girls

custer versus napoleon

A look at my posts over the years indicates I’m more than a little bird obsessed. Birds creep into my fiction and essays, into the décor of our home.

Since February, I’ve been back at the chicken mama thing. I’m (mostly) thrilled to have babies again, and their presence in our lives has been a lovely diversion during a pretty strange year.

Plus, we have this tiny farm now, and farmers keep chickens.

Riley and I went to the hatchery and chose six pullets – two Wyandottes, two Auracanas, and two Bantam Golden Sebrights.

The girls have been inside our garage cozying up to each other in their heat-lit habitat. There’s nothing so thrilling as a bunch of animals living in the garage, stinking up the place, squalling as they figure out who’s in charge, and making a general ruckus that results in the shavings from their cage becoming airborne in the way of fine dust sprinkled over every single thing. The veiling silt is a pall fine as drywall dust.

It’s time for the birds to go outside to the coop we’ve assembled. Over the past few weeks, Owen – desperate for money to feed the prom monster – has led the charge on building. Our creation is more like a chicken condo, really, and built from a structure we carried from our previous urban chicken days and another we rehabbed from the new place. We focused on using what we could reclaim this time, and the result is funky and…artistic…the enclosed run will happen in Phase 2, due to begin soon.

It’ll do the job just fine.

As John says, “They’re just chickens. No need for the Taj Mahal.”

Which is true, although it’s pretty easy to get carried away.

We talked about our bird love so much, we convinced two other families to get flocks for the first time. “It’s easy,” we promised. “Think of all those eggs,” we said. “There’s hardly any chance of getting a man,” we said, our fingers crossed behind our backs.

 

The last time we had birds – Mrs. Howell, Ginger, and Marianne – we discovered that the 99% certainty in predicting the sex of chicks means the Gibsons will access the 1%. Mrs. Howell was anything but ladylike in the end. Crowing all night, telling the whole neighborhood what a stud he was. With some friends who own a farm, we traded the rooster formerly known as Mrs. Howell for a hen who was sweet, a steady productive layer, and much nicer than Mrs. Howell.

This time, I joked early and often that another rooster was in the cards for us, though every time I said it, I secretly hoped this wasn’t the case. We’re allowed to keep a rooster on our land, at least, but still. The threat of another dandy has made us reluctant to finalize names for this flock. I’m inclined to go with female characters from Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, which has been met with some complaints in the group, but since I’m the one scooping the poop, feeding the birds’ relentless hunger and cleaning the garage, it seems reasonable I get to call them whatever I want.

So, Mrs. Hughes, Cora, Daisy, and Mrs. Patmore it is then. For the birds I know are hens, anyway.

By late March, one of the Wyandottes was clearly developing the most gorgeous florid comb and wattles. Bigger than the other, more aggressive. Most sources say bossiness doesn’t a cockerel make, but I’ve had my eye on him, worried. Last week, his voice-cracking teenager crow was unmistakable. John named him Custer, a name we giggle about every time we say it. We’ve decided we can handle one rooster. It’ll be good to have a bodyguard for the girls.

My other worried eye has been on one of the Bantam Sebrights, who is beginning to look very much like this fella:

www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

http://www.cacklehatchery.com
Bantam Golden Sebright Rooster

The other one looks very much like this hen:

http://www.cacklehatchery.com/

http://www.cacklehatchery.com Bantam Golden Sebright Hen

Over the weeks, the be-combed Sebright has become a tiny, angry specimen of a bird who struts around his habitat starting fights, flicking his tail feathers. We named him Napoleon (he does look very French), hoping we’d be wrong.

Yesterday, Napoleon, a week younger than Custer, announced HIS presence in the world. The two generals, of course, cannot stand each other and are separated, so now I have TWO filthy garage habitats to keep clean, and twice the dust.

Today they really must go outside, where there is only one living arrangement. It’s going to be ugly with too many suitors in the manor. I’ve asked around, and no one, of course, wants a rooster, even a really beautiful one. And, of course, none of the friends we convinced to get chickens got a rooster, and so they are reveling in the good fortune of their 99%-ness.

At our house, one of these boys is going to be voted off the island. There’s much heated debate about which one. And also, quite a bit of discussion about the virtues of a hearty late-spring soup, versus a chance encounter with a hawk, versus a sudden interested benefactor willing to adopt a general still in his awkward teen phase.

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Categories: chickens, family, girls, outdoors, writing | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

cyclopean eye

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For the better part of a year, I’ve been agitated about selfies, trying to articulate what feels so Orwellian about pictures replacing words.  I know too many adults who have given themselves over to the selfie revolution.  A growing, navel-gazing army of teens is at the front lines of this surge.  You know the posture – one arm outstretched so the self-directed cyclopean eye of a cell phone tastes an experience in order to broadcast it.

It’s hard to be in the world these days without witnessing a selfie in the making.

At our house most technology is considered poor company for sitting down to eat, engaging in conversations, reading, doing homework.  Cell phones, computers and tablets are not invited to join us at these times, and this rule is largely true when the kids have friends over.  We’re mean parents and expect our kids and their friends to actually hang out together, use real words from their mouths, and also maybe some eye contact. Our kids are pretty accomplished at live conversation.

Still, I know when they leave the house the story is different.  Owen’s received a few alarming selfies of girls scantily clad.  One poor girl repeatedly photographed and texted “I Love You” spelled out with a variety of objects — chocolates, candy canes, Goldfish crackers.  I know about these photos because I check.  A lot of parents don’t.  I’m heartsick that for these girls, no one seems to be discussing self-respect and appropriate use of technology, and probably all sorts of other things too.

More to the point, though,  too many teens are free to use their devices without boundaries or guidance.  The result, it seems to me, is the crafting of a whole culture of self-consumed, image-obsessed, instant-gratification-seeking citizens.  Immediacy of everything is king.  Waiting of any kind is bad.  I worry about the fate of the good, hard work of face-to-face social interaction and conversation.  What about companionable silence?  What about the art of doing one thing at one time? What will happen to these important skills?

