Death, Tales Told by the Dying

Life is complicated. Death is simple, or can be. Anyhow, it’s conclusive and something common among us. Sometimes how we get to the end can be a story worth telling, and reading. You don’t need to be obsessed with death and its plans for you. I am not. Still, like almost everything else, learning something about the end of the line, how it works, and especially how gifted, accomplished people manage it is worth investigating. No special counsel required. Two books I’ll mention will advance enormously whatever you are thinking about your leave taking.

Nina Riggs’s Bright Hour is an Homeric tale told by a poet, lyric, brilliant, funny, lively, reflective, and heartbreaking. One ordinary life, but an epic odyssey. The immense loss that is, of course, the story’s conclusion reminds the reader of the certainty that awaits each of us and of death’s often broad, always careless embrace of the lives of surviving families and friends. Ms. Riggs died of a cruel, rapacious cancer, as her mother had only months earlier. Riggs’s account is not a cancer story. She might have succumbed to any other terrible, wasting, relentless illness. Bright Hour is the story not of the disease but of the enormity of her loss.

Inspired by Riggs’s prose poem and so driven to enlarge my struggle with death, or at least the inescapable fact of it, I went next to Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air. You might reverse the order, or you might look elsewhere, to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal perhaps; or C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed; or Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die, or dozens of others. But, you will not find two such perfect companions as the stories by Kalanithi and Riggs. A neurosurgeon and scientist of enormous distinction, afflicted with cancer at the peak of his power, at work Kalanithi peered and probed with exquisite care the brains and spines of his patients to save for them their true selves, or at least, if possible, what was most precious to each. For one, perhaps a few more years, for another to see the first grandchild, or to see a business safely into his family’s charge. Kalanithi worked his scalpel along the delicate, even elusive, frontier between personhood and mere flesh and blood. And, as time grew short for him, as it had for so many of his patients, the certainty of his fate imposed the same reductive determination to save until the end first his work, his patients, but ultimately his wife, his parents, his friends, a daughter, and this book. He had a great deal to explain.

Kalanithi was not a poet, as Riggs was. He was a scientist, a philosopher, and an ethicist. He tells the story of the slow decline of his health, his powers, and his ambition, and comes to the very place that Riggs did and we will, though by a very different path.

Mid-season

Everyone asks, how’s your summer going? Well, not everyone. The former president who is coming this weekend hasn’t. But, sigh, the standard questions are, give or take, these: What are the kids up to? Having any fun? How’s business? Been to the beach? Done any sailing? Hasn’t the weather been funny? dry? wet? hot? crowded? Can you believe the traffic? Can you believe how rude people are? Had many house guests? Catching anything?
I don’t mind the weather, the traffic, the rudeness, the crowds or the houseguests, at least not as much as I mind the questions. Let’s talk about something else, shall we. I think we should all propose topics for casual conversation that diverge from the run of the Vineyard mill summer script. There has got to be something interesting going on in each of our lives.
I feel I’m doing my part. The other day, as I was stopped in a line of cars heading up the hill out of Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard’s main port of entry. Joe was stopped in the line of cars heading down the hill, it happened that I was right across from him. He has a tattoo inscribed on his forehead that says, Back Off. Although he’s a lifelong, laid-back Vineyarder, I’ve never been precisely sure to whom that tattoo is aimed.
Joe leaned out the window of his van and asked, How’s your summer going?
I replied, I’m going to install a roundabout in my kitchen and charge a $1 surcharge to each kid who goes around it. That will help finance the park and ride lot I’m opening in the field to the north of the house. It’s going to be free parking for anyone who leaves a car there, but they’ll have to walk to the ferry, and I’ll ticket their cars while they’re gone.
A cloud of uneasiness passed across Joe’s tattoo, but he tried again: What are the kids up to?
I said, I have got them all jobs putting up signs and snow fencing for the legion of conservation voters, loving nature but vain enough to believe that by their puny impediments they may defeat the ocean’s tireless depredations, preferring fences, ropes, and signs to beach grass, rosa rugosa, and sunbathers. All except for one of the kids, who won’t come out of his room. I think he’s in a messaging standoff, and he’s one of those kids who just has to have the last word.
The cars weren’t moving, so Joe, his avenues of retreat cut off, said, perplexedly, Are you all right? You don’t seem yourself.
I said, I’ve begun to install my Burma Shave signs along the Beach Road between the $50 million Lagoon Drawbridge and the incomprehensible Five Corners intersection. The point is to give people a distraction as they wait in traffic. Otherwise the frustration builds, and when they get to Five Corners they attack the congestion with the zeal of a car service driver in Manhattan.
Easy. Does. It. Don’t Let. Five Corners. Be the End. Of Your World. Burma Shave.
The lines of cars began to move, and pretty soon Joe was down the hill about two car lengths. I knew there was plenty of time, so I got out of my car and walked down to where Joe was. He started to roll up his window, but I got there before it had closed all the way.
I said, We have sent Ping away for part of the summer. Ping is a pug. He hates crowds, so he’s off at a weight-loss camp in the Adirondacks, a rustic place with a lot of outdoor activities. He starts every morning with a dip in the males’ pool, a sort of a rock-lined grotto filled by diverting part of a quick flowing mountain stream. It’s about 45 degrees year-round. He and the other campers jump in, seize up, and the counselors retrieve their rigid little bodies just before they expire. The shivering takes off pounds. In his letters, Ping seems happy enough, although he’s begun to dot his “i’s” with little illustrations of dog bones or lamb chops. I never thought of him as an artist. Of course, we miss him, but we know he’ll be happier if he could lose seven or eight pounds.
Catching anything? Joe said.

