Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pandora

This formation on a rotting piece of beech tree reminded me of my little wildcat Pandora, who died in 2001. She ruled these woods.

She arrived as a kitten. The established cat, a one-eyed rescue named Moose, received her with good humor. She made it clear that our tiny house was too small to contain her energy. She got her kitten nickname, "the terrorist," because she would playfully but relentlessly attack the two dogs, the elder cat and us.

Her tutor in fierceness was a vagrant cat someone brought us whose coloring was eerily similar to Pandora's. We named this newcomer Scarlet, but soon changed it to Snarlet because she could not shed her feral ferocity. Somehow, Pandora managed to absorb Snarlet's combat and hunting skills while still maintaining a sweet nature.

When I found myself single again in my shack in the woods I had a lot more time to pay attention to the dog and the cat that had been left to me. Pandora spent most days and many nights outside. Even in the coldest weather she never used a litter box. She might spend the day indoors by the wood stove, but she'd be dancing by the door when I got home from work. She'd go outside no matter what the weather was doing, take care of business and come back in.

In milder weather she would spend the day outside. I would see no sign of a cat when I pulled in from work. Then she would appear. If I was in the car she would hop up on the hood before I could open the door. If I was on the bicycle she would materialize beside me. She would do the same thing whenever I took a walk in the woods. She wouldn't follow me if I went very far up the mountain, but she would go as far as our property extended. It probably just coincided with her attention span and the kind of terrain she felt like dealing with.

How much was luck and how much was skill? She never lost a fight,  except to her final illness. She spent days and nights in the forest with coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats, bears, owls, hawks and roving dogs. She seemed like a superhero. I heard some hair raising noises some nights, but there she'd be in the morning, paws folded contentedly under her, waiting for me to open the door.

It was about this time of year when she died. In dim light I still sometimes see a dark patch on the floor where I found her barely alive that evening. We rushed her to the vet to see if we could pull her back to us.

If you look at the tree formation from a different angle it doesn't look the least bit like a cat. It gives me a moment of remembrance and then breaks the illusion. The forest remembers and lets go. Even the wood itself will crumble before long.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Infamy seems to wear off over time

Maybe I didn't see much because I tend to avoid media most of the time, but Pearl Harbor Day seemed to come and go without more than a murmur.

I'm as bad as anyone. Caught up in the surprise attacks and extended campaigns of my own life I gave little thought to the Japanese attack more than 70 years ago that finally pushed the United States into World War II. As the Second World War appears to have solved fewer and fewer issues that plague us today, that great conflict between Good and Evil, as magnificent as it was, becomes a symbol of the frustrating endlessness and brutal human cost of that conflict.

We didn't even defeat the Fascists. They just rebranded, regrouped and took over the finance industry. They learned to be more subtle and play a longer game in their quest for world domination and discriminatory prosperity.

The dissipation of infamy happened suddenly in just a couple of years. The usual outlets that howl about exalting all things military shift their focus to the imaginary War on Christmas. The compression of the holiday season that follows a late Thanksgiving leaves little attention for remembrance of an inspiring defeat suffered before the midpoint of the previous century. Pearl Harbor Day suffers the fate of all children with birthdays in December. For years it was early enough to preserve its own little bubble of solemnity, but the accumulation of newer crises and the pressures of modern life have finally overtaken it.

We will never forget entirely. I'm not even saying that the degree to which we've forgotten already is entirely bad. Conflicts that occurred between people now mostly dead over political and economic issues that should never have led to war only deserve so much reverence before you have to shake your head and look at the whole shooting match as a waste of many things. It had to be done, but only because of events that precipitated it based on things that should never have been done.

Pull back far enough and Earth is a tiny dot in cosmic blackness, populated by microscopic beings who will destroy each other and the whole place, attempting to rule it. It looks large and invulnerable to us here in the roughness of its crust. We abuse each other mercilessly as we try to shape the illusion to please ourselves.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Another train blog

It's hard to write simple sentences in active voice when the concepts in your mind are not simple.

I could say bluntly that no one is harder to communicate with than someone who is a glass half empty person who thinks they're a glass half full type. But that's not true. What makes a person really hard to communicate with is ignorance and the lack of a sense of humor. Pessimists who think they're optimists present a significant challenge, but hardly the worst. So right away I get stuck with extra verbiage.

Give the pessoptimist credit for knowing that a positive attitude helps. But just knowing it doesn't mean you're doing it. If your talent and natural inclination tends otherwise, you have to practice like a 50-year-old beginning violin student.

Life experience makes it harder. As a realist, you have to acknowledge that setbacks and challenges complicate any action. The farther ahead you try to lay things out, the more stuff can fall on, grow over or wash out the path.

