Workout by the Numbers

Made my first trip to a gym yesterday.

Signed in six weeks ago at the urging of more than one friend. Knowing that my admission and membership would be fully covered by my insurance, I had run out of excuses not to.

Still, New England’s fairly tolerable weather through December and into January kept me walking in the wildlife sanctuary just outside my door on most days. On others, windchills turned me around after barely half a mile, at times at the end of my driveway where I achieved nothing more than retrieving my mail.

Yesterday was raw, rainy, so in I went. I thought about leaving as soon as I stepped into the locker room. Not because of guys walking around wrapped in towels, or having to change in front of others–I’ve been a Renaissance faire performer for 22 years for God’s sake. No, it was the pounding disco or hip-hop or whatever the mindless thump-thump we hear out of speakers everywhere is called these days. Off those tiles it was so loud, I still wonder if its purpose is to prevent loitering.

Instead, I changed quickly and was in the vast gym looking for a basic treadmill. In retrospect, I was too quick, forgetting my water bottle in my “gym bag,” actually a touristy canvas tote-bag my mother used back in the 90s with names of California and Nevada cities and towns all over it, a motel chain it appears.

Before long I stepped onto a treadmill and asked the first person who happened by to show me how it started. He set it at 1.5 mph and showed me how to increase and decrease the speed. Presto! I was off.  What I realized right away was that by leaning on those two handles in front of me, I was taking a fair chunk of weight off my feet, and I liked how it felt.  I gradually notched up the speed and had it at 3.0 mph for the last 20 minutes.

My mistake was not bringing the water bottle, and I feared that I would not return if I took a break for water–as I do on the bench in the reserve where I have no choice but to walk back, save for a few days when I couldn’t resist the offer of a ride. So I plowed on until I reached 2.1 miles (about the round-trip distance of my walks on Plum Island) in 47 minutes, and had worked up a sweat that doesn’t happen in the reserve at this time of year.

Machine said 188 calories, and when I mentioned this to a couple guys in the locker room, I could tell that they both resisted laughing. Instead, they assured me with wide smiles that it’ll go up when I keep at it.  Yes, they said “when” not “if.” One said it was likely wrong and that I must have burned more.  Both said that the only important thing was that I got there and did it. That’s what those friends wrote in response to the bragging emails I sent them last night. A variation on the old Woody Allen line, just showing up is victory.

None of them mentioned the “no criticism” or “judgement free zone” of which Planet Fitness and other gyms boast to encourage new members no matter how out of shape we may be. Both phrases are all over the walls, but neither mattered much to me, as I enjoy self-deprecating humor. When anyone moves to the side of an isle of the supermarket or anywhere else as I approach, I can’t resist: “Oh, I’m wide, but I’m not that wide.” Yesterday, I made a point of wearing the t-shirt I just bought at the New Bedford Whaling Museum with a white whale on it, as if I was inviting ridicule.

That was my second trip to the annual marathon reading of Moby-Dick. Before the first one three years ago, the Newburyport Daily News interviewed me for a story, and when asked about my interest, I didn’t hesitate: “Call me Ishmael! Everything about him is true of me.” That was then. Now, I’d be more accurately cast in the title role.

Never an athletic specimen, I was always in fair shape thanks to busking and the Renaissance faire, always on my feet keeping a beat, sometimes dancing. Then I quit cigarettes in January, 2007, and by April of that year, I had gained 35 pounds I never shed. Three years ago the pandemic shut me down, and I indulged my appetites. Potato pancakes with sour cream every morning; hamburgers laced with molasses every evening with India Pale Ale to wash them down. Before long it was another 35 pounds, and only now am I intent on bringing those numbers down.

So it makes sense to have numbers in front of me–and numbers that I want to go up.

Today I made sure to have the water bottle with me. Those machines have cup holders on both sides of a screen with all kinds of controls that I’ll ignore for at least a month. There are also machines that do other things, such as de-escalators that people climb. No thank you. And a weight room. No way. Television monitors showing all kinds of stations line a wall in front of rows of various machines. I think of stories to fit the pictures; weather maps I imagine as military campaigns–which, thanks to climate change, they often may as well be. The brainless thump-thump is broadcast, but the place is so huge that the sound dissolves long before it bangs your eardrum.

Today’s numbers were 2.45 miles, 51 minutes, 206 calories, and I had the speed up to 3.0 mph within five minutes of starting and kept it there. As of today, I have set two goals: 1) to have all three numbers at least match the previous workout; 2) to shower and get dressed in noticeably less time than I workout. The first seems relatively easy, but the second? Even the obnoxious thump-thump has failed to hasten my departure.

