Back to Watermelon Sugar

My cousin gave a copy of this book to my mother back in the early 1970’s.  She read it…and later let me read it.  I was pretty young and unformed at the time…and this story of the commune Ideath had a big impact on my developing worldview.

Richard Brautigan was a troubled man who seemed to respond to his harsh early years with an innocent approach to his writing.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the poets known for his work during the earlier Beat period and an editor and proprietor of City Lights bookstore, said of Brautigan,

“As an editor I was always waiting for Richard to grow up as a writer. It seems to me he was essentially a naïf, and I don’t think he cultivated that childishness, I think it came naturally. It was like he was much more in tune with the trout in America than with people.”

I think it’s this innocence that I was, and am, drawn to.  Water seeks its own level…and even though, after all these years, I’ve seen enough to know that the world is not always an innocent place…I’m drawn to a benevolent way of looking at it.  Richard Brautigan might have been trying to create an idealistic world in his head…and his writing was right for an idealistic time like the 60’s.

In the early 80’s, Brautigan’s writings were maybe not seen as relevant any more.  His writing was tied to an era…represented an era to some degree…and when the era had passed his importance had passed also. In 1984, at the age of 49, he committed suicide with a 44 magnum pistol. His body was discovered a month or so later by a private investigator.  Despite rumors to the contrary, he did not leave a suicide note.

He suffered from depression and alcoholism most of his adult life…his childhood was about as rough as it gets…but his writing was gentle and full of humor.  Even after he started to slide off the radar of popular culture in our country, he had a big following in Japan and was popular in Europe.  Much of his writing was compatible with the ideas of Zen Buddhism, so his popularity in Japan made sense. When I was a child I didn’t understand any of this…had no knowledge of who the man was who wrote the book about the “hippies”…but I loved this book.  It had short chapters that read like poems…chapters that painted a picture and left room for my imagination to fill in the blank parts.

My mother wasn’t a hippy.  She did want to put giant flower stickers on our new Fairlane station wagon…my Dad talked her out of it…but she wasn’t a hippy.  In California, it was easy to have a little hippy living inside of you and be pretty straight-laced…easy to be a “covert hippy” in attitude and a horn rimmed accountant in execution.  This book is one of the artifacts from my childhood…not as important as most of the events that really shaped me…but still a part of what matters to me.  Many of his books are still in print…and available through any bookstore.

stacking marbles

 

I’ve been writing this blog every morning for less than a month.  At this point, it hasn’t been a marathon yet…more like one of the half mile races I used to attack with mediocrity….going into the final curve….sucking wind and wondering what was going to happen next.

When you write and send it out into the void, you kind of feel like the crazy man at the edge of the woods…whispering into the wind, “come here, come here….listen…I’ve got something to tell you”…not even sure if the people across the field can even see you, much less hear you.  That’s the beauty of crazy…you’d do it anyway.  If it’s only for the response it’s never going to be something sustainable.

Some mornings, it feels like I’ve fallen into a swiftly moving river.  Everything I write seems to just move along of its own momentum…effortless and fast…pouring out onto my computer screen as quickly as I can type.  The fact that I’m a moderately slow typist doesn’t bother me…it just makes it all seem like it’s coming even faster.  I don’t know why that sometimes happens…but relish it when it does.

Other mornings, it feels like I’m sitting at my desk stacking marbles.

I am sure that at some point, someone is going to wake up to the sight of me scrambling around on the floor, chasing the rolling glass…trying to contain a situation that too much coffee and too little control set in motion. “What are you doing?”, they’ll ask….”NOTHING!!!NOTHING!!!”, I’ll reply…a little too close to the truth. There was a sense of order and possibility at some point. Slow and meticulous, each marble or word a struggle for perfect placement…and then, the falling down and moving away…my marbles not even making a good path to lead me back to the river.

I won’t always get it right.  Sometimes I’ll burn the french toast…mix the concrete too wet…stop just  shy of digging “deep enough”…say too much or too little in this blog from time to time…but I’ll keep trying to stack those marbles. If I don’t completely understand that it can’t be done, well…I guess that’s pretty close to thinking it’s all possible, right?

photo by Ton Terhorst used by creative commons license http://www.flickr.com/photos/anthony68/

the freedom of repetition

Six days a week, I make the same lunch and carry it to work.  I know that the chips are in the basket on top of the refrigerator, the juice is in the door of the refrigerator, the cold pack is in the freezer, and the peanut butter is in the jar. If we haven’t had a chance to shop, I make something else…but for the most part I’m a creature of habit…freed by repetition.

I could, and often do, make this lunch in my sleep.  I eat my lunch in the same place everyday…at about the same time…always just about the same except for the wild turkey sightings and the occasional hawk.

