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A Yankee Notebook

February 4, 2013


MONTPELIER, VT – I’m writing this at midmorning of Candlemas Day, February second. At noon, all of us will enter the second half of meteorological winter; from here on out, it’s more daylight and warmer temperatures all the way to spring. It’s the day the traditional Church chose to bless the candles to be used in the coming year. It’s the day old Yankees used to check their woodsheds and barn lofts, prompted by the old saw, “Half your wood and half your hay should still be left on Candlemas Day.” (What a world of judgment lurks in that word, ”should”!)

This is also the day – conveniently this year, Saturday – that a bunch of Pennsylvania burghers in anachronistic top hats ritualistically lift a grumpy woodchuck, like a rabbit from a hat, out of his warm cage and display him, hanging in the air, for a bevy of television cameras and eager reporters with nothing better to do. If the sun is shining as it is here this morning, he “sees his shadow,” and returns to his slumbers for another six weeks, which bring us to the vernal equinox. If it’s cloudy, he allegedly remains abroad, for an early spring is almost upon us. The whole affair has the same desperate glamor as a carved pumpkin contest or a hard-boiled egg-eating competition. But what else is going on in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, in early February?

Which brings me to a digression: an utterly irrelevant story, except for the home town of the poor groundhog aforementioned. During the school year of 1961-62, I was paying college tuition and supporting my family by working as a ticket agent at the bus station in Wooster, Ohio. I sold tickets, gave out schedule information over the phone, schlepped baggage and freight, cleaned and resupplied the men’s john, and announced the comings and goings of Greyhound and Trailways buses. One spring evening the Columbus-Akron bus pulled in. I had a line of five or six people waiting to buy tickets for Akron, as well as the usual driver on the run, a large and pleasant, but impatient man who was always in a stew to get going. I had a pile of baggage to get out to the bus, but the tickets came first.

The first person in line was a tiny, pleasant old lady who wanted an excursion ticket. This is a ticket that takes you in fairly short hops, rather like a stagecoach in the old days, from town to town. She wanted a 12-stage (I think it was) ticket from Wooster to various cities and towns, ending eventually in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Each segment of the ticket (computerized printouts were undreamed of in those days) had to bear the name of the station of origin, the destination for the day, and the ultimate destination – all written out. While the waiting customers steamed and the driver shouted at me to pick up my microphone and announce his departure, I learned to spell Punxsutawney, under heavy fire. I think I shall never go there.

But back to the theme of half-done. It’s a critical test of personality how a person reacts to the realization that he’s looking at as many weeks – or laps, or miles, or cords – ahead as there are behind. Is the glass half-full or half-empty? Some respond to it with, “Wow! All downhill from here!” others, with, “Good grief! We’ve gotta go through all that again before it’s over?” If you know it’s a diagnostic test, or happen to be naturally philosophical, or even Pollyannish, you suck it up with a grim determination, or cheerfully increase your pace to get there sooner. Macbeth, you will remember, was grim about it, and with good reason: “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Might as well keep going.

The Canadian Ski Marathon takes place this coming weekend in the Ottawa Valley. Two days long, it covers 100 miles, divided into ten sections. For many years it was for me an exercise in anxiety (Will I make it to the checkpoint in time to continue?), some pain (Those damned adductors are plotting a revolt.), and mathematics (Hmm...halfway through 22 kilometers; that’s 11 times 6, or 6.6 miles to go. I’m averaging 3.5 mph. Uh-oh! Temperature -10 Celsius; that’s...forget it! I give up.). It mirrors exactly the feelings caused by setting an ambitious goal on an exercise machine, which creates stress (but removes the possibility of frostbite or broken limbs). For me, two miles on the elliptical trainer in 28 minutes is an ambitious goal. The display gives constant updates; I know that at seven minutes I should have covered half a mile. Starting slow, I’m usually a bit behind at that point; anxiety kicks in. By the time the display flashes, “50% Complete,” the temptation to quit has risen along with my pulse rate. The personality-defining moment has arrived.

On long hikes in the New England mountains, or treks on snowshoes or skis, the latter half of the trip becomes what I call “the Death-March Phase.” It occurred regularly during our Geriatric Adventure Society’s winter bushwhacks in northern New Hampshire. Usually downhill, often in the dark by torchlight, and performed on screaming joints at the aching edge of exhaustion, it was enlivened by the promise of what lay at the end of it, by telling jokes in the manner of the old radio show “Can You Top This?” and singing old songs like “Marching to Pretoria” and “The Road to the Isles,” while our headlamps played on the dark trees and trail before us.

Which prompts a reflection about life itself. On my fortieth birthday I wrote a column about reaching the midpoint of my life. On my fiftieth, another, more wistful (my old man did, after all, make it to 100). Now there’s no doubt the 50-percent-complete point is long past; so the question arises not only about what surprises may occur during what’s left, how will it end and when, and how to handle it. Will it be a gradual acceptance of the increasing attraction of inactivity; a Dylan Thomas fist-shaking defiance of the inevitable; or a death march spiced with songs and stories, supported by friends, matched by a lovely, lively wife, and – as H.L. Mencken recommends – forgiving a poor sinner and winking an eye at a homely girl? I think I’ll include pretty ones, too.

Photo by Willem lange