On Writing (1)

I was thumbing through my 2009 Journal the other night and came across a review  Seriouswhimsey had written about me .  I’d forgotten all about it.

Her words stirred something within me.

Here is a portion of what she said:

“I am an explorer.  I love discovering new places in the blogging world.  Once in a while I come across a treasure which absolutely compels me to share it:

      Meet Heart to heart.  The first time I read this Midwest Farmer’s writings, he had me laughing out loud, and wanting to send Christmas Cards to a pig.

     Doug is also a general contractor- a manly man- who happens to have the eye of an artist, a tender heart, a riotous sense of humor, and an adorable wife who looks so young you’d never dreamed they’ve been married thirty years – unless they took their vows when she was, like six….

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OK,  here’s the deal.  It feels like there are two different people in my brain who write on this blog.

Sometimes, the words feel  forced and wooden, and other times I feel relaxed and the words just flow.

(That doesn’t mean I don’t expect to  edit after the fact, because I do…it’s just that sometimes even when I feel the stirring to write the end result is strained, while other times,  the end result does a better job capturing the real me as when I’m  relaxed.)

I am not alone.

Imagine my delight and surprise when I discovered Wordsmith John Muir wrested with the same thing… 🙂

As I continue to slowly make my way through the book  John Muir  His Life and Letters and Other Writings, I came across  the following words last night:

 “…in letters to friends, Muir complained that in town he is unable to compel the right mood for the production of readable articles….”As yet I have accomplished very nearly nothing,” he writes…. “how astoundingly empty and dry – box-like!- is our brain…

     The fact is that Muir’s personal letters, like his conversation, flowed smoothly and easily; but when he sat down to write an article, his critical faculty was called into play, and his thoughts, to employ his own simile, “began to labor like a laden wagon in a bog.” … There was a consequent loss of that spontaneity which made him such a fascinating talker.”

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john muir the writer

John Muir 

Here’s to a new year of fascinating , engaging, and thoughtful writing!  The last thing I want to do is clutter up your inbox with dry,wooden, boring words.

Life is too short.

 

 

 

A Christmas Tail

We were living 1000 miles from home that year in Northern New Jersey.  Three little girls, ages 7, 6 and 18 months old.   Rented a place that used to be a summer cottage.    The windows were those horizontal glass panes  you crank open and shut.  We could not get the house warm, no matter how much plastic I put up.

I’ve been trying to come up with another way to put it, but  long story short, we had no money.   Our home was on a  corner of Greenwood Lake Turnpike. The two lane curvy road  served as one of the commuter routes into Newark and greater New York City. Twice a day, massive amounts of traffic whizzed by on a road never been intended for that many cars.

Our house sat next door to a bar/ restaurant. It changed hands a couple of times while we lived there. Right behind our house sat the garbage dumpster for the bar’s kitchen. Right behind the dumpster ran a little creek. I need to tell you these details because they are relevant to the rest of the story.  I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what we would occasionally see feeding in the dumpster.

There is a term in farming called “full feed.”  It means your livestock have unlimited access to all the food and water they want.  Your animals will grow really fast and they can grow really big.

Wasn’t long before we jokingly named our place “Grandma’s nightmare.”

If Grandma only knew….

Between the traffic, the occasional drunk that would knock on our door in the wee hours of the morning, the vermin on full feed that lived in a shed behind the house,  a creek that flowed 15 feet just outside our back door..etc. etc, you get the idea.

That first winter we were there as the weather got cold, something moved into the ceiling above our bedroom.  I would wake up  in the middle of the night to the sound of gnawing… I would grab my shoe, bang it on the ceiling a few times and things would quiet down.

For Christmas that year, we decided to buy the girls a pet gerbil.  Brought it home a couple of days before Christmas and set it under the night stand in of our bedroom.  Our room was so cold, the gerbil made  continuous scratching sounds, trying to fluff up the wood chip bedding to stay warm. I never realized a little gerbil could make so much noise.

Christmas eve, I went into our living room to set out the gifts for the girls.  I’d made an Indian Tepee out of burlap and wooden poles, mounted on a circular ring. It stood 6 ft high and looked pretty neat.  We’d also picked up some used school desks and a hand me down rocking horse.  Amazing how your creative juices kick in when they have to.

