Archive for July, 2009

A Garden for Stories

I’m late to my Tuesday deadline partly because our internet stopped working, but partly because I’ve had some trouble deciding what to write about this week.

It has not been for lack of ideas. Since I started this project, I have found myself finally putting into words stories that I always revisited but never wrote down–things like the way my dad mops the floor before company comes and the experience sounds like Van Morrison and smells like Murphy’s oil soap, or the time my childhood best friend, Nicole, and I ceremoniously threw out an entire batch of cookie dough because our impromptu substitutions proved a poor combination. So, while they wait to be formed into cohesive ideas, I’ll continue collecting.

I’m actually not much of a collector. I was more of one once. I had a trinket box, in which I kept things like worry dolls (another story I’m waiting to tell) and little ceramic animals we got at the garden store. The mopey face of the beagle was hard to resist, the way its ears drooped and its tail curled around, just asking to be broken. Nicole and I each bought the same dog at least twice and came home other times with tiny pigs, cats and horses. These were among the casualties when we moved to Montana. The main things I collect anymore are rocks and shells, and this, I do with abandon.

It runs in the family. My mom is an avid collector of rocks, and shells, and starfish, and seeds and whatever else, but mostly of rocks. One year, on a trip to Maine, I’m sure we returned with our family’s weight in rocks. We visited the Bay of Fundy, and picked up dozens of shiny, grape-sized pebbles. At every beach, Mama brushed over the sand, tucking treasures into the camera bag and leaving piles on towel corners.

One evening, we drove out a long gravel road at dusk, our little Subaru rumbling softly as if to some clandestine exchange. When we finally parked, our bumper stood just inches from a mountain of stones, all weathered and ovular, all muted shades of red, green, and orange. I was three feet tall. This mountain appeared to be hundreds. I immediately recognized the danger. “Oh no, Mama, look away!” I cried. You don’t have to be well-versed in math, or even in the third grade, to understand simple ratios. There is only so much unused space in a car, and this destination promised a hefty yield.

In the end, we all made it home and the rocks went in the front yard, which my parents, to my original chagrin had donated entirely to garden space (more on this another time). Some of them even weathered a move to Montana to assume their role as part of our travel records.

This weekend I spent a day sitting on a rocky island in the Clark Fork river with my sister, Emily, and our friend, Allison. Right away, Allison started building stacks of flat round stones, she called Leev-er-rites, as in “leave ‘er right there.” Then the stone hoarding ensued. We came with bread and cheese, a salad, and lemonade. We made up for what we consumed at least four times over in river rocks.

I did manage to hold back on collecting for a bit. Last week, I flew to Missoula in a small plane from Eugene and I’m headed back in that same plane next week. I am limited to 160 pounds in my own weight and luggage and rocks eat that up quickly. I ultimately succumbed, but not without compromise: while Emily filled her pile with stones of all sizes, I tried to stick to ones no bigger than my thumbnail. I have my suspicions about how a restriction like that will work, though. Montana has such lovely rocks and I have a remaining week to avoid them.

While I haven’t quite figured out how I’ll get them home, (since I think I’ll go ahead and abide by the weight limit–you know, since we’re trying to defy gravity and whatever), I know where the rocks will go when they get there. With the garden, I have a place to put all the things I’ve been collecting.

So, as a final note. I was determined to post a poem this week. I just haven’t felt inspired to write poetry, or more accurately, I’m out of practice. I picked up a very fitting poem I wrote a few years ago about rocks and realized I hated everything about it except for two lines, one of which I kept to write a new draft. The short of it is, it needs some more incubation time, until I can get it together and be more specific, so I hope you’ll accept a few pictures of rocks from the airplane in its place.


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My name is Jessica and I am a crazy cat lady.

Three, I think, represents the widely accepted threshold where you go from really liking cats to running a small cat orphanage, or where, let’s be honest, that cat’s begin to run you. Sure, only one of the cats is really ours. Guido just hangs around outside and Spot is only here to visit for three weeks (and we’ll keep telling ourselves that), but when you find a cat underfoot every few steps, or you lay down, and within seconds, something furry comes to sit by your head, it’s hard to deny who’s really in charge. We’re outnumbered. It’s as simple as that.

