One of the lessons my parents struggled to impart to me was that adventure is a relative term. A trip to the beach is a great adventure at age six. At sixteen, it’s a routine summer activity. It can also be dangerous.
My father especially was interested in pointing out that we should savor even tiny adventures. Having survived two torpedo sinkings, he related how small pleasures onboard a lifeboat helped maintain sanity and offered pleasure. After her tumultuous youth, my mother, who valued quiet above all, claimed that adventure was findable in a good book on a summer afternoon.
Not knowing it, I took away both interpretations of adventure. But quietly, they were hidden from view.
As the frequently used Latin truism remarks, “accidit stercore” – shit happens. Gang members attacked me. I was caught up in a violent demonstration, and I was used for target practice by a jilted boyfriend. After all the rigamarole, I needed to have a sit-down talk session with the term “Adventure.” I decided that there was nothing wrong with adventure with a small a.
Adventure with a large a is conspicuous by its absence from my life these days. A quiet read, a game night, those are all right by me. I’ve been to the circus a few times; that was enough.
To quote the old Mickey and Sylvia song, “Love is strange.” There is no ordinary on that carousel, and sometimes you need to jump off before the music ends. That’s how it was for one summer entanglement that I had in Boston.
Sally was well over six feet tall and was introduced to me by a friend. She was the first woman I had dated that I had to look up to physically. There were some early warning signs that all was not going to be pacific in the relationship. The Grey Menace, my cat, ran away and hid when she came into my studio apartment. Previously if he had not liked a woman, he’d hissed, snubbed her, or walked away. But this time, he ran under the bed.
Sally was just the sort of strong, intelligent woman I thought I liked. Discussions were deep and intensely felt. The love-making turned out to be in the same vein. When the latter happens, it sometimes, no, often leads to clouded perceptions.
Everyone comes equipped with a kit of preferences and prejudices that help to define them. We all like to believe that ours are our property solely. But as Margaret Mead said, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique, just like everyone else.” I liked to believe that I was irresistibly handsome, intelligent, and a great lover. Some may or may not have been so, but it would be very egotistical of me to say that. In other words, I was a pretty average guy stuck on himself. Sally came with her batch of quirks as well. She wouldn’t go sailing in Boston Harbor with me; her pastor insisted that the sea was the home of Behemoth and Leviathan, and therefore evil. I reminded her that we all swam in the ancient sea of life’s origin based on the salinity of our blood. She insisted that when we married I would have to give up these heresies. She began to insist that I start attending church with her, and when I resisted, she tried to beat me up.
I admit to cowardice. My packed my bags, prooved this. The very next day, I took a train to Philly.
I didn’t return to Boston’s Beacon Hill for several years. Friends told me that she would show up at the Harvard Gardens, Old Testament in hand, declaring that when she found me, she was going to beat the Devil out of me.
She never found me, but one day a year later, I spotted her. The guy I assumed she had married was walking about four paces behind her long and tall shadow with his head cast down. I sighed in relief and said a brief prayer for as Psalms says, “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day.”
The owner wanted to dump the property in the worst possible way. It would have been too kind to describe it as a fixer-upper.
I had hastily rented the first-floor apartment in a rush to get away from a toxic roommate, and I was beginning to regret the decision about the time the owner started pressing tenants to buy. A not too diligent inspection exposed multiple building code violations. The inspectors smiled, shrugged their shoulders, and somehow reports never got filed in City Hall. All very encouraging for a potential buyer.
The first-floor apartment I had hastily rented was elegantly outfitted with beer bottle labels as wallpaper on bare plaster walls. The young woman who had lived there before had excellent taste in foreign beer and a prodigious ability to consume it. Because I could remove her mosaic of brew, paint the walls and repair the flooring, I got offered the custodian’s job. I took the job because I was desperate for the rent cut. This did not last because the terms of the job and the amount of rent cut rapidly became very mutable. Things changed every month as the owner tried to sell, decided to keep, and then decided to renovate.
