FEAR AND ANGER, ANGER AND FEAR

How much of our angers have to do with our fears, and how much do our fears have to do with other people’s angers?  

I have been grieving, these days, the lives (and the deaths) of young people; not people I know, but people I imagine I could know, in their aspirations, their excesses, their possibilities.  This includes the Black children I once might have met, or taught, or passed in Target, or whom I passed on the two-lane highway in and out of town, or on the narrow footpath where I walk the dog sometimes, and we smiled.   It also includes the young heroes I feel a closeness to (since my own child was one of New York’s Bravest), New York’s Finest — that is, cops—who are on my shortlist of heroes.  

As a person who feels free to imagine all sorts of bad and good things, I have been imagining the last moments of children (no matter they are in their 30’s or 40’s, because I am in my 80’s and they are all children to me, at this point) who have been shot, choked to death, who have lost their own children. This includes those whose lives have been stifled by fear and anger.  How can this not include Black children and cop children, and parents of black men and women and parents of patrolmen and women? 

How can I not also imagine young cops who were taught to shoot but not how not to shoot?  Or were too scared of the fear turned into rage that they saw (or they imagined)? And of a young Black man who was too scared to stand still or let himself be suspected and accused, or too angry to let himself be humiliated, and so turned and ran? 

It is fear and anger that makes all of us behave as if we don’t know the difference between peaceful protest and provocation, that pretends not to understand what all the fuss is about.  

Is there a solution that an old person can offer from the length of years, and trials and tribulations she has racked up until now?  I am afraid if there is, it is an old one, and one increasingly difficult to counsel: restraint, constraint, a pause before taking any rash action that can’t be taken back.  Think twice.  Or, dare I say, put yourself in that other person’s place.  But nowadays that seems unlikely to settle anyone down, and I’m left thinking a most unhelpful “watch your back” as a poor substitute and no solution at all.  

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FLEXING MY WORDS

I was thinking it is time for another look at what’s going on in our language, and how it reflects life. So, I went Googling – not, believe me,  to count how many mentions I have, which, honestly, are not more than seventy-six or seventy-seven – but to research the derivations of some of the new words and phrases that have caught my attention.  (By the way, that, right there, is a humblebrag – a boast wrapped in self-deprecation –which is one of my new favorite words. It was coined, supposedly, by a tv producer.  Imagine. )

One of the most intriguing of new words is the new use of an old word, a name, specifically, used as a pejorative. Have you heard it?  A Karen is a petty, middle-aged woman.  It has a tinge of ageism, and a tinge of misogyny, and a tinge of reverse racism, since, according to Wiki and other sources, it comes from Black culture.  Using a name to indict a whole class of people, or their behavior is not new, itself, however.  Think of Judas, a biblical betrayer, Simon Legree, a cruel taskmaster, or Casanova. These eponyms also often include what a person invented, or is famous for (think Adam and his apple,  and Freud’s slip). 

Some words that I’ve heard a lot of lately include woke, which means awakened to in a political or social or cultural sense, and bro and dude, both of which are gender neutral versions of pal or buddy; I was also intrigued to hear someone say she was hangry, which, as it turns out, is a neat combination of hungry and angry (though why someone should be hangry is not apparent right off the bat, and seems to refer to a curious situation which I have not yet encountered.)

I like the phrase to throw shade, meaning to give someone a dirty look (Which sounds like a more refined way of saying you are giving someone the stink eye.) Both have a visceral, vigorous bounce that animates meaning, as does to ghost someone, meaning to break up just by disappearing, an improvement in language (if not in behavior) from the breaking up by e-mail, or text, which always seemed to me apocryphal, as if invented by someone who writes romcoms.  (Is romcom, or romantic comedy, too old to qualify as a new word?)

There are few words that seem as perfect to their meaning as tool, which means an idiot ( a fool who lets himself be used?), and few as stamped with a certain expiration date as Gucci to signify coolness.  (See, you didn’t hear that one, either.) And none as imperfect as sick to mean great.

Some words are unpleasant to say: I’m thinking about blog, a truncated version of weblog, which, lots of people have mentioned can leave one with a vaguely coagulated, viscuous aftertaste.