This realization has led me, as many things do, back to my beginnings, to an Indiana porch, a beat up lobster cage, a girl with two braids, and many, many kittens. If ever there were a training course for cat ladies of the future, my childhood would come very close.

The things I remember from the first six years of my life fall into a few categories: swimming, running through a cornfield to the purple flowers by the silo, strawberry hill, things I drew with a pink marker, and kittens. I spent many hours crouching by the lobster cage with my hands around tiny bundles of fur. No kitten in our litters went unnamed by some combination of leaf, petal, and flower. So we had leaf-petal, petal-leaf, flower-petal, petal-leaf, petal-leaf-flower and so on. The one anomaly I remember, and oh how fitting it turned out to be, was Sufferin’ Mary, who, as an adult, crawled down our chimney to die in the basement. A wretched stench of death rose up through the bathroom air vent, and that’s how we found her. With a name like that, who else would it be?

There is a picture, or rather, many pictures, of my sister and me sitting on the door step with multiple kittens in each of our arms. We have wispy hair and calico dresses. I refused to wear anything but skirts until third grade and if that’s not a cat lady requirement, it’s at least good credentials.

Cat ladies get a lot of flack–there’s even a site with the slogan Love Cats, Hate StereoTypes?–and I think it’s because for all the love we give them, cats are so dang unappreciative, so bestowing so much attention on them hardly seems worth it. They can be snuggly, sure, but loyal and reliable they are not. I grew up with a cat, when we moved to only having one, that allowed you to pet her about three times before letting out a low rumble of a growl. My mom once brought home a bag of gourmet catfood as a treat, but having a taste for the cheapest of meat scrap flavors, Cedar looked mournfully at the empty bag that once housed the Friskies. She will, however, seek out your attention when she comes inside in wintertime, allowing you to hold her daintily until her paws warm up.

Our other cat came from state park where, as a kitten, we lured her out from under the stairs of our cabin. We gave her food when she was hungry, a bath when she was dirty and a warm place to sleep. We adopted her and took her to a home where she would have endless treats and plenty of love. She loves the treats, but will only grudgingly endure petting if you manage to catch her and hold her firmly–although the treats can sometimes be used to this end. No respect, I tell you.

Still, when I went to buy herbs for the garden, I plopped a catnip start between the thyme and oregano. Fang had shown some interest in Spot’s dried catnip scratch pad and I thought he might enjoy the impromptu present. When I brought it home, though, he would not touch it. I rubbed a little on my finger and held it up to his nose and he backed away. I placed it under the counter by his food and he walked a wide circle around it. I left it there and we forgot about it.

Then Spot arrived. Yesterday, we came home to find Spot surrounded by bits of leaves and potting soil. Having tipped the plant over onto the kitchen floor, she was lying drunkenly on it’s stem. When Fang walked up, she didn’t even bother hissing, just looked at him woozily and then swung her head around to lie with her nose in the base of the catnip. I guess I’m just glad that somebody appreciates it.

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Yesterday, I pulled these weeds from the earth.

It was actually a little more impressive before they had settled and when they looked more thistle-y. The real problem, though, came from the burrs, which did a number on the back of my left arm and armpit. Changing shirts has been painful.

These are the same burrs that have been showing up all over Fang after any minor tramp beyond the deck. He does a decent job of pulling them out. In fact, he spent an entire day inside right before we got back and was clean as a house cat when we first saw him. I’m sure he was in some cupboard, happily grooming all day, tugging little tufts of hair-entrapped burrs from his belly and tail and then chewing until he could wrangle them into some sort of digestible ball. Last night, one tuft missed his mouth and he ended up with a bristly little orange beard. I tried really hard to recreate it for the camera, but Fang, cat that he is, was uncooperative.

