It is night in a parking lot behind a bar in one of those beach towns that always look washed-out when the sun is up. Night usually seems kinder, but now most of the cars are gone, closing time came and went, and two knots of men bunch twenty feet apart in hot pools of light. It all started inside with some inconsequential comment taken wrongly, by one side or the other; it never matters. In this place 'Hello' would have been seen in a bad light. No place here to allocate blame or cause. After last call we are always lower down in the brainstem than that. Alcohol is a receding tide.
The choreography is that these young men will draw blood as drippingly fresh as first graders with just-mixed finger paints. A glee sings in the wires between the lights like insect wings. They are intent, each group a little core of seething need to bruise flesh and do damage, intent on righting some ancient wrong, rectifying an insult handed down by generations, going into battle for their tribe. Primordial and damn silly all at once. I really hate being here.
I do not understand any of it. I am a member of one bunch, dragged along by the sizzling current of group-mind into an uncomfortable place; it is expected that I will batter another man into pulp as he seeks the same for me. How will I choose him? Or he me? The fear I experience is not just of being hit until I bleed and break, but I don't know how to hit the man I am supposed to want to damage. My hands don't want to ball into fists and go rushing at his flesh. I do not want to do this. I look across at them and pulling a breath down into my belly to steady myself I walk across the space between.
Oddly enough this time is a sort of calm moment in my existence. How many times have I been here? I am old at talking down violence. Drunks and bars and anger are a pastiche I recognize with an awkward comfort. Truck drivers and sailors pop to mind, a cartoon bio. Between the groups I move, back and forth, carrying something I don't quite fathom. It isn't just words. I can't say what it is. Words are the vehicles, inside the boxes and bundles and bags and the balloon over my head that I transport across that twenty feet, but what I actually carry is something else. A balm. It is a bit like the fellow with the pipe playing to the snake. Something I cannot tell you about goes on. In a while both knots untie and everyone goes home. There is no blood. No smacking sounds that fists make. No grunts of surprise and appreciation. There is just an empty parking lot, and I know my friends will never look at me the same again. I have robbed them of something inherently masculine. I unraveled their ritual and won't be invited again. I understand this. These are the men I work with at the prison just outside town. I am not quite like them and I will never be invited again.
Talking around violence is as familiar to me as the culmination itself is not. This is just something I do, have always done, finding it in my bones like my marrow. Years later I would go to work in a psychiatric emergency room and find that I had a skill. I was always the guy willing to talk, the calm and patient guy who just wanted to talk. I was practiced at this from almost before birth. Violence was failure. Failure was very, very dangerous. Failure hurt.
The funny thing is that these are maybe the calmest moments of my life. Times when I was absolutely there and quiet inside; almost a clean slate waiting patiently to see what would be written and would it be written indelibly on my skin, or in safely evaporating breath? I could be one of those who stood and waited to see. There were others like me; but I don't know that we shared anything beyond this moment of imminent peace.
What seems odd about this to me is that I am inherently a very desperate person. My whole life I have lived in a desperate struggle to keep order. Order was not a natural state. Chaos was apparent at every turn from my earliest days. You might not see me as desperate, but it is there, inside, bubbling along just ahead of the disorder and dissolution that dog me. What pursues me? Is it time? Am I just trying to stay a step ahead of the next uncertainty which I am certain to face in short order? Uncertainly can be so, so frightening. I work to keep the crayon inside the lines.
There really is something that gnaws at me, hurries me, forces me to grab, and build, and cling and fling myself into 'the doing'. Doing what? Ah, it doesn't really matter, does it? It is just to be 'doing'. Gotta be doing. If I am not 'doing' I almost don't exist. Something must be done. There are things to collect and classify and hold close for the comfort of their perceived order. The order of things collected is a form of integrity; there is immense safety in the act of collecting. I don't care what you collect. Really. It isn't what you collect that matters. It is the safety of having these collected things that soothes the soul. Collecting implies choices, evaluations, expenditure of who you are. Collecting is perhaps a grasping at straws in the reach for immortality. The ultimate dissolution is to die and rot, and we collect, and build, and make lists to forestall that moment when disorder becomes all that we are. The real collection, the real structure built, the real list made is us, ourselves, our self in a bag of flesh graced with a moment of consciousness. And I really have to wonder sometimes if that grace is really a gift. The desperation can make it seem almost a weight beyond bearing some days.
In New Mexico I built stone walls. Stone walls are good. Collect the stones, stack them into the order your brain says works, bond them with mortar, and you have something as close to immortality as the hand can make. It is a place to lean when the sun is too hot or the wind whippy. This is desperations attenuation and even more peaceful than the lowered fist and the dropped eye.
Warning!!! Serious alliterative tautology alert in effect.
Fame's Fleeting Ephemeral Flame Lightly Brushes Me
For just a moment I felt almost famous. That doesn't really mean much with anyone and everyone becoming a shooting star on Youtube, or having their own blog, the electronic soapbox, or being discovered by the Googlish hunter-seeker bugs as a person important enough to be listed when the search parameters roll sevens - their secrets splayed on search screen returns, like today's headline posted afresh every morning on the inside of the door in the Greasy Spoon bathroom stall.