(Adapted from News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard)

Taking Stock

I don’t think there is an annual moment when one takes a week to make a personal assessment. There ought to be.
There may be moments when one looks around at the wreckage and disrepair of a year gone by, shrugs, and staggers on. But, I don’t mean those sorts of mercifully fleeting instants. I mean an occasion when one stares unblinkingly at the deterioration that a year has wrought on one’s plans, one’s ambitions, one’s treasury, and one’s own sorry carcass, then calculates the toll, rolls up the sleeves, and puts things right, or at least as right as the natural course of things allows.
New Year’s Day is a possibility. You know, the resolutions, the sloppy sentiment, the champagne, the sense that with the new year, everything’s fresh. But, the track record of permanent effects resulting from resolutions made to begin each New Year is poor. No one feels very well, and who has the energy to make big plans when one has such a jackhammer headache. In the old days when I wrote a newspaper column like this one, I proposed resolutions for the politicians and other community notables, ideas they may not themselves have conceived of. I even offered to hear confessions of their sins by these swells and in return absolve them, sometimes with penance due. Neither the resolutions nor the confessions attracted much interest.
April 15 is another possibility, but that’s all about trying to defeat the taxman, who has his own very detailed calculation of the condition you’re in, and he wants his generous piece of your action. You may not know what happened to all that money, but he does. You may not have made an unflinching analysis of income and spending, but he has. By the way I noticed this week that the EU has told Apple it has to pay Ireland about $14 billion in back taxes that Ireland never assessed. The U.S. Treasury Secretary didn’t like the EU action, but on the other hand he doesn’t like Apple keeping $3 trillion or so in profits in its Ireland office and wants Apple to bring it back to the U.S. to be taxed here. He said what Apple’s doing is not is not illegal, but it’s not right. The Treasury Secretary and others with similar views have suggested that this anti-tax strategy used by U.S. corporations may actually be unpatriotic, even immoral. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s supporters are saying about her, that her email setup and State Department cosiness with the family foundation have not been illegal, but they are not right either. Patriotism and immorality have not been invoked.
Anyhow, if you happen to have a boat, big or small, there is a perfect, inescapable annual moment for assessment and repair. That moment is usually spring, sometimes fall. Occasionally, it’s been spring and fall for me.  It’s time to haul the boat out of the water, set it on the land where you can get in touch with all its parts, including those that are hidden most of the time, to see what wind, weather, water, tides, and your own occasionally monumental stupidity have done.
Slime, grass, and barnacles have taken hold on the bottom. The paint on the sides is cracked, and what’s worse, the errors you made the spring before in preparing the hull for painting have endured. The rouge and blush you hoped might disguise all the dings and scrapes have washed away. The varnish is utterly missing in places — many places. She looks, and you feel, a long year older.
On the other hand, if you are lucky, and at times I have been, no planks will be popping off, water won’t be rushing through the seams, and another year afloat may be assured with the application of some sandpaper, putty, paint, and varnish. And, most important, the haul-out means that nothing is hidden any longer. You know where the soft spots are, where the blemishes reveal themselves, where the accumulated dents and scratches of years announce that the old girl’s got some age on her, but with your diligent help, she’ll totter on.
And, if you’re even luckier, the boys you’ve grown expressly for this purpose will be on hand to scrape and sand and paint. You are reminded that it was real foresight to have fed and clothed those boys, knowing that, as the years have passed, you would accumulate some leaks and wormy parts yourself, and need their help.
Besides, getting together with one or both of the boys to do the scraping, painting, cleaning, mending, chivvying and general boat-keeping work is pleasing beyond words. And anticipating the fun that will follow the work is pleasant too.
The chores fall into two categories. The first is demanding and very important work: You have to sand the topsides and the bottom, then paint both. You have to grease the propeller, which has these tiny set screws and tiny grease fittings that try their best to get lost. If a tiny set screw finds its way to the ground, it’s lost. No two ways about it. Plus, almost every substance you work with is toxic to some degree, even lethal in the most extreme circumstances. During the annual haul -out, your life is on the line.
Among the worst jobs is changing the oil and the four filters — one an oil filter, the other three for fuel — on the engine. There’s a sequence of events that must be followed, or else the engine won’t fire off when you’re done. I’ve never gotten the sequence right, not once in all these years; and then it’s a matter of draining this and bleeding that before the engine finally clatters to life, signaling the end of the tough stuff.
Back in the water, the work becomes less onerous. Bending on sail. Cleaning the smelly bilge. Cleaning the mossy woodwork. Cleaning the sink and the dishes. Washing the towels and the seat covers that spent the winter aboard and smell like it. We can set up the awning over the cockpit, so that it is cool and breezy.
Even though it would be splendid to get out sailing every day, it’s splendid enough to haul-out, to clean and reorganize, to sift through the remains of last season, and look ahead — to know that nothing is hidden, everything is attended to once more, and for the time being.

