Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Years of Wonder

For my contribution to the Art/Word show “Passages” at Lasell College in February of 2015, I painted and photographed the various elements separately, and assembled them in PhotoShop. The text (Art/Word pieces always have text accompanying them) is taken from E. B. White’s essay “The Years of Wonder,” about his experiences as a footloose young man on a charter voyage from Seattle to the Bering Sea and back. The text reads:

“Alaska was in the opposite direction from home, where I considered it unsuitable to be at my age...

“At six in the morning, I reported for work. This was the true beginning of the voyage for me; I was below at last, where the ship’s heartbeat was audible and her body odor undispersed.

“Why did I long to be below? I don’t know. I just remember that I did and that this descent seemed a difficult but necessary step up life’s ladder. The whole Alaskan experience was a subconscious attempt to escape from the world, to put off whatever was in store for me; the farther down inside the ship I went, the better the hiding place.

“No young man could have asked for a more direct exposure to heat, fumes, toil, and trouble. When I close my eyes these days and think of Alaska, the picture always comes to me in a round frame, for I viewed much of our future forty-ninth state through the porthole of the firemen’s messroom, and the picture has a special smell—a blend of cabbage, garbage, steam, filth, fuel oil, engine oil, exhausted air, exhausted men.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Clock running slow? Researchers say: it’s not just you

Ever feel like your day at the office starts to drag around mid-afternoon? It turns out that you're not crazy (at least, not for that reason) -- and you're certainly not alone.

Researchers at the Workforce Policy Center have discovered what countless office workers have long suspected – that there is a bubble or bulge of additional time, as much as an hour or more, that tends to insert itself within the average workday between about 2:30 pm and 4:00 pm. These extra minutes go unrecorded by any office clock. What appears to be about 11⁄2 hours of passing time actually adds up to 21⁄2 hours or more, depending on the day and the office. "And it sure feels that way," according to several workers we talked to. "The afternoon just plain bottoms out," says "Anthony," a claims adjuster. "It feels like it's never going to be time to hit the door."

"Time is variably elastic at all times of day – we've known that for years," asserts labor expert Rona Rotifer of the WPC, who directed the recent study. "Say you get to the office around 8:00 in the morning to catch up on your email. Ten minutes later, boom! it's 9:00, and the boss is bugging you. That's a pretty common story. But almost without fail, you glance at the clock at 2:45, work for another hour, look at the clock again, and it's 2:55. We thought, how could that be?"

Employees who notice and comment on the typical workday's midafternoon "valley of death" have typically been told that it's all in their heads and to get back to work. Now, with the news of Rotifer's study, workers are talking about the additional compensation they might be owed, where the extra time might be coming from, and whether it could be applied instead to holidays and weekends.

Rotifer's group was able to detect the mysterious bulge of time by using their own clocks and keeping them located outside of the office being studied. Researchers found that the extra time created in the afternoon would be often evened out by day's end, usually by having the pleasant events of the evening simply go flying by. "Bedtime so soon?" complained more than one subject in the study. "It feels like I just got home!"

Balloon Story

It was on a Sunday in October, many years ago, when my son and I found ourselves on the fields next to Holliston High School, looking like the balloon-man and one of his young customers. The afternoon sun was bright and warm, and a stiff breeze blew. A soccer game was in progress, spectators were cheering, dogs were running and barking. And overhead, the deep blue sky waited for us to release our balloons.

During the preceding week, my mother-in-law had become seriously ill at her home in Rochester, N.Y., and had to be hospitalized. My wife had gone to be with her, in what would turn out to be her final illness. At 6-going-on-7, my son could not really grasp all that was happening (I'm not sure I could myself). It seemed best to start filling up the weekend with projects, in that carefree-but-glancing-over-your-shoulder way people have when they're killing time while waiting for the phone to ring.

Sunday morning was crisp and clear, and after church, I came up with an idea. Peter, I said, people at the seashore sometimes put a message in a bottle and let it go on the outgoing tide, to see if anybody will find it and answer. When we were kids, we used to buy helium balloons, attach messages to them and set them free from an open field. The message was always brief, because it had to fit into whatever small plastic container we could find. Almost never was there a reply. Often, the wind was too strong, or there were not enough balloons for the weight, and then the whole thing would scutter along the ground, maybe rise to 12 or 15 feet, high enough to be out of reach but too low to clear the treeline. The balloons would lurch upwards, then at the last moment they would get good and snagged in the topmost branches. They would snap around up there for a while, but the flight would be over.