Some people are luckier than others. Your own luck may vary. Outlook once again affects one's perception of whether a particular break was good or bad. But some people do seem to go over smaller and less frequent bumps than others. Attentive work does not really manufacture luck, but it helps you prepare to take advantage when things shift in your favor. You can't spend too much time looking at someone else's life trying to find major chunks to incorporate. Not that I know anyone who does that, but it came up next in the train of thought. And I know I've been tempted to try it from time to time.

Sprawled across two seats, looking over at I-95, I'm glad I'm not driving. I'm also glad more people are driving, so I can sprawl across two seats. I keep tweaking different rail car designs to try to maintain capacity while eliminating unwanted seat mates. But then what do you do when you're traveling with someone and want to sit together? Here we are, back in the stupid best of all worlds.

I look down. I read, I write. I look up again and guess by the grunge that we must be near Bridgeport.

I left tonight's weather behind south of New Jersey. A snowstorm chased me out of New Hampshire and a snowstorm chases me home. We're outrunning it now, but I'm going to stop eventually. I'll go back into my life with a completely different sense of time than the people who stayed behind will have. I've been gone forever and no time.

6:58 p.m. -- Now on the Downeaster, rolling toward Dover. Soon I will know how badly my car is buried. I will find out whether I remembered to lock it as I hurried to the station a week ago to catch the southbound train.

Against my every expectation when I saw about a hundred school kids gather at North Station to catch this train, I enjoyed another private seat by a window. It's basically black out there..

So. Exhume the car and drive on. Home awaits.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Through space, time, and the Northeast Corridor

This is a landscape heavy with memories, not because I inhabited it but because of what I believed when I traversed it. My life was full of significance when it had not yet been filled with much else.

I think I just recognized a discarded washing machine from 1980. I spent enough time staring out of train windows that year.

Movement generates is own optimism most of the time. Just to be en route seems like progress.

Unspecified cool things lay ahead. Every experience was literary, artistic, cinematic. The stack of blank sheets in front of me did not intimidate me, regardless of what passing anxiety or depression might temporarily freeze me to the bone. I would fill them with wisdom and whimsy that would painlessly tease the straying world onto a gentle path of shared pleasure.

No ambition? Does that sound like no ambition? It may not promise steady upward progress through a prosperous bourgeois existence, as ambition is typically defined to do. But it is a massive undertaking to be pursued with deceptive casualness. There is no blunt and bludgeoning approach. One must relentlessly entice and not annoy. It may be impossible. And it's the only thing that will work.

Growing up, perhaps I received so little great guidance because I had no idea what questions to ask. I was advised to be on the side of good in a generic way, and to do my best to stay off the dole. Good enough as far as it went, but one can do shocking amounts of unintended damage in pursuit of what seem like bland and harmless personal success. Don't bring that up if you want to entice people into a different course for society. They feel threatened. Then you've lost your appeal.

I scribbled on those blank sheets with the enthusiasm and education of a sixth grader. I looked toward the far horizon while tripping over curbs and stepping in dog piles I overlooked in the immediate foreground. I waded eagerly into swamps and briar patches without regard for whether I could bill for the hours.

What a chump. Never underestimate the self-destructive power of the best intentions. Forget Hell. Hell is a selfish concept. Trying to do the right thing can sometimes be no better than a 50-50 shot, even if you yourself come out of it unharmed or enhanced. The footprints you leave could be enough to cut the slope and trigger an avalanche that takes out those behind you.

Bleached grasses and bare trees fill the scene behind many hours of thought. I've ended up living where they are the dominant reality for a solid half of the year. I can own a much larger patch of that than I could hope to claim in places that look more alive, more of the time. Those places fill and fill, making the people who live there pay steadily higher prices for smaller pieces. The overflow bulges steadily farther into country more difficult both climatologically and mentally.

I went willingly into the harsh landscape. I met it with my own impermeabability. It was my element for years. But events will teach you what you didn't know you didn't know. Along with knowledge aggregating in ways you hope and expect, stuff pries your mind open or forcibly aims your head in another direction.  You can either build stronger walls to keep your mind at its familiar width or you can work to incorporate more variations into your world view. I've seen it go both ways. And when formerly perfectly enjoyable companions decide to remain the same intellectual width they were, the space grows too small to hold you both for long.

Pride in harshness takes up less brain space than empathy. It's also less work. People can be such a burden, even the ones you supposedly care about. Much easier to have a set of standards that allows you to take people or leave them based on compliance. Is it conditional love or stern but admirable principle? Conditional love is what makes winners, according to a winner I used to visit by rail. I was softened and weakened by the indulgences of my parents. They did not use their affection strategically to force me toward achievement. That's how I remember her analysis at the time.