At last, he decided to gut the house and rebuild from the inside out. To do this, he needed the tenants out of the house. Not one for legalities, he hired a nephew to act as his “rental agent.” As he was known, Elio came around weekly collecting rent, disparaging tenants, and being annoying. Most of the tenants got the message and departed for better-quality quarters. I was left alone for the time being; Elio was not big on putting garbage cans outside on Friday.
I was desperate again to find a new apartment for myself and my sizeable gray cat – AKA the Grey Menace. But the one I found was not available until the end of the month. I had to stay put. Deciding to ride out the security deposit on my luxurious current quarters, I did not give Elio an envelope with my check. On Monday morning, Elio was pounding on my door with an ax handle and threatening to bust my head open. Like everything else in the “Fleabag Arms,” the door couldn’t take punishment, and soon Elio was through the door. I met him with a bowie knife in my hand, but I soon realized that I did not need the blade; Elio was extremely Ailurophobic – afraid of cats. Seeing the ax handle, noticing the break-in, and sensing fear, the Grey Menace took a moment to lick his paw. Sensing the proximity of O negative blood, he began howling. He next moved between his prey and the broken door. Elio began to beg me to call off the “kitty.” I sipped my coffee. Dropping his ax handle, Elio dove for the door as the Grey Menace leaped for his hand. As Elio retreated down the street, the cat started what could only be a Victory growl.
Sometime later, Elio showed up with the police in tow. The Grey Menace had reverted to kitty cat mode and rubbed against the officer’s leg while purring loudly. Elio flinched when the officer reached down to pat the sweet kitty. The purring got louder. The look given Elio seemed to say, “you wasted my time for this?”
For some reason, the Gray Menace had always liked the police; we never saw Elio again, the next place we lived had issues of its own, and I now owned a hickory ax handle.
Painting a boot stripe is painstaking work. Just ask generations of seaman, boatyard workers, and boat owners. For the uninitiated, it’s that pristine, no streaks, perfectly straight line that is painted between bow and transom just above the waterline. It can add dash and color to the boat and make a small boat appear longer.
The origin of the boot stripe is lost in time but probably dates back to some Viking bosun who needed to find an occupation for the crew between raiding sessions, cow tipping, and drinking. It’s a picky job. A moment of inattention and it wanders off true, and the bosun will smite you a great wallop alongside your head.
On Psyche, there were dots marked on the hull that you could use as way stations. I’d lay the masking tape between the dots and wait for my wife to give me the thumbs up that there were no dips or bumps between stations. Much mindful preparation went into preparing that tiny red stripe alongside that bikini blue hull. At last, we applied paint.
Into this, carefully orchestrated effort barged the Cap’n and his wife, Cora. The Cap’n, normally unsolicitous of other family members’ opinions, always took Cora’s seriously. Cora had been looking at what the Cap’n called yacht magazines.
In an article, Cora had seen photos of boats with fancy boot stripes. She wanted Daddy to use boot stripe tape in multiple colors to “add a bit of visual interest to the old boat.” Up to this point, the Cap’n had been listening indulgently to his wife. Now he grew flustered – “old boat?”, his beloved 34-foot ketch- his wooden beauty? My wife and I looked at the boot stripe we were almost finished with, looked at Cora’s glowing face, and then took in the scowl on the Cap’n. We decided that this was an excellent opportunity to go to Spinney’s office and mooch a cup of coffee.
As we left, we heard the Cap’n explain that the job was almost done, that there’d be the added expense of the tape and that such a fancy detail might make the boat look tarted up. As we hove out of sight, he looked for a compromise solution with Cora waving a boating magazine below his nose.
An hour later, the Cap’n and Cora caught up with us. The compromise was a new boot stripe next year and new colorful floatation cushions for Psyche’s cockpit this year.
