You Get Odd When You Stay in the House

No wonder we put on weight between now and the first of the year. Remembering winter’s isolation, we start right in planning the parties: we know we’ll need the company.

In summer, company finds us, as we jostle for spots by the pool, or at the beach, or at those free outdoor concerts.

Not now though; now we need interaction – and I feel lucky as far as that goes: In the last 24 hours I’ve had no fewer than four cheerful exchanges with people.

The first came at the supermarket, when I found myself standing before a glistening display of cut-up butternut squash.

“You have to be careful with squash when it’s cut like this,” I said to the woman already studying them. “It tends to get really…”

“SLIMEY!” she shouted. Only she pronounced it “Slim-eh,” and we both laughed at what slow learners we have been, still buying the cut-up stuff instead of just going with the whole shapely vegetable, packaged the way Nature intended.

The second came just three hours later, as I listened to a man telling me that mine was a great little car, really; that I could get another 200,000 miles out of her, easy. The only problem was he said this while dragging my supposedly great little car behind his big tow truck because it had, yet again, died on me.  What a good soul, trying to cheer me up like that!

Then¸ when he dropped me at my service station, I had my third pleasant exchange, which took place when I related to my mechanic what my towing friend had told me.

“He said I could keep her going ‘til the 300,000 mile mark,” I said.

“God, you don’t want to do that!” he shot back – even though “doing that” would surely make him some pretty good money as the car continued its drama-tinged decline.

Finally, carless, I walked to the drugstore, arriving just in time to see a young mother stepping away from the pharmacist’s window, prescription in hand.

With one motion she clapped her phone to her ear and began talking fast.

“Well, we saw the doctor. She says he has pinworm. Pinworm!”

A silence, as she listened.

“I know, right?! AND, she says the rest of us probably have it too!”

I tried not to hear this, a diagnosis with the word ‘worm’ in it, but she was talking in such a plain bold voice.

She looked at me and silently rolled her eyes while shaking her head, in that classic ‘Do you believe this?” way, with a chaser of “What are you gonna do?” thrown in for good measure.

It was just the look you would have if you were faced with pinworm, whose two chief symptoms are (1) mad itching of a particular kind and (2) a marked restlessness as you attempt to escape your own skin.

But what are you gonna do? You can’t escape your skin any more than you can escape winter. All you can do is stay cheerful and stay connected to every fellow sufferer out there. Now when’s that next party again?


Aftermath to a Holiday

I failed to report on my actual Thanksgiving Day. Maybe it’s not too late to do that now.

I’ll confess I didn’t have a thing to do with the meal. Most of the credit for the day goes to my girl Annie, 

She can do anything, it seems.

This is Annie just last week. (Sometime your kids don’t let you take endless pictures. You have to kind of sneak up on ’em.)

Anyway, she left her apartment with the 20-pound bird  in his 20-pound pail of brining fluid and came over here to the house of her aging parents who were just sliding their feet into their slippers.

She cooked for the rest of the morning, gleefully accepted the dishes made by three other great  family members and had us all seated at 2:00 for the feast.  

All I did was make the gravy and get the porch furniture out of the dining room in time. (See here for that story.)  

Old Dave even got in a little yard work in the morning, pruning some branches off of the hawthorn so the coming snow won’t do that for us.

That’s when he noticed the ball stuck high in the branches of the crimson maple which he knew would drive him crazy all winter long.  

But that got solved when the guest who is also a firefighter/medic arrived. He shinnied 60 feet into the air, loosened the ball from the tight grasp of the branches and shinnied down again.

And when a tiny fire occurred in the oven threatening to wreck half a dozen “sides”  he fixed that too, without harming a hair on their heads so to speak. (He’s a firefighter/medic.)

It almost goes without saying that that guest is Annie’s intended who she fell in love with while still in high school.

So here’s one more handful of gratitude tossed up in the air.  Getting older isn’t bad at all if the ones coming up behind you are this kind of competent and helpful.

And know how to smile and have fun too.

Pull Up Your Pants and Answer

You whine about how busy and fine and underappreciated you are. Then you look in the Book of Job where he’s sadly scratching his scabs, everything gone but Missus Job who only drops by to offer some lemony advice, if you can even call “Curse God and Die”  a piece of advice.