My Relationship Status

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They must be below, napping.

A few years ago, maybe more than a few, I went to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles to renew my driver’s license. Because Martha’s Vineyard is small, and because the Registry staff are nice, it’s more pleasant to drop by there to do business than it is to do it online. To most people that seems unimaginable, but it’s true.

I filled out the form, no problem at all, until I came to Gender, check Male, Female, or Other. Puzzled, I went up to the nice lady, pointed to the form, “Other?” I said. “Are there choices?”

“Put anything you want,” she said. Even then, I had been driving for a very long time and renewing my license when needed. Gender choices hadn’t come up.

I told people about the experience, and they all said, in effect, “No big deal.” Except the children, who said, “Oh my God, dad, welcome to the twenty-first century.”

One of the four, Alix, the youngest girl who was visiting for a bit, put up a Facebook page for me last weekend. She and most of the others are big Facebookers, and because I’ve just published a book, they said, I must get on Facebook to let people know about it. They would say that I never pay any attention to what they tell me, but they’re wrong of course, though it has happened.

“Oh my God, dad,” they say, “how can you not be on Facebook.” I thought of an anwer for that, but kept it to myself.

Alix got busy, and things were going swimmingly when she asked, “What would you like to say for Relationship Status.” I asked her to go on to the next question. What might I have entered in that field?

I might have written long (29 years and happily counting), longer than some, not as long as others. Or, in progress. Durable. Blessed. Sunny with a chance of occasional showers. And maybe a tornado. A work in progress, thank goodness. Just right. In a groove. Perfect in every respect. Everything I hoped for. More than I bargained for.

But, not considered a useful analyst of relationship quality, I’d rather consider how to go about choosing a partner with whom to begin a relationship. I’m not considered a useful analyst of partner choices either, but I have a methodology that works, and I’ll share it with you. And, I know that if you choose carefully, you’ll be rewarded. It happened to me.

The surest way to separate the wheat from the chaff, people-wise, is to administer a cruise of a few days in a small (or even largish) sailboat. It is a test whose outcome cannot be faked. You won’t find this advice in Elle or Vogue or even in a Modern Love podcast. Those advisors may tell you that living together is a good test of compatibility. Or, perhaps the conventional wisdom will call for an astrological analysis to calculate the future of an impending marriage. Or a palm reader. Or eHarmony.com’s extensive compatibility survey. It’s all bunk. If you want to know if he loves you so, or the other way around, and whether he or she will be the mate you want for life’s extended passage, go for a sail.

Amiable, curious, adaptable, industrious, courteous folks who can cook and clean up, and who do not get seasick: that’s what you want. But, you might say, that’s all so elementary, what about passion, getting swept away. All desirable, all very nice indeed, but the basics come first. Can he sweep the cabin sole in a seaway? Can she do her business in that tiny head and stare her product in the eye while she pumps and pumps and pumps some more to wash it into the holding tank? These are the questions that need early answers.

Churlish, timid loners, who are easily incommoded, don’t cook but like to eat, and profess to be indisposed when cooking and cleaning are required: avoid these.

You may think it’s easy in the ordinary course of life ashore to distinguish between the two types I’ve named, and why would anyone of sound mind pass time with the latter. In fact, the rejects have over time become virtuosos of deception and disguise. In search of a good shipmate, or lifemate for that matter, one may be tripped up by the well-groomed appearance and the ready smile. Often these will be added to the facile conversationalist, ever ready with a story or a gibe. Delighted to be asked, these types say when you make the invitation. So sorry to have to go with all this straightening up left to be done, they say at the end. By the way, can you just pop these few things in with the laundry you’re doing. I’ll make it up to you another time. That sort of effortless, heedless affability can go a long way on dry land. People get married on less.

