A Sense of Wonder: More moments from an ordinary life

A Sense of Wonder: More moments from an ordinary life

by Craig Nagel

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781468541991
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 01/19/2012
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.53(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Sense of Wonder

More moments from an ordinary life
By Craig Nagel

AuthorHouse

Copyright © 2012 Craig Nagel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4685-4199-1


Chapter One

Sweet Discontent

We went for a long walk the other day, meandering up through the woods behind our house and then down by the tamarack swamp and along the edge of the marsh, glad to be out of the house, giddy with thoughts of spring. You might say we were taking inventory, though our methods were far from businesslike.

Five minutes into our walk we came upon two depressions in the snow where deer had slept the night before. We crowded around, marveling at the smallness of a curled-up whitetail, fascinated with the discovery of tufts of hair that had frozen into the snowy mattresses. To think that the deer need no houses, no heaters, no blankets nor pillows nor even alarm clocks made us feel vaguely ashamed. Nobody voiced it, but you could feel the shared thought.

We two-leggeds are soft and overly complicated.

We walked on.

"Porcupine! Up there in the white pine, on that big branch off to the right."

Again we milled about, all eyes fixed on the bristly brown shape that nestled on the branch like an enormous pine cone. Our excitement slowly ebbed as we realized our prickly brother was fast asleep. Then we saw the places on the trunk of the tree that had been stripped of bark, and we knew that in time the top of the tree would die, and eventually break off in the wind.

We moved on, subdued. And I, for one, began to experience a sense of discontent. I couldn't deny a welling dislike for the porcupine that so wantonly munched on the white pines, dooming them for the sake of breakfast. The further we walked, the more peeled trees we discovered, and the darker my mood became.

It wasn't just the porcupine that prickled my serenity. It was the way everything was dependent on everything else, and the fact (so obvious, and so unpalatable) that man is forever intruding his economic values upon the natural world. What bothered me about the porcupine was that it was destroying valuable trees just for the sake of a meal. And how, pray tell, would I extract their value? By cutting them down, of course, and turning them into lumber.

By the time we reached the tamarack swamp I was near despair. So that's the way it is, I thought. Everything lives at the expense of everything else. At any given moment one is either predator or prey.

Then we came upon the chickadee.

It was perched on a small maple tree growing on a hummock, and the trunk of the tree, no thicker than a baseball bat, was stained dark with liquid.

The chickadee was reaching toward the branch above, from which hung a drop of maple sap. With a deft little thrust of its beak, the chickadee drank from the sweet-water tap, and my bile turned abruptly to nectar.

The law of life is as much giver-and-gift as it is eater-and-eaten.

Chapter Two

Fundamentals

The dark blue spine of the book bore a single word: Masonry. It stood straight among its leaning companions, as if built on a firmer foundation than theirs. I took it from the shelf and read the subtitle: "A Handbook of Tools, Materials, Methods, and Directions." By Kenneth Holmes Bailey. Copyright 1945.

The antique shop in which I stood faded from mind as I leafed through the book. Chapter 1—Concrete. Chapter 2—Plastering. Chapter 3—Stucco. Subsequent chapters dealt with brickwork, concrete, glass block, etc. I turned to the introduction and commenced to read. The writing style was brisk, no-nonsense. I finished the introduction and paged onward, stopping now and then to read a sentence or two, study an illustration, examine a table of weights or dimensions.

Little by little the tone of the book became evident. "It is the responsibility of the workman to keep his tools in satisfactory condition." "Quick setting of plaster may be caused by a number of conditions, but carelessness in selecting or mixing the ingredients on the job is the chief cause." "When stuccoing, the work should proceed ahead of the sun, i.e., beginning with the south wall in the early morning and working around to the west, north and east sides as rapidly as possible. This system allows the successive coats of stucco sufficient time to get their initial set before the sun speeds up the drying action."

I bought the book, took it home, read it. From beginning to end, the message was unvarying. A proper job requires proper tools. Materials must be carefully selected and correctly installed. Cleanliness, planning, and unswerving attention to detail are necessary to insure successful completion of the task at hand. The workman who does shoddy work cheats his employer, the client, and himself. Good work depends more than anything else on a firm grasp of fundamentals.