Many times, though, the balloons flew free, and once, a message did come back. A couple in a nearby town found a broken balloon in their driveway, tethered to our plastic message-bottle, which they were happy to return. This gave us the confidence to send up several more balloons over the years, none of which came back.

This day, it simply seemed like a good way to fill time. We went home and found a piece of card stock upon which Peter wrote a message and drew a picture of himself, his house and his yard. We put this into an empty gallon milk jug, sealed it with tape and drove to Fiske's to buy the balloons. It turned out that nine balloons were needed to lift the jug from the floor with enough "oomph."

Up at the high school, with the balloons tugging at their ribbons, we waited for the breeze to stop and catch its breath. Peter was impatient, and wanted to let the balloons fly. But I wanted to be sure that this bunch would clear the trees.

Then I remembered my mother-in-law, dying in a distant hospital, and let the balloons go. My heart sank as a gust of wind pushed them to the ground, then they twisted free and began to climb quickly, gliding towards the trees but already high enough to miss the top branches. We watched as the balloons sailed east, soon becoming just a black speck against the clouds, then vanishing.

Betty Anne died a day or two later. We drove out for the memorial service, thus beginning that long journey so familiar to many of you, the one you take when a parent dies. It was many weeks before life began to return to normal.

But sometime before Thanksgiving, a padded envelope with a Canadian postmark appeared in the mail. At first, we thought it must be from friends of ours who live in Maine, some vacation photos. But we could see that it was not, when we opened the envelope and out slid Peter's drawing of himself, his house and his yard. There were also some packets containing seeds of native Nova Scotia plants, some seashells and a note from a grandmother and the grandson who lived with her near Yarmouth, N.S.: "Thank you for your message from across the Gulf of Maine. We found your bottle with all the balloons on our favourite beach. We hope these presents reach you unbroken . . ." I have often pictured the balloons, rising until they weaken and burst, and the jug tumbles out of the sky and lands in the sea. I picture the woman and the little boy spotting the tangle of ribbon and plastic among the shells and seaweed. They fish the note out of the jug, read it, and then (I'm sure) both look out towards the horizon. When they get home, they locate Holliston in an atlas, some 300 miles to the southwest across the open ocean.

I would like to report that we visited Connor and his Nana and became friends for life, but it hasn't happened yet. We still have the seeds. One day we will plant them. And we still have the note, and Peter's well-traveled drawing.

So why tell this story now, years later? Perhaps, with winter closing in and the difficulties of life in full array, it helps to remember that all you need to get the universe rolling in your direction again is to give it a little shove. You could say that nothing will come of it. But you never know.

Bullets on the Brain

When you see a news story about Afghanistan, or some other place where there's a lot of fighting going on, do you ever stop and wonder about the bullets? I do, sometimes. All those little bullets, flying around through the air and tearing things to pieces. I probably wouldn't give them any thought if I had been in the army or something, but I wasn't, so I do, maybe that's why. The "insurgents" who shoot at our soldiers day after day, I'd like to know where they're getting their bullets, and their bombs, and all their other stuff. How are they paying for it? Who are they paying for it? Who gets them their food and clothing, and the gas and oil for their trucks? Once you start asking pesky questions like this, it's hard to stop.

Back to the bullets. You never see much about them in the news, but without them a gun would be useless; you could do more damage with a garden shovel. So small, and nearly invisible when, on a video, they come flying out of the barrel of a gun, but the fear and suffering they cause is tremendous. People in combat are probably afraid every minute of someone shooting at them, but they're also anxious to get off a good shot first if they meet up with an enemy (that is, anyone with a gun who apparently would like to kill them). Believe me, I want our soldiers to have guns that work and plenty of bullets. But then I think, if it weren't for bullets, no one could fight much of a ground war. And as many guns as there are in the world today, there are many, many more bullets. Not only that: they get used up. Soldiers around the world, taken together, must run through thousands of them every day; they always need more. So where do all the bullets come from? How exactly do they get from the assembly line up to the soldiers who need them? Wouldn't you think you'd see something about this online or on TV once in a while?

