Friday, January 29, 2010

Divine Comedy

In a moment of foresight, I bought replacement wipers for the car. I left them in the garage for later. Of course, I only remembered they were there when I was out driving in the rain. So much for foresight.

The idea came to me fully-formed one day as I watched the forecast: sunny today, thunderstorms tomorrow. Hmmmm. Oh, right! Put the wipers on the car! I went to do that before I got distracted.

If your car is like mine, you know it takes about 30 seconds to change a windshield wiper. Old one off, new one on. Wiper number one, no problem. I opened the package for wiper number two. Uh-oh. Where's the little plastic adapter? Hm. I must have dropped it. Funny, I didn't hear anything fall. I spent a few minutes crawling around the driveway looking for it. Nothing.

Maybe it's stuck in the package? No. Was it even there at all? Maybe not. Well, if I ever did have it, I didn't now. Fortunately, I had a receipt. Back to Mal-Wart to exchange it. Yay, hooray.

"Oh, you're going to Wal-Mart?" my wife says hopefully. "Can you pick up a couple of things?" She quickly dictates a list of about fifteen items. I scribble it down. My afternoon is beginning to go flush, gurgle, gurgle. I'm less than delighted, but it could be worse.

I pull in to the parking lot. It's vast and nearly full. Damn. The place is going to be a zoo. I park about a quarter-mile from the entrance and hope the returns line isn't Soviet-long. I inspect my pockets. List? Check. Receipt? Check. Keys? Check. I lock the car and head for the store.

As the automatic door slides open, my inner-nag pipes up: "Hey, Bozo! You left the wiper in the car!" Double-damn. Back to the car to get it. Now I'm starting to get irritated. I raise my eyes and utter a prayer of sorts, heartfelt, if somewhat less than devout. "Come on, Lord... can you help me out here?" I turn back toward the car and... what the hell?!?

On the ground is an empty windshield wiper box. Same brand. Same size.

Now I know people often change their wipers right in the parking lot. In fact, I intend to do just that. I think I would have noticed that bright yellow box on the way in, though.... You're kidding me, right? Slowly, I pick up the box and give it a little shake. It rattles faintly.

No way.

There it is. One plastic adapter, still in the package yet. I just have to laugh. The day brightens. My foul mood evaporates. I'm grinning like a fool as I wade through Mal-Wart hell. I have a smile for everyone. People eye me nervously as I laugh to myself. The checkout line is Soviet-long. Who cares? I wait with uncharacteristic patience and good cheer. I'm still chuckling as I install the wiper. I drive home and let anyone who wants cut me off. I smile and wave at them. I even use all five fingers.


Was the whole day just a set-up for the punch line? My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways says the Lord. Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be complete. Could it all be a coincidence? No, I believe it was a deliberate practical joke, a bit of Divine Comedy from the Master Himself. Who could pull it off better? Truly, I was touched by the hand of God... and He slugged me in the arm and said: "Gotcha!"

The best jokes are the ones you never see coming.

Respectfully Yours,


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dream House

To your right, three enormous catalpa trees shade the driveway. A bayberry towers over you on the left. A sandy path winds through the grass to the door. The gentle breeze bears the scents of scrub-pine and salt marsh. A wood thrush begins its peculiar song. Day-lilies glow against the weathered shingles. Approach the door. Notice the mat on the step before you: Go Away. Open the door and enter. A tiny wind chime jingles as the screen door bangs shut behind you. Look around. Come see my dream house.

Its main frame was raised sometime during the Madison administration. Sturdy timbers neatly joined, held in place by wooden pegs that my grandfather would tap back in now and then. They creaked reassuringly at night like a safely moored ship. Its pine-wood planking is unthinkably wide. Follow the progress of the knots across both roof and floors and know that these planks were cut from a single massive tree, when such trees were still to be found here. A thick central chimney firmly anchors the house to earth.

