Free Agency: The Moment of Realization

I have a plan and a process in mind for a blog post this week, but it’s a post that will not come together. I wrestle with it. I structure it—it’s a perfect topic for a classic essay. Three main points. I have a good hook, I think, for an opening, and the points lead right to a firm and satisfying conclusion. And this is something I really want to write about.

But the post refuses to gel, and when I try to force it into shape, the writing sounds whiny, and bossy, and petulant.

So on Friday morning, I get up early and run over to the lab to get blood drawn (they are so quick about it, I barely have time to open my book before they hustle me off to greet my day). I’m back before Mark leaves for work, back in time to brew a full pot of decaf, to take the little dog for her frenetic morning walk, to eat my toasted, sprouted, many-seeded, bread, and to conquer the word puzzles in the paper before I take a steaming mug of joe out onto the patio.

I have my notebook and a pen, and I take a deep sip of coffee, and I order myself to figure out why this blog post isn’t forming.

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It’s quiet. It stormed last night, and we had to medicate the little dog against the frightening crash of thunder, chemically insulate her from the lightning flashes. The soothing, calming pills seemed to backfire yesterday, and she woke me out of a deep, sound sleep–I had the strong, regretful sense of sliding out of a very, very good dream. I brought her downstairs and let her out.

When we went back up, though, she couldn’t settle. And I wanted so to go back to that wonderful dream place.

Instead, I brought my book downstairs and read while the dog paced and panted. When she finally dragged her dinner bowl out from under the table, brought it over next to me, put one paw inside to hold it down and started licking residue, I realized she might be hungry. I asked her for the dish. She gladly gave it over, and I mixed kibble with wet dog food. She ate it all and licked the bowl clean, and not long after, I got her up to bed and back to sleep.

So she was snoring. Mark was snoring. I sat in the dark of 2:30 a.m., and a bitter taste of resentment biled up: Sure, you guys sleep. I have to be up in four hours to get to the blood lab… and then I had the moment. I realized that the day about to dawn was mine, that no external fists were pummeling my day into shape…that, if I wanted to, I could come home from the lab and stretch out in the comfy reading chair and close my eyes for as long as I wanted.

It was, I think, the first moment that I knew, deep in the embracing-life, truly-knowing part of my mind, that I really, really don’t have to go back to work.

There was a shift, a reckoning, and a joyful acceptance. The shape and space of my days, the structure of my week, changed viscerally.

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A morning after a storm is quieter in some ways. The birdsong is tentative and far away, not raucous and burgeoning. The bugs, though–their chatter is electric, atonal. It kind of buzzes right through my veins.

The air is heavy and wet, but, as I sit and write, freehand scrawling in the soft August morning sun, I feel a breath of real coolness. I think to myself that air conditioning is great–what would we do without it?–but that true coolness is only available out of doors, in the path of a blessed breeze. The trees twiddle their fingers idly at me.

And Sandy and her little dog wave from the yard next door.

“Still feel like you’re playing hooky?” she calls, grinning.

No, I answer. Today, I feel retired.

And I see a new twist to my morning routine. Unless it is blowing, pouring, or snowing, I’ll do my morning pages on the patio, getting to know the new day.

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I think about the phrase, playing hooky. As an academic, that’s the feeling vacation always brought to me: there were things I should be doing, but look at me! I’m taking time away from the job, the class, the planning. I’m sipping coffee on the patio when I should be…doing something for someone else.

I wonder idly where the hooky phrase comes from, and then I realize I have the time to find out. So I type it into Safari, and I pull up a long list of results.

I discover the term ‘to hook’ was once vulgar for ‘to steal,’ so playing hooky might mean stealing time from some intended purpose. I discover that if you were said to be ‘on your own hook,’ it meant you were responsible for yourself. Playing hooky may have come from that, too–when you play hooky, you take your time to yourself, not reporting to anyone else.

And I discover that there was a term in 1840’s and 1850’s United States: to hook Jack, which meant playing truant…in that, maybe, somebody hooked poor Jack away from school. Clearly, there’s a rich history to the term playing hooky, and I have time now, to look it up, and to mark it down for later study.

I have time to research playing hooky, but today, this day, I don’t feel like I’m doing it.

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This day is not a broad, empty one. I shake some pork bones into the old black Dutch oven; I clean veggies out of the refrigerator—summer squash and broccoli stems, a fat onion, quartered, and a sturdy carrot, which I peel and slice. I add a bulb of garlic and a sprig of rosemary from the plant that hangs from the corner of the carport. I take dried basil and oregano from our own backyard and crumble it between my hands. I sprinkle salt and grind pepper, and I drizzle olive oil. Then I put the whole mess into a 350 oven so flavors will blend, and components will turn a rich brown color. Later, I pull out the pan, fill the pot with water up to the brim, let it simmer, slow and low, for hours, bubbling up a rich deep broth.

At noon, I drive to my friend and colleague Kris’s, where we sort flyers and surveys and bookmarks and bundle them together with boxes of children’s books to give away to Scout groups and the art museum, to libraries and after-school programs. It is the joyful time of our community read initiative, when books–new books, nice books, hardcover books,–get into the hands of young children who, maybe, never have had a brand new book before.

Kris and I pack them up, and divide the list. We tote boxes out to my car. In the afternoon, Jim helps me deliver, and we end at the library, where he browses films and I browse books.

It’s not that I am not doing any work. It’s just that I am choosing the work I want to do.

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I like what my new friend in the blogosphere, Kimberly Allen, wrote about the fact of retirement. We had been back-and-forthing about the term, ‘retirement,’ about the out-to-pasture sense of it, and how we needed to land upon a better term. Last week, Kim wrote, “The words I am currently using, borrowed from a friend, suit me. Free agent!”

I’m a free agent, I think,–working of course, but in charge of what work I will do. The reality of that seeps into my head and my skin and my bones.

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On the way home from the library, we stop at the store, James and I, and we buy freshly-baked hamburger buns along with the other few groceries we need. I unpack the two light bags; I pull hand-formed burgers from the chest freezer. I put some new potatoes on to simmer and a brown egg on to boil. We’ll have, I think, a little batch of potato salad with grilled burgers…and maybe an ice cold Canadian beer on this muggy August night.  I will chop and stir and mix and season, but I will still have time to read, in the afternoon quiet, a long slow chunk of Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages, another chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass.

I read, these days, in the comfy reading chair before dinner; I read on the patio with a glass of ice water after my evening walk. Words are revelation again; not trying to hurry through, I cannot stop myself from plunging ahead. The words of good writers move and shake me.

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The big moments come in ordinary time, when we are usually dealing with the here and now, the immediate needs. So the transition is only appreciated, digested, internalized, after the passage has taken place. Student. Graduate. Employee. Supervisor. Significant other. Partner. Parent. Grandparent. There are all kinds of transitions, all kinds of new roles. And it takes a while for each to settle in, to become a living breathing part of the way we know ourselves.

Free agency. I have the time, and I have the freedom, the health, and the resources, to choose what I will do. Maybe, next week, that will be to write the blog post that wouldn’t solidify, to explore, effectively, the concept of ceremonies of welcome, and maybe it won’t. I have the opportunity to take my time, to decide on the action, the topic, the project, or the path. The reality of this freedom comes claiming me. I am dizzy with my great good luck, with new lightness, as a heavy cape slips firmly from my shoulders.

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A Bird in the Hand

We have constructed an artifice, a Potemkin village of an ecosystem where we perpetrate the illusion that the things we consume have just fallen off the back of Santa’s sleigh, not been ripped from the earth. This enables us to imagine that the only choices we have are between brands.
                —Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
Black chick

This week, I’ve been thinking about chickens.

I’ve been thinking about chickens because we’ve been eating them–experimenting with using dry rubs, letting the breast meat soak that in, and then roasting it on the grill, basting it with a barbecue sauce, letting it slow cook, and then eating it with farmers’ market corn and new potatoes from Randy’s fields. Rubs are new to our chicken repertoire, and the results–tasty and moist, seared on the outside–are a welcome revelation.

