Monday, July 30, 2012

yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

some things never get old. some things are always fun.

when little amelia comes to visit, the first toys she usually pulls out of the toy basket are the baby-hand size, square duplo blocks. she loves to click them together into tall, wobbly towers and take them apart again, one block at a time. my kids played with the same colorful plastic squares and rectangles she plays with—such sturdy and long-lasting toys, good stuff, these chunky danish blocks for toddlers.

we went to legoland in denmark when the kids were little and the opportunity presented itself. we'd always had a house full of legos, so what fun it was for them to walk through miniature lego villages and see those intricate plastic creations made entirely of snap together bricks, and then to drive a legoland car and get a legoland driver's license. that was the time we were visiting our danish friends and business associates who lived a short distance away from the theme park. (today their son, martin, actually works for lego.)

then there was the time the danes came over here, intent on heading into the wilds of maine. i remember when ed, city-boy bjorn, james, martin and a few other guys (including two more danes) went on a father/son, canoe/camping trip in "our" wilderness. that was the second time (the first one was also a maine canoe trip) and final time bjorn ever did anything quite as, shall i say, rustic and primitive as that in his life. (five days of no showers—but there was great swimming—no outhouses, and rough spots along the beautiful river, with just enough room under the trees for tents and a campfire, to call home for the night.) early in our marriage i also enjoyed doing this trip a few times, paddling along the remote west branch of the penobscot river and down wind-whipped chesuncook lake. i wonder why we could never get bjorn to set foot in the maine woods again. two visits that included roughing it were enough, i guess.

but back to the legos. james was addicted to legos and played with the smaller bricks until he was about eleven, building his way through the age levels, patiently putting together many boxes of intricate pirate and space and technic sets. once, when he was home from college, i looked wistfully into a box filled with the broken-apart, mixed-together colored bits of two wrecked pirate ships and asked him if he could please reconstruct them into their original glory. james was happy to do so. he rebuilt one ship (with hardly a glance at the instructions) and promised to do the other one soon. (that was almost ten years ago—i really need to get after him to rebuild the second one when he's home in maine.)

i like to look at the pirate ship, that remnant of fleeting years—complete with scruffy little eye-patched pirates ready to fire a canon or pistol in your face—from time to time. occasionally i run a dust cloth over it, but i quickly lose my patience. the spaces between the round connector bumps are impossible to get completely clean without picking at them for an hour with a Q-tip, or soaking the whole thing in water. (who the heck has time for that?) the pirate ship remains, as always, displayed on a shelf—dusty but intact—a relic from the past lives of children, a reminder of halcyon days spun from seemingly endless childhood.

Friday, July 27, 2012

my life is a tote bag

my life is a tote bag, carefully packed up and ready to go, constructed
in sturdy canvas featuring an array of bright, optimistic, well-mannered
colors and trims. it gets the job done. it is open to suggestions. it is broad-minded.
i pick the portions of myself that i need each day and haul them off—

post office, town hall, recycling center—butcher, baker, candlestick maker—
i make tidy rounds wrapped, tied, boxed, bagged, zip-locked, compartmentalized
to last, sealed against fear and doubt, tupperwared and prepared for any contingency/
catastrophe/emergency in well-made natural fibers with contrast-color handles in

your choice of regular or long over-the-shoulder length, woven from premium short
staple American cotton, a variety that's inoffensive—sharper and cleaner and kinder—
more tolerant than others available on the market today or yesterday or the day
we fell into an inevitable impasse and you told me to stop analyzing—there's no fixing

this frayed existence. you announced that's it and retreated behind a stonework
facade of denial, an effigy of hands waving away truth, dissatisfaction inevitably
guaranteed. you who vanished through the door remained unavailable for comment,
never to be disassembled into any container bearing either the living or the dead.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

the lovely warts

the day started out like any other day—phone calls, emails, dirty dishes, weedy flower beds, a dog patiently waiting to be fed—but then it turned, veered in a different direction, and left me face to face with the biggest, grandaddy-est eastern american toad i have ever seen. his (?) body length alone—i measured—was nearly four inches and—oh my—did he have fantastic bumps and warts. i was curious as to which bumps were warts and which bumps were, well, just bumps. his skin was dry and densely patterned with them, sprinkled with wonderful camouflage—an assortment of raised, large, small, brown, white, and black dots. to my mind he was indeed a splendid piece of living art. (after a quickie consultation with google i still do not have a definitive answer about how one identifies a genuine wart from that imposter, the generic bump.)

crouched low against the foundation in corner of the deck beside a planter (a large circle cut out of the decking into which a three foot deep concrete cylinder was inserted, ending up a few inches below the level of the deck and filled with soil, compost and flowers) this cute toad sat motionless, even with me leaning down and thrusting a camera in his face. 

