Archive for January, 2010

An Englishman in New York

January 24, 2010

I have had my brushes with fame – not my own, but occasionally the odd bit of rock royalty, sport icon, or toothy award winner will show up at my practice door, or more often require that I show up at their hotel to work on them.  The ‘outcall’ has definite problems associated with it – you go into the other person’s environment which they control and one was often made to wait.  The actual people, once you get there, are usually nice enough, but their situation is often fraught, and the people surrounding these lights are often ghostly shadows, banshees who suck the energy out of the star (one thinks of Michael Jackson, but when I was working in Hollywood I saw it many times in different forms).  After a while you begin (I began) to resent it, no matter how many bills they peel off a wad, and I declined to make any more of these hotel  or house calls for the rich and notorious.

But last night, as a favour to a friend, I did.  Near the park on the Upper East Side, I entered a world of understated elegance, but not removed: only on the second and third floor, the noise of the street penetrated – “I kind of like it.”  No waiting, no pretense, a session on a table set up in the warm library, a glass of wine, and out – but this gentle man and his wife have achieved the difficult: staying ordinary and accessible to life in an extraordinary world of money and connection.  Kids help – the great leveler, though the power of money and fame can insidiously unhinge even the most grounded person.  Their youngest, in his early teens, is rebelling by being a right-wing nutter to his ‘hippie’ parents – a common enough scenario these days.  In my own case, some of it survived – my daughter is definitely more conservative than I, but not nearly conservative as she was at 15.

When catapulted to fame, riches, and the ability to do whatever one wants (almost a form of disease, viewed socially), staying ordinary and responsive to life is indeed a great achievement.  This man has worked at it with smarts and determination, figuring out ways of traveling around London and New York without being recognized, staying out of the tabloid chipper for the most part, and having the grace to let folks like me in, still able to get the juice from what I had to offer without being either lordly or obsequious.

So at the risk of being revealing, I want to tell just one story: This man had the opportunity to introduce indigenous Amazonian medicine men and chiefs to some notables, including the (Polish) pope.  The chief gave the pope a beautiful parrot headdress used in deep healing ceremonies, filled with color and power, the pope gave the shaman some plastic rosary beads and a papal blessing. As they left, the shaman looked back at the Vatican: “There is no spirit here,” he intoned.

In the end, the music makes a difference, and just across the street from the shitting dogs and yelling crazies on the street, just a few blocks from where John Lennon was shot, lives a man whose influence through his music has been varied, beneficial and widespread.  Few get so lucky and so blessed as to be able to shine so brightly on so many people.  But even fewer get to do so without being burned to a husk in the process.  I touched his sacred body – it is full and alive and human and, well, ordinary.  That’s extraordinary.



January 20, 2010

Another 6″ yesterday and another last night.  Laid down without wind, even an 1/8″ branch has a 1″ bunting of snow on each top side, and every tree is outlined in white.  Lots of shoveling and shifting of white stuff, and breaking out the pick-up to unstick the plow guy, who got stuck in the swale by the barn again.  Trees and roofs are dumping whole bucketloaders’ worth of snow in the paths I just cleared, and meanwhile life goes on.  Our deck is a couple of feet above the ground, but I am now throwing snow up off our deck to the surrounding piles that are 5′ or more.  Where will we put the next round?

As I work, I am listening to the head-scratching news that the Democrats have managed to lose the safest seat in the country, the Massachusetts senatorial seat occupied for 30 years by the lion Ted Kennedy.  Congress is clearly hopeless, the Senate broken in procedural terms, the government of this great empire teetering on a collapse of its ability to effectively govern.  What does Obama do now?  He’s a bit like Clinton after his mid-terms, and Clinton still worked across the aisle, balanced the budget, and (minus Lewinski) came out alright.  So could Obama.  But it’s hard not to rue the chances wasted this year.

The pundits are calling this a referendum on health care, a message that Obama is pushing this bill down the throats of Americans and they don’t like it.  Clearly some of this is true in Massachusetts, that already has a health care reform (put through by Mitt Romney of all people) and see this as an additional tax burden, but I count myself among those who think the Democrats acted too timidly in their first year in power, and have lost their base by being too accommodating of a party who, without delineating an iota of specificity about our way forward, nevertheless blocks any other attempt to ease this nation’s woes, inequities, or almost certain collapse earlyish in this century if we do not do better navigation.