But I’ve been thinking about chickens, too, because of the folks we know who raise them. They are varied, these chicken-raising people: artists and officers, class-act retirees,  professors, stay-at-home moms. These are people, for the most part, who have been quietly tending their fowl for a long, long time. Their chicken preoccupations predate the current poultry raising craze by a broad span of years. Their stories, I think, would make a compelling article, and I message my friend Robin to see if she’ll let me come and visit, to interview her about her chickens and her art.

Robin is gracious and welcoming, and so, on Thursday morning, James and I pile into the car and drive north to Mount Vernon.

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Robin lives, with her husband Craig and their sons, Paul and Isaac, in a pretty red cottage on the borderline between town and country. The house perches on a little slice of verdant heaven, and we pull up the long gravel drive and park next to the family van. We walk up a path bordered in green, past a homey looking chicken coop, and up the steps to the back door.

We sit at the table and visit while cinnamon buns bake and Robin makes a second fragrant pot of decaf. Isaac, about to enter his last year of college, tells us about a new bird he’s been watching this summer. It’s wren-like, but with a longer beak and a different perching pattern, and it’s been pecking at his window. He realized, he says, that it had peeled away a corner of the window screen to get to spiders spinning homes in the space between window glass and summer screening. He’s excited because that means the bird has taken its instinctual feeding pattern–foraging in the bark of a tree,–and adapted it to human construction.

Isaac is tall and lean, ponytailed, with piercing black eyes. He is a biologist, studying, right now, fish and their adaptive relationships in Ohio waters, but birds are his passion. He loves video games, too, and Robin and I leave him and Jim discussing a digital world. We take our coffee and warm-from-the-oven buns, and we retreat to a little sitting area at the top of the stairs. It’s where Robin does her sewing, away from everyday house bustle.

Robin moves the sewing machine close to the window, pulls out chairs, and we settle in. Emily, the aging poodle, sweet and friendly, hoists herself up the stairs, too, settles in, falls asleep on the area rug at my feet. Robin shows me her just-finished project, a beautiful, capacious, quilted bag that she puts up on top of the sewing machine and covers. Otherwise, the cat will find that soft and comfy fabric, mash it down, and create for herself a new sleeping spot.

And then we talk about chickens.

Robin and Isaac started raising chickens together twelve years ago. It was a 4-H project for Isaac; he got several Banties, who first lived in the basement. Every day, Isaac and his mom would take them outside and put them in a hutch with a run; every night, they would herd them up and bring them back inside. They grew completely used to humans, those chickens; Isaac took to wandering around with the rooster on his shoulder, like a pirate with his parrot. He loved the chickens and he continued to raise them long after his 4-H time was over.

The Banties were joined by other breeds–Orpingtons and Wyandottes, Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Cuckoo Morans, and Rhode Island Reds. Robin loved the birds, too, and even after Isaac went away to school, she continued to keep the chickens. She favors heavier hens who lay brown eggs–they are tougher birds, she says; it’s harder for a hawk to swoop down and carry one away.

Still, they have attrition. One night, as she turned up that gravel drive, Robin’s headlights illuminated a coyote stealing off with a bird in its jaws. It dropped the hen and ran away.  Robin butchered that freshly dead bird–something they do only rarely, although they enjoy the eggs year ’round.

Chickens are one connection, for Robin, to an Iowa farming childhood. She may not have time, with her full-time job at a bookstore, and her commitment to teaching ceramics, to till a kitchen garden or tend to goats or pigs. But chickens she can do.

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We go into the basement and visit the newest chickens–babies just fluffing out working wings. There are eight or ten chicks; they are all hens and all different types–pale and dark, some with patterned beaks, some with feathered legs, some just beginning to sport a comb. They tumble together in a big galvanized tub, sweetly cheeping, running to get food, taking impatient little drinks of water. They are impossibly fluffy and impossibly cute.

Outside, the mature chickens–a Banty rooster named Earl, Lord and Lady Orpington, and a Wyandotte hen, wander peacefully among the shrubs by their coop, poking their heads out, looking to Earl for instruction when Robin offers feed.  They are big and bright-eyed, strikingly colored,  and beautiful.

Grownups

Robin talks about predators–raccoons are the worst, she says, followed by foxes and an occasional coyote, and they have to balance a healthy, free-range life with the carnivore threat.

She shows me chicken catalogs, with glossy, alluring pictures of beautiful birds accompanied by lists of characteristics. You can choose size, of course, and appearance and egg color; you can choose the level of cold-weather hardiness and you can choose disposition tendencies.

There’s a lot to think about with chickens, I begin to realize. There’s a lot, say Robin and Isaac, to love.

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Robin has taken to photographing the grownups; she sketches from the photos she likes, and then the sketches flow into her ceramic designs.  She’ll throw a batch of mugs, then pull and place the handles, coat them with a slip made from local, Knox County, clay and bisque fire them. When they’re cleaned and washed, she’ll do a wax drawing of a chicken, a drawing taken from life. She shows me a photo of Earl pecking at a nugget of food; she shows me a mug with a perfectly proportioned, stylized rooster in the very same pose.

Wax drawing done, Robin dips the mug into a base coat of glaze, applies a second layer of wax, adds the top glaze coat, cleans the base, and then loads the kiln and fires the mugs.

A  mug takes at least two and a half weeks to create.

Chicken Mugs

You have to love the process because it brings you joy, says Robin, but you’ll never recoup, in dollars, the time you put into it. You have to own an appreciation of the long, slow way of doing things.

It’s true in raising chickens, as in art, of course. We talk about the difference between a factory farmed egg and its free range counterpart–the richer, more deeply colored yolks, the shells’ fragility, the difference in flavor.  The same differences, says Robin, are seen in the chicken meat. Factory farmed chickens are bred to maturity within eight weeks; their meat is watery and flavorless, their bones flexible and rubbery.  Free-range chickens  take a minimum of twelve to fifteen weeks to grow into themselves, and their bones, and their flesh, are firm. The flavor, Robin says, is incomparable.

It’s a dilemma, she acknowledges, because to buy a free range hen for roasting, you’d probably pay something like $6.99 a pound–a cost most families can’t embrace.

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Long ago, I read that United States Americans seldom think about where food comes from. They just eat it—a lot of it.

And I think about the chickens–food chickens–in this context: I’m reading Robin Wall Kimmerer.  In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer writes about the relationship between a person and her food. In her native American tradition, when she gathers food, Kimmerer asks permission and she gives thanks. And she never takes everything.

So she’ll go out to gather wild leeks to make a risotto for her visiting daughters, and when she locates a patch, she will ask the plant’s permission to take her harvest. Then she’ll dig up a tiny portion; if the plant has granted her permission, it will be whole and healthy. Kimmerer will leave a gift of tobacco and judiciously harvest what she needs, leaving enough to perpetuate the food plant’s life.

It’s a philosophy, a practice she calls the Honorable Harvest; she applies it to the eating of plants and to the eating of animals. We need animals, she acknowledges; we need their flesh and their fur and and their hides and their feathers; we need their bones to make our stock. But we need to use them wisely, judiciously, reverently. “Gifts from the earth,” she writes, “or from each other, establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate.”

And I wonder if this has something to do with the pull that draws many to the raising of chickens–the ability to hold the tiny chick in your hand, to feed it, to allow it to run and explore and take dust baths in the bare spot under the rhododendrons. To get to knows its quirks and foibles and to enable it to have a natural life, a wholesome life, a life that is fulfilled and meaningful. To say thank you when the eggs are harvested. And, when the hen or the rooster is butchered for food, to make it happen in a quick and respectful way. And to use, as Robin says, every part of that chicken that can be used–even the heads and feet in a stock that, she affirms, is more flavorful than any you’ve ever tasted before.

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Knowing the bird on the plate before me has to make a difference, to slow me down, to make me appreciate, force me to savor. This is not just one of a million identical bred-to-eat birds, I acknowledge. I know this bird. This was an individual who flapped and pecked and socialized, a being who gave us joy in life and sustains us by his dying. We gave him freedom, sunshine, and companions. He feeds us. We knew this rooster’s name.

