Climbing retrospect

My own personal via negativa involves focus – and perhaps fixation – on what I have not done rather than on what I have done.  Failure to do what I said I was going to do has been a frequent theme.  But the solution to that is easy: don’t say but merely do.  Case in point, climbing Prospect Mountain.  For a decade, ever since my second knee operation, I have told myself, on birthdays and other occasions, that I ought to essay the mountain one last time, as a lead-in to posting this 2006 essay.

Even on the final appointed day, I wrote in my journal, “Still don’t know whether I will climb Prospect Mt. today, but have definitely changed my aim.  Rather than setting out determined to get to the lookout one last time, I’d be setting out on a nice Sunday hike, to see how far I feel like going.”

The next day, I reported:  “Well, I made it up the mountain, and back down again, without doing myself a mischief.  There aren’t too many 72-year-olds who could do the same.  My approach made all the difference, not starting out on a make-or-break mission, nor making the mountain a bigger thing than it is.  I’ve been talking about it for years, and putting it off, but now it’s done and dusted.

“Couldn’t have made it without CE’s walking stick, useful going up and essential coming down.  Dawdled around the reservoir, taking pictures with my phone, but then stashing it until I reached the top and took a few more.  [Here’s some to set the scene:]

“At my first respite, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it to the top, but surprisingly once I got going after that, I just kept going up, taking only a few short breathers.  With a steady pace, I climbed more easily than I remember doing decades ago, when I would attack the incline and then be forced to stop for breath.

“When I had gone up the steepest part, there seemed no way to turn back now, though the final stretch up to the lookout is always longer than one expects.  I was aware that going down was going to be as hard on the legs as going up, but kept pushing beyond my range of confidence.

“Quite spent by the time I reached the lookout, I was very glad that someone had installed a bench, onto which I plopped to take in the view:

“In a few minutes, I felt quite relieved, but realized I would need to get going down before dark descended.

“So I made it up the mountain and down again, but I can’t say I saw much beyond ten steps ahead of me on the trail, or thought about much besides whether I was going to make it there and back, or not.  At a minimum, it will give me a reason to re-read ‘Climbing Prospect.’  I thought often of my passage about capering down the mountain, as I was picking my way down with a cane.”

Through the following days, I was quite astounded to feel no physical repercussions from the unwonted exertion.  And psychologically, I definitely felt younger than I did before going up, 72 years be damned.  Just give me enough time, and I will check off every significant item on my to-do list, as the inessential falls away and I focus on what truly needs to be done.

[Let me end with a plug for another blog of mine that has a new lease on life – Cinema Salon, where my daily filmlog is compiled periodically into composite reviews.]

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

I’m sorry, I really am, about the whole thing.  But then again, not sorry at all.

I’m far from sure that my own life requires defending, but I came up with this heading for my UK travel piece on my very first full day in Oxford this month.  The title is of course borrowed from John Henry Newman’s spiritual autobiography.  He was the leader of the mid-19th-century “Oxford Movement,” and wrote it to defend his religious beliefs, when he converted to Catholicism and abandoned his Anglican pulpit, later to become a cardinal.

Not that I know all that much about him, but he popped into my head as an avatar of the intellectual eminence that Oxford is steeped in.  That eminence surged through me in a flood as I walked in Port Meadow on my first full day in Oxford, and thought of all the heady geniuses who had trod the very path I was on.  Part of the meadow was drying mud instead of the pond it was on my previous acquaintance (see here), but that feeling of focused brainpower flooded over me like hot water over a teabag, releasing the following effusions.

I have absorbed the atmosphere, if not the substance, of Nat’s education.  At Concord, I walked in the steps of Thoreau and Emerson (who also gave up his pulpit in pursuit of truth), Hawthorne and Alcott.  At Swarthmore, I steeped in Quaker values and the botanic splendor of the campus.  At Harvard, I followed the paths of William James and other intellectual heavyweights too numerous to list.  And at Oxford, the same – long and distinguished centuries of elevated thought and substantial scholarship.

So here is a collection of my cloud thoughts, lofty and airy:

I propose a personal philosophy of radical ease.  It’s an open question whether this philosophy is a justification of the life, or vice versa.  Does the life justify the philosophy, or is the philosophy just a rationalization of my own predilections?  Not for me to say, just to do and die, according to my own light.

What do I mean by radical ease?  First off, I mean just what the words mean, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 4/E:

Radical: free and reactive, basic and revolutionary, getting to the root of a word or a quantity or a problem.

Ease: comfort; freedom from pain, worry, or agitation, from constraint or embarrassment, from difficulty, hardship, or effort; naturalness; dexterity, facility; a state of rest, relaxation, or leisure.  Works even better as a verb: to lessen discomfort, pain, or stress; alleviate, assuage, give respite to; loosen strain or pressure; reduce difficulty or trouble.

