Posts Tagged With: family

tiny farm notebook

www.lauramgibson.com

Snow’s on its way. I’ve closed up the garden and turned my attention to indoor pursuits. It feels good.

In the last two seasons I’ve learned a few things about tending a tiny farm. It’s a ton of work, for starters, which I knew. But also didn’t. Just as I knew, but also didn’t, how raising a high school senior and keeping a garden bigger than the house would invade writing time.

Still, I’ve managed to harvest some bits of wisdom along the way:

Two roosters fight. Constantly. If you try and give one of your men to a gal pal with more land and a bigger flock, she will lecture you about why you should be made of tougher stuff. Real farmers suck it up. They do what’s necessary.

So, you research what to do.

No one else you know wants, or is allowed to raise, a rooster. If you list your FREE rooster on craigslist, he will be used as cockfighting bait for champion roosters to practice on.

You let your two fellas range in the pasture, hoping nature will decide. The red-tailed hawk that hunts on your land looks hungry for fresh chicken, but the boys are better than you thought at avoiding danger. This is the only activity during which they create an alliance in order to survive.

Weeks pass. Every time you feed the birds, you get assaulted by the big rooster Carson (formerly named Custer), who shows his irritation that you’re near his harem by flying at you sideways with his spurs out.

In the interest of taking care of your own business and being merciful, you have to kill him. Then you explain to your kids how not all living things on our farm are pets.

 Even though this is a lie.

www.lauramgibson.com

Bees sometimes swarm. When your bees flee, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. It’s not like 20,000 kids ran away because you neglected them. This just happens, according to experts who know. If your bees only get as far as the plum tree twenty feet from the hive, and you catch them after watching seven videos on YouTube about how to do it, count that as success! The dog, who tries to “help” and gets stung twenty-seven times, will be okay once the swelling goes down.

Try not to congratulate yourself too much. The next day, your bees will get attacked and killed by someone else’s robbing swarm, and that will be the end of that. Utter colony collapse.

There’s always next year. You have all the equipment now.

www.lauramgibson.com

Gardens get big. When, in your spring zeal to GROW a GARDEN, you plant three times more tomato, pepper, zucchini, and bean plants than your family can possibly handle, remember to preserve, can, freeze, salsa, red sauce, bruschetta, and chili your way through harvest. Once the shelves and freezer are full, you can SHARE the wealth. It’s important to hear poorly at this time. For example, when friends in August try to tell you they’ve got all the zucchini they can handle, it really IS okay to insist they take more. It’s their civic duty.

Also, you can leave presents on the porch when they’re not home which, let’s face it, is better than a visit from Santa.

www.lauramgibson.com

Labradors like birds. If a friend’s dog attacks your remaining rooster Willy (formerly named Napoleon), think carefully before you use your home as the infirmary. Chickens really do prefer to be outside. Once the injured fella is inside the house, there’s no helping the way the whole of your living space will smell like a barnyard. Several websites will suggest giving injured chickens Epsom salt baths and syringe-feeding them electrolytes, and you can employ these methods if you want.

However, it will likely make tending Willy’s psychic and physical well-being very heartbreaking. Your friend’s dog gave him a sound thrashing, and his legs are clearly broken.

Try not to be relieved when he dies on his own. You won’t have to subject your children to another round of murder, which, as they keep reminding you, will be the reason they’re in therapy later.

www.lauramgibson.com

Woodstoves are a hassle. If you have a tantrum about the inefficient woodstove in the living room that leaks and covers the furniture with ash and takes up too much space and MUST COME OUT, and if, then, you watch more YouTube videos about extracting the beast from your world, be careful. These videos are not nearly as entertaining as the ones you watched about bees. You might discover that woodstoves are quite heavy, and awkward to move, and you can’t do it alone. So you enlist your spouse, the foul-mouthed pirate, who helps you while he cusses the thing out the door. When it’s over, he’ll tell you that this activity does NOT qualify as an emergency, and that it would be nice if you could learn the difference between what is acute and what can wait for someone who knows what the hell they’re doing to help you out.