Excuse Me. Where Are The Naps?

On the first day of not having to work anymore, I slept in–sort of. It was a heady feeling, the night before, NOT to set the alarm. I can sleep as late as I want! I thought. Used to bolting out of bed to the IPhone alarm’s cheery burble at 5 AM, this prospect sounded like heaven.

So I slept in, and when Mark’s alarm jangled, and he went into the bathroom to shower, I rolled over, threw an arm over my head, and smiled.

I don’t have to get up, I thought smugly.

But my bladder hadn’t gotten the memo. An organ of habit, it made its needs and wants clearly known, and I squirmed and thrashed uncomfortably until Mark emerged, damp and clean and smiling, thirty minutes later.

So I was up, and I threw on what we might, in another era, have called ‘play clothes,’ applied some minimal make-up, and went downstairs to face the day. I plugged in the coffee and pulled out my notebook to do my morning pages. And the dog needed to go out, and then she needed to be fed, and Mark was interested in the plan for the day. The paper arrived, and the headline was about a controversy with which Mark is very familiar, so we dissected that. His eggs looked so good, and my stomach was growling: I ate my Nutty Nuggets, and by then, of course, the dog was ready for her morning walk. I never did get to morning pages on Monday.

And that night, I set my alarm for 5:30, and now I get to sleep in half an hour later than I did on working days, and I still have an hour of quiet house.

I like getting up in a quiet house. I crossed “Sleep late” off the “Things to Do in Retirement” list.

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But I made another list, that first morning, of “Things to Do on Monday”. It included completing a lesson in the online course I’m taking, writing two essays, formatting and editing a post for our community reading initiative’s blog, cleaning up cluttered email, putting the second coat of white paint on the car port’s interior, and making several phone calls. I needed, too, to sit down with Jim and set up the monthly calendars, and then compare each of our calendars for the week. I had a pile of ironing to catch up on and a knitted monkey to stitch together and stuff. I was looking forward to writing some long overdue letters.

It was a fat list, and the day stretched out before me, full of time that I could wrestle into submission. Ahhh…I thought. This will be good.

And then…imagine what I can accomplish TOMORROW!

I had forgotten, though, about Mark’s car needing to go to the body shop, so we convoyed and conveyed, and by the time I got home, Jim was up. It was 9:00 before I hit the email and 10:00 before I opened my lesson, and by lunchtime, I had not gotten to the essays or the ironing or the letters. But, the weather being fine, I thought I would just slap some paint on the car port walls and finish that up by 5:00 when Mark needed to be picked up.

Mark texted to come get him at 4:30 instead, and, disabused of my ‘I am Wonder Woman’ notions, I finished only half of the car port that afternoon. Ah, well.

It is now the end of the week, and four of my ‘Things to Do on Monday’ list items are not yet done.

Recalibrate, recalibrate, recalibrate.

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I have, in this first week of retirement, had time to share lunch with two friends I haven’t seen in too long. I have taken long stretching morning walks by myself, and long chatty evening walks with Mark. I have made appointments, ironed shirts, roasted pork, and simmered a pot of fragrant red sauce. I have, in my knitting basket, a half-stitched monkey.

I have talked my reluctant haircutter, a skilled colorist, into cutting my hair short and then letting it grow out naturally. Perhaps there really is a long gray braid and a pair of Birkenstocks in my future.

I have borrowed a new book by Gail Godwin–an author I discovered during undergrad days 40 years ago–from the library. I have sat, fresh from an evening walk, on  the patio, with a cold glass of ice water, and read that book.

It has been an exploration week, and the urgency of list items still pushes at me, with the learned sense that I need to hurry up and get them done, because soon, darn it, these halcyon days will be done and I will have to go back to work, still hovers. But I’ll get over that, and I will wrestle with the time demons, and I will learn to get things done in a gray-headed, thoughtful, kind of way. I hope.

Retirement.

There is paperwork, and there is time management; there are physical constraints and obligations that didn’t go away with the job’s demands. My friend Susan says every retired educator she knows says this: How did I ever have time to work?? (This is probably true of many other occupations, too, but educators are what we know.)

But there are also personal choices and time to reconnect and the opportunity to experiment and explore. There are the quiet mornings and the evening walks and the sense, at the end of the day, that a few things, long neglected, have been tended to. I have the opportunity to rediscover, renew, re-create.

Retirement: I like it.

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But, oh: I did think there’d be more naps.

Traveling Without Siri

I hadn’t walked very far this morning when a swoosh of movement caught my eye; that amber flash was a mama and baby deer, scooting up a neighbor’s driveway. The drive is bordered by a hedge, and, as I started down the hill toward it, the baby poked its head up over the bushes to watch me. It was all liquid dark eyes and twitchy black velvet nose and huge, pointy-oval, radar ears.

I cocked my head one way and it cocked its head the other, and we stopped and eyed each other like that for a moment. And then the mama keck-ed, deep in her throat, and the baby deer sprang away. The two of them were grazing side by side in the neighbor’s backyard when I walked by. They raised their heads to look backwards at me, and I waved.

Around the corner, ungainly bumblebees were busy at the wonderful shrubs that border a lush lawn. I call them doll-skirt bushes; the huge blossoms start out tightly fisted and deeply pink, and as they unfurl, their color gets lighter and the petals swirl out like the kind of outrageous pleated outfits trim dancers kicked around in, in 1940’s musicals.  The flowers turn a creamy white. By nightfall, they’ve curled into tubes and fallen off—limp and dirty cigars laying sadly on the gravelly shoulder. Derelicts, fallen to the curb after a splendid day’s showing…

The bees sent one of their comrades my way on reconnaissance. The fat thing burbled menacingly around and around my head; I had to stop and turn slowly along with it until it got bored and went back to nectarizing.

I pushed on to Dresden Road and headed north. I stopped again at the big white house, which has gone from neglected to sparkling. It’s huge–during the long interval it was on sale, I think we read in the listing that it has six bedrooms. It has a newly painted in-the-city farm barn, appropriately bright barn red, and all the accoutrements–the wicker furniture on the sprawling porch, plant stands, outside wall art–pop in that same deep color.

In the front yard, there’s a real, old-fashioned wooden sledge, the kind horses might have drawn in the northern backwoods in 1880. Some days, it’s being pulled by pink flamingos.  Some days, the flamingos are sitting on the wicker on the porch. Today, the flamingos shared the driver’s seat, and one had the reins on its beak.

Satisfied that I knew where the flamingos were, I pressed on until I’d walked about three-fourths of a mile, and then I turned to head back. I like to walk on Friday mornings, just a little bit of a stretch to start the weekend. The weekend, I thought, and felt the heady absence of work in the three days ahead.

And then I had one of those moments. It was just like when I’m using Siri for directions, and I willfully make a wrong turn.  There’s a pause–I always think she’s biting her electronic tongue to keep from barking obscenities at me–and then she snaps, Make a U-turn! Make a U-turn! And then, when I don’t, I imagine Siri’s digitized sigh, and the whole picture shifts, swings around, encapsulates a brand new vista. I was heading back down Dresden, and my horizon just completely morphed. It was almost physical, like picking up my foot and expecting it to touch the ground as usual, and finding it hits the ground someplace else entirely.

Because,–although the weekend is still two days, of course,–I DON’T have to go back to work on Monday. I’m taking Monday off, and then, on Tuesday, I am officially retired.

So, although I will not ever be a lady of leisure–neither by inclination nor by financial reality–it could be true that I never actually ‘go to work’ again.

*********

Whoa. The hard cement wall called Work-On-Monday just burst, and time went flooding over it.

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My father retired in his mid-50’s on disability, and he was lost without the schedule and the sense of being needed work gave him. For the first months, he drove my mother crazy. He followed her around, helped her make the beds. Asked what was next. Then he hit his stride and started doing woodworking and refinishing furniture. But it was a tough transition.