Once this was a simple Cape. Perhaps a flintlock hung over the main fireplace. Over the years it has been extended again and again. Now, it sprawls along one side of its double-lot. It is big, but it somehow seems even bigger from the inside, like something from Alice's wonderland. No right angles or plumb lines here. It is not poor craftsmanship, though. Just time, lots of time, and the ever-shifting soil of Cape Cod.

Every doorway is hung with a thin wooden "Christian door". Each door has two small glass panes at the top of the cross and a black iron latch. No doorknobs here. The bedrooms are tiny. Just big enough for a bed and, perhaps, a desk or chest. A few closets seem to have been added as an afterthought. Not so. Many old Capes are like this. Once, closets were taxed as extra rooms.

See the never-used front dining room. Year-round, it stood ready for the formal dinners that were never held here. Pewter chargers and china arranged in neat rows on the hutch. Three pristine birch logs on the fire-grate. A marble-topped side table with a Tiffany lamp. Eight caned ladderback chairs around a drop-leaf table. No ghosts linger in this museum. A spiral staircase beckons you up.

On a table to your right, an antique dollhouse sits before a lace-curtained window. Through an open doorway, you see a white iron hospital bed under the bare rafters. The ghost of a little boy peers through a tiny window overlooking the yard. A brass frame on the night-stand holds an illuminated quotation:

God made me to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. - Baltimore Catechism, Lesson 1.

Long ago, this was my room. The quotation was placed there by my grandfather. It was the first thing I saw in the morning; the last thing I saw at night. I still have it but I no longer need it. It is written on my heart.

All around there is wood, some bare, some painted white. Thin wooden walls, thin wooden doors. From the bed you can look up and see the rafters, the roof above, in some places the shingles. Somehow it does not leak. When the rains come the room resonates like a drum, but it is dry, if not always warm. This part of the house is unheated, but it seems like enough.

In the next room the ceiling and rafters are finished: a white wooden ceiling and finished beams. A four-poster bed with a nubbly cotton spread. Another tiny window. The windows here are the oldest. They have no mechanisms. You open one and place a stick in it. More modern windows have buttons that pop out at varying heights. Windows more modern still have levers that turn down. Only a few of the newest windows have pulleys and weights. No double-glazing here. It seems like enough.

A hallway leads through another bedroom, the attic proper, and still another bedroom. Stairs lead down to the old kitchen. Everywhere it seems there is another window. You breathe clean salt air in white Cape light. The old kitchen is white wood and blue glass. Braided rugs and wide pine floors. A pot-belly stove. Copper pans hang above the sink. More windows look out on the sun-porch.

The sun-porch smiles at its own little joke. It is nailed right on to the side of the house. Step down into it and turn around. There is the old front door, the doorbell, the mail-slot, the stairs. Three windows look out from the old clapboards left intact. Seven windows with bamboo shades surround you with light. To the left, my grandfather's favorite chair. To the right, my grandmother's writing desk. Built-in bookshelves invite you to browse. Sofas and chairs invite you to stay. Friendly ghosts linger here. This is where their voices echo.

At the very back stands the work kitchen. Another add-on, Southern-style, to keep the heat out in summer. An ancient Hotpoint stove. An elderly Frigidaire. A small but sufficient countertop. Two wooden stools. The ghosts of a woman and a little boy watch from the corner. A single French door leads to the old kitchen. Cookware hangs from the rafters. A wind chime tinkles in the breeze. The screen door looks out at the barn. No stainless steel appliances here, no granite counters. Somehow it still seems like enough. This tiny kitchen was once my grandmother's alone. In time, it became ours. Just one voice echoes here.

Who loves you, baby? Your Nana, that's who.


I dislike home-improvement shows. Something about them saddens me. It is always more, more, more. Stainless steel appliances and black granite counters, Andersen windows and energy efficiency, houses with more bathrooms than bedrooms, Sub-Zero and Jenn-Air and all the rest. If you like that sort of thing, that's fine. I don't hold it against you. I just don't see the point, myself.

