Saturday, December 27, 2008
The family gathered down in Mount Gretna for the holiday. Eating, visiting, playing games, singing Christmas carols in our usual complex of idiosyncratic keys and uneven tempos -- and staying out of a rain that washed away the snow. A Christmas eve ice storm was enough to cut us off from phone and internet for a few days, which was a nice bit of enforced virtue -- all the laptops lobotomized. The boys got piles of swag that only bordered on excess.
And the entire family in more or less good health and good spirits. And really, what more can you ask for.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Monday, December 22, 2008
Now the days get longer. The northern darkness has run to its depth and the sun will be coming back.
Whatever the time of year in Ireland I would often stand with my back to a standing stone or settle within some hilltop circle and imagine the ancient Irish gathering for the solstice vigils. I wondered whether they treated the miracle of yearly resurrection with trepidation or with confident pleasure.
There's no way to know for sure, but one of the things that I learned in my scramblings around was that the pagan sites were nearly always in physically striking settings.
Exposed places with views and with drama or beauty -- not places for hiding. I like to think that the stone-setters marveled at the way the world ran along and took pride in their human abilities to see and to mark the patterns.
Lauren and Rob had invited friends over to their place for food and some solstice bonfire. Roast chicken, white bean stew, acorn squash and latkas. Red wine, candles and conversation by the Christmas tree. A vicious wind was freezing the day's slush into an icy gravel, so there was no pagan exultation by the fire. But there was tobogganing and a few wind-whipped fireworks to mark the occasion. Civilization's not so bad on such a night.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
In the last few months, trillions of dollars of imagined wealth has dissipated like sorcerer's smoke. Now people are trying to hunker down out of the draught to hold on to whatever they're to be left with.
The economic pain is real - there are kids going hungry, houses going dark, and cancers going untreated. But as we look for an exit I hope that we can seize an opportunity to imagine going somewhere other than just back to where we were before.
In the eyes of this anthropologist at least, our Earth-wrecking consumerism and the autophagic worker-consumer-producer nexus that we subsist within hasn't created impressive amounts of health and happiness.
And yet, I know from teaching my course on utopianism that we have tremendous - usually insurmountable - difficulties imagining that things could really be much different. At some level people truly believe in the brutal inevitability of the way things are.
(It's not surprising that elites desire to create an aura of inevitability about the status quo - a lot of cultural energy is expended on this wherever people squabble over power - but it's been startling to see how successful they've been in our otherwise relatively open and diverse society.)
So will our fear and pain drive us with even more fervor toward the over-worked and over-spent materialism that is being threatened - or will the scales fall from our eyes and let us see something new?
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Yesterday a warm, wet, drizzly morning turned crisp as cold air seethed in. It was Nico's 7th birthday. With help from Charles I brought him and 7 of his classmates back from school. They swarmed the treehouse and quickly found the zip line out of the climbing tree. I'd had some games in mind, but never got to most. We strung up a pinata up in the tree, and they made short work of it.
Inside, they rummaged the costume bin and put on a play, The Stolen Slipper. Nico was decked out in beads and red silks as the rich man -- Annabel in sparkly blue was a flute playing princess. Grace was the thief in prison stripes who would make off with the slipper. Jamie was the guard in gray armor with sword in hand. Anya was a wizard with a battle ax. Matteo made a racket with the musical instruments. Robin ran the lights, and Camille tried to direct. And it was all as chaotic as a real opening night.
Monica arrived with pizza and ice cream cake. Candles were blown out -- presents opened. And out in the windy darkness we built a campfire and toasted marshmallows. Finally, I drove them back to school, where the older kids were staging their own play, Charley and the Chocolate Factory. And there the parents gradually gathered them up.
Friday, December 5, 2008
On the days that I ride the bus into the city I've been reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Each short story is a carefully crafted set piece. The characters, in Calcutta or Boston or London, circulate past one another, never quite in contact. The author only hints that the cool, enameled exteriors of people serve to contain magmatic emotions -- a vulcanism of feeling kept in check by every artifice of politeness, habit and culture. The stories describe a tension between, on the one hand, the fight against and resentment against the isolation caused by silence, indirection and artifice, and on the other hand, the desperate reliance upon this artifice and self control in order to make life livable and save oneself from emotional destruction or dissolution.
