Saturday, December 31, 2016

blank slate of snow: a pea picklin’ diary that includes the photo essay “Joe Beans & The Mystery of Snow,” music videos, ESP, great quotations, obsession, Patti Smith (again), a moose, a dream, and perhaps the longest blog post title yet; or, simply, an ode to my mom

Snow like feathers, six-inch loft moseying on up to eight, maybe ten. Shoving it aside is effortless, like walking along pushing a scoopful of down. Underneath, old snow, hard ice, whoopsie once, whoopsie twice, I’m down and I’m done. Let’s just get some more wood inside.

How does being snowbound keep sneaking up on me?

On the back of this snapshot, my father wrote: Christmas 1978.
I am on the left, age 21. My mom, 58, is on the right.

I settle into a hot bath with Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects.”

I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my ego will survive.

Could you put it more plainly?

I am not young, and I love life.

There you go.

Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.

I think of that song. By Natalie Cole.

The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.

Jerry plowed last night, so out at near crack of dawn to get errands and business done before the next snow dump. Grey sky with southeast slash of hot orange. Road icy, covered with corn rows of tread-upon snow, sprays of sand, pavement showing through here and there, unwinding before me like Bruegel meets Pollack, but before long I know, just dirty—that is how it will look.

Easily visible up ahead against the white and light grey and smudgy brown is a murder of crows in the middle of the road. They lift, take flight, raven on pearl. Easily visible up ahead a line of deer, three, mincing across the road. They see me, freeze, dance into a rush. I slow down, wave them across, and they slow down, resume their careful stepping, move across the road like little old ladies with wooden canes that are well worn, tipped in black rubber.

Why did the deer cross the road? To get to the field of snow.

I move—the van moves—much better now that I’m turning off the van’s ESP. All last year it was messing me up—I did not know. And the other day when I was stuck atop the snow, could not figure it out, for hours, the ESP was to blame. ESP. This thing in my van that perceives for me, keeps me on my “intended path.” [See manual.] Discovered by accident by auto mechanic who had just put on snow tires but who, while trying to move van through crud of snow in front of garage, was being bucked and stymied as if snow tires meant nothing. So he figured it out. And it’s this button here, he says. ESP. Push it to turn it off. See, that dashboard light depicting car and zig-zag, it comes on, meaning off. Good to go.

Say what?

But it works. Push the ESP button to turn the ESP off because otherwise it is always on, there to help, there to make decisions for you, helping you to stay on your “desired path.” [See manual.] But in snow you go nowhere or slide around like slapstick on a banana peel.


“What does ESP stand for?” “I don’t know.” “‘Extra spinning’?” “Maybe.”

The manual, page 345, says: Electronic Stability Program.
ESP corrects for over/under steering of the vehicle by applying the brake of the appropriate wheel to assist in counteracting the over/under steer condition. Engine power may also be reduced to help the vehicle maintain the desired path.
But, for “more wheel spin” [see manual], as may be necessary in snow, sand, or gravel, turn the ESP off.

one night
People have the power. I watch videos of Patti Smith singing “People Have the Power” with all these different people. I watch over and over and over again. Delving into obsession.

Snow. That’s all I need to say. Snow. Non-stop snow falling yesterday, I’m guessing through the night, this morning a thick white expanse, another ten inches or so, sculpted, beautiful, confining, snow. It’s a rare day without a weather alert or two involving snow. One alert ends, another begins. This evening expect a “clipper system.” More snow. Sunday we may get a break. But next week, until temperatures plummet, every day predicted snow. When I got out the other day, I should have bought provisions for a month. I did get reading for like two years. Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” A couple of doorstoppers. I assume I will start both and abandon both, but maybe not. I once read “Don Quixote” in Spanish, but that was college. And so far “The Brothers Karamazov” is reading like any great litany of human folly, misbegotten relationships—I like it.
As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naive and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.
Elliott is going bonkers. Cabin fever. Josie is prey.

Joe Beans & The Mystery of Snow

One can fly over snow.

One can bulldoze through snow.

Under a spruce, one can hide from snow.

One can look out over snow.

One can charge into snow!

One can trot along atop the snow.

Snow cannot stop one from surveying the gully.

One can sink into snow.

One can become obsessed with snow.

One can plow into snow where no dog has plowed before.

One can become obsessed with snow.

As I said.

The Mystery of Snow.