Also, when you remove something attached to the house, you will be left with HOLES in the wall and in the roof. Because you were a Girl Scout, you’ll be able to insulate the holes, and also fashion a piece of tarp to prevent any water from coming in through the roof.

But it will be a sad little Band-Aid of a solution.

Remind yourself not to let too much time pass before you arrange a drywaller and roofer to clean up your mess.

Because critters WILL find this space. Word spreads fast about the easy access your tantrum has created. You’ll likely hear them in the night, scratching and squirreling away food for winter and hiding whatever they’ve found inside the walls.

Fall is windy. You might hear the chimney cap you jammed back into the hole in the roof fly away one night in the wind and land somewhere in the yard. The next day, you’ll climb up there and put it back in place and wonder how a person who’s smart in so many ways could have decided to proceed with home “improvement” in this way.

You will have to get the roof patched. You will.

Kids leave home. If you’ve raised them right. Because hasn’t this been the point all along? To plant the seeds, to build the tools, to foster independence? He’s ready. He’s got the skills to drive his own life, mostly. He’s already making plans, one eye on the door to the what next, and he’s itching to walk through it.

But he’s wistful and tender, too, about his “youth,” as he calls it, which is almost as funny as when he calls himself “a grown man.” Because neither is true today, and both squeeze your heart. The little melon-headed boy who had two speeds: awake and busy with endless questions, or asleep and sweating, breathing too loudly. The young man: articulate, curious, driven.

You hadn’t reckoned on this. The way your boy is a man and still such a child.

Maybe you’re the one who’s not ready.

You’ve got seven months left, and you’ve been telling yourself  for a couple of years that you’ll have a party when that boy leaves the house and takes his stubborn opinions, loud music, cloying cologne, disgusting bathroom habits, and bottomless hunger with him.

And you will.

But now, you’re thinking about how quiet it will be without the hum of him, and how much bigger your tiny house will be without the size 11 shoes he dismounts from and leaves in front of the door and the bags of swim gear and books you trip over. You’re thinking about how the leaving, for both of you, is the beginning of the rest of his life disconnected from you but tethered to everything that’s come before.

It’s a lot to process. This joyful sadness.

 

www.lauramgibson.com

 

 

Advertisements
Categories: chickens, community, family, fiction, gardening, parenting | Tags: , , , , | 10 Comments

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.

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

mice & men

As family gatherings often are, ours is total chaos.  I’m from a family of seven—more now including spouses and kids—and this Thanksgiving fifteen of us gathered to celebrate.  As always, there was too much food and noise, packs of dogs running out into the rain and bringing their joyful muddy selves back inside, a burn barrel night where we torched old bills and scraps – articles my parents save for the occasion, the murder mystery party we’ve adopted as one of our rituals.

It’s fun and exhausting, perhaps more so because we all come so far to be together.  It’s hard not to binge out on catching up amid the fray.

This year marks the last Thanksgiving we’ll have at my parents’ house.  With five wooded acres, fifteen miles from the nearest town, a couple of knee replacements and other surgeries, my parents are finding it hard to take care of the place.  Anyway, we seem to be a moving kind of people.  I think for my parents this will mark the seventh time they’ve moved together, and we hope next summer will be the last.

Moving will be no small task. Like so many in their generation, my parents have a lot of stuff.

They’re not hoarders, exactly, but they do love a bargain, and they don’t love getting rid of things.  “I might need that,” Mom says, and Dad, “I’m going to fix that.”  The result of this philosophy is rooms gorged with belongings, a three car garage they usually don’t park a car in, and difficulty with the decision-making required to downsize their possessions to fit into a smaller next-time house.

