What Language Are You Speaking?

One word in Canadian author Louise Penny’s newsletter stopped me cold.  She was praising her assistant’s many talents, and included “hooker” in the list.  Wait.  What?  Based on the rest of the list, she must have meant “rug hooker.”  But that’s not what came out.

All that took me back to similar inadvertent gaffes.

I know enough German to get by in most situations, and I can mimic accents so well that I sound like a native…until about five minutes later when the grammar trips me up.  So, all was going swimmingly in the Munich restaurant, until it was time to call for the check.  I turned and called to the waiter, “Herr Obst…”  Well, instead of calling, “Waiter,” I called for Mr. Fruit.  How embarrassing!  Luckily, he responded anyway, having, I’m sure, realized I was a second-rate speaker.  We all had a good laugh over my blunder.

The ticket vender at the railroad station, however, was not nearly as understanding.  Another trip to Germany where we used trains all the time led to another slipup.  We were headed out for a day trip somewhere.  Another castle?  An old walled town?  I don’t remember.  But I strode up to the ticket window confidently enough, having done this innumerable times before.  A round trip ticket.  What could be simpler?  Hin and zurück in German.  There and back.  But what did I say?  “Ab und zu.”  Which translates to now and then.  I immediately realized my mistake, but was laughing so hard, it took a minute to recover and correct.  In the meantime, the lady behind the counter stood, stolid and scowling, probably figuring I was absolutely crazy.  Either that, or I had no business mauling her language like that.  I found it hilarious.  She didn’t.  I guess I wasn’t cut out to join the diplomatic corps.

A friend was telling me about a friend of hers I didn’t know, other than, he was old.  She said, “He passed.”  Here comes the faux pas.  “Oh, so he re-took his driver’s license and passed.  What good news, at his age!”  She looked at me as if I’d offended her.  Which I probably did.  She said, “No.  He passed away.”  Without thinking, I blurted, “Oh!  He died!”  In an attempt to recoup, I fumbled out, “Passed away.  I’m so sorry.  Sorry about misunderstanding too.  Sorry, sorry…”  It’s an unfortunate shift of language, in my opinion, that the “away” has disappeared.  There are so many things to pass that life should not be on that simplistic list.  But then, language is in flux, and I’d better learn to adapt!

On a lighter note—no pun intended, as you’ll shortly see—when I was in Ireland, and staying at a vacation apartment, a paper with various instructions sat on the kitchen table.  How to use the TV remote, how to turn on the air conditioner, how to light the hob.  Wait.  What?  What the heck is a hob?  We checked out after two days without figuring it out.  I finally got up the nerve to expose my American ignorance and ask some Irish people, “What is a hob?”  They laughed and said, “I guess you guys call it a stove.  That one must’ve been a gas hob, if you had directions to light it.”  Another occasion for a good laugh, and no harm done.

While half-listening to the radio, I heard the name Laura Loock.  Wow!  The name of an old friend of my mother who made our wedding cake!  All sorts of wonderful memories surfaced.  Her expansive kitchen, always full of delicious aromas of baking or cooking.  The sound of Morse code coming from her husband and sons’ ham radio shack off the living room.  But mostly, her round face, always full of joy.  Even today, I can conjure up her contagious laughter, though it’s becoming more elusive.  However, I couldn’t understand why someone was talking about that delightful woman so many years later.  I honed my hearing and heard instead an advertisement for Laurel Oak, a new retirement community.  A case of language playing tricks on my ear.  But it was ever so fortunate a trick, as it brought back to mind a woman relegated to those back files hardly ever accessed.  A fun diversion.

I love language, even though it’s betrayed me at times.  It’s embarrassed me, made me laugh, given me the gift of nostalgia, and sometimes even stopped me in my tracks.  All of this reminds me to listen carefully, check my sources, ask questions, and generally revel in the craziness that language offers.

What language are you speaking?

