Ah, the New Year!
I don’t know about you, but the New Year is a very happy time for me, a time for celebration. It’s not because I believe the next twelve months will be ever so much better and brighter than 2018 (although that’s not a very high bar to clear, if you know what I mean…). And it’s not that I have made solemn resolutions to be a kinder, gentler soul than in previous months. That won’t happen--not because of being irresolute, but because every new day presents a new challenge to that solemn vow when you are a born New Yorker and witty sarcasm is like a birthright, even if you move 3,000 miles west to the terminally nice Pacific Northwest.
No, the first week of the new year makes me happy because it means the hideous Christmas candy canes that hang from utility poles in the center of our little island town will be taken down at last. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a bah humbug person at Christmas. Far from it. I love how Christmas makes folks smile more and give generously to good causes. But these candy cane eyesores do test one’s holiday spirit.
Let me explain. These seasonal “ornaments” are composed of rows of ratty red and formerly white (now gray) streamers wrapped around a frame which, thanks to being clipped to the power lines, are illuminated at night. It must be said that the dark helps. History tells us that candy canes had their characteristic curve at one end to represent a shepherd’s crook. But to me they look like old barber poles with a bad case of brewer’s droop.
And, speaking of history, this is how ours came about: our little town’s retailers all had their own Christmas decorations, which they stored in the attic of the pharmacy. A fire there destroyed them (and the pharmacy). That Thanksgiving, at a local college football game, a sharp eared island spectator overhead someone in the bleachers mention he had a commercial ornaments business. Our civic-minded resident pounced and was taken to this fellow’s warehouse where, it being past Thanksgiving, all the attractive Christmas paraphernalia had long since been rented. The only thing left was the one thing no one with any taste at all wanted, specifically the cheesy plastic candy canes. Thus, they arrived on this benighted isle…where they have been in use ever since, despite very clearly losing their initial luster…such as it was.
The candy canes are like the Emperor’s missing clothes (except they’re not missing). Many on the island consider them a beloved, if bedraggled, tradition.
Others, like me, wish we had a bonfire night tradition like they do in England…and that the canes were the fuel.
They’ve been taken down this week, which is a mercy. But they’ll be back next year. Oh yes, they’ll be back.
It’s a tradition, you see…
Last Christmas, I was invited by a worthy local charity here on the island in Puget Sound where I live to be an “elf.” That’s right: an “elf.” The idea was to dress up in an elf costume—which mostly meant a silly hat and battery powered blinking Christmas lights around my neck—and then stand outside our local supermarket to encourage people to put donations into a basket.
Elves (is that the plural?) are, you know, little folk. Like leprechauns. Unlike leprechauns, however, elves wear red in addition to just green, are mostly sober, and show up in the dead of winter, not the spring. In the winter, you see, leprechauns hibernate. Being Irish, they’re “sleeping it off.” Elves, on the other hand, come out when the winter weather is at its worst. This is because, unlike leprechauns, elves are hopeless idiots.
But they are big-hearted idiots. They venture out into the cold ringing bells at local shops and markets to raise money for good causes, of which, let’s face it, there are no shortage. They ring bells because, on account of being very short, this is the only way they can get noticed and keep from being trampled by hurrying shoppers with visions of sugarplums (whatever they are) in their heads instead of paying attention to where they’re going.
Their diminutive stature notwithstanding, try as you might you can’t ignore these elves. You can’t for example, shift course and use a different store entrance because they’ve got them all covered. Plus, they’ve got you both coming and going and, while elves are idiots, they have good memories (this is in part due to the fact that they are not the aforesaid drunken leprechauns). They’ll remember that you said you’d contribute on your way out. They’ll remember your coat, your hair, your silly reindeer-printed holiday socks.
Now, becoming an elf does not take a lot of brains (see “idiot” above). All you have to do, when asked, is say yes. If you have a soft heart and even softer brain, “yes” comes easily. Thus it was that I became an elf. I would say “unwittingly,” but that would assume I had wits in the first place.
