Biscuits

biscuits

I have made biscuits – proper southern baking powder biscuits, not drop biscuits – exactly twice in my life. When I was in college I invited some friends over for dinner, and agreed to make biscuits to go along with the pot roast or whatever the main part of the meal was. I only remember the biscuits, though I don’t remember what recipe I followed. Since this was back in the days when cookbooks were our only option, it was most likely from The Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer, two old faithfuls from my mother’s kitchen. Not that my mother ever baked biscuits, but there were many other useful recipes and equivalents (for the student who tended to not have ingredients and therefore was always trying to figure out what she could substitute) in both books.

The biscuits did not, shall we say, turn out well. Because I don’t remember the recipe I can’t say if I followed it exactly, but they did not rise or expand in any way as biscuits are supposed to do. They went in the oven looking like white flat disks and they came out of the oven looking like brown flat disks. They did not quite make it to the texture of a cracker – it was something closer to quarter inch plywood. For reasons that escape me now, I did not throw them in the trash but instead hid the tray of biscuit coins in the laundry room, which (student housing being what it is) was more of a laundry closet, and also immediately adjacent to the kitchen and right outside the bathroom. “Hid” may not be quite the word I’m looking for here.

My guests dug happily enough into the meal and did not ask about any missing elements – that is, until after we finished eating when one of them asked if I had decided against the biscuits. I confessed that I had tried and failed, and we pulled the pan out of the laundry to inspect – and laugh at – my inedible results. When I think of those biscuits I think of a book I loved as a child in which the main character makes biscuits for her parents, pounding out some of her teenage frustrations on the dough. When her mother sees that she has baked biscuits she says with some surprise that their daughter has become domesticated. Her father, however, while chewing on a mouthful of tough biscuit, says something like “Tamed, maybe. Domesticated, not quite.”

This book, and this character, were part of a long line of books I read and loved about girls who were tomboys or loners in one way or another. Girls who were not skilled at – or interested in – the girly things that other girls enjoyed. My oldest sister was always a fan of dolls, and dreamed of nothing more than being a mother. She planned to have four children when she grew up: two girls and two boys, and she had their names picked out by the time she was ten. I had stuffed animals, not dolls. When I thought about being a grown-up, I always pictured myself alone.

I chalked up biscuits as one more frilly skill that I did not have. Some people, I reasoned, are bread people, and some people are pastry people. I am bread people. I’m not sure why biscuits go in the pastry category, or even if they do for anyone but me. Fiddly things that require a delicate touch that I obviously lack, was my point.

Yesterday I decided to get over my thirty year fear of biscuits. I’ve learned a lot about baking since I was in my early twenties, and I’ve made things that are a lot more fiddly than a biscuit and had them come out well. I did some internet research, found a recipe that looked like it had all the right ingredients and steps, followed the recipe exactly, and half an hour later I had a pan full of perfectly risen, flaky, delicious biscuits. The main thing I had to do was stop thinking I couldn’t make them. The second thing I had to do was make them. It was that simple, and it – well, the second part, anyway – was that easy. Stopping thinking I couldn’t make them was what took the thirty years. Making them took the thirty minutes.

I am eating my biscuits alone, not because I have in fact grown up to live alone but because Rose is away visiting our oldest and youngest children. The youngest child is now eight years older than I was when I had my original biscuit disaster. July is anniversary time for me and Rose. We have quite a few anniversaries, but I don’t know the dates of them all. We have the day we met – and though that was one of the very few, if not only, times in my life that I can remember the exact moment I met someone, I don’t remember the date.

We have the date of our first horse show together, which we sometimes count as our anniversary though we didn’t actually get together until over two years later. We met through horses, and paired up to show together because our horses were at the same level (level zero, I think it’s called – they were both complete novices). We actually had two shows that first weekend, and it was the weekend daylight savings began, so 6 a.m. on the Sunday of the second show was an hour earlier than 6 a.m. on the day of the first show on Saturday. I called Rose and when she answered I said “Rose? Why aren’t you here?” She said “It’s not 6 a.m.” and I said “You’re right. It’s 6:15.” We do still wish each other a happy anniversary on daylight savings, even though the date keeps moving.

