Category Archives: Personal and family life

Rockee Sing, Dad, Do Rockee Sing

“it’s little, and we saw it and we knew what it meant. You remember that for me.” From “His Last Game,” Brian Doyle [i]

We read to our youngest girls every night at bedtime, as we had with our older children, and when they were still of fit on my knee age, I would hold both, a book held between them, in the chipped, painted black frame wooden rocking chair with the woven wicker seat and back. As they grew sleepy, and so did I, we would rock together, and I would sing softly. Sometimes a slightly misremembered song my father sang to us. “Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. Hush, now don’t you cry. Toora, loora, loora. Toora, loora, li. Toora, loora, loora. It’s an Irish lullaby.” [ii]

Another regular lullaby was “Lord, You are more precious than silver. Lord, You are more costly than gold.  Lord, You are more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing I desire compares to You.” When Angela was three and Meg was born, I brought Angela to meet Meg now outside Rita’s womb. As we were leaving Women and Infants Hospital in Providence to go home after the introduction, Angela, our koala bear hugger, was wrapped around me. Walking back to the parking lot, she sang in a clear, but sleepy voice, “Lord You are.”  [iii]

Thousands of nights, week over week, year over year. I have a vivid memory of one night, while smelling their freshly washed hair against my cheek and gently rocking, a memory filled with longing. I remember thinking that there would be a last night I would do this, and I wouldn’t know when it ended. I don’t remember the last night.

When they were little, we started with books like “Cat in the Hat” with Sally and the troublesome house wrecking Thing One and Thing Two. “Maple Hill Farm” with its multiple, memorable animal characters. Beatrix Potter’s “Tale of Peter Rabbit” with Peter, the fearsome Mr. McGregor and Flopsy Mopsy. So many books now in boxes or with granddaughters.

As they grew, we moved to the couch or pillows on the floor. The whole Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series with a house on the prairie built of cut sod and thatched roof or a house in the woods built of logs. Dreamy, restless, loving, hardworking Charles. Resolute, long suffering, cheerful Caroline. Mischievous, adventurous Laura and kind, quiet Mary who loved her little sister and was struck blind during an illness and eventually became a teacher. The bargain Caroline negotiated with the terrifying Plains Indian in full war paint when Charles was away. “The Long Winter” we read in a cold New England winter, and we cuddled and shivered under blankets. The rope Charles strung from house to barn so that during one of the many, interminable blizzards, he would not lose his way to drag down hay for the animals and milk the cow, essential daily chores. Without the rope we were told, he could easily miss the barn in the blinding snow, although it was only ten yards from the house. And in missing it, perish to be found in the spring when the melting came.

The entire Chronicles of Narnia series with the handsome Prince Caspian and the heroic mouse, Reepicheep: Unhand the tail! No fear! No retreat!  The Dawn Treader. The Magician’s Nephew. Marvelous, unforgettable C.S. Lewis stories. Most of all the first: “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” with Peter, Lucy and the traitorous Edmund sent to live with the professor to escape the London Blitz. Through the magic wardrobe: The White Witch, Ice Queen. Poor friendly, brave, frozen Mr. Tumnus. And the noble, suffering, then triumphant Aslan, Lion: kind and terrifying; sacrificed, humiliated, then resurrected to redeem with overwhelming power the ice-covered, bleak land from the White Witch’s cruel spell.

Later we read Lewis’s dear friend J.R. Tolkein’s “The Hobbit” with pleas each night for just one more chapter. Bilbo and Gollum, goblins, hobbits, dwarves, elves, a dragon and wizards. Literally wonderful. One December, we read Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” with chains, doorknobs, ghosts, Bob Cratchit and Scrooge, Tiny Tim and small crutches enshrined in the corner of the simple kitchen, shown to Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Future. And tombstones. Reawakening and miracles. So many books, so many years

We continued to read aloud each night as a family into their pre-teen years. One summer, when Angela and Meg were older, college and high school, we rented a cottage on Great Pond in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, near my brother Martin’s summer home. Rita and I couldn’t travel up there until Sunday, but Meg and Angela wanted to go up and open the camp on Saturday when the rental period began. The nights were still chilly. While the invitation was open at Marty’s to stay there, the sisters wanted to stay with each other in our camp – listen for the night call of the loons and watch for the reflection of stars on the water like they did so many times at the other Maine camp on Webb Lake in Weld, where we vacationed for a decade every summer. When the moon rose, and the night grew quiet over Great Pond, they curled up on the couch and read to each other.

