"May we all be fortunate enough to have a path shown to us by the universe, and may we all have the courage to follow it. Enlightenment need not arrive at once straddling a bolt of lightning... It might come in small packages as moonlight reflected in the frost of a cold November morning." - Danny Swicegood, How We Are Called
When I was very young, I read a story about the concept of a Rat Race in a book called Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. It really stuck with me.
"...It was about a woman in a small town who bought a vacuum cleaner. Her name was Mrs. Jones, and up until then she, like all of her neighbors, had kept her house spotlessly clean by using a broom and a mop. But the vacuum cleaner did it faster and better, and soon Mrs. Jones was the envy of all other housewives in town - so they bought vacuum cleaners, too.
The vacuum cleaner business was so brisk, in fact, that the company that made them opened a branch factory in the town. The factory used a lot of electricity, of course, and so did the women with their vacuum cleaners, so the local electric power company had to put up a big new plant to keep them all running. In its furnaces the power plant burned coal, and out of its chimneys black smoke poured day and night, blanketing the town with soot and making all the floors dirtier than ever. Still, by working twice as hard and twice as long, the women of the town were able to keep their floors almost as clean as they had been before Mrs. Jones ever bought a vacuum cleaner in the first place."
I learnt that a Rat Race means a race where no matter how fast you run, you don't get anywhere.
For as long as I can remember, as far back as my memories go, I've felt something amiss in everyday life. Something didn't feel right, I didn't understand 'it', I didn't understand why. There wasn't a day that went by where I didn't think about 'it', trying to figure 'it' out.
It was as if there was fog that concealed 'it', not completely, just enough to make you feel that if you looked hard enough you might figure out what 'it' really was. The fog lifted when I read Ishmael: An adventure of the Mind and Spirit.
"...Bwana, you tell us that the way we live is wretched and wrong and shameful. You tell us that it's not the way people are meant to live. This puzzles us, Bwana, because for thousands of years it has seemed to us a good way to live. But if you, who ride to the stars and send your words around the world at the speed of thought, tell us that it isn't, then we must in all prudence listen to what you have to say."
"Well...I realize it seems good to you. This is because you're ignorant and uneducated and stupid."
"Exactly so, Bwana. We await your enlightenment. Tell us why our life is wretched and squalid and shameful."
"Your life is wretched and squalid and shameful because you live like animals."
Ishamel frowned, puzzled. "I don't understand, Bwana. We live as all others live. We take what we need from the world and leave the rest alone, just as the lion and the deer do. Do the lion and the deer lead shameful lives?"
"No, but that's because they're just animals. It's not right for humans to live that way."
"Ah," Ishmael said, "this we did not know. And why is it not right to live that way?"
"It's because, living that way...you have no control over your lives."
Ishmael cocked his head at me. "In what sense do we have no control over our lives, Bwana?"
"You have no control over the most basic necessity of all, your food supply."
"You puzzle me greatly, Bwana. When we're hungry, we go off and find something to eat. What more control is needed?"
"You'd have more control if you planted it yourself."
"How so, Bwana? What does it matter who plants the food?"
"If you plant it yourself, then you know positively that it's going to be there."
Ishmael cackled delightedly. "Truly you astonish me, Bwana! We already know positively that it's going to be there. The whole world of life is food. Do you think it's going to sneak away during the night? Where would it go? It's always there, day after day, season after season, year after year. If it weren't we wouldn't be here to talk to you about it."
"Yes, but if you planted it yourself, you could control how much food there was. You'd be able to say, 'Well, this year we'll have more yams, this year we'll have more beans, this year we'll have more strawberries.'"
"Bwana, those things grow in abundance without the slightest effort on our part. Why should we trouble ourselves to plant what is already growing?"
"Yes, but...don't you ever run out? Don't you ever wish you had a yam but find there are no more growing wild?"
"Yes, I suppose so. But isn't it the same for you? Don't you ever wish you had a yam but find there are no more growing in your fields?"
"No, because if we wish we had a yam, we can go to the store and buy a can of them."
"Yes, I have heard something of this system. Tell me this, Bwana. The can of yams that you buy in the store - how many of you labored to put that can there for you?
"Oh, hundreds, I suppose. Growers, harvesters, truckers, cleaners at the cleaning plant, people to run the equipment, people to pack the cans in cases, truckers to distribute the cases, people at the store to unpack them, and so on."
