Thursday, October 24, 2013

Oak Lessons

Splitting some sections of new oak today, out of long habit wielding maul and wedge without too much thought: not hurrying to get the job done, just hitting the wedge a couple of times and pausing, listening for the tiny sounds that are oak's language of compromise, then hitting a couple times more, pausing again, actions my body and mind have learned to do without me... It surprised me enough to ask myself: When had I learned that? 

How had I acquired the ability to dialog with oak? I had often been in a hurry during the early firewood years, so I had to learn that oak yields slowly and at the price of effort, which is the nature of things in general, oak responding perhaps a little more fairly and intelligently than other materials. So I guess by force of habitual listening I learned when to move and when to wait, so as not to do twice the work for half the result. It doesn't pay to be pushy; oak isn't dumb just because it talks in whispers. 

Being wild, oak is also pretty wily, and has its quirks. If you insist on your way, oak will make you wait, one way or another. If in your interactions with that wood grain you try to hurry, in time you'll get angry and lose, because if there’s one thing oak knows, it's duration. If you're angry splitting oak, you're beside the point.

Then some time later comes the big oak lesson: your mind knows more than you do.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

If It Hadn't Been for the Potato Famine

If it hadn't been for the potato famine I sure as hell wouldn't be here writing these lines, wherever they're leading, nor would my brother and sister be living their good lives in California and Florida, respectively, may their lives be full of joy, though if not for the Great Hunger that would be moot, would it not. In the current but limited understanding of the meaning of it all, nothing wonderful can happen to you if you haven't been born.

My mother and father, too, would not have been my parents without the potato famine, or even parents at all, if they themselves had not been been born from non-great grandparents who hadn't been birthable either, because their would-have-been parents, suddenly not suffering extreme starvation, thanks to complete faminelessness, were instead living good history in the bliss of a bounteous mid-19th century Ireland, prospering on a healthy diet - including potatoes - and having well-fed Irish families whose respective sons and daughters never met by chance in a tragic diaspora.

Centuries later, from the auld sod to a mountainside in Japan of all places - where as the traveler in the family I finally settled down - I think often of the sacrifice of those families back then who, after heart-rivening consideration, scraped hunger into pence and then into pounds to send off in steerage the healthiest, best-suited young family member, whom they would see nevermore but who might survive, sailing away beyond a life's horizon to the lowest rung of NYC, who then lived far enough along time's thread to meet and pass these genes down the unbroken line from all those folks who had gone before, whom I'll never know, though now and then I glimpse them in the mirror.

Friday, October 11, 2013


Speaking of RPGs and how viral they are, working their way into our collective DNA somehow, as childhood seems to become narrower, more circumscribed, less broadly dimensional-- Kaya, Mitsuki and Miasa do have their own little video gameplayers that they indulge in now and then in evenings or on rainy days (little kids running through meadows of lollipop flowers, gumdrop orchards with cute little animals), but while they’re at our house we keep them going in the physical world, handling tools and tasks, rocks and dirt, trees and fire, so they get a  good actual workout. Their bodies by now are straight and strong, growing like the thoroughbreds they are, their lives a blend of the actual and genuine imagination.

Got me thinking, though, that when I was a boy way back just after WWII (!) when 'virtual' was still but a rare and narrowly used adjective, the year-round hands-on toy was a slingshot. At least for the boys. Not for girls. Never saw a girl with a slingshot. Here in Japan, I’ve never seen any kid at all with a slingshot-- until the other day, that is.

The trio and I were working outside clearing brush and moving stones when I sensed Kaya walking along behind me in an odd distraction, staring closely at an oddly forked, wispy twig fragment with some rubber bands knotted here and there around it: it looked distantly like... like... I asked her what it was and she said that she was making a slingshot.

She had no idea that she was speaking to the upstate NY Tri-City Slingshot King, who reigned during the latter 40s and early 50s, when bicycle inner tubes were still made of actual rubber and could sling a marble right out of sight. My ever-ready weapon of increasing strength got me in some neat instances of trouble. I could put a marble through a car window at 50 yards-- not that I ever did, mind you, at all, ever, other than out of curiosity. By and large I was a defender of the downtrodden, apart from the occasional irresistible perfectly popping street light... it was a kid version of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on a more civilized miniscale.

I remember being taught how to make slingshots by a mysterious elder slingshot master from the previous century (i.e., the 1800s) (!), who lives in my memory the DaVinci of slingshots-- not a relative, nor an acquaintance, don’t remember where, a neighbor of a cousin, maybe, but he knew his stuff, possessed sling lore dating back to when kids used their slings to get food for the table. He took the time to show me, went into mystic detail on how to make the finest slingshot: from when to find the perfect hardwood tree fork - oak is good, hickory, maple, cherry is good, too, if weight is a concern - to using natural rubber, found only in bike tire tubes (not car tire tubes) or big rubber bands, along with string and leather, cutting grooves into the fork wood to keep the rubber straps from slipping, and so for years I made my own slings, using old shoe tongues for the leather patch...

I realized that I had never seen a kid in Japan with a handmade slingshot, not in 40 years, and I would have noticed. Hadn't really thought about it to any depth all these years, but never ever have I seen a girl anywhere in the world with a slingshot, and here in Japan was my preteen granddaughter trying on her own to craft a slingshot for herself! I asked her where she'd gotten the idea but she didn't have an explanation, she'd just thought of it out of the blue. What the...? I had no idea slingshots involved DNA.

So what could I do at such a momentous moment but show her how to make a slingshot? We looked for and cut a good-looking cherry fork, I looped together some doubled rubber bands for the sling, cut a leather patch from the back of an old holey work glove I'd been saving for no logical reason, the old DNA being ever vigilant as to imminent slingshot possibilities...

Then when they twins saw the results, they each had to have one, so I got busy passing the lore on down the ages as it has always been passed down, and with the oaks just then shedding acorns all around there, the trio could get pocketfuls of excellent ammo and before going home they were even out in the dark, wearing headlamps, gathering acorns from atop the moss, filling their bags with great shot.

Miasa, the shy twin, had earlier put an acorn in her sling and took her very first shot, up into the sky toward the crown of our tallest cedar tree and launched that acorn right over the top! She was amazed, thrilled and proud at what she herself had done.

What actual joy in their eyes at such an occurrence in the real world, at their own hands! As opposed to the thumby joys in a gameplayer, hunched over, staring absent into dimensionlessness, young lives at a time...

I muse now over the possible viral effects of introducing a trio of uniquely empowered young females into the Japanese culture. One effect that the slingshot girls enjoyed realizing is that now they’re planting oak trees all over the countryside.