On my way home from Pennsylvania I stopped at a restaurant in Port Jervis on the Delaware river. It was an old-fashioned little place with uneven low ceilings that kept the sound in and made everyone an eavesdropper. I stared out the window into the drizzle. The 50-ish woman at the next table was eating with a burly and bearish older man, maybe her husband. Faded traces of a Germanic accent thickened his speech. As she fumbled distractedly in her purse to find payment she complained about having three checkbooks and the burdens of other people's finances. The old German didn't voice the sympathy she wanted and instead asked her why "Sue" couldn't look after her own money. The woman said with irritated defensiveness that right now she just couldn't deal with it all, and added wearily that anyhow she was never any good with money. As they debated back and forth I stared into the rain at the brightly placarded army surplus shop across the road and tried to imagine the dramas and comedies that had brought three checkbooks into her purse -- and this blunt, grizzled German to her table.
At the other table sat another woman in her late fifties, with a heavy, pouchy face and rough, yellowish hair. Her companion was an elderly man with reddened, watery eyes. I wasn't paying attention to them until she said to him with utter contempt and viciousness, "My god, you think I've never heard that story before? Every single time you tell me that." And I had to replay in my mind moments of conversation that I had only half heard. She had expressed surprise that the mannequin across the street was out in the rain, that she thought they would have brought it in. (It was an infantryman in camouflage fatigues crouching in front of the knife shop.) He had said pleasantly, "My son-in-law went to buy a knife there . . . " when she had cut him off so acidly. I felt a jab in my chest for the old man -- whose stock of stories had gone stale and whose life was now so circumscribed by age that he was not likely to add much to it. Certainly nothing to interest the embittered woman who shared his meal. But like the characters in Lahiri's tales the man and I both remained silent and said nothing at all.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
As I walked toward the house in the dark I heard a squeaking twitter in the branches above -- too low-pitched to be a bat. I stood a few moments patiently and a small form skittered to a branch tip. It launched itself, unfolding into a cream-colored swatch that glided smoothly across the night to land and disappear onto the dark skin of an oak. The first time I've ever seen a flying squirrel take flight, and that must be a good omen for something . . . .
Friday, November 28, 2008
After the feast I went for a hike. The railroad right of way that once ran from Cornwall Furnace has been turned into a trail for walkers, riders and bicyclists. Chris, Hanno and Fred and the boys were strolling with the dachshund back from the pond. But I wanted to walk far and fast to clear my head of the turkey-fog, so I struck northward past Mount Gretna. The trail takes its gently graded way through the state gamelands and woodlots rustling with squirrels and woodpeckers.
I've always detested backtracking and so I imagined an ambitious loop in my mind. After about three miles or so, I turned off the railbed and struck a trail up the ridge into the thousand acres of the Governor Dick preserve. The climb to the ride-top is only about 400 feet or so and something less than a mile, but I still was winded and sweating by the time I got there. I hadn't been up there in 20 years probably, but the geography is pretty straight-forward and I figured that even if I got caught out in the dark (which had grown increasingly inevitable) I'd find my way back home. (In the cub scout pack, I'm always tasked with leading the night hikes, because I'm the one with a sense of direction even at night.)
But I met a couple there on the trail, who offered me a lift back home -- saving me from the unsafe descent down Pinch road that I had not been looking forward to.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
New Bridget, of course, was the star,
who passed from hand to hand.
And her parents were happy
to let the momentary band
of family do the coddling
and the cooing.
Anthropologists have fretted sometimes
that babies cut off within their nuclear families
don't get handed around enough.
New Bridget took it all,
as her due.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Monday, November 24, 2008
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Another hard frost this morning, and the hummingbird feeder is frozen solid.
(Why, you ask, is the feeder hanging out there when the last ruby-throat fled south two months past? Is it possible that we are still in denial about the talons of winter sinking in?)
But here is the stuff of evolution. Long after most of the brown-eyed susans sent their seeds to ground and withdrew in retreat, one lonely stand has insisted on a late bloom. Despite the nights' frosts and the days' stingy sun; despite the demise of the pollinators, they are trying out November. And as global warming continues its march (and November loses its ice), maybe it'll be these flowers with their out-of-sync genes who will be colonizing it.
Photos by A.B.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Alberto's been in the hospital down in Medellin. 70+ years of breathing - and too much of it through a Marlboro filter. His lungs can't cope with the mountain air. He fell to pneumonia. His sisters now have taken him home, but Monica and her sisters are mobilizing to get the medical bills paid and get their father out and back to the US or Costa Rica where his health insurance can cover these things up front. (Eventually the US insurance pays, but meanwhile cash has to be gathered and spent.) As the hospital bills' echo, however briefly, through the extended family's bank accounts, the migratory man may be losing the Colombian option in his itinerary.
