Thursday, October 10, 2019

A Toast to John F. Greenman

This is not a dear-John letter.

Dear John,

I have been told to limit my toast on this occasion (your 70th birthday) to one flat minute, so I have set a timer on my clock; I give myself no more than one hour and fifteen minutes to write this brief homage.

I am tempted to review my earliest memories, but I have no time for that.

Let me just say, my earliest memory of you speaking to me directly was in Youngstown, Ohio.  You were living at home, in what came to be Matthew's room, over the garage and up a steep set of stairs from the kitchen.  Sunny, but set apart from all other rooms by two sets of stairs, yours was the most private, coveted, and secluded room in the house--wherefrom, you descended a few stairs, crossed a breach, and more stairs until arriving, finally, at the door to Marty’s room, where my mother and I were installed over the course of our holiday visit.

Your hair was thick, red, and curly, like mine.  If you were still in college, I was four or five years old--an age at which you and Arlo Guthrie were conflated in my mind.  You were Arlo, and Arlo was you.

At my house, my dad played "Alice's Restaurant," often.  We knew all the words.  On the cover of the album, Arlo sits half naked at a table,  utensils in his fists, impish beneath a halo of wild curly hair.

I felt very fortunate that we had an Arlo of our own.

I was peeling off the green felt vest and blue felt shoes of a big troll doll when you knocked on the door.

"Come in."


"Hi, Uncle John."

"How ya doin'?"


"Good. Listen, would you mind calling me John from now on, instead of Uncle John?"


"Great. Thanks."

"Okay. Bye."

I know I didn't say, "You're welcome, John," because that was going to take some getting used to.

I wonder why you didn't want to be called Uncle John. Did it sound too...avuncular?

Over the course of my life, I have spent less time with you than with your brothers Greg, Matthew, Mark, and Marty.  (Matthew and Mark would have been 12, and Marty 13 when you asked me to call you John.)

Though Mark passed away at the age of 21, until then, he had been my most devoted uncle.

And now that I am in my 50's and I have some perspective on things, I can look back and recognize that Mark was in fact truly exceptional and extraordinary, even at the age of 12.  He rode me around on his bike.  He took me swimming at the town pool.  He presented me with a bright green pig that he had won at a carnival.  He let me kiss his cheeks and muss his perfect hair as much and as often as I wanted to, which was constantly.  All I had to do to spend the whole afternoon with him was to listen to the Beatles and let him watch football on TV.

I can honestly say that Mark was perhaps the most joyous, compassionate, buoyant spirit I have ever encountered in my lifetime. I have never met the Dalai Lama, but I think that Mark was probably on the same wavelength as the Dalai Lama, broadly speaking.

I stapled his finger, once.  I literally used a stapler to put a staple in Mark's index finger.  I wanted to explore the limits of his goodness. How good could he be when in pain?  Especially, a totally unnecessary pain that he didn't deserve, and which I had caused him, willfully, though I loved him infinitely and would regret hurting him for the rest of my life.

Mark handled it exactly the way you would imagine the Dalai Lama would manage such a thing.  He didn't raise his voice.  He didn't tell on me. He might have asked for an apology, which I would have freely given.

Mark was good, radiantly good, through and through.

But this is not supposed to be a toast to Mark, and I only have ten minutes left.

While contemplating the theme of a toast in your honor, John, it became quite clear to me that you and I have a lot in common.

Not that this is about me, but, we are both Libras.  And while no one else in the family gives any credence to astrology, yet still we are Libras in the true Libran sense of the word.

We concern ourselves with balance and justice.  We consider various sides of any matter--surrounding the subject, as you like to say.  We can view things from different perspectives.

And thus, we are writers and editors, you and I.  We have spent our careers in publishing--yours, in journalism, and the recipient of a Pulitzer; and me, not in journalism.

So, there's that.

I know that you are a talented photographer--that you have an eye.  And I have an eye, too.  We literally see things from various angles, up close and from afar.  We see our world as we think about our world: from all different sides, and at varying degrees of intensity and depth.

A person's priorities are reflected in the choices that they make, and are a product of th process of weighing and measuring and balancing all of the stuff in their lives.

I think, and I have long believed, that your priorities are particularly daring and original.

Your choice to remain for many years in an affordable, unassuming home in wildly unpretentious Youngstown meant continuity with the people and locations that you knew best and cared most about: Alice, Michael and David, and your dad.

You didn't need to leave Youngstown, and you didn't need to go to Harvard.  You didn't need to prove anything to yourself, the way most people do.

You knew what you were made of.

A big fish in a reasonably well-filtered pond, you became the editor of the school paper at YSU.  I think of that photo of you, looking John Greenman and Arlo Guthrie, feet crossed on a big school desk, leaning way back in a tilted chair,  newspaper spread out across your lap.

You didn't need the imprimatur of an institution.  You were an autodidact. (I like to think I'm one of those, too.)

Mom told me you methodically prepared every single recipe in Julia Child's French cookbook.

You made a priority of champagne.

My semi-ascetic mother was stunned by your annual budget for champagne.

But I thought, to spend every evening sipping champagne with Alice?  You must really be in love. And what could be better than that?

There were years when you and Alice had to figure out how to balance your careers with your marriage...Alice's tenure at YSU, her love of teaching, as measured against your desire to be a managing editor for a city newspaper.

You found a way to accommodate both.

You rented a flat in Akron, and spent weekends in Youngstown.

I have always admired the time that you have been willing and able to give each other, whether alone or apart; the distances you can tolerate; the freedom you afford each other to pursue your dreams and civic commitments; and the trust you have in one another when apart.

Marriage, family, work, travel, learning, thinking, writing, and the pursuit of excellence in all its forms... I see these as your priorities.  In many respects, they mirror my own, with one exception.


Where you choose champagne, I choose cats, dogs, horses.

Neither champagne nor pets are necessary or practical, but they bring the lightness, the bubbles, the joy...

And to be conscious of creating space, budget, and time for such things suggests excess, bounty, balance, and wisdom, all at once.

We have crazy red hair, you and I.

Happy birthday!



Saturday, September 21, 2019

Remembering Cars

I remember as a young child not liking the narrow pointy cars designed in the early 1970s.  They seemed aggressive somehow.  I associated them with crime, and Pall Mall cigarettes, possibly the worst-smelling cigarettes ever sold. Pall Malls--the putrid smoke, acrid on breath, the sour stink of stale sick.  Reckless men drove narrow pointy cars too fast through hairpin turns, inevitably losing control, plunging over a cliff, and landing upside down in rocky surf.

I found well being in the VW Rabbit, a tiny, boxy car that boasted high mileage. Its owner might be male or female, a gender neutral car.  The vulnerability of such a thin-skinned vehicle required a defensive driver.  A peaceful, harmless car.

Before I was born, my parents, newly wed, owned a Jaguar.  Great fun to drive, when it would go, but impossible to maintain.  They replaced it, when I was a toddler, with an off-white VW bug.

In his early twenties, my father raced motorcycles.  A large plastic Yamaha sign covered a hole in the wall of the dining room, a fireplace without mantle or frame.

Dad crashed his motorcycle while racing in Daytona.  He dislocated and ripped open his massive right shoulder.  That was the end of racing for him.

In their mid twenties, my parents owned a white van.

When my mother left, at 29, she didn't take the van.  She took a ride with friends.

Her first car in her new life was an ancient green Volvo station wagon with white fiberglass fenders.  I had never seen anything like it.  I hated it.  It was appalling.

My father continued to drive the van while we had a Saint Bernard.  After she died, he bought a beige Honda Accord with beige interior, a model he would drive throughout his forties.

My mother bought a series of lemons, which broke down whenever we tried to go away for the weekend.  Her VW Microbus broke down in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania while the nuclear power plant at Three-Mile-Island was actively leaking contaminants.

When I was 15, Mom finally bought her first new car, a Datsun B210.  It was small, indifferent to ergonomics, utterly manual, but low gas mileage and totally reliable.  A little more pointy than I would have liked.  Light blue, but gender neutral.

I learned to drive the Datsun B210 and the Honda Accord, both stick-shift.

I had to reverse out of my mother's driveway into congested two-lane traffic, across from  C&L Liquor's.  At the top of the hill, I had to stop for the traffic light, teetering on the accelerator, cars behind me, cars in front, sweat pouring down the back of my knees as if I were trying to speak French.