That’s why this is strictly a winter habit, though it will also serve as a rainy-day option year-round. When the weather is tolerable, I’ll be back on the Refuge Road. I’ll miss the handles to lean on and numbers to increase, but I’ll take the sights and sounds of the marsh over so many indoor distractions, no matter how enticing some of them may be.

More than anything, I’ll welcome once again ending my workouts right here at home where I can fall on a bed for as long as I want before having to shower and get dressed.

All in blissful silence.

-30-

Harpooneers of this World

More than anything, I wanted Chapter 62, “The Dart,” a more common word by which whalers called a harpoon. To get it, I asked for a ten-minute slot on the ungodly midnight watch.

That’s how the Moby-Dick Annual Marathon is divvied up. Each of the 25 hours it needs is a watch, all of which starts at noon Saturday and concludes at about 1:00 pm Sunday. Since 62 falls midway in the 135 chapters, I put in for 12:30-12:40 am and got it.

Three years ago, I guessed too late and read 69 and 70, “The Funeral” and “The Sphynx,” both strong stuff, as is every chapter in a long book that frequently bounds from comic to ponderous, from whimsical to confrontational, at times all at once. In 2020, I was mesmerized all the way to dawn’s invasion of the 3rd-floor windows of the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s reading room, inhaling as much as hearing every word.

True, I twice sat in the adjacent coffee room, conversing with a young couple who drove up from Maryland, and then with the owner of a boat shop who flew in from Chicago.  He told me that there were readers from California and Europe.  I don’t think there was as much of that this year, as there were noticeably fewer people listening in the wee hours, and far fewer sleeping bags in the wide corridor to the elevator. But, as Ishmael doesn’t hesitate to sometimes admit, I could be wrong.

Following the Sunday morning “Chat with Scholars,” one of several sideshows held during the main event, I had a memorable conversation with a recent graduate of College of the Atlantic up on the Maine coast. A Texas native, she’s now working for the National Parks Service in New Bedford, and may be the only person who has ever noticed that Ishmael describes an object that “fell to Ahab’s feet,” and remembered that Ahab had just one foot.

If only the world would pay a fraction of that attention to detail.

Details draw me to “The Dart.” The first of two compelling reasons is something that no one writing newspaper columns, as I’ve been doing for 40 years, can resist: Decades, perhaps a century before the term was coined, Herman Melville wrote an op-ed column.

In the persistent voice of Ishmael, one who challenges conventional wisdom every chance he gets, it opens with a description of how the whale boats were manned as they leave the ship in pursuit of a whale. He then finds fault: The harpooneers participate in the rowing, leaving them exhausted when it’s time to throw a 25-lb. spear. He offers proof: Low success rates. A solution: Leave them idle. Followed by a litany of reasons–“no wonder…”–that states a need. Followed by a concession of what will be compromised: The speed of the whaleboat. Countered by a claim of why the loss is negligible compared to how much more will be gained: Accuracy and efficiency.

In the best op-ed style, he ends the chapter with a “kicker” to drive the point home:

To ensure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.

Coming at the end of about 650 words–standard op-ed length–that line by itself is the second reason I wanted “The Dart.” I memorized it long ago, a metaphor that applies to anyone if you replace the two nouns, “dart” and “harpooneers” with others that share the relationship of an object and the people who use it. To ensure the greatest efficiency of art, the artists of this world… To ensure the success of any attempt to influence a distracted public, the activists of this world… Call it an echo of Hamlet’s “the readiness is all.” At the reading, I was able to look up from the book and scan the audience. Most had their eyes down, reading along. Those looking at me sat bolt upright.

Not bad for people who had been up some 17 hours and counting. I was lucky that a friend from King Richard’s Faire read a half hour after I did, Chapter 66, “The Shark Massacre,” describing what happened to a whale’s carcass after it is stripped of blubber and oil and dropped back into the sea. Vinny, the tour de force of Toe Jam Puppet Band wildly popular with children in southeastern Massachusetts, might have been typecast for it:

[A]ny man unaccustomed to such sights, to have looked over her side that night, would have almost thought that the whole round sea was one huge cheese, and those sharks the maggots in it.

We broke for the coffee room after he was done. Much of our conversation was about how Ishmael’s jokes, his whimsy and mischief, are much more prominent when heard aloud. And, oh, how they make Ishmael’s portentous and profound passages more palatable. He stayed until past 4:00 am when another friend of his read.

Another mutual friend was with Culture*Park Theater performing “Midnight on the Forecastle” (Chap. 40) on the museum’s auditorium stage, the only chapter that is performed rather than read, and with song and dance. Elizabeth, formerly of King Richard’s Gypsy Dancers, played Tashtego, one of the harpooneers, as she did three years ago.

