The Old Norwegian

Subject

I had a neighbor in Washington state years ago, Rune, who reached out to me several times, but I didn't give him the time of day. I’d heard some negative stories about him and was intimidated by him, put off by his gruffness, so I kept my distance for a long time. He's agreed to be the subject of my profile and I picture exploring several themes in the process of writing the piece, with the idea of arranging it around just one: what it means to be a neighbor (he is a very, very good neighbor--if there were a city-wide competition for Best Neighbor, he would definitely take gold); aging alone in America; the longing, hope and need beneath rough exteriors; getting to know someone, understanding what drives them, what they fear, what they’ve lived through, and letting go of judgements, finding common ground and connection.

Angle

Over the past several months, Rune and I have been exchanging emails and I've visited him at his place. He is still hot-tempered and blunt, but I've gotten to see the ways that he's also generous and kind, the ways he connects with the world and longs for connection where it lacks in his life. In organizing and writing the piece, I intend to present Rune the same way that I and many others have gotten to know him: first feeling intimidated and put off by his lack of social graces (as he puts it) and then revealing, through the story of who he is, the many ways which he cares deeply about the people in his life, the world in general and his role in it all.

The Old Norwegian

Rune lives alone behind a locked gate, a thick stand of bamboo and a No Trespassing sign across the road from the house I once rented in Olympia, Washington. He unlocks the gate for his brother and a few friends, usually ten minutes before he expects someone to arrive, but during the five years I lived there, I never saw anyone come or go from his place.

When I met Rune, I didn’t want to get to know him. My housemates had told stories about his hot temper, and I was intimidated by his bluntness, by the way he skips conventional niceties and seems to be permanently frowning. When I saw him walk up the driveway the few times he came over—shoulders hunched and stride quick, forehead leading the way as though in perpetual chase of his thoughts—I felt nervous.

But Rune is not your average bitter recluse. The women I lived with also talked about how he spent days rototilling their garden and sawing up their fallen trees. When they had a mouse infestation, it was him they called one night to empty the traps, too squeamish to do it themselves. He came over wearing a black shirt and black slacks held up with suspenders, on his way to go dancing, and told stories while he eased the mice from the traps, pausing to show off his dance moves in the kitchen. One year, he gave them all switchblades for Christmas. The owner of the house I rented, a good friend, stayed in touch with him after I moved away and shares news about him when we talk: he quit smoking, sold his place and moved to the white house across the road, no longer keeps his curtains closed all day.

As my curiosity about him grew over the years, so did my regret at having missed the opportunity to know him. So one day, when I was wondering how he was doing, I asked my friend for his contact information and emailed him. We write to each other regularly now, and I’ve made it onto the short list of people for whom he unlocks his gate.

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Rune daydreams about asking his friend, Jack, to nail a message in one of the Doug firs down by the road: Religion Fosters Ignorance.

And because I’m such a sarcastic prick, I always wanted to put a sign in the front yard that says ‘50% Of You Are Below Average.’

What keeps you from doing it?

I’ll tell you what. People drive really fast down this road.

A few months ago, a kid drove by going 70, he says. He was down by the road and yelled at him to slow the fuck down. The kid pulled over and yelled back. They yelled back and forth for a while, and eventually Rune ended the exchange by asking the kid why didn’t he suck his fucking dick.

His house was egged for three months after that, the damage so bad he had to repaint in places. Since then, he’s decided the signs will attract too much negative attention, so they remain among the field of ideas he turns over in his mind as he moves through his days taking care of his six acres, working in his woodshop, reading the news and thinking. Last week he wrote to me, I met a guy a lot like me once. I couldn’t stand the ass. But I did understand him.

Rune calls himself Jekyll and Hyde. I see why. He guards his privacy, but longs to connect with the world. He throws away only what is completely useless, but spends $200 building a motorized soil sifter. He calls for the execution of Islamic extremists, is afraid they'll destroy us with a nuclear bomb if we don't, but writes lyrically about the need for love: No matter the stoicism of our pride, that we can go it on our own, those who think hard will realize…that love is sustenance. It's food for the spirit… Life is safe because there are arms to run into. He was an alcoholic for 24 years, went through 5 rehab programs, then quit cold turkey when he was 44. Except for the year after his longest relationship dissolved, he hasn’t drunk since.

The thing is, Rune cares about the world. And lately, the weight of that care has been bearing down on him. But maybe it’s this same weight, and his no-bullshit way of relating to people, that also makes him such an adept observer of the things that sustain hope. As we walked around his property last weekend, he pointed to an old boat he’d hauled out of the woods, all beat up and covered in mud. It reminded me of something else he wrote about love: It has the unusual ability to be our anchor and sail and the same time, sometimes straining itself until we’re torn or broken. He’ll bring the torch out soon and cut the thing up, recycle it at the scrapyard.

Before I left, he filled a white trash bag with tomatoes and carrots from his garden for me. As I said thank you and prepared to leave, I was surprised when he reached toward me for a hug. And as we leaned awkwardly against each other, and he embraced my shoulder, I was surprised again by how strong he is, like a tree, an old cypress, all bent and twisted, hanging off a cliff over the ocean but firmly rooted in the ground.