And for the length of a breath I was one of the lucky, truly struck at how strange the world has become with the internet in our lives; an electronic collective unconscious into which we pour a distillation of our waking thoughts, and await distant applause. And then we do hear back, an echo in someone else's voice. We live for this. My name had popped up on the screen. I was somebody.
Pat had email, one of those bothersome communiques from some classmate reunion outfit that tease you along about how old buddies are looking for you, and then ask for money. Memories, possibly old adulation, a 'hey! how the hell are you??', a 'remember when we...': youth yours for five bucks a serving. She opened it up before I succeeded in sending it to aether-hell on the delete special, and there was a pic of her first love. The well was tapped. She has mentioned him now and then for years - we will have been married for twenty of those years come Sunday, and she's always recalled him fondly. Given her good taste I assume he's a decent sort.
"Don! Come in here!" I was out stacking firewood; she called urgently across the yard. Taking me to the monitor she pointed and said: "This proves I have always been looking for you." On the screen was her old friend, and damned if he didn't look a lot like me: a bit wrinkled, greybearded, glasses. Maybe, I thought, it's just the slide into anonymity where we all begin to look the same, especially to those younger. The pic was all we got: film at eleven for five dollars the reunionists chanted- no thanks I replied.
So, I googled him for her and found his wife and called up. Overcoming her shyness Pat finally got on the phone and chatted. Then the wife drops her little bombshell: her husband, Pat's high school buddy, is a fan of my writing. What? He has googled Pat and found our website and likes my writing. So, there it is - for a moment I almost feel famous. How strange. I have fans! Paparazzi are probably even now lurking in the woods with extreme telephoto lenses looking for that awkward shot that bares the soul. I should close the drapes.
This was supposed to be the start of my springing into summer letter, but the items above just got in the way and had to be dealt with. By early May the snows were gone, even in the shadows, and the wretched black flies arising, and green poking about at branch-tips. Mud season was abbreviated; for all the snow we'd had there was little rain to follow and the ground dried up enough to bear the weight of Chuckles Kubota. I tilled under the winter rye in the garden patch; it really does survive under the snow. And I waited for the end of May to start planting. I probably already mentioned it, but it isn't the air temp, the end of freezes and frosts, that determine when to plant; it is the temperature of the dirt. If I am repeating myself it is because I am not sure how I can be 64 and never knew this before. The tilled-under rye is alleopathic and it isn't safe to plant for 2 weeks. I tried to wait patiently. The rye began to creep back up: winter rye don't die, it goes under and lays in wait. I eyed the scuffle hoe.
A little fudging occured and corn and beans started hitting the dirt a few days early. Now we have had a light rain, and I am impatient to see the first thrusting sprouts. Oh, we did try starting some things in trays inside. Tomatoes and onions and broccoli. There were getting very leggy and I put them outside to get some real sun. The chickens ate them. The chickens now have their own private yard and do not get garden access without a pass from me. Even the crows, who watch me closely, have not come down to pluck my seeds. I have great hopes.
Mid June now and the yard is a huge mess. We had 3 oak and maple trees of about 80 feet dropped. They were close to the house, leaning ominously my way, and I hired it done. Even then the faller had me in Chuckles on the end of a long rope hauling the tree the right way, away from the house, as he finished his cut. He agreed to drop the trees and buck them into 23" lengthts and leave the rest for me. Cost was $540. Seemed fair enough. Instead he left me logs 10 and 15 feet long and 2' in dia. and his dog killed one of the hens. Most of you would probably have called the BBB or called him, or your lawyer. I just buried the hen and got out my chainsaw and started the business. I am not good at confrontations. Color me pusilanimous.
Wanting to get the wood off the ground I built a 12 x 12' platform of 3/4" ply on treated 2 x 6's. It will hold about 5 cords and is close enough to the bulkhead to get wood into the basement during the winter. Saw, split and stack. I can do it about 4 hours a day max. Ice water and naps help me recover. And peanut butter is medicine - don't ever forget that; it is a true thing. I will end up with 2 or 3 cords, which is worth $200 a cord, so I really got the trees felled for free, more or less. Another 4 cords is being delivered in 2 weeks, at $200 a cord. Everybody here is trying to figure out how to beat the cost of oil next winter. Oil company says the price will be about $4 a gallon. Doesn't sound any worse than the pump, right? But if you burn 800 or 1000 gallons of oil in a winter it's a heavy price. That is why firewood is up to $200 a cord. Demand. Oh, the gubmint stimulated us - the wood is in the bank. I hear congress is thinking we might need to get stimulated again before the election - make mine in gold, please.
