Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Hands

     This my great, great grandfather Charles Drury,  with his wife -  my great great grandmother,  her daughter in law  - my great grandmother, and my grandmother - the baby, Vera Drury,  photographed by  my great grandfather - Dr. Charles Drury of Natural Bridge.
     Somewhere there is another photo of the great great old man  seated in front of his family, in the Boston rocker which you see sitting empty on the right side of this photo;  his hands   closest of all family members to the camera, appearing huge,  gripping his knees like gnarling cedar roots on rock,  looking  as if they, THE HANDS themselves, were largely responsible for sending his three sons to medical school,  freeing the old fellow to  travel organizing farm granges, to farm out his cows, to become a bee keeper, and rock in the chair, growing the long white beard.

     When the old man was gone, the   Boston Rocker  went to the Dr. Drury home in Natural Bridge,  where  I lived as a child.
 When we moved to Ithaca in 1949, we brought the chair along.
   In transit, or  maybe in rocking horse use at Edgewood Place, the chair got broken enough that it was stowed in the basement to await repairs. 
        We also kept our firewood  in the basement.
          One day my brother went down cellar for kindling and , finding none but seeing  the busted chair, he split himself an armload, and  emerged  with it from the cellar: to the mortification of our mother at the stove.
   That was the only time I ever saw Mama Dot cry.

    We kept the chair, a bundle of nineteen pieces in the cellar, for fifty years or so.
  In the nineteen nineties, my niece Liz Sticker who was then a carpenter for my Natural Bone Builders, rebuilt  the chair, and my daughter Mnetha has painted it a couple of times since.  Liz has it now.  Maybe she has the hands photo too.  I won't need it though:  I'm  actually getting the  hands.

Monday, September 24, 2012

These Trees


     It was a Godawful year for fruits on this hill: with early heat, then late frosts,  hail later on,  followed by a long summer  drought... all perfectly ordered as if by a  Godman Bully.

   The Cherries straightened up after the heavy snow, but few flowers and fruits made it through the
hail.     My best Plum flowered so heavily it looked like it was still covered with snow...but then  brown knots of fungus   swelled  all over the branches, so I had to cut the tree back to little more than a coat rack.  

    When you add to that a wayward  raccoon and wayward mink that  wiped out all but one of my chicken flock,   I might be tempted to just raise mice and cats.
      But my Pear orchard here at Dog's Plot is going to be all right.
 Very few pears this year, and  trees here  lost most of their fuit, but the trees themselves are going to flourish.
Pears originated in the extreme conditions of mountain Asia,  and ever since the French Jesuit Missionaries brought them here..... a couple hundred year before White settlement.....  have been evolving and adapting to the local clay .  


      The Jesuits  had been in Canada ever since well before the Mayflower pilgrims  showed up on the East coast..and they  also had fingers into Iroquois country  south of  Lake Ontario,  including two missions at native settlements on Cayuga Lake.   And where the Jesuits went, they took their gardens with them.

     The village now aappropriately called  Aurora is in a deep valley with a ridge to the east
that makes the morning last hours  longer than if you live up here on the hill where the sky is big,
the geese scrape by just overhead,  and the West wind blows the pumpkins around. The village was known as Deawendote, or Village of the Constant Dawn before the Jesuits arrived, later as Chonodote (which maybe somebody can tell me the meaning of) and then called  Peachtown by the soldiers who chopped down the orchards there.   In the mild climate at lake level the Cayugas planted   not only their own  three sister vegetables,   but also French vegetables and trees.     For all we know, the Cayuga  may have been growing Broccoli and Arugula here. 
     But it IS known that the Jesuits brought Peaches, Cherries, Apples and Pears to Deawendote, which around then became known as Chonodote,     
         After two hundred years of   constant-dawn and advancing garden culture,  the Cayugas, who were by then living in wood frame houses like the French and English,   chose the loyalist side in our war between the Anglos;   so  General Sullivan's troops, ordered by Washington, and led by William Butler, marched up and down along the Finger Lakes, slashing and burning Iroquois villages.

    There were no  Broccoli survivors at Chonodote, nor did most of those non native fruit trees persist,  but the Pears are all around us. 
   If you cut down a pear tree, it will sprout dozens of little clone Pear trees from
the stump .   Quick-growing, short-lived brush and perenials   come up first on brunt and abandoned land, but Pears have plenty of time,  rise like church spires and then spread white flower crowns.....flowering and fruiting year after year, the seedlings  creeping up the slopes.

    Even in regularly mowed hayfields,  gnarly  old gnome pears, kept to four or six inches tall, but with deep root systems,  are ready to take over when we give up mowing.  Pears can live for hundreds of years.  Pears can wait.
      Dog's Plot had not been mowed for five or ten years before I arrived.   For the first few years, I planted fruit trees  and didn't even notice the  pears, or if I did, thought they were crab apples.  The naturalalized Pears devolve from the cultivated varieties and tend to be small, round, and even bitter. 
           But in the last few years I have transformed most of  them with grafting.