I have other role models, though, who make me think this change won’t be so hard. Take my friend Teri, who wasn’t even 18 when, a skilled high school graduate, she slid into a civil service job. Teri retired at 50 and never looked back. Now she works when she wants to and does amazing things at home. She mothers her still-at-home teen-aged daughter. She travels.  In the last years, she’s become a grandma with all the joy and busyness that entails.  She savors the pension she paid into from the time she was a young girl, and she embraces the after-working life.

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I was picking up some signed certificates in the president’s office this week and talking to my colleagues Brenda and Kathy. Kathy will also officially retire on Tuesday, and Brenda asked the two of us, “What are you going to do with all that time?”

I looked at Kathy and she looked back, and we shared a charged understanding.

“I’m going,” Kathy said to Brenda, “to do all the things I’ve been putting off until this day arrived.”

Amen, Sister! I thought, and I slid my certificates into their manila envelope, waved them merrily, and went off about my way.

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I went walking later than usual this morning because James and I made an early trip to the library. It occurred to me I could stop making excuses and plan a weekday trip to the Clark Gable birthplace museum in Cadiz, Ohio, about an hour and a half from here. So, while Jim was browsing the DVD’s, I found a Gable biography and began reading about his early years in Ohio. I grabbed a copy of the Mutiny on the Bounty DVD too: there’s time now, to do a little research.

Later, I checked the weather on my phone and was pleased to see happy little sunshines–and reasonable temperatures–next to the next five days. This weekend, I’ll finish painting the car port–where the ceiling fan looks so festive and moves, still, so glacially.

I can clear out the weedy old flower beds and put in last minute annuals, schedule the planting of bulbs and seeds and pretty hydrangea bushes.

James and I will sketch out a plan for his bedroom, move him into temporary quarters, and repaint–the ceiling blue, like a limitless sky, the walls a fresh cream.

I will uncover my neglected sewing machine, and it and I will become, again, partners in creative projects.

And in the quiet of the morning, I will write.

Those are the top bullets on a long, long list of things that have been waiting, sighing and patient, for the time to come when there’s time to act.

I’ll start, I keep telling my family, as I mean to go on: with a schedule and a plan.

And then I’ll walk forward into loosely woven days–the only deadlines or restrictions ones I’ve chosen to embrace.

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It’s going to be different, retirement. It’s the first time I’ve left a job without another to step into, and I feel daringly untethered, a little bit anxious, a whole lot excited. Time now, to step into the next phase, and to determine the shape of things to come.

A Slippery Grasp on History

We were in Buffalo, New York;  we had a little extra time after our last museum exploration–after standing in the room where Teddy Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, hearing the sonorous, recorded voices of re-enactors creating the scene for us–and before we were due at the Blackthorn Restaurant and Pub for dinner.

“Hey,” I said, “I wonder where Perkins Place is.”

I pulled it up on my cell phone. The house–29 Perkins Street–was only six minutes away. I hit ‘go’ on the directions tab, and Siri took over. Mark followed her instructions, and suddenly we were there, stopped on a skinny, cluttered street, avoiding the eyes of gaunt and angry-looking people who stood in their front yards, arms crossed, and stared at our idling car.

It was a small house next to its neighbors, with a kind of faded taupe siding. The windows were boarded with wood gone gray. The aging plywood over the door sported a garish, spray-painted, red ’29.’ The tiny front yard was littered with cigarette butts and bunched-up papers and shards of plastic grocery bags.

We sat in silence for a minute, and then Jim took his ear buds out and asked, “What is this place?”

“This,” I said, “is where my mother lived when she met my father.”

“Yikes,” said Jim, and he put the buds back in his ears and looked away.

***********

“The first time I met your mother,” my father often said, “she was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor.”

He was working then,–at a dockyard, I think,–with a couple of Scottish boys named Innes. And one night they brought him home to the house they shared with their siblings. And there my father met my mother, who was indeed, she would always agree when the story was told, washing the kitchen floor.

He was in his early twenties; she was right out of high school. It must have been just about 1940. They had both lost one parent to death and the other to one kind or another of abandonment. They were each one of seven siblings, although my father knew his seven half-siblings, too. My mother’s father had disappeared, and she wouldn’t realize she had half-siblings herself until after his death, twenty-five years later.

The details of what happened after that first introduction are sketchy. Was it love at first sight? Was there wooing and pursuit? Did one shy away while the other knew–just knew, bone-deep,–that this, THIS one, was the partner for a lifetime?

Whatever, however, the die was cast in that moment of meeting, and a love, a partnership, a bond was forged–one that would shudder from, but survive, war and separation and unimaginable loss. I trace my history back to that moment.

And the sadness of that blank-eyed, neglected little home tumbled that history toward me.

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

“I feel,” said a new colleague not so very long ago, “as if this was meant to be.” She had stumbled on just the right opportunity at just the right time, she said, applied, breezed through the interviews. She’d gotten a job doing exactly what she hoped to be doing at this point in her professional life.

“I believe that,” said someone else. “I believe things happen when they’re meant to happen, that someone is watching out for us.” People around the table nodded solemnly.

I smiled and kept quiet.  I am not so sure fate is quite that settled. What becomes history has so many variables. The storm clouds could have lingered, the game been postponed, and then the home run–well, it might never have happened.

Maybe that stupendous success was a simple matter of placement in line, or of what big-shot the family happened to know.

What might have happened if, say, they’d decided to take the long way ’round instead on that memorable day?

What if, what if, what if.

What if Dad hadn’t gone home with those particular buddies–if he had gone instead to another friend’s house, met another friend’s family? What if he’d gone to a bar that night, had one too many, gotten into a fight? Would the moment of meeting have just been postponed, the introduction taken place at another, later day, and the forging of that partnership begun as it was meant to, just a little further down the line?

Or could life have been completely different?

History is slippery, I think, not iron-cast.

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

The story teller at the Theodore Roosevelt memorial site told us that Teddy had been very concerned for the widowed first lady. President McKinley had died of gunshot wounds inflicted by Leon Czolgosz in September 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo. (And what if Czolgosz had never gotten close enough? What if someone bumped him in line and felt his gun, or what if his trolley had been late?) McKinley was laid in state in another Buffalo mansion, and government officials hurried to find Teddy, who was staying with his friends, the Wilcoxes.

Those  officials wanted him to come back to the house where McKinley lay and be inaugurated immediately, but Teddy said no. First, he said, he would go and pay his respects to the slain President, and to Mrs. McKinley.

Then he would come back and be sworn in as president at the Wilcox mansion. He did not want to deflect from the solemn vigil at the other house with an inauguration.

So they did it Teddy’s way: respectful, solemn, considerate of a widow’s feelings and the concerns of a nation.

But it didn’t have to happen like that. I think of photos of Lyndon Johnson being sworn in on a plane, Jackie Kennedy propped beside him, glazed and grieving in her blood-spattered suit. Johnson insisted on that in-flight inauguration, they say, on having the slain Kennedy’s widow by his side, and he wouldn’t wait for a different venue.

If he had insisted from the beginning on respecting Mrs. Kennedy’s grief would Johnson’s presidency have started–and continued–entirely differently? Or would it have been the act of a different man to defer to a widow’s public, aching sorrow?

Whatever. Both TR and Johnson, I think, were controversial, but one was also wildly popular, and the other widely vilified.

There were many other variables in their presidencies, of course, but so much history, so much understanding, pivots on a choice. And choices, once made, cannot be undone.

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

It could always have been different. What if someone hadn’t forgotten to set the alarm, if the weather had changed, if a person had acted altruistically instead of selfishly? There is a literature built on this, on what life might have been like, say, if the South had won the Civil War, if Kennedy had not died. If the kick had been good. If the verdict had been different.

When things work out just perfectly,–when we get the job, meet the man by happenstance, pick up the lottery ticket at just the right time and place,–we feel, sometimes, as if we were chosen by fate, singled out for blessing: beneficiaries of what was meant to be.