"Forgive me, but you sound like lunatics, Bwana, to do all this work just to ensure that you can never be disappointed over the matter of a yam. Among my people, when we want a yam, we simply go and dig one up - and if there are none to be found, we find something else just as good, and hundreds of people don't need to labor to put it in our hands."
"You're missing the point."
"I certainly am, Bwana."
I stifled a sigh. "Look, here's the point. Unless you control your own food supply, you live at the mercy of the world. It doesn't matter that there's always been enough. That's just not the point. You can't live at the whim of the gods. That's just not a human way to live."
"Why is that Bwana?"
"Well...look. One day you go out hunting, and you catch a deer. Okay, that's fine. That's terrific. But you didn't have any control over the deer's being there, did you?"
"Okay. The next day you go out hunting and there's no deer to be caught. Hasn't that ever happened?"
"Well, there you are. Because you have no control over the deer, you have no deer. So what do you do?"
Ishmael shrugged. "We snare a couple of rabbits."
"Exactly. You shouldn't have to settle for rabbits if what you want is a deer."
"And this is why we lead shameful lives, Bwana? This is why we should set aside a life we love and go to work in one of your factories? Because we eat rabbits when it happens that no deer presents itself to us?"
"No. Let me finish. You have no control over the deer - and no control over the rabbits either. Suppose you go out hunting one day, and there are no deer and no rabbits? What do you do then?"
"Then we eat something else, Bwana. The world is full of food."
"Yes, but look. If you have no control over any of it..." I bared my teeth at him. "Look, there no guarantee that the world is always going to be full of food, is there? Haven't you ever had a drought?"
"Well, what happens then?"
"The grasses wither, all the plants wither. The trees bear no fruit. The game disappears. The predators dwindle."
"And what happens to you?"
"If the drought is very bad, then we too dwindle."
"You mean you die, don't you?"
"Ha. That's the point!"
"It's shameful to die, Bwana?"
"No...I've got it. Look, this is the point. You die because you live at the mercy of the gods. You die because you think the gods are going to look after you. That's okay for animals, but you should know better."
"We should not trust the gods with our lives?"
"Definitely not. You should trust yourselves with your lives. That's the human way to live."
Ishmael shook his head ponderously. "This is sorry news indeed Bwana. From time out of mind we've lived in the hands of the gods, and it seemed to us that we lived well. We left to the the gods all the labor of sowing and growing and lived a carefree life, and it seemed there was always enough in the world for us, because - behold! - we are here!"
"Yes," I told him sternly. "You are here, and look at you. You have nothing. You're naked and homeless. You live without security, without comfort, without opportunity."
"And this is because we live in the hands of the gods?"
"Absolutely. In the hands of the gods you're no more important that lions or lizards and fleas - you're nothing special. You're just another animal to be fed. Wait a second," I said, and closed my eyes for a couple minutes. "Okay, this is important. The gods make no distinction between you and any other creature. No that's not quite it. Hold on." I went back to work, then tried again. "Here it is: What the gods provide is enough for your life as animals - I grant you that. But for your life as humans, you must provide. The gods are not going to do that."
Ishmael gave me a stunned look. "You mean there is something we needs that the gods aren't willing to give us, Bwana?"
"That's the way it seems, yes. They give you what you need to live as animals but not what you need beyond that to live as humans."
"But how can that be Bwana? How can it be that the gods are wise enough to shape the universe and the world and the life of the world but lack the wisdom to give humans what they need to be human?"
"I don't know how that can be, but it is. That's the fact. Man lived in the hands of the gods for three million years and at the end of those three million years was no better off and no farther ahead than when he started."
"Truly, Bwana, this is strange news. What kind of gods are these?"
I snorted a laugh. "These, my friend, are incompetent gods. This is why you've got to take your lives out of their hands entirely. You've got to take your lives into your own hands."
"And how do we do that, Bwana?"
"As I say, you've got to begin planting your own food."
"But how will that change anything, Bwana? Food is food, whether we plant it or the gods plant it."
"That's exactly the point. The gods only plant what you need. You will plant more than what you need."
"To what end, Bwana? What's the good of having more food than what we need?"
"Damn!" I shouted. "I get it!"
Ishmael smiled and said, "So what's the good of having more food than we need?"
