Friday, May 31, 2013

The Wanderer

My sister and her husband recently adopted two young cats from a rescue shelter in their neighborhood east of St. Paul, Minnesota. The cats, Bella and Zaya, were the first new pets they had brought into their lives since the early years of their marriage in 1994. We had the opportunity to meet them near the start of the year when we traveled to the Twin Cities area to visit my husband Jim's parents and my sister, as well.

Zaya got out of the house by accident around April 25, and could not be found. They posted notices in Craigslist and posters around the community. They walked around the neighborhood several times daily calling for her. By Memorial Day, she still had not come home. My sister reported that she was not giving up hope, and the Tuesday after Memorial Day, she text-messaged me with some ecstatic news: "Zaya is home!" She was found about ten miles from their house, and a visit to the vet proclaimed her healthy and unhurt. Her departure had reminded me of the aging cats who had walked out of my life, and hadn't returned. Zaya's reappearance, however, brought to mind a much happier story, that of my cat Pepper, whom I periodically also refer to as "The Wanderer."

This is a long lead up to a story, perhaps because it is late and I'm not quite sure how the story is going to unfold. The reason why I am starting into the story so late is because of Pepper, so I thought perhaps it might be fitting to try to throw down the antics of The Wanderer.

Pepper came into our lives as a kitten, about two or three months old. We adopted her with one of her siblings, a long leggy kitten who often gyrated while jumping, earning the name B-Girl. We thought both were girls until B-Girl revealed himself one night to be a boy. We thought about changing his name, but we had named her/him in honor of the b-girls of hip-hop who exude an extraordinary level of confidence, exuberance, and strength. To change the name simply on the basis of gender ultimately made no sense.

If B-Girl was long and leggy, Pepper was like a typical striped Tabby cat, small, stocky, and sweet. She seemed like the lead kitten of the two we adopted, covering B-Girl with her paws on the first night as they slept in a box I had prepared for them while our two older cats embarked on a bout of feigned disinterest and low-grade growling and teaching B-Girl the next morning how to climb onto the king size bed where the other two cats held court. She also was demure and petite, and her antics provoke elaborate exclamations over her cuteness.

But she had a wild side, as well.

Two days after we got the kittens, I woke up to a repeated, plaintive, squeaky meow. Searching our apartment on Catherine Street for our cats, I discovered her in the building's main hallway outside the front door. Somehow, she had gotten outside the apartment. Somehow, she had spent the night in the hallway. Two weeks later, our two older cats -- Pascha and Salty -- were on the prowl. Pascha was keeping an odd guard on the deck below us while Salty was running up and down a set of rickety wooden stairs that separated our deck from a unit above. A search indoors revealed no Pepper. Mounting the stairs, I saw two golden-brown eyes staring back at me. Recognizing me, Pepper made her way down and safely into the house. Sensing that she was safe, Pascha and Salty also ran back into our apartment.

Moving into a much bigger house on a three-acre lot in a more rural area didn't quench Pepper's curiosity. We closed on the house in mid-February and moved in a few weeks later. Snow still lay thick on the ground, but as soon as it melted, all four cats raced outside under the watchful eyes of Jim.

We thought B-Girl would be the one we'd have to worry about. His gyrating cartwheels and long-legged leaps in our apartment had morphed as he approached adolescence into a persistent meow to go outdoors, As snow fell thick and hard, he would run from window to window and rattle the doorknobs, pestering to go outside. Each morning I had to move my car parked on the street to a new site to avoid getting a ticket. The kittens would race into the hallway as I made my way out, and eventually onto the porch. In the new house, B-Girl wasn't much calmer, but it soon became clear that the real wanderer was not him but Pepper.

As spring lengthened into summer, Pepper's outdoor sojourns stretched into ten-, twelve, fourteen-hour stints. We would find her walking in what we called our garden circle at 10 p.m., completely oblivious to the worry she had caused us. The following year, she would saunter out of the woods well after midnight or just show up on our deck ready to eat and sleep.

Jim worried about her all the time, and sometimes would not allow her to go out after 5 p.m. After I told that he was acting like an overly cautious father, he would let her out and then berate her for coming home late and causing him to fear the worst. I could not convince him that she had no clue what he was trying to tell her, and that she was just acting like a cat. So I tried a different strategy: I told him to create a mood that would make her want to come home. Instead of scolding her for staying out, I said, ask her if she had a good time. Get her to tell you about her walks through the woods, the other animals she encountered, the prey she caught.

For months, the strategy worked. Don't ask me how, but Pepper seemed to enjoy the trade-off. All she had to do was be home by dark.

Today, we spent the bulk of a very hot afternoon planting tomatoes and celebrating the fact that the threat of frost had finally eased. We spotted Pepper periodically strolling through the woods, lounging under lilacs, lazily stretching her paws outward to swat at a moth. She came in around 5 p.m. and went out again an hour later. We headed into town around 7 p.m., figuring we would be back before dark.

We were back right as dusk faded to dark. It was approximately 9 p.m. The other cats were either waiting on the deck or came running as soon as we called them. But Pepper was missing in action.

I put together a quick dinner of rosemary potato fries and chicken fajitas while Jim looked for Pepper. Around 9:45 p.m., he poked his head in the kitchen, his eyes wild with worry.

"She'll be home," I said. "She's just being a cat."

"But it's late," Jim said.

"She's been out much later than this."

"I know, and that's what worries me."

Around 10 p.m., I went out with a flashlight to look for our wayward cat. I heard the frogs who inhabit our neighbor's unused swimming pool chirping and, knowing that this was one of her favorite spots, headed over even though I was sure that Jim had searched there a few hundred times.

"Come on, girlfriend," I called. "It's time to come home. We'll do it all over again tomorrow."

I played my light over the pool and caught two soft eyes. Pepper had just arrived at her perch and was preparing to put her paws in the water to try and reach for the frogs.

"Pepper!" I said.

Looking up, she recognized me. She reluctantly stood up, arched her back and stretched. Waving good-bye to the frogs with her tail, she made her way over to me. She didn't want the experience to end. But perhaps a part of her sensed that there was always going to be a tomorrow to look forward to.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The truly incredible truth

Today's prompt from leader Julie Duffy was to take a story that could be a piece of one's memoir and turn it into a fictional story. The idea behind this prompt was that memoir is beginning to generate eye rolls among book publishers and agents. It's healthy to write memoir, the common line goes. But it's becoming more difficult to sell. So the answer: why not take real life and fictionalize it? With Kindles and ebooks, fiction is enjoying a much-welcomed rebound. Fiction can sell.

The prompt was one I could disregard, but the remark about eye rolls from publishers and agents got a bit under my skin, sort of like a comment from a successful memoir writer about morning pages, a practice I have maintained for 15 years, being a waste of time. I am capable of writing fiction, but I have come to realize that non-fiction is what I personally enjoy. Why make it up when the truth is so incredible? Just tell it like it is.

Over the past year, I have served as an instructor (or what my college sometimes refers to as "tutor") for several students developing major writings. I have used books on writing practices, examples of personal essay and book-length memoir, and texts on the art and craft of memoir writing to guide the students along. I also have shared personal strategies and my own experiences, as a way of helping them developing a practice that will work for themselves. These endeavors have been enormously fulfilling for me as an assistant professor who is seeking to define her own niche in an increasingly fragmented and dispersed higher educational environment. Taking a leaf from one of my colleagues who is of close to equal rank to me in seniority but considerably older and wiser in the world of lived experiences, I have found myself urging students to write not for the sake of publication but for the sake of the art, craft, and practice of writing itself. My own embrace of writing challenges in April (a poem a day) and in May (a story a day) and perhaps in June (a blog post a day) have been geared as well toward experimentation and innovation in craft.