Shrimp Season

January 13, 2010

Winter sets in.  A foot of snow covers everything, except the roads and drives and the path to the rabbitat. Fluffy under my skis at first, settling and evaporation (did you know ice evaporates at about the same rate as liquid water?  doesn’t make common sense to me) have turned it crunchy under these sere winds from a high sky.  It’s 5 above (-15C) this morning. People wrap themselves up like the Michelin man, and I can see Donna and Annie, round with wool and polar fleece, throwing out cracked corn for the ducks and hay for the horses, since there’s nothing for them to graze on in this winter scene.  The smells have gone – the soft breath of manure and hay that greets you on a summer’s morn, the salt tang of the river – this is an aseptic world of silent witness trees and a pewter sea, where sounds carry but odors don’t.  I’ll know it’s spring when I can smell things again.

Still in my robe with a cup of Paramaraibo tea, I throw some of last night’s popcorn out for the turkeys.  Plump and shiny a few weeks ago, they were a temptation for a 12-gauge surprise for Thanksgiving or Christmas (anh, we’re told they’re very gamey, and besides …), but they are looking a bit ragged now, with their funny feather beard on the chest.  Handsome from afar but ugly up close, these wild turkey range all around the neighborhood and woods – I find their tracks everywhere as I ski to pond, field, and woods.  What do they do at night?  I walked back barefoot from the sauna to the house last night, and even my hot feet were aching after 50 yards through the snow, what do they do with their feet at night?  There is nowhere in their world (maybe I’m naive on this) where it isn’t just frigid and icy.  It is easy to feel sorry for any warm-blooded animal not so blessed as us and our cats with a perfectly adequate if slightly drafty house.  Even the rabbits, very well-equipped with fur and burrows, do not suffer in the cold.  I throw the rest of the popcorn out there too.

It’s shrimp season, and we’ve been eating our share.  Tim, Annie’s roommate, works for a fish dealer, and is handling thousands of pounds of these little creatures every day. Better in flavor than any shrimp you’ll get in a restaurant, they are small and therefore a lot of work between the bucket and the mouth, either before or after cooking.  But worth it, and so fresh – they are swimming in the morning and swimming in butter by the night. I like them best cooked whole, with the heads, and then ‘peel ’em and eat’, sucking the little black pellets of roe from the inner curve of the tail before popping the meat from the shell.  The shells go great in the compost.  Tim brought me home a ‘winter lobster’ as well – the kind of 3-pounder I haven’t seen in years, fun to contemplate but most of the huge hunks of meat are a little tough for my taste.

To get the shrimp or the lobsters, fishermen have to go out about 30 miles or more – still on the continental shelf, in about 300-400 ft of water – to line in their traps or trawls.  It might take two or three days to fill the hold; they work in shifts. In this season, it’s always cold, the light-time is short, and it can get nasty in a trice.  In the summer, a storm will announce itself well in advance, but in winter a wind can pounce out of the clear skies, and humans are slow with cold and extra clothing, the metal fittings reluctant and breakable, ropes icy – well, you’ve seen it all on Most Dangerous Catch (it was way too Hollywood in Perfect Storm), but living it is something else.  Winter on the sea is wilderness, and though GPS and radios mean that few are lost these days, these guys take real risks and must stay alert.  The sea, without rancor or mercy, will catch you if she can – maybe to make up for all we take from her.


January 4, 2010

My dour mood of the last few days has been completely dispelled by the weather – God and a classic no’theaster (go ahead, reveal your ignorance in your attempt to be chummy and ethnic: say “nor’easter” – even weathermen do it.  But no Down Easter with salt in his mittens would elide the ‘th’ – it’s the ‘r’ that goes) dumped a foot of snow on us, erasing the depressing frozen ground with a blanket of white. Most of it fell during our party, lopping guests off left and right, but those who could come stomped their boots and made a joyful noise to see out this rueful decade.

In the morning, after the basic dig-out and pulling the plow guy out of a rut with our 4-wheel drive pick-up, and despite all that must be done, I strapped on my old cross-countries and set about the woods.  Over the couple of days of the storm, we had all the Eskimos words for snow, from big fat conglomerated flakes to the mica-like glistening shards to ice pellets.  As I start across the pond the sky is leaden and the air still and light with tiny crystals.  The skiffer-nick of the skis is all I can hear until I round a corner and there are some ice fishermen chopping holes in the pond and setting up the odd bent flags that will leap up if they have a bite.

