Saturday, December 01, 2001


Ever have one of those experiences that cause you, belatedly, to realize that absolutely every aspect of your understanding of something has been wrong, wrong, wrong?

I've just taken in my first high school basketball of the season, and as I watched a good four hours or so of ball-bouncin' fun, I noticed certain, shall we say... inaccuracies in my general apprehension of the workings of the game, its aims and procedures and ultimate goals.

I have also, at 31 contracted my first real case of bleacher butt.

Many who know me will probably be surprised, if not flabbergasted, if not wildly skeptical about my claim to bleacher butt immunity for 31 years. After all, over the last two years there was hardly a Saratoga or Encampment junior high or high school basketball competition at which I wasn't present.

Well... Even at the height of my sports reporting career, I actually spent next to no time on the bleachers. Instead I was the only pin in an eternal game of photographer bowling, in which ten burly young men or reedy young women or flailing youths attempted every 40 seconds or so to knock me on my arse under the guise of trying to put a big rubber ball through a metal hoop hanging ominously over my head.

The rules went something like this: Maximum points and prestige to the player or players who actually physcially clobbered me, knocked me over, made me drop my camera or in some other way caused physical or economic trauma to my person. Less desirable but still admirable was success in causing me to jump, shreik or haul ass out of the way, either by nearly missing me with a limb or fingernail or by launching the ball in my direction, in which cases the trauma was purely psychological as I knelt powerless with a camera pressed to my face, watching the sharpness of detail in my view of the ball's pebbled surface rapidly increase until my muscles unfroze and I ducked or leapt out of the way.

Howls of laughter all around in such events, because objects in the lens are not as close as they appear - I was essentially dodging hallucinations.

Wisely, I put my photographer bowling pin career behind me before I suffered permanent damage. While the months of PB season served to keep my joints limber and my muscles toned, not to mention maintaining my astonishing alertness, hanging up my camera has vastly reduced the stress in my life.

There's an amusing coda to my career change, however, because now when I go to games I sit in the stands with everybody else - and find the game transformed!

First of all, those kids really are trying to put that ball through the hoop. I realize this now because I noticed today that they keep charging up and down what I now know is called the "court" (and not, as I thought, the "alley") whether or not there is a photographer waiting under said hoop.

And all that flailing of limb which I had for two years been interpreting as merely amusing attempts at freestyle action to liven up what would otherwise devolve into just a series of relentless charges? They're just trying to get the ball away from each other.

And all those times when the guys in stripes blow the whistle and make everything stop? It's not to allow the photographer to get up and stretch and enjoy a few moments blissfully free of attack. It's because one of the kids whacked one of the other kids while trying to hard to get the ball! And the whacker is punished and, get this, the whackee gets to take a special shot at putting the ball through the hoop while everyone else stands around and watches.

(Me, I had thought these so-called "free throws" were just an extra psychological tool to keep the photographer/target unsettled and make him or her cringe in anticipation of an especially powerful and well-aimed blow!).

I've noticed another thing, too, as I learn a new way to interpret these basketball games (and the name makes so much more sense now, especially after I've discovered that hoop is called a "basket!"). It's much harder for me to anticipate the players' moves from the stands, because I can't see their faces!

Before, I could always tell when I could expect a body blow or an embarrassing near miss by the look in a player's eye and his or her subtle, largely unconscious movements of finger, foot, shoulder... Having watched the same 20 or so children engaging in this sport for over two years, and always from up close and from the mindset that I was a participant in and not just a spectator of the action, I have learned, largely unconsciously, to read these signals, to anticipate which side of the "court" towards which a particular player tends to drift, to see in a particular player's wide eyes and gaping mouth and his arm position (reminiscent, so often, of that of a perfect swan dive) my own immediate future as a grease spot against the wall.

Yes, it's a different game now - but not as exciting, I'm sorry to say. No longer feeling that special, personal threat to life and limb that once I took for granted, I find my attention wanders a bit. There are infants and toddlers in the bleachers, for instance, and for a certain female contingent of the crowd the alternate sport of baby passing seems to be more important than watching the movements of the ball. There is also a great deal of gossip to be exchanged, plans to be made, colorful insults to be hurled at the men in stripes whom I still catch myself regarding as my personal protectors, and a great deal of shouting and clapping just in general.

Perhaps I'm not the sports fan I thought I was, but I have to confess I do find all of this a lot more interesting than what's going on down on the "court." Am I alone in thinking so?