We have the anniversary of our first official date, and the anniversary of when we moved in together, and the anniversary of when we moved in together again after we split up for a few months. The anniversaries that I know the exact dates of, both in July, are the anniversary of our commitment ceremony after we had been together for twelve years (our hairdresser asked “Are you sure, though?”), and the anniversary of our courthouse wedding after we had been together for twenty years (I mean, why not get married for your twenty year anniversary?).

Despite the improvements in my biscuit-making over the years, I think Rose would agree that “domesticated” may still not be the best word to describe me, and I’m not too sure about “tamed,” either. This winter will be thirty years since we first met. If someone asked me to create a metaphor for marriage, I’m not sure “biscuit-making” would be at the top of my list. But when I think about the process for me, maybe it’s not too far off. It’s simple to do it, but it’s easy to do it wrong, and you need to find that balance between stopping believing you can’t, and just doing it.

 

Everyday Magic

Magic hosta

Many years ago, the bagpiper we hired for Rose’s father’s memorial service looked around our property and said “This is the kind of place where if you are sitting down, you should be doing something.” I’m flying solo here for a few weeks and I am reminded of that every day, as I try to keep up with all the things that two of us usually do.

It’s hard for me to see this property on a macro level sometimes. If I look at once at all the things that need to be done, I just want to go lie down in the basement with the dogs. Especially when it’s over 90 degrees every day. The thing about having horses is that there’s no option about whether to go outside and do the chores, regardless of the level of heat or cold. Once I get out there and start doing things, I don’t have time to think about whether or not I feel like doing the things, I just do them, whether it’s weeding or mowing in the summer, shoveling snow in the winter, or feeding, moving hay, or mucking in all weather. With the exception of weed-eating, which I can’t pause while doing or I know I just won’t start up again, while I’m doing chores I keep one eye out for the small bits of magic that remind me why I love this place so much.

Magic Crystals

I take a lot of photos of the things that catch my attention while I’m doing chores. I usually have my cell phone with me because it fits in my pocket. As often as I wish I had my binoculars or my actual camera with me, I don’t like trying to wrangle horse feed buckets with things clanking around my neck, and I am almost guaranteed to get hay or water in some key part that should not have hay or water in it. I used to buy my cell phones based on call quality, but now I buy them based on camera quality and as a bonus, it makes phone calls. I assume. Making phone calls is by far the least used activity on my cell phone.Magic Spiderweb

Every so often, like yesterday, I look around at the trees. When we moved here twenty years ago, the only trees were evergreens that bordered the property on three sides. There was no landscaping; there was just grass growing right up to the edge of the house, and one azalea bush near the front door. The first things we had done when we moved in were to have fence put in for the horses, and to have the barn built. The first thing we did ourselves was to plant trees. The ground is quite rocky here, and digging holes for trees is no easy task, but it’s extremely satisfying. I am routinely amazed that we planted all of these trees, some of which tower over the house or the barn, and some of which my hands no longer meet around when I hug them (because of course I hug my trees).

The trees are almost all different – there are very few varieties we planted multiples of – and in addition to looking different, they seem to attract different birds. The mockingbirds like to sing from the top of the dawn redwood, and they nest in the Alberta spruce. There are hummingbirds in the Crimson King maple, grey catbirds in the yews, brown thrashers in the Autumn Blaze maple, and bluebirds in the willow. The hawks and crows battle it out in the tall pines. The sycamores hold house finches and seemingly endless varieties of sparrows. This year, for reasons I do not understand but I’m not about to question, the green herons have decided to nest in the weeping cherry tree right outside our bedroom window.

