On The Road

What’s the old saying? If wishes were horses, beggars would ride? Well if you were hitching around in the 1960’s you wished a lot and sometimes rode. We know that magical thinking can be dangerous. But sometimes it’s irresistible; for example, when you are stuck on a rural road at midnight, the local cop has already given you the fish eye twice. Wish, wish, wish harder! The next ride arrives, and it’s a drunk who wants someone to keep him awake on his way home. Let’s talk loud, and watch for an all-night diner. Wish, wish, wish harder.
No sooner than you pull into the diner, the drunk falls asleep. It’s four in the morning, and I have just enough for coffee and pie. I’m tired of wishing and spend the two hours until dawn talking to a lonely cook who misses his days on the road. He tells me that it was lots different in his day. Truckers regularly picked you up for long haul rides, and there wasn’t a town on America where you couldn’t get two eggs, hash browns, toast, and bacon for ninety-nine cents!
As it lightens up, I get back on the road. Cookie hooks me up with a local heading towards the interstate and tells me that he wishes he was going with me. I smile. I’m eager to get off the road but wonder if I’ll be glorifying the old days in ten years too. Sleeping with ticks and skeeters, mud, and rain. But oh the songs about being on the road. Maybe I’ll write one someday.

Mothers Food For Thought

My mother was a good one for sayings and quotes. She probably managed to create many of her favorites. She also explored the creation of her own story. Light replaced shadow.

The truth was a challenge, and we now think that she preferred silence or a carefully edited dance around the shadow of what might have happened. She made smooth the rough, created a happy time, or luck, as if by chance.
Even a short passage of years early in your life, one downpour too many, affects how the flower grows; how you celebrate. She always felt that life was like a book we were writing in, letter by letter. “don’t be in such a hurry, be patient.” “don’t hold that frown, the line on your brow will become permanent.”
It was part of her way of providing support to her family, of transmitting wisdom by sign and saying.
But, “Always remember, Louis. Nothing is free.”


Careful is not a word in the official governmental vocabulary. Procedural is. I worked as a Practicing Anthropologist for about twenty years. I worked for municipalities, semi-governmental organizations, federal and state governments, and contractual work. Doing something carefully and observing the correct procedure is tough. But, I am not among those who would suggest that the two could not possibly coexist.

The reason why I feel that coexistence is possible is because of a little phrase I learned from a senior bureaucrat early in my career. I know that you’ve heard it: “It’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.”

Tony Babcock, was a second-generation contracting officer. To walk into his office was to walk into a library of the Code of Federal Regulations ( CFR). Each book inscribed duly with his name. And an acknowledgment that he promised to enforce the code to the best of his abilities. I knew this because a small, very small shelf of similar volumes rested behind my desk. Like my office, his office featured a framed copy of the government code of ethics.

Our first meeting did not go well. I had failed to distinguish between the two words should and shall in a document. I received a lecture detailing the travails that could follow on such a mistake. It was not pleasant.

In subsequent meetings, I learned that no matter how carefully I prepared, if I did not have my procedural ducks in a row, I couldn’t spend a penny of the federal money in my budget. I also learned that Parental Legislation in a bureau, department, or agency was a guide to what could and could not get done legally. 

Eventually, I learned that the key to unlocking the nearly endless information available from Tony was to ask the correct question. He would sit behind his deck in a very non-issue rocking chair, smile, and tell me that I was not asking the right question. Not being too dumb, I did eventually master the art of asking good questions. It was a pleasure to see him smile and open the flood gates to two generations of knowledge.

Somewhere along the line, I learned that it was better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission. Of course, the key to successfully manipulating that process was to have prepared the groundwork with the proper shoulds and shall, references to CFR, and Parental Legislation. All this showed that your intent ( pay attention now!) had been correct.

In recent years all of us have had reason to fear the direction taken by our governments. I find myself a bit reassured, however, that in an office far away, some snotty Schedule C political appointee is discussing shoulds and shall, Parental Legislation and CFR.

Thank you! I salute all the Tony Babcocks of the world.

