Drought

The lawn has gone to the dogs in a literal sense: the only creature who walks on it without shoes now, in its bouquet of razor-wire glory, is the local dog who comes to poop on our kale. Grass is a memory. We haven’t had significant rain in a month.

Taughannock Falls, where people go to enjoy the magnificent scenery and my friends go to worry me by standing under rock ledges, is now dry. Not a drip. Old-timers can’t remember such a thing. This is new territory.

That’s the deal with drought. When it comes, we think it’s never happened before, and it’s sure to be curtains this time, if not for the whole planet, at least for Trumansburg.

The same goes for the kinds of drought that occur regardless of rainfall: job searches, medical struggles, and grief, to name a few of my recent bedfellows.

To Whom It May Concern: I have Acting Skillz. This is me in Acting Class, as the human version of a parrot, approaching another student, who we see here playing a convict. Surely this is relevant to Administrative Support IV.

To The Hiring Committee: This is me in Acting Class, as the human version of a parrot, approaching another student, who we see here playing a convict. Surely this is relevant to Administrative Support IV.

Job searching is a little like auditioning for a play you believe to be a drama and then finding yourself in the third week of production suddenly aware that the piece is a famous farce. Every job posting I’ve found that wouldn’t tempt me to jump out an office window requires years of experience in that field, even for cleaning up biohazards at the veterinary hospital.

Speaking of hospitals: no one tells you that the experience of having a body is pretty much downhill from sixteen. And certainly no one tells you that your body is going to quit on you, probably before you’re ninety, in ways that will have you almost impressed they’re so awful. I’m in full health now, but for four months after my medical K-tastrophe, I kind of wondered whose body and brain exactly I was rattling around in. Neither seemed familiar, or even marginally useful, except for in the service of sleeping.

And I needed a lot of sleep for a lot of reasons. My world actually felt like it was splitting at the seams when I lost a second trimester pregnancy and nearly my own life. So many times I had the thought, it’s not possible to feel any more sadness than this. And then, each time, it would be possible. It would become possible, by some strange morphing process, despite my efforts to return to the world I knew before so much was possible.

I prefer to think of this phenomenon as a type of growth. Where before I wasn’t capable of feeling any more of what I was feeling, now I am. parrot and convict 2

Drought is a similar thing. When we can’t go another day without rain, we go another week, and then two, and then four…

The point is that the very worst and hardest things teach me what’s endurable, and how much more life is contained in the sorry, sad-sack dust than seems plausible, or even remotely possible. And that’s a form of hope, a form of devotion, a form of love, to see that possibility.

Jim as a ghost. Here the idea, or the hope of the costume working, was more powerful than the reality. The photo is proof that this matters little, if at all.

Jim as a ghost, Take One. Photo submitted as proof that the fierce hope that something will work is often as entertaining as the thing actually working.

I just applied to another job today (and today it rained!!!!), another job for which I have no direct experience. But it caught my imagination. It had to do with rare manuscripts. I mean, doesn’t that tingle your spine? It occurred to me that imagining getting the job, imagining the drought ending, imagining life moving forward, IS life moving forward. That living in the hope of something is damn near as good as it gets, that hoping for is perhaps somehow even more alive than getting.

And from there, if one keeps one’s wits, one might find an extraordinary pleasure in verb-ing. in Doing. In the verb itself, as it is the operator of the living. One might find oneself, in other words, taking supreme pleasure just persisting in being, living in the falling-down house with the caterpillar-eaten garden, because it affords one the opportunity to spot the damn dog squatting over the kale, to chase the dog off the kale, mid-dump.

 

 

Bach in Your Underwear

Some friends are getting hitched and I’m the musical grease for the chute. The bride is exquisitely laid back, said “oh, something classical, you pick.” I only play weddings when the bride recites this exact utterance for me. If I slack on this standard, ever, I’ll end up playing a brave but disappointing rendition of Aerosmith on the viola.

Or perhaps worse– trying and failing to explain persuasively enough why Pachelbel’s Canon in D really isn’t best done solo (LET’S ALL SING ROW ROW ROW YOUR BOAT BUT INSTEAD I’LL JUST SING IT OK READY GO)

I was about to mention to a professional performer friend, part of the excellent group LeStrange Viols, that I was going down into the dark and terrible chunnel on the other side of which one is supposed to emerge totally memorized and no longer at risk of taking a “Bach wrong turn,” which is alarmingly easy to do. (I think people have died after taking the repeat so many times they had no choice but to succumb to natural causes.)