So, that’s all well and good. But, there is one battle with the outdoors that nature is winning–or perhaps has already won–with not so much as a rebuttal from me:

I can think of few things so pleasing as deriving nourishment from the great outdoors. When we were little, it was not the taste so much as the novelty that had us pining for more: chives in the front yard boasted spicy long snacks, so we chomped them all afternoon. Down the street, we found rhubarb stalks, which we ate raw with the same fervor, only dipped in a bit of sugar. Sour grapes from the neighbors? Delicious. The bitter, peppery petals of nasturtiums? Count me in! Borage flowers? Oh boy!

But, I’ve become a bit more selective since my days snacking on any edible plant I could get my hands on. More recently, you could have found me at Odell Lake in central Oregon spending the better part of a camping trip in a field of huckleberries, where I ended up with over four pounds of tiny fruit. Actually, the picking became something of an addiction and I might still be there were it not for the fact that my travel companions still pictured a future beyond huckleberry bushes and a red plastic cup.

I love snacking straight from the plant, but more than that, I love berries, so you can imagine my excitement when our new house presented us with mature blueberry bushes on the verge of ripeness. While we were moving in, I would sometimes think of the berries, plump and purplish, warm from the sun, and I would find it hard to move another box before picking a handful and enjoying them fresh from the bush. Still, I restrained myself a little, because I knew that in a week, they would be even better. Upon our return from Montana, I pictured blueberries as the new catch-all ingredient: “dancing across the surface” of cereal,* sitting grandly atop ice cream, baked in a crisp, blended in lemonade, dotting a salad. They are small bushes, but there were, indeed, quite a few berries–enough to make all the things I mentioned and more.

That was, until somebody got them.

I used to think it was funny upon finding a bird poop streak down the windshield, to say “Somebody pooped on the car.” Of course it was a bird, not a somebody, but just think about it. While a bird can leave such a mark gracefully, letting it fly without missing a beat, imagine the scene were it not a bird, but a land-bound mammal that made that mess. No, not a nimble cat, but somebody more awkward, say a human or a deer. Such an event would require the offender to climb onto your car; they would probably knock off the hood ornament, or break a wiper, or bend the antennae. You would have much more to worry about then the milky splatter on your window.

Have you pictured sufficiently? Well, then I wish I could say it was a bird who got our blueberries–one who stopped by for just a moment to pick the ripest berry, and then flitted away with the treasure juicy in its beak. I would even take a more greedy bird, although it is a bit more painful to imagine, who hopped from branch to branch, indulging itself on the ripest of every little bunch and then–curse you, bird–told all of its friends. Still, so many happy feasting birds would have been some consolation for the wreckage we encountered as we approached our house Monday afternoon.

But no. Just barely had the exclamation, “Oh, the blueberries will be ripe!” escaped my lips when I saw that there were no blueberries to be found! Whoever got them was thorough. Every branch was mangled. Then, I looked a bit closer and found, oh horror of horrors, that a few forgotten berries were deserted and shriveled in the soil beneath the shrubs. I suppose it was pride that kept me from brushing these off and popping them in my mouth.

We have one human suspect, and let’s say it was him because it is only slightly less funny (albeit less disturbing) to picture a grown man with crazy hair laying waste to a couple of blueberry bushes than it is to picture him laying waste on a car.

More likely, and less worthy of note, it was the deer, but, as my Grandmother Kay would say, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story!”

*This time-honored gem from my mom has been uttered during many a dinner preparation: “You want it to dance across the surface!” Is that Jacques Pépin, Mama?

**I think I’m moving in the direction of once-a-week posts. Tune in on Tuesday!

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When I was in elementary school, my primary chore was folding the family laundry, which when small in quantity, could be relegated to a laundry basket and placed by the wall. However, when left to multiply, it would cover my parents’ bed in a terrifying flood, which was usually only controlled after many tears on my part and my mother’s grudging assistance.

