In the land of my boyhood
dwelt a race of giants
tall and stern, male and female,
bound as if by law. I knew that
someday I would be a giant too.
Seven decades have dissolved
before my eyes,
and strange to say,
although the giants got smaller
I never did become one.
O purple splotch,
How dare you?
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
You are an intruder beneath my skin.
I say again, How dare you?
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
In days of old this could not have happened.
In days of old my forces would have marshaled
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries
against your onslaught.
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow,
the tread of an opponent’s spikes,
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
You and your cunning ways,
how you will linger
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp
as silently as the Arabs,
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
How dare you?
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing;
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality
of its deliverance.
My daughter wanted to fence her backyard, but a big old bush blocked the way.
She called. “Dad, can you bring your chainsaw?”
Well, natch. What are dads for? I drove across town and performed an emergency bushectomy. No sweat.
But Your New Favorite Author wasn’t always a shrub shredding ace. Tons of tuition has been paid.
My first chainsaw, purchased more than thirty years ago, was a Poulan with a 20-inch bar. The bigger the better, right? It weighed 992 pounds on days of low humidity.
A small tornado tore through one year and left our backyard filled with an 80-foot silver maple in prone position. Too big a job for me alone, even with my monster chainsaw. I called my friend Mikey, who lives Up Nort’, and he brought along his friend Rick.
I noticed their chainsaws were small ones with 14-inch bars. They fired up their little machines, and I fired up my big one, and we went to work. After five minutes, Mikey said—with that tact for which he is justly famed—“Larry? Maybe you could stand over here and take it easy for a bit? Big trees like this can be tricky. Rick and I are concerned you could get hurt.”
Two hours later, the tree had been sliced, diced, cubed, and quartered. It stood in neat little stacks all over my backyard. My friends, with their 14-inch chainsaws, had reduced a three-foot-thick trunk to silver maple briquettes. And I was all unscathed—except for my macerated self-image as a lumberjack.
Lesson One: It doesn’t take a huge machine, if you know what you’re doing.
I couldn’t get over how easily Mikey and Rick handled their little chainsaws, and what a chore it was for me just to lift mine. So I sold the monster and bought a 14-inch Stihl MS180C Mini-Boss, which is the saw I’ve used for the past fifteen or twenty years.
I only hauled it out once or twice a year. At that frequency of use, one never quite masters the elements of the machine. I had trouble just getting it started. If it needed cleaning or a new chain, a major pageant ensued. Forget the simple steps breezily outlined in the owner’s manual. There’s no substitute for having enough experience to know how the thing works.
For various reasons, I used the chainsaw more often, several times per year. At last, I accumulated enough operator time to get acquainted with my machine. It’s impossible to overstate how proud I was of myself for finally figuring the beast out.
But need I tell you, Dear Reader, that pride goeth before a fall? Nay, you know that already. In fact, you could look it up. It’s in the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.
I did something quintessentially stupid. I tightened the chain at the end of a cutting session. As the machine cooled, the tight chain tightened further, pulled the bar out of line, bent the drive shaft, and scrambled the transmission parts inside the engine housing.
You need to be an actual idiot to do something like that.
Lesson Two: Don’t be an idiot.
I took the mangled machine to our local power center for an estimate. They called me later that week. “Gee,” the man said, “to re-seat all those parts, replace the bent and damaged ones, and get it all back together in good working order, would come to $138.49, plus tax.”
“Doesn’t really shock me,” I said.
But the voice on the other end of the line said, “The thing is, you could buy a new one for not much more.”
Of course I could. But the new one wouldn’t be the same model, because they don’t make those any more. Even if the model number was the same, it would have been improved many times since I bought it.
Half a lifetime of hard-won learning curve is built into the chainsaw I’ve already got. If I bought a new one, it would be ten years before I mastered the effortless starting feature. And I’m already in my seventies.
“It’s got sentimental value to me,” I said. “Go ahead and rebuild it.”
So they did, I paid the $138.49, plus tax, and now I have a good, dependable chainsaw that I know how to use and that I never, ever tighten at the end of its cycle.
Even so, I would still call for outside help if I had a big tree come down.
Lesson Three: Sometimes it pays to rest on your laurels.
With all this history in mind, I loaded my 14-inch Stihl into the back of my SUV, threw in a can of gas-oil mixture, a jug of bar lubricant, a chainsaw multitool, a spare chain, and work gloves. And headed to my daughter’s house with well-earned confidence.
I wonder if she has any inkling what a treasury of woodlore and mechanical know-how resides in that dinky little chainsaw.
Each Wednesday of COVID, our grandchildren’s school releases them on their own recognizance, with the vague injunction to pursue “independent studies.”
