Saturday, February 17, 2018

February 17: Guiding Force, Father, "The Quiet Man"

Before I went to bed, I wanted to share the poem I wrote for my father's funeral this morning.  Tomorrow, after I've had a chance to sleep and recover a little bit, I will write something a little more coherent.

Saint Marty didn't realize how much he was going to miss his dad.  Until today.

The Quiet Man

by:  Martin Achatz

Last night, I dreamed my dad and John Wayne
were sitting around a campfire, eating
peaches out of a can.  Stars thick as cattle herds
milled above them, and the prairie grass
hummed some sweet old song like "Red River Valley"
or "Shenandoah."  I'm not sure if was heaven,
but my father was young and perfect, the hook
of his back as straight as a railroad spike.
Duke was young, too, the retired prizefighter
who chased Maureen O'Hara through the green
Galway countryside.  There weren't any Nazis
crawling along the ground in ambush, no
Richard Boone-faced kidnappers, skin
leathery as buffalo jerky, trying to steal
their sleeping horses.  I'm not sure
if you can smell in dreams, but I remember
smelling manure and smoke and something else.
Maybe the coming of rain.  My dad and Duke
didn't talk, just forked golden crescents
into their mouths, looking as if they were eating
solar eclipse after solar eclipse.  Their forks
made hollow cowbell noises in the dark.
When they were done, they tipped the cans
to their lips, drank the syrup inside
until it ran down their chins.  I kept
waiting for something more to happen,
a runaway stagecoach to crash through
or a baby elephant nosing for hay.
Instead, my dad took a deck of cards
from his pocket, started dealing.
They played gin rummy, hand after hand.
My dad let John Wayne win, because he was
John Wayne and because that's what
my dad did every morning with my mother
for years and years.  He did it because
it was a habit of love.  Maybe that's the name
of this movie:  Habit of Love.  It starts out
simply enough.  Two cards.  Dealt face up.
The king and queen of hearts.


February 17: Most Melancholy, Funeral Mass, Rum Chata

In bed we concocted our plans for the morrow. But to my surprise and no small concern, Queequeg now gave me to understand, that he had been diligently consulting Yojo- the name of his black little god- and Yojo had told him two or three times over, and strongly insisted upon it everyway, that instead of our going together among the whaling-fleet in harbor, and in concert selecting our craft; instead of this, I say, Yojo earnestly enjoined that the selection of the ship should rest wholly with me, inasmuch as Yojo purposed befriending us; and, in order to do so, had already pitched upon a vessel, which, if left to myself, I, Ishmael, should infallibly light upon, for all the world as though it had turned out by chance; and in that vessel I must immediately ship myself, for the present irrespective of Queequeg.
I have forgotten to mention that, in many things, Queequeg placed great confidence in the excellence of Yojo's judgment and surprising forecast of things; and cherished Yojo with considerable esteem, as a rather good sort of god, who perhaps meant well enough upon the whole, but in all cases did not succeed in his benevolent designs.
Now, this plan of Queequeg's or rather Yojo's, touching the selection of our craft; I did not like that plan at all. I had not a little relied upon Queequeg's sagacity to point out the whaler best fitted to carry us and our fortunes securely. But as all my remonstrances produced no effect upon Queequeg, I was obliged to acquiesce; and accordingly prepared to set about this business with a determined rushing sort of energy and vigor, that should quickly settle that trifling little affair. Next morning early, leaving Queequeg shut up with in our little bedroom- for it seemed that it was some sort of Lent or Ramadan, or day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer with Queequeg and Yojo that day; how it was I never could find out, for, though I applied myself to it several times, I never could master his liturgies and XXXIX Articles- leaving Queequeg, then, fasting on his tomahawk pipe, and Yojo warming himself at his sacrificial fire of shavings, I sallied out among the shipping. After much prolonged sauntering, and many random inquiries, I learnt that there were three ships up for three-years' voyages- The Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod. Devil-dam, I do not know the origin of; Tit-bit is obvious; Pequod you will no doubt remember, was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians; now extinct as the ancient Medes. I peered and pryed about the Devil-dam; from her, hopped over to the Tit-bit; and finally, going on board the Pequod, looked around her for a moment, and then decided that this was the very ship for us.
You may have seen many a quaint craft in your day, for aught I know;- square-toed luggers; mountainous Japanese junks; butter-box galliots, and what not; but take my word for it, you never saw such a rare old craft as this same rare old Pequod. She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old-fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull's complexion was darkened like a French grenadier's, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts- cut somewhere on the coast of Japan, where her original ones were lost overboard in a gale- her masts stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Becket bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed. Old Captain Peleg, many years her chief-mate, before he commanded another vessel of his own, and now a retired seaman, and one of the principal owners of the Pequod,- this old Peleg, during the term of his chief-mateship, had built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over, with a quaintness both of material and device, unmatched by anything except it be Thorkill-Hake's carved buckler or bedstead. She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the sperm whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly traveled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe. The helmsman who steered that tiller in a tempest, felt like the Tartar, when he holds back his fiery steed by clutching its jaw. A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.
Please forgive my extended absence.  Like Queequeg, I have put a whole lot of faith in my God's guidance these last three days.  My life has been divided between work and poetry and funeral home.  Ishmael ends up on the Pequod, which he says is "most melancholy."  Today, I ended up at church.  Most melancholy.

