Have Yourself A Party (A Loolie Tale)

“Here,” says Loolie. “Do you still like to do these?”

She hands me her local paper, opened to the puzzle page. And there, — oh, joy! — are both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote.

I grab a pen and happily plunge into my usual morning routine. I unscramble the Jumble, read the funnies, then take a piece of loose-leaf paper out of my bag and transcribe the Cryptoquote.

Now I can solve it and weave its message—sweet, silly, or profound,–into the way I approach this day.

************

We are sitting at Loolie’s broad kitchen table, savoring our morning coffee. It’s been a good visit; we met up with four of our dearest high school friends, forty years later, and we collaborated on a wonderful dinner in Loolie’s kitchen. We each brought photos and we cracked open our dusty yearbooks.

We reflected on then, but we really concentrated on now: on who we’ve become and on the journeys that brought us to here and on celebrating the sweet essence of those unknowing young girls, all those years back.

Some of that essential sweetness, we were all delighted to discover, still remains.

Two of us–TJ and me—bunked out in Loolie’s lovely home. And now it is 7:30 on a quiet Sunday morning. While we wait for TJ to rise and shine, wait to fix breakfast together before we pack up and say our goodbyes, I solve the Cryptoquote.

The words were Jorge Luis Borges’. Here is what they said:

“So you plant your own garden and embellish your own soul instead of waiting for someone to bring flowers to you.”

Borges Quote

“Huh,” I say, and Loolie, of course, says, “Let me see.”

She studies the paper and she grins.

“Yep,” she says. “He’s got it just right.”

******************

Loolie gets up and pours herself another steaming mug. She gestures at me with the pot; I shake my head, and she returns it to its machine. Then, she whirls back to the table in her flowing, multicolored bathrobe.

As she settles into her seat, I can see it coming on. Jogged by the Borges quote, we are in for a story.

“You know,” she starts, catching my eye to make sure I am fully engaged, “for all of their married life, Dan’s father gave Dewey a Whitman’s Sampler and a bouquet of flowers from the supermarket for her birthday. Dewey hated it! She’d made a big happy fuss the first time he did it, so he figured that was just the ticket. It took her a couple of years to realize that he’d just forgotten her birthday and run into the supermarket and grabbed the first festive things he could find.

“By the time she figured it out, the candy and the flowers were a tradition. That was it, Dewey said; that was her birthday. She spent hours of time and effort making sure everyone else had such wonderful birthdays, Mort and the kids and her in-laws, even; planned surprises and meals and treats and good friends and games—all the things the birthday person loved. But on her birthday: the Sampler. The flowers, which she had to cut and arrange so they looked like something special. Cards and gifts from the kids. And then a great dispersal, and Dewey was left getting dinner on the table and then cleaning up as Mort went off to watch the news and the kids went to do homework.”

Loolie sighed, and she took a deep slug of coffee. She plunked her mug down on the table.

“It got, Dewey told me, to the point where she HATED her birthday. ‘Say something!’ I’d tell her. ‘DO something about it!’ But she wouldn’t. She didn’t want to hurt their feelings.

“Then Dan and I got married. The first year was all romantic. The second year, our feet had hit ground, and I was pregnant, and we were both working crap jobs and money was tight…and on my birthday, Dan came home with a Whitman’s sampler and supermarket flowers.”

“Oh, NO,” I said.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “He was tired and stressed, and I didn’t have the heart to say anything that night. But I understood how disappointed Dewey was, year after year. And I have to tell you, I really hate the chocolate in a Whitman’s Sampler.”

She sighed again, and we heard TJ stomping down the stairs, and we poured her coffee and got organized and started tag-teaming bacon, eggs, and toast. And we caught TJ up on the topic, and Loolie picked up the thread of her story.

“So the next year,” she said, “there I was, home with a baby who needed LOTS of attention, tired and bedraggled. And I thought to myself: this year of all years, I need a wonderful birthday.

“So I started dropping hints—they were more like blatant infomercials than hints, actually. I needed a new jacket, I told Dan, and I wrote down the size and the style and the store. I really wanted to get out and see a movie. I gave him THAT info, too. I mentioned that his mother was dying to come and stay so she could babysit.

“And about a month before my birthday, I started leaving notes that said things like, ‘Only thirty shopping days left till Loolie’s birthday!’ I’d put them on the fridge. I’d write them in soap on the bathroom mirror. I’d tuck them into his pants pockets.

“I was pretty sure I had it covered. On the day of my birthday, I took Kerri’s little hand and we waved Dan off to work together. I cleaned the house that day, so it would look nice when Dewey—surprise!–showed up. And I got the baby down to sleep about four, so I could shower and dress up a little, put on some make-up. Be ready.

“And Dan came home and he looked at me in surprise. ‘YOU look nice,’ he said.” Loolie paused, dramatically. “And just guess what he handed me?”

“Oh, NO,” TJ and I said, together.

“Oh, YES,” said Loolie. “And I vowed it was the last Whitman’s Sampler birthday I would ever endure.”

There was a long pause. Lools likes to check and make sure her audience is listening. I tong-ed the bacon onto a paper towel-covered plate and put it on the table.

“What,” I asked, “happened the next year?”

TJ brought a plate of buttered toast to the table and slid into her seat. Loolie spooned fluffy scrambled eggs onto all of our plates, replenished our coffee, and continued her tale.

“The next year,” Loolie said, “I decided I was going to give myself the best birthday ever. I was back working by then, but I took the day off and I took Kerri to daycare anyway. Then I went home and soaked in a bubble bath. I got gussied up and I met Peggy for lunch at the Forum. I love Greek food,” she said dreamily, “and we had the best lunch. First time I ever tried ouzo, too.” She grinned. I’m thinking she might have tried more than one.

“After lunch, I took myself out shopping,” Loolie said. “I bought myself a pair of jeans, and I got my hair shampooed, and then I went and got a massage. On my way to pick Kerri up, I stopped at this wonderful chocolate shop and I bought myself a quarter pound of chocolate covered caramels.

“It was the BEST day. And when Dan came home with the Sampler and the flowers, it was almost funny. But the next day, I suggested to him that he take the chocolates to work and share them. I told him that was too much candy for me, and I hated to see it go stale.

“’I thought you LOVED Whitman’s Samplers,’ he said, and I told him, gently, that no, I really didn’t.”

Loolie got a little thoughtful, and it was clear she was playing her years with Dan out in her mind.

“He never got me a Whitman’s Sampler after that. There were a few years when he really tried and my birthdays were filled with wonderful surprises. And then there were the years when things started going south, and a birthday surprise would not have made much difference to the sadness we were living.

“BUT,” she said, and she looked at us and twinkled. “I have celebrated my birthday just the way I wanted to ever since. I’ve always taken the day off, made wonderful lunch plans, and pampered myself with the special things I long for the rest of the year. And, you know what? If people forget, well, that’s okay. But when they remember, it’s just wonderful—like all this extra icing on top of a cake that was heavenly in the first place. The calls and the cards and the mementos are all wonderfully unexpected surprises. I think,” she said thoughtfully, “that the reason they’re so wonderful is that I don’t DEPEND on getting them.”

We sit quietly for a little bit, finishing up our breakfasts, sipping last mugs of steaming brew.

“I told Dewey about it,” Loolie says, “after Dan and I split, while Mort was still around. And she loved the idea. She started going  to a movie matinee on her birthday, with a friend. Mort always hated going to the show. And she gets herself a hot fudge sundae afterward. She still does that, at 88. She said it turned her birthday from something she dreaded and resented into a day she looks forward to all year.”

We’re quiet for a minute. Then TJ says, “I love it. SO much better than being a long-suffering martyr.”

“So much better,” I agree.

We push ourselves reluctantly away from the table; we carry dishes and scrub pans and wipe down the table. And then TJ and I drag our bags downstairs and stash them in the trunks and come back in to say our goodbyes.

Loolie hugs us both tight. “Embellish your own souls, ladies,” she says, and she hands me the folded loose-leaf with the deciphered Cryptoquote.

We promise to text on safe arrival, and we look forward to a planned visit in a couple of months, and then TJ and I get into our cars, back down the drive, honk our farewells and head off in our separate directions.

Then I pull out onto the Interstate, thoughts buzzing. Loolie always distills issues down to their roots, and things seem so simple. Why WOULDN’T one go out and grab the things she wants, rather than sitting and waiting for those things to be bestowed? Why wouldn’t she shape her days rather than waiting to see what shape others would give them?

But I remember stern dictates from the 1960’s and 1970’s. A lady never calls a man. A girl never asks a boy out. So, often, a person sat on her hands, waiting for someone else to open the door for her, the door she dearly wanted to go through.  It was a kind of self-imposed disability, so ingrained that to make the first move was impossible.

And I remember, too, avidly reading articles with titles like, “Make Him Think It Was HIS Idea!” or “How to get Him to Do What You Want him To Do Without Asking!” It was an age when subtle manipulation and the fine art of passive aggression were the tools to achieve an end.

I never learned those tricks.

And then things exploded, in the late sixties and early seventies, and there was a push for equality.

You want to get to know him? Go talk to him.

You want to have lunch with him? Go ask him.

I never quite mastered the art of forthrightness, either. A lot of us wandered, I think, in a kind of hazy gray area in-between.

But how much better, I think, sliding into the left-hand lane to pass a lumbering semi, to take the Loolie approach. Decide what you want (that, it seems to me, is half the battle), and then take steps to put that desire into place. Simple, elegant, and no one suffers from misconceptions…or from forty years of Whitman’s Samplers when that’s not her heart’s fond wish.

I finally reach the spot where the FM reception is good, and I turn on the radio and find an oldies station. And wouldn’t you know it, the first song they play is Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond singing, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.”

“Plant your own damned garden,” I say to Barbra. And then I turn the song up so I can, in the anonymity of my speeding vehicle, sing along.

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Piecing It Together: Making a Start

You didn’t just go out and buy all the fabric even if you had the money, which most of the members did not. You made quilts out of what was on hand, like flowered feed sacks or pieces remaining when you cut out a blouse, or from trading scraps with one another. You got pleasure knowing this piece was left over from your high school graduation dress or that one was passed down from your grandmother.

—Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club

Squares.jpg

A gray and glowery afternoon. The house is fairly clean, my grading is pretty well caught up, and my head is pounding. I take my book and sit in the reading chair.

I am asleep before I get through the first paragraph.

I wake up, abruptly, a scant twenty minutes later. There’s a command clearly lodged in my mind: Work on your quilt.

So I stand up, quickly, to comply. Time, at last, to make a start.

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Image result for bookshelf quilt image

Bookshelf quilt image from Pinterest.com

I think my friend Theresa first sent me a picture of a bookshelf quilt; since then, I’ve seen them on line many times. The squares look like books—neatly standing, straight up; leaning; stacked flat; toppling. The background is black. The borders are brown, like shelves.

So cute, I thought, and then I studied the pictures, enlarging them, looking at the detail. I could DO that, I realized, and I thought about a quilt as big as a bedspread, –a queen-sized quilt with fabric images of all the books we love.

What would be better than that to snuggle under with a book on a raw and windy winter night?

I began gathering and collecting material.

***********

I have made one other hand-pieced quilt, long ago, back in the 1990’s. My boss’s wife, a skilled seamstress named Jannie, invited my colleague Lisa and me to make simple quilts with her. We would cut fabric into triangles, match the triangles to make squares, and put the squares together in strips. We’d sew the strips together and decide on backing and borders. And, in the doing, we’d have crafting time together—time to talk and savor the feeling of creation.

Jannie and Lisa went out and shopped carefully for material; they were making quilts for their daughters, ten years apart in age: an off-to-college quilt; a now-you’re-a-big-girl quilt. I went home and went through drawers. I found old curtains I’d made in college, blue jeans gentled by time into suede-y softness, leftover material from projects long completed or abandoned. I got out my sewing shears and cut away seams and hems and created squares just the size I needed.

It was Mark’s first year of law school, and money was stretched so thin I could see right through it. I didn’t have the cash to go out and buy fabric, so I’d make myself a vintage quilt, a snuggle-while-watching-television quilt.

I cut away worn spots, and carefully saved the buttons I picked off, sliding them into the button tin—buttons from generations of thrifty women,—my mother had given me. I saved pockets; surely there was something fun one could do with old pockets.

I sat and sewed with Jannie and Lisa and created a crazy quilt top. I quilted it onto a soft old blue blanket. I bordered it with brown calico scraps. We hung that quilt over the back of the lounge chair in the living room, and, for years, and in four different homes, one or the other of us grabbed that soft, warm covering on chilly nights—snuggled up under it and watched us some TV. Last year, the fabric scraps finally wore thin; the blue blanket, pilled and sad from one too many washings, poked through.

There were holes in places. The dog tried to nestle the quilt into a cozy bundle and got her claw caught in one. The claw bent backward; the dog howled piteously; and I realized it was time, at last, to throw that threadbare blankie OUT.

But I didn’t feel bad; the blanket had been a new life for old cloth, old garments. Quilted, they lasted about 15 years longer than their original purposes would have let them live.

*************

Toward the end of her life, my mother made quilts. I have the first one she made, with Sunbonnet Sue embroidered on it, and solid, brightly colored patches alternating with pretty, country patterns. Some of the patches are worn to gauze; the quilt has been used and used and washed and used again. I save it, now, afraid of its frailty, not wanting to let it go.

Mom's first quilt

Mom decided she would make quilts for all the grandchildren, from the oldest on down, and so Brian and Jason got their quilts. Then her health started to slip, and hospitalizations began to happen. Mom would take her graph paper and colored pencils to the hospitals; when she was well enough to concentrate, she would sketch out quilts.

