The American Dream by Jamie Kirkpatrick

If you’re old enough to remember The Beverly Hillbillies, you’re probably old enough to forget them, too. But in case you either too young to know what I’m talking about or you need a quick refresher, The Beverly Hillbillies was a 60s television show about the Clampett family, Ozark hillbillies who struck oil and are now living the high life in California. According to the show’s theme song which has been inexplicably stuck in my head for more than a week now, Jed Clampett, the widowed family patriarch, “was a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed,” until (so the song continues) “one day he was out shootin’ for some food when up from the ground came a bubblin’ crude. Black gold. Texas tea.”

That lousy shot makes Jed a millionaire and so he packs up three generations of his wacky extended family and moves them all to Beverly Hills. (“Swimming pools. Movie stars.”) It is the quintessential American Dream story—except that it isn’t. The American Dream, our national ethos, is the idealized notion that anyone’s highest goals and aspirations can be achieved if he/she just works hard enough. The problem is that in Jed’s case, it wasn’t hard work that got him and his kin to posh Beverly Hills; it was dumb luck. He missed the squirrel but hit the jackpot.

Today, the American Dream is a bit trickier to conceptualize, let alone achieve. It conjures up images of migrant families from Central America, refugees from the Middle East and Central Asia, apparently even people from Baltimore. The 99% clawing their long, slow way up toward the 1%. Pretty long odds, if you ask me. Maybe even unreachable, as far away from fulfillment as Don Quixote’s unreachable star.

It was James Truslow Adams who first introduced us to the notion of an American Dream in his 1931 book, “The Epic of America.” In it, Adams wrote about “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Adams knew of what he wrote. His paternal grandfather had deep Virginia roots, but his father had been born in Caracas, Venezuela. (His paternal grandmother was of Basque descent.) If ancestry.com had existed back in Adams’ day, it would surely have shown his DNA to be a bit of this and that—like most of us. But unlike many of us, Adams was lucky. He came from families of considerable means so his road to Dreamland was paved if not with gold, then at least with some pretty smooth macadam. So smooth, in fact, that it took Adams to a Pulitzer Prize in 1921—pretty impressive for a Venezuelan-born historian and freelance writer.

Adams believed the engine of the American Dream was education: from vocational training to the liberal arts and the classics and everything in between. Education was the quintessential American antidote to the rigidity of the European class-based model. To Adams, a willingness to work hard and to acquire knowledge could equip anyone with wings to rise and to be sure, we can still see instances of that today. But we also see something else: people struggling, falling behind, people for whom the dream is fading, even becoming a nightmare.

I wonder what Mr. Adams would think of today’s version of the American Dream. How would he accommodate all those seeking asylum at the border, all those tired, poor souls yearning to breath free who are wading the Rio Grande instead of sailing into New York harbor? Mr. Adams died in 1949—more than a decade before the Clampetts moved to Beverly Hills or, for that matter, before the Jeffersons (another TV family) started moving on up from Queens to Manhattan. Would he be inclusive and share his American Dream with them, too? Or would his American Dream be exclusive—whiter, angrier, more prone to violence?

What about yours?

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Wise or Dead? (Part Three) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Two weeks ago, I was early to bed. Last week, I was early to rise. It follows that by now, if you believe old Ben Franklin’s adage, I should be healthy, wealthy, and wise. But hold on; wait a sec: maybe we ought to consider an alternative ending, the one penned by an equally sagacious American—James Thurber. He had a different take on the daily rhythms of our lives: “Early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy, wealthy, and dead.” Hmmm; now there’s some food for thought worth digesting.

I’m a devoted Franklinite. In large part thanks to my nutritionist daughter-in-law, I’m reasonably healthy; I must admit I’m a bit less wealthy than the Monopoly man, old Uncle Pennybags; and as for wise, that’s certainly open to debate. But I am undoubtedly alive. That said, Mr. Thurber makes a good point, perhaps the same one made by British economist John Maynard Keynes when he commented “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Perhaps not quite as coyly poetic as Mr. Thurber, but awfully hard to refute.