Time brings experience. Experience may bring wisdom. Or you just might get older without compensatory improvements.

Get off the train, emerge from the station and life is no longer linear. Progress is no longer automatic. You have to get yourself around. You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Anywhere is everywhere, so there really is no nowhere.

Friday, November 28, 2014

It jiggles the pen

The flickering sunlight and grumbling vibration induce a trance. The world is moving while the train stands still. The reflection of the train windows does not change on the passing backs of industrial buildings that flow eastward past our westward facing engine and string of cars.

Chunks of ice release from the train's top.  The air must have warmed above freezing.

A chain link fence corrals dozens of portable toilets on one side of a dilapidated brick building. On the other side of it, broken pavement and old roadbed sand fill a bin defined by concrete blocks.

Bare trees, fallen leaves, brown brick, oily dirt scroll by. The sun reluctantly rises above the horizon as we fly toward December with its even more reluctant sun. A warming globe is no lighter. It's not so much the cold that induces dormancy. Without photo there is no synthesis. Without photosynthesis, all other life plays defense until the sun returns in force.

Photoperiod will control the northward spread of southern species even as warmer temperatures change or end the lives of northern ones.

Rolling through Norwalk the cartoonist in me looks for people puking, and puddles of vomit everywhere.  I left East Lyme, eponymous home of one disease, and pass through this other unfortunate town whose name is linked to a physical discomfort.

I recognized Darien just from one unsuccessful job interview here in 1984. The part of town visible from the tracks has seen no need to change drastically in 30 years. Impressive, in this country so eager to plow under all that was smaller, quieter and slower in favor of wider highways, broader parking lots and bigger box stores. But with the state of rail in this country, there is no right side of the tracks. Anything near the tracks seems to be caught in time, whether as a quaint village vignette or in a permanent state of mid-dilapidation.

Just under 40 minutes from  New York, according to the conductor, a golf course to the left of us looks at first like a Revolutionary War fortification and battlefield. Earthworks and old stone suggest it. A distant building supports the impression until the obvious putting greens defended by their sand traps show what conflicts are contested here now. The banked earth and old stone leave unanswered the question of whether the land did see an earlier, more serious  purpose.

For the most part the view is unending dumps, depots and debris fields. Graffiti dresses up a lot of it, applied by unseen artists. It's easier to imagine it appearing by itself than to envision in real time detail a person or people going through the process. It's the work of mythical entities.

Nothing fronts on the railroad. Urban America turns its back to the tracks. What can we do from inside our can, rolling by until the next scheduled stop? There's no need to care what we think. Every place needs a utilitarian side. This is it.

I like the utilitarian side. The best part of Walt Disney World was the tunnels. I would rather be the bartender than the guest of honor and I'm better suited to be a dishwasher than a chef. Just don't make the mistake of disrespecting any of those roles. Know who serves you and how you depend on them. What is not you is not necessarily beneath you.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Immunization and reduced susceptibility

When I went for a flu shot today, the young woman who attended to the initial paperwork saw my address and remarked that she knew the road well. She said she also works for the Green Mountain Shooting Preserve. That's the place that moved in and took over what was once a beautiful area in which to take little walks, ski jaunts and mountain bike rides. It was where I used to be able to nip over for a quick dose of rising sun long before that light would reach my house. It has been barred to me since the early 1990s when the present owner posted it with warning signs about the gunfire that rakes it whenever the guys are practicing or the clients are actually there for a nice killing spree.

"Have you met Dave?" she asked. "He's such a nice guy."

I knew she meant the owner. I did not say, "Has anyone asked what the birds think?" I did say I had not made his acquaintance.

The nice young woman said she takes care of the birds. I assumed that she meant this was before the clients "take care" of them in the manner of Guido the hit man.

When I got home and went out back with the cats, we met a refugee from the shooting preserve's recreational death factory. I don't know enough about game birds to know the species of this particular survivor. It was speckled, seemed taller than a quail, and not terribly afraid of humans. I was able to walk quite close to it, talking quietly. It blended so well with its background that I could not get a clear photograph even from a few feet away.

These birds are unrescuable. They don't live in this climate naturally. They become easy meals for local predators or the winter kills them. I suppose I could build a nice chicken house for them and call it the Real Green Mountain Preserve (where we actually preserve something), but that could turn into a pretty big operation. Probably better to let the foxes, weasels, coyotes and bobcats clean up after the wasteful humans.

The Green Mountain Shooting Preserve website is full of happy talk about bonding with your fellow humans, and -- get this -- "enjoying the solace of nature." I'm sure nature enjoys the solace of a rain of hot lead.