What can I say?  I’m a postman…same is my middle name.  If boring things didn’t become automatic, I think I’d probably go insane.

Other people might say, “variety is the spice of life…why so much same?”….and it would be a good question.  Maybe I keep some things the same to free up the chance for variety in other parts of my life…maybe I’m just lazy and unimaginative…I don’t really know.

Helen and Scott Nearing, authors and simple living pioneers, believed in same.  Much of their life was routine….the same breakfast every morning, eaten out of a wooden bowl with a wooden spoon…the same chores season after season…but their lives were anything but boring.  They had a full life of necessary routine. Both of them lived to be reasonably old…Scott passed when he was 100 (by fasting)…and Helen died when she crashed her truck into a tree at the age of 91. They authored more than 50 books…built many stone structures on their Vermont homestead….lectured extensively…and somehow found the time to eat the same breakfast out of a wooden bowl every morning.

I’m not advocating repetition for the sake of repetition. I’m not saying that eating your breakfast from a wooden bowl is going to make you holy. What I am saying is that we have the ability to prioritize…and if our priorities take us towards something that is more important to us than eating a different sandwich 365 days a year that it’s nothing to apologize for. The “how could you live like that?” question could just as well be answered by saying, “how could you not live like that?”.  Choice is the final frontier…it’s the only real power we have anymore.

Helen and Scott wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” in the 1950’s.  It wasn’t called “Buying the Stuff to Get Real Simple” or “Gearing Up for Good”…it was just “Living the Good Life”…and it became kind an early primer for all the folks in search of an alternative way of living in the 60’s.  They balanced the conflicting worlds of living a quiet life…and of being spokespeople for quiet living.  It was their choice to live that life.

Many religious disciplines talk about repetition and getting closer to God by freeing your mind to concentrate on Him.  The “chop wood, carry water” approach is one of them…”pray without ceasing”…I’m sure there’s many others.  I don’t think that making the same sandwich every morning is my personal form of spiritual obedience…it’s not some strange peanut butter ablution that purifies me for the perfect communion of a day of delivering mail…it’s just making the familiar lunch every day so that I don’t nod off mid-route in a hypoglycemic coma. If any of the other stuff happens along the way…well, that’s just the GRAVY.

Helen and Scott Nearing lived a good and simple life by design. They “set the wheel in motion” and rode it all out until the end…and influenced generations with their philosophies….both by word and example.  The Nearings were consistent…and while many would say that the repetitive parts of their lives was boring and unnecessary, it was always real and in service to a life of thought and contemplation. I am going to have to really work hard at being more mindful when I’m smearing my thick layer of peanut butter on Monday if I’m going to catch up with them in that department.

 

where in the world are my acres of diamonds?

There is an old story that I love that has been knocking around for years called “Acres of Diamonds”. Here is the story, quoted from the Nightingale-Conant website.  I originally heard the story in one of Earl Nightingale’s courses.

The story — a true one — is told of an African farmer who heard tales about other farmers who had made millions by discovering diamond mines. These tales so excited the farmer that he could hardly wait to sell his farm and go prospecting for diamonds himself. He sold the farm and spent the rest of his life wandering the African continent searching unsuccessfully for the gleaming gems that brought such high prices on the markets of the world. Finally, worn out and in a fit of despondency, he threw himself into a river and drowned.

Meanwhile, the man who had bought his farm happened to be crossing the small stream on the property one day, when suddenly there was a bright flash of blue and red light from the stream bottom. He bent down and picked up a stone. It was a good-sized stone, and admiring it, he brought it home and put it on his fireplace mantel as an interesting curiosity.

Several weeks later a visitor picked up the stone, looked closely at it, hefted it in his hand, and nearly fainted. He asked the farmer if he knew what he’d found. When the farmer said, no, that he thought it was a piece of crystal, the visitor told him he had found one of the largest diamonds ever discovered. The farmer had trouble believing that. He told the man that his creek was full of such stones, not all as large as the one on the mantel, but sprinkled generously throughout the creek bottom.

The farm the first farmer had sold, so that he might find a diamond mine, turned out to be one of the most productive diamond mines on the entire African continent.The first farmer had owned, free and clear … acres of diamonds. But he had sold them for practically nothing, in order to look for them elsewhere. The moral is clear: If the first farmer had only taken the time to study and prepare himself to learn what diamonds looked like in their rough state, and to thoroughly explore the property he had before looking elsewhere, all of his wildest dreams would have come

http://www.nightingale.com/AE_Article~i~156~article~ACRESOFDIAMONDS.aspx

This story is one both simple and true.  We’ve probably heard it so often at this point that we’ve stopped paying attention to it…like the “yeah, yeah, yeah” response when a parent tells us at 21 that we should start and fund an IRA…but it is a valuable lesson.