Keynes developed his complicated theories to explain major economic phenomena—the Great Depression and World War II, for example. He realized that even after a great storm, the ocean will eventually be flat again. While that may be a comforting thought for those who can afford a yacht in which to ride out the storm, it doesn’t do much for the rest of us kayakers who are caught up in some tempestuous short-run situations from time to time. I bet all those destitute folk out in the Oklahoma dust bowl would have surely appreciated a flat ocean sooner rather than “in the long run.”

Anyway, Ben Franklin’s more optimistic analysis of my nocturnal and diurnal habits is much more comforting: maybe, if I can continue to adhere to my daily routines, I’ll eventually hit the trifecta of health, wealth, and wisdom. To be honest, I’d take any two of the three. Were you to ask my wife, however, I’m pretty sure she would tell you that at this point in the game, wisdom is pretty much out of reach so I should be just wise enough to aim at the health and wealth targets of Poor Richard’s little ditty. At least with those two beans in hand, we wouldn’t have to keep putting off that trip to Italy we’ve been talking about for the past three years.

She’s probably right. If I were just healthy and wealthy, I could afford to be a little foolish. I’d eat the most expensive salads on the menus of all the finest restaurants in town. I’d buy Eggman all the organic tofu he could eat. My wife and I would finally get to take that trip to Italy, even fly first-class. We’d rent a villa in Tuscany or stay at the Gritti Palace Hotel in Venice or charter a yacht to cruise the Amalfi coast. We’d buy each other designer clothes and gifts for all our friends back home at every elegant store along the Via Veneto. We’d…

Wait. What? How much? Really??

Hmmm… never mind. Guess I’ll settle for wise after all.

And alive.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Early to Rise – Part Two by Jamie Kirkpatrick

If you’re a faithful reader—as most of you are—you’ll remember that last week, I was off to bed on the early side. This week—as you might imagine—I’m early to rise. I’m talking bird early; farmer early; sometimes even rooster early. Cock-a-doodle-do!

Call me a crazy lark but I always savor the first few moments of a new day: the stillness; the anticipation; the coffee. Most pre-dawn mornings, you’ll find me in my porch rocker, waiting for the sky to lighten, the birds to sing, and that coffee to perk. I admit that on some of those mornings I still dream and drool about a fresh almond croissant or one of Mistress McGlynn’s bacon-and-cheddar scones, but most days I’ve learned to make do with a healthier bowl of my yogurt, blueberries, sliced peaches, and granola concoction. Sigh.

Over here on the Right-hand Shore, dawn doesn’t come sweepin’ down the plain like the wind in “Oklahoma!” It doesn’t even creep in on little cats’ feet like Chicago fog. There’s very little fanfare, almost no crescendo; the soundtrack to our dawn is more like Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” than it is to Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” An Eastern Shore dawn just gently illuminates the day, bringing with it a daily dose of hope and the anticipation of another twenty-four hours in our little corner of paradise. And for a few minutes, I feel like it’s mine alone.

Aristotle was an early riser. So was Ben Franklin. And we all know about that fat early bird that catches the worm—not that I’m likely to be competing with said bird for worms any time soon. But I’ll admit to a certain feeling of moral superiority knowing that I’m up and at ‘em while everyone else in the house, down the street, and across town are still slumbering. But let me not judge. Feel free to roll over and catch another forty winks while I knock off another chapter in the next great American novel or hop on my bike and set off on a twenty-mile ride. OK; perhaps that last part is fake news; even if the body really were willing, the flesh is, alas, tilting to the weaker side these days.

I’m not sure how I came by this early diurnal habit, but it has become a comfortable old friend. The first hours of the day are likely to be among my most productive, although the social 5 o’clock cocktail hour often comes in a close second. I relish my early morning solitude—that first jolt of hot joe along with all those unvarnished thoughts that flow from my previous night’s dreams like boats gliding downstream on a falling tide.