When I finished reading the book, I set it aside and pondered. It is unlikely that such a book would find a publisher today. The tone would be deemed overly moralistic, for one thing. The title would have to be changed to something catchier—Finding Your Bliss Through Brickwork, or How to Profit From the Housing Industry Collapse, or maybe The Sensuous Stonemason. The photos and illustrations, though clear and to the point, would have to be changed from black and white to retina-teasing color, which in turn would mean the price of the book would have to be raised from its original $1.60 to $45.00 or so.

But no. A book like this would never make the best-seller list, not even with lots of photos of sexy women laborers mixing mortar or prancing on the scaffold showing off designer jeans. And if it didn't hit best-seller status, how could you expect to sell movie rights or spin-offs such as T-shirts, posters, or CD's?

Forget it, friends. This book will never do. This is a book about fundamentals.

Chapter Three

A Green Bough

More years ago than I care to admit, I was a fuzzy-faced freshman in college with large dreams of changing the world.

I was glad, finally, to be on my own, away from the watchful eyes of my parents, away from the busybody neighbors and the woefully backward small town in which I'd spent my childhood. When I came back at Thanksgiving, the sense of having outgrown my origins was even more acute.

Everybody seemed so small! My parents, my brothers and sisters, old buddies from high school who hadn't gone on to college; they all suffered from some mysterious dwarfism. Their concerns, so real to me a few months earlier, now smacked of the commonplace, the trivial, the truly boring. Compared to the larger issues which occupied my collegiate mind, their interest in everyday things like the price of gasoline or how the local basketball team was faring seemed pitifully unimportant.

I remember yawning a lot that first holiday home from school. Yawning and going for long solitary walks. It's bad enough to feel like an outsider; it's considerably worse to feel that way when you're home. So I walked, and asked myself a hundred questions. Didn't they care about developing the mind? Hadn't they heard about the atomic bomb? Were they all so obtuse as to not understand that Socrates himself had said the unexamined life was not worth living?

Time passed. My initial hopes of infusing the world with dazzling new insight began to shrink. Toward the end of my college years, I became preoccupied with merely trying to figure out what I could do to assemble a major and graduate. By that time even going to college seemed trivial and void of value. Then, in my senior year, I stumbled into the study of things Oriental.

Even now, across decades of memories, those months of reading and reflection seem fresh and green and wonderful, an oasis of the spirit. For it was then that my mental fevers began to subside, and I commenced to understand that all things are related to one another, and that the mind, if not kept in harmony and balance with the hands and heart, can turn into something tumorous and sick.

I remember in particular the day I came across a fragment of a Chinese poem. I happened to be sitting outside, under a newly budded maple tree. The air was alive with the humming of bees and the flutter of dozens of little blue butterflies. The book fell open as if by magic, and before me on the page were these few words: "Keep a green bough in your heart, and a singing bird will come."

Ever since, I've been trying to do as the poet suggested. On occasion, I've forgotten—sometimes for months. But I've noticed that when I remember, good things happen, and I don't think that's just coincidence.

When you allow your mind to turn in on itself, consumed by your private worries, the world has a way of growing bleak and cheerless. As a young student, I managed to cut myself off from the people and things around me, erecting a wall of sophomoric self-importance through which nothing good could pass. No wonder everything seemed pointless and boring and dull: all I was seeing was myself!

The truth is that the world is filled to overflowing with adventures, thousands of which await our permission to occur. All we need to do is open ourselves to them. If we keep ourselves green and lively, they will surely come.

Chapter Four

Ed's Dad

My first boss was a man named Ed. At the time I started work, Ed was right around 40, with a young son, Eddie, and a father nearing retirement.

I don't recall Ed's father's name, but I do recall what happened to him. I remember coming to work on a Monday morning and learning that Ed's dad was getting excited at the prospect of pulling the plug. He'd worked at the same plant in Chicago for nearly half a century, walking to work in the morning and walking home at night. Rain or shine, winter and summer, year after year after year, his routine was the same.