My dream house had a single, tiny bathroom with a cast-iron tub, a tiny kitchen with old-but-working appliances. Tiny bedrooms and no closet space. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Its only concessions to modern living were gas, electricity, and running water. The house is still there. It looks like it has been thoroughly modernized. Honestly, the new owners did a nice job. It's still a beautiful house, but I could never live there.

Only in my dreams.

Respectfully Yours,


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pitchforks For Sale

My dear friend Suldog recently posted his astute analysis of the Massachusetts Senatorial election, in which Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley. Perhaps you might read that first. Then, read this analysis, where I will argue that this election does not matter in the slightest. - Porcupine.

Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.
Frank Zappa

It will be all over the news soon: a stunning upset, a victory for the right-wing, a repudiation of Obama's "socialist" policies. The Democrats have lost their supermajority. The seat held for so long by uber-liberal Edward "Ted" Kennedy has gone to a Republican, the first Republican senator from the People's Republic of Massachusetts since 1958. Dittoheads of the world, rejoice!

I could just as easily turn this around. All is lost. The Republicans will block any legislation that could help real people. Health Care Reform will die. There is no more hope for change. No, we can't. We're doomed. I could turn it around but I won't. There are plenty of others to do that and at more length.

Myself, I inhabit a sort of political limbo. Liberals think I'm conservative and conservatives think I'm liberal. Some of my philosophy is socialist, some libertarian, most of it is Catholic. There isn't one word to describe it and no party truly represents me. Over the years, I've found I'm certainly not alone in this. Liberal or conservative is too limiting. How you would perceive me depends on both who you are and what issue is up for discussion.

Actually, I think people like me are the true silent majority. The folks who are frothing at the mouth, be they bleeding-hearts or right-wingnuts, are rather few. It just doesn't seem that way. People like me don't make the news. That's too complicated... we need sound bites. Yes, we can! Question 2? Bad for you! Never mind what question 2 is, it's just "bad for you", got it? Good.

Here's the nutshell version of why none of this matters. If in fact we ever did, we no longer live in a democratic republic. We live in a plutocracy. We do not have two parties, we have one party with two faces. Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, right vs. left: it is all an elaborate play staged to hide the real force behind the scenes, money.

Obama is a socialist ?!? Please. I don't see how anyone can take this seriously. His administration is crawling with people from Goldman Sachs and The Fed. Right. What a bunch of commie-pinkos they are. By the way, do you know how The Fed describes itself? As a "quasi-public institution". Translation: we are a privately owned, for-profit bank, masquerading as an arm of the government for the sole benefit of the super-rich, foreign and domestic. Think I'm kidding? Look into it and see.

Both sides of the aisle are bought and paid for by the same interests: banks, insurance companies, pharmaceuticals and the rest. The media are all owned by the big corporations too. What more do you need to know? Both parties feed at the same trough. The media report what the corporations want them to report. Elections are held to maintain the illusion that you have a choice. You don't.

Of course, there are real issues, but under this system, it's important not to resolve them. That way, the politicians have something to talk about come election time. Health care, abortion, Iraq, and the rest: the idea seems to be to keep the ball in play. The right says this. The left says that. Back and forth we go. Liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, right, left.

Here's a question that never seems to come up: instead of right and left, what about right and wrong? Fair and balanced? Who needs it? Life is not fair or balanced. In many cases, there is a discoverable truth, if we look for it. But we don't take that approach anymore.

We don't need fair and balanced. We need true or false.

To paraphrase the great G.K. Chesterton, here's the main problem: there is no agreement on what our society should look like. My idea of heaven could well be your idea of hell. Medical diagnosis is possible only because we have some idea of what constitutes health. As Chesterton said: the hospital may, of necessity, send a man home with one leg less. It never, in a creative rapture, sends him home with one leg extra. I'd say most of our "reforms" seem to fall into this latter category.