Magic Tree

I grew up in the city, and it’s taken me a lot of years to progress past thinking every red bird is a cardinal, every brown bird is a sparrow, and every yellow bird is a goldfinch. I don’t reliably wear my glasses and I think my eyesight is better than it is, so my experience of birds is often a flash of color or movement. If they sit still and I can get a good look, I can now identify many of them. Sometimes they kindly stay put long enough for me to go get the binoculars from the house, and identify a yellow warbler, a scarlet tanager, or last month my first ever pair of cedar waxwings. The things that don’t move also catch my eye, and give me time to get them in focus: frost on the fence boards, spiderwebs shimmering with dew, raindrops on the hosta leaves, and a far more varied and beautiful range of fungus on the horse manure than you might expect.

If I am sitting still, it is true that I should be doing something. Often that something is paying attention. The weeds on the fence lines can wait for another day, but the spiderwebs and the dewdrops and the horse manure fairy garden are transient. The real shame would come if I didn’t take the time to notice them.

Magic Mushrooms 1

Turn the Music Up

 

Telluride

“If you shut up with what you’re choosing you’ll hear something choosing you” -Joe Pug, Telluride Bluegrass Festival 2011

It is Summer solstice weekend, and I am missing my music festivals. Summer solstice is the traditional weekend of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, one of the more magical events I have been to. It is also the weekend of the Firefly Music Festival, one of the more ridiculous events I have been to.

For someone who doesn’t like to go out in public much, hates being in crowds, and has a long history of making plans only to break them, I love music festivals. Even when I hate them, I love them. I did not plan to go to Telluride or Firefly this year, but I did plan to go to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in August and I had tickets to several other individual concerts, and none of these things are happening and I am pining.

My favorite festival venues share some traits: they are in the mountains, they are small as festivals go (attendees are counted in the thousands, not tens of thousands, and they have no more than two small side-stages), there is a creek to cool off in, there is shade somewhere if not actually near the stage, the food is a step up from carnival food but you can get a corn dog or a funnel cake if you want one, and, at least for the ones in Colorado, the towns are really nice places to walk around, get a cup of coffee, and find some good non-festival food when you just need a break. Telluride manages to make the inconvenience of terrible parking options into an adventure with a gondola ride back down to the town from the top of the mountain where there’s room to park in the summer when the ski slopes are closed.

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I have camped at two of my three favorite festivals. The selling points of most right-next-to-the-venue campgrounds are reasons for me to run screaming in the other direction. I don’t actually want to stay up all night picking and singing, or drinking and smoking. Telluride has a family campground which is about a mile away from the venue and tends to be quieter, because it turns out that screaming children are in fact much quieter than stoned hippies. It’s all relative, though: the stoned hippies of Telluride are exponentially less annoying than drunk teenagers driving their moms’ SUVs and setting up their beer bongs and teen drama right next to you at Firefly. Drunk hippies are a different kind of problem than stoned hippies, and at DelFest once after a night of having people nearly fall into our tent on top of us, we moved into the sober camping area (Camp Traction, a wonderful concept), where people kept kindly inviting us to meetings between and after (and sometimes during) the acts.

However much I love being outdoors for days on end with nothing to do but gaze at the mountains, eat delicious food, and people-watch at a near professional level, the music is the point. I have secretly been loving the shelter in place/safer at home aspect of the global pandemic where I don’t even need to make excuses for why I don’t want to go out in public and do the things. But where live music is concerned, I feel the space where that shared experience isn’t this year. There’s always something to love at a festival – dancing with a crowd when you just can’t keep your feet still, singing (or shouting) along to a song we all know, the collective wonder of discovering a new artist for the first time. Sometimes everything comes together and creates something that is beyond words.