But what about the world of the market? Is it worth writing just for the sake of writing? Or is that mere practice of writing a waste of time? Should one be marketing one's self as a writer? Should one be submitting work actively? How does one balance the demands of a day job against the passion to write?

And perhaps the clincher question is this: Is one a writer if one writes without regard for the market?

I ponder these questions daily, especially on days when dirty dishes pile up in the sink, workouts get short-changed, and the tasks of the day job end up taking a back seat to something that feels more artful and inspiring, like writing just for the hell of it.

I did have a day job once that involved writing all the time. I eventually left it because I hated the pressure to produce, and to be writing always with readers in mind.  The job was that of a newspaper reporter, and I look back on those years now with a great deal of fondness and appreciation for what I experienced. But I also remember the things I did not like: Not being able to express a personal opinion, suspicion over the use of the pronoun "I", and the fact that it seemed like the job did not offer space for one to write just for fun.

"Take an hour a day," my mother would say. "Write for yourself."

"I don't want to write more," I would whine back. "Writing is work. When I come home, I want to relax."

Years and years later, I have appreciated the subsequent day jobs that I have been blessed to have -- copy editor, adjunct instructor, writer-in-residence, fitness coach, arts fund-raiser, and now faculty/mentor -- because they did and still do allow me the time and space to write just for fun. Without the pressure to produce writing for a paycheck, writing has become for me more personal, more artful, more creative and flexible. More free-flowing, more fun.

Yet, it is still work. Because, in part, one is not a writer if one is not writing to be read. Too many negatives in that sentence. Let me rephrase it in a positive way. One writes to be read. Readers comprise a market. So hence one writes for a market, though the explosion of blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, and do-it-yourself publishing is altering the meaning of market. Words that used to sell now sometimes must pay to be published. In short, from my perspective, writing for the hell of it is not a viable way to earn a living, in and of itself. If it is, I am not in on the secret.

But even as writing might fail to earn you a living, it might earn you a life. Telling your story contributes to the collective consciousness of a society, as poet-turned-memoir writer Judith Barrington put it. Contributing to the collective consciousness is an act of self-actualization, creative fulfillment, community building, political organizing, and ultimately social justice. It is a way of stepping outside the mundane realities of the day to consider the bigger pictures that frame those realities.

My best writing moment today occurred in the onion fields. I was not writing at all. I was knee deep in soil, pulling out tens of thousands of tiny weeds, trying to cleanse the soil of as many unneeded roots as I could so that our red and yellow storage onions, our Walla Walla sweets, our leeks, and our shallots would have more space in the ground beneath me to stretch out, expand, and grow. As I was using my nails and a small hand trowel to loosen the miniature grasses, succulents, and clovers, my mind was on my book manuscript and a conversation within it that occurs between my mother and me. What was the point of that story?  I let my mind sift over that question as my fingers wove in between roots, stems, and soil. Why did it strike the chord that it did? What is its significance in the larger scheme of things?

An answer came. It spoke of what life to me was all about: a quest to understand why racism persists, why differences are tolerate but not embraced, how religious make people feel righteous. It struck me that lots of people have gone on this quest and documented their journeys on a grand, massive societal scale. Fewer have looked at how the quest affects them on an individualized level. Perhaps the quest is too frightening when considered in such a personal way. Perhaps the fear is what makes it unmarketable. Or perhaps it is not that the fear is unmarketable, but that the writer fears the consequences of entering such a market. Could perhaps this be the real reason that memoir doesn't sell? Is it perhaps the reason to write memoir, regardless?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Checking out and never leaving

(The prompt for today from was to write on being thwarted. I read the prompt this morning and then forgot it. As the day progressed, I considered a story on Jim and the Estherville "cow" but ultimately mock frustration over my seeming inability to begin a vacation trumped. The famous "Hotel California" lyrics inspired some bits of this first draft piece, but when I re-checked the prompt, I realized that perhaps the theme of "thwarted" was with me all along.)

When I worked as a full-time journalist in the late 1980s and 1990s, some basic ground rules were built into vacations:

1. I would not call the office.

2. I would maybe send a post card to the office.

3. I would not be available to answer questions on a story.

Cell phones, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging seem to have rendered such rules obsolete. I know of virtually no one -- journalist, painter, artist, writer, teacher, lawyer, doctor -- who could say with all honesty that such ground rules can still be followed. With the technology comes the 24/7 work environment, a space where hours can be set with autonomy and independence. This creates a lot of freedom, and a lot of burden. In short, the workplace has morphed into a borderless, unprotected space where both the hours of work and locations of work tasks become infinite.

Vacations no longer begin. Perhaps, however, they never end.

In December 2012, a colleague at the college where I work posted a story on Facebook that revealed one strategy for workplace success: Use up all of your vacation time. Don't give back the time off you are owed. The advice rings true for anyone who recalls (with guilt) the stories of children growing up not ever getting to know their parents because their parents were, uhh, always working. At the time that I read the article, I had been in my present position for almost three years. I had accumulated more than forty days of vacation and more than forty days of sick leave. I had used virtually none of it.

Because we are allowed to carry over a maximum of forty days into a new year, any time that I earned but didn't use in 2013 would essentially be rejected earnings.

I don't have children, but I do have nieces and nephews, young cousins, and aging parents and uncles and aunties, and scores of friends around the world who are perhaps growing up and away from me, without me giving them the chance to get to know me. One way of rectifying that dilemma would be to take some vacation time to spend with them.

But is such a thing possible? Can we check out, and really leave?

How did I pile up so much vacation?

I travel numerous times a year, and I spend many of my winter mornings luxuriating beside fireplace in my house instead of shivering in an office or having a breakfast of pancakes under the maple trees in early summer instead of sipping lukewarm coffee from a plastic to-go container. I have an office to which I have 24/7 access. If no appointments or meetings interfere, each day is mine to shape as I like. I can go swimming at 2 p.m. I can start my work day at 8 p.m. if that's my preference.

One might conclude that I never work, that I'm on vacation all the time.

The truth is that I always work. For two and a half years, I didn't take vacation time because I did not (and still do not) know how to differentiate vacation and work.

I spent five weeks last summer writing a book. Was it vacation or was it work?

I spent the Veteran's Day weekend in New York City with hip-hop artists, educators, and community organizers talking about hip-hop education for the early twenty-first century. Vacation or work?

Three times between 2011 and 2012, I was at retreat centers in Indiana and Corpus Christie, Texas, discussing teaching strategies, scholarship, and the opportunities and challenges associated with being an Asian American in a predominantly Causcasian work environment. Was that rejuvenation or intense work?

"I haven't used my vacation time because I don't know what I'd do," I confessed to some of my colleagues last September when the regular activities of the college calendar began starting up again.

A couple of them nodded sympathetically. Two of the more senior ones, however, shook their heads with disapproval.

"Take a trip," one of them advised.

"Or stay home," the other one suggested. "Spend an entire day in your garden. Watch a movie. Read a book. Go for a bicycle ride, or just vegetate on your couch."

Perhaps the term "vacation" needs re-articulation. Spending a day in the garden is actually my work. At least in part. I blog about herbs and vegetables that my husband and I grow, and my ruminations about slow-food and simple living find their source in my intellectual work in fields as diverse as political economy, racial and ethnic studies, feminist theory, and social justice. The garden even served as metaphor for a two-minute video I created on "Why I Teach" that found its way into my dossier for my first reappointment. Soon, I will begin creating a course with colleagues on "Webs of Sustainability" that will incorporate discussions of backyard gardening into its content. Without a doubt, being in the garden is pleasurable. So is reading a wonderfully crafted student essay. So is working with a promising advisee to define and map out a plan for reaching personal and professional goals. Just because something is pleasurable doesn't make it non-work.

Watch a movie? Is there a way to watch a movie without thinking about how its story relates to a class you've taught or are thinking about teaching, or a writing project that you're involved with?

