By Jack Sheedy
“I have much more to say, more than you can now bear.” - John 16:12
This universe began around 14 billion years ago.
On a Tuesday, I believe.
Meanwhile, this blog began ten years ago.
Just after lunchtime.
In that sense, I have a lot of catching up to do.
And man, am I hungry.
I have been busy of late – January, February, and March compiling and editing my new book (with Jim Coogan, titled Cape Cod Collected, now in stores), and April, May, and June working on a Cape Cod history newspaper supplement (again, with Jim Coogan, titled Summerscape, publishing near the end of June). What a shameless plug!
During those months I managed just three Off-the-Shelf blog entries – one each in January, February, and March – and a couple of starts in April and May that never reached fruition (one about doing my taxes and one on time travel). I’ve been searching for a theme for this year, figuring my muse, Thomas J. McSheey, was played out. I put some ideas down on the page – one being a series of treatise written with my Dachshund, Willie, but Willie wouldn’t cooperate - I think he was holding out for more dog treats (his preferred method of payment). And, besides, lacking an opposable thumb he had difficulty holding the No. 2 pencil.
Yet, as John related in his Gospel, I feel I have much more to say. If you can bear it.
Perhaps the best place to begin is at the beginning.
According to the Bible, in the beginning there was Heaven and Earth. According to Science, in the beginning there was Hydrogen and Helium. Which meant that way back in those early days Adam and Eve must have been rather buoyant and spoke in very high voices.
To follow the natural progression of logic, the next element created must have been polyester, for as soon as the honeymoon was over, and Eve had that encounter with the serpent at the apple tree, she and Adam found themselves woefully underdressed and in need of a wardrobe. So, they ventured to a local shopping mall and were soon fully clothed – Adam in a wide-collared unbuttoned shirt and bellbottoms, Eve in a halter-neck and rhinestone-studded slacks. Which all goes to prove that Religion and Science can coexist, and that clothing styles hadn’t changed much between Genesis and the 1970s.
In the early days – during the sans clothing period – Adam and Eve couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Everything was new and exciting. But eventually, with the arrival of children and the added pressures of everyday life, the physical side of their relationship began to wane. Adam threw himself into his work as a tax accountant and Eve took a part-time job in the school system and headed up the local PTA. In their spare time, Adam spent more time on the golf course and Eve took oil painting classes at the community college. Life chugged along, from mortgage payment to mortgage payment, from car payment to car payment, working 50 weeks a year and vacationing each summer at a little cottage they rented on the Red Sea.
After a time, Cain and Abel attended state university and afterwards, each went their separate way – Cain becoming a dentist and raising a family, Abel becoming a floral arranger and opening a shop with his partner. Adam and Eve, now in their middle age, found themselves empty-nesters. Adam took up pipe smoking while Eve joined a book club. Adam joined a men’s group while Eve took up knitting. Adam carved duck decoys in his garage while Eve attended yoga at the community center. It was all rather ho-hum.
Until one day… (We’ll continue this next time)
Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Cod Collected and Cape Odd. He has written the Off-the-Shelf blog since 2005.
By Jack Sheedy
I provide here the introduction to a biography I’m finishing up on my favorite poet, Thomas J. McSheey, about whom I’ve been writing this Off-the-Shelf blog over the past decade. I figured St. Patrick’s Day was a good day to post this particular entry about my research on McSheey, the mysterious Professor X.Y. Zed, and the even more mysterious woman in the Irish wool sweater.
Indeed, very little is known about the “lunatic poet” Thomas J, McSheey. And yet, his legend lives on at the pubs and eateries in the countryside surrounding Stonycliff College in North Weston, Massachusetts where he attended classes and where he eventually taught classes as an adjunct professor. Every month or so a new story is attributed to him, one story atop another atop another until his identity has become a composite of many imaginations and amalgamations.
One person who actually knew him, and who apparently admired him, took the time and effort to write down what he knew, or what he had heard, or perhaps what he himself had fabricated about McSheey. He also took the time and effort to collect McSheey’s varied writings – poems, essays, short stories, hymns, letters, shopping lists, etc – and to store all this information in a safe spot to be discovered all these many years later.
As mysterious as McSheey was, his researcher was an even bigger mystery, identified only by his monikers, “Professor X.Y. Zed,” or “Professor X.Y.Z.,” or simply “X.Y.Z.,” presumably an employee at Stonycliff who fancied himself somewhat of an intellect. In fact, it is believed that “Professor Zed” was the pseudonym for long-time college janitor Edward “Ned” Xavier, who had a keen interest that bordered on obsession when it came to the Catholic college alumnus, and later adjunct professor, McSheey.
Xavier, it was said, spent long hours after work in the college library, scribbling away with a No. 2 pencil on what would become the only known biographical research on the little-known 20th century poet, writer, and thinker. Years later, when these handwritten pages were unearthed in the library attic, the thought arose to use the papers as research material toward producing a proper biography. Unfortunately, with Xavier long since deceased, and with no supporting documentation and no one willing or able to step forward to shed light on the life of McSheey, there was no way of verifying the material’s accuracy and authenticity so the project was eventually shelved, or rather, boxed up and hidden away in the aforementioned attic for many more years.
