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As a new resident of Blue Ash and trying to immerse myself in all the arts and culture it was advertised to afford, I was attending a summer concert in the park across from my senior apartment.  It was swanky to be able to just walk across Kenwood from my front door and enjoy symphonic performance.

Much later, walking home with the strains of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture still ringing in my ears, I allowed myself a touch of mania.  It was all just too wonderful.  I stopped to pull a stray weed from the flowerbed at the building entrance.  This was my home even if technically a communal residence to house elders.  I felt obliged to share in its care and upkeep.  Why should I not pull weeds and pick up bits of trash that were a part of a lived-in residence?  That same thinking led to my assessment of the look of the front entrance.  Having for many years done architectural design back in California, I was ever aware of appearance, a building’s beauties vs its flaws.  We were still fighting the frustrations of Covid, and I hated all that, especially the scruffy signs posted with an eye to keeping us old people alive and contributing to a functioning economy. Sure enough, right there on the front entrance, obscuring the well-executed plate glass design of the foyer, were two identical 8½ x 11’s instructing me to wear my mask.  These were the same copies that graced the mail-room, the elevator, and the laundry.  I was so very tired of seeing them, especially in duplicate, that I ripped one off the glass and stuffed it in my pocket.  I felt an instant remorse, but what’s done is done.  At least it looked better.  Back in my apartment, I disposed of the wad of paper, the weed, and the scraps of trash I had picked up from the parking area on the way into the building.

That should have been the end of that, but it wasn’t.  The next day there was a knock on my apartment door.  When opened, it revealed an irate building manager wanting to know why I had removed a posting from her front entrance.  How did she know?  I had returned from the concert at near midnight.  There was absolutely nobody that could have witnessed my dastardly deed.  But they had.  “Why,” she pressed.

“It was a duplicate and was obscuring our lovely entrance glass,” was all I could offer as explanation.  It was honest truth.  I didn’t apologize, but promised to never again tinker with management postings.  I have kept my word, trying hard to not think of the common areas as extensions of my premises where I might entertain the lovely delusion of ownership, no matter how well-intended.  It is good to know that I live in a building that is protected by hidden cameras that can catch scurrilous intruders as well as residents in the act of rule violation.  I am a model tenant, having programmed my rent to be electronically paid on its due date and making sure to perform well for camera recording at all times in all common areas.  The thought crossed my mind that a landlord so enamored of cameras might place one or two inside my apartment, but I dismissed the concept as delusional.  Claims of perfection can’t be asserted, however, because I was once taken to task for attending a social group meeting in my stocking feet, a violation of rules.  The entire building interior is carpeted and seemed to me to be “home.”  I was in error.  Also I learned that I must be totally and completely dressed as to appear in public before exiting my domicile.  I fanaticize about the excitement of throwing on a robe to cover my L.L.Bean pj’s and dashing down the hall to move wash load to dryer.  It’s just a dream.  I’ll never do it, but its fun to titillate my fright zone.  I’m too superannuated to get evicted for improper haberdashery in my apartment residence hallway.  That would be bothersome, and it’s not fair to ask my sons and grandsons to move me yet again just because I can’t behave.

Writer

Thea addressed her Underwood, fingering its keys but not choosing any to strike.  Glancing up she looked out the window, past the oak tree and saw a car moving round the bend, emerging slowly from beyond the fringe of willows where the bridge crossed Mill creek.  It was an old sedan, faded green, dust from the roadway etching a soft haze on the window glass.  The greybeard driver wore thick round glasses, maybe a result of cataract surgery.  In 1963 intraocular lenses had yet to be invented.  He stretched and squinted, peering over the too-tall steering wheel.  An oncoming vehicle had hesitated curbside to chat with a neighbor, and the old man was confused.   His decision wavered, and he veered to the right, off the asphalt, onto roadside gravel.  He didn’t see Melanie who had spied a pretty pink stone and reached for it.  Time slowed, then crept forward, like the old car.

Thea stared out the window, unseeing. Instead, she huddled, suddenly a snippet of thought, imagining herself safe in a crook of the oak tree, where lowermost branch met trunk.  It was a good place to be, the breeze sorting through fluttering new spring leaves.  It reminded her of her tree at Grandpa’s house, where she could swing higher and higher, pretending she was flying with the wind right into a great blue bowl of sky.  Her mind reached for the hard center of the oak tree and she mouthed, “I am here.”

“I feel you”, breathed the oak, rattling his branches.  “I know you and your three younglings.  You love them more than life.  But you aren’t seeing them.  Look! The car comes closer.  It approaches your precious girl.  Don’t deny what is real.  You think you ought to stop it, but there is nothing you can do inside this slice of time.  Nothing at all.”

“Humans are strange and wonderful creatures.  I have always known them since first I split that acorn husk.  They are good, for the most part.  But they don’t know themselves, don’t have the courage to really be who they are.  Maybe it’s because they aren’t firmly planted like me.  See my roots?  You can see how strong they are even as they dig into solid ground.  Well now, humans get to move about.  With no roots they must have a hard time knowing they belong any place at all.  Isn’t that true?” 

The old oak sighed, leaves rustling softly.  He sensed the young woman standing by the window, her eyes first wide with terror, then dead with denial.  A firm understanding with the earth was for him a source of substantial pride.  But conversely he envied the woman her ability to freely walk upon the earth, to move and act and accomplish.  “No wonder she toils at her little typing machine,” he groused.  “I wish I could write a poem, or a story.  God knows what a tale I could tell.  I’ve seen so much, felt so much, and remembered all of it.  My heart shelters hers,” he noticed, arching his branches over the spot where her soul huddled, a refugee from what had become much too real. 

“Oh Thea!” moaned the North Wind, gusting through tree’s topmost branches.  It sent chills rippling down the striations of his bark, “You know what is happening to Melanie.  You do know.  If you deny that you will be split from head to feet like a tree shattered by lightning.”  Thea shuddered, her center of knowing dancing a phosphorescent jig on the tree limb.

“I know,” she said and dived off the branch, tumbling over, and over, and over, steadying at last into a glide.  She banked to the right, side-slipped a tad to the left, willed herself up, up, just clearing the roof, and landed on the lip of an eaves-trough.  She clung to its metal edge, reeling from what she had let herself learn.  She could see her oak tree, far across the yard standing stable and still, and missed his firm center.  As she visualized the heart of the oak, she became that strength and reached for truth.

“If indeed you are strong and brave, and have good eyes, you can see all things from here”, a crisp voice beside her pontificated.  Startled, she turned to face the corner-most clapboard shingle whose edge pointed toward the road where the green sedan approached crunching roadside gravel.  The shingle gathered up his importance and nodded.  He inspected this fragment of a human, feeling xenophobic to address a consciousness so foreign, albeit just a disarticulated thought.  He brushed the edge of empathy, but skirted it.  “She wants to see,” he mused.  “Needs to, if I am correct.  But won’t allow herself to, if I am equally correct.”  He gazed past the lost thought and watched as the car rolled forward, bumper nudging the girl’s shoulder, spilling her onto the roadway.  The right front tire caught her shoulder and rolled over her head, gently crushing her skull as it passed.  “You saw,” he said.

“I saw,” Thea gasped, and pitched forward, tumbling off the eave and dropping to the walkway below.  The consciousness that was Thea spiraled and coiled, spinning into itself until it was a ball and rolled slowly down the walk, bouncing down, down, down the steps, out to where the child lay sprawled beside the road.  It nudged a small pink hand and stopped.
         
The road rumbled to the ball, “Why are you here?”  She waited for an answer, and hearing none, stretched herself from East to West, and from West to East, on around the bend and across the creek.  It felt good to stretch, since it was what she did best, extending in her mighty concrete and asphalt web from sea to shining sea. 

The road was a well-grounded entity, more in contact with the earth than even the oak tree with his venerable roots.  The road rolled over the land as far as forever.  She perceived more than any human could ever hope to see or know.  And she did even more.  She understood.  She knew why the sphere of anguish hid beneath the child’s still and cooling hand. 

In that moment she pitied the woman, frozen beside the window, having sent her soul alone to acknowledge what she herself could not.  The road smoothed her mighty lap and accepted the child as she lay ruined, her blood slowly pooling about her head while the siren from the approaching ambulance wailed louder and louder. 

