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

Well-made path to nowhere

We’ve lived in our house since June 1999. In the backyard, under a huge Japanese maple, is a dry, packed-dirt patch that has defied the planting of grass and flowers. Because it’s a long and narrow strip that follows the length of my neighbor’s fence, it has always seemed to be a natural location for a stone path.

But paths should lead you to a spectacle or stopping place, and one planted there would only lead you to my neighbor’s gate, which is never used. These neighbors are homebodies — the indoor kind — and we never stand in our backyards talking or offering pies to each other or doing whatever friendly people divided by fences do.

The path idea, though, had planted itself in my mind. Several weeks ago I picked a Saturday and wrote on my calendar: rent roto tiller! With that, a project was set in motion.

It takes longer than a morning to make a path. The labor happened over a few weekends; as of yesterday afternoon (Sunday June 2nd), it’s done. Here is how it unfolded in 10 illustrations: nine photos and one movie.

1. Tilling begins.

1 Path

2. Tiller does its thing; man follows. (Note: this is 7-sec movie.)

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.