Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Design For Living

I love old things. I’ll choose a Rembrandt over a Picasso every time. A thatched cottage over a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. An Agatha Christy over a contemporary mystery. History over Futurism. A vintage car over the latest super BMW. And I think I know why.

It isn’t just that those are old things. It is because they represent a world in which things were easier. I know, I know: people died younger, manual labor was what most people did, houses were colder and travel was between villages, not continents. I know all that. And I appreciate the opportunities that modern life provides; the better food (if you can afford it), the ease of movement from place to place (if you fan afford it), the warm-in-winter, cool-in-summer houses (if you can afford it). But still . . .

Life was simpler. That is good. There were fewer choices. That is good and not good. But what I really miss in this mass-produced, mass-marketed world is the sense that someone, a craftsman at whatever level, cared about what he or she produced, respected the future user, felt a responsibility for the user’s enjoyment and success when something was used that had a real hand applied to its creation.

I once had a saw, a simple, traditional cross-cut saw, that had belonged to my father. He was not a carpenter or craftsman, just a simple family man, a homeowner, a man who had occasion to cut a piece of wood, and this was the tool he used. I admired it because, aside from its sharp teeth and smooth cutting character, it had a handle that was decorated with artistic carving on the part where the blade attached. I always thought of that saw, certainly made by a machine (or machines) as something designed by and made by people who respected not just the work the tool could do, but the hands and eyes of the people who would use it. It spoke to me of people who could envision the users, who hoped to add their own art to whatever the project was that called for the saw. There is little to none of that today.

Look around. Sewing machines and typewriters once stood proudly on store shelves, bodies painted with rich black paint, enhanced by gold pinstripes and artful scroll work to make the point, I believe, that the tools were important and the makers proud. A far cry from plastic in assorted Picasso colors unable to even remotely suggest strength and durability evident in a Rembrandt painting.

I am a realist, though. I know we will not go back to a time when life was simpler and permitted more time for gracious and artful design or display. I know, too, that with every loss there is a gain, and I’m grateful for some of the gains, accept some of the losses, even celebrate some of both. Still, for me, the old ways, the old things are better.

Perhaps because I’m one of them.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

I’ll think Abut It Tomorrow - - - Or Maybe Another Day

A friend asked me the other day if being 80 (that happens later this week) would change my life in any way. My answer was that I don’t feel a day older. That’s a smart-mouth answer to a big mouth question.

I feel older every day. Just not "old" older. I’m not much smarter, not more decrepit, not less active, no weaker than I was the day before. I’m just one day closer to the inevitable. But who isn’t?

There are a few things that occur to me regarding my age. One is that I’m at that point in living where when one feels a pain not felt before, or one seems more tired than one remembers from yesterday, one also can’t help but have a fleeting "is this it?" moment. Is this the beginning of the end? The precursor to the big pain, the last pain?

Of course every day we live puts us one day closer to the last day. We all know that, even if we don’t admit it. Especially when we’re young (younger). Is there something one might do about it? Well, of course. One might eat better, stop doing things that might shorten one’s life, try to be a healthier person; that sort of thing. But will that really matter? Perhaps. There are uncertainties that come with living, though. And one doesn’t want to live in the shadow of "what if." At least this person doesn’t.

Living is something one may do in whatever manner one is best suited for. Taking chances, opening possibilities, hiding from it all; whatever way works best for you to give you peace and happiness, or reward of any kind, is what one should do (within the confines of civilized behavior).

I, for one, don’t intend to let the calendar change me. There are many things I can do to slow down the inevitable, but nothing I do will permanently prevent it. And that’s good. Good because after a while it’s time for others to pick up the flag and move forward. I’ll still advance with the rest of the troops, but just not at the head of the charge.

Besides, there are still things I haven’t done that I’d like to do, places I haven’t been that I’d like to go, and a bunch of things I’d like to do again (only more slowly, perhaps). So all-in-all, I’d have to say that realizing 80 (as happened with 60 or 70) is only another day in the life. I don’t intend to deny it. I don’t want to stop it. If you really want to know, here’s the answer:

"I’ll think about it tomorrow."

Monday, October 12, 2015

Discovery Day

Today is Columbus Day. It’s a day that isn’t much celebrated anymore. Perhaps that is because it borders on political incorrectness, or offends some group or other that lays claim to an earlier contact with our homeland, but still it is a day to remember. Perhaps we should rename it "Discovery Day." It would certainly be appropriate for me, anyway.

Fifty-three years ago, on a beautiful, sunny, October 12th, in front of a federal judge in his chambers in Washington, D.C., we took the step we had both decided we’d never take. We said those two words that brought us to this day. We said, "I do." And we meant it. With all the ups and downs a shared life brings – hopes and realizations, joys (many, many) sorrows (far too many of those) – we have made a life together that we are both happy we chose.

The world has changed in 53 years; changed as much as our universe has. We (the two of us and all who have come this way with us) have participated in history, perhaps in small ways, but in ways that have meaning, that have created a small legacy. We have participated in making the world a better place, we hope.

