Wintry Mix

We’re having another strange winter. Last week, we had three straight nights below zero, and today and tomorrow are going to be in the mid-40s. The roof is bare after a week with over a foot of snow. The poor road crew is going nuts, trying to deal with plowing roads that won’t freeze hard, using up a winter’s worth of sand and salt before February ever arrived. (Our Cargill road salt this year, by the way, was sourced in Egypt. We’re all globalists now…)

Nora and I decided to take this opportunity of kind-of-warm weather to let the wood stove cool completely, so that tomorrow morning I can shovel all the ash out to get ready for tomorrow evening’s return to single-digit temps. And even though I turned the furnace up this morning, it’s still cold without the bright fire consuming the dead leftovers of our woodlot.

My writing today feels a lot like that. I’m writing the Town’s audit self-study, and proofreading someone else’s work on writing the annual report. I’m working on marketing material for The Adjunct Underclass, and offering markups on someone else’s novel. I’m waiting for a colleague to deliver a copy of the Town’s lease for the volunteer fire department, so I can talk with our attorney about how we might modify it. And somewhere, in the middle of that, I’m trying to write a story, of Kurt and Sarasa and the ways that they find themselves in a half-familiar, half-foreign place. It’s a day that’s neither snow nor rain nor dry, neither warm nor cold, neither clear nor dark. It’s a wintry mix.

Updike once wrote that he had three offices in his home: one for fiction, one for non-fiction, and one for poetry. That’s lovely, but most of us have just the one room with the one laptop and the cold stove, and we have to create another way to become multiple people, each of our selves able to focus fully on that one thing as it presents itself. If we can’t divide the world by space, we have to do it by time, setting up calendar stripes of different colors, each for its own purpose.

But there are days where the colors run together and become mud. A painter friend once told me the legend of Seattle Beige, the bland institutional color that comes from mixing together every can of America’s returned paint into a mammoth re-use vat. Ninety percent of it is white, and the other colors all even themselves out in large enough quantities to turn a sort of boring sandy tan. That’s the color of a writer’s mind on some cold February days.

Ecosystem Failure

When I was in grade school, the summers were increasingly marked by massive die-offs of a small fish called the alewife. Through a blizzard of invasive species and other human interventions, the alewife population boomed to the point where annual starvations became normal, and the beaches of southern Lake Michigan had as many as twenty billion dead alewives washed ashore in the summer of 1967.

Dead alewives floating atop the water in Lake Michigan, so many that they cover the entire surface of the harbor.

I’m writing this shortly after the announcement that Green Mountain College, eight miles away from here in Poultney VT, will cease operations at the end of this semester. After the announcement that Hampshire College won’t enroll a new Fall cohort. After the closings of Mount Ida College and Newbury College, after Wheelock merged with BU, after the risk announcements for the College of St. Joseph… I’m seeing dead fish on the beach again.

I think it’s unproductive to ask who’s to blame for this. What we’re seeing is an ecosystem collapse with dozens of contributing variables. In fact, I think it’s even worse than that. The collapse of higher ed comes from an attempt to optimize each individual aspect of the endeavor, with nobody watching the whole. It comes from tens of millions of individually intelligent decisions. We’ve been so smart about the details that we forgot about the purpose. And now the lake is dying, and the fish are washing ashore.

Saturday Morning

Hard to know why Ed wakes up so early. Somewhere between four and five, usually. He walks into the bedroom and starts whining at the side of the bed. So you roll out, trying not to wake Nora, and Ed follows you into the kitchen. Sometimes Simon follows, if he’s not curled down next to Nora’s knees. You check their food and water and litter boxes, put a little more wood into the stove, close the door between the kitchen and hallway, and go back to bed.

That often doesn’t help much. You’re awake, churning, trying all the meditative practices to clear your mind. But a writer’s mind is never clear, really.

So you get back up and dressed this time, make coffee, and start the day. Whatever it was that the cats wanted before is lost to us all—Simon’s curled in front of the fire, Ed on a kitchen chair, Nora still asleep.

You can get some decent work done.