Today marks fourteen years since I began inflicting my thoughts on the public, or, if you prefer, tagging the alleyways of the web with my digital graffiti. In January of that same year, a wonderful site called Futility Closet took its first steps into the world. And yet, until Alan Jacobs mentioned it last week, I had never once heard of it. On the one hand, I’m dismayed to think that it could possibly have remained unknown to me all this time. Who has time to read that many archives? On the other hand, how cool it is to still find nice surprises like that, tucked away on the picturesque country roads of the web, far from the congested eight-lane superhighways leading to and from the social media skyscrapers and the big-box clickbait retail giants. Here’s to hoping for a few more in the coming years. (If any of you are keeping any other delightful secrets from me, I will be quite cross.)
We had a close call
I didn’t even see it, then another one
I hardly believed it at all
— Band of Horses, “The General Specific”
♫ Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back ♫—WHOA!
So, yes, I was working in the garage yesterday morning when I heard such a clatter, as if a garbage truck had picked up a dumpster and dashed it against the ground in a fit of rage. Running back into the house, I met the Lady of the House coming from the opposite direction. We converged at the door to the back porch, where we saw that one of our oaken neighbors had dropped in for a visit.
We had just had solar panels installed earlier this week, and for a confused second, I thought that somehow they had come loose and gone sliding off the roof. But no, the crash I heard was the tree destroying our above-ground swimming pool. The people who built the house had installed it; it was a really nice one, with a deck custom-built around it (pretty similar to this one.) Incredibly, the deck itself was unscathed. A section of the gutter was torn off (you can see it pinned to the screen in the picture), but it just so happened to be the section that we were going to repair soon anyway. The branches fell inches short of the roof; not a single shingle was damaged. The solar panels were safe, thank goodness. It missed the propane tank by a few feet, thank goodness once more (with feeling this time!). And the pool needed some minor repairs to the plumbing, so we hadn’t even opened it this season anyway. Insurance should cover replacement value, though honestly, we probably won’t bother to replace it. A check for several thousand dollars can be far more useful in other ways than replacing a luxury item that only gets used three or four months a year anyway. All in all, we couldn’t have possibly planned it any better had we tried.
Last year, our car got totaled when a high-school girl, late for her prom pictures, tried to dart across the highway in front of us from a side road and didn’t time it well enough. We clipped her rear end and sent her into a spin, where the truck coming up in the left lane got her on the opposite front end and pushed her into the grassy median. She was shaken up, but no one was hurt. As it happened, we were looking at the possibility of some expensive engine work on that car, but the insurance payout covered everything we owed plus another thousand or so toward a new vehicle (which we bought outright). Now, as someone who has logged over a million miles in nearly thirty years of various driving/delivery careers, I despise stupid, inattentive drivers. I’ve seen countless accidents and damn-near accidents, especially on interstates, and have probably spent a week of my life, if you total up the hours, being stuck in traffic behind an accident or detouring around it. As I’ve said before, bring on the driverless cars. People are too unforgivably stupid to be trusted with them. So, as you can imagine, I was furious at the time. We could easily have been killed by some hormone-addled, airhead teenager, the avatar of all the dangerous morons I’d seen over the years tailgating people at eighty miles per hour while fiddlydicking with their stupid phones. But once I’d calmed down, I had to admit: this was clearly the best possible outcome, all things considered. We couldn’t have possibly planned it any better had we tried.
It’s a strange feeling to be grateful for disasters. It feels a bit like making cutesy noises at a wild animal that could easily decide to maul you. These near-misses turned out to be quite beneficial, but intellectually assenting to that fact calls one’s attention to the uncomfortable reminder that very little of one’s life is actually under one’s control. I’m not a religious believer, but I’m still sensitive to when a situation calls for the humble recognition of how lucky we are to have as much good fortune as we do. No amount of human brilliance or technological mastery will ever completely remove fate’s teeth and claws. For every person who happily burbles about what a blessing in disguise a disaster turned out to be, there are countless more in silent graves who couldn’t be reached for comment. Maybe one day we won’t be so fortunate anymore ourselves. All we can do is be aware, feel small, and move on — perhaps a bit more tentatively at first, but eventually, as we always do, slipping back into complacency and self-centeredness.
