June 18 - 25
June 18, 2005
My little lamb-chop looks so different! Tired of the constant battle against the burrs and horsetails, I had Gussie shaved down real short today—about a quarter-inch all over except his face. I love it. He’s so warm and soft and smooth and clean. The grooming place was great, and Guster was a big hit with everyone there. The cashier told me that the groomer made special mention of how well behaved and gentlemanlike my boy had been. She even came out before we left to tell me in person. She said that of all the Wheatens she’s ever groomed he’s been the best. I felt like calling up the first two groomers I took him to when he was just a four-month old pup. The first place did nothing more than trim around his eyes before calling me up and to say he was terrible and had snapped at one of the girls. The second place gave him half a cut, a veritable hack-job, and practically threw us out of the place, with a similar report. There I was, a new dog owner thinking that my pup was an intractable and vicious nightmare. Turns out he just needed the kind of groomer who would show him who was boss but love him, too: Dapper Dog in Cornwall, New York groomed him for two years and never had a problem. Now, the aptly named Home Away from Home ($30 cheaper than Dapper Dog) has reconfirmed that Gussie’s a good boy. While we were there I asked about his recent problem of bad breath. We checked out his teeth and gums and they looked just fine, and his breath smelled fine, too. The groomer said the smell was probably his beard. I’d never considered that. I figured that with his daily swim his beard would be pretty clean, but apparently it wasn’t. Bathed and barbered, his bad breath is gone. I’ll have to remember to wash his beard more often.
As much as I’ve tried not to think about returning to the East, I’ve been tossing around the idea of renting an apartment close to my job in northern Jersey and buying a small house or cottage in the Adirondacks. Oddly enough, Marge Boyle made the same suggestion when I spoke with her the other day. I had only just thought of it a couple days before. Anyway, I think this would be ideal. After living out here, I’m convinced I need to continue to live in a rural place, at least part of the time. I need the peace and quiet, the trees and fresh air, the vegetable garden, the open space for Gussie to run around. I can’t have that and still work at Tenafly, unless I commute an hour each way. So with this new plan, I could go to the cottage on weekends, during the many vacations I get during the year, and in the summer. And in having this country cottage I could tolerate living in the congested greater metro area of New York City for the rest of the year. The Adirondacks is not a far drive. I could leave work on a Friday afternoon and be there in time for a late dinner. I’ve asked Sharen to keep her eyes peeled for anything affordable that looks nice. And she’s sent me a couple of real estate newspapers. Of course, friends, family and colleagues will be most welcome to use the place when I’m not.
The high point of my day: back from our trip to town, I made a cup of tea and opened a package from Jim Dowling, the contents of which included some 30 DVDs in sleeves in a sleek black binder-type case! What a guy! Some of the titles: the last three episodes of this season’s Deadwood, the recent HBO production of Empire Falls, Cannery Row, The Importance of Being Ernest, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Trainspotting, and a few episodes of The Sopranos. It looks like there are some Nova or Nature Channel shows, too, one of them about birds. In short, enough nighttime entertainment to last me through the summer, starting tonight with Deadwood. Jim, what can I do to thank you for all these wonderful gifts?
June 19, 2005
Happy Father’s Day, Pa!
I woke up this morning with a couplet in my head, and oddly enough it was about a father—Priam, from Homer’s Iliad. I don’t usually write endings of poems first, but this one worked out that way. So, a Father’s Day sonnet:
A Father’s Eyes
My battles ended before they began,
and for that I’m grateful; those neon lips
had too soon kissed the boy from the man,
and hope of truce seemed as absurd as ships
in bottles. But fate sails an unlikely sea.
And gulls flap within the glass. I was saved.
So why do my father’s eyes still haunt me
decades later? How to see what they gazed
on the time I crashed in at 4:00 AM?
He didn’t speak a word; just stirred the storm
in his cup. But his eyes had grief in them,
and love and recognition. They were warm,
as Priam’s might have been to see his boy
dragged by Achilles through the dust of Troy.