"That's the whole goddammed point! When you have more food than what you need, then the gods have no power over you!"
"We can thumb our noses at them."
"All the same. Bwana, what are we to do with this food if we don't need it?"
"You save it! You save it to thwart the gods when they decide it's your turn to go hungry. You save it so that when they send a drought, you can say, "Not me, goddamnit! I'm not going hungry, there's nothing you can do about it, because my life is in my hands now!"
I understood why we live the way we live, so different from all other beings on the planet. Why I believed our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, lived in constant angst. Just like the their remnants, the few remaining isolated tribes that still exist today.
Except that they don't.
Their everyday lives are far less anxious than mine. Any anthropologist will tell me that.
I have always been to afraid to admit to being vulnerable, or to ask for help. It bothered me, and on occasion it was so deep rooted that I wondered if it was just me that was screwed up all along.
Then one day, somebody left Tuesdays With Morrie for me on my bookshelf as a present.
"Morrie believed in the inherent good of people. But he also saw what they could become.
"People are only mean when they're threatened," he said later that day, "and that's what out culture does. That's what out economy does. Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them. And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself. You start making money a god. It's all a part of this culture."
He exhaled. "Which is why I don't buy into it."
I nodded at him and squeezed his hand. We held hands regularly now. This was another change for me. Things that before would have made me embarrassed or squeamish were now routinely handled. The catheter bag, connected to the tube inside him and filled with greenish waste fluid, lay by my foot near the leg of his chair. A few months earlier, it might have disgusted; it was inconsequential now. So was the smell of the room after Morrie had used the commode.
He did not have the luxury of moving from place to place, of closing a bathroom door behind him, spraying some air freshener when he left. There was his bed, there was his chair, and that was his life. If my life were squeezed into such a thimble, I doubt I could make it smell any better.
"Here's what I mean by building your own little subculture," Morrie said. "I don't mean you disregard every rule of your community. I don't go around naked, for example. I don't run through red lights. The little things, I can obey. But the big things - how we think, what we value - those you must choose yourself. You can't let anyone - or any society - determine those for you.
"Take my condition. The things I am supposed to me embarrassed about now - not being able to walk, not being able to wipe my ass, waking up some mornings wanting to cry - there is nothing innately embarrassing or shaming about them.
"It's the same for women not being thin enough. It's just what our culture would have you believe. Don't believe it."
I asked Morrie why he hadn't moved somewhere else when he was younger.
I don't know, South America. New Guinea. Some place not as selfish as America.
"Every society has its own problems," Morrie said, lifting his eyebrows, the closest he could come to a shrug. "The way to do it, I think, isn't to run away. You have to work at creating your own culture.
"Look, no matter where you live, the biggest defect we human beings have is our shortsightedness. We don't see what could be. We should be looking at our potential, stretching ourselves into everything we can become. But if you're surrounded by people who say 'I want mine now,' you end up with a few people with everything and a military to keep the poor ones from rising up and stealing it."
Morrie looked over my shoulder to the far window. Sometimes you could hear a passing truck or a whip of the wind. He gazed for a moment at his neighbors' houses, then continued.
"The problem, Mitch, is that we don't believe we are as much alike as we are. Whites and blacks, Catholics and Protestants, men and women. If we saw each other as more alike, we might be very eager to join in one big human family in this world, and to care about that family the way we care about our own.
"But believe me, when you are dying, you see it is true. We all have the same beginning - birth - and we all have the same end - death. So how different can we be?
"Invest in the human family. Invest in people. Build a little community of those you love and who love you."
He squeezed my hand gently. I squeezed harder. And like that carnival contest where you bang a hammer and watch the disk rise up the pole, I could almost see my body heat rise up Morrie's chest and neck into his cheeks and eyes. He smiled.
"In the beginning of life, when we are infants, we need others to survive, right? And at the end of life, when you get like me, you need others to survive, right?"
His voice dropped to a whisper. "But, here's the secret: in between, we need others as well."
Being lonely doesn't mean having no one around you, it means having no one to talk to while in a world full of people.
My father always used to spend forever trying to find the closest parking spot to any destination. It used to frustrate me to no end. It would have been faster to park further and walk.