Pish, tosh. What do grade-school children know from independent studies?
Ours—Elsie, 11, and Tristan, 8—fortunately have something available that’s better than independent studies. They have grandparents.
Their mom and dad both work Wednesdays, so Elsie and Tristan spend all day with us.
They choose one of the world’s nation states in advance, and we come up with a lesson. We’ve done Egypt, Spain, Uruguay, Fiji—just to name few. We start by bombarding our grandkids’ heads with random facts about the chosen nation. Then we cook some food alleged to be typical of the chosen nation. They participate in both the bombardment and the cooking . . . at varying levels of excitement.
Sometimes they abandon Mormor—the Swedish name for their grandmother, Jo—when she’s in the midst of an exciting recipe. They just run off and do something else. Turns out, it was exciting to her, but not so much to them. On other occasions, they stick throughout the process.
Our kids are fickle and changeable. But, thanks to Mormor’s dogged persistence, we always end up with something original and tasty to eat. Often it’s a sweet dessert, and we detect no reluctance to consume it.
Afternoon is literature time. That part of the curriculum varies a great deal, too. I’ve gone radical by introducing poetic meters—the various kinds of rhythmic “feet,” iambic pentameter and such. Or sometimes we discuss what a piece means. Elsie and Tristan both like Robert Frost. And it turns out they’re capable of memorizing whole poems, if only they are challenged to do so.
On other occasions, the curriculum may be less formal. Last week we regaled one another with silly songs. Needless to say, their silly songs are sillier than my silly songs. Then we read a few Paul Bunyan stories, including one about the time Paul Bunyan tried to drive his logs down a Wisconsin river that ran around in a perfect circle. It took a while for Tristan to realize that such a thing is impossible—but he figured it out on his own.
Much of my teaching is stuff and nonsense, of the basest sort; but I have a nagging fear that if not for Bapa—their non-Swedish name for me—they would miss out on such things entirely.
These days, children’s educational and recreational opportunities are meted out, trimmed, and balanced to a stupefying degree. We all know kids need exposure to the world of their grandparents, but we commonly neglect that need while we pursue other goals that are less vital.
Should you have the opportunity to spend extra time with your grandchildren, rejoice. And use the time wisely. Don’t fritter it away in certified, approved, and educator-recommended lesson plans. This may be your one chance to give them something different.
Your New Favorite Writer will undergo hip replacement surgery Wednesday, January 13. It’s not that big a deal. I’ve been through it before, and my surgeon is first-rate.
But there is a lot of folderol involved in preparing for, undergoing, and then recovering from this kind of an operation. It also involves the use of drugs that may conjure a state of confusion more pronounced than my usual state of confusion.
I was going to post a new short story this week, but what with everything else, I have not had time to finish it. So I have given you instead a sour commentary on the shenanigans in Washington and what they might signal as far as the rest of us are concerned. That will have to hold you for the time being.
WATCH THIS SPACE. I will be back before long (two weeks? a month?) with a new short story for your entertainment. In the meantime, feel free to peruse my other stories or my nonfiction commentaries.
“In my dotage, I am reduced to bloggery.”—King Lear, Act VII, line 4,926
When Your New Favorite Writer began blogging nineteen months ago, his declared purpose was to “cultivate my author platform . . . so that people beyond my family may take an interest in my books when they are published.”
The blog was an auxiliary to my budding late-life career as a fiction writer. It was supplementary, not central, to my calling as a teller of tales. Therefore I proposed to fill it with ancillary content such as:
“Ruminations on ‘the writer’s life.’
“Narratives of past events, sometimes written as fictional vignettes.
“Mentions of good books recently read.
“News and chat from my widening circle of fellow writers.
“Tales of success (or even of well-curated failure!) in the literary lists.
“Pretty-much-brilliant observations and insights on the passing scene.
“Occasional adumbrations of the Judeo-Christian faith that informs and animates all of these things in my life.”
Every Tuesday since then, I’ve been approximately hitting one or more of those targets.
But a funny thing happpened on the way to literary lionhood.
I started to take fiction writing as a serious challenge. The smug conceit that I was just around the corner from stardom wore off in the literary ball mill of submissions and rejections.
What remained was this: A passion to keep on making up stories and pitching them until somebody noticed.
I had completed two novels not yet published in book form. I vowed to take Ray Bradbury’s advice and write a short story every week for a year. (His explanation was: “If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones.”)
And, Gentle Reader, since you’ve been with me these nineteen months, it seemed churlish not to let you in on the fun part.