So my philosophy is radically different from most, by encouraging easiness, reducing difficulty and stress, relaxing about one’s ultimate aims as well as the day-to-day approach to existence.  I aim to live my life at a sauntering pace, in free-floating composure or equilibrium.  My philosophy is as much an expression of need as a statement of principle.

Continue reading “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”

Face off in the woods

I am well past the temptation to inflict my journal entries on the public (which public was that, exactly?), but this little nature vignette seems justified in light of the name of this blog.  Thoreau puts me to shame as a woodsman and naturalist, but I share his devotion to our New England woods.

7-9-18:  When I went out for a walk from home in the evening, the sun was warmer and starker than I expected, so rather than hike uphill, which I didn’t feel up to anyway, I decided to motor into Mt. Greylock Reservation, to our private little parking spot where the Northup trail crosses the road, a seven-minute drive (2.9 miles) that is as pleasant as the walk.

The hour was good to see beavers, my last two evening walks to the pond featuring close encounters, but I didn’t think I had the energy to make it that far.  Level and shady was the hike I was looking for, but as happens with encouraging regularity, once I got going, I kept going.  A bit buggier than the previous cool morning, with a different cast of light, Northrup remains my current signature walk.

I approached the planking over the main beaver dam stealthily, hoping to come upon the animal where I’d walked right past last time, until it swam by placidly with a large green-leaved tree limb in its mouth.  No, not this time – no mammals in the area, just water-skimming insects.  As I went to step onto the split log, a cannonball landed in the middle of the pond, sending out waves of sound and water.

No, not really of course, but the shock was similar.  From out of the concentric ripples, I saw the head of a beaver floating in my direction.  Had it seen me?  Oh yes, it had seen me.  But it wasn’t scared away.  Instead it arrowed across the water in my direction.  About twenty yards away, it stopped and eyed me, then executed another flip to slap its broad, flat tail on the water.

beaver-swimmingNot content to issue the warning, it halved the distance between us, staring me down.  Meanwhile, first one and then another beaver came swimming from the reaches of the pond for back-up.  The leader came even closer, less than five yards from where I stood still with one foot on the log, as the other two assumed position just behind, like a pair of thugs at the shoulders of an enforcer.  I could almost hear him (or was it a her?) saying, “Stay right there, or I’ll take you down like a tall tree.”

It was strange to come face to face with such aggression (or defensiveness) in a wild animal.  I wasn’t afraid exactly, but it was definitely unsettling.  I was reminded of my stand-off on the Bradley Farm trail not long ago, with an antlered young buck who was not about to bound off into the woods, like most deer.

beaverAs I scurried away, presuming it was time for a pack of young kits to take their evening swim, I was further rattled by rustlings in the woods on either side of the trail, with snorts of the sort that a bear might make.  (Perhaps the beavers thought I was a hairless bear.)  Or maybe it was a moose making the noise, since it was near where I once crossed paths with a pair of them.  Anyway, it was clear that I had stepped into the middle of a woodland drama that I could little ken.  But I got the message that there were things in the deep woods that didn’t take kindly to my presence, and high-tailed it out of there, white flag flying.


The Old Man over the Sea

In which septuagenarian Steve Satullo reflects on a visit to England around May Day 2018.

Of isolation and stasis, I am a devotee.  I like to be all by myself, in one place, without interruption or excess exertion.  So travel is always a stretch and a stress to me, and more so as I pass into my seventies (here’s hoping they betoken serenity, and not severity or senility).  I figure that if I’ve got to put myself through it, I ought to get some writing out of it.  And unaccountably, I suspect readers may be more interested in places and people far removed from my usual narrow track, when I am compelled to get outside my own head and look anew.

So the Old Man goes overseas, to see what he can see, over there in England, where his mother came from, and his son now lives and works.  He’d be at sea without the ballast of his matey, or without the piloting of his daughter-in-more-than-law.  He’s an “accidental tourist,” a rustic old-timer with little taste for new-fangled gadgets and citified gizmos, let alone foreign ways.  But he’s also a flaneur, just strolling about and observing, without plan or purpose, but with an eye out for signs leading to wonders.

Continue reading “The Old Man over the Sea”

Interim report

I haven’t been posting much new material here, I’m afraid, but I’ll say a few words about the writing I have been doing.  And offer a promise of more in the near future.

For most of the past year, my top priority has been the third book on which I’ve collaborated with Irish storyteller Kevin O’Hara.  The first was Last of the Donkey Pilgrims, about his journey round the entire coast of Ireland, on foot with a donkey and cart.  Now in its 17th printing, the book has become quite beloved, and found itself in remarkable company on this list of the best books about Ireland.  The second book was A Lucky Irish Lad, Kevin’s memoir of growing up as an immigrant in Pittsfield during the 1950s and 60s.

