Monday, August 13, 2012


My son Ned, as a child, had two imaginary friends: Kevin and Busclam.  If you google Kevin you're in luck. Not so with Busclam. Not until tonight that is.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

It's Not Easy To Be Green

  I was complaining to my environmentally friendly friend about my electric bill. It has doubled in the last couple of years. "The company's passing on the cost of those stupid windmills which are going to end up being a crock anyway."
 "It's about time you paid the piper," said my friend, smoke shooting from his ears.
     And then my employer built a new nursing home for me to work in. Not only is it beautiful, it is also the first totally green nursing home in the state. The first thing we workers noticed was the water saving faucets. These innovative devices mix air with a tiny amount of water. The water exits the faucet  with a force capable of removing the varnish from your fingernails. During the ten seconds you are allowed access, water redirects off your hands and sink bowl and covers the mirror, the counter and your face. It takes about a dozen paper towels to dry everything off. We were saving water but destroying forests. After receiving a waiver, we were permitted to remove the aerators from the faucets.
   And just yesterday Teresa asked me to sign us up to receive the prospectus from our investment company on line. Once a year we get a phone-book sized volume listing  thousands of investment opportunities which goes right straight to the landfill. I’ve felt guilty for years about not signing up. A little tree on the prospectus cover tells me I can prevent clutter in my mailbox, keep the landfill tidy, save a tree like him, and save his company the expense of complying with silly regulations about keeping its customers informed of their options.
  I am averse from making changes with any of the companies I do business with. It always results in heartache. But yesterday I sat down and logged on. Of course I had to open an account. Of course the computer asked me several questions about myself, “Because your security is important to us.” However the questions all referred to my son’s doings. I knew the answers and was tempted to use them, but that would be wrong. My son might inadvertently cash in my investments. I had to call tech service. We’ve all been there:  Explain everything in detail to three people only to be referred downstairs. “They’ll call you back later today, sir.”
  They did call back and I was able to log on, change my password, and change my preferences. “A tree will be planted in the Adobe Forest in your honor,” said the confirming e-mail.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


