It’s about time.

I was halfway through the audiobook edition of novelist Penelope Lively’s meandering Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir before it occurred to me why I must have chosen it from all the books out there in the literary ether. There is Ms. Lively, reaching back cogently into her childhood and the events that shaped it and speaking of the rigors of age, and there is me, in my usual fog, listening while scrubbing down the chicken coop when it suddenly occurred to me that I was about to have a birthday!

Of late, the days have blended so together that time has become less a progression of ticks on the calendar and more a mush of porridge. Nothing on that calendar to note, so no need to check the date. Talk about birthdays creeping up on you – this one came out of nowhere! But part of me must have known that I would need Penelope’s instructive thoughts to help me through it.

In her case, the erudite novelist was formed by a childhood that began in Cairo and wrapped up in London, punctuated by the global sea changes of the Suez Crisis and World War II. In my case – so much humbler and not the least bit erudite – it was a rundown town in the armpit of the Midwest and a post-war upbringing that promised everything being made of plastic and that sentinel dining invention: the TV dinner.

While Ms. Lively’s intellect digested the ramifications of Nasser’s canal nationalization and the North African Campaign, I was somehow only dimly aware of the Cold War and Sputnik. I do remember the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – we were let out of school early and I walked the several blocks home alone, feeling a general sense that the world was perhaps not a safe place to be. It only got worse with the subsequent assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and there was a continual distant and fearfully discordant hum of the Vietnam War. Distant for me partly because, mercifully, I lived in a backwater where nothing from the outside world seemed to penetrate the slow, safe steadiness of daily life. And also because, there was me, in my usual fog, not paying attention.

I do recall watching the grainy footage of the moon landing on television, and there was a soundtrack playing over that arc of time featuring The Doors and The Rolling Stones (I didn’t like The Beatles, go figure…) and the breathtaking moment when I heard Joni Mitchell for the very first time. That might be the one thing that broke through the fog. But while Penelope Lively made sense of her world by going to Oxford University and studying history, I spent most of my late adolescence in a concerted and ultimately failed quest simply to straighten my hair.

I was not then and I am not now very good at paying attention. Luckily I woke up long enough to meet the CE, take a deep breath and dive into raising children. And then, two minutes later, it seemed, but some two decades and change in real time, that was over.

Real time. Real time is what apparently happens when one is busy elsewhere in a fog. Because this morning I woke up another year older, and math-challenged as I may be, I can add up the writing on the wall and it is not pretty. Bless Ms. Lively for informing me that, at least in the UK where she abides, “elderly” is currently not perceived to begin until one turns 68.

Since today I turn 67, this gives me a year – by Ms. Lively’s definition – one whole extravagant year, to get my head out of the fog and start paying attention before I am truly “elderly”. I am grateful to the past few months for showing me the way: scarcity of resources makes one more deeply appreciative of them and it now occurs to me that just as I will cherish Clorox wipes going forward, I am facing a scarcity of a different commodity: time. It has always, of course, been running out, but it seems to be running faster now. Running a marathon, in fact. “Slow down!” I call, but time is not listening, not even slowing down to look back at me over its shoulder.

This new year sits before me, the loveliest gift imaginable. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Penelope Lively comments in her book that the old cannot appreciate some things as young people do, observing that spring is experienced more vividly by a young person who has not worn through as many seasons as us oldsters. Here she and I part ways – I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a spring as I have this one, given the intensity of this moment in time. Head finally out of the fog? It’s about time! Happy birthday to me!

 

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Hitting the paws button.

A funny thing happened while we waited for the wheels to fall off. I know it’s been chaos for some and tragedy for others, but for us, with our unimportant and insignificant place in the universe, we’ve somehow washed up on a little shoal of solitude and contentment. It just occurred to me that in two months of a shutdown, I haven’t been even a little bit bored. (Maybe because I am just that boring…)

It helps to shelter with someone you love, in a place you love and I so luckily have both. All those extra square feet of house and property we’ve been lamenting the last few years have come in ever so handy just now. And all the bustle and the hither and thither of “normal” life have come to seem just a bit extraneous. We can (kind of) do with less. We can (kind of) clean our house and even (kind of) cut our hair!

