Close Friends Over Time

icy pond and rocks

My old friend had driven up on his motorcycle and I really wanted to apologize to him. For almost four years I had barely seen him, besides trading emails about which set of snow tires to buy, and some political impertinences. And, just as he had called me about a week before pretty late at night to thank me for a talk that he and I had had while boiling down around a hundred thirty gallons of sap to make maple syrup when the thaw came this past winter about six months ago, I had in return wanted to say I had been sorry not to have been around much as good friend ought to be. There had been such trauma and turmoil in my life, I just didn’t want him to know, I told him. And, I said, really it must have meant not that I was afraid he would have whispered to himself about me, but what I instead might have been whispering about myself. I gave him lunch, some leftover pasta with pesto made from the basil and garlic grown in my garden, and he looked at my gas grill which I had cobbled together from an old rusted one I’d had that for years I was expecting to blow up in my face, and a nice Weber I’d found discarded along the roadside that some people who were not handy at all had ditched, or were too well off to be bothered with. He remarked that he had been impressed, actually, when at a local diner right across from the tall pine trees close by where we both live, I had declined his wish about four years back to sit down in the booth with me and my breakfast companion. There was, he felt, a sort of integrity in my establishing boundaries of privacy like that. But really, if it had been that, it was also that he would have been about to become privy to the world of danger, peril, and deep personal suffering I was just stepping into, despite the gorgeous vistas of the endless Atlantic ocean, the wild spray flung white up on the jagged rocks, and some ordinary summer vacation snapshots of steady Maine lobster boats motoring into the cove at dawn being flipped through at our table before the eggs and toast came. No, I told him, had it really been good, I would have wanted to share everything not hide it all from him. Come over to the pool anytime, he said, before he rode off, no need to call, an invitation he and his wife had been giving me for many years.

Adrian Charles Beckwith

nyc reservoir walking

I had listened to the waltzes of Chopin. I had listened to the preludes and études. And in all the world seldom had I heard a show off who had so much to show off. Having so much fun, such a little man with such a wild esprit. I could not forget laughing and kicking up dust when we were flâneurs lounging in Szentendre. When you had visited me last night, I was not confounded nor was I surprised to see you again just as young. Nor, I old. You called me your “faithful friend” and made me worry not a moment again. You’ve died a thousand deaths since then long ago, not one death dying a coward, each time falling in my dreams. Last night I lay wide awake and you had simply urged me to carry on. So Satie, Brahms, and B. B. King I’ll play today. These records, LPs, like books, had been piled up on your couch in Tudor City. Thirty years ago, you had reminded me once in New York, both of us leaving a service for the late Joe Turner, that Duke Ellington of Louis Armstrong had said, “He was born poor. He died rich. And he never hurt anybody.” You reminded me of a million million great things, things I never knew, and never would otherwise have ever in my life known, exclaiming with your arms held wide open to the great city streets of our youth love for all this seething humanity.

Playing Tag, Or: Duking It Out On The Playground

good men mining

Many schools tried to improve standardized test scores by cutting recess time several years ago, but elementary school principals realized that play time had actually helped test performance . . .

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2015/0926/Ban-on-Tag-Are-school-children-getting-the-right-playtime

The best thing to be and the worst thing to be is It. When you’re It you get to run around and chase everybody else who isn’t. You want to make them what you are. The moment you are successful, you aren’t It anymore. Somebody else is. Then the moment that happens somebody else begins chasing you. And you are chased as if you never were It yourself. There is no history. This is pretty much true unless the same kid gets getting tagged over and over. Given the randomness of Tag, and the built-in privilege of being that paradoxically wanted and unwanted thing, I’d never seen it happen. Who’d be so lucky? Who’d be so damned? Who’d get all that privilege to be the scourge of the playground again and again? But only a sad and pathetic ethos could ever link the viability of Tag to achieving higher test scores. If there is a directly proportional relationship to time to play Tag during recess, keep it. If not, delete it from the curriculum.