Now it was time to quit.

"Mom talked him into buying new clothes for the retirement party," said Ed. "New shoes, new suit, new tie. He hates to spend money on himself, but this way he'll have a decent outfit to wear at weddings and funerals after he's retired, which makes sense, since he'll probably live another 20 years. He's healthy as an ox."

Finally the big day came. Ed's dad put on his new duds, kissed his wife goodbye, and walked for one final time to the place where he'd spent so much of his life. By all accounts he enjoyed the retirement party. Cake, coffee, and lots of good-natured ribbing. At the end his boss gave him a gold-plated watch and his coworkers presented him with a new fishing rod, since they knew he loved to fish and intended to spend a chunk of his leisure time on the water. He thanked them, wiped back a tear or two, shook hands all around, and started home, no doubt humming to himself as he imagined what life would be like without having to return to work.

When he got home, he showed his wife the gifts he'd been given and told her everything had gone well, except that on the way home his right foot had begun to hurt.

"New shoes too tight?" she asked.

"No. It's in the heel."

He took off his shoes and discovered the problem. A nail from the heel had worked its way up through the inner sole and poked through his sock into his skin.

The next morning his heel was red and throbbing. He soaked it in warm water and considered going to the doctor, but decided to wait until after the weekend.

By Monday his ankle and calf were mottled with red streaks. His wife insisted he call the family doc, which he did. Later that day he was diagnosed with blood poisoning and taken to the hospital. But it was already too late. A few days later he was dead.

The undertakers laid Ed's dad out in his new suit. According to Ed, several of the mourners commented on how nice he looked.

A few weeks after the funeral, Ed's mom gave the watch to Ed and the fishing rod to Eddie.

She said Ed's dad would have wanted it that way.

Chapter Five

Sand Roads

For nearly half a century we've lived at the end of a sand road. Not the same road, but a sand road—and all sand roads have much in common.

We've sometimes hated it in the spring. That week or two or three between when the snow melts and the frost goes out, that's the worst time. Puddles grow into ponds. Ruts become canyons. All vehicles take on the same sandy hue. Back when our kids were still in school, the Spirit-in-charge-of-watching-over-roads would hear two sets of contradictory requests: the youngsters hoping the school bus would get stuck, and my wife praying it would not.

Each year, by the time the frost is gone, we've made plans to haul in more fill. Some nice Class 5. Many yards of nice Class 5. Hang the expense—we'll fight those ruts no longer. Someday maybe we'll even have it blacktopped. Yes, by tar—a road so smooth and firm and water-shedding as to make the pickup ride like a Rolls Royce.

Then the hieroglyphics start appearing.

Fresh grouse tracks by the power line cut. The straight dot-to-dot of fox prints. The meandering lines left by a doe and two yearlings. Hoof prints from a neighbor's horse.

And on it goes through spring and summer into fall. Each day's walk reveals new scribbles in the sand; mute messages from birds and snakes and furbearers (ranging in size from shrew to raccoon to coyote to black bear), delicate notations from insects, the scribed arcs of wind-swung plants, even the skid marks of fallen leaves.

A momentary shower leaves its dotted inscription pockmarked over the squiggles left by a turtle's tail.

We watch, enthralled, as birds take dust baths in the old sand road.

We note where larger birds seek gizzard grit.

We stop to study the mysterious industry of ants, and let our eyes wander along the twisty lines of beetle tracks.

And when it rains enough to wash the dust away, we find the road transformed into a treasure chest, speckled with shiny agates aglow like drops of fallen sunset.

It's then that we have a change of heart, and find ourselves forsaking the earlier resolutions of spring. Now the true value of our sand road stands revealed.

Will we pave such a precious place of riches? Not on your life! What's convenience compared to this living notebook, this half-mile-long recorder of natural drama?

No thanks, Mr. Progress. We'll keep to the old ways, washboard and all.

Chapter Six

Papa's Magnificent Motorcar

Over the weekend I had several long talks with an old friend, during which a number of half-forgotten memories surfaced, including thoughts of a rather remarkable automobile I had the good fortune of getting to know back in the 1960's.