That frustration is what was jarred from memory while reading Poor Man's Feast:
...Crazy is relative. And so on the other hand, I was equally insane about what lived in my kitchen, and I doted on its contents the way you would a small, brokenhearted child: In my house, no knife ever sat in the sink. No pot filled with baked-on mess ever traveled through my tiny, eighteen-inch-wide dishwasher. No cast-iron pan ever saw a rinse of soapy water or a damp sponge, or even soap.
"This is disgusting," my best friend Abigail once said when she came over for brunch, picking up the Lodge cast-iron pan I'd bought specifically for making a honey-glazed, blue-corn corn bread I'd once eaten at an uptown, neo-Southern restaurant. She ran her finger along its surface and made a face.
"It's just age," I said. " And the fact that you're never supposed to wash it."
"And I just ate something cooked in this thing? How the hell are you supposed to clean it?"
"With salt," I answered.
"Salt? Just salt?" She was aghast.
"Yes," I said. "It's the way it's been done for centuries. The coarser the better. Like maybe, a nice flakey Maldon sea salt from England."
"So you scrub your pans with imported English sea salt. Tell me that's not completely nuts."
"It's not," I told her, waving a copy of Edna Lewis's The Taste of Country Cooking in her face. If it was good enough for Edna, it was good enough for me.
"Honey," Abigail snorted, "you may have noticed: you're not exactly a six-foot-tall black woman who likes to do things the way her great grandma did back when she was a slave. Go out and buy yourself some dish soap."
In truth, the idea of using salt to scrub a pan thickly caked with baked-on food was something that I had always found secretly terrifying, especially after my first bout of food poisoning ended with a doctor friend coming to my house to hook me up to an IV for a few hours while we watched daytime television together in between my unhooking myself and racing for the bathroom. Scrubbing cast iron with salt was one of those mildly upsetting, romantic constructs, like threading adorable, tiny birds on a skewer and roasting them whole in a wood fire, like Richard Olney used to do in his tiny, sweet, sun-drenched house in Provence. It was like a ride through culinary fantasy land until you stopped and thought about it for a minute.
When I better-examined Auntie Et's nested set of jet-black, clean-as-a-whistle Griswold pans sitting on the counter, I couldn't imagine for the life of me how they'd gotten that way, or of they were just so old that the stuck-on food had disintegrated and fallen off over the years, like the now-empty can of rubbed sage from 1953 that Susan's mother still kept in her spice rack over her sink, having evaporated into light green dust sometime during the Tet Offensive.
"Et must use a lot of salt on these babies," I said to Susan later that day, holding one of the smaller pans up to the light and running my finger along its surface.
"Are you kidding?" she barked. "Her secret is far more subversive."
"What is it?" I whispered, leaning in close.
"Soap and water. And a good, long soak in the sink," Susan said, matter of factly. "Salt is just so - I don't know - twee."
More often than not, people create their own problems.
I've always taken an interest in getting to know old-fashioned ways. The more you know about your past, the more you know about how and why you are the way you are. That helps set some precedent to think about how your future should look like, especially when times are hard.
The boys eat cereal for breakfast at the kitchen counter on a chilly Saturday morning, wearing their winter coats over their pajamas. I can see my breath inside our house, and the gas bill reads, "Past Due Amount: $279.00."
I've been so focused on feeding us over the winter that I haven't given enough thought to how we're going to stay warm. We have a perfectly good furnace; I thought we'd just use that - until I saw what heat costs. I should have listened to the Prognosticator.
When I was my sons' ages, heat was never a problem. I remember being so warm as a girl. As if there were a tiny furnace inside of me, generating just the right amount of heat in my body regardless of what the elements were doing outside of it.
There I am, decades ago in my burnt-orange bathing suit, diving off the end of my grandparents' dock, over and over again.
The sun is starting to go down and all the other kids are on their beach towels, but mine sits folded on the dock and I don't even feel the cold. The lake is mine.
I put my palms together, point them toward the dark and unknowable center of the earth, and dive. My arms are pale, freckled, stick-thin. But underwater, they are ablaze.
"C'mon, Mard, right now. It's time to go up. It's getting dark."
My mother is only momentarily exasperated. She's proud of me, I know, because she was a girl raised among boys too, once. She know the singular joy of outlasting them. Of outswimming them, of outrunning them, of outthrowing them, and of hitting a baseball so hard they can't catch it.