To further this inanity, Tag is also referred to as “free-range” game. Besides the inherent reference there to wandering chickens and their straw-nested eggs hatched and laid in some equivalent of rustic comfort (and perhaps herds of buffalo in Montana), it brings up the unspoken “other”: games that are not free-range. These are games that are carefully controlled, and which take place in small cubby-like spaces, or cubicles, the little blank available corners of civilization’s meager enough existence. After years during which one has learned to sit in row after row, room after room, and being tested over a variety of abilities to be able to endure sitting in rows and rows, room after room, year after year, one becomes, at last, well-conditioned to sit in a chair with blinders on both sides of it on a floor in a building (any building anywhere) and do some kind of business with a computer and computer programs on computer screens among strangers doing more or less the same thing and feel really nothing particular toward or against any of them, as they neither feel anything particularly particular toward or against you, and make a living—even if, you might otherwise, under altogether different circumstances, have felt a sort of murderous rage or even dislike toward some of your now colleagues; or, on the other hand, had an elective affinity such that you wanted to hold and embrace and love some of them.

The very fact that childhood games such as Tag were ever played, games which have inherently no point at all except the most potent and glorious one, to have fun outside together, was an unthought of blessing at school once upon a time. That physical contact, the obligatory hashing out of “Yes, you were” or “No, I wasn’t” touched or “hit”—kids running around helter-skelter will of course sometimes get pushed, and sometimes there might even be a trace of menace in it, but mostly not—that these have, like so many things been raised to the level of question and censure, presents a queer little paradigm for kids to be learning to lead a productive life and to become contributing members of society from the moment they are vying for their parents’ attention onwards. Having, however, rid all such chaos and disorder and random fervor from the playgrounds of yesteryear certainly presented the world we now live in an effectively solid strategy paved with asphalt intentions to be tread upon, I am rather certain, by our having installed in the stead of such idle games as Tag obedient troops of drones, drone-like human beings, and automatons among whom constant good conscience and measurably historical upward progress will ineluctably be achieved in a straight and steadfast line until old age or technical obsolescence hits them and they expire.

Lost Cat Scratch Records

bleached lost notebookclosed lost notebook
lost notebook
tattered lost notebook flyingShelves and time and maybe a cat had pulled on Billie Holiday. The poor, young handsome Glenn Gould, too. All these great geniuses, not the minor kind. The kind that shoot across the nighttime sky, the horizon of time itself, once in a thousand years. My records inside their sleeves, inside their thin cardboard covers, they were mostly good. Maybe the White Album was a little trashed. Everybody’s White Album should be a little trashed, its middle fold holding a little spent shake even after all these years from someone rolling weed. So many of the records, LP’s as they get called now to distinguish them from something else quite meaningless in comparison to them (IRS records, medical records, police records, etc.), and from other media (downloads, mp3s, CD’s, etc.), but I myself never called records anything but records—they’ve gone the way of basement floods, the whirlwinds of Sandy’s destruction, and just the progressive whim of moving on to the next big thing . . .

Once I had had a party, and it was quite mad, and so was I, and I had all my records playing laid out flat on their covers on their sleeves on the floor. And after everybody was gone I couldn’t find Blood On The Tracks—only just the black record itself—to put it back. It was just gone. That was twenty years ago and when I went to confirm with a friend the other day which album Bob Dylan had sung his line about keeping on keeping on in, to end the curiosity that had popped up in the middle of our conversation, we pulled out my copy of Blood On The Tracks to see the record inside it was gone. Shelves and time and maybe a cat. Robert Frost might say, these had not done it, exactly, but something wild and bombastic and crazy once upon a summer’s eve had. After turning down a $15 vinyl copy of it at the flea market the other day, and even when the vendor had offered he could do it for me for ten (because I had wanted just another five dollar copy of it), I said no, but I appreciated it. Charlie tapped me on the shoulder a little later on from behind and gave me the CD  for nothing. That was sweet. “Another guy here just gave it to me, and I’ve already got one, here,” he had said, pulling the $8 sticker off the plastic case. Next week when I was making my rounds, I gave him a sack of vegetables—chard, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers—grown from my backyard vegetable garden. “I like vegetables, thanks,” Charlie said, and I wandered back off into the market and town again.

