A Large Tortoise

A brilliant photographer named Dusty Gedge had this to say about a photo by Jukka Otsamo posted on Google+:

“Fantastic 🙂 Who needs designers when nature is so much better…”

This is like a third-level passing-along of a photo. So common these days, as links get passed back and forth!

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a potter who once lived in Bethel, Missouri. He used old French designs in his glazes; he was and probably still is quite skilled at his trade.

I was examining one of his pots, a very pretty one, well-executed indeed.

I think that the potter was taken aback when I said:

“I do like this. But you should realize what your competition is. When I can go outside and see something in the natural world which outshines any human endeavor…”



Here’s a memory for my readers:

It was the late spring of 1972. I was on the verge of quitting high school without graduating. I was dozing off in a civics class. The teacher, Joyce, was trying to keep the students interested, not an easy job! She had brought a tape cassette to class, and she played us a song I’d not heard before.

It was Imagine, by John Lennon. Well, that woke me up!

Here’s a nice version from Mark Knopfler and his musical buddy Chet Atkins; it’s the second song in the medley:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wTVLIZaxMk?rel=0&w=480&h=360]

Musical affection and interplay galore!


The Old Farmer’s Almanac

I happened across this essay at the Canadian National Post site:

The Farmers Almanac

This piece brought back memories. For some reason I was fascinated by the Old Farmer’s Almanac during my adolescence. Why did a suburban youth, an asocial geeky type devoted to literature and astronomy, read such a curmudgeonly compilation of New England folklore, stories, and weather prognostication? Somehow the archaic-looking filigreed cover of the pulpy little booklet exerted a pull on me, and I bought a new copy every year. It was like a glimpse into another world. Little did I know that I would be living in a thoroughly rural environment within a few years — but as we all know, earlier years are much longer than later ones. Ironically enough I never bought the Almanac once I had moved out into the sticks.

Two quotes from the essay linked above:

In the early days Thomas drilled a hole through each copy so that it could be hung on a hook in an outhouse, providing both reading material and toilet paper. By the 1990s, when punching the hole was costing $40,000 a year, the editors decided to eliminate it. After outraged traditionalists demanded it be restored, the editors bowed to history and put it back. It’s still there. So is Robert Thomas. A drawing of him appears on the cover and his signature on the editorial page.

The secret of the Almanac writers is poise. They know their worth and take a quiet pride in their heritage. They believe in their knowledge and believe in spreading it, just like Robert Thomas. The anonymous author of the 2011 Farmer’s Calendar describes his habits and outlook with a sense of authority no one would think of defying.

I really ought to buy a current edition of the Almanac, just to see how the publication has changed during the past forty years!


Familial Duty Calls

My 27-year-old daughter Adrian is in Quincy right now and she came over for a visit. It was so good to see her, after about a year! She’s a very beautiful young woman; Adrian works as a nurse in Portland, Oregon. I’m proud of her!

She drove me over to visit with my folks, which was pleasant, but then I had to fulfill a promise reluctantly granted during the course of an earlier phone call.

Adrian and her guy Martin are getting married this summer out in Portland. She had asked me if I would consent to being measured for a suit.

Damn! A suit? I haven’t worn a suit since I was sixteen years old. But it was my daughter asking me for this favor, so after visiting my folks we stopped at a formal wear store on Broadway.

Obviously I was out of my realm.

I asked Adrian, “What — they’ll take my measurements without being paid?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of a courtesy places like that do.”

“So you will take the measurements to some place in Portland?”

“Yeah, I’ve printed out a form for them to fill out.”

Oh, gosh, I didn’t want to do this. We went into the store, which was deserted at that time of day. The clerk took me into the back of the store and submitted me to a ritual of holding my arms outstretched, keeping my feet together, and suchlike while she measured me with a cloth tape.

My daughter and I got back into her borrowed car.

“I hope that wasn’t too stressful for you, Dad!”

“The only thing that made it tolerable was that she was such a good-looking young woman. Did you notice how she would drape the measuring tape over the back of her neck between measurements?”

“And did you notice she was barefoot?”

