Dancing Squirrels

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Yesterday morning I was writing at my desk, but distracted by squirrels running through the trees outside while the Swan Lake Waltz played on the radio. It didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see a subtle choreography in their scrambling up and down tree trunks, back and forth over outstretched limbs. They all looked fat and healthy, and I thought, Ah Spring! Here at last!

We have had two springs already this year, interspersed with two returns of winter. I have felt rather sad and uncertain about the future since last November, like we are living in the end times for our world: this strange weather does not bode well and feeds the uncertainty.

Human societies have always had tales of the end of the world, and they are so often climatic. There was the great flood of Sumerian literature, as told in Gilgamesh, which was copied and some interesting details added to become the great flood in the Hebrew Bible. Ragnarok–the twilight of the gods in Norse mythology–is preceded by fimbulwinter, an unrelenting three year winter. This all arises from an ancient sense that life on earth is uncertain and is destined to end. People who raised crops for a living came to depend on the cycle of the seasons, and if there was any tardiness or latency in the return of spring it caused anxiety of an existential nature. This anxiety was dealt with mostly by appeals to the god or gods who controlled the season.

Now we understand that the seasons are inevitable cycles of nature, but the thought that the world will end in climatic holocaust is embedded in many religions. The practitioners of those faiths, taken with their own florid scriptures, hold a calm acquiescence, perhaps even an eager anticipation of the end. Evangelical Christianity or some other form of very traditional faith goes hand-in-hand with the kind of conservative political leaning that denies climate change. I don’t know how much of that denial is, at root, a belief that any cataclysmic change to earth’s ecology is part of a long-ordained divine plan, but I do know that Americans decided last fall against a government that might address the impending threat to our planet.

Even though I anticipate the coming climatic holocaust with foreboding, I don’t really spend my days wallowing in dread about it. Not many people do, as far as I can tell. Kind of reminds me of the great book On the Beach, by Nevil Shute, which was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. It shows people in Australia, the last continent not affected by fallout from the recent nuclear war, going about their business as usual, rarely acknowledging their awareness that the end is coming soon. What else can you do? As the old saying goes, when you don’t know what to do, you do what you know.

And so I spend my time cooking, writing stories, writing new songs, doing the things I’ve always done. Public discourse continues to rant about tax cuts, health care, equal pay, and many other things that will simply not matter in another few years. I am aware that I started writing about the charming image of squirrels dancing in trees, and was quickly diverted to a diatribe on the end of the world.

What are you gonna do? I think it’s likely that the squirrels will survive the coming changes. I don’t think you or I will.

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Coffee Coffee Coffee

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I spent the past week and a half on a road trip of several thousand miles that encompassed eight largely western states. Five of the eight I’d never seen before–I think I’ve previously noted here that I am not well-traveled. I am well read, so the things I see in new places, though I’m seeing them for the first time, serve as visual confirmation of what I often already know.

I have heard that the Texas Panhandle is one long stretch of wind farms, but until you see it, mile after mile of turbines turning lazily in the breeze, you don’t picture the extent of it. It sort of makes you reconsider your devotion to alternative energy, what a visual blight all those spinning blades are across the landscape; but of course our obsession with fossil fuels has ruined entire landscapes, leveled whole mountains, and done much worse to the environment.

I was mostly in New Mexico. I knew I would encounter different menu items at restaurants. I ate things like huevos rancheros and polenta con chorizo for breakfast. What I didn’t prepare for was being asked with each order whether I wanted green or red chili. I soon learned that red is usually milder–though it is an incremental distinction and not a comfort provided to Mid-westerners who are used to Cheerios and Pop Tarts on the breakfast table.

At a café in Chama, New Mexico I asked what was the soup of the day. It was chili, the waitress told me with only a hint of attitude, as if it would be anything else. I declined to order it, but she brought me a small bowl of it anyway, insisting I try it. It was delicious, but I still didn’t want chili for lunch. I probably didn’t make any friends in Chama that day.