Casseroles and Diving Wells

 Once upon a time, a lady was consulting with her pastor about her funeral.  (She obviously wasn’t dead yet, or she wouldn’t be consulting, now, would she?)  Anyway, she said she wanted a nice service and all, followed by a luncheon for anyone who could stay.  “Oh, one more thing,” the dear lady said.  “I want to be buried with a fork.”  The pastor’s eyebrows went up.  He’d heard plenty of strange things, but this kind of took the cake.  “A fork,” he said.  “Well, I suppose that can be arranged.  May I ask why a fork?”  The lady smiled.  “At church potlucks, they always tell you to keep your fork for dessert, because the best is yet to come.  So, I figure, it’s the same going to the Pearly Gates.  Jesus pretty much told us, the best is yet to come.”

The story is not about keeping your fork for a casserole, but that story did trigger a slew of memories connected to casseroles.  Tater Tot casserole is still a go-to when time is tight.  Ground beef and onions, then frozen peas, a can of mushroom soup, topped with a layer of Tater Tots laid down in a fanciful, but packed, pattern.  Or, mix quick-rice with cream of mushroom soup to the consistency of mush, and spread in the bottom of a pan.  Top with chicken breasts, and maybe some frozen broccoli.  Drizzle wine, or milk, if that is your preference until it puddles a bit on the surface.  Cover tightly with foil and bake.  Oh, heaven!  I’ve served that second one for Christmas dinner and gotten a lot of oohs and aahs.

My mom often made a Seven-Layer casserole with potatoes, onions, ground beef, carrots, and a jar of home-canned tomatoes.  Wait! you say, that’s only five layers.  I made the same mistake.  Mom informed me that the salt and pepper counted too.  Voila!  Seven layers.  Mom would dig down and dish out great spoonfuls of the casserole.  “To get the best parts, you have to make sure to plunge right to the bottom,” she’d enjoin.  Mmm-mmm!

Plunging right to the bottom took me away from casseroles.  Stay with me here.  The mind flits here and there, and this is one of those diversions.  Remember those childhood swimming lessons?  Most kids don’t even want to dunk their entire head underwater, but by the time those Lifesaving classes came around, we did more than hold a nose and do a quick dip.  The final exam in the pool consisted of “rescuing” the biggest guard, or else the pool manager, from the bottom of the diving well, an abyss fifteen feet deep.  When I took the test, it was the 200-pound manager.

He plunged straight to the bottom, and sat there, cross-legged, waiting for one of us to pull him up.  I didn’t have much time to ponder his lung capacity, and how long he could stay submerged, because I was frantically trying to get down to him.  Like a baby duck, I kept bobbing back up to the surface.  Finally, I released a steady stream of air to fight the buoyancy as I struggled to get down 15 feet.  Of course, that meant I really didn’t have much air left to re-surface.  But I did manage to grab him—inflicting a deep bruise on his arm—and drag his dead weight to the surface.  I still had to get him to the poolside, and therein, practically drowned myself in the process.  But we made it.  And I passed the class.

Just as all the “heavy” stuff can be hidden way at the bottom of a casserole—or a diving well—a lot of the good stuff—our successes—can be hidden way down in the deep end, where we have to struggle like crazy to bring them to the surface.  Along the way, maybe we feel like we’re never going to be able to surface, never going to be able to get to the meat of the casserole.  But hang in there!  Like the lady buried with a fork, hold onto the tools we use to get down to what we want, because the best is yet to come.

Getting Out from Under

We visited family in Chicago a week or so ago.

That sentence feels pretty bland, until you realize, that because of the pandemic, we were sequestered for over a year before we could get vaccinated and loosen up a bit.  We still follow the Center for Disease Control guidelines, of course, but are now able to visit people who are also vaccinated, as well as masking and keeping safe distances in public places.

But this post isn’t about Covid-19.  It’s about Chicago, one of my favorite cities.  I could wax poetic about the attractions of the central city, but that’s pretty old hat for people knowing anything at all about the tourists’ Chicago.  The sprawling parks, the architectural gems, the outdoor sculptures, the Art Institute, the Miracle Mile, the oodles of restaurants and blues bars.  Just too numerous to list them all, much less do them justice.

