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Ambler, No. 39 [On An Evening with A Cat]

Let Age, not Envy, draw Wrinkles on thy Cheeks. — Sir Thomas Browne

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Those few men who have been blessed to enter my abode know that it functions under one main rule. At no point will a television or cable or the internet ever enter. I have written about this extensively elsewhere and wish not to belabor the moral. I do wish, before I get into what I'm actually going to discuss, to state that it is entirely possible (and even recommended for one's spiritual and psychological health) to live without a T.V., cable, or the internet. I don't even keep my computer here because computers are the very essence of evil. Now, to my point. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to be cat-sitting for my neighbor. I've gotten to know this cat over the past half year or so, and I must say he is growing on me. In fact, I used to be very much against cats in general until I met him. But his natural cat characteristics are very intriguing. Let me explain.


A few weeks ago, I was cat-sitting a neighbor's cat. Never mind the fact that she came home to find her cat dehydrated and possibly anorexic; mind that I endeavored and succeeded in keeping that cat entertained for nearly fifteen minutes. On one of those nights that week, I was sitting at home, watching the majestic tabby cat sit like a king in my rocker, as if he was the rightful owner of the place. Recently, I have been attempting to live a life that is more rounded in the sense that I do things other than read and write. As I've mentioned in a recent post, there is nothing worse than that class of people who call themselves writers or readers just for the sake of being a labeled a "writer" or "reader." There is, of course, nothing wrong with being either. In fact, men should be active in both as mere hobbies or practices. But writing and reading are not ends; they are means. And the man who believes he's doing the world a favor by being a writer for the sake of the title should probably stop writing and go find something to write about.

It certainly is not difficult. If you're a miserable modern who finds every aspect of life depressing because "all is detached from meaning," then you may be hard-pressed to write. But as I was saying, and I seem to keep distracting myself, I sought to do something that evening besides finish The Secret Garden, and so I stood up on my two feet and began exploring the room for things to fix. I was nearly to the point of breaking something so that I had an excuse to use my toolbox when the cat, who had been napping, perked up and started watching me. I've never quite understood why cats are so interested when we change activities, but this one surely was that night. Finally, I remembered that my old alarm clock had been broken, and grabbing it, I began the attempt at fixing it.

There were no electrical issues with the clock, but strangely enough the button used to turn off the alarm had been pushed so many times, and with such vigor and force, that it was lodged deep into the clock. Now, I was under the impression that I could simply unscrew the bottom of the radio, pull the button out, and reassemble it. So I grabbed a screwdriver and began the task. As with most tasks that look easy when more capable men do them, this one gave me no small vexation. The screws couldn't come out so easily as expected, and after they finally did, I found that actually detaching the bottom of the clock was nigh impossible. Many a "crack!" and "snap!" was sent into the room as I placed the screwdriver between the upper and lower portions of the clock, trying to pry it apart. And all this alerted the cat, and he flew off his rocker, staring at my actions as if I was committing a murder. However, not wanting to snap the plastic completely, I soon gave up the whole notion of fixing the clock after about twenty minutes, and the cat stared on throughout the episode.

But then I stared at my half-destroyed clock, sitting there, not put together, not entirely broken. And the scene of my mangled clock intrigued me.

For as I and the cat stared at this clock, I began to have an odd moment. That particular clock had been with me for probably the last ten years. It was the first thing I heard many a morning, and though this is unfortunate, it is no less significant. But then it occurred to me that it all ended so very quickly. One day I'm using the clock as I had been for years, the next day it lay mutilated, soon to be placed in the trash. It is certainly not in any materialistic sense that I found I was attached to my clock. But in a more metaphysical vein, I thought about how easily it often is to discard our material items. I wonder if this is how it ought to be. If each item we own is mere utility and not some interesting object we can't explain, I fear we'll remain the modern materialists we are. That is, each object we own is not a bad knife or a comfortable chair. Nay the knife that won't cut is the knife of the house; it is the knife that gives us both vexation and food. The chair we fall asleep in may not go with the couch; it may be old and tattered, needing to be replaced; but it is still the chair we used for this period of our lives. And to treat it with mere utility is to do it a grave disservice and is more grounds for being labeled a materialist than even buying a new one. 