And then what-ifs are the stuff from which we weave regrets. If only I’d kept my mouth shut! If only I’d stayed home that night! If only I realized how sick he really was…

Maybe then it is easiest for me to believe that history has a meant-to-be trajectory, that things were rolling along–lumbering along–propelled by the heavy weight of all the things that came before, heading exactly to where they had to go. No course deviations possible. Or that events were guided by the hand of a higher power, making my choices and mistakes, or the choices and mistakes of those much more powerful and meaningful than I, irrelevant or inevitable.

This moment, though, will be history one day. And I have my choices right now.

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

My younger brother Sean, who works in Buffalo now, had texted me a picture of 29 Perkins Place, so I knew what it had to look like. The reality was somehow, though, different from the knowing.

How could the little house look so sad, so neglected? Didn’t people know that an important little bit of history happened here?

What did I want?

Maybe a plaque by the door that reads, “Here, on an ordinary workday in 1940, James met Jean, insuring that, one day, Sharon, Dennis, Michael, John, Pamela, and Sean  would come to be…”

Maybe for the house to be a cherished cottage with curtains at the windows, a freshly painted front door, children playing, a neatly mowed yard.

But that house, that neighborhood, has its own history. There are no do-overs, history-wise. (Think of the literature on that theme–de Maupassant, Stephen King, The Butterfly Effect… We firmly believe, it seems, that going in time back to undo the bad creates horrible repercussions, and that history is not a thing to be messed about.) The shuttered windows do not detract from the truth: an event happened once, in that sad and shabby house, that made my being possible.

Maybe it could have been different, the moment skewed differently, and the whole existence of myself and my siblings thrown into jeopardy.

Maybe that moment of meeting was graven in time, meant to be, written by a celestial hand.

Chance or fate–the what-ifs behind the history–do not matter. Unchangeable, events have brought me to this now, this time when my choices are important, when my actions can be done or left undone, when a word can be swallowed or spoken. In the messy, mutable now, we may be encountering things that are fated, but we still have the choice of how we’ll react. And how, then, we’ll shape history.

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

It fascinates–the chance, the happenstance, the slipperiness of history. What if, what if, what if…

But if I dive too deeply down that rabbit hole, I just may detract from now. I’ll deal with the effects,–wonderful, tragic, and all shades in between,–with which my history pummels me. And I’ll pray, and work, and angle for the mindfulness to fully live my now.

Rummaging

Rummage stuff
Books tower and teeter. James and I wield fine-point Sharpies, writing tags. So, Traveling Mercies, we might write. Hard cover. Fifty cents.

I cut a supply of one-inch stubs of masking tape, hang them from the table’s rim, use them to affix tags to the appropriate books.

We write and tape and pile, getting ready for the rummage sale. When we have a reasonable stack, I wrap it with green twine, tie a tight knot, swing it into the far corner of the family room, and we begin again.

Some of the books are used books, books that we gleaned, crowing triumphantly, from clearance racks or community sales or library bookstores. Those books may have names written inside, and inscriptions. When there are identifying characteristics, addresses or phone numbers, we take the Sharpie and blot that out. But sometimes the inscription makes us pause.

“Matt wrote in this book,” Jim says, “for Dad.”

He moves that volume to the keeper-after-all pile.

I do the same when I find a book with Kim’s name on the fly leaf, written in her unique and lilting hand–Kim, gone this past spring, loved and greatly missed. She wanted me to have this book. She wanted me to read it. I put it with the keepers.

But still. By the time we are done, James and I have bundled up many, many books, marking those old friends ‘.50’ or, ‘$1.00.’ There are clean spaces on the bookshelves, which Jim undertakes to organize–fiction in the living room, non-fiction in the family room.  He swoops and dances, formatting alphabetically by author. As he works, the shelves transform from groaning boards, homes to jumbled, jammed-in stacks of random, anonymous volumes, to pleasing, inviting vistas.

We just have too many books.

*****

My friend and colleague Cindi sent out an email: Would you have any interest in participating in a yard sale to benefit my daughter’s swim team?

It seems like a pretty sweet deal. We pack up our stuff according to a firm style-guide provided by the planners, who stipulate size of tag, and placement of info, and how to affix the tags to objects. We drop them off at the school between 9 am and 7 pm on the appointed night. We’ll sort and place on drop-off.

Then they’ll sell our stuff. There’s a five dollar fee to take part. If we work a volunteer shift, we’ll get 80 per cent of the take from our items. If we don’t volunteer, we’ll get 60 per cent. And, sale over, the planners will send all things unspoken for to appropriate charities.

It’s a win-win-win.  We support the swim team. We make a little cash.

We get rid of stuff.

*****

I pull old electronics out of a drawer and jumble them all together in a box. I’ll have Mark go through them, determine which components, if any, we might ever need again. Then I’ll ask him to determine which components someone else might ever need again.

We’ll tape tags onto those that others might possibly use: N600 WiFi Dual Band USB Adapter….50 cents. A landline set with two phones. A tiny tape recorder. A long-since needed modem.

Why did we keep all this stuff?

Why did we buy it in the first place?

*****

We sort clothes according to strict instructions. Hangers hooks must go to the left, like a question mark. Shirts must be buttoned. Every item of clothing–even shorts–must be on a hanger. Labels should be safety-pinned to the upper left-hand front.

We joke that we have an evilly magic closet or two: when our clothes go in, they fit. And then, one day, they don’t fit.  Obviously, the closets shrunk them.

We put hangers into twenty odd men’s dress shirts, size 16 and a half–33/34. We button them up; this sale won’t brook any shirts missing buttons. There are shirts in every hue and stripe–peach and mint and navy, black and gray and blue. When the back of a chair fills, Jim takes them downstairs and hangs them on the drying rack, where they wait to be delivered.

Dresses. Slacks. Skirts. Shorts.

*****

We package up office supplies–three boxes of perforated name tags, unopened, that could be printed via laser-jet. Two thick stacks of USPS stamps for use with a home postal system. We no longer have that service.

Three hole punches. Mechanical pencils.

We put loose items into sturdy storage bags and mark them, “Assorted office supplies. 50 cents.”

We pull mismatched china, glasses, old pots and pans, from their storage shelves, mark and pack them. I take table linens from a drawer, iron them neatly, place them on hangers.

********

We stack the goods in the back corner of the house, by the door we seldom use. The piles grow to shoulder height.

I feel satisfied and accomplished: we are purging, clearing space. This feels good.

But then I think: we just have too much stuff.

******

I remember going to a conference where a Native American Catholic nun spoke. She was wearing a blue dress. It was one of her two dresses, she said; blue to honor the virgin Mary. The other dress was red, and it reminded her of Christ’s sacred heart.

She bought both dresses at thrift stores. She didn’t need more, she said; one to wear and one to wash. Any more would slow her down.

I look at the growing stack of stuff in the corner. I think of  money spent, time involved, storage space clotted with unused things. There is something, I realize, something overdone and obscene about this.

We have cleared spaces. We will take those things to a place where they may do some good, where they will be donated if they do not sell.

But how long will it take us to fill the empty spots on the bookshelves, the open spaces in the drawers.

How much do we need?

How much does what we have slow us down?

I have to turn my back on the stack of rummage sale goodies.

*****

Rummaging: lightening the weight of stuff.

A Forty Dollar Berry and a Priceless Ceiling Fan

Fan
I have a friend who, with her husband, built a house in the country. It’s a beautiful house: brick and spacious and welcoming, and it’s set on rolling acreage that includes woods and creeks and a Disney-lode of wildlife–deer and bunnies and rackety coons, squirrels and chipmunks and a colorful, swarming spectrum of birds.

Recently, this friend says, her husband decided to plant a blackberry bush. He went to the nursery and he consulted with the experts, and he came home with a bush at a cost of about twenty dollars. And he planted it in a nice spot, not too far from the house, where the picking of the berries would be convenient to the kitchen. They sat on the deck that evening and dreamed of blackberry buckle.

As they were going in, however, my friend’s husband  saw a mama deer and her two babies poke their noses out of the woods and then soft-foot into the yard, browsing for snacks.

And his eyes narrowed.

“Fence,” he said to his wife.