Sunshine! Another perfect day in paradise. My first task (after writing the sonnet, that is) was to pick sour cherries from the trees in the garden. I’ve been most generous with the birds. All last week I watched the Steller’s Jays and robins gorge on the cherries, and I did little to shoo them away. I figured there was enough to go around. Today the fruit was finally ripe enough for me. Sour cherries are too tart to eat the way you eat sweet cherries, so you have to cook them with sugar. They’re best in pies. Here’s what they look like while still on the tree:
I picked enough for a pie just grabbing ones in reach, and then I got greedy and climbed on a step ladder. It’s not very level in the garden, and the ladder toppled and I fell. One story in the rich history of this place is the death of old Bill Graiff, the former caretaker of the homestead. He had an arrangement with a bush pilot friend, Deak Miller: if he ever got in trouble, he’d lay a sheet out in the meadow to let the Deak know something was wrong. One fall day, Bill was picking apples and fell out of one of the trees and broke his hip. He was an old man by then, and the accident incapacitated him. Somehow, in all that pain, he was able to get a sheet and spread it out in the meadow. But he was too weak to crawl inside the cabin. It was a couple of days before Deak Miller spotted the sheet and sent for help. A day or two later Graiff died in a hospital. So, brushing myself off after the fall, and relieved there were no broken bones, I decided I had enough cherries for one day. I’ll try to avoid climbing on ladders. I’ve got no bush pilot friend looking out for me. Here’s my bowl of cherries before I pitted them.
My experience with pie-making is that the crust takes some finessing. I have vivid memories of my mother making pie crusts on a roll-out plastic Betty Crocker pie-making mat, looking flustered and helpless as she pawed at the flaky mass that wouldn’t quite form a ball or roll out. So, I consulted my trusty Fannie Farmer cookbook, which suggested not fussing with the dough too much. Do a rough folding-in of the shortening (I use salted butter; none of that white vegetable goop for me) and add no more than a few tablespoons of water, one at a time, and then stir with a fork before making the ball and rolling the dough. The clumps of butter in the dough are what make the nice bubbles in the crust when it’s cooked. My dough came out quite nicely, thanks to Fannie’s tips. Here’s the pie before baking. Not the most elegant lattice, but not too bad for my first try.
And here it is after cooling in the pie safe:
It made a fine, fine dessert to top of my salmon dinner.
It was delicious plain, but I’m decadent; I added a scoop of Ben & Jerry’s, too.
I brought the camera along on our walk this evening. First stop: the garden. I’ve talked about my cucumbers like a proud father. Here’s what they look like:
I’ll pick the biggest one soon.
Garlic is in the foreground, eggplant in the middle, tomatoes in the back. It looks more crowded than it really is. The grass and clover has grown in around the edges:
Poopy fetching a stick in the mowed meadow:
(Where I haven’t mowed at all, like up near Graif’s old house, the grass is taller than I am!)
And Poopy chewing a different stick in the road on our way to the pond. That’s the upper house in the background. You can sort of see his haircut:
Here’s a view from the road of the daisies growing near the garden:
A banana slug, finger added for perspective. This is a small one!:
I love this madrone growing just south of the where the red-bellied sapsuckers are nesting. Its leaves are turning yellow and falling already—autumn in June:
Elegant Brodiaea are popping up all over. They bloom in summer after the fields dry out. Such a sweet little flower. I picked one and tried pressing it, along with some Mexican Golden Poppy and a few other beauties:
This green insect was clinging to one of the blades of grass taller than me. It looks like a katydid, but I don’t think katydids are found out here. I need an insect guide:
June 20, 2005
A bittersweet day today—what would have been my 12th anniversary. All morning I’ve been thinking about Sharen and all the great times we had together. But rather than being sad that we’re no longer husband and wife, I was simply feeling glad for the good run we had. The memory of one of those good times worked itself out in this poem:
Recollection on What Would Have Been Our Anniversary
Her father had given us instruction—
tie back the awning if a hurricane
blew in—and she and I couldn’t contain
our grins. Destruction,
though, is every father’s fear when he leaves
his girl alone. We offered our farewell
and wishes for godspeed to Portugal.
By next day the eaves
poured like tipped urns, and from her twin girlhood
bed I could see herring gulls tossed in gales
and leaves pulling like skeet from the maples.
How in the world could
he have known? An almanac? A forecast?
But young love heeds neither warning nor proof.
We swirled tongues like clouds even as the roof’s
nails complained against
the pull. We rode our own salt swells. It took
the awning lashing the house to rouse us.
In less than a year we would be spouses.
I climbed and unhooked
ropes from their moorings. I held on for life,
or tried to, as we tied the fabric fast.
For a time it held, like those years now past
when I called her wife.