When we need supplies at the office, UPS makes the delivery. Sometimes the driver stays a minute to talk a little baseball. They always wait for one of us to sign for the shipment, because that's the system. So, I got to thinking, when the bullets get delivered to where the fighting is, it must be something like that.

What do you suppose it takes to provide the bullets, grenades, and other things people need each day where war is happening? So much goes on backstage in any war, without which the whole thing would grind to a halt. Factories, roadways, warehouses, truck stops, landing strips . . . plus pilots, mechanics, workers hanging around loading docks, and places for everyone to eat and sleep. And it all costs money; people expect to be paid. Every time a carton of bullets arrives at its destination, it probably comes with some sort of paperwork, and the driver waits for a signature. Otherwise there would be chaos, which would be unacceptable. The way we get news from "war-torn" regions, the fighting always seems without sense or pattern, but you can be sure that somebody knows when the next carton of bullets is due. The trucks, meanwhile, are on some sort of schedule for servicing; otherwise they would be unreliable, which would also be unacceptable. When the delivery is complete and the paperwork is collected, the manufacturer sends an invoice and awaits payment, and every intermediary along the way gets a cut.

Can you picture it? Rumbling semi-trucks bring crates of bullets up from the docks or the airfields. People in freight sheds break open the crates, remove the smaller cartons inside, and load them into smaller vehicles, which take the bullets out into the field where the soldiers are, running low on ammo. The soldiers break open the cartons, grab packs of bullets, load the bullets into their guns, aim, and fire, immediately creating a need for more bullets. You have to admire a system like that.

All around the world, big boxes full of bullets, stacked high on pallets, are on their merry way by sea or air to wherever guns are being fired. Maybe the bullets our soldiers use are manufactured here in the States, or maybe we buy them cheap from Russia, or Canada, or China. Maybe some are made here in New England. Who knows? Maybe one of your friends from college is now in the arms business, and just bought a lakeside cottage for the family, because it's been such a good year. Well, somebody's making money on all this; maybe it's you.

Of course, the whole process must be going on, after a fashion, among the forces opposed to ours. Their bullets get used up, too, but there always seem to be more where those came from. Yet no one is giving them away. You'd think if the insurgents' bullets and bombs were just magically appearing each day out of the sand at their feet, you'd hear about that.

Somehow, planes and trucks and boats are bringing everything our enemies need right to their back door, by the ton and on time. So the system must be fairly well organized. What are the origins of these supply lines? Do you think we don't know? Couldn't we snuff out a lot of conflict by snuffing out the places where the bullets come from? Or would that, too, be unacceptable?

Tires and oil for the trucks, fuel for the planes, light bulbs for the warehouses, all of these things are needed, and are ordered, delivered, and paid for on a schedule that's agreeable to all the parties. To read the news, you'd think our soldiers (and their soldiers) were out there all by themselves, but of course they're only the very top of the pyramid. Beneath them are the many who make war possible and profitable. Someone makes the uniforms, the boots, the tarps, the portable toilets, the cafeteria equipment, and the food that is served there. Above all, someone makes the bullets, and makes a good living at it. How many makers of bullets are there in this strange society? Who are they? Where are they? Do they meet over drinks at annual conferences in Manila, or New Orleans? Who makes our bullets, and who makes our enemies' bullets? Do they know each other? Are they the same people?

Chickadee Story

This is a small story about a small bird and a suburban guy; the bird makes quite an impact, and the guy travels backwards in time.

On the back of our house is a one-story addition that we call the sunroom, though the sun only reaches it in the summer. More accurately, it's my son's room, the place where his stuff tends to wind up. His old PC is back there. He doesn't use it much any more, but I've found that it's all right for things like checking your email while enjoying a view of the back yard, which is what I was doing one morning not too long ago.