We'd invite him here, but he's probably right that nothing would kill him more quickly than the New England winter. He'll be bound for Southern California.
Friday, November 14, 2008
Chloe's been holding her grudge about the kitten.
We've been putting some catfood outside on the step for her on the days she doesn't come inside. But more than once we've failed to bring it in at dusk, and a skunk has grown proprietary of the food dish, now. Tonight Monica and the boys had to come round to the front door because the skunk couldn't be bothered to move off away from the side door. Monica wondered what it must be like to be a small creature so utterly fearless among the many larger beasts.
Photo by A.B.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Pine Point school was closed today for parent-teacher conferences. Porter's friend Aithan and his sister Katia were over for the day. I was working in the upstairs office, but even over a long conference-call, I couldn't help but hear the louder tussles outside in the back yard. Four strong-willed and stubborn kids, two fifth-graders a third-grader and a second-grader -- squealing happily, hollering in outrage, screaming in mock terror, raging about some violation of the rule or spirit of the "leaf monster" game. Cracking out in laughter at another story of Aithan's.
I remember that everything important I learned about politics and people I learned among the kids of my neighborhood in what is now called (somewhat sadly) unstructured play.
They had a great time and are lobbying hard for a sleep-over.
Monday, November 10, 2008
There's been a breathing space in the research-scape, but it's passing.
At midsummer we had finished 50 interviews on a project about framing national security issues in progressive terms. By the time that was written up we were doing elicitations in New York about "disconnected youth" -- talking to both regular New Yorkers and policy-makers. And ramping up into a set of 20 interviews in Ohio about people's conceptions of "the arts." While I was looking after the elicitations projects, Joe and Axel were also focusing on smaller consultations with Demos and the Union of Concerned Scientists and some internet surveys for the Ford Foundation on government accountability.
As the reports have passed over to clients there's been a lull, at least for the Research Director. Time to do some overdue maintenance on the subjects' panel. And go sniffing around the academic job market to see if there's anything there to tempt me to jump back.
But now we are wading hip-deep into some fairly complex research about communicating on global warming. So, break's over . . . .
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Betty, our Unitarian-Universalist pastor called me up the other Wednesday to ask if I'd be willing to speak for a few minutes that Sunday about my own "spiritual journey." I was a little flattered that she felt she could ask me on such short notice. I said I would and this is what I shared:
"I grew up in the Unitarian church. My parents had both turned away from what they'd seen as the small-minded, rural churches that they'd grown up with. But when they had children they got involved in the church in Lancaster, PA. So I came up through the religious education program there and came out a fairly comfortable agnostic.
I had no real interest in what I saw as the big religious questions about the existence of God or whether there was an afterlife. I felt no great need for a divine underpinning for my moral compass or the meaning of life. I had internalized the central Christian tenet of my parents -- that you shouldn't put your own interests above the interests of others. If you could live that, then you were doing good.
So I went on with going to school, working, traveling, falling in love with girls and all that.
When I was about 25 I was living for a while in Eugene, Oregon. I was hanging around with pagans. It was a very active and politicized scene. And I knew some guys -- or rather I didn't know them very well, but our girlfriends were all getting together to do pagan witchcraft. A lot of it excluded us males, and we got envious. So we decided to do a men's sweat.
Someone knew someone who had a sweatlodge out in the woods and one evening we gathered there for the sweat. You sit there and you sweat -- and then you jump in cold water and hoot and yowl and holler at the moon and then you sweat some more. And the sweat pushes out of you; it pushes the dirt out of your pores; it pushes the toxins out of your body; it pushes the clutter out of your mind. And someone had brought drums, so we sat there drumming and chanting and singing Simon and Garfunkel songs. And someone else had brought some bowls of clay - gray, brown, white, black - and we painted each others faces until they were bestial masks. And we sat around and gave each other names, guessing what each person's totemic name would be if they had one. And it was fun.
That evening I looked around at these 8 or 9 guys and I realized that I loved them. I just loved them. And I knew for a certainty that they loved me, too. This was shocking. For mid-twentyish heterosexual males to just come to love one another like that -- well, I didn't even know that was possible.
I recognized that Christian tenet that I'd understood at an intellectual level: don't put your own interests above others. Well this love was exactly that and it was something un-utterably beyond that.
And I realized that the spiritual practices and technologies that we were playing with: sweating, drumming, singing, masking, naming -- which humans have been doing for a hundred thousand years at least -- had an incredible power to open us up -- emotionally, psychologically, socially to connections and potentials that we didn't even know existed and which we couldn't achieve on our own. I was amazed and I'm still amazed.