Not long ago all this changed. At that time, as I was sampling the local brew at a certain North Weston pub during open-mike night, someone stood up and read one of McSheey’s poems – I believe it was “Tales of a Seaside Inn.” That reading got me thinking about McSheey – I had only heard rumors – and eventually I found myself at the Stonycliff College library inquiring about the “lunatic poet,” as he was called by those who didn’t know better. It was rumored that the library still held his papers. After being handed off from one librarian to another and another, each confessing ignorance, I was finally introduced to an older woman wearing an Aran cardigan sweater – an ancient woman of books, a former alumna and now library volunteer – who nodded knowingly and then, slowly, led me to a room in the far upper reaches of the old section of the building. Searching through a desk drawer, she located a set of long-forgotten keys, and trying each one eventually opened a wooden door that led to a cavernous storage room. She emerged ten minutes later carrying a banker’s box full of papers, placed it upon the desk, and then re-entered the attic room for another box, and then another. Three boxes containing a haphazard arrangement of paperwork.
What was I getting myself into?
I spent the rest of that rainy afternoon reading this and that – nothing was in any kind of order, and very little made much sense. Hours passed. As darkness pressed against the chamber’s lone window I arose, stretched, and locating the older woman in the cardigan, asked if I might return on the following day to take another look. She indicated that that would be fine, and that she would leave the boxes out, in the room, on the table, as no one ever came up to this ancient part of the library anymore and therefore they would not be disturbed.
Having nothing particular to do, being recently laid off from a marketing copywriter position and now collecting an unemployment check, I decided to research McSheey with an eye toward possibly producing a biography on the misunderstood writer. No such biography existed. Actually, no one seemed at all interested in the life and works of this little-known scribbler of words. Heck, I didn’t even know if I could get such a biography published. Who would print it? Who would buy it? Who would care?
Strangely, the only person who seemed to show any degree of interest was the library volunteer – the older woman in the Aran cardigan. When I arrived on that second day, and as I sat down at the desk, and as I rolled up my sleeves to tackle the first box, I noticed the slightest smile emerge upon her wrinkled face. It was a smile of satisfaction, as if I was about to right a wrong that was committed years ago, back when the memory of this man, this writer, this poet, faded into obscurity. It was as if I was exhuming a long-deceased corpse, to determine cause of death, perhaps uncovering foul play, and by doing so, providing its soul with eternal rest.
The project proved daunting. The material was indeed haphazard and disjointed and lacking in verifiable proof. There were gaps, missing years, inconsistencies, inaccuracies, dead ends, and an overall feeling that some of it was made up, fabricated. Hell, there were at least half a dozen mentions of McSheey’s death, and each circumstance was different. It was difficult to known what was factual, what was fictitious, and what was a little bit of both. Even dear “Prof. Zed” displayed his sense of confusion, and doubt.
In the end I arranged the material as best I could, editing all the while, “Professor X. Y. Zed’s” words and Thomas J. McSheey’s words, alike, not quite knowing where Zed’s words ended and where McSheey’s words began, and vice versa. It was all very fluid, moving back and forth, without definite boundaries, and as I stated above, lacking in proof.
So, I present it here as I found it, tidied up somewhat for the reader’s benefit, in its original essay format, some two hundred seemingly random entries in total, linked somewhat according to subject. In so doing, I will allow the reader to decide was is real, what is unreal, who is Professor X. Y. Zed, and, ultimately, who is Thomas J. McSheey.
[To learn more about McSheey's life and works, I invite readers to scan back through a dozen years of Off-the-Shelf blog entries.]
Jack Sheedy, who describes himself as a "working class writer," is the author of six books, including Cape Odd. His latest book, Cape Cod Collected, written with co-author Jim Coogan, is being published next month. It is their fifth collaborative effort.
By Jack Sheedy
Musical accompaniment: “Ticket to the Moon” by ELO (from the 1981 album, Time)*
“This isn’t the future.
I’ve seen the future and this isn’t it.
Let me rephrase...
In the past, I received a brief glimpse of the future.
And today’s world is not the future I glimpsed.
Let me start again...”
- Thomas J. McSheey (written in 1939,
shortly before choking to death
on spaghetti aglio e olio)
As McSheey remarked long ago about his future, I agree that this future – this 21st century world - is not the future that was meant to be. The year Twenty-Fifteen was not supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be different.
Oh, sure, it’s all very technological. Everybody’s in touch with so much information that we have to measure the computing power in the average person’s hand by gigabytes. In fact, the typical person** on the typical street in the typical city anywhere in the world has more computing power in the palm of his hand than did the Apollo astronauts that landed on the moon.
But we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re living in the future.
The future, as I remember it, was more spectacular.
The future I recall was a future as seen through the eyes of 1972 - the year I turned ten, the year of the final moon landing, the year Pioneer 10 was launched to Jupiter, the year Nixon went to China, the year I first slipped forward in time to glimpse a futurity in which humanity and the heavenly sphere are commingled.
