October 29, 2012

Frankenstorm

Regular readers of this blog (we few, we happy few) will already know that I am a long-time believer in climate change induced by global warming that in turn is the result of burning billions of tons of fossil fuels in the geological blink of an eye. One of the hallmark predictions of the impact that climate change will have is more extreme weather events. So now every time there is a major weather event like the Frankenstorm that is passing over my head as I type these words, folks try to make it a link in a chain of evidence leading to proof positive that climate change due to human-induced global warming is real.

The problem is you can't quite get there from here. A single weather event is just that, a single weather event with its own unique causes. Climate is all about patterns over time. So ten years from now, we will have a truer sense of the context within which to place the current Frankenstorm, along with all the other storms before and after it. That said, I would offer a few thoughts to mull over as you stare out the window at the rain and wind for the next couple of days.

If ... and I say if ... this storm is a harbinger of the extreme weather events predicted by the science supporting climate change due to global warming, then, as they say, you ain't seen nothing yet. Think of a teapot over a gas flame. As the water gets hotter and hotter, the surface roils and more steam escapes into the air. The longer you apply the heat, the more energy you put into the water vapor.

Starting to get my drift? The average global temperature has risen 1.4°F over the last century. Unless something is done, oh, like yesterday, we will easily double that by the time my grandchildren are my age. Teapot Earth will be well on the way to a full boil. Imagine the Frankenstorms we will be seeing then. Quite honestly, I can't.

So much has changed in my lifetime, and yet I stare out the window into a future that looks as scary and uncertain as anything you could find short of a shift into an Ice Age. Of course, there weren't 9 billion humans when we had the last Ice Age. This raises a second huge issue.

When a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, no one cares. When that tree falls into the wires that bring electricity to your house, you're damn right someone cares, someone who will expect money to be spent to repair the damage. Governmental budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point, well, it ain't going to get any easier.

According to an article in Scientific American, natural disasters around the world last year caused a record $380 billion in economic losses, double the previous record set in 2005. (Get used to hearing the sound of breaking records, part of what feeds my gut instinct that something terrible is happening.) Two-thirds of the losses were due to the tsunami in Japan and a very destructive earthquake in New Zealand. That still leaves about $125 billion due to weather, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the natural disasters in 2011.

Since 1980, severe floods has almost tripled, and storms have nearly doubled. As Ernst Rauch, head of Munich Re's Corporate Climate Centre, noted, "It would not seem plausible that climate change doesn't play a role in the substantial rise in weather-related disasters." Here is a chart they produced:



Note the cautionary language, "this cannot be conclusively attributed to climate change." This is true for the moment. I believe time will vindicate those of us who have been arguing that we should have done something about this long before now. I also believe that the political and social gridlock over this issue has been driven by a literal handful of very wealthy individuals who have poured millions of dollars into the campaign to deny global warming, and they have done so to protect their own interests at the expense of all of us.

Big Tobacco was eventually required to shoulder the cost of repairing the damage caused by their products. I believe the day will come when Big Energy will be required to either compensate us for the loss or price the costs into their products. I don't want to face that any more than you do, but we have worked ourselves into a position where we are between a rock and a hard place.

Business as usual has taken us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe beyond our reckoning and close to be being beyond our control. The only thing more painful will be the adjustment to a world based on choices governed by the true cost of energy.

October 28, 2012

A Reluctant Voter

I will be voting sometime this week, God willing and the Frankenstorm don't wash us away. Maryland has early voting, something every state should adopt. I worked in elections for several years, and I can tell you the difference made by early voting is enormous, both for the workers and for the voters.

Truth be told, I was thinking about not voting at all, my reasoning being that it's time to step aside and let the younger folks, who will have to live with the consequences of forthcoming elections a lot longer than I will, have the decisive role in selecting their political leaders. My generation has done enough. Time to let the next shift take over.