I kind of doubt it.

I always knew there had to be a better reason for all of those people to come to these things than just the fun of watching me go splat! Why else endure the pangs of bleacher butt, if this is what they are like (though I have to say, alliteratively amusing though the term might be, "bleacher butt" is a misnomer; my butt is fine, but my hip joints and leg and back muscles are still objecting strongly to the four or so hours of rigid inactivity through which I put them in the name of spectatorship.)

"Basketball" fans are not as mean-spirited and bloodthirsty as I had been thinking, it would seem.

I wonder what else I've been wrong about.

Friday, November 30, 2001

(Drat it, I swear the first iteration of this was better, but my wine-palsied hands muffed the crucial "publish" click and the text disappeared into oblivion. This is a reconstruction of what I wrote before. You'll see soon why it matters to me that this catastrophe occurred this time!)


It has been another heavy-duty day, so I'm going to cop out again and rely mostly on a passage from someone else's book as a peg from which to hang tonight's essay. These lines come from Graham Greene's Doctor Fischer of Geneva OR The Bomb Party, and are lines that have dwelt in my head for coming on 16 years, lines that resonated with me long before my personal experience had given me any real reason to empathize so with the narrator's plight. Perhaps it was a form of foreshadowing:

"But how does one convey happiness? Unhappiness we can so easily describe – I was unhappy, we say, because... We remember this and that, giving good reasons, but happiness is like one of those islands far out in the Pacific which has been reported by sailors when it emerges from the haze where no cartographer has ever marked it. The island disappears again for a generation, but no navigator can be quite certain that it only existed in the imagination of some long-dead lookout."

On the surface this looks like just an ordinary writer's problem: it is much easier to describe what is wrong than what is right. How much of the extant body of lyric poetry focuses on the author's bliss, contentment, fulfillment of wishes, versus what expresses his dejection, loss or melancholy?

The narrator here, though, has gained a particular appreciation for the happiness he once knew because it has been unexpectedly and brutally taken from him, and he is left with only parodic reminders of it. At the time he here describes in hindsight he was taking for granted the prospect of years together with his new, young, remarkable, grave and beautiful wife. But it wasn't to be. What seemed a mere prologue turned out to be the whole story for the pair of them.

That kind of happiness, which this man only discovered after the fact, is something that only can be discovered after the fact. Only after the events of it have been fixed in time can they be appreciated, can their beauty be savored (as in a related vein James Hillman once observed "You are never really married until you are divorced"). Once the experience can be pinned to the board like a butterfly, its every aspect, including those previously overlooked, can be examined in detail.

Not that this is the only kind of happiness. There are plenty of happy marriages, happy careers, happy progresses towards a goal. But this kind is both rare and wonderful... and crippling and poisonous, for it can easily keep the sailor standing ever at the prow of his ship, looking backwards, hoping for another glimpse of an island that has been rendered by memory and fantasy as a Platonic perfection that can never really be. His voyage may take him past other, perhaps even better, islands, but they pass by unnoticed because he's still watching for that one.

I have been such a sailor. Such happiness as described here has been mine, and it is gone with the person who made it possible. I had thought that I had gotten over this loss long ago, but tonight I realized that I've been standing there in the prow of the ship for too many years. I have let one moment define my entire subsequent life – which is madness.

Time to move toward the stern and start looking in a new direction. That island is lost to me, but it's not the only island.

How much easier it is to realize this when there is someone close at hand who has made the mighty effort to look in that new direction, and has found another island. How much better it is to find that someone one has known his entire life understands why it is a mighty effort and can explain why it is worth making.

That person will read this soon and may cry again as we both cried tonight, realizing we both have known this same happiness, which only assumes its full importance for being lost. But the tears shed this time will, I hope, be easier to bear for his knowing that I have let go my hold on the rail of the stern – and that it is because of him that I noticed I still had a white-knuckled grip on that rail.

And so to him I have to say:

Thank you.

Thursday, November 29, 2001


I just spent most of this evening enjoying beer and conversation over at Hughes Manufacturing and amidst the talk of family and small town life and the hard facts of doing business in what is economically a somewhat backward part of the world, I was hit by a revelation of the cosmic, if not the divine.

(Of course, maybe I just need to lay off Reuchlin and Eco for a while, but...)