There’s a lot of work to do, and since my brother and I are the siblings who don’t sit down very well, we take on a project each time we visit. It’s usually something my parents can’t do themselves, like chopping wood, cleaning the roof and gutters, clearing brush by the creek.  But now, helping them come to terms with their possessions, namely which ones need to go to the dump or the giveaway bin, is our primary occupation.

Every time I shuffle through my parents’ things, I’m mindful of what I’d feel like if it was me at the spear end of this game.  It’d be pretty shabby, conflicting, confusing.  Which, I think, is exactly how my parents feel, though they’re open to the help from their kids.  They’re overwhelmed and know they can’t do this next move on their own.

Still, it’s a funny thing to do the job right in front of them.  Understandably nervous, they take turns evaluating what we’re getting rid of.  They might need it. They’re going to fix it, they say.

Dad picks through the piles when he thinks we’re not looking and takes things back.  He hides them inside the house until we leave.  Mom wanders around talking about projects she aims to get done.

This visit my brother and I tackled a part of the garage, which is to say we went through boxes full of things that haven’t been opened in five moves.  Shoes that haven’t been worn in so long their soles are disintegrated.  Collections of broken toasters, lamps, rotary telephones.  A box of Top Ramen from 1987.  According to my brother, they don’t even make that flavor anymore.  Vases, baby clothes, tools, dried flowers.

Near the end of the day, we’d dug down to a layer of boxes underneath a shelf.  I reached in, pulled one toward me and opened it.  Decanters, it read in Sharpie on the side.  A desiccated mouse who’d almost made it inside the ripped tape rested on the top.  My brother and I had already found eleven or so mice in our garage travels – it’s one of the perks of country living, the mice, and made worse because my parents’ cat Sam died last year.

I opened the box to find six decanters wrapped in paper, a pretty tidy packing job, my Mom’s work.  When we were kids, my sisters and I called them genie bottles.  My favorite was an iridescent gold one with indented circles.

The decanters were in there alright, along with my favorite.  A closer look revealed a whole lot more than glass bottles, though. Cloth, hair, shavings, and shiny bits of things I couldn’t identify had been smuggled in and laid among the papers.  Three dead and shriveled carcasses greeted me on the top of one decanter.  I took the box out by the burn barrel and unloaded it.  We agreed to get rid of the decanters.

In one corner of the bottom I found a mound of poison pellets, around which eight more mice were arrested in various poses of distress, their little front paws raised up in surprise near their mouths.

By then my sisters had wandered out to see what was going on.  We stood looking at the box on the ground.

“It’s like Mauschwitz,” one sister said, and another elbowed her.

“Its’ the country,” Dad said, then shrugged. “See? We need another cat.”

“That’s probably enough for today,” my brother said.

“Twenty-three mice,” I said.  “I think that’s a record.”  The last visit I’d found fourteen.

We unwound the decanters and set those into the giveaway bin, and threw the box into the burn barrel. I stood a minute and watched the flames consume it, wondering how long those rodents had been in that box.  There were many other such boxes in the garage, and eventually, someone would have to deal with those, too.

I understood, suddenly, a little bit about my parents’ inertia in getting ready to go.  We were very far away from getting a whole lifetime full of possessions to a new place.  It WAS overwhelming.  The stuff, the change, the uncertainty, the saying goodbye and starting over and the sheer work involved with all of it.  Not to mention the mice.

The next day, as I was packing to leave, I went back inside the house to make sure we hadn’t left anything.  And then I found it.

The faux leather-sided decanter with a replica of a Rembrandt on the side.  Dad had trash-picked it from the giveaway bin.  He’d washed it and put it in the dish drainer after I went to bed.

Mom was in the kitchen making coffee and nodded her head at it.  “He always liked that one,” she said.

I decided he could have his secret.  After all, I’d done the same and kept my favorite.  I might need it.

genie bottle

genie bottle

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: family, parenting, writing | Tags: , , | 4 Comments

billy and the band

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 515

This summer John and I gave in to the siren call of buying a log built home on an acre.  A project house, a blank slate of a place, it’s too small, has poorly insulated doors and windows, and lacks reasonable cooling (which is to say, it has none) and heating (which is to say, it has a tiny woodstove and electric baseboard heaters we’re not sure work).  We nonetheless fell in love with its possibility.