The other source of my reluctance was the candidates. Mitt Romney may have been the best of a bad lot of Republicans, but his choice of Paul Ryan made that ticket an absolute non-starter for me. Ryan's ideas for government are so antithetical to mine, there is no way I want to see him get to within a heartbeat of the presidency.

Obama has my reluctant support, but he remains a mystery to me. There are so many things I really like about him. He is thoughtful, patient, and decisive. In a crisis, I believe he is a near-perfect combination of prudence and boldness.

What he isn't is a politician. Unfortunately, that is a huge part of the job description, one that he kind of sucks at. I respect President Obama. I loved Bill Clinton. The difference? Clinton was as smart a guy as you could want in a room, but he also loved the game of politics, the give-and-take of deal-making that drives things forward. Obama is the guy who strikes me as something of an outsider. He seems uncomfortable in a room full of politicians who smell blood in the air. Clinton just ate that shit up.

Of course, that's who we want running our country these days, political outsiders or businessmen. This idea that we shouldn't have politicians in charge of a political system is both foolish and dangerous. The president is not a CEO. Running the government is not like running a business. A president's board of directors are 535 unruly personages each of whom cares more about their next election than the president's agenda. You don't give orders; you don't rely on men of good will. Governance is a blunt-force trauma business, where the big stick better back up the soft words or you won't get anywhere.

There is a famous story told by a senior adviser about how Ike went to the White House and issued orders like the general he used to be, thinking that would be the end of it, and then couldn't figure out why nothing was getting done. Men like Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton figured it out. Maybe Obama will get it in his second term, if he gets one.


The way I look at it, whoever wins this election will be a single-term president. I'm already praying for Hillary in 2016. I see no other political figure capable of leading us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. Damn, guess that means I might have to vote one more time.

October 26, 2012

Texas Choses Life


Let me prevail upon your patience, gentle reader, by revisiting the can of worms I opened in yesterday's post, The Sanctity of Life. That post explored the notion that we preach sanctity of life but behave quite differently in actual practice. I believe that is hypocrisy of the worst sort.

I was prepared to let it go at that, but then I read about a court decision in Texas that upheld a ruling allowing the state to bar funding to Planned Parenthood as part of a program that provides low-income women with family planning exams, related health screenings and contraception. Here is Governor Rick Perry's reaction to the news:
"Today's ruling affirms yet again that in Texas the Women's Health Program has no obligation to fund Planned Parenthood and other organizations that perform or promote abortion. In Texas we choose life, and we will immediately begin defunding all abortion affiliates to honor and uphold that choice." (Emphasis added.)
In Texas we choose life. Really? Let's look at some numbers on executions compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. The table below shows the top ten states:

EXECUTIONS BY STATE
STATE
TOTAL EXECUTIONS
EXECUTIONS IN 2012 EXECUTIONS IN 2011 EXECUTIONS IN 2010
TEXAS
488 11 13 17
VIRGINIA
109 1 3
OKLAHOMA
100 4 2 3
FLORIDA 73 2 2 1
MISSOURI
68 1
ALABAMA 55 6 5
GEORGIA 52 4 2
OHIO 48 2 5 8
NORTH CAROLINA
43
SOUTH CAROLINA 43 1

Governor Perry thinks it is okay to ban funding for Planned Parenthood because "in Texas we choose life." This is the same guy who said, "If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol - don't come to Texas." Call me crazy, but I don't believe you can justify a state-sponsored holy war on abortion by claiming that life is sacred while at the same time leading the league in executions.  Either life is sacred or it isn't. You can't claim that it is and then pick and choose those for whom life is sacred and those for whom life is optional. That's what I mean by hypocrisy.

This is not about the legitimacy of the death penalty or abortion. This is about hypocrisy. Certainly, I am no more consistent or inconsistent on these issues than anyone else is. I favor the death penalty in certain cases. I wish there was never a need to have an abortion. I also recognize that everyone else has their own views on these issues.