But the real key to making all this work, I’ve realized, is the rhythm of each day served up by these ruff-around-the-edges characters we share it all with. Here’s to them!

Lily goes out and Lily comes in and Lily hunts gophers and Lily goes for a swim. Somehow all the dirt falls off by the end of the day and she can pose as the noble creature she is.

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How she loves her baby Mooshmallow!

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But wait a minute, we are NOT sharing the food bowl, are we?

Baby kitty and Lily May 2020

Actually, when you look like this you can pretty much have whatever you want all the time.

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Because The Countess says so.

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When you look like this, it’s a good thing you know how to lay eggs. Hey, they can’t help it – they’re dinosaurs with feathers.
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Maybe the best thing about having nothing to do are the afternoon naps.

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And at the end of the day, if life gives you lemons, make whiskey sours. (Another skill I’ve added to my repertoire. thanks to all the lemons we’ve got right now)

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I’m beginning to sense a wind-down on the shutdown. Will it have been worth it? I have my doubts that we’ve escaped the virus, but honestly, if I had to, I think I could almost do this fur-ever. Once we’re back to juggling the calendar and heading off here and there and everywhere, I have a feeling I’m going to miss this. It’s been the best vacation I never went on.

Steven and The Countess cocktail hour May 2020

 

Posted in Absurdity, Animal/Vegetable/Mineral, Life, Spoiled Pets | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Go ask your mom.

What is Mother’s Day without the brunch? How do we even begin to do this?

Of all the family traditions I can think of, torturing your children by making them dress up in the middle of the day and spend two hours being polite to you is one of my very favorites. So many memories…

Daniel and Taylor childhood

But here we are, masked and gloved, isolated at home and barred from restaurants. A different kind of Mother’s Day. Us oldsters will remember it as “the year we Zoomed”. Moms of young kids will remember it as a season of (maybe just a little too much!) family togetherness. How many times a day can someone possibly yell “Mooooommmmm!” You may need a calculator for that one.

Well, at least until they cross that bridge of adolescence and (think) they don’t need you anymore. I’ll never forget the moment our youngest, with all the hauteur of knowing everything at age thirteen, casually declared that “I really don’t find either of you very interesting” and declined any further dinner conversation. For about the next ten years.

After all, he’d spent enough time with us through childhood to know everything about us. Everything we would say before we said it. Every flaw (and yes, there are many) committed to memory. But knowing everything at thirteen shifts to not quite knowing everything at thirty-five and as time goes on, life hits us right in the kneecaps and someday – hopefully not too late – we may actually encounter that humbling moment of wondering how our parents faced a challenge.

Two of the books I’m reading this month share a theme where a son is haunted by the questions he wishes he had asked a parent before it was too late. In Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, a son who is now himself approaching old age less than gracefully wonders about the choices his Danish mother made to emigrate alone to the United States as a teen. In No Surrender: The Story of an Ordinary Soldier’s Extraordinary Courage in the Face of Evil, author Chris Edmonds laments the questions he failed to ask as he traces his father’s heroic actions in World War II. Over and over he wonders why it never occurred to him to ask important questions while he still could.

What would you ask your mom? Or, as a mom, what would you like your child to know someday far in the future when they realize you were right when you kept harping on them to wear sunscreen? If you don’t know where to start, there are plenty of prompts online:

Real Simple has a template of just ten questions, although I’m not sure I’d go with  “Which one of us kids did you like best?” “Is there anything you wanted to tell me but never have?” might be an interesting one, depending on how ready you may or not be to hear the answer.

HuffPost has a list of “38 Interesting Questions to Ask Your Mom Right Now”. Interesting, indeed: “What’s the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?” is one that I like.

Perhaps a more thoughtful questionnaire is to be found at a list on “Beyond the Interview” “What were the three best decisions you ever made?” is one I like.

And if you want to go all in on getting the scoop about who mom really is, you can order the somewhat ominously titled 300 Questions to Ask Your Parents Before It’s Too Late

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Oh, but don’t be surprised if Mom is a bit hesitant to answer all these questions. After all, someone once told her she’s not very interesting.

