Monday, May 20, 2013

high noon

it is saturday and it is noon and i am mowing. i shove the mower along the patchy grass in our small back yard, the only part of  our property that is consistently level for more than ten paces. i mow under the apple tree, a scraggly thing as old as the house, close to a hundred, with only one gnarled main branch left. every year the sweetie suggests cutting it down. every year our neighbor, a tree man, seconds this idea, offering to get a menacing spruce out of the way in the bargain. but the apple tree continues to hunch in the middle of the back yard, offering a little shade for a circle of flat rocks we dug out of the ground when we buried our old dog max and his wayward ear. the tree offers up misshapen, rusted apples each fall but right now it is flowering and it is beautiful. when i mow under it and brush against a branch, small white petals drop all around me. it is not a bad thing to mow a yard with an apple tree.  

i mow to the far end of the yard and am surprised when i turn to head back and see the middle of the yard scattered with brown-gray fur. it was not there when i mowed over that spot seconds ago and i know that means the small brown-gray animal flung all over my yard must be tiny. mole, i think. rat. because i will not feel as bad about accidentally mowing over an animal it is okay to hate. i would like to think possum, but there is not enough fur scattered all around for that.

i shut off the mower and walk toward what i think is the epicenter of this disaster, understanding a little more clearly now how my own dad felt way back when i was much younger, just before he brought his three small girls a pile of even smaller bunnies to feed and love and tend to because they had been orphaned. it is an awful thing to look around for evidence of what you think you have done in a situation like this. there is fur. fur everywhere like dandelion fuzz. but there are no tiny bones. no small bits of animal anywhere.  there is a hole in the ground, though, just about in the middle of this ten foot debris field. i stand over the hole and get my eyes as close as i can. there is brown-gray fur in there over a breathing body. there is wiggling and squirming. there is the smallest rabbit ear i’ve ever seen. there is an open eye, staring right up where the blade had been a minute ago.

i run in the house and tell the sweetie. i tell him about the fur scattered across half the yard, about how somewhere there’s the rabbit that must have been in that fur but i don’t know where it is or what to do about the ones crammed into the ground. i run back outside while he gets his shoes. it seems to take hours for him to put them on and while i wait, i stare into the ground and try to see how many animals are in there. the hole is probably not much larger than my fist but i can see at least six separate animals in there.

when the sweetie comes out he tells me to look away while he tips over the mower to check for rabbit pieces. nothing. he asks for a box in case we need to do something drastic like raise a family of orphaned baby rabbits on our own and while i go in to get one he continues looking for rabbit bits. when i come back out, he is standing off a bit from the nest, holding something. he tried to run off, the sweetie tells me. he is worried an animal so small will be scooped up right away by one of the eagles or hawks roaming around or, more likely, by one of the neighbor’s all but feral cats. he holds up the baby, sleepy, surprisingly comfortable in the giant hand. the animal is almost unbearable. his ears look like furry orchid petals. his tail is a tiny black point that quivers a little. the sweetie knows i will likely die if i do not know how soft this animal is and he stretches out his hand and says, he’s soft. touch him. i run one finger between those little ears and it is true. the animal is velvet. **

because he is not frantic from having run over an entire family of anything with a giant whirring blade, the sweetie is able to offer up that i probably scattered a little fur blanket that was lying over the top of the nest and have managed to keep my animal maiming to a minimum. the sweetie puts the baby rabbit back in the ground on top of all the others and we gather up as much of the fur as we can and pat it down on top of them. i put a rock nearby so we won’t accidentally step on them. i keep my eyes peeled for those worthless cats next door. the sweetie looks up some information and finds that the little fur blanket is a real thing and that the mother will come back tonight to hear wild stories from those babies about the monsters that attacked from above, then gently tucked them into bed.

look closely. you can see an extra set of ears.
we are content to know the mother will return but i would feel better if i could see her. the sweetie says the interwebs promise a return at night and we will just have to trust nature and the interwebs. this is not my strong suit. i am meddlesome. so when i look out the window well before dusk and see a fat rabbit hopping up the driveway toward the apple tree, i am relieved. i yell to the sweetie and we watch her hop heavily on up the drive and under the spruce, toward the apple tree. the sweetie runs up the stairs and pretty quickly has a chair set up at the window on the landing. from there, we watch the big rabbit settle in over her babies. all of them. there is some rustling around under her belly as the babies find her and eat. she flattens and widens her body over them and settles in, chewing down stalks of grass.