The road groaned, touching the pain of the woman and the child, one of body, one of mind.  And in the touching was born an understanding shared by the woman and by the road.  Thea turned from the window and progressed—first one foot—then another—back to her writing desk.  She sank to her chair and began—began to type…

Human mating is something that nobody understands.  I suspect there are as many hypotheses concerning the subject as there are questing minds that consider copulation of our binary species.  I dread turns of conversation which require me to confess I have been three times married and divorced.  This exposes the conservative underbelly of my nature that I do my best to deny and conceal.  In the hidden heart of my world view, man and woman were meant to love one another.  The best people are the ones who can enjoy one long and healthy marriage.

My inability to live up to that value must mean that I am inept at selecting a man who just might keep me forever-after happy.  I blame myself for this dilemma, since I have reliably been the one to end marriages.  My husbands have been, if not blissful, at least willing to declare the coupling viable and to keep on keeping on; it was always I who wanted out.  My three choices were excellent examples of good decent men, ill-matched with a well-meaning woman who just didn’t quite understand how things were supposed to work.

First there was James Charles Taylor, a West Virginia farm boy who joined the Navy to see the world.  A stateside leave for his ship’s company coincided with a trip to hillbilly country for me, during my high school rising-senior summer vacation.  I played at being Daisy Mae on a neighboring farm, while a guest of my step-mother’s aunt and uncle.  I was no stranger to farm life, having visited every summer with my paternal grandparents on three-hundred or so gentlemanly tilled and pastured acres west of Ft. Worth.  Cluck-clucking neighbor farm wives wasted no time introducing James and me, and soon a well-worn path through scrub brush wound its way along the river bend that demarcated the two farmsteads.

It was an enjoyable summer for both James and me.  I knew enough about the charms of rural life to preclude being terrified, and actually enjoyed being allowed to help with chores on both the dairy farms.  Jim was certifiably handsome, with his hay-harvest tan and authentic muscles acquired pitching bales and wrestling livestock.  I devoured the attention of a boy who seemed to think I was even a little bit pretty, unlike my dorky classmates back at school who resented being bested at math and science by a girl.  All that was left behind in snooty Westport, and Jim didn’t even know that I, with my penchant for trying too hard at everything scholarly, was probably the least popular girl in my school.

There was the hint of fireworks between us, but it was 1954, and one thing our divergent cultures shared was strict moral codes.  It wasn’t until the night before my departure, having staked out a private spot on the grassy hill overlooking the Fourth of July small-town fireworks display, that we explored the possibilities of a smooch. It was my first time to really kiss a boy without valid intercession from a party crowd and a spun bottle.  We parted, I to prep for college, he to fulfill his commitment to the US Navy.

Then halfway through my first year at Carnegie Tech, my father’s business went bankrupt, and I completed the year by re-upping for the debt myself.  My stepmother filed for divorce, and Daddy was staying in a serial progression of motel rooms, so I had nowhere to go.  Recalling the charms of West Virginia, I crawled to Aunt Winnie’s to clean house, cook, milk cows, and make commercial butter in the mornings; I learned to drive tractor, harvest hay, and work the garden in the afternoons.  Evenings were for reading and writing letters to Jim.  Ever since that idyllic summer vacation, he and I had corresponded.  When, months after a maiming shipboard accident he proposed by air mail from Portsmouth Naval Hospital, I accepted.  I was horror-struck, but what kind of person would have said no?

That was husband number one.  Number two was an equally twisted choice.  At Varo, Static Power Division, I was working as a production engineer.  Since the product being manufactured was an electrical device, the electrical engineering department called most of the shots.  Electrical engineers were the top of the heap.  Mechanical and manufacturing engineers were just a bit less in that work environment.  It’s odd to experience how power stacks people up in an organization.  With my recently completed BS in Divisional Science, I was a lowly also-ran, with a crush on Varo’s Electrical Engineering’s resident genius, Brian McGuinness, who looked so much like my dad it was weird.  While I chased him, Larry Duker chased me.  Larry liked to lean out his office door when I walked down the hall and ogle my retreating passage.  It was the legs.  He admired the gams, built from hiking West Virginia hills in search of errant cattle and pirouetting on green hilltops.  I noticed the attention and paid him enough credence to find out that he was tech savvy.  He knew a mountain about the nuts and bolts of electrical enclosure design, and I soon began to spend time with him just to pick his brain.  Larry had his own problem with credentialing.  He hadn’t finished college, but had joined the Navy, not to see the world, but to decide what to do with his considerable talent.  He had been coasting on his own brilliance.  US Navy in-service testing sent him to technical school immediately, advancing on completion to the highest rank possible without holding a university degree.  He finally mustered out as Chief Petty Officer, honorably discharged.  Then he went to work as an engineer—a good one— but without a university degree his pay was chicken scratch.

When he asked me to go out, I said no, but later agreed to just one Saturday and only the  afternoon.  He picked me up in his MG Midget to the delight of my sons Dale (10) and Lane (6).  They were all over him with demands to go for a spin in his red hot convertible.  They got their ride, and then they began pestering me to marry its owner.  That was nuts!  I refused and remonstrated in every direction, but then we began singing soprano-tenor duets on my apartment balcony after the kids went to bed, and slowly all the parts of our friendship began to adjust to each other.  It felt natural to snuggle into Larry’s tutelage, truly valuing his mind and his ability to share knowledge.  Larry was a born teacher.  We married, but even after such an auspicious beginning, things devolved—a sad and tawdry ending. 

I was triply careful with respect to choosing husband number three.  Eleven years my senior, he fit the pattern of father obsession, Kenneth Howard Ibsen was a brilliant researcher at University of California Irvine Medical School.  His subject was biochemistry, MD candidate’s most challenging area of study.  In spite of the frightful nature of his subject matter, students every year voted him top medical school professor.

I would have never noticed Dr. Ibsen had I not attended a Parents Without Partners extravaganza one night at the Irvine Community Center.  Two hundred or so upwardly mobile, yet viable but romantically unaffiliated, heterosexual adults gathered to hear about the wonders of the Kiersy Temperament Sorter.  Everybody grabbed a test, checked the requisite boxes, and waited for instructions.  Boxes totaled and cross-referenced scored me an “intuitive feeler”—and at the dizzying apex of that scale.  So what does that mean?  The leader pointed to the four echoing corners of the gargantuan ballroom, assigning to each a definitive personality type.  Then she asked everybody to gather in the quadrant that matched their scored personality.  The entire assemblage clotted in three of the quadrants while only Kenneth Howard Ibsen and Dorothy Jeanette Martin stood, a solitary couple in the fourth, exchanging phone numbers.  The rest is an exercise in the obvious—as well as the oblivious.  The brochure’s fine print suggested that people would do well to choose partners of complimentary traits, not matching ones.  Hardly anybody read the fine print.

Traits aside, I seemed to prefer men with gargantuan problems.  Ken fit that bill.  He was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a genetic defect that caused the sclera of his eyes to glow blue and the cartilage of his entire body to disintegrate.  Mercifully the male organ is not in the least cartilaginous, so paternity boded well.  He had spent most of his childhood in an adult hospital ward waiting for assorted bones to heal.  As soon as he would be declared good to go, he was out and about, but then the next fracture would land him back on his back in his favorite hospital.  Luckily, he had a mild case of OI so that he didn’t suffer the usual grotesqueries but only matured as shorter than his genes would normally have been expressed.  Instead of 6’-4”, like the men in his family, he stood only 5’-6.”

Spending all that time in bed with books, and verbally jousting adult intellects had the obvious developmental effect.  Ken was bright and articulate.  He chose biochemistry to study and researched OI for his dissertation.  For many years he enjoyed the status of being that genetic anomaly’s leading expert.  His personal position at the nexus of the problem no doubt contributed to his notoriety.  Who wanted, after all, to challenge such a position?  Googling “Kenneth H. Ibsen,” alas, still brings up numerous scholarly articles tagging Osteogenesis Imperfecta, but fewer ones concerning his research and invention of the first chemical marker published for breast cancer.  OI is more fascinating than breast cancer.