I pull myself onto the dock, stand up dripping, and my mother leads us on our walk up the steep hill to our grandparents' house. I'm right behind her, pine needles sticking to the undersides of my bare feet. "Warm as bathwater," I say over my shoulder to the shivering boys, my towel draped over my arm.
Soon enough the image is gone and I'm right back to our gas bill. "To Avoid Shutoff Send Payment Immediately." And the company tagline at the bottom of the bill: "Comfort and Efficiency for $3 a day!" Only a couple of bucks for heat. That seems completely doable. And yet I have fallen behind even on this.
Our clothes dryer, out hot-water heater, and our ancient furnace all run on natural gas. I've set the furnace at fifty-five degrees; just warm enough to keep the pipes from freezing. We can hang our clothes out on the line even in the winter and they will eventually dry. I've encouraged the boys to take showers at school after gym class whenever they can. If we need hot water for other things, we can boil it on the electric stove, but we're going to need an alternate source for heat.
Please God, help me think of something.
This should not be and insurmountable problem. Humans have been figuring out ways to keep themselves warm for thousands of years. I am an educated adult woman in possession of a perfectly good journalism degree, and I should be able to figure it out, too.
The three boys put their cereal bowls in the sink, put on their winter gloves, and head for the TV in the family room and Saturday-morning cartoons.
I burn the heat bill in the fireplace and watch the exclamation point turn to ash. Alternatives. I need alternatives and I need them bow. The tiny furnace inside of me isn't enough today, and even thought my sons don't complain, I know they are cold.
The worst part? It's only the middle of November. Winter hasn't even started yet.
By afternoon, the sun is out and the temperature climbs to almost sixty degrees. If you don't like Michigan's weather, the saying goes, just wait a minute. And if I don't like whatever problem is confronting me, I can just wait a minute for that to change, too. A new one is bound to be along shortly.
This is an unusually warm day for this late in the season, but not unheard of, and so I kn ow it's not an answer to my prayer, it's just a temporary reprieve. Still, I might as well take advantage.
I open up all of the windows in the house, because it is actually warmer outside than it is inside. The boys must be getting used to me doing things that go against convention, because while they watch me, and Will even runs to help, they don't bother to comment.
I hear Will's feet pound up the stairs and then the sound of the ancient double-hung windows creaking open in the upstairs bedrooms.
"Mom! There's a butterfly stuck in here!" he yells from his room.
"Open the screen and let it out," I answer back, without even thinking.
I have this sudden image then of my youngest son tumbling out of his second-story bedroom window and falling to the ground while and oblivious yellow butterfly pulses upward, and I'm taking the stairs two at a time. I arrive in Will's room just in time to see a dusty brown moth, the kind that eats sweaters, escape out of the corner of the window where he's loosened the screen just an inch.
"I saved it," he says, smiling.
Another catastrophe averted.
I never used to worry like this. Now, I do. Now, I worry about the boys getting hurt, and about how we are going to eat, how we are going to pay our bills, how we are going to keep warm for the next five months.
Tonight it's sure to get cold again, and sleet is in the forecast. You wouldn't know it by looking out the window, but the deep freeze is out there, gathering strength. The second the sun goes down, it will get cold again, and it makes me tired just thinking about it. It's difficult to do anything - play a game of cards, do laundry, make dinner - wrapped in a blanket.
But it's the weekend and tonight I don't want to worry. Tonight, a Saturday, a family night with nothing planned, I'd like to do something fun with the boys. Something to take my mind off winter. Like, say, a campfire.
For a century-old house, out place has an uncharacteristically open floor plan. The kitchen, dining room, and living room are all one large rectangle with a big fireplace between the dining room and the living room. The downside of all this openness is that it makes the house difficult to heat. The upside is that there's plenty of space in front of the fireplace for three boys to sit cross-legged and roast marshmallows.
"Let's do an indoor campfire," I suggest.
"That's cool," says Owen, managing to stand and slouch at the same time, his arms crossed over his chest in the teenaged lean.
"Then I call chopping the wood!" Luke says.
Of all of us, he is the best with tools. They fit in his slender hands easily, and with an innate proficiency he knows exactly how to use them. Not just a hammer and a handsaw, but wrenches, chisels, Vise-Grips, and pliers, too. Even the hatchet.