Some memories dim and become blurry like a hazy, slightly out of focus special effect in an art film.  Some do not.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem — “Out of shadows and phantasms into Truth.”  Epitaph – Cardinal John Henry Newman  

[i] Lovely, lyrical, poignant, simply and profoundly true. Written upon his brother Kevin’s death. https://notredameclassof1969blog.blogspot.com/2017/05/his-last-game-by-brian-doyle-78-for-his.html?view=flipcard&m=1

[ii] Toora, Loora, Loora. Bing Crosby.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aw9B49epS_M

[iii] Lord You Are. Paul McClure, Bethel Church. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2hGhWiAMQk

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Morning Dews and Damps

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

From our bungalow on Birch Street in Portsmouth, I exit to the bottom of the hill on Orchard View and turn left on Middle Road by Escobar Farm. Middle Road to the end, right on Union to just before West Main Road, left on Jepson Street to the end at Oliphant Lane and back is exactly ten miles. I hold dear my bike ride at five or six am past nurseries and fields of corn, potatoes, squash, pumpkins and strawberries. From the top of Middle Road, one of the highest points on Aquidneck Island, on a clear morning the West Bay is clearly visible and to the east in glimpses, the Sakonnet River, which runs fourteen miles between Mount Hope Bay and Rhode Island Sound.

If I’m running late, the strawberry pickers are starting to gather. On the weekends, the farm owners drag a small wood framed snack stand out to field with a tractor to sell snacks and drinks to the U-Pick-Them crowd. At this point of the summer, the magnolias, dogwoods, apples, cherries, horse chestnuts, azaleas and rhododendrons have past their flowering splendor, but the hydrangeas, Black-eyed Susans, daisies, hostas, Queen Anne’s lace and an occasional tree of heaven are holding their own. Everywhere, in every direction, is quiet and the smells of summer. Most of the farms are arable, but there are a few chickens, ducks and dairy cows. One field near the reservoir on Union, just past the golf course, hosts four beef critters, lazily grazing their way to qualifying for their purpose as steaks and hamburger in the fall or early winter.

Colonial houses dating back to the revolution along with a collection of center chimney capes and newer colonials and ranches are distributed unevenly along the way. There are several small developments of newer homes with farmer’s porches and attached garages with large lots for the most part, many of which back up to planted fields, reservoir or golf course.

Traffic is light, and almost without exception the few cars and pickup trucks slow and swing wide around the frequent bicycle riders. Unlike last year, which for some reason was a bad year for cotton tails, I greet adolescent rabbits a dozen times on my ten -mile ride. Don’t know their names; they remain reticent and watchful. The red-tail hawks look well fed.

“She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.” Susan B. Anthony

At the base of a short hill on Union Street just past the U PICK blueberry farm, a few wicker baskets of haphazard common garden vegetables are often displayed for sale on the honor system with a metal cash box. They sit on a flat spot atop the stone wall in front of a rambling two story white house with several additions and out buildings, some well-considered, others more like orphaned after thoughts; the house is just this side of neglected with a slate roof and washed-out, chalky paint. The yard is losing a long transition from tended gardens to an encroaching wooded glade of mostly maples. Curious, I investigated its history and found it was registered as a National Historic site as “Oak Glen.” Julia Ward Howe died of pneumonia here at 91 in 1910 where she had spent many summers.

As a young girl in New York City, she met Charles Dickens through her father, a prominent Wall Street stock broker and her mother, the poet Julia Rush Cutler. Of a literary bent, privately educated, she published learned essays, biographies, plays and poetry. Her husband in a less than happy marriage was Dr. Samuel Howe, the founder of the Perkins School for the Blind; they raised their children in South Boston. She spent many summers here in Portsmouth and much time in the “Yellow House” in Gardiner, Maine, apparently to get away from her husband. Well known as first an abolitionist, she outraged many with her unflattering descriptions of blacks in her book, “A Trip to Cuba.” While disliking slavery, she did not believe in the equality of races. Apparently “all men are created equal,” although an admirable ideal, did not mean all that it implies. Her most passionate cause was women’s suffrage and equality; I suspect that the landed gentry were a bit more equal than an Irish washerwoman taking in Mrs. Howe’s laundry.

At various times, she was president of both the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the New England Suffrage Association, which she co-founded. She also founded and served as president for twenty-one years of the Association of American Women, advocating for women’s education.  At some point, she eschewed her father’s strict Calvinist faith in favor of the less demanding, and more fashionable among the literati, Universalist creed.

Mrs. Howe was best remembered for her song writing, and was inducted posthumously into the Song Writers Hall of Fame in 1970. After meeting Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a friend suggested she pen new lyrics to the same tune as the abolitionist anthem, “John Brown’s Body” with the line about “moldering in the grave.” Her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” still rouses many a worship service and patriotic gathering. Four thousand people sang it at her memorial service, as it had been sung at all her speaking engagements for many years.  In 1870, she unsuccessfully lobbied for the country to celebrate a “Mother’s Day” on June second. Two of her daughters collaborated on telling her story, which won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1916. Like so many who left a legacy, she was imperfect, an admixture of the admirable and the flawed.

Oak Glen still on its original 4.7 acres sits unnoticed by most next to a similarly neglected small historic cemetery on Union Street in Portsmouth like the faded matron of a once elegant family. Oak Glen has become for me a symbol of ephemeral celebrity, but her signature work, the words of which came to her in a dream, remains. We sang it at church on the Fourth of July as it has been sung for over a century.

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of human life.”  H.G. Wells

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Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

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

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

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

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

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Tough Guy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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