It all feels like waiting, this time of year. Just waiting for one year to end, another to begin. And even though here it is always quiet, it is even quieter this time of year, quieter still under a new moon and a foot or two of freshly fallen snow.


My mother has been under hospice care since early December. I am here, she is there, we’ve said our goodbyes. So many times. Seems long ago. I get reports from my sisters and I feel strange: a strange and profound peace tinged with just the slightest bit of unease. My mother is 96. We’ve shared much love and laughter. What we’ve held back, we’ve held back.

My mother.

Last night I dreamed of being back in Evanston and out through the window I saw a moose. A big but young, gangling, long-legged moose with the funniest, most curious face. As soon as he saw someone, anyone—and I knew it was a he—he looked aghast and shied away with an awkward kick. But when he noticed my friend through the window he came closer, cocking his head one way then another before darting off. We all got a good look at him. We went outside to try to follow him. There was no snow, it was more like summer, and out on the street people were milling around and the moose had disappeared. An eight-piece band strutted by and it reminded me of the band from the Save-A-Soul Mission in “Guys and Dolls.”

Just after nine the sun comes up, the snow sparkles.

Just about eleven my sister calls. My mother died early this morning. It was peaceful. I can think of nothing to do but to get out all the old Ella Fitzgerald records—there are an even dozen. Then the phone rings, and for a moment I think someone is calling to say No, Mom is not dead. Not yet. I answer and it is my other sister and I tell her my weird crazy thought and she says not so crazy, Mom was persistent.

And my mom, she lived a good life. She shared it with love.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

(mystery man with fish)

the luxury of peace.

mystery man with fish
stuck between blank pages
who is this guy?

photo size, border
matches some other photos pasted in book, photos taken 1930s, mid and late, in Aledo, my mother’s family
paved sidewalk, leafy street, maybe too fancy for Aledo
slim, white, middle-aged
white shirt, light tie, dark v-neck sweater, something heavy hanging in sweater’s breast pocket, dark slacks, fedora, glasses, pipe, leather jacket (?) zipper unzipped
facial features
fuzzy, obscured, but a sharp-looking schnozz, not my grandfather

big, ugly
i know who i want this man to be
choose from one of three

but hey—what about the fish?

i know an expert
outdoor writer
fish expert
we sat in the bleachers
i ask:
fish from western Illinois?
fish from Cincinnati?

big fish
largemouth bass
“pre-spawn beauty”
maybe the mississippi
maybe the rock
ohio—not likely

so i get off
who i want it to be
think of joe and olive
they loved to fish
so i’ve heard
lived on a lake, maybe,
in orlando, florida, anyway
and joe, my grandmother’s brother

it’s good to know a fish expert
learn of a big ugly fish
a big beautiful fish
the florida strain largemouth bass

likely who this fish character is

and so i say hello great uncle joe
daisy’s brother
man of mystery
what would you like me to know?
do you remember your first christmas — ?
do you remember any christmas before?
who you were
your parents
your name
where you were from and i know
—memories are hard—
but do you remember the train?

nice fish, by the way

the luxury of peace.

Uh oh. Anyone seen Josie?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

tangerines and other random notes from mid-december

Josie and I eat tangerines.

and now … a poem from the scrap heap
i fade to obscurity
long before
i’ve ever been

losing substance
trail of smoke

i’m watching
not sure
do i like it?
do i not?
do i care?
am i there?

not the question:

Elliott stares. Or, he is experiencing “shoe.” Report due soon.

Howling winds pick up snow, twirl snow like basketball on Meadowlark Lemon finger. Moving snow in long curling sweeps that drop, a new drift, develops. Josie hops, bounding like a kangaroo to chase one lone deer pawing at snow, heaving it aside, vain search, blade of grass.

Snowbound. It’s psychological. A click in the brain. Today is different. No movement but for wind and snow. And always when it seems this cold, this stark, more eagles. I see them soaring by the river. I see them sitting high in trees hunkered down looking all the world like vultures. Snowbound. You cannot leave and no one will come.

Just to prove that life is worth living, a short clip of Patti Smith in concert reminds me of my mom. They are nothing alike. Except in their opinions of George W. Bush.

CJ Arthur’s (now Nick’s)
Convito Italiano
Michigan Shores
House of Chan
Tien Tsin (or something like that – sounds like “Teen Scene”)

and now … Twelve seconds from 2001.