I confess I have some disadvantages as an elf. I am six feet five inches tall and do not fit the usual elfish image. A kid came up to me and actually said, “You’re not an elf; you’re too big.” It was everything I could do to keep from giving him a swift kick. But that would be un-elflike.
But you see, the worthy charity that pressed this role upon me made a major strategic error. That is because I am, by birth and upbringing, a wise-guy former New Yorker which, if you think about it, is not your most ideal set of credentials for garnering good will. On the other hand, as a former New Yorker, the task of shaking people down for money comes naturally.
To me, being appointed an elf was like a license for extortion. It was also like being given a stage for stand-up comedy. And there isn’t a New Yorker on earth who doesn’t think he’s a comic. “Funny Wise Guy” comes in the water in New York, with the fluoride. It’s like a birthright.
So, really, the task is simple: you gotta get shoppers’ attention. You gotta stop them in their tracks. You gotta shake them down. You gotta give them no choice but to contribute to the cause…because who knows what dreadful punishment a New York elf might have up his sleeve if you don’t ante up.
But I was subtle. I started out with my most gentle approach: I’d say, rather loudly and with just the tiniest sense of menace, “Don’t even think about walking in that door without making a donation. You got kids maybe? You still like them? You think Santa isn’t watching you at this very moment?” This technique is remarkably effective, if somewhat less than elf-like.
But then there are the hard cases, and you just gotta make their perilous situation very clear to them: “You think you’re gettin’ in here without a donation?! Wise up, pal! Don’t make me bring in Big Guido with his baseball bat to persuade you, okay? You like those knees of yours? How much? How much are they worth to you? You wanna limp for the rest of your sorry, penny pinching, uncharitable, uncaring life? Yo, Guido!”
I found this technique to be very effective, if only because shoppers know the next step with an elf from New York is a mugging, which is so unseemly at Christmas. The elf, who, after all, is doing “good works,” has the upper hand. You, on the other hand, do not…unless you donate. Get the picture? It’s that simple…
Meanwhile let me tell you: it ain’t easy standing out in the cold, ringing annoying bells, eyes watering from the wind, wishing you had a flask of bourbon, and harassing for a worthy cause. Thankfully, there are good non-New Yorkers on this island who can be generous with their contributions when appropriately threatened…bless their hearts.
Truth be told, I raised a ton of money during my gig as an elf. More than anyone else. It is also true that I wasn’t invited back this year. Maybe they don’t need the money. Who knows? All I know is that Big Guido is unemployed and unhappy. This is not good. Not good at all.
One of the fan mail comments I most enjoy receiving has to do with the places in which my novels are set. In most cases, that’s Cornwall, England, which is kind of my second home…at least in my heart. The comment is this: “I don’t need to go to Cornwall now; I feel I’ve already been there in your books.”
I may be a bit unusual among authors in this regard but to me the physical setting of a story is a central character: make it come alive and the reader becomes a companion of the other characters living in and responding to that vivid and often defining setting. That’s especially true in Cornwall, an ancient landscape full of history and wild natural beauty.
The wonderful nineteenth century English landscape painter, John Constable, once wrote: “We see nothing until we truly understand it.” This curious observation seems almost backward: you’d think a painter of landscapes would be focused on the visual. But Constable understood what many of us miss: that the underlying structure and shape of a landscape has a fundamental, even controlling effect on how we experience it.
Recently, and for the first time, I drove through the eastern half of Washington, my home state. Unlike the western half, which is lushly green and often misty, the eastern half, through which the mighty Columbia River flows, is arid. Except where it is irrigated, this is a world of barren sagelands and bizarre, towering volcanic cliffs. It is almost surreal. But what is it that makes it so utterly different from anywhere else in Washington State or, for that matter, the entire West?