However, this trip, we explored two spots a bit off the beaten path.  The Chicago Botanic Garden, about a half-hour’s drive north of the city, is a venue far too good to pass up.  When we visited, daffodils carpeted many of the slopes, bringing to mind Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”  The best part of that poem are the last few lines, which reminds us, we can close our eyes at any time and be back among the flowers.  The Garden boasts 385 acres of hills and dales, ponds and fountains, roses and prairie plantings, fruits and vegetables, and so much more.

Besides the banks of daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths, one of my favorite spots is the Japanese Garden.  Approached over an arched wooden bridge, the garden really consists of two interconnected islands.  Each is encircled by a wandering path taking amblers past carefully trimmed evergreens, clusters of tiny wildflowers nestled under the trees, and swaths of miniscule succulents.  The views out over the water are artfully curated so as to look entirely unplanned.  A stone lantern with upswept eaves, a weeping willow trailing pliant fingers in the water, a stretch of smooth stones barely visible under the shallow water along a shore.  Then a wider vista, opening the gaze to a distant shore across the water, a waterfall cascading off to the left, a trail with a lone biker off to the right.  The whole Botanic Garden is full of such delightful surprises.

Our second discovered treasure was the Lincoln Park Zoo, not very far from downtown, right on the lakeshore.  Begun in 1868, it remains one of the oldest zoos in the country.  Not only that, it’s free!  Pay for parking, which helps keep the zoo maintained, and you’re in.  The walkways wind through wooded and landscaped areas, allowing visitors to get close to the animals.  The animal habitats are true habitats, mirroring the animals’ natural environs, with plenty of room to roam, as well as quiet areas to retreat from the crowds.  The zoo is committed to breeding and training programs also, so we were lucky to be there when the trainers were working with the seals.  This year (2021) includes a huge renovation of the cat habitat.  When finished, the lions will feed by attacking food presented on a zipline, which simulates prey.  How clever!

Many of the older buildings are still there, having been incorporated over the years into updates and reconstructions.  Walk through the African building and get close up to a pygmy hippo, lots of birds, and plenty of informative wall plaques.  Outdoors, and not six feet from us, we watched a stork carefully turn her eggs and then settle down to incubate.  Because it’s spring and the weather was cool, the animals were very active.  In a zoo, I often wonder who is watching whom!

Every town has jewels perched here and there.  The major attractions are always fun, but sometimes the offerings we have to search for are the real rewards.  Even your home town holds little treasures to ferret out.  Let me know if you find any!

To Write a Book

When I told my students, I was tired of reading books about dysfunctional families and teens, so I was contemplating writing a book about a normal teen, the biggest football player in class stood up and cheered.  A murmur of approval from everyone else followed.

That was in 2006-2007.  When I valiantly managed to write some during that school year, I read pieces of it to the kids, and they affirmed that I captured the language, angst, and all the other stuff that normal teens experience.  

I don’t remember exactly when I finished the story, maybe two or three years later as I worked through everything with a wonderful writing workshop.  By that time, I was retired, and I printed out the manuscript, smiled broadly, and set it aside in its very own three-ring binder.

It “fermented” for a number of years before I pulled it out again, after a long hiatus from the workshop, followed by a welcome return.  With encouragement and coaching, I got gutsy and submitted it to a dozen small publishers.  One picked it up, and I was on the way.

But what happened before that?  Every manuscript has its own “birth” story.  To Know Her, my first published novel, grew out of frustration with portrayals of abnormal teens, troubled teens, damaged teens.  I figured there had to be a story outside of that turmoil.  Not that teens don’t face all sorts of problems, but many, if not most, of them learn to cope.  Kids are flexible, and for the most part, not dumb.  I worked with teens for thirty years, and saw how “normal” they really could be.  How kind, generous, yet innocent too.  We don’t always “see” them.

Out of that came the question, how well can we really, truly know anyone?  We simply can’t discern everything about the people we know, the people we are related to, even the people we love.  So, I devised a situation where parents didn’t know everything about their beloved daughter.  They thought they did, but…they didn’t.