My early morning routine is a lightly toasted everything bagel schmeared with peace, gratitude, and hopeful anticipation. It’s fresh, not sullied by any to-do list or incongruent thoughts or even any overnight inflammatory rhetoric from the Mad Tweeter. Oh, I’ll eventually get around to letting the hurly-burly of the world in, but for a few still moments, I’m content to stay in my own slow lane and watch the world wake up one more time.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Early to Bed (First of Three) by Jamie Kirkpatrick

 

I love to go to bed. At the end of the day, there’s nothing like that lie-down moment: the sheets are cool and fresh, my spine gratefully relaxes, there’s a good book handy, and it’s almost dark outside. That’s what I said: ‘almost dark.’ I’m as far as you can get from a night owl; 9 o’clock is late enough for me and 10 o’clock is way past my bed time; Midnight? I’ve always wondered what it’s like that late at night. Is it darker?

I vaguely remember a time when I would rendezvous with Johnny Carson but that was years ago. College, maybe. These days, I can usually make it past Jeopardy! but after that, all bets are off. Try as I might, I just can’t resist the call of high thread-count Egyptian cotton and a down pillow. You’re thinking I should be embarrassed to confess this; I think you’re just jealous that I’m getting a good eight hours…and then some.

I feel like I’m in good company—not literally, of course—when I retire early. Ben Franklin nodded off before dark, at least when he wasn’t flying his kite in a thunder-and-lightening storm. Farmers are notorious early-to-bedders, but then they have to be up before that infamous crack of dawn. I just happen to believe that when day is done and it’s time for Taps, why wait for the inevitable? So go get a good night’s sleep! You’re only going to get cranky if you stay up late or you’ll drink too much and feel terrible come morning. You’re better off counting sheep.

Or reading a good book. There’s just something so right about getting horizontal and getting back to where I left off about this time last night. If I’m really enjoying the book I’m reading, I can usually knock off at least a dozen pages before I realize I’m rereading the paragraph I just read, but most nights, a dozen pages feel more like sloughing through “War and Peace.” But that’s ok; my book is patient and will be ready and waiting for me tomorrow night.

I admit there is one problem with retiring early: on occasion, I encounter that dreaded 3 o’clock moment when I’m wide awake and the rest of the world isn’t. When that happens, I think about turning on the light and reconnecting with my book, but then I remember that I’m sharing the bed with my light-sleeping wife who probably just fell asleep a few minutes ago. That’s when I’m caught between the urge to rise and go elsewhere and the comfort of snuggling up to this lovely creature who keeps me warm on even the coldest nights. You can imagine which one of those two roads I travel.

So now you know: don’t call, text, or email me past eight pm. The phone is either off or on do-not-disturb. Whatever it is you want, it will have to wait ’til morning. But feel free to leave a message. I’ll get back to you bright and early—you’ll still be snoring when I’m on my second cup of coffee.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Hot Water Bounce by Jamie Kirkpatrick

 

My friend Cuz is known for his—shall we say—‘colorful’ language on the golf course. I wouldn’t talk to my worst enemy the way he talks to his golf ball, but every once in a while, he says something mysterious that upon reflection makes profound good sense. Like the recent time he yelled “COLD WATER BOUNCE!” at his ball in flight.

Not wishing to play the golfing fool, I wasn’t about to ask him what that meant. On we went.

A few holes later, same thing, except this time as the ball flew through the air, he started yelling “HOT WATER BOUNCE! HOT WATER BOUNCE!” I still didn’t get it. Maybe Cuz was just messing with me, but that’s not really his style. He’s got enough on his hands with his own game.

Later that day, I ran into my friend Key who knows Cuz well; in fact he’s his cousin, hence the genesis of the nickname. “I played with Cuz today,” I said. “One time, he yelled at his ball to take a ‘cold water bounce.’ Another time, he screamed ‘hot water bounce.’ What’s he talking about?”

Key looked at me. “You don’t get it?” I responded with my best blank stare. “Think about it,” he suggested. “When you walk up to the sink, where’s the cold tap? Where’s the hot tap?” It took a few seconds to sink in (so to speak), but then all of a sudden, I got it. Cold on the right; hot on the left. Cuz was asking the ball to bounce right or left depending on the situation. Duh!