“No! But no customers — I suppose she just wanted to be comfortable on a hot day… ”


NPR In Quincy

Back in the mid-seventies when my ex-wife and I moved to a rural and remote place in Knox County, MO, there weren’t many media choices. Quincy IL pop FM stations were the only options. We didn’t have a TV and didn’t want one. These were prehistoric days, long before the advent of the internet.

FM radio advertisements, heavy-handed hard-sells for products I had no interest in, were getting on my nerves. One day, during a break from building our first house, I switched our little portable radio to the AM band and scanned across it, looking for something different.

I ended up at WOI, an AM station from Ames, IA which broadcasted a lot of farm price reports — but they also broadcasted National Public Radio shows like All Things Considered and A Prairie Home Companion. I was sucked right in; the reporters, such as Susan Stamberg and Noah Adams, had some sort of hard-to-define cultivated quality in their voices. I felt like I had found “my people”, like Eastern European Jews recently emigrated to America a hundred years ago who found other Jews in tenement districts in New York City.

I’ve been an NPR fan ever since those days. Since moving to Quincy my main station is WQUB, a station broadcasting from Quincy University. The station manager is a youngish woman named Maryfaith. She hosts two shows: “Romance On The River”, an hour every night of love songs, many of which peg my personal sentimentality meter, and “Books And More”, a book review show which features interviews with authors.

The last show is really well-done; Maryfaith has obviously read the books featured and is thus able to talk intelligently with the featured author. Maryfaith recorded some commercials for the “Books and More” show, and last winter one of those commercials was getting on my nerves, just seriously annoying me. She said in the commercial:

“I’ll help you keep up with the latest littachur!”

I couldn’t take it. I went to the WQUB web-site and left a message there:

“Will somebody please tell Maryfaith that the word literature has four syllables?”

Two days later the commercials had been re-recorded with the correct pronunciation, and I received a nice e-mail message from Maryfaith thanking me for my input.

I felt like a curmudgeon when I left that message at the station web-site, I must admit, so kudos go to Maryfaith for accepting it gracefully.


Nocturnal Ninjas

For the past couple of years my sleep pattern has been changing –now I rarely sleep for eight hours in a row. Generally I’ll sleep for three or four hours at a time. I’ll get up and take a walk, perhaps to a local convenience store to chat with the clerks, or I’ll play music, or read. Then I’ll sink back down into the depths of somnolence for a couple more hours.

That’s why I was up at 3:30 this morning. I stepped out onto my porch aerie to smoke a cigarette. There was some sort of commotion going on directly below. I looked down and saw several young men involved in some sort of ritualistic activity — perhaps a game of some sort? I recognized Tom, my young downstairs neighbor. I called down to him:

“Hey, Tom, what’re you guys doin’?”

He looked up at me and said sheepishly, “Oh, we’re just playin’ this game called Ninja.”

I watched for a while; the game involves starting out in a huddle, then every player draws back and assumes odd postures seemingly derived from Kung Fu movies, Bruce Lee stuff. The game seems to be a variant of that hoary classic game Tag.

I took a few photos, propping my camera on the porch railing:

I was curious about this game and looked it up on Wikipedia. One of the virtues of Wikipedia is that if there are several meanings of a word a Disambiguation page opens up so that you can choose the meaning in which you are interested. Evidently Ninja is a common playground game:


Ninja reminds me of a game my kids used to play with the children of some friends; it was called Midnight. I never quite understood the rules, but that game involved running around wildly while shrieking. Meanwhile the parents sat inside and talked, insulated by walls from the chaos outside.


Meb and Jay

The other day I happened to think about a couple of craftsmen who had an influence upon me many years ago. Both of them were retired men who spent their days in their shops, doing some paying work and a certain amount of just plain tinkering. These guys just didn’t want to sit at home during their declining years — perhaps their wives preferred it that way. In a small town a shop is also a social gathering place, almost exclusively for men. A comparison could be made with the role of the barbershop as a male social venue in small-town America during the past couple of centuries.

I’ll write first about Meb, a rather surly and crotchety old guy who once had a shop in Bethel, MO. I first met him during the late 1970s when I was a young and inexperienced carpenter and woodworker. At the time I was working with Kent, a neighbor who had moved to rural Missouri, as I had, during one of the periodic revivals of primitivist “back to the land” thinking.