I spent time in the area of the Four Corners, and I know that all these western states hold vast Native American Reservations. I passed through many, the Navajo being the largest, and the proliferation of casinos being the most notable sign that I was in Indian territory. In Santa Fe I saw scores of Native American craftspeople with their wares–mostly silver and turquoise jewelry–on display outside the Palace of the Governor. In Farmington I provisioned at a WalMart, where poor and unhealthy-looking Indian families thronged the aisles buying liters of Dr. Pepper, boxes of snack cakes, and frozen dinners.

As I say, none of this really surprised me, it only confirmed things I have read. But the most culturally striking event occurred the morning I left Hovenweep National Monument, where I had been camping. I had been unable to light my camp stove, and couldn’t make coffee that morning, so a stop at the first café offering breakfast was a necessity. It took an hour to reach a little town and find that café.

The place was busy, mostly with Indian families. The waiter was a polite young man who introduced himself as Corey and asked if I needed anything to drink. ‘Yes,’ I said, smiling, ‘Coffee! Lots of coffee!’ Corey did not smile back, and for quite a while the coffee did not come. When he finally produced a cup and poured me some coffee it was good and clearly freshly brewed. But a few moments later, when I had exhausted the contents of that cup, a refill was not forthcoming. I had to signal Corey to get him to produce the pot again. I found it odd that a place specializing in breakfast would be so stingy with the java.

Then I realized: I was in Utah. Looking around, I noticed that nobody else at any table had a coffee cup in front of them. I recalled that Mormons–the larger percentage of the population of the state, did not drink coffee. This to me was very odd. There was a table of four old guys, overalls and ball caps, just like a table of farmers you might see in Missouri, sitting there shooting the breeze, but not one of them had a coffee cup before him.

I have heard that this is because Mormons do not approve of the consumption of caffeine, but that can’t be true. In place of those coffee cups everyone had either a tall glass of iced tea or of soda, and while those drinks may hold a bit less caffeine than coffee, they are caffeinated beverages. I just found it so odd that people in Utah choose to get their caffeine from soda and iced tea instead of coffee in the morning. I continued to ponder it after I finally squeezed a few more cups out of Corey and hit the road towards Colorado.

 

Projecting

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I have a tendency—and I suspect many people do—to let my mind wander in stressful situations to some point at which the situation has been resolved, is over, or can be comfortably ignored. The first time I remember this happening was when I was ten years old, and I sustained a bad injury. As I was sitting in the kitchen with my mother holding me, waiting for the ambulance to arrive, my mind wandered from the pain and the fear of what had happened to later that evening, when I imagined my mother would make me tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I saw myself sitting and eating my soup calmly, the injury bandaged, the pain a thing of the past.

I have been involved in a court proceeding lately, which is very stressful. I was sitting in the courthouse a while back waiting for my attorney to meet me and discuss the likelihood of making progress on the case that day. I projected myself forward to later that night, when I had plans to meet some friends for dinner. I heard the laughter of my friends, felt the warmth of the restaurant, and thought about what I might order. That filled a few lonely moments for me.

I think this is a good mechanism for shielding ourselves from too much stress. Why sit there stewing about the problem at hand if simply projecting our thoughts forward to a calmer time can help relieve the pain? But there is also the tendency, in the extremely artificial lives we lead, to project ourselves out of too much, and into later times, thus robbing ourselves of a good portion of life.

We inhabit a ‘living for the weekend’ culture. We spend 5/7 of our lives pining for the other 2/7 of it. Sure, there are some people who love their work, but it is still work, and can’t compare, for pure joy, to the freedom of the weekend. The irony is that many of us actually do more work on the weekends. I am a library director. People truly don’t understand what my work involves, but my to-do list on the average day includes 10 to 12 items of varying degrees of urgency. But it’s true, it’s mostly administrative, clerical, paperwork. Some of it is even creative work that can be very gratifying. When I lived on the ranch, my weekends were always 8 to 10 hour days of grass cutting, moving hay, turning manure piles, mending fences, tilling gardens, and much more. But still I pined for the weekend as much as a day laborer who would spend his Saturday and Sunday fishing a quiet stream.