Next morning,  we were treated to lots of Ooooooo’s and Aaaaaaaaa’s! Then one of the girls discovered another gift inside the Tepee.

Two perfectly formed little brown turds…..

The same creatures that were feeding out of the dumpster, and gnawing in the ceiling above my bedroom had left a present inside the Tepee.

I got on the phone, called our Landlord and said, either he got an exterminator lined up, or we were moving.

 

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30 years later, we now laugh about that morning.  Daughter # 2  told my wife just last week, the tepee is still her favorite present growing up.

 

christmas gerbil

 

 

Winston

Sitting here in the kitchen just now, a picture on our frig caught my eye….

poster

Picture of Winston and I

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A passing comment by my dad  when I was 14, is still bearing fruit to this day. Dad was reading The Power Of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale in his stuffed leather chair after work one night, and as I walked by he said..”You need to read this Junior.”

So I did.  Up until then, it never entered my mind, I had any control over what went on in my head. I gradually discovered  I could influence my emotional well-being more  than I realized, just by paying attention to my mental responses to life.  (Does that make sense?)

So you might say, I have become a seeker  on how we as humans can cultivate a more healthy thought life, all the while staying rooted in the reality.

I have no time for simplistic Polly-Anna type drivel, nor spiritual “name it and claim it”nonsense not tried on the anvil of life….

Having said that,here’s a link to my favorite quote about attitudes.

…skipping….skipping…skipping.

In my 40’s I came across the story of Winston Churchill and realized there was  a man I wanted to know more about.  Almost single handedly  (it seemed)  he had been able to inspire of the people of England  in the midst of their battle with Nazi Germany…

churchill quote

How did he do that?  I wanted to know.  Later I realized he was not always up, he too wrestled with the dog days of depression..but he also had some hobbies  to encourage himself and recharge his batteries emotionally.

Some of the activities  he used included slipping away to his farm in the country, painting, and feed apples to his pig.

Churchill said this about his pig:

“Dogs, look up to you, cats look down at you…but a pig looks at you as an equal.”

I told my wife, I wanted to get a pet pig and name him Winston. (We already live in the country,  had the apple trees planted, and since Winston Churchill was now one of my heroes.. it only seemed natural that I should get a pet pig.

I called a local farmer who raises pigs and asked if I could buy a baby pig next time he had some for sale. I forgot to mention I wanted a male, so we came home with a female piglet, whom I tagged “Winston.”

She started out as a 20 pound piglet, and two years later when I finally had to tell her “good-by,” she was pushing 650 pounds.

Here’s some random things about pigs you may or may not know…..

They are highly intelligent…right up there with dolphins and chimps.

They  love to have their belly rubbed/just like a dog.

They are social.

That stereo type about them being dirty is not 100% accurate.  They  don’t have sweat glands so in the summer, hanging out in the mud hole is a way to keep themselves cool.

When pigs are forced to live  in a confined area, they will do their bathroom duties in one area- and keep their nesting area clean.

Here’s another picture of her eyes that I find almost haunting….

There is intelligence behind those eyes.

beautiful eyes2

I miss her still….

 

 

 

Asbestos Gelos

Last night right before bed, wife and I started laughing.  Not just a chuckle, but a two or three minute stint that almost caused me to pass out.

(I’m still battling a cold.)

I could not catch my breath. And just about the time things started to settle down/ something else would pop into my head, that I would then blurt out/ and cause another round of raucous  laughter.

Which brings me to the following true story.

I have to warn you- it may be a little coarse for some of you.

I didn’t write it, but it’s one of those stories that made me laugh so hard the first time I read it, I decided to share it.

One of our favorite activities around the home is to read  out loud to each other, especially in the winter .  If you were visiting  our home tonight  and you were one of those people in my life I can be 100% myself around, I might   pick up one of Robert Fulghum’s  books and read you a story .   This one comes from his book  What On Earth Have I Done.

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Asbestos Gelos

 

    
My Cretan connection began the summer I was wandering around Europe alone while waiting for my wife to finish her medical residency.  No particular agenda just doing what came next.  I went to Crete to see the famous archaeological digs at Knossos and to look in on a graduate school program at the Orthodox Academy of Crete.  When I was ready to step off the paths beaten down by tourists, I went to a small village at the western end of the island- a fishing village at the end of the road: Kolymbari.