Of all the other words that come from internet life, the two that have taken hold in my lexicon are: OMG, which keeps its original abbreviated nature by being expressed loudly, so “Oh, My God” is in there, even if some of us don’t remember that that’s what it means.  The other one is YOLO, which means “You Only Live Once”  I’ve never used that one, but I am looking forward to it because it sounds like yoyo, which is a playful word, and mimics the way life goes, up and down, up and down.

Two phrases that are being used a lot lately are cancel culture, which refers to the swift dismantling of people’s reputations, jobs, careers in response to something they said or did, on social media.  The other phrase is virtue signaling, which is to suggest you have moral superiority by saying something popular or approved of, which you may not even mean.  (“Some of my best friends are…” )

I wonder which of those words or phrases I have used or actually will use.  I’m thinking that some words, like certain articles of clothing, seem meant for people younger than I.  Is this ageist?  Shall I make an effort to exercise my right to sport words that are the equivalent of dying my hair purple or wearing ripped jeans ?  

Well, dude, maybe so.   WTHyou guys, What the Hell.  After all,  YOLO.

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BIG LIFE, LITTLE DEATHS, IN SEASON

            

   Have you noticed that there’s a lot of roadkill in the autumn?  Squirrels here, squirrels there. I have always thought it had something to do with the little critters feeling the pinch of time growing short and tight, so in their haste to gather their nuts before the winter, they get careless in crossing the highways and byways.  Always on the lookout for a genuine Revelation, which I can turn into a handy dandy Bit O’ Wisdom, I toyed with the following:

   Don’t gather your nuts with too much haste, for if you’re dead they’ll go to waste.  OR  Look before you creep or you will go to your eternal sleep.  OR Scurrying does not pay.  All, right, I admit, none of these homegrown proverbs are very wise. Still, the constant sight of roadkill in the autumn is a reminder of sudden mortality.  

            Here is a poem: 

                                    ROADKILL

A two word collision,

A fender bender of a word,

About the dead squirrel in the road.

Suggesting there are certain little deaths

We don’t relish

But don’t mind.

Where trees outnumber squirrels 

And squirrels outnumber us,

The body count (which no one counts)

Rises in summer,

Collateral

To weekenders

On country roads.

Our cars believe it.

The crows celebrate it.

Only the skunk rebels,

His outrage rising like a ghost wrapped in stink,

Sinking into the crooks of trees, 

Soaking through the undercoating of cars.

It reminds me of once,

When I lived in the city,

A kid chasing a ball,

Crossing against the light,

Ran into my

Bounced off the hood of my

And a passerby said

These kids are squirrely.

Once I saw a grisly pinata of wild turkey

Spread in a red glare across the road

And another time

A deer

Sniffing her newly dead faun.

But exceptions aside

The country ways of death abide.

The flat, furry remains

Get dispatched by cars and suns and rain,

Until its final dander

Becomes one with pine and oleander,

Like it was never there,

And we don’t much care.

Also in the autumn, everywhere I turn, I see the red, yellow, orange, rust and brown of the dying trees. They hang on the high limbs and the low as long as they can, then float and flutter to earth, turning on all their brilliance before they die.  And though it is death, it makes me think of life, as well.

 And that makes me think of that thing people say, about being able to celebrate someone’s life rather than mourning their death, and instead of feeling sorrow for their loss, feeling joy in having had them for however long. 

Is it only a matter of our own natures, whether we can do one or the other?  Are we born glass-empty or glass-full kind of people?  Are we nurtured to be one or the other?  Or is it in the nature of the particular people or things that we mourn?  Are they two sides of the same coin? Life and death, joy and sorrow?

 My father died in the autumn long ago, and my best girlfriend, too, so it is a time of sorrow and reflection, but also a time of such immense beauty in the world, in the flaming exuberance of the dying trees and even in the busy scurrying we all do, to squirrel away comfort for the winter.  And though I have always thought of myself as a pretty glass-empty kind of person, I find the autumn of the year, with all its deathly echoes, still so beautiful and profound, that I seem to take a lesson from nature, an intuition of wisdom that I can’t quite put into words, but that I know is there. 

