Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dream State

On Route 17, past Salamanca, a small sign by the side of the road: "Natural Area." As opposed to what? Beyond it, a scene that spreads to the vanishing point, land, houses, trees, empty warehouses, soil.

How bad can anything truly be? I have running water -- in the house. No need to go outdoors at dark-thirty, break the ice lying heavy on the surface of the trough. In the house.

I dream my computer has been stolen, and my laptop, and the external hard drive, everything, everything gone. My work, my life, my connection to things outside me, my toil of a year and a half. Gone, too, is the antique desk it stood upon. This is a desk that never existed in reality, unlike the computers. But it is taken anyway. The room is empty, echoing now. It is a room I never had, but would have liked if I did. The person who should have cared in my dream does not care at all: "Oh, why are you complaining?" And so I learn to stop.

Sudden Poem

Those early evening stars,
alight in a washed blue sky
(Repeat after me: "Ciel");

there for me
as I turned the car along a curve on the Berme Road
--and there are many Berme Roads here, none of which meet, so beware!--
but then, you
might have an epiphany, getting lost, cursing yourself,
at twilight in this part of the world where you often go out and
look for a very

Blessings often wear funny disguises--the earrings you unwrap, and think: Eewww; I don't like these at all. And then, over time, they transform into the pair you reach for every time you go out. They make you feel wonderful. Or, say, the funny fleece shawl/sweater thing, with no arms, your mother gives you one Christmas: When am I ever going to wear this? The short answer, it turns out, is every single chilly night, now; it alone permits you to sit up and read in bed. And so it is with so many gifts. Those tricky things.

Dreams carry with them the residue of the past, and a bit of the future. They are the bridge between night and day. Your fears, and your hopes. The year past and the one to come in one strange, half-known package. Pull the ribbon. See. See.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Home for the Holidays (Kitsch/Non-Kitsch)

The little things are beginning to bug me. A splinter I can't get fully out, or a pebble in the shoe; a broken filling in the tooth, which the tongue runs over ceaselessly until raw.

Although sometimes I still look out into the diminutive living room of this temporary abode and think: How cozy! And mine! more often these days I just think: How diminutive.

No room to have people over, either for dinner, or for the cocktail party I always itch to give whenever the holiday season occurs: after all, god must have made eggnog, candy canes, and triple-creme cheeses with some purpose in mind, yes? (This recessionary year, the party would have to be BYOMC: bring your own milk chocolate.)

The little things combine into one big steamroller of dissatisfaction: the drawer in which I keep foil and waxed paper scrapes on its broken guides; the shelf on which I keep the quart of olive oil--used forty times a day, on everything--is just a tad too short in every spot but one, the one I miss all the time; the kitchen faucet drips; the dishwasher leaves crud on the plates; only three burners on the stove work; the toilets don't flush very well; the hopelessly ugly and cheap storm door doesn't fit the jamb and must be slammed so forcefully the glass insert shakes loose; there is no mudroom or even hall, so you are greeted by tripping over a pile of shoes, and the mittens fall behind the recycling containers they must sit atop--and thus must be shuffled from one to the other every time you need to use those. Capital among the deficits: no fireplace, no beating heart to the home. And a long winter ahead. But the granddaddy of all these little things is blowing up ever larger: the need to leash-walk Nelly every morning. Which means leaving my son alone in the house, as well as interrupting the 50-yard dash that is the morning attempt to be ready for the school bus.

This means, as I learned last week, to court danger. I leave my son hopefully well occupied eating his breakfast or getting dressed (or so I have requested, at least). I then take off down the road, praying to the gods of quick evacuation. And also of safety: I hope nothing goes wrong. Last week it did.

I had just reached the bottom of the drive when I heard it, heard it with those super-keen ears they give to all new mothers when they leave the hospital: my son is crying. Wailing, actually, in a combination of fear and pain. I can tell this particular admixture precisely.

As I raced up the drive, a thousand ghastly scenarios cinematically unreeled across the screen of my frightened head. When I burst in the door, he was standing there clutching at his throat. (But no spurting blood, as one of those films had showed.) He screamed, with difficulty, "A Lego! A Lego is in there!" At least he could talk, somewhat.