I remember driving on the highway in the Honda with my Learner's Permit, blood pressure rising through the roof.  Begging Dad to let me pull over.  He insisted I drive on.

In the midst of my lessons, my Golden Retriever was struck by a car on Lynn Shore Drive.  He died.  It was my mother's birthday, December 14.  I didn't drive again for a year.  No one asked me to.

For my senior prom, my date, one year younger than me but the handsomest, sexiest man I ever  saw,  picked me up at my father's house in a 1957 Chevy Bel Aire. Black with round fenders (my father said out loud they looked like a C cup) and fins.

It was a gangster car.  Al Capone. Uzi out the back window.  John Dillinger might have fled to Wisconsin from Chicago in this car.

Between the prom at a yacht club in Saugus, and the after-prom in the high school gym, my date's Chevy Bel Air sputtered out, and we switched to my father's Honda.  Though it was a beige Accord, my date smiled with approval as I deftly maneuvered the stick shift.

I paused for a gathering of pigeons in a parking lot.

"You can't hit a pigeon," he said.  I accelerated, and hit one instantly.

"Huh," he said.  "I guess you can."

Such was my luck, for good or ill. Normally, running over a pigeon would have ruined my day.  But I was living out the fantasy of a hundred hours in Algebra.  I could not entertain regret.

It was morning when I drove him home. His driveway backed up to the same busy road as my mother's driveway.  So, I was in my element.

Over the stick shift of a beige, gender-neutral hatchback, the engine revving for the tail fins of a 1957 Chevy, my date leaned over from the passenger's seat and kissed me once and twice.

"Sweet dreams," he said, closing the door behind him.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Dear M. School Superintendent:

Dear M. School Superintendent:

As the parent of a tenth grader who goes to your high school, I happened to notice, with some alarm, that my son's history textbook was published in 1491, exactly one year before Christopher Columbus discovered America, and approximately 550 years before anyone realized that Columbus was quite a despicable character.

I am also unhappy about the fact that my son's biology textbook was published in 1860, and yet somehow fails to make any reference at all to Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, published one year previous.  That strikes me as a squandered opportunity.

I find this a shameful state of affairs, esp. when I think of the millions recently spent on sports. We now have more soccer fields than we have soccer players.  We have a state-of-the-art weight room, multiple gymnasiums... But none of that changes the fact that the ratio of Olympic hopefuls to ordinary students in this town remains 887/.05.

Even if the millions spent on sports could raise those numbers to 500:3, is this really an accurate reflection of our academic priorities?  

My son tells me that the computers at the high school are so old, the operating system involves a bolt of lightening and a key.

And while I can sort of wrap my mind around why the public schools no longer teach kids how to write in script such that a 15-year-old might know how to write his signature, I do hate to think of a grown person in 2025 viewing an original, hand-written manuscript from the 19th Century as though it were hieroglyphics.

Here is my primary point:

I had the expectation that my son's teachers would be able to write with approximately correct grammar and approximately logical syntax, within a 28% margin of error.

However, the writing that I have seen from your faculty does not quite rise to that low water mark.

Here, an example:

"While Gods [sic] for many religions is an essential component to their beliefs, (especially Western religions) this is not always the case."

First of all, "Gods," as a general plural noun, should not be capitalized.

Secondly, "is" should be "are," in agreement with the plural subject (gods).

Thirdly, religions are not sentient, ergo, they do not have beliefs.  (In this respect, western religions are no exception.)

I have read similarly strangled efforts to write by my son's ___ teacher.  

Here is what troubles me:

My son reads these sentences, fails to apprehend their meaning, and interprets that failure as his own.

Given my son's general respect for adults in positions of authority, and cloaked as those adults are in the vestments of education, my son of course would assume that what his teachers write must be sound and well reasoned.

This leap of faith becomes a liability on two fronts:

First, he absorbs the absence of understanding as his own failing.

Second, he absorbs the poor grammar and syntax as exemplified into lessons he will carry forward in his own writing. (Oh, no!)

For learners, this is disastrous.  A teacher's failure to communicate poses a solid obstacle to learning.

Since the start of this letter, I have been informed that the new biology textbooks were published in 2007, and the computer lab has been updated to Windows 7.  Hurrah!  This is wonderful, and I applaud you for it.

However, my son's summer assignment for ___ continues to reflect an appallingly low level of writing. Could we not direct some of the resources poured into preparing our kids for careers as professional athletes toward raising our general standards and expectations for communicating with words?


Thank you.


Disgruntled Mom

Friday, July 5, 2019

My Encounter With An Active Shooter

I don't really enjoy fireworks that much. Yes, they can be spectacular, but they're loud; they dominate the sky; and they frighten pets, wildlife, and anyone sensitive to loud noises.

For the whole week of the Fourth of July, as night closes in, we have  to accept the random intrusions upon our peace and quiet in the form of sudden blasts of explosives shot over our bow from a neighbor's backyard.

And that is why I forgot to organize a trip with my son to see fireworks.

Last year, he noted with some resentment that we had missed seeing fireworks altogether.

I felt badly for spoiling his July 4 last year, and solemnly promised to make it up to him.

Which is why, when I saw "Shake the Lake" on the FB events calendar, an evening of fireworks over lake Monona, I resigned myself to going.

I don't get out much.

In fact, I get out so infrequently that in between public appearances, I age.

I now have 35-50% white hair mixed in with red.

My skin pigment is now like paint that hasn't been adequately stirred, responding to the sun in glops and smears. Freckles merge, a spotty tan. Lilypad beauty marks bloom on my face.  (Some people call these "liver spots," but those people are ageist and mean.)

But going out is an occasion when all the work I do on the farm pays off.  I am fit, for my age.  My arms, in particular, I may have mentioned, are ripped.  And, if you ask me why, I'll tell you: Many buckets of manure, every day.  That's my secret!

So, here I was, older, sylvan, splotchy, and well turned out in a floral flounce over cropped black yoga pants, big concentric-hoop beaded earrings...Very Boho.

We parked in a garage on Francis Street in Madison and set out toward University and State, where we turned right and walked, in the soft light of a sultry summer evening, toward the Capitol and, beyond that, Frank Lloyd Wright's Monona Convention Center on Lake Monona.

We were in good spirits.

I look at that floral flounce now, clean and laundered, and I wonder, Will I ever want to wear it again?

If I had been shot in that top, in those cropped yoga pants, wearing big hippy earrings...That's the outfit I would have died in.  That's what I would have been wearing when they found me.

And that is not what I would have chosen to wear for that occasion. I would have worn something serious, simple, and tailored.  Something that said: I am an intelligent, autonomous person, even if I have been destroyed by a stranger--randomly killed by someone who didn't want to kill me, per se, but only wanted the excitement of committing an act of violence, to experience the power of destruction.

As the object of that violence, my sole purpose was to be destroyed, being in all other ways of no interest or relevance to the killer.

To be that object, I would not have chosen to wear a loose floral flock and yoga pants. Would you?

On State Street, we stopped for ice cream.

The young man behind the counter was tall and excessively handsome, like a graduate student in philosophy.

I wanted a turtle sundae.

I looked up at the menu.

I said to the excessively handsome man behind the counter, "I would like a turtle sundae, but I see that it's not on your menu.  Do you know how to make a turtle sundae?"

He nodded, with just a hint of exasperation, and I realized how condescending that question sounded and I was sorry.  But why would a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy know how to make a turtle sundae?

He spent quite a long time making it.  So much time, in fact, that someone else, a young woman, stepped up to serve my son; and I had paid and my son had turned and walked off by the time Handsome returned with my sundae.

The maraschino cherry quivered on the whipped cream.  As I pivoted, it lurched and seemed about to topple.  I heard the voice of Handsome behind me.

 "Your cherry is falling! Let me get you another!"

I caught the cherry as it fell.  I turned to Handsome and said, "It's okay.  I got it. Thanks!"

I thought it was nice--oddly nice--that note of concern in his voice, like panic, that made me want to assure him that it was okay with the cherry.

We are psychic, aren't we.  I mean, we are.  This guy didn't know me, of course, but maybe he sensed something teetering about me that he saw in that cherry, which alarmed him.