This doesn’t really contain spoilers, as the synopsis on the cover of the novel sets up the fact that the daughter is in a coma as the result of a car accident, and the parents, after receiving all the stuff from the car, find things they can’t explain.

The funny thing was that, as I wrote the parents, they told me that they were battling over whether or not to withdraw live support.  That was a total surprise!  I had not intended to go in that direction at all, but the characters let me know this was true to their lives.  Well, all right, then.

You may have heard about these strange “conversations” between writers and their characters.  I am here to tell you that we’re not crazy.  It does happen.  If I try to write it the way I think it should play out, and the characters “told” me, “Nope.  I didn’t do that,” then I’d better listen, because the scene will be nothing but frustration to write.  It just won’t work out the way I first planned it.  Call it crazy, but sometimes all the planning is wrenched aside, or just plain discarded.

Speaking of planning, I do tend to plan ahead.  Not outline, exactly, but I at least figure where I’d like the story to end.  That sometimes doesn’t work out either, but most of the time it does.  I have to resolve the conflict I’ve introduced in the beginning somehow, after all.  But how to get from A to Z can change as I go along.  I can choose the “beads on the necklace,” but I can’t always choose the order or intensity of events, or what links it all, until I keep writing.

I’d love to say I write from start to finish, and I’m done.  Ha!  I do write from start to finish, but it looks more like one of those mountain switchbacks.  Up, loop around and change directions—and oops!  Look down there!  I need to go back and add more drama, more dialogue—or take out something.  Sometimes it’s lots of somethings.  Two steps forward, one back.  Four steps forward—moving right along, then—five steps back!

And once through isn’t enough.  When I’m “finished,” I usually end up going back three or four times to check, double-check, proofread, re-write.  With To Know Her, once the book was accepted, I eventually had to do three more read-throughs, looking for all sorts of mistakes, and possibly do an edit or two.  Even on the last read-through I found one spelling mistake!  Who knows what readers will find?!  This is where I truly realized how important and powerful editors are.  Necessary task-masters.

Initially, writing is a solitary endeavor, but it surely doesn’t stay solitary very long!

To Know Her excerpt

I’m pleased to offer an excerpt from my novel, To Know Her, a tale of tough choices, love and acceptance.  As my writing instructor said, “This book will cause you to hug those you love even closer…and listen to them as well.”  Enjoy!

A bit of background:  Juliana lies in a coma as a result of a car accident.  Here, Susan and Will, her parents, are with her in the hospital, and discover Juliana has secrets they were never aware of.

# # #

Susan lifted Juliana’s hospital gown away from her hip.  “Look,” she said, stepping to one side, but holding the gown so Juliana’s smooth skin was exposed.

Will bit the inside of his cheek, anticipating some awful unknown, but what he saw made him laugh.

There, on Juliana’s right hip, in all her glory, was a small tattoo of Minnie Mouse.  

“Do you think this is funny?” Susan’s voice was unbelieving.  “A tattoo!  Did you know about this?”  She let the gown fall back into place.  The nurses put the sheets in place and left the room.

“No, of course not!  I didn’t know.”  Will was quick to reassure, knowing Susan would be furious if she thought Juliana told him about the tattoo and not told her.  Or worse, if he knew all along and deliberately did not share it with her.  He said, to keep that subject from coming up, “When on earth did she get that?”  He laughed again.  “Kind of cute, don’t you think?”

“Cute.  Cute?”  Susan’s voice betrayed concern more than anger.  “When did she do this?  Why didn’t she tell us?”

“Probably figured we’d cut her out of the will,” Will joked, then looked quickly at Susan, wondering how she’d take it.

But Susan had her hands up to her mouth and didn’t respond.  Instead, Susan reached out to touch Juliana’s hair, shifted a few loose strands off her face and ran her fingertips along her cheek.  Susan shook her head and turned to Will. “Did she think we’d disapprove?  Was she—afraid of us?”