This last tool is out in the shop, a rustic room off the north end of our Quonset-hut garage that used to function as Mr. Wonderful's office, workshop, and escape hatch. It has a pockmarked cement floor, but the walls and ceiling are drywalled, it's well lit, and separated from the rest of the garage by an old sliding glass door. For heat, it has a small woodstove.
Luke has recently claimed this space as his. It used to be referred to as "Dad's shop," then as "the shop," and now it's called "Luke's shop." He has made swords, spears and shields here. He has sharpened the arrows he's made for his bow here, spent hours reading, carving, cutting, nailing and chopping things out here, too.
Above the woodstove, my middle son has taped a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: "To the illuminated mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light."
Luke and I head out to his shop together and he finds the hatchet hanging in its spot on the pegboard. My dad keeps his tools on a similar pegboard that hangs on the wall of his shop. My grandfathers both kept their tools on pegboards in their shops, and it brings me some satisfaction to see that Luke does this too. I cannot teach him all the man skills he needs to know, but at least some of them are being filtered down from the men in my family. He could do no better than to grow into men like my dad and my grandfathers.
... I head for the woodpile. The boys stop what they are doing and watch me go to town on a couple of logs. Chips of wood fly for several minutes, and the boys take a couple of steps back but say nothing.
I am not a delicate woman. I am tall and strong. My arms are still freckled like they were when I was a young girl, but they are not stick-thin anymore. I have good muscle, and my middle son didn't get his facility with tools from his father, he got that from me.
"Lumberjack Mom!" Luke cheers, half-smiling now.
His fist is raised and his foot is perched on a big stump. Will copies his brother's stance and repeats the pronouncement.
Behind them, a corkscrew of smoke curls up from the wood-stove's chimney. I hack on, and soon sweat from all that chopping makes the hatchet slippery in my hand.
"Here," I say, wiping the rubble handle on my jeans and passing it to Luke. "Careful, it's pretty sharp."
With measured strokes far more efficient than the ones produced by my hacking tantrum, Like cuts up the kindling, then moves on to the larger pieces. It's late afternoon, and in an hour the sky turns darker and the sleet the weather forecast promised starts coming down, but he' s cut up quite a bit of firewood. Enough to fit Will's outstretched arms and Owen's too. Enough, at least, for our indoor campfire.
You can tell by just looking at it that the fireplace in our house wasn't an afterthought, but was built at the same time as the house was. That it is part of the original design. The opening is wider and taller than that of any fireplace I can remember seeing in anyone else's house. The interior bricks that line the sooty cavity are old and chipped and carbonized black with a century's worth of fires. These bricks are big too, closer to the size of a cement block than to a regular brick.
The deed to our farmhouse reads, "Year built: 1900, + or -," and I can picture a circa-1900 family gathered around it before the glass doors or the decorative green tile surround were added. In my mind, this family would be stirring something aromatic bubbling inside a cast-iron stewpot, warming their hands, drying their darned-over wool socks, and maybe their hand-knit mittens too.
I cannot picture them roasting marshmallows here, however. Even if marshmallows were invented and readily available to farm families in the Midwest's northern hinterlands at the turn of the century, I'd like to think that the early inhabitants of my house would have known better.
Because as it turns out, building a great big fire in the fireplace and suggesting to the kids that they roast marshmallows over it is not the best idea I've ever had.
I've pulled my chair near the fireplace so I can watch my sons and so I can pass out the marshmallows. Owen does okay, because he is a perfectionist and slowlu turns his single marshmallow until it is yummy gold. He waits until it cools, then eats it straight from the stick in one bite. But Will is short on patience and long on sugar craving, and his fingertips are burnt. Luke has holes in his jeans from sparks popping out of the fireplace and landing on his pant legs.
Every one of our roasting sticks is toast, and those big firebricks I was so proud of are now overlaid with strings of scorched marshmallow fluff.
There's also the smell. What come out of the bag when tear open a fresh package of marshmallows may be a puff of air that smells remarkably like sunshine. And even burnt marshmallow may smell fine and dandy when you're sitting around a bonfire outside under and evening sky.
But inside the house, burnt marshmallows smell like a chemical plant fire. Sulfur and burning hair mixed with flaming cotton candy. Be advised also that this kind of scorched-sugar snafu is going to set off your smoke detectors. Which will then, in turn, completely wreck any ambiance you tried to create for yourself and your sons by building the fire in the first place.