I have never been as cold as the first time we went to Telluride and just as Mumford and Sons came out the rain started to pour down. The mountains disappeared entirely behind a wave of rolling clouds. The rained turned into snow, then rain, then sleet, then more snow. People were passing out garbage bags for us to wear but there was no keeping any part of yourself dry or warm. And yet. They had the whole crowd in their hands from the minute they took the stage, and they carried us through their musical journey of songs we knew (they only had one album out at the time) and new songs that would be on their next album that sounded like pure magic then and that I still feel a thrill about now.

The thing I love most about live music is that even though the music may be reaching each of us in a different way and touching on different experiences or different parts of our hearts, it can move us – in this case, literally, physically move us – in the same way, the whole crowd dancing and bouncing and whirling and singing and making a truly joyful noise. And if you’re even luckier, all that music and all that joy can make the clouds move on through and can bring back a longer view of the beauty around you.

 

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Cake

cake

I’ve been baking a lot of cake lately. Now, I love cake, but it’s not normally on my list of things to have around the house. My cakes have been getting more complex as I go, not because my cake baking skills are improving, but because that’s what happens when you bake your feelings and your feelings keep getting more complex as the world seems to be disintegrating around you and you hope it can be made anew and better but you aren’t sure how to help make that happen so while you work on that you make cake.

My most recent effort was a ten layer Russian honey cake, which I had never even heard of but the recipe sounded too good not to try. The recipe also contains this note: “The batter will begin to foam and emit a curious odor,” so maybe it also sounded too weird not to try. Making it occupied the better part of an afternoon, though it began the previous day with making dulce de leche. You do this by boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk for several hours, which I’m sure is a terrible idea but I’ve never had the can explode and it really does taste so much better than the pre-made cans they sell in the grocery store. The next preparatory step was making something called burnt honey, which is more like making caramel only with honey instead of sugar. No actual burning involved.

The honey cake itself involves some of the burnt honey, some unburnt honey, lots of eggs, mixing over a hot water bath, and baking very thin layers on many, many sheets of parchment. The icing layers are a mix of the bulk of the burnt honey, the dulce de leche, and a vast quantity of whipped cream. The whole thing is covered with the toasted crumbs of an eleventh layer of the cake, and then it has to sit overnight, and I promise you it is well worth the effort and the wait. It also freezes well and is delicious straight out of the freezer, which is a good thing because a cake with 10 layers of cake and 10 layers of icing and a coating of more cake is really quite a lot for two adults who are sheltering in place in their house during a pandemic.

Prior to the honey cake, I was on a bundt cake kick, after having never made a bundt cake in my life. I did not grow up in a house with advanced (or even intermediate) kitchen tools or pans. The cake my mother most commonly made in my childhood was made in a plain rectangular baking pan. We called it the Bouncy Icing Cake and it came from the Joy of Cooking which most definitely called it something else, though I’ve yet to figure out what. The cake was a yellow cake, and the icing was chocolate, and it had a definite bounce when you tapped it with your finger. I’ve only looked for the recipe out of curiosity, because it wasn’t all that good a cake or icing, but it was fast to make and therefore quite handy when children forgot to say until that morning that they needed to take a cake to school. I think the recipes had names like “lightning cake” and “quick icing,” but so far they remain a mystery lost to time and that particular edition of the Joy of Cooking.

For the bundt cakes I turned to Maida Heatter, author of the best dessert cookbooks I know. In our teen years my sister and I spent many hours making pies and cakes from her Book of Great Chocolate Desserts, struggling to parse instructions like “pull the wax paper toward a narrow end” but always ending up with wonderful results. Our favorite was a pie that Maida introduced by saying “I never know what to say when people tell me, as they often do, that this pie is better than sex.” We first saw this recipe when I was a freshman in high school, and when my sister said “We have to make this pie!” I said “We can’t make it yet – I won’t have anything to compare it to.” My sister said “I can tell you. The pie will probably be better,” but we didn’t make it then. In fact, for several years my sister would start conversations or letters by asking “Can we make the pie yet?” and I would say “No, no we still can’t make the pie.” We did eventually make it, and it was quite delicious. We have made it many times and fed it to many friends and relations, always telling the story of our name for the pie (Better Than Sex Pie, or just Sex Pie, though it has a real name). The voting has trended towards a result of “It depends.” This is never a reflection on the pie.

