That’s Knot Whet Eye Sad: The Sprains of Spring

The Green Study will be returning on June 1st, 2015.

canstockphoto15476528After severely spraining one wrist and slightly spraining the other while hauling large bags of garden soil, weeding and tilling, typing has become a rather painful enterprise. Mentally, I need to recharge. Physically, my body needs to go into the shop for a complete overhaul and some after-market upgrades.

With that in mind, I’m taking time off to rest and yell at my computer while training the speech recognition software. I love workarounds and learning how to work differently. Adaptability is a good skill to hone. However, my speech recognition software does not feel the shame same. Some serious housebreaking is in odor order.

I wish you a lovely continuation of spring and if bizarre, error-laden comments show up on your blogs, blame it on my software not understanding when I say shit “Shift”.

MichelleSig copy

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Notes from Distracted Ground

I’m currently slogging my way through Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I could tell immediately that I picked this up too quickly after reading Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Reading classics where most of the action occurs in the narrator’s head can be exhausting. I took a break and started reading Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. The writing is breathtaking, enviable in its sparse economy of words, while rich in detail. I’ve been thinking a lot about details.

canstockphoto13168215There are writers I know who are working on memoirs. They dig out boxes of old letters and journals, bits and pieces of their pasts, collected, magpie-like or haphazardly jumbled in boxes. I was listening to a David Sedaris audiobook, a collection of live readings. His storytelling is quick-witted and contains a wealth of detail – place names, offbeat brief exchanges, observations from years ago. He talked about taking notes, a habit of a lifetime.

I’ve read how other writers have reams of notes, little notebooks they’ve ferried everywhere – dreams recorded in the immediate aftermath, interesting snippets of dialogue captured for future use. I wrote journals up until my mid-twenties. They were solipsistic rambles. Shortly after moving to Minnesota, I shredded every last one of them. Here’s another one of those I-might-not-be-a-writer confessions. I don’t like keeping a journal anymore and a recent attempt at taking notes only revealed that I have misanthropic leanings fed by sensory irritation.

But I’m trying anything to up my writer quotient, so I started carrying a little notebook and pen with me yesterday. I took my mother-in-law to the dentist, and while waiting for her appointment to finish, I pulled the notebook out and prepared to write. I’ve sat in this waiting area many times, talking to the receptionists or silently lost in my own thoughts. What wasted time! I’m a writer, dammit. What follows is the great use I made of that time, furiously jotting notes:

Hygienist in conversation with receptionist, while flipping through glossy magazine.

“That movie Black or White is SO good. I just had to watch it again.”

Why the emphasis on SO? Why do people seem desperate to convert others to liking movies and books? Don’t they know how subjective art is?

“I would never be on The Bachelor. I just wouldn’t put myself out there like that.”

Was this ever a serious issue in your life? Have you been contacted by the producers? Why does anyone need to know that about you?

Oh for god’s sake, stop clicking your fingernails. Why does a dental hygienist have long fingernails? Do you know how many germs collect under fingernails?

Health magazine on the counter has a huge headline “Lose Every Bulge”. That’s weird. And not particularly healthy. Except if the bulge is like a tumor, some cancerous growth. Sure. Lose that.

Ah, hell, now she’s talking about the Kardashians. What is that smell? When did vanilla become the catchall fragrance for everything?

“I don’t do raisins.”

What?

Now they’re discussing about how she and the dentist split a muffin because the dentist thought it was raisin, but it was chocolate chip.

Just kill me now. I think I hate lady talk.

To clarify, I really am not fond of small talk, lady or otherwise. I would prefer the world be stoned, so we could go around having deep, philosophical conversations just in passing.

canstockphoto13853007What I imagine that could be like:

Man waiting to cross at corner light: If Rousseau is right and man’s natural state of goodness is the same as the natural goodness of animals, which is considered neither good nor bad, what animal would you be?