  Ma died on Saturday, March 24. Catholics talk about a Good Death, and that's what she had. After she died we kept her at home till Sunday noon and her grandchildren came in to say goodbye and shed their tears. The neighbors came with food and condolences. On Sunday morning Doreen and MaryJo washed her and dressed her in the nightgown she always said was "too nice to wear." At first the funeral was set for Tuesday, but we were trying to do as much as possible ourselves so we pushed it back to Wednesday. Just before the undertaker came at noon we wrapped her in the bed sheet (her favorite) she had died in. MaryJo clipped a dragonfly pin under her chin and Bill tied ribbon around her legs and she looked like a cocoon. Everyone stood by the front door as the undertaker's van pulled away. On Monday morning Mark and Bill got to work on the coffin. Two years ago when dad died Mark had made the coffin which had been cremated before the service. Everyone said was a shame, so ma said she wanted her coffin at the funeral. Monday was my birthday and everyone came to Mark's house to sing in my new year. We all gathered in Mark's shop and toasted the men's work on the coffin. Bill had found a chunk of teak in the shop that had been kicking around since we lived up in Roslindale over forty years ago. Bill cut a cirlce out of the teak and carved a heart for the top of the coffin. On Tuesday morning MaryJo and I went to see the priest about readings for the mass. MaryJo suggested we haul ma's recliner back to her house in Hull where the get-together after the funeral would be held. The house had been closed up since New Years when ma had moved in with MaryJo. We had a great visit with Fr. Joe. Exactly one week before, Fr. Joe had gone to MaryJo's to meet with ma. He was new in the parish and she hadn't been getting to mass these past few months so this was her first good talk with him. After he left, she said "I'd recommend him to anyone." The next day ma got together with her good friend and fellow choir member Alice and picked out the music for the mass. Ma kept asking questions about the mass, "What time will it be?" and "Have you set the date yet?" MaryJo had to remind her that it was customary to be gone before those arrangements were made. I flew in from Minnesota on the following afternoon, a Thursday. MaryJo kept telling ma she had to wait till I got here. When I reached her bedside, she asked how I was doing and I told her I loved her. She closed her eyes and didn't really wake up during the two days before she died. Someone had been sitting with ma all the time for past day or so and I took my turn while the rest of them went out to the kitchen. It was 80 degrees that day, unheard of for March 22 in Boston. I heard them talking in the kitchen. MaryJo came into the bedroom and said there were deer in the yard. She hadn't seen deer in months, but as we watched, two deer than a third, large beautiful doe came around the corner of the house. "A visitation," I said. Just before MaryJo could say there's another I said "Four is a sign of death in Japan," and the fourth doe emerged and they all meandered slowly toward the woods. After our meeting with Fr.Joe, we drove to ma's house. Doreen had been cleaning and setting up furniture for Wednesday. MaryJo backed her van a little ways into the back driveway. We looked around the house for a few minutes then went to get the recliner. The recliner was not heavy but it was awkward to carry and I said I'd back the van up to the steps. I looked out the open back hatch of the van as MaryJo waved me on. There was a catalpa tree on my left side and I knew I was far enough away from that. Suddenly I heard a cracking noise and saw a buoy tied to a rope shooting high into the branches of the catalpa. "What the hey?!" The driver side mirror had disappeared leaving behind a little stub. It didn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure this one out. Someone had tied a rope with a buoy on the end onto a branch for kids to swing on. As I was backing, the rope caught on the mirror and the buoy helped decapitate the mirror. I got out and found the mirror unbroken on the ground. The big plastic cover was sadly defunct. This struck me as hilarious and I didn't dare look at MaryJo, but when I did, she too was doubled over with laughter. These sorts of things happen from time to time and about all you can say is, "At least no one got hurt," and they provide comic relief from more serious matters. Later that day we delivered the coffin to the funeral home. "I'm not making any money off you people," Bob our undertaker joked. Ma was waiting for us in the next room. The funeral home was a big old house, cozy and comfortable with lots of sofas, rugs, and marine paintings. Bob said it was a miracle how little ma had changed. Indeed she looked exactly the same as when she had died. We carried in the coffin, a beautiful piece of work, the pine boards trimmed with darker hard pine, Bill's heart attached to the top and the interior lined with curtain material ma had bought ages ago. "The price was still on it," Mark said. "One dollar, and there was just enough to do the job." In the bottom of the coffin they put the spare mizzen sail from dad's boat. Mark had cut the 19 metal sliders off the sail, exactly enough for each of the grandchildren. Everyone had jobs to prepare for the funeral and the get-together after at the house on Sunset Point. Matt, Heather and Teresa put the picture boards together. Joey scanned the pictures and e-mailed them to Ashley's mother in California who made a video of the pictures for the party. MaryJo and I worked on the eulogy. MaryJo gave me some great stories and quotes. The funeral was beautiful. The church was packed with ma's friends and family. The full choir performed the music ma had chosen. Fr.Joe did a great job. Afterwards one of ma's friends told him "Your homily gave death a good name." Bill, Steve, Mark and MaryJo joined me as I read the eulogy. We carried the coffin to the hearse and MaryJo tossed a spray of flowers on top. Everyone stood on the church steps as the hearse slowly pulled away. I noticed three seagulls circling high overhead. As the hearse passed out of view the gulls formed a perfect triangle above it. Rain had been threatening all morning and as we drove to ma's house the heavens opened up. But once everyone was settled in the house spooning down clam chowder, the sun came out, lighting up the whitecaps out on the bay. In the course of the afternoon, the front porch was crowded with people who over the years had sat here and enjoyed the view as the tide ebbed and flowed. These people had enjoyed good talk and meals with Joe and Mary and they told us we needed to keep this place in the family. That's what our parents would want. And maybe that's what we'll do, the good Lord willing and with Mary and Joe pulling strings with their saint friends. Maybe we can all continue this great voyage together into beauty and joy.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln

In honor of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I am working my way through Allan Nevins magisterial eight volume history of the war. And it is work. Nevins assumes a certain level of astuteness in his reader and once he gives you a fact he assumes you’ll remember it. It’s all great stuff, but I’m constantly asking myself, “now who’s this guy,” or, “what year are we in now?”
The first four volumes start back in the early 1840s and trace out the causes of the war. The cause was slavery. The South will say the cause was states rights, but the right they wanted most was the right to keep slaves. They felt their institutions under siege by the expanding North. They especially hated the wild abolitionist. The counter group in the South were the Fire Eaters who were ready to cut free from the Union yesterday.
So these volumes follow the efforts of the South to expand slavery into the new lands conquered in the Mexican War. The reader learns all about the Missouri Compromise, the Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision and much, much more. The Congress of today you soon realize is a cocktail party compared to the fisticuffs and duelists on the Senate floor in those days.
Volume three is titled "The Emergence of Lincoln," but he doesn't appear until page 350 (I expect I'll see a lot of him in the final five volumes). Lincoln shows up for the seven debates with Stephen Douglas. The debates were held all over Illinois in the summer and fall of 1858. I thought it would be a fun jaunt to visit all these sites. Using Google maps I discovered I’d have to drive 1136 miles to visit the sites in chronological order. The first debate was in Ottawa, southwest of Chicago. Then they moved up to Freeport on the Wisconsin border. Next it was way down south to Jonesboro, 421 miles by road. though the state only measures 390 miles north to south.
By driving to the sites in a big circle I could cut the distance to 853 miles. Coming from Minnesota, I’d visit Freeport first (debate #2). From there I’d head south, hitting the next four sites in easy two hour drives: Galesburg (5), Quincy (6), Alton (7), and Jonesboro (3). Those last three are along the beautiful Mississippi River. Take a break in Jonesboro then head north to Charleston (4) and back to Ottawa, where it all started.
A tidbit from Nevins: Just before the debates, Lincoln had won an important lawsuit for the Illinois Central Railroad. When the railroad refused to pay his fee, Lincoln sued them and won. This money allowed him to take time off to debate Douglas. Douglas threw this fee in Lincoln's face saying he was in the pocket of big business.
 The scenery may change, but the actors stay true to form.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Mystery at Sea

