How Cool is That?

“Better get the yard mowed before it rains again,” I thought reluctantly yesterday afternoon. The clouds were so low, so full, and so gray, I felt like they were rubbing the top of my head. And by the time I got done mowing, I was sodden, wrung out, panting.

I pushed the mower over to its gravel home and straightened up. A hint of breeze danced around my cheeks, and I stopped for a moment to savor. “Ahhh, cool,” I thought. Reluctant to go inside, into the artificial chill of the air conditioning, I sat on the back stoop and cleaned up our little repurposed chef statue-plant holder and filled the pots I spray-painted black with lovely organic garden soil. I planted the pots with marigolds and vinca and petunias. (At least two of those three are flowers our deer disdain. I’m hoping they will last the summer on the south side of the house.)

Then I did go inside, where the comfy air felt like a cold blast after the sun’s heat, and I got on-line to order tickets for the minor league baseball game we’re attending Sunday. Mark has been wanting to go; Father’s Day seems like a perfect day to enjoy a home game, a hot dog or two, and a seventh inning stretch.

“I got those tickets,” I said to Jim, in passing.

And he responded, “Cool.”

Later that night, I checked the weather app to see if we were still expecting thunder storms in the wee hours (the storms, I’m happy to say, passed us by), and I noticed that Sunday’s temps are expected to be in the nineties. So it will be cool to go to the game, but it won’t actually BE cool.

And then I thought about about finding cool breezes and finding cool things to do, and I got wondering about when, why, and how we started calling things that are wonderful to experience, ‘cool.’

*********

Mike Vuolo, in “The Birth of Cool,” (please see http://www.slate.com/articles/life/cool_story/2013/10/cool_the_etymology_and_history_of_the_concept_of_coolness.html) notes that we English speakers have been using temperature words to describe other, less concrete concepts, for a long, long time. So we might say, “He was hot under the collar,” when we describe someone who’s lost his temper; we might say a particularly attractive individual is “hot.” And we might say that someone who wantonly disregards other people’s feelings is cold, cold, cold.

But it’s a compliment of the highest order to be called cool, even though, nowadays, it’s a little bit of a status symbol to say, “I’m doing it anyway, even though I know it’s not cool.”

When did ‘cool’ come to mean suave and slick and admirable to the nth degree? Vuolo has a theory.

He believes that the word cool itself slipped into English, borrowed from similar forms in the German and the Dutch, back in the ninth century, And, as early as Beowulf, Vuolo says, cool was used to describe emotions. (Certainly, Shakespeare perpetuated that. Here’s a snippet of Hamlet Vuolo quotes:

Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper

Sprinkle cool patience.)

By the sixteenth century, writes Vuolo, cool had attached itself to other abstract concepts. Thus, we have cool customers and cool outlooks, and keeping our cool becomes a thing to be envied.

But cool as the aspirational state of being, cool as in Snoopy’s Joe Cool, comes later. The first actual mention in that regard may be in 1884, in Washington and Lee professor James Harrison’s article, “Negro English,” in which he shares the phrase, “That’s cool,” without saying much about what it means. (The English language, again, benefited from the diverse peoples who speak and shape the tongue.)

By the 1920’s, says Vuolo, ‘cool’ was part of jazz language. In the 1930’s, Zora Neale Hurston, writing in dialect, says, “What make it so cool…” in her story, “the Gilded Six-Bits.” By the 1940’s, awesome people were called ‘cool cats.’

And sometime after that the concept of cool and the use of the word cool seeped into everyday language—a synonym for wonderful, delightful, and/or very, very charismatic. It’s hard, writes Vuolo, to pinpoint exactly when that happened, but do we need an exact date?

I don’t think so. It’s cool.

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

That got me thinking about the funny expression, ‘cooling our heals.’ We use it when we are kicking back, taking a break, maybe biding our time and waiting for something to happen.

“Cool your heels, and I’ll get it for you,” one might say.

I picture the one who waits grabbing a seat, slipping off shoes and socks, stretching their hot feet into an icy tub of water.

Ahhhh. Waiting.

Barrie England, at https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/50198/where-does-cooling-your-heels-come-from, proposes a sensible “cool your heels” etymology. When we work, he says, or when we walk, our feet get hot. Then, when it’s time to take a break, we want to change that, to cool those hot feet down. England says “coole their heeles” first showed up in English language print in 1606, and it referred to horses getting rested. Not long after that, though, England writes, a reference to humans cooling their heels popped up in Chapman’s translation of The Iliad.

***********

So then I wonder, following this colder temperature theme, why do we call that common illness we all dread a ‘cold’?

First, I look up the definition of the common cold. Merriam-Webster tells me that it is “an acute disease of the upper respiratory tract that is marked by the inflammation of the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, eyes, and Eustachian tubes, and by a watery, then purulent, discharge…” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/common%20cold)

Eeeuw…no thank you right now, please. But why cold? Many of those symptoms—inflammation, for instance, and the fevers folks often get in conjunction with their colds,—actually seem HOT. (Imagine this: “What’s wrong with you?” she asks her sneezing companion. “Oh, nothing,” he says. “I just have a common hot.”)

Amanda Haig, writing on Quora, says that the early Greeks and Chinese, in developing their medicinal practices, thought of heat as excess and cold as absence or deficiency. So, when the body doesn’t have enough strength, healing power, immunity against whatever illness can penetrate,…well, then the body was said to be in a state of ‘cold.’ Ironically, that condition converted to excess…excess heat when fever is present, excess congestion, excess phlegm.

On the same site, Clara Hamilton suggests a simpler solution to the use of the term ‘common cold’: she writes, “…a cold has a lot of the same symptoms as being exposed to cold” does.

Both explanations make sense to me.

https://www.quora.com/Where-did-the-phrase-common-cold-in-the-English-language-come-from

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

Whatever. I slip into old shorts and a paint-spotted t-shirt on Thursday morning and go rummaging to find my paint supplies. These are clothes designed for lightness, breeziness, clothes to wear when heat is high. They are definitely not ‘cool’ clothes. I look, in my well-worn, shapeless paint togs, decidedly UN-cool. But I’m not worried about how I look to paint the trim on the sun-porch.

And, while I pant, I ponder packing water bottles for Sunday’s outing, wondering if the stadium lets us bring our own, and I think it’s a happy happenstance that we do have aisle seats. I think about buying those little battery-operated mister fans, the portable ones people can carry with them.

Would that be cool? I do not know.

These hot-edged days haze the horizon, and they blur the vocabulary, too. It is middle June in central Ohio. The temperatures are high; the air is muggy. And I, although trundling into my golden years, despite disdaining conformity and convention, I am, all the same, still in pursuit of cool.

 

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The Last Days of Greta the Dog

the-great-gretzky

I sit bolt upright in bed.

Tick-tacky. Tick-tacky. Tick-tacky.

The dog is pacing again, pacing on the hardwood floor at the bottom of the stairs. My head is fuzzed with sleep; the clock reads 3:04 AM.

I will her to settle down, to curl up on the couch, to sleep until morning. But the tick-tacky accelerates, and then stops.

She is padding up the stairs; she is nosing open my bedroom door.

“What is it, Greta?” I ask softly. “What is it, pup?”

She paces around the room.

I grab Mark’s old bathrobe and pull it on, and the dog and I go downstairs. I let her out; I feed her. I give her pain meds and an anxiety pill. Eventually, about 5 AM, she circles around, makes a nest in the blanket on the couch, and falls into a deep, snoring sleep.

Tired but wired, I contemplate returning to bed for an hour.

In the last month, the dog has slept through the night just once…and then she was up at 5 AM. We are drained and dragging and very, very sad.

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

“Remember,” says Mark, “when we would take her to the ball field?”

Oh, I remember. She had just come to us, Greta had,–a rescue dog who might have been, different vets told us, nine months old or who could have chalked up two years already. She carried a bad history in her frightened eyes and flinching bones. We got her used to walking on a leash, and we would take her for long, long walks. Still, we could see the energy poised in her muscles, poised and held back.

