I get conflicted when asked about my favorite things. Depending on my work, I have favorite tools or books. Months also shift about. It’s not that I flip-flop; it’s more like I carefully consider.
I love December for the holidays. When I was young and on the road, my favorite place to be in December was Boston. The Boston Common and Downtown stores had lights and lovely displays. The lights were a counterpoint for other not-so-pleasant things that were going on. So, a walk through the Common to Downtown was a pleasant junket. The glances at the shop windows were peaks at what the better-off might expect to find at Christmas.
But not long after New Year’s, I cross a sort of Rubicon into a month with little to light it up. The seed catalogs begin to arrive in November and December, but I avoid even glancing at them until far into January when I desperately need the break from winter. I have also created a totally artificial schedule for January in the shop, where I design and prototype new things. It’s making good out of what would otherwise be terrible, and I can’t put a better gloss on it than that.
Sometime around the middle of February, I turn a seasonal corner with the sapping of the maple trees for syrup and planting the first seedlings for the garden. Late nights in February are filled with musing as I watch the sap boil down into syrup. In the mornings, I carefully record how many more moments of light come with passing days. It’s a kind of make-do with what you have month. Please note that I avoid talking about what can sometimes be the endless job of snow clearing. But by the end of February, I had turned the corner on the season and now can look forward to spring. Spring crowns the year for me.
When in Boston with visitors, I like to take them along the Esplanade to watch the sailboats and view Beacon Hill. While in grad school, I made an annual summer migration from Philadelphia’s heat and mugginess to New England’s relative cool. I worked at Man’s Greatest Hospital from seven to three, then headed directly to the Charles River to sail its vast expanses. After sailing, sitting on the dock offered the opportunity to talk to friends and watch the wind chase the waves on the water.
By the end of the first summer, I did this, I was in a relationship. Charlotte was her name. She was a charge nurse on the orthopedics floor I worked on. I thought I was in love, but we still had a lot to discover about each other.
I invited Charlotte to the river for a sail. We were not on the water five minutes before she asked when we would get to where we were going. I had to explain that we were already there. It was not very encouraging.
Up to that point, we had been together at her place. My little rented room on Beacon Hill was shabby. But the room had an essential feature: my gray cat, Clancy. She needed to meet Clancy. I was beginning to trust his opinion of my girlfriends over my own. During the previous year, he had successfully demonstrated that his taste in my girlfriends was better than mine. Was my taste in women that bad? OK, I have to admit to making a few poor choices.
Clancy turned his back and took flight when she started a “here sweet Kitty kitty” routine. Then she tried to grab him in a hug – a terrible move; he wasn’t nicknamed the Grey Menace for nothing. After separating his claws from her, we had a frank discussion about compatibility.
I broke up with her about two days later after going to the doctor for a shot and a pill. I should have introduced her to Clancy first.
“He that is hasty of spirit exalteth folly.”
You probably know what an elevator talk is. It’s the sort of snappy two-paragraph description of who you are, what you do, and where you’ll be in five years. You can whip it out like a display of neon signs. There you are, lit up like the main drag on Broadway. You have dazzled them with all you can achieve between the first and second floors.
But you see, not all of us are like that. Me, for instance. I’m a cultural anthropologist. No, I don’t do fossils. No, I haven’t done any digs in Eygpt. So by the time I get past that, we are on the fourth floor, and you are getting off; so much for the elevator talk.
After many experiences with this, I was relieved when I slipped into marine carver mode. There I stood at the boat show, with a large carvings display. All I needed to do was assure them that I had carved all of those by hand. There was no elevator talk to give the first impression I wanted them to have. It didn’t matter that I stood in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt with wood shaving in my hair.
It’s just simple show and tell…like in second grade. Ahhh, nostalgia!
I’m on a fiction binge now: cheap sci-fi and unimpressive murder mysteries. You know, the drill: pleasure without commitment. It’s been this way since August; around my birthday, I grew weary with plowing my way through a beautiful but heavy tome on medicine and disease in ancient Rome, a book on Japanese swordsmanship, and a maritime history of Maine. Eventually, I’ll get sick of fiction and return to pleasant but heavy plowing through non-fiction.