**now, you may recall that back in the day, any wild animal baby touched by humans was destined to die a horrible death alone, its parents watching the ugliness from a safe and smug distance. but then some time around the turn of this last century, well into my adulthood, the animals changed their minds. their current policy is that no matter what humans do to try to “help”, animals go on about their business, which, in spring, is caring for babies.

Friday, April 19, 2013

iodine 131

i'm radioactive is what she says on wednesday. this is not a surprise. the middle sister has been preparing for this a while. she has been eating a special diet designed to direct the radioactivity that will seep into her body. her thyroid already knows what to do. it is waiting to soak up radioactive iodine as soon as she is ready. and so, on wednesday morning, her doctor opens a steel canister and then opens another bottle inside the canister. he shakes a pill out into her hand. he is wearing gloves. he doesn't touch the pill. he shouldn't. it is i-131. it has a halflife of eight days. but she swallows the pill and it sneaks its way into her cells looking for things to destroy. if it does its job well, the iodine will attack small tumors clumped up around her thyroid gland. bullies, these things have been gnawing at her poor, exhausted thyroid gland, sidling up to her trachea, shoving veins and arteries out of their way.

because the middle sister has come unacceptably close to death during a routine procedure in the past, there is a part of me that is scared that she has decided to become radioactive on purpose. but she has been talking about herself as something close to a science experiment now for a few weeks and the part of me that is made up of desire for scientific knowledge steps up and asks did you use the geiger counter yet? before i even think to ask how she feels.

she tells me she does not yet have the geiger counter, but it is on the way. i think about radiation sickness. i think about hair falling out and skin turning ashen. i think of eyeless zombies shuffling away from the burned remains of hiroshima and nagasaki. the middle sister is so far away and i can't see her to tell whether she is suffering but then she sends the photo. it is the geiger counter, blurry and yellow and looking a great deal like a relative of the old blue metal detector our dad has had our entire lives. there is a phone jack of some sort in the lower corner and a spectacular gauge at the top with a needle that, in the photo, is swung as far over to the right as it can get without falling clear off the gauge. i ask if she has any superpowers yet. she says not yet, although she hopes her spit will eventually be able to destroy the ivy marauding in her flower bed. she is not yet thinking like someone with superpowers.

she devours lemon drops because they are supposed to help. she sends updates on her status. i have begged her to let her child record the radioactivity of her poop over the course of this experiment and then record the level of his own poop as a control. i insist on normative data. what good does it do to measure the radioactivity of her own poop if she doesn't know what normal poop radiation levels are? she is not sure this is a good idea, but i know in the end the child is likely to wave the geiger counter over the toilet before every flush in the house, just to be thorough. he is like us. he will not want to miss this opportunity.

when i finally get around to asking how she feels she says she is a little tired. a day later, her salivary glands are swelling some. she continues to report. because she is temporarily a dangerous radioactive creature, she is isolated. she cannot touch anyone. making herself into this experiment takes the edge off the tedium. the geiger counter is overwhelmed. it has, somewhere on its insides, a tube full of inert gas. noble gas. maybe argon. maybe neon. maybe even helium. when they get up next to radiation, these gasses become, for a bit, ionized. they become conductive. the machine somehow translates the response of the ionized gas as a measure of the radiation around it. i like to think the tube is filled with argon because it is beautiful, glowing violet when electrified.

the middle sister sends texts with times and dates and distances. the radiation seems to be finding her thyroid gland. it seems to be zeroing in. she takes a shower. when she steps out, the shower does not register radiation but she does. it does not wash off. although she will only be poisonous to those she loves another day or two, she will continue to shed an invisible radioactive trail for a while. she will be a science experiment for some time. she is not worried.

this is no surprise. in this family we are children of the wild center of the country, folks whose words will sometimes roll into extra syllables. you can see spooklight and tornadoes and lead mines swirling in our blood. we are from a state with the insistent motto show me. we are science experiments and experimenters to begin with. it has always been this way and that has always been fine. show me.

but it is the middle sister who is radioactive. right now. this very minute. the geiger counter knows it. i imagine her tomorrow at dusk standing in her yard. it is warm and there are bats flying low to catch the first of the season's bugs. she is glowing. supernatural. she spits on the ivy tentatively and it hisses and sizzles.