Yet, here we are, still tethered to planet earth and still hampered by all the terrene issues that continue to hold us back from flying aloft.
Once, while at Stonycliff College, McSheey slipped forward into the future and when he returned he wound up arriving late for class. Luckily, he had a note from the future, which his professor was forced to accept since it was a course in Metaphysics and he was lecturing on Cartesian dualism at the time.
Likewise, I recently slipped forward into the future to the year 2052 to attend my own funeral, which I must admit was sparsely attended, and then I slipped back briefly to 1979 to go bowling with some old high school buddies (and to ask why they didn’t at least show up for my wake), and then finally back to the present month and year, arriving home just in time for dinner, which was fortunate for me because it was spaghetti night.
I know, you don’t believe me. But, it’s true. I do still eat spaghetti on Wednesdays nights, despite the carbs.
And I do, in fact, time travel occasionally, which I must say is more convenient than traveling via public transportation.
But back to the 1970’s - oh, how futuristic the world was back then, some forty years ago:
We were driving lunar rovers on the moon.
We had SkyLab space station in orbit.
We linked up Apollo-Soyuz in a form of space détente.
We landed Viking on Mars.
We launched Voyager 1 and 2 to rendezvous with the outer planets,
Before heading off toward interstellar space.
We were developing a fleet of reusable space shuttles.
We were going places.
Off into the future.
Now, we have gigabytes in our mortal hands, and yet we are going nowhere.
I’ve seen the future.
This isn’t it.
It’s all very technological.
But it isn’t the future I remember.***
Jack Sheedy is co-author of Cape Odd and is busy at work on a new book toward a spring release. As of 2015 he still refuses to own a cell phone until we first launch a manned mission to Mars.
(*)PS: The nearest I ever got to the “future” was seeing ELO perform their Time tour in October 1981 at the Boston Garden.
(**) PPS: Presently, the “typical person” on planet earth, as determined by National Geographic, is an Asian male in his late-20’s.
(***) PPPS: By the way, just so you know, the future is right-justified.
By Jack Sheedy
Snow and more snow, with wind and more wind. Windows frosted and covered in white, turning vision inward. Tobacco and pipe, solitary reflections on life. Days of inactivity, searching for deeper meaning. Youth ascending, toward the sun like Icarus, triumph unimpeded. Middle age descending, toward waxen earth, a hard landing indeed.
Thomas J. McSheey (1899-1939) wrote the above passage one January day in his late-30’s as he was contemplating the fact that he had turned his back on the world, allowing it to pass him by. He had not played along, burning a number of bridges along the way, ultimately residing outside the “inner circle,” like a distant asteroid drifting further and further from relevance, not rotating and revolving according to the rules of gravity like the planets in orbit around the sun.
Likewise, I, too, have turned my back on this modern day world, drifting further and further out into space, far from the sun’s warmth and its gravitational pull, in a form of self-imposed exile. With no cell phone, no smartphone, I live in another world or better still, in another time. I do not operate at the same pace as others, out of touch, removed somewhat from society, my only link with technology of any kind being this blog. In a sense, this recent snowstorm levels the playing field as for the past couple of days we’ve all been reduced to a snow shovel in terms of a “handheld device.”
But enough about snow. Let us cast back to the colorful days of autumn:
September and October were McSheey’s favorite months of the year as imprinted both upon his calendar and upon his soul. There was a cleansing that came with the autumn time. A cleansing of mind and of spirit. A time of education and of beauty. A changing of views and a turning of leaves. A turning of pages and a changing of hues. And it was during this blessed autumn period that he attended a harvest festival and happened upon a band called Thorns & Thickets playing traditional medieval instruments.
That’s as far as I got with that particular blog entry, which I was in the process of writing months ago in order to add another layer to the continuing story of my hero, Thomas John McSheey. Since then I’ve completed my “research” on the misunderstood poet and have compiled my entries into a tidy manuscript several hundred pages in length which I am in the process of editing. Except for perhaps an odd blog entry in the future, I have put McSheey to bed with a glass of warm milk and a sugar cookie.
Yet, autumn is but a golden memory and we are now blanketed beneath a cold and white January of a new year – 2015 – which, by the way, marks my 10th anniversary of writing this blog, Off-the-Shelf, for the Cape Cod Today website. Ten years. A fifth of my life. That’s a rather lengthy relationship, and I am thankful to have this outlet for my writing. And as I move forward with Off-the-Shelf I realize I need to establish a new direction now that McSheey has been tucked into bed with his milk and cookie.