One day Kent said to me as we drove into Bethel, “Larry, you gotta meet Meb. His shop is really cool and he can make about anything out of wood or metal.”

We parked in front of a shabby-looking old building which had wooden garage doors. There was no sign to indicate what went on within.

Kent warned me as we approached the door: “Now, Meb doesn’t act very friendly and he can be insulting, but he don’t mean anything by it. Don’t take it personally, okay?”

The shop was dimly lit and the corners and shelves were piled with all sorts of intriguing things, such as half-built pieces of furniture, old tools, and parts of machinery. A thickly-built man in overalls glanced at us as we gingerly stepped around odd artifacts and assemblages.

So this was Meb. He snarled “So what are you two young idjits doin’ here?”

Meb never smiled; he aways seemed to have a frown on his face. Kent said “Oh, we just wanted to see what you’ve been up to. This is Larry; we work together off and on.”

Meb dismissively said “Hmph.”

In an undertone Kent said to me, “He really doesn’t want us to leave — I know he likes to have company.” I was dubious.

It was fascinating looking around that shop. The centerpiece was an ancient metal lathe which must have dated from the teens or twenties, or even earlier. It had originally been a treadle lathe, powered by the operator’s feet, but it had been outfitted with a greasy old electric motor, probably when electric power first came to Bethel back in the forties. The lathe’s legs were cast iron from an age when machine castings were given ornamental swoops and curlicues. Some nameless patternmaker had evidently indulged his fancy when designing those legs.

Meb was using that lathe when we walked in. It was the first time I had ever seen a metal lathe in action. Meb was turning down a steel rod which looked like a shaft for some machine. The curls of iron cascaded greasily from the small cutting tool, which was rigidly held in a holder which traveled back and forth along a threaded rod. Heaps of shining shavings were piled in drifts beneath the machine.

Kent and I visited Meb’s shops several times during the next couple of years, though I never really got to know the man. He wasn’t a talkative or confiding sort of man, but occasionally I would think I saw the faintest glimmer of a smile, just a slight lifting of the corners of his mouth.

Meb died a few years after I met him. Then I met a retired Navy machinist named Jay, an altogether more friendly character. He had a shop in Shelbyville, the next town south of Bethel. Somehow Jay had ended up with Meb’s old metal lathe; perhaps he bought it at Meb’s estate auction.

Jay was a rather short, wiry, and energetic man, and when a project interested him he’d go after it like a beagle at a rabbit-hole. The converse of this was that if he couldn’t get interested in, say, a mundane repair job, he’d put it off. He really didn’t need the money, so local farmers and hot-rodders would be extra-friendly and hang around the shop, hoping their project would rise to the top of the list. If Jay needed a piece of steel or a tool from Quincy there was no shortage of volunteers:

“Yeah, Jay, I’m goin’ to town the day after tomorrow — I’ll pick it up for you!”

Unlike Meb, Jay was exclusively a metal-worker. Aside from the lathe, he had an assortment of old milling machines, surface grinders, and other metal-shaping tools, most of which had lived out their early years in factories. Jay was a wizard with a stick-welder and acetylene torch. I appreciated that he didn’t mind loitering and curious visitors looking over his shoulder.

Much of his work involved farm machinery, and local farmers often stopped by his shop:

“Howdy, Jay, didja get my baler bearing pressed in?”

“Aw, gol-durnit, that one slipped my mind! Where’d I put that thing? Here, come help me look for it under this bench…”

I’d always learn something during casual visits to either Meb or Jay’s shop. Jay has also passed away, and we’ll never see their like again.


My Thanksgiving: 2010

So here I am again, sitting in front of a keyboard and resuming my contemplations and chronicles. It’s been a rough several months for me; my friends Dale and Sarah have been kind enough to give me a respite every week or so, welcome sojourns at their bucolic country place near New London.

Sarah has told me that I’m welcome to use her computer when she’s at work (12-hour night shifts at the hospital) or sleeping. I’ve had a problem up until today, though. Her much-used keyboard is missing the printed letters on the keys. I’m not a touch typist, although I can type as fast as I can think with my index and middle fingers. I just need to be able to see a few key letters from time to time in order to maintain my orientation.

