Wednesday, August 10, 2022

LEVIATHAN

[Composed in the style of a story told live for an audience, as on "The Moth."]

 

Hi, everybody. I’d like to talk to you about whales. How about it, anybody here like whales? Yeah, you like ‘em, and you, and you in the back there … really, who doesn’t like whales, almost nobody. I’m not a marine biologist, but I can tell you that there aren’t as many whales as there used to be, we gotta be careful with them, we don’t wanna make a big mistake and end up snuffing them out. They’re kind of like distant cousins of ours, you know? They used to walk around on dry land, imagine that. They’re warm-blooded, and they have these big brains, and they sing. They sing these crazy, beautiful songs, and no one’s completely sure what that’s all about. They’re not like fish, even though they live in the ocean. They’re not like sharks. I mean, no offense, but hardly anybody goes out on a shark watch. But people do go out on whale watches, in big numbers, very popular. Because it’s fun, and because you’re going to go way out to where the whales are. They can’t come to you, they’re too big to come in close to shore, so you get on a big boat with a bunch of other people, nice sunny day, it’s your first whale watch, very exciting, and you go waaaaaaaaaaaaay out to sea until you can’t see the land anymore, and the whales just show up and do their thing. Isn’t it great?

You watch them coming up for air, their big backs and their fins breaking the surface, and they spout, you know, they breathe in and out and it looks like a white cloud. It’s like something out of a fairy tale! Sometimes they wave their big tails like a flag, and sometimes they jump out of the water almost all the way, just for the fun of it, is what it looks like. We watch the whales and the whales watch us too, I think, very curious about us.

Fun times, going out to watch the whales. So some years ago, my girlfriend (now my wife … woo-hoo! yes! thank you!), she surprises me on my birthday with a pair of tickets to a … whale watch. Yes, you saw that coming, pretty sharp out here tonight.

So the first thing I noticed that morning when we pulled into the parking lot up in Gloucester was that the whale-watching boat was a lot … smaller than the one on that first trip I was telling you about. Actually, really, the first thing I noticed, before we even got down to the harbor, was that it was raining. Raining pretty hard, and chilly too. Very chilly for mid-May. Also, pretty breezy.

Our whale-watch boat was actually a party boat, in real life. There are lots of them up and down the shore, north and south of Boston. They’re designed to take large groups of people offshore for a gentle summer day of bottom-fishing and beer-drinking and getting your line tangled up with your buddies’ lines. That kind of stuff. Fair-weather fishing trips. Maybe it was a cheap rental this early in the year. How big was it? Oh, I don’t know, not too big. Maybe from here to over here in width. Little cabin, pilot house on top. And for length, well, if you stood at the stern and threw a stone towards the bow, it would probably go past the bow and land kerplop! somewhere out in front. Not too big.

There are maybe 35 people on board, many of them kids, and everybody seems really psyched to be going out to see the whales, except that it keeps raining, which is a … challenge. But a crew member I take to be the captain hollers to the rest of the crew, waving both arms forward: “Let’s just GO! Let’s just DO it!” And away we go, out of the harbor, out to the east where the action of the sea is … rougher.

So, you’re getting the picture, right? Small boat, choppy seas, wet weather. I begin to get the idea that things might not exactly work out the way I thought they would. So let’s get the rest of the negative stuff out of the way up front. People begin to get seasick all around us. Not a good time. A lot of them aren’t dressed for the weather, so they’re getting cold and drenched. There’s no more room in the cabin. I’m thinking, it’s actually better to be outside where you can watch the scenery. Nobody asks the crew to turn around. Folks seem to have decided just to endure it. Glassy eyes, pale faces, shivering. They’re holding on tight to whatever they’ve found that seems solid. What else can you do?  

Right about now you might be asking yourself, what kind of a story is this guy telling? Which version of the narrative is going to win out? Will it be the one featuring the trials and tribulations of the boat trip, where it’s cold and bumpy and wet? Or is it going to be something more … transformative? Something about how alive I feel, riding along on a little chip of steel and plywood on the limitless sea? That some discomforts need to be endured in order to get to that “alive” feeling? In short, is it going to be a happy story, or a sad one, or both? Well, I’m the storyteller, you’d think I would know. But sometimes the storyteller has to tell the story all the way through, to find out what kind of a story it is. So let’s see how that goes, you and me together.

So meanwhile the boat is powering through the waves, rolling to the left and right, hooo boy, and the bow is twitching from side to side like someone shaking their head, no-no. Also the bow is rising and falling, rising and falling, saying ah yes, ah yes, and sometimes a big wave catches the bow on the downstroke and seawater cascades down the deck and up our ankles. Hey captain, can we keep the ocean down there, where it belongs? I take a look over the side and notice how close the water is. We’re out of sight of land now. It’s just gray seawater all around, all chopped up into waves large and small, coming at us from every direction. If the boat should roll and we all go in, it’ll be over in minutes. No point spending any time worrying about that.

The guy I think is the captain comes by where we’re standing, on his way up to the pilot house. Hey captain, who’s upstairs driving the boat? And I say something to him like, Pretty rough out here today, and he turns to me as he grips the ladder, and his look is kind of wild-eyed and distracted. Stressed, you could say. Not exactly frightened, not exactly the Titanic, but still. He says to me, It’s a lot rougher than I thought it would be, too! Well, OK, good. That’s settled, then.

All of a sudden somebody shouts. The whales are here! They’re right here! Their black backs are rising out of the sea, all around us, very close, and as we slow down to pass by them and among them, I catch a glimpse of a long, mottled flipper down through the water. The boat loses its headway. Now we’re swinging skyward on the crest of each big wave, and falling into the trough behind it, up and down like a seesaw. The whales don’t care, they keep on feeding and snorting and spouting. We wipe the rainwater out of our eyes and strain to see, and to remember what we’re seeing. Look, there’s a big whale tale, against the sky! Or am I just remembering a picture I’ve seen in some tourist magazine? This goes on for a while. And then, in a moment, they’re gone, as if they were never here. Where did they go? The wind picks up, and now so does the engine. The captain is making an arc, bouncing around through the waves, turning around to get us out of there and headed for home.

A lot of that is the version of the story about how grueling it was. And for the first time I’m going to tell, I’m going to tell you, the version of the story about how great it was. Because that’s the way to get unstuck, and keep everything moving forward. Because it was. It was a pretty good trip! Yes it was too cold and yes too rough and yes people got sick all over the place, but look at it. Are you gonna let that stuff get to you? Would you let that stuff ruin a good story? Would I? Things are seldom flawless, in case you haven’t noticed. It’s all about what you choose to emphasize, and let’s just say that I choose to emphasize the following:

One. We saw the whales, many of them, and up close. That doesn’t always happen.
Two. I saw unforgettable scenery.
Three. We all went out and we all came back.
Four. I might be exaggerating how grim the weather was.
Five. We had taken Dramamine before boarding and it worked.
Six. We had brought along a stainless-steel dispenser holding a quart of hot coffee. The hot drink kept us from getting cold, and I remember sharing some with other passengers.
Seven. We had bundled up, dressing in layers as if for a cold-weather hike.
Eight. A short time after we turned back and beat it for Gloucester, the rain clouds moved away to the east and the sun came out and pretty soon it was a brilliantly clear, warm afternoon, and people who had been shivering and sick came out and sat on the deck and soaked up the sun, and began to be restored.