For Riley, the cabin fulfills a few wishes.  She’ll get to raise animals, have her pick of climbing trees, eat fruit she picks herself, go wading in the small irrigation stream in the back.

The first time we showed the place to Owen, he stood next to the car shaking his head.  “I mean, all that looking around and this is what you chose?  I’m confused.”   Our choice was further evidence that his parents are nutjobs, that he was switched somehow at birth and got taken home with what he calls “hygienic hippies” instead.  Owen wanted a pool, a media room, a hot tub, a house that said “Wow” from the street.

Early summer was long and lovely and mild, the perfect conditions in which to move ourselves just the few miles with hundred of trips in our pickup truck and some help from a band of teenage boys.  Owen’s friends are much more willing helpers than he is, for which we’re grateful.  In addition to a growing curiosity about his real birth parents, Owen is newly in love, and therefore anything we ask him to do is half completed in a hot rush, one eye on the clock, while he counts the minutes and seconds until he can be reunited with his gal pal.  When they cannot be together, there is furious love-struck texting, and also more than a little staring off into the middle distance, deep in thought.  He wants to be fully independent and stay out at night as late as he likes.  He wants to bring five friends home for dinner with five minute’s notice.  He wants to go camping with a pack of boys and girls and no chaperones, burn huge bonfires in the desert, wear a LOT of cologne.

This territory is new for all of us and seemed to come all at once.  He can hardly have a conversation, changes clothes three times a day, and takes a lot of showers.  We like his gal pal quite a bit; she’s genuine, helpful, a good friend to him.  John and I do remember how all-consuming teen desires of any kind are, which helps us dread the brain-damaged condition we’re all going to have to suffer through for the next few years.  We remember enough to be a anxious about Owen’s choices in his Technicolor love haze.

“Give me a break,” Owen tells us when we talk about not getting carried away in love. “You’re in love too, you know.  With LAND.”  As if it’s a bad thing.

Many days, the new house is too small for Owen and me, so I spend a lot of time outside on the LAND, which I do, I must confess, love.

Anyway, by day three in the cabin I realized the back pasture’s thigh-high grass needed attention.  On Craigslist I found a goat wrangling schoolteacher with a hobby farm a few towns over, so I called him and asked him to bring me some professional eaters, which he did.  The next day our new Nubian friends pulled up to the house in the bed a tiny pick-up truck .  A mother goat and twin kids, a boy and a girl about four months old.  They’d been on the freeway and caused quite a ruckus among drivers, but when they arrived the goats eyed us from the back of the truck, chewing rhythmically on some hay, and didn’t seem too worse for the wear.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 528

The wrangler stepped out of the cab.  He wore workout clothes, a pair of Nikes, a baseball cap.  I’d expected him to show up wearing, um, goat wrangling clothes, and then realized I had no idea what that attire would be.

“That’s Cooper, the mom,” the wrangler said, “and Coeur d’Alene, the girl; and Preston, the boy. We name all our goats after places.”

Riley and I sat on the tailgate.  The goats nuzzled our hands from the truck’s bed and leaned their foreheads into our chests.

“I just banded Preston,” the wrangler said, “so he might not feel too well for a few days.”  He took some leashes from his cab and reached to clip one to each goat’s dog collar.

I had no idea what he was talking about.  “You did what?”

“See that rubber band back there?”  I maneuvered to look at Preston’s backside and spied a green rubber band wrapped around the top of his testicles.  “It takes the Billy out of his Billy, if you know what I mean.  Last thing you want is a Billy around.  Doesn’t really hurt, just tingles a little.  Should dry up and fall off in a few days.”

