always vivid in my memory and haunts me to this day, nearly forty-five years later. On a typical busy evening, I was helping two young mothers in labor. We had moved on from the scopolamine doping of women to more humane and dignified obstetrical practices. My practice was to try and calm their fear, then guide them through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.  One of my patients was only about sixteen weeks pregnant, and we had no neo-natal intensive care facilities in Augusta. Optimally we would attempt to arrest her sporadic and weak contractions. Standard practice was to start an IV. Hydration and improved electrolyte balance at times could stop premature labor, and the pregnancy could proceed to term. Not that night.

Dr. R, one of the more zealous of the pro-abortion OB/GYN practitioners, entered the labor room and spoke briefly to the young mother; I was busy with another patient and not privy to the conversation. He then strode over and instructed me curtly to put an ampule of Pitocin into the IV.  Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, which is a natural powerful hormone that induces more rapid and stronger contractions to intensify labor.  We were trying to retard labor or stop it to give the baby her best chance, so I was surprised, then aghast. I refused and told him that if he wanted Pitocin into that IV, he would have to do it himself! We used metal folding clipboards for medical charts. While I was busy standing at the nurse’s high station writing my own notes, he flung this patient’s metal chart about five feet, hard, and hit me on my left side in the ribs. I never saw it coming. Then he added the Pitocin into the IV. The labor intensified.  I was there for the mother and her baby.  I monitored the babies heart beat with a fetal stethoscope and told the mother I was getting a good heart beat and added that information to my notes.

Inevitably she was ready for delivery and wheeled into the delivery room. At this point, Dr. R’s friend, an anesthesiologist entered the scene.  We had many wonderful doctors at our hospital, but Dr. R and this particular anesthesiologist were not among them.   This anesthesiologist’s favorite way to summon a nurse was to whistle with two fingers in his mouth.  He put my patient deeply under, something rarely done because of risk to the newborn infant. The Pitocin accelerated labor, delivery ran its predictable course, and the unconscious mother delivered her tiny baby girl.  Dr. R dropped the baby into a stainless-steel basin nearby normally used to receive the placenta. He finished up quickly and left the delivery room before the mother awoke.

Immediately, a nursery nurse, whom I had already warned about the coming of this small baby, rescued the baby from her cold metal refuse bucket, wrapped and carried her to the newborn warming station where she suctioned her in a futile attempt to clear her breathing passages and stimulate breathing. She then rubbed and did her best to comfort this tiny girl. After over ten minutes without a breath, her heart ceased its beat.  The scene felt surreal to me; I was out of sync with the events and with the doctors – like a dream, a disturbing dream. I did not know what else I could do. Something like this had never happened to me or the other nurse.

Epilogue reflections:

When the mother woke from the anesthesia, I told her that her baby was born with a heartbeat but was unable to breath. Still somewhat drowsy, I tried to comfort her, but she seemed hard to reach.  I think she too might have felt like she was in a surreal world and not sure how she got there.  After her discharge, the mother called a mortician and a funeral was held.  The funeral home director received the doctor’s notes, my nurse’s notes and the notes of the nursery nurse who had done her best for the baby. Both doctors described the little girl as macerated, born dead, indeed they agreed she had been dead for a while. Both sets of nurse’s notes described her true condition. Since medical notes can wind up as legal documents, the funeral director notified the hospital administrator of the discrepancy and conflicting narratives. When the nursing supervisor for our shift came to me for an explanation, I assured her the nurse’s notes were the accurate ones and explained exactly what happened. She gave me a knowing look, and I never heard another word.

A couple of years later, when we had returned to the faith of our youth, I confessed this incident to our pastor, who remains a dear friend to this day. He suggested lovingly that in the circumstances I tried my best and that I needed to forgive myself. Father Joe further suggested that I should name the baby and pray for her mom and for all that had happened around that difficult night.  I named her Gabriella and do pray about this still. I hope to see her again some fine day and have a conversation.

A final related episode comes to mind. The equally troubled nursery room nurse had a discussion with an experienced and humane pediatrician the next day. She explained to him what had happened and asked if we had done the right thing in trying to save her and delivering all the professional care we could muster for that little girl. He smiled sadly and looked into her eyes. He assured her, “Where there is life, there is always hope.”

 “I AM says God, Master of the Three Virtues.  Faith is a faithful wife. Charity is an ardent mother. But Hope is a tiny girl.” “God Speaks, “Hope” Charles Peguy

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Brush Hooks and Plumb Bobs

“The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.” “The Order of Time”, Carlos Rovelli, 2018

In 1972 we lived with our toddler Amy and our infant Gabriel in a winter rental on Mashnee Island at the north end of the Cape Cod Canal across from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We had very little money and an old flat head six-cylinder Chevy pickup truck painted with house paint that we bought in Boulder, Colorado when we lived there. Our next-door neighbor was Fred Cheever, who was in his sixties. John’s brother and Susan’s uncle, Fred befriended this young couple, told us of local must sees and gave us his copy of the New York Times Sunday paper after he finished with it. Fred ran the advertising department of a local radio station.