But there was a new cabin boy. This year’s Pip, a New Bedford fourth-grader named Josiah Bodden, gained a fan club in the former whaling capital of the world when he faced the audience, jolted forward, fell to his knees, slid toward the front of the stage, threw his head back, shut his eyes, clasped his hands over his head, and closed the chapter with a prayer:

Oh, thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness, have mercy on this small black boy down here; preserve him from all men who have no bowels to feel fear!

An hour or so later, the co-founder of the Newburyport Melville Society read “The Chart” (Chap. 44) which describes Ahab, alone in his cabin, studying maps rolled onto with their corners pinned into the wooden table. My bare description may make it seem like dry stuff, but Patricia, like so many of the 211 readers, made Ishmael’s mystical narration so vivid that the chapter’s kicker landed with the full force and relevance of any pronouncement today:

God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; that vulture the very creature he creates.

Not long after that, the Newburyport Melville Society convened across the street in the Moby Dick Brewery for clam chowder and pints of Ishm-Ale. That, plus the unlimited coffee supplied by the museum overnight, the presence of Vinny, and especially the extra rush of adrenaline after delivering “The Dart” made it easy to stay awake past dawn.

Had planned to start home at sunrise, as I did last time, but couldn’t resist a Portuguese omelet at Tia Maria’s European Cafe, also across the street.  Refreshed, I went back in for another scholarly session and a chat with my Newburyport friends before starting home well after 11:00.

Halfway home, I had to stop at Starbuck’s in Quincy, just off the highway, and sat for half an hour with a tall, black, dark roast before finishing the trip.  How’s that for poetic karma?  Starbuck helped guide me home from my pursuit of the White Whale.

-30-

Screenshot by Richard K. Lodge, cropped by Lenovo.
Vinny Lovegrove, Photo by another reader, Cora Peirce of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of Massachusetts & Rhode Island.

A Child on Refuge Road

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

I’d go crazy if I didn’t, unless I’ve already gone crazy without noticing. Or I’d quit, as many folks, including a few good friends, think I should.

Some of the laughter takes effort, but I’m so used to it that I can make it look and sound natural–like the Irish fiddlers who pride themselves on appearing as relaxed as professional gamblers while playing the most acrobatic jigs and reels at breakneck speed.

Those laughs are my way of deflecting the implied criticism of those who tell me they like my writing except when I write about politics. You know who you are, and you have me outnumbered. Way outnumbered. My laughter says “Fine, skip it. Enjoy the rest.”

My vignettes of Plum Island and Newburyport gain laughs I can share outright. Maybe that’s why I thought I’d experiment with a recent blog about the walk I took into Plum Island’s wildlife reserve on New Year’s Day.

An unseasonably mild day set the mood for an amble to a bench where I would sit and watch clouds eclipse the sun, and duck glide upon the marsh. Genesis 1:2–…and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

All very easy-going, whimsical, and light-hearted, with a photo of two black duck as a cover, but I did headline it “A Powerful Transfer of Peace,” and so there was bound to be some kind of civic or political content.

It begins with the mild transition the weather has made from 2022 to 2023 here on the Massachusetts coast. The plot thickens when I muse about being stuck on column that I was writing for the local paper, an anticipation of the anniversary of Jan. 6. I look out the window. A view of a convertible with the top down snaps me out of my chair. I go for a walk and write with my feet. While sitting on the bench, I find–I see–what the column needs: contrast.

“Of, by and for the Empty Seats” ran in the Daily News the next day, the “holiday observed” as we call those Mondays nearest the real deal, a very busy day at the Screening Room where several patrons let me know they approved it.* It also drew five emails, as many as I ever get for a newspaper column. Four expressed approval, each of them signed, one from a neighbor I haven’t yet met who took the implied point of “empty seats”:

I am at fault as I did not attend the meeting at City Hall with [US Rep. Seth] Moulton. I will try and attend the next time. If for no other reason than to balance off the QAnon folks who believe that, if they scream louder and wave their flags higher, they must be the voice of America.

Catch you on Refuge Road.

The fourth email was anonymous, sent under the name “Newburyport Guy” with the subject line, “Your childish drivel”:

It’s clear you have a child’s understanding of the world.

It is unpleasant to begin the year with your Democunt (sic & sick) observations.

With the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other[,] we Republican patriots are invincible. We own the Court and the House. In 2024 we will own the Senate and the White House. It is God’s will.

I suggest you utilize your time and energy investigating and reporting why our so-called “public library” hires only women. How is this legal? Why is the library director always female? Where are the male librarians at 94 State Street? I thought you Democunts were all about equity, diversity and inclusion. Investigate and report on this scandal. 

I hope 2023 is a year of learning and maturity for you. Write about something important.

God is life!! Abortion is the holocaust of our time.