Though I had just met the wrangler, I said something about how great it would be if it was that easy to take the Billy out of some human males, remembering John’s post-Billy-surgery-drama-queenness.  The frozen bags of corn and peas. I thought of Owen’s burgeoning Billy, and also wondered how anyone could possibly know that for a goat, having a rubber band cutting off the blood to its Billy did nothing more than tingle.

We stood quietly a moment.  “Wait,” I said.  “Which thing falls off?  The Billy or the rubber band?”

“You’ll see,” he said.  “You can call me if there’s a problem.”

We put the three goats on leashes and took them into the pasture and let them go.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 533

Preston licked at his backside and then laid down by the gate while Cooper and Cordy wandered off.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 539

We watched them browsing in their new salad bar, and by the time the wrangler was ready to leave, Riley and I were decidedly smitten.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 540

It’s been two months, long enough for us to train the goats to come when we call.  They follow us around in the pasture, nudging our hands for kitchen scraps, putting their front feet onto our chests to make sure we’re not concealing anything.  When it’s hot, they lie together under a big spruce at the corner of the property, just opposite the fence from our neighbor’s chickens, who lean against the fence from their own side, close enough to touch their goat pals.  They’re fast friends, which has given life to a habit of breaking property lines to be together.  Once, my neighbor found the goats inside his chicken run, where they ate all the chicken feed and then laid down with the chickens.  A few days later, the hens were in our back pasture, trailing the goats and chortling to one another in chicken speak about what good fun a day visiting friends was.  They put themselves to bed later in the evening.

We’ve spent a lot of time shoring up fencing, hoping each time we’ve succeeded in preventing their next houdinied adventure.

All summer we waited for Preston to lose whatever it was he was going to lose in only a few days.  We called the wrangler once to ask why it was taking so long and got another cryptic answer:  “Sometimes it does,” he said.  In the background I could hear a chicken laying an egg, a lawnmower, some kids yelling.  Riley and I decided to resist asking Uncle Google what to do, and instead, we just waited.

Preston, his Billy perpetually shriveling but not falling off, spent the summer trying to work out what it all meant.  At dusk, he’d run up to his mother and nurse furiously for a minute, then canter spastically toward his sister Cordy and mount her until Cooper bleated at him to stop, at which point he’d run in zig-zags, until they were all sprinting back and forth along the fence line, tossing their ears.

Summer’s pretty much over as far as the kids are concerned.  Owen’s still with his gal pal.  Though John and I are bold in our conversations about how it’s possible to be in love and also make smart choices, we’re terrified of Owen’s Billy being in the driver’s seat of decision making.

Last week Owen and I were in the way back diverting water into the pasture.  He’s been much more willing to help than I imagined, and I’m tickled.  The goats were with us, using one of the fence posts to stretch up into the leafy branches of a locust and eat.  Their appetite is like nothing I’ve seen; it beats even a band of teenaged boys after swim practice.  Owen and I stood in the knee-high stream in our rubber boots, watching the water find its way through the grass in the pasture.

“Isn’t water games so much better than a media room?” I asked.

He shook his head, smiled, offered a clutch of mint to Preston, who nibbled on it, jerking his head to keep it away from Cordy.

I leaned down to check out the status of Preston’s rubber band, finding nothing at all.  All of it had fallen off, both the Billy and the band.  I patted his head and asked him if he felt better, if he’d even noticed that he was newly unencumbered.

“Poor guy,” Owen said.  He stepped out of the water, and Preston sniffed his pockets and put his front legs up on Owen’s chest.  “Wasn’t really a fair fight, was it, Bud?”

I opened my mouth to seize the opportunity to have another TALK about inhabiting the world of love while also making good choices.  But my boy was in galoshes, mucking around with me in the pursuit to divert water, and he was pretty good humored about it, for once.  And already, I was seriously at risk of being the dog whistle he couldn’t hear, so I let it lie.