Some new 23andMe results came in. Now I can see specific regions my ancestors lived in:
(Lublin Voivodeship, Silesian Voivodeship, and Podkarpackie Voivodeship)
(Lucerne, St. Gallen and Schwyz)
(Šibenik-Knin County and Sisak-Moslavina County)
(Glasgow City, Leicestershire and Greater London)
Eleven inches of snow yesterday. Sixty yards of driveway needing to be cleared for delivery trucks. I whistled for my trusty steed —
— and away we went.
Yes, the snow was light and powdery enough that I was able to sweep the driveway with an old broom that has lived at this house longer than I have. Three or four swinging arcs was all it took to get down to ground. My neighbor, a Good Samaritan who goes down the road on his tractor after heavy snowstorms, clearing everyone’s driveway for them, hailed me as he approached. “You want me to hit it?” he asked. “You about got it already, ain’tcha!” I’d already had a good hour-and-a-quarter workout, so I gratefully let him finish it off for me. It’s amazing to me how easily — and willfully — we forget this, but a little vigorous exercise first thing in the morning always makes the day feel more productive, in addition to the usual health benefits.
It’s rare that we get any significant snow before the new year. Usually, it’s February or, lately, even March before we get the serious storms. Our financial planning consultant was telling us a few weeks ago that they were supposedly predicting a much snowier winter for us than usual, but I usually chalk such things up to Farmer’s Almanac rumors. I guess we’ll see. Ironically, we had been down in North Carolina on Friday and Saturday, but had to jettison our original plan to stay through Sunday due to the storm. They apparently got it worse than we did, with ice mixed in to bring down trees and power lines. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever had to head north to escape a winter storm.
Still, it sure does look pretty along with the neighborhood Christmas lights. And I enjoy snow much more now that I no longer have to drive in it for work.
Take heart, for even as the scorching sun and suffocating humidity crescendo to a hellish Summerdämmerung, the first red maple leaves are here to promise us an imminent end to the sweltering misery.
I got the half-price deal on Prime Day for a 23andMe kit, and my results came in this week:
Based on family lore, I would have expected to find myself being primarily German and Croatian, but it turns out I’m mostly Swiss, Polish, and Balkan, with some German, Hungarian, Ukrainian, and British (!) spice thrown in.
Apparently the mysterious British ancestor was part of the family within the last two hundred years, which makes it especially interesting. My paternal side of the family were Swiss Anabaptists, who became Amish and Brethren on this side of the ocean, so perhaps some of them stopped in England en route to the New World long enough to leave some genetic roots behind. Or maybe some New England Puritan came down to Pennsylvania and joined the family? It’s not likely that I’ll find out, but it’s fun to speculate. Fascinating stuff. Grab yourself a kit when they go on sale again for Black Friday.
When left to my devices, I choose to be unobtrusive. I choose gray. It suits my diffidence and soothes my extroversion. It is the color, rather than the sound, of silence. It sits with monkish, folded hands and asks for nothing. It never shouts. It never pushes. As the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres said, “Better gray than garishness.”
Gray is the dark end of the light. The light end of the dark. Unsettling, perhaps, but full of possibility. Just think how beautiful we all look in the gloaming. It’s liminal, the color of our own potential to become.
A wonderful poetic tribute to an unappreciated color. If only she’d chosen the correct spelling.
The sale was going to start at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, but numbered tickets were going to be handed out starting at 6:30. We drove up on Friday and arrived a little before 3:00 p.m. to put a couple of boxes in line to hold our place until the next morning, then we went to visit the arboretum and take a leisurely stroll around campus.
We arrived back at the arena the next morning around 6:00 and made a little small talk with some of the other members of our itinerant biblio-tribe, then collected our numbers. Most people got back in their cars to drive into town for breakfast, but as we’ve done for the last couple years, we used the opportunity to grab a prime parking spot. It was only two miles down to College Corner, and we’re always up for a good walk. We took off at a brisk pace, wanting to have plenty of time to eat and get back in line.
