Thursday, June 21, 2018

Of buckets and birds

Can I still call it spring cleaning if I do it on the first day of summer? This morning I was washing algae off siding on the north side of the house, reaching as high as I could while the step-stool I was standing on kept sinking deeper into the soft ground and threatening to topple over on top of the bucket, but all I could think was: I'm glad I didn't try to finish this on Tuesday.

I did start the job on Tuesday morning, cleaning as much as I could without a step-stool until I was interrupted by a wasp busily building a nest below our electric meter. I'd have stopped anyway because the heat and humidity were oppressive. How hot was it? Hot enough to cause a local stretch of Interstate 77 to be closed after heat made the pavement heave.

The heat made me want to heave too, even when I tried to beat the heat by walking up the hill very early in the morning. I took the camera in hopes of finding butterflies among the blooming milkweed, but soon I was sweating so profusely that I had trouble holding on to the camera. At 8:00 in the morning!

Today was a better day for outdoor work: a little overcast, a little damp, but not too hot or humid. I had to ask the resident tall person to help clean the last bit of algae I couldn't reach even with the step-stool. And then I rewarded myself with some time amongst yardbirds and hummies, which have reached the territorial stage, guarding certain feeders and chasing away any visitors that violate the invisible borders. They're fun to watch and they sound like tiny motorboats zipping through the air.

Swarming hummies is a sure sign that summer has finally arrived--high time to finish the last bit of spring cleaning. At this point, anything that I've missed will just have to wait until next spring.

brown thrasher


song sparrow

house finch

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Richard Russo on writing, comedy, and life

In The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life, Richard Russo says some interesting things about writing, comedy, and life. In the title essay, on the quirks of fate that propel some toward achieving their goals while others abandon them, he writes:

A writer's truest self hides in the same dark terrain where self-doubt and anxiety dwell--those dread whisperers—and it’s that self they constantly assail. They are, I think, the original hackers, determined to hijack the code, to show us who’s boss, to confuse us into thinking the danger comes from without, not from within. Like Odysseus, we have little choice but to lash ourselves to the mast and listen to their Siren song, knowing all too well that they want us on the rocks. There is a narrow passage. There must be.
In "Getting Good," a long essay on what it takes to get good at writing (practice, guidance, feedback from a writing community, maturity, insight, and some other things I'm forgetting), he considers the difficulty of accepting rejection:
Writing communities provide the necessary understanding that the word ‘no’ isn’t personal; that’s important because personal is precisely what rejection (a nine-letter synonym for ‘no’) feels like. When a computer says no—as mine does several times a day—I don’t take it personally, unless I’m really pissed off. After all, it’s just a machine. It’s telling me I’ve done something wrong, which I’d prefer not to be true but invariably is….I don’t take the machine’s intransigence to mean that I’ll never be any good at operating it or that I’m not good enough in general, either. I just have to find my mistake and fix it, after which, assuming I haven’t put my boot through the screen, we can be friends again.
Helpful insight. My favorite essay, though, is "The Gravestone and the Commode," in which he examines the hazards of writing comedy and the close proximity between laughter and pain. A few choice excerpts:
My writing students used to ask, How do you make things so funny? To which I usually replied, I don’t make anything funny. I’m simply reporting the world as I find it....
The problem for a writer with a genuinely comic imagination is not “making things funny” or even locating enough funny things in the real world to write about. Rather, the problem—and it’s the same for any artist—is getting other people to see things as you do, to honor the truth of your idiosyncratic way of seeing. Art, in the end, may be little more than this: convincing people to set aside their natural reluctance long enough to register your vision....
The greatest obstacle comic writers face is that far more people truly see the gravestone than they do the commode. They look on the world and see death, ignorance, poverty, bigotry and injustice, and they see nothing funny in any of it. Worse, they suspect there must be something wrong with people who do....
The final test of what’s funny or not is whether it’s true. Of course I don’t mean if some incident actually happened, or even if the story has been embellished or exaggerated. What I mean is: Is it true to our experience of life? Is this the way people really are? Is this how the world truly works? Not coincidentally, this is the test of all good writing, not just comic writing....

The best humor has always resided in the chamber next to the one occupied by suffering. There’s a door adjoining these rooms that’s never completely closed. Sometimes it’s open just a crack, because that’s all we can stand. Most of the time it’s flung wide open on a well-oiled hinge, and this is as it should be. Those in favor of shutting it tight are always, always wrong.
So true--but those of us who like to stand in that doorway have to be careful or we'll end up getting our fingers smashed when the door slams shut.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

But trilliums can't swim! (And manatees can't fly!)

What's big, fat, and homely and swims slowly in Florida's rivers?

If you answered "a trillium," you are clearly delusional. Nevertheless Trillium is one of the proposed names for a young female manatee orphan currently residing in the Columbus Zoo.