Me: Does it matter? If animals are neither good nor bad, than I would be picking an animal based on personal preference and not any question of philosophy. But I’d be a koala – they’re cute and vicious.canstockphoto18295591

What would really happen:

Man waiting to cross at corner light: Did it turn green yet? Did it turn green yet?

Me: Yes…uh, no. YES! Er…no. Do you hate me?

 

I joke about being misanthropic, but really it’s a combination of introversion and sensory overload. Sitting in that small waiting room, I could hear two conversations in the background, four smells – a combination of toothpaste, vanilla alcohol-based perfume, a carpet recently shampooed and a petroleum smell likely coming off two newly added chairs. I hear music being played in the chiropractic office next door. I hear the drip of the water cooler, its thermostat clicking on and off. I smell the dental polish and hear the whirring of the polisher. I notice that a potted plant is still languishing from the last time I was there. To add inane human conversation on top of all those layers, seems willful and my irritation rises to the surface quickly.

Living with me is occasionally difficult, as I often enter a room with “What’s that smell?” I’ve smelled electrical shorts and once, a natural gas leak out on the street (they came and replaced the line). I sometimes leave the house, just so the two other people I live with can make noise without me yelling “Can you knock that off?” I don’t think I have super spidey senses, but my brain has just decided to notice everything all at once. And I can thrill people by being able to identify every bird sound I hear. I don’t get invited to many outdoor barbeques.

I know that any skill can be learned and that it takes time to hit one’s stride, so I will continue to carry that little notebook until it becomes clear this is an entirely useless thing for me to do, or I learn to write more interesting things down.

 Do you keep journals or take notes? And what’s that smell?

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The Luxury and Cost of Empathy

canstockphoto20739510I’ve written before about being a member of the “sandwich generation”, caring for a child and aging parent. It’s a flippant phrase thrown off to encompass and neatly categorize a myriad of emotions and actions. This week has rendered me battered and exhausted, sleepless and emotional. If there were any time for me to be anti-Zen, it’s now – as in, I’d rather not be in any more moments. I would like to daydream, write feckless fiction, doze off in a chair thinking of an island in Greece.

My daughter experienced her first “frenemy” moments, crying for the second time in a week when one of her friends was deliberately cruel to her. It’s a rare thing for my child to cry and while she is sensitive to others, she’s not easily upset. This is new. And it’s the first time I’ve ever wanted to drop-kick an 11 year old, who tells my daughter she’s only joking, after a cutting remark. I calmed and comforted, talked about how some people didn’t know how to be good friends and that if this friend continued behaving in a hurtful way, the friendship might need to be reconsidered. I sounded reasonable and mature.

That night, I tossed and turned, alternating between rage and fear. I felt that gut-wrenching pain that only the tears of my child seems to bring on. I railed against myself for projecting all my childhood anxieties onto a kid who has more confidence than I’ll likely ever have. I thought about how this was just the beginning. That more hurts would come, that I’d have to be diligent and listen and try to hold back my adult anger and defensiveness. Then my mind spiraled into a darker place. The pain of mere social interactions was nothing compared to thinking about the years ahead when I might lose her or she me. Part of me wondered if there was anything I could do to protect myself, never imagining I’d be so connected to another human.

Morning came. We talked at breakfast. “How are you going to deal with so-and-so?”

“I’m just going to act like nothing happened.”

My dull, tired brain harrumphed, but I kept my mouth shut. Where’s the righteous indignation, the fiery cry for justice?

canstockphoto8541895And off to school she went.

I began my newest morning routine, packing up some exercise gear and headed over to my mother-in-law’s for the now daily physical therapy exercises she must do. She is 85 and living independently as long as we can keep her moving and engaged. Early stage dementia was diagnosed many years ago and over the last couple of years, cognitive impairment has shown up in the form of short term memory loss. Lately, it’s started to scare her.