“No,” Will said.  “I’m sure she just figured it was easier not to tell us.  That way she didn’t have to worry whether we’d yell at her or not.  You can’t even see it when she’s dressed.”

“Even through underpants?  It wouldn’t show even then, would it?”  Susan seemed to look for acceptance, for acknowledgment this was normal for an eighteen-year old girl.

Will could give her that, even if he had no idea if it truly was normal.  He knew tattoos seemed to be the rage now, but he saw them mostly on what they used to call the wild crowd.  Their Juliana certainly didn’t qualify for that label.  “Aw, kids get tattoos all the time now,” he said to Susan.  “This is nothing.  Look where it is—on her hip.  It’s not like she was flaunting it or something.  It’s not a skull or snake, or worse.  Just a cute little Minnie Mouse.  She probably got Minnie because it reminded her of our trip to DisneyWorld.  Remember?”

Susan’s face relaxed.  She smiled.  “Yes, that was a great trip.  I remember, all she wanted to do was have her picture taken with Minnie Mouse.  Minnie, Minnie, Minnie!  That’s all she talked about for weeks afterward.  She carried that photo around everywhere.  You must be right.”  But her face clouded.  

“Of course I am,” Will stepped in before Susan had a chance to go on.  “Just a reminder of good times.”

“But I still don’t get it.  Why didn’t she tell us?  I can’t believe we never saw it, never suspected.  Did you hear her talk about a tattoo?  I wonder who else knows about this.  Does Katie?”

Will forestalled what he saw as her next question.  “No, we’re not going to ask Katie.  Katie has enough on her mind right now.  She doesn’t need us prying into their lives together.  It’s only a tattoo, Susan.  It’s not that important.”

“Maybe not,” Susan said, turning to Juliana and curling her fingers around Juliana’s.  “But first the bottle, now this tattoo.  What else don’t we know?”

It’s February…Again

It’s February and that means full-blown winter.  Does that mean I’m required to bluster about the weather here (no pun intended)?  I prefer to think like my mother, who, at age 80, finally admitted out loud that she loved winter.  “I can get away with it now, because everyone will say, ‘Oh, it’s just that crazy old lady,’” followed by a wicked grin.  I’m not 80 yet, but I already blithely admit I love winter.  People can say what they want.

Our daughter sent me a video a day or two ago of her spectacular Olympic-level maiden attempt at a snow angel.  One must, first of all, take The Stance, which consists of arms spread wide and feet planted a bit apart.  Then comes the Moment of Truth.  Are you willing to drop backwards into the deep snow without a spotter to catch you?  That is a key element of a gold medal performance.  Some will take on the Bent-Knee Drop, which results in an angel with a big torso, but shortened skirt.  Not even bronze medal level.  The true gold medalist will drop like a Ponderosa pine cut down by an especially skillful lumberjack.  Straight knees, arms fully extended…and probably eyes closed in the hope that the snow is deep enough.  After the Drop, waving arms up and down, like a demented air traffic controller, at the same time as swishing legs back and forth, will result in a perfectly formed angel.

The true gold medalist now faces the biggest challenge, one which must be executed with care and deliberation:  getting up.  A silver medalist will sit up and then proceed to plant feet and hands in a replication of a toddler trying to stand upright.  Remember, the medalist is fully clothed in winter gear, thus resembling not only Nanook of the North, but also an adult polar bear.  (Tip: do not try this in Churchill, Canada, where polar bears roam the streets.)  Done incorrectly the Toddler Recovery results look like an angel that has fallen from heaven before it fully understood how wings worked.  In contrast, a gold medalist will sit up, and then scootch down, moving the rump across the ridge formed between the legs.  This flattens said ridge and gives a full skirt to the angel, rather than a pair of trousers.  Because, after all, has anyone ever seen an angel in trousers?  I think not.