She made one for Shayne, and one for Meg, one for Matthew, and one for Ben. She had Jessica’s all planned out when she died. I have that soft and flannel-y piece of graph paper somewhere; when I come upon it again, I will send it to Jess, who did receive one of her Grandma’s other quilts. It was a flying geese pattern, made, maybe, when my mother knew that her own flight was imminent and unavoidable.

*******************

I decided that, for the bookcase quilt, too, I don’t want to buy fabric. I want my fabric books, like my real ones, to have been touched, to be a little worn, and to have a history. I’m going to sort through old clothes, cut them carefully apart, make neat and even squares. I have some old black patterned bed clothes (what phase was I traversing when I decided black sheets would be chic? Sheesh. But I’m glad I have them now.) The pattern is soft and faded, and those will be perfect for the dark background the books will rest against.

I have a pair of brown slacks that just never fit right, and I have some brown pillow cases whose feel I just never liked against my cheek. They will become the shelves that frame the books.

I iron out and cut apart an old Hawaiian short of Jim’s. It is blue with beige flowers picked out in black. I cut away the collar, turn my scissors up the side seams. I take the sleeves off.

The hems of the shirt are fraying. I snip away the tattered edges, and I clip off the buttons to save. I salvage a pocket, which I think I’ll use in wrapping a gift for a child— the three-year-old son of a young colleague of Mark’s. I’ll glue the pocket onto the wrapping, which will hold a book; I’ll slide a bookmark, and perhaps a lollipop, into it.

And then I have flat pieces of Hawaiian print material. I take out my template and cut as many 8.5 by 8.5-inch squares as I can get. I stack them in a box, and I trim up the smaller pieces and put them in a basket. The edges and scraps, I put into a plastic shopping bag. I wonder, briefly, if I could use them as stuffing, tie them into a rug, or create a scrap fabric wreath. But I wrench my attention sternly back to the job at hand.

I envision the fabric books, and I realize I need fabric with tiny stripes to look like pages. We have purged all of Mark’s striped shirts, taking the ones that don’t fit, the ones he wouldn’t wear, to thrift shops or donating them to a clothes closet. But I see exactly the kind of stripes I need in my mind’s eye.

I slip on my shoes, and I drive to Goodwill and buy five striped shirts for eight dollars. They are perfectly page-patterned. I search out and throw away all their labels and price tags, and I throw the shirts into the washer.

Shirts

The bookshelf quilt is growing real in my mind.

*************

I pull out my beautiful quilted bag to carry my books to class. Terry made this bag, a masterpiece in its autumn colors. The quilting is more detailed and expert than any I will ever accomplish; I have to let that go and know that my funny, homespun attempts will be a different kind of special.

Terry

Terry gave several of us, all of us leaving the same place of work at the same time, quilted bags. When we get together once a month, old colleagues now retired or working at different jobs, one of us usually has her Terry bag with her. The bags are sturdy, creatively made, practical and lovely at the same time. They bring to mind, now I think about it, their creator.

There’s another work connection quilt, one that rests, neatly folded, on the end of my bed. Just before three of us retired, our younger colleague Barbara invited us out to lunch. She wrestled us for the check, insistent she would pay, and when we walked out to climb into our cars, she stopped us. From her back seat, she pulled three beautiful quilts she’d made, in colors that made her think of the receivers. She placed them in our arms and shushed away our thanks and drove off with a smile and a wave. We stood there, we three women of a certain age, jaws open, arms full, light-headed with shock and delight. The quilts were incredibly lovely.

Barb

I couldn’t resist playing with a quilt metaphor, silently, for the three of us so gifted were retiring from positions that would no longer exist. Our work was being spread out and carefully cut apart. Certain patches would be sent to different offices. Some pieces—although we’d thought that fabric was sturdy and strong—would be tossed away.

It was part of the process of leaving, to see what was become something new, but for each of us, it was hard in a different way.

So it is good to meet each month, now, and to spread out the new pieces we’ve acquired, to see a new, upbeat, resilient pattern emerging.

*****************

One of my favorite books, The Persian Pickle Club, centers on a group of women who quilt together during the Depression in dust-bowl Kansas. They are old and young and in-between, married, single, and no longer wed. Some would face starvation if not for her friends, and some have the wherewithal to be generous. All have their sorrows, and all have a fierce loyalty to the other members of the club.

PPC.jpg

And then comes Rita, who has married Tom, the son of one of the quilters. Rita is a city girl. She can type and she can do the latest dances; she can write newspaper articles and she can walk into a room of strangers without a qualm. But her country skills—cooking from scratch and scrubbing a floor, keeping a fire hot and piecing a quilt—those are sorely lacking.

And she doesn’t understand; Rita doesn’t see the pattern or understand what weaves things together. The first time she meets with the Pickles, the women, although Rita’s stitches are looped and sloppy, encourage her to take up quilting. And Rita, to be polite, says, sure. Sure she will. Maybe, she says, she can get Tom to take her to the department store, where she’ll buy enough fabric to make a quilt.

There is a shocked silence. How can the women tell her that one doesn’t BUY fabric to make a quilt; that one uses what one has? One rejuvenates the worn-out sheets and tablecloths; one spreads out her dearly loved ‘best’ dress, worn now beyond all patching, and cuts away the finest parts to savor in a quilt.

Every quilt they craft is a kind of living history. The women don’t try to explain this to Rita. But they each reach into their quilting bags, and they pull out pieces of fabric, squares and scraps and shiny silks, and they pass them down to their new friend. They tell her the stories behind each swatch she receives. When she leaves that day, she has enough quilting material to make a baby blanket for a friend.

And she begins, just faintly, to get a glimmer of the pattern the other women had grown up seeing.

*********************

The weather turns; the 90-degree days slide off, backward. Clouds tumble together, thunder rumbles, and the temperature plummets. The AC clicks off and stays off. We open the doors to the screened-in porch. Rain-sweetened air rushes in, and the house is lightened.

I spend my free time wrestling with material. I wash it and iron it; I clip it and I smooth it out onto the dining room table. I trace squares and I save buttons; I pick out seams, and I notice that, even when the seams have been cut away, the buttons and collars removed, there is still a trace and a clue of what’s been before. I can look at squares from the old black pillowcases, smooth them out and know where the sweet spot was, the place our heads rested most of the time. I can see the vibrant, almost new colors of the fabric that waited, tucked away, folded inside the case.

I work at it for days, growing impatient, wanting to get to the creative, fun, pretty part, but wanting, too, to build a strong foundation for the blanket I see more and more clearly in my mind.

I’m just beginning the process, creating the pieces that I’ll put together; making sense of what no longer worked, revitalizing fabric I can’t bear to give away. There is something here, I want to say, about reducing things to their original parts in order to give them a whole new kind of life.

There is something here about making a new thing and honoring the past that made it possible.

I make my templates; I snip away the tatters, and I plan. This phase will be done—soon, I hope,–and then I can begin.

Piecing it together.

Trying to see the pattern.

Creating something new.

Autumn In All Its Crispness

It is 6:30 a.m. when Mark glides the Impala into the car port. He is back from the gym. The coffee is churgling to completeness, and I pull my morning pages notebook from the cabinet. I pop my morning old person’s pill, and I settle at the table.

But Mark does not come in. Before I pick up the pen, I go to check on him.

He is standing on the back steps, looking out over the yard. I step down onto the cement stoop and shoot him a quizzical glance.

“It’s just…nice,” he says.

I step up next to him, breathe deep. Birds are starting to trill and chitter, and there’s an underhum of cicada. The breeze brushes our hair back gently.

And it is cool, that special cool that only comes when autumn dances over. There’s a clarity to that coolness, a transparency that has nothing to say to summer’s humidity.

“Crisp,” I say.

“Crisp,” Mark agrees, and we stand there for a long moment, reluctant to leave that refreshment to enter a house that now seems stuffy and stale.

****************

Later that day, some tasks accomplished, I sit down to do some writing, and I find my mind is filled with empty rooms. I go wandering, looking for a topic, searching for a shard or a crumb that might lead me on a word trail. But, instead of the usual tumbled clutter, I find nothing.

I wait a bit, expecting an overhead door to open and some fine thought to come dropping in—to bounce on the bony floor of an empty room and come rolling over to nudge my consciousness, which is sitting sadly, its head in its hands. When nothing happens, I go to my prompt jar. I shake it, and I stir the little slips of paper. They are goads I prepared three years ago, over a period of a month or two, getting ready for moments like this: creating suggestions for the days when it seems there’s nothing to write about.

I stick my index finger deep into the papers, and I stir them again, bringing the bottom slips up to the top, bringing the oldest slips up to the present. I shake the jar, I swirl it around one more time, and then I reach in with finger and thumb—pincers—and I draw out one folded yellow sheet.

Here is what it says (I kid you not): CRISP.

Crisp.jpg

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Crisp is such an autumn word.

I remember crunching through autumn leaves with my mother, walking to pick up the big boys from the Catholic school down the street. I was dressed, if that memory serves, in my Little Red Riding Hood cape, which I had decided was a fashion necessity. I had my black ‘hard’ shoes on (sneakers were ‘soft’ shoes). Piles of leaves were snugged up against the stone retaining wall that fronted the school grounds, and I stood next to my mother and stomped on leaves.

They made me think of corn flakes before the milk hit.

“Crunchy!” I said, looking up at my mother.

“Crisp,” she agreed, eyes searching the emerging children for a brother who had, I think, a dental appointment.

“Crisp,” I whispered, and I knew she was right. Crisp was the perfect word for Fall.

*************

The air is crisp. The leaves are crisp. I like that. Crispness is what it is, sharp and hard and no-nonsense. Crisp doesn’t float on top of a ninety per cent humidity pool. Crisp grabs the curtain in one strong hand and pulls.

“So,” it says. “Take a look.”

And it shows us leaves shaking out of trees and cradling to the ground, and summer flowers drying into brittle black stalkiness and hard beige patches of grass that would pricker my feet if I were silly enough to walk on them barefoot.

“That’s it!” says Crisp. “Like it or not.”

I think of a person I’ve worked with recently, a tech support person, a busy lady, who sat me down, showed me exactly what I needed, and asked, “Anything else?”

“Uh…no,” I said. “No, I think I’m good.”

And she got up, trotted briskly around the desk and held open her door with a smile.

Dismissed, a little light-headed, I packed up my stuff and headed home. Where, when I got on my computer, I discovered that I did indeed have everything I needed to accomplish the task at hand.

My tech support person was crisp, but very, very helpful.

Crisp can be like a splash of vinegar in a spray bottle. Oh, the smell makes me wince. But when I spray my windows and scrub, it does its job, crisp, fast, and well.

**************

Of course, I start wondering about the roots of crisp, its definition, its etymology, and I log on, pulling up etymonline.com, which shares some wonderful facts.

Crisp, the site tells me, comes to us from the Old English, meaning “curly, crimped, wavy,” and being applied to heads of hair and pelts of sheep and such-like.

And before that, Latin had it at crispus, which meant the same. And way before that, in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) roots of the word, it was sker. And that meant to turn or to bend.

To turn or to bend! And I picture autumn reaching for the lamppost at the end of summer, grasping it firmly, and heaving the whole long body of its season around the corner that lamppost guards. For autumn is the turning season, isn’t it? It bends us inexorably, often unwillingly, toward the bare bold face of winter.

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But there is beauty and joy in crispness, too.

Here come those changeable days—one humid and summery, one crisp and clear. And on those crisp, clear days, back to schoolers gladly pull on long-sleeved shirts and long-legged pants. They wear wooly soft socks, and they lace up sturdy, beautiful new shoes, and they go off in crystal clear air to crunch and stomp and wind up in the classroom, cold-cheeked and open-minded.

On those days, teachers can just lift the hinged top of each noggin and liberally pour in the learning.

Crisp, clear, learning days.

Smoke floats on the outdoor breeze; in these climes, people still burn their leaves in autumn, spreading the ashy residue for enrichment. The air tangs; it bites with that pungent smoke upon it. Crisp—that smoke-scented air.

The leaves crisp up and fall. Warm rich colors bloom. The apples plump up and blush up and wait to be picked.

I drive by a farmer’s market every Tuesday and Thursday on my way to a campus in Coshocton. The first time I stop, it is for the mums: five mums for twenty dollars! I pack a couple of cardboard flats into the back seat and load them up with potted plants. A couple bloom gold; a couple are a kind of copper with a golden-orangey eye. There are some that are a sort of maroon, and one, at least, in an autumnal purple. Crisp colors for the season, for the front yard.

And then the apples begin to arrive, and I drive by a couple of times, and it’s like there’s a magnet there I can’t ignore. One sunny day, I pull in and look through; I chat with the helpful clerk—We like ours pretty crunchy, I tell her—and I load two burgeoning white paper bags of varnished fall fruit onto the floor of my back seat.

It is just warm enough that I roll the windows closed and turn on the AC. I  drive the thirty miles home with apple perfume floating around me, enticing me to think of recipes: apple pie, of course, and baked apples; applesauce  set to simmer with nutmeg and cinnamon all day in the crock pot.

And apple crisp, for heaven’s sake. What is autumn without an apple crisp to top off some kind of pork-y, potato-ey dinner?

***************

At home, I go searching. I look through my wooden recipe box of family recipes. I find apple bread and apple bars and apple cake instructions.

There are no recipes for apple crisp in my notebooks, or in the family cookbooks Jim put together for me. And then I know just where to look.