For all our talk about the separation of church and state, we are up against the union of church and hate. Anonymity? That, as one friend calls it, “is the KKK of speech.”

For the record, there is at least one male employed at the Newburyport Public Library, and no one needs a sociologist or optometrist to tell them that far more women go into that profession than men. But there are far more pressing issues in this email than the gender distribution of librarians.

Rather than sorting through Newburyport Guy’s agenda, I’d rather return to the first email from a neighbor vowing to get involved in civic life. That describes not only my last column, but my next to coincide with the upcoming Martin Luther King Holiday prompted by a quote of his to rattle my I-don’t-want-to-hear-about-politics friends:

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

My response to Newburyport Guy? Well, I’m relieved he didn’t say anything about catching me on Refuge Road, but honestly, I just laugh.

Still, he may be right that I have a “child’s understanding of the world.” I have grandchildren. Other grandparents and parents may prefer not to connect the indelible dots of the present to the inevitable blot they spell for the future. By contrast, I have no choice but to call attention to the world that the young, the innocent, the meek are about to inherit.

That’s why all that deflective laughter takes more effort than I care to admit.

-30-

Martin Luther King (Photo via history.com)

*The column: https://www.newburyportnews.com/opinion/as-i-see-it-of-by-and-for-the-empty-seats/article_34bc2fe6-8877-11ed-a05c-4b3eb2603ae1.html

A Powerful Transfer of Peace

A string of mild days has both ended 2022 and commenced 2023 here on New England’s coast.

Sitting here with a view of the entrance to the sand dunes and marsh of a wildlife refuge out my window, I’ve spent New Year’s Weekend watching lines of cars, mostly SUVs, roll by as they do on a late spring day.

For a couple weeks before this front moved in, Plum Islanders were bundled up and hunkered down against unabated Arctic blasts over the marsh that turned freezing temps into single digits with minus signs on the shortest days of the retiring year.  With plenty to write while sitting at my laptop, more to read while lying in bed, and no end of college and pro football on the tube, I was content to remain indoors.

As I was Friday morning when I noticed several cars heading toward the gate. That was enough to tell me that I could tolerate my daily two-mile walk on the refuge road–something that I had suspended for longer than I care to admit, using Christmas gatherings as much as the weather as an excuse.

But I had an idea for a Daily News column that demanded to be written, and a deadline coming up, albeit self-imposed. And that Kenyan coffee that arrived in the mail tasted so good! So I kept writing and sipping until, stuck for a precise adjective or a clever analogy, I looked up from my keyboard and out the window to see a convertible drive by–top down.

Well, I wasted no time closing tabs, logging out, shutting down, getting dressed, filling my water bottle, turning the heat down, and getting out the door.

Yesterday was damp and overcast, and today had a slight wind-chill, but I made it to my mile-marker bench that overlooks the marsh each day and was able to sit awhile watching a few black duck float on a salt panne, so still they could have been sleeping.

Maybe it was their complete lack of effort–no flapping wings, no plunging beaks–that made something clear to me on this first morning of a new year: Our weather has given us a peaceful transition of years.

The thought reminded me of the November day following Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984. We all knew he was going to win, but the fact of it was devastating for anyone who cared about the environment, about the accessibility of health care and higher education, about workers’ rights and occupational safety. For anyone who cared as much for line-items as for bottom lines, it was a day of mourning.

Until you opened the Boston Globe or any other paper that carried a syndicated column that day penned by Eugene McCarthy. A former Minnesota senator and a presidential candidate in 1968 most attractive to college students and faculty with his “Clean for Gene” campaign, McCarthy seemed the perfect choice to write the post-mortem for the doomed campaign of his fellow Minnesotan, Walter Mondale.

And then I read it. Not a word about the election, nor about government or politics in any form. As I recall, he mentioned no person nor any place to be found on a map. Instead, he described a place I’ll never forget: his garden. Yes, he seemed to be saying, life goes on, so let’s make the best of it, plant these seeds, train that vine, pull these weeds, water that thyme.

This, from the guy who single-handedly forced Lyndon Johnson to abdicate his bid for re-election.

I thought of the draft column I had waiting for my return home. It’s subject is the peaceful transfer of power, or rather America’s loss of that hallmark of a free and self-governing people two years ago this week. By the time I left the bench, I was thinking: Maybe the precise adjective is “powerful,” and the precise noun “peace.”

Look to the duck on the marsh, if not to the gathering clouds that threaten rain. Or to the tomatoes in your garden, if not to the rabbits who run through it. Consider the lillies of the field, if not the developer who builds on it.

Nature offers analogies, both clever and precise, for all we do.