Among throngs of people, we poured through the convention center like honey through a funnel.

Someone from security asked to peek inside my purse. Keys, phone, wallet.

Later, it would occur to me that they weren't asking any men to lift up their shirts.  Men conceal weapons in their waistband.  Most shooters are men.  Peeking into women's purses is pretty pointless.  A hollow gesture, at best, beyond which, to quote a news source, they didn't wish to be invasive.

We spiraled down several flights of stairs to Nolan Avenue by the lake--the lake which (I had not been here since winter) now smelled surprisingly rank with algae, floating, scum-like, on the surface of the water.

Thousands of people milled up and down the John Nolan Ave., (closed to cars) assessing the offerings of food trucks and vendors.

People-watching is something of a trick.  Everyone does it, but I kept finding myself looking at people who were looking directly back at me, as though I had been staring.

We met up with my friend Charlotte and her little boy.  Charlotte's husband soon joined us, and we sat around the small blanket that Charlotte had had the foresight to bring, along with a gallon of water.

My son and I walked off to survey the food trucks.  He and I haggled over the inflated prices, long lines, the heat--with each other. In the end, I bought him an overpriced brisket with baked beans, and hoped that would make him truly happy.

I bought two Small bags of kettle corn; they were enormous.

I was thirsty; the beer lines were too long.

We sat and talked and waited until ten p.m.

I'm told they started exactly on time, but it seemed like they started late.

The sweat poured down my front and back, even though it was night time and I was only sitting and eating kettle-corn.

They haven't dredged the lake yet this year.  I've also been told they never do.  It smells appallingly bad.

The fireworks appeared behind a tree blocking our view, so we got up and walked toward the convention center, where a concert stage had been set up on the left of the overpass.

The fireworks were spectacular; they satisfied. Watching them, I thought about, but tried not to think about, how the noise, the suddenness, the explosiveness, how it took over the whole sky, irrespective of wildlife, without a thought to habitat.

I can be a hateful drag.

When it ended, as soon as it ended, we said good-bye to our friends, who turned back toward Willy Street toward home.

We three walked toward the Convention Center.

I overheard a man say to his son, "I think those were the best fireworks I've ever seen in my life."  And then I saw that he was looking at me.  He was looking straight at me, expecting me to chime in and agree, so  I nodded and smiled: Yes, lovely, the greatest.  And he smiled warmly back at me.

Was this how strangers respond to women my age?  Have I been rendered universal by the silvering hair?  The silvering hair interspersed with red, the strong arms, the soft frock, and the comfortable shoes?

And then Josh said, "Those might have been the best fireworks I've ever seen. I dunno'.  Maybe not. They were pretty damn good, though."

"Will they hold you over for another twelve months?" I asked, hopefully.

Josh thought about it.  "Maybe eight."

And that is when, at that precise moment--we had entered the overpass on our way back to the stairwell to proceed like honey through a funnel backwards up through Frank Lloyd Wright's convention center to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard--when we heard multiple gunshots.

pow-pow pow-pow-pow

It was like that.  Was it three or five?  It was like pow-pow, pow-pow-pow.  But all at once, from the direction of the overpass, where it was completely dark.

Beyond the overpass, on the other side where there was light, we saw people hurl themselves over the cement barricade.  Cement barricades waist high.

There were a couple of guys near Josh and me.  Phil, my husband, further ahead, was still slowly walking, weirdly unfazed.

This is not the sort of thing that fazes my husband--shots ringing out from the dark.

The shooter ran past Phil and threw down his gun.

Only Phil of the many thousands of people there knew that the shooter had thrown down his gun.

Later, Phil showed the police officer where the gun was.

Later that night, he called the police and told him what he was able to describe.

Two days later, Phil would scold me for leaving a pasture gate open.

"What if the horses got loose while you were away and I was the only one there to deal with them?  Are you trying to give me a heart attack?"

(Point of fact: The horses have gotten loose many times. They mosey over to eat the grass on the other side of the fence, safe and sound--for hours.  Eventually, they would wander back into the pasture.)

There were a couple of young guys near Josh and me who moved away swiftly as if to run, but changed their minds and jumped over the barricade and lay down like the other people had done.

The thought passed through my mind that, demographically speaking, these guys were doubtless gamers, accustomed to playing first-person shooter games.  They would certainly know what to do.

This thought comforted me.

I watched as Josh got over the barrier and lay down.

"Mom, c'mon."

I got over the barrier without difficulty (quite fit!) and lay down beside Josh.

It was nice that we were next to each other.

I looked and saw someone--the shooter--run out of the overpass at a sprint.

"Stay down," someone told me.

Everyone believed there was more than one shooter.

By everyone, I mean us.

We waited.

And I thought, if these shooters are out to kill people, they must know that we are here, lying face down on the ground, and they will come shoot us.

I will be lying next to Josh when the shoot him. He will be lying next to me when they shoot me.

Like this, we waited, for maybe a minute.

A police officer arrived on foot.

"Are you okay?  Are you hurt?"

We were all okay.

He told us where the exit was, back in the direction from which we'd walked.

The shooter had disappeared into the crowd.

We walked among a crowd of people for a mile.

At one intersection, a stop light, a guy in a muscle car revved his engine loudly for no reason.  It frightened me.  I thought they could be shooters.  Maybe they would run us down.  He revved the engine over and over.  The light turned green, and he drove away, to my great relief.

The crowd thinned, and we still had a mile to walk.

"Well," said my 15-year-old.  "I guess I can cross that off my bucket list."

Some people get cross when I tell them about that, as if being in an active shooter situation had actually been on my son's bucket list.

Being in an active shooter situation had not been on Josh's bucket list.  This was just something he had said to make his mother laugh--which I thought was fucking heroic.

Back on John Nolan, a terrified crowd heard what happened and ran for the exits.

Whether it was more frightening to be closest to the shooter or furthest, I cannot say.  Like those who ran in terror, I assumed this would be a well-planned mass shooting.

My husband, on the other hand, who saw the gun being fired and flung from the shooter's hand, would have rather been present there than at home with loose horses.  To each his own.

I followed the news, but the news kept changing, like a weird rabbit hole out of Alice Through the Looking Glass.

First, it was one woman down, and one wounded officer.

For 36 hours, one woman down.

On the second day, she became a man.  Man shot at Shake the Lake released from hospital.

I went back to review the links I posted to FB.  They redacted the part about the woman.  They added a quote from the mayor.  They cut out the article boasting about drones.  They shifted the tone of the police chief's response.  They updated, redacted, and rewrote--leaving no record or evidence of errors or mistakes, misquotes, misstatements.

I felt like I was still back on the crime scene, behind yellow tape.

Maybe if they found the shooter and I knew the whole story, I could leave.

The weird news coverage fueled my anger and confusion.

Like any other phone app, Channel 3000 didn't have what I needed, and in fact, only made me feel worse.

I don't have the answers.  I only have this story: Nice white lady encounters real-time shooter.

It's not more special than anyone else's story.

It's not more special than a black kid's story.

It's not more special than an immigrant child's story.

It's just one story.

Maybe, when everyone knows someone who has encountered an active shooter--the way everyone knows someone who has been robbed blind by medical bills--it will finally become a common cause.

Meanwhile, I am so done with fireworks.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

A New Epoch for Farmers

If I lived in town, I don't think I would be as affected by climate change as I am currently.  Of course, I would still feel badly when I read about places being devastated by hurricanes, floods, or wildfires. But, in  terms of how climate change would affect me, personally, if I lived in town...?  I don't think it would be such an inconvenience.

If I lived in town--in a house, say, just three miles away from here--I wouldn't mind consecutive days of rain and storms, the unseasonably cool month of June, the heat and humidity rising on the cusp of July.

I would dress in layers, or not go out at all.  I would stay in my house, which would have central air.   I would revert to my indoor life: read books, practice piano, blog sometimes, and watch way too much television.

But, I don't live in town.  I live three miles outside of town, on a plot of land people refer to around somewhat disparagingly as a hobby-farm or a farm-ette.

I am reminded of our lesser status as a farm-ette every time I go to pay for my items at Blain's Farm and Fleet, and the cashier asks me (never unkindly) if it's farm-exempt, a tax break bestowed upon non-diminutive farms.