It’s hard to say.

Now is the time of year for retrospection.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, the word selfie has been so important to us culturally it’s 2013’s word of the year.  This sort of thing makes me feel I was born in the wrong time, and also feeds my sometimes unease that perhaps I’m just not seeing the world clearly.  I mean, if everybody’s doing it, maybe it has some merit. Maybe if I did IT, I would like IT.  Growth and change mean moving out of one’s comfort zone, after all.

Back in October, I decided I’d do a whole day of selfies, dawn-to-dusk.  First, I had to figure out my platform.  I wasn’t willing to have an Instagram or Snapchat account just for the sake of research, which probably means this wasn’t a valid experiment from the start.  But I was willing to text, so I enlisted my friend Heather.  We agreed to text each other all day to see if we could crack the code of what made selfing so attractive.

The next morning, my alarm rang at o’dark-thirty.  I used my phone alarm, so I could take a picture of myself still in bed, in the dark.  I picked it up and realized two things:  I had no idea how to use the camera directed the wrong way –where was that button anyway?– and also that I’d never taken a picture of myself.  Ever.  I HATE having my picture taken, which is plainly obvious in any picture with me in it.

John rolled over and pushed me to get out of his sleeping space.  “I know what you’re doing,” he said.  “It’s stupid.  Just don’t involve me.”

“But don’t you think it’ll be an interesting sociological experiment?  It might help us understand Owen better.”

“Get out of bed now, please.”

In the pre-dawn light, it occurred to me John was right.   What I’d signed us up to do was, frankly, kind of lame.  While I fumbled with the phone, thinking about calling it off, Heather texted a picture of herself waking up, so I went to the bathroom and took a bunch of pictures of brushing teeth.

Brushing Teeth

Because we couldn’t help ourselves, we also used lots of words, mostly about how foolish it felt to snap pictures of things like our ablutions.  Well, not all of them, just the ones involving teeth.

So the day began.

Heather’s two hours ahead of me.  One photo of brushing teeth is plenty.  Here’s one of her feeding the birds.  Look how excited she was to be involved in this research.  We were crushing it.

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There was get-the-paper selfie.  Drink-some-coffee selfie.  Start-some-laundry selfie.  Take-the-kids-to-school selfie.

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Another trawl through the interwebs informed the heap of options I’d already decided against taking pictures of:  my hair (a helfie), my backside (a belfie), my workout (a welfie, also called a gym selfie), my drunken stupor (a drelfie), and a funeral (a felfie?).

I opted for a kiss-a-beer selfie (my carrot later in the evening for doing this stupid experiment).

Running-with-the-dog selfie.  Maybe this qualifies as a welfie, except with no abs or mirrors –the rules about this one seem shifty.

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The dog-swimming-with-my-face-in-one-corner selfie.

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Each time I snapped a photo, I texted it right away.  Waiting for any kind of reply was excruciating.  Sometimes Heather took a whole twenty minutes to respond.  What the hell was she doing anyway, that she couldn’t make a quicker response?  Our experiment was serious business, social science.  Part of the deal was immediacy, because waiting is stupid.  I worried whether she’d aborted the mission, whether her heart was in it, whether she was offended by my zeal or thought my pictures were stupid. Later, in our debrief of the experiment, we discovered we’d been doing the same thing — snapping many pictures but not sending them all, worried that the barrage of photos would be annoying, anxious that we were overdoing it, ill at ease with completely embracing the selfie way of shouting PLEASE RESPOND TO ME.  I guess we’re not very good scientists.

By eleven that morning, I was running out of ideas.  I tried a duckface-gangster selfie, except mostly I looked deranged.  I mean, what grown woman pretends to be a gangster?

I sat down to get some work done and took some pictures of that.  (Don’t zoom in and read the words; I had to murder those darlings.)

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Then I tried to concentrate, but it was hard work because right next to me, the phone was silent.  What was she doing anyway? An hour later I took another picture of myself working, texted it again, and tried to concentrate some more.

Heather sent a picture of herself doing the same thing, and also, because she was running out of ideas, some words about why teenagers do stupid things in photos.  It seemed clear that when you’ve got your finger on the trigger all the time, OF COURSE you run out of material.

On a break from work, I googled selfie again and found an article by Alexandra Siferlin in TIME, “Why Selfies Matter.”  Siferlin suggests parents who are gripped about selfies need to unhinge themselves.  (Oh dear).  Selfies are just part of growing up in the digital age (shit).  What counts is to teach kids what KINDS of selfies are acceptable.  And then the article tacks south and basically says that selfies can be dangerous because:

A:  Kids don’t understand what’s an acceptable thing to take pictures of, even when you tell them (but hello, neither do plenty of adults.  I’m talking about you, Anthony Weiner).

B:  Selfies often make kids feel jealous and lonely when they see their friends doing what LOOKS like fun, and they are not.  This leads to risk-taking, potentially of the naughty kind.

And so, the jury’s out, maybe, still, on how all this digital stuff is shaping the next generations.

Back to the experiment, more hours passed.  All my pictures of working looked the same, so I stopped taking them until I left the house and had an experience worth documenting.

Later that day there were more driving-in-the-car selfies while I picked kids up from school.  A man in the car next to us at the stoplight caught us being idiots.  He shook his head and scowled.  When the light turned green, he sped up and cut me off.

Heather sent a driving-in-the-car selfie also.

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Back at home, Riley and I perfected the blowfish selfie.

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Then we did some yoga and took pictures of ourselves doing downward dog.  I can’t show those photos here because, in addition to our faces, the photo captures everything down the front of my gaping shirt.  Sharing them would violate our household acceptable use policy about privacy.  Our drumbeat of advice for the kids goes something like this:  Remember that there’s no privacy anymore.  Your technological presence is a PERMANENT DIGITAL RECORD. Let us be the voices in your head when you’re out in the world.  Also, while we’re on the subject of out in the world, remember that GENITAL HERPES can ruin your lives.  Please keep your pants on.