So on Saturdays and Sundays, out of season, we would take her to the ball field, unclip her leash at home plate, and yell, “Go, Greta; go!

She would run the bases, madcap, blurring, her little legs pumping. We would stand in the baselines and she would dart around us, triumphant, tongue lolling, a laughing dog. She would run and she would run and she would run, and we would see something in her face that she lacked in everyday life: joy.

After eight or ten or twelve pulsing revolutions, she would slow down, and then finally she’d come to rest, back at home plate. We would take an old Tupperware bowl and fill it at the outdoor faucet and she would lap the water noisily until it was gone. Then, exercise-sated, she would trot along beside us, hop into the car, and head home, relaxed and calm for a little time.

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

One Saturday, not long ago, we took a family road trip. We walked the dog before we left; we filled her water bowl and her food dish. When we locked the door behind us, she was sleeping on the couch, the deep, almost paralyzed sleep that has characterized her daytimes for the last few months.

It was a good trip, and when we came in, recapping and happy, setting treasures on the kitchen counter, we were surprised that the little dog didn’t greet us.

She wasn’t in any of her accustomed places; we searched for her downstairs, and then I heard her labored breathing.

Greta was at the top of the carpeted steps to the second floor, panting and quaking. She would not come down, and when I went up to get her, stench assailed me. She had soiled the light green carpet in Jim’s bedroom—soiled it thoroughly and monumentally.

We got the dog downstairs, dug out bags and rags, filled a bucket with warm water, pulled the carpet cleaning potion from under the sink. Mark and I scrubbed and cleaned and deodorized; we took bags outside to the garbage can. We opened windows and started fans, and we sprayed antiseptic. We scrubbed some more, until the mess had disappeared, and only pungent cleaning smells remained. Then we went to find the dog, who was shivering uncontrollably in a corner of the couch.

“Oh, Greta,” we said. “Oh, pup.”

It took a sedative and a pain pill and hours of stroking to get her calmed down.

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

And then we counted the sleepless nights. We thought about the fact that panting and quaking—in fear? In pain? In both?—was now the little dog’s default mode. She couldn’t hear us very well; her eyes were ebony marbles, fogged with white. I called the vet almost every week; he worked with us, adjusting medication.

Maybe a bigger dose of anti-anxiety medication would help.

Maybe a hormone tablet would stop the piddling she’d begun to do in the house.

Maybe a stronger sedative would get her through the night.

We looked at the little dog, standing in a corner of the kitchen by the big window, staring blindly at a world she couldn’t see, hear, or comprehend.

That Monday, we went to talk with the vet, a young man, compassionate and kind; we did not take Greta with us.

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

Dogs are not people, of course, but they do share some commonalities with humans. Like us, they are shaped by their earliest treatment.

We didn’t know the story of Greta’s early days, but we knew they weren’t good. But if we just love her enough, we thought, love her and care for her and show her the good world—well, then she’ll come around.

She came to love us, Greta did,–our little family of three humans. But she needed constant reassurance, a constant sense of safety. She was terrified of mail carriers, remote controls, and loud noises of any sort. She dragged her food dish beneath the kitchen table and only ate after dark, when no one was watching. Thunderstorms sent her into spasms, and, when visitors came, she backed up, barking and snarling.

Years of love and firmness didn’t reassure her. One vet said, “Their early lives shape them, for sure. But they are also, as we are, born with personalities and challenges.”

We stopped trying to change the little dog and gentled her into the safety of three. She lived with us, protected and beloved, for 13 years.

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

Our vet sat with us, rolled out the evidence, and told us gently that it was time. We knew he was right; we knew the little dog was in pain and befuddled, unhappy and suffering.

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

There is a room in my mind that I try so hard to avoid, but no matter what corner I turn, there it is, first entrance on the right. The door is cracked invitingly; some warm light beckons from within.

I call it the Second-Guessed Room, and I have explored it to my rue.

The floor, which looks concrete, is viscous. If I enter without thinking, I find myself sinking, trapped, caught, mired in what-ifs. Maybe I shouldn’t, I’ll think, and the sharp-edged issue I’ve been dealing with becomes fuzzy at the edges. It’s no longer clear just what the best path might be. It’s no longer clear that there is a path, at all. My decisions unravel, and progress stalls.

We came home from the vet resolved. We would get through the weekend; on Monday we would make that appointment.

But every time my thoughts wandered, they came to that door. Sometimes, they couldn’t help but go in.

And the voices lured them deeper. “Who are YOU?” the voices taunted. “What right do YOU have to decide…?”

And below that, gentle voices would be murmuring: She’s not that bad! She’s just a little old! She’s not suffering.

And I would waver, then realize I was up to my ankles in quicksand. It would take a hard, sucking effort to extricate myself, to clamber back into the hallway and slam that door shut behind me.

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

The worst part about the procedure was the sedative. They took Greta back to give her the shot; when they returned her, she was shaking but bright eyed, pleading, pleading. She headed toward the door, turned her head, begging: Home home home.

And then the back legs gave out and she folded to the shiny floor, and her head wobbled, and she was falling.

And I projected everything I didn’t want to see into her eyes—read, “Please!”

Read, “Don’t do this!”

Read, “You’ve betrayed me!”

Then even the wild eyes were quelled by the drug.

They settled her on the table, on a soft and comfy rug, a fleecy blanket folded under her head, and we held her as the needle went into her hind leg. Like a giant sigh, the tremors left the little body.

And the little dog left us on a peaceful swell.

The tech was red-eyed; the vet stepped outside. I couldn’t bear to look at my husband: one hand soft on the dog’s still head, the other groping for a Kleenex.

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

They told us everything we knew but needed, still, to hear: she was suffering. We did everything we could. We had to help her. It was time.

It was time, I agreed silently. It was time. And then I thought, Tonight, maybe I’ll sleep.

We walked out into bright, affronting, sunshine and drove, gob-smacked, home.

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

That night, at just about three AM, I bolted upright, listening for what woke me up. The house was quiet.

No pacing on the carpet around our bed.

No padding feet on the stairs.

No tick-tacky, tick-tacky, tick-tacky, of dog claws on the hardwood.

Nothing.

Although the Chicken Wasn’t There…

Where, oh where, is the boneless chicken breast?

I am staring into the depths of the chest freezer. There are tan plastic grocery bags concealing wonders—roasts and chops and fish fillets and French fries and assorted bags of frozen veggies. There are little one-pound plastic tubs—the same kind of tubs I am SURE I put the chicken in—that hold translucent amber bricks of homemade broth and dark red textured blocks of beef burger.  There is a bag of those white freezy things we put in the cooler when we travel with perishable food.

I do not see the chicken.

I move packages, and I plunge my hand, seeking; I stagger frozen food items precariously, searching for the elusive chicken. Food towers sway and my fingers start to ache, and I think hopefully that maybe I put that chicken in the freezer upstairs, the above-the-refrigerator freezer where I store things I want to easily grab.

Upstairs, I open the freezer and pull out two foil-wrapped frozen yellow cake layers.Then three lonely Nathan’s hot dogs. Two chunks of pie crust about the shape and size of nasty, meant-to-hurt, snowballs. There’s half a package of soft tortilla shells, several containers of chicken enchilada soup, and two packages of dark roast decaf. That’s what I can see. More hides in the depths of the freezer; it’s amazing, actually, how much food I can pack into this relatively small piece of frozen real estate.

And it’s amazing how hard something, once securely wrapped and relegated to either freezer’s depths, can be to find. I still can’t see the chicken. And I am thinking chicken stir fry for dinner.

And all this time, a persistent little thought has been running anxiously up and down the corridors of my mind, banging on every door. But my faithful mind-keeper has been one jump ahead, leaping from room to room via hidden passageways, leaning hard against those locked doors, calling sweetly, in a cleverly disguised falsetto, “Go AWAY! There’s NO ONE here!”

But the little thought does not give up. It runs the mind-keeper down, rags her till she’s weary, weary, weary, losing her gusto and her grip, and one of those doors finally opens a tiny crack. It is just enough for the thought I didn’t want to entertain to slip through and demand attention.