The first of the Maida Heatter bundt cakes I tried is called East 62nd Street Lemon Cake. It is a type of lemon drizzle cake, where you first bake the very lemony cake and then brush it with a lemon or lime (or in my case, lemon-lime) glaze. It has a texture much like a pound cake, and the tang of the lemon zest in the cake and the lemon and/or lime in the glaze turns it into something sublime and extremely difficult to stop eating.

Because I knew I wanted to make this lemon cake, I had to first buy a bundt pan. I got to ruminate about recipes while I waited for the pan to arrive (remember – pandemic, no retail stores open). For someone who loves kitchen implements – and just about the only type of store I can spend hours in is a kitchen supply store – I don’t really like having one-use tools in my house. The first time Rose was in my kitchen she asked me if I had an ice cream scoop, and I held up a spoon. She also asked me if I had a cheese slicer and I held up a knife, and then she asked if I had a pizza cutter and I held up the same knife. For our first Christmas together after she moved in, I got her an ice scream scoop, a cheese slicer, and a pizza cutter. I have vastly increased my kitchen gadgetry over the years and I especially love tiny things – I have a collection of tiny loaf pans, tiny pie pans, tiny tart tins. I haven’t yet bought tiny bundt pans, but I think I’ve identified the ones I want.

The second Maida Heatter bundt cake, which I selected while waiting for the bundt pan, is called 86-Proof Chocolate Cake. I suppose I should have been forewarned by the name that it would be VERY boozy, but I wasn’t, and it was. Still, it’s cake, it’s chocolate, it’s coffee, and it’s hard to screw up that combination. Having never had it before I can’t say if it’s suppose to be quite as dense as mine turned out, or to have a crunchy outer layer around a more pudding-like (in the British sense, not the American) middle, but I suspect both things are correct. Some of the booze flavor dissipated after a couple of days, it too freezes well, and it goes perfectly with vanilla ice cream.

My next cake will probably be one of my standby easy cakes: blueberry coffee cake, Nantucket cranberry cake, Truly Awful Cake (it’s not, and it’s triple chocolate), or maybe the lemon bundt cake again. It should take us a day or two to get through one of those, and while we snack on that I can plan my next cake adventure. Multi layer cakes appeal to me right now – the layers reflect how my insides feel, and layer cakes manage to be complex and simple at the same time. They also give me a way to occupy my hands for several hours, largely leaving my mind free to work on knottier problems.

Rose and I have been the only people in our house for several months now (all alone with all the cake), but when I bake the kitchen becomes a gathering place, as kitchens will do. There is my mother, of course, who has been dead for fifteen years. My sister who lives 3,000 miles away, and my sister who died last year. My aunt, dead for 8 years. Our kids, who live in different states. My best friend from 7th grade who lives on the other side of the country and who made me a memorable and delicious cake for my 13th birthday. My friend who lives on the other side of an ocean and who I have yet to meet in person but who got me started thinking and writing about cake this weekend. I recently made a playlist (yes, I almost called it a mix tape just then) called Kitchen Dance Party, because I need more dancing in my life right now and because there’s something I like about dancing in the kitchen, as long as it’s not while the cake is rising. I’m far better at virtual parties than actual ones, and I welcome everyone to gather in the kitchen, share the cake, and dance to the music.

 

Bird Song

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Listen, she said
to the birds.

We hear them, we said
all the noise they make
right outside our windows
while we’re trying to sleep.

Listen, she said,
to the birds’ voices.

Oh, we said,
they have different voices,
but we can’t understand them. 

Listen, she said,
to the birds talking.

Please, we said,
tell us what they mean.
Teach us how to hear them.

