Sunday, December 27, 2015

cinnamon iceballs on a stick: a christmas-riverside collaboration

Most any day is a good day to walk out and see something wondrous, but, for me, when this happened on Christmas Day, it was particularly nice.

this here is the next day

It had been, for the most part, an ordinary, non-eventful day. That morning the full moon, behind a thick overcast, managed to shed a diffused kind of light on the lightest of snow covers, most of our snow of last week having been beaten away by rain, leaving just a thin crust of icy snow poked through by plenty of ground and what the ground gives birth to. That thin crust reflected as best it could the vague light of the diffused moon, and it was rather low-key, but interesting all the same, to see how it could be so light while so dark, or so dark while so light, but really, not all that much to get excited about.

this was the morning of the next day

Josie and I took our regular afternoon walk, the one that often takes us along the river, and he had run on ahead, as he usually does, even more so, now, it seems, with a little snow to thrash about in, because snow sharpens the senses, or, rather, snow heightens sight and sound, this I know, so why not smell? Dogs already sniff out a zillion more things than you or I, so just imagine suddenly there being new smells, stronger smells, and all, it seems, lurking beneath this cool stuff called “snow.”

Christmas Day he took off like a shot. And me, I was going slow because the riverbank trail is always tricky with big steps up, slippery steps down, fallen trees to scramble over and thickets to crash through. Josie does this easily, but not so I, especially with a top layer of slippery snow and ice. The riverbank is tangled and woody right up to the water’s edge, and yes, the river is flowing freely still, though it has tried to ice up now and again, most recently about a week ago, when we had that snow, but on Christmas Day it was high, muddy brown, and moving along.

when the river tried to ice up

On this walk one comes to a spot where the brush clears and you can stand at the water’s edge, as I did, for a moment, as I usually do, as this spot is just before the bend in the river and I like to see what is happening with the island in the bend, the island that is not always an island but lately has been as the river has swelled with rain and once again cut off this chunk of land from shore. The water curls around the bend and swirls around fallen trees and branches and this grassy chunk of land, and there’s the broad, upsweeping opposite bank, and sometimes eagles are in the trees over there, or crows, but most often lately just chickadees flitting about this bank, but anyway, I stop to look around, take it all in.

this is how it looked the next morning

Nothing out of the ordinary this Christmas Day, until I looked at my feet, the water’s edge, saw this wondrous thing: balls of ice had formed midway up (or down) the dry stalks of grass and twigs that the river alternately laps around and abandons, and these icy balls were shot through with sand giving them a muted, swirly, cinnamon color.

I tried, briefly, to imagine all the elements of movement and temperature that came together to create sandy ice balls on twigs and stalks along the river’s edge, but I could not grasp it, my mind moved too quickly away from it, for who knows, maybe astrology, physics, and moon phases were involved, maybe elves and Jack Frost, I certainly didn’t know, just knew I was being pulled back along the river’s edge, scrambling through the brush, seeing more and more of these sandy ice balls on sticks and stalks, and some were small and round, smaller than ping pong balls, and some were bell-shaped. Some were larger, looked a bit molten, and some looked as if they had grown too large for their assigned twig or britches and so had spread and sprawled, like The Blob, maybe in an attempt to take over, maybe no longer content with their one little branch but wanting the next and the one after that, like an ink blot gone wild, suspended in midair, delicately held aloft by those lowly stalks and twigs; and some reminded me of small, papery hornets’ nests, and some reminded me of lightly toasted marshmallows on campfire sticks. Some could have been pearl onions, slightly charred, stuck on a skewer, hot off the barbecue, or maybe they were cocktail mushrooms being served on giant toothpicks, riverside, on Christmas Day, a delicacy!

I stumbled and crawled, I slipped and slid, I lay there entranced.

the next day

After a while, I got up. I walked on to the area where I thought Josie would be and I called and I whistled. He did not come. I decided not to get mad, not to worry, and started walking home. Just before I reached the steps that lead up to the meadow, Josie came racing along, sped past me.

The next morning we broke routine and went to the riverside early. It had begun to snow, and I wanted to take pictures of the cinnamon ice balls on sticks before they got buried. This time Josie stuck with me, which I appreciated.