When Ken got around to calling me, he suggested a meal at what was my favorite Japanese dinner house.  We met there and began sizing each other up.  He was passably good-looking in a professor sort of way, was fantastically well educated, and was a certified expert in my favorite subject—biochemistry.  I swooned!  Unlike most guys, he didn’t hold forth loudly mansplaining all the things the little woman must surely not understand.  He looked at me with those deep intelligent eyes and liked what he saw.  It was reciprocal.  He answered my questions to the level of my understanding, just like my father always had—a dear deep drink of cool water.  He handed me the menu and said, “Order anything you want.”  I trusted him and asked for a romantic steak for two that would be cooked tableside on sizzling rocks and divided between us by a lady in a kimona.  It was the start of something intense.  He told me later that I was the only date who had dared to order any but the least expensive entrée, hoping to be seen as a cheap date who might extrapolate into an economical wife.  Ken felt like home to me.  I had finally met a man I could admire and honor.  I must have cast him in God-like proportions, since when finally he proved himself to share the frailty of men the world over, I was affronted and disappointed.

Three, they say, is the charm.  Who am I to argue?  It has long been apparent that dreaming the thing is what casts the spell.  The building of it is where it disappoints.  A stupid tactic prattles about what glory waits as future amazement.  Better it is to hold a silent happiness to your breast until you make it an actual thing that can be seen and wondered at.  Otherwise it becomes an obligation to perform and mayhap disappoint.  The energy to create takes its vigor from the shivering delight of possibility.  Actuality rips that to shreds. What is, is, and can never return to the giggly dream of what if.

I have learned to faux consummate the bliss of marriage bed, a recent example being my repeated trysts with that scruffy old coot Eustice Conway.  I’m not the first to image the smooth softness of buckskin trousers against bare shaven leg.  Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a whole book about what it is to be The Last American Man.  I can taste the honey dripping off her tongue as she describes his twenty-something lithe body, what it can do, how, and why not.  Now I must have my daily fix of Mountain Man on INSP cable.  Eustice teaches me some wonderful new thing every day, something I can use if I get stranded in a winter wood and need to keep on living to mark another sunrise.

The worst thing of all would be to stumble into Eustace alongside that snowy track and have to follow him home where he would, no doubt, expect me to perc up a pot of camp coffee, and like Yentl, darn his socks.  No—I prefer the Eustice of my imaginings, burly, bright, and beautiful, rising to every occasion and ready to plug the gaps in my own woodland understandings with his own twice lived lore.  If he’s the man I think he is, he would darn his own socks with a carved bone needle or conjure a new pair out of deer gut casings.

The best aspect of such matrimony is that the Mother Church holds no purview over its enchantment.  No priest is required to bless the soft pine boughs of my marriage bed.  The cleric must articulate his unique thesaurus of delights.  Mine is mine alone—and maybe Eustace’s—if I can sort out proprieties, tenses, and logistics, not to mention pronouns: him/her, his/mine.  Like MMWG’s Michael Kelly, Eustace Conway is out to save the world.  I hope they succeed so Volodymyr Zelenskyy can live another day to glorify Ukraine and for me to dance all twitter pated about his triumph, after I achieve some polite disposition of Putin’s cold, stiff, and silent carcass—the one I dispatched in my head.  Should his corpus face the rising glory of the sun or the vivid beauty of its setting?  Is six feet an adequate depth, or would six miles be a safer more satisfying distal measure?  Dream up your own shovel.  Mine is already firm in hand.

Certificated

Power organizations exert control over the output of creative lives.  While that power stultifies, it also fulfills a legitimate purpose.  It protects an innocent public from bad actors who might pawn off poor work and endanger the end users of their intellectual product.  There are always two sides to this quandary.  This one takes place in Mono Lake country.

~ ~ ~

Mono Lake is a saline soda lake in Mono County, California, formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake in an endorheic basin. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. These salts also make the lake water alkaline. This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and alkali flies.  The most unusual feature of Mono Lake are its dramatic tufa towers emerging from the surface. These rock towers form when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the waters of the lake, which are rich in carbonates.   (Wikipedia)

~ ~ ~

When my husband Larry and I blew into Mono County, California in the spring of 1977, our only option was to punt.  His father had changed his mind about inviting us to build a home on the lakefront property Larry and his brother would one day inherit.  We didn’t, however, give up on Lee Vining and its fantastic environs.  It was that unique location that had called to us with such clarity.

The family-owned property was a chunk of the Mono Lake shoreline bristling with tufa towers and underlayed with salt flats that offered an endless source of mineral crystals available for harvesting and marketing.  The Duker clan had bottled and sold the salt for many years and enjoyed its health enhancing benefits and reliable profits.  It routinely performed miraculous feats of physical healing.  I have found nothing so soothing to my irascible nasal pharynx.  One of our best friends claimed that after he was told to report to the hospital for amputation of a gangrenous foot, he instead spent an entire summer ritually soaking it in Mono Lake, 2 ½ times saltier than the ocean.  His foot completely healed.  Long a professional skier and tour guide, he was able to return to his important and necessary career.  The US FDA always looked askance at Mono Lake salt.  Since it is apparently innocuous, nobody is likely to sue anybody, but since there is no big money to be made, nobody is likely to investigate the science behind its ameliorative affect.

The entire lake and surround has since been reclassified under eminent domain and gleefully ingested by governmental organizations, but in 1977 it was still very much a private entity.  Larry’s dear but crotchety old man, Martin Duker, had for many summers parked his pickup camper on the property and enjoyed the clear briny sea air, at 6785’ elevation, on the shore of California’s prettiest salt lake.

The location transmogrified everything it encountered.  Even the local Indian bands, offshoots of the Paiute tribe, that gathered to populate that indigenous habitat, became themselves an oddity.  They camped at agreed upon times of the year along the lakeshore, harvesting the larvae of the flies that populated the salty flats, and collected the nuts of the many pinion pines that grow heartily throughout the area.  There wasn’t much else to eat except an occasional rabbit, chipmunk, or pronghorn antelope, slow enough to get caught.  Maybe it was the limited and peaceful diet that urged the Natives toward a gentle attitude of acceptance of White Man’s law.

By the time we arrived, most of the fly eaters had been absorbed into the dominant population, working for LA Department of Water and Power (DWP), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or just squatting extra-legally on BLM managed tracts of public land in army surplus tents, teepees being passé even among indigenous cultures.  Interactions were colorful.  Our favorite example was Cecil.  He got around by limping along the highway, feigning incapacity.  As soon as we would pull over to ask where he was headed, he would shove his Army issue metal crutches under one arm, punctuate the moment with an exuberant war whoop, and sprint for our Land Cruiser.  We didn’t mind.  It was a charming prevarication.  His opportunities were limited, and we appreciated how hard it is to control out-of-control circumstances.  He was always good for a yarn or two, knew most of the local history, and gladly shared it.  I was sad to hear years later that after one hitchhike into Lee Vining to get liquored up, he succumbed to a nap underneath a parked car and froze to death.

Even as the location had dictated the evolution of local indigenes, so it worked its will on Larry and me.  He took his new BS degree in Industrial Arts recently earned from North Texas State University to the local building department, was pressed into service as a Mono County Building Inspector, and began to earn an almost decent income.  I was bored and confused about what to do without tech employment, and not wanting to stagnate into a resentful domesticity.  So, when a knock on the door announced the wife of a local architect, I agreed to see if they could do what they promised— teach me how to design buildings. 

With our three sons, Dale (19), Lane (14), and Kurt (3), Larry and I stumbled onto a colorful old house just around the shoreline from the Duker enclave.  We decided to give it a try.  The house, slapped together by a local eccentric named Pat Kelly, nestled among the tufa formations, and was bereft of electricity.  A gasoline generator provided direct current for whatever was cunningly wired to run when the engine was chugging, punctuated by occasional backfires.  Otherwise the site was powerless and mercifully silent.  We approved the independent lifestyle the home stood for.  A propane refrigerator kept things cold; a wood stove kept things warm—at least warm enough.

Pat Kelly had found a hollow tufa tower and set up a toy wood stove inside where on the occasion of pleasant weather he tufa-camped.  It was the only tower with a stovepipe.  Lane, a confirmed romantic, moved his bedroom furniture right in and set up housekeeping.  All went well until he awoke nose to nose with a creature he didn’t recognize.  He moved back into the house at sunrise.  In the town of Lee Vining, he took Mono High School by storm, became a star running back on the football team, later moving to starting Quarterback and then Team Captain.  During his junior year he auditioned and won lead in the school play, but in spite of all that notoriety, he followed Dale back to West Virginia to matriculate as a Mountaineer.