Anyway he’s whining  like we all do until THE LORD shows up and puts a few questions to him.

“Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” he begins. Then you picture him thinking “this little pipsqueak?

“Gird up now thy loins like a man,” God says – pull your pants up in other words – “for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me:

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it?  Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened, or who laid the cornerstone thereof when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? (What an image! ah!)

“When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddling band for it, and brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors and said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?

“Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days, and caused the dayspring to know his place that it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it? … Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? Or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?  Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? Or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?  Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? Declare if thou knowest it all.

“Where is the way where light dwelleth? And as for darkness, where is the place thereof, that thou shouldest take it to the bound thereof, and that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?  Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born? Or because the number of thy days is great?

Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Or hast thou seen the treasures of the hail, which I have reserved against the time of trouble, against the day of battle and war?

By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?  Who hath divided a watercourse for the overflowing of waters, or a way for the lightning of thunder to cause it to rain on the earth, where no man is; on the wilderness, wherein there is no man; to satisfy the desolate and waste ground; and to cause the bud of the tender herb to spring forth?

“Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?  The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen…. Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart? Who can number the clouds in wisdom? Or who can stay the bottles of heaven, when the dust groweth into hardness, and the clods cleave fast together?…”

Well, there’s more. We all know there’s more. I just thought it might be nice to quote it maybe because I didn’t get to church yesterday. 🙂

Anyway I love it. 

I also totally identify with what Job says in response, which is “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee, Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”  

Been THERE all right, haven’t  you? I know I have!

Keep it Simple Stupid, it’s the Weekend

Even good old Dear Abby knows what the weekend is for. On Saturday she posted three letters, answering each in her typical blunt way.

The first was from a woman so full of smug advice that Abby just basically let her give the sermon. She did well in school, she said, then got a good job; and when she got laid off from that job she decided to ….go back to school again! Because she loves learning! (Now why can’t other people do this too, the whiners? is what’s she’s all but saying as far as I can tell. )

I think Abby picked this big non-question because she didn’t even have to wake up from her nap to answer it. She just said basically, Good for you dear. And that door over there? Don’t let it hit you on the way out.

The next letter she chose to answer came from a teenager who explained that he was growing out his hair. He said his bangs now come down to his eyes and it looks really cool and all, but his teachers keep commenting on it. What should he do?

Abby’s tart response: Cut it. “Teachers like to see your eyes.”

But really what did the kid expect, asking an adult? Adults all like to see the eyes. It’s because we know, just like the animals know: you have to see the eyes to read intent. If the eyes narrow, start packing your stuff. If the teeth get bared, start running.

The third and final question she shared came from a well-meaning person who, noticing how much her niece seems to like her own pet rabbits, thought Hey what if she gave the kid a nice little bunny of her own? Wouldn’t that be cool? And should she also throw in a cage?

Now on a weekday Abby might have wound up and given a full Power Point presentation on why this was s a bad idea. But because it was Saturday she just bit her tongue and said that no it’s actually never a good idea to give a live animal as a gift. 

I myself would probably add “especially a poop-each-time-it-hops animal who needs hay of all things and has long sharp teeth like the killer rabbit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

But I am not as wise as Abby and do not always remember that weekends are for taking it easy; for saying less rather than more; and for just pressing ‘Play’  and enjoying a little humor:

You Think YOU’RE a Glutton

You think we’re bad: I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s book At Home, a Short History of Private Life about how the upper classes once lived and all I can say is it looks like they were even worse than we Americans are, inhaling whatever high-calorie special KFC is now touting.

When he wrote this book Bryson was living in the old house of an 18th century rural clergyman, and so spent however long it takes Bill to write a book  – what, six weeks? Six days? – going room by room through the place, offering meditations and curious facts about the uses of each room through history.

It’s a big old doorstop of a book; Bryson’s editors never seem to cut his words down and as a result I have learned quite a lot.

One thing I have learned is about the eating habits of another man of the cloth who left a very thorough journal called The Diary of a Country Parson.