We also wish away whole seasons. I really believe that in the most ancient times, humans hibernated, or did something close to it, when the weather got cold. Remember, the earliest Roman calendar didn’t even count the months of January and February, just skipping those days until spring arrived. But for many centuries now we have evolved a lifestyle in which we expect to be fully engaged every week of every month. But both the cold of winter and the heat of summer wear us down and make us weary and longing for something else.

In older times, people had natural breaks in the year, times when activity slowed down. We still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, both of which are simply modern takes on ancient harvest festivals. But we don’t understand or pay attention to what they are supposed to be about; they are reduced to special days. Even people who post the Jesus is the Reason for the Season signs miss the operative word in that phrase—the Season. It’s supposed to be a season, a time set aside, a time to rest, recuperate. Instead it’s just a holiday, and work resumes the next day.

But our constant activity wears us down. It does no good to rail that this is an effect of capitalist society—which of course it is; commerce must go on and take no breaks!—nothing will change. For one thing, the people who make out best within that capitalist society vacation in Florida and other warm places in winter, or find lakeside houses and other cool retreats at summer’s height. I know people who spend so much time in their Florida abodes that they have surrendered citizenship in their home state. But of course these are options unavailable to you and me, or to 99.9% of the human population, and the boss doesn’t care.

Is it a problem that we wish away the last several weeks of winter? Groundhog day finds even the most rational among us wondering if the damn rodent saw his shadow. Or that we wish away most of the month of August, pulling our sweaters out of storage the first day the high temperature doesn’t break the 70s? It’s all well and good for the mindfulness crowd to urge you to be present in every moment, or for someone like me who obsesses about the seasons to insist that you should experience every season for what it is: in the end, we are humans, mammals who evolved within the seasons on earth. We can adapt to extremes of heat and cold, but that doesn’t mean we like them.

Fortunately we are also the only animals with a brain large enough to permit special functions like daydreaming about better, more salubrious times. My court case will extend deep into spring. My work is full of special challenges at this moment. I am like all of us in wishing for some magical, blessed, almost definitely non-existent time when everything will be better. Maybe tomorrow, or the next day . . .

Feb-yoo-ary

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February is a mess, however you look at it—or should I say ‘feb-yoo-ary,’ since most people can’t even pronounce it correctly. That’s right, it’s the only month whose root word is not found in Latin, but in the old Sabine language. Long history.

The first Roman calendar was weird. It is reputed to have been the creation of Romulus, the legendary first king of Rome. Yes, ‘legendary,’ meaning probably didn’t exist, and you know how Western Civilization likes to blame all of its worst things on people who never existed. This first calendar only had ten months, and ran from March to December. I guess nobody did anything important for the next sixty days, so they just didn’t count them. After Romulus no Latin would step up to be the next king, so they forced the position on a Sabine fellow named Numa Pompilius, who didn’t really want it either, though he did a pretty good job. He added the extra months to the calendar, naming January after the god Janus, and February for the Sabine spring preparation ritual called februa. Note here that it was always a given that the year started in March—in spring. Mars, the god whose name is evoked in the month, used to be as much a god of agriculture as a god of war. But we forget that now, since we don’t start the year where we’re supposed to.

It was Julius Caesar whose calendar changed the year in 44 BC, adding the leap year, and starting the year in January. Historians have said he changed the new year for this reason, that reason, and the other reason. In the end I think he did it because he was Caesar and he could. This pestiferous nuisance of a new year has been with us ever since, and it makes things so confusing! February, with its short number of days, was always meant to be the last month, the tag-end, the makeup month. Caesar’s new calendar added the extra leap year day at the end of February, but then didn’t allow it to remain at the end of the year where it was supposed to be. It’s now the second month. This just makes no sense. Since March is now the third month, the last three months of the year are clearly mis-numbered and nobody is worried about correcting that.

In February we are far enough from the winter solstice that there is noticeably more sunlight and it lasts longer in the day, but it’s still cold. We had Groundhog Day this week, on a day when temperatures reached into the 50s (F), but this morning we’re hovering in the low 20s. With all that sunlight people like to think spring is in the air, but if it is, that air is as frigid as any we’ve known all winter. The whole groundhog phenomenon, as well as a raft of other animal-related prognostications cited throughout history, is about the optimism of springtime’s imminent return; but that optimism will be dashed time and again by the coldest days and largest snowfalls of the winter.