Personally, I have seen no evidence that life is sacred. God invented death, so what does that tell you? Anyone who has been in or even near a war will tell you that the other guy's life gets very cheap when it's your ass that's on the line. Ask yourself this. In a long-term emergency, how many days or weeks would go by before some of us were out in the street with pitch forks and axes, ready to kill or be killed over a scrap of bread or a bottle of water?

Like many things, my anger over the sanctity of life issue goes back to Vietnam. That war was a war fought against Communism. Remember all those dominoes that would fall if we didn't stop Communism in Vietnam? But Vietnam, like so many other wars, had a religious underpinning to it as well. It wasn't just communism. It was godless communism that was the archenemy. "Kill a Commie for Christ" may have started out as a joke, but it reflected a mindset prevalent at the time among the Christian right, the same people who preached the sanctity of life for the unborn.

So, yeah, don't talk to me about how life is sacred. I know better. Life is cheap when we want it to be. I try to make it as sacred as I can, and I believe most other folks do as well. I certainly don't claim some divine mandate from heaven that gives me the power and the right to anoint some lives as sacred and others as expendable. I leave that to the self-appointed spiritual guardians of the world. Maybe we should add arrogance to the list alongside hypocrisy.

October 25, 2012

The Sanctity of Life

Another Republican has stirred up another shit storm over rape and pregnancy. One said that pregnancy is never a by-product of a "legitimate" rape. Now we have another saying that pregnancy does occur in the aftermath of a rape, but it's God's will. Although these two guys seem be saying completely different things, they both end up in the same place, arguing that abortion in the case of pregnancy due to rape is not morally acceptable.

This line of reasoning begins with the assumption that life is sacred and must be protected from the moment of inception. The sanctity of life. How often is that phrase used to justify opposition to abortions of any kind. My question is this: What sanctity of life?

Am I living on the same planet as those who say that life is sacred? I don't know, because on my planet people die excruciatingly awful deaths every day, deaths that keep the concept of evil alive in our minds. That little girl who was murdered and dismembered and left in  dumpster?  Is that the sanctity of life that we are talking about? The millions of innocent soldiers and civilians who have died in war, often in unspeakably brutal ways? The old and the abandoned who die lonely deaths because they couldn't pay their electric bills?

This is the sanctity of life that preachers and politicians say God ordered them to defend to the death? If that's the best God could do, maybe (s)he should have gone into another line of work. Anyone of us could have designed a world that made more sense than that, because in a better world there would be no unwanted pregnancies, just as there would be no disease or war or poverty.

But we don't live in a better world. In our world, many lives are terminated early, most long after they have left the womb. Those deaths seem to be something a lot of supposedly moral persons can live with. They practice a form of pick-and-choose morality, where the life of the unborn is sacred but the rest of us, well, we're on our own.

Does that make Planet Earth a free fire zone, where we can do whatever we want to whomever we want once they are outside the womb? Of course not. What it does mean is that we must decide for ourselves where we draw the line. On the issue of abortion, that line is different for each of us, for many reasons. The unborn deserve protection, but so does the mother. That choice is often a cruel one, but it is a choice that must be made. How we make that choice defines us as individuals and as God's children.

October 19, 2012

The Lonely Atom


The designs of the universe are unknown to us, but we do know that to think with lucidity and to act with fairness is to aid those designs (which shall never be revealed to us).--Jorge Luis Borges

Driving back from the landfill along a semi-country road thickly lined with trees on both sides, with randomly spaced clusters of industrial buildings providing relief from the beauty of the landscape.  I am dazzled by the sheer profligacy of nature. Thousands of leaves form an autumnal portrait in green, yellow and red that will endure until the first frost, when the leaves will drop to the ground and become a sturdy quilt, warming the roots as they slumber until the new spring reawakens them.

Each leaf consists of billions of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and assorted minerals. I think how lucky to be an atom that gets to spend a season on a tree, shape-shifting from bud to leaf, from green to orange or red or yellow. I pass by a storage building clad in a dull brown vinyl. Those atoms are locked in that ugliness for hundreds of years, until nature finally grants them a conditional release. What prior existence determined their fate? Why does one atom get to be in a tree leaf and another imprisoned in vinyl?

