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Grandpa and the Pocket Knife


One summer, when I was a young teen, I bought a pocket knife with my birthday money. I was proud of my knife. It was an Old Timer, with two folding blades, the normal blade and the one my dad called a “frog sticker”.  I practiced sharpening them and whetting them, and then I showed my treasure to my mother’s dad.

He wasn’t as impressed as I hoped he would be. He showed me his pocket knife, which was very sharp. He didn’t keep it in his pocket, even though this is what the name implied–I mean, you keep a pocket knife in your pocket, right?

No! Said Grandpa! You never keep a pocket knife in your pocket. What if it came open, and you cut yourself? Grandpa’s knife was extremely sharp, Granny said proudly. He even told their neighbor at the cabin “Be careful, it’s sharp,” and the old guy didn’t listen and he cut himself.  I don’t know if Granny agreed with Grandpa because she actually agreed with him, or if it was just easier to go along with the illusion.

You see, Grandpa was a worrier. If worrying was an Olympic sport, he would have earned a medal, which he would have worried over until it got thin and tarnished. He had ulcers in the 1970s, and he was hospitalized. So, it follows that he wouldn’t keep his pocket knife in his pocket.

Instead, he carried a worry stone. I don’t know anyone else who carried a worry stone, but my Grandpa did. His stone was smooth, the size of a quail’s egg, and had a rounded spoonlike indentation from all his worrying. Or maybe when he found the stone, the river or lakeside had done all the worrying for him.  Still, he rubbed it, the way some people would handle prayer beads. Extra worrying, all rolled into a stone.

The stone was a constant pocketed reminder for him not to worry. Not to worry about things like financial instability. Or if you were making your own wife and children frantic or miserable with your worrying. I don’t know if he worried about that or not. I’m just musing here.

When I asked him about the stone, he was actually eager to help find me one of my own, for my pocket.  We went to the shoreside on a sunny day at Donner Lake (a place for worrying about cannibals if there ever was one). There was a brisk breeze. I presented him with dozens of candidate pebbles, but none of them would pass muster. Some were too rough. Some were too smooth.  Some would just fall apart in my pocket after a few weeks. Some were the wrong color. Too hard. Too big. We never found my worry stone.

Maybe he was worried that if the worry stone wasn’t perfect, if he wasn’t perfect, we would stop loving him.  Maybe Donner Lake just wasn’t the right place for worry stones.  I’m sure that’s why he spent his summers there.  You don’t need to worry in your vacation cabin when you’re surrounded by the people who love you.

We would take hikes to the Union Pacific railroad sheds, high on the granite mountains above the lake. His own dad, and his grandpa, were both railroad men. It’s from the railroad where he got his nickname. How can a person with a nickname like Spike be worried about anything? But he was. He wouldn’t let us play on the railroad crossbeams. We might get slivers.  He wouldn’t let us walk inside the snowsheds. What if a train came when we were inside?

We placed a penny on the railroad track because, he said, it was good luck. We came back down the mountain.  That night, we heard the long, funereal whistle of the trains passing high above us. We never went back to see our penny. Maybe it was a sacrifice to progress. Maybe letting go of little things are just easier than holding onto what you can’t control. The perfect worry stone, for example, or the flattened railroad penny.

I carried my pocket knife in my pocket, despite Grandpa’s warning. Eventually, I lost the knife, which is exactly what young boys are supposed to do with them. He never said a word. He bore all the burdens of what-might-happen on his shoulders so we would never have to hold onto all those troubles.

I never did end up finding the perfect worry stone. Maybe it takes a special kind of person to find the right one, and I was just never going to be that guy. I bet grandpa never lost a single pocket knife he ever owned. They tend to stay in your possession longer, if you don’t carry them around, but you miss so much joy, and so much danger, just keeping the knife on the stand by your favorite chair.

Thunderstorms and Worm Rescuing


Yesterday I walked home in a thunderstorm. I rode the bus from work, to Reston’s county bus depot and then, from the depot, we all rode to the Metro stop. These shenanigans take about 30 minutes. Then I walk the last 10-15 minutes home. It started raining at the depot, and by the time we reached the Metro station it was pouring and rain was coming down sideways. On the open air landing at the bus depot are a number of small shops, hardly bigger than a garden shed. One sells pearl tea. A couple sell jewelry. One is a bookstore with what I imagine to be a *very* limited selection. There could hardly have been more than 400 books in there. But, like I said, it was raining sideways so I didn’t stop. Then there is a long open air pedestrian causeway that crosses the toll road. It has a roof, and mesh sides, so nobody becomes a victim to too much leaning in traffic. The sideways-coming rain blasted into our faces.

The causeway leads to the Metro boarding area, and for me, the other side of the tool road. I reached the very wet other side with ease, after being several dozen feet off the ground for about five minutes. I traveled down an escalator and was once again connected to terra firma, rather than air up-there-a.

This is where I spotted the worm. He was most likely driven from his home by flooding. He lay squirming in the pavement. I was surprised by the very short amount of time that had passed between him and his evacuation. His tunnels must not have been up to code. I pinched his wriggling worm body between my fingers and tossed him into a lawn-and-tree island in the parking lot. His family would thank me later.