-30-

Black Duck pair, photo by Michael J. Parr https://abcbirds.org/bird/american-black-duck/

By a Marsh on a Rainy Day

On the year’s shortest day, Robert Frost famously watches a villager’s woods fill up with snow.  On the second, I hear a menacing forecast. On the third, I awake to see a saltmarsh fill up with water.

Frost’s horse thinks it queer to stop without a farmhouse near, but I’m still at home upon a hill in bed before a window watching grasses disappear.

My windows rattle in gusts of storm, odd echoes of harness bells that shake the old man back awake.  But this old man watches, making no mistake, pausing nothing but breakfast.

Nor is there a house in sight from my island to the mainland where Frost’s woods stretch toward a frozen lake. My marsh, now lake, keeps moving north, whitecapped in surging tide.

Frost’s darkest evening becomes my gray day, all grasses now submerged in a shade matching sky, as well as the two-lane road, leaving but a utility pole and the top half of a fire hydrant as reminders of just where I am.

No, that’s not at all Frost, but for the old man who stopped on Plum Island four decades ago, it’s a first.

Frost’s downy flake is my driving rain; his easy wind my gas heat, an easy, welcome warmth up from my floor.

Mouth of a river? Atlantic salt marsh? Arrival of winter? Sea-level rise? Encroaching climate change? A cacophony, perhaps a symphony of ocean, moon, storm, and melting glaciers?

My estuary may be lovely, but it is neither dark nor deep. To tell of its contrary charms, I’ll leave for another day, for there’s an omelet I must eat.

Does way ever lead onto way? All I know is that the tide will turn and the grasses reappear on these darkest days of every year. And I will sip coffee.

And that makes all the difference.

All the difference is what that makes.

-30-

Photos by Lenovo facing SXSW.

Erratic, Eclectic, Elusively Eccentric

Back when I started writing newspaper columns some 40 years ago, I noticed that several of my favorites–such as Ellen Goodman on the Boston Globe‘s opinion page and Dan Shaughnessy in the Globe‘s sports section–had a habit of writing end-of-year columns of random thoughts.

Headlines would read “1983 in Review” or “Tying up Loose Ends” or “Preparing for Auld Lang Syne” or “Clearing out the Mail Bag.” Yes, back then it was a bag, not a box. How quaint!

Reading with a mixture of envy and amusement, I was reassured that if my turn came up in Newburyport’s Daily News, and I didn’t have a single subject worth 650 words–or that could not be contained in 750–I could always throw together a grab bag of doings and undoings around town.

As Newburyporters know, there’s no shortage of doings here, and those doings are outdone by undoings, but I never did any listing of them. Not for want of trying, but because every time I started one, I thought of more to say about my first “random” item, and went on and on until it was no longer random but fully, if not over- developed. Whether or not those columns were well developed is another matter, and I’m sure it comes as no surprise to Daily News readers that I went on and on.

When charged with that literary crime, I plead Irish.

Looking over my records, I see that I focused on three subjects in my first few years: Street music, cross-country drives with my pre-teen daughter, and the goofy national disaster known as Ronald Reagan. May seem strange that my pet subjects were completely unrelated to each other, but today I write book and film reviews while the Red Sox or Patriots or Celtics or Bruins are on a screen just over and past this one.

I can look up whenever an announcer gets excited. I can oscillate or saucer Jack Edwards’ colorful verbs into my own sentences about strolling on Plum Island, fighting City Hall, and sitting out on State Street. I can hit mute when I have to listen to a video for the sake of transcribing a quote. I can go from First Amendment to first down without calling time out.

Is that random? Some would call it eclectic or eccentric. Critics might call it confused or erratic, if not schizophrenic. I don’t call it anything, although it might be a by-product of semi-retirement.

Must be semi-retirement that has me thinking, after all these years, that I might finally write a column of random tid-bits. Such a collection–from left-over scraps cut from columns and blogs–seems suited to this feeling that I can do whatever I want whenever I want.

May sound overstated, but it’s actually understated. For me, semi-retirement is more advantageous than the full deal. I work just two days: One as a projectionist in a cinema where I push a few buttons and then sit for two hours, ideal for a writer; the other when I drive about 250 miles with eight or ten stops, ideal for thinking of things to write–with NPR on if I need a prompt, off if I do not.

I’m lucky that my employer’s Ford Transit has far better brakes than I. Truth is, I’m incapable of writing a random grab bag. I have no brakes at all. How many times have I started a single paragraph or sentence to post on its own on social media, only to think of context, of cause and effect, of comparisons, analogies, and metaphors? Time after time, on and on.

Some remain in my files, but they are mostly bad jokes that belong in the trash. No one really wants to hear that Coal Mine Owners’ senator, Joe Manchin, chairs the senate’s Energy Committee, do they? Much less my response that we might as well have Kevin McCarthy chair the Ethics Committee and Porky Pig as Secretary of Agriculture.