This is the question we need to ponder. What would our ideal society look like? We need to answer this before we can go any further. As I see it, the two greatest obstacles to real debate and change are these: corporate personhood and privately funded elections. As long as a corporation is afforded the rights of a person, it will always be able to win out over the flesh-and-blood kind. Until ordinary people can afford to run for office, we will always be governed by the rich. I see no way around this.

Until then, money rules the day. Now, who has a good pitchfork for sale?

Very Truly Yours,



Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Becoming Porcupine

People who know me now will laugh, but I was a friendly, outgoing child. Only a few people will remember but it's true, I tell you. It's true.

Mrs. Porcupine is concerned that one of our porcupets sees too much violence. I'm not talking about Mortal Kombat violence, now. More the biff-pow-socko Batman type. Perhaps she is right, I don't know. I watched the same shows when I was his age. I don't think it hurt me any.

Schools these days seem to be very concerned with bullying. We occasionally get flyers about how to respond. Counselors sometimes speak to the children and trot out the typical advice: bullies have low self-esteem, do not respond to violence with violence, talk things out, just walk away, involve a parent or teacher. I'm sure you can imagine.

I have mixed feelings about this. It all sounds good. It certainly agrees with what I was taught: turn the other cheek, a soft answer turneth away wrath and all. In my heart, I would like to believe it. I really would. My experience when I was his age was very different though. I wasn't concerned about TV violence but the real thing, and the moral of this story is not so good.


My experience with bullies was limited but instructive. My neighborhood was not exactly dangerous, but it was tough. If you wanted a fight, you could easily find one. I was never the sort who went looking for a fight, though. Neither was I an obvious target for bullying. I was good-sized and average in appearance. If I had a flaw, it was that I was a gentle child. Don't laugh, I tell you it's true. I had learned all the lessons of non-violence and had taken them to heart. When this was found out, the trouble began.

Mike was a scrappy neighborhood punk: a skinny kid, always looking to fight. Once he discovered I would not fight back, he set out to torment me. I never quite knew when he would turn up. Perhaps he would lay in wait as I walked home from school. Perhaps he would step out from around a corner. These encounters always ended the same. We would have an old-fashioned fist-fight from which I would leave with varying degrees of injury.

Although I was bigger than him, I had learned my lessons too well. I turned the other cheek. I tried to walk away. I told teachers and parents. All to no real effect. I did not know exactly what to do.

One day he appeared out of nowhere, looking for trouble as usual. He began the ritual taunting and shoving. This day would be different, though. As we went through the motions, I made a crucial decision. Today, I would fight. I would fight at the time of my choosing and I would not fight fair. I'd had enough.

In mid-taunt, I pushed him to the ground. He looked up with surprise and rage. He started to get up, fists clenched. But I was not going to fight fair today. I was going to break the "rules." I was going to hurt him.

I took a step back and kicked him squarely in the mouth.

Blood flew everywhere. At least one tooth lay on the ground. His eyes went wide. As he stood up, I prepared myself for battle. He looked at me with surprise and rage. Then he turned and ran off. I was amazed.

He never bothered me again.

I went home a nervous wreck. Surely there would soon be a knock on the door, a telephone call. Surely his angry parents would be looking to speak with mine. I was going to catch hell for this.

The call never came.

I never found out exactly what I had done. We weren't close like that. Of course, he continued to taunt me, but only from a distance. I didn't worry about him anymore. He would occasionally yell something from down the street. I would respond with a cheerful one-fingered wave. That didn't bother me. My problems with him had ended.


Two more times in my life I dealt with a bully. Both times, I remembered the real lesson I had learned. Both times it worked. When someone tried to pick a fight, I lashed out with immediate and disproportionate violence, without regard for rules. "He's f---ing crazy. He don't fight fair." they would say. That was all right with me. I thought it unfair that I should need to fight at all.