The new book, probably to be titled Bearded Nurse in Bedlam: Off-the-Wall Tales from the Locked Ward, emerges from his long career as a psychiatric nurse at Berkshire Medical Center.  Kevin has compiled a wide range of stories about patients and himself, and we are in the home stretch of the rewriting process.  Cumulatively, it is a broad and humorous panorama of genuine human experience, and as such may find an even wider audience than his Irish-themed stories.  But first it needs to find a publisher who can do it justice.

I have been active on two other blogs.  On Extreme Railroading, I have been following the progress of my friend Tom Krens in his endeavor to create an “Extreme Model Railroad & Contemporary Architecture” museum in North Adams, along with several other attractions designed to transform the tired old factory town into a world-class tourist destination, and anchor of the Northern Berkshire “Cultural Corridor.”

On Cinema Salon, I’ve completed my survey of the best films of the previous year, and am re-committing to film comment, even if I’m no longer a film programmer.

I mentioned my son Nat’s appointment to Oxford heretofore, and can now report that he and Nicole are now over there to start the school year.

Given the name of this blog, I ought to mention that I am deep into the wonderful new biography of Thoreau by Laura Dassow Wells, published on the 200th anniversary of his birth this summer.


Hallelujah – my son Nathaniel Erb-Satullo has got a job!  A recently-minted Ph.D in archaeology at Harvard, he has just come through an utterly uncharacteristic twenty months in the desert of rejection, and some eighty fruitless job applications, experiencing the downside of academia’s over-production of doctoral fellows, as its way to keep up a steady supply of cheap teachers.

But as Shakespeare reminds us, “all’s well that ends well,” and that’s why I can only look at his recent three-year appointment as a lecturer at Oxford University in the UK as “providential.”  The one meaning of the term that I do not intend is perhaps the first to come to mind – I don’t truly believe that any divine intervention was involved.  (Though my English mother certainly looks on approvingly from beyond.)

All the other synonyms, however, apply:  fortunate, favorable, felicitous, opportune, advantageous, auspicious, welcome, timely, serendipitous.

As do the terms for Nat’s own provident behavior during his travail:  prudent, farsighted, judicious, shrewd, sensible, sagacious, thrifty.  And he definitely met this definition:  “possessing, exercising, or demonstrating quiet care and consideration for the future.”

It was a terrible wait, but just the right job came along, with Nat returning to Oxford to teach a course he took as a M.Sc. student there ten years ago.  And at the right time ultimately, as another, much less suitable college, where he was in line for a tenure-track job, delayed their decision so long that he never had to make the tough decision to settle for a far from ideal situation.

During his long dry spell, Nat was disadvantaged as a straight white male at time when universities are trying to compensate for past discriminations, but extremely lucky to have his wife Nicole, for advice and support of all kinds.  (As well as a mother proof-reading all those applications.)

I gave some thought to advising Nat to look outside of academia, for someplace that would welcome all his estimable skills, but after his luck had turned – with his digging permit for this summer’s archaeological field season in the Republic of Georgia arriving at the same time as the Oxford offer – there arrived the section leader evaluations from his Harvard students this past semester.  How wrong I was to think there was anything Nat should be other than a professor!

The words most often used were “enthusiastic” and “fantastic” and “best teaching fellow I ever had,” but the comment I liked best referred to him as “insanely knowledgeable.”  Thankfully, he now has a sane opportunity to pass that knowledge along.

Disease in search of a cure

No, I am not referring to Trumpism.  That disease has a name, and “doctors” are working on a cure.  I am talking about a disease that does not even have a name, a test, or a known cause, let alone a cure.

As a term, “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome” is diminishing, demeaning, and deceptive, immediately conjuring up the pejorative “yuppie flu,” in the long tradition of diagnoses like “hysteria” and “neurasthenia,” which tell the sufferer, “It’s all in your head.”

Some prefer “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis,” which is both obvious and obscurantist, neither describing nor defining what the disease really is.

Whatever it is, my daughter Rachel has had it for more than ten years.  And whatever it is, it’s not all in her head, but the post-viral result of a damaged immune system.  The symptomatology is clear enough, and the large number of sufferers worldwide, perhaps millions, has begun to emerge.

One effective spokesperson is Jennifer Brea, whose film Unrest has just premiered at Sundance, to good reviews.  You can get a good feel for the film by watching Jenn’s galvanizing TED talk.

Rachel’s loyal longtime boyfriend Alex Lipschultz also had a film premiere at Sundance, Menashe, on which he served as producer and screenwriter.  IndieWire named it among the best films of the 2017 festival.  It has been picked up by A24, the distributor of Moonlight and other distinguished films.

I also take this opportunity to point you toward one of my “Selected Essays” on this site, “Rachel’s condition.”