The sunroom has large picture windows and a sliding glass door; in effect, the walls are mostly glass, and when the window shades are up, birds on their way to and from our feeders sometimes mistake the oversize panes for clear spaces they can fly through. You'll be in the kitchen getting a second cup of coffee when you hear a sound like a tennis ball hitting a window none too softly. You go over to have a look, but there's nothing to see. Birds are pretty resilient and probably run into stuff all the time; you just don't see them do it. They have to pick themselves up quickly and fly away and mostly, I guess, they do.

This day, I'm sitting at the old PC, cruising around; the shades are up. There is a dark little shadow against the glass in front of me, and I see it: a chickadee swoops up and smacks into the window – whap! – and drops out of sight. I get up, slide the door open, and look outside. It's gone – no, there it is, on the grass with its head down, wings still spread, knocked out cold.

The Black-capped Chickadee (poecile atricapilla) is the state bird of Massachusetts. I suppose it was chosen for this honor because it is a common year-round resident of the state, but so are a lot of birds such as pigeons and sparrows, so I'd prefer to think it's because the chickadee is such a pleasure to have around. It's pretty cute, for one thing, and a hard worker too but there I go: just because the chickadee is less wary around people than many birds, it's easy to start assigning admirable qualities to it. People like to say that chickadees are bold, clever, energetic, even pugnacious, when all they're really being is chickadees.

Before one of the cats can get it, I step outside and pick the chickadee up and cup it in my hands. Instantly I am transported back 50 years to my grandmother's house, listening to her story about rescuing a small bird that had struck a window at her house. She had gathered it up and then sat holding it in her hands, warming it, not moving for a long while. In her many retellings of this story, the tale grew, I think, until it had turned into several such incidents and many hours of waiting in stillness for the birds to die or revive. They always revived.

The bird story is my grandmother all over: the sweet, do-it-yourself rescue of a defenseless thing, the selflessness and extreme patience, the sentimental happy ending. Many people would have ignored the fallen bird and gotten on with their day. Weren't there already plenty of chickadees? But Gran could devote herself entirely to saving a single bird, even a common one, maybe especially a common one.

She came from an old-fashioned time when women began practicing to be elderly from an early age, or so it seemed. In my memory she is always tottering up the stairs on her old-lady pumps, her cloud-white hair forever in a tight bun, her brittle, quavering voice as she tells the cornball little story about holding onto that dumb bird. I probably heard the story first when I was very young, but now as I recall it, I am looking down at her as she sits beneath a shawl and demonstrates with her hands – "like this" – so I am probably 11 or older and have heard the story many times and am impatient to go outside and play. She hoped that I would be just as soft-hearted towards cute little birds, and I probably would, but I also knew that being nice to animals was no way to get respect from the kids I played with. Saving a bird was stupid and sappy – you were supposed to stomp on injured birds, and run your bike over snakes. Besides, I knew some of my friends' grandmothers by now, and it turned out that grandmothers drank beer, ate pizza, went out to movies and dances, pushed power mowers, vacationed in Florida, things my horse-and-buggy Gran would never did and never would. In a sense, her life was more about waiting for poor things to fall to the ground, so she could scoop them up and save them.

So here I was with this bird. It wasn't dead, though I couldn't tell how alive it was. How long would I have to wait for it to wake up? At what point would I decide that enough was enough and set it down in the garden, to let nature take over? 

I called to Annie to come out and see, and a neighbor came by and we all looked at it, the tiny black-and-white head poking out, the black eyes blank at first, then blinking a little. I noticed, having never held a live bird, how small it was, and how weightless. A chickadee isn't very big even when it's darting around with its feathers fluffed up against the cold, and when it's lying in your hands half-conscious and deflated, it's very small, a little wind-up toy whose spring is broken.

It blinked more quickly. I stroked its head and back, probably not soothing it at all but just to see what it felt like. It stirred a little and I opened my hands, letting it stand, swaying slightly, where it could feel the sun and wind. I sidled over to a nearby bush to see if it would hop onto one of the branches, but it just stood there.

Several minutes went by, and about the time I was wondering if the bird had knocked something loose in its head and now I was going to have to care for it indefinitely, it vanished from my hands, and, a moment later, reappeared in my grandmother's. There she sits, forever huddled now with a chickadee protected and growing warm in her hands, with all the time and patience she was fortunate to have. I would sit holding that bird too, for as long as it took.