I find it hard to worry much about my son watching Batman. I was no older than he is now when I learned a very different lesson about violence. I still have mixed feelings about it. In my heart I want to believe what I was taught; that violence is not the answer; that love conquers all. I want to believe. I really do.

Except none of that worked.

In practice, I found that a bully understands nothing but violence. That a soft answer is received with contempt. That turning the other cheek invites another blow. That his low self-esteem is not my concern. I found the most effective response to a bully was a work-boot to the teeth. And I became Porcupine.

The only question left is: what do I tell my son? Do I tell him what I would like to believe, or what I found to be so? In truth, I do not know. I hope he never asks.

Very Truly Yours,



Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why I Believe

By any of the usual measures, Mrs. Anderson was not an attractive woman. She was quite overweight, right down to her ankles. She walked with difficulty, breathing heavily. Her complexion was blotchy. Her hair usually unkempt and a bit greasy. She was sweet and kind-hearted, but beautiful? No.

I suppose it didn't help that I judged her with the perfectionist eyes of a seven year-old. Adults are often frightening creatures to children. Children do not understand aging. Children see their own smooth skin and recoil a bit from us. Children look right up our noses in dismay, and wonder why even the best-groomed adults radiate the unfamiliar scents of perfume, tobacco, or garlic.

In those days, my mother reminded me of no one more than Laura Petrie. Mrs. Anderson was something else altogether. I liked her well enough. She was a gentle soul, and patiently instructed us for our First Communion. She tolerated our rambunctious moods with good humor. I recognized her essential goodness. I just did not find her beautiful.


One morning, she arrived at class carrying a grocery bag. She set out pita bread, a bottle of Welch's Grape Juice, and tiny Dixie cups. She read to us the story of the Last Supper. She wanted to act it out with us. She took out a basket filled with 12 slips of paper so we could each choose an Apostle to be. We passed the basket around. I chose and opened my slip nervously.


Several of my classmates snickered. Even with our limited understanding, we all knew I had made an unlucky draw. Still, it was just play-acting, after all. We pulled our desks into a circle and Mrs. Anderson handed out the tiny cups of grape juice. Perhaps she said a prayer as she broke the bread and began to hand pieces of it to us one by one. My turn came. She held out a piece of bread to me and said: "I love you, Judas."

That's when it happened. I saw her with new eyes, and saw that she was beautiful. I could see the light radiating from her heart. It was no hallucination. I was too young for that. Besides, she appeared no different. Same body, same complexion, same hair: she was the same. I was different. For just a minute, I saw her with the eyes of my Lord and saw that she was beautiful.


I walked home a different person that day. Something in my heart had changed forever. If it sounds unreal, perhaps it is. It is more real than reality - it is truth. I saw it and it was true. She was beautiful. Perhaps not by any worldly measure, but by the only measure that has any meaning.

If I expected some grand welcome from the Heavens on the day of my First Communion, I did not get one. The day passed in the usual way. That is all right. The Lord gave me what I needed and more in His own way. Why, I do not know. I suppose He wanted to give me something to cling to during my wanderings, a lamp to light the way. Just a glimpse, perhaps, but more than enough.

You believe, Thomas, because you have seen. Blessed are they who have not seen yet still believe. I cannot read this line without a sense of great humility. She was beautiful. I saw it and it was true. I believe because I have seen. Blessed are they who have not seen yet still believe.

Respectfully Yours,


Monday, January 11, 2010


Facts must be faced. I'm fat. Not "oh my God, did you see that guy" fat, just standard American fat. A bit fatter than I'd like, definitely fatter than my doctor would like, a whole lot fatter than an insurance company would like, but they're pretty unreasonable in that department. In fact, I have a feeling they're at the bottom of all the trouble.