As with most things that happen on a golf course, this epiphany got me thinking about the bigger game—the one we call life. Rarely in life do we ever get a straight ahead bounce. Sometimes we hope for a cold water bounce and sometimes we ask for a hot water bounce. Depends on the situation.

It seems to me that for the last couple of years, we’ve been getting an awful lot of cold water bounces. Contentious appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal benches, an increasingly isolationist foreign policy, dubious trade and tariff policies, impulsive economic decisions, disastrous environmental legislation, children in filthy cages at the border and ICE deportations, a foundering health care system, tax cuts for the wealthy, disappearing public education, the war on a free press, Twitter tirades and racist rants, even the recent vainglorious Fourth of July extravaganza in Washington, DC—all cold water bounces. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve bounced far enough to the right. I’m ready for a few hot water bounces.

The problem, of course, is that in the game of golf, it’s almost impossible to control the way the ball bounces. The type of grass on the fairways and greens, the wind, the spin on the ball, even a sprinkler head can have an awful lot to say about the way any given ball will bounce and roll. It’s that capricious quality that makes golf so exhilarating and so frustrating at the same time. But golf is only a game; our constitutional democracy certainly isn’t.

They say it all evens out in the end, that for every cold water bounce, there will be a hot water bounce. I sure hope they’re right—whoever ‘they’ are. I suppose it’s even possible that there will be a faucet bounce every once in a while, a straight ahead bounce requiring no body English to favor the ball’s trajectory, forward progress that’s good for all. What a concept! But until that happens, you can bet I’ll be leaning left, looking for a hot water bounce.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

King Corn by Jamie Kirkpatrick

At this time of year, over here on Maryland’s right-hand shore, corn is king. Sure; there are plenty of other worthy royals—soybeans, wheat, produce galore: tomatoes, cucumbers, berries, cantaloupe, onions, potatoes, squash (I could go on)—but corn is king. After all, here we are, not even a week past the fourth of July and all those royal stalks are a lot taller than knee-high, making it hard to see around country corners, but oh-so-good steaming on the dinner table at home. It’s summer’s favorite flavor, buttery hands down.

Most of the corn in our fields is zea mays, field corn that ends up as livestock fodder, ethanol, or in your breakfast cereal. When field corn matures, it will be shelled off the cob by monster machines and stored away in all those silos that dot our landscape or chopped up for silage. Maybe there will be a few leftover roasting ears to savor from all that field corn, but that’s not the corn I’m talking about here. That’s not the corn I bow down to. I pledge my fealty to sweet corn—zea mays saccharata—that naturally occurring mutation of field corn that is high in sugar content and so delicious that humans just have to eat it. However, unlike its field corn cousin, sweet corn is picked when it’s immature (its milk stage) so it can be prepared and consumed fresh as a vegetable, not a grain. Thank God for that! And while you’re at it, thank all those generous Native Americans who first shared their sweet corn (they called it ‘papoon’) with hungry European settlers back in the 18th Century.

Sweet corn contains more sugar and less starch than field corn. It comes in many varieties but the ones we know best are yellow corn (I call it butter corn), white corn (silver queen), and bi-color corn (butter and salt). Do I have a favorite? Yes; all three. Given enough butter, salt, and time, I could make a pretty good dent in a field row of sweet corn; Lord knows, I’ve tried. Sweet corn is more tender than field corn and therefore does not lend itself to mechanical harvesting. That’s why I’m often observed out on the porch shucking the ears we’ll have with dinner, making a compostable mess of husks, tassels, and silk—the detritus of yet another delicious summer evening meal.

Field corn can be fermented and turned into some pretty potent white lightening, but, of course, I wouldn’t know much about that. I do know, however, that sweet corn can make some interesting cameo appearances in forms other than ears. Just ask my friend Iffy when he’s having dessert out at Barbara’s on the Bay and she has sweet corn ice cream on the menu. If you really want to get the most out of a corn crop, you can use the cobs to stuff your mattress, or make Pappy Yokum a new pipe, or even make your own toothpaste, but I don’t recommend that. Whether you eat your corn methodically (typewriter-style) or artistically (rolling pin-style), just demolish it!

