Archive for February, 2021

Life: the cosmic mistake?

Whatever your outlook on the reality of climate change, global warning or the general deterioration of people and the place we live in, it’s obvious that humanity is paddling rapidly up shit’s creek.

The question for me: Is it mostly our doing, a side effect of chance, or the fore-ordained endpoint of evolution? And secondarily, if evolution, what exactly do I mean by evolution in this context?

Through SETI and other efforts, we’ve been listening for the telltale evidence of  intelligent life for close to 60 years and have documented exactly zilch. The explanations for this empty-room resonance range from “We haven’t been looking long enough” to “We haven’t been looking widely enough” (only a tiny segment of the sky has been monitored) to “We might not recognize a truly alien broadcast” to “Maybe they’re intelligent enough to keep quiet” to “There just ain’t nobody there” (with its fundamentalist variant, “We’re all that matters; God just tacked up the rest of the universe for us to gaze at”).

I haven’t seen the following possibilities spelled out (though I’m sure they’re around).

First, maybe we’re just not properly aligned temporally. It took billions or years for the earth to coalesce, hundreds of millions to bring forth life. Our species has been around for only a couple hundred thousand years, has latched onto the electromagnetic spectrum only in the past two centuries, and has tried to reach the mythical others “out there” for the last half century. Maybe tomorrow (if we’re still around) we may a) give up the effort or b) discover a simpler, more direct method of contact.

So let’s turn that around and think about who might be broadcasting to us: First, they’d be doing so from thousands to billions of years in the past. What’s the chance that they would not only have  reached our level of discovery back then, but that they would be broadcasting during exactly the right narrow time frame to interact with us, today? Or that we’d be able to pick up a broadcast diffused to near spectral invisibility? Or that we’d recognize it for what it was? Or the opposite possibility: that we’re johnny-come-latelies who have already been passed by. Whichever way, to receive cosmic evidence of buddies we’d have to be damned lucky spatially and temporally – and we’d also have to be paying close attention, not watching Netflix.

That’s one kind of possibility for our apparent lonesomeness in the big, indifferent universe. But lately I’ve come to wonder: What if life just doesn’t work? Not that it was intended other than the way it turned out – since I don’t believe in the Great Intender – but that life is inherently subject to failure. (I’m talking about organic life here; Linda likes to posit the possibility of life so totally alien that we would have no way to characterize it outside science fiction – and who’s to say that’s less likely than our cobbled chemical stew?)

Evolution on earth has been a horridly beautiful mess. Each individual is the behavioral result of a singular collection of synapses that remains throughout its life at war with its next-door-neighbor’s mass of synapses. Both individuals and species mutate randomly, become diseased or fail in their environment. And die.

Every living thing above a single-celled organism depends on eating some other living thing. Now, that doesn’t seem nice. It’s also inefficient and incompetent. But… so is everything on the cosmic level. Quantum particles wink in and out of existence. Stars create planets – their children – then eat them. Black holes gobble their neighbors. Galaxies collide and unleash a billion years of chaotic aftermath. And unless the current math is wrong, the entire universe will expand forever, pissing off into nothing. 

Looked at this way, life is wholly consistent with physical law – and at the same time a rattle-trap, blundering sideshow. Like the rest of the universe as it races into oblivion, life will attenuate, diffuse, vanish. And with it, its absurd side-effect – our dithering sense of importance.

This week the snow is mystically gorgeous, the woodstove is providing joyous heat, the cat’s sleeping on the printer and has learned to forsake the litter box to shit outside, and we live in one of the last places on earth disaster is likely to strike. So I’m not meaning to complain. Just looking at the other side of the coin.

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Tinkertoys and Yukon Jack

Holidays meant everything to me as a kid; I didn’t have that much else to cheer about. So far as I remember, no playmate visited me until we moved to Powelton in Philly (1947 or ’48). Even there, I was more apt to visit the girl who lived upstairs (Mary?) to watch Howdy Dowdy (damned stupid show) they had a TV, we didn’t. Unlikely connection: My dad was J.R. Davis. Hers was J.R. Davisson. Must have driven the mailman bats.

I memorized the birthday of everyone in the family, anticipating a special aura attached to each one – and often finding it. For my brother Rod’s 21st birthday, Mom encased his present in 21 wrappings, including our bathmat. At the center lay a box (no, a sock!) containing 21 silver dollars.