I watched for worms all the way home on the rainy sidewalk. There was a tree that dropped long soggy wormlike pollen tufts. It tried to fool me but I couldn’t be dissuaded. I crossed a busy street, and another not-so-busy avenue, to get home. I hiked in the mud between two huge pine trees near our house. I found the next worm about 30 feet from my home. And another, and another and another. Probably 8-12 worms. Some had left too early, and fried on the pavement during an earlier rainstorm. But some were alive. I rescued them all; at least the live ones.

I always wonder at the flight of the worms, whenever I rescue one. Maybe it makes me feel slightly better about the dozens I leave behind when I’m splashing my way to the car on a rainy day. It makes me become more considerate of the hundreds I probably run down between my home and my work. What is a token worm tossed back to the grass? Well, to Mr. Worm, everything. (It is Mr. Worm still. He is still editing his Doctoral dissertation.)

In the meantime, Judi had the car in Washington, DC, where she was attending a conference. She had to pay $50 for valet parking at the hotel, but will be reimbursed. GOD I hope she’ll be reimbursed. Whatever happened to $5 valet parking?

Around 4PM, near the end of her conference day, a child decided it would be fun to pull a fire alarm. They had to evacuate the entire hotel. She, the gimpy one, led a co-worker with seizure disorders, up three flights of stairs.  The epileptic one had to climb the same stairs, with her eyes closed, and both hands over her ears, so the lights and bells wouldn’t trigger an episode.  Behind them, another coworker was monitoring their progress so they wouldn’t come tumbling back down the stairs.  She got to stand in the same thunderstorm until, awhile later, the building was given the all-clear signal.

Essentially, we had the same day, except she is far more heroic than I am. I like to think that I rescue the little things, like worms. Judi rescues the big ones. Like her seizure-prone friend. And like me.

Every time I move, I affect the universe on a larger, or smaller, scale. I inhale microbes that don’t make it past my immune system. I stand uncomfortably close to a person in line at the grocery store. I shout at a staff member. My thousands and thousands of tiny interactions are sometimes negative, sometimes positive. Sometimes they’re with people, sometimes with the cat. Sometimes it’s with even smaller critters. All I can do is make a few of them better. I mean, I just gave Mr. Worm the chance to visit his family again (if I put him into the correct lawn island) during a thunderstorm, and to earn his Ph. D.

Doctor Worm. It has a nice ring to it.

The Vampire Queen and Spider Poets


Yesterday at work, I met a vampire. At least I’d like to think it was a vampire, because it makes the story better. She licked the dribbles of blood from her hand, that she had discovered moments earlier, while she was waiting to order. She asked us for a bandaid. Then she started bleeding again, and said something like “Man, I keep cutting myself on something.” Then she proceeded to lick off all that blood from her hand, right in front of me. Next she went to the bathroom, to do god-knows-what, and returned a few moments later to exclaim that it was the rhinestones on her pants that were “disintegratering.” Kids, don’t do drugs. Not even once. I’m surprised she didn’t ask for a pair of pliers to pull the rhinestone studs out of her pants. I imagine those pants really wreak havoc on wooden furniture. Maybe she should stick to skirts. Dark colors of course, so they don’t stain red.

I just got back from my run. Welcome to week three, Brian! It wasn’t too horrible, but I really pushed myself. I hope I don’t pay for it later. The workout this week is only 28 minutes. Thank God. I don’t know that I could have managed 30 today. It was fairly grueling, and I could feel my legs tighten when I was going up hills. Also when I was going down hills. It was already close to 80 when I started my run, and the trail was slippery from two days of humidity. It was like breathing soup. I was afraid I’d slip and fall down on some random leaf. I remembered to keep my butt underneath me, and to land each step carefully, but every once in awhile I could feel the paved trail give zero resistance under my feet. This scared me, and I was constantly worried that one false move would send me tumbling. Anyway, I made it home, and I wasn’t dead or dying or anything. I was sweating more than a normal person should. Maybe it’s my super power.

I try to listen to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac podcast every day, to get relaxing moment of poetry in my mind. My goal is to really consider a few words, and find out where they take me. I try to keep an open mind. Lots of the poems he chooses aren’t really to my taste. Or, rather, they are, because they’re perfectly unchallenging. They give you a scene, and a picture or a reminiscence, but nothing more. Occasionally I want to read a little more by an author whose name he mentions. Louise Erdrich, for example. But mostly I want to figure out a way to make my prose poetic, and make my poetry prosaic.

have you ever wondered at those people who manage to spin out poems like a spider spins webs out their butt? The poem may seem intricate and homey, but only to the spider. Anyone else will get stuck in the sticky web, and want to scream, but you just. can’t. get. away. A big purple, bulbous face appears above you, and says “Hey, did you like my poem? What did you think?” Then, before you realize it, all your juice is sucked out, and you’re a dessicated husk. You find yourself smiling, and bobbing your withered head. “Maaaan that was some good poem.” But what you really wanted to do was run away from the person who would set rhyme to “love” and “above”, and who shifted their verbs to the end of lines to force a rhyme. No enjambment here. Please move on.

Today, It feels like I’m scraping thoughts off my brain the same way you’d use sandpaper to clean off a piece of rough wood. And coming up with… dust. I need to look at the finished product, not the pile of dust. Who knows: maybe I’ve been looking at the wrong pile all along?