Friday, August 31, 2012

William Again

   Trying to hang on to our family home after my parents died,  I decided to turn the house into  a Bed and Breakfast.  There were a lot of delays and obstacles on the way to eventual failure of the enterprise, and my imaginary brother William was one of them.
  While we were redoing the bathrooms,  the old claw-foot tub stood in the middle of the living room for several weeks.  One morning  I came downstairs and discovered my sometime brother William in the tub..... just waking up, squinting his face and rubbing his head with his knuckles.         
             When we were kids, William and I   shared a bedroom at Edgewood Place,  but he had spent more nights in that   tub than in his own bed.  Full of water too.  A normal child would have drowned.   
     I didn't know how long it had been since I last saw  him, where he had been, or what he was doing back at Edgewood Place again,  but I was not all that happy to see my mystery brother just then, and  I did know  he wouldn't be capable of speech for five or ten minutes yet;  so   I went to the kitchen and made coffee.        


          William isn't my real brother.  We never even knew where he came from:  he just appeared   in the garden  with our dog Binker one day.
   I was five years old.   It was Spring of   1949 and we were getting ready to move from Lewis County to Ithaca so dad could teach at Cornell.
    I went to the the bay window  just as my father came  in the driveway and my mother went out to  meet him.  I think we must have all seen the strange boy in the garden at once.
       His big dirty face was only high as Binker's  head, and he held on to her collar, as if he were using her to climb out of the ground.
  My mother and father walked slowly toward the boy, as if he might sink back into the ground if they were too abrupt.  
   They stopped few yards from him for what seemed like a long time, talking at him I suppose, and finally Dad took Binker by the collar and led her toward the back door,   the  boy twaddling along side . 
     I tried to hold the door shut when they came up the steps, but   Dad growled "BOY" through the door, and I stepped aside.           
                  The boy was barefooted;  His hair and skin and clothing seemed to be all  about the same  uncolor, except for around his mouth which me must have put in the creek to drink.   Mom and Dad led Binker, boy attached, right up to the bath room.   I followed, well behind, and watched from the upstairs hall.
       He had   freakishly short, slightly curved legs like the jaws of pliers. His   his toenails brown  and curled.                                I didn't like anything about the situation.  I called Binker  to me, and we
went downstairs.

   William came fairly clean, but he never stayed that way long, and he didn't  talk for  many months.  His first words, or at least the first we heard, were song lyrics he picked up from the radio.  Goodnight Irene, which he sang, not to well, with some attempted yodeling, which he must have picked up from the Hank Williams,  but never mastered.
      Whether  his underdeveloped legs were  result of   a Thalidomide poisioning,   inbreeding  , or just a chance mutation, we will never know.  I suppose he wasn't too well liked at home anyway, and imagine he must have lived in somebody's attic or cellar, or in a brush pile  behind the outhouse for most of his life before he came to us. 
       Well, we were the Warrens, and we were going to treat him justly, so  the move  down to Ithaca was delayed while Dad tried to discover who the boy was, and where he belonged.
      In the meantime Mom , us kids, and the boy went up to Lake Bonaparte.         
         He and I  didn't always play well together. 
    It started with  us earnestly stalking one another around the island, and developed into scrambles, chases,  climbs,  swimming,  and wrestling, all of which and William was better at that me.
     Very quickly   I grew to admire and resent him equally.
      William would sometimes stay out in the water into the evening.  Mom would call him in and ring the camp bell, but there was no controlling William. Thinking of him out there on the water as I lay safe in bed, I felt   deep aloneness.

     I a few weeks of poking around, Dad could not  establish William's identity,  so he took on guardianship for the mean time,  and it was a long mean time.   Mom and Dad named him William,  for no reason I know of except that there were no other Williams around, and  the name Bonaparte, they pulled from the lake because it was handy, but it was appropriate enough 
          William was totally at home on Loon Island  but never so in Ithaca .    During the first years  there, mostly speachless he didn't go to school and mostly went out  only at night,  like a cat.
     Sometimes   I locked the doors when he was out, but he would just go up a tree and in at the third floor.
    At Lake Bonaparte William would sometimes be gone for days at a time.  He was obviously able to take care of himself and    Mom and Dad couldn't keep William in, so they grew to tolerate his wanderings.    And they couldn't adopt a child who didn't officialy exist, but they did everything they could for William. One of those things was to pay for a hormone therapy which  our  doctor suggested might help restart the  development of William's attenuated legs.
       What the primitive hormone therapy of that time actually  did, was it grew only his Privates.    This  has complicated his life in ways you can  imagine for your self.        
          I took the coffee  to William ; still in the tub, in which he immediately spilled half the coffee,   then  he slurped down the remaining half  as fast as he could, so he could finish it before he spilled it again.
              I poured him some more.
        William told me that he had been up North since last I saw him, and he only planned to stay in Ithaca for a season.  He  wanted to dip into the money economy briefly, to save up for   a bus ticket to Wyoming where he knows some horses.   Horses and William are a Minataur, if you have ever seen them.  Not many horses around Ithaca, where he mostly wears his sheet rock stillts to be normal, and used to borrow my bike to ride out of town.  The spring loaded sheet rock stilts work very very well for him on the bike.  I wished he had his own bike, but everytime he gets one, usually free one way another, it gets stolen from him.
       William has no locks, has nothing to lock anything too, and manages to get past locks when he encounters them..  He had slept the night before in my my new garden shed, and washed up in the  watergarden.      It was a nice little shed, he let me know.   