Now what I'm describing of course is an epiphany. It's not something I live every day or would want to live every day. But what I took from that experience and from others like it is the importance of what we have here -- where there is music and singing and sharing and candles are lit. I carry the knowledge that spiritual practice does have this power to take us beyond what we can see and be on our own."
Photos by A.B.
Saturday, November 8, 2008
Friday, November 7, 2008
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
Sunday, November 2, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
On Sunday the sun was warm and brilliant. I was sitting at a picnic table with a man with whom I'd just filmed an interview. He was reminiscing about interviewing he'd done himself years ago as a merchant marine. He'd been set the task of tracking down and recording conversations with men who'd been part of a submarine surveillance program during WWII.
"The military had commissioned sailing yachts all along the coast. Each guy would sail around in a 15 square mile box, climbing up the mast to look for sign of U-boats. And they saw them, too."
Of course decades later the men were long scattered, but he'd manage to track down one, who'd know of a couple of others, and those would know of one or two more.
He said, "My favorite part was when I'd say, 'Well, Joe Bates said that . . . ' And the old man would say, 'You talked to Joe Bates!? He's still kickin'? You don't have his phone number do you?' And, I'd say, 'Yup, I've got it right here.' And these guys were just so tickled to find out what the others were up to and get back in touch with them after so many years."
Friday, October 24, 2008
Tonight was the cub scouts Halloween party. Porter looked like a mysterious traveler in my old gray wool Swiss army cape with its high-peaked hood pulled over his eyes. Nico concocted something out of long purple gown, some pirate gear and a beat up cowboy hat. Earlier he'd said something about ductaping a question mark on himself, but seemed to let that drop.
I brought along my recording equipment, since I needed to tape some interviews for the Demos project. I'd been doing man in the street taping in Mystic during the summer, and last month Joe and I spent a day button-holing the lunch crowd in downtown Providence, but it's October now and getting cold for catching foot traffic. So with Monica assisting I dragooned some of the cub scout parents into taking part.
I'm sure they're still unclear on what it is I do for a living.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
We were invited to a dinner held for the French teachers that are visiting with students on an exchange program. So for the first time we left Nico and Porter home by themselves -- to put themselves to bed even. (The neighbors had been clued in.)
And I ate well and a little too much, and drank red wine and talked about art with a music teacher who looked as though he might daren't eat a peach, but who told me of the time he spent bringing music to a women's prison.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Mom and Dad came for the weekend, after closing up the cottage in the Poconos for the winter.
I hiked with Dad down through the back woods -- out over the railroad tracks and down to the river. He's become obsessed with native grass prairies and so we lingered in the glades and clearings. He'd stroke the fall-brittle stems and rattle off the names: little bluestem, sweet fern, switchgrass, deer tongue, sweet everlasting, false indigo. He was struck by how few invasives there were. These are like the prairies that he works to establish down in Pennsylvania. The seeds of the deer tongue were nutty, like little sesame seeds.
We tasted apples from three trees near where the Green family cemetery sits. The first tree was drooping with smallish apples that were delicious; the second tree's apples had a bitter skin but sour-sweet flesh; and the third and largest was heavy with large green apples, astringent and inedible. Maybe I'll try them again after the frost.
We found a freshly dead white-footed mouse upon the trail under the pitch pines. It had no head, like a little macabre Halloween decoration. Dad said that it's a telltale for great horned owls. When they're not hungry, they'll kill prey and eat only the brains. Only five minutes before we had startled an owl from a perch and it had flown off above a bog. Probably it was the same gourmand.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
While Monica was off in New York with her mother and sister, the boys and I were camping with the scouts.
A ropes course meant a climb upwards 35 feet into the trees.
And a nerve-fraying walk
upon an uneven log
too far above
the pine-needly floor.
And then a rope descent
as you slip down
like a spider playing out
its silken tether.
Photos by A.B.
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Family is visiting from California.
While Esperanza and Lila slowly shopped in soon-to-be-hibernating Watch Hill, Anna and I walked out Nappatree spit.
Monarch butterflies sip the goldenrod on their way to Mexico.
The stripers were schooling and the water was turbid with cormorants.
Photos by A.B.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
It was the 2nd grade social at a corn maze in Preston. So, filled up with pizza and ginger brew, they ran around in the labyrinth looking for the hidden stamp stations.