In Mono County Dale got a job with June Mountain Ski Resort where he groomed the slopes with Thiokol Snow Cats.  Later he signed on with Cal Trans (California Department of Transportation), driving their monster snow movers.  They let him take the high-country-snow-specific driving test even though he was blind in one eye, so as not to fault their system for handicap discrimination.  The test consisted of negotiating an oversized truck through an orange cone array under the critical eye of Cal Trans certified experts.  They were sure he would fail it, since depth perception requires two good eyes.  But he aced the test, outscoring the other applicants, overturning not a single cone, and was hired on the spot, but after a while he missed West Virginia and headed back to country roads and mountain mommas.

Kurt, supremely confident, adored his preschool teacher, but became the first kid in Lee Vining ever to flunk kindergarten.  He, with a great deal of patient forbearance, explained to his kinder-mentor that he intended to be a race car driver, and as it follows, would not be needing all that adding and subtracting stuff, much less those a’s and b’s and c’s.  I was confident the future would sort all that out.  It did. 

We loved our scenic views of the lake and respected its changing weather patterns.  One morning we were horrified to witness emergency crews recovering four unfortunate drowning victims who had ventured out onto the lake during questionable weather.  The rescue equipment moved slowly and respectfully past the Kelly house, bearing the bodies to their stricken relatives.  The victim’s boat had capsized, and there was nothing left to do but grieve and console.  “Careful” became our operative code—our watchword.

I began commuting to Bridgeport, Mono’s county seat, to work for the architect who had invested in three professional drawing tables to outfit his attic office.  Since I knew the rudiments of technical drawing, thanks to Carnegie Mellon, and could do axonometric as well as perspective spreads, there was hope we might do some serious work.  Mono County was a down-to-basics kind of place, and certified though he was, Rufus Hale didn’t do the whole architectural package.  There was little market for it.  Local building contractors wanted only a good plan-set and any necessary calculations, in order to win project approved from the Building Department up in Bridgeport.  He gave them what they wanted.  He was a Registered Professional Architect, so his stamp was all the “legal” that was needed for the Department to certify his plans.  It was a good place to learn how to live by the pencil, one sheet at a time.

The Hales taught me, as I figured out how to scribe a standard plan set.  Making like a sponge, I learned what I needed to, interviewing the clients—mostly building contractors— and serving their individual needs.  As soon as I could do the work, the Hales let me.  I enjoyed the creative work, and the beautiful scenery laid out along the daily commute from Lee Vining to Bridgeport.  That took me across Conway summit at 8143 feet, the highest point on US Route 395.  It is truly God’s country.  The Indians called it the place where the Great Spirit dwells.  The beauty was all the religion I needed.  Every trip was a prayer.

It could have gone on that way forever, but Mrs. Hale began repeatedly showing up with bruises,  black eyes that she tried to cover with makeup, and odd hitches in her gait.  I asked her if she needed help, and she broke into tears.  Rufus, it turned out, in spite of the “his and hers” underwear blessed by the local certified Mormon official, that was supposed to purify marital thoughts, was venting his existential frustration on the body of his beloved spouse.  It was a remote location, where I was enclosed eight hours every day with a big man who had a problem with his temper, and his wife whom he was beating.  I was frightened for her, and also for myself, having never subjected myself to testicular violence.  Both my husbands could yell, but never raised a hand against me.  They knew that would never play.  When I explained my fears to Mrs. Hale and apologized to her for having to move on, she pleaded with tears plying down her cheeks, “Please don’t leave me alone with him.”  What could I say but no?  I urged her to consider that it was past time for her also to depart, and I was out of there.

Larry supported my decision and restricted his time as building inspector to nine-to-five, making himself useful to my growing need to learn about construction in the Mono Basin.  He had gained expertise on the job, and was happy to share that know-how.  After hours he worked with me on our one drafting table, and set it up in Kelly’s old attic, centered in a shed dormer that gave plenty of light as it overlooked the back yard.  The fenced and leveled enclosure out back was gigantic, so we made a serious kitchen garden, an opportunity to appreciate what a grown man can do with a shovel.  I drew a plan, bought seeds, located and set seedling plants.  After all those years eating from a West Virginia kitchen garden, I knew how to make the most of California’s fertile topsoil, but couldn’t do it with woman-power alone.  It was a time to celebrate man muscle.  Having made it through our first sierra winter, we settled in to enjoy our first rolling harvest at its bountiful best.  After watching the sun rise, I would scribe lead in the dormer until eleven o’clock, then go out and find whatever looked good to eat and was ripe for the picking.  Bringing it in, I would prep it for pot or wok.  The result was epic.  I had never experienced such freshness, such vibrancy of taste sensation. 

Each evening brought another opportunity to pluck comestibles, often to accompany meat scored from Lee Vining Market where, having certified to provable income, I could say, “Put it on my account.”  It was good to be financially viable again, now states away from engineering jobs that had paid so reliably.  After dinner, Larry and I would climb the stairs to the drawing dormer, and scratch away at our single drafting table.  I drew on the front; he drew on the back.  We each announced intent to erase, so the other could lift pen or pencil before the board commenced shuddering.  With a shared sense of humor, we managed.

I had not thought to continue to draw for income after departing the architect, but several of his clients, having liked my odd-ball approach, followed me to Lee Vining, and I was in business.  I charged only a smidge less for plans than area architects since I had to hire a Registered Professional Engineer at my expense to provide a stamp whenever required by law.  Larry was great at doing engineering calcs, but wasn’t certified to sign them.  Any residential span over 25 feet needed a PE signature and stamp, as did any commercial building.  Larry’s figures were good as gold given his aerospace engineering background, familiarity with local codes, and experience interpreting the Unified Building Code (UBC) that covered anything we might dare to undertake.  But he couldn’t legally sign, and he had no stamp.  I could and did do structural calcs, but took little creative joy in them.  Larry’s were more consistently accurate. 

Bear Engineering—actually a great black-bearded bear of a man who had a magnificent and friendly Black Labrador named “Bear” and an engineering stamp that read  “State of California Registered Professional Engineer “—was just what we needed.  We hired him; we hired his certification.  Whenever a design exceeded 25’ free span, or waxed a bit too bizarre, Bear (the man) would verify all calculations and impress his big round stamp onto the drawing set.  He earned a fee; we were verified as competent—if not registered.  Liabilities were covered all around.  Clients could afford buildings and residences without the steep fees of a Registered Architect doing the whole gamut of the work, most of it essentially beneath his spectacular pay grade.  We got to pet the dog for free.

Much of what an architect would have provided was of course not included.  Clients had to choose their own fixtures, interior materials, finishes, and sources.  With clients who were mostly Licensed Building Contractors, we did only what was needed to get the building legally built.  We served a need.  In an area destined to be ever a frontier, we made construction almost affordable.  I would specify carpet; client would specify type, brand, source, and estimated cost.  I would identify and position a toilet; client would indicate brand, color, etc.  We didn’t offer scale models, architectural renderings, luxury offices, or wining and dining of clients.  We had no liability insurance, whether due to ignorance or poverty, it was a tossup.  We could hardly have afforded it given the reasonable level of our fees.  We must have done a credible job since we were never sued.  At that point in my career, I didn’t know about liability insurance.  I suppose we were what lawyers call “judgment proof.”  We had nothing but each other and love.  Why bother to sue us?  Its effect would be only punitive, netting nothing to the aggrieved.

We called ourselves “High Country Drafting.”  If we had advertised “Engineering” we would have been shut down before week’s end.  We could have named ourselves “High Country Design.”  That would have been legal, but we didn’t want to have to go to court and defend the name, just because people couldn’t agree what “design” means.  As long as we advertised only “Drafting,” we were perfectly legitimate.  What we did wasn’t as important as what we advertised.  Odd and ubiquitous.