       Yes thank you, That little shed was built by me and roofed with carefully selected river slates, lapped and bedded in mortar.  The prettiest roof I ever did.
      That shed's like something a garden Gnome would live in, William said.
           Did I know about the  big Estates in old England that  would sometimes actually hire actors to live in the garden and  impersonate   hermits or   Gnomes?      
      I thinkWilliam's old girlfriend Gee had told him about this.  Gee  seemed sometimes to have believed that he really WAS a gnome.      Without his shin stilts, he  could just about pass for a Gnome or maybe a Troll, and he would have no shame about exploiting that. 
              So he  said  I should hire him to be his garden Gnome.
             As a Gnome, he could help direct guests trying to park here, or he could just act like he or the guests were invisible or imaginary.  The latter would be more realistic, but either way,   he would be good for business, he said.
      Well,  no  way did I want Billy Bonaparte Crotchsniffer as  a greeter for Edgewood Place Bed and Breakfast. 

       I suggested that, instead, he move over to Bridge House, where he often enough holed up anyway.  He could start his own funky Bed and Breakfast, dress like a Goblin , serve worms for breakfast and do whatever he wanted to do.   
    I  said he could have the family bathtub he was now spilling coffee in, if he would help me move it over there to Bridge House
         He said O.K.

  Bridge House, as you might know, is an old, and mostly disused, stone building incorporated in a bridge over a little gorge near the Cornell Campus.  It has six or eight dank rooms in its two  abutments,  and  a dark history of private occupancy, a raunchy one of fraternity use, and a decadence under university ownership.  Link Here to Blog on Bridge House 
    It was already pretty much unused when we were kids and used to sneak around the fences to play in there. 
   For a long time it was used only by Cornell Plantations to  keep dormant plants.  
 William has always used it as one of his hoveling places, and has often shared it with racoons, which all seem to know him like a big man on campus, even when he has been away for months.

           Steve Gilbert and William and I got that tub around the fence and in there without dropping it into the gorge, which  partly did happen,  but we had a safety rope run through the drain hole and Steve grabbed it just in time.
       I hadn't been serious telling William to make a B and B ofr it, but he showed up at the house again the next week and had me help him set up a web page like one I had for Edgewood place.   He took to the computer pretty fast, like it was the magic slate he used to love,   and every few days he would come back late at night to tweak   his Bridge House Ivy Gothic Inn web site.      Link Here
     I am pretty sure that the only guests at Bridge House Ivy Gothic Inn were the raccoons, a LOT of raccoons, and the occasional young women  William brought there to bed.    
       It is unusual for raccoons to tolerate even one other, unrelated raccoon  in the neighborhood, but William somehow difused that instinct, or maybe it was the influence of the T.V.  Or the fridge.
   He got hold of an old T.V   and a dorm room size  fridge and a single clip up light,  which he powered though  two hundred feed of extension cords snaking through the woods under the leaves to an outdoor outlet on a frat house back side which they let him plug into .... probably because of some special mushrooms he provided the   boys from the woods. 
  The T.V.  signal  came through a rabbit ears  ariel he had mounted on the bridge tower.  Much of the time this brought in only one station and whatever happend on screen, it was always snowing there.  Sometimes it  was only voices in the snow, sometimes just a blind white rush, but he left it on all the time, and usually there were at least a few coons  watching it.  
     And watching him. The racoons   learned to open and to sometimes  close the refrigerator.  They  would  take things out of it and put things in it.  Frogs,  sandwich ends, crusts, and pizza-stained cardboard,  even shiny objects not particularly in need of refrigeration. 
      The end to that domestic arrangement came when a  young woman, a graduate student whom William brought home for bed and breakfast, was so awed by the uncharacteristic sociability and learned human skills of the raccoons,  and maybe so strangely taken with William  ( as women of a certain sort often are) that she was determined to do a study of interspecies socialization involving him and the raccoons, and proposed  to make it her masters thesis topic.
   That spooked the shit out of William.
      He was out of there. William told me about it when he stopped by on his way up north for a month or so maybe.