You see it right there: I’m already filling out the canvas. Want more? No? Too bad:

Corporate servant Kyrsten Sinema, despite her defection from the party that sent her to DC, remains chair of the Banking and Commerce committees. Jim Jordan, despite his obstinate denial of an election that was upheld by over 60 court challenges in the battleground states, will soon chair the House Judiciary Committee. By that standard, Hannibal Lechter could head the Food and Drug Administration.

Good thing Hershel Walker lost or they’d name him chair of Education.

Even if you did have a taste for that sort of low-ball humor, I see that my word count has topped 750, leaving no time for anything more than a sign-off.

Oh, how I envy Ellen Goodman and Dan Shaughnessy!

-30-

Even in church, I argue on and on. One friend tells me that’s called confession. Probably not talking about the writing process, but the pen in the pocket has to count for something. Photo by Richard K. Lodge.

Almanac Maniac

Almanacs have fascinated me since childhood.  Can’t pinpoint any item in one, much less a specific date, but my father’s addiction to newspapers made it happen.

Every day he brought home three Boston papers: The Globe, The Herald, and The Record-American.  Our hometown Lawrence Eagle-Tribune was flung onto our porch each afternoon.  And anytime we visited my mother’s family ten miles downriver, The Haverhill Gazette was sure to come home with us.

Summer vacations were never vacations from news.   My aunt and uncle  in Ohio subscribed to The Akron Beacon-Journal, which my father managed to read before they did each morning.  In the afternoon, he’d saunter down to a nearby store and return with the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.*

In New Hampshire’s White Mountains, he’d find, buy, and read The Manchester Union-Leader–even though he considered it an insult to the intelligence of anyone able to read.  “It’s important to know what they say,” he’d explain.

As I came of age in the mid-Sixties (with all that that implies), I’d inherent his addiction to news and agree with his assessment.  When I was 19, I was electrified to hear William Kunstler, trial lawyer for the Chicago 7, emphasize it in more blunt terms to a packed house in the Salem State College Auditorium:

“We must keep abreast of evil!”

Almanacs keep us abreast of good and evil, the comic and the tragic, hope and menace, the popular and the profound, and everything in between.

When I was young, I was more consumed by ornate trivia in the almanacs many newspapers carried under rubrics such as,  “This Date in History.” Weird entries such as, “1109–Rudolph the Rude of Romania arrives in Russia to marry Czar Raskolnikov’s daughter, Rubella, and claim her dowry of uranium, rubber, and recipes for rhubarb pies.”

No wonder they are usually placed on the comics pages. My amusement at such things lasts to this day, although, as I got older, I learned to use almanacs as a valuable source of ideas, as well as a resource for ideas I already have.  For example, while trying to make sense of the MAGA movement in recent years, it helps to spot the entries for the 1950s when McCarthyism gripped the nation.

Almanacs also remind us that extremism is not confined to any ideology any more than it is to either side of any border–as well as reminding us, much like any late-night comic, that it can offer the wildest comedy. For an example of both, here’s today’s entry in an almanac posted by a life-long friend who shares my fascination:

1951–Santa Claus and angels were banned in Hungary at Christmas this year. Pictures of tractors holding gifts would replace Santa Claus and his elves. It was not entirely clear why communist officials became so provoked at Saint Nick, but it seems that they could use some of his generosity.

I suspect that my friend himself added the commentary of the second sentence, as he did months ago when he added to the notice of Moby-Dick‘s publication in 1851 that someone named “Jack Garvey deserves an autographed copy.”

Be that as it may, I was, if not amused, bemused to learn that in the year of my birth, for my first Christmas, the Commies replaced Santa & his sleigh with pictures of tractors loaded with gifts. Sounds pathetic, but when pictured, it’s hilarious. Seems outrageous, but it’s nothing other than flat-out ridiculous when imagined in song:

You better watch out

You better not cry

You better not pout

I’m telling you why

Fat tractors are coming to town 

Other adaptations would include “Rudolph the Red Nose Sparkplug” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Johnny Deere.”

Nonsense aside, I let very few days go by without seeing an almanac. Haven’t had many days of travel or hospitalization these past twenty years that I’ve been reading newspapers–not as many as my father, but enough–online rather than in print.

Before that, there were three summers that my daughter and I took ten-day vacations in Ontario to attend the theater festivals in Stratford and Niagara. We agreed that they would be “news holidays” as well. Before the curtains were drawn, we strolled the parks along the Avon River or overlooking Lake Ontario until finding benches where I’d read my Sinclair Lewis, and she her Anne of Green Gables.

On some summer day in 1991, I thought it enough that she pick up my addiction to reading.