I found a room for the night and rose before the sun the next morning to go running.  The day was already hot, so I dressed only in black running briefs and shoes.  (It’s relevant to the story to note there that my hair and beard were white even then.)  My route took me past the main kofeneion (coffeehouse) of the village where men sat outside socializing.  They ignored me.  I was surprised.  They seemed surly, hostile, and unwelcoming.

      Later, when I mentioned this to my landlord, he said, “Oh no, Cretans are very welcoming to strangers- it is an old tradition – philoxenia.  But in your case the men at the kofeneion did not know what to make of you.  For one thing, your hair and beard make you look like a priest, but they have never seen a half-naked priest running through the village in what looks like his underwear at that hour of the morning.”

       “Oh.”

     “No problem.  Smile, wave, say good morning in Greek: Kalimera- kah-lee-mare-ha.  You will find them friendly.”

     “Right.””

(Pause.)

      ” See this from the point of view of the men at the Kofeneion.  They have been gathering here at dawn for years without disturbance or distraction.  Suddenly, without warning, a white-bearded, half-naked priest flashes by.”

       “What the hell was that, Yorgos?”

     “Darned if I know.”

      “Tourists get weirder every year.”

      The next morning I set off running with goodwill toward men in my heart.  Ready to greet the villagers.  The men at the Kofeneion see me.

       ” Yorgos, Look, here he comes again.”

       Hold that moment.

As I said, my appearance was a bit of a surprise in the first place.  Then there is the fact of my miserable language skills.  During the night, my brain changed Kilmera (good morning) to calamari, which means “Squid.”

And then there was the problem of waving.  I did not know that Cretans wave with a gentle gesture of an upheld, closed-fingered hand, backside out, palm in.  I didn’t know that the All-American hearty wave- arm extended, fingers open- is equivalent to giving Cretans the finger– “Up your!” in other words.

      To continue:  Here I come.  Running by the Kofeneion, I shouted, “Calamari, Calamari, Calamari,” and gave my most enthusiastic open-handed wave to all.

     The Cretans heard, “Squid, Squid, Squid” and saw “Up yours!” from the priest in the underpants.

       Well,  They fell out of their chairs laughing.  And shouted “Calamari, Calamari, Calamari” and enthusiastically waved  “Up yours!” back at me.  More than pleased, I ran on- thinking that these are truly friendly people after all- my kind of guys.

The men in the kofeneion could hardly believe what had happened.  “What planet did he fall off of?” they wondered.

And of course they did what you and I would do next.  During the day they told their friends about the bizarre stranger’s dawn appearance.  And when their friends didn’t believe them, they said, “It’s true.  come see.  Have coffee in the morning.”

And sure enough, here I come again.  I did notice that there were quite a few more men having coffee than yesterday.

       “Look Demetri.  I told you.  Here he comes.  Shout “squid” at him and give him the finger and see what he does.” 

So they did and I did and so on.  Funny, rowdy laughter all around.

      As I ran on by, I turned and gave them the All- American sign for “OK” thumb and forefinger forming a circle.  They laughed even harder and gave me the “OK” sign back.

      Wonderful!

Word gets around.

       “You’re kidding. No, come see.”  The next morning even women and children were there to greet me.

     But that same morning, just after I passed the coffee house, a middle-school English teacher stopped me in the street.  Serious young man, visibly upset.

“Excuse me,” mister, you are making a jackass of yourself, and those idiots at the kofeneion are helping you.  You should all be ashamed.  You are setting a bad example. What will the children think?”

     “What’s wrong? What have I done?”

      “In the first place, he said, no self-respecting Cretan man would ever go out of his house and into the village dressed as you are.  Immodest.” 

He went on to distinguish between calamari and Kalimera, and explained the fine points of correct waving.

      Finally, he wanted me to know that the sign for “OK” in America was the sign Cretans use for telling someone to stick their head up their own rear end.  The road-rage gesture in Crete.  A serious provocation that could lead to shots being fired.  He conceded that good friends might use it as a perverse joke.  But strangers? Never!

I felt bad.  I glanced back at the men at the kofeneion.  Sheepish grins.  Now they knew I knew.  And I knew they knew. And so, now what?  I walked away puzzled: Should I leave the village, find another running route, apologize, what?