Last night Dale swapped out the old keyboard and hooked up another one with legible letters — and now I can type fluently again.

Just to recap recent events and circumstances of my life here in Hannibal: I’ve had no electricity or water in my building for the past eight months or so. It really hasn’t been a third-world period; more like a medieval era. The nights (and some days!) have been getting cold and I’ve been preoccupied lately with survival, just staying warm and keeping my internal fires stoked with food.

I woke up Thanksgiving morning feeling chilled, as I had managed to kick off the blankets during the night. I made some coffee on my propane camp stove and fried a couple of eggs. I realized I had to do something about providing myself with heat. I began to ponder the issue. What does one do when the usual civilized sources of heat, such as electricity or natural gas, just aren’t available? Why, make a fire, of course!

What to burn, and where? I walked down to the local Save-A-Lot grocery store and bought a bag of charcoal and lugged it home. I noticed that puddles were frozen in the streets and gutters; the temperature had descended into the middle teens overnight.

I went downstairs into the courtyard and unlocked the door to a storage area. I found a pile of split red cedar which I had garnered from a farmer’s front yard years ago — clear quartered chunks intended for musical instrument soundboards and braces. The guitar I currently play has a top made from wood from that same cedar tree. I selected the less-than-perfect splits, most of them pieces with grain distortions due to nearby knots.

I found a sharp handsaw and took it and the cedar up to the second-floor porch. Down in the courtyard I’d found an ancient riveted-together iron bucket with a thick wrought-iron bail. The bucket was two-thirds filled with dirt, as I’ve planted marigolds in it for the past couple of years.

I sawed the 22″ cedar splits in half and split off kindling sticks with a double-bladed axe. I started a little cedar fire in the bucket and eventually put charcoal briquets on the new coals. Later in the day I found some old-growth southern yellow pine 2x12s leaned against the brick wall under the porch and began to saw ten-inch chunks from one of the planks as I needed them, and for the remainder of the day I kept warm.

I mentioned that my life and circumstances seemed medieval, but after starting the fire and warming myself I was reminded of the unchronicled lives of humans in the Pleistocene Era, following the glacial ice sheets as they retreated northwards. Next I’ll be out hunting mastodons!

I have a generally optimistic nature. I try to see the good in a situation rather than dwelling upon uncontrollable negative factors. I must say that I’ve really been enjoying my little bucket-borne fire. I spent years heating exclusively with wood and I realized that I’ve missed the ritualistic aspects of making and tending a fire. Fussing with splitting the kindling into progressively smaller splints, seeing how little newspaper I can get away with using and still getting the fire going, and assiduously providing the greedy combustion process with carbon-based food.

I’m reminded of a scene from my rural Knox County days years ago. My ex-wife’s father and mother were visiting us and Betsy’s father Chris was watching me as I quickly built a fire in the stove. As I struck a match and prepared to ignite the twisted up newspaper beneath the carefully-arranged kindling Chris said to me: “Can ya do it with just one match?”

“Most of the time; it doesn’t pay to get in a hurry and then have to start all over.” I replied.

Chris grew up poor in the central Ozarks and I could tell that his question was one he had retained from those hardscrabble Depression days. It must have been a point of pride back then to be able to start a fire with a single match.

A fire is a particularly effective aid to contemplation. How pleasant it is to sit gazing into the flames and letting the mind drift, speculating upon the future and remembering scenes from the past…

This period of my life hasn’t been all bad luck and setbacks! Even seemingly unfortunate and trying times can provide interesting experiences and food for thought. The two main things I’ve learned: things can just go to hell faster than you ever imagined, and having friends and family certainly does help!


On Learning To Read

Ava, Doug, and I rolled into the trailer park early this morning in Doug’s 1975 Ford pickup. Earlier Saturday evening I had been eating a fine meal and playing music at Rob and Cindy’s place south of town, a combined social gathering and band practice. The musical energies were waning when I got a phone call from Ava.

“Larry, are you coming to the drive-in with us? Doug and I made popcorn, and we have cold cream sodas!”

