Boy, Men and Frog

Are we merely three baby-boomers entering our goldish years and looking backwards for no reason other than we don’t want to look forwards?  Does the horizon backwards seem now farther away, wider and broader than the horizon forwards?  Farther away so richer in possibility than the horizon ahead?  Richer in possibility so more inviting, enticing?  “But that’s nonsense!  The past is past because it’s no longer possible!  The future, not the past, is the realm of possibility!”  I guess you’re right; past is past and done is done.

Sort of.  Sort of not.

I need, straight away, to absolve Jill and Skip.  I’m fairly sure I’m the only only one of us who reads obituaries, always with a tinge of surprise.  Jill and Skip are still going places.  I though, despite having gone a lot of places, have never quite felt like I was going anywhere.  Or wanted to.  Or needed to.  Instead, places, and lots of other life stuff,  have come to me.  They’ve happened to me, over and over.  Mom’s primal wish for all of us was: “I just want you to be happy!”  I’m amazed at how happy I’ve been, and am.  Karl Jaspers late in life opened a set of lectures citing a poem he thought was from Angelus Silesius, but is not:

Ich bin, ich weiss nicht wer.      I am, I know not who.

Ich kom, ich weiss nicht her.     I come, I know not from where.

Ich geh, ich weiss nicht hin.       I go, I know not where.

Mich wundert’s                            I’m amazed

dass ich glücklich bin.                 that I’m happy.

Let it be noted that Karl Jaspers, the old man who saw fit to cite this little poem, did so after, along with his wife, enduring virtual house arrest in Nazi Germany, both of them keeping cyanide pills at all times within reach, in expectation of a visit from the SS.

Jill has hit on the spirit of this blog by calling it ‘Views from the Back-Back’ and has encapsulated that spirit by announcing that we have stories to tell.  The telling of stories, by its very nature, is a looking backwards.  Even science fiction only pretends to look forwards while in deed looking backwards.  Every story is once upon a time.  Take it or leave it, we’re going to do a lot of looking backward.

But I’m still trying to figure out this blog thing.  What is it?  How to do it?  I found myself wondering what the word even means, which for me generally means where the word came from.  So I reached out once again for help from my handy online etymology dictionary,  www.etymonline.com, which told me that ‘blog’ is the con-fusion of the words ‘web’ and ‘log’.  Why say ‘weblog’ when ‘blog’ will suffice, eh?  I didn’t have reason to wonder about the ‘web’ part of the word, so focused on the ‘log’ part.  We all know what a log is, but why do we call it a log?  Certainly it has nothing to do with tree logs, could it?  Turns out, no, it does.  My friend at etymonline explains that the first log was a ship’s log.  A few hundred years ago, when shipping was so important but still pretty primitive, sea captains needed a way to reckon how quickly the ship was moving.  The solution was to tie a piece of tree log to a very long rope and throw the log overboard.  The rope had ribbons knotted onto it at regular intervals.  Once the log was overboard and in the water, it would stay in place, while the ship proceeded forward.  Shipmates would time how long it would take for the rope to be fully extended, which would provide the data needed to calculate the ship’s speed, which was measured in knots and recorded into the log.

So they too, while sailing forward, had good reason for looking backward.  And modern ships still measure speed in knots.  The past is always present.  It’s done, but not finished.

So I guess it’s story time now.  I’ll tell another story from our early days back in Ohio.  I’m not sure why I’m telling this story, or telling it here, or telling it now.  The simple answer might be that Jill has given me the assignment to tell stories and this is simply one of the stories I have to tell.  But: it’s a story about frogs and I’m telling this story at the beginning of springtime and, where I live, one of the great features of springtime is the nightly singing of hundreds of frogs who share time and place with Dita and me, tree frogs piping down from the trees, bullfrogs grunting and gurgling from around our pond.  And it’s nighttime, so those froggy friends are singing now.  Maybe they want me to tell this story, here, now.

I’m pretty sure Dita’s the only one I’ve ever shared this story with.

Once upon a time, in southwestern Ohio, when I was about five years old (as best as I can tell from my poor version of a ship’s log), in the midst of an Ohio summer, I was given maybe my first official chance to enter manhood, and didn’t pass the test.

That summer, late one afternoon, Dad told me Granddad was in town and the two of them were taking me fishing that night.  We would be gone all night, the entire night!  I was five (I think), and had never done anything at night but go to bed, go to sleep.  This night I was going to be up all night!