So fine to watch again the Cubs’ postseason, one game at a time, each inning first to last, beginning several days ago, now Game 3, NLCS, the game which caused me to give myself a drastic haircut, a haircut I should do something about as it did nothing for me, did everything for the Cubs, that, and, now Game 4, Zobrist’s bunt and Sczcur’s bat. Recently I heard part of a radio program, a guy telling how every time he hears a certain noise he flinches because it reminds him of another time when he heard that noise and a window blew in on him so now part of his brain remembers when I hear this noise, hey, look out, a window is going to blow in and he flinches. We are all Pavlov’s dogs, and I wonder how any of us Cub fans survived October, the first two days of November, because watching again I see clearly all the heys! look out! The triggers. So many triggers. Trigger after trigger. And I flinch, and I flinch, then I dance around and celebrate.

Snowbound time has its own pace, a pace wrested from the grips of so-called humanity, like the screeching halt of a holiday, an unexpected holiday of an unknown number of days, I am not prepared, but prepared enough, maybe, anyway, until unbound from snow but then stuck atop snow at least not under snow and then everything it does move again. Slowly. With a crunch.

And Josie and I we eat more tangerines.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

the chiseler’s art / the recount

the chiseler’s art
The Chiseler has been hard at work.

Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDLvia Wikimedia Commons

One day I joined in.

Down the path along the river the smallest of a quartet of dead tree trunks had been chiseled near through. But it had not fallen. For a few days I let it be. Wondering. Would The Chiseler return? Continue to chisel? Give this trunk a push? Would the wind play a hand? Sway things one way? Sway things another? Or, would a matter of time take its toll.

Nothing happened.

So one day I put up a hand and pushed. The chiseled trunk did not budge. With two hands I pulled. But this would not be a snap. I stepped back, surveyed the scene, determined where the tree should fall, and by continued pushing and pulling made it fall and by making it fall the cedar it had been pressing upon sprang back straight and tall. The dead trunk lay on the bank, heading toward the river, upper branches trailing like fingers in water.

The next day it was gone.

The Chiseler, I presumed, had returned.

Where the trunk had been, a scarred dirt path. At the river’s edge, three small chiseled sticks. The trunk, or most of it, anyway, was in the river, close to shore, about ten feet east.

I brought home the chiseled sticks.

the recount
Dang. I was all set to be an observer—a volunteer position—for the presidential election recount in Houghton and Baraga counties. Was looking forward to going to the courthouse and sitting there, observing, watching quietly, witnessing this crazy thing that has happened. Yes, I still think it is madness that we have elected Donald Trump president. I think we are all living in River City and we’ve got Trouble with a capital “T’ and that rhymes with “T” and that stands for “Trump.” But the Michigan recount has been stopped.

I keep wondering: What can I do? When encumbered with strong feelings, one feels one should do something. But I think: Nothing. For what’s to be done? It is done. Who Trump is is obvious, and who he is, it seems, appeals to many. Maybe even you. So, just gotta let it go, let it play out.

But, damn. What if your team lost the game—The Big Game—despite getting the most runs? Put an asterisk in that record book and remember how it came about. And the numbers of the 2016 election are interesting because out of the whole population of the United States only nineteen percent showed up for Trump. Twenty percent showed up for Clinton. Maybe it is helpful to remember that our president-elect was not the popular choice and that, after all, not a whole heck of a lot of people voted for him.

And yet, he is our president-elect. The numbers in Michigan and the partial Michigan recount are also interesting. Trump won Michigan by a margin of 10,704 votes—less than one percent of the total vote. And when the recount began last week in counties downstate many precincts could not be recounted because of things like the number of voters listed as having voted in a precinct not matching the number of ballots in the box. It’s kind of a mess to decipher, but, in all counties that were recounted in part or in total, new totals differed from official totals by a single digit up to triple digits. Both major candidates got more votes than the official tally reflects. And when the recount stopped, 102 votes was Clinton’s net gain over Trump.

Makes no difference? Perhaps. But this is either a game of numbers or it is not.

In baseball, if somebody says hey and twirls an index finger in the air the game stops. Eagle eyes in New York then scrutinize the last play by reviewing video of the play frame by frame. They call it the replay review. When they first started doing this I thought it was a waste of time. I thought close calls, bad calls, were part of the game. And, anyway, if it were a really close call, we might get to see a good fight. Out! Safe! Out! Safe! And dirt would be kicked and bellies would butt. Now I appreciate the replay review. It means we get it right without all the fuss.