A bicycle ride? How can I ride a bike without pondering the geography of the local environment and the human social and cultural elements embedded in it?

"Intellectual labor has no time off," one colleague explained. Quoting the famous words of the cultic Eagles song we both grew up with, she added, "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave."

The truth of the statement hit home as September stretched into October, and the book manuscript that I had hoped to wrap up in late August followed me into fall. I was making progress, but I was not quite done. The manuscript needed time, and so did other duties: teaching, advisee needs, committee appointments, conference presentations, and other overdue writing projects. I berated myself for not writing faster in the summer when I thought I had had the time to write, and for letting "vacation-like pursuits" like gardening, barbecues, and long walks in the evening interfere with the "work".

"Enjoy your vacation," said one student in an e-mail to me after I had told her that I did not have immediate access to her records because I was in Florida visiting my parents. She went on to add that she herself had never had a vacation, and had hoped that this was one reward that earning a bachelor's degree would allow her to reap. I couldn't really find a way to explain to her that I wasn't really on vacation entirely because even though I was in Florida (in February), I was reading e-mail, assessing student work, writing a chapter in the book manuscript, and prepping content for a soon-to-start course.

But maybe this was a vacation because it was work against the template of a more relaxed life. In between the e-mail responses, student assignments, writing, and course prep were long walks on the beach, swims in the ocean, and naps on a towel stretched over sand. Not to mention quality time with my parents and my husband, who had traveled down to Florida with me.

The book manuscript did get finished and submitted to a prospective publisher. The publisher subsequently put it under contract, and editors requested a new round of revisions. Not wishing to repeat the stress of carrying a lingering writing project past the summer into fall, I decided I would use several of those accumulating vacation days to leave the office and get the revising done. I would start on May 13, and finish up around June 20.

Only I'm not on vacation yet. E-mails still beg for attention. New students have new questions. Other students await answers. Colleagues seek my input on work-related matters. It all makes me feel quite important, even though a part of me knows that there's very little in life that's so important that it cannot wait.

But I have taken a few first steps. I have turned on the alert that informs others that I will be out of the office for some time (even if I am not). I have divided time the past few days into sleep (lots of it), exercise (a fair amount), planting, writing, and cooking. I worked on the manuscript this afternoon, even as scores of other tasks clamored for attention. I will get to them, as I can, with the understanding that even as I have (sort of) checked out, I have not left.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


(Today's prompt was to write a child's story. The appearance of a picture of luscious bitter melon, aka karela, hanging from a Facebook friend's garden vine had already made me decide to write about the karela. The story, though, has a child's edge to it.)

A Facebook friend from my hometown of Muncie, Indiana, posted a photo today of her home-grown karela. The bumpy gourd-like squash that some in the U.S. know as bittermelon has become one of my savory salivations. Two summers in a row, I've tried to convince my husband Jim to grow karela. He does his best, and it starts but never really takes off. By mid-August, I'm at the Otrembiak's stall at the Saratoga Farmers Market buying one or two bittermelon a week. I cook it up and Jim falls in love with it.

"Why can't we grow this ourselves?"

I grew up in an immigrant Indian household.

In Indiana.

In the late 1960s.

As a ten-year-old, I was convinced that the two local grocery stores -- Ross's and Marsh -- only sold fresh ginger because my mother would buy it because I never saw it in anyone else's cart or kitchen. My suspicion was reinforced a decade or so later when I bought fresh ginger at a grocery store in southern Illinois and had to explain to the checkout clerk what it was and that it was indeed something edible.

My mother, for the most part, was and continues to be a marvelously inventive woman. She learned how to cook rotis on an open fire, using dried cow dung molded into disks, as a briquette, much as Americans use charcoal in the United States. She also was an extremely picky eater, and, as a result, weighed perhaps 90 pounds at marriage. Coming to the United States and settling first in Iowa and ultimately Indiana, she proved to be a quick adapter, finding the necessary spices for Indian cooking in the local grocery stores, and learning how to use Cream of Wheat to create such delectable breakfast dishes as halwa (which Jim loves to make even though it requires a stick of butter and a cup of sugar) and uppma (a more savory, spicy breakfast offering that I particularly crave but haven't quite got the hang of yet).

Many of the foods that my mother cooked to satisfy self-cravings were not particularly pleasing to my kid-like palate. I did like halwa, but it took me years before I realized that I really did like uppma, perhaps because breakfasts in America were not supposed to include fresh green chilis, onion, and cumin.

Karela was in the latter category. I'm not exactly sure when it first appeared on our kitchen table, but it didn't go over well. It was charred and bitter, and to eat it, one first needed to unwrap a series of complex threads that my mother had wrapped around it. The threads, I learned years later, held in a stuffing made of cumin, chili, onion, ginger, mango powder, and mustard seeds. The spices would roast inside the melon, picking up its bitter savory taste.

"Mmm," I remember my mother exclaiming, as she licked the spices off the threads.

"Yuck," I remember muttering.

"Chhh," I remember my father, a village boy raised on sweet ghee and sugarcane, quietly agreeing.

So my mother made karela periodically for herself. Other Indians who would visit us or come over for dinner would enjoy it with her, but I pooh-pooh'd it for its terrible smell and taste.

And then came the revelation.

I was perhaps nineteen. My grandparents were visiting from India, and my uncle -- Dhanoo Mamaji -- had come to the United States for several months with his wife and young son. I ended up spending some time with them in Washington D.C., where they were staying with my mother's younger sister, someone I had come to know as Papoo Auntie. She was newly married and her first son was just learning how to walk. Somewhere in that time frame, someone made karela. Being in the presence of relatives whom I did not know as intimately as my mother, I kept my pooh-pooh's to myself, and accepted a tiny portion of karela. The spicy, savory sensation of charred seeds and herbs against a thin layer of squash melted in my mouth. "Oh, this is good," I remember thinking. I'm not sure if I shared my revelation with anyone.

Ten years later, I was in New Delhi with my mother visiting India for the first time in eighteen years. The foods and flavors of my family's tradition came out at every meal in the most amazing manner possible. Karela, uppma, arvi: All these dishes that did not exist on the Indian restaurant menus were the certain of our family's attention. Bitter, sweet, savory, sour, spicy, robust, delicate, explosive in their power. Every meal turned me on to what I had been missing growing up in America.

I bought Charmaine Solomon's Complete Guide to Asian Cooking after my return from India. I chose her book because I also had traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, and Bangkok on that trip and felt that while India was the center of the Asian culinary universe, the other countries had things I liked, as well. The book is still with me, twenty-one years later. Many of its pages are splattered with turmeric and oil. The back cover is missing and the spine is torn. But scrawled into the margins of several of the pages are preparations for the vegetables that Americans don't cook. Karela is one of them.

My fondness for karela deepened in my years in Hawai'i when the hottest days of summer seemed to demand respite in the tangy bitterness that karela offered. It was relatively easy to find in both Asian and non-Asian markets and many gardeners at the community garden where I had a plot for awhile grew it themselves. I would see the bumpy green fruits hanging from the vine, and remember the days of my mother licking the spices off the thread. I got the recipe from her, and over the years made it a number of times. The bitterness always seemed to lift my spirits, even as it perplexed the taste buds of my otherwise fairly adventurous friends.

The taste for karela deepened with our move to upstate New York. By this point, I was in my late forties, some fifteen to twenty years older than my mother must have been when she first put karela on our kitchen table. Being in my late forties had alerted me to a series of health issues that I had come to realize were at least partially genetic: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, potential risk for diabetes. Reading up on bittermelon revealed to me that it often helped regulate these ailments and was a favored vegetable among immigrant Indians who suffered diabetes. I began to appreciate the connection. Perhaps karela appeared on our kitchen table in Muncie as my mother was trying to regulate her own health issues. Perhaps my taste for it revived as my issues surfaced.