Owen patted his pocket for the appendage of his phone, then looked toward the house.  “So.  We’re done here?” he asked.  “I’m going to do that thing in a while?”

“Sure.  Thanks for the help.”

I bit my tongue against all the cautionary words to live by, the pearls of wisdom gleaned from my own near-misses and hard lessons, the ever-present feed of news informing new pitfalls for youth.  He wouldn’t have heard me anyway.  Already gone, Owen walked back to the house, sloshing through the water-soaked pasture, his head bent into texting while the goats trotted along behind him.

2014 - Pix from Laura's Phone 608

 

 

Categories: family, goats, kids, nature, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

screech

For the last few months, I’ve been watching a pair of small owls hunting at dusk in the neighborhood.

While they’ve spent the bulk of their early evening hunts flying into and out of the horse chestnut tree across the street, the pair seems especially to hanker for mice in the backyard next door.  That house is empty, the yard a brown tangle of beds gone fallow and some iron monkey bar-looking structures.  From the back deck, while I’ve watched the owls’ tandem swoops in the gloaming, I’ve come to know their calls to each other.  The lilting tremolo, the barking chuck, the soft hoots.

Early last week I was in the backyard watering when I heard a low, bouncing whinny.  It was mid-day.  I looked up into the maple and spied a grayish mass on one branch, roughly the size of a housecat, and thought maybe Arturo, bigger than ever, had reasserted himself as the squirrel yard boss.  But it was no rodent squatting on the branch of the maple. It was three screech owlets who sat huddled together, their feathers still a tufted, downy gray.  They sat blinking sleepily, leaning against one another while I had a proper look at them and while their parents stood guard not too far away, chirping at them, no doubt, not to engage with the human.

Over the course of last week the babies filled out.  Their feathered ear tufts darkened a little and their yellow eyes remained open much of the day.  I stood below their roost and made conversation while they stared unblinking, occasionally responding by swaying and bobble-heading, trying to get a bead on what sort of threat I was.

In the scheme of their life span, the owlets are pre-pubescent.  After they hatch, they learn everything they need to know in five weeks.  This week they are awake much of the day, begging to get off their branch and go do something even though the sun is high.  The adults admonish, hush them by cleaning their feathers, let them shuffle to another branch, maybe chirp at the squirrels who roughhouse nearby.  Sometimes the owlets split up and sit alone.  From where I stand on the ground, I can’t tell the adults from their young now.  They blink down at me, unfazed.  They’ve got my number.

Aware that I’m at risk of sentimental anthropomorphizing, I know their presence in town is just nature adapting. Still, I feel lucky they’ve chosen our tree in which to spend their days, and even luckier that I can witness them leave this perch to go hunting.  Well before dusk the owlets register their discontent, flap their wings, peck at each other.  In the loud correction of the adults there is exasperation, as if to say, “We are sit-and-wait predators.  When you can perfect that, we’ll see about driving.”

A half hour or so after the sun goes down, one of the adults leaves first and flies to the fence and then calls for the owlets to stay behind.  There’s a lot of thrashing and tomfoolery in the branches.  The babies fight, fidget, bark out into the night for the adults. They want to fly, and they can – they navigate within the branches of the big maple just fine.  But it’s not yet time for them to hunt solo.

Their impatience is raucous.

At our own house we are teaching Owen, 15, how to drive.  Being a passenger with him is alternately terrifying and rewarding.  He insists that he’s an excellent driver already, that we’ve got nothing to worry about, but he has trouble with road awareness.  He hugs the white line and argues that he IS in the middle of the lane when I suggest that’s the best place for success.  I’m white noise, a goathead pricker in his sock, a dog whistle he cannot hear.  He’s impatient to take the reigns of his life, raucous and flapping like those owlets, who, each night, get less and less obedient about following directions.

Last night, a full moon, the owlets flitted out of the tree as soon as their parents left and took their squabbling to the roof of our house, to the top of the neighbor’s van.  I could hear one of the adults talking to them a few yards over.  After short consultation, the babies decided they had better get home.  Breakfast was on the way.