Edgewood Bed and Breakfast failed to support itself, as I warned you would happen.  It was doomed.  Local bankers had looked at me with real horror when I requested a couple hundred thousand dollars for renovations.  So I had taken out a sub prime loan with CountryWide and it turned out that  the guests couldn't cover the nine point six percent interest.   
      It was heart breaking, but at least I wasn't being driven out because I was being bombarded by the Syrian Airforce.  I moved a lot of my family stuff and books to attics and barns of friends.  My dog Deerdra and I stayed with my friend Alan Pike for a while, and gradually moved up the lake to my daughter's four acres on Pumpkin hill where I began grafting an orchard , dug half a dozen garden plots, and started  a flock of chickens.
       It was because of the chickens that I  had to go looking for William again.
      I had ordered twenty straight-run day-old chicks,  which means half were likely to be hen chicks, half males.
       But in April, at due time, the box arrived and the hatchery had included ten extra males, which according to the invoice, was  to increase the thermal mass of the package so as to keep the chicks from chilling. 
            So, as it became evident about six weeks later, I had twelve hens and eighteen roosters. 
   The natural solution to the imbalance and to the superfluity of roosters on an egg farm, is to eat the roosters, preferabally at about six weeks of age, when they are only beginning to get cocky and are mostly as big as they will ever be. 
   Although I will eat my neighbors chicken,   I did not intend to eat my own, and besides that, I was convinced from my reading and contemplations that there was a natural function for roosters in a flock: scouting for food, protecting the hens and so on;  and I was determined that my roosters would have every chance to fulfill themselves. 
       I was right about roosters having a function.... and my roosters sure did fulfill themselves, but not without a lot of strife and brawling, sometimes involving me. 
       It is not natural or practical for a flock of twelve hens to be tended by eighteen roosters, and I might have realized that, but I was determined to make it work.  So I went looking for William.
         He had spent   two or three years as a kid living on our Sammy's Roostosterone farm in Florida and getting gangbanged by her Roosters, who probably saw him as a punk competitor.  He learned pretty well how to deal with roosters.
       At the time of my need  I didn't even know for sure if William in the county or up North, or out West for   that matter,  so I asked around and put my friends on the lookout, and then Deerdra dog and I cruised the greenways gorge verges and some of the mushroom hotspots we share, because just then the Chantrells were fruiting pretty good and he would likely be, have been, or be about to appear at one of those places.   I lurked around like that, until Igot a call from Tim Dietrich, saying he had gone out to  his barn with Cooper to play Ping Pong and found William was there reading books I had stored there.  William sometimes camped in Tim's barn so he could read the old  family National Geographics I had  there.  Tim said that right then, William was playing ping pong with Cooper.  When without his stillts, he plays standing on the is allowed him there...but it isnt fair because he about always wins that way, and he uses two paddles.    Show me where it says you can't play with two paddles, he says.  He will play for hours.  I told Tim to keep him there, keep loosing to him, and I drove in..
        It was surprisingly  easy to convince William that he wanted to come and live with chickens again,  He rode back with me that  day.

     It is not too clear to what degree, in the time he was at Dog's Plot , he tamed and trained the roosters, and to what degree they just naturally matured through their group adolecense, and got relieved of a few whom I killed because they insisted on attacking me, guests or grandchildren.
          O.K.  I couldn't have managed without him.     
       Early on during his stay here, even before he built his escape ark, William was coming in at night to play on my I Book and mess around in the kitchen while I slept, or  the same while I was away on a roof.  I myself got very little writing done during that period, but , after fooling around with his Bridge House site and adding a food section there,, William started the blog you have here.  He is the one who named it and this place Dog's Plot, though he and the dogs have been gone for a while now.
   He may be up North, probably not Great Slave Lake, he may be in Wyoming, he could even
be out west wrangling chickens on movie sets, but it seems likely as anything that he is back at Bridge House again.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Day the Roof Fell Off

            In the seventies, when I was  regularly  underestimating roof jobs and paying myself  poorly or not at all,  it occurred to me that I could help the cash flow by writing  instructive articles   about things  I knew  from hard experience.  After all, writing should be the one thing I ought to be able to make a little money at;  I have Master of Fine  Arts in Creative writing.    I mean......I actually taught the course at Cornell called "Writing from Experience."  Give me a frigging break.
   So I wrote  about building a rough-sawed  camp lodge for my brother on an Adirondack lake Island       Mother Earth News bought the story, flew my brother up from Kentucky with his grand daughter, and sent a team  to  photograph us in Ithaca, then    edited, and published "Rough Home Building" as the cover story of her twenty-fifth anniversary issue. 
   See me and my brother Herb,  photo-shopped onto a snapshot of my mother and sister on the porch  of the   Round Island camp.  

 But then,  I open the mag and....... Yikes! Mother had fucked with the story! 
 She had removed the part about a dramatic little accident, that shouldn't be forgotten if I am ever going to learn anything in this life, and anyway, literary justice demands that it be restored.

     The Round Island is round around and round over the top, lumpy with bedrock    right at the surface or just a foot or two under the pine duff. 
 We had  dragged stone  on log rails from the talus slope behind the site, and laid up three rows of three stone piers from the bedrock, to support three cobbled beams to carry the building.