So, as I consider which way this blog will turn in the future, I leave my devoted readers (yes, all three of you) with one last McSheey entry that did not find its way into a blog:
McSheey, though heterosexual by most accounts, had a number of friends and acquaintances in his literary and artistic circles that were homosexual. This, of course, was in an age (during the 1920’s and 30’s) when such sexual orientation was not accepted in mainstream society. By this association, some scholars have questioned McSheey’s sexual orientation. Regardless, he adopted a stance of “tolerance and courtesy toward everyone,” as he scribbled in the margin of his lecture notes one October day while serving as an adjunct professor of Creative Writing at his alma mater. Unfortunately, McSheey’s penmanship was largely illegible, and that quote was incorrectly transcribed as “tuna fish and cucumber for everyone,” which raised eyebrows when the English department secretary arrived at noontime with his typed lecture and with tuna salad sandwiches for the entire department.
Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest, and is currently working on a new Cape Cod-related book toward a spring publication.
By Jack Sheedy
Our hero, Thomas J. McSheey, adjunct English professor at Stonycliff College, penned the following introduction to a lecture he traditionally presented to his Creative Writing students at the beginning of each new semester. It was unearthed in the college’s archives, along with a flask of whisky, a pouch of pipe tobacco, and a rejection letter from a book publisher.
Walking the Plank
(Musical accompaniment: “La Mer” by Debussy)
There’s a moment, just before the first word is typed – hovering over the typewriter – when the writer is hesitant to strike a key. It is the moment that separates the dream from the reality. The dream remains bottled up, unrealized, existing merely in its potential. And until the first key is struck, that dream, that potential, remains limitless.
But as soon as the first key is struck, and the first letters form a word, and the first string of words form a sentence, the reality sets in, the dream decays, melts away, and the starkness of black words against white paper forces the writer to walk out upon the plank with the cold sea below, and with God only knows what creatures lurking beneath the waves. Perhaps a shark with razor-sharp teeth. Or a man-o-war with poisonous tentacles. Or a giant squid. Or an octopus. Or a mythical Kraken. Or seaweed.
Man, I hate the feel of seaweed when I’m swimming - it gives me the heebie-jeebies.
The point being, we seem to spend large portions of our lives waiting for something to happen. We rarely strike that first key. We rarely walk the plank. To do so might cause our dreams to come crashing down upon the rocks of reality. Better to leave the dream intact than to dare risk its demise by actually attempting to reach it, to fulfill it.
Yet, the writer will walk that plank over and over again.
Sometimes the writer hits the mark and the dream is realized. Other times the writer misses the mark and the reality doesn’t measure up to the dream. And oftentimes the reality of typewritten words takes the writer to an entirely different place, beyond the initial dream, to worlds not even imagined. In fact, rarely does the writer’s journey from first typed letter to last follow the original path intended. This is the point of creation in its purest form. And for a writer or an artist there is no better state of being than within that realm of pure creativity.
Perhaps that’s how God felt when creating the universe, each keystroke taking Him to places He never imagined, walking the heavenly plank above the cosmic seas of an evolving reality. It makes one wonder if the universe God created measured up to His initial dream – whether He hit the intended mark, or missed.
The writer’s lot in life is to dream, and then to string letters and words together toward that dream. Just as the painter’s lot is to use brushstrokes to reach her dream. Each new project presents a new plank to walk, and an unknown collection of creatures lurking beneath the waves. We strike the first key. We apply the first brushstroke. And off we go, toward worlds yet to be discovered. Toward corners of the universe that perhaps the Creator never intended.
But man, I hate seaweed. What was God thinking when He created seaweed? Heebie-jeebies!
McSheey had an artist friend, a Stonycliff alumna, in fact, who remained in his life throughout his twenties, and who passed away just shy of her thirtieth birthday. Her final painting, which she was working on in the weeks leading up to her death, titled “Lamellate for Icarus,” was an interpretation of Draper’s “Lament for Icarus” except that instead of three nymphs sans swimsuits lamenting Icarus’ demise as in Draper’s classic painting, the winged hero in repose is surrounded by a trio of bivalve mollusks. That unfinished painting now hangs upon a hallowed hall at the columned Stone House, resting atop a hill overlooking the Stonycliff campus.
Though McSheey’s relationship with the artist was platonic, the friendship was heartfelt and her passing left a void that can clearly be seen in his writings during that period. For instance, a number of his writings ended abruptly, in mid-sentence even, perhaps to symbolize the abrupt ending of his friend’s life.
Yet, he did manage to finish a lighthearted piece, which he later read aloud at a tavern gathering of colleagues to mark the one-year anniversary of her death. Titled “Luncheon of the Bathing Party,” it imagined an afternoon spent with a number of French painters of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist periods and their habit of painting nude studies in strange settings and poses. An excerpt of the piece is provided below:
Luncheon of the Bathing Party
(Musical accompaniment: “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Debussy)
Recently I took an afternoon off from my usual routine of writing in order to spend time visiting with some of my artistic friends. It was a beautiful day, with clouds of cotton white above and verdant fields of a myriad shade below, poplars and cypresses linking both extremes. Water lilies painted the little ponds as light itself seemed to contain a palette of forever-changing hues. It was a magical day, dressed in blurring color and in yellowing sunlight.
