No click, no write

Perhaps one can write about absences as much as presences.

This is Winston at 8:59am today, no spring in his step, no appeal to play or go outside. Yesterday he had his distemper shot. Today he lacks inspiration, his usual zest.


I’m about to put the timer on for 15 minutes, to see what kind of summing-up I can generate. Then I have to get ready for the day. The first item is to meet with a lawyer at 10:30am to sign a trust document, and associated paperwork. This is a thing you do when you are the only parent left. Personal administrative organization is important.

Fifteen minutes, go.

In my capsule bio over there on the side, it claims that I write when I feel a “click.” (You have a muse, I a click.)  Not much click in the past several months that lead to writing, though certainly there have been other sparks or even ah ha! moments.

I have packed and unpacked a lot of boxes, and with the great help of my family and friends we have moved from one address to another. The new one is better. For one thing, more sun streams into the windows. That’s both a metaphor and physically true.

I have taught classes, gone to meetings, ‘graded’ papers (shorthand for commenting on them), shopped for and eaten food, socialized, laughed, slept (but not nearly enough), listened, cried (though less and less), paid, spoken to groups of people whether students or colleagues, sewed buttons back on, gritted my teeth, sighed, touched.

Every minute of every day is filled.

Ugh, I hate that, like a topic sentence that can only announce a litany of Poor Me, I’m So Busy.

And yet it feels like  race sometimes. I eat on the way from thing to thing, like a vehicle constantly refueling while in operation. Do military planes do that, or race cars?

I’m not fast, though. I wish I were. Still methodical, still a uni-tasker or, at most, a bi-tasker.  Not multi.

I daydream about reading, yet feel incapable of sitting down for a long, luxurious amount of time which is what reading needs.

And about writing I long for it yet wonder if I am permanently impaired. Perhaps, you know, I should just have some image stand in for thoughts or even a video.

I just pictured video-ing myself, and the anticipatory stress of getting the hair and background and sweater and facial expressions just right for the medium.

Like a child, I want to call in sick because, you know, sometimes I just don’t feel like it. Then my internal dialog convinces me I should go and I can go and this is how I will do it.

Maybe we have pets, like Winston, to project not just our love onto, but our other animal wishes and desires, like curling up with our nose to our knees — I think I’m still flexible enough for the fetal position — and taking a break from our usual selves. Winston has signaled that today he is not even going to walk though I will prod him to take a bathroom break.

Me though? I’ll walk.

Alarm! Sound: piano riff. Fifteen minutes, done. In a moment I’ll stand.

Dead turkey inspires poem

6721770717_518cc40136_mGrace had the idea we would brine the Thanksgiving turkey, which sounded simple: put turkey in giant ziploc bag, add water to cover, and put in one cup of kosher salt for every gallon of water. The task was arduous, considering that the turkey weighed 20 pounds and the water an additional 25 pounds (three gallons x 8.34 lb. per). Getting it into the refrigerator was handled by Jimmy, aided by a sturdy dishpan.

I interacted with that turkey a lot in the 24 hours leading up to the time that cooking began. By 8am Thursday it was in the oven. Throughout NaNoWriMo , I’ve been doing my prose poem writing at night. But after my encounter with the turkey, I couldn’t wait all day. Inspiration was right there. I sat down. I went with it.

Headless Bird

The neck, broken, is inserted into the place its beating heart once went. That’s there
too, packaged in plastic, a gift from the slaughterer to the cook. The cold skin like
an old person’s, loose on the bone, yet like a baby’s, inviting touch. Empty and patted
dry, the body gets filled with white onion, branches of thyme and rosemary, and two
rubbery carrots. A long loose flap of skin I stretch over the spinal stem and under
the back, which rests on a rack. The pliant flap, like a bandage, hides a cross-section of
connectors that once signaled a head — no longer here — to turn, to look, to peck.

Image credit: Turkey (2009), wattpublishing on Flickr via a Creative Commons license.

Animal rescue league

Jimmy asked, “How was your day?” We are sitting in the living room. I get the couch, the best seat, and he the green chair.

Our usual weekday subjects are work and kids.  The conversation is always better if there’s an anecdote.

“Grace called me twice this afternoon. She found a cat in the yard without a collar, and she wanted to talk it through with me.”

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

wild thing, you make me stalk you (june 2013)

I described the stream of texts she sent, her eagerness to locate the owner, and desire for me to come home and help. It was late afternoon, and I was wrapping up anyway. By the time I pulled into the driveway, Grace had already called an adult friend for cat-catching advice, posted a photo on Instagram, searched craigslist for “lost cat,” and speculated as to who in our neighborhood might own the cat.

cat_textShe and I stalked the collarless cat for a little while, trying to herd it back to our yard where we believed we could think and plan better. After we tip-toed into the fourth neighbor’s yard, I said to Grace, “I’m going home to get a laundry basket so we can try catching it.”

The cat eluded catching with the laundry basket. Grace finally said, “I sense this cat is smart enough to survive and find her way home. And I think I know whose cat it is.” We abandoned pursuit.

