Monthly Archives: March 2013

One of the Seven Simple Machines

APRIL 15, 2012

I let him in through the basement door so he can park his truck nearby. I’d guess he is in his 50’s, reserved, wearing a dark blue uniform that telegraphs the message “service professional”. I remember my grandfather wearing work clothes like this, dark shirt and pants of sturdy cotton twill, forgiving of a grease stain, and fortified against wear at the elbows and knees. basement door2

In fact, one of those green work shirts still hangs on the clothes rod in my basement, brought home after his funeral, a sweet remembrance of his tinkering for years, in oilfields and shipyards and loading docks and finally, in his own small universe of garage and yard and basement. It surely is what he was wearing on that last day, when he left his work boots on the back porch, and went to bed for the last time beside his wife of nearly 70 years.

So this workman, coming to repair our washer, must see a lot of basements. I look at this space with an outsider’s eye, and wonder if he watches “Hoarders” on TV.

While we were remodeling, box after box of stuff landed down here, and only about half of it went back upstairs. Add to that the seasonal tides of holiday decorations and garden tools, leftover paint and lumber. Before he arrived, I had to thread my way through a narrow canyon of stuff to find pliers on the workbench; cleaned the cat litter; thought briefly about the cobwebs in the open rafters – but left them hanging. Nervously, I remember how I’d often invoked the dream image of a basement as a metaphor for the unconscious. Now I find I’m hoping that’s not true.

He’s a man with an economy of speech; to the point.

“So what’s wrong with it”? he asks.

“It won’t fill, The water just runs and runs but it never fills, just right down the drain. All of a sudden, just this week.”

He fiddles with one of the cycles on the dial. “Did you recently move it?” he asks. Improbably, in this cluttered space, that it could have been moved – I know he’s thinking that.

As a mental health practitioner, I recognize the diagnostic process in action. He is working his way through the appliance world equivalent of the DSM IV.

He looks around at the drain hose behind the machine, clamped to a length of PVC pipe leading to a floor drain.

“Here’s the problem,” he says. “This hose needs to hang above the water level in the tank.

” Yes, I think to myself, like it was until just last week, when we laid the hose flat on the floor to drain. And when the washer suddenly stopped filling. Uneasily, I remember a sixth grade science class about atmospheric pressure and how a siphon functions. One of those seven simple machines, from which all more complex machines are created. I can see the “J” shaped clear plastic tubing the cascading series of plastic cups, the cutaway diagram of water and air.

“That’s all it is”, he says. He shows me how to raise the drain hose and clamp it to a post near the washer. He glances at his watch. Who wears a watch any more? Doesn’t everyone check their cell phone for time these days? But here is a round moon face of a watch with a leather strap. My grandfather wore one like this at the cuff of that tough work shirt.He calculates the time he’s been here, about 3 minutes.

“Tell you what. I’ll call the office and say you cancelled the call.”

No 65.00 service fee, just a common basic science error in a hoarder’s basement.

“Thank you,” I say aloud. Silently my brain continues: “Thank you for not judging me. Or if you do, thanks for keeping it to yourself”



APRIL 15, 2012

There aren’t too many foggy mornings in Nebraska, but occasionally, when the temperature is precisely right, fog will form along the river, spreading out in the lowest lying areas on either side, softening the sharp edges that a clear sunrise will raise. These mornings stop me in my tracks. I had one this week, and stopped on my way to work, to follow the soft trail of fog along Elmwood Creek.

window_mendocino_reduced1334511769I am remembering another early morning walk, a year ago this week, on the foggy northern coast of California, in the village of Mendocino. It’s home to a few permanent residents; and many more seasonal visitors. Along the main street, a boardwalk of weathered wood, I pass a yarn shop, the offices of the Mendocino Beacon, a wine bar, an art gallery.

In one of these windows, what catches my eye are two origami cranes hung from a wire mobile; a box with a bamboo mat, a small buddha set on it, the composition of an altar. A pastel toned photo of a woman looking out at the sea; another of a man in some indeterminate uniform; a fringed shawl in reds and purples; a pair of old eyeglasses, folded.

I stop to try to capture in a photo, the way the artist found to balance the cranes, to keep them moving in slow arcs. I have been trying to perfect that issue of balance back in my Nebraska basement. But when I look more closely at the photo later, what I have taken is the reflection of sea and sky in the glass, the dreamy far horizon it looks out on.

This is an odd and lonely visit, a little sad, but sweet on balance. There is no person remaining in this small town that I mendocino main streetknow. The threads that anchored me here are gone. Friends dispersed, like me, to other places, or died. So I create small excursions, like this walk, or the ten mile drive on Coast Highway One that threads through redwoods between Fort Bragg and Mendocino; small perfect meals with a view.

It’s a funeral that brought me back after more than 30 years away. A dear friend died a peaceful death just short of her 93rd birthday, and was brought back to her coastal home, her ashes to be scattered along this rocky stretch of coast. I spent the previous evening in a motel room, composing my thoughts for her memorial service; fell into a deep sleep; and in the morning, set out on this walk.

When I was a student at UC Berkeley, Mendocino County was my place of retreat. Away from the grit and crowds of the Bay Area; the late night shifts at an institution for boys with disabilities; the pressure of academic papers and exams; the worry about the future. In quiet, this is the place where the threads came together. A child came here; an adult emerged, and departed.

I have a playlist where I store my late night impulse purchases on ITunes, the ones I can count on to evoke mood and memory. Enough songs about moons, blue and otherwise, to fill an hour. I’d recently rediscovered Jefferson Airplane’s Embryonic Journey — this short, intricately layered and wordless guitar performance, which I am hearing again now, was the theme song for what was about to unfold from this place: a cross country pilgrimage to find a future, work, and community.follow heart

Of the many photos I took last March, it is this shop window that draws me back, its glass reflection of the foggy, softenened line of horizon, where sea meets sky. It is what I left behind.

After a few months in Nebraska, I experienced a geographic crisis. I was landlocked. It was a little claustrophobic. There was no edge to find, as one would on the coast. Rivers don’t count, and what they call a beach here is not how I know the word. No choice about it, here we are in the middle of things. So I am drawn back, to what is reflected behind me.