Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dinner and a show

In honour of my wife's birthday yesterday, and the end of the four days a year when she can say she's younger than me, we went out to a pretty good Indian place in Salem. Toward the end of the evening, I suddenly became aware of her saying "are you all right?" I pulled my wits about me and said "Of course I am," although I was somewhat lost in admiring the very hot chutney. She replied that my eyes were rolling, that my face was pale and had tremors, and I looked like I was about to fall out of my chair. All this on the tandoori, the hot chutney, and a half glass of wine. As usual, the colour was the first to come back as the server came over to help, whereupon every eye in the room was upon me. Embarrassment is as much a part of this business as pain. My wife insisted on driving home and I didn't resist. When I got there the combination of signs and symptoms interested me enough to check them against the meds.

Sure enough: right out of the Gabapentin playbook.

I'm supposed to be dividing my monster doses into three equal ones with meals, which isn't how I'd been taking the lower dose for years. Force of habit has had me taking the last dose at bedtime. Just this weekend, I determined to get the timing of that third dose under control, so for three nights I had taken it before supper.

Hindsight suggests that wasn't a good idea, and that I'd do well to return to the old schedule.

It ain't over til it's over.

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

The value of historical context

I read a good deal of popular history. Some of it  rises to a scholarly standard, while some gets bogged down. The swamps that entrap popular historians include an obsession with descriptive detail, forgetting that most readers of popular history already know this stuff. It breaks up the narrative and belongs in footnotes, not the text. Some sink into the pit of antiquarianism. Authors may spend so much time discussing the doings of a small area of geography or population that, again, they lose sight of the broader picture. Finally, they may wander into wetlands where flourish historical legends which have gained truth only by repetition.

One of the more annoying is that involving the historian Samuel Eliot Morison. It is true that as a junior faculty member at Harvard (beginning in 1915) he travelled between the campus and his home on Beacon Hill on horseback. He wrote about it himself. The legendary part of this is the "oh ha ha" business that goes with the repetition, and the tendency to picture Morison riding alone through streets filled with cars, trucks, and trolleys.

In context, this isn't as foolish as it sounds. Those laughing seem to overlook that the horse played a role in urban and rural transportation well into the 20th century. There was no sudden takeover by automobiles, but rather a long transition from one mode of transportation to another. In 1915 mass-produced cars and trucks were new and had not shed their aura of novelty.  Ten years later, it was clear that automobiles were here to stay, and that the horse was fading as a mode of urban transportation. Twenty years later, horses had all but disappeared from city streets, and it appears that Morison's days of riding to Harvard were long in the past.

The horse hung around somewhat longer in smaller cities. For example, my wife's family ran a livery stable in Holyoke, MA into the 1930s. Her mother rode, and while she didn't encourage her children to learn (too many injuries) they all grew up as natural horsewomen: in the genes, apparently.

In my neighbourhood in Concord, NH, there were still horses at work when I was very small. The city used horse drawn sidewalk plows until 1952 or 1953, and I remember being sad when the horses were replaced by machines. A few people near us still used iceboxes, and the ice came to them on a wagon. That rig disappeared when the iceboxes did.

The last holdout was a local farmer who sold hulled corn. It may surprise southerners, who know the product as samp or hominy, that there was a market for this so deep in Yankeeland. My mother wanted no part of it, being suspicious of the process used to make it. That involves boiling the corn in lye water. He was still selling from his wagon after we moved to East Concord in 1955, and I'm not sure when and why he stopped.

At any rate, Morison's ride from Beacon Hill to Harvard was neither hilarious nor eccentric in context. The transition from horses to internal combustion engines is a rather interesting period, one that some transportation historian ought to examine in more depth.

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Friday, March 18, 2016

Disturbing Desperation

I'm nearing the end of Peter Kick's Desperate Steps, a collection of real-life tales of incident and accident in the Northeastern U.S. backcountry. Many--too many, one might say--do not end well. My own life experiences make these accounts troubling. Many are not on mountains at all. Of those that are, a good number take place on fairly moderate mountains, the sort of places where I might easily make the same mistakes.

The book has me reflecting on experiences of my own, and of my spouse's, which came very close to being fodder for a book like this.

My brother and I spent much of our childhoods on a small island in Lake Winnisquam, NH. When we got old enough for school, we necessarily spent less time there. It was about that time that my dad bought a second boat, so that when he commuted to work we would not be marooned. It was (is: my brother still has it) a 12 foot all-aluminum boat, then a novelty. It had a three horsepower outboard, which didn't deliver a lot of speed,

One weekend my dad chose this boat for a visit to the former owners of the island on the western shore of the lake. Keith, the husband of the couple, was blind (his reason for selling the island) and both my brother and I thus became acquainted early with that particular view on life. While we were there, the cloud cover thickened, and it was Keith who first noticed thunder in the distance, and suggested that we had better get going.

Even with the early warning, we weren't quite in time. A thunderstorm was coming up the lake and was upon us before we were well underway. Keep in mind first that the boat was entirely aluminum, even the seats. second, it was very slow with a load of an adult and two children. My brother and I wrapped ourselves in tarps and crouched in the bilges while my father steered through the longest mile any of us had ever had on the water. We did make it without incident, which owed a lot to luck.