Sickly little dollop that I was, my first healthy birthday came at age nine, when we hosted my only childhood party. I remember nothing of it but the fact that it existed.

Christmas was a big, big, big deal. Our indoor decoration was little short of insane. We hauled out innumerable boxes of 3/8-inch-thick, dark red, twisted-crepe-paper ropes, each with little foil-covered papier mache bells on the ends. (How old were they? One of them came with a note inside that read “Happy crossing, Moses.”)

After spending hours each year repairing broken twists, we thumbtacked or map-pinned the garlands in elegant swoops across the living-room and dining-room walls, one below the other in decreasing arcs. 

Brother Vic had been official decorator for many years. The title passed to me in my teens, and I took the idiocy to new heights. The longest paper rope, perhaps 20 feet, had previously been snaked, bell-less, around balustrades, but I attached a pair of those little silver bells to its ends and painstakingly multi-swooped it across the entire living room wall of our  court-end house off  37th St..

We set up the tree about a week in advance of Christmas and decorated it with an unending supply of bright but uninteresting glass ornaments. I obsessively placed each ornament so that it did not repeat a neighbor in either shape or color. I would check the tree on all sides, from every angle, before adding the heavy lead tinsel (losing a dozen brain cells for each ponderous strip). We had no lights on the tree. Probably couldn’t afford them. 

Finally, I set up my little metal figures on the library table under the tree. I took about a day and half to carefully position every farm and zoo beast, every last tradesman, train conductor, hobo and milkmaid. There was no such thing as enough.

The extended Davis family held Christmas dinner at Aunt Ruth and Uncle Frank’s in the suburbs. Aunt Ruth was a divorcee with three adult children from a previous marriage, all of them rather more pleasant than Aunt Ruth. She and Uncle Frank had one child together, Charles, a couple years older than me. 

As the youngest of my generation, I felt even more out of place than I normally did, sitting quietly, wishing myself elsewhere or spending time in the basement watching Charles, a pompous shit, operate his electric trains. Later, I’d sit at the end of the U-shaped dinner table, served last with cold vegetables and dry, saliva-sapping turkey.

But my Christmas presents at home were bodaciously cool. My stocking would be stuffed solid with individually tissue-wrapped metal animals, followed by a silver dollar in the toe. And over the course of the years, I was given or inherited from my bothers every known form of construction set: Tinkertoys, Erector Sets, odd slotted composite disks that fit (poorly) into colored plastic tubes, Lincoln Logs, pre-Lego lock-togethers, a set of massive maple blocks and boards, and I don’t remember what else. If one piece could be attached to or placed upon another, we had it.

Lincoln Logs pissed me off (I don’t know why – they still do). I cut my fingers trying to screw together the little nuts and bolts of the Erector Set but loved it nonetheless. Tinkertoys, though – they were king. I didn’t want or need the optional motor: From a bunch of simple rods and wooden circles with holes evenly spaced around the circumference you could construct a functioning steam shovel. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the rest of the world worked that well?

Yet the strongest construction images I retain are of my personally designed and constructed matchstick log cabins, usually made during the summer. I have no idea what got me started on them in my early teens, how long this contained mania lasted, or why I’ve never done anything remotely like them again. 

Each cabin grew atop a thin cardboard sheet taken from one of my father’s dress shirts. I lit each wooden kitchen match and blew it out (those were Smokey the Bear days), then severed its head with a small pocket knife. I glued alternating layers of matches in a square, framing windows and doorways as I went along, then forming a pitched roof. 

What glue did I use? Probably mucilage, the weak but universal adhesive of the day. The bottle had an inclined rubber top with an exit slit not unlike that of a penis. It always clogged when it dried.

I carved and glued individual floorboards from the matches, also tables and chairs and a chimney above the roofline (though not below – an igloo-like construction). Finally, I scissored shingles roughly 1/2 inch on a side from brown paper bags and glued them to the rafters. 

You can picture it, yes? No. Because, from laziness or personal peculiarity, I never notched the ends of the logs. I simply laid them one atop the other where they crossed at the corners, leaving a match-width open space between them on the sides. You could say I created log-cabin skeletons. I wish I had kept one, simply because they were so personal, so unlikely.

Years later, I got into making ever more elaborate Christmas presents for Julie and the kids. For awhile we had a ShopSmith, the only successful multi-use electric shop tool ever devised, serving equally well as table saw, lathe, sander, drill press and Swiss army knife.