Last summer, I shared a recipe with the Saratoga Farmers Market after the local farmers repeatedly asked me where I had gotten the goofy looking, bumpy vegetable that always seemed to be in my bag. With the recipe, I made a resolution. I would save the seeds from at least one of the quickly ripening bittermelon fruits that I was buying to grow my own. The Otrembiak's warned me that the plant was not an easy one to grow in our short summer. They urged me to save seeds with "weight" and to plant them in warm soil.

I planted them in a pot indoors in mid-April. For weeks, they did not grow.

About two weeks ago, they sprouted, hesitantly. But then the leaves popped up, and I cheered. They probably will go into the garden within the next week. The Otrembiak's have recommended lots of light and sun, and open space. They may get a small garden of their own.

Monday, May 27, 2013


(Today's prompt was to write a holiday-appropriate tale. Memorial Day doesn't hold much meaning for me as a holiday, and I rarely celebrate it in what might be deemed a traditional way. However, an event Sunday night suddenly made this Memorial Day quite meaningful in a very ordinary way. Hence, the story "Bonfires".)

Flags, graves, parades, and picnics mark Memorial Day, the day off that Americans seem to universally celebrate on the last Monday in May. The reason for the holiday always seemed a little lost on me, though I cannot quarrel with those who wish to memorialize those who fell in war. Still, not being particularly patriotic nor having any immediate family members or friends affiliated with the military, I never quite got the outpouring of patriotism and duty that seemed to accompany this holiday.

But a day off from work is a day off, and even if I no longer work on schedule where holidays seem to matter, I look forward to the long weekends that holidays like Memorial Day offer. Like Americans across the continent, I watch the weather forecasts carefully even though I am not planning picnics, family outings, cemetery visits, or parades.

This year, rain and an unseasonable chill began the three-day weekend. Farmers at the Saratoga market behind their booths in thick flannel and I found myself clapping my hands repeatedly to keep them warm. The damp cold was expected to continue through mid-afternoon Sunday, with a possibility of nicer weather on Memorial Day itself.

Jim and I had planned to spend the entire weekend in the garden, planting tomatoes, which traditionally go into the ground on Memorial Day weekend. Instead, we had our seedlings back indoors and were ourselves huddled by our fireplace, surprised by the late season chill.

A rainy day and unseasonable cold snap, however, can produce conditions favorable for some outdoor activities, if one watches the skies carefully. So when the rains diminished and the sun began dancing in and out of clouds mid-day Sunday, our neighbor Tom must have begun to sense a change in fortune. He knocked on our front door shortly before 8 p.m. as we were ladling our homemade beet pasta into bowls for dinner and said the magic word: "Bonfire."

My face lit up. Jim whooped with joy and said, "Give us 15 minutes."

Before I moved to upstate New York, I used to be part of a grassroots community building group of artists and magicians known as Fire Tribe. This was when I lived in Hawai'i. We would celebrate both the December and June solstice with a four days of dancing, drumming, and storytelling around a blazing bonfire. People would dress in flashy costumes, or sometimes not at all. Alcohol was strongly discouraged, as was openly apparent acts of sex. The fire would be lit at midnight and burn until sunrise. Sometimes the all-night ritual of dance and drum was a test of endurance. Other times, it simply was great fun. Even in Hawai'i, the air would turn slightly chill after dark. Dancing around a fire in a sleeveless cotton dress was the best solution for staying warm and cutting back the chill.

I lived in Hawai'i for 11 years, and often felt as if magic, spirituality, and reality melded as one. The yellow pages had a separate listing for psychics, and meetings with them usually took place in fairly standard consultation chambers in residential or business locales. The mystique of incense, crystal balls, and dark mysterious music that seems to accompany the psychic profession on the American mainland was absent in the islands, where oddity was perhaps the norm.

I, too, received training in the psychic arts while living in Hawai'i, and still occasionally pull out a tarot deck or try to read tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. This practice, however, feels oddly repressed in much of the rest of America, with dire warnings emitting from church pastors of the devil infecting the brain. I have learned to keep my psychic sensibilities under a bit of a wrap. But, still, I miss the magic dearly. The occasional bonfire brings it back.

Living in the country in houses that often have undergone centuries of repairs done in a traditional DIY mode results in a lot of debris, most of it heavy and bulky. In addition, high winds that whip through woods tend to leave a lot of unuseable wood scattered in back yards. Carting the stuff to a dump or trying to dispose of it via a twice-monthly trash service would be expensive and unfeasible. As a result, most people set up piles in their yards, and wait for an opportune time to douse the pile with old fuel oil or gasoline and toss a lit match onto the heap.

Well, it takes more than a match to set the pile aflame, but that's a detail for another story.

If you live in the city, and until three years ago, the city was all I knew, you might be thinking, "Wait, isn't this dangerous? A bonfire in your back yard?"

Well, it can be dangerous, which is why the local, regional, county, and often state-wide fire prevention agencies monitor the weather and impose burn bans at certain times of the year. It is also why lifelong rural residents like our neighbor Tom prepare their burn piles well in advance and then watch the weather carefully, waiting for the right conditions to materialize.

A couple days of rain ensures that the ground around the pile is moist enough to quench flying sparks. Dry night skies that are dusted with stars and perhaps a few trace clouds ensure that the sparks that shoot upward will meet a pretty sight. Before I quit drinking, robust shots of vodka, whiskey, or rum accompanied the bonfire. Now, I'm happy to celebrate with hot chocolate or a simple seltzer.

The bonfires burn fast and hot. Set aflame just as the night air chills, the shooting flames provoke instant warmth. Icy tensions melt; bad moods turn magically good; and suddenly, even if there is no holiday, one feels like there might be a reason to celebrate.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


(Today's prompt from urges us to write a silly story that includes the following words: official, corpulent, totem, panic, scratching, delicious. I decided to make do on my promise to come back to volunteers, volunteer squash, that is.)

The official verdict on zucchini is quite simply this: If you buy a packet of seeds, prepared to be overwhelmed by this green-skinned, pale-yellow fleshed specimen of summer squash in the months of July and August. An average $3.45 packet from the organic, employee-owned supplier Johnny Seeds will give you 30 seeds. If all 30 seeds produce a viable plant (and because zucchini is ridiculously easy to grow, chances are it probably will), you might end up with 240 zucchini or more.

The first, fresh-off-the-vine zucchini are ridiculously delicious. At this point, the fruits are slender, delicate fruits. Slice them in half, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle them with a dab of black pepper and garlic and put them on a grill for five to seven minutes. The flavor is so delectable that you might decide that you don't even need the olive or the spices.

But zucchini multiply like rabbits, creating panic among gardeners. If left in the garden, they will grow long and corpulent, resembling baseball bats. Our summer of zucchini panic commenced in 2011 when I left New York for three weeks in Indiana, and my husband Jim could not cut the fruits off the plants fast enough. By the time I returned, the entire bottom row of the refrigerator was lined with zucchini. So were several shelves in the kitchen, and still there were dozens bursting in the garden. The zucchini plants entangled with watermelon vines and cucumbers, producing a bounty of squash. Jim urged me to just leave them in the garden to rot and create "green manure," but I wanted to make the most of the tomatoes and eggplants also growing in the spot.

We ate what we could, and in late August, I began chopping and pureeing the zucchini to store for the winter. Jim laughed at me when I talked about winters of zucchini crust pizza, zucchini soup, and zucchini in stew. The truth was, we no longer could stand the stuff. It was a gift that could not stop giving.