I’d been wanting to go sometime to that drive-in movie establishment, which is located a few miles south of Barry, in Pike County, Illinois. I gave Doug directions to Rob and Cindy’s rural home, and after playing a few more tunes with my musical cronies, I gathered up my instruments and waited by the gravel road.

It was a pleasant night for a drive. With both pickup windows open, the three of us eventually arrived at the drive-in, probably the only one still in business within a radius of two hundred miles. Fifty or sixty pickups were lined up before the screen and people had brought lawn chairs and blankets. It was a real slice of Midwestern life. Unlike the window-mounted speakers I remember from my youth, the audio at this theater is broadcast on an open FM channel and can be heard on the vehicles’ radios.

Doug sat in a folding chair in the bed of the pickup, Ava reclined on a cushioned mat atop the truck’s transverse toolbox, while I sprawled out on the tailgate with a pillow against the pickup bed’s side.

All three of us snoozed from time to time. The movies were of the sort which don’t demand undivided attention. I spent some time gazing up at the brilliant stars, trying to identify constellations. Cygnus, the Northern Cross, was directly overhead, as always accompanied by that sportive trapezoidal dolphin Delphinus. I tried to locate that beautiful arc of stars known as Corona Borealis but never did make it out.

Bear with me, kind readers. I admit I have a tendency to approach post subjects tangentially. There is an admittedly tenuous connection between the above account of watching cinematic stories and the following tales of early experiences reading stories.

It occurs to me that a possible reason for the enduring popularity of the personal memoir genre is that a writer’s recollections can bring to the surface neglected memories of the reader’s. An example from my own experience follows.

A passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory caused to slowly rise to the surface of my mind some memories of my own. Here’s the passage, Nabokov writing of some childhood experiences:

I learned to read English before I could read Russian. My first English friends were four simple souls in my grammar — Ben, Dan, Sam, and Ned. There used to be a great deal of fuss about their identities and whereabouts — “Who is Ben?” “He is Dan,” “Sam is in bed,” and so on. Although it all remained rather stiff and patchy (the compiler was handicapped by having to employ — for the initial lessons, at least — words of not more than three letters), my imagination somehow managed to obtain the necessary data. Wan-faced, big-limbed, silent nitwits, proud of the possession of certain tools (“Ben has an axe”), they now drift with a slow-motioned slouch across the remotest backdrop of memory; and, akin to the mad alphabet of an optician’s chart, the grammar-book lettering again looms before me.


…On later pages longer words appeared, and at the very end of the brown, inkstained volume, a real, sensible story unfolded its adult sentences (One day Ted said to Ann: Let us –“), the little reader’s ultimate triumph and reward. The magic has endured, and whenever a grammar book comes my way, I instantly turn to the last page to enjoy a forbidden glimpse of the laborious student’s future, of that promised land where, at last, words are meant to mean what they mean.

This Nabokovian memory caused my recollection engine to rev up. I thought back to my first grade experiences at Wright School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Back then the Dick and Jane readers were still in use, but the stories were so rudimentary that it was hard to stay interested — “See Spot run” may have been one of the more exciting passages. I really wanted to learn to read. My parents were readers and there was alway an abundance of reading material around the house. I made efforts to try to make sense of books I’d pick up but I just didn’t have the necessary vocabulary.

By the time I entered second grade I had come across an old edition of Collodi’s Pinocchio, and it was almost comprehensible. I struggled with this book but certain words threw me for a loop. One word in particular puzzled me to no end. What could a “tawn-goo” be? Each character seemed to possess one, and from what I could deduce the word referred to a part of the body, possibly located on the head.

Finally I asked my mother. “Look at this word, Mom! I keep reading it and I can’t figure out what it is!”

My mother laughed. “Larry, it’s pronounced “tung”! She stuck out her tongue at me and suddenly I realized that English spelling could be quite illogical.

I eventually finished Pinocchio and heaved a sigh of relief.

Towards the end of second grade the reader stories became more interesting. I had checked out a book from the class library shelves and, for the first time, became totally engrossed in a written story. The book was about a family on vacation and I just slurped it down. After I read the final page I was overwhelmed with a desolate feeling. I had invested quite a fund of attention, identification, and imagination in the adventures of that fictional family, and now I was left hanging. What happened next? Will I ever meet these fascinating characters again? In a way they had seemed more real than the flesh-and-blood people in my life. This was my first experience of the power of the written word.