i confess i have left the planter somewhat overgrown but, as it turns out, this neglect was a good thing because it probably provided a nice habitat for him—and who knows who else—and since i rarely remove the dead leaves and stalks from the container, but merely cut them up and leave them to rot into mulch, he may have hidden out in there for years.  

in this warm, dry, sheltered spot, the toad sat absolutely still. he blended in well with the patch of chipping paint between the edge of the planter and the house, but he wasn't moving at all. i wondered, was the chubby guy okay? suddenly i experienced a slight panic as i tried to recall where and when the exterminator had sprayed the foundation to get rid of carpenter ants. i don't normally use chemicals anywhere and it makes me cringe when an ant infestation necessitates the use of pesticides. i held my breath as i stroked him gently on his side with my finger. he blinked and turned his head. i withdrew my finger and exhaled—phew, thankfully he was alive and well.

judging by his size, the toad was old—old for a toad anyway—and to have reached such a grand old age i guessed that, in addition to requiring a place to call home, he must also eat rather well. i picked him up and held him on the palm of my hand. i stared into his golden and black jewel-like eyes for a moment and then gently placed him back on the deck. a tasty supply of mouth-watering spiders, moths, centipedes, flies, worms, and slugs reside in and around the planter, allowing the residents of the area to become fat and content.

i studied the patch of skin where the toad had sat on the palm of my hand. did it feel itchy or tingly or irritated? did i notice anything odd? no—there was no evidence of warts or bumps or anything sprouting on my palm. what is it about toads and warts? why the loathing, the fear? i don't pretend to understand a toad's skin, the purpose of it, and yet there must be a purpose, a reason, besides the obvious one, for it to have developed the way it has. i don't find a toad's flesh at all revolting—in fact, i like it. ah, but there is humor at work here, humor, as well as practicality, built into those bumps, into the very workings of the cosmos, is there not?

why are some people utterly freaked out by warts on toads, convinced there is a connection between a toad's lovely warts and the icky kind people get? toads do occasionally secrete a mild toxin which may cause minor skin irritation—but never warts—in some people, and of course we know getting warts from toads and frogs is an old wives tale. and yet, toads, and toad warts, still remain unpleasant for a lot of people to look at. we view them as disgusting; they make us uncomfortable.

there it is: humans are frequently made upset, uncomfortable and uneasy by what is harmless, inconsequential, and unimportant to this existence.

i imagined that beautiful old toad sizing me up, getting a good look at me while i was getting a good look at him. would he be critical of me—turn his head away in disgust—if i had a piece of spinach lodged between my teeth, or if he saw a fleck of mascara smeared under my eye, or discerned a small, hardly noticeable, pimple on my forehead?

Friday, July 20, 2012

four fourteen

so this is it, this is what it feels like to be the male of the species, a male who's about to become a father. this is what it's like to be standing on the other side, to be on the outside looking in, watching the person you love pass through a range of stages and emotions—bored, uncomfortable, in incredible pain, distracted, apprehensive, jubilant, impatient—not being able to do much to help, and feeling somewhat invisible, useless, helpless.

a few words—kind, soothing words, softly spoken, mixed with a little humor—that's pretty much it in my bag of tricks, although i suppose that's better than nothing. after all, in the "old days", days not very long ago, i wouldn't even have been allowed this, to be here in the labor/delivery room touching my daughter's shoulder, her head, her hair, trying to come up with the right words to say.

earlier in the day—nine hours earlier, to be exact.....

i hear a ringing sound. ringing—is it that, or is it something else?

my sleep remains heavy and undisturbed on this night and into the early morning hours, the sleep of the dead, as they say. far, far in the distance i hear bells; no it's music—that's it, music, not bells—almost inaudible violins playing beside a river, and the sound is traveling along the water toward me. or is it the sound of guitars, both sad and sweet, that i hear? no, i was right the first time. they are bells, cathedral bells, high above this ancient city built with many hands and heavy sweat and ancient stones.

i stir. sleep lifts. i begin to come out from under muffled slumber and dreams. i realize it's not bells, it's the phone that's ringing, brrrring-brrrring-ing in my head. i have been waiting for this call for what seems like forever—twenty months plus another nine—since the beginning of failed effort, and then when the words infertility and IVF—harbingers of both horror and hope—were introduced, and IVF was considered and tried, failed, and was eventually successful.