In the meantime, as summer wound down, and fall approached, a new lover appeared in our midst. This would be winter squash, the harder-shelled, longer-storage squash that has long been appreciated by those who lived in areas with short summers and need a nutrient-packed dense flavorful vegetable to help make long, cold winters more palatable. Winter squash comes in several varieties: spaghetti, delicate, striped spaghetti, butternut, acorn, honey cup, hubbard, kabocha, and the simplest most bountiful orange pumpkin. Available from local farmers for $2 to $3 each, we tried several varieties, fell in love with many of them, and resolved the following summer to grow them ourselves.

Squash -- ranging from zucchini and cucumbers to the harder-shelled winter varieties -- is a vegetable that in many ways deserves a place at the top of a totem. Like beans, it is a nutritient giver to soil and is often regarded as a vehicle for the natural replenishment of spent soil. It is also one of the plants that needs warmth to grow. It can be started in pots, but it really shouldn't spend more than a few weeks confined. Because like a caterpillar with an itch to travel, it soon will scratch its way out of confinement and try to set roots in whatever it encounters. It often forms part of the traditional triad of plants that America's First Peoples used in three sisters gardens alongside corn and beans. The idea was that the corn plants would form stalks that bean vines could travel up and mounds that squash plants could travel down. If all goes well, the average winter squash seed would yield a strong healthy vine bearing two to five fruits. Five packets, each containing 30 seeds, would yield enough squash to feed a family of four for six to nine months of each year.

If all goes well.

Enthusiasm often precedes experience. In the cold months of winter, we ordered seeds. As the seeds arrived, Jim began to amass egg cartons, peat pots, and plastic cups to plant seeds. I read up on frost dates, planting calendars, and consulted both the online Farmer's Almanac and numerous sites on how to plant in accordance with the waxing and waning moons. I tried to impart advice to Jim. He listened, and proceeded to plant everything with little, if any, consideration for what would fare well in egg cartons and for when certain plants needed to be outdoors. By late April, winter squash seedlings were bursting out of their egg carton homes, searching for sun, water, and space to self-express their desire to vine. The spring was unusually dry and windy, and Jim found himself beating his head against the splintered wood planks of the barn several times as a combination of the thirst for freedom and an aiding and abetting wind blew the egg cartons to smithereens, scattering the winter squash seedlings everywhere.

Always the optimist on matters concerning the garden, I urged Jim not to worry. "If we get twenty-four squash, we'll have enough squash to last us six months."

"But what if we want to eat squash more than once a week?"

"Trust me," I said. "We won't."

Some of the squash got planted and sprouted strong, healthy vines. From the vines emerged a bountiful array of yellow-and-green striped delicatas, bright yellow spaghetti squash, dusky beige butternuts, and a few green acorns. We spent the summer picking cucumbers, yellow crooknecks, and patty pan squash for the grill (we couldn't bear the thought of zucchini) and watching the winter bounty grow. By late August, Jim got impatient and we began cutting into our winter stash. Squash off the vine tastes best if it is allowed a ripen on a shelf for seven to ten days, so soon we were enjoying baked, grilled, pureed, stewed, and sauteed flavors each night.

But I worried. We ended up with close to twenty-four fruits. But I miscalculated our fondness for squash. It became apparent that we were eating it every two or three nights, despite my efforts to mix up the palate with eggplant, bittermelon (an Indian and/or Chinese summer squash that is said to ease high blood pressure, cholesterol, and gastric infections), and the fast-diminishing crop of summer squash. Squash at the farmers market, I also realized, wasn't selling cheap. It was going for $1 a pound, sometimes $2, and as the most bountiful fruits of the fall harvest began pouring in, the sizes kept getting larger and larger.

Then, a miracle occurred. In the compost bin, volunteers appeared. The seeds from winter squash we had sampled in the previous fall took root in the increasingly fertile soil that we were creating from food scraps, yard waste, weeds, and various herbivore animal manure, and like plants in search of a soul to self-express, they began to spring out of the compost heap and grow.

They grew and grew and grew. By early October as the rest of the garden was beginning to wind down, these volunteer vines were still in warm soil traveling and twining, and producing an ever increasing array of fruit. Jim, encouraged by their energy, began cutting the fruits from the vines, and soon some fifty dimple-sized pumpkin like squashes surrounded the concrete edges of the former milk shed where we create compost. For all the effort we put into the garden, these volunteers gave back ten times over. As the first frost approached, we found ourselves hastily reorganizing storage space in the darker recesses of our kitchen and basement to accommodate the volunteer squash.

The volunteers helped feed us through the winter. Recognizing the power of a squash seed from their energetic work, we carefully saved seeds from each variety of squash that we cut and dutifully stored them in small glass jars that used to hold jelly in order to plant them the following spring.

The seeds are now sprouting, in pots much larger than egg cartons. They will go into the ground in two weeks, hopefully, and once again we are dreaming of a colorful fall harvest bounty that will nourish us through the winter. Some of the seeds, however, were slower to grow, which put us into a momentary panic. Then, two days ago, Jim whooped with joy. In the compost bin, aided by light, heat, and a new element of chickens scratching, the volunteers are once again starting to grow.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Bean Field War

(Today's prompt was to enter a story at its end, with a character walking away from a situation. I was planning to write about volunteers and pests, but the pests became such a source of reflection and enjoyment that I never quite got to volunteers. Perhaps they will be next.)

Mid-September 2012. It was about 8 p.m., and the hens had finally calmed down for the night. Jim and I were in the chicken coop administering medication for a potential bacterial infection and/or virile illness that was threatening to decimate the flock when a loud crash and clatter came from the barn.

"The goddamn deer," said Jim.

"Stay calm," I replied. "We can only handle one crisis at a time."

The crisis that the deer wrought became apparent the next morning when Jim strolled through the three sisters garden we had planted on the south side of the barn and discovered that the deer had pretty much eaten every bean growing on the vines wrapped around the drying corn stalks. We had used the barn wall as a border for a fence made of a flimsy deer-netting material that surrounded the other three sides of the garden. Even thought the deer-netting kept falling down and often snared small birds and butterflies in its filmy layers, it had managed to keep the deer somewhat at bay until the night when consumed by efforts to heal our hens, we had inadvertently left the barn doors open and a path into this particular garden that the deer were delighted to discover.

"Goddamn deer," said Jim. "They destroyed our winter bean crop."

"Don't worry about it," I replied. "We'll know better next year."

We survived, of course. By late October, frosts and a steady rain from the remnants of Hurricane Sandy that made it to upstate New York had left whatever bean pods still stood in the local farmers' fields into a soggy mess. A farming family known as the Otrembiak's brought their wet vines to the local farmers market. Jim and I eyed them with delight. After being assured that the beans would still be good if we gave the vines a chance to lie flat and dry out, we virtually bought the Otrembiak's out, spending about $15 on beans over the the last three summer markets. With a little patience and a few hours of shelling, we managed to procure enough dried red, black, and white beans to last us through the winter.

And Jim finally won his fight for an electric fence to block the deer from future harvests after I, doing some research, became sufficiently convinced that such fences were not inhumane. The fences produce a low-voltage shock that keep the deer out, much as the locked door to a house is said to keep the honest man from breaking in. The fences only need to be on when humans are not present, and offer a better alternative to both the netting that endangers birds and the six-foot-high fences that would cost a couple thousand dollars to install and require a hefty amount of yearly maintenance. On top of all that, the electric fences are not fences in the literal sense. They're more like a circle of posts with two or three ropes of wiring in between.

Now, you might be wondering why we'd go through so much trouble to grow beans and battle deer when beans -- quite frankly -- are so cheap. Even when marketed as organic, dried beans rarely run more than $3 or $4 a pound. And, if you don't want to deal with the hassle of soaking the beans overnight, canned beans, which are sometimes even cheaper than their dried counterparts, offer a ready solution.