The Long Commute


I don't know about you, but lately my morning commute has been taking a lot longer. I turn out onto Washington Street each weekday, down where I live near the Milford line, and almost immediately run into a barely-crawling line of traffic, jammed, crammed, and hung up all the way to the center of town, and sometimes beyond. Now, I don't have one of those killer commutes that you read about, like over to the North Shore or into East Cambridge. No, I only have to get to South Natick, but traffic is traffic no matter where you go, and somehow it's worse to be stuck going nowhere in your own town, where until lately the traffic seemed to flow more freely than it does now. Between the road construction, the school busses, and all these new megahouses that have sprung up in the woods (each with its three-car garage stuffed with SUVs and minivans), and what with Dad having to get to work and Mom having to get to tennis and the nanny having to run the kids to school, our old country roads and lanes are looking more and more like the Mass Pike on a Monday morning.

Well, I've got to get to work, that's the bottom line, and I simply can't stand poking along in a traffic jam at 2 mph. I didn't move out to Holliston to sit staring at somebody's brake lights, I could be doing that in Newton or Woburn, or Brighton! Maybe there's another way to go, some sort of detour I could take. I could go up Courtland Street to Marshall and then over Gorwin and up to Chamberlain and Prentice and so out to Hollis Street, a pretty ride, but that way just takes me to the center of town. I've got to do better than that. Maybe if I take Summer Street south, then Lovering, then swing over to Hill Street . . . 


People found out about my little detours, so they're all stop-and-go now. Washington Street is totally clogged every morning, a "pretty tight ride" as they say on the radio. But it's OK, I've got it under control. What I do, see, is I actually go west, a little ways into Milford, and then gradually swing down to the south around Bellingham, and sometimes Franklin, a little, and come around into Natick by some back roads in Medfield and Sherborn that are still fairly light. Nobody knows about these short-cuts of mine yet, and so I can get to the office all right, although I'm usually running a little behind, sometimes it's 10:00 or so and I have to stay late, but at least I beat the evening commute, usually. And I have to leave the house earlier in the morning, of course. One of the neighbors who stays home puts my son on the bus for me. Usually, I drop him off still wrapped up in his blankets, asleep, but that's OK. He understands how it is, I think. 


My commute's getting to be quite a challenge now. But I can handle it. I still have what I consider to be a quality lifestyle, and you know, you've got to keep moving, that's the important thing. If you're not moving, you're nobody, that's how it is. So, the little detours I was using a year ago, everybody found out about them, too. They're all stuffed and stalled out now. Every highway, every by-way, side-street, cart-path, and back-alley leading into town, major and minor, along with every conceivable cut-through that gets around, dodges, avoids, or breaks free of all the jam-ups is itself pretty well jammed-up most mornings. They've kept building more and more big houses with bigger and wider garages, and that just means more and more cars on the road each day, one person to a car, mostly, and it's just a long pile-up of glass, metal, rubber, and plastic along each and every strip of macadam each morning.

But I've got it figured out. Don't tell anybody, but what I do is I actually go west and then south a little further, just go around it a little more. I drive out towards Mendon and Uxbridge, like, and then swing way south, down around Woonsocket, and sometimes I need to snake through some of these side-roads in Attleboro and Raynham. There's a cut-through in Lakeville that I know about. I'm moving right along most of the time, and then I come over through Avon and Westwood and Dover and then right into South Natick and I'm there. It's very pretty by the old dam and the river and the little brick library, any season of the year, have you seen it? There's an especially nice view from the parking lot. Sometimes it's past noon by the time I get to the office, but it's OK because, you know, I've got to get to work, that's the bottom line.

After getting pulled over

It's a little past sundown on an autumn evening, a number of years ago. I'm driving down Hollis Street past the high school, in an irritable mood. At this point in life, I'm working as a freelance graphic designer, and another day has not gone well.

Returning home after an inconsequential meeting, I'm no closer to scraping up next month's mortgage payment than I was the day before. Despite a dim awareness that discouragement and driving don't mix, I swing past the football field and, seeing no one in front or behind, I floor it. By the time I get down to the bottom of the hill by the Congregational Church, three blocks from home, there's no denying the flashing blue lights atop the vehicle behind me. I have found there is nothing like the chagrin you feel as you ease your once-speedy car to the curb after getting caught going too fast.