After jig-sawing the outer rim off a circular oak dining table, I sanded its edges against the ShopSmith’s revolving disk, then set it on a vertical hexagonal plywood base painted alternately red and yellow around its six sides. (Not quite as kitsch as it might sound.)

I  also built an interlocking collapsible plywood playhouse and Finnish-birch chairs for the kids – clever projects from the back of Women’s Day in its glory years.

About then I became obsessed with form. Made two clocks, one circular, with the same red/yellow alternation in its quarters and the “numbers” – unnumbered  – etched as small circles with a sanding-disk drill bit. The other timepiece was a walnut plywood tetrahedron with the clockface on one side, the “numbers” simple painted triangles. None of my kids showed interest in either one.

Almost half a century after my kidhood, my lack of birthday parties was remedied seven-times over. Linda and Erin caught me out with surprise parties twice, on my 49th and 51st birthdays. The second was a particular doozy. Jim Knipfel and his friend the Grinch kept me occupied at Jim’s place for several hours with … well, pornography, then Jim walked innocent me back home. There I found damned near everyone I had ever known crowded into our friendly Baring St. kitchen. 

Erin had let out that I was a deep, committed fan of Yukon Jack, Canada’s overpowering 100-proof blast of citrused whisky. That day I received 18 bottles of Yukon Jack. There are probably more wonderful things in the word, but … 

No there aren’t.

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Up the fire escape to Albrecht

In the late summer of 1964-65, I moved, for the first time in my life, into a solo apartment. At Penn, I’d lived with my parents, at Stanford in WW II Navy barracks rechristened “dorm” with walls so thin you could be awakened by a sneeze three chambers down, then short-term apartments back in Philly, then the House (oh, much more about the House, later on). 

The solo apartment was on the third floor of a row house at the corner of 37th and Chestnut Sts. in West Philly, since replaced by almost featureless Penn grad dorms. Here, I was again no more than a mile from Powelton Village, where I’d grown up since age eight.

This was my Tolkien summer. I’d picked up the books early on, before they came out in paper, and walked the streets with The Hobbit hanging from my beltloop by a monstrous rubber band.

Since the building was on the corner, it had a loping fire escape that exited in a side area along 37th. I didn’t like the main entrance on Chestnut, which led through a vestibule (ridiculous word) and up a gloomy stairway. So my official ingress was up the fire escape, leading to the small concrete back porch with a single French door opening onto my bedroom/living room (this may be what the English call a bed-sit – I’ve never quite pictured one).

I ripped off the tattered screening that enclosed the porch. Above the railing between the head of the stairs and the door, I mounted a rough-framed self-portrait of Albrecht Durer – the one where he does himself up to look like Christ (though with an oddly lopsided mouth). I shone a small spotlight on it when I went out at night so Al was there to greet me when I rolled home.

The place had, at times, a magical aura. The day I moved in I set my turntable on the floor and put on Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Helma Elsner on harpsichord. Never before or since has any single record sounded so fulfilling.

The apartment soon became home to the Gluttons Club. Joe from Tennessee and Dave were regulars; a few others drifted in an out. Dave was a Goldwaterite with a remarkable sense of humor for a rightist. We’d cook up fatty delights, eat until we moaned, toss the bones off the porch into the trash cans below, then lie in piles reading comic books.

Across 37th stood a gothic Presbyterian Church (complete with small cloister), since converted into a theater. We’d compete to see how far up the roof we could toss a penny from my window, which was open even in winter because of an excess of heat delivered by the thumping radiator. I’d often spend a quarter hour out on the porch looking down at its beautiful, peaceful architecture that seemed wonderfully removed from people. But back inside, alone, watching the sun set slowly behind the stern rigdeline of its roof often pushed me into deep despair. Another day gone, irretrievable.

The kitchen housed a 1917 Roper gas stove, white and green enamel, that rode proudly on three-foot legs. It had an early ignition system that I’ve never seen elsewhere: You pressed a round brass button on the front, between the burner knobs, and foot-long spears of flame shot out of a central pilot light toward each burner. It never failed.

The bathroom was strange – I’m not sure what function it may have had in its youth: long, narrow, high, with multi-paned windows near the ceiling between it and the kitchen. Its main redeeming feature (a feature that could redeem a whirlpool in Hell) was a clawfoot bathtub. Ahhhh. For some reason I painted the woodwork a deep slate blue. Mistake: The room hovered and glowered at me whenever I bathed and made it plain that it wanted to be left alone. 