But then, instead, I asked her a question I didn’t know was about to come out of my mouth: “Is it OK to play solo Bach with the music?” Wonderful creature that she is, she steadily and evenly said “Sure,” and shrugged. “Which way do you play better?” was her I-just-wet-my-pants-that’s-so-sensible follow-up.

HOLD THE PHONE. What other small fearful vulnerable creature misapprehensions have I been laboring under?? If I can’t imagine just playing the damn thing with the music in front of me, because that works for me and won’t hurt anyone else, then there’s little hope I’ll imagine my way out of a cardboard box, if anyone ever thinks to put me there.

I had a similar Aha Moment in acting class at Actor’s Workshop of Ithaca. I was working on a character that happened to be male, so I’d transformed myself as best I could.

animal life

Another acting class exercise, in which I appear as a “parrot” (note the green.) The other two actors on stage in this moment feel moved to run away from me or try to kill me, from mid-ground to foreground, respectively. Photo credit: Kat Spallone

In this character, I did an exercise on stage with another student, who is an older male. Although it’s not by any means an improvisation class– rather the opposite in some ways, the technique is so structured– AWI teaches the Meisner technique, which demands emotional honesty in imaginary circumstances, and that can feel improvisational in the sense that you never know where the exercise is about to go or where it will end up.

Our exercise in this case started out with the two of us at odds, because the character the other student was working on was a traumatized, introverted, elderly gentleman (probably a veteran) and mine was a relaxed, slightly cocky young man in a hat and hoodie. But it immediately became clear to me, through the filters of the young man I’d put on, that this person (the other character) was in terrible, dire need of support and calming assistance. As the technique demands of someone at my third-semester level, I acted on my impulse right away and without question. This played out, in this case, as me putting my hand on the other character’s shoulder and just waiting calmly and supportively for him to feel a little better.

That’s all in a day’s work in acting class. But what was different, really different, was the feedback session afterwards. The instructor looked at me and said, with the thoughtful non-smile that means “you’re about to learn something really juicy”: “what felt different this time?” And I realized as I spoke my answer that I hadn’t checked, tidied, filtered, altered, titrated, or tried to make more acceptable my desire to be kind. I hadn’t felt weak for being kind. Why? Because I had been identifying as male during the exercise. This meant, by uncomfortable contrast, that when I am identified as female, a.k.a all the rest of the time, I’m likely to second guess or finagle in some way my kindness. Because apparently patriarchy has sunk its teeth into me, and is part of me, and I believe on some level, way down out of my own sight, that I should be careful when showing compassion, lest it be considered weak, or confused for sexual attention, or or or…

Well, being careful isn’t a crime, one might say. No, but it is an unfortunate limitation (that the poor, underrepresented, the targeted, and the different struggle with every day), and in my case I’m sometimes choosing that limitation over being honest.

I even do it with people I know well. I was about to play a gig and I texted the other female in the band, asking her what she’d be wearing (it’s always embarrassing to show up in neon yellow and swim fins only to find out for some inexplicable reason the other three band members have showed up in sober sensible black and normal shoes for the first time in their lives). She told me what she was going to wear and returned the question. It was 90 degrees out, so I typed “I was thinking about going without clothes.”

That was my first and uninhibited thought, and I laughed as I sent it, and my intuition told me she’d get it, what with the heat being a little like the inside of a diaper. But after I hit send I did a little song and dance in my head that if translated into words would go something like “She’s going to call the police. You are a creepy individual.”

Of course, she got it, and no one was surprised that my old friend Helpful Worry Voice hadn’t been the day’s best advisor (WHAT? LET’S WORRY SOME MORE COME ON WE MIGHT SOLVE SOMETHING THIS TIME THIS TIME I GOTCHA I SWEAR IMA GETTIT).

finches

Birdy 2, Lentil, Birdy 1, and Mrs. Birdy stare down a fresh produce menace (out of frame, on cage floor).

A therapist once said to me nobody likes change, and you have to just keep exhibiting a new behavior repeatedly, often for a long time, before people used to other patterns will accept the new one and stop acting like they’re being betrayed or electrocuted every time you violate their often-arbitrary expectation. This is a notion I learned early on from pet finches, whose house motto was “Change is bad”. It took them three months to try cucumber. That’s a lot of moldering cucumber on the cage floor in the service of swaying them. Then, three months later: Me: Hey guys, want a cherry? Finches: NO. Me: are you sure? Finches: CHANGE IS BAD. Me: Where are you going? Finches: TO HAVE SOME CUCUMBER.