After we satisfied several contracts, and saw them translated into viable structures, we could finally afford to establish an office.  We moved into town, into the building now occupied by the Mono Lake Committee, the guardian of all things Mono Lake.  We fixed it up so spiffily, that it was fun every morning to come to the office and open the front door.  We paneled one wall with Peg-Board, and painted it to be a three-dimensional mural, whereupon mountains rose to the heights and snowflakes made of mini-marshmallows fell (glued) onto a painted clear blue sky.  Fluffy white painted clouds floated here and there.  It was pure whimsy.  Then we hung all our drawing implements onto the peg-board, close at hand, ready for use.  Clients loved the display as much as we did, smiling at the blatant creative play it evidenced.  Kurt came to work with us after he finished his kindergarten mornings.  His favorite spot for his afternoon nap was on the floor under my drafting table, snuggled into his best buddy blanket.

Both Dale and Lane managed to inveigle their way into ownership of four-wheel-drive vehicles.  On the occasion of good weather it was delightful to be surprised by a knock on the office door and open it to find the two young men clutching sacks of hamburger fixins wanting to go make lunch at the Tarns.  I would locate Kurt, lock up, and hop in one of their trucks.  A ten minute drive put us on top of the world at Yosemite pass where no matter which way we looked we could see forever.  It never took long to gather wood and stoke a fire.  Burgers sizzled and singed as the fat dribbled into our little fire.  Before long they were perfect.  Captured between sliced buns, each one suffered the unique application of toppings applied to whosever masterpiece it happened to be perfecting.  Thick, tasty, and juicy, they didn’t last long.  We sat together on the bare sod, munching, happy to be there—together.  Reaching back for the memory forty years long past, it is there waiting for me.  As I looked out beyond the crest of the Sierra I knew a quiet assurance: This is surely the apogee of my life.  It was.

We began designing some interesting houses for Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes, along with the occasional commercial structure.  We even completed a passive solar shopping center for a Carson City contractor.  Bear played a strong hand on that one, having acquired a Nevada certification.  As soon as I departed the twitchy fisted architect, I had more work than I could handle.  I eventually had to lure Larry from his job at the Building Department to work beside me full time at High Country Drafting.

Soon we bought two professional drawing tables equipped with V-Tech Drafting Machines and Bruning electric erasers.  We bit the bullet and invested in a Blue-Ray Blueprint machine and set about providing our own architectural copies to clients ready to apply for a permit or to break ground.  For such renderings we could bill handsomely.  I could never shake the feeling of having just way too much happiness—a good thing—having learned from my Dad that work ought to be play.  Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun, and however a job could be restructured to achieve that goal was worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.  “Most things aren’t impossible,” he insisted, “only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.” 

It was an exciting time to be knocking about in the building design business.  The magazine Architectural Design featured a now-famous article on double-envelope passive solar design just as we really got rolling.  The concept coupled the house interior with the earth’s stable 55 degree core temperature, hung lots of south-facing glass, provided serious insulation, and allowed natural convection to pump air throughout the construct.  Key to the double-envelope concept is a south facing greenhouse where air heats and rises into the attic.  There it cools and tumbles down the double north wall space where it joins the fifty-five degree insulated under-floor cellar, and trickles up between greenhouse floor slats to stir the greenery and perpetuate the cycle.  Given that formula, any energy exchange must work against the fifty-five degrees, not so much against the less-than-zero-degrees blustering about outside.

We signed up a local pastor, Roger Landon, to provide him and his wife Cindy with a double-envelope solar house plan, to be stick built from scratch by a local contractor.  The residence stands even now in June Lake Meadows, outside look blending with the local flavor of things.  The first winter, the entire four-bedroom home made it through to spring on less than a single cord of firewood.  We stuck slavishly to the construction concept described in the magazine.  It worked!  For several years, designers of many stripes skirmished pro vs con about the relative merits of double-envelope.  Many people claimed it couldn’t work.  Others called it the final best solution.  But it cost a bit more than ordinary construction and never really caught on.  I just smile.  I know it works, but in that initial custom iteration, it wasn’t conducive to mass production.  If I could ever build a custom home for myself, there is only one approach I would take: Double-envelope passive solar!

One idea that I played with but never brought to completion was a double-envelope tiny house that would be mass produced to replace the trailer houses we all love to hate.  I still have my preliminary drawings stored in Kurt’s basement studio.  I called it “Sun Spot.”  Several years after I had to bury it in storage, I heard that a similar tiny house had been introduced in Denmark as government subsidized manufactured housing.  I hope that in some parallel universe I will get to tinker with that concept yet again, with a double-envelope passive solar twist to the Danish.

Eventually a local Mammoth Lakes developer, Reef Siler, decided to try High Country Drafting on a short string of projects.  Larry did Siler I, a good-looking straight-forward cabin design that proved to be easy to build and was super cost-effective.  I did Siler II featuring a corner faceted facade (before New York’s Trump Tower zig-zag was even conceptualized) that won a local newspaper’s “Building Design of the Year Award.”  Mr. Siler set Larry to work on more of his profit intensive multi-construction efforts. He set me to work designing his own personal dream home in the fashionable heart of Mammoth Lakes Village.

He went nuts on his list of requirements.  He wanted five bedrooms, a massive living area to display his taxidermified marlin over an ostentatious fireplace, more-than-enough south-facing glass, and an underground garage that would accommodate work and personal vehicles, plus a dedicated RV pulling a trailered boat.  The whole residence was to have a glass-enclosed elevator running from the bottom level garage to the top level widow’s-walk.  The building lot he settled on required a massive engineered retaining wall that stratosphered the cost of absolutely everything.  I’m not privy to the total of his outlay before he got his occupancy permit, but it must have been a Moby Dick of a number.  I was glad our invoice had already been honored for a job well done.  Bear, too—daddy of the retaining wall—had been to the bank with his High Country Drafting paycheck and returned chuckling.  I heard, years later, that Reef Siler had filed for Federal Bankruptcy protection.  I hope it wasn’t the gargantuan house that did him in.  It’s still pretty, sitting there with all that south-facing glazing, and the glass elevator screaming “Money!”  My pictorial front elevation featured a bronzed eagle landing right on the dramatic apex of the roof’s main gable peak, but I don’t remember if he ever actually installed that prideful detail.  At least I got to savor the idea.

Once at a local construction trade show, a Mammoth Lakes architect came swaggering up to Larry, grabbing his hand and pumping it.  “I’m so glad to meet you,” he growled, lowering the register of his voice to signal a man to man encounter.  “I was highly impressed by that faceted facade you did for Siler II.  You know—the one that won the “Design of the Year Award.”

I smiled, pressed closer, and waited for Larry to give me my share of the glory.

“Why thank you,” Larry acknowledged, preening his pleasure.  “I’m so glad you liked it.”

As the guy meandered away, something inside me died.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask Larry why he took credit for my achievement.  Siler II, after all, was my baby.  Days later, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I dug out my pastels and began turning feelings into images.  By evening, I had portrayed a severed scrotum nailed to a wall with painstakingly convoluted blood vessels, cilia, and gathering contusions.  From it hung, all in living dripping color, several varieties of effluvium.  I named it “Balls to the Wall” and stored it between questionable vellums in the bottom drawer of the flat file.  I don’t know what ever happened to it. 

We rattled around in Mono County, buying a home, completing a goodly number of projects for several years, until interest rates went up and most everybody had to cancel construction contracts.  That brought building to a screeching halt.  There was nothing for it but to go south to LA and find engineering jobs.  Larry went first.  Since we had been away from engineering for several years, he was concerned that he must surely be out of touch, so he decided to seek only a technician position.  It paid poorly, and he wasn’t able to cover our expenses, so I had to sell our home and join him trekking the LA head-hunter circuit.  When I went job-hunting, I took stock of all I had learned and the executive experience I had gained as co-owner, designer, and project manager for High Country Drafting.  I applied for a position as senior engineer/project manager and was able to choose between two competing offers.  I didn’t rub it in, but that chain of events was a killer for Larry.  He never got over that final outcome.  He deserved much, much more.  Later as an entrepreneur with his own building design outfit based in Washington State, he more than made up for that one miss-step.

I tried to share this story with a new friend who had graduated from Harvard’s School of Architectural Engineering, but she proved herself to be only an arm’s length friend.  She didn’t seem to understand how it was possible to do what we did without being padded-cell certified.  It was a different world back then—forty years ago.  I’m deeply thankful we had the chance to give it a go, though it’s hard to translate it into present day understandings of what’s possible—and legal.