What do I do? How quickly the possibilities occur: Would my neighbor know what to do? She's had three children to raise. Surely one, if not two, had gotten a Lego stuck in his throat too. Would an ambulance be able to arrive in time? Or do I throw him in the car--with the nearest hospital thirty minutes away? Instead, I bent him over double and whacked his back, then did a watery version of a Heimlich, or what I hoped was one anyway. Out it popped.

I would like to say I embraced my son in gratitude upon this happy ending. Which I did. Right before the recriminations began, the aftermath of fear putting me on maternal autopilot: What were you doing putting things in your mouth? You are nine years old!

It was quickly apparent, though, that he had not "put things in his mouth"; he had merely used his teeth as a tool to pull two pieces apart. Just as he's seen me use my teeth as tool too many times to count. Just as I've always done, since youth, when my mother used to admonish me to stop, I was going to break a tooth. I think maybe this is called karma.

Just the same, I am looking forward to a better, more permanent home situation soon. A home of our own. Then I can only blame myself for the little things that go wrong.

The first thing I'll do is put up a fence, so I can let my dog out to walk herself. The second thing I'll do is put some more logs on the fire.

Happy holidays. And looking forward to a new and improved year, for all.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Paean

You never know what you're going to find in the dollar store. [I love the sensation of allowing myself temporary status as world's biggest sucker on passing through the door; also, it's like getting an extra prize in the Crackerjack to live in such a depressed area, because then one has so many different dollar stores to choose from. Although you learn just how depressed your region is when the dollar stores start going out of business en masse.] Like a DVD collection of ancient Christmas cartoons, including one for which Paul Anka did the songs; it features early seventies space robots dancing as well as a flying gang of aliens called the Bells Angels. Then there is the B&W "Toyland Caper," from the dawn of cinematic time; one must be grateful for the fact that this material is being archived, even if it is shockingly violent (the cats get beat up very badly by the proto-Mickey Mice). Or maybe because of that. I don't know.

Whatever, it made a fabulous beginning to the December 7 Home Film Festival of Holiday Movies of Yesteryear, subsumed in the general heading of Pizza Picnic, a weekly observation in our household. It does not necessarily concern pizza, but it does concern dinner eaten on the bed during family movie night. Nelly has been conditioned, whenever a certain large round tray is brought out, to evince uncontrollable excitement at the memory of my stupid decision, years ago when she was just a puppy, to bring her dinner upstairs too. Although I discontinued this practice years ago, the excitable behavior (you got it: screaming) has not extinguished. Why? Of course, you moron: you replaced dinner with something else edible. That's because, in my attempt to keep her quiet so we can actually watch the goddamn movie, I have to do so with a batch of tiny treats. I am trying to keep her quiet and on the floor, so she is not seen creeping inexorably closer to our plates on the "table" in order to finally reach out with her snake of a tongue and snatch the victuals right out from under our forks. The gold stars in this scholarly lesson are leftovers, spirited home in sodden paper napkins, from restaurant meals. Fine food that would otherwise be thrown away.

This gives me an idea that I know would never fly: partner to the excellent effort carried out in cities to collect uneaten food from restaurants to feed the needy. Well, what about the half-eaten stuff off plates? That could be collected to feed needy animals. That gristle and half-consumed salmon fillet; that lima bean puree and excess hamburger--all far better nutrition than the processed, dead, chemical and byproduct laden stuff they call dog food. To those who are offended by the notion of giving "people food" to animals, I say: You blooming idiot. How the heck is a dog to understand your arbitrary categories? They know only tasty food, and yucky food. Those are the only meaningful distinctions they can comprehend. After all, "dog food" is the invention, a mere seventy years ago, of hucksters who needed a place to unload "excess" wild horses (now there's a concept) and slaughterhouse detritus.

Instead, my dog is dining on bits of a feta-and-spinach omelet, courtesy of Sweet Sue's in Phoenicia, and the remnants of my dinner partner's chicken quesadilla, from Chefs on Fire (you read that right). All while Burl Ives sings tunefully from the little box, as the immortal Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cavorts across the screen. I've seen this movie every year since the time I was six, and I will never tire of it. Now my son embarks on the same journey. I hope that, although the landscape of life is now changing permanently, constricting in ways I think we are only now beginning to imagine, a permanent shift from the bloated consumption we had come to think was the American way, a misfit elf who wanted to become a dentist, and the little reindeer who was different from the rest, will accompany us into the future. Every year, no matter what else may come.