The answer is: the most catastrophic flood in perhaps the earth’s entire history.
It happened during the last Ice Age, roughly fifteen thousand years ago. A glacier hundreds of feet high blocked what is now called the Clark Fork River and water backed up into Idaho and Montana. How much water? The lake—called Missoula Lake by geologists—was 200 miles long, 2,000 feet deep, and held 500 cubic miles of water. That’s more than several of today’s Great Lakes.
Then the dam broke.
In the span of what is estimated to be only 48 hours all of that water raced west and south, between 17 and 60 cubic kilometers of water per hour at a speed of up to 80 miles per hour. It ripped through eastern Washington tearing up the landscape, stripping away topsoil, digging valleys hundreds of feet deep, exposing massive cliffs of volcanic basalt, and hurtling house-sized boulders all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Portland, Oregon, for example, would have been under 400 feet of water had it existed then. Geologists now speculate that this catastrophe occurred not once but several times, utterly reshaping and gouging out a landscape that today consists of deep, bone-dry valleys bounded by cliffs of columnar basaltic rock (which look like the pipes of a church organ), dry waterfalls hundreds of feet deep, and vast areas that look like the ripples in a sand bar, except those ripples are thirty or more feet high and run for miles.
In much of the rest of the world, the history of the landscape is hidden beneath layers of soil and thick vegetation…but not in Eastern Washington. There, the earth remains naked, the unimaginable destruction on full view. Driving through it, awestruck at every turn, I wished I could have been there to see the spectacle…but of course I’d have been killed in moments, as was every other living thing that had the misfortune of being in the way.
Pictures are said to be worth a thousand words, but the pictures of this landscape today beggar description and cannot hope to capture the sheer scale of this epic destruction. Here are some links to give you a sense of the catastrophe wreaked by this event. The landscape is tortured; it is nearly beyond comprehension.
So today, at home, look around the landscape where you live and remember what Constable said: “We see nothing until we truly understand it.”
What story does your home landscape tell?
It’s that time of year again when people all over America celebrate the Fourth of July and, for the most part, have no idea why. It’s official name is Independence Day, and that should be a clue, but the significance of that name seems largely to have been forgotten by those bent over charcoal grills searing hamburgers and hot dogs and waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Here on the island in Puget Sound where I live there is a fireworks display so spectacular that it rivals the Macy’s show in New York City. Unofficially here we call it “Scare the Bejesus Out of Animals Day.” This is a largely rural island full of animals and they are not avid celebrants of our nation’s Declaration of Independence: Dogs (universally terrified); cats (pay no attention at all); horses (who assume there’s a war going on nearby and fear being pressed into service as of old); sheep (too dumb to notice), goats (too smart to care), cows (who just keep on placidly chewing, though their milk curdles); llamas (who wish they were back in the remote and quiet Andes); chickens (who run around idiotically even when there are no fireworks)…and so on.
The connection between declaring our independence back in 1776 and blowing things up has never been very clear to me, so I looked it up. It turns out this is all the fault of Founding Father John Adams. You have to remember that blowing things up is a revered tradition in England. Rebels and dissidents just like our own tried to blow up the English Parliament only a century and a half earlier.
The declaration was approved on July second but not formally signed until the fourth. In a July third letter to his wife, Abigail, Adams proclaimed that:
"I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival…It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more."
Of course, Adams, who became our second president, had no idea what the rest of the “continent” involved; he only represented thirteen colonies claiming now to be states independent of Britain. Can you imagine the reaction when the many Native tribes occupying the rest of the continent got the email about the declaration and the celebration? They’re sitting around a fire having dinner when the news arrives, and a chief says, “Guys, I don’t think this is good news, you know?”
Much grumbling follows. Another chief says, “Look, these are people who are believers in the Age of Enlightenment—you know, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Adam Smith. I don’t see a problem.”
“May I repeat, my friend, that these are people who like to seize land and blow things up?”