But.  I digress.

Like so many I see around me, I went through my whole day without letting the phone out of my sight.  Just in case there was a message responding to my message.  By dinnertime, I was weary of the mission, sick of myself and horrified by how much getting an instant response from one person had come to mean over the course of twelve hours.  What would happen if I expanded my recipient list?  Would I begin to move through my days, starting every sentence with I and forgetting to ask people questions about themselves? If I practiced this kind of relentless self-focus, would my frontal lobe leave my body, pinging around like a pleasure-seeking UFO that couldn’t find the mothership?

While dinner cooked, I flipped through a smutty magazine and enjoyed that carrot beer.  John came home and caught me snapping pictures of myself engaged in these two activities.

“Jesus.  You’re not really doing that are you?”

“What?  It’s research.  Come over by the fire and we’ll selfie together.  Although maybe if we’re both in it, we would dualie…”

“Oh great.  Now it’s a verb.”

Once John was home, I couldn’t experiment with the same verve.  It felt dirty somehow.  We ate dinner, and I left the phone in the other room, though I confess I did flirt with hiding it under the table in my lap.  Afterward, when I checked my texts, Heather had sent along a half-asleep-on-the-couch-and-goodnight selfie.

I took a last picture and sent it, quickly, while John announced from the kitchen that he was turning his phone OFF for the night and suggested I do the same.

Honestly, I needed someone to be the heavy and make some rules.  I was exhausted.

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the shoulds

2012 India Trip #3 025

My feet and hands, a little rough and scarred with the miles, are evidence of my wonky pursuits.

Being pampered doesn’t often rank as a way to spend time, but last summer I tagged along with a friend to a salon so we could soak our feet, have the skin on our heels scrubbed with a cheese grater, get our nails painted.  Above the sound of the motorized massage chair and the bubbles in the foot bath, we chatted, catching up while flipping through smutty magazines.  On a stool below me, a very small woman set to work on my feet, clucking about the dead toenails and calluses (thank you, running).  Ill at ease with the perch on my vibrating throne, I tried to engage her in conversation, made difficult by my general discomfort in salons, and also by the language barrier.

When I asked her about her day, she smiled and shook her head and pointed to the bottle of polish I’d picked.  “Empty,” she said, and then went to find another.

After that, I gave myself over to the experience of having my lower legs rubbed with exfoliating scrub and the pedicurist’s deft hands loosening up a tight calf muscle.

Next to us in the bank of chairs sat another woman, older by twenty years or so, who greeted us when we arrived and then sat reading a magazine while her feet were worked over.  Her long, white hair was tied back in a loose ponytail.

A half hour later, we all sat around the drying table together, cotton wedged between our toes, our flip flops on.  It was June.  The kids were about to be out of school, a busy time for families.  My friend and I were lamenting our long list of things to accomplish before summer officially began.

At a lull in our conversation, the white-haired woman leaned toward us and said, “I used to talk the same way.”

We assumed she was referring to our kavetching about kids, summer, or the eighty-seven end-of-year projects and parties.

“But one day,” she went on, “this wonderful friend of mine said to me, ‘Why do you do that?’”

In the pause that followed, I filled in the blanks for what she meant by that. Why did we make ourselves so busy?  Why did we bitch about our kids in public?  Why were we talking about Hollywood stars as if we knew them?

She leaned down and disentangled the cotton from her purple toes, then sat back up.  “Think about it this way,” she said, “there is what you need to do, and there is what you want to do.  But should?  This is a word you can take out of your vocabulary.”

“It sounds good,” my friend said, “but I have a big-ass list of things I should do today.  I definitely don’t want to do them.”

“Yeah,” I chimed in.  “I don’t know if I could break up with should.  I mean, what would I complain about?”

I considered her perspective, doubting its merit.  My life was full of what I should be doing instead of getting a pedicure.  Like playing hooky, escaping from the shoulds was part of the thrill.  In truth, the weight of my obligations felt heavy.  I’d been thinking for months about how to disconnect gracefully from several commitments, which involved going head to head with my guilt-lined Lutheran upbringing.  It’s an ugly, ongoing skirmish.  Also, I was kind of pissed.  I mean, I went to the shop with my friend to relax and not feel shitty, and here was this woman life-coaching me.  Who did she think she was anyway?

The white-haired woman nodded.  She reached into her purse and took out her wallet.  “Those are probably things you need to do. Go to work, clean the house, pick up your kids, make dinner.  Right?”

“But I should do them,” my friend said.

Gathering her things together, the woman shook her head.   “Try it, girls.  It’s very freeing.  Now I think of the world in a totally different way.  Before, I spent a lot of my time fulfilling the obligation of should.  It takes practice not to, because we’ve all been at this kind of thinking for, well, our whole lives.”  She paid the gal who’d worked up her feet, waved a goodbye to us, and left the shop.

My friend and I sat looking at each other for a moment.  “I bet she cruises the nail shop circuit,” she said. “She’s like a salon prophet or something.”

“Or full of shit,” I said.  “And also clearly has no relentlessly hungry kids to feed.  Probably gets her toilets cleaned by someone else.”

After we left the shop, I filed this encounter away, chocking the white-haired woman’s advice up to a world view of someone who didn’t pressure herself too much.  The bored rich.  A woman who read a lot of self-help stuff and hired out for every last thing.

Except I didn’t really believe that.  I kind of liked her calm, self-assured way of being, and also that she hadn’t dyed her hair or cut it super short to tame the wire out of it.  She seemed like someone I might be friends with.  We’d only had a few minutes’ exchange with her, but her words worm-holed within me all summer and into fall.  I couldn’t say should without thinking of her, without pausing to reframe my sentiment and edit out the shoulds.