 That year I worked for Newell B. Snow, a third-generation land surveyor in Buzzards Bay. Newell was in his early eighties and had original surveyor’s notebooks from his grandfather in the Civil War era. Old school and meticulous, he required a cane to get from place to place, but cognitively had lost nothing off the two-seam fastball. He remembered half-buried marble markers to help in laying out old boundary lines. Finding these markers and proving boundaries by cutting a line and researching the old books could mean the difference between a land locked piece of property and one that was accessible and much more valuable to the owners. Detective work was the fun part; sometimes I would be allowed on a rainy day to help do the math to close the traverses, which had to be proofed within a narrow percentage. If one didn’t tie out, it meant going back into the woods to remeasure until the trigonometry of angles and measurements closed back to the starting point of the lot.

Newell’s son-in-law, Charlie was the crew chief, and Bob, a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer in his late forties was second man on the crew. I was the third man, held the dumb end of the hundred-foot metal tape and cut brush and trees out of the line. Newell eschewed the use of noisy and expensive chainsaws, which regrettably for me, was one of the few things I was good at when I first started my year as a land surveyor. The century old design brush hooks cut the lines so that we could shoot and measure them with the manual transits. I soon learned how to keep brush hooks sharp and use their keen ability against tough, stringy vines and scrub shrubs. When working exposed to the onshore winds in January, maintaining core body heat was an ongoing struggle. Bob gave me a woolen Navy watch cap, a kind gift that helped. Twenty below in the Maine woods was not as numbing as North Atlantic wind that cored through and was impossible to ignore. The hard work of a brush hook helped to keep me warm.

Eventually I convinced Newell to buy a small Stihl chainsaw, and while it was less effective against vines and thick underbrush, it significantly improved the crew’s efficiency on the numerous scrub white oaks and red pines that blocked the sight lines of the transit.  The Stihl immediately increased our daily production. Instead of detouring around larger trees with four short ninety-degree shoots and measurements as had been done for prior centuries, I’d quickly drop the old scrub oaks or red pines into the adjacent woods and leave them. I regretted my recommendation and its ramifications. A twelve-inch diameter tree that may have been forty years old was too daunting to attack with a brush hook, but a chainsaw put it down in five or ten minutes.

“And because Your years do not pass, Your years are today… All our tomorrows to the end of time You shall make to be in this Your day; and all our yesterdays from the beginning of time You have made to be in this Your day.” St. Augustine, “Confessions,” Book One, Chapter Six

Long cut lines through bramble-clogged Cape Cod woods made up two legs of what we called “spaghetti lots”: an elongated rectangle with two hundred feet of road frontage and a half a mile or so into the trees and vines on each side. A lot of hills, measuring, shooting the lines and cutting.  The other surveyor’s skill that is mostly lost with encroaching technology is the plumb bob. Charlie would spot a wooden stake that we cut out of two by three studs sharpened with a hatchet on rain out days. I’d drive it into the exact location defined by the transit with a five-pound short handled sledge hammer, then nail a small tack into it as a temporary line marker for measurements. We used a metal hundred-foot tape stretched to an exact tension with a spring-loaded scale to make certain as exact a measurement as we could manage. Plumb bobs on both ends of the measurement with the other end of its string held against our tape suspended exactly over our tacks.

On inclines the tape had to be held level as well as with the proper tension. On steep hills, we could manage much less than hundred-foot measurements. Sometimes as little as a horizontal ten foot pull and we would need to place a new stake. The high end of the tape would be held precisely on the tack, the low end held high and level with straining arms and a nearly fully extended plumb bob string, the point of the plumb bob without a quiver held over the tack. The bob could not touch the nail because both the plumb and the exact dimension would be lost. On a half mile traverse, any accumulated small errors of inexactly taken measurements would ruin the closing back in the office.

Now, of course, all this is gone, along with four transit leveling screw gauges, meticulously adjusted by the crew chief at every set up. Electronic self-leveling laser transits and corresponding electronic target poles not only accomplish the exact measurements, the rectangular (or any other angled) multi sided traverses are closed and calculated as the surveying teams go along within the programming and screens of the transits. Plumb bobs, wooden stakes and tacks are forgotten accoutrements.

As I think about plumb bobs, straining arms held high to mark their precise locations to establish reliable borderlines, I ponder the lost plumb bobs of our bewildered culture, the objective moral norms held true and plumb for centuries, pointing by gravity towards the center of the earth, exactly defining with rigor and wisdom the boundaries we seem to want blurred. And I wonder about how human nature, unchanged, mocks both the convolutions and the ubiquitous noise of our technology, and marks as silly our fatuous, doomed attempts at materialistic perfectibility.

“Thus, He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people….”  Amos 7: 7-8a

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