Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Long Commute

Do you ever have one of those days when you know you want to do something, but you don’t know what? For instance I know I want to add to my blog, and I know I need to get back to the new story I’m working on (a sequel to “A Beautiful Place for an Ugly Death”), and I have other stories I want to work on. It’s just that the “moment” doesn’t seem to have arrived. What to do?

Usually, when I’m in one of these holes in my head (definition: an empty space with lots of things sitting loosely on the edge, about to drop in, but nothing so wobbly that it will actually fall), I simply start writing; much like this. Whatever comes into my head goes down on the keyboard and up on the screen. Sometimes it leads to a real thought (!), and at others it just begs for more words to follow. Eventually I either find something working, or I give up and go do something physical.

It is a reflection of my way of life, I think: a balance between what I can do in my head and what I can do with my hands. I’ve always been of two worlds, as it were, and I see no reason to change. At least part of every day must be spent writing, or letting my mind travel among the things I’m working on, if not actually writing. The other part of the day has to be devoted to something physical: building something, repairing or servicing a piece of equipment, cleaning gutters, mowing grass, cutting firewood. On days when I can’t do both I find it hard to sleep at night, a feeling I guess, that I have accomplished nothing, or at least not enough.

When I’m writing I often think I would have been happier working in a garage or building houses (I’ve done both). When I’m frustrated that I can’t solve a mechanical problem I tell myself that it was a good thing I discovered writing as a profession.

Writing, of course, has its own frustrations and challenges. I once had a client who asked me (without expecting an answer), where the words came from. I couldn’t answer him, because in truth, I didn’t know. Some thirty or forty years later, I still don’t. Anymore than knowing where the connection is between hand and eye when I’m cutting a piece of wood or rebuilding some mechanical part of an old car or tractor. I’m happy that the phenomenon occurs, and let it go at that.

Writing, even the non-fiction film writing in which I specialized for decades, rewards me with every word, every line or paragraph that I keep. Writing a line that “sings” brings pleasure to me first, then to the reader or listener. There is still a thrill when I write a line that I know is right, crafted to achieve the goal I have set for it.

I consider myself among the most fortunate of people. Very early in life I discovered the pleasure of working with my hands, and soon thereafter, the reward that comes from depending on my own internal resources to make not just a living, but a life.

 In a way it like commuting between two worlds.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Raise Your Glass

On Monday, 11 February 2013, at about nine P.M., our beloved son-in-law lost the biggest, toughest fight of his life. No encounter in his long career as a police officer ever threatened him more, or was the winner, until now. It is not the way it’s supposed to be: that a child dies before his parents, before they have given all the love they have, before they have emptied themselves, before the child has been able to fully repay that love.

It wasn’t what his parents prepared for; not what he expected out of life, not what our daughter planned for when they married. A police officer herself, her worries were not about internal enemies: something inside the man that would bring him down. He was too strong for that, they thought; too tough, this man who earned real black belts and demonstrated time after time that he could “take it,” could be down and fight his way back up.  No external enemy was the “perp” here. Instead it was his own body, his very being that brought him down.

In this fight, there was no fairness, no justice, no medal to be awarded. “The Big C,” as healthcare pros like to call it, respects no strength, no determination, no will to live. And so it won the fight, as we all, even he, knew it would. It didn’t stop him from fighting, from pushing the limit as far as he did. Only when there was nothing left with which he could fight did he lay down his sword, and present himself for the final thrust.

He’s been likened to a Samurai, this man who declared war on evil, yet (though he might have liked the idea) he would never have accepted that rank. He was simply one who saw there was evil, but also knew there was good, and set out to redress the balance.

If you have ever put on a uniform in the service of the public good, then you have been part of something much bigger than yourself. Those who serve with you are your brothers and sisters and your family. In the military, it is the regiment, but it could be a fire department or a rescue squad or a  police department, and when you gather, as we did this week, you think of those who have fallen, and with a glass held high, in a call that resonates beyond mortal hearing, say: “To the Regiment!” And “To absent friends!”

And to the man behind the badge: “To Mark!”

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Dog's Life

We have two dogs again. A big brown one and a small grey one. Big Brown is more commonly called “Teddy,” while Small Grey is known as “Louie.” Teddy has been with us for several dogs, now: Baby, Max and unlucky Lucky.

Louie sleeps in the bedroom with us, and Teddy positions himself outside the bedroom door, our sentry in the night, waiting for me to open the door in the morning and get our day started. Louie comes bursting out of the bedroom, leaping and bouncing and running to greet Teddy, and then both are similarly occupied greeting the day. I wish everyone could find such joy in each new day.