The beeeeg fencing project is completed. I strung about 500 feet of 4' chain link on metal poles. The fence goes off in odd tangents, thru the woods, across here, up there, behind the old woodshed. It encloses a really big dog park. There are three double gates to get to other areas and it includes the barn and the garden. Waldo is settling to it nicely. At first he got his "I have escaped" look; it is very wild-eyed and he bounces up and down with glee and watches for me to give chase. After a bit he came back to the house with a WTF look. Then he took to barking at everything and nothing with fervor; that lasted a few days. Now he is able to go out and spend an hour or two at a time checking the perimiter and lying in the shade, and barking very little. It is absolutely glorious to just open the door and let the doofus run. No getting dressed at 0300 to see to the health of his bowels.
Lately he's been doing late fox patrol. We got another 25 chicks the middle of May: 10 light Brahmas and 15 Cornish cockerels. They were all in together for about 3 weeks until the Cornish guys started beating up the Brahmas. I separated them and put the Cornish out with the hens. They have their own enclosure but no place to go in at night. So foxes are a danger; they hunt heavily this time of year to feed the new kits. The Cornish boys have gotten so big, so fast that I am dumbfounded. I knew they were bred to produce meat in a hurry, but I can't believe the way they've grown. They are as big as pigeons and destined to cross the Kenmore Bridge at about 8 weeks. There will be a lot more meat on them than was on the Red Stars cockerels I put up last fall. The Brahmas are for keeping. They set well and will keep us in more Brahmas for the ages.
I have about had it with 2 cycle gas engines. You may recognize the drill: if you are fortunate your weedwhacker, chainsaw, rototiller, etc. works all season, so you drain the tank and run it till the gas is all gone and put it up for the winter. Next spring, well, in my experience, the damn thing won't start. New gas and oil has been mixed; the spark plug has been cleaned; one arm is now 3" longer than the other from incessant pulling. In disgust you take it to the small engine guy and for $40 or $50 he works magic and it runs again. Oh, how I do hate that.
Last winter I decided to go electric and got the largest electric snowblower Toro makes. It always starts. What a rush! No, it doesn't clear snow like the neighbors giant machine which just rips into snow and ice - when he can get it started.... The Toro is obviously only for smaller areas, driveways, paths, sidewalks, but I was satisfied. Now my trusty Poulan gas chainsaw has quit in mid log. Running, that is me smiling, not running, that is me frowning. Looked online at users reviews and came up with one name for the best in electric chainsaws: Milwaukee Model 6215. Paid my $280 to toolfetch.com and a few days later the box came. Goes together like a gas chainsaw, same basic drive, bar and chain setup. Bar oiler takes 30 wt. auto oil. Plugged it in and wow! This is a little monster. Well, not so little; the bar is 16" instead of the 18" I am used to, and it is a bit lighter to handle, but it cuts furiously. If you are thinking of changing over I would recommend this saw. On the minus side, you do have to have it plugged in, but on 150' of 12ga. extension cord it runs strong. The bar is smaller, but you can bury it in maple and it never falters. It does kick more than my gas saw; just seems to be more aggressive when it cuts and will jump on you. It isn't going to leap out of your hands, but you need to keep both hands on it firmly. And the bar is prone to getting pinched moreso than my gas saw. Just don't run it down into a cut that is going to close on it. The oiler works fine, but keep checking the reservoir as it isn't huge. This is not a 'ladies' chainsaw' unless the lady already knows how to handle a gas saw. Nothing effete or toylike here. Wanta cut 12" logs all day, well - does help to keep the chain sharp, and never have to mix gas and curse as you pull and pull on the start cord and play with the choke? The Milwaukee is a gem.
When I was a kid the world was a better place - can we all say that together? It was a better place if you were white and anywhere near middle class. I was both, and I can't speak for the world of anyone who wasn't. I recall there were always lots around town, any town, where some old guy had a garden. A marvel of a garden. The tilth raked out all flat and even. The beds laid out with such care, trenched and mounded. The spacing perfect. The strings on the evenly-pounded-in stakes taut. The beans on their tripods looking like art deco precision under riotous art nouveau assault. And you would see him out there leaning on his hoe, in dusty overalls, watering away, a gentle rain from his hand. He seemed as permanent to me as the trees in the orchard down the block. I look back now and see that he was just building stone walls to stave off tomorrow. He was a written-all-over parchment drying in the sun. I want to be him when I get old.
Meanwhile, back on the farm...
(not to mention her hot purple lips)
The new dog park heading off into the woods.
Waldo's perimiter patrol path wends and weaves.
The corn is just peeking up about 3 inches after nearly 3 weeks. Indian corn was the first thing up, way before the sweet corn.
Cross fence on poles from the woods keeps the chickens out of the garden.
The girls are all grown up now. Above is an extension to their yard with 2 new apple trees we just put in: Granny Smith dwarf and a standard Gravenstein.
These are some of the Light Brahma babys. A very fancy bird with feathered legs. They will be large and their temperment is quite placid.
Haven't bought any art pottery in ages but this came up and we grabbed it. Probably the nicest piece of experiment Ephraim I have ever seen.
Our gracefully greying doyen.
This page was last updated: May 30, 2009