A week later, when I was on my way over and running five minutes late, he called and left a message: It’s Rune. Uh, you did say 11:30, didn’t you? Let me know. He was standing watch at the top of the driveway when I got there, waiting, but as I pulled in, went back inside the house. That day before I left, he loaned me a book called The Professor and The Madman.

Draft 1: The Old Norwegian

Rune has been thinking about asking his friend Jack to climb one of the Doug firs on the road side of his property and nail a message up there: Religion Fosters Ignorance.

And because I’m such a sarcastic prick, I always wanted to put a sign in the front yard that says ‘50% Of You Are Below Average.’

What keeps you from doing it?

I’ll tell you what. People drive really fast down this road. (They do. I used to live next door to Rune and have seen people top 60 on that hilly stretch of road.)

A few months ago, a kid drove by going 70, he says. He was in his yard and yelled at him to slow the fuck down. The kid pulled over and yelled back. I imagined Rune stalking toward the kid’s car, leaning forward like he does, forehead leading the way as though in perpetual chase of his thoughts. When he reached it, they yelled back and forth some more and eventually Rune asked the kid why didn’t he suck his fucking dick.

His house was egged for three months after that, the damage so bad he had to repaint in places. Since then, he’s decided the signs will attract too much negative attention, so they remain among the field of ideas he turns over in his mind as he moves through his days caring for his six acres in northwest Olympia, working in his woodshop, reading, thinking and, occasionally, exchanging emails with me. Last week he wrote, I met a guy a lot like me once. I couldn’t stand the ass. But I did understand him.

Rune is blunt. He is blunt in speech. He is blunt in manner. At 67, after 28 years as a shipwright in Seattle and Tacoma, tempered by the sea, the Army, an abusive father and decades of smoking and alcoholism, he is blunt in appearance, too. He looks like a tool made for chiseling, worn from years of use. His fine white hair and wire-framed glasses lend him an air of distinction, though, and he is still handsome. He’s neatly groomed, doesn’t have any tattoos. I’m not a billboard for someone else’s art or philosophy… He has opinions about many things, is blunt about them most of all -- doesn’t trust anyone who’s never tied one on or respect anyone who believes in a higher power. Politically, he’ll never vote for the right, but the left can kiss his ass now, too, for not doing enough to protect the First Amendment or fight against Islamic extremism. When he passes signholders around town, he gives them $20 just for working, meeting his expectation that people ‘get off their dead fucking asses and do whatever it takes…’

He lives alone, has since 1992 when he and his then girlfriend, Esther, broke up. He’s never been married. There just aren't that many stupid women out there. Actually, I've never asked anyone… I'm constructing a cocoon as I get older. They were together for nine years, bought his old place together. The year after they separated was the only one out of 23 that he wasn’t sober. (He quit drinking on his own after weathering five programs.) Since Esther left, he’s quit smoking, too, and bought the white house on the hill across the road, rented a Bobcat and moved the maple her father gave him 26 years ago, put a locking gate and a No Trespassing sign at the bottom of the driveway.

He gets lonely sometimes. Two of his best friends live down the road, a couple in their 80s, and he visits them. And his brother lives up in Bremerton. When they call each other, whoever’s on the receiving end says hello, then, Oh shit, it’s family. (He and his sister don’t speak.) His son, who he hasn’t seen in 20 years, moved to Seattle from D.C. last month, but they’re still working on getting together. There are a few others he stays in touch with, but for now, it’s mostly just him and the world.

And the thing is, he cares about the world.

Lately, the weight of that care has been bearing down on him. He worries, about the environment, the polar bears, droughts, Islamic extremism and nuclear bombs, feels an urgent need to make things better. He grows food, doesn’t use chemicals, is saving up for a Tesla. And he’s an exceptional neighbor. He’d spend days rototilling my ex-housemates’ garden and sawing up their fallen trees. When they had a mouse infestation, it was him they called one night to empty the traps, too squeamish to do it themselves. He came over wearing a black shirt and black slacks held up with suspenders, on his way to go dancing, and told stories while easing the mice from the traps, pausing to show off his dance moves in the kitchen. One year, he gave them all switchblades for Christmas. Now he helps the guys who bought his old place. He tracks current events and shares his findings, tries to raise awareness, gets frustrated that he can’t do more.

But maybe it’s this same weight, and his no-bullshit way of relating to people, that also make him such an adept observer of the things that sustain hope. As we walked around his property last weekend, he pointed to an old boat he’d hauled out of the woods, all beat up and covered in mud. It reminded me of something he’d written, about love. It has the unusual ability to be our anchor and sail and the same time, sometimes straining itself until we’re torn or broken… Our entire rudder is made of more than just us but if we drop out or diminish our participation in our own lives, it’s only then that we are truly rudderless.

He’ll bring the torch out soon and cut the thing up, recycle it down at the scrapyard. We kept walking. He filled a white trash bag with tomatoes and carrots from his garden for me. As we neared my car and I said thank you, prepared to leave, I was surprised as he reached toward me for a hug. And as we leaned sideways against each other, awkwardly, and he embraced my shoulder, I was surprised again by how strong he is, like a tree, a lone cypress hanging off a cliff over the ocean, all bent and twisted, but firmly rooted to the ground.

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