Living Well Is the Best Revenge

All apologies to the late George Herbert for appropriating his title. But it’s an apt approach to weathering the crazy and noisy political zeitgeist of 2017. Of course it’s important to stay concerned, informed, and involved. But it’s also important to practice fierce self-care, to stop to smell the roses, and to remove oneself from the fray frequently, in order to recharge the batteries.

These photos I’ve taken remind and reassure me that the world is still a beautiful and incredible place.

First Snow

An occasion for reflection and gratitude

Over the twenty-eight years that I’ve been a naturalized New Englander, I’ve developed a personal tradition: every year, I must artisanally hand-shovel the first snowfall. In fact, I try to avoid using a gasoline-powered snowblower for as long as I can into the season. This ceases to be practical after the second or third foot of snow has fallen in as many weeks, which eventually does happen.

This year the first real snowfall came pretty late—December 28th. (I’m not counting the flurries that flew early in October.) We didn’t get a deep accumulation—it was only three or four inches. But what little fell was wet, heavy as bricks, and covered with a brittle crust of ice, leading me to question the wisdom of shoveling the whole driveway by hand (and by back). But I forged ahead and did my work, and in the process reminded myself of why I had concocted my silly tradition in the first place.

It had something to do with being rugged and stoic in the face of daunting odds and conditions, which I’ve romanticized as a New England trait. It also puts me in touch with an earlier, more thoughtful, less mechanized way of doing things. We live in such a privileged, materialistic society that makes it so easy to step on a pedal and end up miles from where we were half an hour ago. In this light, I think it is so important to maintain a perspective that honors the laws of physics and the idea that what goes up must come down. Whatever seems easy (like pushing a button and starting an orange robot that makes easy work of snow removal) must be paid for somewhere else in the universe, probably by some innocent butterfly whose only crime was flapping its wings.

So I return to my shoveling, thinking these deep thoughts, fancying myself some kind of modern-day Thoreau, “wishing to speak a word for Nature.” But I burst my own bubble when I catch myself grumbling about how hard it is to live in a place that experiences extreme winters. (I’m sure that my friends in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Manitoba will chuckle at this characterization of Massachusetts.) There’s always a five-to-ten-foot strip where the driveway meets the road, where big plow trucks throw salty slush, adding the snow from the road to the snow already on your driveway, gluing everything together into a giant block of concrete, and turning your evening into a major excavation project.

But the complaining reflex doesn’t last for long, as I snap back to the perspective of how fortunate and grateful I am. After so many years of struggling and wanting, I finally have a driveway TO shovel. And I think about people in Missouri and Louisiana whose homes are being flooded, and worry about them. I think about people who are being held captive, even if it’s a prison of their own making—a mental scaffolding of religious fanaticism, political fervor, or lust for attention. And my heart goes out to them, and hopes that one day they will find peace within themselves. I think a lot about people who face health challenges, and all the associated pain. My heart goes out to everyone in the world who is suffering, and it makes my little mountain of ice seem so inconsequential.

And I return to my shoveling.

Wintertime Fun: Pond Skating

A short film paying tribute to one of my favorite activities, pond hockey

When I visit my family down South, sometimes I get asked how I tolerate the cold winters of my current New England home. I suppose the answer has something to do with the lesson of survival in the face of adversity. Yes, a cold climate can be inconvenient, depressing, and uncomfortable; but there are ways to adapt. Snow tires, hats, boots, layered clothes, and positive attitudes make a remarkable difference in one’s ability not only to survive winter, but to thrive in it.

Enjoying outdoor activities is another way to avoid the winter “blahs.” Water freezes, so we skate on it. Snow falls, so we don skis, snowboards, or snowshoes and make the best of it. Taking photographs allows us to share winter’s stark, pristine beauty abstracted from its messiness.

In this short movie that I filmed on on Lower Mill Pond, my buddy Matt Waugh and I enjoyed some pond hockey on a patch of ice that I had just cleared of snow. The temperature that day never rose above 21° Farenheit, but was I cold? Not at all. In fact, after shoveling continuously for three hours, I was overheated. The ensuing fun made all the hard work worthwhile.

Muse Shoes

A welded steel sculpture of a pair of high-heeled shoes

It is fun to work with juxtapositions where the nature of the medium contrasts with the object it represents. In the case of Muse Shoes, I forged a pair of soft, delicate shoes out of hard, cold steel, and displayed them on a walnut base.

The process I used to make these is called oxyacetylene welding. Two gases, oxygen and acetylene, are combined under regulated pressures and are ignited at the tip of the welding torch.

The welder heats the intersection of the metals to be joined. As the metals begin to melt, the flame is swirled in order to moderate the heat and control the melting. More steel is fed to the cherry-red pool via a thin rod held in the other hand.

In many cases, arc welding (which uses electricity) is more efficient for basic joining operations. But flame-based welding lends itself to organic techniques such as bending, hammering, distressing, and applying patinas. Therefore oxyacetylene welding is attractive to the sculptor.

Private collection (not for sale).

Blanketed

A portrait of a New England farmhouse under a blanket of snow.

Snow in October is rare in Western Massachusetts. A foot of snow this early is unimaginable, but it is what we have received. Freshly-fallen snow is beautiful and peaceful, but it can also be destructive. Tree carnage is everywhere. And where there is tree carnage, there are downed power lines and power outages. A website reports that 2.3 million homes and businesses throughout New England are without power.

I have often wondered why we in the United States don’t bury our power lines underground. In addition to aesthetic concerns, elevated lines seem so vulnerable. Experience confirms this: every year some combination of tornado, hurricane, and frozen precipitation causes widespread power outages. My friend Jean-Pierre—who is from Switzerland—says that the Swiss bury their utilities, and that in his memory they rarely if ever had power outages. I assume that the reason we don’t follow this example is cost. But if you factor in the cost of lost productivity associated with repeated power outages, and the dangers of potential electrocution by downed power lines, undergrounding starts to seem more attractive. Further, if such a widespread outage had occurred during a brutally cold snap, hypothermia could have become an issue.

For now I will focus on the beautiful aspects of the snow. I will slow down and appreciate all of the things I take for granted that are made possible by electricity: freshly ground coffee beans, hot water to make coffee with, a hot meal, and a hot shower. The ability to do laundry, work on the computer, and charge my phone.

I took this photo in 2010, not far from where I live. It was night time, so I put the camera on a tripod, and left the shutter open for around fifteen seconds to capture enough light. It was snowing when I took the picture, but the flakes were moving quickly enough that they did not appear in the long exposure. Here’s to more snow, but maybe not until December.