The reason why we invest so much energy into growing beans is that the taste of beans grown fresh by you and allowed to dry in their natural pods for four to six weeks before you shell them is indescribably delicious. The best commercial supplier of beans cannot deliver a product as fresh as this. Most dried beans that are sold in health food stores, co-ops, and groceries are at least two years older than the products of a summer harvest.

Neither Jim nor I cared for beans that much until the summer of 2009 when the Alvarez brothers from Moses Lake, WA, began to bring their harvests of black, white, red, pinto, and yellow beans to the farmers market in Seattle that we used to frequent. The attractive colors were too alluring to pass up, and one bite of their beans cooked with onion, green chili, and a gentle grating of cheese had us hooked for life. We resolved that if we ever had a chance to do so, we would grow such beans ourselves. That resolution grew into an imperative during our first summer of living in Saratoga Springs, NY, when we could not find a single farmer who grew beans for market. Few farmers possessed the machinery that the Alvarez family had, we were told, and the task of hand-shelling would make the market cost of beans overly prohibitive.

The Alvarez family told me that they let the beans dry in their pods through the winter. In early spring, they ran the pods through a threshing machine that mechanically separated the beans from the pods.

On the last day of the Saratoga Springs summer market in 2010, the Otrembiak's surprised us by selling bean vines in shopping bags. Looking at the vines, I could see brittle pods. I cracked one pod open and a half-dozen dark red beans fell into my hand. I realized that we could do the shelling ourselves.

We left the market with three giant bags of beans, and ended up with enough of a supply to last us through our first winter (though I have to admit that we ate beans sparingly) as well as a handful that we planted the following summer. The bean vines survived an onslaught of winds produced by Hurricane Irene, and created for us a modest harvest. We decided in early 2012 to get more ambitious and ordered packets of several types of beans from Johnny Seeds, a popular organic New England supplier.

Where we live now in upstate New York, the beans usually are dry enough to shuck from their shells by late October. We have found that they do need an overnight soak and a slow long cook to maximize their flavor. We've also found that if you plan your harvest right, you can plant your beans quite close together (two to three inches) apart starting in early June, and have a pretty strong harvest by October. A pretty strong harvest ideally lets you eat beans once a week between November and June, and leaves you with enough to start your following year's crop.

The only problem is that deer love beans even more than humans do.

Beans sprout fast. But the plants need heat and between 75 and 100 days to form the bushes or the stalks upon which the pods form. Once the pods form, the beans can be eaten -- if you want to eat green beans. But if you're planning to dry them for the winter, they need to remain in the garden much, much longer.

The deer do not understand the nuances of this logic.

We planted beans in five different sections of our various garden beds. Systematically, the deer discovered them -- usually after dark -- leaving us to discover the next morning stubs. We put up the netting and did our best to free the birds and insects that got entangled in them, but soon the netting, too, proved to be not enough. The plants grew tall, and eventually taller than the netting, which created an invitation for the the wide-eyed, graceful deer to lean in and munch. The longer we waited for our harvest to ripen, the more available the beans became for the deers' daily diets.

"Once they discover you're growing beans, you'll never get rid of them," warned Dave and Liza, chicken farmers who came to visit one day and see our fields. "They'll go after all your other crops, too, especially when the pickings get slim in the woods, come September."

And so they did. Besides beans, the deer devoured our fall plantings of collard greens, kale, and spinach. They also decimated brussels sprouts, and even nibbled at our hot cayenne. It might not have mattered if our gardening was a hobby, and if we weren't trying to live sustainably by growing our own food. With our source of food under attack, Jim could be heard muttering threats about buying a .22.

Numerous families in our area of Saratoga County possess hunting licenses. When deer hunting season opens in November, it is not uncommon to hear gunfire, though a bit unnerving for the two of us, who as former city dwellers were used to gunfire resulting from much more violent human interventions.

State laws regulate the hunting as a way of maintaining nature's balance; without some human clearance of the deer, the animals themselves would overtake the humans.

Some see deer-hunting as a war in which humans have an unfair advantage. I do not -- and probably never will -- own a hunting weapon or procure a license. However, I have come to see the relationship between deer and humans in terms of a truce. It is true that humans have come to occupy lands where deer once freely roamed. It is also true that deer enact a sort of reoccupation by consuming the fruits of human labor.  Both deer and humans need a certain amount of protein in their daily diets. Both can receive that protein from plant-based foods such as beans. If the deer consume the plants beyond the human's capability to grow more, humans are left with an alternative to get their protein from the flesh of animals, including deer. If the truce is unfair, it is because the deer -- as herbivores -- are limited in their options for protein. Hence, we have the bean field wars.

Yet, we survived the winter. So did the deer. We see them in the woods behind our house, and sometimes crossing through our neighbors' lawns. They see us, perhaps, and grin. Both us and the deer are ready for June 1, an unofficial start date for bean-planting. The electric fence posts have been hammered into the ground, along with a solar-powered operator. A few trees -- long dead and one felled by the 2011 winds of Irene -- need to be cleared and converted into firewood so the fence can be properly installed. For the past four days, it has been raining. When the skies clear, the fence will be installed. And the bean-planting will begin.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Skunks of Squashville

(This piece was inspired by's prompt to write about the source of a strange noise.)

The skunks that inhabit the woods behind Squashville Road are famous for being long-haired and friendly. From a distance, they vaguely resemble poodles with overgrown coats or even perhaps moving shag carpets. Some bear the signature black coat with white stripe down the back. Many, however, are white, beige, or somewhat tan with a black or brown stripe down their middle.

We first became acquainted with our resident skunks when our cat Pepper came home one September evening smelling strongly of one. Her eyes were glazed and at first she was running madly through the house until Jim, fearing that all of our belongings would soon smell of skunk, corralled her into the mudroom. We were preparing ourselves to call the after-hours urgent care animal clinic when an Internet search revealed that the skunk's spray while a bit pungent was usually harmless. A tomato juice bath could cut the odor and reduce any sting that might be glazing a pet's eyes.

We had tomato paste, which we diluted with water. We soaked a bath towel in the orange liquid and managed to wrap Pepper in it. The juice seemed to ease whatever  pain she might have had in her eyes, but she now smelled like a combination of skunk and tomato sauce. More Internet searching revealed another home remedy: a warm water bath with dish soap, baking soda and hydrochloric acid. We sacrificed another towel to the cause of the cat, and she emerged from it clean and fresh-smelling. We wrapped her in a blanket and carried her into the house so she could warm herself by the fire.

We were so impressed by the clean smell of dish soap and baking soda that we then decided to stop buying laundry detergent and see how it would work on our clothes. As finances got tight, I quietly thanked the skunk that sprayed Pepper for teaching us one new trick in the art of thrift.

The skunks returned the following summer, and one of our other cats Salty -- who sports a snow-white coat of fur and can probably run a five-minute mile if she needs to -- quickly decided that she wanted to make one of them her next present for her loving owners. Dusk after dusk, as I was trying to herd her in, I would find her in the tall unmowed grass of our backyard crouched down in hunting posture. Two feet, three feet, four feet ahead of her would be the skunk -- white and woolly with a brown stripe on its back.

Now, Salty is a girl in every sense of being a girl. She preens herself incessantly. Her nightly nail and fur cleaning regime is so well known that our next door neighbor sometimes comes over to watch. But she was a kitten in a household of male cats, which meant that she learned how to be a tomboy real fast. At four months, she climbed to the top branches of our neighborhood trees. At six months, she followed me four blocks up a steep hill to a coffee shop where I would grade papers. She caught her first mouse when she was just over a year old, and outran scores of squirrels in our old neighborhood in Seattle where she was born. Upon moving to upstate New York, one of her first achievements was to bring home a baby bunny rabbit -- the first of our cats and the only one to date to do so.