A few years ago, I bought a whole bunch of those Ikea cubes as a storage solution for books stowed in the attic. It was my rather bounteous maritime collection. Need a portrait carved of an obscure Clyde-built freighter? I might have a photo or drawing of it in there. I didn’t buy these books to read them in their entirety. They are for mining. But having them, I felt guilty about storing them, and so there they sit on the front porch.
Now, the maritime collection is hard to ignore. I pass it when I leave the house and enter. It’s like passing a derelict shipmate, looking for a few bucks to go down to the local Blue Anchor to pass the evening…”Hey, mate! Got a bit of spare cash for old John?”
My wife has started wondering why I clutch my wallet and look guilty whenever we return from the store. The collection might return to the attic, where I’ll only hear the occasional creak from the timbers of the old schooners waiting to be carved.
Home. Sigh. As you know, a place to hang your hat is not necessarily a home. And I’d solemnly abjure, deny, or recant any youthful statements made in my twenties about living in New Mexico. It is a nice place to have a second home. But I am a coastal boy. Being so far inland that most people wouldn’t know the difference between a stockless anchor and a sea anchor might make me stay up sleepless at night.
I’ve often expressed my wish to return to coastal Maine. But I already live in a locale that requires a whole squad of snow removers to make my walkway and drive clear. And I’m not so young anymore that I relish clearing it all by myself. Besides, I’d have to regrow my mustache to keep my lips warm. I’ve become fond of seeing my upper lip in the mirror, and I’m not sure I want to hide it again.
So I guess I’m not ready to relocate…
But the idea of toying with a few new locations appeals; let’s see, it can’t be too hot, not too much snow, no whack job politicians, no weird climate change, that’s good for starters.
Well, I guess I just exploded the myth of there being a perfect place for everyone. I’m off to the carving shop. Oh, that’s right, I need a lovely large shop for carving – no basement!
I’m not fussy.
My office has a shelf of prized items, primarily small carvings I’ve found or that my family gave me. One is a lump of industrial slag from the waters near Paul Revere’s old workshop. It has ripples and waves. And you can see where barnacles established homes on it. Do I truly know that its provenance is from the Revere workshops? No, just some very heavy local folklore. I like it because one surface has a leaflike pattern, and the other is a marine pattern of waves with barnacles. When I lift it, it has a weight similar to a piece of iron but does not rust. The texture is smooth and rough.
It’s a sort of known item with a bit of mystery. It isn’t easy to ascertain its exact history, composition, or textural features. I guess they dumped the hot slag into the harbor like other detritus.
The washing of the ocean softens edges, creates new textures, takes rough slag, and makes it into weathered pieces that hands find appealing. The sea transforms everything placed into it: Seaglass, old brick, slag, and people. So, there is another bit familiar to all of us who have sailed, served aboard, and are bitten by the salt. The sea leaves nothing it touches unaltered. And I guess that’s why I like the lump of slag. It’s a reminder.
I could do without one part of the morning routine: the six in-the-morning purrs and licks from the kittens and the accompaniment of growls from the dog—the call to breakfast. But I protest too much. I recall an old seaman’s saying, “Grumble we may. But go we shall.” I heard this refrain from my father, my first father-in-law, and senior petty officers. Eventually, I caught myself quoting it to my children.
The saying reflects a sense of duty, obligation, and responsibility to something other than oneself. It’s getting your sorry bedraggled ass out of the rack for the mid-watch; one of my least favorite memories!. Perhaps it’s doing the dishes you’d prefer to leave in the sink, or going out in the snowstorm to load in the needed wood for the stove. Whatever the situation, it is part of what you’d prefer to avoid, but it must do.
The construction of the old saying leans on the word “shall,” not should, but shall. If it were “should,” the unpleasantry would be optional, but although it is phrased politely, it is obligatory.