What I’m noticing in myself in the case of the unmemorized Bach and the acting class exercise and the band texts is a person who is startled to find that she’s been making assumptions, and that they don’t match her candid, intuitive sense of herself. If I throw the assumptions out, though, we’ll get a woman reading Bach from the page in her underwear, being extremely kind to all the wedding guests.

Well, OK. There are worse things.

Acting class exercise, in which I appear as a "parrot" (note the green.) The other two actors on stage in this moment are moved to run away from me or try to kill me, from mid-ground to foreground, respectively.

Parrot makes friend.

The Candidate

WORK EXPERIENCE   Things I Can Imagine Having Done

Freelance artist, 2 decades   I have many colored pencils!

Costume Designer (off Broadway)   I have to get dressed every day 🙁

Lead Gardener/Landscaper   One time I weeded the front garden

Avian Technician   Three birds ruin stuff.

Major Gifts Officer   My mom gives me things when she’s done with them.

Bird Cams Operator   When the TV worked

Grand Prix Driver   Got the mold out of one of my car’s floor mats

Sous Chef   BERRIES!!

Entrepreneur   One time a lady stopped and asked me where we got our roof

 

SPECIAL SKILLS   I take action when I have coffee

Fluency in Spanish   That Shakira song

Textiles Manufacturing   I invented cutting V-necks out of crew necks?

Web Design   Cobwebs

Non-profit Management   One time I had a large latte and joined the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps on the same day

 

HONORS & AWARDS   Cha-cha-cha!

Dorothy B. Hyatt-Mortimer Bennington Smithey Award for Excellence in Literature   I won something in College. The Dorothy something? 

Community Recognition Award   The neighbors brought over a box of chocolate-covered nuts on New Year’s. 

 

PUBLICATIONS   Aspirations

Forthcoming

Forthcoming

Forthcoming

Forthcoming

Forthcoming

 

REFERENCES   

Ida Fenimore, CEO, Big Business Mom if someone calls asking for Ida tell them I was a real gem.

Agnes G. Catt Barn cat. Smart! No fleas!

Hendrix Sullivan Dean STOP BITING THE PHONE JIM

Jim on phone

Photo credit: Radha Narayan

Serious Inquiries Only.

In Praise of Giving Up

Never give up. Except, there are definitely good times to give up.

Angry Garage Cat with Water Bowl and Feet, Dusk.

Angry Garage Cat with Water Bowl and Feet, Dusk.

Like the time I gave up on managing clean water for the garage cat who came with the house (wouldn’t come in –> got named “Angry Garage Cat” –> name got shortened to “AGC”–> stopped being angry, became “Agnes Grey Cat”). It was in that space of lazy uselessness, in giving up on remembering her water dish, that I was able to observe that Agnes (Angus, if she’s being bad) actually drinks from the bird bath too, as a member of the clever kitteh committeh. Now I can just keep the bird bath clean and full, and– the wisdom of having a feral cat and wild birds drinking from the same container notwithstanding– we’re all as watered and bathed as we choose to be.

But if accidental yard wisdom doesn’t impress you, I invite you to consider the aggregate of the following items that I would never have learned if I hadn’t given up:

–Cracked Ukrainian eggs can dry out over time, without being blown out, and do OK as mantle pieces with some luck and no glue. [I gave up on a cracked egg and forgot about it, and months later realized it was doing fine.]

–Bread can be toasted without a toaster in a dry cast-iron pan! [For some unknowable reason my husband is passionately against having a toaster oven. I gave up on convincing him we should get another when the last one kicked the bucket, and now, out of necessity, we’ve discovered a quick way to toast bread without taking up severely precious counter space.]

–Indian Creek has more black raspberries than I do, and they’re the size of motherloving olives. [Half of my patch is absurdly difficult to access and the drought-stressed berries are small and look petrified and ashamed of themselves this year. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a berry warrior, but some wounds are more worth it than others, and if I hadn’t given up on my own shriveled fruits, I never would have migrated desperately down the hill towards the great and glorious berry patch of the farm next door.]

Anguish-free playing! Also when you play violin you can be in a band and not have to lie about what instrument you're playing to avoid vacant stares. Bonus viola joke of the day: What do you do with a violist when he dies? Answer: move him back a stand.

Anguish-free playing! Also when you play violin you can be in a band and not have to lie about what instrument you’re playing to avoid vacant stares. Bonus viola joke of the day: What do you do with a violist when he dies? Answer: move him back a stand. Photo credit: Jack O. Bocchino

–Violin is a much more playable instrument than viola for my hands. [Once a violist, always a violist!, BUT, after two decades of doing the musical equivalent of trying to lift a watermelon with a toothbrush, one is more relieved than disappointed to just start fiddling for godsakes.]

