Sunday, December 29, 2013

Irresponsible Me: The Labor of Not Working

When I was still a boy you didn’t get a Social Security number until you went to work. I was twelve years old when I got mine. It was a summer job, in an office, where I was what was then called an "office boy." I did whatever the office manager or the secretary or the boss needed me to do. I remember little of that job, except one day when the owner of the business said I was a CW: a Conscientious Worker. I don’t fully recall why he said it, but I remember the words. And I have tried to live up to them ever since.

It is now winter, and another year is ending in a few days, and I’m still working. Lately, though, I have been irresponsible. I have put aside things that need doing, such as finishing a manuscript so that it will be ready for publication, and taking time to repair things I need, but that aren’t working at the moment. But then, neither am I. And it is a strange feeling.

Feeling irresponsible and being irresponsible are, I’m certain, two different things, but lately they have been converging, and I’m not sure I’m as disturbed by that as I should be. Or used to be. Am I still a "CW?" Is it important that I be one? I don’t have a "day job" anymore. Haven’t for some years. Fortune and a modicum of planning made that possible. Fortune because years earlier I made a decision to stay with an organization and the people in it, gradually building the wherewithal to retire; able to not work if I didn’t want to. I thought that would be what I would do. I described my plans then as buying a country store in a remote part of the world, where I could sit on the porch and rock and watch the world go by. And when customers stopped, I could get up, go inside - - - and walk on out the back door where I would have another rocking chair.

I never went into the store business, and in fact I have never sat down to rock. Instead I simply continued what I had been doing for all those years since college (and before). I have worked: often for clients, but over the last ten years, mostly for myself. Writing is a solitary way of working, and it suits me well. Until now.

A few weeks ago, looking over unpublished and unfinished stories, I thought that it was time to stop. Time to gather those together and either finish or burn them, and then I could sit back and just rock.

The other day, driving back to the mountain, I suddenly saw/heard/felt a new story. It came nearly fully developed and energized, from beginning to end, the way most of my writing has. I sat down this morning and sketched out the plot, even developed some of the characters, and felt vaguely uncomfortable: I had new work to do, as well as old work to finish. Stories don’t stop just because I want them to.

Maybe all of that sort-of-guilt was just the let down into winter, and I’m not ready to burn it all just yet. Anyway there are too many words yet to be written for me to simply close the book.

So much for irresponsible me!

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

". . . . And a Healthy New Year"

At this time of year, when we think so much about giving to others, we sometimes seem to forget, I think, that giving is not always to be measured in boxes wrapped or finery worn. It is really, I believe, a time when we should all be thankful for what we have and try to show that by sharing with others. Thanksgiving to the New Year seems to have become more abut me, than about you. That’s sad.

One of the big issues of this year we are completing has been health care. Can there be anyone in America, if not the whole world, who hasn’t at least heard about our national discussion (oh, if it were only discussion) about who pays for what, and how much, just to keep body (if not soul) together when illness strikes or accidents befall or age makes its final call. The discussions, the shouting, the insults, the painful hopefulness that something can be done to help this nation rise from 50th in the world in health care back to the top spot it once enjoyed seem tied to rigid posts of "all about me" thinking. We still can’t figure out how to do what the other 49 nations above us have already learned.

Of course there are those who say what we have is fine, that making healthcare affordable is not something we have any right or reason to expect, that people should be responsible for themselves, and don’t need any intervention from the government. The anti-government sentiment, while a part of our most basic concepts, was not, I don’t think, intended to bring or encourage or extend suffering to others. One wonders how we got to this point in our national psyche that we, or at least some of us, think it is okay to consider some of our fellow citizens as disposable. Because that’s what the resistance to fixing the health care system is all about.

I am reminded of a sentiment expressed by one Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an early advocate of and researcher in the science of evolution. He worked in the period when it was still but a theory, when the science had not caught up with the facts, but he had some very interesting thoughts about what it all meant. Among other things, he was a staunch advocate of withholding help from those who could not hep themselves. It was, he believed, not natural (in terms of evolution) to do things that would keep in the gene pool, people unable to work or provide for themselves, and that by denying help, they would be eliminated from the human family, leaving an ever better, stronger, more likely to survive population.

Time and scientific study has proven Spencer a man of narrow vision if nothing else. As science probes and discovers more and more about plants and animals and even atoms, it becomes more a fact than a speculation that other life forms, other mammals and other species perform altruistic acts, that even some plants have evolved to protect other plants.