Yes? Yes. So, seeing as how everything worked out in the end, that should be a lesson to me, right? Just hang in, and everything will be OK.

Yes, except, you know, that’s the last whale watch I’ve been on. The fact is, I avoid putting myself in that kind of position — confined for a long time to a limited space, among strangers, no exit ramp, and at the mercy of forces I can’t control. I don’t like it. I don’t like to take those kinds of risks. Strong feelings! So I’ve missed out on a lot, very much so, and my life is less rich than it could be. I tend remember the bad. That’s as much me as the color of my eyes. I accept that.

But I also accept how right it feels to come through something and feel so alive afterwards, like a new person, a different version of myself. And I can see it coming, just as I can see the spires and headlands of Gloucester on the horizon ahead, rising out of the ocean as the boat heads for home. I can’t see all of the mainland yet, can’t see the harbor either, but I know it’s there, I accept that it’s there, and that it will be good.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Exciting News from LotsaBoxes, Inc.

Dear Valued Customer:

Doesn’t it feel like companies of all sizes keep intruding on your life with endless advertising pitches, trying to pry money loose from your wallet, trying to PERSUADE you to make a buying decision? “Our hair-care products are superior and will do you better, for the same money.” Or less money! “Our tires, our beer, our ED medicine, landscaping services, birdseed, groceries, pet food, real estate, etc., are all better for you than whatever it is you’re using,” which may be nothing at all, depending on the category, and up until now we’ve had to market to you, to CONVINCE you to make the SWITCH, to make the CHOICE, to get you to STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING and think seriously about BUYING something and then actually MAKE A PURCHASE!

It’s exhausting, isn’t it? Don’t you find all these ads and teasers and mailers and relentless unsolicited phone calls and pop-up ads on the websites you otherwise enjoy EXHAUSTING? Because that’s what they are! And you know what, we find them exhausting too. Imagine being in our shoes and year after year having to come up with something new to say about yoga pants.

Well, now we don’t have to, and neither do you.

Starting next month, we here at LotsaBoxes, along with our friendly global network of trading partners, many of whose products you already use, or long for, or at least tolerate, will have finished reworking the whole system, and done so in a way that’s going to be a big relief for everybody, especially you.

What we’re going to do is, instead of trying to convince you to buy stuff, giving you (and us) a constant headache, we’re just going to ship it to you without you having to ask for it. Because we know all about you (from your online activity and buying history), and, Dear Valued Customer, we have a pretty good idea of what you want, or should want. Don’t we? Yes, we do. Need a new roof? Need new running shoes? Need a lawyer? Need some aspirin? We already know you do!

Simply put, we’re about to make your life the most carefree it’s ever been!

It has long been said that the business of the country is business, and this is going to be a big boost to business, because we’ll save time and money when we stop having to wait for you to hit the “Place Order” button, and just focus on manufacturing stuff and shipping it to you. A more streamlined, less stressed-out manufacturing-and-shipping sector will make for a stronger nation, a happier world!

And forget about getting a bill from us. That’s so yesterday! We’ll just charge your credit card, or debit your checking account, through our friendly worldwide partners in the consumer finance industry and with the cooperation of our affiliates in your state house.

Sure, we already know your credit card number, that won’t be a problem. You did know that, right? You did know that there’s actually nothing particularly secure about your internet transactions, despite how we dress them up? And of course we already know your checking account number, so we can always withdraw our money right there. We mean, it really is practically our money already. We just let you keep it some of it for a little while, with you thinking that it’s yours.

Sure, you’ll be able to OPT-OUT, if you really must. Actually, the only way to stop the flow of boxes (remember: you didn’t have to go to the trouble of ordering them) is to OPT-OUT. If you really do want to OPT-OUT of this sumptuous cornucopia of good things coming to you in easy-on-the-eyes light-brown corrugated cardboard from global entities that know you and love you, if you really, really want to call a halt to this effortless flow of shiny new goods to your door, you will be required to tell us. You’ll need to OPT-OUT at the end of every seven-day period; otherwise, you can count on our terrific program to automatically continue. (Are you absolutely sure you want to OPT-OUT?) You’ll need to OPT-OUT each Sunday morning between the hours of 7:00 and 8:10 Pacific Time for the week following. You can OPT-OUT by accessing our updated, easy-to-use website, designed for your delight and pleasure and fully staffed with helpful LotsaBoxes specialists, and there will never be a delay or glitch, no not ever ever ever for as long as the Earth shall rotate. OPT back IN at anytime, and the goods will come and keep coming (and isn’t that what you really want after all?), freeing you from all doubts and decision-making, which are often such a burden.

And you know what this means? That’s right! No more ads! NO MORE ADVERTISING! Think of it! For the first time in history, NO MORE ADS to have to endure, mute, swipe away, crumple up and throw in the trash! No one crafting ever-more-bewildering marketing schemes to get you to part with your (our) cash. What a relief! What a savings of time and energy! We’ll just send you what you want, and help ourselves to your bank account. Painless! You won’t even know it’s happening!

Next up: Relief at last! from the tedium of state, national, and local elections.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Right Thing To Do

Here in eastern Massachusetts, there’s no question we’ve been having more than our share of rainy weather this summer. The gardens are mostly loving it, the people not so much.


So, I’d been reading about the hot and dry weather they’ve been having out west, and wondering if there’s anything that I, just as a lone private citizen, could do to help out.


Then I hit on the idea of sending them some of our weather. I mean, we’ve got way more rain, they’ve got way less, so why not send them some? I always figure, if you don’t want to be part of the problem, try being part of the solution. You know, all that. Sharing is caring. 


So I went down to my local mail store and told them I wanted to overnight some our weather out west. The clerk was very helpful. She took out her tape measure, and got the height, the width, and the depth, and came up with some options. “Well, the cheapest is going to be the post office, but it might take a week or more to get there.” I said, “No, I want it there quicker than that, those people are really suffering.” So she said, “OK, your UPS next-day air is going to be your best bet,” and quoted a figure that was, in fact, a little more than I wanted to pay, but heck, I wanted to help folks living through a nasty drought, you know, not score a bargain, so I said, “OK, let’s do it!”