Lately, John and I have been talking with Owen about choosing a college, about what he’d like to do in the world.  Our advice to him has always been to seek a path of joy and fulfillment, as well as one that will make him a living.  Every time we have this conversation with Owen, though, I can’t help but think to myself about the similar, parallel path of partnering need and want.

At the risk of seeming like a white-haired lady groupie, it occurs to me that fulfillment comes when want and need intersect in a singular pursuit or practice, and that this is a rare, precious thing.

Of course, it’s hard to hit the right groove all the time.  The dailyness of life isn’t all rainbow brilliant, shot full of light and unicorns and feel-goodery and self-worth.  My kids make me crazy. The state of the world is scary.  Fully in touch with my inner bitch, I’m not nearly as patient, loving or kind as I aim to be.

But living with purpose serves me well most of the time.  I need and want to raise thinking, compassionate kids in the world.  I need and want to write.  I need and want to garden, to know how to do things for myself, to be a good friend, to travel and know the world, to go outside and teach kids how to do the same.  There’s little room for should in any of these passions.

I haven’t quite been able to get to the same level of bliss about cleaning, driving or laundry, but it could come for me someday.

Meanwhile, in this season of thanks, I’ll sit down to the table with my family, enjoy a meal we’ve all pitched in to prepare, and know as certainly as I know anything that I both need and want to be spending my time this way.

2013 November 067

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feeling young at heart has gotten me this far

For several years my running pals tried to woo me into running a marathon with them.  I was diplomatic in my rejections – that kind of training would ruin my already fractured writing life; I was worried it would turn running into a job; I really liked the half marathon distance.  Also, I’d been at the finish line of other marathons cheering friends on, and what I’d witnessed there was a lot of crying.  More than a few runners would cross the finish line, get their foil blanket thingy, and then break down, some of them falling down, sobbing.  It didn’t seem like the kind of activity for me.

At some point last year around my birthday, when I was feeling fragile and mid-life-crisis-y, I realized I COULD run a marathon if I wanted to, and that I probably SHOULD do it soon since I wasn’t getting any younger.  Just once.  The sisterhood could drag me across the finish line if it came to that.  I signed up and paid the eye-watering registration fee for the pleasure of torturing myself.  And also for some pretty good bling at the finish line, according to my friends.

So began the training.  It was thrilling to declare and strive for such an ambitious goal.  I spent a lot of time in the woods, running on back roads and trails, and the marathon was a good excuse to stay in the forest longer.

Then the long Sunday runs began.  15 miles.  17 miles.  18 miles.  20 miles.  Allotting that much time of course was an issue, though we made a point to begin early in the morning and be finished before lunch.  We staged water and fuel stops.  Even when someone wasn’t feeling great, someone else was, and that person would chat the rest of us along until we were finished.  Almost worse than the runs themselves was the week of dread leading up to them.  There was no sleeping in the day of a long run.  We had to beat the heat.  So each week I stared down three or four or more hours of running that began before dawn.

I tried to keep the whining to a minimum, because, really, you sound like kind of an asshole when you complain about something you’ve chosen to do on purpose.  It occurred to me not too far into the journey that most people would be hard-pressed to devote enough hours for such a feat, and that I was lucky to be able to make the time.

We trained through the spring and summer together, while I battled the dreaded Piriformis Syndrome.  There’s a smart medical definition, but the short version is this:  there’s a muscle in your ass that can wreak havoc up into your back, down into your hamstrings and calves, and through your groin and inner thighs if you are fond of   long-distance running or prolonged sitting, both of which I was enjoying in copious amounts between running and writing.  Some days my legs felt so tight it was like wearing a really tight climbing harness while running.  The Piriformis announces itself for many runners, especially if they are not good at stretching.  Which I am not.  Because I used to be able to do athletic events off the couch, and really, feeling young at heart has gotten me this far.

I forced myself to be better at stretching, and it worked.  For a while.

After I moved and was without my posse, I wasn’t nearly so diligent at either stretching or running.  I’d get up late and have to run in the blistering heat, then get bored almost at my goal of 20 miles and stop at 17.  Or 14.  I’d go for a swim in the river instead.  I drank more beer than I should have – not during running (Well.  There was that one time…), but after.  To rehydrate.  I’d lie down to stretch when I got home and then get distracted by something shiny – People Magazine or gardening or the dog biting at my head.  Meanwhile, the big day loomed.

The day of event bands along the route and the big-hearted crowd with their snacks and cheers and good will felt more like Carnival than an athletic event.  There were aid stations every two miles with electrolytes, gummy bears, pretzels.  I had my running pals, some friends who jumped in to run along the way, my cousin, and others who had Cheezits just when I needed them.

Running Gang Before the Event.

Running Gang Before the Event

My old nemesis Piriformis announced herself at the beginning of the race, but not so badly I couldn’t ignore her.  Besides, it was entirely my fault she was still with me.  Until about mile 19, life was good.  7 miles to go and the harness was cinching and there was another hour of running and I couldn’t remember why I thought running a marathon was a good idea or even fun.  Crying, quitting, hitchhiking with that nice motorcycle guy who weaves in and out of the race, or joining one of the front yard red solo cup beer parties all seemed like reasonable choices.

But there I was, doing my just once marathon, my one and done, and I’d be damned if I was going to quit.  I wasn’t the only one feeling the burn.  Around mile 21 people around me began to walk, limp, stretch, lie down, you name it, it was happening.  One guy was throwing up gummy bears into the bushes.  Another took off his shoes, threw them on the sidewalk, and kept running in nothing but socks.

My cousin stuck with me, and I did more listening than talking; I don’t remember much about the last five miles, and then we were across the finish line, and someone was draping the foil blanket around my shoulders, and someone else gave me a medal, and I followed the line of finishers to the food station.  My friends and I wandered like zombies, dried sweat crystals on our faces and our lips pale.