My host preoccupied for a moment, I took a good, long look at my surroundings. The company is in the midst of assembling an array of small but complex products, and the components thereof are everywhere in the shop.

What I was looking at was wood in various stages of being turned into objects that will be on display for years to come. Over there, stacks and stacks of dowels waiting to be put to use. Over there, boards cut to size and ready for the computer numerical control router and customization. A little behind those, boards and dowels partially assembled into the finished product.

Across the street from the shop, I could hear the sounds, smell the odors of a sawmill cranking out lumber.

Looking at all of that wood, how can one not take a moment and think of trees? Pick up even the most useless scrap and at least a part of a tree's life story is there to be read if one has eyes to see it. The grain of the wood, the patterns that make it beautiful and desirable, those inimitable bands of light and dark, are growth rings from when that scrap of wood was as alive as I am.

I do not mourn the implied loss of life, however. The wood in my hand was once alive, yes - but so were bits of the concrete that made up the floor upon which I stood, the natural gas which, burned, was keeping me warm, the thread of the fabric of which my shirt and pants were made.

The wood had simply been more recently alive, and was simply closer to its raw, natural state.

At bottom, that's what life is - the conversion of the currently inanimate into the animate. Just now I have ingested dead matter in the form of a turkey burger - another mass of once-living matter rendered still and cold and turned to uses other than its own temporary turkey nature - and my body is busy making that turkey burger into a part of me. So too the trees that became the wood I held in my hands at the shop.

Particles from near and far were captured by a tree to make that scap of wood. There might be ash from Mount St. Helens mixed with silica from a sandy beach in the Phillipines mixed with carbon atoms that once comprised the body of a Tyrannosaur, broken down and remade into a piece of wood that will in turn house the ashes of a human being I will never meet, but who will be sufficiently missed and mourned by others that those ashes go into an urn made by my friend.

And my friend has removed this matter from nature for a while. Because he has made it into an urn (or a boomerang, or a keychain, or a gun cabinet) it will retain its nature as wood, its structural integrity, for decades, if not centuries, to come.

Left in the wild, on the other hand, the original tree would in no time become insect and fungus food, would decompose, would rot until there was no sign left that ever there had been a tree there.

The lesson I get from this is that the actual conservative, preservative angle on, e.g. whether to harvest a tree or leave it alone lies with yonder sawmill and the work of people like those at Hughes Manufacturing.

As humans, we respect form and substance in a way that nature does not and never can. It is nature, not us, who really regards the all as simply raw material for making something new.

The stone that comprises the Venus de Milo - what would it be now had not some unknown Greek sculptor long ago ripped the stone from its natural environment, brutally chipped away all bits of it that did not look like Venus, and put it on a pedestal to last for the ages?

That stone would be gravel by now, dust, blowing through Greece or through the streets of Saratoga, as the poor lady's arms already are. Nature is brutal and merciless, grinding away at forms and shapes and lives, large and small, without heed for what they are or were or could be. Even the urn built or the sculpture carved tomorrow has but numbered days. Sooner or later, Venus will be dust. Sooner or later, the urn will be indistinguishable from its contents.

This at bottom is why the environmental movement amuses me. Return, return, return, they cry. Undo! Remake the world into what it was before horrible, horrible humanity started messing with its processes, poisoning it, killing off its diversity, imposing the will of man upon the all.

News flash: the all doesn't give a fig what we do. The all will continue as it always has. If we did somehow manage to undo what our species - only one species among so many, so many we don't even have a number high enough to count them all - has done in our short time on this planet, what, really, would we have changed? Would species stop going extinct? That would be a change! Just ask the trilobites - oh wait, you can't; they went extinct long before there was anything around capable of giving them a name.

Would air quality stop changing? Would riverbanks and seashores stop eroding away?


(And who builds ripraps on riverbanks to preserve our good boat launch sites? We do!)

I guess maybe in a way I have to admire the environmental movement for this one remarkable quality: they have a much higher estimate of the innate power and capacity of the human race than I do. They think us more powerful than the gods themselves, than nature, than (insert your preferred term or name here). They think us capable of completely undoing the hard work of the creator, or whatever.

But then my admiration dies, because, um, we're a product of that creator too, whatever it is. We're here, subject to the same laws of physics, death and taxes as everything else that has ever lived here. So, if whatever-it-is made us, it must either be because we are really just another funky species of no greater import than, say, the smallpox virus or the tiger mosquito or the mule deer, or because whatever-it-is wanted to be able to tear down this little sandcastle of (its? his? hers?) someday, and we were the handy means of doing so.