A million years from now every atom will have been reshuffled countless times. Nature persists by letting atoms consort in predictable ways, allowing them to make alliances to hold together against the pitiless onslaught of time ... a resistance, if you will, to the endless cycle of creation and destruction. Form asserts itself over and over. Particles self-organize into structures and organisms. Something there is that encourages this persistence out of chaos.

An individual atom has no sense of belonging to a whole. It is a part that has clicked into place, self-organizing a whole that will be much more than its parts. Like the atom, I have no true sense of the vast machine of which I am but a part. On the scale of the universe, I am a sub-atomic particle that evanesces in and out of existence a thousand times in the blink of God's eye.

Simple observation tells me that all is in endless movement towards formation and reformation. Atoms like to be in mixed company. They don't want to be alone if they don't have to be. The purpose of all this shape-shifting is far beyond my capacity to grasp ... unknown and perhaps unknowable. I sense a road being taken. I just don't know where it is going, but I am happy to be along for the ride in this unique and transient assemblage of atoms known as me.

A decade or so from now, the atoms that pump my blood and fill my mind with dreams will go their separate ways. What did it all mean? Haven't a clue. I do believe that I have a role in the scheme of things. It's not for me to understand the lines I have been given, merely to give as good a reading as I can while I strut my hour upon the stage. Perhaps it is indeed "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I prefer to think not. And in that thought, I find a tendril of belief poking through the winter's leaves, reaching upward toward the new season.

October 15, 2012

An Encounter With The Trickster

Yesterday's post talked about those moments when we alone are witness to an event. All of us have them every day, but we rarely take note of them because most of the things we see are, in fact, not all that remarkable. Some events transcend the ordinary, though. They take us to a place where randomness and routine collide to produce a momentary dislocation in our everyday existence, a moment when we feel as though we have just glimpsed the hidden wheels of ... well, I don't know what. This is the story of one of those moments.

In the mid-1990s, I was working in downtown D.C. in a small office building located at 14th and L Streets. One block south was K Street, a main artery that was constantly filled with cars and people rushing to any one of dozens of restaurants and business and hotels that lined the street. I would join them for a 15-minute walk during lunch, an idler dawdling along amidst a small army of purpose-driven lives.

On one such walk, I passed one of those newspaper stands you see everywhere,  a metal box on a stand, emblazoned with the logo of the newspaper, a copy of the day's paper on display behind a clear plastic front. You put a quarter (in those days) into a slot, lift the front cover, and remove a single paper from a stack inside the box. For some reason, this one caught my eye, probably because of the huge headline that took up most of the area above the fold:  

SNIPER KILLS KENNEDY—JOHNSON IS PRESIDENT.

Upon closer examination, I saw that it was a copy of The Evening Star--a daily newspaper that had gone out of business many years before--dated November 22, 1963. Judging by its condition, the copy I was looking at appeared to be genuine. How it got into a newspaper stand maintained by The Washington Post over 30 years later was a puzzle that baffles me to this day.

All around me people were walking in both directions on the sidewalk. Even in a short period of time, hundreds of people would have walked past the display. Some may have stopped to look, but no one had thought about taking the paper. Nor did I, at least at first. Instead, I continued along on my walk, my mind trying to find explanations for the mysterious appearance of the newspaper ... and not just any newspaper, but one reporting the single most momentous event in modern times.

After about 5 minutes of walking, I realized that something very strange was happening here. Could it be that I was the only person who had noticed? Was this somehow meant for me? I decided to test the hypothesis. If it was still there when I got back—and in that 10 minutes another several dozen people would have walked by—then I would take it. And that's what I did, as you can see from the picture below.