This sorting can be difficult, because even desirable shipmates can fool you. Often, they keep their own quiet counsel. They are deferential, even to a fault. They fly under the radar. But, get to know them, and they’re stalwarts. And, getting to know someone on a small sailboat takes no time at all. A weekend’s cruise, even a day’s sail in blustery conditions, will reveal most of what you need to know. Heck, a half hour trying to anchor or dock a yacht in a busy harbor will tell you all you need to know.

I watched a fancy motor yacht arrive at a busy marina dock in a desirable New England harbor. The husband was the captain, his wife the crew. He shouted instructions. She returned questions. At last, he’d had it. He left the bridge of the big cruiser and stalked forward to the bow where his wife held a rope’s end. Her face was a question mark.

“What are you doing?” he shouted.

“I’m doing what you told me to do,” she snarled. As their unattended yacht floated away from the dock, and they all but came to blows.

“They’ve been at sea too long,” a friend watching with me said.

“Not at all,” another onlooker said. “The problem is, they never went to sea together when it counted – before they got married.

Late one night recently, as a sailboat pushed its way across the Gulf of Maine, the watch on deck chattered happily beneath the slatting sails and the overcast. Four hours passed harmoniously. Whatever work there was to be don, they did it without rousing their sleeping crewmates. They tended the log quietly, disturbing no one. They called the relief on time and went sleepily to their own bunks. The next day, in port, when it was time to clean the ship, both watches split the chores, and the work was done quickly. A couple of evenings later in this cruise, at anchor in a snug, silent cove, dinner over with, one of the crew brought out her guitar and sang for her shipmates. Her warm, pale-honey voice told each tune’s loving story, while her shipmates sang along.

On their cruise, some steered, others navigated. In the blind fog that dogged the sailing yacht daily as she wandered from one invisible port to the next, some watched the radar, others tried to find the crucial buoys in the gloom – or the passing lobstermen. Some sounded the fog signal. Some climbed the masts, others fog-bathed on deck. The weather, only rarely and briefly dry and clear, was what it was, and enough said. The company, a “fellowship in the craft and mystery of the sea,” as Conrad put it, and good shipmates every one, made the cruise a success.

 

 

Schooling the Nation’s Leaders

From News Hounds, Chapter 18

When the president, Mrs. Obama and family arrive to vacation, along with an unnumbered retinue of aides and protectors, plus hardware, software, and beachwear, Islanders believe they’re coming because we offer easy going respite and unusually free-spirited, friendly, and carefree recharge. It’s what we do. We think it’s a feather in our caps. Typical of that reaction, Diesel always thought the president came back each summer to get another look at him. He thought there had been a connection. But, I pay no attention to the pridefulness of one self-involved English mastiff, and you shouldn’t either.

Naturally, presidents have no sure claim on carefree. That’s hardly our problem, of course, but we do what we can. We try to be helpful in our way to visitors of all sorts, including presidents, and sometimes despite our best efforts, we suffer some nasty swipes. In mid-summer 2002, to hear him tell it, President George W. Bush believed we were all just sitting on the back porches of our lavish Martha’s Vineyard estates drinking white wine. Stunned and hurt by the mocking, we didn’t know that we were merely between presidential visits — after Clinton, before Obama — and that our self-esteem, temporarily deflated but normally buoyant, would soon bob proudly again.

The between presidents let down was steep mainly because Clinton had been so convivial. He and Mrs. Clinton even invited us to parties during each August visit. At a cocktail party at the Spring Point, Chilmark house of a supporter, Mrs. Clinton told me that she read The Martha’s Vineyard Times every day, which was friendly, but obviously untrue. The president played the sax for us on a hillside overlooking Vineyard Sound. I have photos of that musical interlude and of the guests, including Moll and Emily, in thrall, admiring his showmanship. Another time, wearing a curly blond wig, the president joined the band on the Hot Tin Roof stage, at a party hosted by the nightclub’s owners, James and Carly Simon, before they split. That was a presidency Islanders could get behind …

Forgetting that by far the majority of presidents and their advisers have turned elsewhere for their recreation and for helpful advice, we Islanders are participating in a well documented Vineyard tradition. We, in these exalted premises, know that the ones who visit do so because, forget the beaches, they admire us and the wisdom we impart. Plus, they can unbutton the top button, dispense with the hairdresser for two weeks, eat ice cream, fries, and fried fish of every variety, and we won’t criticize, though we know it’s wrong. We’re here for them, to indulge them and to offer advice as needed. If we’re thrown together at Nancy’s Snack Bar in Oak Bluffs or at the Galley in Menemsha, if we happen to bump into one another while walking Diesel along the bike path in the State Forest, we might recommend to the most powerful man or woman on earth more quantitative easing or draining Warren Buffett’s savings account or making businesses stuffed with cash expand, whether the demand demands it or not. Those are issues that bedevil and even defeat presidents, but not us.