I pull up Jodi McKinney’s blog, The Creative Life In Between, and have the recipe I need within minutes—a crisp little expense of time:

Double Crumble Apple Crisp

Sunday, I think. Sunday will be an apple crisp/crisp apple day.

*****************

Today I woke up and the sky was pressing down, trying to rub up against a damp and surly earth. Pushing humidity at me. Hot. Muggy. Dense.

But we have sker-red; we have turned the corner, bent the season. The muggy days will come, here and there, but more and more, we’ll feel the brisk breezes beneath the heat, and clear days will shove the dense and heavy ones aside.

Autumn is upon us, clear-eyed autumn, offering its hand to guide ours, ready to help us safely ascend into the shelter that winter demands we find. Autumn instructs us to harvest and save, to snuggle in and hunker down, to get ready for the frigid beauty that is winter.

Mark and I will greet more and more days on the cement back stoop as they rush in, cool and refreshing. I’ll take the energy those cool moments share.   I welcome Autumn, acerbic and plainspoken, that crispest of seasons.

Awake, You Sleepers!

Once there were three citizens of a bungalow-kingdom.

There was Lord Delancey, brave and strong and true, who strode forward each day, leaving the bungalow-boundaries. He went forth and slew any pesky dragons he encountered and then he returned, around 5:45, for dinner and a couple of episodes of Twin Peaks before retiring to his reading chair with a thick book of modern wisdom.

Lord D

(Someone once suggested to him that he could be known as the BungaLord, but he said, “No. Lord Delancey will be just fine, thank you.”)

There was Dame Dowenwanna. She’d slewn a few of her own dragons in the day, thank you very much, but, for the most part, she was pretty happy now to be the main bungalow-maintainer. She greased the wheels and stoked the fires and made sure the lamps were lit in the gathering dark.

Dame D

And finally there was young Lord Lyric, who was slowly but firmly, step by tender step, learning the art of dragon-slaying. He ventured out into that noble world just a little, but, every season, a little bit more.

And meantime, he chronicled BungaLife with his clever and witty songs.

Three citizens of Bungalow

All for one to make life go

Swift and smooth and straight and slick

Collaborate to make things tick!

And things hummed along pretty smoothly.

And then the power stopped surging to things here and there.

***********

First it was the garbage disposal. Dame Dowenwanna was preparing a lovely stew, with carrots and potatoes, celery and onion, and she gleefully peeled and diced and rough chopped. And then she sink-dumped the peelings and the scrapings and she pushed them toward the disposal’s metal maw—she pushed with a wooden spoon, turned a strong stream of water on the mushy mess, and hummed while she reached under the sink to flick on the disposal switch.

But, instead of the expected electronic, metallic gnashing, there was silence. No whirring into action. Nothing.

The sodden veggie peels waited, limp and disgusting.

Dame Dowenwanna toggled the switch. She took a break and let it rest and tried again. She kept it up for 15 minutes and then she said, “Something’s wrong.” She went and got a plastic bag and scraped all the veggie residue into it, and she disposed of those leavings by hand.

Scrapings.jpg

When Lord Delancey came home for dinner, she informed him of the issue. He stood at the sink, ran the water, and flicked the switch. And still, nothing happened.

There was a time of quiet, and then, between them, Lord and Dame, they called it.

“The garbage disposal,” they said, sadly, “is dead.”

Oh, we have lost our garbage disposal!

Will it be replaced?

Who knows,

Who knowsal?

Peely scrapey, where’ll you go???

“Why, thank you, Lord Lyric,” said Dame Dowenwanna. And the young Lord bowed and went to sit at the dining table. Disposal or not, dinner must be served.

**********

The next morning, Lord Lyric went to work at his computer. He was humming a merry little lay-about-y tune, brisk and sunny. The tune grew slower, and then it grew less sunny, and then a despondent Lord Lyric stuck his face through the kitchen doorway.

And he said this:

My monitor keeps dying!

“Oh, NO,” said Dame Dowenwanna.

“Perhaps,” said Lord Lyric, “when Lord Delancey comes back, we will call the corporate help desk together. Meanwhile,” and he pulled himself up to his full height, pointed his left index finger at the ceiling, and firmed up his voice, “meanwhile, I have no choice. I will have to type on my laptop.”

Lyric.jpg

Dame Dowenwanna shook her head sadly and went back to stuffing food scrapings into an old Kroger bag. She heard young Lyric singing from his workspace.

Oh, oh, lackaday me!

My monitor’s dark

And I can’t see

The words I’ve typed

Though I’ve squinted and stared

Oh, how long

Till it’s repaired?

***********

She bagged the garbage.

He used his laptop.

And the next night, as darkness spread its inky stain over the world, Lord Delancey opened the dishwasher door, and he stood assessing. Hip cocked, lips pursed, he looked, and then he thought, “Aha!”, and he bent down to act. He rearranged a glass and a plate. He moved a serving dish from top rack to bottom. He rinsed out his ice cream bowl, lodged it securely into the new space he’d created, and stepped back to look once more.

Satisfied, smiling, he drew a dishwasher pod from the cupboard under the sink, and he secured it firmly into the pod-place. And then he turned the dishwasher on.

But nothing happened.

He started over. He checked for obstructions. He insured the machine was plugged in.

And then he closed the door and tried again.

The machine did not respond.

***********

Oh, sang Lord Lyric,

There’s sadness in the land

And all the bungaladishes,

They must be washed by hand.

Those nasty pots a-soaking?

Attack them with a will-oh!

The dishwasher died,

And you’re left with just a

Brillo.

**********

Life went on in the bungalow, but it was just a little more bumpy. Dame Dowenwanna sighed a lot more often, and she clattered dishes when it was time for clean-up, and Lord Delancey found himself elbow-deep in soap suds much more regularly. And young Lyric muttered and grumbled as he pounded the fragile keyboard of his laptop.

Once a day, at least, one of them would mutter, We have to get this fixed!

But time went by, as time is wont to do. Days began and ended, months slipped by, and seasons changed.

Years,–yes, even years--passed.

***************

And then one morning—well, who knows why Dowenwanna did it? There, in the midst of her Saturday morning cleaning, she reverted to old habits, turned on the water, flipped an under-sink switch,—and Dame Dowenwanna began dancing around the kitchen, breakfast dishes be damned.

“Listen!” she caroled, and both the Lords came running—running to hear a raspy metallic chortle.

“The disposal!” she cried “It’s working!”

Lord Delancey grabbed her and they swung around in an elegant waltz, and Lord Lyric sang,

To life!

To life!

Disposal!

…which was the best he could do under such frenetic circumstances.

And Lord Lyric got a thoughtful look, and while Delancey and Dowenwanna danced, he slipped away to his desktop.

The only noise for just a bit was the musical chomping of the disposal and the pounding of four dancing feet,…but then! A triumphant song!

Oh, my monitor:

Happy day!

The lights are on

And I have to say,

A new cord’s

What made it work!

Two years dormant;

Oh, I feel like a jerk!

Ho, de hidey, ho de ho!

*********

And Dame Dowenwanna shooed Lord Delancey out of the kitchen, turned off the disposal and pulled out the mop so she could clean the floor. She swept and she scrubbed. She maneuvered the mop into corners and nooks; she mopped around Lyric’s large sneakered feet when he sidled in, in his joy, to get a snack. She pushed the mop beneath the moribund dishwasher and she hummed as she twiddled the mophead around, pulling out dust and ditties.

And then she swirled around, dancing the mop into the space surrounding the stove.

And Lyric stopped short.

“Dame,” he said.

And when she, humming, didn’t hear him, “DAME,” he said, louder.

And pointed toward the dishwasher.

Which was on.

They shouted in wonder; Delancey came running. They fiddled with buttons, touched spots on the touchscreen. They ran a refreshing rinse cycle.

Because it was true: the dishwasher, too, was working.

**********

Oh, oh, what do you know?

Machines must sleep!

Nap’s over, though.

A turn of events

Precisely stunning:

What once was junk,

Now is running!

Happy happy hey hey hey!

**********

Oh, the happy bungalow hum! Garbage disappeared, a desktop keyboard preened under a long overdue stroking, and three people woke up to gleaming, sanitized dishes.

What a day! What a wonderful day! Who knew that appliances, electronic devices, machines, could heal themselves!

Breakfast was a grand affair, and Delancey garbed himself for his daily foray—dragons were no match for a man with his dishwasher restored—and strode off into the thick of it.

Lyric, words pounding in his head, marched off to pound on his keyboard.

And Dowenwanna, after checking her email and ordering a book or two online, swirled through the house with the dust mop. She vanquished a few stubborn cobwebs, and she swiped a bit of fuzz from the woodwork.

And then she pulled the heavy old vacuum cleaner from the closet, let lose its cord, and plugged it in.

**********

Lyric came running when he heard her wail. He saw her, bent over the lifeless cleaning machine, the vacuum cleaner that refused to suck, and a dirge leapt into his mind. He opened his lips to sing.

But Dowenwanna lifted a hand, palm out.

“Don’t EVEN,” she said, and she wrapped the cord around the prongs and trundled the vacuum, verve vacated, back to its dark and lonely hiding place.

Vac

What We Hand Down

Ray takes care of our neighborhood. Several single women of varying ages, elderly couples of varying activity levels, busy young families, live all around us. Ray, a skilled handyman, works to keep their lawns mowed, their gutters cleaned, their windows washed and replaced when needed, their shingles and siding and roof tiles in good repair. I see him around the neighborhood almost every non-rainy day; he wears his long-sleeved, acid yellow, work shirt, long cargo pants and a baseball hat. (He is protected against the sun. Ray is probably somewhere in his fifties, and when age starts creeping in, delight in that beef jerky tanned look goes creeping out.)

When two friends asked about finding someone reliable to clean their gutters and do some autumnal house repairs, of course I thought of Ray. I went to Sandi’s door to see if she had his contact number; Sandi was not home. Phyllis seemed to be gone, too. But then, driving James home from work, I saw Ray out mowing her lawn.

I deposited the boy at home and walked over to talk with Ray.

******************

“Nah,” said Ray. “Thanks for thinking of me, but I got too much.” And he told me that, in addition to the neighborhood work that keeps him busy every single day, he manages a couple of apartment houses—does maintenance and repairs and, when needed, cleaning. And that week, all three skills were required, because a young tenant, months behind on the rent payments, had turned into a midnight runner.

Somehow, Ray said, they’d learned she debarked to someplace down south, leaving behind her a filthy flat with holes in the walls and broken windows and smelly, ratty clothing ankle-deep on all the floors of all the rooms. Ray needed to clean the place out, repair the holes and gashes and breaks, and paint and shampoo and scrub so the next tenant could move in to a place that was light and fresh and clean.

“These kids,” Ray said sadly, and he wiped an acid yellow arm over his beaded forehead. “They have no idea how to keep a place clean.”

“Who teaches them, I wonder?” I said, and I had a vision of kids growing up in chaos and moving out to live in chaos of their own making.

“Jeeeezzzz,” Ray answered, long and deep and distressed, “they don’t even know how to keep their laundry clean, half of ‘em. I think they run to WalMart when there’s no more clean socks.”

And we reminisced then, about our diligent mothers, who had Spring Cleaning and Fall Cleaning; who made us scrub down walls twice a year and wash the woodwork with Murphy’s Oil Soap suzzed up into a bucket of hot water. Who had days for washing and days for ironing, days that they baked and days they changed beds and scrubbed tub and toilet—because often, back then, the bathroom, no matter how many kids were crammed in the house, numbered one—and days they went to the market and brought home a week’s worth of groceries. They taught us, our mothers, to wield an iron and dry sparkling glasses in the dish drainer and to cook up a passable stew or spaghetti sauce. And though I certainly wasn’t grateful at the time, many’s the time I’ve silently thanked the household gods I had a clue about what to do when, and how to do it.

Ray, of course, as a boy back in the 1970’s, trained at his father’s school of household maintenance, too, and learned to change a fuse and run a mower, to stick his hands into gloves and clean disgusting, decomposing stuff out of gutters twice a year, to caulk a window and to reinforce a sagging table-leg and to keep a vegetable garden healthy and weed-free. He could seal a driveway and he could fix a small engine. He was good at those things, Ray was, and when he grew up and got married, he and his wife bought a fixer-upper and turned it into a proud-to-owner, and people started paying Ray to do the same for their houses.

We talked about all this, and then I asked Ray if he knew of anyone I could recommend to my friends who needed gutters cleaned.

Ray sighed, a shudder that shook his whole tired body, and he said no. “No one knows how to do this kind of work anymore,” he said sadly. “Or, if they do know how, they don’t want to do it.”

We talked a little bit more and then I thanked him and walked back home, leaving the man alone to get back to his work.

But the conversation stayed with me. I wonder: who’s passing the basic arts of living on down to our [collective] kids?

*********

Last week, Mark replaced the motor for the fan in the powder room. The old one had been dying, loudly and painfully, for a year, but every fourth or fifth time, we’d flick the switch, and the thing would hum into quiet, vibrant life, and we’d say, “See? It’s okay! There must have just been something stuck.” Mark took it apart and cleaned it, and it was great for ten days or so, and then it just was done.

So Mark, who’d learned home repair at HIS father’s school, took the old motor out and sat down at the computer and searched. It WAS an old motor, too—sturdy and reliable, it lasted upwards of thirty years without a hiccup or a grumble. It had a name and a number on it, limned in the dust of the ages, and, while Mark couldn’t find that exact make, he did find a motor that would fit exactly into the space left vacant.