By the beaver’s home mound – its aerodynamics smoothed by the snow – is a path into the alders that leads up the steep hill (alternate sideways lifting or herringbone) into a pine forest. The turkeys, a daily site under the bird feeder at home, fat and happy and stupid with iridescent wings and a strange little feather-beard on their chests I hadn’t noticed before, leave tracks everywhere in the woods, and occasionally a bird or two goes off like a Gatling gun from the nearby underbrush, startling me every time as they make for a high branch nearby.

Into the pine woods at the ridge and right at this point the wind comes up and suddenly I am in a snowstorm.  Not that the snow is falling from the sky much, but that all the snow laid carefully on the branches one flake at a time is now whirled away by the wind into those wraiths and ghosts slipping between the trees.  Blinded in the thick snow, I plunge on through the green needles until I cross the stone wall – just a tumular line beneath the snow – onto the Goodyear farm.  I stop to rest in the lee of the barn – no one’s here this winter – and lie back to watch and feel the snow gather on my face.  Tom Rush’s No Regrets, an old favorite, is playing in my ears, and I allow myself to swell with the strings and thrill to Bruce Langhorn’s guitar.  The old songs are the best songs, though John Mayer is working hard at making some old songs – Your Body is a Wonderland.  And Alicia Keys is simply timeless from the beginning.  Even Beyoncé is beginning to win me over.

And so it feels as I stretch my legs across the field, almost skating slightly downhill off the ridge now, and then really downhill with the stream toward the river, upended a few times – the skis are not very maneuverable in the woods, and I sometimes have to throw myself down to avoid rocks, trees, or getting very wet.  Laughing out loud to myself, I skirt the crinkly gullies near the water, looking for the few animal tracks in the new snow to guide me.  As I finally find the flat at the bottom of the hill, with the exit to the pond written in alders, I can see a flock of Canada geese plucking the shallows, but the crows alert them to me, and they swim out a little to join the ducks until I pass.

I negotiate the edge of the dam and through one more patch of woods and fields back to our pier.  No one is using it today – snowy January Sunday- but they’ll be back tomorrow, so I doff the skis and shoulder a shovel, tipping pack after pack of snow and ice off into the frigid water, where it floats without dissolving.  A path is enough on the pier itself, but I clear the floats thoroughly, trying to get the weight off them as they are sitting too deep and it won’t do them any good.  The air off the water is wet – up on the hill is was dry and cold, here it is wet and spitting ice, and I wish I had done this job earlier before the snow got so heavy.

Once you get shoveling, though, it’s hard to stop, so the night gathered around me before I stopped, pleasantly tired, but ready for the week, ready for the next storm in whatever medium it chooses to come.

Blue Moon

January 1, 2010

A full moon occurred yesterday at 2:13 in the afternoon, the second full moon of this December; thus it’s a blue moon that heralds our transit from the ‘uh-oh’s’ into the teens.  Arbitrary dates, accidents of the calendar, are what we mark.  A ‘blue moon’ has no meaning to the moon, only to our Gregorian ‘moonth’ being longer than the moon’s, so this last full moon had no other name between the Cold Moon and the Wolf Moon.

The celestial transit, the actual calculable moment the sun appears to pirouette and begin the march north – still called ‘sun-stand’ where we know of course that it is more ‘geostice’ as it’s the earth tilted to its orbit that appears to do the changing – was on December 21st.  But even that remarkable event (in the sense of objectively meaningful, as opposed to the meaningless date of December 25 [Jesus was born in April according to historians] or watching a ball drop on midnight when a paper calendar turns a month) does not necessarily mark spiritual time, do you agree?

By which I mean: these astrological dates mark the development of things, not a guaranteed delivery date.  Watching this winter storm come in, one sees the high and wispy cirrus clouds first, then the waves of altostratus come in, and subsequent lower waves of nimbus until the glowering scud is upon us.  It is easy to mark the storm from the first spits of snow if you are looking at the ground as our rabbits do, but the man (or the horse – our horses are always eyeing the sky) with his gaze up sees the storm arrive over a 36-hour period.  Likewise, the mathematical precision of the stars can mark the turning of a tide, but not the exact moment that the flood inundates little me.