Remember General Motors in the pit of the Great Recession? Steve Rattner, a West Tisbury summer resident and vacation slash fundraising pal of President Obama, got the Car Czar assignment. He got the appointment, I suspect, because of his experience in the 1970s reviving the fortunes of the Vineyard Gazette, which needed to replace its 19th Century-vintage, clattering, cast iron flatbed press with a new, pricy offset model, the one it uses today. The dollars involved inspired resistance in James Reston, the New York Times columnist and a Scot, also a summer resident, who had bought the newspaper from its longtime owners. It happened that I was the managing editor of the newspaper, and Steve, just out of Brown University, was Reston’s Washington intern. There was a lot of negotiating, hand holding, cajoling and inspiring to be done in Washington and a lot of planning, organizing, urging, and more than a wee bit of the creature to be done in Edgartown. Steve didn’t know then that he was preparing for the GM job that fell to him nearly half a century later. But, that’s what the Vineyard does for the movers and shakers who turn to us for succor and advice. And, if it happens that the high as well as the low cannot be us, or with us, then we do not wonder where they sit and what they swill? We wonder if they know what they’re missing?

President Obama Returns

From News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard

Diesel met President Obama and family as they whizzed by on their bicycles in the Manuel Correllus State Forest. Molly and I, like so many others, had got a tip about the cycling. Lots of Islanders have police scanners and VHF radios, which they monitor to see where the fire is or the car crash or the boat aground. Word of anything minor or major gets around quickly.

We collected Diesel and rushed to what we thought might be a useful vantage point, where we found a press pool of astounding numbers and a similarly large Secret Service troop. The security team scanned us for weapons, admired Diesel, who admired them slobberingly in return. Besotted, I suppose, by Diesel, the guards allowed us to walk along beside the bike path, between it and the press gaggle kept fifty yards farther away, who were certainly cranky over the unusual access granted us.

Around the corner came the Obama girls, their mother, and then the president. Diesel was instantly transported, not so much, I admit, by the figure of the president as by the bicycles that, unrestrained, he might very well have chased.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” we said, and the president, recognizing what he took to be adoring onlookers, spoke to us.

“That’s a really big dog,” he said. We’d heard that before, of course, but it seemed to mean so much more coming from him. Really, though, I don’t know if Diesel took it in as he should have, what with all those spinning wheels.

Love and Marriage

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Find News Hounds at dougcabral.com or on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/News-Hounds-Accidental-Newspaper-Vineyard/dp/1483573761/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1469884383&sr=8-1

On this particular Sunday, the rain thrummed mercilessly on the wedding tent. Inside, the guests sat talking in the lowering afternoon. They listened to the pelting and said, How mean of the weather on this wedding day. Later, a toasting uncle recalled that his father’s wise and determined response to weather like this was to embrace the challenge. It was one of those challenging days. A flutist, also merciless, attempted to lift the gloom, but it was a big job. A regiment of flutes would have struggled to raise the temperature even a degree or two. Fifes may have done the trick, but there were no fifes.

Thankfully, there was the bride. She came to her wedding beneath an umbrella, wearing rubber boots, on her father’s arm. She slipped from beneath the umbrella and through the opening in the tent. She was smiling, laughing, warming her chilled guests – playing the sun’s role, really. The groom, who was certainly nervous and may have been trembling as he helped with this or that last minute detail before she arrived, saw her and blushed. He knew a dream come true when he saw her.

The groom was just the fellow C.S.Lewis had in mind when he wrote, in an examination of love, that “very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the beloved – a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.'”

Love, Lewis writes, “enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganizing, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country.”

From outside, as the evening darkened and the wet air thickened, the wedding tent glowed. The trees surrounding the small hilltop field where the tent was pitched danced and bent in the wind. Leaves spun frantically onto the tent and fell with the cascades off the sides. The effect was of a gigantic, luminescent sea creature breaching, far out on the tossing ocean, a creature inwardly lit and so bright that it banished the darkness and quieted the rollers; a musical creature, because inside, the dance band was having its way with the bride and her guests.

Weddings stimulate the advice gene in guests. Stay in college. Go to grad school. Stay in grad school. Grad school is a waste of time. You might try the law. Business school is the only way to get ahead. Get a good job with a good company and stick with it. I wouldn’t look too hard in the middle of the country, it’s the coasts where the action is. If you’re interested in tech, I know an outfit with a great future that is looking for someone. Remember, forgiveness is what it’s all about. No, it’s patience, marriage takes work. Don’t work too hard. Have some fun, kids will show up soon enough, then it’s all over. I worry ab out young people these days, it was easier in our day. Never let the sun set on a fight. Don’t pay any attention to what people tell you, you have to find your own way. Whatever happens, you’ve got each other. Let him think he’s the boss. Keep separate financial lives. Sign a pre-nup. Don’t sign anything without reading it. Love makes the world go round. You can’t live on love alone. Love won’t put a roof over your heads. Love is all you need. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Love is bigger than both of you. Love doesn’t pay the bills. Don’t spend a night apart. Give each other some space.