(I take the extremist view of our apparent role in the ecosphere in saying this last bit, just to be an ass)

The barley and hops that were brutally slaughtered to make the beer I am about to evacuate from my system no more died in vain than did the trees whose bones were stacked up on the work benches in my friend's shop. Sooner or later, they'll get their revenge.

Maybe someday I'll be a mosquito and they the highly evolved Superman who slaps me into oblivion for daring to try to steal a sip of blood.

And the wood stacked on my friend's workbench was once a tall and slender pine among many tall and slender pines crammed into a forest, but now it has been singled out to become unique, to be displayed, treasured, praised for many years to come.

Not a bad trade-off, in my book.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001


I don't entirely believe in the concept of karma, but because I do like to hedge my bets, I will never, ever be a conductor, music teacher or theater director of any kind.

I would be facing an unbelievable shitstorm of divine and other retribution if I did.

I am a career musical screwball, and said career continues apace.

I feel for the director of the Saratoga Community Choir; I really do. He's a lovely and a remarkable man, one whom we have been lucky to have in this town for all of these years. Once a professional musician - he played trombone in the Denver Symphony Orchestra for many years - he left the glamor and the glory of getting to play classical low brass (lots of interminable low notes in sequence, stupefying, unvarying pitches and rhythms, rests on the order of 40 measures long, plus the occasional chance to play something heavy and scary like Prokofiev's wolf motif) to become a teacher. And it is in that context that his paths and mine first crossed.

He was already seasoned and savvy by the time I reached the fourth grade and joined the band, so he knew what to expect from trombone players: lots of misbehaving. It's practically universal, as I discovered years later when I first read the account of the dubious bombardon duo of Annibale Cantalamessa and Pio Bo in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

Anyway, I always suspected that this was why he so often made a point of encouraging girls to take up the trombone, believing that at least they wouldn't misbehave as much.

In my case, he was right... for three years.

Once I hit middle school, however, things were different. After sixth grade, we no longer just played as the class of 1988. After sixth grade, we seventh graders joined forces with the eighth grade. And monsters were born.

One of two mischevious twins was in the class ahead of me and played trombone. His best friend played baritone. And they made the most of all of the free, unstructured time granted to those with stupidly easy parts in the increasingly complex compositions our fearless instructor was giving us to play.

While our teacher busied himself with getting all 15 of the clarinets to play their funky syncopated parts in unison, we who had perhaps seven different notes in challenging arrangements of wholes and halves to tackle were pretty much at liberty.

Nerd that I was, it wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I learned to make a spitball. Guess who taught me.

Oh, the sight in my mind's eye of a good sized, well moistened gob of paper tracing a parabolic arc across the back of that room and disappearing down the bell of the sousaphone still brings mist to my eyes to this very day!

Nerd that I was, it wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I learned that taking one's trombone home to actually practice on it was for dorks. Guess who taught me.

I could have used that big long trombone case to defend myself from the assorted bullies who lined the route home from school, although it would have been an expensive bludgeon.

Nerd that I was, it wasn't until I was in seventh grade that I learned how much fun it is to just completely screw off through a whole hour of class. Guess who taught me.

And we got away with it, got away with it all. Drawing intriciate patterns on the backs of sweaters with precisely aimed streams of slide oil, emptying overwhelmingly full spit valves onto trumpet players' shoes while they were toiling away at the melody of "On Broadway," trying to convince the worst flute player in school history to challenge for first chair... We got away with it all.

To this day I don't know if this was because our teacher was distracted or because he had a soft spot in his heart for trombone players. Perhaps it was both. Certainly I no longer think, as I did then, that he just didn't notice what was going on.

That's because our paths have crossed again, my old band teacher and I. He's the choir director, and I'm in the tenor section - and while I've been out of high school for over a dozen years now, and he's been retired for almost that long, the second I step into the fellowship hall at the Presbyterian Church on Wednesday nights, the years fall away.

I don't have slide oil or spit valves and there's none of this first chair nonsense... but I do now have two other generations of old trombone players with whom to make mischief, and the only tenor in the choir who isn't an ex-'bone player (and the only other female tenor) is something of an absurdist as well.