Walking away from the snow angel requires an eye for beauty and creativity.  Most medalists, once upright again, choose to retreat in the same footprints made in approaching the Landing Zone.  This nicely creates a trail, or tail, if you wish, off the end of the skirt, reminiscent of a comet’s tail.  Which is appropriate, considering angels, upon entering earthly atmosphere, create a contrail, much like a passenger jet streaking toward…well, it’s winter, so I suppose they’re streaking toward some warm clime.

I suppose you’re wondering about my daughter’s snow angel.  Was it gold medal quality?  Well, she was laughing so hard when the video ended, I assume she was well pleased with her debut.  Of course, she was still sitting in the snow, so I had no chance to evaluate the final product.  However, she is my daughter, so I proclaim her a worthy recipient of the honor. After all, she comes from gold medal stock—me.  I challenge anyone to replicate the performance.  Reward yourself with a snowcone or a cup of hot cocoa, and smile at Ol’ Man Winter.

Standing at a Threshold

The two-headed Roman god Janus, one face looking back and the other forward, guarded thresholds and transitions, so it’s appropriate to invoke Janus as we move from 2020 to 2021.  Considering most of us sequestered in place for 2020, I don’t know about you, but I am ready for all that to be in my rearview mirror.  

Even if those past thresholds are behind us, and doors closed, memories remain.  Looking back over the most recent threshold, I see an entire year of watching a rabid corona virus seep into every nook and cranny of our world and our lives, and slip into the new year as well.  Luckily, along with that came vaccines developed with uncommon speed.  All this within an unusual presidency with an unusual president.  Back farther, in 2001 a terrorist attack leveled the twin World Trade Center towers in New York City.  Another threshold in 1986, with the explosion of a space shuttle, taking with it a teacher, a position I unsuccessfully applied for.  Earlier again, the resignation of another unusual president in 1974.  The assassination of a popular president in 1963.  Then the 1952 polio epidemic which closed the pools and killed over 3,000 kids, and disabled over 20,000, one of whom was a friend of mine.

So, close the door.  Because Janus also faced forward.  What lies ahead then?  I’m focusing on the smaller glories of life.  The snowfall, which nurtures a dry earth and muffles sounds.  When I walk in the morning now, as long as the roads remain free of ice, I hear only a few bird sounds.  The quiet and peace is a real balm.  With the gift of changing seasons, I look forward to hearing the kids squealing with excitement as they play kickball in a nearby cul-de-sac.  And to doffing the winter togs that make me look like Nanook of the North.  Also, peeling off layer by layer as the weather warms.  This does not include thinking so far ahead that I remember I’ll have to bulk up again a few months down the line.

I await the arrival of seed catalogs, some of which are already sitting on my table.  Even though my gardening does not include plotting out a garden the size of Versailles, I can dream, can’t I?  This year, I dream of buttercup squash proliferating in the little flower garden at the top of the driveway.  So what if the plot has been neglected and sparse?  This is the year!  Squash, brown sugar, butter.  I’ll put in more coneflowers too, and perhaps a wash of impatiens.  And maybe…  Part of gardening should always involve visiting the gardens that are the size of Versailles.  It’s just as pleasurable to admire the efforts of other gardeners, especially on a scale I’d never attempt.  Imagining the hard work of others is almost as good as plunging my own hands into the soil.

Travel again.  Now there’s something to look forward to.  Maybe only to the local park to picnic with the extended family.  Maybe to pack the camping gear and head out to share a campfire with friends and strangers.  Or not travel much beyond the dining room, where we can all share a meal with our children, grandchildren, friends.  Where we can laugh and talk without a thought to how far our breath is carrying microscopic organisms that may sicken or even kill those around us.  Maybe…the possibilities are endless.

If crossing this threshold has taught anything, it’s taught us to keep our eyes on the prize, whatever that prize may be.  For many, it’s the people, both far and near.  We’ve discovered many  ways of connecting, many ways of working, many ways of playing.  Though we may forget the stress and the necessity of pivoting to new ways of doing things, we retain the awareness of our flexibility, our ability to be creative.  Janus guards not only doorways, but transitions.  We’ve just survived a major one.  We’ll be forever stronger because of it.