–I am capable of being best friends with a homicidal maniac. [I gave up on making my green-cheeked conure, Jim, socially acceptable in any way, shape, or form– and it turns out he’s inexplicably jolly in his own rageful way. Trust me, I’ve dreamed of parrot kabobs while trying not to scream in languages I don’t even know many, many times, but because I gave up on him, because I bloody well threw in the towel, I’ve learned to take him as he is. We actually have fewer murder attempts in general at our house now that I’ve given up, I suspect at least in

Jim as the Dread Parrot Roberts.

Jim as the Dread Parrot Roberts.

part because I’m not carrying around the massive stress of constantly observing the huge disparity between what I thought having a little green-cheek would be like and the reality I live with every day.]

These little examples can be parsed as follows:

1) The cracked egg we will think of as the act of giving up leading to the happy accident. The more I recognize the constant role that chance plays in my life, the easier it is to have hope– perhaps contrary to what one might think. One could say, for example, “if everything is governed by a coin toss, why should I care?” but what happens in practice is something more like “which things outside the presupposed pattern will I get to see today?” — and in this second case, a sense of magic and delight sets in over time.

Possum = outside the pattern.

Possum = outside the pattern.

2) The cast-iron pan-as-toaster we can consider the desperation-is-the-mother-of-invention moment. By giving up on an original, habitual, or assumed method or reality I can move on and try new ones. And have toast.

3) The better berries episode we’ll call the phone a friend phenomenon. Noting and respecting my own shortcomings/failings/handicaps/limits has become one of my favorite skills, because it leads me to seek out, witness, enjoy, and learn from the bounty/success/surplus/excellence of other people. Just as no partner can be everything to anyone, so no one can be everything to herself. I’ve had moments of extreme gratitude, wonderment, and appreciation as a result of cases like these. As my mother once put it to me, when I called her from my car after seeing an outbuilding I was driving past get struck by lightning and burst into flames, “Caroline, people want to be in the newspaper.” Let me translate for you: don’t be a hero if you (or your mother) don’t feel you’re the best candidate. People like opportunities to help. (I also know this because I have a preoccupation with helping set up chairs and tables during acting class as needed. I’m actually proud every time I set up a folding table.)

4) The violin episode we’ll call great green gobs of relief. Sometimes you just gotta do something less torturous, man.

As long as you give up on taking away his Special Baton to stick it in your ear, we'll all leave alive.

As long as you give up on taking away his Special Baton to stick it in your ear, we’ll all leave alive.

5) The homicidal maniac friendship we’ll call the keep your wig on and dial down the expectation reminder. The moment I start letting things and people and parrots be what they are, instead of horribly disfigured versions of what I expected/wanted, is the moment I get a lot happier, and nicer.

Perhaps, if you still find yourself twitching when I say “just give up,” you could translate the phrase into popular children’s film parlance and say (or sing passionately) “let it go.” But let is so passive… and give has the ring of generosity about it! And really, isn’t that what you’re doing if you offer yourself the option to give up? Being generous with yourself? I like the up part too, so buoyant.

The last species of giving up I’ve encountered is a hybrid of spaciousness and play. I learned it at yoga. Quickly and assuredly, let me say I am the anti-soccer-mom-yoga type of yoga appreciator. None of my yoga gear is perfect, or even presentable, really, and I laugh a great deal while doing yoga, and I drool frequently. So with those as my established credentials, let me say: Warrior Three.

Warrior three, man. Avec boots. Yeah.

Warrior Three. Avec boots.

One of the finest teachers of anything that I’ve had the joy to work with, Nicole Stumpf, is constantly reminding her students to inquire about what tiny pieces of effort they can let go of in any given posture. When you’re in a tricky pose for your body, experience level, or just the kind of day you’re having, often the difference between simply surviving it and actually getting to a point where you start to drool is making the choice to give up. Give up the vision of what the pose should look like, give up the habit of tensing in fear of falling, give up the expectation of improvement. In that space, funny things happen, and it begins to feel like… play.

Who are the best at play? Children. Who are the best at learning? Children. Who are the most joyful, insightful, intuitive, resilient? Children. And as we know from kids, play is serious business. It’s how they learn just about everything important. Make for yourself the space to play– by giving up on controlling everything, and risking tipping over like the joyful idiot you are.

Tipping over.

Fig. 7: Idiot Tips Over, With Lake.

 

 

 

 

The Problem of the Egg

The first and foremost problem with eggs is that birds come out of them.

Purposefully unflattering photo of Momo, after a shower. One doesn't generally do this kind of thing to one's friends, but in the service of a sound point, I'll let it slide.