While our much-respected and appreciated (really!) director fusses with the sopranos and the altos, who have some pretty formidable parts, high notes, odd rhythms, challenges galore - all that and many more singers to coordinate, we the tenors... act like trombone players.

Even though we're all in government somehow - there's a planning commission member, a joint powers board member (who has served quite a lot of time as a school board member, too) and me - and have all of us shouldered serious responsibilities and spend more time in wrist-slittingly dull meetings than any of us would like, we... well...

I have threatened to get us all commemorative propeller beanies.

It's just so NICE to have something like this to do! Singing is fun in and of itself of course, but what's really wonderful about this is that... that...

None of us is in charge!

Others pick the music, acquire it, distribute it. Our director runs rehearsals. Our accompanist covers up all of our flubs because she's also quite a pro.

We're just necks.

It's glorious.

Not that our choir director doesn't get his licks in on us from time to time. He does - especially on me, whom he has known since I was ten years old and yes, he was onto me the whole time, as he occasionally shares with the rest of the choir.

So when my friends and I start screwing around and shoving each other and trying to make each other blow our parts and mocking the sopranos sitting in front of us, our director, my old teacher, just sort of looks at us and smiles. Most of the time.

He knows we'll shape up come performance time, as we did at the community Thanksgiving service when we sang, with about two weeks' rehearsal, a little-known hymn written to the tune of Sibelius' "Finlandia" (ugh!) and did it quite nicely.

But he must at times wish we'd just shut up back there.

So you see, if ever I were to take on such a job, I'm sure I would fall victim to something very like the well-known parents' curse.

I see it once a week in my old band teacher's face. Deep in his heart, he is hoping that someday I'll be running a choir, and I'll get a tenor section that acts just like I did.

Monday, November 26, 2001


I've been promising this for a week, so now I'm delivering. Here's my take on the current Business License Teapot Tempest.

The whole deal on business licenses started this last summer when our zoning officer/streets supervisor/all-around Superman (as our town attorney named him upon his hire) brought up an obscure ordinance in a meeting as part of his on-going quest to do his job effectively.

He and his staff have been continually vexed by out-of-town paving contractors who go door-to-door and arrange with individual homeowners to pave their driveways, and who pay little or no attention to the structure and nature of Saratoga's streets, their drainage systems and composition. Superman had been seeking a way to extract some form of compensation from such contractors as a way of recovering a part of the costs of having his crew watching for them and dealing with their aftermath.

Lo and behold, for perhaps the first time in 20 years, Chapter 4 of Title 5 of the Saratoga Municipal Code got a hearing in council.

He wanted to use this little-known and rarely (if ever)-enforced Chapter to govern out-of-town paving and siding contractors and suchlike. Simple enough. But it's opened a funky little can of worms, for Chapter 4 has unfortunately proven very easy to misinterpret.

Bear with me through a little philology, please. I'll make it worth your while.

Chapter 4 governs "Business Licenses Generally" and covers everything from the application process to procedures for changing locations to grounds for suspension or revocation of licenses. Simple enough, right? I wish!

The very first section, 5.04.010 - Applicability has caused the biggest problems so far. I will quote from it directly:

"This title shall govern every business license in the town, except as otherwise provided by this code or other ordinances of the town under which such business is licensed."

The important phrase here is "every business license in town." Please note that it does not say "every business in town." Every business license.

A further bit which is not in itself problematic but has nonetheless caused problems (largely through sloppy reading of the bit I just quoted) appears in the very next section, 5.04.020 - Definitions.

"'Business' means any business, trade, occupation, profession, avocation or calling of any kind, subject by the provisions of this title to a license or tax."

We'll ignore the tautology for a moment - "business means any business" and I will instead call attention to the phrase "subject by the provisions of this title to a license or tax." That's the tricky phrase. To me, and to many thinking people who have been paying attention to this (OK, cranky time, I probably shouldn't use the term "many" to quantify these people, but I keep hoping that more of you will start paying attention to this issue before it's too late), this phrase clearly limits the whole business license issue to, oh my goodness, BUSINESSES SUBJECT TO THE PROVISIONS OF THIS TITLE TO A LICENSE OR TAX.

Not, in other words, every business in Saratoga, as several of my colleagues on the council and our town attorney, seem to believe is indicated here. Just the ones subject in the terms of the title to a license or tax.