Last week, I met with the services coordinator. My mother-in-law, for as long as she has lived in this senior building, has played Friday night cards with a group of her peers. Until one Friday, she went down and they had shut her out of the game. The other players were becoming irritated with her forgetfulness and decided they no longer wanted to play with her. My heart ached for my mother-in-law, who contrived her own explanation for no longer playing cards. As I waited to meet with the coordinator, I heard her in conversation with a couple of elderly people in the the hallway.

“I never said she couldn’t be in the library. She told Joan that I said that, but I never did.”

An old man piped up “She’s a troublemaker.”

I sat in the coordinator’s office and sighed. She came in, apologizing for the delay. I said “It’s like grade school all over again, isn’t it?”

“You don’t know the half of it. Every day is like this – gossip, fighting, misunderstandings. I spend a lot of my day just mediating.”

I shook my head. “And I suppose you can’t just tell them to grow up!” We laughed and proceeded to discuss a plan for my mother-in-law to get interaction with some of her nicer peers.

I headed upstairs and knocked on my mother-in-law’s door. She opened the door with a smile. “I’m ready – I took my shoes off.” We laughed – taking off her shoes had become part of the routine before starting exercises that required her to lay on the bed. Her table was littered with hastily scrawled notes. Tomorrow. Thursday. 1:30. Next week. Notes she took when I talked, ignoring my typed schedule that sits prominently in the middle of the table. She is trying hard to hold on, to keep cognizant of time and day, to keep herself from drifting away. Sometimes I just want to grab her writing hand and tell her it’s okay, but I know that the effort anchors her.

A low grade depression has settled over me. Some weeks, I feel like I’m disappearing. Dramatic life moments are happening all around me, but I’m inconsequential, a blank white board getting covered in reminders and lists and other people’s needs. I remind myself with a mental kick, that this is a luxury, to have problems that don’t belong to me. To be able to lend a shoulder, a hand, sage advice I earned years ago. But all the aphorisms in the world don’t change the fact that empathy has a price and I wonder how much I’m capable of paying, in these years of learning and losing.

As my daughter got off the school bus later that day, I watched from the window. Hmm, usual bounce in the step, turning and waving to the friends on her bus. Maybe a good day. Later that evening, I asked how it went with her friend, expecting a same as usual response. She said, “I told her that she was mean to me and needed to apologize and she did.”

I slept well that night.

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The Ugly Duckling: The Ambiguity of Fairy Tales

canstockphoto17569045It was “show and trade” day in 1st grade. Everyone got to bring a toy from home that they could trade with another student. There wasn’t much I could bring. My mother finally gave in on a doll. It was a large plastic doll, a hand-me-down from another family. It was the kind of doll you put diapers on, except she didn’t have any clothes and one of her arms kept falling off.

Each student would go to the front of the classroom to show and talk about the toy that they wanted to trade. I was shy and it was the first year I had to wear glasses. They were black-rimmed, in the shape of stop signs, magnifying my eyes. I shuffled up in front of my classmates and stood there in plaid jumper and octagon eyes, saying nothing, doll hanging from one hand upside-down. A few awkward moments passed and then the teacher called the next student.

After everyone had shown their items, the trading floor opened, a mosh pit of grabbing and shouting “I called it first!”. I stood off to the side. The teacher gently called me over to the wall cabinet near her desk. “I’ll trade with you.” She dug through a box and pulled out a square envelope. Inside was a black disc, a slightly used 45 of The Ugly Duckling by Hans Christian Andersen. I had just received my first audiobook.

canstockphoto14735381My mother played it upon request, in between her Steely Dan and Simon & Garfunkel rotations. It told the now classic tale of the ugly little duckling who endured ridicule and misery, only to become a beautiful swan. It’s a message I took very much to heart, believing that my day would come if only I were long-suffering and patient.

The ugly duckling story shows up time and time again in popular culture. I just re-watched “Strictly Ballroom”. The movie had a sledgehammer of a theme that with time, a little rhythm and some googly eyes from a boy, a tragically inept and bespectacled heroine turns into a woman of substance/beauty – worthy of admiration and respect.