One of the dearest people we met in Lee Vining was a crusty old accountant who had had a near-death experience.  Having been pronounced dead, experienced an afterlife, and then suddenly awakening inside a living body, he wanted only to help people who really needed and deserved what he could do for them.  After interest rates went up, and our business income evaporated, we were facing a terrifying turn in our road.  He analyzed our financial position, sorted out our taxes, and helped us stay afloat for several months until our LA jobs could save us.  He wanted no pay—just a bottle of Jim Beam and the satisfaction of helping a couple of “poets” get over a rough spot.  I don’t know why he called us that—something to do with our excessive idealism maybe.  It’s possible he was really an angel, certified by a seraphed Michael.  It’s odd that he thought we were worth the saving, since we weren’t credentialed to do anything certificated at all.  Even so, it’s crazy-wonderful how much fun we had just doing it anyway.

Honest Apples

One of the first things I learned, when I went to visit my West Virginia Aunt Winnie, was how best to bake apples.  It wasn’t her recipe but belonged to the woman who ran the dairy farm down the river and a hayfield away.  One day when exploring the wooded paths that roughly connected the two farmsteads, I came out into a clearing, not exactly clear but covered with a tangle of blackberry canes.  The farm wife was there with her bucket, harvesting the plump juicy fruit that nearly filled it.  She said “Hi,” offered me a handful to taste, and suggested I join her in the berry patch.  I picked some but wasn’t as fast as she.  Besides I ate most of what I plucked.  “You hungry?” she queried.  I shook my head no, but she knew better.  “It’s time for lunch,” she announced, and breezed her way to a shady spot under a cottonwood tree along the riverbank.  She pulled a couple of wrapped apples from her poke and handed me one.  “Eat it,” she said.  “I never eat two anyway.”

Yet a teen with a ravenous appetite, I did as I was told.  It was still a time when portable food was wrapped in waxed paper, and as I tore it away a lovely sight was revealed.  There in my hand sat a “Golden Apple of the Sun” gleaming with succulence and dripping  a tiny bit with the buttered spicy brown sugar sweetness that packed its center.  It wasn’t naked but came dressed with a cap of crunchy graham cracker goodness that topped off the whole thing like a crispy hat.  “Yyyyyyessss,” I breathed, sinking teeth into orb.  It was my first bite of a confection that was to become the favorite of the kinder I would bear to this friendly woman’s handsome son during the years that followed.  Her name was Garnet Taylor.  She and her husband, Ray Rex, owned and operated the Taylor Family Dairy at the head of Taylor Hollow, where the only thing that passed on through was Hughes River.  It was definitely Taylor country into which I had stumbled that day.  It was a good day, and the apple was a marvel.  It soon disappeared, leaving only a smile.

Garnet explained how to create them.  “Find six well-shaped green apples.  Golden Delicious is what these are.  Granny Smith will make them a little more tart.  Crumble twelve regular graham crackers—not them-there honeyfied ones—and mix in a solid-pressed half-cup of brown sugar, two level-teaspoons of ground cinnamon, and two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice.  Don’t mess it up with fake fluid from that little green bottle they label “Real-lemon.”  Then add a quarter cup of real honest-to-God butter.  If you use store-bought, that’ll be half a stick.  If you put in oleo, that’s what it’ll taste like.  Don’t ever fake a recipe.  It tells the truth just like you do when you look at me and I can see you have a good soul.  And don’t peel the apples.  They need those skins for integrity just like we all do.  That means you need to wash them good with Dawn.

“Mix up the whole mess and poke it into the apples.  You’ll fill up the holes where the cores used to be before you cut them out to make space for something better.  If there is too much, just mound little caps to cover the tops.  Then bake all six in an open pan at 375 degrees until they are just right.  Cook too long and they will get all mushy—just long enough and you can wrap them up and send them as a surprise along with the hay harvester’s lunches.”

Like almost everything Garnet ever told me, she was right. My kiddos loved this portable dessert and looked forward to it for many years added to school lunches, even after we left the farm and went to sort out the real world.  It was, like all our many remembered recipes, a piece of the old times we love to recall.  The oven summons it back with the true odors of butter, mixing it up with cinnamon being all it was ever meant to be, and it will be you making it happen once again.  

Grambo Awakes

On a road trip with a group of women.  They were bored of me.  I decided to take off on my own, and wanted to make a case for myself with a bright idea.  I dyed millet seeds red and green, gave each color a discrete electrostatic charge, and blew it all into the wind, where it sought its proper place in the charged design I had hung in the air.  It made floating art, much like the trailing messages pulled by airplanes over wildly populated beaches and other crazily attended venues in the twentieth century of this planetary habitation.  When it tired of itself, like I often did of me being me, and fell to the ground, it seeded millet, a whole new round of greenery for the habitat to enjoy.

Then I took off for home and a new round of fanciful doings.  Why should I, having learned so much and lived so long, just give up and reconcile myself to being old?  There is too much to do, and I have nothing left but time.  I might as well have some fun.  By the way, what did the sign say?  “GRAMBO AWAKES.”

That was what I did in my dreams the night of January 21, 2022.  What I did when indeed I awoke the next morning was to remember what I had written back in 2011.  I hopped on my Microsoft Pavillion and kicked it into sentient service.  There it was!

~ ~ ~ Grambo ~ ~ ~

What the world needs is a wonder-woman.  Her name will be Grambo.  The challenge is to create a superhero based, not on a mild-mannered male with a penchant for lurking in telephone booths, but on a gloriously mature female of the species, who is coincidentally a mother of three, grandmother of seven, and great-grandmother still catching and counting.  Once a geeky kid, now an old lady, who still gets off on learning, she at last fits together the collective insights of a lifetime into her very own theory of everything.  Making a place for herself in traditional science and engineering seems at last irrelevant to her understanding of what’s what.  As she is presented with heroic challenges, she meets them with passion, intuition, and grace.  Long a trail-breaker in fields of male endeavor, turning over every rock and cow pie, questioning absolutely everything, she confronts the strictures of psychological assessment, trying to give delusions of grandeur a good name.  Always ahead of her time, she struggles with peer derision, self-doubt, and the tyranny of the normal.  She obviously has something interesting going on.  Slowly it becomes clear that it is simply what every ovarian human has in her personal tool-chest.  She is fully, unapologetically  female.  She celebrates using both sides of her brain that dance a consistent do-si-do, her corpus callosum providing a robust bridge for cross-talk.  She decides to prove that women, far from being the weaker sex, are in many ways the stronger.  Having spent nearly a lifetime wishing she were good enough, she discovers that she and her sisters are actually on the path to becoming the wise ones.  Armed with this empowerment, she leads women to redeem the men in their lives as they, finally in true partnership, move the species toward a new way to walk in beauty and balance.

Along the way, she will experience all the afflictions of age and meet them with humor, wisdom, and courage.  Joint replacements will be greeted as blessings of technology, leading to bionic inevitability.  When she finally must accept a wheelchair, it will be a jet-powered one that she rides like a wheeled steed that leaps tall buildings leaving a con-trail of haiku verse. Afflicted with the dementia of age, she in a last gasp of creativity will write a computer program that extends her viable intellect far into a functioning future of otherwise Q-signified oblivion. Death is anticipated and accepted.  She pre-writes her own obituary and designs a funerary event for the ages, wherein family is cherished, consoled, and challenged, and her grand adventure is memorialized, tongue stuck in cheek and fire stoked in belly.

This should be good for a long run of sequelae and will surely be snapped up by Paramount for a run of feature films, complete with action figures, toys, and video game franchises.  Grambo will at long last rest in peace, but not before she haunts multiple generations of progeny with reminders to follow Nike’s winning slogan; “Just Do It”.

                                                                    * * *

When first I became a grandmother, I was freaked by the whole proposition.  I agreed to the job, but only if I could have a title that guided me and my excellent progeny to a whole and healthy understanding of what it means to be an exemplary matriarch.  We shook on it.  Lissa, Brianna, and Jimmy were to address me as Grambo, or I kept on reading.  Remington and Gunner followed.  Then there was Jackson and Daisy (recently changed to Archer, a name she decided would be less limiting to her capabilities).  I have high hopes for this army of Grambo’s Grands.

Isetta

My husband Jim was big on toys.  He had nine guns, and at the time in question, three cars.  Had we been affluent, that might have played, but we were quite poor.  On that day Jim insisted that I should take the Isetta in to town since the Fairlane’s transmission was down, and he must of course have the truck.