Purposefully unflattering photo of Momo (cockatiel), after a shower. One doesn’t generally do this kind of thing to one’s friends on a blog, but in the service of a sound point, it must be allowed.

One has to keep one’s cockatiel from procreating. Anyone who’s met a cockatiel knows this.

One has to keep one’s conures from procreating, too. Anyone who’s met Jim knows this.

The second problem is minor, and it is one of not-necessarily-welcome inspiration. For example, one may have a teensy compulsion to decorate all available eggs in the painstaking, time-sucking, back-ruining, soul-crushing Ukrainian style (great supplies and design books at the Ukrainian Gift Shop). This compulsion manifests a few months before Easter and can linger for several months.

Same design done on three eggs. No prizes for who guesses which is the cockatiel egg.

Here I did the same design on three eggs. Sorry, no prizes for those who guess which is the cockatiel egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This means that frenzy may require fresh challenges, like smaller and smaller eggs (stolen from the cockatiel stash), or absurdly large eggs (goose eggs acquired at the local tree-hugging grocery, where, god bless them, both duck and goose eggs are available for several months in the spring).

Goose and duck eggs I decorated in the Ukrainian style

The third, and most difficult, problem is what I will call “the sadness of the egg,” and it’s related to problem #1, and best described by Tennyson in his “In Memoriam”, in which he calls nature “red, in tooth and claw.”

To understand what he means, ask yourself when you started letting or would start letting your kids see and understand the everyday nature of death. Because it’s everywhere, all the time, but especially in the cruel spring, and especially among avians. Around March, Other People And Their Kids start having visions of cutesy peeping fluffs on the horizon, while I see Nature herself, fangs dripping, in a crown made of cute birds’ bones.

6-9 day old Tree Swallow chick, suffering the fate of all nestlings, which is to look like Jack Nicholson. (Photo taken during a supervised study at Cornell)

6-9 day old Tree Swallow chick, suffering the fate of all nestlings, which is to look like Jack Nicholson.*

Four broods of eggs or hatchlings– one Black-capped Chickadee, two Eastern Bluebird, and one Tree Swallow– disappeared entirely, each seemingly overnight, from the nesting boxes in my back yard. It was a great, looming, lurking, horrible mystery. I found no forensic evidence, even when I combed the area for parts, feathers, blood, anything at all (anyone who deals with birds, as I learned from chickens at a young age, must steel herself against death and destruction. Chickens are very good at getting themselves abducted and disassembled).

Even on the Cayugabirds list serve (great edutainment), where some of the top bird-brains in the solar system mill about intertextually, I had to paw through several responses to my inquiry (something to the effect of “hi smart people, what they hey is disappearing my birds?”) before finding a theory that I could tell, from corroborating details, was hitting the nail on the head. It was from a woman who’d grown up on a farm, the gritty way, and knew the culprit without hesitation: House Sparrow. She knew because she’d had to trap and kill her own, lest all the bluebirds be killed.

Bluebird pair

Tree Swallow pair on nest box. A Tree Swallow can be a  worthy opponent for humans meddling with its nesting box, but alas it tends not to be formidable enough against House Sparrow marauders.

Now, some interesting and difficult realities: 1) House Sparrows are “non-native” to North America, are now very common after their import from Europe, and are widely hated by bird lovers, despite their lively intelligence, because they threaten the breeding success of native cavity-nesting birds, who are already in a pinch because of habitat loss and a hundred other gloomy factors. 1.5) Any non-Native American human is also, technically, “non-native” to North America, by the by. 2) House Sparrows often harass or even kill their neighbors, either to gain actual use of coveted nest boxes or just out of sheer competitive instinct to defend and dominate their territories.

The Cayugabirds list serve woman’s solution had to do with trapping the male inside the box and twisting his head off. There are people I know, love, and respect who have killed their nesting House Sparrows out of fierce devotion to Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows and other native cavity nesting birds. And although I have killed a mouse with a brick (because it was suffering), I did not feel I was someone who could twist the head off a House Sparrow, even if he had murdered (manslaughtered? birdslaughtered? simply erased?) upwards of fourteen baby native birds on my watch. Whether this puts me on higher moral ground or confirms me as a nincompoop is a mystery to me.

Tree Swallow egg, with beginning vascularization. I let the girl running the study do this part because it scared me to death.