We ate dinner with everyone else, as always around the barnwood maple table which remains to this day my dinner table.  Then we got ready to leave.  How strange it was to get into the car with Dad, only he and I, the sun still in the sky but not very high, and leave everyone else behind.  We drove out of the city, into the countryside, that Ohio farmland countryside of orderly open spaces, cornfield after cornfield, bunches of wild weeds lining the roadside, a border between road and cornfield, the insects of summer singing their songs from out of those wild weeds.  I always loved driving down such roads in summer, car window open, listening to those bugs sing and sing and sing.

Dad said something about someone he knew at work knowing someone who had a farm which had ponds on it, which was where we were headed.  We reached that farm a little before nightfall.  Dad drove to a pond.  Granddad was already there, already fishing.  We got out of the car and joined Granddad, all three of us now casting lines, trying to catch bluegill.  Dad, as always, was smoking his cigarettes.  Granddad, as often, was smoking his cigars.  We didn’t talk much.  We kept fishing.  I guess, but don’t quite remember, we caught a few bluegill.  It got very dark and we kept standing there, on the edge of that pond, fishing.  Way past my bedtime and we kept fishing.  How new, how strange.

Then one of them, not sure which, said it was time to go.  Turns out it didn’t mean going home and going to bed.  It meant going to another pond, a much bigger pond, on the same farm.  We went to that pond and there were many, so many, other men at that pond.  They were getting ready to do something but I couldn’t tell what.  No one had a fishing pole, which seemed strange.  They had flashlights and spears.  I had played plenty with toy spears.  I had never seen a real one.  I was the only child there.  All those grown men, smoking, talking in muted tones, holding flashlights, holding spears.  Almost as if going to battle.

The group moved down to the pond.  The muted tones hushed and the work began.  Men fanned out around the pond.  They shone light beams into the pond, looking for frogs.  When they spotted a poor frog, the spear went to work, did its work and another dead frog was put into a bag.  And another.  And another.  And another.  All night long.  The insects of summer still sang, all night long, from the wild weeds, but the song seemed no longer sweet, had gone from major to minor.  I tagged along, all night long, watching my Dad and my Granddad partake in this slaughter.  Strange.  So strange.

Still night, but not much night left, everyone suddenly looked at me.  I had been a fly on the wall.  Suddenly, I was the point of attention.  What?  Someone, not Dad or Granddad but someone, said, let’s see how the boy does!  Someone else said, give him a gig!  The night had taught me that these spears were called gigs.  A gig was thrust my way, and I took it.  A man walked me to the pond’s edge and shined a light beam into the water.  Look there!  There’s a nice big one!  Go after him!  Did I have a choice?  We always have a choice but I struggled to see one as I was pushed and pushed, slowly, quietly, closer to that frog.  Too soon I was in reach, in range, and I still couldn’t find my choice.  The man whispered, come on now, do it.  Do it.  The man, the frog, the gig, the boy.  What choice?  Do it!  Dad and Granddad watching.  Everyone, all those men, watching.  Do it!  I had to do something and, up till the very last moment, that something was gigging that frog.  I poised the spear, steadied my balance.  Moment at hand and time to do.  Then, in tandem with my lunge at the frog, something told me to pretend to lose my balance and miss my mark.  I played the part well, almost tumbling into the water while the frog sprang lively away.  I even nicked my left leg with the spear point a bit, enough to draw blood.  I was proud of that blood.  All the men laughed, and laughed.  Good try son, maybe next time, son.  I never noticed, probably on purpose, my Dad or Granddad.  Did they laugh too?  Probably.  What did they think?  Did I bring shame?  Probably not, but maybe.

The sun rose, and we still weren’t finished.  We were finished with the killing, but we weren’t finished.  Time for breakfast.  Time to take all those dead frogs out of all those bags, cut off the hind legs, discard the rest, toss the legs in a fryer, fry them up.  The sun rose that morning over a bunch of men and one little boy, everyone, including the boy, eating leg after leg after leg.  The sun rose that morning over a pond bereft of its frogs, but maybe one.  The sun rose that morning over a boy who already sensed that growing up was maybe something he didn’t really want to do.

But do we have a choice?

What To Do With This Blog Thing

What to do with this blog thing… Jill, a very busy person, spent time and effort getting this blog set up.  It’s clearly important to her.  And here we are, weeks and months after the blog’s birthday, and not one of us has yet to post anything to the blog.  Post.  That’s the right word, right?  You see, I’m a pre-geezer, much more so than my older brother Skip, who’s still very active with stuff (work; acting; jogging with his cocker up and down the canyons of So Cal).  That stuff disqualifies him as pre-geezer.  I, though, meet qualifications, proudly.  Including feeling some anxiety, trepidation and confusion about this blog thing.  Classic pre-geezer reaction; you can look it up in the manual.