And there it sits, plunk in the middle of that bony cavern, right where I can’t avoid it:

“You need to inventory your freezers!”

That’s the thought I didn’t want to acknowledge, because that’s a cold, hard job I hate to do. But—sigh—it clearly is time.

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

I get out a clipboard and a yellow legal pad. I grab a Bic Biro. I put away the dishes that were drying and clear off the counters. I take a deep breath, open the upstairs freezer door, and I begin.

Everything comes out, every single rigid and frozen package. I spread them on the counter, one by one, and when the freezer is empty, I take my dishcloth and I wipe away all the detritus…coffee grounds and desiccated, frozen, tiny green peas, wisps of plastic packaging. I wipe down the little shelves in the freezer door, and then I turn to the patient frozen friends waiting on my counter.

I find a lot of containers—old cottage cheese tubs and the kind of ersatz Tupperware that some cold cuts are packaged in—full of kale. I know it is kale because my thoughtful past self wrote that very clearly on the lids.  What I did not write was the date I sealed that kale up and stuck it in the freezer.

How long ago, I wonder, did I last bring kale home? Was it last year’s CSA? Wait—did we even HAVE a CSA last year?

I open a container and contemplate the pretty ice crystals clinging to the dark green leaves. I contemplate, too, Mark’s response to kale.

“Oh,” he would say. “Oh, joy.”

I find an empty shopping bag, and I begin popping frozen pucks of kale into it, slapping the empty containers into the dishwater to be washed and recycled.

When I am done, there are five aged dark green vegetative disks in the bag.  How did I ignore that much kale for two whole years? I sigh in wonderment, tie the shopping bag firmly, and run it out to the garbage bin.

I list other forgotten treasure, such as…

half a pound of turkey bacon.

…three hamburgers.

…two bags of corn and one of peas.

…half a box of Steakumms.

…a package of cooked boneless pork.

…a package of cooked boneless chicken.

…a single serving package of Edward’s cheesecake. (How did THAT escape notice?)

I put everything back, neatly—the veggies on one side, meat on the other; the nice flat packages on the bottom, the lumpier, bumpier packages on top. I make neat little corridors so we can see what waits for us in those frigid depths.

On the door, I put the coffee, the pie crust, the forlorn and neglected hot dogs. And when it is all put away, I acknowledge that there was no uncooked boneless chicken in this freezer.

I take my clip board and head downstairs.

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

The chest freezer holds more food and offers more challenges. I line things up on the stairs, and the more I dig out, the farther I lean into the frosty depths. There’s detritus here, too, but it’s not so amenable to being swiped out with a flick of a dishcloth. I try, but little dots of broccoli, errant corn kernels, unidentified hard green things, and shreds of paper and plastic elude me.

Finally, dodging the frozen exhibit on the cellar steps, I run upstairs to get the handheld vacuum. Then I suck those shreddy little buggers out of the freezer. I wipe it down, set the vac aside, and begin replacing items and noting them on my list.

I write…

…raspberry lemonade.

…green beans (x2).

…3 pkgs. ham.

…thick cut bacon.

…one slab ribs.

…chicken broth (x15).

…Swedish meatballs.

pork shoulder blade roast.

…corn on cob.

…stir fry veggies (x2).

And on it goes, until all the food has been sorted and neatly stacked into the newly tidied freezer.

There is no boneless uncooked chicken. There just is not.

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

That afternoon, I look at my list, decipher the things I wrote too quickly with cramped, frozen fingers, and I discard the idea of a stir fry. Instead, I take the boneless cooked pork and the cooked boneless chicken from the upstairs freezer. I left it defrost just a little and then I slice all of it, as thin as my best knife will make it. I defrost, too, the soft tortilla shells.

I shred lettuce. I roughly chop, and then I caramelize, a whole onion. I grate cheddar cheese.

When the boyos come home, I sear the pork meat in one frying pan and the chicken slices in another. I brush the tortilla shells with olive oil and let them puff quickly in a hot skillet. Jim sets out the plates and Mark chops a pepper, and I realize I have used just about every frying pan or skillet that I own.  But we have a wonderful fajita bar.

We load the tortilla shells up with the things we like. Some of us take everything. Some incline toward only carbs and meat and cheese. We pour tall glasses of water and carry our plates to the table and we take the day just past, spread it out, fit our pieces together, and wrestle it into sensibility.

Mark pours hot sauce; I go back for the last scoop of onion. Jim asks, “Does anyone care if I finish off the pork?”

We eat every bit of fajita food, and, “Man,” says Mark. “That hit the spot.” He volunteers gamely to wash the stack of pots and pans.

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

After dinner, I sit down with the clip board. I cross off, “half frzn pepper,” “pkg cked pork,” and “pkg cooked chkn.”

And I contemplate. What could we do with one boneless beef steak? How could I use a pork chuck roast? Maybe I could chop one of those packages of ham into a steaming casserole of scalloped potatoes. Maybe, for a treat, we could have Lee Brothers Mac and Cheese and barbecued ribs on Sunday.

I have that filled-in feeling, that recognition of what is there. It’s out in the open; it’s clear. I know what I have to work with.

Now I can plan.

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

If I were one of those annoying, aging English-teacher types, I’d say there was a metaphor here, something involving bringing stuff out of dark corners, discarding what’s stayed past its use-by date, and unleashing imagination on those everyday ingredients that had been hidden away. Thank goodness—right???–thank goodness I’m not one of those!

Coming Back

Rosy and relaxed, I pushed the bedroom door open after my bath. There, sprawled on the floor, fast asleep, was Greta the dog.

Over six months ago, the dog abruptly stopped sleeping in our room after fourteen years of habit. Suddenly, she would come upstairs with me, circle around, sniff at the doors of the closets, angle her sad eyes my way, and then sigh deeply. With great effort, she would heave herself forward and head downstairs, where she’d fall soundly asleep on the couch.

Then I would wake to her wet nose snuffling at my face in the deepest hours of the night.

She’d be hungry.

She’d need to go out.

She would want her meds.

Sometimes I would get up; sometimes Mark would. Seldom would Greta sleep throughout the night…and so, of course, our sleep was constantly broken, too.

We took her to the vet.  We talked about sudden changes in habit and what that could mean. We talked about humans’ broken sleep and irritability.

The vet checked the dog for any signs of physical ailments and found none. That was good news, sort of, but it also meant that Greta’s issues were probably cognitive. At 14 human years of age, she was no doubt developing some kind of doggy dementia. We started her on meds, and slowly we increased them, adding a sedative. That reduced, but did not eliminate, the nocturnal wakings.

And then last night, there she was, in her once-accustomed place on the bedroom rug. I tiptoed around her, read in bed for thirty minutes, watched to see if she would wake when I turned off my lamp. Like there had been no interim, she slept for a full, uninterrupted, six hours.

And I slept, too, only realizing then that I had been on high alert every night, listening, even asleep, for the click click of her nails on the hardwood floors downstairs, ready (even if reluctant) to get out of bed when needed.

I got up early this morning, and Greta followed me downstairs; we went outside together in the gray light, came back in, both had breakfast. I felt as if something had clicked back into place. The dog, too, seemed strangely content.

Greta is still old. Her eyes are still cloudy, her focus still slipping. She may never sleep upstairs again.

Or she might. I’ll call her tonight when bath time looms, beckon her up behind me, see if the strange interim of spending the deep nights downstairs has come to an end.

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

I drop Jim off at the side door of Elson Hall, in the 15-minute parking space. He gathers his back pack and laptop bag from the back on the car, waves casually, and heads into the university, where he is taking a first-term philosophy class this summer.

He loves it. He respects and likes his teacher, a bright, engaging woman with a British accent who shares his love for Monty Python. (They can both recite the lyrics to “The Philosophers’ Song.”) She shows interesting video clips, such as one of George Carlin busting on the concept of God: Jim is particularly fascinated by the arguments for and against God’s existence.

He reads his textbook at home, does his homework, and downloads the lecture notes from Blackboard. He asks us our opinions on different philosophical constructs, wonders aloud about logical fallacies. He emails his advisor, his instructor, the financial aid director. He likes to go to campus an hour before class start—just to hang out and get ready, he says.