Tree Swallow egg, with beginning vascularization. I let the girl running the study do this part because it scared me to death.*

But I can, it turns out, remove all House Sparrow nesting material that I find in my boxes, and toss the eggs, though the first time I did this it gave me serious ethical hives. (Bluebird nests are very tidy and deep and made of finer flora; Tree Swallow nests most often involve a downy canopy of collected feathers from other species, like a little alien pod for safe delivery of their young; Black-capped Chickadee nests are composed of moss and animal fur… and so forth. It’s become easy for me to tell a House Sparrow nest because it’s made of larger materials and uses messier construction techniques, and the eggs are a faint gray-turquoise speckled with a fine brown. I’ve kept a few of these eggs because they’re beautiful, and because, like Eddard Stark, I believe if I’m going to kill something, or keep it from living, I shouldn’t pretend it never happened.)

I’ve also rigged up my version of what the interweb calls a “monofilament” and constructs of fishing line and a tidy little lead weight. Mine is brown thread from my husband’s travel sewing kit and a screw I found on the floor for a weight (perpetual home improvement debris…), all held up by a thumbtack. (I always end up making “my version of______”, usually from lack of patience, and also a keen willingness to fail in complete ignominy if it means a small chance at earlier success).

The idea here, with the “monofilament,” is that the House Sparrow doesn’t like having to fly into and past a line drawn down the center of the entry hole, but a bluebird who has already laid an egg will plow past it no problem, because she’s already invested so much of her energy inside that box. It may also have to do with flight and landing styles– I’d wager so because sparrows are more ground-based, stubby-winged, less elegant fliers in general than the graceful airborne insect-eaters, like swallows and bluebirds.

Bluebird eggs, with purposeful-looking spot of divine light.

Bluebird eggs, with purposeful-looking spot of divine light.

So far? I hesitate to type it aloud, but for now there remains a clutch of five bluebird eggs in the box– this pair’s third attempt at a family this season (that I know of). Of course, it’s frightfully late in the season to be having babies: imagine trying to keep up with and feed five flying children, without the use of your hands, and get them independent and ready for migration or winter survival on their own in less than two months. So, even if they make it past the House Sparrow problem, they’ll have to deal with the whole problem of how to keep living.

As someone who has carried and lost a pregnancy, and come close to death, I’ve had a million thoughts, of course, about what it means to create life, and to lose it– but one that stands out is the comfortingly biological view that one who lives with bird eggs is at risk of developing: eggs are both extraordinary and common; they are both absurdly fragile and miraculously effective; they are gained and lost every day.

I don’t know whether my part in the equation of all these eggs is net positive or not. I’m trying to do what I feel is most beneficial for the most needful populations. But if I’m telling the truth, I think the reason I love birds, and their eggs, is that it’s they who are helping me.

Labeling, with careful, even breaths, because when you hold your breath, that's when you break things.

Labeling, with careful, even breaths, because when you hold your breath, that’s when you break things.*

***

*All photos in which I am handling wild viable eggs or chicks were taken during a supervised study at Cornell.

The Berry Picker

It’s hot. It’s ungodly hot. I have worn a hat. I don’t know what’s worse, the heat of my hat or the heat of the hot.

Approaching the rows of red and black raspberries at Indian Creek Farm, I see PEOPLE. OTHER PEOPLE. Clearly they are bad people.

Figure 1.

West-coast blackberry picking instruction for uninterested cousins, Fig. 1.

I choose a well-laden spot away from them, and refrain from eye contact. Where have they heard about the raspberries? Surely not many people talk about raspberry picking, much less make their own jam. Two days ago I heard a group in the fourth row working together to get enough to make a pie. Rookie mistake to labor over something that doesn’t keep in the cupboard by the pound, much less by the seventeen pounds. Furthermore, they’d brought three pickers (two adult, one sub-adult) to get enough for that one pie.

It is possible today’s strangers don’t know what black raspberries are, I think as I accelerate my pace. It is possible they will skip this swath because they believe the ripe black caps are just ruined red raspberries, taken by the heat last week. They’re speaking a language I don’t know, which is evidence of the fact that they are probably talking about me, and how much space they should tell their children to give me.

West-coast blackberry picking instruction for unwilling and irritated cousins, Figure 2.

West-coast blackberry picking instruction for unwilling and irritated cousins, Fig. 2.

I’m hoping I’ve just heard the Russian for “stay away from the woman in the hat.”

Then again, maybe they can learn from me, if they are savvy enough to observe with an eye for technique. Very few people know how to bend low, squat, and lift even the first-year growth to find berries: one or two other humans have already passed this spot and seemed not to see the rioting fruit beneath the low, new leaves.