So it was that I began to say goodbye to my clock; yet the entire time I took it apart, the cat watched with eager expectation. Having jumped off his rocker, the cat looked with wide eyes as I tried t fix what I was only further destroying. Perhaps this is why cats are growing on me. For a cat does not cease from it's ability to wonder at new things. The slightest sound will cause it to perk up its ears; movement from its master must be found out; if the man happens to be writing, the cat must lay on the papers.

But what gets me is how cats can be equally intrigued with the routine and old. Of course, a cat has no ability to think about such things as routine or old, but it is still refreshing to know that some of the things that rouse a cat's attention are not the new things so much as the old, those that are done each day. It is unfortunate; indeed, it is the disaster of man's state that he grows bored so easily. If anything should be exciting, it should not be the new and extraordinary, for that seems almost too obvious and ordinary a thing to find exciting. What should surprise and excite is that which continues to happen over and over again. If a cat were to jump off his rocker and suspend in the air for thirty seconds before landing, I would be very surprised and even possibly terrified. But then I would quickly chalk the instance to mere random chance if it never happened again. However, if every cat in the country began floating in the air after jumping out of rockers, and if this peculiarity continued for twenty years, I would have to assess the possibilities. It may be reasoned that some mastermind is behind a cat conspiracy, in which case I must wonder at the complexity of cats and their god. Or I may still cling to the theory that the floating cats themselves are still operating by mere chance. Of course, if I chose the latter, I must explain why none of the cats does not take flight completely by mere chance. I think that over the years, I would either have to wonder at the phenomenon every time it happened or began to believe that it was only I who was off my rocker.

Sam Snow,
Written at The Ole Midshipman,
A tabby cat watching,
Sunday, January 18, 2015

Transcribed by the author,
With much stress,
Monday, January 19, 2015

Painting: "Tabby Cat"
Charles Edward Stuart,
Oil on canvas, 1901


Ambler, No. 38 [On A Walk to The Post Office]

But to be content with Death may be better than to desire it. — Sir T. Browne

No. 38This morning I walked to the post office. Post offices are rather ugly things. The outside is usually some type of brick building. The inside offers little condolence. Much like the DMV, these government employees are commanded not to smile, laugh, or bless but must do their work with a cold severity that expresses seriousness. Of course, not all postmen are solemn Sally's. I once met a postman who couldn't help but crack jokes. Why, one time I sauntered into his domain with a particular package addressed to a particular university. The bubbly man took the package, and as they are wont to do, began submitting the destination information.

"Eh? What's this?" he chimed. "Yer sending it to the wrong school son!"

"Huh?" I replied. "The wrong one!?" I was, for half a second, rather dismayed. For the contents of the package were for an application, and, well, I had sent multiple out to various colleges. Then, of course, it dawned on me that this jolly man certainly had no clue what he was talking about. How could he? But it then clicked that the man was clearly a fan of the rival, and he thought I should be sending packages to them instead.

It must, I think, be somewhat interesting to work in a post office. To see all the thousands and thousands of places where letters are sent. Post offices are great buildings of communication. They are not some hand held device. They do not speak there in emoticons or epigrammatic sentence fragments. The postmen are perhaps the last great connection to a world once known. Postmen used to be carriers of death or life. They once saw the faces of loved ones who found out their lovers had died or the faces of new grandparents. They now see holiday cards and presents. The postman is the great middleman of all true relationships that defy modern communication and contact each other through lengthy epistles. Sadly, no one does this anymore. But as I was making my way up to the post office this morning, I couldn't help but notice how it was the ugliest building around. But why is this? Why are not these grand buildings that symbolize man's great desire to communicate across these lands by the most natural means not erected as tall stone buildings like castles? Why is not everyone who enters laughing and singing and downright joyful about the incredible mystery they are part of? Why does it not surprise us that a mere handing of a letter to a probably generally incompetent man almost always reaches its destination? And why, for the sake of all things holy, the eagle? Why does not every post office erect a giant statue, overlaid with gold, of a mighty pigeon with an all-too important missive grasped in its right claw?