That bathtub, however, was home to my introduction to Russian liturgical music. Nonesuch Records in those days put out an astonishing range of world music – cheap too, albums usually a buck each. In a little downtown record shop I picked up Balinese gamelan, music from the Bahamas, Japanese koto and other then-oddities that became some of my all-time favorites. 

I had no idea what to expect from Russian Orthodox music when I slipped it on the turntable and started my bath. Solid, thrumming harmonies. Ahhhh. I was attacking my upper back when suddenly the turntable went berserk. The speed slowed and the pitch dropped to a rumble like the death agonies of a mammoth.

It took me a couple minutes to realize that this was one of the famous Russian basses. The voice is deeper than a well, and as resonant; mournful, rocks complaining of their captivity. Michael Trubetzkoi sings the Epistle to the Romans with God’s own admonition, rising a full octave in half tones yet still ending a meter and half beneath your feet.

I’ve seldom had such an instructive bath.

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Down to the sea in ships (or, summers on the not-so-high seas)

Vic was the only one of us three brethren to realize his childhood dream. He loved the ocean and wanted to sail the seas. After graduating from Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in the late ’40s, he got a job with Sun Oil as an advanced deckhand, called an able-bodied seaman (universally known as an AB), rose steadily through the ranks to become, finally, Captain of the Fleet. He retired as the company’s top sea dog.

As his brother, I had an in with Sun Oil, so I sailed two college summers on the ships as various types of dogsbody. 

The normal complement of bottom-rung deckhands, called ordinary seaman (universally known as, yes, ordinaries), was augmented in summer by temps to repair the damage resulting from the winds of winter. These extra-ordinaries removed rust and repainted every exposed surface on the deck.

I was hired on at a time when the family-owned company hired no Blacks or known non-Christians. I sailed initially on Vic’s ship, the Eastern Sun, where he was the regular first mate but was then on vacation. Over those summers, on several ships, I never sailed with my brother.

Graceful, ambidextrous, athletic, Vic was yet dogged by physical misfortune. He broke several fingers, a leg and an arm (while clumsy me, I’ve never broken a bone… well, I did cut off parts of a couple fingers). For example, he slipped on an oil slick while carrying a glass sample phial and deeply cut a finger. The tendon retracted before it could be attended to and he was left with a permanently curled digit.

Example two: Each ship carried an “anchor buoy” – a piece of wood attached to a rope which was attached to the anchor chain. Why? Because (snort, chortle, GUFFAW) they’d once lost an anchor in the river! Now, if one dropped along with its chain, you’d know where the poor thing had gone! Vic was standing near when the anchor was released one time and the buoy rope whipped around his arm, smashed it against the rail. His shattered bones were patched with screws and borrowings from other parts of his body.

The worst disaster did not hit him, personally (except spiritually). Whether he was first mate or captain at the time, he was in charge of a three-man crew sent down to check an empty toluene tank. A spark, probably electrical, caused an instantaneous explosion. All three died of oxygen deprivation or seared lungs. The bosun leading that crew was tall, blond, magnificent, a near perfect physical specimen. Almost unimaginable to think of him dead. Vic’s conscience was in shreds for months.

The Eastern Sun‘s captain was an ass. Stupid, superstitious, fearful, he killed the ship’s engines the moment we entered the Delaware River channel lest he might lumber into something while chugging north. It took four hours to drift up the river to the docks at Marcus Hook (once a hangout of Blackbeard the Pirate). One time his tardiness missed high tide and he tried to cinch the ship to the dock by over-tightening the three-inch polypropylene lines fastened to the mooring capstans. One snapped. Under massive tension, the broken line moved faster than the eye could register. It could have cut a man in half.

By contrast, Capt. Brown, the “relief captain” who filled in on vacations (to the entire crew’s relief), would zip upriver in under two hours, screech to a stop mid-stream, then slap the ship home against the dock like parking a motor scooter.

Between full-timers and us summer ordinaries, the Eastern had a varied load of seamen.

Blackie was bosun (foreman of the deck crew). A short, growly taskmaster, he was an OK guy if you enjoy tough love while doing boobic jobs.

Smitty, probably in his mid 30s, was imperturbable, amiable but quietly cynical. 

Tiger, in his late teens, a fundamentalist or born-again, boasted incessantly of his sexual conquests. When he left, I inherited his cabin. The top dresser drawer was stuffed with those little green and-purple-inked religious tracts.