In the second summer term, Jim will take a health class. Then, in the fall, he’ll have a more robust part-time schedule.

It has been several years since Jim gave up on taking college classes, said, “No more,” after accumulating almost enough credits for an associate degree. He felt, he said, like he was spinning his wheels. He believed he would never be able to master the math needed. He wanted, he decided, to just get a job and work.

The job search was not fruitful, but two or three years ago, Jim did begin a small home business,–a business that helped him learn about responsibility and accountability, how to talk with and communicate with clients, and how to schedule work to get done in a timely way. And then, after the New Year, Jim mentioned that he’d like to explore going to college.

He connected immediately with a wonderful advisor, warmed to the director of disability services, felt comfortable finding classrooms and dealing with unexpected class changes and the vagaries of financial aid. And then the thing that had eluded him for years—a job—fell squarely into the deal. The disabilities director put him in touch with an opening for a student worker; James starts his job on Tuesday.

Classes that challenge him. A student job in the very field he hopes to pursue. James is back in school after a long, dry spell, excited and hopeful.

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

I trim the front hedge with the clippers, not trying for strict symmetry, but for neatness. Mark surveys. The hedge, he opines, kind of looks like a caterpillar.

A caterpillar, I think. That reminds me, somehow, of the bricks painted like books that I’ve seen on Facebook. I think of Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I say that, if you got a copy of that book, you could make eyes and antennae for the bushes. I say you could paint a paver to look like the book itself.

You could make, Mark says slowly, a kind of readers’ garden, and the idea takes hold.

I request the Carle book on line and get a call the next day that it is in. James and I drive over to the library and pick it up.

At home, I study the cover. I find a thin piece of plexiglass and cut it in half, and search in the basement for paints. I draw eye shapes on the clear plastic and fill them in green and yellow paints. I like the way they turn out.

Mark finds me a plastic lid; we cut it to make the caterpillar’s nose.

And I go outside and heave up a big cement paver, a paver that mimics the shape of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. I wash it off. I brush a thick coat of white paint onto it and leave it to dry overnight.

The next afternoon, decks cleared, I gather things together—little pots of latex enamels from the basement, a thick package of art brushes that I have had forever and never opened. Pencils and Sharpies and a cup for water. Rags and a paint stir-stick. A screwdriver to lift the glued-on lids from the jars.

I do a quick sketch of the book cover, and yes, it seems like it can be done. I grab an old plastic bowl for the mixing of paint, and I head out to the patio to paint a paver.

And just like that, I am painting, after years of not.

I like the result. It is far from perfect. The colors are wonky. I have lettered the text with a black Sharpie, and the porous, bubbly surface of the cement has played havoc with my printing. But there is no doubt of what I am trying to suggest; the paver actually looks like the cover of Eric Carle’s book.

I let it dry and coat it with clear enamel.

Caterpaver

This weekend we will wire the eyes, nose, and antennae onto the hedges. I dig out five pairs of old sneakers and set them aside to paint brown; they will be the caterpillar feet. We’ll take the very hungry cater-paver and prop it up in front. We’ll hope that passing children will be surprised into smiles—that moms and dads and grandmas and grandmas will remember warm cuddles with a special book.

We talk about garden books.

We could do, Mark suggests, an Iris Murdoch cover on a brick, put it by the irises. I find a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I put a base coat of blue on a brick…I’ll paint the flowers in tomorrow.

We’ll make an herb garden and paint bricks to look like Harry Potter volumes—herbology, you know. What about a cover for a Wordsworth tome in a bed of daffodils? What about a paver that looks like the children’s book Chrysanthemum tucked into the flower bed?

Could I recreate the cover of Charlotte’s Web to sit next to our statue of Babe the Pig?

I sort and stack paint, gather supplies, make sketches. This is fun. Why has it been so long since I’ve done this kind of project?

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

Transitions happen. Habits break. Dreams defer. Pleasures get back-burnered.

There isn’t room for everything. Sometimes, the jettison is a necessary thing. Sometimes, it’s necessary that the ending be permanent.

But sometimes, a dog creeps back into a favored spot and settles into a satisfying sleep. A young person takes a leap of faith and discovers needed skills to navigate the new path. Or a hand picks up a brush and joy re-awakens.

Some doors close forever, mourned, perhaps, but set aside. But sometimes, even if only for an interlude, that lost thing can be recaptured. There’s a special joy at times like that, I’m learning,–at times when things come back.

 

 

The Art of Smiling

Smiling
Opens doors
And locked faces
In all sorts of places.

He was standing by the library entrance, by a stack of construction debris—orange cones and yellow printed tape and dusty gray piles of pillaged, man-made rock. His cloth coat, unrumpled and clean, looked warm for the sunny day. He pulled a cigarette and lighter from one pocket, contemplating.

This was not my city; he might have been a regular there, but he was not my regular. I smoothed my face to blankness and stepped forward to stride on by.

“Good morning!” he said, and his modulated voice shattered my smoothness. “Isn’t it a beautiful day!” He grinned, pleased at having busted the blankness, and I couldn’t help it. I grinned back and gave him his own good morning.

“And a beautiful smile, too,” he said. I hurried into the building, wearing the smile he’d just blessed.

Smiling
Tosses ropes
Across chasms
Rescuing former strangers.

I explored the library, a place that, I hoped, would reveal secrets of past lives…pin down my parents, give me some clues to their whens and wheres. I sized up the ground floor, visited the Mark Twain exhibit on the mezzanine, and went up a floor higher, just to see. And then I got on the escalator to ride back down to the local history room.

Escalators! I looked at my feet on the step, my sneakered toes pointing over the edge of thin metal strips, and I remembered once a year shopping trips to this very city, half a century ago. Then, Christmas time meant a foray into wonder, to snowy streets where department store windows glowed and danced with magical images. And going on into the stores themselves, with piped carols and glossy displays and the begged-for rides: those ribbed metal steps popping up from the floor, inviting me.

Escalators. I sighed into my memories, riding down, and then I heard it.

“Who’s got a smile for me today?”

The woman in front of me, a tiny, plump person in a tailored tunic and aqua polyester pants, jerked her head up. I jerked my head up, too, and stared into the bold face of a grinning woman, slender and vibrant, with long, curling gray hair. Again, I couldn’t help grinning back.

I saw my downward companion’s shoulders relax, too, and her posture straighten, proudly.

“Aww, I got TWO of ‘em,” the gray-haired woman said, her riser passing ours as she headed upstairs. “It’s a two-smile day. God bless you ladies!”

Smiling
Informs awkwardness
Allowing understanding
Where none could thrive before.

I was looking for a book, the first in a series about western New York poorhouses, and I wanted to buy it at a bookstore I love. The Dog-Eared Page is a community bookstore, a not for profit enterprise that shares space with a money-making coffee shop. We parked up the perpendicular street; the big front window showed us steaming drinks and talking friends and intent people, heads bent over books. We entered into a bookish wonderland.

But I couldn’t find mine. The once I’d been there before, the poorhouse books had been in a big display. Foolish, I’d expected it to be permanent, as if books didn’t have seasons, as if those seasons didn’t change. There was a volunteer at the checkout (all the clerks are volunteer), and she was busy doing something that looked a little intricate, a little urgent. I hesitated, hovering, and she raised her eyes, reluctant.

And then I saw a framed photo—a chubby girl-child playing with a black-haired, curly, jumping dog. The dynamism, the pugnacity, portrayed in that picture made me smile. The clerk’s face softened; she followed my gaze and explained. Her granddaughter. New puppy. A photo so cute she had to bring it with her.

We talked about the wonders that granddaughters are and we talked about the excitement and potential of puppies. And we found my book series, although the first volume was all sold out, and I wouldn’t be in town long enough to wait for a special order to arrive.

I bought Volume 2, promising to order the first one on-line, promising to visit the next time I was in town, looking forward to the chance of seeing Catharine Marie again. Like me, Catherine Marie was a Catholic school alum, a reader and a retiree, a dog-lover and a gran. Catherine Marie was a no-longer stranger, someone I’d be happy to talk with another time.