It is Saturday night.  My father's funeral Mass was this morning.  It started with a military ceremony, because my dad was a Korean War vet.  Taps played.  When they handed my mother the flag and said, "On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service,” I started crying.  I pretty much kept crying for the rest of the service.

It's strange.  I haven't cried a whole lot over this past week.  Probably because I have kept myself so busy with work and teaching and readings.  Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to process things.  Grief had to take a back seat.  Not today, I guess.  By the time the funeral lunch was over, I was completely done.  Exhausted.  Pushing through mud.  I went home and slept.

I am probably going to sleep a lot more tonight.  I've been running on adrenaline since last Thursday.  I think my store of that particular hormone has been depleted.  However, my wife's cousin gave me two little bottles of Rum Chata at the funeral.  I plan on cracking them open tonight.

That's about all I have for tonight.  I'm weary and sad. 

Saint Marty promises to try to talk about something besides death and sadness tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

February 14: Clam or Cod, Valentine's Ash Wednesday, Fasting

It was quite late in the evening when the little Moss came snugly to anchor, and Queequeg and I went ashore; so we could attend to no business that day, at least none but a supper and a bed. The landlord of the Spouter-Inn had recommended us to his cousin Hosea Hussey of the Try Pots, whom he asserted to be the proprietor of one of the best kept hotels in all Nantucket, and moreover he had assured us that Cousin Hosea, as he called him, was famous for his chowders. In short, he plainly hinted that we could not possibly do better than try pot-luck at the Try Pots. But the directions hc had given us about keeping a yellow warehouse on our starboard hand till we opened a white church to the larboard, and then keeping that on the larboard hand till we made a corner three points to the starboard, and that done, then ask the first man we met where the place was; these crooked directions of his very much puzzled us at first, especially as, at the outset, Queequeg insisted that the yellow warehouse- our first point of departure- must be left on the larboard hand, whereas I had understood Peter Coffin to say it was on the starboard. However, by dint of beating about a little in the dark, and now and then knocking up a peaceful inhabitant to inquire the way, we at last came to something which there was no mistaking.
Two enormous wooden pots painted black, and suspended by asses' ears, swung from the cross-trees of an old top-mast, planted in front of an old doorway. The horns of the cross-trees were sawed off on the other side, so that this old top-mast looked not a little like a gallows. Perhaps I was over sensitive to such impressions at the time, but I could not help staring at this gallows with a vague misgiving. A sort of crick was in my neck as I gazed up to the two remaining horns; yes, two of them, one for Queequeg, and one for me. It's ominous, thinks I. A Coffin my Innkeeper upon landing in my first whaling port; tombstones staring at me in the whalemen's chapel, and here a gallows! and a pair of prodigious black pots too! Are these last throwing out oblique hints touching Tophet?
I was called from these reflections by the sight of a freckled woman with yellow hair and a yellow gown, standing in the porch of the inn, under a dull red lamp swinging there, that looked much like an injured eye, and carrying on a brisk scolding with a man in a purple woollen shirt.
"Get along with ye," said she to the man, "or I'll be combing ye!"
"Come on, Queequeg," said I, "all right. There's Mrs. Hussey."
And so it turned out; Mr. Hosea Hussey being from home, but leaving Mrs. Hussey entirely competent to attend to all his affairs. Upon making known our desires for a supper and a bed, Mrs. Hussey, postponing further scolding for the present, ushered us into a little room, and seating us at a table spread with the relics of a recently concluded repast, turned round to us and said- "Clam or Cod?"
"What's that about Cods, ma'am?" said I, with much politeness.
"Clam or Cod?" she repeated.
"A clam for supper? a cold clam; is that what you mean, Mrs. Hussey?" says I, "but that's a rather cold and clammy reception in the winter time, ain't it, Mrs. Hussey?"
But being in a great hurry to resume scolding the man in the purple shirt who was waiting for it in the entry, and seeming to hear nothing but the word "clam," Mrs. Hussey hurried towards an open door leading to the kitchen, and bawling out "clam for two," disappeared.