Laundry, like fresh bread, is at its best when first removed from heat. A fresh load of laundry is deliciously warm and soft. So fluffy, it takes practically no appetite (read: motivation) to put it away in a few minutes time. Give it a few days, though, and you have yourself a cold hard laundry biscuit, formed to the plastic basket. Overturned on the bed, it holds its cubed shape stubbornly before crumbling into wrinkly pile, my unfortunate job to sort. I recall my dismay at having to smooth a wrinkly shirt into a flattened submission, and my dread upon hearing the unmistakable trudge of someone carrying a basket of laundry up the stairs from the laundry room.

So became my weekly teeth-pulling: laying on my back surrounded by clothes, sourly lamenting the relentless burden of household chores.

Laundry was not the only thing that provoked tears. Homework was also a repeat perpetrator (and I use the past-tense lightly). I remember one occasion in third grade where I was to write a poem about my name. It was after no small contribution from my father that we arrived at a poem to make me proud. The most memorable line: “They tried to pick a new name of no one else they knew/so I’m not Patty, Becky, Sarah, Alice, Kay, or Sue.” (Thanks to the fact that I have two aunt Sues, the rhyme scheme was easily left unadulterated).

Fast-forward to a university philosophy class my second year, and you have a crisis of much graver proportions. Each Thursday, discussion section required that I pick a passage from one of our readings and develop a short question about it (1/2 typed page at most). I can’t say my comprehension of the texts was great to begin with, but by eleven or so the night before the question was due, it was rapidly declining. Jake showed great patience (as had my parents before him) in enduring my wrath on these nights. More than one time, he, I’m embarrassed to say, unbound by the paralysis of panic-induced dumbness, completed the assignment for me.

I can’t guarantee a direct correlation, but at some point, and about when my homework became much more intense, I started to enjoy doing laundry. My first year of college, laundry day was a special time when I stuffed all of my dirty clothes into my sole laundry basket and toted them down three flights of stairs to the often-deserted laundry room in the basement (I learned quickly not to bother on Sunday or Monday night). Wearing a pair of synthetic purple pants and a fleece (also purple) that would not have gotten any use were it not for the need to wash all of my clothes in one sitting, I would spend the next few hours reading leisurely or talking on the phone to the rhythmic sound of the giant dryers.

Evenings otherwise spent brooding about my roommate and her all-too-present television were exchanged for a warm aroma that was not quite as good as home-baked bread, but was about as close as I could hope to get. An added bonus: given the infrequency with which laundry nights came along, folding the warm loads were like opening presents as I came across garments I had forgotten existed.

The next year, in an apartment living experience, during which nearly everything was sub-par, my laundry ritual took a turn for the worse, rendering detergent-caked clothes and disappointingly damp towels, sometimes after two cycles. Fortunately, the clouds again parted at the second advent of my life with an in-house washer/dryer. Oh, the ease that ensued: why, a mere six steps apart, I could bake bread and wash clothes at the same time. And I have.

I peg my previous distaste for laundry sorting on an amateur misjudgment of its place on a scale of undesirable activities. Somebody must have said this before: my house is the messiest when I’m busy, but cleanest when I’m really busy.

*One night, as my mother graciously helped me fold the laundry, we each took up a sheet, she a contour, I a flat one. Sadly, even with the difficult job, she was much more successful. But, today, my friends, I present you with an exhibit of my fitted sheet folding abilities! Behold:

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Even Tempers

Last week, my mother was involved in a situation with an angry driver. I don’t know the details, but I believe it involved my mom turning at a time that the other driver deemed to be too early. He leaned out his window and called her an “asshole.” Looking back, she believed his outrage to be unfounded.

I’m with her. Of course I’ve felt the twinge of injustice on the road, but I’m more inclined to try to reason than blow up. I might say, “I don’t think it was your turn” to myself. Or occasionally, “Woah there, lady.” There are many times I’ve wished I had honked my horn. But, like a dog you can no longer reprimand for last night’s accident on the carpet, an offending driver also soon moves on.