June 21, 2005
The poems continue to come. It’s strange what I find myself thinking about during my morning coffee on the couch by the warm stove. This morning’s subject: genocide, and more specifically, the guys who bury people in mass shallow graves. Just following orders. Not a wholesome thought before breakfast, but there it was.
I’ve given myself back to writing with form and rhyme, finding particular comfort in the envelope quatrain. Here’s the result of this morning’s musings:
He digs because it’s the job he’s given,
and he does it in the dark reckoning
all the ways it’s just. Soon the sickening
will be dressed and the blisters forgiven
by his hands. The spade’s blade will dry, the field
heal without a scar. Now there is no why,
just the work itself: the moon like an eye
watching, the tool helping the earth to yield,
a mosquito insisting at his ear.
He disregards the contents of the cart,
but it wants attention: blue twisted parts,
like a basket of crabs, staining the air.
He digs only as deep as he needs to,
tips the cart, kicks the spilled limbs. But the hole
is never deep enough. Though the small knoll
will settle, it’ll rise up like a coup.
Today’s chore: clear the road from the lower gate to the upper gate. Limbs came down with the recent windy days. I also need to smooth the deeper ruts in a few places. It’ll be cool in the shade of the monstrous Doug firs.
9:07 PM – Well, I didn’t quite clear the road all the way to the upper gate. I got more particular than I’d planned, and focused instead on several long stretches where many limbs had come down. I raked hard for two hours, and then hunger got the best of me. We came back for lunch, and then got distracted by weeding the garden. But I left the tools in my car and plan to resume tomorrow, if it’s not raining.
It just occurred to me that today is the longest day of the year, which explains why, at 9:07—oops, 9:08 PM—it’s still light out, bright enough that I can see three deer in the thick daisies behind my garden. One of them, maybe a trick of the strange light, appeared to be inside the garden fence, but a closer look with the binoculars showed the barbed wire between her and my tasty beds. I’m sitting on the deck in fleece and a winter hat. It’s about 58 degrees, but there’s a slight breeze, enough to bring on a chill. Gus is lying in his bed beside me, his eyes peeled on the meadow and the forest’s edge, a sentry. I don’t spend enough time out here at night. It’s usually too chilly for my comfort, or the mosquitoes annoy me, and if I’m writing I have to run the laptop off its battery. But tonight I’m out here, with a cup of my homegrown mint tea, and the breeze feels encouraging and there are no mosquitoes so far. Above Rattlesnake Ridge there’s a band of white and above that dark clouds gathering. Rain tonight? I don’t care. I like the sound of it on the skylight as I’m drifting off to sleep. If I listen hard when the breeze slows, I can hear the river down below, pushing its way toward the Pacific. It must be something to be down there at night. Once, before I leave, I plan to take the tent and sleeping bag and camp out there. I’d probably be too worried about bears and cougars to sleep, but I can’t leave here without having done it. And I’ll have my sentry there, too.
I’m waiting for the moon. Last night it topped the ridge looking huge, full, yellow. It’s a trick of perspective that makes it look big, of course. The moon, after all, is always the same size. Seen with trees in front of it, it looks huge. Seen high in the sky, it looks small. So here I am hoping to see it behind the silhouettes of the firs. Maybe it’s too cloudy.
June 22, 2005
Aptly, summer has started with warm days. Today we packed up a lunch and umbrella and went down to the river for the day. This time I remembered to bring something to read. I brought along an issue of Granta. In it I read a beautifully written essay by John McGahern, an Irish writer. This issue focused on mothers, and the piece, which will be included in his forthcoming memoir, details his upbringing in Leitrim. The writing was fine enough to make me want to buy the book when it comes out. I’m a sucker for all things Irish, too, and so the story was all the more appealing. Why is it that the Irish write so well? Is it the rain?
I struck out again with the fishing, reeling in nothing but greetings from passing floaters. One guy said the Chinooks are in the river, but I didn’t see any. I used an assortment of rooster tails and other delectable-looking lures, and I saw a couple of little half-pounders following, but no strikes. I’ve hung up the fly rod for the time being. It’s too much bloody work. I have a feeling I won’t catch anything until the fall when the steelheads come back home. But it doesn’t matter. Just lying out beneath the umbrella, back propped against the smooth rock I’ve claimed, Gussie curled beside me in the sand, and listening to the river’s unstoppable voice, was enough. I kept catching a scent in the air that I could’ve sworn was rosemary. And high up in a leaning cedar, the ospreys kept asking us to leave. Finally, we did.