Imagine a reverse situation. Imagine Clinton winning the presidency without winning the popular vote. Imagine election results in Michigan showing Clinton winning by less than one percent of the vote. Then imagine Trump’s reaction: his words, his tirade, his wild accusations and his rallying cries to—Jesus, what would Trump be calling for? Something as passive as a vote recount? And if there were a recount and a judge stopped it, well, what ethnic or gender quality of that judge would Trump be tweeting about in his typical, moronic, self-aggrandizing lather?

Or is that blather?

But, of course, not the way it is. Fact is Baby has his bottle so all is right with the world. Tantrums—Who? Me? Only if there’s something I want—a tantrum helps to get it. Only if there’s something I want—and I don’t get it. And only if I feel threatened—What? Take my bottle away?!?

And we all gave him the bottle called us and he is going to suck us dry.

Damn. I was really looking forward to observing a piece of the Michigan recount. I was looking forward to sitting there quietly, following instructions, observing and bearing witness as it was affirmed that one of the richest and therefore most powerful men in the world was being handed this great political power. A man with vast, private business holdings all over the globe, businesses that are nothing more than gaudy palaces erected in his own self-perception, a man with limited experience in everything else, a myopic man who I think closely resembles a misbegotten fool. A buffoon. A man—I know—a man I am supposed to respect but simply cannot.

As if watching paper ballots being counted one by one in a small courthouse in a far away place might help me to come to terms, might help me to believe: I am doing something.

But, as they say, every closed door is an opportunity. To be more creative. To reflect. To learn. To be braver. To be stronger. To be patient. To listen closely for a knock, that knock of opportunity. Or, maybe, heck, to construct a new door, your very own door, to open it, to move through.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

inkblots and plumbing: this is a test and a revelation

Because of a weird picture of my mom that my sister sent—my mom had a big square of bright yellow blanket on her head that looked like, among other things, a gargantuan pat of butter—I began thinking about the ink blot test, the Rorschach Test, and when I looked it up on Wikipedia I gave $10 to Wikipedia because what better place to stop on the Internet than Wikipedia. It is free. There are no billboards, no tolls, no ads; no moving parts, no noise. It is like Dragnet: Just the facts, ma’am. No one claims to knowing it all or to getting it all exactly right, but, rather, this is what we know and this is how we know it and if you can add to it, please do, please join us, and it was a Swiss man named Rorschach who developed the so-called inkblot test in the early 1900s and it’s evolved since then, others getting their fingers in the well, so to speak, and the inkblots aren’t even inkblots: they are precisely constructed images. And there are ten of them. And we all know the first one looks a lot like a bat. Or a butterfly. Depends on who you are. had me believing I could take the inkblot test online and get the results and I figured it would be funny to do that, to write about it, then I’d have Josie and Elliott take the test, write about their results—The Big Reveal—with Josie mostly seeing “food? more food?” and Elliott mostly seeing “mouse” but I’d throw in a twist or two, that would be the funny part, but then I started the test and realized it wasn’t for real, it was a joke, a somewhat funny one, but writing something funny about something already funny, well, might not work.

Authentic Ink Blot #8
By Hermann Rorschach
Public Domain Link
I see two bears climbing a mountain.

My mom once made me take some personality tests to help me determine what to do with my life. I guess I was rather aimless after college, or so it seemed, and so I spent three days taking tests to please my mother. (Believe me, I did not want to do this.) Mostly I remember the tests as multiple choice, asking questions like “If you were in a room full of people, would you … a. b. c. or d.” and what I would do was never a. b. c. or d. so I made best guesses and felt frustrated. I had to go down to the south side of Chicago for this—to the Illinois Institute of Technology, which sounds weird now, but that’s what I remember—and it was an interesting el ride and then walk from the el to the testing site. It seemed barren, bleak, a lot of concrete, steel, and glass. One of the tests revealed that I would be most happy as a merchant marine, and I didn’t even know what that was, but the guy interpreting the results for me (the guy talking to me) said we could just throw out that merchant marine business. I was never clear on why. And I suppose I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that we can throw out results we don’t like or that seem an aberration. But maybe it was just that the test result guy didn’t know what a merchant marine was either, so why talk about it.