"Move, an I aff a ass a ilk?" Will is standing in front of me, his fingers are stuck to his burnt-black roasting stick with marshmallow goo, his lips are moving around in a glob of more marshmallow goo, and his freckled face is smeared with ashes and what can only be tears. Between the shrieking smoke detector and the sugar glue in his mouth, it takes me a minute to realize that he's just said, "Mom, can I have a glass of milk?"
I look around at my boys and feel their burns and see the black streaks of char on their faces and smell the marshmallow goo all over everything and mentally take down the score. Happy family activity - zero, I think to myself. Powers that be - one. No, scratch that. We're out of milk. Powers that be - two.
"Owen, please go upstairs and take the battery out of the smoke detector. Get a chair or something to stand on. Luke, get your brother a glass of water - honey, we're out of milk - don't make that face. You do not hate water. No one hates water. Hold it, everyone. Show me your hands."
They line up like a trip of singed nesting dolls and flash me their palms. Owen's hands have a few black streaks, but Luke's and Will's hands are covered with ashes from their burnt roasting sticks, there's melted marshmallow layered on top of the ashes, then dog hair and wood chips and just plain dirt stuck to that.
Will reaches into the front pocket of his jeans with a fuzzy paw, pulls out a raw marshmallow dredged with pocket lint, and pops it into his mouth.
Then, small, medium and large, they file past me, heads down, hands up, heading toward soap and water like a three-pronged human dowsing rod. Owen sprints upstairs and the smoke detector's wailing finally ceases.
While the other two are scrubbing themselves, I consider how to clean the fireplace. Even though the fire is out, the bricks are still so hot that heats radiates out from them in translucent waves. Put down a pat of butter and you could really fry and eff.
It's evening now, colder and windier outside, but the living room faces straight west, and there a little of the setting sun breaking through the sleet, reflecting off the undulating heat, and making the hardwood floors look, if I squint, like overheated desert sand. But this is no mirage. The living room, dining room, the whole downstairs isn't just warm, it's almost hot.
I check the outdoor thermometer at the kitchen window. Forty-five degrees. I check the thermostat on the living-room wall. Seventy-one degrees. I am a total moron.
That's why the farmers who built this house put in such a big fireplace. Not to cook over, not to dry socks and mittens in front of, and certainly not for ambiance, which they could probably give a rip about in the middle of a Michigan winter. No, they made that fireplace big enough to heat this place.
This is so obvious in retrospect that I feel as dumb as a bag of hammers for not understanding the real function of this ancient hearth.
I got your gas bill, MichCon. I got your gas bill right here.
I learnt that people who live in cold climates consider wood a higher caliber heating source over all others. It is the only source that heats you twice; once when it is chopped, and again when it's burnt.
Someone asked me once how I fell in love. I stood there, feeling stupid. "It felt right" was the best I could muster. I felt insulted, as if my intellect had just been snubbed. As if it was wrong to feel accomplished to be in love rather than not at all.
The experience left a deep scar in my psyche, and the nagging question, now well formulated: how could things feel right?
Intelligence - what is it? If we take a look back at the history of how intelligence has been viewed, one seminal example has been Edsger Dijkstra's famous quote that "the question of whether a machine can think is about as interesting as the question of whether a submarine can swim." Now, Edsgar Djitkstra, when he wrote this, intended it as a criticism of the early pioneers of computer science, like Alan Turing. However, if you take a look back and think about what have been the most empowering innovations that enabled us to build artificial machines that swim and artificial machines that fly, you find that it was only through understanding the underlying physical mechanisms of swimming and flight that we were able to build these machines. And so, several years ago, I undertook a program to try to understand the fundamental physical mechanisms underlying intelligence.
...I asked...Is there a single equation for intelligence?
And the answer, I believe, is yes. "F = T ∇ Sτ". What you're seeing is probably the closest equivalent to an E = mc² for intelligence that I've seen.
So what you're seeing here is a statement of correspondence that intelligence is a force, F, that acts so as to maximize future freedom of action. It acts to maximize future freedom of action, or keep options open, with some strength T, with the diversity of possible accessible futures, S, up to some future time horizon, tau.
In short, intelligence doesn't like to get trapped. Intelligence tries to maximize future freedom of action and keep options open.
I now accept the fact that everything happens for a reason, and those reasons are under my control.