Once I’ve spent an hour amassing a quart of black caps, I can breathe easier, move slower to the red raspberry end of my northerly row, where the comparatively luxurious, thumb-sized red berries will fall into my second quart container and gently bruise each other into full flavor in less than twenty minutes. Easy work, if you can get it. I don’t look up once, lest someone think joining my row is an acceptable behavior.

A group of college-aged people comes down the aisle two rows south. They are discussing whether raccoons have opposable thumbs and throwing something at each other periodically. When I realize they’re lobbing berries I feel faint with rage.

West-coast blackberry picking instruction for cousins who would rather be hiking as planned, Figure 3.

West-coast blackberry picking instruction for cousins who would rather be hiking as planned, Fig. 3.

But I might be able to get one more quart before I have to hightail it back through the hedge row to our adjoining property. I’ve promised my husband an early dinner so he can go to bed by eight, a necessary preparation for the 2:30am wakeup of an airline pilot who commutes to his hub.

This is serious: the primate’s bone-marrow-deep compulsion to hunt and gather is charging full speed at the partner’s desire to see her husband’s life slightly less impossible.

Do the math: one quart of black caps equals roughly one hour; one quart of red raspberries, at this patch and this point in the season, equals no more than twenty minutes, right? So I still have time before I have to get back. I’ll up my game.

An old dog teeters by. I acknowledge him and return to my “secret row,” the one where all the canes appear to be non-fruiting first-year growth, but are producing like mad on the DL. Damn, some enterprising micro-human must have been through, because there are very few ripe berries and my squat and lift technique is yielding a pace of–

A cute guy in a yellow shirt is scuffing down the orchard road with a sensibility of greeting about him. I’m taken aback until I realize it’s the shirt I bought at some horribly boring writer’s conference to improve my very-slim chances of satisfaction. It says, only, “BUTTER.” My dear husband has come to get me.

And though he’s come across the hedge and down the orchard road to find me because I’ve lost track of time (I’m off by almost an hour) and the poor man is hungry, and also, it comes out later, slightly worried that I might have expired among the berry canes or been targeted by berry-picking molesters, I know the unspoken subtext:

The cousins have at this point continued their hike without me, Fig. 4.

The cousins have at this point continued their hike without me, Fig. 4.

He is here because I am desirable. I am indomitable. See the tiny puffy levees along the insides of my arms, dotted with blackening blood. See the patient sweat on my red, impossibly focused face. I have true grit. I am the person you want on your side. I am the cupboard-filler.

Behold my two quarts, one black, one red, on the drought-toughened grass.

 

 

 

 

Post-script: Some birds you might hear or see this time of year while berry-picking: Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, Killdeer, Cedar Waxwing. Or Jim. (Below.)

Post-script: Sometimes it is worth suffering even the indignity of a harness to ride on the berry-quart.

Post-script 2: It is worth even the indignity of a harness to ride with black raspberries.

Stop Hating Your House

We’ve lived in some places so full of character they felt like clown cars from which all entertaining memories leap.

One is famous in retrospect for a spider that lived in the community laundry room and would charge, rearing, at anyone who wanted to use the dryer. My husband finally stared it down in a standoff involving sprayable car wax. At another Real Winner of a place, the landlord would run through the apartment, from end to end, in his 1970s short-short running shorts (red), because it was a convenient pass-through from one street on his exercise route to the next. He never called, or knocked. We’d just wave without looking up as he ran through the kitchen, dripping sweat and huffing out greetings.

Then there was the creepily sterile place I took in grad school, out of desperation to have something “reliable” for a change. It felt like a sanitorium, and bore the distinction of “new” fixtures and furniture that really just felt disappointingly neutral. There was nothing in the sense of the structure either to love or to fight with. It was a lukewarm experience.

Now we live in a place we struggle to love on a sine-wave kind of basis (appreciation dissolves into abject hatred, even tears, every few months), despite its many, many delights. It’s currently painted about three colors (we couldn’t decide, we couldn’t afford, we couldn’t, we couldn’t, we can’t, it’s awful, it’s embarrassing, we’re bringing our neighbors’ property values down). We feel like this house is falling down around us, that former owners took breathtakingly hopeful shortcuts whose repercussions we labor under daily, that we pour our time and sincere if untrained efforts into it without hope of an end.

The hollyhocks grew eight feet one year and leered out over the rest of the plants like menacing distant cousins. Nobody knows why, but It was a pretty garden in its strangeness. Note also the absence of stairs off the front porch.

The hollyhocks grew eight feet one year and leered out over the rest of the plants like menacing distant cousins. Nobody knows why. Note also the absence of stairs off the front porch.

An end?

Really? Is that what we want?