Just yesterday I sent another application to a different college for a different purpose, and I did so by way of fax. Naturally, I was skeptical. I asked the receptionist how it worked, and performing the action, she politely said the man on the other end would receive it in his fax machine shortly. this didn't satisfy me. I stood, confused and bewildered for a second. Then I simply let out a "huh! I'm always amazed those things actually work." Now, amaze is an understatement, for the inner workings of the fax machine transcends all comprehension. that a man can be sitting at his desk, minding his own business, and—BANG!—my resume flies out of some haunted machine in the corner and lands on his desk. Incredible. It is one thing for an email or a text message to end up on his desk. Those things aren't real. They are fictional messages that exist in a fictional space, the ether. But the paper copy of my resume is a very real (and depressing) thing. One can hold it. And that some man a thousand miles away was holding (and perhaps scratching his head) was too much for me.

And this is why the post office is such a marvelous place. Men, carrying and delivering letters to other men. The only thing that could make the postal services better is if mailmen personally delivered my mail to me, shouting, "Delivery!" and rushing up to me in some intense fashion as if the letter, be it a mere bank statement, were a matter of life or death. Wouldn't it be grand if postmen took their jobs with a  seriousness that did not produce solemnity but gaiety? There is a seriousness that implies the man doing the task is the main line of defense for its getting accomplished. There is a seriousness that is all too serious about one's self and not nearly serious enough about the task at hand. But there is another seriousness that forgets about the self and thinks only of the task. Delivering a man's mail in the cold and snow does not become a nuisance, it becomes an adventure, once the man forgets about his wet shoes and red nose. One man saves the princess from the dragon because he is the man to do the job. Another man saves the princess because that is the noble and right thing to do. And this sentiment can and ought to be applied to any task one is doing. I write these ambling posts with the spirit of a serious essayist who knows full well that he is an altogether incompetent chap for the task.


In any case, I was making my way to the post office this morning, and the spirit of adventure was upon me. Everything around us this time of year is dead. Or I should more correctly state that everything around us looks as if it were dead. Everything but the snow. And well the wind—a dreadful thing in these parts—certainly felt alive. And I guess I should mention that I heard a bird up in the trees, singing its lonesome winter song to no one in particular. And what is more alive than someone singing without a purpose? And then, of course, I saw my own breath, and is it not alarming how easily one can perceive  their own breathing in the bitter cold? And I must also mention that the sun is out this morning, and that life-giving force has been on holiday recently. And is a man not more alive than we he returns from holiday? And then, of course, other men were out walking about, not as if they were dead, but as if they were rather alive. A man walks with a certain purpose in the cold, for the lively wind freezes his faces and reminds him he is very much alive.

And in fact one of those ambling men was carrying a couple of packages, and I spied him from afar on my way out of the post office, after I had sent out yet another application to yet another college. Well, I went a different way this time as I left, and there was that man carrying two mid-sized packages. Immediately, my curiosity led me to wonder what might be in the boxes and where they might be heading. The possibilities flew through my brain, and the thoughts must have left a welcoming expression on my face. For as the man passed, he simply smiled and said, "Good morning." Now, we moderns never say "good morning" anymore because good implies some value, and we generally hate the mornings. Yet this man had the spirit to declare the morning good. Well, I say. I don't know what he had in those packages or what his intentions were. But I can say this. He was sending something by mail, by the old means of communication our grandfathers relied on. And this is a very good thing, for it is a seriously jolly task.