when the call comes i am unprepared. i have been prepared for weeks, ready for the call, but now, on this morning when it finally comes, i happen to be in the deepest of sleeps. i am disoriented in my drug-like slumber. why is the phone ringing at such an odd hour? my fingers blindly claw at the table beside my bed. at first i can't find it; when i finally do, the numbers on the dated (translation: ugly—it really should be tossed), 1980's general electric, brown plastic clock/radio/phone shine a bright and cheery four fourteen at me. then i hear her tired, happy, slightly quavering voice. mom, we're at the hospital. my water broke at 1 a.m..... and i wish i had wings and could fly to burlington to be at her side this instant. i am still groggy when i say we'll be on the highway by eight and hang up the phone. but, suddenly, i am wide awake. for me, the world is going to be different from today onward. i am going to be a grandmother.

the drive to vermont feels endless. when we're within a half hour of our destination we have to stop to let alex and kevin's dog, montana, out for a pee, and fill up her food and water dishes before we can continue on our way to the hospital.

and here we are. after many hours of keeping alex company, three of us must leave the labor/delivery room with the bird's eye view of lake champlain—it's time for her to start pushing her baby out. we try to wait patiently. i feel abandoned, left out—once again, male-ish—like fathers must have felt until about 40 years ago when they were finally allowed into the inner sanctum of blood and pain and joy. i wait, staring at the old-fashioned wall clock, watching the second hand's annoyingly perfect round and round promenade, for this most modern of fathers to walk through the door of the waiting room—once he has cut the umbilical cord and done some bonding—and announce the birth of his baby. (i have honestly never glanced up at a clock or at a door so many times in my life.) it will be near sunset when the waiting is over.

i marvel. the tiniest humans, the newest arrivals on this planet, carry with them such small parts—miniature orifices, appendages and limbs—parts that have never before felt the earth's warm air, or their mother's or father's touch. their noses have never smelled this world or any world, nor have their tongues tasted warm mother's milk. their eyes have only known darkness, their ears only muffled vibrations.

in the morning light his eyes open and he gazes at his mother as she holds him in arms that have ached for him. i try to handle my emotions. i blink away tears and blow my nose. i am convinced his infant stare is deep and knowing, like that of an old, old soul. but, of course, that cannot be. that's impossible.

an old soul in a new body. why impossible? maybe it's not such a far-fetched idea. within even the tiniest of newborn babies, under the soft, delicate, brand-new skin, lies the ancient, the unknown, the unfathomable, some small inkling of what we are, where we come from, how we have come to be. hidden inside each infant is a kind of universe, the hint of a thing that is old, very old—the origin of us all—and also a foretelling of what has never been seen, but, in time, may be.

every baby is a beginning, but he also contains the possibility of beginnings—the possibility of life for the next generation—inside him. he is who he is, but he is also the past and the future combined into one. as he journeys into his new world, he brings with him an unbroken link to an old world—those souls in his line who existed before—and an extension into the future, to those who will exist in a time far off, a time which has not yet even been imagined.

welcome, my little boy. welcome.

Friday, July 13, 2012


this day is a maine day—an achingly perfect maine day. if perfection is a thing that's possible, that's achievable, if—at least to some small degree—it is, then this is it, this is as close as it gets. on a day like this day, the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing a steady beat, but softly, gently. each breath of air is sweet and deep and never enough. sails are full, lives are full.

no tourist mobs on this day, but i do hear faint, indiscernible chatter that sounds like the steady rasping call of an unidentifiable shorebird insistently seeking its mate from across the water. in reality it is only cap'n fish's tour guide, chattering on and on about local facts and fictions as the boat cruise winds down and the small vessel returns to pier 1 in boothbay.

on a day like this day it is easy for me to withdraw into sounds and sensations, to be alone with my thoughts even while in the company of other people. i do that; i retreat sometimes. i am not ignoring the friends i am with—i explore, walk over the rocks, admire the rugosa roses, laugh with these danes on holiday, take some pictures, drink some wine, show them how to get at the meat of the very first lobster they've ever tasted—i am a part of the ongoing conversation, but i am also in my own world. i can do that, and i like it there.

retreating into a small interior oasis of being doesn't cause me to become oblivious to the things around me. quite the opposite—i am actually much more keenly aware of everything. how is that possible? i don't know. maybe it is because i am deliberately focusing on the small details of what is oftentimes overlooked—layers of bark on a tree, a lone lobster buoy bobbing near the shore, sharp mountain pine needle tips, a jagged crack in granite—that seizing the big obvious parts takes less effort.

before we meet up with the people we have come to see, we drive along the water where the road hugs the rocky shore. we pull over and go out on the rocks for a few minutes. the tide is coming in. there are no signs to warn me that this is private property because it is not. this land was made for all of us to enjoy—a window on the water for everyone. on the other side of the road the big houses stand tall and proud, with broad porches, gray, salt-weathered shingles, bright white trim, and thick velvety lawns that lead down to the winding road. these homes, like so many others with million dollar views of the coast, are occupied a mere few weeks in the summer and are not rented out. they are private, period. i think to myself, if i owned one of these i would lose myself upon the shore. no one would be able to find me.