I have no idea who put that newspaper in that kiosk on that particular day, which if I recall correctly, was on a day that had no apparent connection to the assassination. I have no idea why they did it. It reminded me of the mysterious clue tiles that dotted the streets of Washington, D.C., and other major cities ... their author unknown; their purpose unclear, one of them just a block away. I just felt that this newspaper was somehow meant for me, a rather preposterous assumption when one looks back on things, but at the time I felt sure of it.

In those days, I was more attuned to the ... possibilities ... the discontinuities that part the curtains for just a brief moment to reveal a hidden purpose ... those isolated moments of observation meant just for us. You could say I saw the newspaper because a part of me was looking for it and, indeed, expected to find it or something like it. Fate put it in my path and left it up to me to be the first to seize the moment. As the saying goes, fortuna favorat audax ... fortune favors the bold.

Today, I might not be so sure about my role in events. I might wonder if I was instead a random event that upset an unwinding fate meant for someone else. More likely, I was the unwitting foil in a cosmic jest engineered by some merry prankster just for the hell of it. The Navajos called one of their gods coyote ... the trickster. I think he plays with us all the time. You just have to watching for it.





October 14, 2012

A Frail Image

I was out golfing the other day and was walking to the 9th tee, which you reach by way of a path that cuts through a small grove of trees, when a hawk burst out of the dim light of the grove and flew right over my head on his way to a new perch or the next meal or whatever else it is that sets hawks in motion. I followed him across the open spaces of the fairways until it was lost amidst the trees bordering the 3rd fairway, where many a golf ball had found its final resting place, among them some of mine.

I looked around and could see no other golfer in sight. Insofar as I could tell, I was the only person to see the flight of that hawk. I thought about the old riddle about a tree falling, and if no one hears it falls did it really fall? I also thought about the uncertainty principle, which states that the act of observation determines the outcome. If I had not walked into that grove, would the hawk have taken flight anyway? Did our interaction produce a unique moment in time that otherwise would not have existed?

Okay, so maybe I'm over-thinking this. But I have thought from time-to-time about things that I have observed that no one else has seen and will ever see. The flight of a finch to my bird feeder. The way a cloud moves across the sky. The way the light glints off the dew on a leaf at a certain hour of the morning. All of us can say the same thing. We are all carrying within us a set of unique memories that no one else has.

One such memory haunts me. Years ago, I worked in downtown D.C. right across the street from where the Holocaust Museum was being built. I would walk by the site during my lunch-time walks. Every so often, I would notice a very odd pattern of light on the north face of the building. It looked very much like script written in Hebrew, or at least what I would imagine such script to look like. I saw it maybe three times and thought to myself each time that there was something going on here and that I really ought to take a picture of it.

This was in the days before cell phones, otherwise it would have been easy to take a picture. At any rate, I never did. I still see these figures in my mind's eye and wonder what they meant, for I am sure they did mean something. I may have been the only person who noticed those images fashioned from some interaction of sunlight and the surrounding terrain. Whatever it meant, the moment was lost. If I was to be a messenger, I failed in my mission.

What brought all this to mind was a quote I came across while reading a selection of Jorge Luis Borges' non-fiction writings. If you have never read anything by Borges, take the time to do so. The writing is dense with historical allusion, much of it having to do with Argentine history, but other pieces are timeless in their import and impact.
Things, events, that occupy space yet come to an end when someone dies make us stop in wonder--and yet one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies with every man's or woman's death, unless the universe itself has a memory, as the theosophists have suggested. In the course of time there was one day that closed the last eyes that had looked on Christ ... What will die with me the day I die? What pathetic or frail image will be lost to the world?


October 13, 2012

A Real Cliffhanger

This election looks to be a real cliffhanger. Romney got a big push out of the first debate and has closed the gap in many states. Personally, I don't see how Romney wins without significant support from women, old people, and Latinos--three groups he has major problems with. But you know how it is. Answering a poll is one thing; getting out and actually voting is quite another. At this point, it is anyone's guess as to who will win in November.

The real cliffhanger comes after the election, when Congress and President Obama must together confront the inertia of past failures to deal with major problems that finally threatens to push the entire country over a fiscal cliff. Could be those Mayans knew what they were talking about after all.