Later, she took our dog Winston for a walk and rang the bell of some new neighbors. Indeed, the cat belongs to them. The woman told Grace, “She lost her collar and we haven’t replaced it yet. But we know she’ll come home when she’s hungry.”

I told Jimmy that I hoped we weren’t going to become those kind of people, always on the lookout for strays. Continue reading

Return of the sunflower folly, with modifications

homemade seed marker

homemade seed marker

In the spring of 2009, I planted a sunflower folly in half of the front yard: link. It was a dramatic success. For me, it had been an experiment as well as a therapeutic act after I had experienced a major disappointment. In September, the growing season done, I was content with the results of my folly, documented them, and set the idea aside.

A month ago, as she watched me start the spring clean up, Lydia asked, “Can you do the sunflowers again? I loved that.” So here I go again, although on a smaller scale.

This time, instead of planting half the front lawn, we tilled up the barren strips that lie between the road and the town sidewalk. Sunflowers can grow anywhere, and the poor quality of this soil will not deter them. The flowers’ appearance will also delight passers-by and provide us with a visual screen.

Mail-order seed packets

Mail-order seed packets

Seeds were purchased from Burpee and Gurney’s. Because the planted area would be smaller, I only ordered six packages total, in a variety of colors and heights:

  • Elf: yellow, 14″ to 16″ stems (Burpee)
  • Sunspot: yellow, 2′ stems (Gurney’s)
  • Chianti Hybrid: burgundy with gold, 4′ to 5′ stems (Burpee)
  • Hybrid Double Shine: fuzzy orange, not many seeds, 5′ stemps (Gurney’s)
  • Coconut Ice Hybrid: white, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)
  • Solar Flare: flame red, 5′ to 6′ stems (Burpee)

After tilling (thank you, Jimmy), Lydia raked and smoothed the dirt. I sprinkled on some foul-smelling fertilizer, and we used the eraser ends of pencils to make 1″ holes for planting the seeds.

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia plants her batch

Lydia came up with the planting scheme: tallest flowers in the sight line from our front windows, with shorter ones surrounding them. Her first proposal was that we “throw them down and let nature take its course,” but that was not enough of a scheme for me.

supplies: landscaper's cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

supplies: landscaper’s cloth, staples, fertilizer, and espresso

This was quick work. After planting, I watered the dirt lightly, put down some landscaper’s cloth with big staples (I used black cloth this time because I could grab it at Home Depot, but wish I had the white that I mail-ordered and used for my first folly). I made some improvisatory seed markers with the seed envelopes, some gardening sticks, and binder clips. See above.

I drank espresso. Winston kept us company.

Winston, good company for gardeners

Winston, good company for gardeners

Official planting date: Monday, May 20. Stay tuned for progress reports.


Previous posts on the Sunflower Folly of 2009, in chronological order:

  1. Sunflower folly: link (with full instructions)
  2. Sprouts: link (first sprouts, 13 days after planting seeds)
  3. First sunflower: link (first sunflower, 73 days after planting seeds)
  4. Habitat: link (folly as habitat for a wild rabbit)
  5. Harvest: link (sunflower harvest, four months after planting)

I try and try to understand. I study you for clues.

Winston is two years old, a poodle Shih Tzu mix, and a stray. Two days ago we adopted him from the MSPCA shelter in nearby Jamaica Plain. Besides a few health observations made by the shelter volunteers and veterinarian, those are the only facts we know about Winston, who was once named Saint. This is our first dog.


Winston and Grace

We study him for clues, trying to discern his “personality,” his preferences and fears, and even the unknowable: his family history. When Grace, Lydia, and I met him for the first time at the shelter, he brought to the bars of his pen a soft calico bone-shaped toy. We took that as a signal to play, as when a dog drops a stick or ball at your feet.  The first toy we bought him, once he was ours, was a soft fleece bone-shaped toy. He holds it in his mouth, brings it to us, but not to play catch, we’ve discovered. He doesn’t let it go; he doesn’t want us to tug at it.

Here comes Winston

Here comes Winston

We’ve discussed at length what this sign might mean. Lydia has deduced the fleece bone is a comfort object, like a child’s pacifier, and says, “I want to know what his life was like. I wish we had more information.” Jimmy, who came with us for the formal adoption visit, has observed Winston at home, and concludes that he was once well-cared for. Winston has some nice habits and deliberate gestures. We don’t know what they all mean yet, but we suspect they are part of a communication system he had with other people.

He’s just a dog, I know. Still our urge to know him — not as a blank slate but as a creature with a history and with an inner, coherent life — is strong.  We desire very much to understand him: through observation, but beyond it too.


First meeting: we belong together

Meanwhile, this week I am reading Joan Acocella’s profile in the New Yorker of psychoanalytic writer Adam Phillips. He claims that our deepest urge is to be understood, and he finds this to be a fruitless urge and “our most violent form of nostalgia,” says Phillips. It is “a revival of our wish, as infants, to have our mother arrive the instant we cry out from pain or hunger,” explains Acocella.