It was an absolutely beautiful morning. Maybe not by most people’s standards — there had been a torrential thunderstorm around midnight, and the skies were still slate-grey, though merely overcast. No threat of further rain. Temperatures in the low 50s, with a slight breeze. For me, there couldn’t be more gorgeous weather for a walk. It made my heart sing. And campus walking, especially early on a weekend morning after graduation, is one of our favorite things to do. It’s a pleasant feeling of kenopsia to walk past such stately buildings and perfectly manicured lawns with hardly any sign of human activity anywhere.
Shortly after we had crossed the street and passed the stadium, the Lady said, jokingly, “We’re being followed.” She spoke truly, for there was an older couple not far behind us. I’d been vaguely aware of them back there since we left the parking lot, but now they were close enough that we could hear them. Before they caught up to us, though, they veered left and headed down near the tennis courts and swimming pool, while we continued down the sidewalk along the main road. The speed of their pace and the purposeful manner of it made me suspect that they were also heading down to the Corner for breakfast and they knew a shortcut. Several minutes later, our parallel paths converged, and they were indeed a little bit ahead of us. “The stalker has become the stalkee,” I whispered, but a few minutes later, we had to admit that despite our respectable clip, we were, in fact, getting dusted by a couple of sprightly greyhairs.
They went into the waffle shop where we had eaten last year, but we continued for another half-mile to a different one, where I discovered that a three-cheese omelette with a few fun-size hash brown patties and a couple slices of toast provide enough fat and protein to keep a fellow feeling energetic and sated for almost seven hours, despite four miles of walking and a day’s hard work.
After finishing breakfast, having made such good time, we went back up the main lawn and past the library, taking a more relaxed amble this time. When we turned back onto the main thoroughfare again, though, we saw our fellow saunterers coming up via a perpendicular sidewalk. This sort of serendipity, this brief membership in a transient club of four, we felt, had to be acknowledged, so we turned toward them as they came into earshot and offered a hail-fellow-well-met. The Lady asked if they were also at the sale, which they were. They said they were surprised, because they thought they were the only ones who ever walked into town. We responded in kind. We asked if they were locals, seeing as how they seemed to know their way around. The wife said, “Well, he was a local, from ’71 to ’75.” “A lot of the buildings are different now, though!” he added. We fell into step together and chatted the rest of the way back to the sale.
By my math, if he was a freshman in 1971, that would make him 64 or 65 years old now, and I assume his wife was about the same. They told us that they bike about 30 miles every other day as well, near their home in Amish country. “No matter how tired I am, I never let myself get passed by an Amish buggy!” she asserted. I had to laugh in appreciation of that competitive spirit. Other than the grey hair, you wouldn’t guess they were anywhere near that age. Spry and athletic, they could have easily passed for being in their early fifties.
I don’t have any grand conclusion to the story. I just thought it was inspiring to meet such a role model. Hopefully the Lady and I will still be that fit and active at the same age, still strolling around campuses early on summer mornings.
We realized, to our chagrin, that we hadn’t been hiking since last September. First there were my two hospital stays plus eventual surgery. Then the new business got rolling and ate up a lot of our time. And even we aren’t quite mad enough to get up before dawn on a winter morning and go walk for several miles along a mountain ridge while our several layers of clothing put up about as much resistance to the howling, frigid wind as your grandmother’s password does to identity thieves. But we’ve hiked this trail twice in the past week, and it’s great to be back. No bears yet, but lots of chipmunks, plus what appeared to be a beautiful pair of orioles, a pileated woodpecker, and one bald eagle! The long-term forecast is calling for a cooler-than-normal spring in the mid-Atlantic; ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. We’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for.
“Privilege” is to serious criticism what a strobe on a cop car is to natural lighting: a warning, not a source of illumination.
That is a phrase which makes me envious.