It was a real good feeling. But a couple days later, my shipment was returned to me. There was a terse note attached to the outside of the box. “Dear Do-Gooder: Thanks but no thanks. Here in the west, we are a self-sufficient people, hot and dry it’s true, but proud and resilient. When we want some of your elite eastern weather, we’ll ask you for it. With all due respect, kindly butt out.”


Well, that took me down a peg. I was just trying to help! But when I opened the box, I saw it was full of warm, sunny weather and blue skies. Their weather, see, because it had come from there.


I didn’t ask any questions. Later, I spent a nice afternoon out in the garden with the sunlight streaming down.

 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Dreaming

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me.


I often hear characters in pop songs and in shows for the stage singing about their dreams. About how they yearn to turn their dreams into reality, if only, if only, and before it’s too late! Dreams of a better life, of romance, of finding themselves, of finding their true place in this crazy mixed-up world, yeah. Sometimes they’re daydreams and sometimes they’re nighttime beddy-bye dreams, and sometimes you’re not too sure. One thing’s certain: dreams seem roundly regarded as propitious, good, comforting, often thrilling, and helpful for pointing the way forward.

Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?


The way the story goes, if you can dream it, you can do it. To me, this is a fairy tale, but (or, therefore), audiences seem to enjoy these songs of tinsel and greasepaint, and so by this time we have many of them knocking around the old jukebox of the mind. Probably songwriters generally meant “envision” when they said “dream,” but “dream” fits the metre better and besides it has these mystical, dark-of-night overtones, inviting the notion that bright ideas and inspiration and even wisdom can come to us unbidden while we’re asleep and be applied to our waking life with a good chance of success.

I dream nightly, but almost never do I dream of anything I would like to see realized or replicated in real life, please no. My dreams are nonsensical, and they rattle me. As for any lessons they might impart, these tend to evaporate when I wake up, and a typical dream leaves little except a sour taste, a certain horror at what I’ve just witnessed, and sometimes, for a moment, the strong urge to patch things up between me and the people in my dream, as if it had been real: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t really mean to say such a thing . . . how can I make it up to you?”
 
I know why I dream and I know what the problem is. No matter how long and involved my dream seems to be, I’m convinced that I dream it all just within the few moments before the need to get up and pee becomes urgent enough to wake me up. It’s a pressure situation all right, and it causes me to have particularly rushed, complicated, pointless, distressing dreams, hurried housecleanings of the dark corners of the subconscious. But even while they’re going on, part of my mind tries to stand apart, tries over and over to make sense of what’s happening and explain the dream to itself.

Well. I happen to be a fan of railroads, especially old railroads, especially abandoned old railroads, where sometimes the bridges and tunnels and stations and freight houses have been left behind, slowly falling to pieces, and on certain days where the light is just right, you can stand on the old right-of-way and imagine the great engines thundering down the line, making the earth shake. And which is more poignant, more sweet/sour? The vision of the railroad in its heyday? Or the poignancy of the crumbled empire, the great scheme that’s come crashing down, the emptiness and the loss and the bitter wind that blows? So! Quite a few of my dreams end up involving railroads. In particular, for some reason, a frequent guest is the Central Massachusetts, one of the sweetest/sourest little rail lines that ever ran.

Here, now. Let’s imagine ourselves at Boston’s North Station in the 1950’s, as a shiny Boston and Maine Buddliner leaves for its nightly trip to Clinton, many miles to the west on the Central Mass. Ridership has been declining for years, and somehow it’s not surprising to see that the single car is as high and as wide as a regular one but shorter than a Nash Rambler, with room enough only for the driver, the conductor, and maybe four passengers. It slides out of the depot onto orange rails running down a blue cobblestone street (such history, such charm), and the cobbles are wet, glistening with silver suds, a sailor’s duds, a bag of spuds, them Crips and Bloods . . .

Steady, there. What better time than now to mow the lawn, wouldn’t you say? That would be relaxing, and would sure go a long way towards tidying this place up. Pull the cord and off we go! And so now I’m mowing the tall grass between the rails of the Central Mass., out in Sudbury or Hudson or somewhere, what a disgrace, they can’t even afford to maintain the ROW anymore. There’s a cool breeze but a blazing sun, and old sheds alongside the track, what’s in them, old hanging sliding doors faced with clapboards that have warped and sagged in the sun, and the paint, once a cheery red, has faded to a whisper of dirty pink. Yellowjackets furious in the dusty air. A signal can be seen up ahead, and it’s lit! It’s red up ahead, it’s always red up ahead, it doesn’t mean a train is coming, it means no train is ever coming. Red is the color of NO, of bankruptcy, of shame and failure and scandal! Beyond, a torn tornado is touching down on a concrete horizon and Tom Brady is there too, good ol’ Tom, so steady, so reassuring, rearing back with that football, about to let it fly, a calm gaze and an aw-shucks grin: “Don’t worry, Bub, I got you covered.” It’s my train now, my train (what train?). My train is full of butter, my train is full of asphalt, my train is full of musty old air and cobwebs, broken glass, scraps of paper, and, mainly, to be honest, nothing much at all. Nothing at all, just hot dusty air in each car, open it up and see, pick it up like Godzilla, shake it out like a Parcheesi shaker, out spills nothing.

My train now runs out along a very tall earthen embankment, high above a green valley in the countryside between two forgotten station stops. Up in the air my train makes its way, shakes its way, and blows its whistle and it sounds both like a whistle and a Fats Waller record, oh mercy! I’m on the train, up upon this mountain of earth, and I’m also down below it, looking up, it’s a picture postcard, a turn-of-the-century colorized postcard, soft pinks and yellows in the sky, and it is very sweet and stirring and what a cozy time we’re having and it’s my train, which would make me very old by now. What is this place? Where do I live? Where shall I live?

Steady, there. As it happens a house is for sale (it’s being auctioned, really) in Wayland, a nice town, a posh town. We arrive there on a perfectly fine, sunny morning to meet with the realtor, and at first things look OK. It’s a tall two-story, wood-frame single-family on a slight rise, almost completely surrounded by a monoculture of tall, leggy, straight-up white pines. It’s cooler underneath the pines and the light here is dim, the ground is soft with a carpet of fallen needles. Nee-dullsch. Above us the house shines in the sunlight, its gables and dormers (so many dormers) looking monumental, and, through the regimental stands of tree trunks, a bit surreal. We walk all the way around the house without coming nearer to it, as if assessing it in a virtual way.