I never wanted to be a plumber, and I don’t think it came up in those tests, but I have a leaky faucet and I have fixed leaky faucets in my time, though it’s been a while. I was putting off fixing the current leaky faucet, letting the idea of it sink in, when I noticed a messier though perhaps simpler leak happening under the sink, around the sink’s strainer flange, it was all damp and cruddy, and this explained why there so often was a little puddle of water underneath the plastic watering can I keep under the sink. I thought the watering can was leaking. Anyway, I unscrewed the locknut attaching the pipe to the flange and was reminded why there is reluctance for plumbing projects. As the pipe separated from the strainer flange, black and slimy stringy clots of yuk flecked with gold were exposed. Gold? I pulled the stuff out with tweezers and dumped it in the garbage. The gold was just the light over the sink shining through the drain hole reflecting off the yuk and stuff.

I had found a diagram of parts online so proceeded to unscrew the locknut that was holding the strainer flange in place.


But not so fast. The locknut—a large, black, plastic ring with nubs—would not budge. I mean it did, but not without moving the whole strainer flange thingy. So, getting nowhere. I got a screwdriver and tried to hold the strainer in place while moving the locknut and still no go. Plus, a little awkward. I had that faintly familiar moment: Boy, it would really help to have a helper right now, and I looked at Josie, who was and had been looking at me with great interest, following my every move, really keen on that yukky black stuff flecked with gold, and he just looked at me, wagged his tail. I remembered that in the past those successful plumbing projects never involved a helper, so I got a hammer, started tapping at the locknut, working it ever so slowly, patience certainly helps, and eventually the damn thing moved and came off. The friction washer followed, peeling off in soggy gobby pieces, but the rubber washer was fine. I pulled the strainer flange out and washed everything and Josie and I headed to the hardware store with strainer flange and rubber washer in tow. Goal: Buy a new friction washer.

As soon as I walked in the store the guy at the counter asked if I needed help. I followed him down the plumbing aisle. I think I’ve had more nonsensical conversations in hardware stores than anywhere else on Earth, though, now that I think about it, it’s possible this time it wasn’t a conversation but rather an inner dialogue happening out loud, the hardware helper guy just a poor innocent bystander as I studied the one package available that contained a rubber washer just like the one I had in my hand and a round thing that looked like a piece of cardboard. I dismissed the cardboard “washer” as just a weird part of the packaging, and I didn’t need the rubber washer, as, see, I already have one, but, anyway, to make a story much too long already a bit shorter, turns out the cardboard washer was, in essence, the friction washer I was looking for. On the package there was a rather oblique reference to a “fabric washer” and it would have been helpful … well, anyway, for $1.19 plus tax, and, seeing as there were no other options, I went with this new rubber washer and its companion friction aka fabric aka cardboard washer, and, the good news, there is no longer any leaking under the kitchen sink. All this bolstered my confidence in regards to the leaky faucet project I’d been putting off, and, with the turning off and on of the hot and cold water valves under the sink (as long as I was down there) it became pretty clear that that leak is coming through the hot water handle, even though the drips are cold, so, once I get to it, that is where that project will start.

Under the sink, everything all fixed and cleaned, though Josie is sure
some of that good black yukky stuff is lurking somewhere.

So I was going to write about all this, calling it “inkblots and plumbing: this is a test,” and that made me think of those test patterns that used to be on TV when stations signed off for the night, maybe around one or two in the morning, after the late movie and you’ve fallen asleep, woken up, and you’re staring at the test pattern on the TV. Just a screen showing a grey and white bull’s eye with numbers here and there and arrows. Seems to me there was one with the head of an Indian chief in profile. And in later years a colorful flag undulating in a breeze, “America the Beautiful” playing, replacing the annoying buzz that accompanied the bull’s eye and Indian head. If you couldn’t sleep, this is what you got until around 5 or 6 a.m. when the farm report came on with some mock serious guy with short slick dark hair wearing a white shirt and skinny black tie talking about corn.

By RCA - Public Domain Link
Wikipedia has everything.

Can you think of one instance in the TV sitcom world when a plumbing project ended in something other than a great hilarious geyser of water?

By Jack H. Kubanoff
Public Domain Link
Wikipedia has everything and then some.

And I sometimes don’t know how I get to the big revelations in life, but at the end of all this, from the butter pat on my mom’s head through Barney and Otis and the pink bears and aimlessness and the beauty of facts and gold-flecked gunk and the hardware store and personality tests and test patterns and everything having a purpose, I realized that what I want to be when I grow up is an usher at Wrigley Field.