Life is full of stuff like this. Some of it heaped upon us from outside authority, but much of it our additions. Unlike addictions, we gain from our duties to family, self, and community. Now, you can have no duties or obligations, just like you can have no family, friends, or community. But I’d argue that that alternative is unworthy of a well-lived life.
So next time the kittens need to eat in your house, get your sorry carcass out of bed – Grumble you may, but go you shall.
At times, he was infamous; indeed, in some locations we lived in, he had a sort of fame. He was a large gray Canadian cat who claimed me while he was a kitten. Kicked out of the litter early, he’d been bustling around Ottowa’s Lyon Street for weeks when I met him. The scrappy brat was tiny but had acquired local fame for beating up much larger felines and dogs. Terrorizing two hoods who thought they could abuse a cute kitten was what brought him to the attention of the neighborhood. Backing him into an alley was their first mistake. He had dashed between their legs and, soon, had them trapped. According to accounts I heard afterward, their emphatic cries for help went unanswered. And the neighbors enjoyed the volte-face situation of the two punks screaming for help.
After he condescended to reside with me, the neighbors filled me in on his activities. Soon, there was a growing compendium of stories. Fights against larger cats and dogs and thefts of food. We named him Clancy after the song Clancy Lowered The Boom. It somehow seemed appropriate.
He lived for over fifteen years and kept me well-disciplined. Among his notable achievements was the bloody apprehension of a burglar in the loft building where I held a studio. The burglar was found by the police in a bathroom, on the toilet, and he was feverishly begging for someone to please take the cat away.
We nicknamed him The Grey Menace, and his motto could have been, “faithful to a friend. A terror to an enemy.”
Who wouldn’t love the little “love bites” of Sabrina at six in the morning? It’s just her gentle way of letting you know that her dog brother, Max, will start whining for breakfast in a few minutes. Marcus, Sabrina’s brother, is much more laid back. He snuggles into your exposed ear with soundwave-shattering purrs.
Ah, the joys of having pets. No, wait on that. With the cats, it’s more like he and she are heir and heiress to an imperium. You are the beloved but wayward servant. The dog, however, is the shop steward of the Teamsters local at the house, and food not being delivered on time is a contract violation; he gets ornery. Belly rumblings are not in the contract!
Sensing that a loud strike will soon be underway, I get out of bed and slip downstairs, still in my underwear.
After breakfast, I’ll be allowed to have my coffee. What’s that Max? Oh, you need to go out? OK, I’ll open the door. What Sabrina? Pet you – as soon As I have coffee. Get off my chair, Marcus!
The joys of having pets are incomparable. But I really could use a bit more sleep.
I finished paying off my school loans in 1999. Like many paying on loans, I did not pay back just a bit more than I borrowed; it was close to double. I was almost a debt slave. Leaving grad school to find no professional employment opportunities put me behind the repayment eight ball from day one. It took several years before things turned around. But for about twenty years, the monthly payment was a heavy burden.
There was an incredible thrill when I mailed off that last payment. But also a worry that, once again, the unscrupulous would find some obscure fee or payment that would tie me to continued charges. I sometimes have a terrible dream in which I still owe a few dollars, and with interest, I would be paying for another decade.
The jury deliberating on the value of post-high school education has found that even a standard liberal arts education pays significant benefits over a lifetime. The trend is towards multiple careers during a working life, not staying forever in one occupation. Having an excellent traditional liberal arts background may better prepare us for the shifts, twists, and turns of changing employment.
But education will probably continue to be our single most considerable personal expense. When it’s paid, it’s great to bask in the glow of achievement. But more and more are winding up with unpayable amounts. I wonder if the lenders are hatching a method to pass the bills onto the next generation. A sort of peonage based on educational debt. Considering the benefit to the entire society that education brings, it would seem that it would be worthwhile making paying for it less demanding. Massachusetts has started a system of free community college education. This program will lift the burden of two years of educational debt from many. Quite a few students may decide that two-year associate degree programs are all they need or want. Others will go on to finish a bachelor’s degree.
We invest all the time in things we need as a society: roads, buildings, harbor engineering projects, and more. We should be prepared to invest in the human capital that makes everything possible.