I don't recognize the officer who appears at my car door, but that's not surprising. It's dark by now, and I know few of the police by sight, in or out of uniform. I hand over my license and registration without bothering to whine, wheedle, argue, or make excuses. I know I've broken the law, and so does he, and he knows that I know. He gives me a ticket, not a warning. Before turning away from the window, he says, tersely, "Slow it down." It's not a suggestion.

What is it that we tell our children? That you can trust a police officer; if you're lost or in trouble, you can flag one down and get help. That a police officer's word is law – you are to do what they say. That the job of the Holliston police is to keep the town safe and make sure everybody plays by the rules. And these things are right and true. But we may also tell our children, as they grow and mature, to "question authority." And we may enjoy hearing stories of people putting one over on the police, getting away with breaking a silly little law about fireworks or booze, some stupid rule that was spoiling our fun.

So we seem at times ambivalent about the police. We maintain a respectful public attitude towards law and order, which may be quite different from how we feel in private, cutting a comer, claiming a false deduction, taking a swipe at a spouse. Pointed observations on the editorial pages and talk-radio about excessive police details, or the legendary weakness for doughnuts, speak to deeper misgivings about this presence of authority in our lives. News stories about more serious police issues (tragic wrongful arrests, the use of unnecessary force, evidence of racism) underscore the sense of uneasiness.

You might have good reason to distrust or fear the police. Maybe where you come from, the cops picked on you. If you ever attended a big political rally or participated in a protest march, you remember the hefty batons wielded by the blue-helmeted, big-city cops. We would not want to live without the police, for they constitute a deterrent to crime, but they make us edgy. They can choose to exercise power over us. Even arrest and jail us, right here in our town. If we spot a cruiser coming up behind us, we instantly check the speedometer, or glance to see if the inspection sticker has run out. A police car pulls into your driveway: is that good news or bad news?

The police are also angels of mercy, no doubt about it. Years ago, the Newton cops would see me hitchhiking on the empty streets after my late shift at the cab company, and give me a ride to the bus terminal in Watertown Square. More recently, using the greatest care and resourcefulness, two Holliston officers and three EMT's wrested me out of my house and into an ambulance after a nasty fall. I owe my life, in fact, to one Wellesley officer, who sped me to the hospital after a bike accident when I was 12. I could never thank them all enough, and I'm sure many of you have been helped in similar ways.

From time to time, a cruiser sits just off the intersection in front of our house, waiting for speeders to come zooming down the main road. It's a pretty safe bet. People speed on South Street all the time. I used to do it myself before I moved here. Living in a place puts you much more on the side of the law there.

The cruiser gleams in the twilight, polished and heavy, bristling with antennas, resplendent with colorful stripes and decals. It's in top condition, unlike the poor junker that soon comes barreling by with its radio thumping. Moments later, flashing its lights excitedly behind the stopped car, the cruiser wins on looks alone. The offending driver tries to make himself inconspicuous by slumping behind the wheel.

This, perhaps, is what often happens when we encounter the police in the performance of their work; we suffer a loss of dignity, however slight. Whether they're bawling us out for running a crosswalk, or gathering us up after an accident, the police can't help impinging on the dignity we like to shield ourselves with. We've stopped making the rules for a while, and now must obey theirs, without knowing when we'll be able to get the game back. We may feel irritated, ashamed, powerless, even enraged or resigned.

An officer need not even be present. Take that device the police use along busy streets, which calculates your speed as you approach and displays it to you in big numbers. Invariably, you're going too fast, and as you press the brake pedal, you can feel your unbridled freedom slide into the grip of ordinance.

The fact is that police are really on hand to protect the peace and uphold the law, not to make things all nice and cushy for you and me as individuals. We need to ask ourselves, then, how much we honestly respect the law, apart from the fallible men and women who enforce it.

Day after day, the police officer is directing heavy traffic at the busy intersection of Freedom and Law. Where our personal aspirations, everything that seems to make life worthwhile, meet the more-or-less unbending restrictions that we say we want to live by. And there is the officer, standing out in the middle of the road with one palm up: NOT SO FAST.