-30-

*My uncle rolled his eyes. More than once he asked what an afternoon edition would  have that a morning paper lacked.  Then came that hot summer day in 1966 when the entire state of Ohio was plunged into mourning. It began for us when my dad returned with a front-page banner headline in a font so large and thick we could have read it from across the street:  “Jim Brown Quits Football.”

In Central Maine, they may have found a compromise by putting Santa and Mrs. Santa on tractors that pull trailers stuffed with toys:
https://www.centralmaine.com/media/gallery/handsewn-santa-mrs-claus-driving-tractors-in-fairfield/

Awaiting Thanksgiving

On the morning before Thanksgiving I take one of a dozen seats that line three walls of a waiting room for a routine checkup with my dermatologist.

Four middle-aged patients sit apart from each other along two walls awaiting to be called, and I sit before the third wall, all of us facing the center of the spacious room. All four hold mobile device before them, sometimes pecking away with thumbs as much as fingers. I look around.

Two of the screens cast bright reflections onto the ceiling from seats that are set in front of a wide window. One is a tight, bright circle with a slight tail that makes it look like a comet as it darts erratically back and forth toward the center of the ceiling. The other bears an uncanny resemblance to a jet as seen from the ground just after takeoff.

Though the jet faces away from the comet as if to escape, it slides backward as much as forward and side to side. The two never collide, although I flinched at more than one close call. As well as when the jet jerked from the ceiling onto the wall behind and disappeared into the window.

The comet, for its part, at times moved onto a small stretch of wall beyond the reach of the window, shooting like a sudden bolt of lightning straight down–completely unnoticed by the woman holding the screen that cast it. And no matter that it went right through a small, rectangular device set in the wall labelled “Fire Alarm.”

About then I thought I heard a call for “John,” the name by which all medical and governmental agencies know me, and got up only to hear the assistant enunciate “Dawn.” So I sat back down as the woman with the jet left the room and another woman took the very seat Dawn had vacated.

She had gray hair. She had no device in hand. She looked around, and when our eyes met, we may have smiled at each other as we nodded, though we were wearing masks and I can vouch for only my own. I was tempted to comment on what the dermatologist’s sound system was offering at the time, Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” but I was afraid to imply an assumption about her age.

Before I could think of anything else, a young mom entered the office hand in hand with a daughter about eight. As the mom went to the desk, the girl veered into the waiting room, went to look out the window, and kneeled on the chair next to the woman without a phone.

Said the woman to the girl: “I like your shoes.” Said the girl: “Thank you.” Sang Nancy: “That’s just what they’ll do.”

The two then fell into conversation about the characters–cartoon, I think–on the shoes. To which I would have listened in hopes of voicing a remark about Donald Duck, always my favorite, or Goofy, long-time my personal role model. Instead, I heard “John” with an unmistakable J and left the room to have my own comets, jets, and cartoon characters looked at.

Yes, it does occur to me that if I had a device of my own, I could show you pictures of this morning’s indoor air show. Question is, if I had such a device, would I have seen the show at all? And if gray hair had one, would she have noticed the girl’s colorful shoes?

My answers to those questions make me most thankful for what I do not and will never have.

-30-

Dear Devalued Customer

For the first time in my life I have the monthly bill from VISA but cannot pay.

Not because I do not have the funds, but because Bank of America was either sold to or morphed into something called Comenity Bank.

In contempt of the common sense rule, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Comenity issued a new card and number a full year before the one I had would expire. That unnecessary capitalist idiocy caused a bit of confusion and embarrassment at a local restaurant and the inconvenience of being short of cash when I was dispatched to western Massachusetts first thing next morning.

As if that wasn’t enough, Comenity–an idiotic corporate name that sounds more like the drugs peddled during commercial breaks during football and baseball games: Ozempic, Skyrizy, Biktarvy, Dingdonkey, etc.–also changed the website.

For a few years, it was so easy. One of those nerds who likes to pay bills immediately just so I can forget about them, I’d click into my account as soon as the notice arrived. I’d take time to scan the itemized list and satisfy myself that there were no surprises, which there never were, and I’d pay in full.

Yesterday, Comenity’s first notice came. When my password was declared “invalid,” I called Customer Service, hereafter called CS. “The site is down,” I was told, “call tomorrow.”

This morning I did, only to be told again that either my password or username were invalid. Second call: CS said it would send a new link that would work. Ten minutes go by, no email.

Third call: CS agrees to send the statement via the US Postal Service, but offers to resend the link. I laugh at the “re” in “resend,” but the link pops up on my screen so I, always a sucker, give it another try. This time I am told not that my info is invalid, but there’s a “glitch” in the system. “Try later.”

And I’m sucker enough to try later. Should pause here to note that every one of these calls begins with a few minutes of navigation through a phone menu before my “request to speak with an agent” is recognized. At that point I’m put on hold for a few more minutes–each time.