As a press release from the Columbus zoo explains (read it here), a rescue team found the calf and her mother suffering from the cold in waters off the Florida coast in February. The article describes the mother as "negatively buoyant," which is bad news for a mammal that lives underwater but has to surface to breathe. When the mother died, the calf was taken first to the manatee rehabilitation facility at Sea World in Orlando and then to the Columbus Zoo.

Now that she's healthy and thriving, she needs a name. Her companion, a rescued manatee calf called Heavy Falcon, "received his name as a nod to the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch that took place on February 6, 2018--the same day he was rescued." In what ways does a manatee resemble a rocket or a bird of prey? Look--up in the sky! It's a manatee! (Not.)

The other rescued calf, though, still lacks a name. Her caretakers have found her "more shy and cautious than some of the other manatees" and laud her "sweet demeanor," which may be one reason they've proposed naming her Trillium. Both trilliums and manatees thrive only in very specific conditions, but that's about the only similarity I see. Trilliums are small and elegant, while manatees are most definitely not.

Don't get me wrong--I love manatees! But there's just nothing about a manatee that says "Trillium." Fortunately, the Columbus Zoo has offered some other options for names, all associated in some way with Ohio:

  • Carmen, "A nod to 'Carmen Ohio,' The Ohio State University alma mater." I'm trying to picture a manatee lumbering along the sidelines at a football game while the fans sing "Carmen Ohio." Can manatees sing?
  • Scioto, the river that runs through Columbus; its water ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, home of manatees, a connection that should remind us "how actions we take in Ohio can make a positive impact for the future of manatees and their habitats." It's a noble sentiment but "Scioto" always makes me think of the Steve Canyon comic strip, and you'd never fit a full-grown manatee into those little square panels.
  • Sloopy, from the title of the state rock song of Ohio, "Hang on Sloopy." Not only has the rescued calf demonstrated an ability to hang on through difficult times, but the word "sloopy" sounds the way manatees look as they slide through the water. 
Decisions, decisions. I wouldn't want to be responsible for sticking a name on such an impressive creature, and I definitely don't want to hand the naming duties over to whoever came up with "Heavy Falcon." Fortunately, the Zoo is asking for our help: manatee fans can cast a vote on the Columbus Zoo website (here). Results will be announced June 25. 

If enough people vote for Trillium, then one of these days I'll go hunting for trilliums in my springtime woods and suddenly picture a massive marine mammal swimming toward me in her slow, sloopy way. 

Monday, June 18, 2018

Warning: big trashy rant ahead

Lately when I walk up the hill through the woods, when I hear the wood thrush's call and see a deer crashing through underbrush and see the honeysuckle and chicory blooming, when I reach the stretch where the only visible house is the one the box turtle carries on his back, I often wonder what makes some people think This would be a great place to dump an old sofa--and let's toss some beer cans and a McDonald's bag out the window while we're at it!

I'm tempted to post a sign saying These woods are not a landfill, but I doubt that the kind of person who dumps a sofa in the woods would treat such a stricture with respect. What is it about this peaceful place that attracts such inconsiderate slobs?

I know the answer: the very remoteness of these woods makes people think that no one's watching. But don't they know there are more effective ways to discard a sofa? I mean, just set it out by the curb with a sign that says "Free." Someone will come along and take it away.

Or there's always the dump. Here's a true story: we don't have garbage pickup at our house, so anything that can't be recycled, composted, or burned goes into a big plastic trash can, and then stuff too big for the can gets stacked up in the garage. Sometimes it takes a year to fill up that trash can, but eventually it demands to be taken to the dump. So last week my husband filled his van with a couple of trash cans, some broken appliances, and various bits of scrap metal washed up by the creek. (For a while the creek kept bring us pieces of a washing machine. How long would we have to wait to get the whole thing?) Then he drove off to a metal recycling yard, where they gave him $48 for a pile of scrap, and then he went to the dump, where he paid $6 to dispose of the rest of the stuff. Even if you add in the cost of a couple of gallons of gas, he came out around $40 ahead.

So why don't the slobs take the sofa to the dump? They surely had a vehicle that could carry it, since they surely didn't haul it out to the woods on their backs. I'd gladly give them the six dollars to pay the disposal fee if they'd ask. But somehow they'd prefer to dump it in the woods.

Maybe they're trying to cover up evidence of a vicious murder--but no, burning would be the smart way to destroy evidence. Or maybe they carry memories of some horrible woods-related mishap, a camping accident or an encounter with a bear or a bunch of bullies, and they'll do anything to get back at the woods where the damage occurred. Or maybe they're just inconsiderate slobs.