Why did he own an Isetta?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure even he had a reason.  It was a fraught vehicle.  To get in, you must swing open the entire front of the enclosure, a door that pivoted on hinges that lined up out of any perpendicularity with gravity, which made the opening and closing of it a challenge.  Once in and seated, the task was to motivate it to proceed.  How to do anything was a question since everything was unusual—located in a unique and ambiguous place.

I figured out how to get it started, how to put it into gear, and finally how to propel it down the road.  The day’s business in town at long last accomplished, I found the weird little automobile, easy to locate, since it stuck out like a blue and throbbing thumb, perched on wheels, and waiting in the parking lot.  Twilight was gathering, so it was imperative that I locate the running lights before heading home.  There was no button, switch, lever, or any actuator at all that might facilitate illumination of progress for this very unique conveyance.  I looked simply everywhere.  By the time I was done searching, it was dead dark. 

I had four miles to go before I could park this problem and call it a day.  Home seemed a long way off.  There was nothing for it but to go.  The engine purred.  Inside the vehicle, dash lights reflected a green glow from whatever lurked inside.  That was me and my somewhat sickly face, as I piloted the odd little wheeled cube of painted metal out of the lot and onto the roadway. 

There was no moon, but I could make out road-signs if they were brightly painted.  It felt strange to roll along the asphalt, engine purring, cloaked in invisibility.  No need to fear the fuzz.  They couldn’t see me.  I was a phantom.  In town, the streetlights made all the difference.  As I pulled onto the four-lane, I decided to wait for a long space between vehicles before I committed to being there at all.  The half mile on US Route 50E passed quickly, and I was soon enough off onto Pullman Road where traffic was occasional.  County Road 74 was a tiny thoroughfare to Pullman, West Virginia, that used to be called “the nine-foot pavement,” which was a good descriptor.  When it graduated from being a dirt and gravel road to being paved, all the County would allow it was nine miserable feet of width.  It was better than mud, but not much.  Sometime in the last decade, Ritchie County had given in to constituent complaints to the extent that the byway was widened to twelve.  I was rolling down it, a dark phantom, tires quietly shussing along cold black-top.  Meeting anyone at all required that somebody give way.  I was more than ready to move off the pavement should I meet oncoming.  It was up to me, for how could approaching traffic give way to what it could not see?

Obidiah Johnson was a drinker.  Everybody knew that.  His biggest aim in life was to put off getting sober.  That would be a problem.  Nobody knew what he was trying to forget, but it must have been a doozy.  He had, long ago, lost any permission to drive a vehicle, whether highway licensed or farm-to-market.  His daily trip into town was to get liquored up.  Everybody knew that as well.  It was only after his desired state of inebriation was achieved that he would slide off his stool and slog away into the night toward home.

The evening in question was not an exception.  He plodded his way down the highway berm, took a muddy shortcut to 74 where he would enjoy the convenience of pavement all the way to warm bed and oblivion.  Once on the hard concrete, he smiled, stretched arms and vertebrae, and head tilted back, looked for the moon.  There wasn’t any.  “Oh, well,”  he acquiesced and proceeded to weave his way down the road toward home.

That was when our paths very nearly crossed.  I didn’t see him, except to watch a green tinged body of light arc away from what might have been my right fender if I had had one, and disappear into the ditch.  I did not [Slow];  I did not [Stop];  I did not pass [Go]; And I did not [Collect] anything but a lump in my throat.  Strange enough, I finally made it to [Home] without collecting anything at all—even a ticket. 

The next day Obidiah strode in for his daily round at Jake’s Bar.  It was just about the same as every other day, but there was something different—a quickness to his step that wasn’t a feature of his usual gait.  When he found his accustomed stool waiting, he claimed it with a flourish of authority.  He had something to add to the conversation.

“Gimmie my usual,” he barked, a note of confidence having crept into his usual whine.  When his pint arrived, he pulled a satisfying slurp of foam from about the rim of the mug, swallowed,  and sucked a satisfying breath.  “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.”—Here he paused for effect— “I was attacked by a spaceship.”

Jake and the usual crew all did a double-take.  Had Obadiah flipped his lid?  They gathered round, wondering what this could be about.  He wasn’t in a hurry and spent some time thinking as he alternated between raising his pint, sipping, then settling it carefully onto the napkin,  turning it round and round as he gazed into an unfocused distance.  Then, with a bit of encouragement, Obadiah finally gave up his story: 

“I was a’comin’ home last night, when what did I see, but a spaceship a’follerin’ after me.  It went behind, keepin’ close in case I wuz to get away.  I hurried, but oh it was fast.  It kept a’gittin’ closer, ‘til it fair caught up t’ me.  T’was close.  Close as you to me.  I could see them-there critters inside—one maybe two.  Green they wuz, with eyes like you an me an a nose an a mouth to boot.  I was plum skeered o’ dyin’.  I jumped—near like unto I wuz a frog.  It tried t’ git me, but it missed.  I jumped and ran fast—faster than it could hope to grab a’hold a’ me.  It missed, and I landed in the swale down where Landen’s cow-path meets up with ol’ man Harper’s field o’ sweet corn.  I hid fer a bit, waitin’ lest the Martians git out and hunt me up and do who-knows-what ta who.  I don’t know what they wuz about, but I never let ‘em git me.  I heert the sound o’ the ship flyin’ away.  Quiet-like.  Jes’ a low growl.  Mad that it missed me and lookin’ for somthinorother somethin’ to grab onto and do whatever it was a’wantin’ to do to it.”

The group at Jake’s was accommodating and appreciative of Obadiah’s reporting.  They spent most of that night, and part of the next, asking him questions, listening to his opinions, and hanging on his suppositions as if they carried the weight of earth’s gravity newly ripped from the talons of celestial marauders.

I heard about the alien invasion next time I attended the Farm Woman’s Club monthly potluck, and was amazed along with everybody else.  I had been planning to complain to the other longsuffering wives about my husband’s penchant for collecting multiple vehicles, but decided to let well-enough alone.  How could I spoil Obadiah’s first, last, and only chance in this world to be famous?

Advent Blessing

Life breaks me open.

The I am must be known.

Too quiet is this solitude.

Thoughts yearn to speak,

but image meaning      

in my world alone,

where all in quiet waits,

clear as star straked sky,

all questing answered

in compassionate reply,

snowflakes of forgiveness

that slake the coals of rage.

*

Know me God.  I live.

Conserve what truth is me.

Enfold me. Hold me.

Let anguish steal away,

with blessing part,

for sorrow, my old friend

cannot but be missed.

What will keep me then,

when sadness slips away?

Grief has been my constant,

my anchor, and my stay.

*

And yet…

*

Is there an Advent halo

circling my heart?

Breath of baby Jesus?

Blessings from a byre?

Caress of maiden mother

smoothing silken brow?

All reach across the aching years

and bid me also laugh and live.

*

It must be bells of Christmas ringing,

tolling out my name,

mythos cast from melt of years,

happiness distilled from tears.

Soul

You and I have a soul.  Animals don’t.  That’s the common understanding believed by a great many people.  But what about Homo Erectus?  Neanderthalus?  At what point in evolution toward homo-sapiens-sapiens did humanity become soulful?  I contend that there was no precise juncture in that incremental transformation at which he magically became the soul-mate of Divinity.

It is the ultimate hubris to claim that my beloved dog Maggie had no soul.  She climbed on top of me inside a freezing vehicle to keep me alive through one long stranded night while outside sub-zero temperatures plummeted and my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering.  My dog loved me, and I loved her.  How could she not have had a soul?

What speaks to my own spirit self is belief that life is expression of the Divine, beginning with single celled organisms and growing into the majestic Tree of Life, culminating in our claim to be human beings.  Biblical writers scribe of human creation in the image and likeness of God.  I can go along with that as metaphor, but only if creation is postulated to be progression by whatever algorithm, toward increasingly complex speciation.

Religious scriptures rhapsodize about God being love.  Who is it that does the loving?  Mammalian mothers do it for sure.  They bond with their issue as they offer leaking nipples to squalling newborns and watch them respond with the ecstasy of full bellies.  Spiders, who as an expression of sexual satiety munch their inseminators as well as sometimes even their young, surely make poor lovers.  Perhaps they feel a spasm of affection at the moment of joining—or not. For them, maybe love is simply the exquisite twinge of lust they sense as they are drawn toward their supreme biological imperative—however grotesque.