Shared smiles, and communication hurdles vaporized into puddles.

Smiling
Shatters stubborn
Once-boundless barriers
And walls of sullen silence.

Once I’d eaten a butterscotch sundae at Parkside Candy; it was long before Robert Redford and Glenn Close filmed their memorable scenes there for The Natural. I must have been very young, and I remember being in painful, scratchy clothes. Details come back: it was, perhaps, the day of an uncle’s funeral; we were being rewarded for behaving at the church and the reception. The memory offers glass cases and swivel stools at a snack bar, sweating metal milkshake vessels for my brothers, and a tulip dish with a jaunty swizz of whipped cream and a cherry that I handed to my mother. I remember the rich warm butterscotch, the hush and the almost furtive enjoyment on a solemn, solemn day.

And now I was back, opening the door into coolness, the gleam of the black and white tiled floor surprising me with its familiarity. Yes—the glass cases, and the well-rubbed, glowing wooden shelves and displays. Towers of boxed chocolates; crisp cellophane bags of colorful candies. Hand lettered signs, and a magnificent, wood-arched soda fountain.

We sat at a little round table, on chairs with heart-shaped metal backs, and a brisk and wiry man—perhaps my age? Perhaps a great deal older?—came and welcomed us and quietly took our orders. I toyed with the idea that he could have worked there all those years; it could have been he who made my butterscotch miracle, yea, those many years before. It could be the same hands concocting my small hot fudge sundae today.

And then I looked toward the back, toward a wonderful little alcove, just room enough for a table and six chairs. On the chairs sat six women, a timeline of ages: pretty thirty-somethings, dignified matrons of a certain age, and a scary, scary dowager, high cheekbones and paged hair. The dowager turned as if I’d called her, and she stared at me as if I’d been pugnacious; she stared and then she humphed silently, and she turned her head away.

For just a minute, I felt wrung out, leeched, discarded. And then the waiter brought our sundaes—tall, not small, in their classic tulip glasses.

This time I ate the cherry, and I lifted the graceful, slender spoon to dip it into the thick hot fudge, to layer on another memory. Anticipation and nostalgia intertwined, and I couldn’t help but smile. I lifted my eyes and the dowager lifted hers, too, and we caught, for just a minute there. I hoisted my spoon, sweet with ice cream, toward her. There was a wobble and pause, and then her fine old face cracked open, and we shared a sundae smile.

Smiling
Surprises joy
That had been buried
Where no one knew it waited.

It was the first real spring-like day, and we ate at a hot dog stand: casing dogs, grilled to bursting; curly fries, crisp and hot. The food offered up a taste of summer, and we decided, after dinner, to do a summer thing: we would go watch the sun set over the lake.

We pulled into the Park and Ride lot across the street from the park; we waited patiently while cars and semis roared by, riffling our hair, hinting at the chill that the sun’s setting would bring in just a half an hour or so. And then we hurried across the street to claim a front-row seat, a park bench looking out to the horizon, where the sun was waiting for her audience so she could put on her show.

Below us, on the smooth surface of the lake, three kayakers fished, maneuvering and casting, hovering and then relocating. One kept getting bites. He’d pull a flapping fish from the water, detach the hook, and throw it back. They seemed to be big fish. Were they the wrong kind? Did he keep catching carp when he was looking for trout? Or was it just a catch-and-release kind of sport?

I pondered the impact of slicing sharp hooks on tender fish mouths, and a large young woman, hair dyed pink and shirt a neon, tie-dyed masterpiece, ambled up to the fence. She smiled at us, acknowledging, and then, leaning on the fence top, she began to talk, her words soaring out to the setting sun.

“Hi, baby!” she crooned. “Are you OKAY? Are you doing okay? How’s my baby tonight?”

She’s talking to…the sun? I thought, and then the girl turned away from us and hurried down the pier to join her friends. We exchanged looks and shrugs, and the sun continued sinking toward the water.

A dark-haired man in a plaid cotton shirt took the tie-dyed girl’s place. Next to him, a fragile young woman, big eyes, freckles, long, long red hair, shivered in the darkening breeze. They leaned against the fence for a moment, and then the man turned to us.

“Have you seen the duck?” he asked.

The duck?

We jumped up to look, and there, in the grass beyond the fence, was a brooding duck, gray and black, fat-cheeked, sloe-eyed, unmoving on the nest that boasted her own downy feathers. She’d been there, the man said, for at least a couple of weeks, and they came down every night to check on her.

I grinned and told him about the girl just gone—the girl I thought had been offering baby talk to the setting sun. If I’d gotten off my butt, I said, I might have realized she was talking to the mama duck. He smiled, too, this new companion; he smiled and his shoulders relaxed and he beamed down at the duck he’d come to visit.

The sun inched a little closer to its plummet, and we stayed leaning on the fence, the mama duck bathed in light growing rosy, and I talked about what a treat the beautiful day had been, a perfect spring day, and now the gift of the hopeful mama and a sun sending a rosy trail from horizon to shore—bathing the hapless kayaking fisherfolk in her waning rays.

“I’m Dakota,” the man offered, “and this here’s my daughter, Dana. I’ve moved around the city a lot, but now I live near here. So we come down every night to check this mama duck.”

We speculated on how long it would be before ducklings hatched, and we looked at the steep cliff between the nest and the lake, and we wondered how that mama would shepherd her babies down that imposing slope to the water. We pictured the mama leading little fuzzballs, all of them carefully hopping, hopping down the rocks, and all of us smiled again.

And, “It’s my birthday,” Dakota said suddenly. “And it hasn’t been the best of years.”

There was a silence, and then, fumbling, I said, “But this day. This perfect day. And here you are, and this mama duck. What is she, if not a symbol of good things yet to come?”

“Yeah,” said Dakota. “Yeah.” And the sun dipped into the lake, and we watched the color spread across the glassy waters.

“You know what?” he asked. “I’m going to come down every night this summer, maybe this whole year.” He raised his cell phone and snapped off a sunset shot. “I’m going to take a picture every night. And at the end, I’m going to put them all together and think about what’s changed.”

And then the lake sucked up the rest of the sun; the breeze grew colder. Fragile Dana shivered and we all turned to head back to our cars. First, though, we gave them hugs, two strangers seeking something, two people with a story we’ll never know, although I hope the ending’s splendid. Travelers who shared some time with us through the doorway of laughter and smiles.

***********

And later, I pondered the people I pass each day, my face smoothed over and unwelcoming. I thought about their faces—haughty or brash, sleep-muddled or defiant. Hopeless sometimes. Sometimes angry. And I acknowledged my ignorance of the paths that led to each face’s condition.

I thought too, about the day’s events, about the passing of strangers who became something more—became warm memories, glued into place by the simple adhesive of a smile.

Take Me Home

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

John Denver, Country Road

 

This has been a weekend of back roads and welcome views—of scrubby bushes shouting into green bloom, of redbud bursting, and of cresting hills to spy a sliver of lake, glossy in the setting sun, on a far horizon. We have savored arriving at our destinations, but, oh, the country roads make the travel worth the while.

Traveling country roads, I have learned about kindness and generosity; country roads have offered up lessons about nature’s mysteries, beauties, and harshness.

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

I came to driving later than many, and I was not an intrepid driver before we moved to Ohio. I would drive the thirty miles from our village home to, and back from, the school where I taught; but other than that, I was quite willing to let Mark do the driving. If the drive was substantial, I would rest my head against the window, my conversation would stutter into drowsing, and I would wake when we arrived: as magic a transportation event as being beamed up.

Mark was not available to go with me the night of my niece Shayne’s confirmation party. Shayne lived in a hamlet forty or so miles from my home; the only roads to get there curved around our mud-bottomed lake and meandered up and down forested hills. I carefully wrote out the directions Mark dictated and set off, a little nervous. But Shaynie was my darling godchild, and a little fear of the unknown wouldn’t keep me from the celebration. I drove off under sunny late afternoon skies; I drove off and enjoyed the tour through the back roads.