February’s holidays are anomalies. Valentine’s Day is supposed to be all about love and romance, but I think we all know what it really is: the annual test of your ability to purchase the correct mementos verifying the scale and persistence of your affection. Or about feelings of suicide. There is a notable spike in calls to suicide hotlines on or around February 14. The severity of the ‘broken heart syndrome’ that besets so many people on this day is attested by the fact that it has its own technical name: takotsubo cardiomyopathy (first diagnosed in Japan, thus the name.) Whether one is single or paired up, Valentine’s Day usually ends up being the least romantic, most stressful date on the calendar. The other February holiday, President’s Day, is no better, usually falling on the birthday of no president. When I was a kid we had two presidents’ birthdays in February, but we can’t do that anymore! What? Two holidays in one month? There’s work to be done! So we have a federal holiday on a randomly selected Monday, where the accomplishments of the two greatest leaders in American history—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—are honored with furniture sales. In fairness I should note that these are often really good sales, worthy of the name Presidents’ Day Blowout!—but still . . .

So the next  time you hear someone say ‘feb-yoo-ary’ and the grammar Nazi in you wants to gently correct them, I would advise letting it go. The month is altogether a lost cause. At least it’s a short month, so we can thank somebody for that.

January Snow

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This morning there were snowflakes in the air. Just a few, brushing past my face intermittently. I haven’t seen the forecast—not that I think it would tell me whether or not to expect snow. I wonder if there’s something on the way and I dread the possibility.

Snow is only magical at Christmastime. During the holidays, when the lights are up, when we are dashing about shopping and going to parties and buying the tree, snow on the ground completes the scene. It feels homey and nostalgic. Even if it’s a significant snow that closes schools and libraries and keeps everyone home for a day or two, there are fun and special things to fill that time. Trimming the tree can fill a wintry afternoon, and baking cookies can take a whole day. What better time for baking than when we’re stuck inside? Standing in the kitchen, watching the kids make a snowman in the backyard, pulling another tray of gingerbread men or snicker doodles out of the oven is like a small chunk of perfection, all brought  to you compliments of the season and the snowfall.

In January? Not so much. It’s just a snow storm. The joy of a special holiday is replaced with worry, since we likely used up too much vacation time in December. We need to make arrangements for childcare in case school is suddenly closed. We worry whether there’s enough windshield de-icer in our cars and salt in the garage. How many snow-shoveling induced heart attacks will we hear about? Is there enough wine and beer in the house to get through a day or two with the family?

Why is it so different? Why can’t we simply enjoy the beautiful snowfall and the sudden day off? For one thing there’s the expense. That unpaid time off or unanticipated childcare expense is hard, and for people whose jobs don’t even offer paid time off, it’s a cut in income. So is another round of paying for snowplowing and show shoveling. These expenses are the same in December, but in December we’re on a spending spree. We’re rolling up credit card debt at a rapid clip, turning a blind eye to the New Year when the bills come due. Once January comes and we sober up, tighten our belts and start to pay off the holiday bills, the last thing we want is more winter-related expense.

And frankly, snow in January fails to be lovely. There are no colored lights to brighten the mounds of white, no polystyrene reindeer pull sleighs through it. We miss the charming incongruity of Mary and Joseph, waist deep in snow, adoring their new-born babe. The treetops don’t glisten, they sag beneath the weight and threaten to snap. The snow plows lumber along the streets, hurling icy brown sludge to the curbs. Because January is colder than December the snow lingers, outstays its welcome, becomes sooty and muddy and gray. It is not a blanket but a pall.

Not only that, but snow in January reminds us of one inescapable fact about winter: February. With the rapidly building climate change, we get many unseasonably warm days in January (2016 was the warmest year on record for the third year in a row). It makes you forget you’re in the midst of winter and leads you to anticipate spring long before it has any chance of appearing–and we still have February to contend with.

I just checked the local forecast, which carries no prediction of snow. I also checked the National Weather Service Website, which carries the headline ‘Tranquil weather for most of the U.S. this weekend.’ Sounds reassuring.

I expect the worst.