Backyard Gardening At Home

weathered barn

Even the blackened green leaves were picked. I had left them crumpled on their stalks last week, dismayed. Again, half the basil I had left to wither. That was years since I’d made such a lapse. But many plants in a brighter, sunnier patch were fine and rich and quickly plucked. These leaves filled my large yellow glass bowls, and I tipped them into my kitchen sink. Last evening I had returned since I heard the night would be even colder. A small stack of some wood I had left unchopped for a friend to practice on I’d promised to save it for to split last year still stands a year later. And soon I’ll be splitting another cord myself. In pesto, there really is no great difference between the batches I’ve found in taste, unless the one that’s made from autumn’s leaves is a bit more grassy and slightly bitter. Aside from cobwebs growing on the plants, it really would be rather wasteful not to use them all. And, besides, I am the only one looking on the basil growing now. With olive oil and garlic and sea salt and finely chopped hot cayenne peppers grown from my garden, too, plus pine nuts and a touch of parsley, it’s very, very tasty. And how sweet the smell when all the garden plucking is on my fingertips. Still, when I make it all, I’ll separate the neglected leaves from the fresher ones, and be myself comparing the two, eating from carefully enough labeled containers marked with scribbled-upon masking tape taped to the lids, when I thaw the many portions I will have again from the freezer for meals and company when I have some all winter long until next summer comes.

Sweet Longing From Afar

pilings 2

Forgive me that I am sweet and lonely by myself. And all your treasures forsaken. The boots I got were perfect. And their silver buckles shine brightly. I am filled with many thanks. For now I am living in the meadow. My distractions here are few. And alone I am become a burbling brook almost. Once an uncle showed me an ice cold spring into which a bandit was shot and died. “Right there,” said Uncle John pointing with the handle of his pipe smoking, at the head of it where the clear spring water came up out of the ground. And as a small boy I thought with some disgust and wonder, since this water was the source of all our drinking, had I drunk this bandit’s blood? When tempted by my uncle (and my own boyish desires), I had stuck my hand into the clear spring water, which looked so pure I saw the sandy bottom seven or eight feet down as though it were only inches, and just as fast pulled my burning fingers and palm out in terrible pain. It was that icy, that cold. I know now better that I drank the blood of that bandit, and of the Christ, and of the Buddha, and of another never-to-be-named one, too, along with the drinking water. We eat their dust. We breathe and drink and eat them all. That is just the way it is here on Earth, where everything in time is so commingled, not completely unlike a misty cloud of playfully dancing gnats which seem to be such a bother to us but really are not so terrible. If one day you are passing by this sunny valley on your journey, and can see from afar my smoke curling away from the rooftop of my little cabin, please remember that you are welcome to sleep and rest yourself warmly here overnight.

Dangerous People In A Land Of Unquenchable Beauty

four trees before mountains

It was sort of interesting how the old boy kept coming up in our discussions over time. He was like the reverse of a Hans Castop, an average man around whom the world’s most important novel was written and built. But our boy was an average man around whom nothing would be built and all would eventually fall into irrevocable ruin. He was the archetypal Untermensch who, lacking any ability to imagine the man or the hero he wishes to be, unable to realize himself that way, can only ‘become’ himself through the ready-made scaffolding and rules that are designed for the ascension of all such petty and petty-minded bureaucrats and technocrats lacking human imagination. He was unable, for example, as my friend once said to me about himself, “to just play the hand I was dealt until I can bluff myself into a better one.” To do that is the dream itself, with all its constituent (and congruent) elements and exigencies ready at the mark. But these others who wander about society, they are quite dangerous in their mediocrity and essential nameless identities. And in government, school systems, all sorts of public and quasi-public institutions, they stand a-plenty as knee-jerk enforcers that can deliver harmful impact upon their true betters, unless such persons (maybe like us) drew lines in the sand and refused to comply with their silliness, or simply walked away from the malarky altogether. It’s that shifty, Cassius-like very lack of human identity, personhood, or any heartfelt ideals that make such men and women potentially powerful and potentially fearsome.