But the weather changed after the ceremony ended and the party wrapped up, and it was almost dark when I backed out of Shayne’s driveway to re-trace my route—it was almost dark because night was falling, and almost dark because heavy, ominous clouds were scudding together, nudging each other and blocking the last of the gentle evening sun. The rain began when I was ten minutes on the road, and, by the time I reached the far side of the lake, thunder was roiling and slashes of lightening snaked and speared the earth not so very far away. And the lightening flashing, those eerie fleeting moments of almost-daylight, revealed a horrible sight.

The road was covered with frogs, white-bellied in the flashing light. Their eyes gleamed; their legs splayed. Some were nothing but legs, their heads flattened by passing drivers. Some were just heads, their nether portions squashed.

The crashing thunder must have called the creatures from their watery beds, chasing them, unfortunately, onto the slick and curving country road.

“Oh. My. God,” I prayed, shoulders hunched, face peering over the steering wheel, shuddering every time a flash revealed the devastation of frogs on the highway. “Please don’t let this car break down.” I knew that if it did, I would never put a foot outside, that I would cower inside until morning light or clear skies sent surviving frogs back to their marshy homes.  And even then I’d have to tippy toe around frogs’ bodies in a nightmare landscape.

Please, I prayed, and of course I pulled safely into the driveway finally, safe to share my tale with the boyos. To this day, if a driving scenario comes into the conversation, Jim will say to me, “Tell ‘em about Shayne’s confirmation, Mom. Tell ‘em about the frogs.”

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

After that ghastly return trip, I understood how Mark felt about the Night of the Toad and the Bunny, another hard wildlife lesson on a country road.

Matthew, who was seven or eight at the time, had caught a toad at his grandpa’s house. They put the toad in a shoe box, with grass and a rock, and Matthew ran around catching some tasty bugs for the creature to eat.

Matt thought he’d bring that toad home and make a pet of it.

Mark thought differently. After the hugs and the leave-taking, Matt secured in the passenger seat and the toad’s box safely tucked in the back, after he’d turned the car onto the back road to home, Mark began to talk to Matthew about wild things and their right to live. It was wrong, he said, to keep a toad in a box, to separate him from his natural habitat. Humans, Mark told Matthew soberly, had no right to interfere in the lives of any wild beast, enormous, tiny, or inbetween.

Just as Matt was absorbing that, was preparing to say goodbye to his toad when he arrived home, Mark saw a flash of motion. It was a rabbit, and somehow, it darted in front of the driver’s side wheel in just such a way that, instead of squashing it, the wheel threw it. It threw the little thing right up, right over the hood of the car, and it landed belly first, paws extended, on the window in front of Mark.

The bunny stared at him a moment, Mark said, and then the eyes glazed over, and the little creature, bloodied and beaten, slid slowly down the windshield as Mark and Matthew watched.

Mark pulled over and stopped the car and sat for a shocked moment. And then he started to think again. What on earth could he use to clean that bunny off the car?

In the end, they used the shoe box. Matthew launched the little toad into freedom, shook the grass and rocks and bugs out, and handed the box to his father. Mark scooped the remains of the rabbit from the windshield and settled them into the box.

They replaced the lid and placed the bunny box on the berm. Mark said a few words, and they got into the car to drive home.

There was a prolonged silence. And then Matt said, “I guess that was a life for a life, huh, Dad?”

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

Twice in Ohio I have been lost on country roads and young men in pickups rescued me. Once, in spring, when the soybeans were thickening, green and lustrous, and the corn on the opposite side of the road was just learning to stand tall, I drove with my friend Sharon to pick up my in-laws, Ang and Pat. They were staying in a cozy cottage at a little resort town called Indian Lake, about twenty miles from where we lived. Mark was graduating from law school that weekend; we thought that it would be fun for Ang and Pat to stay in a place with privacy and a little kitchen and a backyard that sloped down to a small canal that meandered to the lake.

The night before graduation, several of Mark’s law school peeps drove out to the cottage to eat a barbecued dinner; and after the sun started its plummet, we lit a fire and passed beer and sodas around, and amber bottles rose and fell, and talk and laughter soared and mingled with the smoke from the kindling, which was slightly damp from a recent rain. The flames flickered glowing light onto the faces around it; the students’ faces, done with their hard slog through a challenging program, were relaxed and beaming. Ang and Pat grinned and laughed at Mark’s young peers’ antics. The light illuminated their joy. It was a wonderful night, and we all headed reluctantly home on the darkened, narrow roads.

But the next day, when Sharon and I drove out to pick up Ang and Pat, a detour sign blocked the route we’d taken the night before.

It was the time just before GPS and just before I could ask my smart phone to take its stupid owner where she needed to go, and we froze abruptly, unsure exactly what to do. And then, miraculously, a pickup truck pulled up next to us, and a sun-browned blonde boy asked us where we were headed. We told him, and he said, “Follow me.”

“Won’t that be out of your way?” we asked him, and he waved a hand dismissively and surged ahead of us so we could swing back onto the road behind him. He was pulling a trailer packed tightly with square bales of hay; he must have been on his way to make a delivery. But he took us through narrow back roads—some not much more than gravel drives; he was deft and sure and got us safely to the road to Indian Lake. Before we could stop to thank him, to offer some cash, he waved a lazy hand out the window and turned his rig off a road to the right and disappeared. We picked up Ang and Pat and were back at the home base in time to get everyone to the ceremony.

And then, after the law school days, when we had settled in Mount Vernon, I began teaching as an adjunct at a little college in Zanesville. It was an hour’s drive through lonely roads; at night, I trembled at the thought of deer leaping and drove with knuckles clenched on the top of the wheel, peering. But, in the sun’s strong light, the drive revealed the change of season, peeled away the layer of spring to reveal summer’s secrets. I would have an audiobook in the tape player; the reader’s words would mark a turn in the road, the interim spent behind a slow-moving Amish buggy, the revelation at the hilltop, and when I encountered that situation again, the words I’d heard would spring again to mind.

And then one day I came to the crossroads and there was a sign: Flood. Road closed ahead.

That can’t be right, I thought; mule-brained, I drove forward. A few miles ahead, a dark, mysterious lake covered road and fields and lapped up to the steps of the few buildings scattered in its path. I had no idea how to get to the college if I didn’t take the water-covered route, and a bubble of panic rose. I turned the car around and took the first right turn; I drove until I found a convenience store, and I went in to ask directions.

A tall young man in plaid and Carharrts was at the counter; he snorted and paid down his money. “I graduated from there,” he said, when I asked the clerk for directions, “and I know the shortcuts. You just follow me.”

Again, I pulled onto the road behind a kind boy in a pickup truck; again, he led me right to the college entrance, waving lazily, not stopping for thanks.

I learned a bit about the kindness and courtesy of hardworking Ohio boys on country roads.

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

Sometimes a country road brings us face to face with the impact of humans on nature, with the knowledge that, even though we don’t mean to, we sometimes cause pain and even death to the creatures with whom we share the world.

Sometimes country roads offer up lessons on human kindness and generosity.

And sometimes a country road allows us to see the change in nature—the sudden greening of the trees, the bursting blossoms of the redbuds, the petals flying, snowy, from flowering fruit trees. Look, it says to us, look at the beauty and don’t sleep through it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Liebster Leads to Wonderful New Blogs!

Thank you to Phil at Our Daily Scraps— https://ourdailyscraps.wordpress.com/2018/05/04/the-liebster-award/— for nominating Catching My Drift for the Liebster Award! Our Daily Scraps is an inspirational cooking blog; since I’m experimenting with a gluten-free lifestyle, I was really intrigued by the alternative Phil proposes to pizza dough. Check out Our Daily Scraps for unique and wonderful cooking ideas.