I remembered about the crying from other events and understood, finally, that the tears are born out of relief and gratitude and exhaustion and exertion.  I didn’t cry but I did sit down and watch other runners making their way through the feed zone.  Only a few were crying.  Wrapped in their blankets, dazed, most of them looked as if they’d sustained some kind of trauma.

Friends have told me that after their first few marathons, they were so burned out they couldn’t bring themselves to run again for several months.  This urge hasn’t come for me.  What’s followed the event is pride in finishing, even though it took longer than I’d hoped, and a deep gratitude for running pals — I’d probably have abandoned the mission without them.  After a few days I hit the trail and shook out my legs.  They felt surprisingly good.

Still, I think I’m going to hang up my marathon shoes, stretch more and dump that bitch Piriformis, get back to the kind of running I love best – on the trails, with the dog, without a watch.  It’s a good pace for living.

Categories: girls, running, writing | Tags: , | 4 Comments

Just the Haircut Stuff

Riley and I are home alone on a warm Friday afternoon.  We’re not very frisky at the end of the week, both of us happy to curl up with a book or a movie.  But the weather is so lovely, and the espaliered fruit trees I’ve let grow wild are in need of pruning.  We go outside before the day fades and gather our tools.

Clippers in hand, Riley cuts back the dead hydrangea blooms that wintered on the bush.  Up on a ladder, I prune the cherries and then the apple trees, throwing the boughs into a pile in the yard.  Not too far into our work, as the air cools, we decide what we really need is a fire.  Our yard is too small for a proper burn barrel, but we’ve got a portable fire pit, so we haul that out, as well as the pieces of the Christmas tree Owen cut and stacked a few months ago.  Riley goes inside to get the matches, and I realize I’m excited it’s just the two of us, about to share an important rite of passage – a girl learning to build a fire.  We love our boys, but their presence changes the time.

I’ve just finished reading a book with a daunting title by Dr. Leonard Sax:  Girls on the Edge:  The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls–Sexual Identity, the Cyberbubble, Obsessions, Environmental Toxins.  I don’t feast on a regular diet of self-helpish books, but this one was recommended by a friend, and it was worth the read.  Sax’s perspective has made me think even more concertedly about what and how we teach girls on purpose and through example.  A girl emerging from girlhood with a sense of who she is and a confidence in that identity makes a perilous journey, and not enough of us are paying attention in the right ways, Sax suggests, especially in a culture that pushes girls to be objectified, consumed, subservient.

How well John and I buffer Riley from being awash in pursuits of pop culture and also guide her toward survival and resistance keeps me up some nights.  Most days I think we’re doing okay, even if she does know every stinking lyric to Taylor Swift’s songs.  I have to admit, they’re catchy, but they reek of teen angst; it’s disconcerting to catch my daughter, gripping her hairbrush like a microphone, sing-shouting “We are never ever ever getting back together” to herself in the bathroom mirror with just the right amount of venom.

While she’s inside the house, it occurs to me Riley’s nine already.  Much older than I was when I learned to make a fire.  What am I so busy doing we can’t make time for this?  And if I’ve shanked teaching her this elemental skill, what else am I shanking?

But she knows a lot, I discover.  She’s been reading The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, and also paying attention.  Close attention.

“I’m a good watcher,” she says.  She builds a teepee of dried leaves and kindling she’s culled from the wood pile.  She chooses a good fire-poking stick from the cherry boughs I’ve hacked.  We talk about safety and how to feed a fire.  She nods and tells me she’s got it; she knows what to do.  I show her how to strike a match, and then hand her the matches and let her begin, enjoying her delight at this responsibility.  She’s brought her clippers and found a small saw, and she uses both to manage the size of her fuel.  Pulling a chair close to the heat, she’s a serious fire tender, watching the flames with intent.  She feeds the fire while I finish pruning, our conversation across the yard meandering and associative.  We walk about the stars and planets, what animals we’ll have on our imaginary ranch, how she reached her record of 213 jumps in a row on a pogo stick.

cherry blossoms

cherry blossoms

Dark falls around us, but we don’t go inside.  She wants to know if the green limbs of the cherries and apples will burn, so she conducts an experiment and learns wet boughs kill the fire and the tinder-dry Christmas tree creates a fire so high it makes its own wind.  She wonders whether the cuttings will grow if we stick them directly into dirt, so we choose a few to experiment with in that way, and a few others to bring inside and force bloom.  “What does that mean?” she asks me.

“It’s a trick,” I say.  “The plant is fooled that it’s spring, so it lets the blossoms come out of the buds early.”  As I form my answer, it occurs to me we could just as easily be talking about the journey of girls today, and the way culture sexualizes them, tricking them into acting like adults before they know what that means emotionally.  The loud metaphor makes me stop for a minute and follow the breadcrumbs.  I watch Riley choose stems and put them into an old metal pitcher we use as a vase.

I’m sick at heart at the thought of her forced to bloom out of her magical world by pressure to become a woman too early.  Growing up will come for her eventually, and she’ll lose interest in climbing trees and playing her imaginary dragon games, in challenging herself for the next pogo stick record and building seven room forts out of blankets and pillows in the family room.  Innocence won’t last, is already leaving, I know, but I send up a please to the trees that Riley’s safe passage into her pre-teens also means she holds onto the person she’s becoming, and not a version of the girl she thinks she ought to be.

We cut red currant and Daphne boughs to bring inside as well, because if a few stems are good, more are better, and we’re talking about how the whole house will be full of spring. Maybe it’s the jasmine-lemon scent of the Daphne that has bloomed already, on its own time, or my penchant for drama fueled by remembering a few of Sax’s less savory anecdotes about girls gone wild, meant to be cautionary tales.  Down the Rabbit Hole I go, imagining a version of Riley that trawls the mall and has Bieber Fever, hinges her fashion choices around her five pairs of Ugs and gives up sports for cheerleading.  Then there’s a boyfriend who’s too old for her with some gold chains and a red Mustang, and she fails out of school and is having sex in the back of a car, and she has a couple of piercings and maybe there’s some pole dancing, and I’m working myself into a vicious panic and feeling like I need a beer or maybe six, and I know my visions suffer under the pathetic weight of being cliché and cast in a low-budget-made-for-television-glow, and I’m supposed to be good at narrative but I can’t even make a scary-daughter-dystopia that’s interesting.