Does anyone remember the movie Moonstruck?  What a beautiful little movie, squarely in the tradition of Shakespeare comedy or Da Ponte/Mozart.  Much in that movie to think back upon fondly, smiling, but what I frequently think back to is a scene near the end, three generations of an Italian-American family and friends gathered around a breakfast table, people coming and going, actions coming and going, life coming and coming and coming.  Then suddenly, in the midst and from the midst, comes the voice, up till then silent, from a person up till then still, the voice of the family patriarch, an old man who had seen much of life.  What does that voice say?  With some anxiety and trepidation, the old man says: “I’m confused!”  

Pops, I too am confused.  Almost all the time and by so many different things.  But right now, right here, the focus of my confusion is this blog thing.  What am I to do?

The obvious answer: write something and post it (right word, right? someone please tell me).  Jill worked hard on this thing and wants me to write and post.  I owe it to her, don’t I?  Like she says, Mom always wanted me to write.  If I had ever written, I expect Mom would have disliked what I had written, and wondered why I hadn’t written something which could bring in a buck or two, but there I go pussy-footing around the fact that she, and many, many others in line behind her, including Jill, including Skip, including my wife (rhymes with life) and partner Dita, have wanted me to write.  And I never have.  In part, Jill created this blog to try to back me into that corner and force me, long last, to write.  Something.  Anything.

Ok, I’m cornered.  So here we go…

I’ll tell a story I was told by Mom, about which I have no personal recollection but which, from the moment she told it to me, made sense to me, and about me.  It happened when I was three years old.  We lived in an old farmhouse built by a Civil War general, Woods was his name.  He built the place after the war, his place of peace after that horrible time of war.  The city of Dayton over the years grew out and around this farmhouse, turning it into a city house.  It was a nice old house to grow up in, big rooms, a big covered porch to play on in bad weather (the picture of us as little redcoats was taken with us on the steps of that porch), big yard to play in in, big trees to clamber up.  One tree we called the NCR tree because from the top of the tree we could see the NCR building in downtown Dayton.  Our grandma, Mom’s mom, lived out in the country but close enough for visits back and forth.  Grandma was a perpetual talker, didn’t even need someone to talk to or with.  For her, to be was to talk.  I talk therefore I am.  Which is, no doubt, why I puzzled her, because I didn’t (and don’t) talk much.  One day during one of Grandma’s visits she couldn’t stand it any longer.  She turned to Mom and said, “There’s something wrong with that boy.  Three years old and he’s still not talking.”  She told Mom to get me some help.  Mom’s reply, which I’m sure left Grandma unconvinced, was “Oh, he can talk just fine, when he has something to say.”

So there you have it.  And, yes, I write just fine too, when I have something to say, which isn’t often (did I mention I’m often confused?).  But now I’m backed into a corner and have little choice but to write, something, anything.  Someone please wish me some luck.  I need to find some things to say which haven’t already been said well by others.

Post-script (no pun intended but pun accepted):

I’ve lived sixty-three years without ever having seen the word ‘geezer’ written out, so thought I ought to double-check, make sure I spelled it correctly.  I typed it into the magic box on my online etymology dictionary and the dictionary told me that, one, I did indeed spell it correctly, and two, the word is a circa 1885 variant of an old Cockney word ‘guiser’, “ ‘masquerader, mummer, one who goes from house to house, whimsically disguised, and making diversion with songs and antics, usually at Christmas,’ ” from the late 15th Century.  And ‘mummer’?  “ ‘One who performs in a mumming, actor in a dumb show,’ early 15c., probably a fusion of Middle French momeur ‘mummer’ (from Old French momer ‘mask oneself,’ from momon ‘mask’) and Middle English mommen ‘to mutter, be silent,’ related to mum.” (www.etymonline.com)

Words tell us so much, when we take time to listen.  I just called myself a pre-geezer, then told a story about my life-long mummery.  Those words had waited ages for me to call upon them.  Or for them to call upon me.  How does that happen?

The hurdy-gurdy man at the end of Schubert’s Winterreise is an example of one of those guisers.  I have lately read and re-read Ian Bostridge’s wonderful book Winter Journey, a singer’s meditation on Schubert’s Winterreise.  

I have stood where Franz Schubert was born, and I have stood where he died.  I’m not sure whether that’s made me better, or different.  I hope it has.