He ordered it; it arrived in two days, and he installed it in the powder room. The only glitch was where the wires connected; they interfered with the vent going back on and Mark had to get creative. But he handled that and screwed the vent back on, and now, there’s the reassuring whir of the powder room fan whenever needed.

“I was thinking about it,” said Mark, “and I just could have replaced the whole fan. But I thought, we throw things out too easily. Why not fix what we’ve got?”

He probably saved fifty dollars on the project, and he walked around for days with that straight-backed sense of accomplishment: I fixed it.

The week that Mark fixed the fan, I walked by a house down the street on garbage pick-up morning. A huge TV—the kind that has an enclosed triangular bump-out behind the mega-screen—sat at the curb. I had a vision of a sleek new flat-screen sitting or hanging proudly in the house. Maybe the owners would have had, too, to replace the TV stand or entertainment center; with each new technological innovation, the furniture that holds our media grows also obsolete.

As I pumped on up the street, I conjured a vision of my father unscrewing the back of our old black and white TV (my parents didn’t get a color set until most of us kids had flown the coop; my mother always claimed the picture was better—crisper, more delineated—in the black and white world). Dad would hunker down and peer and fiddle; he’d decide which tube was causing the problem. He would disconnect that tube and put it in a bag and drive down, on a Saturday afternoon, to the TV repair shop. He’d return with a new tube to ease back in; he’d replace the back of the old TV, and he’d turn it on, cock his hips and purse his lips, and run out to play with the antenna settings on top of the house.

He’d complain about the cost of replacement tubes: Two dollars! he’d mutter, bitterly, but fixing the TV was always a priority.

Today our televisions are sealed mysteries; and when they’re done, they’re done. We put them out at the curb, and we go buy a new one.

So it’s nice when something, like Mark’s fan, can be repaired. And essential that the house guy has the skills to fix it.

************

There has been a break-off in there somewhere, in how homely arts are being passed down. Oh, there are still families that take their kids and anchor their little faces on the jobs at hand and patiently—even when it would be easier to let them go play and just do it themselves—tell them which tool to get and what it’s called and how to wield it, explain why the baking soda is necessary to the mixture, or show them how to plummet down onto their knees and thoroughly scrub a bathtub. But that’s, I think, the exception these days.

Because lots of things have happened.

Maybe some of the change took place in my generation—we who came of age in the sixties and seventies and rejected so much of what we were expected to mindlessly accept. We women, we would work outside the home. We would bring home the bacon, and fry up the bacon, and be perfectly seductive and sweet-smelling at the end of the day. A whole industry grew up to support us, an industry that includes labor-saving appliances and ready-to-heat foods and mixes.

Michael Pollan, in his essay, “Eat Food: Food Defined,” advises this (and it’s his all-caps): DON’T EAT ANYTHING YOUR GREAT GRANDMOTHER WOULDN’T RECOGNIZE AS FOOD. Real food, says Pollan, was the kind of food people ate before squeeze tubes of yogurt appeared in the dairy case and cereal breakfast bars became a thing. Pollan calls the food we eat today—the processed, packaged foods of mysterious origin,—‘modern food.’

They’re complicated, these modern foods, he says, and there are many reasons to avoid them.

There were many reasons to embrace them too, though, when changes came. Women were busy—stay-at-home moms in the sixties, for instance, often had five or more kids, all at various ages and stages, all needing various things, including time and rides and soulful attention. And food. Putting a meal on the table at 5:30 when the ravenous dad came home could be a challenge after an afternoon spent picking up, dropping off, meeting kids after practice or rehearsal and getting them home in time for homework and making their beds and all the frou-frah of everyday life.

And just think how complicated that life would be if you were a mom who worked outside the home.

So what’d be wrong with taking a brick of burger from the freezer and stirring up, in twenty minutes or so, a hearty double pot of cheeseburger helper? And kids got used to the taste of powdered cheese mix, raised their eyebrows at concoctions that came from their mothers’ shelves and imaginations.

Why make a casserole from scratch when the family likes the Helper-style better?

And sometimes, the mixes WERE magically better. Hand-mixed and baked cakes, for instance, required patience and no loud thumping around the oven area for a good sixty minutes—a calm that could be tricky in a busy, bumptious household.  I can remember the first time my mother tried a cake mix, and the two chocolate layers came perfectly out of the oven, with their rounded tops and tender texture. She decanted them onto plates and let them cool; she frosted them into an exactly symmetrical, light and airy concoction.

Everyone loved that cake, and I don’t think my mother ever made another scratch cake after that. And I learned how to add mayonnaise to a chocolate cake mix, or spices to a yellow one, but I never learned, back then, to make a cake from scratch.

******************

We are busy: more employed than ever before, and more locked in to outside the home activities—into meetings and classes and practices and memberships. Cooking from scratch is often a fond memory; these days, family supper itself—even a fast food one–is a rare event.

And a whole industry stands ready to assure us that we really don’t have time to cook.

I remember discussing favorite foods with a favorite student once. She mentioned that she loved mac and cheese, and I told her I had a great recipe.

“How would THAT work?” she asked, truly curious. The only kind of mac and cheese she’d ever eaten came in a slender blue box.

********************

Another thing happened, sometime around those heady days of personal revolution and re-defining freedom: we decided, as a society, that everyone needed to go to college, preferably for a four-year degree.  I can remember my mother advocating what she called trade school—get a skill and get a job, she said, and then you can go to college if you want to. But you’d always, she suggested, have a skill to fall back on.

That was especially true for girls as divorce became more common; girls just couldn’t plan to be the home-half of a marriage partnership any more. Because husbands left for whatever reason, and wives were stuck with kids and mortgages and no viable resume.

My mother had shorthand skills and typed; when I went to high school, I looked forward to acquiring those skills, too, but my guidance counselor quickly disabused me. I could be business track or college track, and I had good grades. College track it was, and it would have taken organizational machinations to merge the two. So on to college I went, a two-fingered typist, wishing fervently that I’d at least found time for a keyboarding class. I graduated with my English literature degree and visited with friends who’d taken their business skills right to work after high school, and who were making more money than my father did after thirty years at the same plant.

But now, the jobs available have changed; the steel plants shuttered, manufacturing disappearing from US soil. Many industries demand at least a two-year degree of their entry level employees.

Going to college is an expectation. But what if learning a skill or a trade was an expectation, too—and what if we granted the earned respect to the people who did that?

********************

Maybe Madison Avenue did this on purpose; if we’re functionally dependent, we need to buy products and devices and services that once we would have made or fixed or done at home. But there’s a costly loss in terms of pride and satisfaction and tradition…and in the sense that we’re sending our kids off into the world with the skills they need to navigate most kinds of emergencies.

So I try to be mindful. I blow dust from my sewing chest and, when I iron a shirt and find a tiny tear, I take the time to mend it,–before a tiny tear become a roaring rip and a good shirt becomes a rag or a discard. I buy some soft, pretty yarn on sale, and, at night, watching that sleek flat screen TV, I knit throws for the family room. I dig out recipes books and remember how to make soups and stews.

I think about making chocolate cupcakes, and when I discover there’s no devil’s food cake mix, I try making a batch from scratch. They are denser and moister. They sink down, a little, in their centers. I find a recipe for salted caramel icing, and I fill the little dents with that, and then frost again over the tops. The boyos say they like them better than boxed—but they could be just being kind.

And once a week, I try to engage Jim in the kitchen, sautéing and stir-frying, chopping and creating. He wavers between reluctance and fascination.

He is firmly in the reluctant lane when we work on laundry and cleaning skills, but I persist. Slowly and surely, he’ll learn the skills; whether his house or apartment will meet the Mom-test—well, that’s not up to me. What’s up to me is to make sure he’s got the tools.

He’ll decide how to use them. Someday—and in the greater scheme of things, not so very far in the future—I’ll be gone. I hope he’ll be prepared, by then, for an independent life.

***********

I believe we are at a transition time, a time of cataclysmic change, as life-changing a time as the Industrial Revolution. It’s a time of wonder and magical technology. It’s a time when we’ve become entirely dependent on what’s made by other hands—a time of both opportunity and great danger.

And part of that danger is in what can be lost—the skills, the confidence, the knowledge passed on.

************

I text my friends and tell them Ray is not available. They text back, sadly, that they understand.

A guy like that is bound to be busy, they say.

 

All of a Sudden: Mid-August

Leaves in the grass

I wake to the rattle of the spare room door. The wind, blowing in through the screened window, is shaking it. And a hard rain is driving down: the outdoor world a cacophony of discordant sounds—pelting and blowing and shaking.

I stumble over to prop the spare room’s door open. Then I crawl back into bed, pull the sheet up to my chin, and drift back off to sleep, oddly lulled by the dissonance.

In the morning, I slip my old shoes on and go outside. The grass is beaded with silver dew, and the little tree, the one by the kitchen window, has lost many of its leaves, pounded off by that insistent rain. They lay curled on the ground; they are golden and brown. They are harbingers of autumn.

It is August, the eighth month—the august month of portent and change.

*************

The library calls; the book I’ve requested is waiting for me. So Jim and I take an afternoon swing over, and, while he pores through the DVD’s, I take Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine to a table. This is an old, old book, with a third copyright date of 1968. There’s still a pocket in the front to hold a library card, and stamped dates march up and down the page. The oldest reads “FEB 79,” and it was taken out many times after that, too.

I flip to the first page of text and read, “It was a quiet morning…You had only to lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.” And I get to know Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, whose summer vacation is just beginning.

The novel takes place in 1928, but it describes a universal whoosh of “Welcome, Summer!” I felt it, this year, the first time I sat with my coffee at the wobbly patio table—maybe late in May—and realized the summer was opening up before me. There was so much I wanted to do, so many people to connect with. There were places to visit, meals to cook, and chronicles to write.

I gave myself up to that feeling of endless summer, and I  plunged: I did many of the things and saw many of the people. I visited some of the places, and I chronicled a tale or two.

And then, slick and sly, the pedestal whipped into a sudden turn, whirled me around a bend, and I looked straight into the eyes of August. Mid-August: that corner season.

August stared me down.

“Things are changing,” it said to me, and it turned its back and marched on.

Endless summer, I knew in that moment, had ended.

******************

August is rain. I open the weather app on my phone. Three of the next six days have thundercloud icons; two show suns peeking behind puffy cumulous-nimbuses. Only one day promises a clear sky and a pleasant temp.

It has rained almost every day this week; the crab grass which suddenly appeared this summer is tall and taunting.

I need to mow.

I need to spray a new coat of blacking on the metal patio chairs.

I need to hunker down and dig up the grass that is inching inward, overtaking the disappearing pavers that lead to the alley out back.

I plan to do all that in that one sunny day, and bowing to the season, start prepping the dining room to paint. August means working inside.

A memory pops up: my mother, keening at the window as rain streaks down the screen.

“It always rains on your vacation,” she says to my father.

My father manages my brothers’ little league team. Their season goes from May until July—longer if they make the play-offs, and they often do. There is no point, my father says, in taking time off until baseball season is over.

So August is vacation time, and we talk about trips to the lake and marathon backyard wiffle ball games. My father plans to paint the trim and change the oil and fix a couple of electrical things, outside.

But, my mother is right: it is August, and it always rains. My father sighs, and shrugs, and lights a cigarette. He turns a page of the newspaper in the quiet house.

And the rain pounds down.

***************

The newspaper is full of county fair news. The fair starts on Sunday, and, for 4-H kids throughout the county, a long year’s work is coming to its culmination. Fair week is competition week—kids will show their chickens and sheep, their goats and hogs and cows. They will shampoo and comb and coax; they will lead and prompt and try not to stumble. Solemn judges will watch and inspect and hand out ribbons and “master showman” honors.

People will bid on the livestock. Our butcher shop may have a sign: We purchased the best-of-show steer from Joey Shlagelholdt!

The winning kids’ hearts will leap—joy and pride, and sorrow, too, as they groom and stroke that winning creature one last time—preparing for the hand-off, knowing what it means.

In the buildings, other judges study handmade goods. They gently finger soft, knitted blankets, kneel down to peer at hand-painted pictures. They examine fragile antiques and vast collections. Some lucky judges slice into tall cakes on milk glass pedestals, cut into sugar crusted pies that ooze blueberry syrup.  Ribbons appear—yellow, red, and the royal blue ones. Ribbons that say, “Best of Show.”

The air is rich with steamy, fragrant, scents—Italian sausage, peppers and onions. Yeasty, cinnamon-y, fried dough.

The fair is the midway, too—the clash and grind of the rides, the whirling and spinning and laughter and screams. The people who travel with the fair seem rootless, disconnected; they open a curtain to let us look quickly into a different world, a mobile, ever-changing one. They carry a scent of the exotic, a little glint of danger. Middle school kids crowd the rides, in love with the mystery and their own daring.

August is the blatting of the loud-speaker, the harmonies of Montgomery Gentry and Jo Dee Messina, the free stickers at the political parties’ booths.  August is the county fair.

**********************

I need, I decide, a cooking day. One late morning, I buy two huge packages of ground chuck at the little supermarket—such a great deal, and so many things we can do with it! After lunch I dig out recipes—“Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs,” “Best Ever Meat Loaf,”—and I pull the big blue polka dot pasta bowl down from atop the cupboard. I make bread crumbs in the food processor: I measure milk and grated cheese and I crack eggs. I slide my wedding ring off and put it on the window sill, and I splay my fingers. I plunge my hands, wincing, into the cold, wet, eggy mess.

There is no other way to mix the meatballs.