Kites

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This morning out on the running path several people passed me carrying signs. There was one young couple and one family group with two small kids. Their signs read Stop Trump and Protect Women’s Health and such. They were headed to the MetroLink train station a half mile away, no doubt to take it downtown to a rally. This will be a busy protest season for many people. I may participate in some, but I realize it won’t do anything. If losing the election by 3 million votes can’t convince a man that he has no mandate from the American people, I doubt that marches will. But I understand the urge to do it, and that it will likely intensify as the weather moderates.

I had been thinking about spring. It’s pretty warm out for a January day, and the first sunny day in over a week, so even though we still have a few months of winter left, it felt like spring was in the air. I thought of what my spring activities might be, aside from political protest. For many years, both as a suburban homeowner and as an owner of rural property, spring meant revving things up, getting ready to plant things, plow things, prepare soil and beds, check the lawn equipment, all with a sense of mixed anticipation and dread. Now, I have no lawn at all to worry about and no garden to enjoy.

Last year I put four pots of herbs in the window of my small apartment. I harvested and used those herbs, and plan to do so again this year. But that’s about the extent of my ‘gardening.’ So what do I have to look forward to in spring, that’s different from what I do all the time?

Fishing—I like that. Trout season begins in March. But I can only go fishing so many times. The best streams for trout are far away enough to make it a full day’s endeavor just to fish for several hours. What else do people who don’t care for lawns and gardens and orchards and beehives do when the weather gets nice?

I have thought about kites. I wonder how much this is a reversion to the joys of my youth. I used to love the thrill of feeling something so far above me tug at the string in my hand. I imagine it’s something like the thrill of flying without actually leaving the ground. But today is fairly windless, despite it being otherwise an optimal weather day, so I think the kites will have to wait.

I also wonder how expensive this seemingly simple pastime has become. When I was a kid, we used to walk to a little market down the street from our neighborhood. If you had a quarter, you could buy a paper kite for ten cents and a ball of string for ten cents. If you could get your mother to give you a worn out shirt or an old sheet to tear in strips you made a tail and were ready to take to the skies. For less than 25 cents. I’m guessing I won’t get off so cheaply these days.

But you’ll notice that as I think about what to do with my upcoming warm spring days, I am thinking about leisure activities—fishing, kite flying. In years past everything was about important seasonal tasks that needed doing. Planting the garden, weeding the flower beds, cutting the grass. Somehow I miss those things, even though they are a lot of work. But not enough to want to return to them. In my life I have never been wealthy, never actually been that comfortable: I have made a living, but I have gone from being house poor to being land poor. Never have I had the time or the resources to enjoy myself with any regularity. Now the thought of doing exactly that looms before me, and I approach it with apprehension.

I am leaving the apartment soon to get groceries and do a few other errands. I wonder where they sell kites? I may stop by and see what’s to be had, ask a few questions. It has been over forty years. Nowadays they probably have remote controlled kites. I can imagine the conversation:

‘Do you have kites?’

‘Sure,’ says the guy behind the counter, ‘what kinda phone do you have?’

‘Phone?’

‘Yeah, what kinda phone? So you can download the app.’

Or maybe not. Maybe they’re still made simply, with paper and balsa wood. I doubt it, but there’s always hope.

 

 

Jupiter Shmupiter

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I just finished a morning run, and as I entered the door to my apartment building a haggard-looking woman with a coat thrown over her pajamas stopped me in the hallway. She was eyeing the outdoors with fear in her eyes. ‘Is it icy out there?’ she asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s not.’ ‘Not at all?’ she continued, suspiciously. ‘I just ran two miles,’ I said, ‘and I didn’t see any ice anywhere.’ I should have added that while there is a little drizzly rain, the temperature is above freezing. As I was walking towards the apartment building I heard birdsong, and I thought of spring. So no, there is no ice. ‘Well,’ the woman said, turning back towards her apartment, ‘I’m not crazy.’

I’m not sure what she meant by that. Maybe she’s one of those people who is often suspected of being crazy, and she wanted to let me know otherwise. She might have meant that she is not crazy enough to venture out on what’s supposed to be an icy morning, regardless of my assertions. But most likely she meant that she hadn’t made up the idea of ice: that there was truly, really, actually supposed to be ice out there. So where was it?