Lewis wrote a long time ago. The culture he imagined is not the one we inhabit today. The answer today to the question Lewis posed to the smitten one might very well be “To bang the hell out of her.” Love may very well be a poorer thing than Lewis thought. But, even today love is not the pedestrian thing implicit in the advice one commonly hears.

Joan Didion knew better. In her commencement address to the 1975 graduates of the University of California, Riverside, she said of the world and what to do about it: “I.m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can, and good luck at it.”

And, forget about the rain, it doesn’t matter.

Playing Possum

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Diesel, contemplating mischief. Read more about his adventures in News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard.

In the country where we use to live, the dogs ran free. No one lived nearby, except briefly in the summer, so for most of the year we could let the dogs roam. It must have seemed logical to them, having had the run of the house, inside, to have the run of the earth, outside. Happily, they were not adventurous, or ambitious, so they never to seemed to go far, although in fact we didn’t know for sure. We reached that conclusion by counting the number of credit card solicitations and political polls we received each day by phone (three to five) and comparing the result to the number of calls from the dog officer or irritated neighbors (none or, rarely, one). We also counted ticks, of course. If the dogs were dotted with eager ticks, they had covered some territory. Near1y all the territory for miles around our place was wooded, with the occasional run-out former pasture, so the tick population flourished. If the dogs were tick-free, or mostly so, we knew they had stayed near the house, where we had cut down trees and grown something resembling grass, which we kept short, thus shifting what should have been our proportional share of the local tick population to land that belonged to others. You’ve heard of tax-shifting, where the burden of running a town is reduced for one favored class of property owners and consequently increased for another. Usually the latter is a class that hasn’t got the voting clout of the former. I’m afraid tick-shifting is a variation on that theme.

The advantage of living where the dogs can be let out to circulate, rain or shine, in relative safety is considerable. The disadvantage is that, even if you have no human neighbors to interfere with, there are creatures out there with which dogs habitually interact with disagreeable results. Skunks, for instance. I’ve shot my share of skunks over the years, mainly because, smart as we know our dogs are, they haven’t been able to master their enthusiasm for the game of bedeviling skunks. That’s the competition where the skunk stands there, tail aloft but otherwise relaxed, as the dogs bark, dance, and dart around it. Eventually, it always happens that the skunk consults his watch, remembers that he has someplace to be, decides to end this nonsense, and gives a foghorn-type toot. In the house, we immediately know what’s happened. We regard one another horrified, each searching for the magic words that will move the other to be the one to go to the door and call the dogs. When I open the door, there is no skunk, though. As the saying goes, he’s left but he’s not gone, and the two idiots are rolling on the ground, pawing at their noses, trying once again to grasp the implications of what’s just happened. Then, there must be baths, no matter the midnight hour, and the dogs find baths thrilling, which means there must be house swabbing and vacuuming. And, then there must be incarceration in the garage for what remains of the night, which the dogs do not like, so there must be repetitive, unending barking, until we relent and let them in.

As I say, getting rid of skunks (and raccoons, for that matter) had been a passion of mine, but I did have some rules, or rather one rule: don’t fire the shotgun at a skunk that is in the immediate vicinity of the house. I learned to avoid this practice years ago when a volatile neighbor, driven temporarily insane by a marauding raccoon, dispatched the varmint one night as it came around the corner of his barn bound for the chicken coop. He blew the corner boards and most of the comer off  his bam, which was expensive and time consuming to repair. So, skunks, smarter by far than the dogs, made themselves at home under the front porch. He never went far when the dogs were out, and if they happened to catch him on his rounds, he leant nonchalantly against the porch, cleaning his nails and tilting his top hat rakishly to the side of his head, knowing that without question, his position was impregnable.

Pardon me, but I didn’t mean to go on about skunks. The point is that recently were visiting away from home in a village, very nice indeed, but not the sort of place where you let the boys roam. So, we put leashes on them and took them for walks, early morning, late evening. But, as cheek by jowl as village living was, there were nevertheless critters with which we had to contend.