And how did I get here from being excited about teaching her to build a fire? Which I didn’t do anyway because she already knows how.

Riley finishes her arrangements of cherry boughs in the vase and turns to me.  “So.  It’s kind of like cheating and being the boss of nature,” she says.  “You wouldn’t want to cut too much, though.  Just the haircut stuff.”

Clever girl.  I’m swimming back to the surface, where I send my B-Rate-Riley production packing and I nod, thinking about a week from now, when all the stems we bring inside will be in full bloom, a reminder of building a fire, and the way my girl knows herself so well already.  “Yes,” I say.  “Just the haircut stuff is perfect.”

red currant

red currant

Categories: books, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

how to grow a vigilante garden

The view of my neighbor’s house from my front windows has pissed me off for years.  It’s a 1950s ranch, which is not its real problem.  I’ve lived in a few ranchers over the years and been happy – you can make them cute.  But the offender on my current street is an unloved thing.  Amidst a street of Craftsmen and storybook homes built in the 1920s, it looks a little like it’s crashing a Kentucky Derby party in a tight polyester pants suit.  Beige asbestos siding, peeled country-blue shutter paint, cracked front steps and a tragic aluminum screened door that claps in the breeze.  It’s not good.

I don’t know the owner, but I do know the house is a rental that can’t seem to keep occupants for more than a few months.  Two haphazard front garden beds of invasive plants have died, one by one, over the years.  When someone comes to “care” for the yard, this means the high grass is mowed quickly and left to rot in clumps.  The latest dead plant is tossed into the back of the rusty truck on top of grass clippings.

Finally, about six months ago, there was nothing left in one bed but weeds and dirt.  My next door neighbor (I’ll call her Sally) went over to weed it.  The other bed, just beneath the living room window, was home to some jaundiced boxwoods. There wasn’t much she could do with those.

The whole of this house, from its single-paned windows to its listing chimney and waist-high backyard grass, was asking for help.

The place has been empty this time for months, a For Rent sign advertising its awesomeness – Great Neighborhood!—at the edge of the yard.  My neighbors and I hold our breath, hoping someone will move in soon.

Two weeks ago the sky opened and delivered the gift of spectacular weather.  A real, live bender.  Since then, our street has been stoned out on Vitamin D and things in bloom.

A week into our sun blitz, I’d dug up several hostas and helliobores, intending to pot them up and donate them for our school plant sale.  I pulled out the nandina (The owner before me had a real thing for plants from Asia).  I set them out on the grass.

My plan was spontaneous.  Mostly.

It was broad daylight.  People were out mowing, raking, walking.  I grabbed a shovel and a wheelbarrow and trundled my plants across the street.  I set them out in a pattern I thought would work and planted them.  I filled a watering can, added some fish emulsion, and soaked them.  After that, I sat on my front steps and had a beer, watching over my guerilla garden.

The next day one of my neighbors (I’ll call her Dolores) said to me, “I saw you.”  Dolores wagged her eyebrows.

“Oh really?  When?” (Uh oh. Trespassing is bad.  I knew I should’ve done it at night.)

“I’m so glad you did that, because I was just about to do the same thing!”

Dolores brought over a holly bush from her yard. Another neighbor (I’ll call her Martha) donated a Japanese maple.  I mowed the grass twice when it got too high, and then decided to pay my son to do it.  More plants showed up mysteriously.  I planted them all, and the place was really beginning to look like someone loved it, at least a little.  We were cooking with gas.  A community of garden lovers taking matters into our own hands!  Next stop, a coat of paint!  A new door!  Re-pointing the chimney!

Today I was working away at my desk, one eye on our new garden, thinking about when I’d get over there to water (Hooking our hose up to their spigot was definitely trespassing, John informed me.  Also, the water was turned off).

Up pulled a beat-up pickup.  Out came a weed whacker.  A man with a cigarette drooping from his mouth attacked the yard.  My son had just mowed.  Mr. Cigarette mowed again anyway.  Then he took out the plants (Our plants!  Sally’s, Dolores’s, Martha’s and mine!) and threw them into a heap in the front yard.

I ran across the street, my hands in the air, demanding to know what his plan was.

He turned to look at me through goggles covered in wet grass flakes.  “The guy’s paying me to take all this out.  He says they’re dead.”

I pulled a leaf off one of the helliobores and showed it to him.  “Do they look dead to you?”

“Well.  No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the boxwoods, already gone.

“Did someone buy the place?  Or rent it?”

“I don’t know, Lady.  I’m just getting paid to do the yard.”

“Did he rent it?  He never calls back.”  Even to my own ears I sounded pathetic.

“You want me to call him?  I’ll call him.  Then I can get back to work.”  He dialed the phone, waited for an answer and fiddled with the handle of his weed whacker.

It’s true I’d been calling the number every few days, pretending to be a renter on the message so the owner would call me back.  I’d just called again that morning.

On the other end the owner answered.  “Um.  Yeah.  There’s some lady here who’s mad about the yard.  She says she wants to talk to you.”  He passed me the phone.

“Oh, hiii. I live across the street.”  (Friendly.  Check.  Breezy.  Check.)  “You’ve got some guy here taking out all the plants?  Because not all of them are dead, you know.  (Oh dear.  A little nasty.) I’m just hoping you aren’t planning to leave the beds bare?  Like they’ve been for, you know, a few years?”