The unfortunate event came when we had   had the second floor walls up.
            we nailed up twelve foot post  at each end of the building and one in the middle supporting   against which we nailed one by six board running on edge 
       The generator was running and  my niece   Liz Sticker was making the plumb cuts on a chop saw outside.    Jon Morse was  cutting the bird's mouths to fit over the top plate of the wall, and then  and handing the finished rafters  up to David Morgan , who served them to me. I was up on the tall step ladder, head and shoulders above the ridge board, on which I  had marked X's  where I would nail each, plumb-cut rafter head. 
 It was fine up there above the ridge board, as if I were much  higher even.
          I nailed  through the ridge board into the plumb face, as David Morgan toe-nailed at the bird's mouth. on              
      We had half a dozen rafters up on the West side and more than that on the East.  We were moving right along.   Woopie!  Rocking and Rolling, as we say.  But, I had  fallen behind in adding collar ties to truss up the rafters.
         We   had six or eight pairs up, and a few more on the East......whenn the nails began to squeal and  rafters to slide.
         David Morgan came up between rafters,  or rather the rafters came down around instead of on  him;  Jon Morse knew it was going to happen anyway, or least that is what he told me when I ran into him at Cayuga Lumber last week,  said he  had  run out from below when he heard the first squealing of nails,  and Liz was safe at the saw.
        I was there standing on the step ladder untlouched,  still, and above it all, like somebody totally out of the body on the operating table where something awful is happening.
    in my head, it was so quiet I could have heard ashes drop.      

I don't know how long before  I came down the ladder .  Quite likely someone had to call my name.   I don't remember a thing anybody said.  Maybe nothing was said.    It was clear enough what we had to do.
    Not ALL the rafters had fallen: maybe only  a dozen; and only three or four were hopelessly shattered.   
  We started denailing the  usable rafters,  and cutting new ones;   and by quitting time we were back where we had been just before the avalanche,  but with good collar ties on every set of rafters.
    The next day we got the rafters all up and were ready  to start the roof sheathing.
     Framing is  the   exciting part of building, the basic shape of what's to come is formed so fast.  If you framed it, the sturcture is often more beautiful in its bones than it ever will be again.
     When the framers have arrived at the highest point of the building they traditionally   tie a small tree or branch to that highest point.     
    The day the roof fell, we forgot to do that.

  what that moment at the top of the ladder keeps bringing to mind another incident,  years ago in Ithaca.
  I was driving  behind a guy who was riding a on a bicycle on Stewart Ave.  He hit a brick or someting that sent him and his bike flying .  His bike landed on its side, and he landed on his feet....running.
     He kept running and was still running when I passed him. 
            I often wonder, what happened to that guy.  Did he just keep on running?
        But the thing I need to remember, is to keep the diagonal bracing up to date; bang on those collar ties as I go.  And I don't do much of that anymore, so I guess that's why I'am telling you.


Friday, July 6, 2012

My Pal the Dalai Lama

       Dalai Lama Makes Surprise Landing,  with Another  Flash Festival of Peace and Music

The Ithaca Festival, the Grass Roots Festival, The Patchy Valley Fog Festival, and well advertised events like that are fine, but my buddy the Dali Lama    comes unannounced, though not always by air and sometimes drops in just to have breakfast with Gene Toby, whose son used to work for me  and designed the main North American Tibetan  monastary on the hill opposite Cornell.  

      The Dali told Gene at breakfast one day that one thing he often missed in the West, was being where chickens wander in and out of the conversation.    
   So Gene brought the Dali to my place the next time, and it is almost a regular thing now.....if three times in five years is a regular thing. 
       We drink mint tea, and sit in my yard jabbering  with the chickens.

       It's weird how the flies love that guy.  He suffers them mostly like little children and if they get too crazy  he shoos them away like they were puppies.
           One time there was a fly that wouldn't shoo and DID want a piece of his nose. 
Would you believe he ATE that fly!?  Put out his tongue....the fly lit on it.....and was gone.
        Nothing left but that Cheshire cat grin.     
         And then he says his doctors told him that, because of his personal health situation, he needs to either eat nails or have some meat in his diet. 
   'I try to keep a balance, "  he says.  "One nail, one fly."