Several ticking time bombs are set to simultaneously explode at or soon after the end of the year:
  • The Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the end of 2012. 
  • A payroll-tax holiday and extended unemployment benefits also end on December 31.
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax, a levy originally aimed at the rich, is set to hit 30 million middle-class Americans.
  • Medicare will slash payments to doctors by nearly 30 percent. 
  • Automatic cuts in federal spending are due to start on January 15th, due to the inability of a congressional “budget supercommittee” to reach a debt-reduction deal last year.
 Two outcomes of letting the clock run out are that there will be an immediate hit to an already weak economy but a very long-term gain for deficit reduction. Some folks think it would be worth the pain to get to the gain. They could be right.

The problem is that the deficit hawks are wedded to tax cuts and defense spending, two things that won't be happening if we march over the cliff. So they are on the horns of a dilemma of their own making. They want deficit reduction, but they don't want to cut defense spending and they do want to keep revenues suppressed. Of course, Democrats are equally fiercely opposed to cuts in entitlement spending.

A few months back, the rhetoric was very doomsday in tone. Life on the planet as we know it would end unless a deal was reached. Now there seems to be a softening of that expectation, partly because a lot will turn on who wins in November. Remember, the newly elected president and Congress don't take office until January 20, 2013, so the current office-holders will have to take the first bite out of this poisoned apple.

If Romney wins, the Republicans will definitely want to wait until he takes office, so you will start hearing a lot of talk about how the cliff is actually a gentle slope with plenty of time to do, undo, and redo things without ruining the economy. The Democrats, meanwhile will amp us the pressure in hopes of forcing a deal before January 20th. If Obama wins, he can use that same rhetoric about the gentle slope to argue that letting everything lapse isn't such a bad thing, putting pressure on the Republicans who want to preserve the tax cuts and avoid defense cuts.

Standing on the sidelines taking all this is in are business people who want to know what the future holds before they invest in it. Over and over you hear that uncertainty about the politics of deficit reduction is why businesses are not expanding. Can't say as I blame them. Why invest in an economic environment that could be vastly different in just a few months from now? Better to wait and see how things work out.

Much as I hate to say it, I wish we were back in the days when Ronald Reagan was president and Tip O'Neill was Speaker of the House. Say what you want, they were two old pros who understood that the essence of the American political system was compromise. You can't say that about the current crop of politicians.

It seems as though they have forgotten the simple lessons we learned in high school civics class, the lessons passed on to us by the giants of earlier eras: fierce partisan debate followed by a compromise that gave each side a little of what they wanted. Now, everybody has to have their own way. As a result, nobody gets their way. That is not the American way.

October 11, 2012

The Goldfinch

I recently had occasion to look through a collection of my essays entitled A Misunderstood God, which, by the way, is available for free in e-book format at all the major sellers. I came across this piece, and I thought it would be fun to share it with a younger generation of family members who may not be familiar with these events. The story is true. As for what it means, I will leave that to you, gentle reader.