Writing is like running. Don’t stare down at the ground where your feet are landing–look forward, 20, 50, 100 feet ahead. You need to focus on what’s coming. I’m not sure how good I am at this, either when running or writing. At the very least, looking forward what I should do. It’ll keep me far, far away from the hand-licking vampire queen.

Eleven Songs in Eight Hours


Here’s a list of songs that got stuck in my head yesterday, and I found myself singing, out loud, yesterday at work. There may very well have been more songs that I was humming, and never really noticed. This isn’t particularly an enlightening post about anything except the inner workings of my head, and the soundtrack that bounces through my mind, and flows out my head. And boyyy are you folks in for a treat.

Let it also be known, my workplace has a stereo, and it cranks out mostly indie music all day long. It’s monotonous and makes everyone on staff quite grumpy. I have a feeling, without knowing for sure, that they’d rather listen to me sing. 😉

“Just Call Me Angel of the Morning.”  This classic has been done by several people, including Olivia Newton John and Nina Simone. It was originally written for Connie Francis, but her handlers thought it was too risque.  The version in my head was the one from my early teens, that Juice Newton sang. It’s a little bit country. It’s also a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

“I Can See Clearly Now,” recorded by Johnny Nash, was soon vying for equal time. I looked this song up on Wikipedia because I wasn’t certain I knew the exact title. It’s a little reggae, a little sunshine. A little honky Rhodes piano. I like the piece even though it’s most definitely an earworm. It’s laid-back with unthreatening lyrics that make you relax. Sometimes, it’s exactly what you need to get through a long shift.

“Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” If this song had any couth at all, it would have lined up right after Angel of the Morning, and made a country-western playlist from the last quarter of the 20th century. But it didn’t. Crystal Gayle, with the super-long hair (and, apparently, with brown eyes that did not change colors), was the sister of Loretta Lynn. I didn’t think of Loretta. So I didn’t think of Kenny Rogers or Waylon Jennings. Or Conway Twitty. I thought of Crystal Gayle. And her brown, brown eyes that were made blue.

Then, and this was a treat, I thought of the “Kovari Waltz.” Unless you are Czech, and lived in the late 19th century, I’d wager you’ve never heard this piece. My great grandmother taught it to me.  I know all the words in Czech. It doesn’t make me special. It makes me really really weird. And I like this song, not because I dig polka bands (although that’s as good a reason as any) but because my grandma taught me to play it on the accordion. That’s right. I have heretofore unrevealed Accordion Super Powers.  I could only find a single version of this song on YouTube. I guess that makes that version of the song definitive, although it’s definitely not quite how I remember the tune going.

Czech polkas and waltzes lead, of course, to Elvis Presley singing “Blue Christmas.”  The background singers were even doing their doo wop rumble in the background. I didn’t try to sing that part though. I’m good, but I’m not *that* good. And I just have to say, DANG this song annoys me. It didn’t take long before it finally left my mindscape for something else.  Nobody deserves too many minutes of Blue Christmas. Not even Enemies of the State. Not even defense attorneys.

Something made me think of “Abraham, Martin and John.” The famous version was recorded by Dion (without the Belmonts.  He was keeping away from Runaround Sue, I guess). I remember a less popular version: Harry Belafonte had one tucked away on an album that I listened to over and over again. I really love his voice. It can’t be helped. Sometimes cheeseball melancholia gets the better of me, and I find myself crooning this piece while I’m trying to locate the mop.

Then: “My Glory and the Lifter of My Head.” This is taken from a Psalm 3. I have a really tough time taking this song seriously, because it needs a banjo and a bluegrass fiddle to really give me any kind of feels. It’s too happy, but It’s stuck in my memory, from the 1970s when we sang songs like this in my church. I remember Brother Fred Eccleston strumming out the chords on his guitar.

“The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” There’s only one version of this song. He was the greatest little hobbit of them all, you know. And if you’re not listening to this Leonard Nimoy novelty masterpiece, you should be. I annoyed my co-workers with it for a full 10 minutes yesterday, before I finally veered off into the Rolling Stones.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Oddly, I heard this song this morning as part of my runner’s playlist. I assume that this Stones piece entered my head because I was complaining about a customer.

And then I sang another song that few people remember: “Gitarzan,” by Ray Stevens.  The song is not one of his most famous works, but the following lines: “He had a pet monkey, and he liked to get drunky, and they played boogie woogie and it sounded real funky.” I mean, how can you go wrong with deep lyrics like that?

Aaaand finally, before anyone killed me, one more song passed my mind: The Serendipity Singers did a calypso piece called “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down.” I don’t remember when I learned this piece, but as a kid I remember going to Fairytale Town, across the street from the Sacramento Zoo. I loved that place almost as much as I loved the Zoo itself.  It had a plaster Humpty Dumpty sitting on the wall. It had a giant Shoe you could climb inside, à la “there was an old woman who lived in a…” There were plaster swans and ceramic toads, and giant mushrooms to climb on. And “there was a crooked man who had a crooked smile. He had a crooked sixpence and he walked a crooked mile. He had a crooked cat and he had a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a crooked little house.” The crooked mile was there (a raised stone garden pathway that meandered all through the place) as well as the crooked house.  I discovered the song years later. And then I sang his crooked song for 20 minutes while I did the dishes.

And that, my friends, is why you don’t want to work with me.