Truthfully, this may be my happiest Mother’s Day ever – all of our kids are healthy and weathering this storm and for that I give thanks every single day. Pass the champagne! Maybe we can make them dress up next year…

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Before and again: enough misery to go around.

Zoomed with a few wise friends the other day and in the midst of our exclamations that we are in this historic moment, we each made a commitment to keep a journal. Someday our grandchildren, or their children, might want to read about the price of eggs during the Great Pandemic of 2020. (At our house, of course, the eggs are free, thanks to the lovely ladies of the coop:-)

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I still haven’t set pen to paper for the journal but I’ve thought a bit about it, enough that I think I shall apply quotation marks when I record the “historic moment”. Yes, it is unlike anything that has ever happened in my adult life, but even being the laziest reader of history, I’m dimly aware that there is nothing new under the blighted human sun.

It wasn’t that long ago that I plowed through Barbara Tuchman’s celebrated A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and commented on the portentous title. Here’s looking at us, kid! The book details the path of the Black Death, which swept through Europe over and over again (by the way, it originated in – wait for it – China!) through the 14th century, and then the 15th, and the 16th. As startling as it is to turn the calendar to the month of May and still be “sheltering in place”, the plague makes this look like a cake walk. Every time I read about it and the ways in which humans endeavored to cope – moving whole households from one place to another (if, that is, you were Henry VIII and could just go castle-hopping) and even killing all the cats, which were wrongly thought to be the source of the pestilence – I want to yell at them “It’s the fleas! It’s the fleas! Get rid of the fleas!”

One day, maybe not all that long from now, people will look back upon our 2020 spring of discontent and want to shake us by the shoulders and say “Hey, you fools, it was the —–!” I can’t wait to be able to fill in that blank.  By the way, another good read about the plague, should A Distant Mirror appeal to you, is Year of Wonders: A Novel by Geraldine Brooks.

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COVID-19 is the newest germ to grace our shores, but is certainly not the first one. The variola virus raged through the continent during the 1775-1782 North American smallpox epidemic and is mentioned in nearly any history of the Revolutionary War and its devastating effect on Native American tribes is also well documented.  Whew – glad that one is in our past? Not so fast – if you feel the urge to not be able to sleep at night, get a copy of The Demon in the Freezer: A True Story by Richard Preston. Of course, no one gets vaccinated for smallpox anymore because it’s been eradicated. Well, yessss, except for a few errant vials of the stuff that have gone missing. Never say never about containment of a deadly disease – there’s a great deal of chatter out there right now to the effect that it wasn’t the bat soup we ate but a big oops from a Wuhan bioweapons lab that brought us this new, improved coronavirus.

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Whomever didn’t perish from smallpox in the 1700’s got to look forward to yellow fever. Spread by mosquitos, there was a notable epidemic of it in Philadelphia in 1793 and another outbreak of it in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1862, which added to a panic of residents trying to escape from Union General Ambrose Burnside’s North Carolina Expedition.

In fact, two-thirds of the approximately 660,000 soldier deaths during the Civil War were actually caused not by battle casualties but by infectious disease. Cold Mountain: A Novel by Charles Frazier comes to mind as a memorable novel set in Civil War era North Carolina, although I don’t remember if yellow fever is mentioned.

Frazier’s more recent book, Varina: A Novel is a fictionalized biography of the wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. I don’t remember if Frazier details her difficulties in finding housing when she fled Richmond for Raleigh because of the combined horrors of yellow fever and the Union campaign, but it is well documented elsewhere.

No sooner did we turn the page on the 19th century than the we were greeted by the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which grimly echoed the influence of pathogens from Civil War deaths. Of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe, half of them fell to the influenza virus and not to the enemy. Fifty million people in all are estimated to have perished in the pandemic. I don’t know if I have it in me to tackle John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, but it’s certainly selling briskly these days.

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Somehow, humanity survived the influenza pandemic and the U.S. caught its collective breath just in time to roll into the Great Depression. Next time we breathed in, we were choked with the “black blizzards” that streamed across the country from the 1935-1938 Dust Bowl. Everything most of us know about that, of course, was written by John Steinbeck in his 1939 The Grapes of Wrath, which captured both a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a National Book Award.