What makes a farm a farm is not a matter of acreage.  I know of one farm smaller than ours that is farm-exempt.   He grows stuff and sells it at a farmer's market. You have to make around $6,000 a year in farm-produced income to qualify for the exemption.

That's a lot of onions!

We don't remotely qualify for the exemption.  We're absolute hobbyists.  We have a lovely vegetable garden, raspberry bushes and strawberries, but they only get as far as our own kitchen table--or possibly a neighbor's.

And if it all gets eaten by unsavory bugs, well, that just means less salad for us.

We have two horses and a very small pony, who contribute great quantities of fertilizer to the compost, who delight and entertain us when they're not being naughty, and who otherwise offer no promise of gainful employment.

These are not lesson horses. They're not used to spending hours in all weather, under saddle.  They've acclimated to the point where they expect a certain modicum of comfort at all times.  They're not sheep (who don't know enough to step into the shade, and frequently die of heatstroke for that reason).  They're not Englishmen.  You won't find them outside at noon; you'll find them comfortably ensconced in the barn, vying for position in front of a very large fan.

Ours is an intimate farmala, utterly lacking in purpose.

And yet, you would not believe the sheer physical effort and time it takes to keep this yacht-ling afloat.

I now wend back to Climate Change, which is my topic, and the title of this new epoch.

Did I tell you how it went with the Polar Vortex?  (It's my year of transition; I forget things.)

If I lived in town, it would have been a cozy respite from the usual running around, getting errands done.  I would avoid going outside, of course, during the Polar Vortex, if I lived in town, except for the chance to throw boiling water into the air and videotape it.

But, here on the farmala, we have animals who live outside.  (I choose "who" over "that" deliberately; these are my people, these creatures of habit.)  When indoors, one must think of them and wonder, constantly, how they are doing, out there, outside, in the barn.

What is their threshold, beyond which blood grows sluggish and cold?

On the Wisconsin Horse Network Facebook page, women like me sought advice and reassurance from one another by the hundreds in comments beneath fretful questions that seemed to give voice to a collective consciousness racked with anxiety:

How are you keeping your horse warm?

Are you putting blankets on your horses?

Should I bring them in or leave them out?

Should I make a warm mash?

A bucket of tea?

What on earth can I do to sleep at night during this fucking cold-snap?

Somehow, the stentorian voices of experience rose above the din of frightened dilettantes like me, with a confidence that can only come from many, many years of experience and the hard lessons that time teaches.

As spoiled as they may be, there is a wildness in horses, something prepared to meet Nature head on, when called upon.

In the barn, out of the barn; in the end, it doesn't matter.

Here's what it boils down to:

Give them constant access to hay.

Make sure they have access to water, or offer them water several times a day, not too cold.

Put a blanket on old horses, or any horse recently brought up north from someplace else warm.

This turned out to be sage advice, but I went outside every few hours throughout the Polar Vortex, around the clock, to check the water and hay, and make sure that no one was shivering.

I put a blanket on the 23-year old, and, I swear to God, I could see the worry in his expression lift off his beautiful face, as exhalations billowed like cigarette smoke on the air.

I don't think any of the horses slept for days.  It was just continual eating, feeding the furnace-like bellies, keeping themselves warm, staying alive.

Not long after the Polar Vortex loosened its grasp, there came the freezing rain, falling in torrents.  It filled up fields meant for crops.  By spring, some of those fields had been transformed into new wetlands, and taken over by ducks, cranes, swans, and gray herons....

But in winter, when the ground was frozen, the water, which ran in two rivers along either side of the aisle of my old dairy-barn, via culverts meant to divert bovine effluvia, left my Shetland pony's teacup feet more or less dry, as he stood there alone in the center aisle, marooned, as it were, on an island.

I would come out to the barn every couple of hours to rake up the debris, the hay and muck that halted the water's progress, now lapping at the heels of my pony.

I'd move a bale of hay out of the way, so it wouldn't be spoiled.

I'd use the push broom to direct the water's flow, from the north door through the barn and out the south door.

I filled hay bags and tied them up, out of the water's way.

Two horses stood in their stalls, several inches above the water passing beneath their stall door.  They would eat and do all of their business there, perhaps recalling winters past--cold, but dry, and antediluvian.

There was a brief respite last month in June, between days of rain and mud, when it was cool and green and freshly alive...Before the bugs arrived.

And now, my days are punctuated by the careful purging of swarms of gnats that threaten to colonize the hides of my horses.

They appear in stall windows, suddenly, and by the thousands, thriving in a climate of stormy nights and steamy days.

I spray the windows with permethrin.  I powder the windows with garlic.  I strip out all of the shavings, and spread out lime and more chemicals and more garlic.

I have three atomizers in front of me filled with a new recipe for bug-repellant: four types of essential oils in an admixture of mouthwash and water.  I also have a big bottle permethrin.

It's all the same:  Good for five minutes.  Like shooting zombies with a BB gun.

This is my life, now.  I'm not saying I love it. I think about insecticide more than I care to admit.  I attach fly masks to the horses' heads, but they shake them off, and I think maybe I should give them all another bath, but then they'll go roll in the dirt, right after.  And maybe there's something to that. I don't know.

I think, if I lived in town, the Polar Vortex, the freezing rain, the unbidden ponds, the layer upon layers of ice in the pastures (covered, as an adaptation, with manure and shavings to improve the footing, so long-limbed creatures who live outside won't slip and break a leg or neck); the more rain in late spring; the more rain in summer; the lost fields; the fields too soft to seed, too soft to harvest; the high price of hay; the gnats that needle and swarm...

These are the dog-eared days of Chapter One of Climate Change: A New Epoch.

If I lived in town, just three miles away...if I didn't have these three noble beasts to care for...if I didn't have feeling for their concerns...if I did not have to go outside to care for them in all weather...I think  this whole Climate Change thing, would not be such a nuisance.

Friday, May 3, 2019

A White Elephant

Wow!  The FBI or CIA has done a good job expunging all the nefarious Eastern-bloc bots that had artificially driven up my blogger stats.

To be honest, I find it a bit of an adjustment.  For years, I thought I was actually popular in Ukraine--after all, my father's people on his father's side came from Odessa.  They were Barmacks.  I figured, someone stumbled across the name and got curious, became a fan.

But, no, there is no ancestral connection or fandom here. Only wishful thinking on my part, and robots on theirs.

Moreover, my most vocal supporters clearly prefer it when I write about some topics and not others, or when I write witty prose instead of lard poetry.  I can't explain their taste, but I assume they find it annoying when I jump the tracks, as I frequently do.

Anyhow, there is freedom in going largely unread.  I would like to write about my health again, and for that I'm glad to have a limited audience.

Like money, politics, and religion, health is a touchy subject.

Caveat: I'M NOT DYING, so there's not much interest in what I have to report.

On the other hand, I don't think one should have to be dying to write about ill health--although I realize, from a literary perspective, that it helps.

If someone is able to be eloquent and, in a tonal sense, disinterested in how they describe their drawn-out experience of dying, then we will read it.

The tricky part is, it's like humor.  You can't laugh at your own jokes, and you can't cry with self-pity, either. The author has to at least feign a stoic courage and detached interest in their own unraveling--which, they might argue, (correctly, I think) is a strange interstitial space, as integral to living as to dying, if not more so.

But it is a certain road, isn't it?  And we're all on a road of some kind. You may be on the road to retirement, or the road to maturity, or the road to success.

If you're lucky, you're out on the open road, in search of adventure.

We're not all on the same road.

Chronic but not terminal disease is a road I'm on.

For those of you who remember, I had these tiny weird nefarious doo-hickeys removed from my reproductive organs, last spring.  The inflammatory filaments associated with them fostered  symptoms that exceeded the mandate of my disease: Sjogren's, with a touch of undifferentiated connective tissue disorder.

Like a great parfum mingles with your own body chemistry to create a uniquely personal scent, Sjogren's disease plays a different tune on every woman's body.

The primary symptoms are dry eyes and mouth.

I broke my first tooth in 2012.  I was flossing, and it crumbled under the friction of the string.

A year later, I bit into a chicken sandwich at Burger King, and hit something solid that shouldn't have been in a chicken patty.  It sent a jolt of pain through my jaw that radiated through my face and head and left me stunned for several seconds.  When I came clear, I spit out half a tooth.