Freewheelin’ It with Bob Dylan


When I run, I have a rock and roll playlist streaming on my iPhone. Today’s selection included “Highway Sixty One Revisited” by Bob Dylan. This piece was one of his first, after the famous folk singer went electric. The song includes this memorable scene:

Well, Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
‘I got forty red, white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring.
Do you know where I can get rid of these things?’
And Louie the King said, ‘Let me think for a minute, son.’
And he said, ‘Yes, I think this could be easily done:
Just take everything down onto Highway Sixty One.'”

Another fun song he wrote around this same era is “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat.” I recommend you check it out.

I don’t like Bob Dylan’s voice. He makes me shiver with nausea and indignation. Bob Dylan delivers his music with all the tunefulness of a steroid injected goat. Yet, despite his bleating, his lyrics are filled with vivid characters and imagery. They can be fun, especially if you don’t try not to listen to him and, instead, listen to it. Occasionally the images come a bit too fast and you just drown in his mental thrashing about. I’m thinking of the words from “Like a Rolling Stone”:

You used to ride on a chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat.
Ain’t it hard when you discovered that
He really wasn’t where it’s at,
After he took from you everything he could steal.

Huh?

And of course I’m running with Bob. Yeah. This was a blog about running. At least, that’s where this whole thing began when I started writing this morning. I’m at the end of my second week of actual running. In the early part of the Couch to 5k plan, the online coach calls for you to run for two minutes, and walk for two minutes. I end up running for twelve, and walking for twelve. Then I have a five minute cooling off period. Since I walk around the lake in a big loop, I occasionally spot folks headed the other way. Sometimes I see them twice, which defies some kind of mental logic. How can I see the same old person twice and the same Irish setter twice, and they don’t want something either time? I guess I’ve been working in the service industry too long now.

And the two minute alternations? That’s where I’m at physically. I’m taking it easy, wanting to make a lifestyle of this, sort of like what I’m trying to do with writing. I realize I need to lose a bunch of weight, and working my butt off is the only way I know how to do it.

Oh–believe it or not, I’m still writing, although my schedule has been sketchy. I’m a morning person. I like to wake up, and get things done before my mind or body realize what kind of torture I’m putting them through. I’m not a horrendously evil guy, but on occasion my body thinks so. Still, I’m throwing 750 words, or sometimes just a paragraph or two, onto the computer every day, even if you don’t see anything.

Apparently I have old knees. They’re older than the rest of my body–with the possible exception of my ankles–by about fifteen years. The rest of me ages correctly, but my knees and ankles put up stiff resistance every time I try to move. I guess I could probably do low impact exercise like swimming, but this costs money, and requires squeezing my giant hairy body into swim trunks. Also, I need to face facts: I’m not quite there aerobically. Even my twenty four minute sprint walks tend to heighten my breathing until I’m sometimes not sure I’ll make it home.

Speaking of breathing, did I ever mention I use an inhaler for asthma? It’s not a bad condition like some people, but I do require an inhaler. It can be incredibly tedious to have your lung capacity diminish to the point of each wheeze sounding like Minnie Mouse.

As for diet? I just spent the last forty five minutes chopping up vegetables. I’m trying to make a serious attempt at eating more healthy food. This is going… Well, it could be going better. Most days I do well for breakfast and lunch, then when it gets to be dinnertime, I blow it horribly. For breakfast, banana, cherries and yogurt. For lunch, an assortment of veggies, and a dressing I made from yogurt and some variety of spices. I’m pretty much cutting carbs and fat out of my diet in the form of bread. I guess when it comes to it, I’m trying hard to eat things that improve potassium levels.  Avoiding cramps is a good thing. I ate dried apricots, but they had an awful lot of sugar. The other day I bought some prunes. They remind me of the cabin my grandparents owned in Wright’s Lake, way up in the Sierra Nevadas in California.  Great Grandma always had a big glass jar of dried prunes, and she’d dole them out slowly so we kids wouldn’t poop like seagulls. They were always a delicious snack that I’d really enjoy. Oh, and radishes too. I bought a bunch of radishes.  My Farmer grandparents always seemed to have radishes. They grew them in their huge backyard garden. I bought a few dozen of them today, washed them up and threw them in my veggie tray. I guess that’ll be my healthy dinner.

Then I chased a grumpy Alex away from the computer and began this blog. Nothing is earth-shattering today. I, ran, I shopped, I ate a little, I chopped vegetables, and now I’m writing. Work happens in an hour.

Oh, and Bob Dylan. He ties things together with his free-wheelin’ness. May your days be informed by his advice:

Look out kid!
Don’t matter what you did:
Walk on your tiptoes,
Don’t try “No-Doz”–
Better stay away from those–
That carry around a fire hose,
Keep a clean nose,
Watch the plain clothes.
You don’t need a weatherman
To know which way the wind blows.

Blessings and donuts to all of you.

The Farmer’s Market


Yesterday I went to the Farmer’s Market. Judi was having a good morning, which is somewhat rare for a Saturday. I had just finished my run and once I finished a half hour of spacing out and sweating, I jumped into the shower and we made our way to the market. We left the boys at home. We will bring them them out and get them air later in the week. Anyway, Every Saturday at our Farmer’s Market, people from all around the area plant square awnings, weighted by gallon milk jugs filled with sand so they won’t fly away, and sell us arts and crafts, fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses. There is usually live music. Yesterday it was a bluegrass band. It starts every year around Memorial Day, when you can buy leafy green vegetables and strawberries, and continues until the last week of October when it’s dark as they set up their wares.