My first visit was to Manet, who asked me to attend a Luncheon on the Grass. When I arrived at the appointed location, I found that he and another man were seated casually upon a blanket spread on the grass, conversing with a naked woman. I was appalled, and appealed for her to cover up, but she just sat there next to the picnic basket, looking at me as if I was the one who was crazy. So I left, shaking my head to see what Cezanne was doing.
I found Cezanne in his studio painting a Still Life with Skull. That’s right, fruit juxtaposed with a human skull. Other paintings in his studio were of a similar theme – including a Pyramid of Skulls – and I thought, “This is damn creepy.” I asked if he wanted to take a break and head down to the local café for a glass of wine. He ignored my invitation and then, taking a piece of string, walked over to where I was seated and measured my cranium. “Voila!” he exclaimed, and as he reached for his brush I dashed out of the room.
Later he caught up with me, saying he was giving the skulls a rest, and we walked together down by a pond to relax and take in the sights. Suddenly, in the clearing, there appeared women bathers, throngs of them, all completely starkers, standing out in the open, as bold as brass, and with disproportionately shaped bodies to boot. It was all too much so I made my apologies and left to find Renoir.
Meeting up with him at Le Moulin de la Galette, I was invited to a Luncheon of the Boating Party, where the artist poured us each a glass of Merlot, but it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to sit down. Later he took me down by the river’s edge, but everywhere I looked there were naked women bathing and toweling off. Unable to avert my eyes any further, I departed, journeying over to see Degas. But as I walked into his studio I immediately happened upon a woman bathing in a small washtub. “Are you kidding me?” I exclaimed as I made my escape with eyes closed, Degas calling after me to return later… and to bring wine and cheese.
Eventually, I found myself wandering – through tree-lined streets that stretched off toward distant vanishing points – in search of Pissarro, who I was told, was painting en plein air. I found him in a rural setting, painting a scene before him of, thankfully, fully-clothed women working in the fields reaping a harvest beneath the gentle yellowed sunlight. Taking a break, with the Haymakers Resting, I sat upon the ground with my back against a haystack and after a time fell asleep.
When I awoke it was night, in fact, it was a Starry Night, with swirling spirals of light cast against the vast blueness of the heavens. As I stared up at the nearly abstract nature of the night sky, with grotesquely large stars challenging the logic of reality, hypnotized by the celestial scene, feeling a bit drunk by the cosmic commotion above, I thought, “What did Renoir slip into my Merlot?”
We’ll abruptly end it here…
Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest, and is currently at work on a new book toward a spring publication date.
Featured artwork: “Lament for Icarus” by Herbert Draper (1863-1920); “Luncheon on the Grass” by Edouard Manet (1832-83); “Still Life with Skull,” “Pyramid of Skulls,” and various paintings of women bathing by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906); “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” and various paintings of women bathing by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1917); Various paintings of women bathing in washtubs by Edgar Degas (1834-1917); “Haymakers Resting” and various paintings of tree-lined streets stretching off toward distant vanishing points by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903); “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90). Featured music: “La Mer” and “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
By Jack Sheedy
Before I get to the meat of this blog - that being to provide some incidental information on 20th century writer Thomas J. McSheey, in order to fill in some details on his life toward finishing a biography on the oft-misunderstood poet - I begin here with some personal commentary.
Machiavelli & Galileo
My devoted readers, all three of you, may remember that in my last blog entry back on September 2nd I mentioned I was home on that particular day with an undisclosed illness. Well, that undisclosed viral illness ended up keeping me out of work for four weeks. Fortunately I had three and a half weeks of vacation time built up, although now my trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has been postponed.
Due to HIPAA regulations, I am unable to disclose the nature of my illness. After all, I must respect my own privacy, lest I receive a strongly worded letter from my attorney on my behalf. Believe it or not, I can be quite Machiavellian when given the chance, and I certainly don’t want the “end-justifies-the-means” side of my nature dragging the “live-and-let-live” side of my nature into court just to prove a point.
Anyway, for four weeks I was at home, quarantined, under a sort of house arrest, feeling a lot like Galileo. Except unlike Galileo who was placed under house arrest by the Inquisition under the papacy of Pope Urban VIII for being a proponent of a heliocentric solar system, and who then took full advantage of that house arrest to write the revolutionary Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences, I instead took advantage of my time off to paint the entire outside of my house, and to caulk and paint all the windows.
So, what’s my point?
Well, I was diagnosed with a rather mild viral illness and was quarantined, virtually cut off from the rest of the world for a number of weeks – basically the entire month of September. Meanwhile, people exposed to the Ebola virus are allowed to go about their business – perhaps even to go bowling - without being subjected to any kind of a quarantine period whatsoever. In fact, I believe that’s how the Black Death started in 14th century Europe, spread by a participant at an international bocce tournament who had recently visited the Far East.
I realize these are confusing times with confounding issues – juggling the good of the few versus the good of the many – but some kind of a realistic, sensible, and fair quarantine procedure for anyone exposed to the Ebola virus seems prudent. After all, the Black Death killed something like 100 million people - roughly half the populations in the inflicted areas of Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Beyond that, it caused widespread panic, spurred on the persecution of Europe’s usual scapegoats, negatively impacted commerce and society in general for more than a century, and even cancelled the Italian bocce championships from 1348 thru 1353 to the dismay of enthusiasts and concessionaires, alike.