I’ve done a bit of research on the economy of sweet corn and here’s what I’ve learned: you can buy ten ears at a farm stand for about $4. If you’re shopping at your local Acme, Food Lion, or Redners, you’ll probably pay $5 for those same ten ears. Once you’re across the Bay Bridge in one of those fancy emporia in a big western-shore city, you can bet you’ll add another dollar or two to your corn bill. At least!

But you know what? A good ear of sweet corn is priceless. Please pass the butter and the salt.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Of Hydrangea and Hammocks by Jamie Kirkpatrick

As many of you undoubtedly know, I am a card-carrying citizen of my front porch. In the morning, it’s where I sniff the breeze and take that all-important first sip of coffee which is likely to define the day. At cocktail hour, it’s the place I go to relax and review the events of that same day. Before bed, it might be the appropriate venue for a wee dram or a shadowed space to just enjoy the peaceful stillness of a small town evening.

But rarely is my time on the porch solitary. A car drives by and a friend waves. Or maybe I’m joined on the porch by a neighbor out walking his dog who decides to stop for a chat—the manna of life in a town like ours. Or maybe it’s a first-time visitor to town who strolls by, fresh off her boat moored down in our new marina who stops to inquire about shopping possibilities or a place to get a bite to eat. This is the moment my wife likes to hop off her swing, gracefully taking it upon herself to be the town’s Welcome Center and Chamber of Commerce, all rolled into one tiny ball of blond energy. The nice folk she meets this way always seem to be charmed by this place—its atmosphere and amenities, its friendliness, its quaint quirkiness.

Honestly, I like the interaction of porch and street. The truth is that we’re strategically positioned: the Wine and Cheese Shop is directly across the street and we are often the beneficiaries of its custom. I wouldn’t trade our location for another, even though the porch has been known to attract a crowd morning, noon, or night, especially on a First Friday. Amid such a throng, I can take the pulse of the town without moving off my rocker, although I’m often accused of being just the opposite.
There is a rotating range of topics that gets covered on the front porch: the never-ending saga of the hospital; the new marina; the state of the menu at 98 Cannon; the town’s bandwidth—or lack thereof; town-gown relations. Is Zelda’s ever going to open? What in-the-hell is the Eastern Shore Food Lab anyway? And, by the way, what is going on behind the duck blind that’s now in front of what used to be Stam’s Drug Store? Ah, the highs and lows and mysteries of small town living.

But, as much as I like the porch, I will admit to you now that there are times when I crave some privacy, some peace and quiet, a hushed space away from the hurly-burly of the street. Fortunately, when that moment comes knocking on my front door, I have only to retreat to the backyard where, in the comfort of my linen-rope hammock, I can admire the lilies and hydrangea of this spectacular summer. Lately, I’ve been joined in my retreat by a young rabbit that seems to have adopted us recently and by a tiny hummingbird that doesn’t seem at all embarrassed to be sipping the blossoms of our garden labor. These intruders don’t bother me in the slightest: they’re entertaining, polite, quiet. They don’t seem to mind me any more than I mind them. Plus, other than a carrot or two or some sugar-water, they’re not eating and drinking me out of house and home like my porch people. (OK; that’s over the top. By now, you all know I’m happy to replenish my stock anytime. After all, I only have to walk across the street!)

But here’s something to consider: we all have our public facades and our private spaces. Sometimes we are the people we want others to see and sometimes we just want to retreat into ourselves and drift away. There is that yin and yang in each of us, a personable front porch dweller as well as a seeker of solitude in the peaceful oasis out back. To truly enjoy the one, we need the other.

You all agree, don’t you? If not, we can talk about it on the porch sometime.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Glory in the Details by Jamie Kirkpatrick

 

“Think big,” they told us. “The bigger, the better,” they said. “See the big picture,” they advised. Well, maybe…

But we all know better. That big picture they would have us see is made up of a million little pixels. Glory is in the details.

I’m certain this is not news—fake or otherwise—to any of you. The sums of our lives are the minute-by-minute totals of our daily routines. The details matter; they create depth, texture, color. They make us authentic. Unique. Even Ernest Hemingway, our safari guide to the art of living large and living macho, knew this: “Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguishes one man from another.” Hardly profound, Papa, just rarely observed.