I dropped Judi off at the corner of the Market so I could look for parking. This can take a bit of time as you circle the lot with the dozens of other cars who had the same idea that we did. Today we had a pretty easy time of it though, and I located a spot within ten minutes. I soon located Judi through the hundreds of people milling about. She was shopping through the arts and crafts booths. There were five or six folks selling handmade jewelry. Several people were selling loose-fitting clothes at way-too-high a price. There was lots of batik and tie-dye. There was plenty of homemade knickknacks–the woman from Newport Oregon had a wooden sign that identified her as “The Oregon Gal”.  The sign had a beaver on it. There’s no accounting for taste. She made wine shelves from pallets she tore apart. She had made a few cork trivets, she announced, with corks contributed by local vineyards, and from trash of her wino neighbors. The woman to whom she had related this story just raised a chilly eyebrow and walked on. Maybe she had wino neighbors too. Oregon Gal crocheted little kitchen scrubbing pads out of wedding tulle. We bought a couple of them.

An Indian woman really wanted Judi to buy a flowy white, sleeveless cotton sun dress. Judi wasn’t interested. Not for $70. She couldn’t pass up socks with cats on them. I admit, those were pretty cool.  The weavers who hand-make dish towels and washcloths occupied the same spot they always do. There’s a woman, presumably the weaver; and a man, who is always silent, and is always wearing a tee shirt that says things to the effect of “I just do what my wife tells me.” A girl was selling handmade soap and candles in dozens of colors.

And there were two booths, one manned by local republicans, right across the alley from their democratic rivals.  The republicans had a plate of free cookies. “Come to the dark side,” said the balding man with a wink. Okay, he didn’t actually say that, but he *should* have.

There was a trailer that sold kettle corn. They did a popping business. yukyuk. No, really. There was always a line for gallon plastic bags of kettle corn.  There were two, or maybe three, meat vendors there.  The meat was all stored in coolers full of ice. One had an “All meat in this cooler is 50% off” cooler. It was filled with veal, which doesn’t appeal to either Judi or me, so we moved on. Another vendor proudly sold “Rabbit, duck, and water buffalo.” It sounded like a Looney Toons presentation.

There were several vendors who sold salsa, sauces, and pickles. But two booths actually made a business from it. We bought gnocci and pesto from a woman who made her own. There were two or three creamers, selling goat cheeses, ice creams, and yogurts. There was a woman selling strawberry, chocolate and vanilla milk.

And of course there were fruit and vegetable vendors. Several varieties of squash and cucumbers were available. It was a bit early in the season for tomatoes, but there were a few. We bought some apples and strawberries.

The new addition to the farmer’s market was the food vendors. It used to be just the popcorn guy, but now four vendors sold tacos, barbecue (Uncle Fred’s barbecue to be exact), empanadas, and pulled meat sandwiches. I grabbed a couple because by 11AM, after my long sweaty run, I was getting quite hungry. Then we loaded our vegetable treasures into the bag and left.

I think I wore Judi out. I hope she’s okay, because today is our 23rd anniversary, and we need to do *something* to celebrate. We have enough vegetables now. I’m sure we can think of something fun to do with them.

Coffee, Jiffy Lube, and Old Victrolas


Today is warm and overcast, but I have my coffee and I am willing to get going on life.  I drove Judi into work and had her grab me a large coffee with the online ordering system. Don’t look at me that way–I’m a well-behaved gentleman and get my own coffee most of the time.  She got TWO large coffees and a sandwich so she wouldn’t have to make a second trip from her office (where there is lousy coffee) to the coffee shop (where there is much better coffee and a long line). At 6:30 AM, these are the sacrifices you have to make.

Next, I drove the car to the Jiffy Lube. They don’t open until 8AM, and I got there at 6:45 so it was sort of a mess-up.  I need to get the oil changed (not sure I’m capable of doing this task by myself anymore) and have the tires filled with air.  When we drove to Alexander’s birthday dinner last night, it seemed quite bumpy with 1000+ pounds of “cargo” in the automobile. I think we might have a slow leak in one of the tires anyhow, so this is just a stopgap measure, until I can buy some new ones, maybe later this summer.

It is 8AM and I was listening to Spotify for the last hour. Today’s playlist was from 1940. I assembled it a few months ago, when I was watching that Ken Burns documentary about the Roosevelts, and the second documentary about World War II.  Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” was popular that year. So were “Tuxedo Junction” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,”.  It seems 1940 was full of Glenn Miller. The United states was still a couple years from entering the war, and the Depression was gripping us. I guess we needed something go make us believe in ourselves again.

Next, I listened to old wax cylinder recordings from the turn of the last century.  I’m coming to realize that I have missed loads of music that may have been really important to our history. The music is muddy, of course, with scratches and cracks. I guess when you record on wax, it’s bound to happen.  My Granny and Grandpa Spurgeon had some friends when we were growing up. I remember this place well, because Joe and Esther Moser had two different recording devices that played wax cylinders. One was Edison make, and the other was a Victor. In those days, the music was controlled by the manufacturer of the device it was recorded on.  Edison had its own stable of musicians and recordings, which would *only* be playable on Edison’s machines (not to mention player pianos) It’s not like today, when every song is easily purchasable on any device you’d like to listen to it with.