Arm in arm, the two departed for lunch. The Cap’n smiling in victory winked at me. As she passed, Cora gave us a satisfied smile. Cora was a believer in the long game. Or, as Van Gogh said, “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
This city boy became acquainted with working in the woods while living in coastal Maine. Specifically with cutting wood for the woodstove in my in-law’s living room. I had been a Boy Scout, so I was familiar with saw and hatchet. But gathering wood for a scouts campfire or cookout was the limit of my exposure. The cottage had expensive propane heat, and that was why I found myself in the woods with Lyman learning about widowmakers and chainsaws. The actual cost of a cord of wood in those days was pretty cheap, but there was a large family woodlot that wasn’t being thinned, and the wily Cap’n saw a way to thin the lot, and get some work out of his “lazy” son in law.
What was in it for Lyman? A garrulous former bosun mate alone most of the days on his lobster boat or in his shop? Someone to talk with, eat Beer Nuts with, and gossip. Before the woodcutting, I had always seen the quiet, reserved side of Lyman. Once in his shop, sitting around the woodstove, the former Navy bosun came to the fore. Sea stories from cruises to the “Med,” misspent liberties in France and all the scoop on his neighbors. All this and more spilled forth before the fire and the ever full bowl of those tasty sweet salted nuts. This routine became daily.
On a Monday, I arrived at the shop to find that Lyman was not there. I walked up to the house and into the middle of a family feud. Lyman’s wife, May, was throwing an entire jar of the nuts into the trash. Lyman was bent over, clutching his stomach but complaining loudly. “It was that three-alarm chili that did it!” she replied, ” Maybe, but an entire jar of these nuts didn’t help.
Lyman moaned, ” What’s wrong with me? It’s the worst upset stomach I’ve had since those damn clams in Boston.” May turned to him, sadly sighed, and said, “it’s the worst case of a borborygmus intestine I’ve ever seen.” Being that Mary was a nurse, Lyman took her health pronunciations as gospel truth. At that point, Lyman’s stomach let loose with a chorus of loud groans and grumbles; with great apprehension, he looked a May and asked, “WILL I RECOVER??!!!” May all business-like replied, “bland diet – three days. No more beer, no more nuts.” Lyman let loose with another groan, this time one of despair. I quietly retreated, not wanting to witness his humiliation further.
Since I was young, I’ve placed a large amount of credence in the ability of my pre-conscious mind to assist in solving problems and aiding creativity. I’m not a psychologist, so my definition of how this works, or how to define it may not be theirs. I view it as a sort of back shop where all the heavy lifting gets done. A problem arrives, and the guys in the back shop gather around, look at it, kick it, wonder what the hell the guy out front is thinking, say, “sheesh! Not again!” and proceed to solve the issue.
I don’t view it as a sort of cleft in the rock from which solutions gush. Nor can the back shop rest on its laurels for a perfect job done all the time.
You’ve probably driven by businesses where they are proudly displaying banners that read ” 495 days with no lost-time injuries.” Not so in my back shop. They have been more than a few smashed thumbs and screwtape ideas sent forth.
All that being said, the back shop has written some of my better posts, solved thorny personal issues, and worked hard in the shop to enhance my limited artistic talents. Most of what they patch together needs polishing by the conscious. There is a sort of berserk nature to what the back shop does, so I must be careful about blissfully letting some of the more manic offerings loose without proper inspection.
But here we go…OK, folks…take a bow – hey you Charlie – pull up your trousers. You can’t take them anywhere in public.
It’s been a long while now since I got where I wasn’t going. But it happened all the time when I was younger. My friend Bill and I’d be dropped off from a ride in some small town by whatever driver responded to our stuck-out thumbs. Typically we’d find someplace to get coffee, review our map, and ask about good places to get a ride.
For those who do not remember a pre-digital world, broadband, or wi-fi, our maps were printed and non-interactive; if you asked a question, the only voice answered back was the wind.
It had happened a few times to us: the local kid in the coffeeshop would wonder at our map and be amazed that his town didn’t show up, or the shop owner would suspiciously examine our dollar bills.