Listen, she said,
to what the birds are saying.

We hear them, we said.
Some are hungry,
some are joyful,
some are fighting.

Listen, she said,
to the birds.

We are listening, we said,
and we will tell others
how to listen.

You’re still talking,
she said.
Listen.

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Ashes

Rays of Cody

I picked up Cody’s ashes from the vet’s office last week. They came in a carved wood box, almost a puzzle box – the bottom slides out to open it, and the top and sides are solid. I won’t tell you how long it took me to figure that out. Inside the box is a blue velvet bag, and inside that are the ashes.

We now have two of these boxes. We have five horses and six cats buried here, but when Maya, our first German Shepherd, died it was in the middle of a very cold winter and the ground was too frozen to dig a hole for her. Six years later we still haven’t buried or scattered her ashes. She’s been hanging out in the house with us, sometimes in the room with the other dogs, and currently in the sunroom near where I write and where we have a nice view of the reservoir.

With a precedent of one cremated dog, and with me unable to face digging a hole to bury Cody in (or more to the point, unable to face putting Cody in a hole), we had him cremated also. He is in the kitchen area, right next to where he lived the last few weeks of his life. The room we have always called the random room became both Cody’s special den and the hospice ward. He had two dog beds there, and in March we added a memory foam mattress topper to cover the rug, and a plaid quilt to cover the mattress topper. Depending on his state of health and the state of his intestines, we added a layer of waterproof pads between the quilt and the mattress topper, but when he was feeling better he tended to dig them up.

Maya was our first dog, and we had her for about two and a half years before we got Cody to keep her company. They were friends in their way, though not a way that involved snuggling or overt closeness. Cody, only a year and a half when he came to us, taught Maya to play, though she tended to do so with a look on her face that said “Is this fun? It feels like it might be fighting. How do I tell?” Her favorite game was to wait till I threw Cody’s tennis ball (his nickname back then was Fetches Twice As Fast) and then she would get into the path of the speeding cattle dog and try to clothesline him. Her second favorite was to stay out where I threw his ball and grab it first, and then destroy it.

Now that Cody and Maya are together again, we will probably bury their ashes together, most likely alongside a tree or two we will plant in the dog yard. It wouldn’t hurt the younger three dogs to keep absorbing lessons from the original duo.

In contrast to the carved boxes that the dog ashes came back in, my parents’ ashes came in brown plastic boxes. There was probably an upgrade available for human ashes that I don’t remember. My father made that choice for my mother. My oldest sister and I made the choice for my father, but all I remember after viewing his body in the funeral home is fighting off giggles as we listened to the funeral director solemnly tell us that after the cremation “your loved one will be returned,” which seemed like a feat beyond what I would expect of a crematorium.

When my father gave me my mother’s ashes, he had augmented her brown plastic box with a blue and white checked Bath & Body Works bag. When I first brought her ashes home, the bag and box sat in the garage for several weeks until Rose said she couldn’t stand to see my mother’s ashes sitting out there like trash. I moved them to a bag I gave my mother that she never got to use – a black cotton backpack embroidered with brightly colored elephants – and placed it next to my desk for several months.

I was uneasy with my mother’s ashes in the house, and when we eventually scattered them in several different places I was squeamish when handling them, though I am not by nature a squeamish person. I don’t feel the same about Cody’s ashes. I sometimes want to run my hands through them, or smell them. I kissed his forehead good night almost every night for fourteen years and I miss him in a very tactile way.

When my grandmother died, she was cremated and we buried her ashes – presumably in an urn, though I don’t think I saw it – alongside her husband in a cemetery. It all happened at what I consider normal funeral speed. She died, and within a few days we all flew into town, had a graveside service, and a burial. “Normal” is the term I use for “rules everyone except my family seems to know,” though over the years I have realized that anyone who thinks they know the rules has what Anne Lamott calls tiny control issues.