Unsurprisingly, the property backs up to the Central Massachusetts (the cab of a rusty engine that is shuffling by can be seen just over the berm that obscures the rest of the train). Also, an old canal is back there too, parallel to the railroad. Dead trees lie in the stagnant water, rotting. Such history! Such charm! But now we come around to the front of the house where there’s a grand stone staircase leading up to the main entrance, and a woman is there, slumped on the steps, and something is very wrong, she is weeping, ranting, shouting (barking!) at someone, maybe  at us, though she seems not to see us (where’d the heck that realtor get to?). Maybe she’s a tenant? Or maybe she’s the soon-to-be former owner and is even now being evicted from her own property? She’s very upset! Her face is a rupture of angry tears and flushed skin and sticky-looking spittle, there’s something streaky red in it, ghastly; she is beyond using words and is just wailing, moaning, hawking, spluttering.

We back away and scurry around the side of the house and immediately forget the woman on the steps. Here, we begin to see why this house is being auctioned off. There are other buildings here, just beyond the property lines, and in the bright (harsh) (glaring) sunlight they show up excruciatingly well. Before us is a burned-out brick carriage house with pitted, once-fancy limestone pillars (where are the horses, where are the old jalopies, what’s become of them, what has happened here?). And over there are some squat industrial buildings, workshops-like, more recent perhaps, abandoned, sooty, disheveled, with ragged tar paper flapping, rubbish of every kind tangled up in the dead grass, overgrown brush, all thorns and burrs, and rusty barbed wire in loops and whorls, and crudely painted signs warning “Keep Out — Trespasing Prohibted.”

Who would ever buy this house, under any circumstances? Oh, and, by the way, what house? The wailing and shouting have stopped and I turn around and the house and the pine trees are gone and I am alone. But the railroad track remains, so suddenly I am walking (west) along it in a headwind. I walk for hours. I pass by scenes I recognize from picture books about old train lines, and I pass by scenes from no old train line ever. I come to the black mouth of a tunnel and it is late in the day now and I am shivering and hungry and except for the rail line I am lost. I can’t go back, and the wooded country rising steeply to my left and right is obscure in the dusk and appears to be wilderness, with a covering
of snow, lacking roads or trails or buildings or lamplight, so onward I go.

I am running now, stumbling and tripping. The ballast cuts my knees and hands. I can see a headlight coming (and you could certainly see this coming) behind me and the air shakes and the ground shakes and I am trapped and my legs have turned to noodles, there is nowhere to hide, nowhere I can climb to or crawl, it’s cold, hard, a choking smoke, a ruthless machinery, a cage of rats,
do it to Juliaaaaa a a  a   a     a
                                                    a
                                                     a
                                                   
   a
                                                  
    a                                                     
                                                     a     
 

                                                      a                                                                                                                                                                         
                                           
      — a-WAKE!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

My Morning

Somewhere around 4:30, I wake up. Not for the first time ever, I mutter to myself, “darkest hour / just before dawn.”

As it happens, this is not a summer morning, when the donzerly light would already be leaking through and around the window shades. This morning, the bedroom is still drenched in darkness, as it will be for another hour or more.

I feel crummy. My head aches. My mouth tastes sour. Part of that has to do with needing to use the toilet, and there can be no putting that off.

I throw the covers to the side (so as not to get tangled up in them and fall), and roll to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. My feet look distant and ghostly. I rub my eyes with both sets of fingers, an activity the pandemic doctors warn you against. The air in the room is neither warm nor cold: a heat pump on the far wall fills the room with processed air that hovers around 63 degrees. We run the pump to keep the main thermostat from tripping and the furnace from coming on. Years ago, before the heat pumps, we would set the thermostat to 55, until winter really and truly arrived, saving cash with every shiver, but now we have a dog and he sleeps near us in his dog bed on the floor, and by no means and at no point will I tolerate the thought of him being be too cold, or too warm, for any length of time whatsoever.

I get to my feet and feel my way around the foot of the bed. It has a wooden frame (queen-size) in a vaguely country style. We bought it in the 80’s at Grover Cronin, now long gone, after deciding it was high time for a young(ish) married couple to trade in their old king-size mattress (which used to rest on the floor of our apartment) for something more grown-up and less needlessly roomy. I shuffle across the carpeted floor, careful not to trip over Rufus, who sometimes leaves his bed to curl up near the doorway, invisible, a dark puddle within a dark pool.

I do have trouble with my balance now, in the dark. Gripping door frames one by one, I carefully make my way past the top of the main stairway. I haven’t forgotten the morning when my dad, in his 80’s and still in his old house, lost his balance on just such an early-morning errand and tumbled to the bottom of the (uncarpeted, oak-tread) stairs. Ouch! My brother, who was living at their house at the time, called to tell me. My dad didn’t break so much as a tooth, but they took him to the hospital anyway, and parked him for several hours in that special place just off the ER, admitted but not admitted. I went to see him; he was on a hospital bed under a pile of warmed towels and hooked to a monitor. His face, which had acquired several purple blotches, was all I could see. He looked as if he’d been in a fight. Beneath the harsh hospital lighting, his teeth seemed yellower than usual. The first thing I recall saying to him was, “Have you had a look at yourself yet?”

Anyway. My morning.

Back from the ’throom and under the warm covers again. Rufus is rousing, thinking that it’s time for the Dawn Patrol, but it’s not, no, not yet. Ssh, Rufus! Ssssssh! It’s too early. Bed, Rufus. Bed.

I lie on my back waiting for sleep to return, feeling the weight of the bedspread and the comforter. Are we comforted yet? I try not to think about anything. Especially, I try not to invite thoughts about the day to come, but they traipse in sometimes and have a seat anyway. All right then, what does the day hold? What will I be doing? What am I looking forward to? What am I dreading?

Bits and pieces float through my mind. I notice how undisciplined my mind can be. Scraps of songs, scenes from movies, memories of past delights and disappointments, upsetting events from yesterday’s news, pictures of this and that and her and him.

I make an effort to bring up soothing images. Here I am once again visiting friends at the Rhode Island seashore in early spring, privileged to be up in the cupola of a rambling, turn-of-the-century woodframe house, looking out over the nearly treeless landscape where the old pasture lands, those that haven’t been turned into house lots, are greening up. Weathered pink granite ledges erupt from the earth here and there. It is a landscape as old as any in New England. Blur your eyesight a bit and you could be viewing what was left just after the last ice sheet departed.

Below, in the yard where the hammock and lawn chairs haven’t been put out yet, the warming sunlight and the biting wind are playing their timeless game of tag. In the distance is the little beach club, deserted, where yet more privileged people will come in July to toast themselves. Just beyond is the vast ocean, somewhere between its winter iron-gray and summer azure, the welcoming deep azure of leisure.

Or maybe I’m alongside the little rail line on the Cape that runs down to North Falmouth. It is a sunny summer day but the crowds are elsewhere. The line was built so that fertilizer dealers could get guano hauled out to market from Woods Hole. Pee-yew! But now it is part of the quaintness of the Cape, the fraying quaintness. Buzzards Bay is out beyond, the seagulls and the sailboats and the life-giving sea air, and the place where we’re staying for the night is comfortable and nearby.