Wooly Bears and Sundry Other Observations

Every weekday morning, I take a two-mile walk through the neighborhood.  Because we live out in the country, various forms of wildlife appear.  Some of them, unfortunately, turn out to be flattened, like the squirrel who tried to beat the car while crossing the road.  I can almost hear him saying to himself, “I’ve done this a million times before”—squirrels tend to exaggerate—“I can do it again.”  Only to discover that one in a million times that it doesn’t work.  When deer try the same thing, at least they have a size advantage.  Though they often meet their demise, they take out revenge on our cars.

But this isn’t about road kill.

Most things I encounter out on the road are much more pleasant.  Take the wooly bear caterpillar, for example.  Twice I’ve stopped to watch them gallump their way toward the safety of the ditch.  Unless they’re moving, it’s impossible to tell front from rear.  Which is the point, I guess, when a bird is homing in for a snack.  A little misjudgment on the part of the bird, and the caterpillar can be off in the opposite direction.

A close look at the brown band that girdles the brown caterpillars shows wide fuzzy bands.  The story goes that, the wider the band, the worse the winter to come.  That, of course, doesn’t really make sense.  What the band does reflect is the depth of the food buffet in the previous spring and summer.  More food, healthier wooly bears, and wider brown bands.  In spite of that, I still love these old tales.  They’re everywhere, if you think about it.  Take a yard peppered with acorns.  Another instance of the sign of a coming winter that’ll blow your socks off.  Same answer as the wooly bear’s band: better spring and summer weather, more acorns.  That led me to think about rhubarb.  Bear with me; this’ll come together in a minute.  We have both acorns and rhubarb in our backyard, so it’s natural to scan and see both.  Rhubarb is a perfectly yummy plant.  It’s so yummy, the old-fashioned name is pieplant.  But don’t eat the leaves; they’re poisonous.

Who found out that rhubarb leaves are poisonous?  What early hunter-gatherer was so hungry as to try eating rhubarb leaves?  I can understand how other foods passed the taste test, but rhubarb leaves?  Some early hunters, having skewered a squirrel in preparation for roasting it over a fire, probably saw their precious dinner slip off the stick because it wasn’t run through securely enough.  The hard work entailed in getting that squirrel meant the hunters were watching dinner turn to a cinder.  They would undoubtedly rescue the meat from the fire, and then risk eating it, because who knew when the next meal would stroll by and offer itself to your spear?  Voila!  Sweet cooked meat!  And you could carry the leftovers with you without drawing every fly in the neighborhood.  Everyone benefited from the discovery.  In the future, cooking meat became the norm.  And so did avoiding rhubarb leaves!

But back to wooly bears.  With warm springs and sunny summers, a plethora of field flowers and grasses pop up.  Violets, clovers, sunflowers and asters are just some of the foods laid out on the wooly bears’ banquet tables.  With such goodies in abundance, wooly bears grow fat, and so do their fuzzy brown bands.  It’s their pasts that result in thick fur like velvet.  So, I guess we should look over our shoulders once in a while to see how what’s here now might be based on what’s already happened.  Better than trying to predict the future based on the wooly bear caterpillar.

Crabs Walk Sideways, Spiders…

A spider and I commiserated on the patio for a couple of hours this afternoon, me from my chair, she from the edge of the table.  This one was so teeny that two or three of them would fit on my littlest fingernail.  As I gently touched a back leg, she leaped onto my thumbnail.  No, I didn’t shake her off, though my abrupt twitch of surprise had her leaping back to the security of the table edge.  She had four elongated front legs and a huge bulbous abdomen.  Each leg was striped in brown, and her yellowish belly sported a few delicate spots.  I excused myself and went indoors to check out what kind of spider she was.

A crab spider.  Here she was, visiting me on my patio.  Like a crab, she displayed long front legs.  And yes, she did walk sideways.  Even more fun to watch was how she reacted to me.  Clearly, she could see me, because she maneuvered a bit every time I moved.  Unlike other spiders, this little beauty has eight distinct eyes, as opposed to most spiders who have eyes with multiple facets.  So, we played this game where I advanced to within “nose-reach,” then backed off.  Eventually, we both tired of that, and I settled in to simply observe.