Edison & Tesla
Toward completing a biography on the oft-misunderstood writer-poet-hymnist-church sexton Thomas J. McSheey I present here some tidbits and incidental information on his 40-year life, during which there was much confusion and misunderstanding.
For instance, almost all sources show that he was born in 1899 in Boston, the son of an Irish railroad worker and an Italian seamstress, although there was some confusion over whether his father was the railroad worker or the seamstress. Another bit of confusion surrounds McSheey’s death, with the year of his demise a bit of a mystery. Some sources show his final breath came in 1935, while others in 1939. Either way, McSheey wasn’t too happy about it.
The family moved out of Boston, settling in nearby Braintree where McSheey attended school and church. He had a younger brother, James, affectionately given the moniker “James the Lesser” to distinguish him from their father, James, who was oftentimes called Finnbarr. Yet, there appears to be some degree of confusion regarding a sister, Rose, as to whether she was a member of the immediate family, a cousin, the girl next door, or Mrs. McSheey’s beloved Alister Stella Gray roses which climbed up the backyard trellis.
McSheey entered Stonycliff College in 1917, where he attended classes for two semesters before enlisting for service during World War I as an ambulance driver. Unfortunately, he was hopeless with directions and often became lost in the French countryside in search of the battlefield. This prompted him to carry a placard which read, “Où est la guerre?” (“Where is the war?”), showing it to locals he happened upon in his travels, who would then point him in the right direction.
Returning in 1919, he continued with his studies at Stonycliff where he began writing in earnest. That was the name of the college library – the Father Joseph Earnest Library – named for the college’s first president. McSheey always sat at a desk on the second floor by a window overlooking the campus grounds, where he would write on Saturday afternoons while the other chaps were off watching a football game or a rugby match. It was during these afternoons alone in the library when McSheey realized he had the ability to slip forward in time - to time travel – and then to slip back into his present day. Unfortunately he always arrived back just after the cafeteria closed so he often missed supper.
In his senior year McSheey became interested in a freshman co-ed who worked Saturdays at the cafeteria to help pay her tuition, and who appeared perpetually indifferent to McSheey despite his numerous attempts to strike up a conversation. One Saturday afternoon in spring, just before final exams, he finally mustered the courage to ask her out on a date. Interestingly, she accepted, and the next day they sojourned to a coffee shop off campus for a cup and a slice of pie. By the time they finished their pie they decided to get married and immediately rushed off to the college chapel to speak with Fr. O’Connor. On the way to the chapel, though, they got into a huge argument over the benefits of AC electricity versus DC – McSheey took the side of Edison and direct current while the co-ed took the side of Westinghouse, Tesla, and alternating current. In the end they decided to call off the marriage due to irreconcilable differences.
It has been suggested that McSheey, during his occasional falling out with the church in his 30’s, became a pagan, worshipping trees, boulders, and most notably, the sun. Or, as he wrote in his journal, “We are the children of the sun.” Even after McSheey returned to the church, he made no apologies for his recognition of the sun as the ultimate source of power sustaining all life on the planet. In fact, early on he was a proponent of the harnessing and use of solar power to run machinery and to heat and illuminate buildings, largely because he witnessed its importance in his time travel trips into the 21st century. During one such trip, to the year 2095 according to the dates scribbled on parking tickets found stuffed into the pockets of his favorite tweed jacket, he noted that, “Everything will be powered by the sun. Vast solar arrays in orbit around the planet will capture the sun’s rays, feeding power stations on the planet’s surface. Even levitating vehicles - somewhat resembling automobiles – will be powered by sunlight.”
All of which goes to prove that even in the year 2095, when you park your solar-powered, anti-gravity hovercraft along Beacon Street to stroll about Boston Common, you still have to remember to feed the meter.
Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest.
By Jack Sheedy
I’m home, ill, today. Why else would I be typing a blog on a Tuesday afternoon while the rest of the world is at work.
I caught something. I came down with it on Sunday, was a bit of a mope around the house yesterday (Labor Day – isn’t that nice), and now, today, I’m at home with my dog, Willie, and he’s not quite understanding this disruption in his usual routine. He seems rather put off by my presence, like I’m interfering with some prearranged schedule of doggie events.
So, here I am, pondering the microscopic. Some bug, or viral entity, or contagion, or whatever somehow intersected with my daily comings and goings and here I sit, seemingly plague-ridden. Some minute thing has brought me down to size, has derailed my train, has crash-landed my kite.
In short, I feel a bit of a misfit. While the rest of the world goes by - while the stock market buys and sells, while baseball sluggers take batting practice in preparation for tonight’s game, while Democrats and Republicans don’t get along with one another for yet another day, while the President in his Oval Office considers the problems of the world, I sit here like the proverbial lump on a log, out of action, infirmed, feeling like a duffel bag of dirty laundry.