As a child growing up in the 70s, I watched fictional women become beautiful and substantive through the most artificial of means – Wonder Woman spinning off her glasses and hair bun, Jamie Sommers getting bionic bits and pieces, and the bespectacled librarian calling on the goddess Isis for lip gloss and a miniskirt.

It wasn’t just about superficial beauty created through handicapped vision, bustiers and spackling. It was, under all of that glitz, about being a special little snowflake in a world of dust bunnies. It was a consolation prize for being miserable in the now, for feeling left out, looked over, and shoved aside. It was a selfish sort of martyrdom, a comforting bit of procrastination.

I waited and waited to become something special, to feel like I was in the skin I was supposed to be in and not just an ungainly duck. The magical if-then thinking was a comfort while I waited to outgrow the awkward stage of being me. Nearly forty years later and I’ve given up daydreaming, curtailed wishful thinking, stood in the moment I’m in and thought Well, how about that, ducky?

It’s not a fairytale ending. I wrote this thinking I’d likely end up with some sort of self-affirming bravado, but I don’t roll that way. The bottom line is that there will always be ducks who are ducks. Plain and simple. There’s a pragmatic clarity that I like about that thought. There’s no condescending cheer Be the best duck you can be or you’re beautiful on the inside as some sort of consolation prize.

I re-read The Ugly Duckling recently and it seemed more an odious tale about bullying and an ugly obsession with conventional beauty and conformity, than inspirational fodder for the homely. What we take away from stories can say a lot about where we are in our lives. And the reality is that swans are rather aggressive. If the tale were truer to life, that ugly duckling/cygnet would have kicked those mean ducklings’ asses all over that pond. Now that’s a tale I’d enjoy reading.canstockphoto21971542

I’ve been exploring fable and fairy tale themes in writing. Here are some helpful resources:

Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable by Adrian Room

The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of Grimm Brothers: The Complete First Edition by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm

Aesop’s Fables (Oxford World’s Classics) by Aesop, Laura Gibbs (Translator)

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A Walk on the Wild Side

canstockphoto24627239I came in yesterday evening after digging and planting most of the afternoon, dark rings of sweat on my shirt, dirt ground into the knees of my jeans. My hands were stiff from the jarring strikes of shovel and hoe into sun-hardened clay. After a shower, I tried to sit and write. Every five minutes, I was hopping up to do one chore or another. Normally, I’d spot this as procrastinating behavior, chide myself and force myself to sit again. It’s something else, though.

With my computer crash of last week, I spent most of my days outside, sweating and filthy and in motion. My mind was free of distraction. When I work outside, nobody interrupts me, for fear of being conscripted into weeding. I can spend hours alone. I drink gallons of water, stop and watch a hawk overhead, startle voles in the brush pile, watch as a caterpillar makes its way up a tree trunk.

I live in an older suburb of the Twin Cities, surrounded by little ranch houses built in the late 1950’s. Every house looks the same – some shade of tan or white, desperate to look different with shutters or fences or yard lighting. We attempted this by ripping up the front lawn, piece by piece, and putting in perennial plants. We’re an irritant to our neighbors on one side, who alternately poison and water their lawn in rapid cycles through spring.

Our back lawn is a carpet of creeping charlie, dandelions, wild violets and thyme. The rabbits dine there at dusk. Last night, I watched four of them chase each other around our yard, or as it is known in the rabbit world, foreplay. This year, I’ve been fencing all our garden beds, in an attempt to actually have produce that we get to eat. The rabbits have fought back, leaving stubs of tulips, gallium and roses everywhere. Horny, long-eared vandals.

A hail storm that lasted all of ten minutes rained down on us late in the afternoon. Marble-sized hail bounced off the lawn and house in every direction. I could smell it before it arrived and pulled tools and gear into the garage just in time. My internal barometer worked, smelling the air before rain moved in, feeling the chill from a slight drop in temperature and pressure – it always makes me think of farmers who know when to come in from the fields and old ladies, whose bunions ache just before a rain. It’s a forgotten wildness, this abstract intuition of the physical world in which we reside.