But name-calling solves nothing. Here's what I'd like to do: I'd like to gather up all the people who toss their beer cans and fast-food wrappers out their car windows and who dump sofas off the backs of trucks, and I'd like to take them for a long, slow, quiet walk with a bunch of bird-watchers equipped with spotting scopes. I'd like to make them stand quietly and watch prairie warblers and indigo buntings in the tops of trees, listen to the sound of the creek water riffling over the rocks, watch a turtle make its stately way across the road, and feel the butterflies breezing past their cheeks. If they could see the depth and richness and beauty that suffuses the woods, maybe they wouldn't see the place as a landfill.

And then I'd like to hand them all a pile of trash bags and say Get to work.

Friday, June 15, 2018

A place for everything (except me)

After a long day of shopping various marvelous sales, my car is now crammed full of stuff to make our new parsonage livable: bed linens, waste baskets, towels, and a dish drainer, plus a laundry hamper holding a whole mess of cleaning products. We have enough kitchen things to divvy up between the two households, but I refuse to take any ratty old dish towels to a new place.

Even though it's fun to find just the right shower curtain at a tremendous discount and imagine the perfect spot for that peacock photo, I'm a little nervous about some other aspects of the move. I'm pretty good at organizing a move and getting all our stuff settled in to a new house, but I'm not so good at getting myself settled among a whole new group of people.

They are nice people, at least the ones I've met so far. Everyone has been encouraging and eager to help us adjust to a new place, but being surrounded by a large group of people I don't know makes this introvert want to run screaming from the room. All those names! All those relationships I'll need to figure out! All those private jokes I won't understand, perspectives I'll find puzzling, positions in the community I can't comprehend! How will I ever find my place?

I've done this before plenty of times, but this time I'll be hampered by splitting my time between two houses--and not just two houses but two communities, two groups of friends, and two positions. I know how to play the part of English Professor in any context, but the position of Pastor's Spouse has a more fluid job description that may include unspoken expectations. No one can measure up to that one pastor's spouse who baked wonderful pies or sang moving solos or played the piano or tended the nursery every Sunday. 

I don't do pies. Can't carry a tune or play a note. May not be able to commit to regular teaching duties because I'll be splitting my time between two places. I'm bound to disappoint someone fairly soon.

But maybe that's okay. Who wants to hang around with the perfect person who can do no wrong? Maybe they'll find my imperfections endearing. Maybe instead of trying to present a polished facade, I should drop the mask and let my ratty edges show.

But not on the dish towels. They'll be brand-new.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Summer? What summer?

This morning the barista behind the counter at the library cafe asked me how my summer's been going, and I could only laugh. An accurate answer would have to include too many disparate elements: floods, phone problems, and a stinging wasp, plus a new(er) car and all the paperwork it brings, minus a nephew, plus a birthday party and a visit from the grandkids and a former colleague, all the logistics involved with moving to a new parsonage and maintaining two households, lots of rain and not enough mowing, restful days in California and hectic days at home, and not nearly enough time to focus on research and writing projects. 

"Um, fine, how about yours?" doesn't seem to cover it all but that's the best I can do at the moment. Maybe things will slow down sooner or later. Or maybe this is just the pace of life these days. If so, I'm going to need a new set of cliches. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

In case I need any hoops and staves....

Once years ago we moved to a little town in northwest Ohio and I asked a longtime resident whether the town had any claim to fame. "Well," he said, "you know those curly fries you can get at the county fair? The guy who invented the special blade used to cut those fries did it right here in this town."

I don't know how you'd put that fact on one of those little signs you see at the edge of town: "Home of the guy who invented--never mind."

Even further back we moved to a little Ohio River town that boasted of its past glory thus: "A hundred years ago we were the pig-iron capital of the world." Which is absolutely everything you need to know about that town. 

Since we learned that my husband would soon be serving a church in Jackson, Ohio, we've been asking people about the town, and we've heard all kinds of great things about canoeing and hiking, the annual apple festival, historic iron furnaces, and a nearby petroglyph. It's a charming little town surrounded by significant hardwood forests, including the Wayne National Forest and, not far away, the Zaleski State Forest, close to my heart for two reasons: 1. good canoeing at Lake Hope; and 2. the name. (I grew up a Zelesky. It's not often that I see a name that comes close.)

The wealth of hardwood forests feeds another local industry: the manufacture of bourbon barrels. Yes: Jackson, Ohio, is home of Speyside Bourbon Cooperage, which constructs barrels and ships them all over the world for use in bourbon brewing. So it looks like Jackson has all my cooperage needs covered.

But who will cover my mattress and sofa needs? That's our next task: finding a few select items to fill in the blank spots in the parsonage. It's a cute little house that won't take much to make it warm and inviting, but it won't feel like home until we can sit and sleep. (And not in a barrel.)