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When It’s Time to Grin and Bear It

When you get to the point where it is so sad it begins to be funny?  Or so bad it gets to be good?

Like this past week.

Well, all summer, I’ve been loaded for bear – that is prepared for action, spoiling for a fight — since early June, when a big mother bear and her two baby bears settled into our neighborhood.  They have raided my garbage three times so far, at dusk and dawn, leaving me to pick up half-eaten rinds of watermelon, coffee grinds, thousands of tissues, chicken bones.  Neighbors’ advice was a good spray of ammonia in the trash can, but so far it has only discouraged, not deterred the bears outright. (I contemplated a battery operated alarm until I realized it would go off whether it was a bear or a person walking by.)

At the same time, I have been trying to figure out how to do my daily dog walks without being scared. “Walk with a stick,” a friend said.  Yeah. Like I’m going to poke a bear.  “Sing,” someone else said.  So I rehearsed my number (“When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along”) and sang it under my breath.  But my bottom line strategy was to swivel my head from side to side in case the bears emerged from the woods on either side of me, as I had seen them do from the safety of my porch several times this summer.  This has not been completely successful. Swiveling right one day, I imagined that a thick tree stump just out of my clear sight in the woods was the bear. Swiveling to the left,  I thought a black tarp covering something was the bear, and as the wind stirred the tarp, I thought the bear was moving. So, I ordered from Amazon, bells for the dog’s collar, and a whistle for me.  Now I walk swiveling and jingling.

And that’s the way things stood until this past week.

But this past Monday, I found relief from thinking about the bears while I walked the dog, by obsessing over the two root canals I was about to have.

And then, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, , the house next door to me went up in flames, and for a brief time worry that the embers would fly through the trees and land at my house filled my head, but later that day I thought, how lucky am I?  That mama bear was sure to have taken her two babies out of danger of fire, and was gone from our vicinity, at least temporarily.

And Thursday, it rained all day and then we had a tornado watch, and I figured the bear family was sheltering in place in the hollow of a faraway tree, while I sat on the floor of my wine closet, wondering not whether I would survive a tornado, but how I would get up off the floor.  By the time I stopped laughing, the storm had passed.

And though I am back to swiveling and jingling, and have doubled my supply of ammonia for the trash cans, I’m kind of over it.  The happenings this week went all the way around the bend until they became just another week that was.

The point of this?  I don’t know.  Que sera sera?   Whatever?  Hibernation will be here sooner than you think?  Life keeps happening, so move on? Or just It Can Be Funny If You Laugh.

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PICKING UP THE SLACK

I had a wonderful Zoom reunion with my Music & Art High School class on Saturday. More than 40 of us from all over America logged on to catch up, and chime in on a variety of issues.  It was like the big cousin’s club I never had.  And one of the things that came up was how many of us were widowed, and how we were faring in our widowhood.  It got me thinking, and in the spirit of the deep and honest exchanges on Saturday, I offer this:

I had always figured there would be loneliness.  I expected to have regrets about unfinished plans  (That trip to the beach?) and unsaid words (One more I love you?). I even anticipated the “phantom limb” sensation of him being gone yet feeling present (which is a painful pleasure).

What I did not expect was having to revisit the meaning of  “wife” and maybe make a few tweaks of my feminist bona fides.

I married in 1962, and as was common in those days, went straight from my parents’ home to my husband’s.  I hadn’t gone to an out of town college, and have never lived alone.

Life,  in our couplehood,  meant splitting the responsibilities. He did the “husbandly” things, like paying bills, doing the  taxes (even though it meant just collecting all the stuff to give to a CPA) knowing which was the furnace and which was the boiler.

Filling the gas tank.

The hot water smells again. The water softener is not working, calling the guy.

It rained hard last night.  Checking the old spot where a small roof leak has been patched to make sure it hasn’t grown.

The automatic garage door opener is temperamental.  I call my friend, P, across the road, who comes to fix it.  “Can’t he show you how to do it?” my daughter asks.  “I tried, but I messed it up the last time,”  I say, while silently feeling, trying not to think) that’s a man’s job. That’s what was going through my mind every time I had to assume one of “his” tasks.