Anyway, the Mosers had all these machines, and a catalpa tree in his back yard, that grew big long beans. He let me visit his son’s room. The son had died a few years earlier in a car accident. He owned a trumpet that he played in the high school band. Joe kept the room exactly the same as she had left it. Joe showed the trumpet to me, but wouldn’t let me play it. I was perhaps 12 years old so I wasn’t surprised he never allowed me the chance to put my own spit into his memorial tribute. My mother tells me Joe had a couple *really* old cars and would occasionally take them out for a spin. I don’t remember old cars. This was the first place anyone let me touch a typewriter. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever thing. I guess Joe Moser liked his gadgets.

In my listening, I heard an old song that I hadn’t recalled in years.  My grandfather used to bounce me on his knee and sing it to me: “Pony Boy, pony boy… Won’t you be my Pony Boy?” went the chorus.  And he would bounce me harder and harder when the lyrics turned to “Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, whooooooa!” He was a good man, my grandpa, and loved to sing.  That song is over 100 years old now.  When I knew him I don’t think there was a single record in the house. He listened to talk radio. It’s funny how things will change.  If you give a person a Victrola, they’ll be interested in music for awhile. But give them a song to sing, and that song will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Alexander’s Graduation Dinner


Some days, no matter what you do, your days just don’t go the way you think they will. I got up, sat at the computer and told myself a dozen times, “I won’t be spending all day on genealogy. I won’t be looking over my grandparents and great grandparents’ files and fooling around.” This ploy of mine didn’t work even the tiniest bit. Instead, I looked up at 3:45 and I was *still*, after eight hours, plodding along with “hints” on ancestry.com. The trouble is like my old friend Mike, playing Civilization. At three in the morning, his wife calls him to come to bed. “But Joyce, my people *need* me,” he complained. Yeah. They don’t need me all that much.

Today was Alexander’s High school graduation dinner. About 2 PM, I realized we had this planned, and that we had completely forgotten this was happening. He wanted to go to a place called Memsahib, up in Rockville, Maryland. we got there in good time, considering we left during rush hour. It took about 45 minutes to take a spin up the beltway. If Highway 495 is the clock circling Washington DC, Rockville is at about 11:30. We had reservations but were early.

The bonus was finding a used bookstore, a quite good one, in the strip mall where the restaurant is. People may not know this, but I adore bookstores. I love the smell of them. I love the chatter of the staff with the customers. I love how you can buy 400 pages of paper for $2, and feel like you’ve got the better side of the deal. I love that you aren’t online when you walk into a bookstore, and I love most that the rest of my family loves them as much as I do. If we didn’t have to get back for our reservations, I would have spent another hour there.

But alas, Daniel’s bladder was full. We walked in at seven PM and the restaurant was empty, except for the staff. They ignored us while they talked for a couple minutes, planning their night or whatever. There was a sign that told us to “Please wait to be seated” even though, well, we could have sat anywhere we liked. Daniel made a bee line for the men’s room and the rest of us sat on couches honeycombed around low tables. The woman explained that the meal is *prix fixe*, five courses were served, and that she washed our hands with an ewer and a basin. Fingers are our utensils, you see. All the food was served on gigantic (3′ diameter) plates and the only silverware we encountered were nutcrackers and big serving spoons for the entree. We ate goat for dinner. And tandoori chicken. We had a rice pudding. we enjoyed a fruit and nut course, and three cold salad appetizers (eggplant, carrot, and cucumber). There was lots of bread, and I had a gigantic bottle of Indian beer. It was quite a night, and we left the restaurant stuffed and gassy.

Here is a part of the night’s conversation. Alex asked me “Dad, what are the three unities that Aristotle talks about that makes perfect drama? There is unity of place, unity of time and… what is the third one?” Daniel said: “Nobody cares. Aristotle was wrong. Besides, he thought vultures had three testicles.”

Bollywood dances were showing on the big screen television. Swirls of greens and reds and oranges and whites. I am pretty sure there is not any sort of plot in a Bollywood song; although the videos *want* you to believe there is one. Just lots of swirl and improbably cute dance moves and fast cutaways to make sure you never see the dancers sweat. Extremely hot women and men spinning around in loose-fitting clothes. Except the women. They get midriffs bared and generally tighter fitting clothes than the men. It’s addictive to watch them dance. I admit, I am the sort of guy who, if cricket is playing on the television at a restaurant, I will watch, even thought I know nothing about cricket. We all noticed a dark haired actor/dancer with a white goatee, who seemed both young and old at once. He was in about three of the videos. His eyebrows were jet black, like Daniel’s. we noted that Alex sports invisibrows, and is rapidly getting an invisible hairline as well.

Daniel was pleased to find that someone put a pine tree air freshener in the bathroom urinal.

Alex complained when, back in his high school days, he used the word “divergent” in a paper and the teacher circled it, telling him he used it incorrectly. He used it precisely right, of course, in the mathematical sense of the term. When a curve nears infinity but never quite reaches a line, this is divergence. He used it to describe Apple’s profit margins. He also talked about asymptotes, that sicko.

We lasted until 9:30, an entire 2 1/2 hours from the time we walked into the restaurant. It was fully dark when we left, and it rained off-and-on as we drove back.  Everyone was too full to talk much so we listened to 80s music to help our digestions.