Monday, January 21, 2013

how to make a fish hat

it should be noted that members of this family are notorious for telling what presents are well in advance of a holiday, forgetting where presents have been squirreled away and using questionable shipping methods. i am guilty of all of these holiday offenses and more. just not in this story.

make another hat first. a small gray and red striped hat with matching mittens in a soft yarn called royal alpaca. while knitting the hat think about the fact that the four year old child you are making it for will love knowing the yarn for his hat is made from alpacas who wear crowns. plan to mention this when you talk to him.

send his mother (your sister) photos of the hat and mittens. send the actual hat and mittens to your own mother to put under the christmas tree because you are not able to be with your family at christmas. be happy that this small child, your nephew, will at least have a soft hat and soft mittens you made just for him.

notice in the days following christmas that the photos your sister sends you show your nephew wearing a raggedy hat and mismatched mittens when he goes outside. worry that you made his new hat and mittens too small but nobody wants to tell you. get a text from your sister saying the child is running loose like a wild, hatless beast because his aunt did not make him anything. insist that you did make a hat. and mittens. direct her attention to the photos you sent her well before christmas showing said hat and said mittens. listen to her accuse her parents, your parents, of neglectfulness. of holiday misdeeds. vow revenge.

call your parents. relate your confusion. listen to both parents insist the hat and mittens were wrapped, opened and even, at one point, tried on by the small child. vow to get to the bottom of this. determine to open up a post office box in the child's name so he can get his own packages directly. attempt, from halfway across the country, to coerce your family into telling you what they've done with the innocent hat and mittens. consider hiring a hostage negotiator. look into psychics. hear dreadful stories concocted by various family members about the likely demise of the knitted things. generally these stories end with "and she probably threw them in the trash with the wrapping paper" or "and she probably never wrapped them to begin with". listen to denials and accusations. consider whether your mother and baby sister might be in some sinister cult that despises wool. vow to overcome.

call the middle sister and plead with her to "take care of things". she is known for a certain ability to persuade and you briefly imagine the middle sister in a dark room with a single light bulb, glaring at your mother and baby sister, both sitting uncomfortably in chairs made of, alternately, very itchy wool and very sweaty, tacky synthetic yarn, confessing to their involvement in various doll deaths, clothing disappearances and neglected phone messages. hope the middle sister will get the truth out of them.

give up on the surfacing of the hat. look on hat-related knitting sites for a new pattern because you are too sad to create your own. find a fish pattern you jokingly send the baby sister. rejoice when she asks if the pattern is too difficult because the small child wants a fish hat. realize that a fish hat will probably allow the small child to more easily communicate with the new fish living in his house in a softly glowing tank. 

call to thank your various family members for losing the original hat and allowing you the opportunity to make a fish hat. try to sound snarky so they will know they are still in a little bit of trouble, but not too much.

buy some yarn at your neighborhood yarn store. show the guy at the yarn store the pattern and watch him swoon. begin knitting in your mind on the short walk home. begin knitting for real seconds after you get in the door. shove the dogs off your lap. shove the dogs off the yarn.  explain to the dogs that balls of yarn are not dog toys. take soggy yarn out of dog mouth. take soggy yarn out of dog mouth again. explain to dogs that gnawing on bamboo knitting needles is hateful. adjust your knitting so that you are able to knit with a 35 pound spider-legged dog curled up on your lap and a 15 pound stub-legged dog draped around your shoulders. knit knit knit.

take your knitting on the train. show it off to strangers. take it to work. show it off to co-workers. make a fish out of yarn. look at it. enjoy the fact that it looks like a fish. knit some fins onto the fish. flap them. look for googly eyes. feel indignant when you go into stores asking for googly eyes and are met with dead-eyed art-store employees who shrug and point to a wall with tiny googly eyes, far too small for a giant fish hat. find eyes in another local yarn store. rejoice. feel indignant again when the yarn store man at this yarn store is not nearly as excited as you are about finding giant sew-on googly eyes. sew on eyes. look at the hat. it looks even more like a fish. realize it is the first knitting project you've made in more than ten years that actually looks like what you imagined before you started.

text entire family. send photos of hat. implore someone in your family to take responsibility for delivering the hat safely to the child. hope your parents and the child's mother will not take you up on your request. rejoice when your middle sister assures you she will take care of things. put the hat in the mail. hope for the best. start another fish hat. just in case.