I am suddenly reminded of my mother, who used to wait for my husband to adjust the sound on her television.  We used to laugh.  A smart woman like that?  Ceding her power?   Yet I waited for my son or daughter to fill my gas tank.

But being part of our couplehood also meant always temporizing.  We perseverated together, confirmed our unsurenesses, collaborated on putting things off, negotiated decisions, leaning sometimes toward “no” and sometimes toward  “yes” on an issue, before agreeing, happily, to talk it through again next week.  So I have begun to do things faster. But not without guilt.  It feels like hubris not to say to someone, “do you think I should wait?” before I don’t wait.

And it is not just the practical, physical tasks.  It is existence itself.  Shall I alter my routine?  We always ate at 6.  Am I “allowed” to eat at 5?  Or 8?

All this has made me think about the cultural givens I was raised to believe: I was a wife, but he was “the man of the house.”  It was a relief to defer to his decision.  (I could blame him if it went wrong.) I viewed his collaboration with me, sometimes, as a lucky gift, sometimes as a lucky abdication of his role.

All of this is unsettling.  But it is also a refreshing. And on some days  it feels like freedom and power.  I am on a steep learning curve and in an uphill battle.  But then I do something fantastic, like pumping my own gas, and I’m ready to do more.

To know is to grow.

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S’MORE THAN YOU THINK

The marshmallow came into my life in sleep away summer camp when I was nine. S’mores had not yet been invented.  Rice Krispie Treats were barely out of their infancy and unknown to anyone I knew.  It was the year of the polio epidemic and we were quarantined; parents were not allowed to visit and I was homesick. The humble marshmallow, roasted over a campfire, was the only bright spot in my young life.  Campfire Girls was the brand.

To roast a marshmallow, first you had to find a stick long enough and thin enough to impale the little pillows of sweetness. If the stick was too short, there was a danger it would burn before the marshmallow got roasted, or the counselor (who did the actual roasting), might just drop the whole thing into the fire.  If the stick was not thin enough, the hole it made in the marshmallow might be so big that the marshmallow wouldn’t make it, and fall off into the fire.  If you had to end up eating the raw replacement marshmallow the counselor gave you, you would feel the unfairness of the world as only a nine-year old could.

I always found good sticks, thin enough so I could impale three marshmallows easily, and I always tried to scrape off the dirt and some of the rough bark so the burnt marshmallows would come off the stick smoothly. The counselor held them over the campfire until they were charred as you stood behind him, impatient, and you ate the blackened puffs quickly, while they were still hot.  Little bits of ash flew in the air, but you barely noticed.

Roasting marshmallows was the culminating activity of the campfire, after we had listened to a spooky story or two, sung songs in unison, and perhaps clasped hands and swayed to “Friends, friends, friends, we shall always be…”which was the signal it was time for lights out. Then we traipsed back to our bunks, flashlights leading us, chilly in the August country air, sticky-fingered, still picking sweet, charcoal-ey bits of burnt marshmallow from our teeth.

I came home from camp with all kinds of experiences I wanted to keep alive: friends I promised to keep in touch with long distance through the long winter; new ways to fold tee shirts and roll socks, something that never interested me  before; the flashlight habit, late at night, watching the beam dart around and across my bedroom ceiling; and roasting marshmallows, supervised by my mother,  over the open flame of the gas stove.

When I was older, I roasted them on my own.  Once, when I was in high school, I branded my tongue with the tines of a fork.  It took weeks to heal. I never told my mother.  But that was the last time I roasted a marshmallow. When I was married with children, I learned to make Rice Krispie Treats,  which I love, but they are not the same.  A crunch is not a squish or a slurp, after all.

So, for the purposes of this essay, I poked two marshmallows onto a big turkey fork and (because I have an electric oven and it seemed tricky to try to get them under the broiler) lit them up with a fireplace starter, turning the burned parts this way and that until they were more or less even all around and then ate them, quickly.  So I can say, yes, nothing can compare to a roasted marshmallow when the spongy  becomes silky cream, barely encased in the delicious ruin of its outside char.