In recent years, I’ve come to view the angry driver as a source of entertainment. I think it has been since a 2007 trip back from Oregon. As we descended Lookout Pass, a large pick-up, apparently relieved to finally pass us, saluted us out the passenger window with the longest, most erect flip-off I have ever seen. We laughed about it at a gas station. Such anger!

My best story to date, however, was an incident in a rental office parking lot. As I accidentally glanced at a slouching young man (late 20s or so) in the drivers seat of a boat-like car, he yelled angrily out the window things I don’t actually want to repeat here. His comment can be roughly distilled to, “What are you looking at?” but it contained a few more expletives. I tried to avoid his gaze on the way back from the deposit box, but he was clearly a loose cannon, and the urge was too great. So, I looked, and received a reply both shocking and satisfying, to say the least. This man then squealed out of the parking lot, barely stopped to let a woman and child into the car as they came out of the office, and pulled a reckless U-turn on the main road. I passed him going the opposite way on the second half of his U. His shoulders were higher than his ears and his eyes were narrowed.

Bad day, sir?

But, I must sober myself a bit and tell a flip-out story of my own. A few days ago, my brother was laying behind the kitchen table, playing hide-and-seek with the dogs, a game where he calls them and they follow the sound of his voice to his hiding spot. In order to let one of the dogs get past, Nathaniel, not realizing it, pushed aside a chair that was supporting my foot. This action did not hurt, but it really ticked me off, and I felt this uncharacteristic growl issue from my mouth: “Stop it!” At that point I had to back off and say, “Sorry, I don’t know where that came from.”

We laughed about this, too. Really, where did it come from? When I think about the things that make me react in such a way, they are usually waking me up abruptly, like “Smoke on the Water,” playing loudly over and over again as I draw myself out of an afternoon nap, or dogs licking my face, or a riddle my half-sleeping brain can’t begin to decipher–all things that have happened and made me want to smack something.

Given the above situation though, it also seems that being around Nathaniel has raised my inclination to react abruptly to rather innocuous occurrences. Before worrying about my relationship with my brother, let me just say that I would not have written this if I didn’t think I could talk myself, to some degree, out of this hole. At least I hope I can, given that 2/3 of my currently declared readership is composed of my mother and brother.

As we grow up, I’m finding that Nathaniel and I are very similar. For one thing, we have similar tempers and a propensity to push each others’ buttons. This should really be no surprise. There was a time when our middle sibling, Emily, with a greater ability to hold herself together, would be recruited to sit in the middle of the backseat on car trips to prevent flare-ups between Nathaniel and me. Poor Emily. If only that were a paid position, but I’m pretty sure all she received in return were some misplaced pokes and a few cold shoulders.

On the other side of this though, Nathaniel and I get along famously. We have a similar sense of humor and we always pick up right where we left off at the last visit. We are at our best, I think, in the midst of a project, which is why I was so pleased when two days ago, Nathaniel suggested we carve and frost a cake in the shape of something. We are currently in the intermediary stages of creating an edible kitten in a puddle. I’ll be sure to post the final product in all its glory.

Relationships with siblings are a funny animal. Since moving out, I’ve become more conscious of the different species of interaction that exist between me and my brother and sister. In both cases, we now just have more grown up versions of the little fuzzy things we fostered in our time living together. Emily and I have always been more likely to have long discussions and to talk about what we’ve been up to. When we get upset, there are conversations with no shortage of tears. Nathaniel and I are more likely to riff on the immediate situation, to repeat jokes we’ve heard, and to embark upon an activity. When we get upset, there are short blow ups that quickly subside. We rarely argue; we snap and move on.

This is essentially how it has always been. These characteristics are the vocabulary of our relationships . . . just like “fuck” and “bitch” are embedded in the immediate vocabulary of the man I saw at the real estate office, who turned a harmless question you might ask someone gazing intently at a tree frog into a full blown request for a punch in the face.

Habit, indeed, is a hard thing to break. Where it matters, I guess I’m trying to work with it. Where it doesn’t so much, I’ll maintain that karma can punch.