I shape a tray full of big, bold meatballs for spaghetti. I make a tin of tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.

While they roast in the oven, I pat meatloaf into pans, shape fat, hearty burgers, and stuff the remaining two pounds of meat into Tupperware. I carry a wobbling tower of packages to the chest freezer and pack them in.

When the meatballs are done, I pack them up and let them cool, and I think it’s a shame to waste an already heated oven.

I pull out dark brown sugar and dark and milk chocolate chips, flour, eggs, and butter, vanilla, and baking powder. I mix up a batch of cookies, drop lumpy balls onto cookie sheets, read a friendly novel while they bake.

I spatula golden, brown-edged cookies onto the broad old metal pizza pan, and when they are cooled, I stack them in my two plaid cookie jars.

It is August, and something deep within calls me to fill the larder, to preserve the fruits—to prepare for the darker days ahead.

*************************

I sit next to a solemn young Boy Scout at a board meeting; he must attend, for a badge, a public forum where differing opinions may be heard. He must write up a detailed report. He opens his notebook, writes, “Notes” at the top of the page, and neatly numbers down the margin.

“When does school start?” I ask him, not thinking, and his face darkens.

“Some day next WEEK,” he mutters, and I see that the joy of his endless summer has begun to leech away.

It always seems early, the mid-August back to school here in Ohio. It dazzled me, when we first moved here, to hear people say, on July Fourth, “Ah, summer’s almost over already!”

“What do you MEAN?” I wanted to chivvy them. “Summer’s not over until Labor Day.”

But, calendar be damned, summer ends when teachers report back for Preparation Days, when the football teams trot out onto the field and sully their pristine leggings with grass-stains, when the cross-country runners span out over the edge of the highway—fleet to fledgling,–and when the kids go back to school.

So summer ends, here, in August. Summer, as I thoughtlessly reminded my young colleague at the meeting, ends next week.

******************

I come home from another meeting to find packages on the front steps—new black pants and a long-sleeved shirt, a floaty black top. Back to school clothes, for me, for the first time in several years. This Fall, before the end of August, I will be back in the classroom, teaching at two different colleges, trying to rub the love of words into a hot incense between my palms…and then, opening my hands, I will puff, trying to diffuse at least a little, tentative breath of that heady brew into my students’ beings.

I know I won’t always be successful, but sometimes—oh, sometimes—those tendrils reach out and find a welcome.

And I am caught in the excitement of preparation, in what some of my colleagues over the years have called Syllabus Hell, a time of sitting with the calendar and looking at the assignments, ticking off the holidays and fitting the semester’s expectations into a neatly plotted chart. A time to craft and tweak assignments to elicit, if not outright excitement, then thought and reaction and a spill of words onto a page. Or many pages.

My inner child geek still lives on, loving the smell of new loose-leaf paper and the first bloopy scrawl from a virgin ballpoint pen, and the fun of planning the term.

And this year, post-retirement, I am reporting to a smart young professional, at one of my schools, who used to work with me—who has graduated from adjunct to full-time faculty, to program coordinator, and now to the overseer of adjunct faculty at a different college entirely. Creative, compassionate, energetic, she embraces the role, and I sit across the desk from her and sign the forms she passes my way and accept the textbooks she hands me.

I am retired and teaching because I want to. I am retired, and I get to exult in the trajectory of people I’ve mentored who go on to do wonderfully unexpected things.

August is a time of year, but I realize it is a time of life, too.

**************

I read my Bradbury and mourn for that endless summer feeling, but a little fizz of excitement bubbles, too: new students, cooler nights, celebrations. I will go out and buy new pens and spiral notebooks; I will get a pair of sensibly stylish black shoes. I’ll goad the boyos into an autumn wardrobe contemplation, and we’ll think about, maybe, an October adventure.

There are things to be done and things to be planned, and the last, tastiest dregs of summer to be shaken from the bottle, mixed up with clear, cold water, and enjoyed.

It is August, with that clear-cut sense of what is ending, and the mysterious promise of what might be about to begin.

 

 

 

Getting Catty With It

Cool Cat 2

Image taken from planwallpaper.com

Lately, I’ve been running into feline phrases, and this week, for some reason, I am driven to figure out their origins.

And there, I’ve done it again. I was going to try to build this essay slowly toward a focus. Instead, I’ve gone ahead and let the cat out of the bag.

***********

This whole cat-language obsession started a week or two ago. I published a blog post that said something about a thing being kitty-corner from another thing. My friend Marcie responded.

“I’ve always said CATTY-corner,” she wrote. “Have I been wrong all my life?”

I had heard catty-corner, of course, once or twice; it sounded wrong to MY ears, but I was betting it was kind of a regional issue. So I looked it up.

The Grammarist (http://grammarist.com/usage/catty-corner-kitty-corner/) told me this:

There are really THREE versions: kitty, catty, and CATER-corned. (The Grammarist prefers cater.) And they all come, the Grammarist tells me, from the Middle English catre-cornered, which means four-cornered. The term’s morphed through the years to today’s meaning–diagonally across the way,–and any of its forms are acceptable. The region in which we learn to use the term seems to define the choice.

So…no feline influence at all, at all. The Grammarist can keep her cater-,and Marcie can still use catty. I know, at this late stage and age, I’ll never switch from that ingrained kitty.

It is nice to know, for a change, that everyone is right.

And it gets me thinking about English as a catty kind of language.

*******

What about, for instance, the grand old term, ‘cattywampus’? There’s a word I’d love to throw into an appropriate spot. It comes, I learn, from a cobbling of Middle English and early southern dialect.

Will, on Quora.com (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-origin-and-meaning-of-cattywampus) writes:

It’s a Southern American slang that is over 200 years old in origin. It roughly means askew or not in order and implies something totally deranged and screwed-up. Most recently I heard it applied to highway organization in and around Atlanta.

The word stole a little from Catty-corner and another Southern term Wampus (to flail about).

Oh, I’m looking forward to writing about something totally deranged and messed up, just so I can use this word…which also seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with a cat.

************

So….let’s put the cat back in the bag and see how it got there.

And, oh, the things I find out when I go digging. The first published use of “letting the cat out of the bag,” Matt Soniak tells me on Mental Floss, was in London Magazine in 1760. A reviewer was critiquing a book; its author must have been just about as discreetly inclined as I am. Matt quotes the reviewer as writing, “We could have wished that the author had not let the cat out of the bag.” (http://mentalfloss.com/article/31180/whats-origin-let-cat-out-bag)

So the term’s meant the same thing for a while as it does now: to let the cat out of the bag is to reveal a secret, probably at a too-early stage. I need to figure out where that all got started, and Matt Soniak gives me two possible scenarios.

The first has nothing directly to do with a cat…or a secret, for that matter…but it does go right to painful consequences. This explanation has it that the ‘cat’ was not a sweetly purring animal at all, but a whip: the cat o’ nine tails used to mete out punishments to errant sailors. The whip was kept in a bag to keep it from drying out; hence, when punishment loomed, when consequences were about to be bruted out,  the whipping one would have to let the ‘cat’ out of the bag.

Eeeeeeuw.

The second explanation does have to do with a cat, but it’s no less ornery. Vendors, back in the day, would sell live piglets to those who wanted to raise a meaty sow or boar. They’d pack those piglets in sturdy bags, where the little thing would wriggle and raise a ruckus—so much so that buyers wouldn’t want to open the sack and check on the little beastie’s well-being. If they did, the piggie might just jump out and run away.

So unwary buyers might get all the way home to find they’d been given a kitty instead of a piggie. This turn of events, Matt Soniak tells me, not only accounts (maybe) for letting the cat out of the bag. It is also the origin of the cautionary saying, “Never buy a pig in a poke.”

At least, there’s really a furry feline involved, to some extent, in this turn of phrase.

***************

And my mind wanders to Cat Stevens, and from there to the cat in the cradle, and I wonder about that—that game we used to love to play in middle grades and middle school: cat’s cradle. So I look it up. And find, again, the feline connection is pretty flimsy.

The game of cat’s cradle seems to have been around since ancient times. It may have been, The Times of India tells me, a good-luck game played by ancient Greeks on special days; the passing of the cradle from hands to hands also spread good luck.  (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/What-is-the-origin-of-the-term-cats-cradle/articleshow/1429029.cms)

Wikipedia suggests the game may have originated in China.

But the game’s name had nothing to do with a cat. Whatever the ancient Greeks or Chinese called it, the theory is that the title changed when Christianity became entrenched. “Cat’s cradle” was a morphing of “Cratch cradle.”  And a cratch, according to Merriam-Webster, is a manger.

So when we weave those strings around our fingers, we’re not making a bed for a kitty cat. No, we’re weaving a safe, soft place for the little baby Jesus to sleep.

Maybe that’s why I learned to play the game in Catholic school.

************

But surely some of our cat-language has feline roots. What about, I wonder, the pot of money called, in poker and in other places, a kitty?

I pull up a site called “Say Why Do I…” which has a promising picture of a cool cat in shades next to its definition of ‘kitty.’ And here is what I learn:

…although the term originated in poker games, it’s okay, now, to call any common pot of money a kitty. A PTA, for instance, might refer to the place they put fund-raising cash as its kitty. And there are, says “Say Why Do I…”, several theories for the way the term prowled into our language.

  • In the Middle Dutch Language, “kit” referred to the place—be it a bag or a barrel—where someone kept his tools. Card players borrowed that concept in an ironic kind of way. (“Say Why Do I…” tells me that language experts like this explanation the best.)
  • Or how about this? “Kitty,” back in the day, was a nickname for women who plied what some call the world’s oldest trade. When gents were playing cards in dens of ill repute, they would throw the money into the lap of a lady of the establishment. The money was held by a “Kitty.”
  • “Kitty” is also, the site asserts, slang for prison. So the money in the pot was imprisoned money until one card player freed it by luck or by skill.
  • And finally, there’s this possibility. Cockney slang is rhyming slang. (This reminds me of Basher, in Oceans 11, rhyming trouble with ‘Barney Rubble.’) So…money was often tossed, literally, into a hat. Cockney card players might rhyme that with kitty cat, and then shorten that to kitty…

…and again, no sign of a cat hair on ANY of these theories. Funny, isn’t it, how our language works?

http://www.saywhydoi.com/money-in-the-kitty-why-do-we-say-we-put-money-in-the-kitty/

***********

But, hey—what about that suave cat wearing the shades on the site I just left? What ABOUT the term, ‘cool cat’?

Ken Fishkin (https://www.quora.com/When-did-Americans-first-use-slang-to-equate-cats-with-coolness-as-in-the-phrase-cool-cat) asserts that it was jazz icon Louis Armstrong who popularized that phrase. Fishkin points to Armstrong’s song, “This Black Cat has Nine Lives” as evidence.

And that connection, at least, has a direct link to our aloof and oh-so-suave family pets. It’s their untouchably unruffled demeanor that makes humans want to imitate their coolth.

*******

Well, I’m feeling just a little bit disappointed in all the cat terms that are really not at all related to cats. I’m feeling snarky and cranky and like I want to be a little bit…catty. Mrrrreoow!

I look up catty, too. The Urban Dictionary tells me this is a gender neutral term (only women can, you’ll excuse me, be bitchy, the site suggests, but ANYONE can be catty.) It means to be “subtly or indirectly insulting.”

(https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=catty)

And here, too, the cat-connection is strong. Etymonline (https://www.etymonline.com/word/catty) tells me the term was first noted in 1886, and it meant “devious and spiteful.” It evolved, they think from cattish, which means, of course, “pertaining to cats.”

*****************

So…all those cat terms and all those kitty terms and only a passing glance to the animal I always believed they gave homage to. English—what a language: affected by region, by story, by sly and clever turns of phrases disguising slightly (or overtly) shady connections. It seems a little askew, doesn’t it? A little deranged and screwed-up?

I love the language, of course, but please just let me say this. When I go digging into it, I have to suggest: English is often cattywampus.

Getting the News

“The newspaper is a greater treasure to the people than uncounted millions of gold.”
Henry Ward Beecher (quoted on https://odnp.uoregon.edu/2011/06/22/quotes-about-newspapers/)

Clipping

I come downstairs in the brightening morning to find Mark standing outside on the front steps, his feet bare against the aging bricks.

“No paper,” he says sadly. He looks up the street; no noisy car careens around the corner, stopping to toss newspaper missiles, bright in their orange plastic sacks, out onto front walks.

We both have that bottoms-out feeling. The day really needs to start with a steaming mug and a newspaper spread out on the dining room table.

********

Mark gets his IPad out and pulls up the big-city newspaper, and he reads the news while I scrawl away on my morning pages. We drain our mugs; he fills the kettle again and lights the back burner. I brew another short pot of decaf and fill a bowl with honey granola cereal. And all the while we’re listening for the car that will bring us the local paper.

And Mark says, darkly, “I hear there may not even BE a local newspaper by this time next year.”

Wait. Not BE a newspaper?

It’s an unbelievable thought, and yet…it’s not. Newspapers are changing, merging, morphing. Their ink is bleeding onto the electronic highway, their newsprint pages drying up and flaking into dust, blowing away in the wind.

It’s just so wrong. There’s a tactile necessity that newspapers meet, the broad expanse of paper, the smell of the ink, the smudge of black that can still come off on fingertips smoothing out pages. There are deeper needs met by newspapers, too: personal, political, and historic.

Might not BE a newspaper? I don’t want to see that day.