What businesses are explicitly subject to a license or tax in Title 5, you may ask? Well, there's a list right handy at the beginning of Title 5. It includes businesses selling alcoholic beverages (Chapter 8), circuses and exhibitions (Chapter 12), peddlers and solicitors (Chapter 16 - better known throughout the state as the "Green River Ordinance, about which more anon), pool and billiard halls (Chapter 20), pawnbrokers (Chapter 24), and cable television franchises (Chapter 28).

So far, as we look over Title 5, there isn't much here that indicates there was an intent behind this thing to require everyone doing business in Saratoga to have a license. The actual language focuses very precisely on people selling alcohol (per state law), travelling exhibitions and salesmen, cable TV franchising, and businesses that don't even exist here at present like pool halls and pawnbrokers.

Where it does get thorny (for those who aren't reading closely, anyway) is in 5.04.040, which reads:

"It is unlawful for any person or his agent to engage in or carry on a business in the town for which there is required a license without first having paid the required license tax and obtained the license."

Lots of people have interpreted this to mean, again, that everyone doing business in Saratoga needs a license. But again, pay attention to the devil in the details - there are these all-important modifying phrases like "in which there is required a license."

If the intent of my predecessors who framed this law were to make it apply to everyone doing business in Saratoga, the law should have read simply: "It is unlawful for any person or his agent to engage in or carry on a business in the town without first having paid the required license tax and obtained the license."

But that's not what it says, is it?

Folks, the law is, at bottom, nothing more than a matter of language carefully and effectively deployed. And in this case it has been. Those modifying, limiting phrases matter.

However, I'm the only one on the council, though, who seems to believe this, with the possible exception of the mayor, for whom I will not speak. He can get his own webpage. But I digress, as usual. My point is, I'm outnumbered at present, which puts Saratoga businesses in a certain amount of danger (unless, after losing this battle, I prevail in my backup campaign to set the business license fee at $0) of getting bled just a little more, of having to do a little more paperwork, and of having to pay some more hidden costs for processing, filing and preservation of this paperwork - EVEN THOUGH THE LAW DOESN'T SAY THEY HAVE TO.

Personally, I'd rather we just left this alone, since the law doesn't mean what certain people think it means, and I'm pretty damned confident that mine is the interpretation of same that would hold up in a court challenge (especially now that I've shared it with all of you. Ain't I a stinker?).

But it doesn't look like I'm going to get my way 100%, so I am currently concentrating on just getting rid of Chapter 4, or, barring that, setting the license fee at $0. Businesses would still be expected to complete some paperwork and there would be hidden costs for us all to absorb for the administration of these licenses, but at least we'd not be socking existing or new or prospective businesses with any more direct financial hits.

A better way to address our zoning/streets Superman's (remember him?) original concern would be adding language to 5.16 (Green River Ordinance) making it explicitly clear that we consider out-of-town pavers and contractors and siding salesmen to be peddlers and solicitors who will be regulated as per the Green River Ordinance.

Currently there is no definition of a peddler or solicitor in place in the municipal code anyway that I can find. So we write one, making sure it's tight and clear (language clearly and effectively deployed) and covers even paving and siding contractors.

Slam dunk.

So - who's going to run for council in 2002?

Sunday, November 25, 2001


I’ve just returned from a midnight walk through this little town, and none of you were there - which was part of the charm of this exercise. How often do any of us get to walk unguessed through these too-familiar streets and see them transformed, disguised and silent? I was reminded of certain Christmas carols and saw anew how a night could indeed be holy. And I was reminded of bits of Walt Whitman, that funky voyeur, wandering at night but not in my vision... “Pausing and gazing and bending and stopping.”

Like Whitman I peeked a little at you all, but found you all closed up tight, lights out, motionless, the snow in your yards and driveways undisturbed by tire tracks or footprints, the air around you untroubled by sound. I gesticulated as I passed your houses and bid you sweet dreams.

I stopped at the intersection of First and Bridge and stood there for a while, right in the middle. No cars passed me, no people, not even a stray dog. I looked in all directions, then straight up above me, Foucault’s pendulum for a moment, hung from the only fixed point in the universe, the dimensionless point around which all of creation revolves.

Then I chided myself for getting too wrapped up in what I’d been reading again and kept walking. My goal was the bridge, the river; I wanted to see the ice trying to form on its surface and the way the snow picks out the shapes of the dormant plants on the banks and of the rocks. The sluggish flow of the chilled but not freezing water would be the only sound I would hear...