Bell, another spare ordinary, could fart on command. He introduced me to the six categories of farts: fizz, fuzz, fizz-fuzz, pooh, tearass and rattler.  He had little trouble producing on request, though he could not always guarantee a pure category – a fizz-fuzz, apparently, is especially taxing. 

I can’t recall the name of the AB who bestowed the best advice ever given a fellow worker: “Walk fast in the open spaces.” He would barrel along the deck at full-throttle, arms pumping, to midships, where he would enter the paint locker, heave himself up onto a wide shelf, and fall asleep.

My difficulty, as in many (if not most) physical situations, was trying to comprehend what was going on. When first told to help stow the lines after casting off, I shuffled sideways, grabbed something, backed away, looked panicked – and froze. The first mate (Vic’s vacation replacement) asked why I was “standing around while everybody else is doing something.” Because I don’t have the least friggin’ idea what to do.

(Recently I’ve realized that, for all the times I would stumble and bumble through some simple task, most fellow workers ended up liking me. I find that unnerving.)

For entertainment… well, there wasn’t much. The lounge – what the hell was it called? can’t remember – sported an ancient shortwave radio that could being in countries from across the waves. It was also where we did our laundry in a massive washer, using a super-powered detergent called sougie (sp?) kept to clean the decks. It could incidentally dissolve the accumulated oil in our clothing (and probably our faces if we dared apply it).

While a deckhand, I numbed the nerves of two fingers using a handheld pneumatic paint chipper for hours on end. It took six months for full feeling to return. Later, working on a small Sun barge along the southern New England coast, the idiots in charge insisted I steer the thing into a canal – me, who had never driven a car, who had fallen off bikes at five years old and refused to ride again. Two years later, the barge was cleft in twain by a larger ship. I wonder why.

My next bottom-feeder job was “wiper.” Wipers toiled in 110-degree heat and 90% humidity down in the engine room, sopping up grease, servicing machinery, crawling through bilgewater. To offset the gloom, we painted the handrails bright yellow, the steel flooring kelly green. (Later, on an older ship run by pistons, I sat in inch-deep puddles of oil trying, with two others, to loosen steel nuts half the size of my head that held a gargantuan piston in place.)

For a trip or two I even worked in the galley (kitchen), serving meals and cleaning officers’ cabins. The steward – the galley boss – was mid-40s, heavy, bald, profane, likable enough. He ran a constant game of cribbage, a card game where scores are tallied by moving pegs along holes in a wooden board (an English game, of course).

The steward nearly always won; here’s why: The cards were old, greasy, nearly rotting. The galley crew was usually half drunk and about as bright as pewter. They’d shuffle the cards two or three times, which left them adhering in clumps. After half a dozen cards had been played, it wasn’t hard for the steward to determine who was holding which sticky wad. I watched, never played.

Most Sun tankers seldom went anywhere interesting (though over many years Vic ended up in Egypt, Japan and India). The standard run was to Port Arthur, Texas. Tooling up the Sabine River, you passed lush houses along the banks, but when you got to P.A. proper, you had the choice of a couple dive bars, where the crew blew enough money to need to draw against their next paycheck by the end of the run.

I did get to Puerto Rico once, and hired a taxi up a switchback hillside road to the local town, where I was greeted with some amusement. I don’t speak Spanish and, in my shorts, verging-on-albino hair and dead-white skin, I looked as Latin as a border collie. I grinned, nodded and found my way to a liquor store where I bought a couple bottles of rum. Then I shagged up into the hills, sat down, and read. Later, I skittered down at full run, holding my bagged liquor and thinking Hemingwayesque thoughts. 

On every voyage, I hauled along my battered Underwood portable typewriter. I’d buy government-issue postcards – no pix, just an outlined green lozenge on the front above the address space. I’d type across the entire back and front, right around the address, which I’d circle in pen: not a millimeter wasted. Many of the cards I sent to a lovely young lady in Providence, RI. She had gorgeous legs but did not in any other way excite me. The cards were just a mark of friendship.

One who did excite me:

Between trips, I had just enough time to take the commuter train from Marcus Hook to Philly and spend a few hours at our house on Mole St. in Philly. Why, I can’t recall, but this time I was sitting in the small, quiet, concreted back yard, talking to a very bright, belligerent 17-year-old and his mother. The mother was slim and wondrously sexy. At one point she sat in my lap – some sort of comment to her antagonistic son? What effect it had on him I don’t know. The effect it had on me ….

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