So I’ve been posting those stories, in first draft form, for your comments and suggestions. I am serious. Help me out. Let me know what you find appealing and what you find boring or distracting or otherwise off-putting in these stories. We’ll have this fun together.
Which brings us to the next news item: The website has been re-jiggered.
To make it easy to navigate straight to the short stories, or straight to the ancillary content if you prefer, I’ve set up separate tabs on the top menu for Fiction in Progress and Commentary. If you want to see both, mixed in together, just click on Blog.
As an added bonus, I rearranged the other tabs so that the Home Page now introduces what this site is all about, and the About Page has bio notes on me, Your New Favorite Writer.
A cardinal tweets his piercing notes outside my window at five-thirty. The Global Pandemic has not changed his routine one iota.
Why do we revel in disaster and cling to desperation? What is there that so inclines us to doom and gloom?
The old TV show Hee-Haw had a recurring scene in which several indolent hillbillies lolled on a cabin porch and sang:
“Gloom, despair, and agony on me;
Deep, dark depression, excessive misery;
If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.
Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”
I am thinking of the coronavirus. Not the virus itself, Gentle Reader. Rather, the social phenomenon that COVID-19 has become.
The Public Face of Pandemic
If you were to attend only to the news broadcasts, to the briefings and pressers, to the partisan Memes of Malice which clutter the Facebook feeds and the Twittersphere, you might think—no matter what point of view you’re coming from—that ALL IS LOST.
After all, it’s plain enough that Those Other People are behaving in dangerous and evil ways. Choose your poison:
A. Knuckle-dragging cretins flout the scientifically-determined guidelines, because they have no concern for the most vulnerable among us. They will spike the curve and cause millions of deaths, including their own, with no thought at all for the common good.
B. A bunch of shrewd operators are using this disease hoax as a pretext to grab power for themselves and deprive us of the right to live as we have always lived. They are destroying our economy and our means of subsistence, with no thought at all for the common good.
If these are the themes you’re hearing, Dear Reader, I weep for your ears and your soul. And these are the themes we are all hearing, over and over again.
But let me tell you what I keep seeing on the ground, out here in the United States:
Most people are maintaining a respectful fathom’s-length distance to one another. Many but not all wear masks. Those who go maskless still do steer a wide berth around others.
Truly frail oldsters stay buttoned up in their homes. They receive phone calls, Zoom calls, window-mediated visits, and messages of cheer from those who care about them.
Almost all of us go to the store to buy food and other essentials, but not often, and only with great care. The store employees work tirelessly, as usual, keeping the shelves stocked as well as possible, even though spot shortages persist.
Children play outside in good weather and, shocking or not, interact with next-door friends, suffering no apparent ill effects.
You can get restaurant food—tasty, well-presented, thoughtfully packaged—by pre-arrangement, with carefully designed procedures for pick-up or delivery.
Most of the really necessary things can still be done, if inconveniently.
Mail is delivered.
Jeopardy! has begun recycling old Ken Jennings victories. What could be wrong with that?
Amid the wreckage wrought by pandemic and panic, the world is starting to resume.
Here in Wisconsin, taxidermists can once more ply their trade. You may scoff, but this is Wisconsin.
The place where my wife and I take our cars for service is open for business again, on a “drop-the-car-off-all-day” basis—no hanging around the waiting room.
Our church begins to plan for resumption of in-person worship services, though this may not happen until late summer or early fall. Until then, Zoom services are a blessing.
Several colleges and universities have announced they plan to receive students on campus again for the fall semester.
The dog grooming service we use is re-opening on a limited basis, with a long waiting list of shaggy clients. It may be some time before Lacey gets her trim, but she will get it.
The plumber came out and fixed the water supply to our laundry tubs, but he wore a mask and gloves.
The price of gasoline seems to have bottomed out as more driving takes place than before. Sub-dollar prices, alas, are already in the rearview mirror.
The return to “normal” will not be swift or easy. Nor will “normal” be quite normal.
On the contrary, it will all be slow, cautious, and elaborately hedged. That’s because almost all Normal People are cautious and prudent in the face of a real threat to health. Almost all Normal People also are working day by day, without fanfare, to restore an orderly economy and society.
As Mister Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers.” We’re all around.
Even God says: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
The Lord of Hosts tells us to choose life over death; who are we to argue?
So we try to live, as high on the hog as we can, and we do everything possible to avoid death. Even some impossible things, to avoid death, we attempt. We try to shut death out of our houses, out of our schools, out of our clinics, out of our hospitals, out of our emergency rooms. We try to shut death out of our mortuaries and cemeteries, preferring a quick cremation, followed by a “memorial” service that focuses on reliving our happy memories of the—uh, that is, you know, dear old Uncle Jack, bless his soul.