Awake, again! Damn! It’s almost 6:30! Speaking of guano, the dog’s probably about ready to explode. Well, not on my watch!

W
Darfur
Dog fur
Mission accomplished
Well no, not yet


It’s still dark in the corners of the room. I flip on the hall light so I can find my warm socks and my jeans and a fleece to go over my t-shirt. The dog is up, tail wagging, wanting a good-morning hug and a chuckle under his chin and a brisk back rub from shoulders to rump. He vigorously shakes his head, and his dog tags jingle like the telephone ringing in “My Three Sons.” It’s for you! He gives off a rich aroma that was novel to me six years ago but is now part of daily life: my dog, and my home, and me, we all smell alike. I will follow this sunrise routine for more than 2,500 mornings to come. And I wonder what will happen after that, when Rufus is gone. I push both thoughts out of my mind.

Rufus is happy, happy to see Daddy up and moving, but he really wants to go out right now. Down the stairs he plunges, and turns left at the bottom: go sniff the sofa in the living room, go sniff the dog bed near the woodstove, see if anything’s changed overnight. A dog of routines. I follow down the stairs more slowly, my hand sliding along the railing as I descend into the murk. I don’t like darkness, have always feared it, imagining strange little noises behind me. I flip on the kitchen light, then the light in the mudroom where Rufus waits, bouncing from foot to foot. On the way, I grab my phone to check the temperature and conditions: will I need gloves, will I need boots, which coat to wear, will Rufus need his coat? I make sure I have poop bags in my pocket, and decide whether it’s dark enough to bring my phone for its flashlight, which will make it easier to locate the poop once it appears. Find a leash, attach it to his collar, unlock the door, open the door, open the storm door, and step outside.

Down three concrete steps, across the walk, and onto the front lawn, with Rufus pulling on the leash despite the many hours we’ve spent trying to train him out of the habit. Room for improvement there. Rufus is leading with his nose, obsessed with soaking up the vital scents and smells of the outdoor world, reading the terrain: who has been here, how long ago, how many, which way did they go? I can smell it too, but I don’t have his nose; to me, it is all just various kinds of rank.

But! Almost every morning it is beautiful outside. There are days when sleet-in-your-face or black-ice-on-the-driveway or cold wind or deep snow or pelting rain can make us both miserable, but I was surprised, early in my dogwalking days, to find that such mornings were comparatively rare. Today, the sun is just inching over the horizon, its first rays firing the tops of the tallest trees with amber light, while the sky in the west is a leaden blue-gray with an inner glow, an iridescence. My phone-camera stays in my pocket; it would never capture what I’m seeing.

I usually hum nonsense tunes over and over while Rufus sniffs around the yard, searching for just the very most exquisitely right spot to do his number 1.

Dab that polliwog
To and fro —
Moosilauke Moosilauke
Bing Bang Joe!


This day, for some reason, the prevailing theme is Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day.” It gets into my head and won’t get out.

Yes, it’s a good day for singin’ a song
And it’s a good day for movin’ along
Yes, it’s a good day, how could anything be wrong
A good day from mornin’ till night


I coax Rufus to get down to “business,” but there are some things you just can’t rush. We move into the back yard, and I take a moment to look up at my house, this structure of uncertain durability, the mismatched angles of its roofs (main house, garage, sunroom), the stubby chimney. Not a handsome or especially well-constructed house, it has gotten us through another night and for that we will be grateful. Many others are not so lucky. This gets me thinking again, briefly, about privilege. Here live two grown-ups and their dog. A nice dog. There’s food in the fridge and oil in the tank. None of them works for pay. How do they do it? Does it matter? Is it anybody’s business but our own?

You can walk downtown in your birthday suit
I can see you walkin outta the Bank of America with a whole lotta loot
Ain’t nobody’s business but your own


Having finished his number 1, Rufus usually wants a longer walk, sometimes up the street to the old cemetery, before he is ready to assume the question-mark posture that indicates the time for number 2 has arrived. Before we got a dog, dealing with the doo was one of the things I least looked forward to. Squeamish! But I guess I passed that test. I’m a good dogwalker and a model citizen too. Except when it drops into a foot or more of snow, I always pick up after him. I step on the leash so he won’t wander away, swoop in with a bag (compostable, as if), scoop up the goods, and knot the bag, all in a few quick, clean motions that bespeak my years of practice. You’d have to say I’m pretty proud of this capability of mine. Back when I was working, there were things I got paid for that I wasn’t anywhere near as good at. And soon we are headed home, one of us feeling lighter and both of us feeling better.

‘Cause it’s a good day for payin’ your bills
And it’s a good day for curin’ your ills
So take a deep breath and throw away your pills
‘Cause it’s a good day from mornin’ till night


We come in through the back door. It’s beat-up and needed replacing a year ago, but that will have to wait. Anyway, I am always delighted that it’s warmer inside; it’s as easy as that to make me happy. I take off his coat, take off my coat and fleece and hat and gloves, find a towel if it was wet out, and dry his paws. After half a dozen years, he knows to offer his front paws to me for drying, one at a time. I tell him to “spin” and he turns 180 degrees so I can reach his back paws more easily. Then I unclip his leash, hang it up, and usher him into the kitchen with a set of gestures I use only at this time of day. “Let’s get you something good.” I fish out an especially tasty treat from the dog-treat cupboard and have him “sit,” though often he is already sitting by now. “Good boy! Now, go see Mama.” And off he trots, up the stairs and back to the bedroom.

There is a completeness and a rewarding simplicity to this morning routine that I know I will miss.

For a few minutes I have the kitchen to myself. It’s one of the first pleasant interludes of the day, pleasant because it is quiet and unhurried, and I have no deeds to do, no promises to keep. I turn on the heat under the tea kettle, having filled it the night before. I find yesterday’s tea leaves in the fridge, packed into a tea strainer, and set it atop a clean mug. I’ll get four or five cups of strong-enough black tea out of these leaves before putting them out in the compost heap. It used to be black coffee for me, two big cups at home and then two or three at the office, but no more. I knew one morning last spring that the time had come to stop with the coffee, and I did. Mostly.

Now it’s down the hatch with my daily medicine (Lisinopril for blood pressure, Simvastatin for cholesterol) and vitamins (B-12, a multivitamin, zinc). And some dried fruit (prunes, dates, apricots), part of my daily push for sufficient fiber.

I take my tea upstairs. Annie is awake but under the covers. I raise the shades if she hasn’t already done it. We lost our real shades when we replaced our windows two years ago; to be perfectly honest, our present shades are just a pair of dog blankets (very room-darkening) attached to the top of each frame with tacks. We roll them up from the bottom right corner and clamp them at the top with clothespins. Every morning, yes! Just like apartment living, in the years of cheap apartments way back when.