Here’s what that guy ate at one meal in 1784:

  • Dover sole and lobster sauce
  • Spring chicken
  • Ox tongue
  • Roast beef
  • Filet of veal with morels and truffles
  • Pigeon pie
  • Sweetbreads
  • Green goose and peas
  • Apricot jam
  • Cheesecakes (plural if you please!)
  • Stewed mushrooms
  • Trifle

Then another day for supper he had

  • A platter of tench
  • A ham
  • Three fowls
  • Two roasted ducks
  • A neck of  pork
  • Plum pudding and plum tart
  • Apple Tart
  • Miscellaneous foods and nuts and as also with the previous meal
  • Wines both red and white, beer, and ciderIf he lived today he’d be a fan of Colonel Sanders for sure. That new menu item the Bacon Bowl? Check out the ad and see if you don’t think it’s right up the old parson’s alley. “Today tastes SO good,” the ad ends. And tomorrow? Well we’ll worry about how to get your 600 pound self off the sofa then.

KFC’s Bacon Bowl

Safe! The Turkey Rounds the Bases!

Remember how in elementary school we made paper buckles for our shoes for Thanksgiving,  and paper Pilgrim hats for our heads?  

One year my 5th grade class made all of Plimoth Plantation on a felt-covered mound in the back of the room: a whole little village of cabins made of small painted milk cartons, with a forest behind, through which the gracious natives would come, bearing corn. (Years later I visited the real Plimoth Plantation and learned that those first settlers pretty much steered clear of fresh water, choosing instead to drink a healthful quart or two of beer a day. Looking at the real slaughtered hog hanging headless and upside-down by a doorway, I could understand how they might have needed it.)

If they drank to get through the big day as well, they sure weren’t the last to do so: My mother and aunt used to tell the story of her dad once coming home a freshly killed turkey given him as payment for his services as a lawyer.

“Here you go, girls!” he said to them, slinging it onto the table and moseying off in search of his slippers.

They took one look at it, with its long feet and enough feathers to stuff a pillow with and headed straight for the Scotch.

Turkey is never all that easy to make; don’t let anyone fool you. If four people in a family are snoozing away Thanksgiving morning and wake at 10:00 to the delicious scent of roasting poultry, it means a fifth person got up at 5:00 and stood alone in the kitchen. bathing an ice-cold carcass before heaving it into the heavy roasting pan.

Things don’t easier once it’s in the oven either. Roast it breast up or breast down, wrap it in cloth or muffle it in paper, every tactic brings its consequence.

One year I set our bird on fire. A few years before that, I basted it in such a way that when I opened the oven after the usual five or six hours, it shot straight across the open door and slid into Home Plate against the table.  And some few years before that, when I took my first look at a dressed bird with its neck and organs packed tidily inside it, I fainted, just as I had done faithfully in church throughout my whole long childhood.

Still, on the great day itself, few of us prove vegetarian. We eat some of that big clumsy bird, then take a walk, or watch the game, then sit down to eat some more.

I recall the moment on one Thanksgiving in my adult years when my mother and aunt arrived, the “here you go girls” of family lore.

I heard their voices before I saw them, the one light and merry, the other deeper and more ironic.

“Here they are!” I remember thinking, and felt once more like a little child of seven.

Their voices are stilled, as this Thanksgiving approaches. The faces change. The years blink by.

I stepped outside early this morning, into a day all still and misty.

As I watched, six leaves seemed to spill down together from the little oak tree across the street. But just I saw them, sadly thinking, “Goodbye then!”  they changed direction, became six live birds, and took to the sky.

It felt like a message to me, and the message brought me comfort. ‘Be content where you are,’ it said. ‘Do not fear where you will one day go.’ A falling or an ascension: it depends upon your angle of vision.

The Day Before the Thanking Day

Yesterday here in the precincts north of Boston we had classic Day Before Thanksgiving weather, with air like apple cider and a sun so strong the shadows lay black on the bright-green grass.

If I were still little, I’d have looked out at that bright green grass and seen pheasants doing their strut-walk in our yard, funny as it seems to say that since we lived in a city.

Lowell was the nation’s first planned city, a factory town filled with mills and rowhouses and churches for every wave of immigration… And yet here we had pheasants out back.

Why? Because the city sits on the confluence of two rivers, muscular and sudsy, and they are the real main characters in Lowell’s story.

