Monday, December 31, 2012

Grandmother

I've published a new essay today on Scintilla. Someone who's been dead for nearly 40 years lives on.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Arcadia

I recently finished Lauren Groff's second novel Arcadia. The title was enough to please me: Groff could have written the worst possible book - say, 50 Shades of Arcadia - and I would have picked it up. It turned out to be excellent (although my wife didn't like it nearly as much), an impressionistic and powerful meditation on life in a commune in upstate New York and the longer-term consequences therefrom for the beasts who inhabited it..

I'm drawn to things eschatological, raised as I was in severe Protestantism and now living half-time in Maine. That focus on last things naturally leads to a certain preoccupation with their aftermath (the hoped-for one, of course, not the dreaded one), i.e., Heaven, or in this case, Arcadia, heaven on earth. For me, of course, the search for the best possible life stops far short of any religious longing.

Fortunately, the secular urge is very strong. I'm easily impressed, for example, that the word Arcadia (or Acadia in modern parlance) essentially means wilderness, from the interior region of Greece, to the romances of Renaissance Europe, to Verrazano who named the entire Atlantic coast from Virginia to Labrador thusly, to the French Canadians seeking a new heaven, to the glorious national park in Maine. I'm hopeful that heaven is not some city on a hill but huge forests on many hills. I'm sure, in this stormy Christmas week, that bringing a tree into the house is a sign of redemption, and that we gather around it like families of blameless deer, and that the pagan symbols of this season are far stronger than any Christian ones.

For the thought of last things makes me think of first things, how we began, where we're going; and that makes me thank Thor that we're considerably more druidic than liturgic. There are elements of hell - the fights, filth, and fervor of a commune, the noise and concrete of a mall - but we make them ourselves, and we could fix them if we really wanted to. And in any case, we can always hug our daughters in thanksgiving, and look out at the blameless storm in safety and anticipation.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Walking

I often think of the difference between walking in the city (well, OK, a suburb) and the country. The former is full of the works of humans, from which one can hardly escape. It's possible to gaze up at a tree or into the sky, or focus down on a piece of moss in the cracks of the sidewalk, but the effort makes one looks slightly ridiculous, not to mention sore in neck and knee, and the gaze must be intensely focused to avoid the intrusion of airplane, pavement, car horn, dog walkers, blinking Christmas lights, politics. None of these are bad in themselves, but the accumulation can be draining, if only because I'm forced to think of systems, and peculiarities of character, and the thin skein of society that holds this all together. The eye skitters from house to freshly sawed stump, from trimmed hedge to mowed lawn - all the trials of domestication, including the dog I'm walking for purposes of her nasal scent optimization. This human eye and mind are not optimized, unfortunately.

That shrub over there carved into a spiral may be very similar to a bush blown crooked at the edge of the sea, the quick brown dog across the street may be cousin to the fox, but they have been subsumed to human needs. To understand their essences needs a different, wilder context. I need to see the strong ropes of Nature holding all together.

Walking in my neighborhood in Maine is hardly exploring the wilderness, I hasten to point out. There are houses and cars and paved roads, just not nearly as many. Which means I can walk for minutes, or stare for an hour, and not see or hear or smell anything manufactured. I know this is important for me - do I dare to say it might be important for others?

It's as if in the country I think much more about the individual, who is innocent until proven guilty, and in the city, I'm fixated on the group, which is guilty until proven innocent.

Thoreau said it another way in his essay "Walking": "I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least—and it is commonly more than that—sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements."

The final proof, for me, is that our frenemy time passes swiftly in the country. A walk down to Ash Point seems to take only a moment, because the eye and mind are actively engaged in the business of life, not passively receiving its manufactured products. Time can drag in the city, ironically, right in the midst of hustle and bustle.