All day the snow fell in its quiet, thick way, and by the time the afternoon walk came around there were a few inches on the ground. Now, this morning, there are a few inches more. When Josie went out in that dim bright light of moon-on-snow with cloud diffuser, looking for a place to do business, the snow nearly up to his chin, it looked as if he were floating, hovering, moving about, just skimming the surface.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

merry christmas, ebenezer

To begin with, I watched “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” I had forgotten it was a stage version that begins with Magoo speeding through city traffic singing a song about Broadway, crashing into a lamp post, hopping out of his vehicle, walking into Stanleys Restaurant because he reads it as “Stage Door Entrance,” causing a crash-and-bang commotion within, coming out the side door escorted by two burly chefs, and finally, finally, with just a mishap or two more, taking the stage as Ebenezer Scrooge, squinty-eyed and mean, singing a merry song while counting his gold coins, too miserly to buy a pair of spectacles. One of the best versions of Scrooge, to be sure,

and I witnessed the best and worst of Scrooges all week.

It was mostly while making candles and packing up boxes that I listened to and watched various productions of A Christmas Carol, that Charles Dickens classic, and each presentation was a bit, if not a lot, different from the next. Different Scrooges and Marleys and ghosts and nephews and Cratchits and songs and eerie music and sappy music and goofy music and Marleys with toothaches and Marleys without toothaches and Marleys not even there, just empty space, and creepy door knockers and none at all, and rag pickers and not, and … so many different ways of telling the same story, so many different get-ups, so many different eras nudging their way in, but then also so many lines spoken the same, time after time, true to Dickens’ prose. And what prose it is. Old Jacob Marley may be dead as a door nail, but the ghost is wise.

This all started when I looked on YouTube for my favorite version of the Carol, the only one I had watched in the recent past, the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim. I found it, and as well quite a few television and radio broadcasts, cartoons, and movies from 1910, 1935, 19701984, and that weird one with the Fonz from 1979, and many of these I watched, but not all, for instance, the Fonzie one I just couldn’t get through. Through all these different tellings, I became curious about a few things, including that rag Marley sometimes ties around his head, the one that makes him look like he has a toothache. I couldn’t figure out what the heck that was about. Finally, in the 1984 George C. Scott TV movie, while talking to Scrooge, Marley unties the rag and his jaw drops to his chest, just as in the book, a version of which I finally got from the library, though it is also online. This dramatic jaw drop is meant to freak us out. In the 1951 movie I am so fond of, Marley doesn’t even have a toothache, let alone a jaw that flops down two stories.

All these various retellings stay true to the gist of Dickens’ tale even while taking on a bit of lint from their own time. Magoo’s Scrooge, from the early 1960s, is a cartoon, of course, and a musical, and it bounces along very much like any 1960s musical driven by a blind miser. But, even so, Belle brings a jolt—meet Judy Jetson. (Belle, of course, is the heart throb of young Ebenezer. She dumps him when she realizes he is swooning over a new love: money.)

The “Shower of Stars” 1954 television production (brought to us by Chrysler Corporation, which, believe me, you will not forget, and brought to us in full living color, but not really, because this video is in black and white) feels very 1950ish despite the Victorian costumes (which struck me as kind of Colonial, but of course, I am no fashion expert). Frederic March is Scrooge and I swear they just plopped a huge mess of Play-Doh on his nose and fashioned it into a beak, a Scroogey beak, I guess, that maybe looked better in color, and if you make it to the end of this show—and I encourage you to try—you will probably wonder (just as I did) if Scrooge—the now happy Scrooge who March plays as some kind of dim half-wit—is about to vomit, to burst into tears, or to get shat on by a pigeon. There is this long 1950s-style close-up of his face as it contorts in the strangest ways, I suppose because Scrooge is taking in and processing all this nearly unbearable good cheer at the Cratchits’ Christmas table, a table to which, I might add, this Scrooge has brought nothing—the only version in which Scrooge contributes nothing to the Cratchits’ Christmas table—and there are blessings and angels singing and in all of television there may never again be such a strange scene. Earlier in the show we are regaled with a weird hymn to Santa Claus, and overall the music is remarkable: spooky singing, doomful singing, sappy singing, robust singing—you will either want to belt it out with the Ghost of Christmas Present or simply slug him—but, also, there are a lot of cool old cars during a couple of smooth commercials, and old Fezziwig is played by Mayor Pike of Mayberry. You’ll probably enjoy Basil Rathbone as Jacob Marley, a Marley with a toothache. He also has this intriguingly long stiff braid, or maybe it’s a stick, all dangled with cobwebs, sticking straight out the back of his head. If somewhere along the way you don’t get the feeling you’re in a bizarre episode of “Father Knows Best,” well