Doing it made me feel like a kid.  I hope one of these days soon I will be able to try a S’more.  It’s good to have memories and things to look forward to, too.

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REJECTING REJECTIONS

I’ve been thinking about rejection, lately, which is a constant in most writers’ lives.  The following is an adaptation of a piece I wrote for the Authors Guild Bulletin some years back.

I’m 168 in writer years and I feel my age.  I have been writing and submitting since typewriters were in use,  and for everything I’ve published,  there have been more rejected.  I used to keep the rejections in an old trunk in my work room.  It sat there, oozing negativity from every seam, until one day it exploded, sending scraps of bad karma all over the room.  After I peeled it off the walls, I decided to keep only the noteworthy rejections.  Not too many, these days. Rejections used to have splash and passion; now they are about as exciting as bottled water.

Of course, the bedrock of rejections has always been generic forms. But they were worded carefully, and you could make yourself believe the editors had tailored them to you: some were collegial, like the editors and you were all in this together.  I would read the few lines closely, many times, and in between them, too.  Was there something really regretful between regret we cannot publish and thank you for thinking of us?  I hated the the ones that took on themselves the heavy burden of their vetoes: Dear Writer (though we don’t really think you are one), We are grateful to see this( piece of crap) and although it is not right for us (or anyone else), we wish you  luck placing it elsewhere (yeah, lots and lotsa luck) .  Sincerely yours, The Editor

Sometimes a generic came with an afterthought of handwritten encouragement:   Nice, but not for us  or Thanks, anyway, Love to see more, or Try us again, which would to stuff my sinuses with such emotion that I could hardly breathe for half a day.

Occasionally, some editor would write a personal letter, rejecting me in the most accepting of terms. I had a long correspondence with one fiction editor at The New Yorker Magazine (which is the white whale to many fiction writers). Sweet agony. Over several years (during which I wrote and published my first novel), I had many near-misses, the worst/ best of which was a story which, this editor said, was just a hair from…well, they all loved it but…would I consider changing the ending?  Consider it?  Boy, did I!  I pumped it up, toned it down, installed a detonator in the last sentence, rubbed it down with great slathers of Art.   Of course, the harder I tried, the worse it got.  And each rejection was gentler and more regretful.  By the time I gave up, it was barely a story, and I have never put it back together, or tried it anywhere else. Now that is rejection at work.

I like rejections that show that a reader was affected by my work, and the best of these was that same editor, who turned down my story about a dying woman, but at the bottom, handwrote a concerned P.S., hoping the dying woman wasn’t me. And my hands-down favorite rejection, from the now-defunct glossy magazine LEAR’S was when my short story came back torn in half and across the title someone had scrawled “THIS IS SHIT” in brown marker.

Nowadays, rejections don’t show that kind of enthusiasm or interest.  They are lazy and, well…sloppy, without a sense of self, no pride.  Once, I got a raggedly torn half of 8-1//2 X11 page with not my cup of tea.  And once, I got a short story back from a magazine a year after I sent it, and by then I had completely forgotten I sent it, so the rejection came unhitched from my hopes. It felt more like losing the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes than anything else.

If you have an agent, book rejections are almost always polite, since editors and agents have to get along.  But that means you have to translate sentences, addressed to your agent,  like: I can see why you are so enthusiastic about this, but it is not right for our list, (which roughly means Ugh, you idiot, where is your taste?)  Occasionally, a rejection will offer insight; one such led to  a complete revision of a book.

Mostly, editors are readers like anyone else, and they react first with their gut, and then justify their gut with publishing jargon because that’s their job.   After all, there really is no reason to analyze and explain why they aren’t going to buy something any more than you would have to explain to the fruit man why you passed on those green bananas.  An editor has to fall in love with your work, and if she doesn’t, she puts her lack of love into terms like the narrative is weak, or the protagonist is problematic, after the fact.  Publishers like a sure thing, so “will it sell?” is important, too.  Before I sold my book about Alzheimer’s, most rejections talked about it being too difficult a subject to tackle, but the editor who loved it saw the potential more clearly than the difficulty.