      I'll tell you one thing: he's a nut.... but he fucking cracks me up!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

MidSummer's White-Out Dream

  Some days the wind comes along and the Cottonwoods fluff gets blown all over.... but on still, hot days like we are having and can expect for the next three hundred and fifty years,, the cottonwoods silently, slowly, burst like slow popcorn..... and drift down like cats made of clouds. Or scads and scads of Angel hair. The feral kittens here, out in the weather, are so far not very impressed by this snow, as they lived through the Great Inappropriate Snow Storm of 2012

Monday, April 9, 2012

Olive's Long Lunch

Lunch out on the range with Olive can be awful primitive.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

ALL IS TWO: A Robot Walks into a Bar

   Brian Green, a very nice guy and well known advocate of String Theory, taught at Cornell for a while in the nineties and bought  one of the historic houses on Dewitt Park Road which winds up along the North edge of Cascadilla Gorge across  from my old family home .   I worked on the roofs and interiors of several houses up and down that street and was referred to him.  His idea was to take out the large chimney and  central fireplace wall on the gorge side of the house and replace it with  windows for viewing.  This was not a good idea, and it wouldn't be allowed by a clause in all the leases in that old development anyway... but I referred him to the historic restoration architect Victoria Romanoff for hard advice on those matters.
      I'm not an expert on String Theory either, but I am convinced that it  also is not a good idea.  A very complex theory of everything.  I don't know that it would make any difference to anything for it to be true.  Really, if you want a unifying theory, you will have to settle for  'Truth is Beauty " or maybe "All is Two."
 So if you can tolerate a little robot humor, and can distinguish between math and science, you will get a kick out of this silly video about  String Theory:

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Endless Coincidence

   The Magician's Magician


          Back in the early seventies, not long before  Ricky  Jay would   write  his break-out book about "Cards as Weapons " ,  he was  one of my students in a Cornell freshman course  called "Writing from Experience".    He had already experienced  freshman life  at a few other colleges,  and  would spend only slightly longer at  Cornell than Houdini spent  chained  in a  coffin at the bottom of New York Harbor.... but before slipping out,  Richard Jay did submit one piece of writing:  the monologue of a  freak-show barker who pulls us  in,   only to  violate our willing suspension of sympathy, by making  it perfectly clear  that   WE the drooling  gapers   are the true  Freaks...  fascinated  by the projections of of our own misshapen souls.     It wouldn't have gone over well at the Freak Show, but the truth  is beautiful enough, so  I read it to the class.     
           Ricky Jay moved on to tending bar and throwing cards  at the Royal Palm bar in Collegetown,   learned  writing and magic from books and mirrors ;  later published, not only    "Cards as Weapons",  but also scholarly articles and coffee- table books  on magicians, freaks and prodigies,   He appeared occasionally as a writer  and a subject in the New Yorker.  He played  a  card-shark and other under-world devils in the movies.  and advised the movie industry itself about the business of illusion,  through his consulting business, "Deceptive Practices". 
  In fact,  Ricky Jay must be the best known magician after  Harry Potter,  and one of the best card handlers ever ........ but his own role model , the magician's magician, and  the ultimate Expert at the card table, seems to be the great and mysterious  S. W. Erdnase.  
         Or rather, the man who, under that name, wrote the classic book on card handling , which is  generally published as "The Expert at the Card table," although the original title was "Artifice, Ruse and Subterfuge at the Card Table  a  Treatise on the Science and Art of Manipulating Cards......  "  Erdnase enthusiasts in the online magic forums refer to it simply as "The Expert " or   "Erdnase",   as if the book were the man. 


  Whoever S.W. Erdnase really  was,   he had a great  cloak of invisibility.  More than a hundred years since the publication of the book ,   magicians have not been able to agree  on just who wrote  it.   That question would be less important if the book itself  were not an extraordinary piece of literature.   
                        The title page is a full spread and leaves absolutely no doubt what it is about.

 The preface of the book takes up where the title left off and  then spills generously into an introduction:  all so sage, wry, and humorous  that some Erdnasians have convinced themselves that the man was actually Mark Twain  .....  even though  everybody knows , or else should know,  that Mark Twain was actually Sam Clemens;  and Clemens himself was  half  Huck Finn,  and  half Tom Sawyer:   
  "We betray no confidences in publishing this book, having only ourselves to  thank for what we know. Our tuition was received in the cold school of experience. We started in with the trusting nature of a fledgling, and a calm assurance born of overweening faith in our own potency. We bucked the tiger voluntarily, and censure no one for the inevitable result.  A self-satisfied unlicked cub with a fairly fat bank roll was too good a thing to be passed up. We naturally began to imbibe wisdom in copious draughts at the customary sucker rates, but the jars to our pocketbook caused far less anguish than the heartrending jolts to our insufferable conceit.  After the awakening our education progressed through close application and constant study of the game, and the sum of our present knowledge is proffered in this volume, for any purpose it may answer, to friend and foe, to the wise and the foolish, to the good and the bad, to all alike, with but one reservation,--that he has the price".


                                            The Detective

     The author can be found right there in his book, unless the book  is artless.   "All art is autobiography",   wrote the Erdnase investigator,  David Alexander,  suggesting that he could cut a decent profile of the Erdnase author from the evidence of the book.      Alexander had actually worked for years as a private investigator, part of the time contracted to the   Los Angeles
police department, plus he had many years of experience as a stage  pickpocket,  a card and coin handler, free-hand silhouette cutter , curator,  editor, and writer.  Alexander was  the official biographer of the Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.  And he published (under his own name)   a little  book on the art of picking pockets..... not available outside the brotherhood of magicians.     As a volunteer enforcer of professional ethics, he  had spent many years tracking and exposing  various  frauds who  used tricks of the profession to defraud  widows and others willing to suspend disbelief and pay money for messages from the dead.    Stage magic is a work of fiction, and lies are the worst enemy of fiction.    So  a fully qualified and motivated inside expert was on the Erdnase case.