In 1975 my father died suddenly from a heart attack. He had been playing golf, as he did nearly every weekend. A doctor who happened to be at a nearby tee rushed over to give assistance, but my father was already dead. It was Saturday, September 6, just short of his 61st birthday.
The next few days were a swirl of events as we immersed ourselves in planning for the wake and the funeral. My father had been a life-long resident of Cohasset, and we expected a big crowd at the wake, especially since my mother wanted to limit the wake to one night. Just the immediate family was enough to fill the Sons of Italy Hall. When it was all over, about 700 people had come, including my father’s kindergarten teacher.
The funeral was held at St. Anthony’s. My father was buried in a plain pine casket. The marker was a large stone from our back field. Beside him were my older brother Louis, who drowned as a young boy, and Maria, who died in infancy. Three simple graves that blended in with the hundreds of other graves in the cemetery, some plain like my father’s, most with large granite monuments, the names and dates carved deeply in cleanly chiseled strokes.
After the funeral, the family returned to my mother’s house to sit and talk and eat. This is something we have always done. People joke that Italians deal with most major events in their lives by cooking and consuming enormous amounts of food. But aside from the fact that preparing several different courses keeps everyone busy, the meal itself, which lasts for hours, surrounds you with people to share the grief and ease the burden. It was during this get-together after the funeral that a strange thing happened.
To set the stage, I must go back to something that happened almost a year before my father’s death, when my wife and I and our 10-month old son were visiting for the Thanksgiving holidays.
This particular incident stemmed, I suppose, from attempts by my younger sisters to get my father to quit smoking. Cursed with a bad heart all his life, his heavy smoking created a combination that was clearly unhealthy. My sisters had pestered him into quitting several times, but he always went back to smoking. Finally, a rough compromise emerged. He could smoke as long as nobody saw him doing it. This worked out for the most part, but after dinner, when my Dad really wanted a cigarette, he would contrive some sort of excuse to leave for a few minutes so he could sneak out in the back yard and smoke.
On this particular Thanksgiving visit, rain had fallen for several days, typical New England late-fall weather. Not being aware of the arrangement concerning smoking, I was surprised when Dad suggested that he and I go outside after dinner. After a bit of cajoling, I finally figured out that there was more to this than met the eye, so I put on my jacket and walked with him to the back yard. The early evening air was gray and heavy with a thick drizzle that chilled to the bone.
Our house had at that time two back yards. The first went back about 100 feet, ending in a cultivated area where my mother raised blueberries and my father kept some strawberry beds. Behind this was an acre field bounded by a stone fence that ran around the property. When we bought the house, the back field was a tangle of brambles and weeds. My job was to clear all that out, which I did using a contraption called a sickle bar, a self-propelled cutter that had a blade like an electric hedge clipper that ran along the ground. Since the brambles were all tangled together, on a single swath I would pull the entire row behind me, forcing me to stop and disentangle the mass of thorny branches about every 10 feet. It was the first really hard work I had ever done, and I have never forgotten it.
That field, now neatly mown, was to our backs as we huddled behind a lone cedar that grew at the corner of the blueberry patch. My dad hunched over as he lit his cigarette, then waved the match in the air to extinguish it, and let it fall to the damp ground. Looking out over the blueberry bushes, he began talking about a bird he had seen just the other day.
My dad knew nature from working outdoors all of his life. He knew the names of all the local bushes and trees and wild flowers, and he had a good knowledge of birds. He started telling me about this bird he had recently seen. Judging by his interest, he must not have seen this particular bird before. He described it as small and bright yellow.
I said I didn’t know for sure what it was, but I thought maybe we could look it up in our bird book, A Field Guide to the Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson. When we got back inside, we quickly flipped through and found our bird right away. It was a goldfinch. I had only seen them once myself, during the spring migration, when a flock settled on a small tree in the back field of our first house. They filled the bare tree with bright yellow leaves that fluttered and chirped. After a brief rest, they swooped away, a flashing yellow cloud dipping and rising off to the east.
We studied the picture awhile and decided that, yes, it had to have been a goldfinch. When we finished, I laid the book down on the hutch beside the dining room table, figuring that was the end of that. I eventually forgot about the goldfinch and was not reminded of it again until the day of my father’s funeral, during the get-together at my mother’s house.
The main room of the house was a kitchen and family room, divided by the kitchen counter. Set against the counter on the family room side was a large rectangular table, made from pine, with two leaves that ran the length of it. My father had built the table years ago. He always sat at one end, in front of a window. My mother sat at the other end, and we kids would squeeze in along the long leaf.
On big occasions, we would pull the table away from the counter that divided the dining area from the kitchen so more people could sit at the table. On that day, the table was covered with large China platters, filled with layers of sliced meats and cold cuts, breads and rolls, salads and vegetables. Little dishes of pickles and black olives filled the chinks between the platters, making a sturdy mosaic of foods.
I was sitting at the dining room table, facing into the kitchen. My father’s chair sat empty to my left, the window behind it. I was listening to Aunt Georgina, my mother’s older sister. Like a chess master who can play many games at the same time, Aunt Georgina had the ability to track several different conversations at once, and she would interject comments into these conversations at random moments. Unfortunately, she was usually about 5 sentences behind, so her comments never quite caught up with the current train of thought.
I was trying to decipher one such comment that ranged back to something said about 5 minutes before, when Aunt Georgina and I were both startled by a splash of yellow as a bird flew up to the window, hung there beating its wings frantically for a few seconds, and then swooped away. Aunt Georgina let out a cry, pointing excitedly out the window. All the conversations stopped as everyone in the room looked over to listen as she explained what had just happened.
Birds occupy a prominent place in Italian superstitions concerning death. It is commonly believed that if a bird flies up to your window at night, it is looking for a soul to take away. A bird inside the house is very bad luck. My mother was horrified when she visited our first house and discovered our family room wallpaper featured huge birds in bright colors.