I flop onto the bed, prop myself up with extra pillows, and have a look out at the street and the neighbor’s big yard, or the woods between our shed and the old cemetery, depending on which window. Rufus often joins us, and for a while it’s just a cuddle-pile and there is nothing at all wrong with anything, nor could there ever be.

I pull up the weather on my phone and let Annie know what the day will be like, and how cold or warm it is right now, because she will soon be getting ready to take Rufus on his second outing, a longer walk on the nearby rail-trail. I tell her what it felt like outside, what birds or animals I heard or saw, whether the clouds are gathering or clearing. “How did you sleep?” “How did you sleep?” Sometimes we talk about the news, or what we have to do today, but not much; we don’t want to ruffle our own feathers.

Then she’s up and showering, and the day is underway. My morning begins to come apart, and also to gain momentum. Sometimes there’s a trip to the supermarket. Sometimes there’s an appointment. Some mornings I paint, or write. Sometimes there are tasks, like sweeping out the garage or filling the feeders. Sometimes it is boring, but in a good way. We are of an age where, although we would change some things (starting with the shades), we realize we have been lucky with this life. The dog is perhaps the luckiest, because it’s all the life he is ever going to know, and he is delighted with every minute of it.


************************************************

Addenda: more “music” for walking the dog at dawn.

Souza manna pooza and a
Souza manna poo —
Souza manna pooza, now
Whatcha gonna do?

Motoboat Jones gonna
Bolton egg down
With a whatzu, whatzu
Comin into town

Hello all the ticky tacky
Mama come and see —
Look at all the ticky tacky
Crawlin up a tree

Bailey got a bloviator
Ask about a chockablocker
Filibuster fascinator
Juvenator Joe

It’s a cup-chak
It’s a walla-walla-doo
Get yourself a hinney honey
That’s what I would do



And those are the clean ones.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Mr. Sands — a character study

Not long ago, while looking for a new place to walk our dog, we wound up in neighboring Hopkinton on the Douglas Sands Memorial Trail, a half-mile rambling hike along a wooded ridge. The website described Sands as “a Hopkinton science teacher who was a natural raconteur and passionate observer of nature.” Unless there were two local science teachers with the same name and characteristics, this must have been the Mr. Sands I had in eighth grade in Wellesley. Did he teach in Hopkinton and then in Wellesley, or the other way around, or in other places as well? I don’t know.

I hadn’t thought about Mr. Sands in years, and wasn’t aware that he’d had a hiking trail named after him. As we climbed up through old glacial boulder fields now grown up in woods, I noticed that someone had built this meandering path with exceptional care. To shore it up, they had borrowed from the array of stones scattered all around, and provided rudimentary staircases here and there where it was steep. Someone outdoorsy and knowledgeable and thorough. Maybe it had been Doug Sands and some of his friends. That would have been like him.

Mr. Sands was my science teacher at Wellesley Junior High between 1963 and ’64. My brother Bob had him in 1960, and Ned would follow in 1966. In all, he would teach middle-school science in Wellesley for over 30 years. In his appearance, and in the enthusiastic, quirky manner in which he conducted his classes, he stood apart from other teachers I had, who by now have mostly blurred together in my memory.

In the classroom, especially just before and after class, he would be formal but friendly. But if you saw him out walking among the scurrying students in the crowded hallways between classes, towering over everyone, loping along with great long strides, his gaze fixed on some distant object, you learned not to say hi to him, because he would not acknowledge you at all.

Mr. Sands was a sight. Tall, thin, and bony, middle-aged when I had him, his face was narrow and weathered and the features within it – his chin, lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears, his teeth when he laughed which was often – were prominent and elongated. Horse teeth! He wore glasses with thick lenses; I remember that they reminded me of goggles. His gray hair stood almost straight up from his forehead, as if a blast of wind had once blown it up and back so hard that it had yet to recover. He had a deep, booming voice and an unpredictable manner; both tended to get your attention.

His was the most unusual and engaging class I ever had at that school, maybe any school. Mr. Sands threw out the rule book and he threw out the lesson plan. He must have had an overall design to his teaching but I was never aware of it.

One of the first things you’d notice was that the standard lab bench and teacher’s desk up front were a mess, and so were the bulletin boards. There was stuff everywhere: curios, keepsakes, bird’s nests, tiny skeletons, shells and stones from far and near, and amber bottles of who knew what. The stock terrarium was filled not with turtles or fish but what appeared to be mosses and mold, and litter. Halfway down the right-hand wall (the left-hand wall was all windows, north-facing) was a cork bulletin board with a white dish towel tacked to it, on which someone (Mrs. Sands? For there was a Mrs. Sands.) had spelled out in needlework, “Mr. Sands’ Crying Towel.” It was understood, tongue-in-cheek, that the crying towel was to be used after Mr. Sands handed back his corrected quizzes to the class. Such quizzes were frequent; he was trying to impart knowledge – were you getting it or not? (Some of the kids, disdaining science, resisted Mr. Sands, his efforts and his personality; I’m sure it puzzled him.) Across the bottom of the towel, in smaller letters: “It’s Your Own Fault.”)

At the back of the room, on the floor in a shallow carton, was something most of us had heard about before our first day: the classroom mascot, Mr. Sands’ Galapagos tortoise, which he’d named Albee, or Alby, or Albie. Albee was about the size of a toilet seat and rode to work each day on a pile of old newspapers in the back of Sands’ blue-violet Ford Fairlane convertible. Albee would sit in class quietly munching apples and gazing at the sights. No other teacher had a pet in their room, certainly not anything as exotic. Albee made you want to look up the Galapagos Islands in a book, without anyone telling you to do so. He also made kids (Albee’s groupies) want to sit in the back of the room, where they could keep an eye on him, and be interested in him. This tended to push the slower kids up towards the front, where Sands could keep an eye on them.

I never asked how or why Sands had acquired Albee. I’d heard rumors that he (Sands) had been in the Navy or the Seabees in World War II, and it is easy to imagine him stopping by the archipelago sometime during those years and taking a young tortoise on impulse. I can’t picture Albee in the classroom of today, with or without a pandemic. Individuals aren’t allowed to walk off with tortoises anymore, and a committee would have to be convened before it could be allowed into the school, and the Board of Health would probably get involved. All this would be well and good from the standpoint of preserving the tortoise species. But our classroom experience would have been significantly less rich without Albee, and I feel lucky that we were able to enjoy his presence. (I do wonder about Albee sometimes, wherever he is. He’s still a fairly young tortoise.)