         Others had already observed that Erdnase is  not a real name at all........ but  that S.W. Erdnase spelled  backwards,  is E. S. Andrews.
                  As a matter of fact, an E.S. Andrews did exist in the general area and time in which the Erdnase book was published;  and this person was known to gamble.
                   Many Erdnase seekers have needed to look no further.
                Martin Gardner, the long time Scientific American  puzzle-master,  who wrote the introduction to a modern edition of The Expert and co-authored a book with two others on Erdnase,  argued that Erdnase was Milton Franklin Andrews: a small-time gambler   and card-shark  who  had dropped out of school ,  lived with his mother, and at the age of thirty- three,  having been run to ground due to his crooked  dealings,  shot himself .   
     But Alexander insisted, and it is easy to agree,  that a destitute, small time gambler under the age of thirty could NOT have written lines like  this:
 "The vagaries of luck or chance have improved the professional card player with a certain knowledge that his more respected brother of the stock exchange possesses, viz.--manipulation is more profitable than speculation; so to make both ends meet, and incidentally a good living, he also performs his part with the shears when the lambs come to market."

                Before David and Richard Kyle, who assisted him , had begun any serious investigations, others had observed that the the name S.W. Erdnase can also be read as an anagram of W. E. Sanders.  David began investigating a  W. E. Sanders who was a copper miner on several levels, the son of a Montana   Senator, and in the right places at the right time.   He had  studied German, Greek  and Shakespeare in the East, on his way to becoming a mining engineer, mine owner, and oil explorer,  caereering for many years  through the mountain West from Chicago to California.
         Notice, as did Alexander, that in the German language, which  likes to join words end to end,   Erdnase  means  "Earth Nose".   
         Read Sanders diaries and you will note one entry that lists the items he has packed for an up-coming trip, including five packs of cards.   
           In nineteen ninety-one  Alexander published an article  on the Sanders/Erdnase connection in the magicians journal Genii, titled:
 " The Magician as Detective
     New light on Erdnase "  . 
         He also presented his conclusions  at a magicians convention in Los Angeles,  profiling a man clever enough to have deliberately made the fake backward spelling shift to lead attention away from the anagram.   Ricky Jay, who himself has said that he   doesn't like to   offer himself around   among clustering magicians....  happened to be there anyway,   came up to David after the talk,  and complemented him on the presentation. 
     But David hadn't convinced all of those  who were partial to an  explanation involving  one of the  Andrews suspects,  Just wanted it to be Mark Twain, or  preferred the ongoing mystery.

            David Alexander continued his Erdnase research,  performing as a magician, and putting together a fine collection of works by mostly twentieth century silhouette cutting by his mentor and others.  
      In 2007 he and his wife Cassidy moved to Aurora Illinois,  where a friend had recruited him to help reorganize and "fix" a new hands-on science museum.    Cassidy is a professional portrait artist, who, as a volunteer, working on short notice , started doing  portraits  of slain  Chicago police officers.   Portraits with an illusion of three dimensions ,  blood in the cheeks, and light in the eyes.  She could do great wanted posters.  
     But no sooner was the science museum on a new track, than the Great Recession  hit,  funding was cut....and of course the museum was running and didn't need to be set up anymore anyway.... so David was   freed to pursue Erdnase.

                          The Vagaries of Luck

           David Alexander, whom I never actually met,   graduated from  the same high school in the same year as Kristal Forest,  to whom I was once married. 
   Looking at his high school memorial page he noticed that Kristal  was listed as deceased or missing, so he went to Google and  soon came up with my blog post regarding her, which you might read some day :
    A few years ago, Kristal disappeared out in Arizona, and was presumed to have been murdered. 
But he didn't write to me as Detective/ magician,  about the mystery of her vanishing.  We were already  fairly sure her murderer was in jail already, for other crimes.   It was as writer to writer, he wrote.   He recognized the difficulty of the subject, and said that he had shared  my blog posts with a few friends students as a model of good writing.  
                 If I wanted to ease up close to a writer and pick his pocket, I might say things like that.   I trusted him anyway,
       That began an exchange of emails  about  family secrets, Manachian  characters, borderline personalities,  writing, and magic. 
      His  emails to me sometimes ended only  because Cassidy had dinner ready.