Traffic noise on the other end.  A siren flaring and fading.  “I don’t live in town.  It’s hard to take care of.”  A young guy.  I’d heard he inherited the place from his mother.

“I bet.”

Long pause.  Another siren.  “The last time I was there about a month ago everything was dead.”

This was the time to tell him NOT ANYMORE.  Garden vigilantism is your new friend, Mister.  But landscaping seemed a much bigger trespass than mowing.  And I’d made rules about my methods, too, which suddenly seemed completely crazy.  I didn’t MOVE any plants already there.  I just added them.  I didn’t sneak over at night; I gardened in the light of day.  But it was too complicated to explain.

“You’ve really let it go,” I said.  “Some of us in the neighborhood are mowing the front grass.”

He laughed.  “Really?  Cool.”

“Have you rented it out?  Or are you selling it?”

“Oh, yeah.  I’ve got a bunch of people looking at it.”  (This was a lie.  I live right here and no one has).

I asked what the rent was, and he told me.  His inflated figure explained why no one wanted it:  he was smoking crack.  He’d never get that kind of money for the place.

“That seems like a lot.”

Radio silence.  Some honking and a woman shouting.

“Could you just not leave the gardens bare?”

“Absolutely,” he said, then hung up.

I asked Mr. Cigarette to save the plants he’d dug up, and he said he would.  “Could you put the boxwoods back in?  They’re pretty healthy, don’t you think?”

“You gonna pay me?”

“You’re already being paid, aren’t you?”

“Just kidding.  Never hurts to ask,” he said and lit another cigarette.  “I’m supposed to go to Fred Meyer and get new plants.  You got a problem with that?”

He looked at me through the smoke.

I should’ve stepped away.  Let well enough alone. Transferred my energies to another cause.  “Can I write down some plants that would be good?” I said.  “I mean, if it’s all the same to you.  If the owner doesn’t care.  It seems like he doesn’t care.”

“Knock yourself out, Lady.”

I wanted to lurk around, making sure he’d be as good as his word, but I didn’t.

Later in the day, I checked to see what he’d done.  The boxwoods had been replanted unevenly, like the person planting them was drunk. On the far end, the biggest one had its roots exposed and lay on the ground.  Our plants, mine and Sally’s and Dolores’s and Martha’s, were all gone.

I’d lost.  I told myself I’d gotten what I deserved for muscling a situation that wasn’t mine to steer.

Around nine in the evening my doorbell rang.  On the  front  lawn stood Sally and Dolores.  They were giggling, sharing a bottle of Tequila hidden inside a paper bag.

“We don’t know what the hell happened over there today,” Sally said.  She gestured to the house across the street.  “Somebody told us you were in the front yard with that gardener guy trying to save the plants.”

They laughed and offered me a drink.  They said if we didn’t do something a bunch of hoodlums would break in and cook meth over there, or dismantle the place for the metal.  Both scenarios are a pretty big stretch, but I admired their passion.

“He said he’d save them for me,” I said.  “I guess he decided I was too insane.”

“Come with us.  We have a present for you.”

They took me into Sally’s backyard, where all our plants sat in a wheelbarrow by the garage.

“We got these out of the trash can behind that house,” Dolores said.  “Can you believe that asshole?  Throwing away our plants?”

Sally chimed in.  “Yeah.  This is our neighborhood.”  She took a swig of Tequila and offered some to me.  “We figured you’d want to…you know…do something with them.”

Tequila’s not my friend, so I said no to that.  But I’m up for gardening with my new posse.  Anytime.

It Takes a Village

Categories: community, gardening, girls, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

the well of souls

A few years ago, on a sunny spring morning, I woke up to find eight plants had been stolen from my front yard.  Not whole pots of plants waiting to find homes, but mature bushes from the ground.  Mornings are not my sharpest time.  It took a couple beats to identify what was missing while I stood at my front window, eyeing the yard over the rim of a coffee cup, confused.

Once outside, it didn’t take long to see the problem.  A trail of dirt faded off down the sidewalk two houses away and then veered into the street.  The thieves took a whole hedge of Pieris Mountain Fire that had been there for years.  I liked them for their jaunty winter foliage, and they were one of the things I’d kept from the previous owners.  Just at a place where I felt the yard had started to reflect my landscape sensibilities, I’d spent several weeks working on that section of the yard – taking down a hideous fence, planting native species. Now all I had was a bald section that looked like the front teeth of my yard had been knocked out.

My neighbor Tom across the street had had some plants stolen the month before.  The morning after it happened, several of us stood on the sidewalk in front of his house, shaking our heads at the news and wondering what the hell was going on in the world.  Those were Japanese Maples, still in pots sitting down the driveway and around the back of the house.  Someone was paying attention.  It was creepy.   Tom bought more, and these got stolen, too, before he had a chance to put them in the ground.  He gave up and planted something cheaper.  Azaleas, I think.

John wandered out to the sidewalk after a while and stood next to me kicking at the dirt, cussing, one of his less acceptable mixed-company hobbies.  He’s actually kind of a poet.  For pirates.

“What do we do?  Call the police?  Tom said all they did was take the details over the phone.”

“I guess,” he said.  “Maybe they’ll send someone now that it’s happened three times.” He pushed dirt into one of the holes with the toe of his shoe.

“Don’t mess up the crime scene.”

“This is shitty,” he said.

It felt absurd to even suggest involving the police.  I probably couldn’t identify my plants.  I doubted they’d be able to.  It was the perfect crime, really.  I looked around at my neighbors’ yards from a lens of stealthy acquisition.  Our street was a goldmine.

Thirty minutes later, we stood on the sidewalk again with the police department’s Landscape Crime Detective (I’m not making it up).  She was a one-woman show in a newly created position in response to the rash of landscape crimes happening especially in our neighborhood. The fact that lots of other people were waking to find their yards bare made me feel only slightly better.  Mostly, I had a hard time listening to her while I mulled over the world’s seedy underbelly.  Also, I should know her name and what her rank is.  Is detective a rank?…I’ll just call her Detective Blue, which is lame, I know.