Mostly, she carried those long, widely-spaced front legs tight together, two to a side.  But every so often, she stretched them out, hoisted the rear of her abdomen, and sat quite still for a long moment.  What on earth was she doing?  Finally, when the sunlight fell just right, I could see her spinning out a long silken strand, at least a foot long.  Considering these spiders don’t spin webs, my best guess was that she was searching for a toehold, as it were.  She wasn’t fishing, looking to haul in prey, because crab spiders sit and wait for prey—small insects and such—to come within reach, so they can grab with those powerful crab-like front legs, and drag it in to inject a fatal venom.  She must have been a spider-explorer, floating out filament after filament, hoping to snag the edge of a new place to visit.

A flash from the past sent me searching for a poem I remembered about a spider.  Sure enough.  Walt Whitman.  Here was his noiseless, patient spider come to visit me.  What a gift!

Here’s Whitman’s poem.  Enjoy!

A noiseless patient spider, 

I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated, 

Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding, 

It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, 

Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them. 

And you O my soul where you stand, 

Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, 

Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, 

Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, 

Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

Apples of My Eye

‘Tis the season.  No, not the holiday season.  Apple season!  Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Gala, Jazz, Cortland, Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, and, my personal favorite, Ginger Gold.  Actually, the season itself is pretty well over, but the memories linger on.  Plus, at the times the harvest was ready, I was busy picking, peeling, pie-ing.  (Is that even a word?)

One of the best parts is going out to the orchard in my Wellies to tromp around in the wet early-morning grass with a big bucket to snag those big red globes.  Ginger Gold is a fairly recent favorite, so many orchards have minimal trees of that variety.  That means getting out early.  But I’m not really that picky.  Apple pies of mixed varieties are the best anyway.

Come along with your bucket and picture the scene.  Early morning, so early that the sun is just beginning to draw the moisture out of the earth.   Step into the mist rising along the grass paths, and disappear.  Out of sight of the barn, the parked cars, the other harvesters.  Once we get to the trees, the branches reach out to us, practically begging to be relieved of their luscious burden.  Many of the branches are low enough to pick without using a ladder.  The trees are so heavy with fruit that we can fill our bucket from only one or two trees.  But keeping in mind that the best pies need flavors from more than one type, we move along from tree to tree.

I’m lucky enough to have two old trees in our backyard, one with small apples that we leave for the deer, and one with larger, sweeter apples.  The deer get those too, unless we keep an eye open for fallen apples.  The fruit is too high on the tree for both deer and human to reach.  It’s always a race to see who can snatch up the best ones.  If only the deer would choose one apple and eat the entire thing.  Instead, they sample.  A bite here, a bite there, never the entire thing.

My favorite apple tree is down at the end of our road, on the corner of a utility property.  I took the time to ask permission to harvest the apples, which they readily gave, considering they never even knew the tree was there.  Those apples, like any wild apples, have also been sampled by insects.  Most of the time, the insects are no longer in the apples, though tiny tracks remain in the flesh.  As long as no bugs remain, it’s safe to cook with them.  Sounds too primitive for you?  Good!  More apples for me to use!  And for the deer to eat.  I haven’t picked for myself for several years now, because someone else reaps the benefits.  Well, not someone.  Something.  Two draft horses live across the street, and I pick up clean apples as a treat for them.  They know me, and the minute I come across the street, they amble over to the pasture fence and wait.  As much a treat for me as for them.

Finally, apple pies.  Yum!  Too many recipes to mention, of course.  Everyone has a favorite.  But here’s the secret:  Bake fruit pies for ninety minutes—yes, ninety—at 350 degrees.  Then don’t eat until the next day.  That’s the hardest part.  But it’s the key to having a pie that doesn’t leak all over the plate.  So…  Excuse me…there’s a pie in the kitchen calling my name.