I didn't worry too much about Salty's fetish for skunks. Moving to the country had given the cats a plethora of possibilities outdoors, and with ample food coming from small birds, mice, and moles, they had evolved into terrible hunters. The proof of their ineptness was reinforced when B-Girl (who is actually a boy, but that is another story) put out a paw tentatively onto the coils of a sleeping garter snake. The snake put up its head and B-Girl leaped terrified three feet into the air. I didn't actually see this happen but heard about it from my husband Jim later.  I was grateful. The last thing I needed was a gift of a garter dropped at my feet by a cat rubbing my ankles.

But I digress. Back to the skunk. I had done some research on skunk-cat relationships and had learned that they were compatible creatures. Many people who loved cats also loved skunks and adopted them as pets, a prospect that filled animal-loving Jim's heart with desire for several moments. I, however, was not willing to extend my fondness for felines that far. I did worry, however, about the skunk getting the better of Salty. Unlike Pepper, who is small, sweet, and compliant, Salty has a nasty mean-girl side to her. I couldn't imagine dousing her with tomato juice or baking soda and dishwashing soap without her inflicting some serious damage to Jim and/or myself. Fortunately for us, though not perhaps for Salty or the skunk, the neighbor's dog Chase turned the hapless skunk one afternoon into lunch.

Or so we thought. One night a few weeks after Chase devoured his prey, a rustling noise that sounded like a cat scratching at a wall startled us outdoors. We went out with a flashlight, and in the golden glow were able to make out the long silky threads of a skunk's furry back. The skunk was scrabbling quietly in a bag of dried pea pods I had left on the deck, meaning to husk them for seeds for the following spring's crop.

Preferring to feed the skunk seeds from peas over offering it an opportunity to unleash its powerful smell, we quietly turned off the flashlight and went indoors. I fell asleep on the sofa while reading a little past midnight.

Around 2 a.m., I awoke to a clatter. Jim, who had been dosing in a chair beside me, headed into the basement. A black silky body, with a signature white stripe, had managed to make its way in via a crawl space that should have been plugged but was recently opened to get some boiler work done. Jim came back upstairs, his eyes grim and his jaw set. No skunk was going to inhabit this basement. He began to hunt for a broom, when I remembering him chasing raccoons who had invaded our house in Seattle and a bat that Pascha (the fourth of our industrious cats) had brought into a Saratoga Springs apartment via an open window hastily intervened. "If you scare it, it might spray," I said. "If you hurt it, it surely will."

Jim understands sense when he hears it. He quietly closed the basement door and we both made our way up to bed.

The four cats accustomed to all sorts of oddness didn't even rise from their slumber.

In the morning, the skunk was gone. The basement smelled like a basement -- which is perhaps the one scent worse than a skunk's spray. Fall approached, then winter. And with the arrival of spring so came back the skunk. We discovered its calling card one muggy night as a thunderstorm approached. Lightning forked the sky, clouds collided into thunder, and a few minutes later, a much-needed rain began to fall. But before we could get the windows closed, our visiting skunk emitted its familiar odor. It's still with us a week later.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A really good life and one awful day

(Today's story was triggered by a desire that's been building in me to explore my growing relationship with farm animals and the ultimate consumption of their meat. It is not meant to be graphic or judgmental but more of an exploration than anything else.)

Bertha's facial expression remained stolid as two customers approached her cheese display case at the farmers market in Salvation City, NY. The customers were less interested in her varieties of goat, sheep's and cow cheese, however, than in the array of meats listed as available on her sign.

"Remind me again of the shank," said one of the customers, a farmers market regular.

Bertha gestured toward her arm. "It's this part of the goat."

"And you've liked it in the past," the customer's husband said.

"It's an absolutely wonderful cut of meat," Bertha affirmed. "Soft, tender, really delicious."

"Unfortunately," she added, "I don't have any today. But I will soon."

Her face fell. "Today was the day."

Further queries from the customers revealed them to be well-acquainted with Bertha and her farm. They had visited often, and knew several of the goats by their names. The male half of the couple was particularly affectionate with the animals, and loved every aspect of them, from the soft fur under their throats to the products they produced: sweet milk, aromatic soft cheeses, manure converted into compost for the garden, and ultimately their lean, tender meat. He had been convincing the woman -- with Bertha's nuanced support -- that they needed four to six goats for their yard. It would save on lawnmower costs, and even if the woman didn't care for the milk, it would create delectable yogurt to feed the hens.

The woman grew up in an Indian immigrant family in Indiana in the 1960s. Her parents were lifelong vegetarians but had worked to acculturate their three daughters, of whom the woman was the eldest, in every American way they could imagine. At the core of the assimilation exercise was eating meat. Once a week, the family would drive to a local hamburger drive-in, and order french fries for the parents, burgers for the girls, and chocolate milkshakes all around. Five decades later, the woman could claim to have tried to be vegetarian and failed. She didn't eat a lot of meat, but she valued her three ounces of animal-based protein that centered most of her dinners immensely.

Goat, however, was a different challenge. Back in the early 1970s, the woman's family had traveled to India and visited Kashmir at a time when tensions between India, Pakistan, and the People's Republic of China were high. In Kashmir, a former princely state turned contested terrain, Muslims predominated and, as result, so did meat. Only the meat was not beef but either mutton or goat. For the unfamiliar Indiana palate, the smell was gamey and the taste was one of those combinations of sour-sweet-bitter that diner either loves at first bite or feels her stomach turn.

The woman -- age ten at the time -- found herself in the latter category.

As the feta craze swept America, she learned to appreciate crumbles over a salad but couldn't stomach it in lasagna or omelets. As for the goat meat, she tried it in tacos at a Mexican food truck and in curries made in highly urban hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurants. But moving to upstate New York created a new challenge. Farmers were into sustainability and living close to the land, and pocketbooks quickly revealed that goats trumped cows when it came to the initial investment, output for feed, labor for milking, production of cheese, and the ultimate slaughter.

So the woman -- with the hand-holding support of Bertha who dearly loved goats -- was working to learn to like goats. She had mastered the art of stroking their noses, letting their rough tongues graze over their hands, and goat kebabs, loins, legs, shanks, and shoulders had begun to taste good slow-cooked on a grill.

As the woman overcame her distaste for goat, Bertha underwent a transformation in thought, too. The goats -- initially just animals for consumption and close-to-the-land commerce -- evolved into pets and ultimately pals. The woman and man might have had something to do with this. After they acquired their first four backyard hens from Bertha, they proceeded to name them, much to Bertha's disdain.

"They're creatures of limited intelligence," she warned. "Don't get too attached to them."

But attachment was building between Bertha and the goats. And, as the appointed day to herd the animals to the butcher drew near, she found herself spending more and more of her limited spare time hovering near their barns. She stroked their necks, and gave them special tufts of alfalfa and other grass sweets. She thanked them for enlivening her life, and the night before they were to depart, she sang them to sleep. Her voice, trained to sweeten the heavens, lulled them into peace. So much peace that when the next morning came, the goats rose with what Bertha believed were smiles in their mouths and eyes. The peaceful feeling remained as the goats were loaded into the truck and dispatched to the butcher.

They have a good life, Bertha said. A good life that includes one awful day.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Next Life

(The prompt for today was to write a piece involving a missing dog and a revolver on a kitchen table. It led me to a memory of my cat, Cir, who came into my life about one year before my husband Jim did and brought me a great deal of peace, tranquility, and joy. The chaos of Jim, his cat Woodsie, and a sudden surge in the feline population of our household sadly didn't quite work out for Cir. He spent two years with me, and was about eight or nine years old when he departed. I dedicate this story to him.)

When I first moved to Hawai'i, a lot of people told me that they never locked their doors at night. Few people had air conditioning because the cooling ocean breezes of the trade winds produced a natural, often plumeria scented comfort in homes. Few people worried about robbery or theft because, well, it wasn't part of the aloha spirit to be concerned with such matters. Your unlocked windows and your open doors were like an invitation, in a climate where it was understood that if you were in need, you could help yourself to what you needed. With a caveat. Only take what you need.