They called it Jupiter, an ice storm of such massive proportions that everyone was cautioned to stay off the roads and prepare to spend three or four days indoors. Stock up on food and buy extra  batteries for flashlights, since there would be widespread power outages. Schools, churches, libraries, businesses all closed—long before a single raindrop fell.

At the height of the hysteria, Missouri’s new governor came on TV and told everyone that he would be mobilizing the National Guard in response to this emergency. That’s really the point when I yielded to the hysteria and closed the library where I work. My staff had been walking around in blackening dread, and I’m sure there was a whispering campaign conducted around the theme of how insane I was to even consider opening on the day of the climatic holocaust. I should have been smarter. I know that new governor is a GOP’er whose main credential to be our state executive is his experience as a Navy Seal, whose campaign ads featured him shooting firearms into various exploding objects (for readers not from Missouri, I swear I’m not making this up), and who clearly had a puerile, macho need to be seen hanging tough with the soldiery.

So Friday came. I was home, and called my mother, spoke with my brother, all of us checking on each other to be sure we were safe and making sound decisions in this time of impending doom. And then I sat all morning and afternoon watching while light occasional showers put down the tiniest film of ice on tree branches and car windows, but completely failed to glaze the streets or sidewalks. It was a complete bust, as far as I (or anyone who would take the time to step outside) could tell.

But the funny thing is that it didn’t change the frantic nature of the reporting on The Event. TV news reporters swarmed the region, letting us know where the worst icing was, where the roads were the most hazardous, where the emergency centers were. It was kind of sad watching a reporter who stood before a building in downtown St. Louis as he asked the cameraman to follow him to a little patch of ice he had discovered near a curb—he prodded it with his shoe and intoned ominously about its dangers. Late in the day came the news of the first death linked to the storm, someone out in one of our rural counties, though nobody mentioned the nature of the death or how it was ‘linked to the storm’—you could just tell the news teams were so overjoyed at being able to report a death that such details became immaterial. By evening I had given up on expecting the storm to make its mark today. Maybe on Saturday we would incur The Wrath of Jupiter.

But as Saturday dawned I came back to reality. The temperature was just above freezing, precipitation was minimal. I quipped that if they wanted to name this storm for a planet, it should be Pluto, the planet that turned out to be too small to deserve the name. I recollected once again that weather forecasts are, first and foremost, advertisements for television news. And for grocery stores. Wow, did our local stores sell out of stuff over the past few days! Even the National Weather Service did not seem to have a grip on things. One guy I work with mentioned on Thursday that after so many warm days in January the streets and sidewalks were likely too warm to ice over quickly. I had the same thought, especially since the temperatures were not exceptionally cold, hovering just around the freezing mark. If a couple of librarians could see that obvious point, couldn’t entire staffs of trained meteorologists figure that out?

The point I want to make is, get out there and see what’s happening. There is still, even in this time of computer modeling and Doppler radar and whatever other technological weather tracking, simply no substitute for going outside and seeing what it feels like it might do. If you hover indoors, staring at your local TV news coverage, you’ll never know anything that’s happening, only what they want to tell you. I know, it’s a sad irony but true, that watching the news will teach you almost nothing of importance. As Nobel Laureate Robert Zimmerman put it many years ago, ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.’

Thinking back on it, I wish I had taken that woman in the hallway by the hand and led her outdoors. ‘Please,’ I would say, ‘just step out here and see. Birds are singing, there is a light breeze and a bit of mist in the air—and no ice.’ But I didn’t. I only watched her turn back to her apartment, likely to spend another day in her pajamas before the TV, shivering and worrying about whether her supply of Beef-a-Roni and canned tuna would hold out, muttering to herself or whoever she thinks might be listening that she is not crazy. No she is not. She is perfectly sane, in the exact same way all of us our perfectly sane.

From the Flophouse

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In another month or so I will have spent a year in the small apartment I moved into when I left the ranch behind. Somewhere along the line I took to calling the place where I live ‘the flophouse.’ The word has all those connotations of a place inhabited by the desolate, the drunken and drugged, the indigent and unfortunate, and I do cast my eye critically upon my neighbors from time to time. As the months roll by though I am returning to a more humane understanding of people. I don’t know anyone else’s situation and experience and I ought not to judge.