I was wrong about that, of course. Somehow I’d managed to forget our special tenants, whom we feed behind Pizza Hut and by Bubba’s all year so they’ll stick around, and who agree to stay because the hot springs along the river keep their habitat liquid: the ducks.

I had forgotten they would be there, and so got quite a scare when I looked down and saw so many of the rocks moving. That’s what they looked like: rocks lined with snow, neatly arranged along the edges of the ice. Until they moved and quacked.

One duck, swimming off by herself away from the huddled others, paddled upstream to where the gap in the ice ended, hopped out onto the ice, waddled a few feet, then thought better of it and rejoined her fellows. I wondered what she had been looking for.

I stared out a while towards the point where the river and its banks seemed to disappear into a cloud. Elements merge in the night, I thought, quoting Whitman again. Not my favorite poet, flaky Walt, but even the most annoying of poets gets it right occasionally. The snow has made everything come together, covered the dirt, the pavement, the rails of the bridge, the last leaves clinging to the trees, the windowsills and rooftops of the houses, my hair and eyelashes, the ice on the water. Elements merge in the night - especially in winter.

Tomorrow we’ll track up this snow (“Who’s been getting footie-prints in my nice clean snow?” my dad would demand when he’d get home from work after my sister and I had made a day of playing in the yard. Our Wyoming snow makes for poor snowmen, but great snow angels, after a fashion) and many of us will curse it as we shovel our walks, clean off our cars. Those merchants with stores on the north side of Bridge Street will cast envious eyes at those on the south in the morning, for I have verified it this evening: the heated sidewalks work. A neat, dark canyon in the snow marks out the sidewalk past Shively’s and Second Impressions, past Lollypop’s and the Wolf, disappears into the street and resumes near the old gas station that is soon to be another real estate office, continuing up past Hat Creek to the Donut Ranch, the Chamber, Napa.

Across the street from me, Marty will have to dig his way into his studio tomorrow; I will simply have to brush some snow off the bench I stand on to put out the Chamber’s flag in the morning. Will he be jealous? Maybe not if I offer him coffee.

But why look forward to the morning when this night is so lovely? Finally a bit chilled, I head back for my little apartment. I’ve already shoveled the walk in front of it once, as has my neighbor. It needs it again, but I ignore it for now, with this essay running round my brain. I’m on a mission now, and pause only to admire the splat of snow still clinging to the screen of my living room window from when, hours earlier, my neighbor tried to startle me with a well-flung snowball. He succeeded. I jumped. He laughed.

He’ll get his later on. Revenge is a dish best served snowy-cold. Maybe I’ll bury his car when I shovel the walks again in a while.

Now I’ll have to hope he doesn’t read this, or he’ll know it was me that did it. Shh! Don’t tell him; let him blame the snowplows in the morning.

Happy winter, everyone!

I don't have much to relate tonight - or rather, this morning; it's just past 1 a.m. Sunday right now - as I spent most of today just watching videos and drinking coffee, so I'll instead share the best single bit of advice I've ever received. Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised that it's from a book. Those who know me exceedingly well will not be surprised that it's from the original stoic philosopher-king, Marcus Aurelius.

(Note to pop culture fans: Marcus Aurelius is the old emperor in the movie "Gladiator" who is depicted in the film as having been murdered by his son Commodus. Further note: Commodus was not, in fact, killed in the Colloseum as depicted in that film. He was murdered some 13 years later. But I digress, as usual)

This is from the beginning of Book II of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations (this edition is OK for a modern one, but I like the now very hard-to-find George Long translation that my mother gave me many years ago and from which I quote here):

"Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busybody, the ungrateful, the arrogant, the deceitful, the envious, the unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that is beautiful and of the bad that is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong that it is akin to me, not only that it is of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, so no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him."

Especially good advice for me, in all my current roles, and for many of my friends who are currently embarking on serious public service for the first time. Our customers, constituents, comrades - call them what we will - now only approach us when they find something wrong in what we are doing, and we must not let this fact, that only the disordered, the dysfunctional, the distressing seems worthy to them of their comment, poison our love for them or our dedication to serving them, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant our interactions with them on a daily basis become.

Especially hard to follow, for a hothead like me, but all the more necessary. For the last year I have tried to keep this advice in mind, and for the year ahead I pledge to try to apply it even more so.

For my sake, and for yours.

Good night.