In another context I wrote something about hunters salivating over a picture of a deer. I was told reprovingly that hunters don't do it for the enjoyment of the kill. If the people who line up to blast a flock of pen-raised birds aren't enjoying the process of killing, what exactly are they doing it for? Be honest. It only takes a minute to explain to critics that humans are predators and that killing things is fun. Hell, I've even heard that killing people is fun. I don't advocate it, but I understand it. Once you suppress your susceptibility to the plight of your target it just becomes a game. See how many you can blast. It's cool. Everything dies eventually. Why not have some fun with it?

Hunters have referred to the clean death they offer their victims, as opposed to getting shredded alive by a pack of predators, or dying of disease, or starvation. That holds up as long as the hunter does not merely wound quarry that then escapes to finish its agony, or, as happens with many of the shooting preserve's birds, misses entirely, leaving confused and unready creatures to fan out through the woods to suffer various fates. In no case does that life amount to much of a "happily ever after."

Right before getting jabbed with a needle did not seem to be the time to fire up a controversy at the pharmacy window. I don't want to make this woman hate her job and I probably wouldn't be able to make her see her employer for what he is in the few short minutes I would have had to crap in her pool. Maybe Dave really is a sweet guy who simply hasn't connected the dots in his lifestyle. I will say I doubt it. He's selling a death sport and sugar coating it to attract clients and deflect critics. Since he's kept the place going for about 20 years now, I'd say he has plenty of customers who enjoy snuffing out baffled featherbrains. You can't argue with success, right?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans' Day: Military Industrial Complex meets Guilt Complex

When the United States moved to an all-volunteer military force in the 1970s it addressed many of the problems that the military had suffered as a result of unwilling conscripts.

Once the Vietnam War ended, military service wasn't such a bad deal. You had to cut your hair and take orders, but you got cool machinery to play with and you could present yourself as a badass. We might still go to war with the Soviets. And if we do, those Russki bastards are in trouble! Especially as the 1980s ramped up under The Great Actor, military prowess became fashionable as its use remained genuinely unlikely. If The Big One hit, there were going to be a whole lot of fireballs in quick succession and then maybe some ground fighting, or maybe just a long period of lingering death. So it was safe to wear and rattle a saber. It was also safe to think of those volunteer warriors as another form of nerd, pursuing a taxpayer funded fantasy life with expensive hardware.

If you had the right specialty you could be thoroughly trained at taxpayer expense and then lured away by a private-sector employer to do the same job for much more money. Military service was just another career move.

At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union crumbled. As the 1990s began, American military might steamrollered Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Conflicts were picking up, but our forces prevailed routinely.

All this time the public paid no attention to the fact that the volunteer military had created a warrior caste separate from the everyday citizen. Military forces became just another service provider. It was a bit riskier business than most, but our technological superiority made the risk seem manageable. There was a little flurry of concern when we sent a large force to Kuwait. We made a point to welcome them back properly, to avoid any sense that we did not appreciate the fine job our brave fighters had done. Good. That's taken care of. Now, back to my stock portfolio.

With the attacks on 9-11-01, the national psyche abruptly changed. First there was a wave of enlistment and a less well documented wave of excuses for not enlisting. The Afghanistan War began. We watched the news. It seemed to be going well. Not Kuwait well, but well. We were cooperating with the local insurgents already fighting the Taliban. We were getting along.

Then came Iraq. To many of us this had all the earmarks of another Vietnam. Many details differed, but the general opportunity to wade into a tar pit was exactly the same. After the invasion established the American occupation, the strange war continued. Casualties mounted. Goals kept changing. All the while, military personnel were sent to do whatever it was we were doing over there, while the ordinary citizens were encouraged to shop and consume, to keep the economy going. The economy is the symbol of our country. It must be kept aloft at any cost.

While the troops were over there we sent them toothpaste, candy, and letters from schoolchildren who were being indoctrinated into the reverence we express for the warriors who face our heinous foes. Yes, you could grow up to be such a hero yourself. When troops returned home they were greeted with hugs, colored ribbons, firm handshakes and fervent thanks. Oh, the thanks. And that is the guilt complex. The noncombatants know they owe the combatants a debt they can never repay, because the noncombatants have not faced death in the same way the combatants have. Suddenly everything you do at home seems trivial compared to tense patrols among IEDs and snipers, or firefights in dusty towns. The warrior servants we created by separating military service from the timeline of every person's adulthood now face us with the knowledge that we let them go without questioning how we got to that point and how we might reasonably avoid it in the future. Most people want to think about it so little that they don't question the system at all. They just offer firmer handshakes, flowerier speeches and more fervent thanks. And tomorrow they move on.