Friday, December 5, 2008


It's nice to stop talking for a while and let nature have a few words.

--A boy, age 9


Sometimes you have to listen to the wisdom of your child. Like when he stuns you with something you should have known, as you walk through the woods in Ohio. You have paused on a little wooden bridge, and all around is the sounding quiet. The water trickles beneath you; the brown leaves quiver on the branches. Your dog is far away, but near. You want her to come back soon, though, so you can get to Skyway for some fries on a silver tray hanging on the car window.

We were in Akron last week, where I renewed my love affair with the Cuyahoga River valley--O place of mysterious ravines, and odiferous waterways!--and thus with my appreciation of the man who saved this area from its certain destruction at the hands of greed incarnate (aka developers). This man was the late John F. Seiberling, who had the vision, and the passionate love for this Ohio land in his blood, and the position--in the U.S. congress--to do so. My Thanksgiving contained a silent prayer of thanks to him. We said it together, in the middle of the deep woods at Oak Hill, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.

On the long drive from New York to Ohio, the wheels of the fast-moving car loosed my thoughts. I had long wondered why Nelly had pulled a Cujo on her little "brother," Monty the Boston terrier, two years before. It had seemed so bizarre, so untoward. But suddenly, now, as I was thinking about my older sister and our long-simmering antipathy, it came clear: resource guarding. Nelly had a bit of a Problem in this regard, viewing meaty bones, open dishwashers filled with food-bedaubed plates, the kitchen floor and its crumbs, any dog toys, and my entire person, as resources she must guard at all costs from the incursions of other dogs. She could act pretty vicious. And so did my sister and me, snarking just as vociferously. What was the resource we were fighting over? Parental love. That's when I realized that human jealousy and canine resource guarding are one and the same thing.

Before I came to this, on I-80, I had spent the previous month--far too short a time for the task--belatedly trying to crate train Nelly. I thought I could condition her to the cue that when people sat down to eat, she should retire to her crate. Not. (Though we did make some progress; with a few more months, and many bowls of cut-up grilled cheese sandwich crusts, I think I could get her there.) Now, though, I knew I just had to prevent her from taking possession of anything she deemed so valuable she would pin Monty to the floor for the temerity of wandering too close to it. I thought if I could avoid bloodshed for a whole week, it would be a miracle. I didn't sleep the whole first night wondering how I was to pull this off.

As it turned out, I did. And completely missed the other big danger--did I mention Nelly is a screamer? My family went around with a shell-shocked look on their faces, or their hands over their ears, for whenever the dinner hour approached, or we dared to put on our coats, Nelly would start vocalizing--loudly and sharply--her distress. Boy, she calls it like she sees it. Whence this impatience, little girl?

My younger sister, who has never worked with a dog or heard of B. F. Skinner, floored me in much the same way as my boy did on our walk in the embracing woods. "What if you didn't give her whatever it is she wants, when she screeches like that?" Bull's eye, dear one: unwittingly, she had described one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and exactly the one that a knowledgeable positive reinforcement trainer would suggest. Negative punishment. (She did not, surprisingly, suggest positive punishment, which is where our entire world, alas, is oriented.)

I had no good response to her suggestion. Because it was correct, because I had been lazy, because Nelly's screaming is so entrenched, well practiced, and damn near instinctual with her. Also because, in daily life, I could never get to the point of actually doing anything, like going out the door or giving her dinner, because I'd always have to be giving her a chipper no-reward marker like "Too bad!" and pulling the food bowl away, or turning back from the door. I'd be a prisoner in my own home.

Not to mention, in this particular case, I would have missed the movie at the Highland Theater, the absolute best theater in the whole world, where you can get a drink at the bar, and a one-dollar bag of popcorn, and sit in a booth at a table and watch the silver screen that is the proper size, meaning the width of the whole building. All the while a neon glow from the art deco bar warms your back. And it was Nelly's screaming that made me need to leave and get a drink. Got it? Round and round it goes. Life. For which I am thankful, quite thankful, anyway.