Sam Snow,
Written in my office,
Kansas State University,
January 9, 2015

Transcribed by the author,
Retiring from such a task,
January 12, 2015

Painting: "The Postman"
By Thomas Liddall Armitage,
Oil on canvas, 1891


Oak and Acorn


For Jim

The meal might have been the same
as the several thousand before it
and the several thousand to come
if not for the table—near breadth
of the dining room, finished pine
end to end, the same as the chairs
surrounding it, a luster lost to storage
restored in winter light, a craft
of the man who sits across from me,
the father, his muscled hand
around a cold glass of milk,
the callous and scar of shop-worn fingers
stained into the skin, as though his flesh
wore a coating of the work: the measuring,
the sawing, the assembling,
the sanding to smooth, the other steps
only a woodworker-poet could hope to name.
His arms rest on an edge he’s known
since its first rounding, like a parent
who remembers a newborn,
watching as it swelled and shrank
with the heat and the cold,
with the seasons blown in
beyond a picture window,
with each stretch to pat grandson heads
as they crawled, seedlings,
bark thin and green, until grown
to a sapling height. A place of things built
and things begot, surveyed now
by their maker, the shaping he recalls:
gnarled knots planed into curled shaving,
strips of the blemish
swept to fall with the sawdust,
his finest carpentry.

Bryn Homuth
January 8, 2015

"In the Carpenter's Shop"
Oil on Canvas - c. 1907
Alfred Aaron Wolmark 


Ambler, No. 37 [On the Birds That Rise Early]

He is happily seated who lives in Places whose Air, Earth, and Water, promote not the Infirmities of his weaker Parts, or is early removed into Regions that correct them. -- Sir Thomas Browne

(c) National Trust, Polesden Lacey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThough the holidays afford us with much joy and cheer, I must confess one minor drawback, and that is the modern party. Now, depending on how one defines a party, I am not necessarily against parties. If, for instance, the party consists of six or seven (eight becomes a crowd) men sitting around a fire smoking pipes and having a true conversation, then I am all for partying. If it consists of multiple family members gathered around a large table eating food, I will gladly partake. But the common notion of the party is altogether repulsive to me. In these torture chambers, no fewer than twenty people show up. they play music at volumes which make it nigh impossible to converse. A man nearly loses his voice five minutes in, for he must scream at whomever he is talking to. And even when that unfortunate man is understood, his tone rarely is. And thus his jokes too regularly fall flat. And the only thing worse than falling flat on your face is having your jokes fall flat. It is a rare talent who can both scream at the top of his lungs and deliver a decent, dead-panned joke. It is next to impossible. And even if such a man does exist, that peculiar talent is largely wasted at these modern shindigs. For the types of individuals who partake in them don't get the jokes in the first place.

I say, if a man cannot be humorous at a party, where ought he be humorous? Perhaps that is why many a good joke is said in a solemn setting, for people are actually listening. But I intend not to belabor this point. I merely wanted to state that the holidays are in some ways depressing because of these parties. This year I attended two—one a Christmas party and the other in honor of the new year. Now, as far as parties go, the latter was far superior, though it celebrated a worse cause, of which I will rant about in a moment. But I must first explain that a peculiar thing happened at each party. Each one consisted of people in my generation as well as older folk, and at each I unintentionally gravitated and mingled toward the older folk. At a Christmas party, I chatted with a gentleman in his late sixties or early seventies about bird watching and trees. At a New Year's party, I attempted to describe the differences between Mennonites and the Amish to a middle-aged woman. Now, on my journey home from that New Year's party—which was far superior, as parties go—I recollected to a friend that I find it far easier to converse with the older generations than my own. But upon further reflection, I do not think it is because my generation misunderstands me, in some egocentric way of looking at the matter. Nay, I do not really think that my generation thinks for two seconds about me. I think the real disconnect is that I do not understand my generation. And one thing I do not understand is why they insist on completely disregarding Poor Richard and staying up for all hours of the evening. They insist on sleeping in as late as possible, almost as if it was morally repulsive to wake up at all.


I Say the celebration of New Year's is really a celebration of tyranny against those of us who wish to go to bed early. It seems to be that one time of year where night owls lord the bed time over early birds. It is the one night of the year where a man feels guilty about going to bed at a decent hour. He even feels more guilty the closer he gets to midnight, as if by quarter-till he has not served his time enough. But he must "welcome the new year," as if it was some weary traveler who could not find his room lest we held his hand and led him to it, as if everyone had to lead him there. Yet for most of my generation the celebration is mixed with too much alcohol, and even if the new year were some traveler from a distant land, the drunks would probably only lead him to a bed with a person already in it.