*************

Newspapers, I realize, weave a sturdy part of my own family history. From the time I can first recall, the big, green, wooden Courier-Express wagon stood in the backyard or weathered in the garage. I remember, hazily, being picked up and put into the wagon; I remember panicking because the walls were too high to climb, and I could not get out.

A wagon like that held a lot of newspapers.

The Courier was the morning paper. In the wee dark hours, a delivery man would drop off the papers for my brother Dennis’s daily route. He would get up to fold them; he would stack them in the big wagon, and he would walk his long route before the rest of the family got up and going.

On weekends, Dennis went collecting, knocking on the doors of all of his customers, getting the money they owed for the papers he’d delivered. He would come home grumbling; not all customers paid on time, and it was the paper boys’ job to get the money. They were, at the ripe old ages of 12 or 14, independent contractors. They collected the money and settled with the Courier. If customers didn’t pay, the difference came from the paper boy’s pocket.

Many people would tip, though, if the delivery boy (and they were all boys, back then) did a good job. So Dennis would fold the paper just so and make sure it was safe from the elements–on the porch, through the mail slot, tucked under the mailbox—wherever the customer wanted it. The papers were always on time, waiting to be opened over breakfast. Dennis earned lots of tips.

My younger brother Sean’s first job was on the other end of newspaper production; from the time he was in eighth grade, he wrote sports articles for the local paper. He went from submitting short pieces about his own middle school’s teams to covering local high school sports. Writing for a newspaper was exactly what he wanted to do, and he followed his passion right into a career.

Growing up we got the morning paper, which my father would read before work, the afternoon paper, which better be intact when he came home, and the local paper. The local paper was called the Observer; in time-honored fashion, we made fun of the home-town production and called it the Disturber. But we read it, all of us, cover to cover.

My mother had an odd penchant for writing letters to the editor. Once, I remember, she wrote a letter challenging other readers to see how much they knew about the American flag: how many rows of stars were there, and how many stars per row? What was the pattern of stripes–was the top stripe red or white? She wrote a letter to the editor lauding my brother’s football coach when John was hurt at an away game, and the coach spent the night sitting by John’s hospital bed. She wrote letters of praise when the village’s holiday displays were wonderful. She believed, I think, that it was almost an obligation to voice things that she felt strongly about, the concrete exercise of a basic constitutional right.

In high school, my friend Terri and I wrote a weekly column for the Observer about high school happenings; later I wrote for several local newspapers, daily and weekly publications with names like the Sentinel and the Herald—and one called, bluntly, the News—for a little extra cash. My son James delivered newspapers for five years, from eighth grade until his senior year in high school. By then, the paper took care of bill collection and provided plastic sleeves to protect the news from the elements. That meant that paper carriers could just toss the papers at the foot of the driveway or onto the lawn.

But still, Jim walked his route every day, making connections. He petted kittens and said hello to Mr. and Mrs. Morton, who would stop us at the supermarket. “What a polite young man he is!” they would say. Jim carefully placed the paper in between the doors for a customer who was elderly and ill and couldn’t walk outside to get it; she, in turn for his conscientiousness, would save all the plastic sleeves, smoothed out and neatly folded, and give them back to him at the first of each month. The daily news was her lifeline, and her connection to things and people she could no longer get out to see. She appreciated that her paper carrier made sure that paper was placed where she could easily reach it.

************

I write this on the sun porch, appreciating the early morning breeze, and I look over at the mug of pens and pencils on the old green desk. A brittle yellow newspaper clipping sticks up amid the Bic Biros and mechanical pencils. It’s a column called, “From the Old Files.” Someone at the paper, each day, picks noteworthy things from 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago to highlight. This clipping, which must be 5 years old, lists Mark under the 40 years category, talking about an office he was elected to in college.

We have other clippings in scrapbooks and photo albums—clippings that document historic elections, kids’ births, terrible storms. We saved clippings that talked about sporting triumphs and clippings that somberly shared the news of dear ones’ deaths.

If your picture was in the paper, friends and neighbors would drop by, bearing copies. You could cut the photo out, paste a copy into your own memory book, and send off the rest to in-laws and grandmas and aunties, whoever would be delighted to see that someone they knew won the Buffalo News Spelling Bee, bowled a perfect game, or was in a local theater production. When someone died, friends would clip the obituary out very, very carefully, and painstakingly encase it in clear Contac paper, and solemnly present it to the family as a lasting memento.

The local news chronicled the highs and lows of our lives, gave us local sports scores, let us know who’d been arrested and who got engaged, who was on the honor roll and who was in the hospital. The regional papers gave us the big stories of triumph and tragedy on the state and national and global scale. You might hear it on the TV news, but the paper was the place you went for details, for a deeper explanation.

**************

“People don’t actually read newspapers,” said Marshall McLuhan. “They step into them every morning like a hot bath.” And I understand exactly what he means. My regimented morning has me doing my morning pages, then bringing my cereal to the table. I slide the bowl off to the side and I open the local paper and I read it cover to cover. I complain that the news is all negative—There’s good stuff going on, too, I’ll say; we need to focus on THAT sometimes, right?

I look at articles about politicians who make me crazy; I flip the page and dive into the local news. I read my horoscope, scoffing, of course, but reading it every day, and I do the Jumble and decipher the daily CryptoQuote. Sometimes, I check for sports things—I try to keep up with tennis and, this year, I was fascinated by the World Cup.

When I have sussed out everything I needed to know, I fold up the paper and put it away, and I take my cereal bowl to the sink and rinse it out.

And then the day can begin.

*************

Local newspapers have given me names of restaurants, connections to book clubs, and information about great local places to visit. We found a church we loved and attended for ten years because of a letter the pastor had printed in the local paper. Editorials have helped me articulate my own opinion, giving me a hard rock to pound my unshaped thoughts against.

I have lived my history through newspaper coverage—remembering the bold black banners when President Kennedy died, the detailed Watergate coverage, the riotous stories when the Berlin wall came down, the stark reporting of tragedies. And there is good news in papers—stories that uplift, that inspire, that reaffirm the inherent goodness of the human heart.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation (https://freedom.press/about/) introduces its mission with a quote from Judge Murray Gurfein’s comment on the Pentagon Papers case (June 17, 1971): “A cantankerous press, an obstinate press, a ubiquitous press must be suffered by those in authority in order to preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”

I want to spread out the newspaper in front of me and read what a cantankerous, obstinate, ubiquitous press has to tell me. Sometimes I may supplement that, perhaps, with television news commentary and Internet source searches, but I want my daily newspaper to be my first guide. I want to feel the paper, to smell the print, and to linger over the articles and essays and puzzles and cartoons that reach out and call to me. I want to take my pen and circle things I need to remember; I want to draw mustaches and devil’s horns on photos of politicians who make me wild. I want to get the scissors and cut out an article I know a friend will want to see, to put that clipping into an envelope and send it through the mail with a handwritten note.

************************

Mark calls the paper to let them know ours never arrived, and they apologize profusely and credit his account. And the next morning, when we wake up, there are two papers on the brick front step—yesterday’s and today’s. I slide them both out of their plastic covers and put them neatly on the table. When I put my morning pages into the binder and slip it into the cupboard, when I have poured the milk over my nutty nuggets and brought spoon and bowl to the table, I pull the papers toward me, and I begin at the beginning. I read through both those papers; I take out pages and set them aside. I make note of supermarket specials. I read Mark his horoscope, and I check through the classifieds.

And something clicks into place and I am ready to get the day started, but the thought of a future when there isn’t a newspaper festers. I hope the pendulum swings—not all the way back, maybe, but back to a place where we value and appreciate the accessibility of online sources and still revel in the unfolding of the daily paper, the thoughtful perusal of the daily news.

 

 

Quite a Character, That Harry

I told Harry not to bother me when I was reading.

********

I  first encountered him at Starbucks. I was with my friend Lori, whom I hadn’t seen in months. We had so much to talk about: friends we’d loved and jobs we hadn’t and how to bake a ham. Seriously, our pressing topics ranged from the life-changing to the family-feeding, dancing over the tops of a dozen other issues in-between.

We tucked ourselves into a corner table in the back, and we bent appreciatively over our steaming brews. Lori had a fragrant vanilla latte; I had my trusty decaf Americano. And we talked. We had just moved into a discussion of her youngest daughter’s exciting summer program (Jorie has a scholarship to space camp) when we became aware of a little man, pacing the length of the coffee shop.

A short fellow, his sweep of reddish hair, peckled with gray, swirled back off his forehead– the way guys used to do it in Brylcreem days. His pale, lashless blue eyes look oversized and uncomfortably close behind thick, thick lenses. His chin receded, but his belly did not, and his tight, short-sleeved plaid shirt did nothing to disguise that fact. His pants—well, he went in big for the Ed Grimley look, that little guy did. He was sort of pixie-ish, and I would have thought, “Endearing,” if he hadn’t looked so angry.

His face was pinched and tomato-red, and he hugged a fancy leather portfolio, papers jutting out at every angle, tight to his chest. He’d stalk up and glare at us and then disappear. We’d lapse back into conversation only to feel the heat of laser-eye glare and look up to see him again.

“Oh, Lord,” whispered Lori, when he’d gone for the fourth time. “Do you remember him?”

Did he look familiar?  Maybe?

Nope. Nothing clicked.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think so.”

“He is a character. He was my advisee at Central State when you taught there,” she said. “He always registered late, and he always wanted to get into your writing class, and it was always full.”

“Well,” I said, dubiously. “I guess that’s flattering. Right?”

“He used to yell at me,” said Lori. “‘Find me a spot!’ he’d say. He’d kind of jump up and down. His hair would flop up and down, like in one big shellacked chunk. He always reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. Once I had to tell him to calm down or I’d call Security.”

She sipped her latte and narrowed her eyes at his retreating back. “Harry Critt,” she said. “That’s his name. I was really glad when I became a director and didn’t have to deal with him one-on-one anymore.”

He was heading back toward us when the barista called, “Harry! Your frap is ready!”

Harry swiveled abruptly and almost ran to the counter.

We decided that was a good time to make our exit; we slipped quietly out the back door, leaving Harry to his pacing.

*************

Right around when that happened, I was whining to Mark about not having time to read. Reading, I had thought, would be my retirement default mode. And recently, I had accumulated a wonderful stack of bought and borrowed books. I had Hidden Figures; we had just watched the film and I couldn’t wait to get more background on the story of those women.

And I wondered at the depiction of John Glenn in the film; Glenn grew up,–he and Annie both, actually,–maybe twenty miles from here. So I had a copy of his memoir. Somehow I’d missed one of Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin Family Chronicles back in the day, so when I saw a copy of The Moon By Night on a sale table, I had to pick it up. And I had a copy of Ready Player One, too; it’s a Great American Read book, after all.

And then I read an interview with a woman who lived near Toledo; it was on a reading blog and the woman said she’d become a confirmed reader because of Nancy Drew, and I thought, “Wait. Wasn’t Nancy Drew’s author from Toledo?” So I ordered a copy of Girl Sleuth by Melanie Rehak; that was the story of the women who, as Carolyn Keene, wrote Nancy Drew, and yes, Mildred Wirt was from Toledo. And the book was fascinating; it read like a compelling novel, and I never had enough time to sit down and just read for an hour.

And of course, I had some nice, light, mystery series volumes to cleanse the reading palette.

But there was always something to write or clean or paint or do; there were rides to be given and cookies to be baked and floors to be mopped and weeds to be pulled. I’d try to read, but unfinished chores pinched and pulled me.

“I thought,” I wailed to Mark, “that when I retired I’d get more reading done!”

And he said, “Well, just take a break and read in the afternoon.”

But I couldn’t, I told him; I couldn’t relax into reading when there was work to be done. The dishes screamed at me; the weeds sang a taunting song; James sighed heavily from in front of his computer, wishing he had a ride to somewhere.

“I can’t stand it,” I said. “I can’t concentrate with all that NOISE.”

“Then go someplace ELSE and read,” said Mark.

I thought that was brilliant.

******************

The first time, I went to Panera. I ordered a decaf and a cinnamon scone. It was 2:00 in the afternoon and not very busy, and I found a little two-person table in the quiet back. I put my purse and my jacket on the other chair to discourage anyone who might feel sorry for my solitariness and decide to sit.

And I opened Girl Sleuth and took a big slug of decaf, and I relaxed into the chair, and I began to read.

I was lost in the tale of Edward the genius and Harriet his daughter and Mildred the Iowa girl with gumption when a noisy, throat-clearing rattle jounced me out of that wonderful other world. I looked and there was Harry Critt.

“Pardon me,” he said, with a cocky little half-smile.

I looked at him for a long pause.

“Yes?” I said icily. “As you see, I am reading.”

“You teach writing,” said Harry.

“I DID teach writing. Once. I am retired now, and I barely remember a thing about it.”

“She never got me into your class,” said Harry darkly. “But now you’re retired and you have time.”

He lowered the leather portfolio, broke into a full-on grin, and made to sit down.

I kicked my foot up onto the chair, next to my purse and jacket.

“Don’t sit,” I said bluntly. “I am READING.”

“But that’s what I want you to do!” And Harry smiled. “You can read my work. I have here,” and he flourished the leather portfolio; three papers fluttered out, landing on the table beside me and the floor, “my journal. Wait just a minute.”

Harry scrambled around and got his errant papers; he shoved them back into the portfolio.

“Now today,” he said, “as we don’t really know each other very well yet, I thought The War Years would be a very good starting point. That will tell you a lot about me. And I’d like your advice on the action scenes. I don’t,” he said, and he ducked his head shyly, “know if I made myself seem a little too heroic. Although of course, I stuck completely to the facts.”