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Jake and I took the Amtrak to Montana from Oregon. We left from the Eugene train station at noon (mountain time) and arrived in Whitefish at 7:26 this morning. I add those details because people have been asking me and saying it seems like a long trip. It is, but I don’t care. I love the train. Let me take a few moments to elaborate on the merits of this mode of transportation.

You arrive within 15 minutes of your train’s departure. You check in with ease. You carry on up to three bags without paying. You find your seats to be one-and-a-half times bigger than airplane seats, with three times the leg room. There is also a foot rest, that can be brought up to the height of the seat, so it ends up feeling a bit like curling up on a couch if you have your knees bent and a book resting on your thighs. Serious luxury, I’m telling you, and this was only Coach class. The foot rest comes in handy for sleeping, too.

A few other things that make it less of a rip-off than flying: they offer full refunds, and tickets remain priced the same up until the date of travel. You also spend all of your time traveling and less of it sitting and moving luggage, which, when it takes about the same amount of the time to make the Eugene-Missoula trip by plane, is really much more fun.

Did I mention it is gorgeous? There seems to be no end to scenery, especially on this route, which passed through the Columbia Gorge at dusk.

I will say, though, that it is really freaking cold at night, especially if, like me, you thought to pack a pair of pants for sleeping, but could not find them when you needed them.

Still, I think somebody just really wants me to like trains, and knows exactly how to hook me, because trains are full of children—adorable kids wearing sunglasses and Dr. Suess backpacks, walking in tiny colorful sandals. Unlike airports where they’re on a tight leash at all times, on the train, these children seem to roam free. They’re always walking up and down the aisles with a parent and mumbling something, sometimes just humming quietly, other times repeating the same word in a sing-song voice, “train, train, train, train.” I love that running up and down the aisles seems to provide no end of entertainment and I love the ones who stop because they’ve bumped into your knee and look at you for a moment, finger in their mouth, before deciding you’ve forgiven them and bounding off again with a shriek.

At the end of the aisle, the train has semi-automatic doors that slide open when you press a button. From car aisle, you step into a gusty antechamber that closely resembles the shifting floor of a fun house. A brief moment of imbalance, and then you just keep on running through the dining car, through the viewing car, down the teeny flight of stairs shrieking all the way. I didn’t do this, but I can certainly see the attraction. I suppose I’ll have to reckon with this someday: “Well, I’m sorry if they are bothering you sir, but did you see how much fun they are having?”

In reality, I probably wouldn’t let my kids run around like that, but it’s really a pity, because how often are you on such a long traveling playground, with big windows and plenty of (moving) obstacles?

While we’re on the subject of child discipline, though, I can assure you I will not be adopting any techniques used by the woman a few seats behind us, who, if not first seen with the pink-shirted, bottle-toting toddler, might have appeared to be in a bar fight, or trying to get into one, virtually unprovoked.

Here are some things we heard her say to her daughter:

“Shut up!”

“Shut up, you idiot.”

“You’re gonna get your head knocked off.”

“Do that again. Yell at me again!”

“Sit down, woman.”

“Watch it!”

“Yell at me again. I dare you.”

“I’m gonna bust your ass!” (her favorite).

And just once, “life’s a bitch.”

The strangest thing was that that she seemed to be provoking her child, first talking to the little girl in a cooing voice, and tickling her feet: “where’s your shoe, do you have an itchy.” And then, when the child reacted, “That’s enough! Stop it.”

Thankfully, we reached Pasco, Washington at 9pm, where she got off, and all asses remained un-busted. But, yikes. I will take shrieking, riled up kids any day to parents who can’t behave themselves.

We went to bed a few hours later. When I woke up, near sunrise (4am or so), the rocky mountains were bathed in an amber light, that to me, in my train-slept-stupor, appeared to be dozens of worn, velvet arm chairs of all shapes and sizes perched on the hillsides. I don’t quite want to correct that image because it was stunning.

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