It takes practice to appreciate detail. It’s so easy to gloss over things (I know because I do it all the time), but if we can just slow down for a moment and take that (dare I say it?) big, deep breath, we might actually smell all the aromas in that crimson rose that hangs over my neighbor’s white picket fence. Forget the forest, forget the trees; look for the vein pattern in each leaf and you just might find the secret to curing cancer.

But there is also a curse to living in the zone of detail. My wife’s palate is absurdly sophisticated. Her taste buds are always on high alert; I can’t slip anything by her. Who knew that ketchup can only made by Herr Heinz or that mayonnaise must only come in a Hellman’s jar? Don’t even think about substituting a pat of margarine for butter, or adding even a pinch of tarragon to the spice mix. She may be a good Catholic girl, but her salt better be kosher. The other day I made a vinaigrette salad dressing and added the tiniest drop of honey mustard to the recipe. A touch of sweetness, or so I thought. She tasted, sniffed, and put down her fork. “Did you put honey mustard in this?” she asked. “No,” I lied. “Don’t you like it?” “No (pause), it’s fine. It’s just a little sweeter than usual.” She proceeded to eat the salad—most of it, anyway.

But I won’t be deterred. I’ll still practice the ancient alchemy of distilling the water of my life from the purest of streams, using only the finest barley. I’ll toast the mash over a fire with just a hint of peat and age it in oak casks finished with rum and port. I’ll call the finished product whisky—no “e.” I am, after all, a Scot!

And if, by chance, I take a wee dram or two of my elixir and begin to see this seemingly drab, grey world through rose-colored spectacles, I’ll try to savor each precious moment as if it were my last, which (God forbid!) it won’t be because after all is said and done…

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

A Helianthus Morning by Jamie Kirkpatrick

 

Out in Fairlee, my friend Smokey annually exchanges a wide swath of his corn crop for a patch of helianthus—sunflowers. It’s a calculated economic exchange: there assuredly will be some loss of income from the value of the corn crop, but hopefully, that will be more than offset by the income derived by hunters. Wait: hunters like sunflowers? Yes, they do; at least indirectly. You see, sunflowers produce seeds which are prized by doves and hunters like to shoot doves so they (the hunters, not the doves) pay Smokey a fee to hunt that portion of his farm and everyone is happy. Well, not everyone: I guess the doves aren’t happy, but then that’s life: not everyone can be happy all the time. To know happiness is to know sadness…

But hunting season doesn’t begin until September so on this particular unseasonably cool morning in June, the sunflower field is quiet, seemingly asleep under a soft quilt of silver mist. The tall, gangly flowers are dozing, their heads drooping in the pre-dawn stillness. But as light begins to gather in the east, one senses an awakening: like congregants coming out of prayer, the sunflowers begin to stretch their necks and lift their heads, searching out the source of their being, that orb that animates their existence, same as us.

I said it was quiet, but that’s not really true. The stalks are gently rustling in a faint breeze which produces (in my mind at least) a soundtrack to this early morning scene: it’s the first few bars of Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” the tone poem inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s novel of the same name. (You and I know it better as the haunting opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The film premiered in 1968 and to this day, the opening scene and accompanying score still give me goosebumps.) Fortunately, out among the sunflowers, my mind mercifully changes its tune and now I’m hearing “Here Comes the Sun,” the Beatles much brighter ditty from Abbey Road which makes me feel that everything will indeed be all right. Whew!

By now, the sun is almost over the tops of the trees on the eastern border of the field. It’s early in the growing season, so the sunflowers in Smokey’s patch still tilt their yellow heads in the sun’s direction. This sun-tracking phenomenon—heliotropism for the botanists among us—lasts for two-to-three months or until the flowers reach their mature height of six-to-ten feet at which point they have decided that east is their direction of preference—no surprise there.