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A lesser-known novel of the time, which focuses more specifically on Oklahoma is Sanora Babb’s Whose Names are Unknown: A Novel.

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I’m not sorry to have missed the foregoing epidemics and catastrophes. My memory reaches back only far enough to remember my grandfather, made desperately frugal by living through The Great Depression, stuffing dinner rolls and sugar packets from restaurant tables into his pants pockets every time we dined out with him.

I also remember passing a house each day on my walk to school where a girl named Judy lived. I never met her, but I often saw her sitting in her wheelchair and watching passersby through her window. She never waved, she just watched. I arrived on the planet just in time to receive the polio vaccination. Judy was a few years older than me and, tragically, like so many others of that era, was struck by the epidemic that killed many and paralyzed more. It may be worth mentioning that the polio virus was identified in 1908. Jonas Salk’s vaccine went into trials in 1952. There’s not always a “quick fix”. I’d sure like to see Jonas Salk ride up on a white horse about now. Next best thing might be the well-regarded biography of him by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, Jonas Salk: A Life.

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So what happens next?

Will we turn the calendar to June and still be hunkered down? Will there even be any restaurants left by the time this is over from which to steal dinner rolls and sugar packets? Will we be so figuratively paralyzed from this that we navigate the world behind masks for the near or long term future? This may just be a run of the mill pandemic, but it’s our pandemic and the one that will shape what is to come for a good long while. Ladies and gentlemen, start those journals so our grandchildren’s grandchildren can look back someday and read all about it.

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Caturday: from cats to cat-a-combs.

We go way back with cats. We’ve been spoiling them since 1977 when we adopted our first stray, “Gray Fluff”.  Apparently “Kitty Hook” was another of her monikers judging from her personalized Valentine cake.

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Time flew by, and while I apparently did not gain any fashion sense (Tina and Angie, why did you let me wear that blouse?), the CE and I did acquire a very handsome fellow we named Huckleberry. Legendary for having boldly sunk a claw into the head of a German Shepherd that erred in coming up our driveway, Huckleberry was long our favorite feline and we prized him for his long-ish fur.

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Cat-a-pulting into the future, the one, the only, Dizzy came into our lives. The CE’s now-famous line was “Okay, you can get a cat but it’s your cat and I’m not having anything to do with it”. (Guess whose cat Dizzy became?)

Dizzy was billed as a Persian by his back-yard breeder, who then backtracked, saying he was half Persian and half Himalayan. Looking back, I don’t think he was “half” anything but he was gorgeous even if he was an exotic mongrel.

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He had the softest fur! And, somehow, it never needed to be combed. This wasn’t exactly the case with his sidekick Cody, a purebred Himalayan we acquired soon thereafter. Cody got the occasional combing for his thick fur although more often he got the humiliation of a lion cut.

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You’d think we would have remembered about that. But Cody had sadly departed and Dodger certainly never needed a comb.

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We are suddenly, however, in a new season, and the fur is flying. Or, more accurately, matting.

Mischa Countess April 2020

Both The Countess and (especially!) Mischa have cotton candy fur that, frankly, can only be properly tended to under permanent quarantine, because we are combing, combing, combing. There isn’t time to leave the house even if we were allowed.

We start like this every morning:

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And it takes all day to get to this:

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This is part of the problem:

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Here is our arsenal:

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Oh, and don’t forget the eyes! Because Mischa is an actual Persian, he is subject to tearing. Since he is a “doll-face”, or traditional Persian, it’s not as severe as it would be with a “Peke” faced show cat, but nevertheless, he has to have his eyes wiped – and then powdered. Yes, every day.

I wonder if all this is why there is a certain association between cats and, um, mental instability. As you can see, we’ve always been crazy about our cats, but we weren’t certifiably so. Until now. We have gone completely catty-wampus.

Would anyone like to sign on as cat valet? Permanent unpaid position, but you get to see this all day every day. Who could resist?

 

 

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My spirit animal is the sloth.

As a two-week “pause” has stretched to four, with nothing but uncertainty ahead, there is ample time for reflection. What are you learning about yourself?

Us? Well, the veneer of civilized behavior is melting away one layer at a time and we are reduced to staring into the distance and communicating via caveman grunting. What I’ve learned is something truly shocking: I don’t really hate this all that much.