     But I couldn’t ignore one unambiguous fact:  the laughter.

What had happened was funny.  The laughter was real.

Actually my best American friends and I would have reacted in the same way.  These Cretans still seemed like my kind of guys.

During the night my brain sorted out the problem.

      At first light I was clear in my mind what to do.

I donned my running shorts and added to my costume a T-shirt with the blue and white Greek flag on it.  Here I come.

Solemnly, the coffee drinkers watched me approach.  No gestures.  As Impassive as the first morning.

      “Look, here he is again, Yorgos. What do you think he will do now?”

      Is he angry with us?”

      “Who knows?

      To prepare for this occasion, I had asked my landlord how to insult Cretan men in a way that’s permissible only among good friends- the grossest thing- trusting they know you are kidding…..

    “Call them malackos….it is shall I say, a suggestion of masculine inadequacy….”

      As I got to the kofeneion, I slowed down.

I stopped.  Faced them.

A tense moment.  Friend or Foe?

      I smiled.  “Calamari.” Then I waved, American style: “Up your!”  and growled “malackos” at them, while slapping my palm against my wrist…. and stood there grinning, but with heart pounding- afraid I just might get the hell beat out of me.

     The kofeneion erupted with laughter and applause.  A chair was provided.

“Come, come. Sit.”

Coffee, brandy, and a cigarette were offered. And with their minimal English and my feeble Greek we retold and reenacted the joke we had made together- from their point of view as well as mine.  Above all, they thought my way of handling the situation- the in-your-face-with-humor- had Cretan style.  Arrogant.  Only a true friend would be so audacious.

      I was, after all, their kind of guy- and they were mine.

It seems there was an opening for the Village Idiot, and I filled it.

That was the beginning.

     For a long time they knew little about me except that I was a fool and a laugher  who understood something about the humor and social courage of Cretan men.  To me they became friends with names like Yorgos, Manolis, Kostas, Nikos, Demetri, and Ioannis.

To them I became the Americanos, Kyrios Calamari-  the American, the honorable Mr. Squid.

As I say, I have been going back for more than twenty years.  They have included me in  the life of the village- feasts, weddings, gossip, baptisms, wine-making, and olive harvest.  My clumsy Greek amuses them still.

I return each year in part because I expect laughter- from their timeless jokes and stories that are often raw and reckless and wicked.  Jokes about old age, and sex and war and stupidity jokes that mask fear and failure and foolishness   Their laughter is not cautious.  Without this laughter the Cretans would hot have survived their travails and tragedies across the centuries.

  Cretan laughter is fierce, defiant laughter  an “Up your!” to the forces of death and mystery and evil.

     They have a word for this laughter: Asbestos Gelos.

(As-bes-tos yay-lohs)  A term used by Homer actually.

It literally means “Fireproof laughter.”

Unquenchable laugher.  Invincible laugher.

And the Cretans say that he who laughs, lasts.

And they have been around for a long, long time.

The First Time…

We moved to the farm when I was nine.

I stepped into another world.

A world of noise.

Work.

Sun up to sun down physical…work.

It wasn’t all bad.

Have you ever slid  down an elevator, drenched in sweat, after stacking  two  hundred bales of hay in 120 degree haymow?

It is one of the simple pleasures of life 🙂

Winter in the Midwest brings it’s own set of issues.

Frozen water pipes.

Temperatures so low, my fingers would feel like they were on fire.

I would get  up at 5:30 in the morning to milk 18  humongous Holstein cows,  20 times my body weight, twice a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year,for seven years….

You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to put a milk machine on a fresh heifer.   The trick is to plaster yourself against her flank, put your arm between her utters and her back leg, so when she kicked your arms acted as a buffer.

If you’re not paying  attention,  you and the milk machine will end up in the gutter…guaranteed.

I got a front row seat  delivering babies growing up…

Baby pigs, baby calves….I can still remember the day I had to put my pet calf down.

The whole cycle of life played out  right before my eyes, multiple times.

I can still remember the day, dad said I was old enough  to drive the tractor by myself,and spread manure.

We were John Deere people.

With letters like “A” or “B” stenciled on the metal.