The Liebster Award is given by bloggers to other bloggers. (You can read about it here.) The rules for the 2018 award are as follows:

  • Thank the person who nominated you
    • Display the award on your post
    • Write a small post about what makes you passionate about blogging
    • Provide 10 random facts about yourself
    • Answer the questions given to you
    • Nominate 5-11 other blogs for this award
    • Ask them creative and unique questions of your own
    • List the rules and inform your nominees of the award

*******

The Liebster is a great way to meet other bloggers, and to grow as a blog, so I am very happy to nominate some exciting new blogs I’ve recently discovered. They are:

Greyzziel Stories at

https://greyzzielstories.wordpress.com/

Forwards Only at

https://forwardsonly.wordpress.com/contact/about/

What Are You Reading at

https://whatareyoureading212968983.wordpress.com/

Soul of a Gypsy at

https://soulofagypsy.me/

and Bilocalia at

https://bilocalalia.wordpress.com/

 

These blogs range from thoughtful words to thoughtful reviews to thoughtful recipes. I hope you visit!

(Nominees, questions are at the end of this post… )

*******

Why I’m passionate about blogging—

I started a blog as a means of discipline; I committed to posting every Saturday. I do believe the discipline has helped me improve my writing. The wonderfully unexpected  thing about blogging for me, though, is the sense of community and support I find online.

*******
To answer Phil’s questions…

  1. Were you afraid to start blogging? Why or why not? (Is this looking like a high school test already?) I was intimidated by unfamiliar technology and afraid I’d run out of things to say. I have stretched technology-wise, and so far, there’s still plenty to talk about!
  2. If you could pick a book to live in for a week, what book would it be? I always thought the Murray household in Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time was warm and wonderful. I’d love to visit that family.
  3. What do you think is your biggest character flaw? I dither.
  4. What traits do you look for in a best friend? Integrity and humor.

  5. If you had no internet for a week, what would you do? Read hardcover books; write with a gel pen on loose-leaf paper; cook up a storm; take long walks.
  6. What is one thing you can’t believe you have actually done/completed? When my husband and I were in our late forties, we had our change of life adventure: Mark fulfilled his lifelong dream and went to law school. We grabbed hands and took a huge leap of faith—and never, ever regretted it.
  7. What sort of things instill fear in you? Judgers.
  8. What is one thing about you that most people wouldn’t guess? I am sadly not too mysterious, but people might be surprised to know that I was one of the first girls on my high school varsity tennis team.
  9. Do you type faster than you write or write faster than you type? I type faster, but still hunt and peck.
  10. If you were an inanimate object, what would it be and why? An open book—seriously not mysterious!

********

Random facts…

I…

…love to cook

…get lost in a book

…am fond of English toffee

…recently switched to decaf coffee

…worry about my aging dog

…keep a daily handwritten log

…enjoy exploring out-of-the-way places

…love seeing smiles light up glum faces

…recently retired; I love this time

…and I have a bad habit of writing in rhyme.

 

*******

 

Nominees, here are ten questions for you:

 

  1. Why did you start blogging?
  2. Which blog post is your absolute best? Please explain!
  3. Who inspires you?
  4. What three things would you put in a time capsule to show people 1,000 years from now what life was like in 2018?
  5. If you could go anywhere, where would you go?
  6. What’s one thing you’re looking forward to completing?
  7. Do you have a pet?
  8. Where is your best writing spot?
  9. What’s your greatest success to date?
  10. What advice would you give a brand-new blogger?

 

 

 

It’s a Mystery Why Bharath Nominated Me…But I Accept!

Bharath Uphendra at Bharath’s Banter always has something thought-inspiring, funnybone-tickling, or downright charming to say. So I was thoroughly surprised and honored that he nominated me for a Mystery Blogger Award. I hope you’ll visit Bharath’s blog at https://ridiculousbharath.wordpress.com; you’ll find it very worth the visit. Thanks, Bharath, for nominating my blog for this award!

First, I must tell you three things about myself:

  • I have met amazing people in the blogosphere!
  • I have found some great recipes in the process of blogging.
  • Blogging has helped me create a writing discipline within a community of writers.

One of the many wonderful things about receiving an award like this is that different people visit your blog. I’d like to nominate some intriguing new bloggers I’ve encountered and follow; I think you will enjoy their rich and varied blogs, too. They are…

Words of a Little Heart:

https://wordsofalittleheart.wordpress.com/

The Heartbreaker Files:

https://heartbreakerfiles.wordpress.com/

Pen and Ink Sketches:

https://penandinksketches.wordpress.com/

Stories of Sandeept:

https://storiesofsandeept.wordpress.com/

and ZeroWasteChef

https://zerowastechef.com/

From thoughtful words to thoughtful recipes to wonderful sketches, these bloggers have much to offer. And if they choose to be a Mystery Blogger, the rules of engagement are at the end of this blog!

**********

Here are the questions Bharath posed to me, with my answers::

  1. What genre of music do you prefer? It’s a tough question. I guess I have to say classic rock.
  2. Your favourite song lyrics? I do love Sting’s Fields of Gold.
  3. How stupid can you be? I, personally, can do thoroughly stupid things, especially when I’m not being aware—like starting to put my jacket in the fridge and the milk in the hall closet…
  4. What’s your philosophy of life? I believe that everyone has strengths, and that focusing on them is a whole lot more productive than trying to fix the weaknesses.
  5. What’s your opinion on religion? Faith is a beautiful thing; so is spirituality. Organized religion can offer great support and community; it can also eb a divisive factor.

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

Here are five questions for my nominees:

  1. Who inspires you?
  2. What book should everyone read, and why?
  3. What food should be banned from all restaurants?
  4. When and why did you start blogging?
  5. We all agree that things are not as important as people, of course, but sometimes things have great associations. What one thing would you really miss if you lost it? Why?

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

And here are the rules to follow if you choose to accept this nomination:

THE RULES:

  1. Thank whoever nominated you and include a link to their blog.
  2. Tell your readers three things about yourself.
  3. Nominate 5-7 bloggers you feel deserve the award.
  4. Answer the questions from the person who nominated you.
  5. Ask your nominees questions of your choice with one weird or funny one.

 

 

Home/Work

I needed some toffee bars, I decided, to make a special coffee cake the next morning: I wanted them to make a treat for Mark, and I wanted to take some slices, as a thank you, to a meeting. And we needed a loaf of bread. I reached for my car keys, and then I thought, “Wait a minute. I could walk to the Family Dollar.”

It was ten o’clock on a cool and sunny Wednesday morning, and James was in the family room, typing away.

“I’m taking a walk to the store,” I told him.

There was a pause, and then, “Can I come?”

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

I appreciated my geography, walking. Dandelions were suddenly awake, and I noticed, in the cracks suffered by the concrete, brave little violets pushing up, faces to the sun, undeterred by their brasher yellow weed companions. We strode a ways and turned a corner; walked further; turned again. Motors sputtered and choked and caught and grumbled; there was the smell of gas and fresh-cut grass.

In the field where the school once stood, some sort of perennials were beginning to push up through a thick tangle of weeds and clover. Their leaves and stems were a vivid maroon. I wondered who those perennials belonged to now, and I wondered if it would be stealing to come back later with a spade and an old tin pot.

We made the final turn onto Taylor. As we walked, Jim told me about his favorite movie directors, and then he regaled me with some scenes from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a show which he has recently discovered and embraces wholeheartedly.

So Jim rambled, conversationally; so we walked, steadily. It was almost hypnotic until we startled an angry dog who lunged at us from a brick front porch. His chain brought him up short; spittle flew, and the dog grew more agitated. Alarmed, we scurried on.

I found everything I needed at the store, and we turned back home, careful to walk on the other side of the street, away from that dog who, agitated enough, just might pull his chain out from its moorings.

It was just enough of a walk to challenge us. Coming up the final hill, Jim asked, jovially enough, “WHOSE idea was it for me to tag along?”

He unlocked the door, drained the bottle of Dr. Pepper he’d bought himself, and he grinned.

“Just kidding,” he said.

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

I was tempted, with Jim, to launch into a granny-pated memory binge. “Why I remember walking a mile to the store for my mother when I was just six years old,” I would begin. But then I didn’t. Instead I mentioned to Terri, in an email, that we had walked to the Family Dollar…took a walk, I wrote, to the corner store.