Still a glitch in the system which prompts my fourth call. When I finally get to an agent who speaks clear, unheavily-accented English, I describe my problem. Silence. Hello? Hello? Still silence. Cut off? Hung up? Who knows?

My guess is she may have hung up when I spit out the word co-MEN-i-tee as if it were toxic waste. I had to hear the word at least a dozen times on each call and can hardly begrudge her revulsion, even if she is an employee.

Call five: Following the phone menu, my request to “speak with an agent” is met with something new when I’m informed that “the transfer of (my) call requires a $9.00 service charge.” I immediately hang up.

So now I await the statement’s appearance in the box at the foot of my driveway–while wondering if I incurred a service charge for any or all of the previous four calls, though that theft will not be known until a month from now. I dare say, $36 will still fetch a decent meal and a couple of IPAs at the Grog or Port Tavern.

Payment deadline is a full three weeks away, so I’ll give it two before I make another call. Not to Comenity, but to my congressman.

No way I’m going to risk another $9 surcharge, and by that time, I’ll have already gone through the phone menu maze of Mastercard or Discover, whichever has the first ad peddling it like a drug when I tune into the World Series Friday night.

-30-

No, “Chris Martin” is not my alias, though I often feel as though I’m valid through no time at all. Anyway, I had a card that looked just like this. If you had or still have one, you may want to look into it.

Something So Lopsided

When I first heard that Hershel Walker was running for a US Senate seat in Georgia, I went rooting through my old, faded newspaper clippings.

Long before newspapers started keeping electronic files, and in a day when I was still pecking at an Olympia typewriter, I went into the offices of the Newburyport Daily News for the first time ever with a commentary on the 1982 Heisman Trophy winner.

Not to the editorial desk, but to the sports desk when I introduced myself to the late Kevin Doyle who accepted my take on Walker’s decision to join the newly-formed United States Football League rather than the long-running NFL.

Can’t recall the headline when it appeared in print, but according to my own log, the headline I submitted was “The Tragedy of Hershel Walker.”

In a writing class I taught at South Dakota State University a year earlier, a star of the Jackrabbits football team wrote of a similar decision. A far smaller scale of money or tragedy, but it was a lens for comparison that Doyle found clear and convincing.

As for Walker, it seemed shameful to me that a player who led Georgia to a national championship in 1980, and whom some jocks were calling the greatest running back ever to play in college, would turn down a chance to rival and set running records–and to play with and against the best players–for the sake of a slightly higher than already very high contract offer.

Oddly, the USFL had already pledged not to draft underclassmen when that was still a heated issue, but the owner of the New Jersey Generals, one the dozen new franchises, never cared much for rules or ethics and could not resist Walker. His name was–and still is–Donald Trump.

The league caught on briefly, and other college stars, including Boston College Heisman winner, Doug Flutie, would sign. Jocks both in print and in broadcast called the Generals the USFL’s “glamor team,” though the Philadelphia-turned-Baltimore Stars dominated the league.

Walker was the highest paid player in all of pro-football, though his team never won a playoff game. When the USFL folded in 1986, he joined the NFL for 13 seasons during which, in 1989, he was traded from the Dallas Cowboys to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and six draft picks.

The stunt failed Minnesota who thought he was all they needed. Walker was good but not that good, and those draft picks would eventually propel Dallas to three Super Bowl victories in 1993, 1994, and 1996.

As one of the network commentators for NFL games implied just this past weekend, Hershel Walker is best remembered not for his play on the field, but for being on the losing side of the most lopsided trade in the history of professional sports.


I never found it. Perhaps because it wasn’t a column for the editorial page, but a feature for the sports page, I was careless in filing it.

And in February of 1983, it was five months before the Daily News initiated its guest column feature called “As I See It”–at a time when many newspapers and magazines were following the lead set by Newsweek magazine’s “My Turn” feature open to freelancers from all walks of life, including Yours Unruly in June of 1986.

Sports Editor Doyle made sure I stopped to chat with the editorial desk to see if I’d join the team they planned to launch that summer.

Today, I’m one of just two remaining originals writing for “As I See It.” This morning I bet I looked at every one of over 400 columns I’ve had in print trying to find that forerunning commentary that led to it all.

No luck, but I still revel in the idea that, four decades later, the same guy is yet again on the wrong side of something so lopsided. Can anyone not laugh at his performance in the debate with Rev. Warnock? Following that embarrassment, he now declines to debate Warnock a second time.

Several weeks ago, Walker refused a debate because, he claimed, everybody would be watching Sunday Night Football. The debate was scheduled for a Thursday night.

What more clear and convincing lens could any writer ever find?

-30-