We judge people in terms of ownership. The American Dream is a dream of ownership, at least at the individual level. From above, it’s the utopian dream that everyone who ‘works hard, pays taxes, and plays by the rules’© should be able to own a home; from the individual level it’s about me owning a home. To my way of thinking this whole system is now in question on two major fronts.

One is the simple fact that paying taxes and playing by the rules is problematic under a government that increasingly disenfranchises whole blocks of voters, that gerrymanders its way into office using the archaic electoral college, and makes common cause with despotic foreign governments who seek to intervene in our elections. As our next president has asserted, repeatedly and emphatically, ‘It’s a rigged system, folks.’ We should not ignore that fact.

The other change is that many people these days are shifting their emphasis away from using the money they earn to own things to using that money to buy experiences. Whether it’s tickets to symphonies, plays, concerts, and sports events, or dinner out at new and interesting places, or vacations to the kinds of exotic locales people put on their bucket lists and usually never get to, the thinking is that there has to be something more meaningful to do with the cash we earn than buying a bigger home and filling it with more furniture. Some call it minimalist living, and it is much talked about. I don’t know how much it’s catching on, but it certainly appeals to me.

In the early years of this century I lived with my family in a standard middle-class subdivision. We all had two-story brick-fronted, vinyl sided, four bedroom 3-bath homes on quiet cul-de-sacs. Most of the time that we weren’t working to afford these places we spent frantically preening the yards, painting the rooms, cleaning the carpets, and shopping for more bric-a-brac to fill them with. In the decade we lived there our vacations, our trips, our nights out to interesting places were few and far between. It was too expensive and all the money was going to feed the home. Neighbors, of course, rarely spoke. We were simply too busy to get to know one another. I did have one good friend, Jeff, and he was the first person I ever heard succinctly describe our condition. ‘We’re house poor,’ he said.

So now I am faced with a decision as I sit in my warm, cozy little apartment here in what is too easily derided as a flophouse. I have good fair-trade coffee with my breakfast of fresh hummus on homemade whole wheat pita, a baroque concerto playing on my Bose radio. I am surrounded by a few furnishings carefully chosen from Ikea. I have a good laptop computer to type this on. I don’t have Internet service in my apartment, but I do at work, and so it will be easy to upload this writing there when it’s done. What else do I need to be happy?

Yes, it causes one to ask seriously what is happiness? I know there are people at the income level that can afford both the big, richly furnished house and the experiences that make life worth living. More power to them, I guess: but I know they are a tiny minority in our world. For the rest of us it seems the question is in order. Do I maintain my material well-being at a level pretty much prescribed by societal norms (and the needs of The Economy to keep growing), or do I martial my resources in support of something other?

It may have been consideration of this question that all along drove my passion to study the seasons. I started studying the subject in that vinyl mansion in that standard subdivision. I knew that I needed something more than those material trappings to find happiness. For whatever reason, I focused on a finer attention to the world around us, as represented by the flow of the seasons. I read a book a few years ago called Holidays and Holy Nights by a man named  Christopher Hibbert. It was specifically about the old Catholic liturgical year and how it defined the flow of the seasons over hundreds of years for a vast part of western society. It was a beautifully written book and very nostalgic for that old cyclical routine, which has been largely lost, even among observant Catholics. Mr. Hibbert noted that regardless of whether one is Catholic or not—and I certainly am not—we in the 20th and 21st centuries are the only people in history who are trying to live our lives without some observance of a seasonal calendar. I think he’s right, and I think it’s a loss.

So I find myself back here, in my small apartment in the flophouse. Soon, when certain niggling legal considerations are resolved, I hope to move on to something ‘better.’ What that better will be is a major decision at my time of life. Will I choose to continue on the path of ownership of more and more nice things, or on spending the last few decades of life experiencing much of what I have missed?

I hope I make the right choice.