For my parents we tried to guess what they would have liked, which is partly how my mother’s ashes wound up in so many places: under a tree we planted for her at our house in Maryland, in the ocean at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, in her sister’s garden in Virginia, and in Squam Lake, in New Hampshire. Eventually my father remembered that she had once said she’d like her ashes to go in Rock Creek Park, but by then they were all in other places she had loved, so in the end it was my father’s ashes that went into Rock Creek.

My aunt is the only person I knew who gave explicit directions about what to do with her ashes. She also gave explicit directions about what music to play at her memorial service, how to disperse her belongings, and was generally the only person I know who completely acknowledged and talked about the fact that she was dying.

Cody gave me no instructions. In life, he believed that as long as there were treats, the thing mattered, and if there no treats, it did not. When I think about scattering or burying his ashes, I can get caught up in human details – the proper ceremony, the meaningful music, the perfect words, the right tree to plant. Maybe a better way is the dog way. If Cody were here, and found something interesting on the ground, I know what he would do. If you see me out in the dog yard, scattering ashes and rolling around in them, you’ll know why. And of course, I’ll make sure there will be treats.

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Invasive Species

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Hitching rides on boat hulls,
hidden in packaging,
given as gifts,
brought in for bait.
Revered as exotic beauties –
their value shifting
when they pushed out the natives:
reproducing more quickly,
choking out the habitat,
hogging the food,
depleting the resources.

If the native species
convened a committee,
Which way would they vote?
Who would they eliminate?
The pond dwellers and their algal blooms,
The nest destroyers, the egg leavers,
The tree-chokers, the wetland-fillers?

Or might they say, no,
Most of you can stay.
We will learn to live together,
Or we won’t, no matter.
But on this we can agree:
Someone has to go.
Let’s send back the ones
Who built the boats.

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Cowbird

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“Cowbirds,” people scoff.
Parasites. Intruders.
Eggs laid in others’ nests.
Overlarge mouths
Awkward bodies
Crowding out
Bright bluebirds
Sweet singing warblers.

But what
of the cowbird babes,
Born in the wrong nest,
Raised by unfamiliar wings?
When do they know
This is not
Where they belong?

How do they find
Each other?
When do they learn
Their own songs?

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Graduation Day

Sunset Cody

A good dog died today.
There’s a lot to say
About 15 human years of dog life.
About Uncle Cody, and all the ways
He taught lessons to the other dogs
At Uncle School (not an easy school).

Uncle School had lessons in manners
Lessons in personal space
Lessons in respecting your elders.
Uncle School was hard on Uncle, too
When the students got big enough
To realize they maybe didn’t have to
Take his lessons any longer.

Uncle School is only part of the story.
There is also a simple love story:
Once upon a time, there was a girl,
And this girl met a dog, and she loved him.
She did not, in the immortal words of Robin Williams,
Know shit about fuck
Where dogs were concerned.
This dog, he put up with a lot
Of things she did not know.

This girl, she has a lot of flaws.
Here’s the thing about this girl, though:
She really knows how to love.
Here’s the thing about this dog
(Here’s the thing about dogs):
They really know how to feel love.
Even when you screw up
Pretty much all the details.
And they really know
How to love you back.

Today’s lesson at Uncle School
Was about how to love and let go.
It was about trusting yourself.
It was about listening to someone else
When they can’t tell you anything in words.
It was about how some lessons are simple.
It was about how love is the best teacher
Except for a good dog.
Uncle School, over and out.

Carpe Poopem

Face Close-up

My old dog is getting older. He turned 15 in early December, and just before then I thought we had reached the end. He was struggling to get up off his bed and walk to the door. His hind end didn’t hold him up reliably. He sometimes fell backwards and couldn’t get up without help. Getting old is not for sissies. I gave him some more rugs near his bed for traction. We tweaked his meds, added new pain killers, upped his dosage.