Let’s slow this thought down a bit: “Agh, all we ever do is work on this place.” What exactly do we suppose we’d do if we weren’t working on it? Perhaps enjoy the giant new cedar deck with friends? Our friends like us with our stupid deck that has the nails that stick up and hardly any paint left on it, and that’s just one reason they’re cool friends. Maybe we suppose we’d do more creative things if we didn’t devote so much time to preventing the ever-imagined house apocalypse– maybe we see ourselves painting, songwriting, doing crafts in our spaciously clean and updated home. This is a good point, but we manage to do some of that AND get house improvements done. I for one am just as proud of my third coat of polyacrylic on the new door trim as I am of a knitting project or a new poem. In some ways, that trim finish gives me a more saucily self-satisfied glow because it’s useful in a physical, practical, right-now kind of way. It’s protecting the wood, and the wood does some important services, such as keeping the steady stream of mice that files into our house from breaching the dam and pouring brazenly into the open room. Instead they must sneak in, like hard-working mice. Real mice.

The other part of wishing for an end to the constant upkeep and improvement is the list tacked to the wall at the top of the basement stairs in my grandmother’s (huge, lakeside estate) home. (She and my grandfather bought that house back when a small town on a lake did NOT bring in millions for its lakeside homes; they were ahead of the times.) Now she’s in her nineties, and she still prunes bushes, waters gardens, washes floors, vacuums up ladybug carcasses when they get piled too deep near the upstairs windows. She manages and keeps the place herself, with support for the rougher tasks, and we all tip our hats to the power of purpose in keeping her around for us. The list at the top of her basement stairs is almost, itself, a poem. “Front porch floor painted, July 2016.” Under each entry, a hundred more. “Driveway resurfaced, June 2015.” “Furnace serviced, September 2014.” Then there are the hundred things that didn’t get written on the list, like weeds pulled, broken branches trimmed, lawns mowed, beds remade, rugs vacuumed, firewood brought in, and the little flying squirrel released from the pantry after a frantic viewing party full of wonderment at how he ever got in.

Another flying squirrel, this one in our own house, arrived in the middle of the night and began throwing shampoo bottles in the bathroom. Note the crummy paint job and 80s wood laminate cupboard. Neither detracts, ultimately, from the fact of the squirrel.

Another flying squirrel, this one in our own house, arrived in the middle of the night and began throwing shampoo bottles in the bathroom. Note the crummy paint job and 80s wood laminate cupboard. Neither detracts, ultimately, from the squirrel.

Notice how rodents make a bid for thematic gravity. They always do that. (See Robert Burns’ famous poem about the “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” )

So, too, the little things, the little, futile-feeling acts of rebellion against the constant state of chaos and disintegration of a home, add up to a kind of cosmic importance. Regardless of their actual, objective value. Because there’s no such thing as objective value.

Another reason I have for imploring you to stop hating your house, besides the fact that it will set a good example for me, is that we’re deeply, inescapably subjective, even perverse creatures when it comes to what other people have. I find myself explaining to people why they’re wrong about how nice something in my house is. (“Wow, there’s so much light in here!” “Yeah, but the windows are old and crappy and dirty.” etc.) I don’t think this is modesty so much as a compulsion to put down the good things in our life that we know could be better, because we’re trained not to live in the present, enjoying its fruits, but to be instead live wrapped up in a view of the future, which of course never arrives as anything but the present.

Well, yes, of course almost everything could be better. But why do we have to care about that so much when they’re not that bad? (My sister recently said she was going to make a flow chart for people who think things are pretty bad for them. The first bubble would say “Are you reading this? Congratulations! You’re alive!”; the second bubble would say “Are you living in a war zone? If not, Congratulations! If so, See Bubble One”; the third had something to do with being pinned under a heavy object.)

One of the two birds primarily responsible for chewed windowsills. And books. And poop everywhere.

One of the two birds primarily responsible for chewed windowsills. And books.

The last reason you should stop hating your house is that time heals all wounds. You’ll either stop caring eventually, acclimating to the chunks taken out of the windowsills by pet birds, or you’ll find out your neighbors wish their deck had the same “coziness” as yours (“what?! It’s a damned safety hazard!”), or you’ll fix it, sort of, and glow with the knowledge that you conquered, sort of, or you’ll be glad you have the story about the crazy, half-naked landlord leaving a slip-and-slide of exercise sweat behind after he ran uninvited through your house.

Or, you can always just get on with your life, speaking aloud one of my favorite sayings to be applied to almost any state of affairs, in order to mark the moment you came to your senses: “Looks good from a galloping horse!”

Ride on, friend, ride on.