For someone who, all her life, had frequent anxiety dreams about losing her teeth, I found the reality of actually losing them much less disturbing.

In the dream, they fall out all at once, a metaphor of loss.

At Burger King, it was a single tooth. And, as painful as it was, it did not pack the emotional wallop of a metaphor.  It was just a tooth.  It was just pain.  That's all there was to it.

Later, I had the remaining tooth pulled--under gas, which is my favorite anesthesia.

Honestly, when I'm under gas, you can take all my teeth, I don't care.  I might comment about it in my head--but with real objective disinterest.

Once, when I was 25, they gave me valium intravenously for two impacted molars.  I hallucinated, imagined I was being attacked and mugged by two or three people in a public park. It was a wooded path.  I was still sobbing when they turned off the valium.  A couple of attendants had been holding me down.

A sense of boredom sets in the moment they turn the gas off.  And in those minutes of adjusting to not being well entertained in my head, I find I have a deeper appreciation for what drug addiction is all about.

It felt weird when they drilled the hole in my jaw for the artificial tooth--the implant that would be screwed into place.

I was under the gas, of course, so it didn't really bother me, but the thought floated through my consciousness like a cloud that maybe my jaw would break apart.

But then I remembered the extra bone at the base of my gum line--I can feel it through my cheeks on both sides--a horizontal rise that you would remark on if, say, you were examining my skull as an artifact in a museum, dry and apart from all flesh. You would see the hyper-ossification and excessive reinforcement undergirding a few chipped teeth.  This would be my skull's distinguishing characteristic.  Moreover, a kid might enjoy unscrewing the false tooth and screwing it back into place.  My skull is destined to be a favorite.

As the surgeon drilled, I pictured those two bony outcrops as flying buttresses, fortifying the integrity of my jaw.

But the bills! The bills for the implant were several and steep.

And so it goes, with Sjogren's: I now have two crowns, one implant, and one empty space in the back of my mouth where there used to be a tooth.

I could have a second implant, there, but why?  I chew just fine.

The dentist warned me, the absence of a tooth there could cause the one above it to sink down into the open space--or some such nonsense.

Thanks, but I'll take my chances.  (Sounds like bullshit to me.)

I bought a blood pressure monitor on Amazon, because I was having issues with fatigue in the afternoon, and I wondered if blood pressure had anything to do with it.

I occasionally get a high blood pressure readings at the doctor's office--most recently, when I was about to have a lip biopsy--where they stick needles in my lip and pry out glands, for testing.

They wanted to confirm the original Sjogren's diagnosis.  The lip biopsy, some say, (others disagree) is authoritative.

I got another high reading the first time I used it--high enough to put me in the type 2 category for hypertension.

But when I shimmied the cuff up higher up my arm, level with my heart, per directions, my blood pressure dropped down to normal.

Even so, sometimes it still tests high, so I do it again.  The second time, it is normal.  So this is the pattern: I do it once, I get a poor result.  I relax. I think calming thoughts...I do it a second time and get a passing grade.

Frankly, I'm not sure it's worthwhile to have a blood pressure monitor at home.

My husband and my son both tested normal on their first try--on the same day my result was Level-2 hypertension on the verge of a stroke.

But then, the other night, just because it's there, on the table, in the dining room, irresistible, like a Magic Eight Ball, my husband got a very high reading as well.

He repeated the test, with alarming results.

Then he took off his shirt, and repeated the test.

Then he read the directions, and repeated the test.

Then he examined the cuff and decided that it was too small for his arm and so his results were fake, as in, fake facts--didn't really count.

He is content with that conclusion.

Meanwhile, I continue to have a poor reading followed by a normal reading.  I choose to believe in the second reading.

And this is how it is with medicine, isn't it?

My old PA from Rheumatology left practice suddenly, without explanation.  I wonder why.

She was nice, supportive, a little overeager to prescribe medicine.

She put me on a new drug  that was supposed to keep my juices flowing.  She told me to take one pill three times a day with meals.

I took the pill with breakfast and lunch, and then I nearly fainted for the first time in my life, right there in the post office.  With difficulty, I drove the three miles home, my brain about to blow a circuit.

"She's got to be wrong," I thought.  If I take another one of these pills, it will kill me.  So, I didn't.

Recently, with concerns about high blood pressure, I read up on all the side effects associated with my medication.

For that prescription, among other side-effects, I read (this is real):

If you stop breathing...

If you pass out...

If you have no pulse...

Right.  If you stop breathing, pass out, and have no pulse, call your fucking PA in rheumatology and complain, bitterly.

But fatigue was my biggest complaint. I had hoped that the demon coils were responsible for my afternoon exhaustion, but, over the last few months, the fatigue had crept back into my day.

My blood labs are interesting to read, as a measure of autoimmune-disease activity.  But I don't know how any of it correlates to symptoms.  And neither do they.

The  primary medication I'm on is only effective 55% of the time, I read, and I suspect that I'm not among the lucky ones.  However, it is the first and foremost medication for auto-immune disease.  It's an anti-malarial, so I've got that going for me.

Side effects of Plaquenil: It's hard on the digestive system.  I spend my entire morning belching because a single bowl of cereal.

They say fatigue is the hardest symptom to contravene.

So, I went online and found some vitamins and herbs that are supposed to support the immune system.  (Theoretically, my immune system should be overactive--that is the nature of the disease; but I have a low white blood-cell count, and that's supposed to be my little army against disease, so what's with that?)

I am taking a lot of Vitamins C and D, as well Echinacea. I also upgraded to the old-lady vitamin. It has all the zinc and whatever, selenium, that I need in my decrepitude.

The result?  Fatigue gone!

And you know what else I learned?

You know all those kooky, folksy people who can't afford health insurance and talk about how they never get sick because they drink and literally bathe in apple cider vinegar?

Do you know them?

I do.

I've been hearing about apple cider vinegar since I lived in Middleboro, Massachusetts, back in my early thirties.

I don't know why people give me unsolicited advice about apple cider vinegar, but they always do.

So, I'm looking up remedies for high blood pressure, right?  And I'm on the Mayo Clinic website.   It's saying I can lower my blood pressure significantly in 24 hours by ingesting two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar.

Apple cider vinegar: It balances the microbes in your stomach.  It lowers your blood pressure.  It moderates your weight.  It keeps flies off horses.  It keeps mineral stones from forming in their hind gut.  I kid you not!  This stuff does it all.

If you're not drinking apple cider vinegar every single day, you're really missing out on something big.

I pour it on salads, and use it in marinades.  I may have to resort to drinking it straight, but that doesn't sound tasty, and I don't want to take on additional discomfort.

I pour it over my horses' grain, along with flax seed, which I buy cheap in 40# bags at the local feed store.  It looks exactly the same as the overpriced stuff in the supermarket.

By the way, you MUST watch the Netflix documentary about the Mayo Clinic.  It's called something like, The History of the Mayo Clinic, or similar.  You can't miss it.

All hospitals should comport with the guiding principles of the Mayo Clinic. It's reprehensible that they don't.

This is the road of Sjogren's, undifferentiated connective tissue disorder, and the side-effects of medication.  It's also the road of taking things into my own hands, of online research and hopeful experiments with vitamins and herbs, which, (placebo or not) seem to have chased away the cellular gloom that had cast a pall over my afternoons.  It is the road of discernment, questioning authority, self-advocacy, and self-preservation.  It is a road less traveled, and it can be lonely.

The worst thing about disease as a road is how it fails, as a metaphor, to depict real life. A road is linear in its essence and fails to suggest how I might possibly live a rich life simultaneously, with or despite the accompaniment of chronic disease.

I do have a good life, but this is not a disease that will go away.  It does not take vacations. It has integrated and settled into my life...Something I didn't want, but now must keep: A white elephant.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Emperor's New Clothes, Or, In Defense of Irony

Amid an onslaught of compelling news, I am struck by a few observations:

When there is a mass shooting in New Zealand, that country swings into action, expressing its solidarity with the victims, asserting its opposition to bigotry, and changing the gun laws in quick succession.

When an attic fire consumes the roof of Notre Dame, exposing the 800-year-old interior to sky, wind, and rain, France commits to the herculean quest of restoring its iconic cathedral.