My spouse and her sister, in high school, crewed for their dad on a Lightning-class sloop (hold the irony for a moment). One weekend, they went to a regatta on Lake Champlain. The weather began to turn dirty and their dad, being a prudent sailor, headed for the dock from some distance out. Now one can't hurry a sailboat. When thunderstorm fronts approach over the water, several things happen. First, as they say, it blows like stink, and one is preoccupied with keeping the boat upright. Next, just behind the front the wind is likely to drop. This is awkward, because there is still lightning and one wants to get ashore fast.

My wife can't remember the exact moment that lightning struck, or even whether it actually hit the boat. There was a brilliant flash, The good thing about a sailboat is that one is sitting under a grounded nest of rigging, which MAY minimise damage. It did this time. She and her twin were stunned and numb. She remembers that her dad's hair was literally standing on end, and that the boat was afloat in a sea of stunned or dead fish. That is about as close a call with lightning as anyone would care to have. In the years we sailed, we either left races early if a thunderstorm threat became serious, or never left the dock.

In our early years sailing, we and the fleet sailed well into the fall, under conditions we would never chance now. As one dockmaster said, "the boats are 40 years older, and the sailors are 40 years older."

At any rate, we were racing in 20-something knot wind, with seas we could look up at from the cockpit of our small boat. My wife was skipper, and after a while decided she had had enough. Before heading home, she asked me to take in the jib. I'd nearly finished the job when I slithered, rather than fell, overboard. Both of us were experienced enough on the water to be wearing life jackets. I never lost contact with the boat, but began to wonder how I was going to get back on board, seeing that I'm twice the size of my wife. The water temp was somewhere under 50 degrees F, which made getting aboard very attractive.

In the seconds I was thinking these thoughts, I was going hand over hand aft, to the lowest point of the boat's freeboard, knowing that was my best shot. As I tried to lift my very wet self into the boat, my wife left the tiller, grabbed the back of my life jacket, and hoisted me bodily back on board. Never before or since have I been party to such a demonstration of the benefits of adrenaline. The subject still comes up now and then, and she is still astounded that she was able to do that.

These incidents are very like those in Desperate Steps. They include a balance of bad luck and bad judgment, and any one of the three could have been fatal without an injection of a dose of good luck.
I never forget any of them.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Root things

I was speaking to a friend the other day about my new connection with a cousin in Wales. Distance, divorces, and the death of the elder generation had separated families who were, in my childhood, in regular contact. I was musing on the curiosity that my cousin Di got on this generation's track by finding my half-sister on, then closing the loop on Facebook. Michael commented about how little connection he felt to his revealed ancestry. His family has been on this continent for a sizable stretch of time, long enough to consider the working part of his past to be American: as an American, he has that leaning toward living in the present.

I understand this, but as an observer. Those connections with the old country, strained as they have been for twenty-odd years, seem to strengthen. My daughter was only casually interested in the family history as a teenager, but is now far more connected. Di attached a number of photos that put faces to names, and young faces to her grandparents. I've added to it thanks to Google Maps. The street below was where my father and his sister lived until a few months before they emigrated. I don't have that information from a source so detached as I have it from my aunt, who contributed liberally to a graduate school paper I did on immigration history.

When I have the chance to dig that paper out, I will be able to add a street number to a street name, and see the house in which my dad was born. From my aunt's description, this view has changed very little in 90 years. The big difference is cars. Private automobiles were incredibly rare in Pembrokeshire in the 1920s. According to my father, his maternal Grandfather Venables drove a horse and buggy, which was a very posh possession  for his class and time. Pennar, the district where this road lies, was in those days a home for working class and lower middle class folk. Other street views suggest there has been some gentrification in the years since.

I digress. The point I was getting to is that "ancestry" is a very different matter when it's fed by living connections, especially connections to a country where the events of 700 years ago are as real as those of the last news cycle are to Americans, connections I recall from childhood that were not so much lost as interrupted.

The Irish side of my family is much more of a mystery. Where my already-examined Y chromosomes lead straight back some 8,000 to 10,000 years, if I got my mitochondrial DNA looked at, I would expect a much more diverse input. As it stands, certain knowledge only goes back to the early 20th century, and hypotheses only get to the 1870s. That will be very different to the information provided by a relation who lives hardly 20 miles from Pembroke Dock, and can send pictures.

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Monday, March 07, 2016

This thing does have one benefit

That benefit is living with a degree of distraction that makes the political comedy hard to distinguish from the occasional hallucination. No, I haven't gotten into the business of Botox. The past few days have been taken up with surviving a trip to the dentist (always a hazard) and making sure we're ready for the insulation guys next week.

Things are getting better. Alcoholic beverages are still a problem with the ridiculous doses of anticonvulsants, but I'm adapting otherwise. Eating is better (i.e., possible), archery is mostly possible, driving is no worse than usual. Still, it's true what my nurse boss says, explaining me. "Okay," just means the pain is manageable. Even with all these drugs, it's always there now. It's sort of like walking a wolf: the question becomes who is in charge.

News enough for now.