The hike back up was dry and hot. I love to breathe that kind of air, but I had to stop at The Love Grove to drink the last of my water, and I was parched again by the time I made it to the cabin. The Love Grove, by the way, is a flat, shady grove of tall firs so named when a previous resident, Jenny, fell in love with Ian, Frank Boyden’s son, and the two had a tryst there. They later got married and are living happily ever after. In the middle of The Love Grove is a crude bench fashioned out of two logs and a rough-hewn plank. Atop the bench is a black stone in the shape of a heart. How’s that for romance?
After dinner I was all set to get back into the story I’ve been working on, when a puzzle idea came to me. It’s the first time I’ve tried this: a puzzle in which there are boxes outside the grid (of course, part of a theme idea). Sometime after midnight I finished filling the grid with words. Now I have to write the clues, which is hard to do here, where the only reference book is a dictionary.
June 23, 2005
I’ve been feeling jittery and out-of-sorts since yesterday, and I’m not sure why. My head feels as though I haven’t slept: not really a headache but an uncomfortable, frayed feeling. Besides a new poem I wrote this morning, I’ve had no motivation to do anything. In the late morning Gus looked hot, so I took him up to the pond for a swim. Other than that I just futzed around the garden, worked on the new crossword, napped, and wrote a couple of letters. It feels like anxiety, but what is there to be anxious about? My stomach has felt a little queasy, too. Maybe it was something I ate?
In his new book John Daniel writes about the digger squirrels eating his beets and how, despite his love of nature, he poisons them with Just One Bite. I found this story pretty humorous, and though the digger squirrels have left holes all over the garden, they’ve steered clear of my vegetables, so I’ve seen no need to mess with them. But recently I noticed that the three broccoli plants closest to the chicken coop have been nibbled, and more recently they’re looking downright chowed upon. I hate to use poison, especially since Poopy always follows me out to the garden and sticks his nose in every hole. I couldn’t live with myself if he were to eat Just One Bite and it turned out to be his last. But yesterday morning, having my coffee out on the deck, I spotted one of the varmints beneath the grapevines. I tip-toed into the house, took the .22 from the closet, and loaded it with a few rounds. The .22 is a sweet little shooter, a Winchester repeating, model 62-A. With it’s pump-action, the spent shells flipping out of the chamber, I feel big and bad and a little kinder toward the NRA every time I shoot it. Through the binoculars I could see the Varmint Cong chewing something. I took aim and fired. And missed. And he scampered through the fence and under the old chicken coop. I wondered, then, if that’s what Gus is always sniffing over at the ramshackle coop. This morning, enjoying my coffee and crossword, I looked up and there the VC stood, in the exact same spot beneath the grapevine. I’d left the .22 on the kitchen table (“You know you’re a redneck when…”) for quick retrieval, and now I leveled it once again on the deck railing. When Neil was here I hit a bull’s eye from almost the exact same distance, about 50 yards. Again I missed. And the critter scampered to the safety of his home. Then I remembered: the gun shoots a tad to the right, and the way I hit the bull’s eye was to aim to the left. If he’s there tomorrow, I’ll make just such an adjustment. “Say your prayers, varmint.”
Tonight, for the second time in as many days, Gus found a dead bird. His nose, as keen as a bear’s or a vulture’s, never fails to sniff out exactly the kinds of things I don’t want him finding. Why he can’t catch a mouse in the house or a digger squirrel in the garden, I don’t know, but he has a knack for finding dead birds. Yesterday’s little corpse appeared to be a robin. I wrested it from Poopy’s mouth and threw it atop the slash pile, now its pyre. Tonight’s prize appeared to be an Oregon junco. Both bird were fledglings. They were either tossed out of the nest or they didn’t survive their first flight. It’s sad to think that they never got to know the wonder of taking to the air.
June 24, 2005
I woke up feeling much better. Maybe I just needed more sleep. Some nights I do stay up past midnight, and then my internal alarm clock wakes me at 7:00. Today it buzzed a bit early, 6:30, which was just fine with me. I took advantage of the coolness of the morning to trim the grass around the cabin, the garden perimeter, the turn-around, and the start of the trail down to the river. And again, the Muse visited me:
A Used Book
When I open its pages my dog stirs
from his repose on the couch beside me
to sniff at the spine and trim. His gray ears
lift to listen, and I hear what he hears:
traffic horns, a teapot’s whistle, the purrs
of the reader’s cats on her old settee.