Fish lay eggs and swim away, as do reptiles.  Perhaps it’s cold blood that doesn’t lend itself to affection.  Worms, bisexual and not caring who knows it, copulate in a paroxysm of mutual union while they exchange sperm to fertilize the eggs they have each placed in their conjoined nest.  While they may have shared a true affection for each other, the fertilized eggs are left to fend for themselves. Love ‘em and leave ‘em seems to be standard nematode behavior, not the basis for any God-like lovingkindness.  In their defense, how lacking any arms, would they care for progeny?  On average, a worm will produce two thousand offspring per annum.  With such spectacular fecundity, it seems reasonable to leave legacy to statistics. Can it be that only Mammalia achieve souls?  If only animals that can express love can contribute to the cloud of affection generated by living loving creatures, that might be the cat’s last meow on the subject.

The same is certainly true for us, crowns of creation.  “I love you,” he says as he grips his dearest engorged appendage, “And I you,” she replies, eyelids lowered and fluttering.  Do they really believe such declarations?  Perhaps at the final consummation of things they do, sharing what is often coined la petite mort—the small death.  Or are they merely attracted to their attraction to each other?  Such brittle affections lead to the sort of adoration that causes spiders to dine on Dearie.  Beware.  Friendship is the highest ideal, with agape finding its way, if indeed at all.

Love as Holy Spirit might be considered to have its inception as life morphs into the complexity that specifies nerves, and the passing of electrical charges down axons, across synaptic gaps, and into bundles of neurons that claim to be brains.  Like any electric current moving through a conductor, it induces a magnetic field around and about itself.  That magnetic field is powerful and capable of inducing corresponding urges in neighboring conductors.  Conglomerations of such induced magnetisms in metal have spawned a planet-circling technology of electronic amazements that thrill and excite, as well as control every aspect of human culture and economy.

As life builds upon itself, summation of that inductive complexity might be understood as “God,” a Deity I can relate to.  On Sol’s third planet, life has bloomed into what ancient Greeks named Gaia, now defined by some as the concatenation of all aspects of our planet.  I concur but fail to understand how a rock could contribute to any lively inductions unless perhaps it was ferrous in composition.  For me, the line between soul and not-soul has to be drawn between life and not-life.  My handy compass is smart, but though it is tweaked by the magnetic field of earth, it has no soul.  Conversely, the lowly worm that proceeds endlessly through the turf of my lawn does have a soul, and if he were to evolve through future eons, he would discover himself to be the pattern on which much of complex life will have progressed. 

Anatomists love to mention the obvious pattern of animal biology, whether lowly or evolved, as being a tube within a tube.  That night-crawler in your bait bucket might even develop a swell head, if he had one at all.  A least he knows which way to progress through the loam, a bit of knowledge which presupposes differentiation of head vs tail.  Worms don’t crawl backward.  The rest is a recapitulation of Darwinian progression.  It was Earnst Haekel who wrote “The ontogeny recapitulates the phylogeny.”  He was explaining that in any embryo, growth and transformation reenacts the progression of the entire species.  As I sorted myself out, cozy in my mother’s uterus, my blastocyst tried out gills before it settled on lungs.  If such patterns can be observed on Earth, surely they would hold true on other worlds.

As life develops on other planets circling other suns, equivalent physical laws should apply no matter where in the universe of stars that life might arise.  God as spirit would surely bloom again based even on a wholly different molecular architecture, such as being built on silicone rather than carbon.  However construed, love would surely arise and declare itself.  As extraterrestrials dominate their planets and come to express the music of their little green souls, they will surely find a way to proclaim that God is love.

The best way to relax and think loving thoughts on this beautiful green earth is to seek out nature.  What makes nature so peaceful is that there are no people.  Animals as well as the pretty scenery, have a calming effect on humans.  That is true even though we and they sometimes eat other critters.  We seem to forgive them that indiscretion since it is in their animal nature to eat what they eat.  People think mean thoughts, and worse still, they cause us to think horribilities of our own. If the only way we can walk in beauty is to be alone in the wilderness, humanity is surely over. 

People who mistreat animals are less than good people.  They are evil, but they don’t become all bad all at once.  Like evolution, it takes time.  Is that what devolution is about?  What about axe murderers?  They are generating as much feeling as those who sing songs of love and joy, but they hate and rage instead.  Is there an unclean spirit to be produced by unkind thoughts and deeds?  Such a question is reminiscent of being cautioned by my mother to watch out for the Ol’ Devil.  Surely such concerns of the ancients must have led to conflict between positive vs negative concepts of spirit.  Most people aren’t easily categorized.  What about those mean girls back in high school, and the ubiquitous bullies?  They must have grown up to be solid citizens who adore their daughters, sons, and puppies.  If all sentient creatures are pumping out complex feelings, Satanic as well as Divine, what kind of thundercloud of Spirit might be gathering—to what effect? 

Al Gore may have invented the internet, but I invented Facebook.  Sure, I know it’s a stretch.  The straight scoop: I have long mused about the benefit of making of my life an open book.  For instance, what if every time I spoke about another person, that person could see and hear my statement?  That would no doubt mellow my words.  Do you often sense that you are a different person depending on whom you are addressing?  That can be a problem if you are suddenly with two people.  Which you will you be then?  Could that be the root of social anxiety?  It is scary to be real with a whole bunch of different people all at once.  Whom then might you be?

The obvious solution to this dilemma is Facebook, or something remarkably like it.  Assiduous utilization of such an asset can and surely will force users toward an integration of self.  Every comment must be weighed against the perceptions of everybody else, not just the person seated before you.  Methinks it is a conspiracy to civilize an uncivil society.  There have been worse plots.  This one I like!

In a recent dream I was riding around and about the farm with my oldest son in his 4-x-4.  We had been sitting in a meadow marveling at how green was the grass and how lovely the wildflowers.  Then bumping along in the vehicle we passed into a dark glade that fed into a rocky defile, that then degenerated quickly down an impossibly rough and boulder strewn path, down, down, down into a deep pool.  The water was still and strewn with floating vegetation and debris.  Dale persevered, assuring me that his truck was up to the challenge.  He pressed on, rolling into the water, but soon we were floating, the truck having become a boat with us holding on and swimming.  The long green strands of vegetation tangled with my treading feet and felt like slithering snakes.  I begged Dale to do something, anything, but he wasn’t afraid.  Dale is never afraid.  He said to just keep paddling.  We curved around the periphery, round and round, clearing away the greenery as we plowed through the water, using the truck as our blunt force object.  Several turns around and the pond was clean. 

He restarted the engine, gained some traction and up we went onto the far shore, chugging our way up the steep embankment.  This side was open, clear of trees and shrubs.  It was mostly domesticated fields, meadows, and pasture.  Dale explained that he needed to speak with a man in the community we were approaching.  The buildings were weathered and grey.  Many new structures had been attached to the existing ones.  Those were woven of grass on three sides, as well as the roofs, and affixed to the old houses and barns.  They were useless, without strength, either tensile or compressive.  They stood merely as concepts, delineating what might have been built, had circumstances been different.  Maybe they were only dreams or visions.

While Dale kept his meeting, I loitered, wandering into one of the large unmarked buildings.  It was a ladies lingerie emporium, with a luxuriant display of unmentionables.  Every item I noticed just happened to be my exact size, even the high heeled velvet boots I lasciviously admired.  There were too many colors to count, and they all were of complimentary shades, but the colors comprising individual garments were strangely combined.  I pulled out a pair of shimmery sea-green panties, and was amazed to see they were copiously decorated with brown lace.  I put them back, puzzled, and began to wonder what is “a pair” about panties.  Why are they sold as a pair, since they have no legs, only holes?  A pair of jeans makes good sense, with two good legs to make a legitimate pair of something to sell, even if only in concept.  Women must be pretty silly to pay good money for a pair of holes, no matter how decorously festooned with lace their apertures.

When I awoke it occurred to me that dreams are useful for sorting out quandaries that complicate our waking hours and defy any integration into what we understand about being alive in the world.  We seem to work harder asleep than awake.  Can’t we ever get any well-earned rest?  Also it would help if we could worry in sleep about things that really matter, rather than second-guessing the work product of distaff under garment designers.