"Queequeg," said I, "do you think that we can make a supper for us both on one clam?"
However, a warm savory steam from the kitchen served to belie the apparently cheerless prospect before us. But when that smoking chowder came in, the mystery was delightfully explained. Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt. Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favourite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition: when leaning back a moment and bethinking me of Mrs. Hussey's clam and cod announcement, I thought I would try a little experiment. Stepping to the kitchen door, I uttered the word "cod" with great emphasis, and resumed my seat. In a few moments the savoury steam came forth again, but with a different flavor, and in good time a fine cod-chowder was placed before us.
We resumed business; and while plying our spoons in the bowl, thinks I to myself, I wonder now if this here has any effect on the head? What's that stultifying saying about chowder-headed people? "But look, Queequeg, ain't that a live eel in your bowl? Where's your harpoon?"
Fishiest of all fishy places was the Try Pots, which well deserved its name; for the pots there were always boiling chowders. Chowder for breakfast, and chowder for dinner, and chowder for supper, till you began to look for fish-bones coming through your clothes. The area before the house was paved with clam-shells. Mrs. Hussey wore a polished necklace of codfish vertebra; and Hosea Hussey had his account books bound in superior old shark-skin. There was a fishy flavor to the milk, too, which I could not at all account for, till one morning happening to take a stroll along the beach among some fishermen's boats, I saw Hosea's brindled cow feeding on fish remnants, and marching along the sand with each foot in a cod's decapitated head, looking very slipshod, I assure ye.
Supper concluded, we received a lamp, and directions from Mrs. Hussey concerning the nearest way to bed; but, as Queequeg was about to precede me up the stairs, the lady reached forth her arm, and demanded his harpoon; she allowed no harpoon in her chambers. "Why not? said I; "every true whaleman sleeps with his harpoon- but why not?" "Because it's dangerous," says she. "Ever since young Stiggs coming from that unfort'nt v'y'ge of his, when he was gone four years and a half, with only three barrels of ile, was found dead in my first floor back, with his harpoon in his side; ever since then I allow no boarders to take sich dangerous weepons in their rooms at night. So, Mr. Queequeg" (for she had learned his name), "I will just take this here iron, and keep it for you till morning. But the chowder; clam or cod to-morrow for breakfast, men?"
"Both," says I; "and let's have a couple of smoked herring by way of variety."

Melville's description of the clam and cod chowder at the Try Pots inn almost makes me hungry.  I've never been much for seafood chowder of any sort, but Ishmael tempts me to try a bowl of it today.  It is Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday, which seems like some kind of liturgical practical joke.  In the Christian calendar, today marks the first day of Lent, which means a whole lot of fasting and sacrifice.  Contemplation of faults and sins.  A time to abstain, not indulge.  The menu of the Try Pots is perfect for this day.

Yet, it is also Valentine's Day--a time to celebrate love and romance.  Cardboard hearts filled with chocolates.  Romantic dinners, usually involving steak and lobster, not clam chowder.  This day is supposed to celebrate indulgence, in food and dessert and sex and love.  It seems like the polar opposite of Ash Wednesday.

So, how do you reconcile these two celebrations?

I bought my wife a Valentine's Day card.  Before I left for work, I put it on her purse.  Today, I have tried to fast between meals--no cheese popcorn or Hershey nuggets or bagels.  Instead of my normal chicken sandwich, I had crackers and cheese for lunch.  (In the Catholic tradition, you are not allowed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday.)  Now, I am fasting again.  I don't know if or when I will eat dinner.

At lunch time, I did eat some chocolate.  Tonight, I may eat some more chocolate.  I honestly think that fasting from meat or between meals can be a strong reminder of the importance of sacrifice.  Hunger is a huge problem in the world.  However, to feel deprived because I can't eat a Milky Way between breakfast and lunch is kind of stupid.  Likewise, feeling somehow closer to God by eating fish instead of hamburger seems ridiculous.