Mr. Sands clearly liked his job. He liked to draw examples from what we could see around us. One day he pointed to a utility pole across the street, which had two gray cylindrical boxes attached to it up high, with wires running in and out. “Now, which one of you bright young people can tell me what those boxes are? Come on, now, somebody? You see them every day, aren’t you curious about them?” There were some who snickered (“Who cares?”), and some of us were embarassed to admit to ourselves that we took these devices for granted and had never wondered what they were. But scientists don’t take things for granted, and Mr. Sands strode out into the hallway where he seized a hapless student on his way down the hall with a bathroom pass and ushered him in. “Now, you look like a smart young man to me. You see those gray boxes up on the telephone pole? I’ll bet you can tell me what those are.” It made little difference that the student didn’t know either, because by now most of us did want to know. We wanted to know; a thing more rare than you’d think. They turned out to be transformers; their purpose was to reduce the power from the high-voltage lines to a level that wouldn’t “fry your mothers’ fridges.” He didn’t really say that, I read it somewhere; but he could have.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands was discussing the Moon. Everybody knew that the Earth rotated fully on its axis once a day; that’s what made a day a day. But how often did the Moon rotate, not just around the Earth but on its own? Did it rotate on its own? Someone offered the theory that there was a dark side to the Moon that nobody ever sees; the Moon always shows one face to us; therefore, it doesn’t rotate at all. At this, Mr. Sands asked me get up. (“Stand up, Robert,” he said, using my older brother’s name. When Ned had him three years later, Sands used to call him “David.”) He had me stand at the front and face the class, and keep on facing the class, with my arms out to the side at shoulder level so I could be seen better. “Let’s pretend that you’re the Moon and the rest of the class is the Earth.” Then he asked me to move sideways over to the window-wall, still facing the class, then to the rear wall (being careful not to trip over Albee), then to the fourth wall (“Keep your arms up, Robert, you’re drooping.”), then back to where I started. How many times had I turned? Like the Moon, I had turned once.

Today, NASA delights us with this information: “The Moon does spin on its axis, completing a rotation once every 27.3 days. Confusion is caused because it also takes the same period to orbit the Earth, so that it keeps the same side facing us.” I hear ya, guys, but I’m still baffled. I guess that’s one reason I didn’t go into the sciences.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands took the class on an imaginary trip to the Moon. (NASA’s own Moon missions were several years in the future.) He did this with every class, every year. Sometimes he did it for whole auditoriums. The room would be our spaceship, Mr. Sands would be the Captain. There, in the sky, is the Moon; what would you need to take along for such a journey? Sands positioned himself at the blackboard, chalk in hand, ready to write down our suggestions.

We had some: the Moon was far, we would need fuel. The moon was airless, we would need spacesuits. We thought and thought and threw out some more ideas, but of course we forgot a few things. “Is that it? Anything else? OK, then!” And he grasped the handle of a heavy, invisible door and drew it firmly shut: “Kah-LAAANG!!” followed by a burst of mad-scientist laughter. And so over the next 20 minutes, we were all on board with him (which was another remarkable thing in itself), flying to the Moon and back. While everyone was in on the joke, still we managed to absorb a few crucial facts about space, and rockets, and the inhospitable surface of the Moon, and the deviousness of our Captain, by getting killed off one row at a time because we had forgotten to bring – what? – food, or bottled air, or water, or radios, or weighted boots, or a parachute for our ship. By the time the ship got back to Earth, the only one left was our Captain. Truly a tragic outcome for the rest of the passengers! But then, there was always the crying towel.

At the end of the school day on Friday, November 22nd, after the principal had given us the bad news about President Kennedy over the P.A., I made my way down to Mr. Sands’ classroom. I must have thought I’d feel safer there. Nothing was said; he had left the door open for anyone who wanted to come inside. There was a radio on, reporting what little news there was at that point. After a while, Mrs. Sands appeared. They gave each other a quick hug and went back to listening to the news with somber expressions, each staring ahead blankly, trying to imagine, trying to understand, to see. Mrs. Sands looked . . . normal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Two Beaters: an exercise in writing about cars

In 1972, after I graduated from college, having realized that the Army was not about to draft me, I spent the summer driving a taxi (there’s some more car stories right there) and mailing out recordings of my voice to radio stations around the country that specialized in classical-music programming. It seemed logical. I had the voice for it and four years of classical radio experience. I had mastered many of the diffcult pronunciations in the genre (Mieczys┼éaw Horszowski comes to mind), and I was prepared to go anywhere to get work. I mailed tapes to stations in Albany, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston (where I already was), Portland (Maine), Philadelphia, and more. Then I called up the program director at each station to ask for an interview and an audition. I hadn’t figured out yet that, for me to get hired, one of these places was going to need to have a vacancy, and it happened that turnover at such stations was low. Also, some of them were commercial, and would expect their announcers to work half of each day selling airtime; I had no background in sales. But as summer turned to fall, I caught a break with WFLN, located in a suburb of Philadelphia. They asked me to come down for an interview, can’t promise anything right now, but we’d like to meet you, how about four o’clock a week from Thursday?

I didn’t own a car so I arranged to borrow my mother’s old Datsun sedan. It was a clunker, a diminutive, rusty, dark-red box on wheels, four on the floor. Mom had been using it for years to get to work across town, which was about all it was good for, and she’d finally persuaded my dad to get her something better. So there it sat in the driveway, lightly leaking oil. Its prospects weren’t good but then neither were mine. At that point, we were made for each other.

Are there any journeys in life quite like the questing journeys of damn-fool twentysomethings, with a change of wrinkled clothes in a duffle bag and a few dollars in their wallet (and dimes for the pay phones), an old roadmap to go by, a few directions and names and phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper? Your innocent teen years have come and gone, you’re out of the nest now but don’t quite know it yet. Your future awaits, a vast gulf, exciting and frightening, but somehow your great plan for your life all comes down to an ability to stay alert on the daunting drive down the interstate, and to get off at the right exit, and to neatly tie your necktie using the car’s tiny rearview mirror.

I had the interview at FLN and it was cordial but brief. They had no need “at present” for anyone new but, hey, Dave, thanks for coming down, and best of luck. Well, I already knew I was going to need it.

Would you have turned around then, and crawled all the way back up 95 to Boston? I would have, yes. I was the kind of guy who liked things that were safe, and known. But for reasons I don’t recall, I didn’t. Sometime before I’d left Boston, I had called my cousin Laura in Pittsburgh (my Uncle Ted’s youngest) to tell her that I was having an interview in Philly, and she had urged me to come on out to Pittsburgh when I was done, I could crash at the apartment with her and her roomies, why not? I took a long look at the map. Pittsburgh didn’t really seem that far from Philadelphia, not in the grand scheme of things. Home: I’d been prepared just now to leave home for good, for a new life in some other state. So, no. I would not go home, not yet. I gassed up and headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

It’s four and a half hours from city to city if you do the speed limit, which the Datsun didn’t. It was probably well past midnight when I arrived at Laura’s apartment in the Shadyside neighborhood. Shadyside was funky, diverse, a mix of students, poor and working-class people, artists and musicians, dreamers and schemers and down-and-outers, a good place to find a cheap apartment. My memories are blurry at this point. I probably stayed a couple of days; my bed was an old couch in the living room, which I shared with one of their cats, who was sick. One evening, I accompanied Laura and her friends to a neighborhood bar. The beer, in generously-sized frosty mugs by the platterful, just kept coming. A local rock band was playing, very loud. I remember its name, Ira Carrot. The lead singer was a short woman with a big voice and bright-red hair.