Most effectively, we shut death out of our consciousness. The Grim Reaper is barred from the threshold of our thoughts. We live in uneasy assurance that there is no such thing as death. Death is taboo.
Yet, AS IF BY SOME MIRACLE, people keep dying.
A Gentleman in a Dustcoat Trying
They die a few at a time, here or there. They die of heart ailments and strokes; they die of cancer; they die of accidents; they die of murder; they die of suicide. Sometimes they die unaccountably: I once read about a man who jumped off a four-foot-high platform at a county fair, and at the time his feet hit the ground he was dead. The coroner could only scratch his head.
Whatever the cause, by age 120 or so, we achieve one hundred percent mortality.
Once in a long while there comes a great epidemic, or a pandemic. You might say the very definition of such an event is that it taxes our resources as a whole society, not just as an individual or a family or a town.
Now we have COVID-19. We have mobilized against this pandemic at a scale, in a timeframe, and in specific ways by which no disease in human history has been resisted.
In America—I can’t speak for other societies, but yes, in America—we have mobilized chiefly, it seems, to deny death its victims.
Through a panoply of means, some new and some time-tested, we fight this dread disease. The dread thing about this disease is its death toll.
You don’t hear people saying, “I sure hope I don’t catch the COVID, it’s a pretty rough thing to go through.”
Those who recover occupy none of our attention, regardless how harrowing their escape. All the emphasis is on preventing death.
If it were just one among the crowd of viruses that constantly assail us, claiming a few lives here and there, nobody would make a big deal about it. But COVID-19, because of its novelty (as in “novel coronavirus”), is statistically forecast to sweep through the world, taking millions of lives from populations that start with zero immunity to it.
At this writing it has claimed about 42,000 Americans, but who knows what the coming months may bring?
According to our trusted experts—and I do trust their expertise—our most effective weapon against the onslaught has been “social distancing.” We seem to have dramatically reduced the death toll by staying away from one another—a method that has dealt a dire blow to our national economy. But that method has worked.
All our physical distancing and other measures have slowed the progress of the disease, not stopped it. We have deflected the incidence of death from COVID-19; we have not banished death altogether. Remember the early days, when our experts first recommended these measures. The slogan was, “Flatten the curve.” There was no thought of eliminating the disease altogether.
The point of all our efforts was simply to reduce the caseload to what our hospitals and medical professionals could handle.
It has always been in the cards that a lot of people were going to die from this disease.
There is a reason, Dear Reader, that I belabor this obvious point.
Now that we have blunted the coronavirus attack, our leaders work on means to bring back the economy. This is no trivial concern. It will take a complex strategy, with a well-calibrated balance between, on the one hand, fostering more freedom of movement for productive endeavors; and, on the other, protecting the most vulnerable from exposure to a highly contagious disease organism.
It is not just the president who wants to get the economy working again. Responsible politicians of both parties and executives of businesses large and small share this urgency. They bear a heavy responsibility to restore the systems and mechanisms that provide us all with food, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, education, health care, social satisfaction, and all the other things we require—including paychecks—before additional damage is added to what those systems have already sustained.
It would be foolhardy simply to drop all the new practices we have adopted and go on a binge of “pre-pandemic normalcy.” If anyone seriously proposes this, they ought to think more thoroughly.
And if anyone seriously thinks that loosening any of the present restrictions is irresponsible, they also ought to think more thoroughly.
How often have we heard it said that no cost is too great to save a single human life? Quite often, to my recollection. Remember, in our society, death is taboo. Consider the refrain oft-voiced by the late actor DeForest Kelley, playing Doctor McCoy on the original Star Trek series:
“Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake!”
Yes, Bones, there are.
There are always lives at stake. No matter what we do, or what we don’t do, lives are at stake. People will live this way, or that way; people will die this way, or that way.
Seldom are we given a simple choice between life and death. Commonly, we make hundreds of microchoices—to walk or drive, to eat a fish or a steak, to floss or not to floss, to wash our hands or leave them unwashed—each decision tending either to promote life or to hasten death, yet no single decision dispositive.
Right now, a particular subset of microchoices is forced on us by the disease— commended to us as mandatory or at least highly beneficial. In weeks to come, those choices, one by one, will become antiquated and irrelevant.
Life will go on. In the midst of it, people will go on dying.
The city has its own dedicated typeface, Chatype, released in 2012. It boasts the fastest Internet service in the Western Hemisphere. But I’m getting carried away with present-day embellishments. Whereas this blog, you know, kinda focuses on the past.