It just so happens that in addition to botanists, mathematicians love sunflowers because the florets, the tiny flowers that make up the disc of the large sunflower, are arranged in a natural spiral that forms a Fibonacci sequence, a sequence of numbers (beginning with zero) in which each number—or in this case, each tiny floret—is the sum of the two numbers (florets) preceding it. This natural phenomenon can even lead a real mathematician to the ecstasy of the golden ratio, but that is way beyond my ken so I’ll just leave it at that. (You can Google www.mathisfun.com if you’re really interested.)

As my friend Key so often asks me, “Is this going somewhere?” Yes; well, sort of. This week, I’ll be going over to the Western Shore to work with a group of rising high school seniors who are all facing in a similar direction—a direction called “College.” We’re specifically working on composing the dreaded college essay—now more euphemistically called the “personal statement”—a composition intended to distinguish the personal qualities and interests of one highly qualified applicant from another. It’s a tricky business because these college applicants, like sunflowers, are at once inherently beautiful and intricately complex.

College admissions? Again? Oh dear! I think I hear the opening strains of “Thus Spake Zarathustra.”

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

Where There’s Smoke by Jamie Kirkpatrick

Another Tea party is in the books and what a spectacular one it was! The weather did more than cooperate; it made the bands sound better, the musketry and cannon fire louder, and the raft race zanier than ever. Which is how it should be. I must admit that I rue all those prickly insurance regulations which apparently were not in effect here in 1774 but now preclude flinging redcoats into the Chester, but nevertheless Tea Party is still a jolly good show and damn good business for the town, too.

Which brings me to the subject of this week’s Musing: the Mueller Report. Wait; what? That’s right: the kafkaesque saga, two years in the making, that was recently published by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and Company exploring (among other things) Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election, allegations of conspiracy between Team Putin and Team Trump, and the possibility (probability?) that the “winner” of that election conspired to obstruct justice by covering up various nefarious deeds he and his cohorts have committed in the months (now years, sigh!) since. I admit I have not read the 400+ pages of Mr. Mueller’s opus, but by now it seems pretty clear that a) Putin and friends did (successfully) seek to influence the outcome of the 2016 election and b) there are clouds and clouds of smoke obscuring the issue of obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump and his shipmates aboard the USS Fools.

Every teacher of English I know abhors the double negative but nevertheless, Mr. Mueller got away with one: “If we had confidence that the President did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” That’s barely a decent sentence let alone a ringing endorsement of Presidential innocence. To my ear, that sounds more like “this room is full of smoke, but sorry, I’m not allowed to call the fire department.”

To make matters worse, our owlishly bespectacled, jowly, and saturnine Attorney General, one of the President’s lawyerly wagon masters that now has a team of conestogas encircling the White House, has interpreted Mr. Mueller’s statement to mean that smoke is just smoke; “Move along people, no flames here.” In other words, Mr. Mueller not only can’t call the fire department, but also the fire chief has just turned off the water.

According to Mr. Mueller’s interpretation of Department of Justice policy, a sitting President cannot be indicted or prosecuted because a) the wheels of government would come off the rails (they aren’t already?) and b) because the Constitution provides another method for investigating Presidential iniquity, i.e. impeachment.

Which means that Mr. Mueller’s all-smoke-no-fire report now passes the whole sorry investigation along to Congress like a hot potato. If impeachment is the means by which we must determine whether or not the house is on fire, we might as well set out our lawn chairs and watch the fireworks. As every elementary school kid and Speaker Pelosi knows, while it’s the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives that would bring the charges or articles of impeachment against the President, it’s the Republican-controlled Senate that would try the case and determine its outcome. Good luck with that jury!

As Stan might say to Ollie, “What a sorry mess you’ve gotten us into!” Unfortunately, this is tragedy, not comedy. I’d like to think that impeachment would bring more facts to light so that we, the American people, could clearly see if there is any fire or if it’s indeed all smoke, but alas, I doubt there will be much, if any, clarity in the months to come.

It seems to me the only way out of this mess is a clear and honest outcome to the 2020 election. Given the likelihood of ongoing interference in our democratic process and the eye-watering haze generated by all the smoke out there, that’s a lot to hope for. it’s going to be a smoldering seventeen months.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com

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