What I have learned from rejections is that good work is subject to them, and there is very little I can do about some editors’ personal taste or a publishing program which does not include my type of work.  The only things I can do are to make sure that there are no soft spots in the work, and know my market before it goes out.  Because I will only get one chance.  That editor whose helpful comment led to my revision did not want another look.

I knew a guy who had had a huge success with his first book, and then went on to write nine unpublished novels.  When I met him he was working on his tenth.  Yes, he was a little crazed, and I remember thinking what a nightmare and wondering what kept him going.  I don’t wonder anymore.   Sometimes rejections make me want to stop submitting material, and sometimes I do stop, for a while.  But they never make me want to stop writing.  If I have an urgency to say something, if the answer to the question “would you write it even if no one would publish it?” is “yes,” then I write it and don’t worry about it being rejected.   And it helps that I can see that some rejections that are just not good enough for me, and I reject them.

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Between an Anchor and a Millstone

Having a pet, as I’ve often said, has been a late-in-life revelation, a joy, and most recently a lifesaver.  Walking the dog gets me up and out and walking every day, and having a dog gives me a creature to care for.  He centers me in my own life; you could say he’s an anchor which prevents me from drifting into sloth, or solitude or even loneliness.  But you know, there is another side to it.  When it storms and I can’t take him out.  Or when I want to go away for the day and can’t do it without either boarding him, or taking him with me.  Every time I go shopping, he follows me and pleads to go, but I can’t take him because if I leave him in the car alone to go into a store, he’ll bark his head off.  (And I will feel too guilty to stay longer than five minutes.)  And if I take him into a dog friendly store with me, he gets so excited he marks everything he can lift his leg at,  so forget doing that.  If I leave him, when I come home,  sometimes I hear him howling.  Had he been doing it all the time I was gone? Oh, the guilt then! And, though he is friendly and loving, he is a bad boy when it comes to food.  He’ll steal it right off my plate if I’m not careful.  In other words, my “anchor” can also be considered a millstone.

That’s the way it is with a lot of things, isn’t it? For example, I lived in a rental apartment for all but the last twenty-five years.  That meant when something went wrong, I called the “super” or maintenance staff and they came to fix it.   What could be better?  No one had to be handy (though M was).  On the other hand, all that rental money? Down the drain.  So we bought a house and paid it off and now I own it.  It is my safe place, my haven, my anchor in the current storm of life.  On the other hand…you got it.  Lawn, roof, painting: mine to take care of.  Plumbing emergencies, mine, too.  Millstone.

During Covid, being quarantined has been a terrible burden in some ways.  A millstone around the neck for most of us: we can’t see our loved ones, or if we can, we can’t hug them.  We can’t shop as we used to, and if we can, lots of luck finding the items we might really need.  For a long time we couldn’t see a doctor or dentist for ordinary things, we couldn’t go to school the old school way, in person. (We may not yet.) But, a lot of people have been discovering new ways of being with family, rediscovering creative parts of themselves, re-thinking life, reaching out to others.  And although I’ve felt constrained, I’ve also, at times, felt cocooned.  Anchored.

And it’s got me thinking: As anyone in the advertising/marketing/word  business will tell you, new words and phrases that come into our vocabulary as we live through new, or strange, or awful things sometimes anchor the experiences and help us understand  them. “Flattening the curve” has really brought statistics alive for us.  “Black Lives Matter” has spurred a movement.  “Blue Lives Matter” has reminded us that good policemen want to be respected and protected.  The phrases and slogans make it easier for disparate people to feel they all share a single idea.  Great. But when the slogans become so hardened that we can’t get beyond them, they are burdensome and counterproductive.  That’s what I’m seeing now.  Black lives do matter and this is the moment that everyone in our country should reaffirm that fact.  The slogan came up, specifically, when it seemed they didn’t matter. Blue lives matter, too.  All lives matter, too.  One doesn’t preclude another.  But at this moment, we’re talking about Black lives.  Let’s stay on topic.