We devalue the things that are common to us.  They say that familiarity breeds contempt.  In light of this story you almost have to wonder if it’s not so much that we’ve had an opportunity to learn everything bad about a person…maybe instead it’s that we’ve grown blind to all the good. We take for granted the people and things around us…telling ourselves that the new place/job/car/television is going to make us happy…not understanding that we carry our problems with us no matter how much we can distract ourselves with change.  Our developing contempt is radiating outwards…not something that comes from the outside.

We trip over our own life’s “diamonds”…blinded by the hurry to progress to what we’re sure will be the motherlode.  “When I” is our mantra…”when I” grow up, “when I” marry, “when I” get the job, “when I” get promoted…when any of these events happen, then things will really be good…and, it seems, every year breeds a new batch of “when I’s”…the carrot dangled in front of the donkey always out of reach.

I’m still working at recognizing my own acres of diamonds.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens while you’re busy making plans”.  Maybe if I can slow down a little, I’ll recognize and polish a few stones along the way.

 

Black Friday and the Grey

“Once more into the fray…

Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.
Live and die on this day…

Live and die on this day…”

It’s early Thanksgiving Day, no one else  in the house is up or awake…and I’m thinking about how thankful I am that I no longer work retail.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from a recent movie called “the Grey” about a group of oil rig workers who go down in a plane crash in the Arctic and attempt to survive harsh conditions and the constant threat of wolf attack. It’s a poem that’s repeated several times throughout the film and it provides some of the emotional tone of the movie. Ottway, Liam Neeson’s character, is going to survive or “go down swinging” (literally)…and repeats this poem often so that we don’t forget it.

We went to Walmart last night to pick up some supplies for our own Thanksgiving.  The workers were frantically pulling shrink wrapped, “do not sell until Friday” marked pallets of various must have items throughout the store.  The aisles were blocked…the workers were tired…and still they pulled their pallet jacks…yelling to each other, “there’s an open aisle in sporting goods!”…getting ready for the biggest shopping day of the year.

What a minor league hell it all is.

I am easily convinced….if the media tells me that I need to get in line to be eaten by wolves so that I can save 200 dollars on a laptop…I’m there, man!  Maybe it’s just the thrill of it all…a sanctioned day of letting it all hang out, putting my most aggressive tendencies out on display…the thrill of the hunt…no tigers to bring down with a sharpened piece of flint anymore so we camp out to be first in line to get that giant flat screen that we couldn’t live without the minute they told us we couldn’t live without it.

I don’t think I could do enough to avoid it all, actually.

The Walmart workers, glassy eyed and mumbling, pulling their own version of the pyramid stones around on the tinted concrete floor…repeating under their breath, “Once more into the fray…” betray their excitement for the impending holiday season.  Their brand of enthusiasm becomes contagious…until we all are glad that once more we can just “make it through” our celebration of Christ’s birthday a month later..  Maybe that’s our new marker of what it means to celebrate the holidays…that sinking feeling that maybe we won’t get a chance to get or to give the things we want if we don’t jump down into the “wolf cage” with all the other rabid shoppers….and, of course, celebrate Jesus’ birthday a month later…can’t forget that part.

I guess there’s nothing really wrong with Black Friday.  It’s what we all are used to…the best and worst display of capitalism in action…the free marketplace and the madness of crowds…the thrill of the hunt when the prey is staked out for us and announced with a full color circular the week before the sale.  We don’t have the opportunity to really battle anymore…to swing our broadaxe while stepping over our vanquished foes, yelling in the moonlight,  announcing our victory with a crazed and sustained bellow…so to push through the crowd to get the best deal ever on a lifetime supply of shamwow towels will have to do until we can make a complete return to barbarism.

I understand that the biggest shopping day of the year is tomorrow…Black Friday.  I listened when the media told me that we’d all be doing our own version of the big fight…that this was my chance, that I’d be missing out if I wasn’t out there.  If I can help it…I’ll miss out…and live to go “once more into the fray” some other day.

Happy Thanksgiving! Happy Thanksgiving! Happy!  Thanks! Giving!  THANKSGIVING.

My Father’s Victory

When I was a child and living in California, I remember my father having one of these old Renault Daphines.  He bought it for 50 dollars and drove it home.  It was black and it smelled old when it got hot inside.

This picture isn’t the same car.  The lady in the picture isn’t my mother….and our driveway was a lot smaller and wasn’t cobblestone….so I know this isn’t a picture taken at our house…but it’s the same car.

There was something wrong with the car…so my father took it apart.  There were a lot of big metal pieces laying around on the garage floor for a while…greasy pieces that my sister and I were told not to touch.  He worked on it until he’d fixed it and put it all back together.  When it was done, he drove it to work.