The big sea story this week was the wreck of the Italian cruise ship and the death of several passengers. That was bad enough, but the true sensation was the bizarre behavior of the captain. There are many questions: why go so close to the shore? Apparently the captain wanted to show off to one of his retired captain friends. From there it gets murky. At the time of the crash, witnesses say the captain was in the dining room in the company of a young off-duty Moldavan crew member. So how could he have steered the ship onto the reef? Other reports say he turned the ship towards the island after it hit the reef which made it possible for people to get off the ship. Yet other reports have him ordering dinner after the crash. After he left the ship, authorities ordered him back on, but how could he have gotten back on the ship when hundreds of people were streaming down the ladders? Cruise ship experts say all sorts of alarms would have been going off on the bridge as the ship neared the reef. Why didn't someone on the bridge countermand the captain's orders? My theory is that after the captain realized the horror of what had happened he simply snapped. His sole instinct was to save himself from the nightmare. And for another strange ship story:

* My dad's brother lives up in Alaska.

** Nome?

* Course I do. He's my uncle.

I'm also intrigued by the recent Russian fuel delivery to Nome. I have many questions about this also. Television news dramatized the story into a life and death struggle against the elements. They provided aerial views of the U.S. icebreaker cutting a path through the ice pack for the tanker. Eventually the ship got to within a half mile of Nome. Would they be able to safely unload the 1.3 million gallons of diesel and gasoline? Yes they would. And when they finished there would be a celebration in town and a basketball game and the crew of the icebreaker would be invited. What about the crew of the Russian ship? Russians like basketball, and celebrations too. And why a Russian ship? News stories described the tanker as being able to handle ice. OK, that makes sense. And Russia is only 200 miles from Nome. Yet this turned into a month long, 5,000 mile odyssey. The ship left Vladivostok in eastern Russia, dropped down to Korea for the million gallons of deisel, then headed up to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians for the gasoline. The tanker then encountered 500 miles of sea ice between it and Nome. That's when the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker headed up from Seattle over 2,000 miles away. If the tanker had not made it, the fuel would have to be flown in which would have added $3-4 to the current price of $6 per gallon in Nome. When the ship started unloading, it froze into the ice which is a good thing. There would be no tugging on the hoses. And who had all these hoses? The Russians I'm guessing. They probably deal with this situation in Siberia all the time. A 100 yard no-go zone was set up around the ship and hoses to keep terrorists at bay. Someone walked the hoses every half hour checking for leaks. I bet he walked with a snowmobile.
Voices from the public said that this crisis was proof that the Coast Guard needed more than one icebreaker. Another voice said that for the price of this operation the fuel could have been flown in to the city. My big question is why the city of Nome hadn't stocked up earlier. This is Alaska you know. Many voices said there were early storms in November that prevented the American fuel barge from getting in. November? Again, this is Alaska. I'd think August would be a good time to stock up. There was a note about compensating the barge company which had loaded up with fuel it could not deliver. There was a darker note about delays on the part of the barge. If I wasn't working full time I would go to Alaska and Vladivostok and dig for the truth. I could sell my story to The New Yorker or to American Bargeman.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Ghost Writers in the Sky

Every so often I receive a forwarded e-mail supposedly written by some pundit such as Andy Rooney or Paul Harvey in which he tells us what’s wrong with America. We’ve strayed from our roots it will say, and the blame lies with the welfare state and all the aliens taking over the place. It sounds somewhat like Andy Rooney but a very jerky Andy Rooney.
Checking with I discover these things have been circulating for years on the Internet and are written by say a small town editor in upstate New York or an evangelical pastor in the Ozarks. The authors wisely realize they can get more traction by putting the name of a celebrity at the top of their screed.
This seems dishonest, but it’s been going on forever. You may have written the greatest psalms of all time, but you’re more likely to get them into the Bible if you claim King David wrote them. The Song of Solomon has a nicer ring to it than the Song of Moshe the Benjaminite.