Even now, you drive through Lowell and Lawrence and Haverhill and all you have to do is squint your eyes to see the old fields lying just beyond the downtown, just under the suburban-style homes with their driveways and their swing sets.

Our old house in Lowell sits on what had been, since Revolutionary times, an apple orchard. The house to our right was the farmhouse and the one to our left was its barn. We were the dooryard between the two, with this row of little apple trees marching out back, crooked and stooped like the oldest soldiers in the parades of your childhood.

The oldest soldiers at the school assemblies of my youth were from the Great War mostly. I even remember one from the Spanish American War, that fraudulent 1890’s conflict cooked up by a nation bent on empire. When my mom was little they saw veterans from the Civil War at their school assemblies, imagine it! There’s footage on YouTube of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg that would break your heart.  It makes me think of how seldom we ever think on the blood that was shed over time. After Memorial Day, after Veterans Day, who thinks of all that sacrifice, besides the families whose sons and daughters who have most recently shed it?

I feel ashamed for all we take for granted in this country; I mean for the peace, both and political that allows someone like me to dream back and paint pictures of times gone by.

We wake today to rain in New England. Rain with all its own charms. Rain that send us hurrying back indoors, grateful for the hot tea and the dry towel…

I opened my eyes at 6am to the rain. Then I closed them again and saw those pheasants, and our neighbor’s great old dog Tramp coming over to greet us as we jumped in the swirling leaves, the brown oak leaves that are falling this week, the last to go always, like me the most reluctant to acknowledge an end to the gaudy party. 

the next door neighbors’ glider, with the old apple trees that dotted both our yards

Drownin’ Here

I spent two whole days cleaning out the hall closet, and what did it do for me really but make me see how ridiculously thin I was back when that green leather coat was new? (How did we survive the fashions of the 70s with the super-tight waists? How did we breathe even ?

But what I really want to say here is you’re right, you are so right, all you wise souls who posted comments yesterday noting that the less you have, the lighter your burden. Because I also worked all weekend in the dining room which you see as it looked on Friday. Just try having Thanksgiving around six lamps and a world of wicker! The outside of the house is being painted – the screened in porch too – and everything has been in chaos for the last five weeks. If my camera had a wide-angle lens you could also see the box of human bones, a story for another time.

BUT! Less than 12 hours after the painters were done with the screened-in porch I had carried every last lamp, footstool and table back out there.

Single-handedly ’cause Dave was away.

Then I dug out my grandmother’s pale frail china from 1903 and her brittle little goblets. I found the pickle forks and the celery dish, unearthed and re-washed the tablecloth, and the tablecloth that goes over the tablecloth and ironed all 80 yards of both of them.

Now I’m turning to my mom’s wedding silver, which of course has gone goldenrod yellow with the passage of time and needed to be polished the old fashioned way (with the stuff that turns your hands black that means), then thoroughly washed, then dried with a linen towel and polished some more etc etc.

And the whole time all I could think was how appalled a guy like Henry Thoreau would be, who said Simplify! simplify!

How appalled Khalil Gibran would be who said Your house shall be not an anchor but a mast.

This place isn’t even an anchor; it’s the Titanic and maybe it’s going down!

“Jaaaaack! Jaaaack! That’s me as Kate Winslet.

Or maybe we’re that old couple who stayed in their stateroom, hugging in their bed ‘til the last.

Anyway I’m not really complaining; I love the old things, the Limoges given to poor Grandmother Carrie, who died in her 32nd year.

I practically put her soup bowls to my ear and listen to them, just as if they were sea shells.

And you know what? Sometimes, sometimes, I think I actually hear things.


Why We Clean

Now is the time you find all the little hammocks the spiders laid out on your windowsills, when the days were long and the bees danced their tipsy jigs.

But the spiders are gone now.

Roll up their bedding and wish them the best, wherever they might be. Think of Charlotte and her pig-friend Wilbur and send up a prayer of thanks that you too have had such a nice long time in the sun.

Now is the time to pull out those winter clothes, and how many coats or jackets are there that I haven’t worn for a good 15 years? Give them away I tell myself.