“Two Bangers”  the old farmers called them, because  they ran on just two cylinders… You could here them coming a half a mile a way.

The clutch was a vertical metal rod.  I learned  you needed to ease it ahead nice and slow to put it in gear.

The spreader (short hand for manure spreader) was attached to the tractor by a tongue and a power take off shaft….

I got on the John Deere A,  eased it into 3rd gear and headed North. The field we were spreading manure on was right behind the barn. A  1/4 of a mile  long….

The only instructions I remember dad telling me was to take my time and not go too fast.

Got to the designated area, downshifted into 2nd, put the clutch in gear, pulled the power take off handle…

The next thing I knew, large  chunks of  fresh cow manure were raining down on my head.

What dad  neglected to mention was pay attention to the  wind.

We do our kids  a dis-service when we micromanage  their lives, especially as they get older.  A little cow manure never hurt anyone.

When I turned 18,  I moved to town.

Can still see my  dad standing in the driveway watching me leave….

It wasn’t until years later, I began to  appreciate just how much those nine years on the farm shaped my life…..

doug and steve

DM  about 12 years  old.

So maybe you’ve never had cow manure rain down on your head because you didn’t anticipate what might happen..but I’m pretty sure you have a story or three of your own you could tell me along the same lines… I want to hear  them 🙂 DM

Speak Life

 

A close friend of ours lost her son five years ago to brain cancer.  He was 31.    While serving in Iraq as a military interrogator he did a 180 degree turn,  became a peace activist and  conscientious objector.

Our friendship with his mom goes back ten years. Two or three years after he’d died, we were out for dinner with his mom.  I genuinely want to understand the thought process of her son, because I was not where he was on this issue.

I am not a pacifist.

Neither am I a violent person.

I just happen to think when it comes to my personal protection, turning the other cheek is not my only option.

So wading into a conversation with his mom, questioning the reasoning process of his decision had the potential to get a little dicey.   (It didn’t, in fact, I think it left me wanting more.)

I refuse to get into debates. Several years ago now, one of my brother-in-laws tried to suck me into a debate about religion, home schooling, etc.  He’d grown up in a home with a domineering mom, passive dad, forced to go to church every week.    As an adult, he despised anyone that even remotely reminded him of any of that.  I get that….

So one family get together he plops down beside me on the couch and wants to start an argument.  I’d been told before hand he was gunning for me. 😉

“What about this, What about that?”  he began.

I told him that was not what I was about.  I said I  wasn’t going to debate all of those things with him.

“He believed what he believed, and I believed what I believed. ”

I said all of this with a smirk on my face.  When I refused to argue, the tension in my relationship with him vanished.

Minds are not changed by disrespect…only thing that happens is walls get built…

That little children’s rhyme about “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt  me”..well, that little jingle is a lie.

Hurtful words can stay with you for a life time.  To this day, I can remember the time someone called me ugly on the school bus.  I was probably 13 or 14 at the time, and very insecure.  His words confirmed something I secretly wondered about.

At the same time, I genuinely enjoy the exchanging of ideas with someone who doesn’t see a situation the same way I do, as long as it is in the context of mutual respect…

Pause.

Second story.  Two years into our marriage we attended a weekend marriage workshop.  One of the topics that weekend happened to be on how to have a good fight.

Yep.

You heard that right…”How to Have a good fight.”

I learned there is absolutely nothing wrong with healthy conflict. Stay in any relationship long enough and there will be conflict. It is a given.

(I still practice these tips 35 years after the fact, and not just at home but on the job, and in all my relationships.)

-No garbage dumping. (bringing up multiple grievances in the same conflict)  Stick to one or two issues…max.

-No hitting below the belt. (Name calling, threatening, etc)

=Don’t talk about money at night when you are tired… schedule the conversation when you are both fresh. We do this all the time. Amazing how your perspective changes when you are rested.

-Don’t say things like “You always” or “You never”….  that is provoking.

-Don’t get all historical …ie bringing up things that happened months and years ago.

-Practice active listening…repeat back to the other person what you heard them say.  Validation goes a long ways in coming to some kind of understanding.

-Be the first to initiate reconciliation.  Learn how to say things like “I’m sorry.” and “Will you forgive me?

-Unresolved conflict and anger is like a festering cancer in my soul.

words