If we take the politics out of it, we can see how illogical it is to respond to the statement “Black Lives Matter,” with “Blue Lives Matter,” almost like a rebuttal or a retaliation.   It’s not. Think of it this way: If someone brought a large platter of lobster to the table, and someone said, “ ‘tater tots are my favorite food,” wouldn’t you say, “Why are you talking about ‘tater tots when lobster is on the table?”

Black lives matter.  That’s what’s on the table now.  That doesn’t mean Blue lives don’t matter.  That doesn’t mean All lives don’t matter. It means we’ve let the anchor of a slogan become a millstone around our necks.

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SMALL TALK with JILLIAN

So, Jillian, you asked me this provocative question:  “What makes you feel small?” and of course my first instinct is to turn it around and ask you, what do you mean by small?  Physically?  Psychologically?

J. Hm, I fell right into the trap, didn’t I? You’re just lucky I like to talk… Well I guess all of the above. Physically, psychologically, spiritually, It can be positive or negative, humbling or frightening.

B. Right off the bat, I was thinking about “smallness” psychologically, and almost totally in the negative: like small-minded, or trivial.  Or like belittlement, a tactic someone uses to make someone else feel unimportant or lousy about themselves.

J. Well, before you can even grasp the positive of smallness, think about the neutrality of smallness. Say, physical smallness. I’m a bit over five feet, so I’m used to my smallness in terms of height. Tall people make me feel smaller. But I don’t necessarily think that’s negative. After all, I always have someone to reach for the top shelf. Less effort for me.

B. That’s true.  But maybe it’s not so much neutral, as shifting? Versatile?   In some situations, physical smallness is a good thing, in others, it’s not.  Like, it would be good when you have to crawl through a small hole in the fence to escape the bad guys. 

J.  Oh, that reminds me! When I was younger, my friends and I used to go to a place in Albany, Albany’s Indoor Rock Gym. It had this indoor “cave” system, which was basically the equivalent of a survival simulation by crawling through air ducts. And I have to say, it was definitely advantageous to be small. I was always able to get through the caves faster.

B. Exactly.  On the other hand, speaking of top shelves, the other night I was cooking and the smoke alarm above the door went off, and Pete started barking and and I couldn’t reach the damn thing to knock it off, so I had to run for the stepstool, with Pete yapping and the alarm screaming “Fire! Fire! Fire!”” because I was too small to reach up and stop it.

J. Gee, too bad Pete isn’t over 6 feet. But you’d asked earlier about the positives of feeling small. I think it goes beyond our own physicality to the natural world. Certain things can be large and awe-inspiring, though they make me feel small in comparison. I welcome feeling small in many cases of nature. Take the ocean for example. Every time I visit the ocean I am amazed by how vast it is and how I stand so small on its shore. And that is exciting to me.

B. You know, the ocean is a place I have always loved.  Looking at the bigness of the ocean, I feel only peace and serenity.  So I’m with you there.  When I needed a dose of quiet in my busy life, Grandpa and I went to the shore, especially in winter when the beach was deserted, and all you could hear was the roar of the waves, and water as far as you could see. Of course, there is another hand: something else that makes me feel small is a bear in the neighborhood. So I guess that comes back to “it all depends.”

J. Fair enough, Ms. Devil’s Advocate. You’d mentioned feeling psychologically small earlier, and how tactics like belittlement can create an emotional smallness. So, I guess I’d like to play Devil’s Advocate now. I think that sometimes, the mental or emotional acceptance of smallness isn’t necessarily always bad.

B. Are you talking about being humble?

J. Yeah, exactly. I agree with what you said before, belittlement is not a good feeling. I don’t think it’s other people’s jobs to point out our smallness. But to keep our egos deflated, I think there needs to be some emotional recognition of smallness. Sometimes, it can be as easy as recognizing that you don’t hold the weight of the world.

B. That’s pretty wise and profoundly true.  It makes me think about the movie Casablanca, at the end, when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman that their love affair is nothing compared to World War II and the Nazis.  Now that’s perspective for you. (And don’t tell me you have never seen Casablanca!) Any final words?

J. You need to feel small in order to grow? I can look out at an incredible ocean and know that I have no control over it, but I do have control over myself.