Set against that notion is the secant sliced razor-thin through time: The astrologer Tad Mann ( posits life as logarithmic – your first day is 100% of your life, your second day 50%, your third day 33%, fourth day 25%, etc.  Now, at 60, each day is about 1/22,000th of my life.  Tad plots that logarithm as a march around the circle of your chart – the first 10 moonths of gestation are a third, the 100 moons of childhood are a third, and the 1000 months of adulthood are a third.  Feels so right.  When I arrived at his doorstep with vague information about when I was born, he jiggered his computer-aided precision around the heavens, and by nailing a few significant dates in my life was able to predict my time of birth, later confirmed when I pressed our local hospital for a look at the birth records (and there I was, written out in blue ink with a fair hand – 8:15 of a hot July day in 1949).

So, something is very precise and mathematical and Newtonian in the heavens, for sure, but the general unfolding down here on earth is chaotic, with ebbs and flows of time, with overlaps and undertow. Like the weather, it defies precise prediction (calling down the catcalls of those who think that seeing the future is like calling a billiard shot), but trends may be discerned, and it’s a fool who decries global warming because of a 6-year reverse in a hundred year run.

Ten years ago, we all stood with bated breath for Y2K – remember? Our human (nay, only Christian) odometer crossed a bunch of nine’s to zeroes, and we freneticised a non-event.  But nine months into that year the meaning of the century if not the new millennium burst upon us – a storm whose cirrus clouds were sown in post-war guilt that established Israel, the altostratus with the American-funded coup that set up the Shah in 1960 and towering clouds of the subsequent Iranian Revolution in ’79 and heavy gray layer of mujahadeen enlisting CIA aid for the Russian-Afghan war of the 80’s.  A man with his eyes to the sky might not have predicted the ominous date of 9/11, but the coming storm was clear enough from the Kohl, the embassies, and Lockerbie.

Not far into this decade, the Mayan calendar rolls up – December 21st, 2012.  Some people mark it as the end of the world; optimists are casting it as a ‘new beginning’ – whatever, I am not holding my breath or spending all our money.  As precise as the Mayan system of astronomy was, the end of the world (even ‘as we know it’) is unlikely to take place all at once as a disaster movie, but more like a Faulkner novel.

If we survive that marker, by 2020 I really will be the pugnacious old man that a perceptive friend just gleefully and accurately named me.  I will be 70, definably old and in the phase of letting things go, let go, let go.  A decade ago, we had Y2K, no reality shows, no YouTube, no iPhones, no Facebook.  We had Bush-Cheney, starting wars willy-nilly, and in spite of Three Cups of Tea and the election of Obama, we still are fighting two useless wars, with jarheads killed, opportunities at home forgotten, and friendly populations lost to jihadist recruitment as our bombs fall silently from above. What will the next decade bring.

All in all, I am happy to say goodbye to this decade.  Personally, it has been one of great pleasure in my work, and seeing my ideas spread far beyond my fondest hopes.  Returning to my native land, I have sunk roots into this Presumpscot clay, and relearned this estuarial arm of the sea.  I have watched my daughter fall and pick herself up again and rise well above her fears.

But the same decade has ravaged the one I love the most, a deep disharmony with her inner world, a dissonance I helped create and sadly help maintain whose lock we strive daily and yearly to pick, so far without success.  The increasing desperation of this struggle has occupied my spirit, and curtailed this blog – how can I write from such inner and idiosyncratic despair and who needs to read it?

We set deadlines so hopefully and read the auguries for when this veil might be lifted from our inner eyes, and the weight from our hearts, but these personal marks on the calendar come and go with fluctuations, but no resolution.  Everyone has weight to bear, and we are both aware of our many blessings, but it has been so hard to see my love’s light so hidden under the bushel of her system’s rebellion.

As this decade passes, I pray “Take this cup from her”.

An old friend is dying just now, being transported slowly by his cancer from one world into the other.  As conscious a death as I have ever witnessed, it humbles me and makes me wish for such a conscious death, and if a conscious death, why not a conscious rebirth?  And if a conscious rebirth, why not a ‘rebirth’ now into health and harmony?

Pastoria (oddly – I stayed up for New Year last night, first time in years, a bit unintentionally, but my midnight walk among the trees etched in snow was such a reminder – how fragile we are, how fragile it all is – but the jaw-dropping wonder at the natural world that occupied the early posts in this blog now seems too innocent and credulous – the devil’s sulphurous breath can be smelt behind the mask), clever wordplay, political commentary all seem trivial against this spiritual crusher, so I cannot write here as much any more.  Or maybe I will find it again – the time and tide will tell.