Much of what Spencer, and Darwin and others arrived at by what are now primitive means, has now been demonstrated by true scientific investigation. We learn new things nearly every minute, it seems to me. And that is good, it is evolutionary, it is why we will be able to overcome the new threats of disease and perhaps, even those posed by people who disagree over fundamental things like freedom.

The question that I would like to answer in this season of the year, the season in which we talk about giving being better than receiving, that sharing is a way of loving beyond the people we know, is this: if Spencer had been able to make his point of view the standard of the world, what kind of world would we have this year, this season, this day.

And one more: would you and your family be here to share it?

Greetings of the season.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Remembering Winter

We had snow again this weekend. Last weekend it came down as rain, then snow, then sleet, then ice, then snow. It was just like winter for a day or two. Then it got all nice and sunny and the temperatures went above the teens and above freezing. And then on Saturday it did it again. So it was back to clearing the driveway and the walkway and throwing snowballs at the dogs and that kind of fun. Only a couple of inches, but when you live on a mountainside and the way out is downhill, there is work to do.

The year before last, winter forgot us. Last year it tried to make up for that failure. We thought we were again on the no-snow list until the morning of Christmas Eve. For the first time in more than a year, I had to put chains and the snow blade on the old truck, turn the heater on and spend time grinding away at several inches of snow and ice. The sun was out all day, and that helped, but we still had shady places where the surface was slippery and then muddy for a week. The next week the forecast was for slippy-sliding and more to come, but all we got was rain. I’m not complaining. We seldom find ourselves with too much water. Even now, with water from underground springs standing in the fields, and muddy gravel instead of a firm driveway, we are happy to see the water, and hope that it sinks in before it evaporates.

It wasn’t the worst winter we’ve had, of course. When we first moved here full-time, we had snow starting in September and ending in June. July 4th was an occasion to pull out the down jackets to sit outside and watch the fireworks. One morning that first December, our outdoor thermometer recorded 36 degrees below zero. Talk about crisp winter air! And we loved it.

A couple of decades later, it’s a little different story. Winter has lost it’s thrill, even here. Global warming brings us days in the 50s and 60s, even in the last week, and we welcome it, hope for more of it, spend as much time out in it as we can and hope it will last. At the same time, we worry that the lack of snow, the dry days of Autumn and the prospect of a dryer than usual Spring will begin to affect our deep well. We have rain barrels that provide water for the gardens, and no indication that our underground water source is in jeopardy, but still we think about the future. What happens here if the water table collapses beneath us? What if the Spring rains don’t come, and the Summer rains are sparse, and the Fall rains light? We live in the woods, surrounded by hundreds of tall, strong trees. There is a creek (called a river by those who have lived here a lifetime) that runs through it, and underground springs that feed the small pond in the large field across from the house, but if the dryness turns to fire, what then?

So we think about how we can conserve, how we can make the most of the least in order to protect ourselves and the future of this place. We have it pretty well worked out for now. We can’t ignore the obvious, however. Looking back over years of personal journals, there are notes on the weather at the beginning of each entry, and it isn’t a pretty picture. Little by little our climate has changed. Easier to live with perhaps, but the progression toward a more unpleasant climate is obvious. For the people who choose to live along the coast, the progress is even more obvious, as the shoreline moves back, back toward the houses and busnesses that make a community. It may be inches at a time, but it is happening.

For years I’ve joked that we’ve always wanted to live by the shore. We’re were just waiting for it to get here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Keep On Rolling

Summer has finally gone! After the 65 degrees and clear skies we had on Thursday, and the 55 degrees and rain we had on Friday, and the partly cloudy 35 degree day yesterday, today we have snow. And in the 20s. And more coming. Yesterday, before the sun went down, I walked to the barn where I keep the heavy-duty stuff, and put the chains on the front wheels of the truck, checked the hook-up of the snow blade, and moved it to the house. Parked in front of the garage door, windshield covered with a plastic sheet, it was ready to do its job should the predicted snow come. (It did, but so far not even half an inch, so the truck remains where it is, ready but waiting.) Beside it is the old SUV (from before the term was coined), and like the truck, a four-wheel drive affair. Not having to plow in front of the garage doors will be a help, should the snow actually accumulate. Still down in the barn is a small garden tractor with its snow blade in place, ready should I need to clear the harder to reach parts of the driveway. While the truck is more than 30 years old, and the SUV is 25 years old, the little garden tractor is only about 18 years old.