All this, to me, seems ripe fodder for a holiday party. Guests could arrive dressed as their favorite Carol character from their favorite Carol production, and then there could be a game of not only Who Am I? but Which Version Am I? (I’ll arrive wearing a full-length green robe edged in white fluff … ) Anyone who comes without a costume will get a quote pinned to their back and then, as others react to that quote, they will either have to guess who they are or be boiled in their own pudding. There could be a trivia game (In which production did Scrooge’s tombstone show his first name as “Ebeneezer”?) and a version of Charades where you must act out a quote or scene. Of course there will be a game of Similes. In one room, all the different versions of the Carol will play, one after another, and at every “Humbug!” all must raise their glass. Of course there will be much dancing and singing and general merry-making. If hosting such a party, there should be no end to the decorating possibilities—creepy door knockers, tiny crutches and stools, over-burdened Christmas trees, huge dead turkeys, a goose turning on a spit, tombstones, misty graveyards, bags of coin, a coal stove and scuttle—and food is as easy as a potluck of Christmas puddings, roast goose, and gruel.

But I wonder: Why do we remember Ebenezer Scrooge as we do, as he is at the beginning of the story, as a miserable old miser, rather than as the man he is at the end, giddy and giggling, giving away turkeys and raising salaries? How many Scrooges do you think would come to the Carol holiday party muttering

and how many would come chuckling and clicking their heels? I have heard the change in Scrooge referred to in various ways, as a transformation, as a redemption, as a reclamation, and the word that best describes it, I think, is reclamation. Because Scrooge doesn’t just change, and he doesn’t really become someone new, and it’s not like he makes a deal with the Devil or some other. Rather, he just gets back to something he lost, gets back to a person he used to be, and one of the more interesting things that Scrooge says—though certainly not near as funny as that line about Marley being perhaps a bit of undigested beef or underdone potato—is

Another thing I did this week was wait for snow. It finally came, deep as Josie’s chest.

Which reminds me that when I had yet to figure out Josie’s name, I wondered if maybe his name was Ebenezer. What a marvelous name! And what a  joyous man is Ebenezer Scrooge. But Scrooge is, of course, synonymous with miserly drudge, and I would not like having to explain to people that no, I did not name my dog after a miserly drudge, I named him after that other Ebenezer, the reclaimed Ebenezer, the one who jigged and giggled and knew, well,

So Merry Christmas, if Christmas be what you celebrate, and whatever you celebrate, may it be merry. There is a full moon this Christmas, and even though now is the time of year when the sun is lowest in the sky, and today is about the shortest day of the year, the Christmas full moon will be as high in the sky as the sun is in June, and if it is clear, and if the snow sticks around, just think how bright that light will be!

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Lately I’ve been doing this thing of just sitting and letting my mind go blank. I wouldn’t call it meditation, don’t consider it such, I don’t plan it or sit a certain way for a set amount of time, I haven’t worked at being able to achieve it, and I haven’t always been able to do it, but just lately I can sit and let my mind go blank, and it is a pleasant sensation.

It is particularly nice in the gully, while leaning on the trunk of a dead tree that is angled just about 45 degrees. At the base of the tree is a thick branch that I step on, use as a prop, in order to get situated. The trunk is the right width to accommodate by back, my spine, and the tree and my spine align, though the tree is straight and my spine is curved. My arms flop down on either side of the trunk like useless limbs, and there is the slightest sensation of letting go before settling in. Above me are criss-crossing branches against a backdrop of sky, whatever the sky is doing, whether blue or grey or white or snowing, spitting rain, and kind of tucked behind all that is my cabin, its plain east side with its one window and the upper deck sticking off the north end. Since I am down in the gully I am looking up at the cabin and it reminds me of looking up at Norman Bates’ house from just outside the Bates Motel.

My spooky cabin.

Lying there, leaning there, my mind goes blank. It is so easy, as as if the things in my mind are just dandelion seeds waiting for a soft puff to blow them away, send them drifting, and the body sags with gravity, gets slightly ironed out, feels pressed and smooth. I stay this way for a while, usually not too long, and usually what stirs me then is a string of words like these here that come through on what appears to be old-fashioned ticker tape. They are not my words, nor anyone’s, really, just words on a ticker tape slipping through mind.

It is something about fear.

So I think about fear.

And I realize some find scary these vast open spaces, these dark woods, the two-lane highways and roads that cut through it all with just one house here, one farm there, a falling down barn over yonder and a sudden little town—thank God!—but really just a cluster of homes popping up out of nowhere. And I think how some fear cities with their masses of people, all those different people, and building upon building, street upon street, railways above and railways below, people always moving or always stuck in traffic.

Looking up.

I have never feared an empty landscape, but going into the woods without a clear path, without knowing where that might lead or how long it might take to get there, now that might make me uneasy, could lead to fear, especially if I went further in, lost my bearings. But mostly to me it is peaceful, this empty middle of nowhereness, not at all scary.