Monday, November 5, 2012


once again i realize i do not deserve the gifts these children bring every day but i take them anyway and keep them because i am selfish. and because i know a good story when i hear it.

it is one week since the storm and it is the first day the students are back at school. we are not sure what will happen, how they will be or what they will need. we are not even sure where some of our children are. i am, to be honest, a little nervous. i do not handle dramatic displays of unhappiness well and i am not a great comfort, especially to teenagers. i suppose that, in general, nobody is a great comfort to teenagers. they are inconsolable for years.

but because we are english teachers and because writing is how we believe the world works things out, my co-teachers and i start things off by having the kids open their journals. they write. they put down their stories. i tell them that is the easy part. they've been telling their stories all week without thinking about them. now is the time to record them for real. to save what they know. and they do.

but the second part is tougher. we ask them to think about their city, a city everyone in the world knows. they are not living in the city they were living in a week ago. it is a whole new place, for bad and for good. and we ask them how it is new, what they see for their city down the road. we ask how things have changed and what that means.

they write silently for a while. fifteen minutes. twenty. some of them finish and sit still. i look at them, see not quite a page written and say, very plainly, more than that happened. you have more to say. and they know it. they pick up their pens and keep writing.

we ask them, maybe twenty five minutes in, if they want to talk. they have written so they can organize their thoughts and we have found that this helps them speak more clearly. they are more confident when they have their own words and ideas sitting there in front of them.

they are ninth and tenth and eleventh graders. children who want to believe that they are adults. they speak in low voices, not shy, just softer than usual. they all want to talk at once but we remind them that they are more generous than that, that everyone's story will be heard.

one boy describes cars floating away. he watched them from his window. this is new for them. they are children of the city and have seen, at fifteen or so, more than many adults will ever see but this is the first time any of them have ever seen cars floating down the street. the way they speak is beautiful. they describe what they have seen so simply, with muted emotion. they are not in love with the violence of the storm or the chaos of what has come after. they are not what you think teenagers are.

a child explains that he's staying with family a while. there's not electricity, no heat, no water in his own home. he has been there five days now and it is difficult being in a place that is not his own, even if it is with family. he says it will be three weeks before he is back where he belongs and although i suspect it will be longer, i know enough to keep my mouth shut. he is honest. it is hard, he says. he doesn't want to spend three weeks this way. it is what he says next, though, that makes the room quiet. he has been thinking, he says. he keeps thinking there are people in the world who live like this all the time. it's a few weeks for me, but for some people, it's their whole lives, it's how they live. he knows where he is in the world and although it's not where he would like to be, he knows how much he has.

one girl describes her apartment, where all the bedrooms were underwater. her family has lost everything in those rooms. i don't know if you know about teenagers, but losing the contents of a teenager's bedroom is akin to losing one's soul. the bedroom of a teenager, terrifying to any outsider, is a holy place to them, a sanctuary. she describes the situation with a worn out voice, explaining that she, too, is staying with family. it's okay, she says. they're just things. they don't matter. she does not say this because she is a child of wealthy parents who will simply replace everything. she says it because it is something she knows to be true.

the eleventh graders do not want to talk so much about what they have seen. they want to talk about what comes next. they talk about the gas lines, the looting, the fires. they talk about the opportunities for local hardware stores and construction workers. they ask more questions. they want to know why the cyclone didn't blow down. it is so old and rickety and wooden, they say, but it is clear they are proud of their ancient roller coaster for not plunging into the sea the way roller coasters in other states seem to have done. they want to know about sharks in basements. they want to know how long. i tell them about my own town, how they are still rebuilding more than a year later. i tell them things will not be fixed quickly but they should work to fix things anyway. they do not flinch.