Friendship Among Cats, Birds & Foxes

antlered deer leaving

It’s a sad thing to look at animals as just things that do things because of what’s done to them. Naturally, a feeder filled with seed will attract birds; and a feeder, once full of seeds, now empty, will tend to lose the birds it had previously attracted. This mechanical outlook of animal behavior doesn’t take into account how happy they are flitting and flying back forth. It doesn’t regard the swoop of their flight as happy. It ignores the sheer numbers of these feathered friends of ours, their turn-taking around the feeder’s mesh, their playground-like antics around the feeding perches, and even their occasional bullying. The other view is that such creatures, essentially without mind, have been anthropomorphized—that such creatures of mere want and instinct are being seen through human eyes and given, by us, human attributes, attributes that are only, or especially human. But this seems all very backwards. Ancient peoples long sought to be part of the animal world, for the different traits different animals possessed, to honor and even themselves acquire sundry animal characteristics they looked up to. This is not to oppose the quintessence of dust that also makes us human—speech and memory-making past our own mortal existences being the peculiar trait and characteristic of our own species. Though to think that a cat who climbs over a bedside table, and, placing its paws with its claws pulled in, purrs there on the chest of the reclining human being it lies upon merely to eke out the next meal, this is not only shallow and obtuse and reductively crass, but quite willingly and even forcefully overlooks the simplest and most obvious thing of all: the cat likes you! Why is this so hard? And this comes about, too, because the person likes the cat. It is, rather, the kindness—not the hellish realm of feared punishment, nor the heavenly aspect of hoped-for reward—that makes this what it is: a harmonious and desirable relationship between animals and human beings. This was the surprise lesson the Fox taught The Little Prince, and how what becomes friendship between them becomes the responsibility, really, later on, of both of them.

Stopping By A Sunny Morn

bear climbing to feederbear on limb

She came by to see the bear in the tree. She lived across the street. It was gone when she did. “It was up there,” he said pointing to a crook in the tree, “trying to get to the bird feeder.” He had strung the feeder almost thirty feet high, far out on a limb. It was engineered with pulleys, and rope, and with a boat cleat at the bottom of the trunk to tie it off, to keep it hoisted out of bears’ reach. “Wow!” she said, when she saw the video clip of the black bear pulling the rope that raised the feeder. “Wow! That’s incredible!” she said when she saw the bear raising and lowering the bird feeder attached to the rope-and-pulley system as the bear tried to solve the bird feeder and rope dilemma, able to realize, eventually, that it couldn’t—which was the solution. “I had never imagined a bear would be able to do this,” the man, her neighbor, had said. He took her to his garden and cut her chard. He cut her kale. He cut her collards. She declined tomatoes as she had plenty of small red tomatoes herself.

The gnats had been flying about, and the woman kept trying to whisk them away from her eyes. The man came back from inside his house and handed her a straw hat. “A wide-brimmed straw hat, I’ve discovered, keeps the bugs away,” he said. “Is it the straw?” she asked. He didn’t know. “I don’t know, but if it works, you can borrow it for as long as you like until you get your own.” It had been friendly of the man to send his neighbor, who was a gentle and kind woman, a text message about the sunflower seed-sniffing black bear up in the tree. And it was kind of him himself to give her those vegetables from his garden. He had several straw hats in a stack from a big party. Long ago. Another time. Once he had said it, the man knew how strange it was, and how odd it sounded to himself to have told his neighbor that he was only lending her the hat, not giving it to her. He had two or three more. That would have been perfect.

Ordering Another Coffee

araby

He was one of the kindest, or at least the warmest, men the boy had known. And he told the boy whenever he wanted another coffee just to call him, and how. The boy, a foreigner, sat around the café much of the days, playing cards with the others. Latiffe. Ghazi. Mohammed. The crew of boys. And many others. And whenever he wanted another coffee, he would cry out his cry to Araby, which he was told by Araby meant, “Araby! Please bring me another coffee!” And soon thereafter, held up high on his cork-top serving tray, Araby would come and, with a smile, maneuvering quickly through the small outdoor tables where all the boys continued to play cards as they had all summer, lay down before the boy his small coffee. This was a special privilege, in fact, afforded, or accorded, the boy. None of the other local boys had it. Araby took his time with them. But when he cried his cry, he did notice that their chins turned more toward their playing cards than other things, the way one does not completely give a smile away without actually hiding that smile. And all summer long it worked like this. “Araby!” he would begin his cry. And shortly after his having completed his command, his next cup of coffee would arrive very quickly, as if Araby himself had been keeping an eye on the moment when the boy would need another coffee. The boy was told by another that summer that all summer long he had been calling Araby to perform against him some kind of indecency which cannot be written of here, and not, “Please bring me another coffee!” This explained the smile on Araby’s face, the rapidity of his service, as well as everyone else’s shy smiling eyes turning away from him when he ordered.