This Lent, I have a project that I'm going to be working on.  I'm not going to share the details here.  When I do broadcast what my Lenten sacrifice/project is going to be, I set myself up for failure.  This time, I am going to keep it private, and, at the end of these 47 days, hopefully I will have something to show for it.  Something that I can be proud of.  Something for my dad.

I will be going to the Ash Wednesday service at my wife's church this evening.  My forehead will be smudged black with ashes.  I will listen to the pastor's message on sacrifice and preparation, and I will be duly grateful and humbled.  I really don't deserve any of the blessings in my life.

But that's what God's grace is all about.  You don't earn it.  He just gives it to you.

Saint Marty is thankful for new projects.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

February 13: Herds of Walruses and Whales, Yooper, Mind of Winter

Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.
Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it- a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don't grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day's walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snow-shoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to the very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.
Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket,- the poor little Indian's skeleton.
What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quahogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it; peeped in at Behring's Straits; and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea, Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!
And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer's. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road. they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business which a Noah's flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.

Really, this entire chapter from Moby-Dick is a love letter to Nantucket, full of legend and poetry.  Look at that last image:  ". . . the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales."  I probably didn't need to repeat those lines, but I love them so much that I couldn't resist.  It really paints a picture of the place and people who live there.

In a lot of ways, the description of Nantucketers sort of reminds me of the residents of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  We are rugged folk who don't really slow down for bad weather.  Sure, schools get shut down because of snow and ice.  Yes, the Mackinac Bridge is closed in due to high winds (mostly to protect non-Yoopers from being blown over the railing into the Straits of Mackinac).  I can remember one sub-zero Saturday afternoon when I saw an older woman fall on the sidewalk outside of church.  I rushed over to see if she was injured.  "No," the woman said, "but if you could just help me up."  I lifted her to her feet.  She limped into church and stayed for the whole Mass.  Two months later, I found out that she had fractured four vertebrae when she fell.  That is a true Yooper story.

Most of my relatives live downstate or in Wisconsin.  They are all very leery about travelling through the U. P. in February to attend my father's funeral.  In fact, several people who were very close to my father have begged off, citing weather and ice and cold as the reasons.  I'm not judging them.  I understand their reluctance to travel several hundred Upper Peninsula miles.  If you are not used to the weather in this rocky, shark-shaped piece of land, you probably should stay home.

My dad loved this place.  When he was living in Detroit, he always drove to the U. P. for deer hunting  season.  He told me stories of waiting at the Straits to take a ferry from Mackinaw City to Saint Ignace  before the Bridge was built.  (If you're a Yooper, you don't have to say "Mackinac Bridge.")  The cars and trucks would be lined up for hours, he said, and people would walk up and down, selling sandwiches and coffee to the waiting hunters.   In the summer, my dad and mom would pack all us kids into the family van and drive from Detroit to the far end of the U. P.   We would stay in a camp in Gay, Michigan, not too far from Lake Superior, for two weeks, taking saunas and fishing and making bonfires.

Even though my father was born in Detroit, in his heart, he was always a Yooper.  He moved us to the U. P. when I was seven or eight.  I have very little memory of living in Detroit.  My childhood was in Ishpeming.  The Upper Peninsula is my home.  It's where I'm rooted.  When I write poems or essays or stories or blog posts, I can hear the waves of Lake Superior lapping in my ears.  I carve my images from snow and ice.

Once he moved to the Upper Peninsula, my dad didn't leave it very often.  Maybe for a funeral or wedding, but that's about it.  I think he enjoyed the isolation of this land.  Enjoyed being surrounded by water.  It was the closest he could come to living on a deserted island.  I think that's why I like the U. P., as well.  I like the idea that, if somebody wants to visit me, they're really going to have to work at it.

Over these last few days, I've been trying to find my father in myself.  We were very different people, with different beliefs and values.  Yet, we were exactly the same in our love for this place.  He made sacrifices to move his family here.  I made sacrifices to keep my family here.  Yet, I wouldn't change a thing about my life.  To paraphrase Wallace Stevens a little, one must have a mind of winter to live in the Upper Peninsula.

My dad had a mind of winter.  So do I.

Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for his Yooper father.