These days, I'd put my overall physique somewhere between Harding and Taft. Maybe Ulysses S. Grant (first-term). Though I'm hardly at the pinnacle of health, once upon a time I would have at least been considered normal. I put the blame for my bold circumference squarely on my genes. But I blame the insurance companies for the feeling I ought to do something about it.

It's a bit crazy. Even at my thinnest, which was fairly thin, the insurance folks seemed to think I could lose another thirty pounds. A guaranteed bona-fide MD told me the insurance charts were extreme. At 35, they seemed to think I should weigh what I did at 13. Hm.

Somewhere along the line, we seem to have gotten some strange ideas. That we can, or even should, all be walking around like a nation of Olympic hopefuls. That we somehow have a moral obligation to try and live forever. Mrs. Porcupine mostly falls into this camp. I do not. Here's why.

Mrs. Porcupine likes to picture us in our 90s. For her, this makes a good deal of sense. Many of her relatives lived well into their 90s. I met several of them. Wonderful people full of life, of sound mind and body until the end. Here's the thing, though. They didn't take exceptional care of themselves. They didn't exercise, or eat a healthy diet. As far as I could see, they were just predisposed to live a long time.

My case is different. I can count on exactly zero hands the number of my relatives who lived to be 90. Late 70s, early 80s seems to be the end of the line for my kin. Lifestyle doesn't seem to affect that statistic much: exercise nuts or chain-smokers, all somewhere between 70 and 80. Given the mileage I've already accrued, I think it highly unlikely that the first of my clan to make it to 90 will be me. That ain't pessimism, that's just reality.

The way I see it, the human body hasn't changed much since we first climbed out of the trees onto the savannah. Your body is designed for a world where food is hard to come by and much work to get. When you do find some food, your body wants to hold onto it and store it as fat, because the famine could be coming.

I wasn't cursed with fat genes, I was blessed with fat genes. My people survived the famine. They survived colonial living. They survived coffin ships. They survived the hard times and passed along their genes. Fat genes.

What happened to all the skinny-minnies? The ones who can eat buckets of fried chicken and never gain an ounce? The ones we normal folks love to hate? Dead. They never made it. The only reason they're still around is because we have made more of them. The only reason those folks have survived is because of us. And because the famine never comes anymore.

Of course, there are other factors. We don't go work the farm anymore, we sit at desks. We drive everywhere. Most of us eat an American diet consisting primarily of sugar, salt and fat. All of that is true. Still, it seems like the same people want to sell us both Big Macs and Dexatrim, gym memberships and life insurance. They want to fatten us up so they can slim us down, all the while overcharging us for our superior genes. Superior, I say. The ones that let us survive. Fat genes.

More and more, I'm inclined to go with it and live more like my grandparents. If you're not too fat to tie your shoes, to climb the stairs, to live your life in general, you're not too fat. That's the way it should be. There's a freedom in that: the freedom to say "please pass the butter," the freedom to say "why, I'd love dessert," the freedom to relax a bit and just live. It's the freedom to be honest and condemn treadmills and stairmasters as the instruments of evil they are. Over port wine and walnuts by the fire.

Now I'm not saying I couldn't do with more carrots and fewer cheeseburgers. I could. Even so, the case for genetics seems pretty strong to me. A look through my family album confirms that. I offer no scientific studies for my conclusions, only history and common sense. Now who is with me?

I have no time for the gym. I'm too busy preserving the human race from famine. A little respect, please, and pass the butter.

Very Truly Yours,



Friday, January 8, 2010

A Quotation

Wishing that I had time to write something decent, and finding that I do not, I offer for your consideration this quotation I came across recently. Though it was written over 100 years ago, it is no less accurate.

... You talk about mobs and the working class as if they were the question. You've got that eternal idiotic idea that if anarchy came it would come from the poor. Why should it? The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.

from The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton may have had his faults, but he had a sharp intellect all the same. In light of the past year or so, I think the above deserves some serious thought.

Respectfully Yours,