I had forgotten over the winter, cuddled up to my devices and traversing between house and car and destination and home canstockphoto6411807again. I’d gotten wrapped up in issues that were beat to death online – that seem of finite importance when standing under a clear sky, with the sun warming my face. It only takes an hour or two in my backyard ecosystem to remind me that the world inside my study is but a sliver of life.

Sitting down at the keyboard after being outdoors makes me feel like a big, wild thing stabbing at keys in some funny meme or YouTube video. Look at the primitive try to type. Words all sound like incoherent grunting as I write, but I can hear crows cackling two blocks away and notice the stillness that suggests a light spring rain is on its way. It seems a tremendous bridge to cross – this wildness caged and sitting still, trying to funnel it all onto a cold, lifeless screen.

My mind wanders to the turkeys I startled while hiking at a regional park. There were five of them, one a male in full feathered regalia, trying to woo the others. Frogs were warbling away, in a Swamp’s Got Talent sing off. Purple martins and swallows crowd boxes to get the best spot, smacking into each other and fluttering away. The wind blew across the lake as herring gulls swooped overhead and Canada geese escorted their new fuzzy families along the water’s edge, squawking loud commands to goslings who dillydallied.

I think about writing as a state of being, once removed from life. It’s civilized, structured, a story playing out on a paper stage. I’ve often felt a distance from the life around me, too busy in my head building a narrative. I need that distance. Being an introspective introvert in a noisy world requires a buffer zone. Writing serves that purpose, allowing me to create order out of chaos, perspective out of ambiguities.

canstockphoto18451476Being outdoors is a different kind of bombardment. The immediacy of life all around grounds me in the moment. I’ve tried to write while I’m outdoors, but as I often joke with my walking buddies, I have nature ADD. There’s nothing I can do but breathe, listen, smell, observe. I am not me, with a long list of neuroses and adjectives. I just am, no more or less than the red-winged blackbirds that trill at me as I cross the marsh. The bit of wildness that remains within calls back. Me too! Me too!

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Turning the Blue Screen of Death into Lemonade

There were warnings. I disassembled the machine, reseated all the bits and bobbles, ran scans, dug through registries. Today, the blue screen meant what it said. My computer hard drive is kaput.

So I write this as a quick administrative note between my cobbled-together Kindle and a Bluetooth keyboard. The Green Study will be empty over the next week, as I fling off my technological habits for gardening and mucking about with various house projects. Instead of driving to any number of tech places, I’ve ordered the drive I wanted online for delivery late in the week.

As for the potential loss of info, there may be a few issues, but I did backups last week and this forced decluttering gives me an opportunity to only reload the essentials that I’m actively using. I use another drive for photos and music, so no losses there.

All in all, this isn’t particularly catastrophic. I’ll have to do some reconstruction on email, track down soccer schedules, maybe make a few calls. It’s a reminder to not store critical information solely on my workstation or in emails.

The way forward seems clear. There’s the sink that’s been running slow in the upstairs bathroom. Fences that need to be re-stretched around garden beds. Windows to be washed, gutter screens to be replaced and lightbulbs to be changed.

I felt slightly panicky. The jitters of a tech junkie were about to take hold when I realized that this is perfect timing. I was working on putting in some blueberry bushes this weekend, when the feeling hit me that I just wanted to do physical labor and not have to think about anything else. Winter habits are hard to break initially – the gravitational pull of the sedentary seems strongest at this point of transition.

So, opportunity has made itself known. And I’m off to garden to my heart’s content.

I wish you a wonderful week ahead!