The ancients, it is said, greeted every dawn with thankfulness that they had been reborn for another day. They treated sleep and dreams as another life, one into which they were born in sleep, and on waking, embraced the dawn as a rebirth, a new life to be lived until sleep took them again to the other world.

If that were true, how different the world might be. We could begin each day not just renewed, but new to the challenges and rewards of being alive. Yesterday’s troubles and triumphs would simply be yesterday’s, not tomorrow’s.

Perhaps it is like that for infants, too. They awaken to a new world, to new discoveries and pleasures, sometimes pain, but always new. A new day, every day. As we grow up, we find that not every day is new; that some days are reruns of the day before, and that can be anywhere along the scale that has wonderful at one end and terrible at the other.

I’ve always shared the pleasure of awakening, of realizing that I have been given another day in a world where that isn’t always the reward for sleeping. Too many people awaken to yesterday’s problems rather than today’s renewal. It can be hard not to do that for some, I know. I consider myself extremely fortunate to find renewal in sleep, however short, and to look on dawn as the start of a new opportunity for me to experience sensory delights, like sunlight, birdsong, wind on my skin, ground beneath my feet, the smell of the seasons, the rain or snow, the incredible blue of the sky and artwork of the clouds. I appreciate the opportunity to learn something new, to experience the good parts of being alive, to repair or modify the harm of a previous day. Do Teddy and Louie think those kind of thoughts in their own dog way? I think they do, and that is what makes them so joyful when each new day begins.

“What a beautiful day the Lord hath made. Let us rejoice and be happy in it.”

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The School Bus and Big Kids

I was driving to an appointment in the next county. I left with time enough to get there without rushing, and for a change there was not a logging truck or a feed truck ahead of me.  I made the other side of the mountain that marks the boundary between our county and the one where I was headed, got down on the flat, set the cruise control and enjoyed the ride. And I got where I was going with enough time to be a few minutes early. That was good.

What wasn’t good, or at least understandable, were two stops I had to make for school buses. I’m always careful when I see one, because they stop so frequently in the populated rural area between home and where ever I’m headed. About half-way to my destination I approached a small town with a county school complex in the middle. As I got closer there were two buses ahead of me. We stopped, we waited, we started again, and so on until one turned off to head for the county high school. The other continued on half a block more. And then it stopped. One block from the elementary and middle school complex that is in the town a mother put her small child on the bus. Half a block more, it stopped again for two middle school kids. I thought the bus must be for a special school beyond the town. Then the bus turned in at the entrance to the school complex! One block? Half a block on the school bus?

I grew up in a largish town (not officially a city), that had neighborhood elementary schools feeding district junior high schools, and one high school that also served the county. And I never ever rode a school bus. The elementary was four blocks from our house. Our street went down, crossed another, then headed up hill and finally, when it was level, reached the school. My sister, four years older, walked with me the first few days, I’m sure, and then as kids do, we met others and broke into small groups walking to school. At some point I was even a crossing guard, stopping other kids from crossing until the road was clear, then walking them across the intersection.

By the time I went to junior high my sister was in high school. One was north, the other south. I walked or rode my bike.  It was probably two miles to the school.

High school was three miles or so. I walked or rode my bike. Even in my senior year, when we finally had two cars in the family, I almost never drove to school. That was for boys who took auto shop and learned to rebuild engines and things. I didn’t learn much about that stuff until I was in college and was able to justify a car ($50, which explains why I had to learn to be a mechanic) and pay for the insurance.

If I ever rode a school bus it was for a class trip or a ball game. Of course the county kids, from farms, from rural enclaves near the factories that supported the city, rode buses. They had many miles to go if they came to school in town. But my neighborhood pals and I never had that luxury. Rain, snow, hot end-of-school year days, we walked or rode bikes. Sure there were some kids whose parents drove them, but we had one car, my father traveled and he left on Monday and returned on Friday, so that wasn’t an option.

I’m sure there are reasons why kids ride buses today that have nothing to do with who has a car. We live in a rural area with one school for the whole county, “K-12" as the educators like to call it. There are virtually no sidewalks except around the school and in the village where the school is located. I understand why the buses are necessary, recognize that as the one-room schools closed and consolidated, the need to move kids safely became necessary. After all, not every kid had a horse or mule to ride. But those three kids getting on the bus to ride a block or half-a-block to school?

Now I understand why my elders would harrumph and say things like “A foot of snow? Why when I was a boy we walked five miles uphill in a blizzard every day!”

We were all skinny in those days.