          December 2010 came and    I hadn't heard from David in a month or more,  so I went to his Facebook page. 
      His magician friends had been posting there,  giving bits of information.   
         One day David  and Cassidy had driven to a rental property they owned, where the tenant had reported  a leak in the ceiling,  David  went  up to the attic to investigate, and he didn't come down. 
      An uninsulated water pipe in the cold attic had burst and wet the wiring, which was apparently also poorly insulated,  causing death by electrocution, though it took six weeks to be recognized as  the official cause of death.
 A meaningless dead end, but hard to get out of my mind......especially since I am actually a  roofer,  If   I had been a REAL life  friend and lived in Aurora,  Illinois  instead of Aurora, New York....I could have been the man in the attic. 
           Dead-end thinking, and  that will be the end of it,   but when you die,  you begin to reappear in stories, and after David died he continued to be cited in the Genii Erdnase forum.  David had discovered that Sanders onced served as librarian of the Montana Historical society, where he was in charge of arranging the Society publications.  It was that fact especially which motivated Marty Demerest and others to extend David's investigations.
       Eventually, Genii magazine published an article by Marty Demerest with  more details about Sanders and an endorsement of Sanders as the Erdnase candidate.         

W.E. Sanders died in 1935 out in Berkley California,  where he was last involved in oil exploration.
   Here's a picture of him as a young man in Montana, sitting on seems to be a buffalo robe thrown over a shipping trunk.. What are those white dots all over is suit? Is that beard for real?  What arcane symbol is on his tie?  Somebody should write a book about that Wag.

      Occan's Razor

         So how could David Alexander  solve the Erdnase mystery a few years ahead of the Scientific American puzzle master and  way ahead of so many other people who had given a lot of thought to the question?

      David Alexander  claimed that he always used   " Occam's razor "  in his investigation.
       Occams razor, as you learned long ago, and I  learned recently, is the basis of the scientific method.     A common summation of William from Ockam's alleged rule, is  that the simplest explanation of anything is generally the right one.    But the text by William of Ockam can be disappointing, because it  mentions no  razor,   and William didn't have just one simple, clean-cutting rule.    As Alexander points out,    when you proceed from a working assumption,  but   encounter anomolies,   you might need a more complex explanation.         
         Seek endless coincidence, says Alexander.  That's  a good and simple rule;  it stands by itself.   
     Those are just the rules of common sense and open mindedness, but everyone says and agrees that  common sense and open mindedness are rare.   It takes a strong minded person like you, me, or David Alexander,  one who is  "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason"  ............. as   John Keats said. 
      He called that high tolerance for ambiguity " Negative Capability".      
       But Keats himself pointed out in the same sentence, that when this particular genius is followed closely,   beauty overcomes all other considerations:   "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" said Keats, or at least his Grecian Urn did.....and  anyway  T.S. Eliot  dismissed the line  as a crock of un-poetry,  empty of meaning.          And you wouldn't think it   a particularly useful working basis for  science or police procedure. 

     And then you might need to think again.
      It is a  really cool and convenient coincidence that Martin Gardner   ( the math puzzler and Erdnase expert we spoke of, who coauthored the book we have not read, that  proposed one of the  Andrews candidates as the true wizard of Erdnase)  wrote an article in the Scientific American, with the title "Is Beauty Truth and Truth Beauty?"
      In fact, that very question was a long running theme of Gardner's career at the Scientific American.    The idea would seem to violate the traditional separation of Art and Science, but  we learn from Gardener and from the book he reviews that in modern science, as in the  complex simplicity and invisible symmetry of nature, beauty IS truth.
  All is endless fractal coincidence;   the parts continually resemble the whole, as the atom resembles the solar system.  O.M.G ! 
       That Beauty is Truth is good to know, even if the meaning keeps clouding into ambiguity, and even  if it is not necessarily ALL you need to know for life here below. 


The Real Alexander

      Who was the real David Alexander?  How should I know?  How should I  who never met him,  know what to make of the fact that his name happens to be a reverse, trans-gender shift of  the name of Alexandra David, who     wrote and published under her married name, Alexandra David Neel, one of my favorite books -- "Magic and Mystery in Tibet " in which she witnesses Yogis who can melt   blocks of ice by sitting on them, and other marvels?  Which makes me wonder who was David Alexander that he he could sit on the couch with  his friend for half an hour,   talking of this and that.... and then suddenly pull a five pound block of ice from under his hat?  And how did he manage, at will,  to pull a bird cage out of his pants?  Was there a bird in it?  Was it alive?
 Why a bird cage of all things? Why did he do magic anyway?
         Well, who wouldn't, except that they couldn't?
         Given a mentor or two, some professional secrets, a lot of practice and  fake confidence, even a shy boy like me might be able to  get a  traveling magician gig and use it as a    cover for  free range secret agent work in ports around the world, making new friends squeal with delight , and making fools of  spies, impostors,  hecklers, and common pests,  all by means of subterfuge, ruse, and  to steal the shirt off a man's back,  to  profile  a  suspect with  just scissors and paper,    to communicate across time and space,  and to confront massive ambiguity, without taking it too seriously.