So the next day he went to the big-box hardware store and came home with boards and steel mesh, and he spent the day building a rectangular fence with a gate to let him in, and keep the deer out.

And that night they sat on their deck again. This time, a chipmunk scampered right through the steel mesh fencing. His jaw tightened.

The next day, he came back from the hardware store with a bale of fine chicken wire, and encircled the bush, within its fence, with a rodent-proof ring.

And that night, as they sat on the deck, he noticed the bugs flying gleefully toward his berry bush.

The search for safe, effective insecticides began.

By the time, my friend muses, they harvest the half dozen berries this budding bush will surely yield in its fledgling year, those berries will have cost them something like forty dollars apiece. Her eyes crinkle, and there is laughter in her voice as she tells us this, and she does not say one word to discourage her husband.

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

There are people like that–people who devote themselves to a task or a challenge, who throw themselves in, wholehearted. They say, “Damn the expenses, and damn the time spent, and for heaven’s sake, full speed ahead!” Their mettle has been called into question, and they WILL survive the testing, victorious.

Another friend suggested that those people are usually called “men,” but I think that’s a bit sexist. However, the berry tale makes me think of another person who does happen to be a man whom I know well. Let’s just call him “Bubba.”

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

Bubba and his wife (we’ll call her “Sweetness”) decided to re-purpose their carport into an outdoor dining room. They committed to creativity over expense; they would use what was on hand, and those things they must buy, they would buy at tag sales and second hand shops.

Bubba thought a ceiling fan would be a wonderful thing for sultry summer nights, dining in the newly freshened space. So he and his son (we’ll call the son “Chip”) went searching for a used ceiling fan they could install.

At a Habitat for Humanity’s Re-Store, they found just the thing. This model had five broad blades and a bevy of light fixtures. Mood lights in the sockets, thought Bubba, and those sturdy blades moving the murky summer air. He could just see it; he could feel that soft breeze cooling the night. Nice, he thought.

The fan was marked at twenty dollars; a 25-per-cent off all lighting sale knocked the price down to fifteen.

“A ceiling fan for fifteen bucks!” Bubba crowed to his son, and they looked at it and smiled.

They brought home the fan, and they let it season on the side porch for a month or two, while the whole family circled around the idea of tackling the transformation project.

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

But that day came; Bubba and Sweetness cleaned out the carport and scraped off the old paint, and they slapped a fresh coat onto the ceiling, brightening things up immeasurably. Then Bubba got out his tool bag and his measuring tape, and he figured out how much wire he’d need to tap into the power source. He carefully marked the center point, and he drilled a nice round hole, and then he and his wing-man Chip went back to the big box hardware store and they bought a large reel of electrical wire–which he would also use on other jobs–for a mere 8.99.

They came home triumphantly, swaggering around the carport with their go-cups from Arby’s (they’d stopped and treated themselves to lunch for ten bucks or so.)  They rigged up a kind of a snake and they connected the electrical cord, and then, through a series of convolutions, they dragged it out of the neatly drilled hole for the ceiling fan power source.

Just as they got ready to hook the thing up, Bubba said slowly, “I hope to heck this fifteen dollar fan has a decent motor. I’m not replacing a MOTOR.”

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

Sweetness was in the house doing dishes when she heard their triumphant cries.  She dried her hands and ran outside to the carport, where Bubba and Chip were dancing around the fan, which was snugged up clean to the ceiling. They parted to show her the glow from the perfectly working electric lights.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” Sweetness said. “How about the fan?”

“Well,” said Bubba, with a little bit of a swagger, “let’s just see.”

And he pulled the stubby little chain that activated the fan blades, which moved…very slowly.

VERY slowly.

They were glacially slow.

“Huh,” said Bubba, and Sweetness went in to finish the dishes.

***********

Bubba and Chip went back to the hardware store where they bought something that might just solve the whole problem: a new switch. And while they were there, they also bought some chains to replace the silly, stubby ones. These chains were coated with fresh-looking white plastic. At the end of one hung a white plastic light bulb. The other ended in a white plastic fan.

And it was hot, so they each got a soda.

 

This trip came to about twelve dollars.

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

Bubba put the switch in, noting that the old one needed to be replaced anyway, but it didn’t speed up the movement of the fan blades. The new chains, though, did look very dapper, dangling from the mother ship.

Chip decided it would be a good time to take a walk.

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

Inside, Bubba scoured the internet for the part he was pretty sure he needed.

“A capacitator,” he explained to Sweetness; she heard, “Incapacitator.” She shook her head.  It sounds, she thought, like the name of a WWF star.

“It’s only twelve dollars,” said Bubba, ” and it’ll be here in a week.” He held up the part he’d plucked from the bargain fan. “It looks pretty darned close to this one,” he said confidently, and added, “The shipping is FREE.”

Sweetness was wary. “It looks PRETTY close?” she asked carefully.

“Pretty CLOSE,” he replied, an edge to his voice.

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

So Bubba awaits the capacitator, determined, now that he has eight or ten hours of labor and sixty or seventy dollars of cash sunk into the ceiling fan, that he WILL get those blades to spin sharply, to muddle the summer warmth, to lend comfort to the guests who’ll gather, one day, in the car port to dine.

He is in it now, and Sweetness has accepted that, if the capacitator doesn’t capacitate, the next step will indeed be to buy a new darned motor. She eyes the grim, determined cast of Bubba’s jaw; she sends a silent message to Chip, who nods.

They will not interfere.

Because, really, these are wonderful traits–determination, perseverance, the will to power through a challenge to victory. Let some call that pig-headedness; let those scoffing ones buy their berries from the produce sections or insist on ceiling fans that come (insert derisive snorts) with warranties.

Let them miss the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of building something from the ground up. The joy, actually, of realizing a modest thing’s potential.

They will never, those name-callers, appreciate the satisfaction a man feels at the end of the day, sitting on his deck, savoring five perfect berries that float in a veritable cloud of freshly whipped cream. Or that of a man in his car port, scant hair ruffling in a strongly bladed breeze, telling the triumphant story of his bargain ceiling fan.

More Than Meets the Eye

Car port
My hair is sticking to the freshly-painted ceiling as I crouch on the second step of the ladder. I wield my skinny brush, whitening the creases between beams and surface. I paint and shove the ladder forward, paint and shove the ladder forward, until I reach the other side. Then I climb off the ladder, top hairs sticking straight up in kind of a bizarre old lady’s white mohawk. Time to trade the brush in for a skinny, small roller, to coat the beams and the supports.

I am painting the carport, something I’ve been longing to do since we moved into this house five years ago. The first time we saw this place, I thought, “Ah. That carport could be an outdoor dining room.”

And I thought, “We can invite the Pasta Club here for Pasta on the Patio.”

I could see it: a little paint. Some curtains stitched up from canvas drop-cloths… Perhaps a rescued ceiling fan top and center. And maybe a derelict chandelier painted—oh, say, a funky chartreuse,—and wrapped with fairy lights and centered over a long and welcoming table. Candles and tablecloths and drinks chilling in a galvanized metal tub.

The vision percolated, a low simmer, and of course, there were other, more urgent things to do. But then we finally knew that this was the summer we needed to paint the house, and, after wrestling the idea around from all directions, we realized we’d be crazy to try the job ourselves. So, in mid-to-late-July, a nice band of painters will come and transform our little green house into a fresh and pretty, gray and white, little cottage.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us to paint the interior of the carport, and the all-over of the little garage.

The time has finally come to paint; excuses no longer register. And after all, I know how to do this.

Seems like I grew up painting walls.

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

When I was ten, we left the house I’d always known; we’d moved there when I was six months old. The front lawn of that house rolled a long way down to a sidewalk, and then on to a busy highway. We rolled down the lawn to make ourselves dizzy, landing by the tree that offered, in the early summer, long cigar-shaped seed pods.  We called it the banana tree, and its two main branches forked in just a way to make a kid-sized dreaming seat.

Out back there was a big backyard, bordered by an old garage, with a tin “Drink -Cola” sign on one inside wall of the loft. Beyond that was the Little Woods, then a meadowy space before the Big woods started.