But, in the United States, when the President surrounds himself with affirmed racists, criminals, sycophants, Russian spies, and (at least one) anarchist intent on dismantling democracy... NOTHING HAPPENS.

Not yet, anyway.

And meanwhile, at the same time, the American public has one epiphany after another:

1. Sexual harassment is a real problem and will not be tolerated.
2. Racism does not cease to exist when white people adjust their attitudes toward black people.
3. Gender identity varies.
4. Sexual preference and gender identity are two different things.

Why can't we see that the Emperor in his new clothes is in fact naked with toilet-paper stuck to his foot?

I suppose this shouldn't be so hard to grasp, for a person who lives in the purple state of Wisconsin.

Trump has campaign rallies in Appleton, Wisconsin--that long-time sunset city where for many years there was literally, planted right beside the Entering Appleton sign, another sign warning people of color in the rudest possible terms that their lives would be in danger if they were found on the city premises after sundown.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention has chosen Milwaukee as its venue for the 2020 presidential primaries.

In the local news here this morning, there were three unrelated articles about sexual harassment and assault:

1. The husband of the dean at UW Whitewater has been found guilty of sexually harassing almost a dozen women students and faculty.  The dean, who had steadfastly defended her husband against his accusers, has been asked to resign--and she has.

2. An 18-year old high school student/lifeguard recorded videos on his phone of unsuspecting female students changing out of their swimsuits. He has been charged with two felons but is still attending high school...

3. A high school principal came under fire by community and school faculty for his dismissive remarks in response to the sexual assault of a female student in the school bathroom by three boys. ("Kids will be kids.")

So, yeah. Consciousness has been raised, even in these Wisconsin enclaves. Boys-will-be-boys is no longer a valid excuse for sexual assault.

Yet still, somehow, collectively, we fail to see that the Emperor's New Clothes are NOT REALLY THERE.

Blame the Republican Senate--or ourselves, for not protesting as fiercely and relentlessly as, say, the French...Or blame the Russians, for embroidering the Emperor's wardrobe out of a web of misinformation.

But don't blame irony.

Have you heard the straight-up complaints from the anti-irony movement?

I first heard a diatribe against irony on NPR, saying in no uncertain terms that irony is straight-up slimy and bad, and that people should try to be straightforward and good.

I could not disagree more.

While it is true that some people use irony to evade speaking truthfully, and some people who use irony evasively are incredibly obnoxious and slippery, those people would be obnoxious truth-evaders with or without the use of irony.

Without irony, they would still have access to ridicule. They could be ridiculing.  Salty. Offensive. Mean. Violent.

Irony itself is not the problem, nor the worst expression of the problem.

To focus on irony as the problem seems censorial.

If I were being paranoid, I'd go so far as to suggest that this silly brouhaha against irony is meant to muddy the waters of genuine concerns.

It bothers me that the anti-irony diatribe on NPR was delivered by a woman, inviting the listener to   pair the new intolerance of sexual harassment with a new intolerance for irony, which is straight-up stupid.

I reject any possible tacit suggestion that opposition to irony is somehow a part of or stemming from the current women's movement.

As a woman who opposes sexual harassment and sexual assault, let me clarify, for the record: I'm totally okay with irony. 

Moreover, I oppose the censorial spirit, and any possible mischief behind this noisy, foolish anti-irony bullshit.

It may be corny and sweet of me to be so direct, or maybe I'm just not feeling very witty, but yeah, irony is not the issue.  It is not an issue.  It is not.

In literature, irony is used to reflect the presence of God. You heard that right, friends: God.

Here's how it works:  Everything is going along a certain path, and we in the audience, using our keen human minds, surmise the direction of that path.

But then irony happens, and nothing is as it seems, the path is otherwise, and we find ourselves humbled by false assumptions.

Through that ironic turn of events, the author has created our experience of being humbled and confounded.

That confounding and humbling gives us a sense of the mystery of God, of the unlimited possibilities of the universe (call it what you like).

In literature, irony creates a sense of the mysterious nature of God and universe.  When we think we are right, we are wrong.  God works in mysterious ways...In art, this mystery is revealed via irony.

In dialogue, literary and pedestrian, the alternate definition of irony (sarcasm, double meanings) conveys human duality.

I know, it's deep. And it's Saturday. And it's sunny outside. I apologize.

But think about it, if you care to:  None of us are particularly straightforward, to the root.  At some level, there is always a sideways glance, a wished-for impossibility, a harmless love of murder mysteries, a desperate devotion to church...somewhere, in all of us who are not protozoan, there are those contradictions that make us complicated and interesting and human.

And in literature, as in life, that quality of being human is often expressed through irony.

So that's it, in a nutshellL Irony is nothing more than a few brushstrokes to paint God, in one aspect; or ourselves, in another.

If you're going to rage against irony, you might as well yell at the brush and paint.  Or a hammer. Or a nail.  It's just a tool, and nothing more.

Although, for some, irony can be an instrument. For Shakespeare, a Stradivarius.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

To Chicken? Or Not To Chicken?

Let me lay out a few facts:

1) We have a farm.

2) We have no chickens.

3) I yearn to travel.

That we have no chickens, no coincidence, is between two oppositional truths: having a farm and wanting to travel.

After much soul-searching, I decided, finally, that this is the period of my life when I have a farm.

I have been deluded with the very suburban assumption that I live between city and country, I can have the best of both worlds.  To a limited extent, that is true.  I can drive into Madison and get sushi.

I could spend this chapter of my life contemplating the life I don't have, but then I wouldn't be thoroughly enjoying this life that I wanted and chose to live.  (When I lived in town and had the convenience and freedom of walking to the library and going away on trips, I spent a lot of time longing for country life.  It was a yearning that ultimately could not be ignored.)

Living on a farm, and having brought outdoor animals safely through a long hard winter, it is time to savor the farming life, enjoy the long light days of spring, and stop, once and for all, wishing that anything was different.  Because that is an asinine way to live.

So, chickens. YES, chickens!

We have an empty stall in the barn where we can house the baby chicks in a kiddy pool with a little warming lamp.

We have a ramshackle chicken coop next to the barn, and chickens would motivate us to fix it up nice again.

I have a form to fill out from the farm & feed store.  I did my homework; I want Rhode Island Reds and Browns-- hearty, agreeable chickens that can make it through a Wisconsin winter, and maybe a Polar vortex.

The next question was simple: How many?

If we ended up with one rooster, accidentally--it's almost impossible to determine the sex of a chick--then we would need a dozen hens to fend him off.

Did you know that "sexing a chick" is a fine art (involving something about their anus) that literally requires years of training to learn, and you can make a very handsome living doing it, because so few people on the planet can do it reliably and accurately, and because so few people need more than one rooster?

If we didn't get a rooster, then we could do with five hens.  But there's no way of knowing in advance whether they'll be a rooster in the lot or not, so, perhaps it would be wise to go with a baker's dozen.

Of course, then we'd also be more likely to get more than one rooster, and since each rooster requires a dozen hens to fend him off, we'd have to buy two dozen hens.

It would be best not to have any roosters, but, and this is the big philosophical conundrum about the hard realities of farming which even the most romantically inclined East Coast transplant can't ignore: More than one rooster is out of the question.

The second one has to go.

You know what I'm getting at.  I'm talking about the grim prospect of killing a rooster.

But I've grappled with my share of death and gore on this farm--the unavoidable effluence of glorious summer days, blue skies and glossy horses grazing at pasture.

For every moment of transformative bliss, there is its counterpart.

Living in town shields one from all that.

I remember, when I lived in town, I got a call once from the barn where my horse was stabled.  She had injured her mouth, it needed to be stitched up, and the vet had been called. By the time I arrived on the scene, there wasn't a drop of blood on the premises.  It had all been cleaned up.

Here on the farm, when my horses disagree on some pressing issue, and one of them lurches toward the other to press his point home, and the other recoils and leaps back into his door latch and tears open his shoulder...Well, heck, I was standing right there when it happened.  (It was a windy day, and the wind kinda freaks horses out, as do so many things.)

So, I'm thinking, now, after all of the trauma I've been through with life and death and the in-between, I can handle the mortality of chickens. 

Of course, these won't be meat chickens.  We're not savages.  (Kidding! Totally respect people who kill their own meat.  I just don't want to do it.)