With this in mind, it is easy to imagine the babble of excited conversation that broke out, especially among the old woman, after they understood what we had seen. Aunt Georgina immediately proclaimed it a sign that Louis, God rest his soul, was in heaven and that everything was all right. There were fervid murmurs of agreement throughout the room.

Meanwhile, I quietly went first to the hutch and then to the bookcase and found the bird book. I laid it in my hand, and it opened to the last page used, as books often do. There, looking back at me, was the picture of a goldfinch that my father and I had studied together, the one that looked like the bird he had seen fluttering around his garden.

October 10, 2012

Autumn Leaves

October used to be an edgy time of the year for me. I arrived in Vietnam sometime during the first week in October, and for many years afterward I experienced what the psychologists call the anniversary syndrome, feelings of anxiety associated with some prior traumatic event. I prefer the more poetic expression used by Marcel Proust: la recherche du temps perdu, or the remembrance of lost time ... the residue of a close encounter with fate.

Those days in Vietnam are indeed lost time. The images in my mind's eye fade, but autumn still leaves me feeling uneasy. The pressure of past events is no longer there. Now it is the pressure of an uncertain future as I stand on the cusp of the winter of my life. The time of my life is now mostly seen as a receding landscape in the rear-view mirror. There is no getting around it. But rather than worry about it, I make ready for another spring, as if nothing will change. An act of faith? Or have I merely arrived at the first stage of grieving for lost time: denial?

Better to put such thoughts aside and focus on the immediate task at hand. The flower beds need to be mulched. The grass trimmed and cut one last time (hopefully). The detritus of the summer vegetable garden cleared away. And so spading fork and eco-friendly paper lawn trash bags in hand, I ready myself for a final harvest of weeds and dying tomato plants.

Instead, I find a dead opossum. He had somehow managed to get through the chicken wire that surrounds my little vegetable garden but wasn't clever enough to find the way out. He lay between my pepper plants, looking for all the world like a gigantic rat. I'd be lying if I said it didn't give me a bit of a start, followed by a new feeling of uneasiness, this time in the pit of my stomach. At any rate, that explains the frantic barking by our dog Mabel that my wife heard a couple of nights ago.

Now what? My neighbor said I should throw it out with the trash. Somehow that didn't seem right, but a call to Animal Control confirmed that course of action. I got a plastic lawn bag, and after a moment's hesitation, I gathered up the dead opossum with my spading fork and deposited it into the plastic bag. I put it in a spare recycling bin by the side of the house. Somehow, that seemed a fitting repository.

The next two hours were spent under a muggy sky uprooting weeds and old vegetable plants. The now full lawn trash bags stood at attention beside the dead opossum, forming a mute honor guard for the dead season. Another cycle was complete. Tonight I would ponder the cleansed landscape from the sanctuary of my deck. If my gaze strayed to the vegetable garden, I would try not to think of the emptiness behind those eyes staring up at me from the ground.