I think about replacing all of these toys from time-to-time, but don’t. I did buy a replacement for the little tractor about 4 years ago. It was up-to-date with a larger engine, an “automatic” transmission and a cup holder. After five hours use, when it failed to perform some simple tasks, and in fact exposed me to a couple of near serious situations, I took it back, pulled my old one out of the back of the barn, made a few modifications and repairs, and I’m still using it. Oh, it takes a bit more maintenance than the new one should have, but it is dependable, simple, fixable, and more importantly, I can do it. It doesn’t have some efficient but mysterious drive train, or a delicate electronic system or fancy attachments, that’s true. And I can stick a water bottle in a pocket I’ve hung on the back of the seat (under the sheep skin that covers the tattered upholstery). It has blinking red lights on the back, so when I drive it down the road that separates the fields from the barn, should anyone be driving on the road, I can be seen (another mod I added years ago). And I know enough to be ready for it to stop or drop a belt or otherwise need assistance.

Yes, I have had to replace a few parts and belts over the years, and it doesn't run like it did when it was new, but then I don't treat it very well. I have stuck it in mud, locked up over rocks and stumps, pulled trailers and wood splitters, used it every winter to push snow. I have had to make a few modifications to keep it running, but the original tires are still on it, it starts right away if the battery isn't dead (had to replace it this month after about ten years), and although it occasionally leaves me stranded, and I have to walk back to the barn and get my recovery vehicle (my '49 Farmall Cub with a trailer set up with a ramp and a hand winch), it is the one the new one was supposed to replace. I will probably keep using it as long as I need something to mow and tow with.

Which gets down to the bottom line: I have old, more-or-less reliable equipment because, I guess, I'm old and more-or-less reliable, and we understand each other. I can fix whatever is wrong with any of that stuff, and if it isn't quite up to spec, well neither am I.

We just keep on rolling along.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Stretching Life

Have you ever watched a dog stretch? Have you ever had a dog who watches you stretch?

For many years I have pursued a personal exercise program that begins with long walks or hikes before breakfast, accompanied by whatever dogs we have at the time. Gradually, as I have changed, so has my program. A few years ago I added stretching and toning exercises to improve my flexibility and strength. I even became somewhat obsessive about it, feeling guilty when I didn’t follow the program. The walking was supplemented by a treadmill when the weather prevented my actually being outside, but the rest of the program I carried out faithfully, nearly every day. Eventually time and age and a kind of fatigue began to make it less compulsive, but still part of the day, unless I could find a good excuse to not do it.

The walking part has been curtailed for about a year. Some mornings I can push past the inevitable, sometimes painful transition from horizontal to vertical, from standing to walking, from going from level ground to rising or falling terrain. And the dogs have changed, too.

For years there were three, then two, then one, and that one was growing older. We added Louie, a younger companion, but one too small to tackle long excursions in the woods or fields. Now we again have three, the newest member of the pack being Buddy, a brownish sort of guy with a German Shepard’s face on a medium sized body. Teddy is the “big dog” here in every way: long-haired, the head of a St. Bernard, the body of a tank and until recently, the energy of the old boy he is. Somewhat reduced now from his fighting weight of about 98 pounds, he has gotten slimmer, tougher, more wide awake. That should be a lesson to me, I’m sure. And while he and Buddy are eager every morning to burst forth and challenge each other, they love as much as I to head out to the fields in the valley below the house, or up the ridge behind it. Now Buddy has added a new dimension to the program.

My routine has been to walk, then come home and have the first meal of the day, while the dogs do likewise. The rest of the program follows the breakfast hour. From the beginning of my interest in fitness, the stretching/strengthening program has been a solo effort. Dogs, for the most part, don’t participate in repetitive calisthenics. Most dogs. Not Buddy.

From almost his first days with us, Buddy has bonded with me totally. Where I am, he has to be. As he learned my routine, he began to follow me into the room where I workout, or outside if the weather permits. Usually he comes in and lies close to me, especially if I am doing exercises that require my being flat on my back. And he will lick my face. Or lie close beside me. Or stand over me. Even lie between my legs. He loves to watch the patterns of shadows. When I get up from the table he goes straight to the room where I workout, and lies there looking at me. He stares at me. He makes me feel guilty if I don’t follow him in and begin the first set of exercises. If I don’t go near where he is, he will come and find me. It’s okay, he seems to say, if you want to skip today, but I don’t think you should. And of course, he’s right. So off we go, to lie on the floor or stand outside in the sun, and exercise. For me it probably means more years of doing what I do, so that I may continue doing what I like. For him that means chasing the changing patterns of light as I lift or stretch or bend.

We added Buddy to the pack to be a watchdog. He certainly is good at what he does.