 

 

Christmas

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I awake alone this morning before Christmas Eve, alone not exactly by choice, but then most of what happens to us in life is a consequence of some choice we have made. Sure, I know people—friends, family, those I work with—and my life is not solitary; but there is something different about having or not having someone to wake up with after so many years, someone to look at and say ‘only one more day to Christmas!’

Relationships, like so many facets of our lives, live in the seasons, but are not themselves seasonal. A new love wants to stretch its wings in spring, an old love wants to walk among the falling leaves of autumn, and all love wants to nestle beside the tree at Christmas and share the joy of the season. But of course this is sentiment and it stands next to reality in the light of day.

Anton Chekhov, one of our most astute students of relationships, said ‘If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.’ You can feel more lonely in a bad relationship, even in a relationship gone stale, than in none at all. It’s just that time and habit make us long for the other person in that bad relationship when the right season comes around. Someone to sip eggnog with, someone to watch the parade with, someone to put up the tree with. Doing any of these things alone has come to seem unnatural.

Some relationships are, as they say, made in heaven. They will endure for all time, and through all seasons. In all the rest, one partner puts forth the prodigious effort to make them work. The funny thing is that in bad relationships, both partners tend to think they are the one who is making it work, and this breeds the abiding resentment that will eventually cause it to fall apart. We may, in a sentimental mood, wish we had someone beside us as the holiday approaches, but if we reflect on the tension of the holiday with someone who was never really right for us, of gifts unappreciated, of arguments over when or where or how to celebrate, we can learn to deal with the fact that just maybe we’re better off alone. This is not to say we plan to stay alone—only that we are learning to be comfortable with the change.

All seasons are transitions from one thing to another, and will return. But relationships are not seasonal in that good ones endure through all seasons and bad ones can end. Just end. I heard a comedian once say that his girlfriend had decided to continue their relationship without him. This is a farcical expression of one’s inability to face what has ended; not changed, not evolving, but over. It’s something many of us will face, and we need to be able to do it.

But Christmas makes it hard. Perhaps all holidays are hard, but Christmas, being something like the King of Holidays, is the worst. I am having my family come to my small ‘bachelor pad’ for Christmas Eve dinner. It will be fun, I’m sure. And then I will go to my mother’s for Christmas dinner. Hardly a lonely or isolated life, but very different. I have had a few correspondents in the past weeks console me about how it feels to be alone at this time of year. Something to ‘power through’ as one put it. So I am powering through, and keeping my eye on the New Year, on the spring, and on all the seasons of happiness to come.

A Name for the New Year

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What does one name a history of the New Year? Provided, of course, that one does not want to call it Auld Lang Syne, the title that springs most readily to mind and is just as readily discarded as too trite? Just as when I began working on a book about the seasons and determined not to call it A Time for Every Purpose, or To Everything There Is a Season, or any other snippet of the text from Ecclesiastes, I don’t want to title a work on the New Year the most obvious thing on the face of the earth.

In 2015 I was co-author of a small book on the history of the town where I work. There were three authors on that project, and I am now working with one of them to write a book on the history of the New Year, which is a richer and more layered subject than many may realize.

My part of the book is the ancient history and the controversial transition from celebrating the New Year in spring, as it was done from the Stone Age forward, to January 1, which was an innovation of Julius Caesar, later to receive the approval of the Catholic Church. Deborah, my co-author, is researching the huge variety of traditional observances and practices which inform modern celebrations throughout the world.

But we have been stymied up to this point in coming up with a name that we like, that evokes the totality of what we mean to accomplish with the book. This week we were reading quotes about the New Year, and there are some really good ones. Perhaps my favorite comes from American journalist Bill Vaughn, who said, ‘An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.’ I am also fond of Oprah’s famous quote, that the New Year is ‘another chance to get it right.’ But how do you make that into a title? And not get sued by Harpo Productions?

I thought for a while that the title might be something having to do with Janus, the god with two faces who gives his name to the month January. But I can’t think of what the title would be, not to mention that a main thesis of the book is that celebrating the New Year in January is a mistake for a number of reasons, and that worship of Janus was one of the likeliest reasons that Caesar set his year to begin on January 1.

So here I am, throwing it open to suggestions. What would you name a book on the history of the New Year?