I have wished to be known, to be deeply understood.  I am skeptical, however, about Phillips’s reasoning. It’s too Lacanian for my taste. Would we really spend our adult lives driven by desires established in infancy? That contradicts my common sense. (Or perhaps Lacan’s ideas confound my understanding. Also possible.)

My urge to be understood comes from my strong inclination and effort to understand others: Jimmy, my children, the members of my family of origin, my closest friends, and even the occasional colleague or student who intrigues me. This effort to understand — although conducted invisibly and silently — I give as a gift. I want the same one in return.

And maybe we are all doing this all the time: studying each other for clues. Or maybe this effort to understand others is gendered. Or maybe some people, like me, emphasize understanding in their relationships, and others emphasize problem-solving, favors, or action.

I do agree with Phillips that we would be better off in accepting our lives and stop always striving to fulfill its potential.  Good luck with that, though. I both aim for that and find it hard to do.

Winston faces the camera

Winston faces the camera

We do know we will never fully know Winston or get the facts on his family history. We are constructing a new narrative, and in doing so we are envisioning a previous one. We will assign logic and meaning to all the clues and believe at some point that we know our dog. But we will really only know the story we have made of him.

P.S. Yes, I know. He’s a dog. It’s my thoughts about him that interest me, which make me wonder about my thoughts about just about every person in my life.

Everywhere you go, there’s a habitat

I am working at home today. As a break, I thought I’d complete a fix-up of our old garage door. I went to screw on the new weather stripping and noticed that the handle to the pull-up door is rusted and bent.

After I found what I wanted at the local Home Depot and paid for it, I couldn’t help wandering over to the Garden Department. I hovered around the on-sale perennials (two for $10), and I noticed this creature hovering around the butterfly bush, as it should.

The fall annuals, especially mums, are getting star billing at all the nurseries and garden centers right now, but try not to let your head get turned. Walk to the back of the store, where you’ll find some drooping and over-sunned perennials deeply discounted. It’s the perfect time to plant them. I bought two sets of 4 each (hosta and phlox), violating the rule of Plant in Threes, I know, but they were each the last of the batches, and I could not leave them lonely.

I like digging things into the ground now because it gives me a sense of anticipation for the spring. There will be a long period of darkness and rest in which I’ll forget about the new additions to the yard and then, come May, voilà. There they will be.

Scratching an itch

Recent travels in the neighborhood, either on foot or in car, have taken me past Allandale Farm, still closed for the winter. Curiously, there are two bulls regularly lounging in the shade near the algae-filled pond. I say curiously because this is a new sight at the farm, and I have no idea why they are there.

Driving past, I point them out to Grace. She has the same question as mine. “Why?”

“My guess is that the farm has rented them to sire the cows,” I say.

Then I recall that there are no cows there.

“Another thought,” I add, “is that the farm owns them, and they are renting out the bulls to impregnate cows on other farms.”

“I don’t really get it,” says Grace. For once, I decide not to explain everything. Beyond mentioning that cows are female and bulls male, I avoid the topic of animal husbandry.

But the desire to get up close and inspect the bulls remained. Today I walked over to the farm, cutting through the cemetery — yeah, I know, growth and death, circle of life — and made my way over to the pond. There is a shed and pen for the bulls, and as I approached, one of the bulls stuck his massive head over the wire fence. I was kind of flattered, as though the bull had pegged me as a friendly person who might give an apple or a pat. I was also intimidated: the bull was bigger than a VW Beetle, his head alone bigger than a 30 pound supermarket turkey.

Turns out, he didn’t want me, an apple, or a pat. He wanted to scratch. First he rhythmically scratched behind his right ear by rubbing it on the chain link fence post. His eyes rolled back in the sockets. Next he rhythmically scratched behind his left ear after deliberately adjusting the position of his head. This I videoed.

He was smart enough to get what he needed from his environment.

I walked home in the other direction, through a neighborhood of once-starter homes that have been lived in for ages. I noticed that, in most of the yards, a number of idiosyncratic gardening purchases and decisions have mostly led to clutter, either actual or visual. I made a mental note to go through my own yard carrying a big plastic garbage bag and to throw out the old plastic pots I’ve left here and there as well as the ugly or surplus ornaments. The season for gardening is beginning.

My last stop before home was the local Starbucks for iced coffee. Some itches are easy to scratch. I might as well this one, I thought.
UPDATE (June 1, 2012): I was at Allandale today buying some mulch and a few dahlias. A young woman who worked for the farm loaded the mulch into the car. I asked her about the bulls: “Are you folks going to breed them?” She answered that the original intention was to farm them for meat, but that the longer they hang around, the more attached the farmers and the patrons are becoming to them. (And they are steer, not bulls, which I was politely told are castrated bulls.)

I also learned that they are a friendly species, Scottish Highland, “which are used in rehabilitative setting,” this young farmer explained. “They’re good with people.”

“So, like, they’re therapy bulls, er, steer?” I asked.

“Yes, like that,” she answered.