Looking back from here, we can also see how the world has changed us. It is satisfying, and looking forward is still exciting. We have things to do, changes to shepherd, much to remember, still things to fear for those who come after. On balance, though, we look at a world of promise and challenge, of a future in which we still have time and opportunity to participate. And the most satisfying part of all of this is that we will continue to do it together for as long as we have.

We have done together what neither of us could have (perhaps never would have) done alone, and for that we have been wonderfully rewarded. We have a family we look on with love and pleasure, a body of work that has been positive and enduring, friends we would not have found alone, a way of life that we treasure, a place that is our true home, great and beautiful friendships, and the knowledge that we have good life still to live. We have love.

Happy Discovery Day.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Work In Progress

Most of September we were away from home. And away from writing, except for a week in Montana. That week was spent with family, but most of each day, as others did what they had to do, I was able to work on a long story that has been building for a long time. I think I have what I wanted now. But that was the extent of my writing. Instead, we saw some new places, discovered new things to photograph, and in general had a long and interesting road trip.

We returned last week, fully ready to resume our routine lives, but with new memories and new pictures and new stories. But it isn’t easy, this being away from routine and what passes for "normal" living. Old habits get short-changed, to say the least, when one travels far away. And this time it was far: over 6-thousand miles. But I’m glad we did. We saw family at an important time, and we saw parts of our country we had not seen before, and the Canadian Rockies, a part of the continent we had never visited. We were away for three weeks, but most of the miles were traveled in the four days going out, and in five days coming back. When the speed limit is 80 miles-an-hour, 700 miles a day is easy.

When we travel, I try as much as I can to stick to some routine activities. I like to begin my day walking around our fields or up on the rocky ridges that mark our east and west lines. With the two big dogs for company, and sometimes accompanied by others (people and dogs) the walk sets me up for the day. When we’re on the road however, that isn’t always an option. Especially when there are "miles to go before I sleep." In Montana, staying with family for a bit more than a week, I was able to get out early every morning and refresh my knowledge of the local neighborhood.

The first morning I walked several blocks east, then south, then west and north and back to the house. It was good to be out, walking and feeling the air on my skin, rather than the "conditioned" air of the car. It wasn’t like walking with the dogs, of course; I was without my companions, and I was walking on concrete, not rocky paths and grass. I was back in the house before I remembered my morning walks the last time we were in Montana five years ago. The house is a block away from a river, and the city has created wonderful hiking and biking trails with bridges to make the crossing. For the next seven days, as the sun rose, I walked along the river or in the park on the other side of it, and my days began on a much better footing (if you’ll pardon the pun).

Usually when we are at home, I write in the morning and work outside, or at least on things related to outside, in the afternoon. For most of the time we were in the city, I spent the whole day writing. Evenings were spent with family and, after everyone else had gone to bed, reading.

After seven days in Montana we were ready to head home. Not directly, of course. As we do on road trips, we allowed time for excursions along the way. We don’t particularly plan for them, but let our interests dictate whatever off-course adventures we may find. On this trip, on the way west we visited a museum and school that serves the Lakota nation. We also drove up Mount Rushmore as we passed through Wyoming, and at least tipped our hats to other attractions we could visit briefly as we made out way.

When we began our return trip, we headed first north, passing Blackfoot Lake and Glacier National Park; both places we knew from previous travel. Our goal this time was to drive in the Canadian Rockies, especially the area in Alberta that encompasses Banff and Lake Louise. We spent a couple of nights in a little town called Dead Man’s Flats, visited both Banff and Lake Louise, and saw more spectacular scenery than we had ever seen in the Swiss Alps, our own Grand Canyon or other parts of the Southwest. And then we headed home. We modified our course after we discovered that Medicine Hat was no longer just a town with an interesting name, but rather a spread-out city of heavy traffic, and decided that Moose Jaw would probably be no better. We headed back home, instead.

In five days we were unloading and unpacking, getting reacquainted with Teddy and Buddy and Louie, and discovering again the pleasure of walking in the woods and around the fields.

Back at my own desk, sorting through notes made while sitting in the passenger seat or in the time between arriving at a motel and leaving early the next morning, I realized how much I had put aside in the three weeks we were away. Notes on possible essays take up several pages in my pocket notebook, and are now a four-page document filed in this computer. I have a lot to write about, many things learned or simply observed as we drove and drove and drove on. And I also discovered how difficult it is to get back in the habit of writing every day.

Once one breaks a routine, it seems, it is not easy to pick it up again. It isn’t that I’m tired, or that my thoughts are disorganized (any more than usual). It is simply that writing, for all that I love it and am driven by it, is work. Hard work some days. It is work I love, this committing writing, but it is work. I’ve struggled for several days with this essay not because I had nothing I wanted to write about, but because I just had gotten out of the habit; stopped writing as part of my daily routine. I hadn’t realized that a habit could be so easily put aside.

I have written this essay more times than anything I’ve written in years. But suddenly, about midnight, it started to make sense (at least to me). What I wanted to say eluded me for days. I wrote about were we were, things we saw, people we met, but what I really wanted to say, to write about, was writing. In the coming weeks, I will try to work out some of the thoughts I added to my notebook related to travel, the country, the people we met and the things we saw.

For today, however, I’m just happy to be writing again.