One evening, after dark, at the edge of a lawn between two houses, a lawn that is the field of play for a croquet club, we unleashed Diesel, the English mastiff who made our lives messy for a decade or so, figuring a bit of a romp would do him, and us, good. Shortly, we heard barking, then thrashing in the border of tall cedars at the edge of the field. Then there was crashing as Diesel lopped off branches, opening up the vistas from the neighboring homeowner’s property to the sporting field. I thought skunk. I hollered for the dog. He paid me no attention whatsoever. I tracked the crashing cedar boughs, hoping I could get hold of the bloody animal before he began felling the trees, and suddenly there he was. I fished out my flashlight and shone it on Diesel, who was lying down covered with cedar branches. His nose was flat on the ground, and he was staring questioningly ahead. I moved the flashlights beam ten inches, and there, also prostrate, was a flattish, white muzzle and two black eyes, staring questioningly back at the dog. Each of them was calculating his next move. Neither was prepared to make it.

It was a possum. Diesel had never seen one before, nor had I. He adored that thing, you could tell, the way he adored the ride-on lawnmower tire that he liked me to throw for him, or the occasional cat whose sudden appearance in his path quickened his step. I was more reserved in my appreciation. If the possum was playing possum, in its tete-a-tete with Diesel, he was doing it with only the after part of his body. His face was no death mask. Rather, it was animated with a fevered mix of wonder, concern, and calculation. This was not the occasion for disinterested observation, to see what would happen next. We hauled Diesel away from the meeting and fled before the neighborhood watch got on to us.

There is nothing easy about dogs, and contrary to what we may have thought, the advantages of country living over village life are hard to calculate. If you consult the dogs, they’ll say, quite reasonably, “It’s not a decision for us to make. You decide. Just take us with you wherever you go, and we’ll find plenty to keep us occupied.”

Look for News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard, available  in print and eBook formats at dougcabral.com or on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/News-Hounds-Accidental-Newspaper-Vineyard/dp/1483573761/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1469884383&sr=8-1.

News Hound Cover

 

Real Life on Martha’s Vineyard

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The Chilmark dumpscape on Martha’s Vineyard, playground of the elites, Sunday afternoon. It’s just where anyone would want to be. In fact, just where everyone is, scrumming for a prime spot in front of the sorting table.
Captains of industry and finance had loaded their Range Rovers with empties whose partially peeled labels bespoke the best names in French viniculture. They were hunting on the trashy hilltop for the green glass bins. They prowled in the teeth of wind­ driven grit, which exfoliated their carefully honed complexions and the paint jobs on their SUVs, all at the same time. A kind of enhanced productivity two­for, you might say.
It had been that sort of week. It was a week that ought to have ended up at the dump. It began with a bit of unsuccessful varmint hunting. Some creature, probably a skunk, had been excavating my wife Molly’s perennial garden. Not the live and let live sort, her mood has become murderous, and naturally there has arisen a loud call for action on my part. (Why I immediately come to mind when the subject is illicit nocturnal activity, I cannot explain. It hurts, if you want the truth.)
I have historically had some success at varmint eradication, including the execution of an extremely wily raccoon that thought it was a finch. Sometimes one comes serendipitously upon a skunk, and blam, as Molly would say. That’s that. One never comes serendipitously upon a raccoon, if such is the culprit. They’re too smart.
Called to arms, I set my standard trap. I perched the dog’s stainless steel food bowl on an upturned plastic drinking cup, over the cement cesspool cover. I put a handful of Kibbles ‘n’ Bits in the pan. All marauding varmints love Kibbles ‘n’ Bits. I should report, for those who might be inspired to try this approach. After years of employment in this service, the dog’s bowl is extensively pockmarked by birdshot, and the dog is a heavy contributor to the lobby against firearms.
I turned the outside light on. Midnight. Clang, clang, clatter. I’m up, drowsily vigilant, but it’s just a stray cat. I held my fire. Back to bed. Three a.m. Clang, clang, clatter. This time, nothing’s there at all. Which has me thinking that we may be dealing with a raccoon of superior cleverness. Not good.
Anyhow, the score: varmint one, me nought (actually negative one, a night’s sleep lost). Molly’s mood grim. Glances in my direction have a sort of whatpossible­good­are­you subtext.
At moments like this, one casts about for escape, perhaps a chance to get out on the water, tootle around in the boat. But, I suspect that shirking may not be my best move. 
Stuck, there was nothing left but to assemble the new grill. The old one rusted out, and I took it to the dump and paid $3 to leave it there. Actually, the old lawn mower did the same, and I paid $3 for it too.
The new grill required some assembly, and boy, that was no lie. Not that it was hard. Anyone could have figured it out, anyone who didn’t have something better to do with an afternoon. But putting the grill together wasn’t half the job. Unpacking the whole thing left the garage filled with cardboard, and you know what you have to do with cardboard? You have to break it down, tie it or tape it up, and chauffeur it over to the dump.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of recycling, no matter how much it costs. I am big for recycling, the way I was big for confession and penance when I was a kid (usually three Hail Marys, once the Apostles’ Creed and two Rosaries for a whopper), the way my in­laws were big for early morning plunges into frigid mountain pools, the way monks are big for hair shirts, the way some folks are big for self­-flagellation of the non­sporting sort. But, no matter the wisdom or desirability or utility of it, folks say it feels so good when it’s done. For me, and I suspect also for the A-listers I dump with, it’s not going to the dump that lifts the heart. It’s leaving the dump that puts a bounce in the step and a song on the lips, even after a week as rocky as this one. 