Moments before we arrived home, Daniel announced to everyone in the car “You know? Skeletons can’t play trombones, because they don’t have lips.”

And truer words were never spoken.

59th Street Bridge Song


The last two days, the sky is a dull, gun metal gray, and the air is heavy as lead. You can feel the stuff pressing in around. And yet, it isn’t raining. I check the weather app on my phone and it says “90% chance of rain TWO HOURS FROM NOW” and, two hours from now? gun metal gray, and lead-heavy air. This trend has been going on for at least 24 hours. Continue reading 59th Street Bridge Song

Zahnie (Part 4)


Asa Crook was a real person. I am trying my best to give utmost respect to historical persons in my writing. If I failed, please understand that I mean no ill will toward any readers who might be related to him.

*****

People want land for different reason. For some folks, land is subsistence. We live on a piece of land, and we can’t ask much in return. It tolerates us, as we take what we need. It would just as soon open up a hole into nowhere, and  bury us all inside it. It is strong, and inexorable. The land belongs to itself unequivocally.

And then, for some folks, land is power. Land grows things despite itself. If you convert the product of that land into something that people want; lumber, or butter from the cattle you have raised, or gold you have sluiced off a riffle, you can exchange the fruits of the land for something you want. Something more, something better. If you own more land, you own more power. Power brings you riches and fame, which allows you to buy more power.

I’m not sure where I land on this (the pun was intended). Maybe someplace there is a middle ground (Ground. Get it? Never mind. Alpharetta is the only one who ever liked my jokes). I’m no railroad baron or mining company boss. But I’m also not going to roll over the moment my homestead is four feet underwater when Pistol River overflows its banks.

And if land was power, certainly my friend Asa Crook had lots of both. Recently the county had elected him as their representative up in Salem. He was a small, rounding man, dressed in a black wool suit. What was left of his mousy hair was parted just-so to the side, and an anemone mustache that curled over his mouth. I don’t know how he wasn’t sweating through that black suit of his. Maybe you don’t feel the need to sweat when you own more land than the Walkers, and the Lawrences, and the Ismerts, and the Prestons all put together. Not that he was a stranger to hard work. He was quite a stout fellow in his heyday.

We had been clearing brush all morning with Coalman Gillespie and a bunch of hired Indians, when Ace rode over schoolhouse ridge looking all sensible and organized. A huge smile was under that mustache. “Friend William,” he said, holding out his hand. “Your place is looking fine. Fine indeed!” He was a human magnet. Everybody outside his circle wanted to be inside. And those inside his circle generally wanted to be even closer.

I smiled back, and shook his hand. “How is your wife?”

“Oh, Ellen, you know her. Working hard, working hard.”

Coalman sidled up next to me and squinted. “How you doin’, Mister Crook?” he said, removing his floppy felt hat to wipe his brow, his bared forearms all coiled and sweaty.

“Mister Gillespie,” Ace nodded.

“Won’t you come inside?” I asked politely. “Alpharetta’s just pressed a fresh batch of apple juice.”

“Do you know, I believe I will.” He exclaimed, and he dismounted, tossing the reins to Coalman without looking at the boy.

“Coalman, could please you take care of Mr. Crook’s horse?” He glared at nobody in particular and led the horse to the hitching rail. I went inside, beckoning Ace to follow me into the house.

The kitchen was whitewashed, with a plank table occupying most of its center. We walked inside and with a jerk of my head, I motioned for Asa to sit on one of the long benches. Our home smelled of smoked meats and baked bread and of the onions hanging out of the way in the dark. To our left, an eternal pot of red beans was simmering on the stove, next to another pot, kept at a low boil so we had hot water. The room had been gloriously well lit ever since I had put in a window on the eastern side of the room. Alpharetta loved watching the sun rise while she kneaded dough in the morning. I pulled out two large pewter mugs from the cupboard and drew golden liquid out of the oak barrel in the corner, setting one in front of Asa. I threw a leg over the bench, and sat across from him.

“Now, what can I do for you, Mister Crook?”

“Come now, Zahnie. How many years have we known one another?”

“I came to Pistol River twenty years ago, I suppose, give or take a few years.”

“That’s right. So you’ve more than earned the right to call me Ace. What’s with all this Mister Crook business?”

“Well, look at you!” I gestured to the somber black suit he was wearing. “It’s like you’re headed to a funeral, or posing for picture. You might be a politician or something.”

“Damn right I might be.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”

“Zahnie!” He acted shocked, but his eyes sparkled with a story. “Remember that time we were up in the mountains on the Preston place, catching the wild cattle?”

“I sure do. You hired two men just to haul Ellen’s stove up into the woods, piece by piece, so she could cook for us. And I remember who had to haul it back, too.”

“Wasn’t it glorious?” He looked up into the rafters, letting his arms drop to his sides.

“I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.”

“They say you should lift with your legs and not your back, Zahnie.”

“Shut up, your honor.” I smiled at the memory. Remember how we were just young and crazy enough to build that cattle chute in a breezeway between the two cabins, and connect the whole thing to a corral? They were so wild they wouldn’t come near the cabins and so smart they wouldn’t come near our cattle chute.”

“And then that one bull came running through at full speed when I was standing in the chute. Something spooked it out of the woods.”