I have  a Margaret Wise Brown view of farming, still.  I'm what Real Midwestern Farm Wives call being stupid.  I get it. No offense taken.

The chicken order form has to be turned in by the end of next week.

So, I was talking to my friend, Krista, who grew up among the Amish, who are seriously bad-ass farmers. (Respect!)

A dog kennel fence works best, she said.

I pictured a six-foot tall chain-link fence enclosing my pastoral chicken run.

And then you have to put netting across the top, she said, because the raccoons climb up the fence. They have hands.

I pictured a raccoon tumbling into and falling spread-eagle onto a trampoline of netting, bouncing there for a while, face down and gazing with frustration at the chickens safe below.  Excellent.

What else?

Chicken poop: It smells worse than anything in the world.

Really?  Not worse than dog shit, surely.



We used to clean the coop out every day with a power washer.

Every day?

But we had like, 29 chickens.

I only want 13 or five, depending.

If you have a rooster, it's going to fertilize the eggs.  A hen will get broody and wander off.  You won't see her for a while, and maybe you think a hawk has got her.  But then, one day, she'll come strutting out into the yard followed by a band of chicks.

How cute!, I thought. And how terribly inconvenient.

We'll collect the eggs, I said.  (For this, I received the Midwestern Farm Wives' glance: Yeah... Good luck with that.)

By the way, I suggest cracking your eggs open into a bowl, rather than into the pan or batter directly.

I knew what she was getting at; I did not require explanation.

Because of the partially formed chicks, she said.

Okay, let's talk about something else.

What are you going to do if you get two roosters?  The Rhode Island Reds aren't bad [as meat].  Would you kill it?

I guess.  Someone else will have to do it.

It's not hard, she said.  You go into the coop just before dawn, about ten minutes before they wake up.  You squash your hand down in the middle of their back; and then, with your other arm...Wait, how did that work?  [She gestured with her arms in the air as if to apply pressure to a roosting foul and with her other arm, made less certain, sweeping gestures. What the heck was she trying to do?]

You don't want the wings flapping in your face.  It's very alarming to hold a rooster with wings flapping in your face.

You can kill it for me, I said.

I could do that.  For a chicken or two.

Geez, I thought.  I've tapped into Krista's deepest agricultural instincts: We were now bartering: One kill for two chickens.

Who's going to kill the other chicken?

Maybe, I won't get chickens.  I said it out loud and I meant it.  But I wasn't sure.  I was giving up a lot: the whole point, really, was to embrace my life on the farm--every part of being on a farm--which meant chickens, obviously.

My friend gave me a lot to think about...a lot of grim reality to mull over.

I suppose I should thank her for rubbing the guild off the lily.

Now, when I picture a blue plastic kiddy pool full of fluffy baby chicks, I have a few competing images I can't get out of my head.

Farming. You have to be okay with predation and killing.

You have to see yourself in the food-chain of events, playing your part, making your plans, trying to thwart nature at every turn--foolishly imagining you can.

The chicken form is due by the end of next week.  I still haven't made up my mind.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Gloriana Redacted

I've been experiencing writer's block--not because I haven't had ideas or motivation, but because I haven't had the nerve to write.

I felt that I'd written everything I had to say; there seemed no point in blathering on and on; I'd just be repeating myself.

But, you know, people repeat themselves, all the time.  Nobody tells a story just once.

I thought that I had lost my witty style, that I couldn't write funny anymore.

And that no one, God knows, should take me seriously.

Then again, humor stems from a kind of congenital absurdity. I couldn't shake it off if I tried.

So, here I am, struggling not to write like Queen Victoria.  I've been reading her biography by A.N. Wilson. I'm saturated in 19th Century British royal syntax.

(I know, right?  What's the diff?)

In the BBC series, "Victoria," the dreamy Tom Hughes put on a little weight (just a scosche) to fill out his role as Prince Albert approaching 40.  Albert's chin, by that time, had melted into a doughy jawline, north of a distinctive paunch.

They might have slightly padded Jenna Coleman's petticoats to play a middle-aged Victoria.  But, it was hardly enough to qualify as a symbolic gesture. The stunning Coleman bears no resemblance to Victoria in her late thirties, whose petticoats had been let out a yard or two.

How will the BBC handle two decades of unremitting anguish and mental contortions: Victoria's grief over the loss of Albert?

Will they ignore it, like they ignored her physical metamorphosis?

Will they swap out Coleman for Judi Dench, have Dench reprise her roles as the adorable-when-in-love Victoria in "Mrs. Brown" and "Victoria and Abdul"?

The story of Victoria's now-famous friendship with Abdul, her servant cum munshi, is entirely missing from A.N. Wilson's hefty biography of her life.  What a disappointment!  What a scorching oversight!

I have seen the movie, of course, "Victoria and Abdul," but I want to read the book about their decade-long relationship to get the full picture.

The wanton, even craven, censorship of Victoria's diaries, letters, and entire chapters of her life--by her daughter, Beatrice, and her son, Bertie, is a shame.

Beatrice carefully excised anything personal in her mother's letters--all vestiges of tenderness and friendship; from her personal correspondence with Albert, to that with her prime ministers, and John Brown...

Bertie, as King Edward, destroyed everything concerning Abdul, an exhaustive effort to erase Abdul from British history--his name absent in every single "complete" biography of his mother's life.

Anything Victoria might have written of a personal nature is lost to us, thanks to Beatrice and Bertie (King Ed).

This is a theme I have already written about in relation to my own grandmothers.

Oh, well!  It bears repeating:

Growing up, when I asked about my grandmothers who had passed away before I was born, I was told that they were both very beautiful and smart.

I did not think they could have been very interesting, based on what I was told.

It was only later, as a grownup, that I learned about my paternal grandmother's awful rheumatoid arthritis at a young age; the piano in the living room, silenced; the stoic set of her jaw in photographs as she moved through her orbit as a leader among women on one committee after another.

Later, came the stories of my maternal grandmother slowly suffocating in the twin shadows of her magnetic but overbearing husband, and her creative mother who tacitly competed with her daughter on every level.

Women are much more interesting than what we are propped up to be.

It doesn't matter much whether we are the Queen of England or the daughter of an art teacher; it happens just the same.

At the end of our lives, and sometimes in the middle, we are cleaned up and propped up and placed on a shelf.  We spend eternity on that shelf, gathering dust meant to clothe us in dignity.

Because I had been struggling with writer's block, or because it has become a popular topic, I have been attuned to various people addressing the question of propriety, censorship, creativity, and self-expression.

Ruth E. Carter (Oscar for best costume design), for example, talked in an interview about being ridiculed in high school for how she dressed ("Who does she think she is?").

A podcast comic spoke about the importance of using material that makes him feel exposed and uncomfortable; the imperative to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, embrace failure.

Amy Schumer posts photos of her naked and pregnant self on Instagram as a challenge to mainstream critics with trollish impulses, noting, in an interview, that the greatest power comes from not caring.

Imagine, if you can, giving yourself the freedom and authority to not care what anyone thinks about the choices you make, the things you do, the way you look, how you live your life; what you say, or think, or post, or write....

I don't suggest that I would, or that anyone should, forswear their privacy.  I don't think that to freedom has to involve turning ourselves inside out, airing out our inner lives on the outside porch like a rug.

No. I think privacy continues to be sacred to every individual, and I'm entitled to mine so long as I'm not attempting to conceal a crime.

Queen Victoria's family were not protecting her privacy by censoring her letters.

If Victoria had wanted her words redacted, she would have had someone do it for her.  But, if it was her choice to write things down, and not her choice to delete them while she was alive, then to censor them after her death was a violation of her privacy and autonomy, in my opinion.

In death, she was like an ordinary woman, cleaned up and propped up on a shelf.  She was, figuratively and literally, embalmed, the blood drained from a life-long habit of writing every breath in her diary.

I glom onto Victoria now as though she were anything solid that floats, and I a shipwrecked sailor.

Her lovable, rough-hewn personality and corpus beckon to me through the centuries.

As I get to know the real, cracked, monstrous, fabulous Victoria, she sometimes whispers in my ear, Just listen to my voice, and read between the lines. 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

And Now for Something Completely Different: An Interview with an Amateur

On NTR's "Beta," our list of guests have achieved extraordinary feats--creating, inventing, or influencing events in ways that have had a huge impact on the world, and on the lives of everyday people.   