News Hounds will be available at the end of July.

Words – What’s Happening to Them?

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Lots of times, text messages I see contain letter combinations that mean nothing to me. I’ve learned some of the basics of this coded communication, but much of it is beyond the beyond, as an interior decorator friend would say.

For instance, I now know “lol” means “laugh out loud,” although at first I thought it was short for lollygag, which means aimless dithering. It’s a terrific word — from time to time, I suspect the kids of it — so I was disappointed that the children had foreshortened it so clumsily that it was no longer fun to see or say. Live and learn.

I find myself exposed to more and more of this moronic code — forgive me, it slipped out — in the comment posts to articles I read, so I consulted an expert in all things techno. He shook his hoodied head indulgently and referred me to the Urban Dictionary, which naturally lives online. Urban Dictionary describes itself as “the dictionary you wrote. Define your world, 5,688,030 definitions since 1999.”

I’m sure that the “you” they refer to is not me and that whoever it is, he or she or they are a lot younger. Of course, the Urban Dictionary is more than a dictionary. You can buy tee-shirts. The legend on one popular one is “Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.” Well, that may be a teeny bit clever.

You can also record your thumbs up or thumbs down to a new phrase that’s really caught on, “Safe sexting,” defined as a mechanism to keep racy pictures away from folks who wouldn’t understand, for instance your friends, parents, or girlfriends distinct from the one you are texting.  I would have guessed that the only safe sext was one you never sent, but I would have been wrong.

Anyhow, the thumbs are about evenly divided on the wisdom of this practice, or perhaps on the usefulness of the phrase in their daily lives. I’m not sure. Twice as many Urban Dictionary users gave thumbs up to the phrase “pillow lust”, as had got behind “Safe sexting.” “Pillow lust” is “That feeling that college students experience where they feel so exhausted that the idea of their face hitting their pillow sounds so utterly fantastic, it’s almost sexual.”

My experience with college students has generally been a) that they may be lustful in the extreme and exhaustion will not drain the impulse, but b) it certainly has nothing to do with studying extra hard, and c) that they won’t be driven to their pillows if there’s a raging party in the apartment down the hall, no matter how knackered they may be, or d) in the alternative, if someone gives them tickets to Springsteen at Treasure Island. Oh, and safe sexting and pillow lust mugs, tee-shirts, and magnets are available with just a click.

I learned what a “beardo” is, when “froday” arrives, why “stfu” is something I’m not going to post to the comment boards, ditto “xio,” and that “ridin’ Qwerty” may be risky and illegal, but common.

English words and their combinations are slippery communication ingredients. Plus, as Urban Dictionary suggests, we’re busy as beavers making new ones, adjusting old ones, and shaping each one we use and each combination we construct to suit our purposes.

When committing oral or written communication, words may be indispensable, but they may also be meaningless, misleading, uninspiring, confusing, and clumsy. Used carelessly, words can defeat communication altogether. Strung together without a plan, collections of words that pretend to sentence or paragraph status may ultimately say nothing at all. Chop and trim them for texting, and you and your interlocutor may share a semi-private conversation with all the unspoken thrills and confidences such communication offers, but communicate nothing much at all.

Oh, clarity is that old virtue that written communication held dear. We loved clarity. We wished that words and their combinations could be as clear as any old, admirable English teacher taught us they should be. Now, perhaps, clear is not the goal. Perhaps the goal today is unspoken understanding, signs and symbols that presume that the recipient of your message will understand something and smile slyly.

Almost everyone who uses the language in the 21st century has learned that the dictionary guardians do not create the words or the meanings. They merely bless and catalogue what people conceive. And nowadays, there are so many new places to hunt for neologisms, to wit: Twitter, Instagram, text messages, the blogosphere, various ‘hoods in big cities, the indie film industry, and of course, the Urban Dictionary. You can’t think about words without stumbling over new ones. New words find their way into usage, fresh meanings attach to old familiar words, old meanings fall away, and in these ways the English vocabulary is enriched, or degraded, depending, I suppose, on how old, confused, and crusty you are.
Some of us play catchup as good old words become worn out or invested with new, sometimes mystifying meaning. Some of us say, oh, to hell with it. Communication suffers now and then, naturally, but English is a survivor. It’s the gnarliest language of them all.