“Harry,” I said, “I’m going to be very direct, because I have great respect for writers. I WANT TO READ MY BOOK. I need you to leave me alone.”

He looked at me incredulously.

“The history society might be very interested in hearing about your war years,” I suggested. “And there’s a writers’ group in town that you could join. They read each other’s work and give exactly the kind of feedback you’re looking for.”

“But I don’t want to work with them,” said Harry. “I want to work with YOU. And I am not leaving until you read at least a page of my stuff.”

I stood up and gathered my things.

“I AM leaving, though, Harry,” I said firmly. “I wish you enjoyment in your writing, but I am not going to read it. Not now, and not another day. Try the writers’ group, Harry.”

His mouth dropped open, and I left him like that. Just as I got to the exit, he warbled, “But you taught a class in personal journaling!”

Goodbye, Harry, I thought, and, mood broken, I went home and made some broth and mopped the kitchen floor.

*****************

The next day, I was on the stationary bike at the gym, when who should come around the corner of the track but Harry. He had long baggy shorts on, and a sweat-stained gray T-shirt, and a stretchy white terrycloth band wrapped around his forehead.

And he clutched his portfolio, papers streaming.

My son James was on the bicycle next to me.

“That’s the guy,” I hissed loudly.

Jim ceased pedaling and glared at Harry.

Harry stopped. Blood rushed to his face. His eyes bulged. He spun around on one sneakered foot and hurried away.

*****************

That night Mark and I had a date night dinner at a little roadhouse-y kind of a restaurant. Mark went off to the men’s room, and I went and got the table. I had just nabbed the chair by the window when I saw Harry charge through the entrance and bear down upon me. He waved the portfolio triumphantly.

He almost slammed into Mark, who said, “Watch it, buddy.”

Harry stopped, snorting. And when Mark sat down across from me, Harry actually stamped his shiny black shoe. I could see what Lori meant; he DID look kind of Rumple-y. But he spun himself around and left.

“Is THAT the guy?” asked Mark, and I allowed that it was.

“He looks a little off-balance,” Mark said. “If this doesn’t stop, I think we need to report it.”

I nodded grimly. Then we opened our menus; we forgot all about Harry and had a lovely time.

*************

The next day was one of those perfect summer days—75 and cloudless blue skies, and the air was light and fresh, with not one hint of humidity. I spent the morning at the computer and finished up a whole lot of work, and then I grabbed the vacuum and cleaned floors and danced through the house decluttering surfaces. I mowed the backyard, and then Mark came home for lunch.

We ate salads on the patio, and he said, “You know what you ought to do? Take your book and go over to the Garden. You’re always saying you want to do that. You could sit by the pond and read in peace.”

The Garden! Acres of land, carved out of the middle of neighborhoods and alleyways; it had the pond and a waterfall and a rustic Japanese tea house. It had trails and benches; it felt removed, but one was never more than a quick shout away from connection.

“That, my friend,” I said to Mark, “is a wonderful idea.”

**************

By 1:30, breezes riffled my hair as I sat on a comfy wooden bench and lost myself in a light summer story about a  Midwestern librarian who also solved mysteries. The water shooshed softly, and, through the buffer of trees and bushes, I could hear the gentle thrum of car tires on neighborhood streets.  But mentally I was sitting in a cool quiet library, where Hattie, the librarian, was conversing with the director of the local history society. Some papers were missing, important ones; the historian thought maybe they’d wound up at the library, somehow.

And then I heard the stomping little footsteps. God help me, there was Harry.

“Finally,” he breathed, as he marched up the path, veering off in front of my bench. “Today you ARE going to read The War Years, and we’ll have no more nonsense!”

I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.

“Harry,” I said. “This is outrageous. Have you been following me?”

His face went from white to purple in a blink.

“Outrageous?” he spluttered. “What’s outrageous is a writing teacher who won’t teach writing. You don’t need to read THIS—” and he reached out, snatched my book, and threw it onto the grass behind him, “—when you can read THIS!”  He thrust the portfolio under my nose.

“I was READING, Harry!” I shouted, and hot anger swelled up in me. I stood up to push him away and grab my book, and the ground seemed to shift.

At first I thought it was just Harry, bouncing up and down; he was jumping and screaming and telling me that it was time to do as he said. I hit 9-1 with my thumb, and then I realized it wasn’t Harry making the ground move.

It was my book. It had righted itself so it was standing, open, behind agitated Harry, and it was growing. Quickly. It was as high as Harry’s knees, and still he yelled, and it was up to his shoulders, and he screamed at me to take his portfolio, and then it was towering over him.

I reached out a hand, and I think Harry thought I was finally going to take his damned journal. He stopped bouncing and settled, and his expression calmed. He took the portfolio in both hands and began to bestow it on me.

“Harry,” I said calmly. “Harry. If you don’t go away right now, I going to slap you inside of this book and call the cops.”

“No,” he said, and foamy spittle flew from his lips. “No. You are reading The War Years, and then we’re going to talk about it.” Then some kind of addled recognition dawned, and his face froze. “Book?” he croaked.

I swear the looming book told me what to do. I grabbed a cover in each hand and I swung them inwards, trapping Harry inside. There was a snapping, clicking feeling as the pages aligned and the covers pressed them tight together. Harry’s voice, muffled, screeched just briefly, and there was a momentary bulge in the book. And then there was silence.

The bulge smoothed out, and the book fell over on its side, and smoothly, seamlessly, it returned to its proper size.

I picked it up.

******************

I walked home, glazed with shock, and I tried to figure out what to do. I paged through the book; the pages were pristine. There was not a spot of blood or sweat. Harry was just gone.

I tried to tell Mark about it later, but he gave me that look. I put the book aside; I stacked twelve heavy books on top of it, and I started reading Ready Player One instead.

But it bothered me; it bothered me and it would not let me go.  Finally, I called someone I really felt would listen and advise, a teacher from my grad school days, Professor Ramming. I used to visit the Prof in his book-lined office. He would often be standing precariously on his wheeled desk chair, taking down a book or sliding one back into place, and his other-where eyes would tell me he was inhabiting whatever place he was just then reading about.

The Prof was a deeply literate man who knew the power of books; my gut said he could help me.

Professor Ramming listened to my story, and he sighed a wheezy sigh.

“I’ve heard of this,” he said. “Do you still have the book?”

I admitted I did.

“Get it,” he said. When I returned, he told me to open to where I’d left off.

And, oh, my gawd: there was Harry. Harry stole the papers from the history society: he stole them, and he claimed them as his own War Years journal! I skimmed through the pages. There was a chase scene in the library stacks where the thief was ignominiously tackled by the svelte but fit librarian. On page 192, the local authorities came and took Harry away. He was howling about his story of The War Years as they dragged him to the cruiser.

I read my old teacher the part about his exit, and then we both stopped talking for a bit.

Finally, “Professor Ramming,” I asked, “did I just dream this?”

Again with the wheezy sigh.

“No,” he said, slowly. “Harry escaped from his narrative. It happens. It happens when someone gets so involved in a book that the characters become real to them. They see their chance to slip into the real world, to take on flesh and bone, and to exist where blood pulses and food has taste and the warm summer breezes excite their papery skins. But something is always missing for them, and they always wind up revealing themselves.

“For Harry, it was a need to have his journal  validated. He was probably delusional in the book, and he carried those delusions into our world with him. You,” said Professor Ramming, “were lucky to be reading the right book at the right time, my dear. You could send him back.”

We talked a little bit, then, about old friends and classmates of mine who’d gone on to do wonderful things, and we wished each other well, and then awkwardly, as if we hadn’t just discussed something outrageous and wild and pretty much unbelievable, we said our goodbyes, promising to keep in touch.

***************

I put the book in the pile to go to Half Price Books, and I resolved never to read that author again. Harry could pop up in a later episode, and, if he’d managed to escape once, he might just be able to do it again.

That week I discovered a quiet corner of the patio where I could read undistracted, and I built an hour of reading time into most every day.

Mark and I never discussed Harry again. I think he was relieved when I stopped insisting the annoying little man with the war journal was really a denizen of a book. But I marveled in my musing times at the power authors wield, creating people and places and events so real and so true and so vibrant that, for some of us, they jump off the pages; they jump into the real world, and, God help us, they live.

******************

And it dawned on me one night, as I turned the memory over in my mind, shook the dust away and tried to find a place to store it on a shelf in the Memory Room in that bony cavern—it occurred to me that Lori was right.

Harry really HAD been a character.

 

Words in Five Places

Inspiration is absent. I go searching and this is what I find:

From “A List of Topics for Writing Practice”…

Write in different places—for example, in a laundromat, and pick up the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes. Write what is going on around you.

 —Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

 I like this idea. I decide to pick five writing places.

***********

Wednesday.

  1. On the patio, 9:20 a.m.

The roses are gone; that’s the first thing I see. I had thought about cutting them yesterday, thought about sliding them into a slender bud vase and putting them on the bay windowsill to kiss the light that shines into the dining room: two perfect, tiny, pink roses from the valiant tea rose that surges every year in spite of my neglect.

I had thought about it, and then I forgot.

I think our deer friends ate them. Mark called me to the window early, early—mama and her two spindly-legged, spotted fawns were just rising from their rest under our big pine tree. They stretched and snuffled and took care of morning urges (SHEESH! said Mark), and then the babies hopped off in separate directions. Mama corrected that with a guttural click; they lined up behind her, but we could see that one fawn was going to be a handful. Mom led off; Baby 1 followed obediently. They stopped to graze.

But that other baby! Mom took a step forward and it scarpered, on its impossibly skinny legs, heading backward to check out a fascinating patch of something or other by the fence, then sneaking toward the house to peer more closely at Mark and me, peering at it through the kitchen window.

Kuck!!! grated Mama, warningly, and Baby 2 jumped back.

Yeah, yeah, Mama; I’m on board. I’m comin’.

A moment later, though, the curious little creature was tripping through a hole in the hedge, leaving Mama and Sib waiting in the street.

Kuck!!!

***

So, anyway: the roses are gone. The white petunias that I put in the pot on the Angry Little Chef’s head are chomped, too, but the hosta are blooming boldly. Maybe there are so many hosta I just don’t notice what the deer have eaten.

Little Chef.jpg

***

I am sitting at the little round table, on a cold black metal chair, relaxing into cool morning breezes. The sun shines, and birds chatter. On my walk this morning, I saw a funny thing. A lady cardinal and an English sparrow soared as if synchronized and landed on the same little branch. There was a tiny pause; then the cardinal stretched over and pocked the little sparrow sharply on the noggin. The sparrow shook its little head, gathered its jangled wits, and flew quickly away.

Bragging rights to the Woman Warrior, I guess.

But now the birds all sound placid and cheerful, lightly chittering, going about whatever their daily business entails.

***

Neighbors are busy too. Sandy comes out with the pup we call Tati, because she looks and sounds like the feisty little dog that pees on Russell Crowe’s leg in A Good Year. Sandy anchors Tati’s leash to the pretty little shed at the back of her yard.

Across the alley, Neighbor Bob checks out the lay of the morning. I see his white head over the fence, and I hunker down into my laptop.

I enjoy my neighbor’s company, but today, I have to write.

***

And now the back-door swings open and Jim steps out, raring to go. It is Wednesday: it’s our day for mall walking. I pause. The air conditioner, hidden behind the carport in the flower bed, clicks on. A bird trills a comment on that. I finish my typing, close up the laptop.

Time to go.

*****************

  1. At the Starbucks tucked into Kroger; 10:54 a.m.

Jim’s laptop butts up next to mine on a two-seater wooden table. We’re against the wall, up against a big Starbuckian mural. There’s a handle-less ceramic cup on the table; a bamboo plant, nestled in gravel, grows up out of it. The Carpenters sing over the intercom, sadly ironic:…so much of life ahead….

A retirement party’s taking place on the big tables. Kroger employees ebb and flow; when we lined up for our Starbucks drinks, we disrupted two revelers, who rushed over to take our orders. By the party tables, there’s a shiny silver barbecue grill sporting a big blue bow. There are Mylar balloons. On a rolling cart, a cake box from the bakery is almost closed; a pile of Hallmark cards tucks beneath it. A stack of patio chairs, neatly snicked into each other, sits in front of the cart, another big bow attached.

People in blue smocks wield plastic forks, eating cake from small paper plates. A young colleague, fair-haired and beaming, charges in to inspect the barbecue grill. He wears a button-down shirt and tie; he shakes hands all around and puts a hand on the shoulder of the retiree.

This retiree will be having backyard parties. It looks like his former colleagues hope to attend.

***

The store’s not thick with people on a Wednesday morning. But several people stop at Starbucks and grab a hot drink to take shopping with them. Is that a thing? I have not been aware.

I have become aware, though, of the plastic straw controversy. Starbucks is pledging to stop using any straws at all, by 2020, I think.

I was on a road trip, listening to NPR, when I first heard about the sea turtle who was found, washed up, with an awful, pulsing, facial infection. Rescuers took it to veterinary medicos; they sedated the poor beast and delved into the infection, which was deep-seated in one nostril. And found, embedded there, a plastic straw. It would have killed the hapless turtle had it not been removed. There’s a YouTube video of the surgery, I guess; it is not one I am brave enough to watch.

It’s not bad enough straws endanger animals and sea life; they pollute our beaches and landfills. I forget how many tons of plastic our discarded straws contribute to the earth’s trash problems. It’s enormous, and it’s a tiny metaphor for the changes we need to make.