My brothers brought home salamanders, baby birds, and bunnies. We wore base paths into the backyard that separated house from garage.

It was a wrenching place to have to leave, but some mysterious twist of family finances dictated the uprooting, and finding and nesting in a new home was exciting, too.

The first place we rented was a converted cottage near the lake. My mother, hands on hips, surveyed the place and turned, before my eyes, into a workplace foreman. And so, I learned to paint.

We painted walls and we painted woodwork, all of which had to be cleaned and prepped first. Not for us the wimpish reliance on things like masking tape to guide our joint lines; no, we used slender, pointed brushes where the woodwork met the wall, and if we goofed, we cleaned it up and started again.

I learned the difference between matte, satin, and semi-gloss finishes. I learned that latex paint was so much easier to clean up. We painted ceilings white; woodwork, if already painted, got a coat of glossy white, too. But the walls could be any color that struck my mother’s fancy–she might go neutral, say, a nice soft tan, but she was just as likely to choose a deep rose or a vibrant blue-green. We found places in nice neighborhoods that were sad and neglected; we changed them into comfortable homes.

(My parents never owned another house. They stayed in their last rental house for almost thirty years, accommodated by a landlord who could not believe his good fortune. When the stairs and the yards became too much, they moved, finally, into an apartment complex. It was their first home where they couldn’t pick the paint color, so they used art and photographs, books and flowers to brighten up the beige decor.)

My mother, whose forebears were finicky cabinet makers, was meticulous. We had darned well better be meticulous, too. That’s the way I grew up painting.

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

Mark and I agree on many, if not most, things, but we diverge on painting. “We’ve got plenty of paint!” he’ll note. “Don’t skimp! Slap it on! Maybe we won’t need a second coat.”

Okay, Bubba,” I’ll say, agreeably, and as soon as he’s done, I’ll go back to the slow, measured, meticulous method embedded in my genes. This project, though, the carport: well, he’s right. It’s outdoors, after all. We don’t have to be perfect: we just have to make things fresh and bright and new and appealing.

I’m not sure that knowledge speeds me up at all. Nor does it make a difference to the amount of paint I wind up wearing. Mark mutters things about paint magnets under his breath, and I meander inside to scrub white latex off hands and arms (arms that had been covered by my old long-sleeved Hawaiian shirt!) and ankles and knees. I’ve discovered the best way to get sproingy hair paint-free is to wet it and apply shampoo and let it soak in for the entirety of a shower. Usually then it washes out.

If not, well. Rinse and repeat.

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

It is so worth it, though: painting is a soul-satisfying pursuit, despite the mess and aches and pains. In the course of an afternoon, a dingy, neglected space can become airy and welcoming. Unseen potential emerges when coated with pretty color.

And after painting, then the real fun begins–the addition of lights and floor cloths, wall art and graphics. It’s why we love HGTV, isn’t it—the potential for transformation, the beauty laying hidden, waiting to be called forth?

I am convinced the inside walls of the car port look a lot like Joanna Gaines’ beloved ship lap, and I am thinking framed paint by number pictures would look like funky fun displayed there.

Oh, there’s no confusion: Mark and I are not, never will be, stand-ins for Chip and Joanna. We are reluctant, often, to embark on the mess and disruption of painting. We squabble. We cut corners. Sometimes we have a clear bright vision, but the end result is something else entirely.

But we love the act of transformation, and we love living with the end result.

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

So I clean the house and I change the beds and I think about making taco salad to go with the casing hot dogs we brought back from western New York, and it is all preparation for the time this long weekend will allow me: time to head out to the car port, to brush and roller, to emerge paint-daubed and muscle-achey, and very, very happy.

Such a satisfying thing, to transform one’s world with paint.

Now

The coffee steams, scent rising. The sky lightens, the leaves of trees a dark lacy tracery against a sky that’s milky, midnight blue. One bird trills and silences; another picks up the refrain, tattering. Then, after a tiny silence, there’s an answering warble.

The dog curls up under the chair, and settles in. Her panting subsides.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

**********

At work, the pile of documents to be shredded outside my office teeters. We all add to the stack, shoving our papers down. We each hope not to be the one that tips the balance, sending papers spewing, sending the clear message that here is a job that needs–right NOW–to be done.

No one likes to do the shredding.

Today, I pack up the basket and fill up some bags, chopping the wobbling tower in half. I head across the street, to the duplicating office where a high efficiency, industrial shredder is available: first come, first served. There is a little hint of martyrdom in my madness.

I pull a chair next to the shredding machine, and I empty the basket and the bags onto it, stacking the papers high. I open the shredder door and check the heavy duty garbage bag in its thick square bin inside; it is three-fourths full. I snug it back in, secure the door, wake up the machine, and begin.

And it is not so bad. The machine chomps and whirs. When the pile has diminished by two inches, I check the bag, rearrange the snowdrift, secure the doors again, grab more papers. Feed the hungry beast.

Finally, the machine refuses to go on. A blinking icon tells me the garbage bag is full. I pull the heavy bag out of its big square container. As it slides away from its constraints, tiny pieces of paper float and settle.

This is the part that everyone hates: changing the bag, then cleaning up the mess.

I wrestle the full bag into a corner, make bunny ears, tie a snug knot. I fit in a new bag, and then I take the dust pan and brush, and I kneel down on the floor to catch the errant shreds. I almost fill the dust pan, and I dump the flyaway paper back into the bin.

And I realize this is not so bad. This finite job, with its definite progress, has a certain clear-cut satisfaction. The pile of paper relentlessly shrinks. Sweeping the mess from the industrial carpet, yielding clear space, becomes a metaphor. I breathe deep. I savor the chance to do a simple job, a no-pressure job.

When my colleague Brenda comes in to pick up her mail, we talk about kids and summer and a wonderful graduate who’s gone on to success…and who is a thrifty wizard at yard sales. I seldom get to see Brenda; I enjoy the chance to catch up.

The stack of paper waits patiently until we are done talking.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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The sky is soft with clouds that do not threaten when James and I leave for Granville, our Wednesday ritual: a trip to the library, a visit to the coffee shop.

“Can I DJ?” he asks, another part of the routine.

We listen to Ewan MacGregor and Emma Thompson sing “Be Our Guest,” and Jim tells me that MacGregor’s first attempt at a French accent made everyone think he was Mexican. This is funny, because MacGregor’s wife is French.

We listen to Jerry Oerbach and Angela Lansbury sing the same song, and we can’t decide which version we like best.

We listen to several tunes by Imagine Dragons, and Jim tells me about the movies those tunes are featured in. The tires thrum, the music rolls, and the miles melt away.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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I put the boneless chicken on to parboil, and then I gather up the veggies. I rinse and chop fresh broccoli and put it on to steam; it quickly turns a bright, luscious green. I snap the ends of the sugar snap peas, peel off the rugged fibrous thread, give them their seconds in the pot. I take out small, jewel-like onions, a bulb or two of garlic. I take a whole jalapeño pepper from the freezer. Two carrots from the crisper; sliced almonds from the cupboard.

Mark comes home and changes clothes and slides the bamboo chopping board towards him, sharpens his favorite knife, and begins to turn the carrots into slender orange matchsticks. I mix the rice with water and drops of oil, sprinkle in some salt, put it on to steam. I slice the chicken and toss it into a hot cast iron pan; it sizzles, and smells rise and mingle–the sautéing onion, the searing meat. The snapping oil crescendos when the other veggies, crisp and wet, join the mix. We move around the kitchen, stirring and lifting, filling the sink with hot, soapy water, wiping down surfaces, comparing notes of the day.

Jim comes in to wrestle plates down from the top shelf, dig his teriyaki sauce from the back of the refrigerator, tell us about a scene in the episode he’s just been watching. Which reminds him of a joke from the joke tape, and we laugh although we’ve heard it many times before.

And the rice is plump and soft, the chicken seared golden brown; we mix General Tso’s sauce into the veggies and we say a family grace.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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

The supermarket is quiet on a Wednesday night, floors gleaming, shelves picked over. But all the items on our list are also on the shelves.