More Nabokov Memories, And a Couple of My Own

In several of R.A. Lafferty’s unclassifiable novels there are quotes from an imaginary author named Armand Arputinov.  Arputinov’s imaginary book was entitled “The Back-door of History”.   Back-doors to history can come from autobiographies; take a gander at this quote from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory”:

…On the same day, at a waterside cafe′, my father happened to notice, just as we were being served, two Japanese officers at a table near us, and we immediately left — not without me hastily snatching a whole bombe of lemon sherbet, which I carried away secreted in my aching mouth.  The year was 1904.  I was five.  Russia was fighting Japan.  With hearty relish, the English illustrated weekly Miss Norcott subscribed to reproduced war pictures by Japanese artists that showed how the Russian locomotives — made singularly toylike by the Japanese pictorial style — would drown if our Army tried to lay rails across the treacherous ice of Lake Baikal.

But let me see.  I had an earlier association with that war.  One afternoon at the beginning of the same year, in our St. Petersburg house, I was led down from the nursery into my father’s study to say how-do-you-do to a friend of the family, General Kuropatkin.  His thickset, uniform-encased body creaking slightly, he spread out to amuse me a handful of matches, on the divan where he was sitting, placed ten of them end-to-end to make a horizontal line, and said “This is the sea in calm weather.”  Then he tipped up each pair so as to turn the straight line into a zigzag — and that was “a stormy sea.”  He scrambled the matches and was about to do, I hoped, a better trick when we were interrupted.  His aid-de-camp was shown in and and said something to him.  With a Russian, flustered grunt, Kuropatkin heavily rose from his seat, the loose matches jumping up on the divan as his weight left it.  That day, he had been ordered to assume supreme command of the Russian Army in the Far East.

This incident had a special sequel fifteen years later, when at a certain point of my father’s flight from Bolshevik-held St. Petersburg to southern Russia he was accosted while crossing a bridge, by an old man who looked like a gray-bearded peasant in his sheepskin coat.  He asked my father for a light.  The next moment each recognized the other.  I hope old Kuropatkin, in his rustic disguise, managed to evade Soviet imprisonment, but that is not the point.  What pleases me is the evolution of the match theme: those magic ones he had shown me had been trifled with and mislaid, and his armies had also vanished, and everything had fallen through, like my toy trains that, in the winter of 1904-05, in Wiesbaden, I tried to run over the frozen puddles in the grounds of the Hotel Oranien.  The following of such thematic designs should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography.

This passage, I think, is a wonderful example of a gifted writer attempting to make sense of his life.  Thinking about this fragment of a memoir made me try to recollect what was going on in my life when I was five years old.   The year was 1959…

The town was Hutchinson, Kansas, a mid-sized town in the southeastern quadrant of the state.  A flat town with salt-mine caverns beneath and sandburs in the yards.  I remember the launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite, but being so young I had no idea of the geopolitical significance of the event.  The image which remains in my mind is a trivial one, but here it is, for what it’s worth:

My father was a partner in an up-and-coming business, a new type of business during those optimistic post-war years: TV repair and sales.  Television was new back then, and not everyone had one of those primitive black-and-white small-screen TVs.  In recent years my father told his progeny about the old ladies who would come by the shop during the afternoon to watch soap operas.

But back to the vivid memory: my father came home from work one day with the day’s newspaper.  He held out the front page and said “Larry, look at this!”  A large black-and-white photo was displayed there of a grinning young man with a “Sputnik haircut”, a tonsorial oddity consisting of gelled-together spikes radiating from the man’s scalp, evidently in imitation of the Sputnik satellite’s antennae.

Many years later my ex-wife Betsy and I were invited to eat dinner at a couple’s house just a few miles from our Knox County home.   The man’s name was Roland, and he had been a science teacher for many years in nearby Quincy, Illinois.  I remember Roland telling me:

“Man, the early sixties was just wonderful for science teachers!  The Space Race was on and their were just scads of federal funding for science education.  I was paid to get my master’s degree.  It hasn’t ever been the same since then!”