National Maritime Day – May 22, 2020

In honor of National Maritime Day, May 22, I suggest that you can honor the nautical types in a variety of ways:
• Thank a mariner – Naval or Merchant Marine for their service
• Remember that all those beautiful goodies you buy online are transported on ships crewed by merchant mariners.
• Remember that while the cruise industry is closed, thousands of crew are still stuck on board their vessels.
• If you enjoy seafood, remember it was caught by folks who daily participate in one of the most dangerous occupations.

May Flowers

Just a few weeks ago, I was talking about bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and trout lily. Those early ephemeral spring flowers are gone as I write this in mid-May. They come and go as things warm up and as the days become longer.

As I walked through the woodland garden this morning, white doll’s eyes ( when the fruit ripens, that’s what they look like) cranesbill ( a native geranium), Solomon’s seal, and Jack in the pulpit, have all started to bloom. This progression of flowers continues from early April to late September when the little asters start blooming. Where I lived in Maine, a long time ago, some people used to call those late-season asters frost flowers because they turned a lavender color as the days of frost approached.
For now, I am on the upswing of the flowering curve. It peaks around the middle of July. Some of this is very showy. But, some like the Mayapple, require you to bend down and look for the flower below the leaf.

Some of these are only rarely seen, like the flower of the pitcher plant.

In an earlier post, I referred to the woodland garden as a wander, stoop, look, and mumble type of place. Its primary value is in offering up little insights on nature daily.


I can still see the light and fires on the water, even though I never actually saw them.

It was during the Second World War, and it was my father’s second time in the water following a torpedo attack. Just moments before the crewmen off watch were sitting down to their evening meal. The sound and force of the torpedo exploding sent everyone flying. My father had succotash all over the front of his shirt. Little things like that tend to stick with you.
In the following minutes, men attempted to rush to damage control stations and assume their parts in fighting for the ship’s life. Before most made it to their stations, the tanker was in flames, and the order was passed to abandon ship.
My father was not among the ones who made it to a lifeboat. His life now came to depend upon his abilities as a swimmer. Not having a life jacket proved to be a blessing as he swam beneath a burning oil slick; the life jacket would have been a liability. Eventually, he was picked up by other survivors in a lifeboat. But, it would be almost a week before they were rescued by a passing vessel.

The lights and fires were reflections over the harbor from the annual Fourth of July celebration in Winthrop, and I was not in a lifeboat. I shuddered at the recollection.
The memories were not mine. They were my father’s. For some reason one afternoon, he decided to tell his nine-year-old son about how to survive the sinking of a tanker. His descriptions were vivid, and I discovered that they abided with me throughout the years. That and an aversion to succotash.


There is only about a week between the little Dutchman’s Breeches and the Trout Lilly. Its Spring in New England and time gets compressed. One day the Maples are flowering and making me sneeze. Then the next, I see the tree is full of small leaves.

I walk around every morning. My Bloodroot blossoms are almost gone by, but my Goldenseal is beginning. New England spring is not extravagant. Miss something today, and it’ll be a year before you see it again. Don’t waste time; Spring is fast.


We so often admire the complex and then seek out and appreciate the simple. The examples I have chosen to show are small carvings from post-war occupied Japan. Both feature a popular theme in Japanese art; Mount Fuji.
The simplicity of the creative technique is central here. The entire subject gets rendered with no more than the bare required cuts, and for that matter, the bare number of tools. Although the artist makes multiple cuts, the amount is minimal. We can also see this at work in brush calligraphy techniques where the subject is composed and executed in one continuous stroke.

To be effective in this requires two things: a thorough knowledge of the capabilities of your tools; and mastery of your tools. As one of my senseis says, “and that’s all there is to it.”
One mentor of mine once knocked out about a foot and a half of fancy molding out of what was scrap wood. He cut all the cuts needed from one tool, moved on to the next, and so on in succession—the complexity of the finished piece derived from the repetitive simple cuts he made in the correct sequence.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that I am still working on this, and probably will be until it’s time to put away my tools. Like so many creative endeavors mastering the complex depends on learning the very basic.


In the early 1970’s I was cobbling together an education while working any available job. My options were slender, I had some limited GI Bill money, and whatever I could earn to pay rent, and tuition. There was no scholarship money or family assistance. For two and a half years, I paid tuition semester by semester taking short term loans and paying them off by the end of the term. This story takes place in that period.