Easy for me to say, of course. There are benefits to being old and useless. We are not on the front lines, (God bless you, every single one of you who are!), we are not even in the middle lines. We are back in the peanut gallery, our Kindles loaded up with books and “The Crown” queued up on Netflix every evening. Avocados from our tree for “salad” and no danger of scurvy given all the lemons and oranges we harvest. Spring is upon us and blissfully belies the danger that lies beyond. We’re enjoying it like never before because suddenly, we have all the time in the world to do so.

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And, of course, it helps to have congenial housemates.

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Somehow, with all the time in the world, I accomplish less and less. Going nowhere. Seeing no one. I looked up “recluse” on Wikipedia and considered editing the article to add my name. (Besides Greta Garbo, J.D. Salinger, Emily Dickinson and The Grinch are listed, if you’re interested.) I did see a neighbor at a distance the other day and after our initial greeting, we were both stupefied, too blank to say anything else. Because our brains have stopped working. “I am at a complete loss”, she said, dissolving into somewhat manic laughter.

When this all began I planned to be a busy bee, but alas, it turns out I have a different spirit animal. “Sloths move only when necessary and even then very slowly.” There you have it. And, oh, if you’re halfway through writing the great American novel or building a miniature replica of the Taj Mahal with Legos, I don’t want to hear about it.

At least I’m still taking my walks. Wouldn’t miss this view for anything:

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But everything seems to be happening. very. slowly. And, embarrassed as I am to admit it, I kind of like it. Maybe because going forward seems so daunting. Living life in a mask and waiting to be struck down by the second wave of the rona just doesn’t seem all that enticing.

Yesterday, I actually (and very briefly!) considered wiping my hands on my shirt to avoid using a precious paper towel. Yes, I almost crossed the Rubicon then and there. I’m learning some awful truths here.

My better self says uh-oh, it’s time to go out on a limb and brave whatever awaits. But my spirit animal self says the only limb we’re going out on is the one we wrap our slothy little arms around and settle in for another nap…

Wake me when it’s over.

 

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Easter without the eggs?

Real or perceived, there’s been talk of an egg shortage the last few weeks. Maybe due to “stress baking” or perhaps a slight hiccup in the supply chain, but whatever the cause, our hens are suddenly looking like superstars!

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While everyone else is “flocking” to stand in long lines at the grocery, we just step into the coop – this time of year the girls are laying like crazy.

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And since you can’t have eggs without chickens (or is it the other way around?) there’s also been a rush among the more intrepid to become flock keepers. According to a recent article in the UK’s Independent, hatcheries on our side of the pond have experienced a 100% increase in orders and long waiting lists for baby chicks.

Almost eleven years into it, I can only champion the joys of chicken keeping, but with one caveat: while we may never know for sure whether the chicken came before the egg,  it is an absolute that the coop must come before the chicken. A well thought-out and constructed coop is a must and will save the flock keeper from tears and tragedy. A good place to start is by reading anything by Gail Damerow, who is pretty much the grande dame of chicken keeping.

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Another excellent resource is your local feed store or Tractor Supply (if they are open?) and backyardchickens.com is an online treasure trove of information. mypetchicken.com is a good resource for the backyard flock keeper who wishes to begin with a small brood of chicks.

If you’re tempted, I say go for it, but also remember that while you won’t be “sheltering in place” forever (or at least I hope not!) your flock will always need daily tending. Feeding, watering and coop maintenance are musts and some period of supervised free-ranging makes for the happiest of hens. I daresay our crew looks pretty happy:

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At a time when we can’t visit with friends and neighbors, at least we’ve been able to leave a pack of fresh eggs as a calling card. One kind friend traded me a coveted container of Clorox wipes for a half dozen eggs and another reciprocated with a container of fresh produce from her garden. Slowing down, looking deeper and treasuring what we have  has been a gift in these challenging weeks.

But Easter without the eggs? Without the chocolate? Without the Peeps? Another gift. The greatest gift of all, because John 14:6

Luke 24:2-3;   John 11:25-26;   Luke 24:6-7

He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Happy Easter!

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