“Chattanooga” may derive from a Creek word that means “rock rising to a point.” That would be Lookout Mountain, where they fought “the Battle Above the Clouds.”
You can’t imagine Chattanooga without remembering the Civil War. Tennessee was desperately contested from early in the conflict. President Lincoln wanted badly to protect the pro-Union folks in East Tennessee from being swallowed by the Confederacy. But first things had to come first: General Grant invaded West Tennessee. His hard-won victories at Fort Donelson and Shiloh meant the North would stay in the South.
The next order of business was Vicksburg. The guns on its heights controlled traffic on the Mississippi. Grant wrested the city from the Southern grasp on July 4, 1863. The Confederacy was effectively broken into two parts.
Next Stop: Chattanooga
Chattanooga stood on the Tennessee River, in a place where great ridges of the Cumberland Plateau came together. A key point for river and rail transport, Chattanooga would be the ideal staging point from which to invade Georgia. On September 9, 1863, Union general Rosecrans occupied Chattanooga. That was the easy part.
Rebel general Braxton Bragg, failing to oust Union forces in the Battle of Chickamauga September 19-20, laid siege to the river city and tried to starve the bluecoats out. In mid-October, Grant—now commanding all Union forces in the region—wrote, “Hold Chattanooga at all hazards, I will be there as soon as possible.” He arrived four days later and immediately began planning a campaign to break Bragg’s siege.
After a month spent building a logistical advantage, Grant’s troops assaulted the rebel-held high points on Lookout Mountain, Orchard Knob, and Missionary Ridge.
Seeing the Sites
Our friends and hosts, Andy and Janet Johnson, longtime Chattanooga residents, graciously showed us the battle sites.
The other two high points, Orchard Knob and Missionary Ridge, have been developed as residential real estate, but you can see the layout clearly from the top of Lookout Mountain. The final battle for Chattanooga was at Missionary Ridge. Union troops under Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and George H. Thomas stormed the steep heights.
Sherman’s troops stalled on their way up the north end of the north-south ridge. In the center, George Thomas’s division stalled after capturing Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge. As they milled around, having gained what many appaently thought was their final objective, rebels poured fire down on their heads from the top of the ridge.
Officers and men of the 24th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry knew what the real objective was. They started up the hill, but their color bearer was wounded and dropped the flag. Civil War units used their flags as rallying points. It was crucial the men of the 24th be able to see the colors mounting the hill ahead of them.
Lieutenant Arthur MacArthur, an 18-year-old, snatched the flag from the fallen soldier’s hands and dashed up the hill, shouting, “On, Wisconsin!” The regiment responded with a ferocious charge. Other units left and right did the same. The seasoned Confederate soldiers manning the guns at the top of the ridge experienced what can only be described as a moment of simultaneous panic. They ran. General Bragg chased them, implored them to turn and make a stand, but he did not get the stampede under control until his Army was safely in Georgia. Chattanooga was secure.
Chattanooga capped a long string of victories in the West for Grant. He became general-in-chief of all Union Armies, and moved on to Virginia for the final confrontation with Robert E. Lee. Grant’s right-hand man, Sherman, was turned loose to range from Chattanooga through the State of Georgia. His march to the sea, still remembered with more than chagrin by Southerners, once again subdivided the Confederacy.
It would be more than a year before the final battles in Virginia and North Carolina, but Chattanooga played a decisive role in the outcome.
What’s the Big Deal?
If you’re not interested in the Civil War, this may all seem frightfully dull and remote. But everything runs into everything else.
For his actions at Missionary Ridge November 25, 1863, Arthur MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1890. Later, he would serve as military governor of the Philippine Islands, when the U.S. won them in the Spanish-American War.
Just as important for history, Arthur MacArthur fathered a son, named Douglas, who became an American military legend in his own right, was himself awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines in World War II, dictated the reconstruction of Japan along constitutional democratic lines after the war, and rescued South Korea from North Korea’s invasion in 1950.
And I, Dear Reader, will be eternally grateful to our Chattanooga friends, Andy and Janet Johnson, who helped me with my Civil War itinerary. As an unabashed Grantophile—any man who can’t hold his liquor is okay by me!—I had visited the sites of all Grant’s major victories, except this one. Now that box is checked.
When I started writing this blog, a few weeks ago, I hit upon the–I thought–clever device of signing each post: “Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author.” A branding ploy, if you will; a not-so-subliminal attempt to influence your subconscious mind.
But it has occurred to me that it may be merely an irritating affectation. Maybe it annoys you, rather than endearing me to you.
So, what do you think: Should I keep it, or give it the deep six? Please discuss.
Larry F. Sommers, Who Hopes to Become Your Favorite Author