As a result of my financial wants, I worked a wide variety of day jobs so I could finish my first two years of college at night. I worked as a surgical technician for several years, but being on night call began to conflict with evening classes. Instead, I fell into the habit of working for various temp agencies as an aide and orderly. One has affected my views on reality for years.
I have no trouble differentiating fact from delusion. But one gentleman I worked with did. Working with him, I came to realize that we may not always share a standardized view of reality.
First, I need you to understand that this was the early 1970’s. I don’t think the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s per se existed yet, and standards of care or treatment we have today did not exist.

The Doc was a retired surgeon, and the family was confident I’d be perfect for him. With my background in the operating room, I’d understand his perspective on life. The Doc was mid-seventies when I met him, and sometimes, he was still actively practicing medicine; in his mind. It would be six-thirty in the morning, and Doc would be scrubbing for his case at seven. He’d think I was his resident or technician and be asking me for the patient’s X-rays or lab work. The problem was the Doc hadn’t been very kind to those who worked for him. So, as his resident, or tech, I frequently received a rash of his sarcasm, disdain, and general abuse.
The Doc also had free and unfettered access to the entire house and liqueur cabinet. Drinking didn’t help.
I really needed the money. At the time, my cat and I were living in a loft behind the old Schraft’s building in Charlestown. Trust me, this was not a quality environment. So, if the Doc wanted to scream at me a bit, it was OK if I could study while he was doing it. This went on for a couple of months before his daughters suggested that I engage the Doc a bit more. Their suggestion was that rather than let him rant that I could use my knowledge of the Operating Room to conduct guided hallucinations for him. The real motivation was that Doc was living with them, and when they came home, he was still full of vim and vigor while all they wanted to do was watch television after a long day. The first suggestion was that I move in to provide 24-hour care, but I pointed out that I was interested in finishing a degree, not becoming a 24-hour daycare provider. So the guided hallucination idea came about.
The daughters suggested that the Doc really loved his old neighborhood in Dorchester, the church he attended as a boy, his family, and his surgical practice. Concentrate on getting him to tell you all about those. I nixed the idea of the surgical practice; I’d already seen how he treated his residents and techs. So it was the old neighborhood.

Living in Boston, I had a general knowledge of the area where he had grown up, but not what it had been like when he was a youth. So, I engaged him in telling me stories of what his childhood had been like. Over a few months, he covered the years of being an altar boy up to his first girlfriend and him in the rectory. He had filled me in so thoroughly that I knew just when to cue a positive memory. His daughters remained unsatisfied, though, because his vivid recall continued into the evening hours. I was growing uncomfortable with the situation; I felt that one hell of an ignorant young fool, me, was sinking into deep waters better trod by a therapist.
Let me add here that for generations, the males of my family had been under the influence of a French or Catalan Christian mystic who believed in communication beyond the veil. As I’ve said, I have not had trouble separating fact from fancy. But in line with my father and uncle’s experiences, I’ve seen one or two things that have given me pause and caused me to look twice or three times. The Doc was to assist me in participating in my first really transgressive experience.

That afternoon the Doc had been in the liquor cabinet, we’d had a bad morning in the operating room, and I had pulled an all-nighter studying for a final exam. In Psychic terms, the boundaries were down. The Doc and I walked over to the front door. He stood in the doorway with me just to one side and behind him. For about the thousandth time, he began describing the setting of the street in front of his old church. I just watched bleary-eyed as the image took on clarity, began to firm up. I watched with horror as the Doc told me he was going home and started to exit the doorway towards the church that we both could now see in detail. I began to howl for him to stop, I pulled him back, and I willed my eyes closed more out of fear that he’d take me with him than that he’d actually cross over himself. Somehow I snapped him out of it, but it was worse because he began a sad moan that could not be stopped.
I tried to explain to the daughters that evening why I could not return. They didn’t understand. I not only feared for their father, but I feared for myself too.

He pitched over on his lawn less than a week later. He’d been trying to cross the street. About two years later, I found myself driving past the church. It was one of those that the Archdiocese had scheduled to close. I was happy that he made it home before that happened.

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