Now, if we are really going to make men feel guilty for going to bed at a decent hour on New Year's, we ought to be more rational about it. What with all the carousing and what not, everyone is either sloshed or nearly snoring by midnight, and the new year's greeting is really full of half-hearted enthusiasm and incoherence. If we were to truly "great the new year" with some pep and zeal, I propose we all go to bed at nine, wake up at five till that hallowed hour, and scream, yell, holler, hoot, bang, clang, chime, whistle, moan, crow, bellow, blow, and buzz until five after the hour, at which time he will be fully and enthusiastically welcomed. I would then propose we go right back to sleep, so as not to keep the weary traveler up.


The benefits of getting some early shut-eye have been documented so often that it would be mere redundancy to list them here. I must add something to the list, however. The real issue with New Years' celebrations is not only that we great him half-heartedly; it is also that the next day—indeed the majority of the day, we walk around like zombies. The drunks celebrate New Years, not be welcoming him but by trying to kill themselves. One might think they don't actually want to see the new year. Now, as I pen this, it is New Year's Day, and I woke up four hours past my ideal hour because I waited up for him last night. Of course, the whole time I was waiting up on 2015, I was hanging out with 2014 (whom I did not wait up for last year). The point is this: I lost four hours of my life this morning because I spent it in a (very sober, but sleepy) haze last night. The point is that early risers are often considered odd, and I think I am beginning to understand why. In a modern world that despises life and embraces some materialistic nihilism as the non-meaning of their existence, it is no wonder that early risers are despised. An early bird may not actually get the worm. Many an early bird does not get the worm. But the early bird will always see the worm, or at least be able to hunt the earth for it. It is not just that an early riser does not just get something others don't. The early riser rises before the day, and sees, hears, smells, tastes, and feels life. That is, men stay up late because they are bored with life and know not what to do with it; but men rise before the sun because they cannot wait for life to begin again. They go to bed early because to them it is the necessary step to a vibrant reawakening. They understand a man must die if he is to be born again. They understand that in many ways the beginning of a thing is superior the end. They understand that in order to reach a beginning an end must take place: That sunrises are nice but sunsets are necessary for them to occur. They do not see the world as dreary and drab, full of nonsense and weariness; they see the world as full of meaning, vibrancy, and joy. And if the early birds are to be discriminated against once a year for being joyful, I say we should return the favor. There ought to be a holiday where every man is forced out of bed before the sun rises so he can (for once in his life) great that mighty and glorious star. If all men are going to be forced to disdain life once a year, we ought to celebrate it with every morning we are given. The dawn, truly, is like a dead-panned joke. In our initial weariness, we may not think the birds are telling jokes, but if we listen closely, we may begin to perceive they are not just singing. They are laughing.

Sam Snow,
Written at The Ole Midshipman,
January 1, 2015

Transcribed by the Author,
With a heavy heart,
January 7, 2015

Painting: "An Old Man Sleeping by a Fireside Attended by a Maidservant"
By Quiringh van Brekelenkam,
Oil on panel, n.d. 


Young Twins Watch an Accordion

For R and N

seated arm’s length from the keyboard,
a boy and girl, patient faces
alike and different, jaws unhinged
in transfixion, rapt in stare.
The player’s fingers
traverse among sharp, flat,
natural; theirs twitch, imagine
the wealth of grown dexterity,
reach to walk up keys like stairs,
the tireless climb of wonder,
the bellows’ breath in squeeze
and stretch, like a muscle flexed
and released,
like the swell of their mother’s lungs
from inside the womb,
a piece of their beginning
interlaid with the wood, the reeds,
the lacquered shell,
the one instrument, two hands,
a symbiosis in ongoing duet.

Bryn Homuth
January 1, 2015 

"Boy with Accordion"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Italian School