The moon rose higher, illuminating the show in the backyard.  Three mice in an hour, a good haul.  Food in the belly quieted the owlets in the maple.  The adults flew off into the night.  I’m not sure how much longer they’ll be in our yard.

Soon, the babies will be off in the world, hunting in the backyards of other streets, finding mates of their own, and these will be monogamous and long-term relationships.  Owen, too.  I try to remind myself that he IS doing it right.  He’ll learn best by trying, by possibly failing, by sometimes succeeding.  His flight is about to be out of his parents’ hands.

I wonder if the owl adults have an impending sense that their work of the season will soon be over.  If, after dawn, when they’ve been up all night hunting, they wonder whether their efforts will build self-sustaining offspring who are smart enough to avoid death by hawks, by cars, by razed habitats.  If they fret that their teachings, even now, are falling away and growing smaller in the rearview mirror.

 

 

Categories: family, nature, outdoors, parenting, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

surviving february

Over dinner our family sometimes plays the tattoo game.  It goes something like this:  If you had to get a tattoo, which animal (or fruit or motorized vehicle…) would you choose and where on your body would you put it?  The answers are sometimes surprising. Riley always tries to choose a bird no matter the category. John once chose a unicycle for his “motorized” vehicle, and that led to a half hour discussion on locomotion. But anyway, the kids like our strange amusement.  It’s a pastime that saves us on days we’d otherwise easily fall into lamenting the ways the world feels terribly broken.

How the world is broken seems more evident in February, when the slant of light has changed, but not enough to signal spring. When it feels like it’s been winter long enough, and yet the storms keep on coming. What’s wanting is diversion enough to distract from another several weeks of slate skies and long underwear.

The other day I found the perfect thing on River Teeth‘s website.  You can sign up to get a daily email from them — “28 days of Beautiful Things.”  Each day you will receive an excerpt from Michelle Webster-Hein’s essay “Beautiful Things,” originally published in River Teeth in 2013.  I was hooked after reading the idea for the project, but what really got me was the gorgeous photo of a beet, a vegetable I uniformly detested in youth but which now I cannot eat enough of.

Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red.  Roasted, pickled, slawed.  Nothing beats (ha) growing them. Feeling them release from the soil when they are ready to be harvested.  Knowing that under the tough exterior awaits brilliant color, sweet earthy flavor. Fresh beets means eating the greens, too, steamed or sauteed in sesame oil or hidden inside chili or lasagna (don’t tell the kids).

I’m not usually very clever about where I’d put a tattoo — I almost always choose my arm, because it seems like if I’d gone through the journey of permanently inking myself, I’d want to be able to admire the art without having to use a mirror.  The kids tell me that’s not the point.  Tattoos are meant to be seen by others.

My obsession with body art doesn’t get much past our dinner game.  When we play vegetable tattoo, a beet in any of its iterations is always my answer.  It’s also the lone answer to another game we play — If you were marooned on a deserted island and could only have one food, what would it be? The beet.  Of course. Though I would have trouble deciding which variety.

The miracle of a beet is the topic of “28 Days of Beautiful Things” first beautiful thing.

Today’s excerpt from Webster-Hein is an ode to dust — oddly dear to her, its silty presence on her belongings means she’s spent time doing what she loves instead of housekeeping.

Amen to that.

From River Teeth's website.  How could anyone not love this gorgeous vegetable?

From River Teeth’s website. So gorgeous every time…

Categories: gardening, kids, outdoors, Uncategorized, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

cyclopean eye

IMG04 (2)

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.

IMG02 (3)

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

IMG03 (2)

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.

IMG01 (6)

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

IMG02 (2)

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.)

IMG03 (1)

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.

IMG01 (7)

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

IMG01 (5)

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.

Categories: community, family, girls, kids, parenting, writing | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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

Categories: community, family, girls, parenting, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.