Amen.

 

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TALES OF DIVERSITY AND PERVERSITY

I mean the non-human kind.  I’m taking a much-needed break from humankind this week.

There is a baby deer, so small it looks like a dog, who follows his mother the way Pete follows me, weaving through the woods behind the house, and out across the lawn to the other side, into the neighbors’ trees, while brave Pete — who, believe me, would hide behind me if the deer approached– barks madly.  Usually, I tolerate the scolding he gives the deer, especially since they ignore him anyway and move at their own pace. (When we first adopted him, I asked the vet how we stop him from barking out the window at the deer and every passing human walking down the road, and he said unless it really bothers us, to let him bark.  “That’s his job,” he said).  So I let him bark.  But I don’t want him to traumatize this tender little guy.  “C’mon, Pete,” I say, but he just barks.

I wonder how the deer negotiate the bears who have been showing up lately in our neighborhood.  I didn’t see the latest sighting of the bear and her cub,  but have a lovely picture of them stopping  across the road. This spices up my walking-the-dog life for a about four days, which is how long it takes for me to stop thinking I’m going to encounter them around the next bend, and trying to remember whether I’m supposed to make a lot of noise or keep very quiet, if I do.

The other morning, as I made my way to the kitchen to make coffee, I noticed out the dining room window that a tweedy gray blanket was draped over the rail outside my front door. Who would drape a blanket over the rail outside my house?  I was about to open the door and see if there was a note, when I looked again and saw that the “blanket” was the hunched back of a huge bird, and next to it was another blanket of feathers, and a little bit further along the rail, a third blanket of feathers. The one closest to me slowly brought a long, curved neck up, and I saw the pinwheel hat on its little head that told me it wasn’t a turkey vulture or a hawk or an eagle, it was a peacock, actually three peacocks, resting on the rail of my front walk.  They stayed for about an hour, during which time I contemplated whether to call the police or my neighbor,  who happens to know the birds, since they often perch on his roof.    As they were finally leaving,  Pete woke up and spotted them as they made their way across the front lawn, and he gave them a royal sendoff, barking his head off,  doing his job.

I must say, for a country dog, Pete is very sensitive to wildlife, and aside from peacocks and deer, he also objects to – herds? talks to? – butterflies, chipmunks, moths.  And falling leaves.  I haven’t the heart to tell him the leaves are inanimate.

The other afternoon, as I sat on the porch, I heard what I thought was crying, from somewhere in the woods, but I couldn’t see anything. I finally decided it was probably squirrel talk, but then the little baby deer got up from where he must have been lying in the leaves, and just stood there.  Pete, of course, went wild.  I kept telling him to stop it, that the little guy was in distress, to have a heart, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t stop barking and finally it got through to the deer, who took off into the woods. I was glad to see he was  bounding like he wasn’t hurt.  Maybe he just lost his mother for a few moments.

I sent the picture of the peacocks to my friend who is a photographer who takes wonderful pictures of city birds, and she liked my peacocks and suggested how I could feed them to keep them around (which is the exact opposite of what I will do).  I told her about the little birds that were busy building a nest outside my back porch. We tried to figure out what kind of birds they were.  (I didn’t tell her that Pete barked at them constantly.  I don’t want to give him a bad reputation among my friends.). The birds were light gray, and small, and their tails went up and down as they flitted from the low branch to my roof eave and back, constantly.  They had been at it for weeks.  We had almost decided that they were probably gnatcatchers, and  I promised to send her a picture, to confirm.  But that very afternoon, they disappeared, and have never returned.  I suppose it is some kind of bird behavior, and they had done what they had to do and moved on, but I did feel a little slighted.  And I imagine Pete glancing in the direction of their almost-nest, from time to time, and maybe regretting giving them such a hard time?

But no, animals are not people in fur and feathers.  They do what they do because it is natural to their species. They build their nests and bark their barks because it is their job. They do not have higher thought processes.  They are not like people. People can think again. They can alter their paths, make other plans, change their minds, feel for the other fellow in a way that makes them change their ways.   I am just wondering why oh why, so often,  they don’t.

 

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