Detective Blue wrote down all our particulars in her little notebook, licking her pen a few times to keep it working.  She was from New Jersey.  “We have a lead on a couple of plant rings in town,” she said, “but I’m afraid your bushes are gone.  How much were they worth?”

John threw the rest of his coffee onto the grass.  “Oh, Jesus.  Let me walk away first before she talks about how much she spends on the garden,” he said.

“But those plants were already here,” I said.  “Also, you love the garden.  Also, I get a lot of my plants from friends.”

He shrugged.  “True.  I’m just saying, it seems like we shouldn’t plant the same thing in this spot.”

Mountain Fire

As a gardener, I was out of whack for weeks.  It was hard to reconcile what had been stolen.  Not just plants, but sweat equity, creativity, joy.  I don’t have ten acres (yet) to tend, and while I wait for the time when that works, I’m transforming the space I do have into something uniquely mine.  Gardening gifts me all these things and also keeps me from going bat-shit crazy living so close to neighbors, whom I mostly like.  But still.

As a victim of theft, I was very pissed and a little paranoid.  Someone had been casing the neighborhood.  What else in my yard had the chance of being taken?  Why hadn’t the dog barked in the night?  The windows were open.  How could I not have heard someone digging outside?

I left that spot bare.  Afraid to plant the same thing.  Not sure what else to put there.  I spent a lot of time thinking about black market gardening, and whether those chain-linked-roadside stands that were stuffed with potted plants along the rural highways were legitimate.

A few months later, a zinger of an inspiration came while I was in the woods.  There were people at the heart of those landscape crimes who were trying to eke out a living in a bad economy.  What if those people were a bunch of kids?  What if they lived off the grid?  What would that look like?  How would they decide what to steal?  Who would be in charge?  What else was at stake?

Thus began a novel in response to some of those questions.  It’s a mess.  It’s my first.  The characters are very patient with me, and we’re searching for the story together.  It might be a project that lives in a drawer later, and I’m not too romantic about it being a bestseller or anything.  Some days it feels like giving birth.  Not the fluffy-after-labor-with-a-good-smelling-baby-in-your-arms part, but the in-labor-with-no-epidural part.

Still, I believe in the project as passionately as I believe in putting my hands in the dirt. This month marks one year I’ve been world-making with my band of plant thieves.  I’m darn grateful for these girls in my life, which I guess means I’m grateful for being robbed, because without my gone plants I might never have pulled this collection of souls out of the “well of souls,” as Dorothy Allison calls that place where inspiration is born.

I eventually did plant something in the bare spot.  Grass.   That seems about right for now, until I get the urge to put in corn.

Categories: gardening, girls, writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

chicken in space

Before I began the glamorous work of becoming a writer, I was a high school teacher.  I worked in several high schools over the years, doing everything from teaching English to driving the van for science field trips, but my favorite job was my first (and longest) in Bishop, California.  One of many small towns flanking the high desert of the Sierra Nevada range, Bishop is on the highway between Los Angeles and Reno, and many view it as nothing more than a place to stop and get gas before they go skiing at Mammoth Mountain.

But I loved it there.  In fact, I never intended to leave.  Until I fell in love and then I did leave, but that’s another story.

Bishop Union High School is a small place filled with a band of passionate teachers, most of whom have chosen to work and live in the Owens Valley for a certain way of life.  Pretty much anything you want to do outdoors is at your feet there.  Bishop has Mule Days (a whole weekend devoted to celebrating the mule; it’s fantastic; you must put it on your bucket list), world-class fishing and rock climbing, hot springs, and a rich history of conservatives and liberals working to get along.  I could go on.  Someday I’ll move back.

My favorite tidbit about my old stomping grounds is this:  Recently, students at Bishop Union High School sent a rubber chicken named Camilla into space.

What’s more, their venture was (will continue to be) sponsored by NASA.  Camilla is NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory mascot who has upwards of 20,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter.  I’d like to say I still have my finger on the pulse at B.U.H.S., but I only know about the project because the students involved were interviewed on Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me last weekend.  Instantly transported back to my time as a teacher there, I listened as Peter Sagal interviewed young scientists from Earth to Sky, a team of Bishop’s middle and high school  students who are working on various astrobiology projects.  Probably it was a coincidence, but  the kids Sagal interviewed were all girls. I almost cried at the great, good hope of a tribe of young girls choosing science ( at lunch; it’s not even a class!) instead of the raft of pursuits they no doubt feel culture expects of them.  But, I digress.  I’m sure there are plenty of boys in Earth to Sky, too.  They just weren’t interviewed.

I’m tempted to pack my bags right now and  join up with Earth and Sky.  Or just hang out with kids pumped about science.  Right now they’re waiting to see what Camilla’s “radiation badges,” sent away to a commercial lab for testing, will reveal.  My guess is Camilla’s relationship with Bishop’s kids isn’t over.  I bet they’re already planning what she’ll be armed with the next time she goes up.

A SHORT LIST OF DELICIOUS DETAILS ABOUT CAMILLA’S LAUNCH

  • The kids launched her into “near-space” during a solar radiation storm  in a helium balloon that went up to 124,00 feet

  • Her balloon popped, of course, and she floated back to earth by parachute

  • She was fully rigged with 2 GPS  units

  • She wore a knitted space suit made by a gal from Missouri

  • 7 insects and 24 sunflower seeds were along for the ride

  • None of the insects survived, but you can find them pinned to the “Foamboard of Death” as examples for all future adventuresome insects about what will happen if you try to go to the edge of space (maybe this explains Camilla’s look of horror…or maybe that’s joy?)

  • The 24 sunflower seeds have been planted by 5th graders to see if radiated seeds will produce flowers, too

Categories: chickens, girls | Tags: , , , , | 5 Comments

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