At the end of that NPR road trip I went to a fun and funky college town coffee shop, and there at the counter was a bucket full of stainless steel straws. I bought three; I keep them in a cup on the windowsill by the sink, and I try to remember to take them when we are in danger of eating out.

And when I forget, I decline the plastic top and sip my drink right from the glass.

Such a little thing. What else can I do, I wonder, that barely inconveniences me and that will make a difference?

I am glad that Starbucks is phasing out its straws, although I wish it wouldn’t take two years.

***

Classic rock songs cycle. OSU T-shirts hang on a display; above them, glossy scarlet and gray go-mugs gleam, proudly stacked. Mid-July: not so long until football season starts again. The Incredibles smile from a kids’ T-shirt display.

The retirement partiers quietly disappear, taking the grill, cake, and chairs with them.  “500 Miles” begins to pour from the speakers.

“Ted and Marshall,” says Jim fondly, thinking of a scene from How I Met Your Mother.

It’s time to get our few groceries and head home to meet the Dad for lunch. Jim runs to grab a little cart, and I type my final sentence, swipe away dark-chocolate covered graham cracker crumbs, and pack up my laptop.

************

 3. Panera, 2:29 p.m.

I have lost my Panera card. The girl at the counter is wonderfully helpful, accessing my account, activating me a new card. We order pastries and drinks; we buy a cinnamon bagel for Mark’s breakfast tomorrow. Jim finds us a quiet corner.

Panera at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon has people, but there are many empty tables. Three women of a certain age bend their heads over a table across the way. Snippets of conversation float by. I try not to listen, but the impression is strong: they are teachers enjoying their summer break, and mourning, already, how quickly it evaporates.

A plump gray mother and her grown daughter, long, curly hair floating, walk by with steaming soup bowls cradled on plates. They look very serious, and they head for the farthest, most private, corner.

An older couple (older, of course, means my age, plus ten) stops, trays in hand; they swivel their heads. “THERE she is!” one says: the relief of completed connection. Their friend jumps up to meet them. She has brought a friend—a MUCH older (my age plus 25) woman. They all settle into a table and the talk, immediately, flows.

My decaf coffee steams; it’s fragrant and rich. Jim peels the paper from his blueberry muffin and sighs in anticipation. (Blueberries. One way to get a glimmer of organic foodstuff into the boyo who proudly proclaims himself a ‘veg-ist.’)

Jazzy Muzak pours from the speakers, and, like more background music, the voices of the workers rise and fall. There is laughter, often. I consider the helpful young woman at the counter and the laughing colleagues in the food prep area. It seems the workers like being here, which makes this a nice place to sit with a once-refilled mug and keyboard-tap away.

James sits kitty-corner, kicking it old school; he is writing with a mechanical pencil on a pad of lined paper. He is spending the summer reading the entire, if possible, Marvel Comics oeuvre; and he is planning original short stories he will write in response to his reading. His conversation, these days, is peppered with references to Thanos and the Avengers, to Ant Man and Ms. Marvel and Namor. His communications class, an online endeavor, keeps him busy; work claims many of his hours. His truly dedicated scholarship, though, takes place in the hours that remain after obligations are met. He is a true student of the Marvel Universes.

***

James was talking, as we walked in, about the graphic novels that 9/11 spawned—the writers and artists who chose that format to work out their grief and fear and anger, who sent tendrils out to the rest of us who were fumbling around, dazed and seeking meaningful, worthy ways to respond. He talked about a story featuring one man, working on the west coast, whose girlfriend worked in the Towers. THAT story had a sort of happy ending; they both survived, but they also had such deep and shocking loss to deal with.

Jim told me about it and left it to float in the air between us, floating an unspoken question with it. I tried to hear the question; I tried my best to answer.

We talked about the real-life salvations that day brokered—people who called in sick, or whose kids were sick and had to stay home, or who had meetings off-site, and so survived. Jim told me actor Mark Wahlberg meant to fly on one of the planes, and his plans changed at the very last minute.

I don’t think, I told Jim slowly, trying to put voice to beliefs I’m not sure are fully gelled, that there’s a God who sits in heaven sorting us: “You—dead. You–alive. YOU have things left to do. You—eh, the world can spare what you’ve got to give.”

No, no, no. I don’t believe it.

Violence, disease, pestilence, environmental disaster: there’s not a God who spins those into being, divinely retributing. But I think the Power lets what humans have wrought come to full fruition.

The tragedies and the losses burden our hearts and break, sometimes, our spirits. Reconciliation begins within. What can I, spared for now when one so much more talented, so much kinder and more compassionate, so much more WORTHY, has been taken–what can I do to validate the rest of my life?

It is a question, maybe, that I should try to answer every morning, before I put the coffee on, before I say my prayers or take my walk or put my pen to paper.

***

3:00. The café fills up. Lots of women of all ages; here and there an older man. Conversation hums and throbs; voices pitch and recede, giving advice, offering sympathetic concern, murmuring, murmuring…a backbeat of connection.

Across from me, James takes the eraser from his pencil, realigns the graphite, puts it all back together. He shakes the pencil; ear buds in, he frowns. But the pencil seems to work now, and his story topics grow. Now they fill almost a full page, a formidable list.

I believe he carries each of those stories, fully formed, in his mind.

I believe his challenge is to transmute those mind-stories into tales that live in the world, that simmer where others can taste them.

And the simmering makes me think of dinner: if we are to defrost chops and rub them, get them ready to grill, basted with Kansas City barbecue sauce—well, if that’s going to happen, we need to blow this popsicle stand. Jim carries his trash—no plastic straw, though; he no longer uses them either—to the bins. I down the last sip of my coffee, and we depart.

We carry Mark’s bagel, we carry somber awareness, we carry a sense of purpose, out to the car, and we head home.

**********

Thursday.

  1. At the John McIntire Library, 9:42 a.m.

The library buzzes. I find a table toward the back of the main space, by the first shelves of YA books, with the Reference desk, an open arc-ing area, to my right. There’s an octagon of computer terminals kitty-corner in front of me; a young man leans in, connecting with a computer. He grins and grimaces, hitches and hunches. Then he finds something that compels him. He leans forward, goes still. Just his fingers move, guiding the mouse. His head is locked, his eyes focused.

Several people sit at tables in the Periodicals area; an older gentleman, casual in T-shirt and jeans, spreads the Columbus paper in front of him. He bends his head, intent on the day’s news. People wander through the DVD’s, stopping and plucking, considering, rejecting, selecting. An older couple comes in, tired faces, leaning on each other. They disappear into the stacks.

A young man, coughing, steers himself toward the YA stacks, hovers before the books, then sits at the table behind mine. He has a backpack. He wears sandals and thick white socks, sweat pants, an orange T-shirt. He sports a baseball cap. He pulls out a tablet, settles in.

Two people browse the Large Print New Books. They curve themselves into commas, looking; they do a fancy little dance, sashay and slide past each other, making certain not to miss, either of them, books in the middle section.

The phone rings at Reference; the clerks at the front desk answer questions, sign up a family for library cards, retrieve reserved books.

A grim-faced woman leads a bespectacled, round-faced teenager into the YA stacks. They murmur. They are picking out a book for the teen, who does not seem thrilled to be forced into reading. The woman proposes tersely; the teen wards off her suggestions with soft parries. But I hope that they will find a magical book, a transporting book. I hope the teen will fall into that book like it’s a haven or a safety net; I hope the older woman’s face will relax.

Perhaps she’ll find a magical book of her own.

Voices rise and fall, technology cheeps and trills. Doors open and close, and people chirp surprised greetings. Staff members listen and consider, search and suggest.

A skinny child walks slowly through the children’s stacks, one frail index finger extended. She strokes the spines of book after book. She slides out the right book, hugs it to her chest, goes off to find her Person.

The computers, I see now, are all filled: a citizen, even more senior than I, sits at the one closest to me. She bends one long, thin arm on the shining desk surface; she leans her chin on her head. Tentatively, tentatively, she begins to click.

Someone told me once that libraries are living rooms for the community, especially for the homeless.  Lifelong universities, these wonderful institutions, offering access to technology, escape through story, connection through engaged staff, and community involvement through programs and reading challenges.

And distraction, for me. I sit, trying to type, and I hear the whispering voices of books unread. A woman with an oxygen mask, undeterred, strides by. As she passes a shelf, I spy an interesting book, and I realize this is not a place for me to write. The temptations are more insistent and more accessible than the hot chocolate chip cookies at Panera.

And I decide to pack up.

  1. The Zanesville Museum of Art. 10:38 a.m.

I thought I’d sit among the 73rd Ohio Annual Exhibition works, but they were too present, too compelling, too demanding. If the library books whispered, these works of art shout boisterously. I could not sit in their midst and pretend I didn’t hear. So I wandered the galleries, looking for a writing spot.

I light on a bench next to a railing, overlooking the first floor and the entrance to the Linn Auditorium. Light pours in through floor to ceiling windows, and the sculptures on display are ones I’ve visited before. They are restful and patient. They know I will be back to visit; they do not demand that I look at them RIGHT NOW.

I put my laptop on one end of the bench and lean over it, sitting side-saddle, feeling awkward. And then I think, Duh: laptop. Computer nestled on my lap, I spill my words onto the electronic screen.

Below me, a quiet bustle of people: this is a busy place, a humming place.

But where I sit, it’s also calm. Energy simmers in other rooms; there are displays and exhibits I really need to come back and see. But for now, for this writing challenge, on this comfortable bench, in this late morning environment…this is a place where I can let my fingers fly.

The pieces around me are modern and classical and ancient.  The works in the exhibit I just left push beyond those categories into something new and more.

A pretty woman, on a mission, comes smiling up the stairs. I meet Dan, ZMA’s Marketing Coordinator/Finance Administrator, and we talk for a moment about the Museum’s different spaces and the sense of welcome they engender.

I settle in; unseen climate control machines hum, and here and there, and once in a while, a voice murmurs.

I remember other art museum adventures.

I think of visiting the Chicago Museum of Modern Art, where, so engrossed in a work, wanting to see it up close and then, from further and further away, I backed up slowly—backed right into a bench and fell backwards into a group of art students. Who bent to peer at me, my feet on the bench, my head on the floor, flaming with embarrassment. I peered back up at them, thanking the wardrobe gods I had not chosen that day to wear a dress. (There is a reason my high school gym teacher called me Amazing Grace.)

I think of going to the OTHER Chicago art museum with my nephew Brian; we lost ourselves for hours in a Picasso exhibit.

I think of wandering the Columbus Museum on no-admissions Sundays, and people-watching—seeing families of all shades and accents, and elders and hipsters, and sketching students.

And I think of discovering this museum, with its astounding treasures, soon after moving to Zanesville.

Art museums are amazing places, drawing in a vibrant montage of lookers. They open windows to people; behind those windows, other possibilities pulse.

And on Thursday morning, this art museum is a thoughtful, compelling place to be.

There is a piece here that I have to visit; it draws me in no matter how many times I see it. It is William Saling’s (American, 1945-2004) Peg the Ideal Waitress, a Friends purchase in 1994. Peg is wooden. She is life-sized. She has plank saddle-shoe feet and miniature flour bag earrings. She carries two plates, one above her head and one in front of her. The plates are loaded with wooden burgers, fresh cut wooden fries.

Peg’s face is lined and weathered; her eyes are knowing, and her thick brows sweep sardonically. I can see she’s been slinging hash for a long time, Peg has. And yet there’s flair and verve in how she hefts that over-the-head platter.

Her chest is two drawers of a black-painted apron. Her boxy flowered dress is drawer-ed too.

Something about Peg, her knobby knees, her bold ordinariness, her spunky spirit, perks me up. There’s beauty, she reminds me, in everyday things, and in everyday people. Dan tells me she’s one of his favorite pieces, too.

So I visit Peg for a bit, and then I close my laptop and go down to see the new exhibit.

Peg

****

I am reading Old in Art School, by Nell Painter, a PhD professor, a lauded historian, who, in her mid-sixties, goes back to school to become an artist. Painter talks about what it’s like to begin again, in classes with people 46 years younger than she is. She talks about that heady life-changing adventure, and she talks about artists and how they dress and how they drink and the works, unleashed, that they produce.

And she writes about what’s considered, in a given age and time, to be ‘good’ art; about how figurative painting is frowned upon, and how representational and abstract work is lauded. She ponders that, and so do I, liking the crisp accessibility of what we call, at home, the ‘real-life’ paintings in the exhibit. But I am drawn, more and more, into paintings that blur textures and graphics and swirling movement into a surprisingly cohesive whole.

And here, in this exhibit, amazing paper structures suspend from the ceiling on gossamer threads, paintings tug me along the walls, three-D works and sculptures hum on pedestals. Each one is amazing; together they are an orchestra, a symphony of color and texture and soaring lines and bold statements.

The clock is goading me; I have an appointment, a place I have to be, but I know I will need to come back to this exhibit and just live in it awhile, and I’ll bring the family back to visit with these artworks, too.

*************

Routine is a wonderful thing; it frees me to forget surroundings and concentrate on tasks, and sometimes that is just what I need for writing.

But sometimes the same-old produces nothing but the same-old. Then I need to heed Natalie Goldberg’s advice and change it up. I need to sit outside and listen. I need to grab a coffee and watch. I need to be where books and art draw people to visit, to stretch and to savor, to rest and to be inspired. I need to appreciate the associations place dredges up, to pluck memories out of the murky depths and consider their meanings in the now.

And I need to appreciate the richness of place, the diversity of being, the treasure of community spaces.

I need to do all that, and then I need to stumble forward, trying to write it all down.