Neither am I afraid of a city with its buildings and sixteen-lane highways and masses of people—all that can confuse me, no doubt, frustrate me, too, but I’ve been lost and turned around in all sorts of places and managed to find my way out, usually with nothing more than vague irritation followed by relief.

So these fears of what’s out there don’t get to me. As a kid, it was a different story. Even though I lived in a peaceful home in a safe, upper-middle-class suburb of Chicago, I was afraid all the time, well, not all the time, but certainly if my parents went out at night because I knew there was somebody right outside the house, in the dark, watching, waiting, planning a move, planning a break-in, planning to … what? Murder me? I had nothing to base this on except ideas, perhaps from TV. My mother thought I watched too much TV. She called it the “idiot box.” All I know is that I had great fear that somebody was out there in the dark planning to break in, cause me harm.

I was nine years old when Richard Speck raped and murdered eight women in Chicago, all in one night, and I remember one soft summer evening, perhaps in the few days after the murders but before Speck was caught, thinking I saw Speck behind one of the trees in our next door neighbor’s yard. It couldn’t be true, of course, it was a ridiculous notion, but it didn’t take much for the idea that he was there to become, if not a reality, a real possibility. A possibility my mind could not let go of. So there was this tug-of-war: He’s there, right there, but no, he could not possibly be there, not right there. I remember walking around every tree in the yard, cautiously, to assure myself that Speck was not there. Then someone suggested he might be in the bushes. I ran inside. I stayed there.

I was so easily scared! All my sisters had to do was put their hands up by their faces, palms out, fingers curled like claws, and in a low monotone say “bop … bop … bop … ” They would walk toward me slow, stiff-legged, and I would scream and cry and run to my mother, scared out of my mind. They would continue coming toward me, bop … bop … bop … , trying not to laugh, me still crying, whining, telling them to stop. At some age the Fear of Bop turned to Irritation with Bop, but I can remember how for many years those two emotions mingled, and the fact that fear remained part of my reaction long past the age it should have, well, I’ve never considered that before. How embarrassing it is to be scared of “bop,” to be feeling fear in response to such a silly thing, a thing designed to elicit just such a response and succeeding every time. I am afraid, right now, of how I would react if my sisters were here and started up that bop thing, and I am still afraid of Richard Speck. I knew that as soon as I googled him, saw his picture on my computer screen.

I remember being afraid once in the middle of the night many years ago when I was alone in a motel room in St. Louis. My car had broken down on the highway, I was still two hours from home, and the tow truck driver had delivered me to some cheap motel in what seemed an industrial neighborhood, and now some guys were pounding on my motel room door, wondering if I needed help—at 1 a.m.? For some reason I think they were white guys, and young, but all I know for sure is that I wedged the back of a chair underneath the doorknob, tried to watch the only thing on TV—a horror movie—and felt damn scared.

Should I fear young white men? They so often do turn out to be the culprits in mass murders and whatnot. Richard Speck was a young white man; I believe the guys pounding on my door in St. Louis were young white men. But, of course, the young white men I have personally known are anything but crazy murderers—well, as far as I know. But still. One day early this year I was driving through the desolate California desert when I was stopped by the California Highway Patrol. I pulled over. I knew why I had been stopped. The van’s registration was expired. I had recently bought the van from a used car dealer and the dealer was having trouble processing the registration. Meanwhile, I drove around getting stopped once in a while by the CHP. In the desert, I stopped the van and watched as the patrolman got out of his car, walked slowly toward me. I had two flash thoughts. One: Thank God I am a white woman and not a black man. Two: My God, I am a woman in the middle of nowhere (always that middle of nowhere jazz) and here comes a young white man with a gun.

I have never feared or much minded being alone, spending time alone, but ending up alone—that is a different beast. It is a fear that has lurked in the back of my mind, sometimes the front, for years. But who says ending up alone is something to fear? Well, everybody. It is a given, a clear message: To be alone is to be abnormal, to be alone is to be sad, and to be alone is to take the quick path to crazy. Better one should join a group, any group, or find a friend, any friend, just so as not to be alone, just so as not to go crazy. But, I do not like joining a group just to join a group, and I find it near impossible to make friends just to make friends. So I was doomed. Of course, this scared me. But then something clicked. I love being alone, it actually feels kind of normal, and I am not extraordinarily sad. Actually, I feel rather happy. Am I crazy? You tell me. But I will tell you—right now, I am thankful that I am alone. Anyway, I have Josie and Elliott and you and a few others, so what’s to worry?

