Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Burning Desire

It's been a long, cold winter. The wood pile is almost gone.

At times like this, those of us who heat with wood start to rate everything around us on the basis of combustibility. Scrap lumber, dead stuff from the forest, and old, broken furniture are obvious candidates. But when every BTU counts you start to look at every possibility.

Dried cat barf? Wood stove.

Detached cat dingleberry discovered in the middle of the floor? Wood stove.

Swept-up wads of shed pet hair? Wood stove.

Bacon fat? Wood stove.

Chunks, chips and sawdust from the woodshed floor? Throw it in.

Chunk of cheese get away from you in the back of the refrigerator? Some good heat there. Dried-up leftover cake frosting works, too.

You can find many devices to turn old newspaper into fire logs. Paper and cardboard don't last long unless you increase their density by layering them tightly, but sometimes a brief, joyous flare is all you need.

The other day, my parents visited and brought a basket with some oranges in it. I looked at the basket and thought, "great, more crap in the house." Then I thought, "hey, that'll fit in the wood stove." I didn't burn it, but somehow I feel better knowing I could.

Don't burn pressure-treated lumber or particle board. Don't burn plastic or glossy paper. Don't burn glues, solvents or petroleum products, pesticides and other nasties.

I don't put anything too weird into the catalytic wood stove. Its updraft design does not have a solid floor in the fire box. But the old Jotul in the basement is a classic iron box with a door on the front and a pipe out the back. It will take anything that fits.

Those dried cat barfs under the bed? Leave them. That's April's fuel.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The uselessness of mockery

What self-dramatizing murderers did to the staff of Charlie Hebdo was completely reprehensible. But it illustrates the limitations of satire as a tool of persuasion.

Terrorist gunmen opened fire on a room full of unarmed people in retaliation for cartoons the killers deemed offensive. People who will do such things are a direct result of the human belief that killing and dying are glorious and admirable ways to express the highest devotion to the best ideals. It's a perversion of the concept of genuine sacrifice. But lots of people are fooled by fakes. The belief is real. The death is real. Does it matter if the logic is flawed? If it FEELS like a blaze of glory to them you'll never convince them that it is really the explosion of a flaming asshole.

People who have no sense of humor cause most of the problems in the world. They are also frequently laughable. The more seriously they take themselves, the more they invite ridicule. They create their own hell by trying to demand respect. But how many people will give up a heartfelt belief because someone made fun of them?

Terrorism takes many forms. Almost none of them are true combat. The targets are undefended, for the most part. Terrorism is part performance art, part temper tantrum.

We used to laugh at the idiot who gets stuck holding the bomb when it goes off. No one wanted to be that idiot. Now it's a career path.

People who like to kill other people will not give it up because someone drew an insulting picture of them or got a roomful of people to laugh at jokes about them. They will seethe and simmer and stir up a bunch of similarly nasty people to inflict pain and damage to show how tough they are. How tough are they if they can't take a joke? It doesn't matter: they're armed and dangerous and totally into it.

Well-expressed ridicule of asinine ideas may help divert uncommitted people from them. And it's addictive. But it has to be a gateway to serious discussion. Continual mockery without mercy ends up feeding the problem more than fighting it, pretty much no matter what the problem is.

That being said, we need intelligent satirists making humorous critical observations. We need to be able to laugh at people in power to remind the people in power to laugh at themselves. We need to be able to laugh at them so we don't do something worse. We're better off with people who beat a joke to death than with people who beat other people to death. But the people who measure worth in terms of killing and dying are a tough audience, a stone cold room where you don't want to bomb, because they'll bomb you back.

You may say it takes courage to stand up to such people, and that it needs to be done. Unfortunately, the kind of people who shot up Charlie Hebdo are psychopaths who are completely unimpressed with philosophical arguments and noble gestures. Homicidally self-righteous people aren't just bullies to face down. And the bigger players who manipulate the actual perpetrators don't care about world opinion either. They're convinced they have a winning strategy. It certainly is a formidable one. They're using psychological handles that go back many thousands of years, to the dawn of consciousness and the first awareness that each and every one of us dies. Rather than find in this knowledge a sense of unity with all life, the manipulators have always seen a way to gain power by exploiting people's fear.

The cartoons and commentaries might give some of us a moment of relief from the craziness. We who are capable of laughing share a few as we shake our heads and go, "that's so true!" For a moment it seems like a universal truth.

The one universal truth is that someone will always disagree. When you discover another one, let me know.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


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.