Like Thoreau in Concord, I hope I have the best of  both worlds. What would it be like, though, to walk every day in real wilderness, and how dangerous? My whole life might pass in the blink of a fox's eye.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Natural marketing

Now that my 20-something daughters are home for the holidays, I can pose the following question with greater accuracy: Which of the ingredients in this list do not appear on the back of shampoo bottles in my house? *Answer below.

  1. horsetail
  2. cottonseed
  3. silk protein
  4. lemon
  5. lavender
  6. eucalyptus
  7. oat flour
  8. macademia oil
  9. wheat gluten
  10. aloe
  11. tapioca
  12. sunflower

Each brand seems to have one or two "natural" ingredients, usually prominently featured on the front but buried in a pharmacopeia of chemicals on the back. I'd list those too, but I doubt you want to know what the billions of us are putting on our heads in the name of cleanliness. But I can say that "gl" compounds - glucose, glycerine, glutamate, glycol - appear in almost every case, and although they sound terrible, they are mostly organic, to the point that even Tom's of Maine includes glycerine in its list of ingredients. Of course, Tom does not have a shampoo product - there are some lengths to which Nature cannot go.

Companies might get more creative, however, in using the natural goodness of Maine products. Tom, for example, doesn't appear to use any uniquely Maine item in spite of his company's name. May I suggest you consider producing the flavors listed to the left? Any or all of them will greatly enhance the appeal of the products to the right.

Moose bladder                                      Tea Party tea
Extract of fog                                         Moxie Lite
Lupine root                                            Poland Spring Forever
Whisper of pine                                     Moosehead Freedom Ale
Toe jam of eagle                                    Fried clams a la pourpre
Blueberry blush                                      Whoopie pie soup
Lobster water                                        Anything at Moody's

After all, your company is not called Tom's of New Jersey.

*Trick question: all of them appear.

Friday, December 14, 2012

No news

I'm often tempted to access no news source when I'm in Maine - no newspaper homepage, no financial website, no NPR program. (TV network news is not even in my radar, not since the days of Huntley/Brinkley).) The vagaries of the Middle East and Wall Street and Washington and Augusta just don't seem all that insistent in the face of the eternities of forest and ocean and seagull and deer. Important, yes, for an informed citizenry is essential - but worthy of attention (and worry, trauma, anxiety, fear) several times a day? How about once a week? Is that patriotic enough? Think how much happier, more productive, more satisfied I'll be!

Or how about not thinking about news at all? A recent survey found that people who watch partisan news outlets only, Fox News especially, fare significantly worse on tests of current events than people who watch no media news at all. Bias, and bias reinforcement, apparently makes us stupider.

I'm now going to apply this lesson locally. If I check the Times and the Globe and the Bangor Daily News but once a week, and balance that knowledge by daily listening to Maine Things Considered, I should become reasonably informed on Sunday and nicely biased and a bit stupid for the rest of the week. Stupid like a fox patrolling its kingdom, worry-free and ready to feed.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Instant

After not being Maine for several weeks, I returned to a house colder than usual. A twist of the thermostat produced no instant response. I was in for a long service call.

Somewhat later, after the woodstove took the chill out of the air, after I calmed down about the length of that service call, I thought of our incredible expectations for the world. We've gone way past instant oatmeal - now a lawn appears in the course of a day, a thousand people can tweet Madonna in a second, teachers get feedback while they're teaching, your smartphone gets you tickets and trivia. Conversely, if a webpage takes two seconds to load, I'm mad. Traffic is a personal insult to efficiency. Slow walkers raise blood pressure. We do not suffer fools or slow waiters gladly. We expect the steady compression of time and tasks by at least 10-fold every model year.

I submit a new infection - instancy - to the CDC for classification. It's got all the hallmarks: fever, racing pulse, sour stomach. It is spread by airplane travel, it is communicated by the Joneses. And the cure? Stare at something, like surf or a tanager, for minutes on end. Take the Internet with a grain of salt. Drink lots of fresh air. Wait like a patient, patiently, for warm relief. Then take a fool to lunch.