With a renewed sense of the microbial I consider the plight of those poor souls in Africa, inflicted with the Ebola virus. If there is proof of Hell and Heaven on Earth, it can certainly be found in the presence of that horrible disease and in the hearts of the brave folks who combat its ravages. It reminds me of a story of smallpox and of a certain Dr. Samuel Lord from 18th century Chatham; the pox killed some 37 people in that Cape Cod town, including Dr. Lord who treated the victims.
I certainly do not compare my situation with that of Ebola victims, or that of smallpox victims, but still I am considering the microscopic element that is inherent in all such ailments. In H.G. Wells’ novel, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, humanity seems on the brink of annihilation at the hands of the Martians and their deadly Heat Ray until they are “slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared…after all men’s devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God, in his wisdom, had put upon this earth.”
Wells’ merging of science and God in this particular work of sci-fi has long helped to form my own belief system. For instance, I can believe in God and in the theory of evolution because, I believe, that the one created the other. I’m not saying that God decided on, say, Day Three to create “evolution,” and on Day Four to create “Ebola” and on Day Five “smallpox” and Day Six “science fiction writers.” But, rather, He set in motion a universe which brought about all these things.
Which brings us to Jesus and the vile bacterial infection known as leprosy. A scourge of humanity for thousands of years, it makes a number of appearances in the Bible – both Old and New Testament. In the Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, alike, all speak of Jesus healing lepers. Yet, Jesus never contracted the disease despite his close contact with the afflicted: “Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man,” wrote Mark 1:41, Matthew 8:3, and Luke 5:13, verbatim. So, there can be only one possible answer.
Either Jesus always carried with him a pocketful of nitrile examination gloves.
Or, Mark, Matthew, and Luke were all the same person.
Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including CAPE ODD and CAPE COD HARVEST.
By Jack Sheedy
Twentieth century poet, essayist, hymnist, part-time church janitor Thomas J. McSheey suffered from social anxiety disorder, which may explain why he spent so much time alone in his vegetable garden contemplating the mysteries of the universe. One day, while weeding, he suddenly stumbled upon an ironclad proof for the existence of God. He could see it all clearly in his mind, if-then statements leading from theorem to proof of a Deity. But then he became distracted picking peas and forgot all the details.
Afterward, he regularly brought a small notepad and a No. 2 pencil with him out to the garden, tucked in his shirt pocket. Although he never again happened upon the elusive proof of the Almighty, he did jot down some poems and thoughts on various subjects that came to him while he puttered around amongst the vegetables. For instance, one Tuesday afternoon he wrote:
I feel like a stranger in my own bed,
Like a trespasser in my own head,
I don’t feel comfy in my own clothes,
I don’t feel right from my brow to my toes.
It turns out he didn’t “feel right” because he accidently took home someone else’s bed linens and clothing from the local laundry, and the sheets were scratchy and the pants were baggy.
Another poem, titled “Interpolating Wyeth’s ‘ Master Bedroom’” produced the following:
A dusting of snow upon a leafy Nov’mber lawn,
Coffee and burnt toast upon a frosty fall morn,
Wind from the north through bare branches, cold, dead,
The pup, in his slumber, curled upon the chamber bed.
McSheey considered the smell of burnt toast as amongst his favorite aromas, and as a triggering device in recalling childhood memories. It seems that although his Italian mother was a wonderful cook when it came to pastas and meat dishes, she was somehow hopeless with the morning toast.
He also jotted down ideas for book projects. For instance, he had the idea for a collection of Christmas season poetry with the working title, “At Christmas, some exchange gifts – we exchange dirty looks.” It was never published as it was deemed too “bleak, even for midwinter” according to the publisher.
McSheey touched on several subjects in his notebook. For instance, about working for a living he wrote:
There is no substitution for hard work, although you can usually look busy by walking around with a clipboard in your hands.
A good editor is worth his weight in rubber erasers.
Romance is like Smetana’s “The Moldau,” a tone poem which begins with two smaller rivers joining to become one larger river, the Vltava, at first dancing playfully through the Bohemian countryside and then ultimately climaxing in crescendo amongst the Czech rapids…only to eventually meet up with another river, the Elbe. How typical!
About understanding life:
One should look at life as if picking peas - you must view the plant from various angles to find all the ripened pods hiding within the tangle. Incidentally, understanding life has nothing whatsoever to do with picking green beans.
God was never much of a mathematician. Though the Book of Genesis proves He could multiply, He was apparently hopeless at long division.
About being a gentleman gardener:
No matter what your college education, no matter how learned you are, and no matter how well read you may be, you are only as intelligent as the smartest rabbit in your backyard.
Jack Sheedy is the author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest and is often seen carrying a clipboard in his left hand and a No. 2 pencil tucked behind his right ear.
By Jack Sheedy
Sometimes, one misplaced letter in a word or sentence can lead to confusion, embarrassment, and angst.
Just one mistaken or misdirected squiggly character can lead a person astray, both physically and spiritually.