What was she doing reading such heady
stuff so early on a Saturday—sun
not yet risen, her lover still asleep?
The book, I guess, her company to keep,
and the cats, while the light kept its steady
course across her floor. Paris or London,
I imagine, though it was probably
San Francisco, a streetcar passing by
and fog rinsing the morning air. A gray
day then, much like any other. It may
be that she, too, drawn irresistibly
to its place on a shelf in a nearby
shop, blew the dust and bought it second-hand.
And perhaps her cats roused when she opened
its cover, catching the vague scent of dog,
and she got no further than the prologue
before she was off to some distant land
where a man held a page against the wind.
In preparation for tomorrow’s trip into town, I assembled a few submissions and wrote a few more letters. In order to use my laser printer, I need to start up the generator for some juice. So, I get everything ready ahead of time—stories or poems I’m sending out and cover letters—and then I print everything all at once. I can’t stand the sound of the engine running or the stink of the exhaust, so the briefer it runs, the better.
Today was the last day, a professional day, for my colleagues at Tenafly High. I’ve been thinking about all of you. Enjoy the summer!
It’s been about two and a half months that I’ve been out here, and I’m better prepared now to comment on what it’s like to live in solitude. Most of the time, I don’t really even think about it. When I’m engaged in any of my various activities—writing, reading, gardening, playing guitar, maintaining the homestead, walking around with Gus, fishing, swimming, doing crosswords, cooking or cleaning or washing clothes—it doesn’t often occur to me that I’m all alone, no one around for fifty miles except for the occasional passing rafters down at the river. Doing these activities, I am for the most part content and happy, and sometimes I’m deeply gratified. Some days I wake up feeling whelmed with glee to be in such a place and to have another whole day ahead of me here. Other times I’ll see things—the purple Brodiaea growing everywhere, a garter snake, a hawk contracting its wings in midair, a walking stick insect, a blood-red dragonfly, a giant madrone, a single yellow leaf waving like a hand in its descent, the bobcat scat I found on my doorstep this morning—and feel that I’m not alone at all, that there are living things all around me. But there are those times when I crave the company of people: laughter, a shared meal, music, even meaningless small-talk. Living with Sharen, I laughed a lot. The time we spent together usually consisted of a running banter of funny stuff, little things that no one else in the world would get. At work, too, I laughed a lot, in the office and in class with my students. Out here I almost never laugh. Maybe when Gus does something funny. Or when I’m talking with someone on the radio phone (though that’s always a little awkward since the person on the other end can’t hear me laughing). Meals can be lonely affairs, especially dinner. I love to cook, but it’s so much more satisfying to cook for someone else. When Neil was here, I took great pride in the meals I whipped up, and they tasted better than the meals I’d been eating alone. Usually, I dine with a crossword handy, or a magazine or book, and then I don’t find myself looking out the window and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” But then I go into town and observe the people sitting around me in the coffee houses and diners, almost none of them alone, and listen to their chatter, and I realize that being in the company of others can also be taxing. During my dinners with Neil, as lovely as they were, I found myself worrying that I wasn’t talking enough, that he was feeling obligated to maintain the chatter. One of the penalties one pays for being in the company of others is the uncomfortable silence and the work of conversing. This is a feeling I have often around other people, especially people I don’t know well, and it’s extremely tiring. It’s a game we don’t acknowledge but know is there. The friends I love being around the most—I think of someone like Janine Sisak—are the ones with whom you don’t feel this pressure to fill the gaps. With them, it’s okay to shut the hell up and just hang. One thing solitude reminds me of is that I don’t have a lot to say. I think this is why I like writing. When I write, I have things to say, or at least I feel as though I do; I feel intellectual. When I’m around people I find myself struggling to maintain interest in conversations and steering away from anything deep. I’m not sure why this is: fear of sounding stupid or of not measuring up, boredom? Maybe it’s just one manifestation of my generalized anxiety, but around people, I prefer my conversations to be short and of little import, and I think this is why I’ve loved game-playing so much when hanging around with people. Playing games—cards, trivia, whatever—there are the machinations of the game to keep the talk and energy going. It’s so much more work to just sit there and actually talk. So, am I a misanthrope? No, I don’t think so. If anything, I think I’ve discovered that I’m insecure, and in solitude I feel pretty secure. I’ve also discovered, though maybe I knew this already, that there’s nothing wrong with silence or with enjoying being alone. More on this topic later.