At the time I was a young GI stationed in Germany. I lived off-post in the village of Eschenbach, east of Stuttgart, in the top floor of a house owned by Mr. and Mrs. Albert Wucherer, more commonly known as Papa and Mama.

Papa, a master machinist in his early 50's, was by nature and necessity a man of thrifty habits, careful to purchase things that gave him full value for his money. As a young man following World War II, he had filled his transportation needs with a motorcycle, adding a sidecar after his marriage to Mama. The sidecar worked OK even after their first child was born, but with the coming of a second, they'd been forced to get something bigger, which brings us to his automobile.

He owned a vintage Peugeot, bought new many years earlier. The car was black and basic, but comfortable to drive and modest in its fuel-eating habits. Henry Ford Sr. would have thought it superb. Why? Because everything about it came apart, permitting its owner full control over his automotive destiny.

The fenders came off in minutes, attached by a mere handful of bolts. The running boards, the hood and trunk, the bumpers, the doors, the grill—all could be removed with the twist of a wrench. It was my good fortune to help Papa with the fourth rebuilding of his automobile. Every four or five years he followed the same procedure, completely dismantling the machine into its original components.

We took the body apart and hammered out the dings, sanded off the old paint, and applied six coats of black lacquer, hand-rubbed between coats. We took the chrome parts off, put them in the back seat of my VW bug, and took them to be rechromed. We removed the seats and took them to the upholstery shop, ripped out the carpeting to use as a pattern for its replacement, installed fresh tires on the newly painted wheels.

The engine was a study in simplicity, yielding up its parts with a minimum of fuss. The cylinders had sleeves which Papa removed and replaced with new ones. The pistons and shafts and valves and rockers all went with him to work, perched in the basket of his bicycle. During lunch break he honed and turned and polished them as he saw fit, and when he brought them back home and put them in the engine, everything was factory fresh.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A Sense of Wonder by Craig Nagel Copyright © 2012 by Craig Nagel. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Preface....................xi
Sweet Discontent....................5
Fundamentals....................7
A Green Bough....................9
Ed's Dad....................12
Sand Roads....................14
Papa's Magnificent Motorcar....................16
Winter Guests....................23
The Day the Old Barn Fell....................26
The Joys of Journaling....................28
Spring Thoughts....................30
In Praise of Fiction....................32
On Cultivation....................34
Mister Independent....................39
Emergent Miracles....................42
Tools....................44
Eleven Reasons....................46
The Reunion....................48
The Bears and the Bees....................51
The Red Oak Tree....................53
Do I Hear Five?....................57
Street Rod....................60
On Giving....................62
On Craftsmanship....................64
Hard Bargain....................66
Kickin' Back....................69
The Some Days Never Come....................72
Waiting For Spring....................75
The Skeptic and the Snow Fleas....................77
Keeping Time....................81
Moon Thoughts....................84
Tending the Patch....................86
Ready or Not....................89
A Sense of Wonder....................92
Sweet Summertime....................95
The Eye of God....................103
Miss Patience....................105
Reclining Years....................108
The Cutting Edge....................111
But What Do You Do?....................114
Fixing Up....................116
You Can't Learn Less....................121
Old Friends....................123
Pillow Talk....................126
The Phoebes....................128
Blind Spots....................131
Different Stories....................134
It Ain't Over Yet....................139
Road Game....................141
Sticks, Stones, and Words....................144
Third-Person Therapy....................147
The Keys....................150
Letting Go....................153
Residual Thoughts....................155
Five Guys....................163
Island Time....................166
Smart Shopper....................169
Lunch with the Prince....................172
Cornucopia....................175
Taking Time....................177
Uncle Bill....................181
Uncle Henry....................183
Ongoing Promise....................186
Fresh Start....................188
A Long Walk....................191
Impressions of Japan....................194
A Perfect Day....................201
Remembering....................203
Axe Man....................206
Change of Plans....................208
A Magical Place....................211
Pages From the Past....................214

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