He did really well for almost two months, but then he had another bad spell. He either fell or had a seizure, and for about 24 hours every time he moved more than ten feet he wheezed and coughed as if he were choking. But after a day, with no changes in meds, he was fine. The turn-around came on a spring-like early February day when instead of holding himself still so as not to fall over or cause any more pain, he dropped to the grass for a good roll. It’s been another month since then, and he’s been going through another bad spell. It’s apparent that they are coming more frequently, and lasting longer. So far, he keeps getting better, but each “better” is not quite as good as the last one.

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This is not my first rodeo. I am a rodeo pro, at this point, with dying loved ones of both the animal and human variety. I have nearly lost count of the rodeos. I know that at a certain point with any aging animal I begin to feel like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.”

With the old dog, I keep watching him, wondering if tomorrow will be the day. I am fairly confident it will not.  For most of the last two months he’s been remarkably perky for a 111 year old guy. Barking at the roofers. Bossing the puppy. He still sometimes gets excited when he sees I am going to throw the tennis ball, and he bounces in front of me – “Throw it! Throw it!” – and then I throw it and he watches it go and looks back at me – “Hey, there goes your ball.”

When my father was in his last few years we had similar ups and downs. He fell down the stairs. He fell up the stairs. He wound up in the hospital (oddly, not from falling), completely disoriented and not fully aware of who or where he was, and then he came home to celebrate his 85th birthday with good cheer. He went into hospice, and then he came home yet again, and went to the Adams Morgan Day festival and got up out of his wheelchair and danced. My aunt – my mother’s sister – said “He’s like Whack-A-Mole, isn’t he?” and we laughed and laughed. Because he was.

For every pet I have had to let go, I have wondered if the time was right, was there something else I could have done, did I notice too late, what if, what if, what if? There’s an article kicking around social media recently written by a young vet about giving animals a good death. The crux of it is that waiting too long is much worse that taking action too early. I know that when I state my feelings about this I risk being accused of anthropomorphism, and to that I say two things: one, there are worse things to be accused of (and I’m not sure who ever decided that only humans are capable of certain feelings), and two, I think it’s less me viewing my dog (or horse, or cat) as human as it is me scrutinizing my own humanity.

If we let an animal keep living into old age, where by definition infirmities start to creep in, who is that worse for, them or us? If we euthanize them early enough to avoid or limit their pain, whose pain are we really eliminating? Who are we making it easier for? I wake up every morning (and often multiple times a night) wondering if this is the day I will have to make the decision. Will I sleep better when this dog has died? Yes, I will, because I will not have that decision hanging over my head any longer, and I won’t have to worry about him any more. Is that a reason to make the decision now? Not for me, not today. But maybe one day it will be.

Sweet

I have said before that this old dog reminds me so much of my old father. As they both aged, their tendency to put their heads down and plow forward, keeping up the momentum so they don’t fall down, increased. The old dog has had as many ups and downs and “This is it, the time has come” moments followed by inexplicable improvements as the old man had. Was it easier for me when I got to stop wondering every day if today would be the day my father died? You bet it was. Would I have wanted that to happen sooner because it was easier on me? No. Actually not. A friend of his told me about the last time she saw him, maybe a week or two before he died, as she was leaving he raised a glass to her and said “L’Chaim!” and that was my father in a nutshell. Both the wine and the words – To Life!

Is the old dog enjoying everything about today? I’d venture to say no. But he enjoyed his breakfast, and he enjoyed greeting the crew that came to cut down the dead trees, and he enjoyed his peanut butter and kibble-filled Kong. He clearly likes the fact that we finally separated him from the other dogs today. He gets special treatment AND he doesn’t have to listen to their barking or worry about being jumped on or bumped. The old dog has his own version of toasting this life. Rolling in the grass. Wandering off because I think he is beyond getting into any serious mischief and turning up in the horse pasture eating all the poop he can before I notice. Tomorrow may still be the day. But as for today, Carpe Poopem.

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