they do not understand why adults might rebuild where the ocean came up and destroyed but they do understand that this ugliness they have been through will give them new choices. rebuilding is not just about structures. it is about how they decide to look at what is before them. tomorrow they will be home again. it is election day and they will be, many of them, staring out of someone else's windows, watching someone else's t.v., sleeping on floors. with each class, i do not want to let them go out the door and back into whatever they will go to. i want to keep them where they are, safe for a few hours, thinking about how to move forward. but the bell rings, no matter what i want. so i tell them what i can. be safe tomorrow, i say. go out and do something useful. a week ago i wouldn't have been sure, but today i am. they will do exactly what i have asked. not because i have asked them. they will do it because they have seen, firsthand, that they are needed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


things you might need if you know a twelve year old boy:

you haven't met my doppelganger, have you? says the original supernatural nephew and i tell him maybe i have. the nephew turned twelve two days ago and we have been talking back and forth on the phone about a boy i know, another twelve year old, who is not at all happy with the way things are going all around him. he is a boy i met a few weeks back at school when he was being suspended for a variety of offenses, some of which involved saying very ugly things to quite a few people. his first words to me were leave me alone!

i spend my days with high school kids. squirrels, yes, but older squirrels. fourteen, fifteen. even a nineteen year old or two. i do not come across so many twelve year old boys in my day. i don't know what to do for such strange creatures, so i go to the source. i call the nephew. and if you know him, you already know what the conversations are like. if you don't, you probably ought to be sure you're sitting down before you read on. the original supernatural nephew is exactly that. he is not in any way regular. and that is what makes him worth knowing.

he listens to what i have to say, to my worries. he takes the call seriously. he is, after all, the only expert on twelve year old boys i know. he makes suggestions, rolls them over out loud, searching for the best ones. this is a good one. this one might be too babyish. this one will work with any twelve year old boy who feels angry or frustrated. it turns out he and the boy at my school share a love of sharks and vampires and he has plenty of suggestions about how to help the kid understand we have the same goals using what he loves as an ice breaker. and this is what i expect. i have known him for twelve years, after all. he is a smart kid to begin with and i know his capacity for kindness is endless. this is no surprise.

but the next time we talk, he asks about the boy. it turns out things have improved and i say so. but the nephew is smart enough to know the struggles of a twelve year old boy are endless and there will be good times and then more bad times and that when you are twelve, it takes work for the good times to win out. he offers more suggestions, asks about decisions adults have made on the child's behalf. he knows the world is larger than just his own choices.

on his birthday i call the nephew to wish him well and to tell him his gift, difficult to wrangle, will arrive a few days later. he listens patiently, then asks about the boy. and they are alike here, too. they are both acutely aware of the suffering of others and both want very much to fix any little bit of that they can. they are dogged in their pursuit of making things right and fair. the nephew knows what he has. not just the good parents and safe home and the piles of books and abundance of toys. he knows that he has an impressive mind and a committed heart and he knows those things together require a different sort of responsibility. he knows some people will not know to work as hard as he will to make the world better and this may sometimes frustrate him but it will not change his course because he is always looking around him and he is always thinking about what is out there.

so today when he calls to tell me he got his present we chat about it a little and he asks about the boy. i don't see the boy very often but i know things are less awful for him and i know things are still changing so that is what i say. the nephew offers things. his own things. actual objects that are his that he thinks might be of comfort to this child he does not know at all. because he knows enough about how this boy feels to want the child to have things that helped when he felt the way twelve year old boys sometimes do.

and i am so glad i called to ask his advice. not just because it has been helpful. not just because it shows me that he is thoughtful and self-aware, qualities rare among twelve year old boys. i am glad because it is a wonderful gift to hear his mind work on a problem, weigh options, offer suggestions. it is a gift to hear him think.

Monday, October 8, 2012


fall in the catskills

pakatakan farm market

pepacton reservoir


stone wall at pepacton

mill brook at pepacton
Add caption

Monday, August 27, 2012

return of dog candy

our good dog guthrie has spent most of the last three years dogless.
he has not complained about this one bit.
still, we've wanted him to have a brother to love and play with.

instead, we ended up with scout, as willful and nosy as her namesake. 
she is part vampire, part crocodile and part pogo stick.

guthrie waits patiently for us to send her back.
but she follows him around.
she bites him when he ignores her.
and so he tries to teach her a little about how to be a good dog,

how to catch a ball in midair,

how to be a clown.

but when they wear themselves out she scoots up next to him.

guthrie is not at all sure this is acceptable.

but i think she is beginning to grow on him.