I was having a good time there in Pittsburgh but this wasn’t getting me work, so now it was time to head home and regroup. Before starting out, did I have the Datsun checked over by a service station? Did I fill the tires or check the oil or top up the coolant? Did I clean the windshield? No, I did not. Partly I didn’t because I didn’t want to know what a garage might find wrong; I lacked the cash to fix it. Partly I didn’t because cars were (and are) a mystery to me. I pictured myself popping the hood for the mechanic (if I could figure out how) and standing over the engine, trying to look cool and discerning as I stared at this bewildering jumble of grimy metal. No, I just pumped more gas into the car and headed north, aiming for Erie, then Buffalo, where I would pick up I-90 for Boston.

It’s a 660-mile trip, well over ten hours the way I drove. I didn’t know this at the time, but it wouldn’t have changed my plans, if my headful of whims and guesswork could properly be called plans. Somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester, dusk arrived, and with it, the beginnings of fatigue. The highway spooled out in front of me and behind, rising and falling and curving away and returning, the little engine drumming away (or was it now beginning to whine a little?). The wind from passing trucks pushed the Datsun around in its lane, and now everyone’s headlights came on, glaring through the back window, and sweeping over the windshield from the westbound lanes. As you may know, it’s a long journey across the state of New York, with few landmarks to take note of even during the daytime. For a time, I had the feeling that my car was standing still, and that the roadway and the sky and the fantastical landscapes of light and shadow to the left and right were in motion, rushing towards me and past me with an endless whoosing sound.

Somewhere around Syracuse I stopped at a service plaza for gas, and for some badly-needed coffee too, but I couldn’t find anyone selling it. This was when the restaurants at the rest stops were mostly sit-down, not take-out. Perhaps I was too tired to take in my surroundings, but I couldn’t even find a Coke machine. Finally I saw a little counter with apples on display, Red Delicious apples, local produce no doubt. I bought one and headed back out to the car, thinking that perhaps the activity of eating a crunchy apple would help keep me awake.

It wasn’t long before I felt fatigued again. I knew I was all alone and very far from home. My car and I were a tiny speck on a seemingly endless strip of tar, this merciless hard surface brushed with cold winds. I desperately needed rest. So I came up with a plan, whereby I would agree to close my eyes (while doing 55 or so) for about 20 seconds, then keep them open for 20 seconds, then close for 20, then open for 20, and in this way give my eyes a tiny break while I hurtled towards Albany and the Hudson River. It was not a terrific plan, but I had no other. The thought of barreling off the road or into the back of a truck while taking a catnap probably ensured that I remembered to open my eyes — wide! — every 20 seconds without fail. And as it turned out, it’s possible to drive some of the Thruway while asleep, just a little bit, though I don’t recommend it.

Past the Hudson and into the Berkshires, home was now only two hours away. As I climbed towards Blandford, I began to notice some hesitation in the Datsun’s forward motion, just now and again. I’d step on the gas to get up a hill, and the car would simply fail to accelerate, just sort of keep rolling ahead in a leisurely way, speed dropping steadily, until something under the hood kicked in, and it would leap forward. So now the Datsun was fatigued too, and I really couldn’t blame it, but we couldn’t quit now! I began to notice that when the car got sluggish-then-speedy like this, clouds of black smoke came out of the tailpipe, obscuring the headlights behind me for a bit. And then I noticed that the gas gauge dipped sharply toward “Empty” each time. So I was running out of gas too, and at a pretty fast rate. I gassed up in Ludlow and again at Charlton. Now I was out of money, no credit card, and of course there were no ATMs.

When I rolled into my parents’ driveway sometime after midnight, I was feeling many things — exhaustion, relief, happy to be home, sad that I was back to square one. And lucky, frankly; lucky to be alive, lucky that I hadn’t been stranded out in the Mohawk Valley somewhere. There was no good reason for my good fortune, none at all. If I thought about it, I couldn’t help feeling I was being saved for something, but I didn’t know what. I still don’t.

I have an idea that young people used to leave home on a train to find their fortune, or something like it. The whistle would blow, a high lonesome wail, and the engine would chug out of the station, the coaches click-clacking along behind, a great rhythmic clocklike sound that said, time is in motion now; you are already part of something else, you are being drawn away towards something bigger, and you are going, going away completely, right this minute, and leaving your old life behind. For us, for me anyway, it was a car instead, and I was behind the wheel of it, shifting the gears, in control of it. In control of my destiny, so to speak. Yes, I was being swept down the highway like a leaf on a stream, but I could make choices. I could start at A, and I could go to B, because I wanted to go there. Then I could choose to go on further, to C, or D, or E, wherever. And then I could run right back to A and start over again. I’m not sure whether one way of becoming yourself is better than the other.

One more story, about another car, another absorbing automotive experience. By this time, I was a father, picking up my 8-month-old from a home daycare in my town. The car was a beat-up sky-blue VW Rabbit with a sunroof that you couldn’t open; we’d bought the car at a gas station, because the price was right. So much to be gleaned from those sentences. New parents, both working but just getting by, their new son has to be jobbed out to daycare, their backup car is a shitbox that, as it turned out, shipped rainwater through the sunroof; when you hit the brake pedal, the stored-up water would come racing forward and pour down your neck.

I put Peter in his car seat and headed out on the two-mile trip home. Isn’t it pleasant, tooling along a leafy byway in your beater, just before something happens? I began to feel myself slowly sinking. I sat up straighter, but the sinking continued; my view out the windshield had become of the sky, not the road in front. I pulled over, and found that the floor of the car, long rusty here and there, had given way beneath the two back legs of the driver’s seat, and was now more than halfway to the road surface.

I remembered that trip back from Pittsburgh. Here I was again, no AAA, no cell phone, no money to pay a tow truck. I climbed back in, and managed to get home by sitting astride the emergency brake and working the clutch, brake, and gas pedal with just my left foot.

What kind of father was this, I ask you! I’ll tell you what kind. Yes, we got rid of that car soon enough, but not before I took a two-by-four that was a little longer than the hole in the floor was wide, wedged it in under the back legs of the driver’s seat, and got a couple more days’ use out of that Rabbit.