we drive on. further along the narrow street there is an aptly named place called retreat; it's more to my liking—not a big house but a cozy bungalow—but the address, 55 grand view avenue, strikes me as inaccurate. it doesn't fit. the road is more of a curving lane than an avenue, and the view is lovely, but this is maine and i don't think grand sums it up the way it should be summed up. grand is the wrong adjective; it sounds too puffed-up. like an overused sobriquet, how many grands and greats can there be—roads and islands and towns and lakes (although i'm sure the folks in the big houses think grand is just fine)—in the state of maine? what is truly grand, what deserves to be called this? something rich in detail and scope, vast, mind-boggling on an almost unimaginable level. someplace like the grand canyon is aptly named; it is truly grand.

i decide to take a peek; i walk closer toward the little hideaway. the tiny building—gray, modest, plain—sits directly on the water. this bungalow, hidden on the ledges under the pines facing the water's edge where the sun sparkles and gems ride the waves, where rugosa roses and mountain pine shrubs thrive in the salt spray, is exquisitely simple. the view, although breathtaking, and painfully beautiful, is not grand. grand is for people from away—technically, i am one of those, not having been born on maine soil, but i believe i have the heart of a real mainer—but not for mainers. true maine is a land of hardy, gruff, sea-faring and farming folk and skilled artisans and crafts people, people who make their living from what the earth has to offer.

old maine, the genuine article, the highly sought after original, is a place of simple, natural pleasures. it is not lofty and full of itself. it is salt water, seagulls, spruce trees, lakes, rivers, mountains, fields, silence. but change is already here; it has been for a long time, and more is on the way. and yet, if you look hard enough you may be able to find a small piece of what came before, of what once was—and what still can be—the pleasurable lure of retreat in the real maine.

Monday, July 9, 2012

an apology to vespula vulgaris

people have their own methods for handling stress—methods that perhaps aren't so much methods as they are involuntary brain responses, the old autonomic nervous system kicking in and doing its job—for determining whether a situation calls for an actual, all-out state of emergency, meaning panic mode has been activated, or not, and figuring out how they will deal with it. it may not be a newsworthy type of emergency, or one that requires lengthy telephone consultations or a trip to the doctor, or the kind that necessitates pressing 911, but it could be an emergency that is little, so little, in fact, that it escapes the notice of most people, but certainly not those for whom it requires immediate attention.

"oh my god, please hurry up! it's huge!" she yells from upstairs.

i don't know exactly when i became the go-to person for this particular kind of little emergency—it was certainly a long time ago—but i know that since i became that person i have had the joy of experiencing many intimate eye to eye and nose to nose moments with several species of buzzing and scampering bugs. i don't bother asking myself why me? because i already know why me.

oftentimes i am the only person—and that's including when there are males of our species on the scene—who will not flinch and just get on with the dirty business. whether it's in my own home, or the home of someone else, if there's a scuttling spider or a flying thing with a stinger coming out of its rear end (or, more accurately, its abdomen) i'm the one who is called upon to remove the intruder.

flying insects, spiders, beetles, centipedes, worms, slugs, ants, and other creepy crawlies don't bother me—they never have. (but i don't like lyme-disease-carrying deer ticks, and i especially don't like nasty black earwigs, with their scary looking curved pincers, that you sometimes see in drains or cellars; you know, those bugs that crawl in you ear, bore through your brain and lay a pile of eggs in there.*)

when the need arises—when errant bugs stray into the house—i am viewed as a kind of insect executioner, although, if i can avoid it, i generally don't execute bugs—i don't believe in execution—i merely relocate the offender.

the time has come. i am being summoned.

"it's in there," she says with a shaky voice, pointing an unsteady finger at the closed bathroom door. (this time it's hannah with insect issues, but it could just as easily have been alex or christina, or my mother-in-law, who is deathly afraid of spiders because she has always maintained she is severely—that's severely—allergic to their venom. i dare anyone to try telling her there are no venomous spiders anywhere near here.)

i am prepared. i have armed myself with a jar and a good, solid, just-in-case paperback.

then it's over. afterwards, i feel a little sad.

i was impatient. i was frustrated. i acted too quickly. i couldn't scoop vespula into the jar, and my attempts to capture the wasp were making it nervous, thus making me nervous (i don't mind bugs, but, like everyone else, i don't look forward to being stung.) i should have removed the screen where the wasp was focusing on its struggle, zigging and zagging and aiming for the light, only trying to get free, only trying to live. (wasps are, after all, beneficial to the environment, and are a welcome predator because they prey upon so many insect pest populations.) i should simply have let it out into the garden.

it's too late for should have, though, because i didn't.

*according to hollywood and nobody else