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A Yankee Notebook

December 29, 2014


MONTPELIER – The old year has wound down, and as if to confuse students in ESL classes, has wound up, as well. The little valley east of the house is blocked from the morning sun by the hill beyond it; but in the afternoon its east slope is ablaze with sunlight. As I rinsed the coffeepot at the sink early this morning, I watched a red squirrel foraging very cautiously along the edge of the brook, which meant there must be at least one predator in the neighborhood – a fisher, maybe, or a marten. He braced from tree to tree and jumped up onto each high stump to take a look around him. What a life he leads, ever on the hunt and on the qui vive, lest he be surprised.

The afternoon sun brings out the deer, who browse slowly en echelon with apparent insouciance from sapling to sapling, and munch the occasional spray of hemlock. What lives they lead, as well, trusting the browse will last the winter (which it doesn’t, always) and bedding down at night in the currently shallow, crusted snow.

“But here by the fire,” in the words of the old Dartmouth Winter Song, “we defy frost and storm; Ha, ha we are warm, and we have our heart's desire.” There’s enough wood by the boiler in the cellar to see us into April, at least. The low winter sun slides across the sky just above the tops of the big pines out front, filling the living room with light on the coldest days; and on the warmest winter days, when the sky is cloudy or leaky, who cares? It’s a great base from which to make forays into the swamps out back, the Hubbard Park trails, or the cross-country ski center out County Road. Snowshoes varnished; ski wax selection complete (if outdated); ice creepers fixed to snow sneakers. Barring a major power outage at the Coop, we’re in pretty good shape to get through the coldest part of the winter, which is coming right up.

It’s the contrast between indoor comfort and outdoor chill-fighting that makes this season so lively. And nowhere else do I enjoy the difference as much as in the coffee shop downtown. The place is almost always busy – especially when the legislature’s in session, starting next week. It’s a possibly difficult atmosphere for an introvert; there aren’t many spots to sit alone, and it’s hard to sit within two feet of anybody else without getting acquainted.

There’s a long, high counter across the front, looking out the window at the street. Some people perch there on stools, chatting or working with their laptops. There are laptops and smart phones everywhere, actually, except in the little groups who’ve pulled extra chairs up around the tiny lower tables for conversation. It’s noisy, but delightful.

One of our reading assignments in secondary school was an abbreviated edition of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. By the end of the first page I was smitten with Johnson. Disfigured and partially blinded by scrofula, inflicted with tics and a Turrette’s Syndrome manner of speech, large and ungainly, and obsessive-compulsive in his everyday habits, he nevertheless single-handedly compiled the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Published in 1755, it served as the authoritative English dictionary for about 130 years. Quirky and incredibly erudite, he was often called “Dictionary Johnson.” He disdained the Scots (though Boswell was one), and defined “oats” in his first edition as “a grain which in England is fed to horses, but which in Scotland sustains the people.” And he was a habitué of London coffee houses.

The use of coffee supposedly originated in Ethiopia when a Yemeni Sufi mystic noticed that birds feeding on the beans of a certain bush were livelier than others. Thence it migrated to Arab countries and to Europe by the Middle Ages. The establishment of coffee houses was a natural evolution: comfortable places where men (and, rarely, women) could gather and, as Shakespeare has it, “converse and waste the time together.” And it was there that the often practically penniless Johnson shone, whether drinking tea or coffee. Boswell writes: “By spending three-pence in a coffee-house, he might be for some hours every day in very good company; he might dine for six-pence, breakfast on bread and milk for a penny, and do without supper. On clean-shirt day he went abroad, and paid visits.”

He loved to discuss almost anything, from Shakespeare to women. When an acquaintance told him about a Quaker meeting at which a woman preached, Johnson responded, "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." His conversation often devolved into heated discussions: “When Johnson’s argument misses fire,” another friend noted, “he knocks you down with the butt end of it.” To a man whose responses were clearly off the mark, he mocked, “Sir, I have given you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”

How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall, or perhaps a young essayist just listening, when Johnson was in full cry. There was no resorting to an authority he wasn’t aware of; this was, after all, a man who’d listed and defined over 40,000 words, given their derivations, and cited their earliest known uses. He’d also written epic poetry, literary criticism, and the lives of the English poets. Just listening to him would have been a graduate-level education.

But all that was almost 250 years ago, and irretrievable. There’s been nobody quite like him since. Instead, we sit in a warm coffee shop on a cold winter morning and discuss whatever arises: the price of gasoline, marathon running, or the upcoming session of the Vermont legislature. It’s not Samuel Johnson, but the aroma of the beans and the camaraderie are much the same.

Photo by Willem lange