On a grander, more global scale, one miscommunication can lead to hostilities and utter destruction – heck, the Hundred Year War was started over a jar of pickles.
Equal doses of confusion, embarrassment, and angst can be created by the placement of a space where a letter should be located. Or even a letter where a space should be. The ramifications of such an error can lead to bewilderment, if not a full-scale catastrophe.
Such was the case with our friend Thomas J. McSheey, who incidentally found it of great interest that the difference between a believer in God and a non-believer rested in the strategic placement of the letter “a” as Webster points out with the following definitions:
a theist: one who believes in the existence of God as the creative source of mankind and the world
atheist: one who denies the existence of God
But getting back to the gist of the earlier-mentioned confusion, embarrassment, and angst, this misplacement of letters, or rather, misplacement of the spacing between letters led to a great calamity one year as McSheey searched for a paying job to supplement his mostly non-paying writing projects. While living for a period on Cape Cod, he saw a want ad in the local newspaper:
Lighthouse Keeper Wanted
Year-round position available in picturesque setting.
Experience desired, but not necessary. Ability to work
with little or no supervision a plus. Submit CV and
references to Box XYZ....
Hmmm, he thought, how difficult could it be? So he sent off his resume and three references to Box XYZ... and very soon received a reply. His education being superb, his prior job experience being quite satisfactory, and his references being impeccable he received a letter stating that he was hired, sight unseen, and was told to report for work Monday morning, the contact name and address provided within the letter.
So, Monday morning he reported to the designated location, prepared to begin his new career as a lighthouse keeper. As he had assumed, the location was along the Atlantic coastline, upon a grassy cliff overlooking the white-capped ocean beyond. Certainly picturesque, he thought. Yet, as he looked around he could not locate the lighthouse tower, only a dwelling which he assumed was the keeper’s house.
He knocked upon the front door, and within a handful of seconds it opened, revealing a pleasant-looking older man with a cane. An older woman stood in the hall behind him. McSheey was ushered inside. Outside, the breeze from off the Atlantic caused the beach grass to sway and the beach plum bushes to rustle while inside the dwelling McSheey was learning of the silly mistake which had led to such confusion, embarrassment, and angst.
Apparently the typist at the newspaper had erred. The ad should have read:
Light Housekeeper Wanted.
Though disappointed, McSheey took the job. After all, he needed the paycheck.
Jack Sheedy is the author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest. Though summer book sales are steady, he keeps a full-time day job. After all, he, too, needs the paycheck.
By Jack Sheedy
It’s sometimes easy to wax poetic after visiting a father’s grave on Memorial Day and then sitting down at the laptop to tap away at the keys as if attempting to summon the greatest collection of words since the Gettysburg Address.
At first the words ring true and patriotic. And then, upon a second reading, they seem a bit forced and melodramatic.
Regardless, we soldier on.
Again, it’s sometimes easy to wax poetic after visiting a father’s grave on Memorial Day. Yet, this blog has less to do with my father and more to do with someone I didn’t even know who died in Vietnam over forty years ago.
I think my father would approve.
My father was a US Marine. He proudly wore the eagle, globe, and anchor until the very day he passed away in his bed, in his room overlooking Whittemore Pond. His grave marker in the local cemetery bears that same Marine insignia. He was Corps to the core; as I stated in his eulogy, two things mattered most to him – his family and the US Marine Corps.
His years of service were wedged between Korea and Vietnam so he never saw action. He spent most of his time in the Pacific – in Japan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa – and his time on those islands, particularly on Iwo Jima, impressed upon him the sacrifice the Marines had made there.
Years later, as a civilian during the late-1960’s/early 1970’s, raising a family, he subscribed to Leatherneck magazine. In those years the magazine’s pages were filled with Vietnam War stories. In one particular issue was an article and photograph of a Marine who made the supreme sacrifice when he threw himself on a grenade to save fellow Marines. My father shared this story with me; speaking of the Marine’s heroism and allowing it to sink in so that I might understand. To this day, some four decades later, I can still see the young Marine’s face. He might have been nineteen years old, a bit dark complexioned, looking sharp in his Dress Blue. There was the slightest hint of a smile upon his face, as if he understood what he might be called upon to do, at peace with that sacrifice.
At the age of seven or so, reading the article, and looking at his picture, I suddenly understood this ideal called America. All of our country’s great sacrifices – from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War to WWI and WWII to the Korean and Vietnam Wars – seemed as if embodied in this one, fallen Marine.
Decades have since passed. I have outlived the brave Marine by more than double his brief lifetime. I have benefited from the freedom secured by his sacrifice and by the sacrifices of so many like-minded individuals. I live on, untouched by the battlefields that have stopped short so many other lives.
In 2001, I attempted to join the US Army, but by that point I was too old and was told such in a rejection letter. I was secretly relieved, but also secretly envious of those who served and, by doing so, have had the threads of their lives forever interwoven with the stars and stripes of Old Glory, fluttering in red, white, and blue.
This Memorial Day I remember two Marines. My father. And a young man whose life ended in Vietnam and whose face I can still see more than forty years later.