In my hall closet I have just found a pair of pink rubber boots with flouncy fake-fur trim and I can tell you it has been many a moon since the people drawn to such footwear lived here. 

I found Old Dave’s high school football jacket too, its white leather sleeves slightly darkened with age and “Dave, Co-Captain” stitched on the front.

I put it in the attic. 

In one corner, I found two family tablecloths wrapped in protective brown paper, rolled on fat cardboard dowels and left to stand in the odd corner of four different houses over a 50-year period. Will anyone ever use them again, artfully patched as they are and speckled with faint brown speckles? And from what old gravy boat, I wonder? From what brimming glass of claret?

I put them back in their corner.

There are consolations in cleaning, letting go of what needs letting go of and holding tight to what we can’t yet part with.

I found old gloves, my favorite kind, in black, my favorite color. Five identical gloves for the right hand and none at all for the left so what to do here? Save them in case their wandering partners ever return, or throw them away? Such quandaries lie at the heart of all cleaning projects.

Finally, way in the back, I found the fur coat our male cat fiercely peed on when he was sick and on his way to the vet. He hissed and arched too, mistaking it for a living foe. I put in a whole new lining but still, I seldom wear the thing. Keep it or pass on?

I fished in its pockets and pulled out a slip from the dry cleaners. I studied the items listed there and hey, hadn’t I just been looking for that mauve-colored gypsy-looking dress just the other day?

I closed the closet door and drove right to the cleaners.

I gave the slip to the man at the counter, who, five minutes later, smilingly brought forth a whole armful of clothes I had put in storage there…in May  of 2007, fully four and a half years ago.

So now I have three good wool skirts, a tweed suit, three wool jackets, the missing gypsy number and four warm sweaters I did not have before. A whole winter wardrobe almost. I just have to throw on the coat and be willing to wear right-handed gloves on my left hand and I will be SET. (And tell you what, those cute pink boots with the fur trim are looking better to me all the time.)

The Teeter-Totter Would Cease to Choose Sides…

I loved those pretend “comments” on God’s handiwork one post back. I liked the pretend guy who pretend wrote that the creeping things that creepeth over the earth were gross. Yup, probably. Now try realizing that there are millions of them swarming all over your body right now, 90% of which didn’t even start out on your body. (See the work of Wash U School of Medicine scientist Jeffrey Gordon who says there are 10 times more microbial cells on and in our bodies than there are human cells (but maybe don’t look into all that on a night when you’re having trouble getting to sleep.) 

I really liked the pretend person who asked “Why are the creatures more or less symmetrical on a vertical axis but completely asymmetrical on a horizontal axis? “

I liked thinking how funny it would be if we were symmetrical on a horizontal axis too yuk yuk. Because just think we’d look with feet coming out of the tops of our bodies!  Or, we might have two heads, one above and one below and no feet. Then how would we get places, hmmmm? Maybe the heads would be fashioned out of bouncy stuff so we could get along by hopping.

Real commenter Frank wrote in my ‘real’ comments section to say he got thinking about our being vertically symmetrical and went to the mirror to part his hair down the middle and nearly scared himself to death he looked so much like Charlie Sheen.

He’s right: Being left to right symmetrical isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and most of us aren’t even close anyway with one hand being larger than the other, one eye squintier etc.  I know one of my eyes looks like it belongs to one of the younger Mouseketeer – Karen or Cubby – remember them anyone out there in TV land?

while the other eye looks like all three Kennedy brothers circa 1960.

So God wasn’t going for symmetry at all, it seems.

But the idea of balance has me remembering a poem I have always loved. It’s about a teeter-totter and I offer it here. Call it the sermon for this November Sunday and while you’re feeling grateful for Paul Simms’s wit with the Creation blog  comments, send up a nice word of praise for  April Bernard who wrote this poem called   “ What Would Happen Then” :                       

A bird, bright and quick,

blue with livid streaks,

would arrive on the windowsill

as official harbinger

and then….

The low would be raised up

the sneers crushed under their own bricks,

the teeter-totter would cease to choose sides

and sit in peaceful sway on its fulcrum.

The kiss that had been held back

all those years at last would release

into the mouth in flood,

And ‘why not?’ would replace all other dicta,

but gently, as a sunlit nudge.