It seems to me that unless in real danger, acting out of fear is what brings misery, is what brings about crazy.

Looking down. (Family portrait.)

Eventually, the ticker tape slows down, plays itself out, and I realize I’ve mangled and jangled it enough. I close my eyes, my mind goes blank. It is a pleasant sensation. Soon I will be thinking again, perhaps about how nice it is to open the door, go out on the porch, look into the dark.

Who’s out there?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

the smirk

As so often happens, it begins with thoughts disjointed.
  • to each our own bullshit (pardon the word, you know which one);
  • all these people coming out of the past—I blame the 40th high school reunion, which I did not attend, but “blame” is the wrong word;
  • I am enjoying this gauzy kind of contact through Facebook, of all things, with people from grade school, but I still think Facebook is a little weird and a little suspect, and the fact that it draws me in, maybe that should worry me;
  • sometimes I feel as if life picks me up, puts me in a trolley car, shoots me down a track and I get distracted by the view;
  • an online conversation with a grade school classmate that led me to
  • a mulling on the topic of teasing, then
  • a play with viewpoint;
  • and imagine my dismay when I discovered I have been smirking for the last 52 years;
  • if my dad were still around I’d ask him to cut my hair again (and not complain) because I kind of like that first-grade style, which my mom called a “pixie”;
  • and certainly all this mucking about in the past is a little suspect, but still, I’ve come to like the perspective it sheds on the here and now;
  • because I do have all my class photos from first through sixth grade and one night I pulled them out, suddenly remembering which box they were in, and I looked at them and tried to remember;
  • someone reminded me that I used to sing “What’s the Story, Wishbone?” to Buster, substituting  “Buster” for  “Wishbone,” of course, and I had forgotten this though I remember the song quite well as it pops in and out of my head all the time, and I do remember perfectly well singing “Good morning, good morning …” from Singing in the Rain to both Queenie and Buster, and even to Goldie, the cat, if he were around, just making up a lyric or two especially for him, and remembering that I sang “Wishbone” to Buster made me laugh, and realizing I’d been given a memory lost to me by someone kind of lost to me but not really, obviously, made me cry, and one can never have too many memories of Buster, and how quickly these emotions play;
  • then, incredible: another shooting? How many?
  • “peace on earth”;
  • and, by the way, this list is not chronological;
  • Facebook is so eerie;
  • what if I am the same person now as I was then, which means the same then as now,  and we each have this one true nature, this part of us that is us, intrinsic to our being—wouldn’t it be cool to know that true nature, your true nature, without a doubt, without apology? Seriously? Without apology?;
  • and I get such a kick out of Josie’s tail;
  • doesn’t that make you wonder? Doesn’t it all make you wonder? No, I see it doesn’t. No wonder left in this world at all;
  • back in the real world the cinnamon beeswax moose candle is popular, contending for holiday best seller with perennial favorite little pine cone;
  • and when did all these days after Thanksgiving get Such Important Names like Black, Cyber, Giving, Small Business, Give It Up Already?
  • and, while I am at it, why is Josie so independent on afternoon walks along the river and elsewhere and otherwise so clingy and dependent?
  • lately there have been a few books that weren’t reaching me chapter one, chapter two, and I would wonder if maybe I would forget this book, not read it after all, then later find myself in chapter whatever, unable to get out;
  • will super glue blow up in the microwave?
  • and then there is Elliott, who thinks just because it is raining and snowing and snowing and raining and then a little foggy that he cannot go out, must stay in and go crazy;
  • because cats come from a slightly different world;
  • and now the days are sunny and mild and he is still acting a little crazy, kind of like May, and he and Josie go outside and nibble on grass;
  • isn’t it all just a matter—a problem, perhaps—of identity?
  • can’t help wondering what I am smirking about;
  • the definition of smirk is “ to smile in a conceited, knowing, or annoyingly complacent way.” (See Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition);
  • so what is it that I know? That I think I know? Will I tell? Or just smirk?
  • except there is that scene from The Andy Griffith Show when Andy’s trying to figure out why the Carters and Wakefields are feuding so he can patch things up between them and get them kids married cuz them kinds are in love, just like Romeo & Juliet, and so Andy just goes ahead and asks Mr. Carter and Mr. Wakefield why y’all shooting at each other, and the answers are: Cuz he’s a Carter. Cuz he’s a Wakefield;
  • and, you see, this is one’s own bullshit;
  • and I really think “the holidays” bring so much weird stuff out and lordy, what gets stuffed in …

I try to fathom the world, myself, fall short.