A child’s estimation of their parents is formed in a great many ways.  Usually, it isn’t the “watch me…check this out…see what I can do” moments that make the biggest impression (I don’t remember my father having any of these…he was pretty understated).  For me, it was the moments like when I was standing at the garage door watching my father work out something…figuring out why the car wouldn’t go backwards….and of him having the confidence to try and fix the problem.

It never was the moment that my father crossed the goal line to score the winning touchdown….or made the big deal…landed back on Earth after setting foot on Mars for the first time….it wasn’t any of those things that helped me see his victory.  It was all the big and small ways that I saw him keep trying. Those memories are my true legacy.

My mother was pretty ill off and on for the last 15 years of her life. When she was first diagnosed with the condition that pretty quickly took away her ability to walk and care for herself,  I remember her crying and asking my father, “oh Dick….what are we going to do?”…and my father telling her, “we’re going to play the hand that’s dealt us.” It wasn’t self pitying…or fatalistic…he never expressed any thoughts that God had given us a bum deal…he just quietly went about the daily tasks of being a husband and caregiver.

I remember one sunny day in California waiting in the driveway for my father to come home from work.  The little Renault had broken down on the highway, so he called my mother and told her he’d be late, and then called a tow truck to bring him the rest of the way.  Years later, when I asked him why it broke down, he told me it had been the battery.

I don’t know why I remember half of what I do recall.  I forget to buy the half and half, but I remember the smell of an old Renault sitting in the California sun. I’m not sure why some things stick in my head like that.

I think that even as a child I probably knew that my father didn’t know everything…but I never questioned that he was going to make things better somehow.  I hope that I can give my own children that offering…that they can take it for granted that I am going to somehow come through for them in the end.

something’s gonna get ya

My wife was looking up videos of Kiko, the new baby giraffe at the Greenville Zoo recently…and off on the sidebar on the Youtube site was a whole bunch of videos about the impending Mayan predicted disaster known as 2012.

How you make the connection between a new baby giraffe and the end of the world, I don’t know…but apparently there is some stronger relation between the two than we realized.  Maybe, like other things that came before, this seven foot newborn is a sign?  Maybe it’s a sign heralding the need to get to your computer and watch a Youtube video of some semi-legit appearing, may be an academic off-course, may be just a crazy dude talking about the end of the world coming around the time of our wedding anniversary.  I don’t know how to tell.  (IF IT’S ON THE TV IT’S GOTTA BE TRUE, RIGHT?)

Here’s a picture of Kiko:  He’s a pretty benign looking youngster….just out enjoying the new life on a sunny, late Fall day.  But…if Youtube is to be believed, the connection between the two events is unmistakable .  “Wars…and rumors of war…etc”….and Kiko. It’s a lot of pressure for the 7 foot newborn.

So now we had the question of exactly what this 2012 thing was all about…what was going on that soon nothing as we know it would be going on?  I tried to steer her towards the recent John Cusack movie of the same name…but realized that Hollywood may have left out some of the details for dramatic effect.  I tried watching some of the Youtube videos, but the thought of a reversal of the magnetic fields confused me…are we just supposed to grab on to something when it all goes down?  I am afraid of FEAR.

It used to be that if you saw the tiger, you were afraid. You spent your life listening for the tiger…and if you didn’t hear him off in the bushes…you had nothing to worry about.  Now you sit and watch a video about a little giraffe, and some man pops up in another video to tell you that the tiger might be somewhere and might be coming…and when he does come he might be coming for you. Something might happen…if I’ve learned anything by this point, it’s that something somewhere might happen…usually before the sun goes down…so the guy on my computer might be right about something…possibly.

So what’s to worry?  Somethings going to get you in the end, anyway…you might as well enjoy the giraffes while you can.

road trip

One of the best things I think we’ve been able to give our children is the experience of seeing that there’s something else on the other side of the fence.  Our road trips, whether across the country…down and back again….or just up the road to a town we haven’t visited before…have been amazing. The gift of enthusiasm and curiosity…priceless.

 

 

photo copyright 2012 Z. Rorvig

they make them build the furniture

I heard on the news this morning that IKEA was in trouble for using forced labor (ie East German prisoners) in some of its factories in the 1980’s…presumably to keep prices down.

I’m no East German prisoner…but my wife made me put together a whole kitchen worth of IKEA cabinets, storage units, shelving, trivets, and a whole bunch of flingenshlavets (if you know IKEA you may not recognize the last one…but you know what I’m talking about).  Presumably she used my labor as a cost cutting measure.

IKEA says it is regretful over its use of these prisoners to save money.  I don’t believe my wife has any regrets over using my labor…other than the infrequent assembly errors I was guilty of.

I’m really just kidding…it wasn’t forced labor…and my wife was probably better at putting the stuff together than I was. IKEA still hasn’t released a statement about any regret pertaining to our kitchen.