A tired young mom wheels her cart slowly through the aisles; her path crisscrosses ours.  Her little boy, sleek head, hair as smooth and brown as an otter’s, points and points and begs. She murmurs, and he keens.

We select small, firm apples and pretzel rods, coffee and tea; we score the last loaf of Nickle’s bread and the last dozen brown, cage-free eggs. I put two thin bars of sea-salt dark chocolate in the cart. Mark adds a tube of cinnamon buns. We sort coupons. Jim stacks his own groceries in a corner of the cart; he will pay, proudly, for his own food.

There is this one moment, this one blessed time.

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And there is Guy Fieri on the flat screen; there is an unexpected email to answer, and there is just time to do a little writing and reflection. The dark draws back over the sky and the house seems to settle. The dog sighs and slips abruptly into sleep; her feet twitch and she makes noises deep in her throat, dreaming her doggie dreams.

This moment; this day. We have what we have. We know what we know. Everything we’ve done, all the people we have met, all the thoughts we’ve entertained…all bringing us to this–this fulcrum moment, balancing between past and future, clad lightly in the fragile glass of now.

A Little Summer Heat

 

We unpack the weekly basket from Randy’s farm. Mark moves the kale aside (it is particularly unpopular now, since its fibrous stems clogged up the garbage disposal last week, requiring dismal hours of plumbing labor) and examines the broad flat leaves of collards.

“I’d be interested in trying collards,” he says. We have been binge-watching seasons of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives; he often indulges in collard greens, long and slow-simmered, especially at some of his southern stops. And Fieri, whose genius is to make you crave the foods he favors, loudly loves cooked greens.

I am not so sure. They look a little…swampy to me, but the next day, James and I do some research. We find a recipe called ‘Sunday Collards’ in the Lee Brothers cookbook–Jim’s good suggestion: he figured southern cooks like the Lees would have a recipe for collard greens. We make a shopping list; I am doubtful about finding something like smoked hog jowl. But my supermarket surprises. There, in the cold case with the hams and bacon, are several shrink-wrapped packages of interesting smoked hog parts. I don’t find jowl, but I do put a package with three hefty pieces of smoked hog neck into my basket.

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At home, I pull out the cookbook and begin. First, I create a pot liquor by searing a chunk of the pork (I freeze the rest, in case we want to try this again) in hot oil , and then boiling it with a generous helping of red pepper flakes. The Lees instruct me in how to prepare the greens after giving them a good washing–removing tough stems and rolling the leaves up like cigars, then slicing them into half-inch coils.

Once the pot liquor is bubbling and the tastes have melded, I throw the sliced collards into the pot, cook them down, add more. When all the sliced leaves are immersed in the liquor, we let it simmer for an hour.

Finished, the dish DOES look swampy. But the taste is a revelation.

“This is GOOD,” says Mark, going for seconds.

“It’s good,” I agree, “but hot.”

Mark, who likes hot food, grins. “I,” he says proudly, dipping his noggin so I can see the dew on its noble crown, “have a sweaty head.”

“Sweaty head?” says Jim, coming in to get more Alfredo. “Is that a beer?”

It’s not, we explain, but I think maybe it should be. Sweaty Head: the beer you drink with collard greens.

*************
Inspired by that hot and smoky success, I start thinking about the kohlrabi waiting on the counter. I clip a recipe from a supermarket flyer for an Asian slaw. This will require another trip to the store for ingredients we’ve never stocked regularly on the home shelves: things like toasted sesame seed and sesame oil. And Chinese chili paste.

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

 

I cut the shoots away from the kohlrabi bulbs and peel away the tough outer skin, then cut them into chunks I can shoop into the food processor. I stir the resulting shards into slaw mix, adding sesame seeds. I whisk up the dressing, with its sesame oil and soy sauce and generous, generous helping of chili paste.

I chop up an unlikely topping: honey roasted peanuts.

Just before dinner, I mix the two together, tangy sauce and chilled slaw, and sprinkle the chopped peanuts on top.

Again, we like it. Again, it is HOT.

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It’s promising to be a summer of heat-stoked cooking adventures.

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Neither of us grew up in households where spicy food was served. Mark remembers his dad dressing field greens with oil and vinegar, but never with red pepper. My dad loved oil and vinegar, too, and other things we thought weirdly decisive in flavor, like limburger cheese and braunschweiger, but he was not a hot food kind of guy. And my mother cooked solid, substantial meals–meat and potatoes, a gentle chili, an innocuous spaghetti sauce. She was a good cook, but her offerings were geared to her audience. Red pepper flakes did not enter the discussion.

And then–college in the early seventies, in western New York, in the first flush of the chicken wing era, and all spicy hell broke loose. I ran with a crowd that liked food hot–as hot as you could stand it, and then, maybe, add a little more Tabasco. We devoured umpteen tumbled plates of crazy-hot wings, dowsing the fire with ice-cold beer, learning, to our rue, never to rub an itchy eye after handling a steamy, saucy drumette. We sampled the offerings of many fine establishments and settled on a favorite wing place–a hole-in-the-wall bar with a kitchen attached to the back.

We made pilgrimages to the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, where wings, legend told us, originated.

The story we heard, back then, was that Teressa Bellissimo, co-proprietor with husband Frank (they opened the Anchor Bar in 1939), invented the wing recipe for her son Dominic. He brought a bunch of friends to the bar and said, “Ma! Fix us something good to eat!”

She looked at the hungry crew, and she looked in her cooler, and all she could find was some chicken wings. To many, back in the day, chicken wings were throwaways–useless parts. Others put them in soup, and there were bars that would bake the bony things and give them away as free bar food. But that night, Teressa was inspired to cut the wings up and deep fry them, then toss them with hot sauce.

[I wonder now, if that’s the true story, so I look it up. Thousands of sites purport to offer the true history of the Buffalo chicken wing. I choose, because it darned well should be reliable, the Smithsonian’s site (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-the-buffalo-chicken-wing-10260772/).

That tells me the legend we heard may well be true. But then some of the Bellissimo family maintain there’s a little bit different reality–that the butcher who should have delivered a batch of meaty chicken necks–which the family used in their red sauce–delivered wings instead, and Frank said to Teressa, “Find something to do with these things!”

Whatever–in 1964, Teressa served up deep-fried wings, glazed with Frank’s Red Hot Sauce, and the city went nuts. By the time I hit college ten years later, wings were an international sensation, and it was a mark of honor to eat them with as tangy a saucing as one could stand.

(Do note, though, that there are other versions of the wing legend, and others who claim they invented the treat.)]

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But college days–despite an extra year or two of study for some of us–inevitably wane, and domesticity takes the edge off hot food cravings. Tender children don’t like crazy-hot wings.  And people on the autism spectrum, with their especially sensitive palates, often can’t tolerate the zip and tang of hot sauces. We moderated our menus to meet Jim’s needs. Our wild indulgences morphed into medium-hot sauce for our tacos.

We ate well. We just didn’t do ultra-spicy.

And life went on, taking us on unexpected adventures, veering us down uncharted roadways, and, finally, bringing us here. I’m teetering now on the career fence, sticking one foot out, ready to step off, joyfully, into retirement. A weekly basket brings us food we’ve never eaten or prepared. We’re ready to try something different, to add a little zip.

So we buy three different kinds of hot sauce. We experiment with chili paste. Mark and Jim, exploring an exotic market, stock up on cayenne and hot mustard and red pepper flakes.

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Is it, maybe, time of life, a new era beginning? Maybe we need to celebrate the segue into our sixties with zip and zing.

Or maybe it’s aging taste buds, and we need to slather our food with ever-hotter spices in order to detect the tang.

Could it just be opportunity? We have new foods and a little more leisure, so a buried sense of adventure is rearing its feisty head?

Whatever. We’re looking forward, in more ways than one, to a little summer heat.

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

(I found a great blog that discusses the history of hot and spicy foods, if you’re interested in learning about origins: http://sxxz.blogspot.com/2005/06/spicy-foods-chemistry-is-history.html)