We learned fast that in those cases. It was wise to depart before other discrepancies showed up. Bill had an experience with a gal who claimed a relationship. An effusive long-lost relation appeared; signs were in strange fonts, movies played in cinemas with quirky titles. He was not tempted to stay. I, on the other hand, was easy to seduce. More than once, I got dragged out of a coffee shop and onto the road. These detours were transitiory; we’d just find our way back to Boston’s Beacon Hill, the Harvard Gardens and our digs at the Folkie Palace.
I still have a fascination with places that appear as non-listed off ramps to sites where Harding is not on the fifty-dollar bill; Starbucks doesn’t serve the best ice cream around or where DC is not the fiftieth state and Alaska a territory.
Sometimes I miss the old days.
During the Great Downsizing of government in the nineties (the Re-invention of Government as they smilingly termed it), I developed some thoughts about how organizations downsize. The theory has it that you remove redundancies and the ineffective to “rightsize” things. Here I am only on the third sentence, and already I’ve used four cliches from the textbook on downsizing. Terrible, isn’t it?
If you’ve been through one or two of these things, you know that the theory doesn’t hold up. Speaking “ex-cathedra” as a practicing anthropologist, I’ll assure you that if the theory availed itself of observation, you’d see that the first to get axed are frequently:
- Those whose earnings help meet budget reduction goals but aren’t protected by higher-ups.
- Those who belong to programs peripheral to core missions, even if successful, and revenue creators.
- Those who have enemies in high places.
Conversely, upper echelons network within the larger organization to find secure niches with the help of superiors; they are large enough to be protected and avoid the ax. The effects don’t trickle down; they cascade down on the mass of people who do most of the work but enjoy none of the protections.
About the same time that I was being re-invented out of my government job, a significant and much-admired computer company was also slowly dismembering itself. After our terminations, many of us found ourselves in the same federally funded program for displaced workers – run by other displaced workers.
In after-action gripe sessions with some of them, I discovered that the company had first sold off all the profitable subsidiaries. The core business got preserved. But the core business was a declining product line that no longer made a profit. It was a sad end for a formerly great firm closed up for good.
The reinvention of government and the company’s dismemberment seems to be permeated by principles that don’t care about the waste they create, only the money they make or save. As a business owner, I like to make money. However, I hate to see wasted human capital. We can always make more money.
Displacing the means of making money reminds me of killing the goose that laid the golden egg. We’re going about it all wrong.
OK. She, Xenia – empress of all she surveys, says that I’ve washed out. Things just have not been maintained to her high standards. We had to search, yes, search, for her kitty bed. Doing a total ransack of the shop only to find it under a pile of boat and ship portraits was unacceptable. Shocking! Just Shocking!
I did point out that she hadn’t been in the shop for the past month, and today’s visit was a surprise. She sneered, and one white paw came away dusty. A blossoming of dust caused a sneeze. That ripped it—a failed white paw inspection.
I pulled out a bag of fresh catnip and paid the fine. A good toot and several snacks later, Xenia had forgiven me with the injunction to ” go ye forth and sin no more.”
I am genuinely repentant.
My in-laws had a Biblical quote for almost everything. Funny, in a family of nonchurch goers. They employed Biblical quotes as a sort of cake topper on arguments. “The righteous has enough to satisfy his appetite, but the belly of the wicked suffers want.” Proverbs seemed to get quoted frequently, and I seemed to be the recipient most often. Being that early on, I was unfamiliar with their argument style; my mouth was agape at breakfast, trying to figure out what this had to with my corn flakes.
It wasn’t capricious; it was part of their family culture. a series of set pieces trotted out to legitimize their positions. They could delegate entire chapters of Proverbs and Numbers for minutes worth of explanation or answers.
Eventually, I learned and employed the same in opposition.
Going one step better, the book of Proverbs became the most dog-eared in my copy of the Bible. I found that if my wife offered a verse on haste, I could reply with, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage,But everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty.” I confounded the process.
They were only operating on the family tradition while I was doing primary research – wily anthropologist.