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The Blush of First Love: One Note at a Time

When my friend, Bill wrote about his daughter’s first crush, he wrote of the “pang of yearning” for her experience. As is often the case, I somewhat missed the point in my comment, thinking only of the impending demise of young love. When Mark wrote about his brief acquaintance with someone who became a success, I commented that it might be better not to meet the people behind their work.

I am, so often, a rather cynical person who is likely to see that the half-full/half-empty glass is in need of a good washing. And who the hell left it there for me to clean up, anyway?

canstockphoto7136037Sometimes, though, I am reminded of a first love I cannot deny. I smile until my face hurts. Chills run up my spine. Tears well up. I can’t sit still. Want to see a grown woman turn into an ungainly, starstruck teenager? Set me down at a live music performance. To paraphrase Gloria Estefan, for likely the first and last time ever, the rhythm is gonna get me.

I’m fortunate to live in the Twin Cities, a metro area that sprouts organic bands overnight. Tuesday night’s show, with the band i like you and local orchestra kids, was a charity performance to buy used and new musical instruments for kids who can’t afford them. That idea alone brings me to tears. I can’t imagine my life without being able to make my own music and I wouldn’t want any child to miss that opportunity.

Lessons started for me in 4th grade on a nickel-plated rental flute. We were poor, so this was a great luxury and one of the gifts for which my mother will always have my gratitude. The consequence of that monthly rental fee was that I had to practice, without fail, for 30 minutes every day. I resented it about 50% of the time, but the other 50% was all about making my own music.canstockphoto25554786

I played all through high school, never particularly gifted or talented, but practiced, always the practiced musician. I worked at a local cafe and did beanwalking in the summers (it’s an Iowa thing) to pay for my own brand new silver flute. It will likely last my lifetime. In the Army, I took that flute to every posting. While stationed in Monterey at the Defense Language Institute, I joined the Russian balalaika orchestra, donning a traditional sarafan and playing the flute while ungainly military men danced folk dances and sang about bears.

While in college, I took lessons from someone more talented than I and turned around to teach lessons to small troglodytes whose parents wanted enhanced babysitting services. I did have a handful of students over the years who will, even if they no longer play flute, know how to read music and what the word embouchure means. This word is also the answer to the questions “what will get you beat up on a playground?” and “what will make your friends think you’re a pretentious douche?”

I married a programmer who was a drummer and keyboard player by night with a couple of bands. Most of our first year of dating involved concerts and bar bands, our first date a concert that included the Cowboy Junkies, Duncan Sheik, and John Hyatt. I discovered some of my favorite musicians at the Cedar Cultural Center, have gone to festivals and band battles. Over the last few years, we’ve traveled up to the Winnipeg Folk Festival. There’s nothing like acoustic musicians and singers under a clear Canadian night sky.

I play the flute and a little piano. My daughter plays viola and piano. My husband plays guitar, piano and drums. There is music in our house all of the time. If we were more talented on average (the kid is pretty awesome, but the adults could use some work), we’d have to buy matching outfits and a van.

The Kid and the Less Talented Old People doesn't really roll off the tongue as a band name.

The Kid and the Less Talented Old People doesn’t really roll off the tongue as a band name.

Music sinks deep down into my skin. It plays in my head constantly. I sing terribly every day, in the car and the shower, and awkward dancing is how my housework gets done. The only time I never play music is when I’m writing, because to me that is like trying to eat pie and cake at the same time. Each is enough on its own. Although sequentially, still quite delicious.

During the concert’s intermission, I took my daughter and one of her besties, a fellow violist, to meet the band. I gushed, I blushed, I stammered. The kids looked slightly mortified. There is something so magical about mere humans creating such beauty, that I am, to put it lightly, in awe of them. I don’t want to hang out with them. I don’t want to be them. I just want to thank them. I want them to know that what they do matters.

We’re living in a time when everything is processed, packaged and delivered to our devices. Live music is one of those things, like a mildewy paperback in a secondhand store, which reminds me that love is all about discovery. It’s a momentary kinship in time, when we connect with beauty and it feels like it was created just for us.

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