Today, I thought we would take the program in a different direction, and interview someone whom we might describe as an amateur, or under-achiever.

Jess Barmack spent three years writing a novel that is not yet fully developed.   And, for the time being, she has set it aside.  

Let's see how she's coping with that gap in her resume.  Does she feel like a failure?  Is she disappointed in herself, or does she simply chalk it up to experience? Is it really better to have tried and failed, than not to have tried at all?  Or, if one has put an endeavor aside indefinitely, can we say that one has yet to achieve even failure?

Gordon: Jess, do you see yourself as an amateur, an underachiever?  

Jess:  Only when compared to professionals and over-achievers.

Gordon: Fair enough. How is your novel coming along?

Jess:  A novel is a published work of fiction longer than 100 pages.  What I have written is a Word document.

Gordon: I see.  Do you always use humor to deflect questions about your writing, aspirations, and unrealized dreams?

Jess:  Um...

Gordon: Would you describe yourself as the classic would-be novelist with an all-but-forgotten manuscript moldering away in a drawer?  Are you the would-be chef who can't boil an egg?  Are you the consumer-artist who buys expensive brushes, and never ventures outside to paint a landscape?  

Jess:  Um...

Gordon:  Because that's what this interview is about.  That's what makes it so special.  

Jess:  Okay...

Gordon:  So, this is refreshing. Would you describe for us a goal that you have currently set for yourself?  

Jess:  Sure. Um, this weekend, I hope to gather up all of my clothes into a big pile on my bed, and see whether any of them spark joy.

Gordon: And, does tidying up your home, being tidy, finding clothes that spark joy, does any of this mitigate how you feel about yourself?  

Jess:  What do you mean?

Gordon:  Does it chip away at your disappointment in yourself for failing to publish or even finish your Word document?  Does tidying up...

Jess:  I understand the question.  The answer is yes, it makes me feel better when I have a tidy house.

Gordon:  Great! Say more about that!

Jess:  It's a clean, well-lighted space. It's a room of my own.  You know.

Gordon:  I do! You're comparing yourself to Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.  And are you also saying that the benefits of having a tidy house go beyond mercurial popular trends? 

Jess:  Yes.  

Gordon: Do you ever conceive of a practical plan for accomplishing long-term goals?

Jess:  Sometimes.

Gordon:  Say more about that!

Jess:  Sometimes, I feel a surge of motivation to get back to the Word document.  

Gordon:  Did you know, very sick people feel a "surge" in the hours right before they die?  

Jess:  "..."

Gordon:  Go on. Say more about that.

Jess:  Sometimes, I'll plan to set aside an hour every day, or maybe every Thursday, to write.  I may go sit at my computer, dig up the Word file, and key in some words.  

Gordon:  Did you know, people used to call that "typing"? 

Jess:  Yes, I did.

Gordon: And then what happens, after the surge?

Jess:  Well, sometimes there's a polar vortex, and I can't walk the dog, and she's still a puppy, so she's really agitated all day, and that makes it impossible to write.  Or, I may have to go outside several times a day to make sure that the horses have enough to eat, so they're not too cold, and I muck out their stalls.

Gordon: You aspire to keep their stalls tidy, too?

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon:  Is it possible that you spend so much time tidying up that you don't have enough time to write?  What would happen if, say, you didn't spend that time tidying, and you spent it instead at your computer, typing?

Jess:  Well, the horses would get a yeast infection in their feet.  And my family would get impetigo.   

Gordon: So, do I have this right? You're not talking about achieving feng shui in your home or barn?

Jess:  No, I'm talking about a base-line of cleanliness that fends off opportunistic diseases, like thrush and impetigo. 

Gordon:  I see.  So, would you say that you have achieved a level of tidiness that prevents your family and horses from contracting disease?  

Jess:  It doesn't guarantee that they will remain healthy. 

Gordon:  Say more about that.

Jess: A couple years ago, a horse died of a rare disease.

Gordon: Oh. And what did you do to cause that?  

Jess:  Nothing--it was idiopathic, like an allergy.  Her body over-reacted to some unknown element.

Gordon:  It was not because her stall was untidy?

Jess:  No. I kept it tidy.

Gordon:  Interesting!  So luck, then, plays a part in achieving your modest goals, would you agree? And keeping your home and barn tidy only gets you so far?

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon:  You have a blog in which you write that being a woman is "impossible."  If being a woman is impossible, at some level, isn't everything impossible, for you, as a woman, and as a writer who is a woman? 

Jess:  Yes, I think there is an element of that. There are so many layers to my life. My priorities are constantly shifting.  When I think about it, keeping one goal in focus all the time is a huge privilege that few women can afford, or allow themselves to impose on everyone else.  

Gordon:  But there are women writers.

Jess: Yes, and I met one of them.  She doesn't have a husband or a kid.  She has one dog that she takes with her to writers' retreats.  

Gordon: You're saying, she isn't responsible for the care of a family, or horses, the way you are. 

Jess:  Right.

Gordon: And you also have paid work, like a job, isn't that right?  

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon: But this woman you speak of, she has committed both her personal and professional life to writing.  For her, it's a calling

Jess:  Right. When I made my big life choices, I never considered the implications for writing. I imagined that writing would curl itself up around whatever shape my life assumed; that it would, somehow, always be there.

Gordon:  Like a loyal dog.  

Jess:  Right.  

Gordon: But, in fact, your choices meant that you would remain an amateur, an artist doodling in the margins of your life.  Or, maybe, you're using this writer acquaintance  as a kind of excuse.  Is that possible?

Jess:  It takes a lot of chutzpah to consciously devote your life to one avocation.  

Gordon:  And, to pour hundreds, if not thousands of hours into a single activity that may or may not yield a profit?  Does that sound about right?

Jess: Yeah. It's like choosing to be a nun, or an astronaut.  Not everybody has that kind of  single-minded focus and determination--or the support they need to do it.

Gordon:  Or the talent.

Jess:  Right.  

Gordon:  Do you think it's innate, that single-minded focus and determination?  Or is it something that could be acquired, maybe, in other phases of a person's life?

Jess:  I like to remember Anna Mary Robertson Moses, "Grandma Moses," who didn't begin to devote her life to painting until she was 78.  

Gordon: Does thinking about Anna Mary Robertson Moses give you hope that in the future your life could have a different focus?

Jess:  Yes. And I think about Cesaria Evora, whose singing I love.  She wasn't discovered until she was in her fifties.

Gordon:  Wow.  And how old are you?

Jess: Fifty-three. 

Gordon: I see.  Would it be fair to say that this period of your life is about the health of your horses, and about your family not getting impetigo?

Jess:  To some extent. I wouldn't say entirely

Gordon: But kids grow up, don't they?  And horses can't live forever, can they?  How long do horses live?  

Jess:  They can live into their 30s, some of them. The little one could live into his forties.

Gordon:  Wow. And how old is he now, the little one?

Jess:  Seven.

Gordon:  So you'll be, what, 93, when he passes, when you can devote yourself to writing full-time?  Or are you planning to have him shot at some point?

Jess:  I hope to give him to my son's cello teacher in ten years or so, or whenever she gets a farm.  Because the little horse and my cello teacher love each other. 

Gordon:  The little horse loves the cello teacher, but not you?

Jess: Right.

Gordon:  So, you look after his feet, while he loves the cello teacher?  

Jess:  Yes.

Gordon: Do you  have any other pets that have don't like you, or prefer the cello teacher?  Is that a silly question? 

Jess:  No, that's not a silly question. Edith, a cat, doesn't like me or the cello teacher.  

Gordon:  Does she hunt mice in the barn?  Is that like, her job? 

Jess:  No, she doesn't really have a job.

Gordon:  I see.  Huh.  

Jess:  Yeah.

Gordon:  So, what were you planning to do you this weekend that would make your life seem more meaningful?

Jess:  I was going to gather up all of my clothes into a big pile on the bed, and, uh, see which ones sparked joy.  

Gordon: And that's the end of our program.  Next week, we interview a twelve-year-old child prodigy whose research in genetics may point to a cure for Alzheimers and Parkinson's  disease.