Terri emailed back, later that day, with some reminiscences. She remembered walking to the store on Newton Street in Fredonia, as a child, and how the proprietor had frowned when their waiting dog leapt up, paws on the Sunbeam bread banner that served as a broad door handle.

Sullivan’s! I thought. I’d spent my first ten years in Fredonia, too; I remembered walking to Sullivan’s store.

For me, the walk involved crossing the Big Street—Route Twenty—at the light by St. Joseph Church and trudging a long way down Newton Street, which curled past the Pioneer Cemetery. I was always too spooked to walk on the cemetery side, which didn’t boast much in the way of sidewalk, anyway. Newton took me past the lumber store where Dad stopped, periodically, to replenish our building blocks. The owner would fill a cardboard box with scraps from his cuttings: perfect little squares and rectangles of wood that lent themselves to the most amazing living room floor architecture.

Where Newton Street curved, I could see, in the fields beyond the houses, the cement walls of what I thought was an abandoned factory; its door and windows stared, empty. My brothers called that Hobo Jungle; my mother, urgent, warned them never to go there. They made their faces smooth and innocent, and I felt panic rise: what might those ragged men, nameless and dangerous, jumping off a railroad car—what might they DO?

The walk was always longer than I remembered, and by the time I reached the store, I was glad to gather whatever I had to buy. Sometimes there was enough change for a candy bar, and I would sit on the cement steps, the bag by my side, and eat it as slowly as I could, fortifying for the long walk home.

What fascinated me most about Sullivan’s was that the family, mother, father, and two, I think, big boys, lived upstairs. What would that be like, I wondered—to live above the store? Could the boys run downstairs and get a candy bar or an ice cream sandwich whenever they wanted? Would they be called out of bed in the middle of the night by someone pounding on the door, needing cough syrup or baby aspirin? Did the milk man deliver early in the morning, before the store opened, when the family was still waking, still in their flannel pajamas and embarrassed to be seen?

Years and years later, the store closed, and new owners converted the downstairs to a flat. And years after that, my friend Teri rented the upstairs apartment. It was an amazement to visit and see it, a whole big living space, intact and sprawling, living and dining rooms, three bedrooms,–space enough for a family to live, to come together in the common areas, and to have their private spaces and protected secrets, all above the store that made their living.

I thought about that when my father got up in the wee, wee hours of the morning to drive to work at the power plant in the driving rain, or when he had, in the depth of winter, to shovel the drive and find the old Buick under mounds of snow. What would it be like, to live where you worked?

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When Jim was two years old, I, kind of accidentally, fell into doing day care work at home. Two urgent mothers called, needing loving care for their kids; I wanted to be home with James, but I needed income, too. So, “Bring them here,” I said, and then, every morning, moms would pull into the drive and unbuckle car seats and bring their baby or toddler or big kid into the house. Soon there were seven children—never all seven, all at once, though—who came to our house throughout the week.

We would read and walk and play outside; we would draw and eat hot lunches and I’d try—oh, I’d try so very hard—to get at least some of them down for naps. That seldom worked. Sometimes, I’d resort, in the afternoons, to popping kids in front of the television, and popping videocassettes into the VCR. I would do up lunch dishes as the kids sat and sang along with Barney or went on a trip in a hot air balloon with the nice people from Fisher Price. Their eyes would glaze over, and they would sway a little, and sometimes I would slip in and catch a little rest in the lounge chair before TV time was over.

Then there’d be snack time and outdoor play if the weather was good, and then, over a period of two hours or so, moms would start arriving to get their kids. They would come in, tired after working, and they’d listen patiently to tales of the day, slinging backpacks over shoulders, admiring artwork, bundling, bundling, bundling, their babies to the door. And they’d head home, to dinner and maybe an hour or two of family time before baths and books and bedtime, and then a welcome rest before the whole thing began again.

And, after all the wee ones left, I’d stand, my own warm and wonderful child with his arms wrapped around my knees, and survey the rumpled house: a blanket sprawled there on the floor; a burst of crayons splayed on a half-finished drawing; a rash of Lego by the fireplace. Snack-time dishes in the sink and a dinner yet to get and a selfish, impossible wish for a quiet hour’s respite.

There’s no demarcation between work and home when home is where you work.

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

Of course, work at home is nothing new. Farm families have done it always, and their kids grow up surrounded by the family living—learning the secrets of milking, of driving a tractor, of planting and harvest, when they are very young. Those kids grow up knowing what it means to rear an animal, knowing that the cow they raised from birth, the sparky, scratchy chickens they knew as hatchlings, would eventually feed some family—the farm family itself, or one who bought and fixed that creature the farm kid raised as food.

A different kind of wisdom, those kids learned; there was (there is) a deep knowing of the earth and its seasons in kids who grow up, working the family farm.

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

High speed internet in our homes has opened up a new world of work-at-home; we call it, these days, telecommuting. It’s a thing, it seems to me: it’s a trend. We know a couple of people who telecommute. One provides IT tech support; he hides in a bedroom, at his computer, and spends the day talking people through technical problems. The other does technical work for a huge insurance company, and he has a separate study just for work. He gets up in the morning and has breakfast, and then he puts on a suit, goes into his study, and closes the door. He is At Work for eight hours; he emerges for breaks and a lunch, and then he goes back into the study. He goes back to work. His employer gets full value for his work-at-home routine.

I go looking for statistics about working at home in 2018, and Fundera.com tells me these things:

  • 7 million employees (2.8 per cent of the United States workforce) work at home for at least half of the workweek.
  • Forty percent more employers offer a work-at-home option today than did in 2012.
  • Guess what? Those employers find that work at home employees are less stressed and more productive. There’s less employee turnover among those who work at home.
  • Some folks who telecommute save up to $4,000.00 a year.

Telecommuting. Working at home. See? We invented it, didn’t we, we crafty citizens of the twenty-first century?

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And then I think about thousands and thousands of years, years before factories and big box stores and services that are open from 8 AM until 9 PM—all those thousands of years when home was also everything else—food processing plant and clothing factory, furniture production site, and butcher shop. People sewed their shirts and pants and dresses and chopped the wood for fuel; they learned to salt and smoke their meat and to make jelly from their apricots and to preserve that jelly in sturdy rows of gleaming jars…jars would supply a taste of summer on frigid winter nights. People who ran homes had to master a little bit of everything, and I can understand, thinking of this, the origins of that old saying: A man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s wok is never done.

Maybe, in community, people could specialize a little. Maybe the woman who was a wonderful baker contracted with another who wielded a deft and efficient needle: Alice supplied the bread for her neighbor, who sewed pants for Alice’s kids. Joshua did the roofing and built the chairs for most of the settlement, and the other men pitched in to help him in the fields. Little cottage industries sprang up, maybe, playing to the strengths of the people who lived in that cottage.

But in the remote regions, where neighbors were scarce and life depended on what you grew and crafted and produced, you couldn’t have the luxury of playing your best hand. You were the source; if you didn’t do it, there was an absence. And that of course could be the difference for a family. Absence of work completed could mean hunger and cold—could, of course, mean death.

Thousands of years of people who were work-at-home laborers, and then a couple of hundred years of industrial and technical revolution. And when technology makes it possible for some people to go back home to work, we seize on it. Look what we invented, we say. We’ll call it ‘work-at-home.’

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I send off a response to Terri’s email, sharing memories of glass bottles of Coke and big bins of Italian olives, of fresh-sliced cold cuts, and of the people we knew who lived above their stores. And then I open up a file and get to work myself, editing a narrative for a grant I’m writing, a grant that is due the next day. I send off emails to the people who are guiding the process; we circle in, closer and closer, to a finished product—to the moment we are ready, when we can push a button that says, ‘Sign and submit.’

And I realize that, once again, I am doing it. Although I have time to take spring rambles to the chain store half a mile away, time to clip the leash on the crazy dog and let her tug me off on a neighborhood wander three or four times throughout the day, I am, again, working at home. The lines blur, and the hours blend, and I might be doing grant work at 7 PM and baking cookies at 11:30 AM, and that’s because I can. Those are choices I can make, when I can work at home.