One of Porter's teachers told me a story from the day before. (A few nights ago at the house Porter had drawn an illustration for a book they'd been reading about a family of field mice. He got out the pastels and drew a life-sized picture of a fearsome great-horned owl.) Well, Mrs. Long told me how she had hung it up in the classroom. Then this past week some bird rehabilitation people had come to the class to do a presentation. They had a sawhet owl, and a red-tailed hawk and they had a great horned owl. And the great horned owl stared at Porter's picture, mesmerized, and began hooting and humming at it, just as though it were real and it was trying to get it into conversation.
A final irony was that Porter's illustration for the story wasn't meant to be of a real owl, but instead portrayed a realistic decoy that had fooled the story's main villain, Mr Ocax, the great-horned owl.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Sunday, September 28, 2008
People think that picking a mushroom is like uprooting a plant, the woman told us.
What you've got is the "fruiting body".
It's like plucking an apple from a tree.
The actual creature,
the mycelium,she said,
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Monica was in D.C. yesterday, meeting with the folks at the Global Youth Leadership Institute about their efforts to start a program for middle-schoolers.
It's kind of like outward bound, but
anchored in history and cultural diversity.
They were on the tallship Amistad doing a workshop for educators.
So Monica got to see what they do.
And they got to meet Monica,
and maybe she'll be getting drawn into their orbit as well.
photos by M.G.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
It's happening again. The psychotic and kleptocratic beast whose public face is the Bush administration is gathering itself to growl into action. The American plutocracy may be a flea-bitten lion past its prime, but it is still a lion and the other powers that be -- the elected officials, the important people, the mainstream journalists, the economists are all either part of that lion or the jackals and buzzards that follow along.
The treasury department demands that we transfer 700,000 million dollars to private industry next week -- and these dollars shall be dollars owed by the American people collectively to foreign governments or to whomever happens to have money at the moment to buy the debt that will create out of thin air.
It is bad, but it is necessary they say.
And our objections? The million voices raised to say, "Wait, what are you doing? This doesn't make sense! This is wrong! Can we at least go over the facts!" -- are like the noise of mice and sparrows and crickets in the grass -- of no consequence to lions and jackals -- except perhaps as a snack when times are tough.
In the parables a million sparrows and crickets and mice might be more powerful than a lion and a pack of jackals, but in reality, not. And I am not hopeful.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Porter and Nico and I stood upon the roof to sweep the chimney clear of last year's soot and creosote. Nico was nervously pleased to be aloft and Porter was ecstatic (since I'm typically pretty cool to his plans to get atop the house). He looked over the domain and said wistfully, "I wish I could come up here every midnight." Then he fell silent, thinking I know not what. It may be I'll have to relent despite the wear on the shingles. I had Porter tie the knots upon the gear. He has the knack for rope that I never have. And sure enough his fisherman's knots held up through all the pulling and tugging and yanking as we swept that chimney brush up and down the flue.
Friday, September 19, 2008
Monday, September 15, 2008
Kiernan, Aidan and Nico were playing with leggos on the floor. Kiernan's mother was patiently explaining to him that she had to "run home to feed the baby." Nico stretched on the floor and deadpanned: "Well, that's pretty silly. You should take the car." I could see she was still in that explaining-mom mode as started to say to Nico, "No, I mean . . . " but then she caught herself and broke into laughter.
The other woman standing nearby also laughed and remarked, "Oh, he took what she said literally!"
I said, "Don't take anything Nico says at face value," but I could tell she really didn't recognize that Nico was joking. I know she herself raised an autistic child and she works with special needs preschoolers every day -- so maybe it's not surprising that she took it that way. We all build up our own filters to be ware of, I guess.
Saturday, September 13, 2008
Tree swallows wove in the air a twisty pattern -- skimming and skirting the dunes and wrack of Napatree Spit. At the dockage of Watch Hill harbor, the 200 gracile, slate-blue birds compacted abruptly into an unruly flock, circling and fluttering awkwardly between uncertain perches on swaying bayberry and dune rose. Then they rose into the overcast sky and flew across the Pawcatuck estuary westward toward Mystic.
May they eat a million mosquitos on their way to the hills of Honduras.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
I stood on Moonstone beach under a glowering sky. A south wind carried cold salt-spray from the dour, restless, gray-green sea. Clutches of ungainly black cormorants flew swiftly eastward toward their rookeries. In four thousand million years of oceanic heaving, have two identical waves ever crashed and foamed upon the sand?
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Monica started today as Spanish teacher for Pine Point's K through 2nd grade. There were games, some tears, a feltboard story about hermit crabs (borrowed from Debbie at church), toy crab races, and - as Nico informed me - all the 2nd-graders taught her their Spanish alphabet song.