“Yellow jackets can be pretty angry certain times of the year.”

“I’m pretty sure your jacket was brown, Zahnie.”

I grinned. “I’d never seen anything move as fast as you. You just leapt up both sides of the chute, grabbed the rafters, and straddled the bull while it ran straight underneath you.”

“Almost lost my nuggets that day,” the short man laughed.

I snorted. “You probably deserved it.”

“I supposed I did,” he said with another chuckle. “Ah. Those were days. Times were hard. Hard but good.”

We were both silent as we took a few sips from our mugs. Then we set them down simultaneously, pewter rapping the planks. This brought him out of reverie.

“Well, Zahnie, I’m a politician now.”

I nodded, once, to my old friend. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

He blew out a puff of air.

“What do you need, Ace? Just come out and say it.”

“I’m that transparent, eh? Well, all right then.” He thought about his words for a minute. “Zahnie, do you have everything you need?”

“Of course I do. I have this place. I have Alphie, and I’m happy.”

“What about that day? What if you had more?”

I went stiff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. What if, on that day, you’d had the right supplies?”

I said nothing, so he continued. “They wouldn’t have died you know. At least not all of them. What if you had a sluice to bring water down from the hills? Or maybe a house built from brick instead of this, this…” He gestured around himself. “Hewn timber. What if you had linens and medicines? What if you had coal oil instead of wood fires? What if you had ammunition? Can you say, honestly, in your heart of hearts, that they would have all died?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” I told him quietly.

“I know you don’t, Zahnie, but you have to listen to me. I’m simply saying, having the right tools could have made all the difference. You’re smart. You had people who love you.”

“I still have Alphie,” I interrupted.

“Yes you do, and she’s as fine a woman as can be found in this county. But I’m saying, what if Hiram had lived? What if Mary Lee or Sarah or Elias had made it? This country is a harsh one and it does not give itself willingly to us.”

“What are you getting at?” I demanded.

“What I’m getting at is this. If you’d had medicine, if you’d had bandages, if you had neighbors who could be here in ten minutes instead of six hours, your children would have lived. You wouldn’t be homesteading. You’d be a land owner.” He took a huge swallow from his mug and slammed it onto the table. He wiped his mustache on a sleeve. He was getting loud.

“That’s all I’ve got to say. If your friends had a way in, if you had supplies… If you could even get supplies. What we needed is roads through here. Not just a ship that docks at Arch Rock every six months, trades our butter and wool for …” He grasped for words. “For the things we actually need. Flour. Sugar. Pins. Cast iron stoves. For God’s sake, man. For medicine.”

I was furious. I spat out, “You brought my children up because the county needs roads? “Damn you, Ace.” Tears began to run from you eyes. “Just… Damn you…”

“No. You misunderstand me. We need what the roads can bring. We all need…”

At that moment Alpharetta came in, wiping her hands on the canvas apron she wore. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun and she shook her head, sweat flying off.

“Whoo!” She exclaimed. “It’s hot as August out there. Of course, now that I give it some thought, it is August, ain’t it?” She smiled. “The new boy just told me some news. I was cutting brush out there with the Indians, and he just come up and tells me that the honorable representative Asa H. Crook was here, in my very own kitchen?”

We both stood. I blinked away tears and just as quickly replaced it with a smile. Ace might have knocked over a bench. He recovered quickly and clasped hands with my wife. “Missus Zahniser! What a pleasure to see you! My compliments on the fine crop of apples this year!”

“Why thank you. They are Gravensteins. From Denmark. Sweetest apples in the country. But this year the apples was all my doing, and only me. Mother Nature, God bless her, had nothing to do with them. I’m just sweet enough.” she winked. “And just the right amount of tart, I might add.”

Ace smiled broadly. “Indeed you are! And, Madam, if you ever tire of this big lanky drink of water… I’m sure I know a man who would fall head over heels for such a beautiful woman as yourself.”

She blushed slightly, but rejoined with “And if I ever needed a tree stump with a sea lion mustache, I’m sure I know right where to find him.”

We all laughed. Alphie winked at me, and I felt better somehow.

“Now what’s this about roads, Ace?”

“Oh. You heard that?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Hard not to, what with two grown men shouting in my kitchen,” she added. “If you make my bread dough collapse and there will be hell to pay.”

He began again. “About that dough. What if you had all the flour you needed? What if you didn’t have to store it up, and pick out the weevils? What if…”

“Cut the crap, Ace. Nobody likes a politician around here.”

His face went stiff, but he nodded. “All right. The county needs your bit of property adjoining the river. We need to build a road through, and then put a bridge on that land.”

“Is that all? Now that wasn’t so hard to say, was it?” asked Alphie in a sugar-sweet tone. “You just needed to ask.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted.

“And if you ever bring up the children around Zahnie within my hearing: I swear, Asa H. Crook, you will catch my own personal version of hell for you.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said again.

“Now finish your apple juice and get out of my kitchen.” We had been dismissed. We both tipped back our mugs, nodded to my wife, and left through the back door, meek as schoolchildren.

“You boys rinse out those mugs and bring them back, you hear?” she shouted.

Asa cocked an eyebrow at me. “That’s one formidable woman.”

I nodded, the thin patch of once-blonde hair falling into my eye. “Why do you think I married her? She *made* me.”

We rinsed out our mugs and brought them right back to the Missus.