Reality, of course, was quite different. Thefts, robberies, sexual assaults, and break-ins did occur. I did lock my door at night, but I also left my windows and the back screen door to my fourth-story lanai open. I liked the plumeria scented comfort, and when Cir came into my life, he enjoyed the openness of the balcony. So much that once I peeked over and found him investigating the inside of the unit next door to me. He had slipped into through their open lanai door. Apparently, they liked plumeria scented comfort, too.

Back story:

When I announced in Seattle in 1995 that I had received a fellowship to study for one year in Hawai'i, panic among my friends ensued; What are you going to do with your house? What about your cat? What about your garden?

Their panic was my panic, for a minute. I was young, in my thirties, and fairly convinced I could work it all out. And did, for the most part. Friends rented the house for the fellowship ship, and when the stay extended ten more years into graduate school, I found a more permanent tenant. I had a plot in a community garden for awhile, and containers of tomatoes, herbs, and peppers on my lanai. The worst casualty was my cat, Barrio. She lived in quarantine in Honolulu for 120 days because of a now-defunct state law, and then moved with me from a shared plantation-style cottage to an apartment in a densely populated neighborhood called Makiki, where the open sliding door on the lanai became too tantalizing a taste of freedom to ignore. One night I came home from a late-night dinner with a friend with no sign of her whatsoever. I searched for traces for two years, to no avail. The last memory I have of her is lying on a futon mattress on the floor with her curled up in a ball pushed tight against me -- a gesture that I have come to interpret many years later as a cat's way of entering the next of the nine lives.

Cir was born the same year that Barrio left. He was found abandoned as a kitten on a street corner in Philadelphia by a man who used to call himself Misha and a woman who was Misha's girlfriend at the time. The romance faded and Misha ended up in Honolulu with cat Cir. I met him in late 2002 at a winter solstice ritual where he tried to seduce me into joining him in his so-called Tantric Temple. I ignored the temple but when he abruptly left Honolulu a few months later for reasons that were never quite explained, I offered to bring his cat into my home.

I had just turned forty and I was lonely. Several friends had proposed that since I felt too afraid to date, I might consider adopting a cat. Barrio's departure still weighed on my conscience, until Cir appeared. A Philadelphia fighter cat, he had a boxer's paws and a fighter's jaw. I saw him devour a bird on my lanai, and leap from the floor to the coffee table where my laptop sat to a bookshelf, then refrigerator -- all to sabotage a gecko. He frightened me at first, but when he started to curl up against me late at night as Barrio had, we quickly became friends. Other single female friends in my life at the time loved him, too, and for several months, he enjoyed status as the ever-present center of attention.

Then, Jim arrived.

Now, one point must be made quite clear. Jim is not the antagonist in this drama. Jim is the patron saint of all animals, and especially loves cats, to the point that he had three while living at one point in his life in Virginia Beach. A Navy man, he completed several deployments in the 1990s to the Persian Gulf, then was dispatched to San Diego for an aircraft carrier overhaul. The cats could not travel around the tip of South America with the ship and Jim could not find new owners. So one night he opened all the windows of his home and invited the cats to walk free. In the morning, he woke up to find five cats with him in his bed.

So Jim loves cats, perhaps too much. He displayed his love for Cir right after meeting him, and Cir, for the most part, reciprocated. Jim also had a cat named Woodsie, and when it appeared that Jim and I might become a couple, Jim proposed a slumber party for the cats.

Woodsie came over, and Cir -- being the elder cat and, of course, the Philly fighter -- quickly established the pecking order. Woodsie, who was certainly no push-over, put up a little bit of a fight. But Jim went off to work at 6 a.m. and I left for campus at 8:30., leaving the two cats alone. We both returned in mid-afternoon and watched as Cir and Woodsie walked into the apartment from the back lanai. Cautiously they circled and then, their noses met.

Jim whooped with joy. "We can get married and have children now!"

Children, however, were not offspring of the human sort. Two weeks later, Jim came to my apartment with an abandoned kitten who came to be known as Mini-Sox. Two months later, a trip to the Hawaiian Humane Society yielded another abandoned soul, a black-and-white tuxedo cat named 'Aina. And, then, a Honolulu fighter, Pascha, scuttled across a heavily-trafficked parking lot and jumped into the car of a friend. He was six weeks old, one pound in weight, and so scrawny that his back legs didn't quite operate. He needed a home, and so we took him.

By now, we had moved out of the apartment in Makiki and into a fairly spacious two-story modern flat in the neighborhood of Manoa. Set in a tropical rainforest against lush green mountains, the flat had two lanais and an open patio that led to a small yard in the back. The landlord gave us keys but told us the last robbery in the neighborhood had been in 1964. We figured it was safe to leave the doors and windows open.

Caught up in the changes unfolding all around me, I wasn't attentive to the effect that a multi-cat household was having on Cir. He retreated into himself, and if others -- cats or human -- tried to approach him, he snarled and flared his fighter jaw. His paws could wield a powerful punch, which quickly gave him access to the most inaccessible areas of the house -- a high shelf in an upstairs closet, the deep recesses of a lazy Susan cabinet in the kitchen, and ultimately the tropical outdoors.

He curled up in a ball against my body one night in November, and then disappeared for a week.

He came back, voluntarily, and then left again. Jim spotted him one night three weeks later on a street corner in Manoa and we coaxed him into our car and brought him home. He stayed two days, and left again. A man who lived near the Chinese cemetery in Manoa -- some three miles from our house -- found him looking for food six weeks later and took him to the Humane Society. They identified us as owners by his micro-chip, and we went to the shelter to pick him up. He sat in a box and glared at us, not particularly eager to come home.

We decided to let him re-acculturate to domestic life slowly. He had a free run of the house, but all doors to all lanais and patios were closed. After five days, he seemed to relax into a routine of spending most of the day on the high shelf of the closet and some of the night curled up in a tight ball against my body. We took him to the vet and he was found to be healthy, with exception of infected teeth that the vet recommended be extracted.

On the night before the surgery, Jim and I went out for dinner.

All four cats -- Cir, Woodsie, Aina, and Pascha -- were in the house alone.

We came home to find the downstairs sliding door to the patio pushed open, and three cats instead of four.

Like Barrio, Cir had disappeared into the next of his lives, leaving us no trace of his whereabouts, leaving us feeling all alone.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Disapproving eyes

(Inspired somewhat by a prompt to write a story from the perspective of an idiosyncratic character, but fueled more by the high level of discomfort I felt today for stepping out of politeness and speaking my mind about race.)

Shakira entered the locker room with her gym bag as usual. What was unusual was that it wasn't a weekend or after 6 p.m. She had had a break between an emotionally draining morning meeting and an afternoon appointment with the course-instructional designer, and had decided to use the time to swim. She found an empty locker, slipped off her shoes and socks, and began to undress. She pulled her swim suit out of her bag and over her naked body.

As she made her way toward the swimming pool, she noted with some satisfaction that the suit, two years old and faded and worn thin from the chlorine, was beginning to feel loose around her trim, athletic figure. Not so loose that it would fall off in the swim but loose enough to remind her of the weight she'd lost slowly and meticulously over the past twenty-eight months. Slowly, as she approached age fifty, her physical body, strength, muscle tone, and stamina had performed an act of age-reversal, sliding backwards through her difficult, financially stressful forties back to the level of peak fitness she had felt at thirty-eight. She wasn't afraid of getting old, but she was afraid of losing -- one more time -- her good health. Since her teens, she had gone through multiple cycles of weight gain and weight loss, with the last weight gain adding an excess of forty pounds to her four-foot-ten-inch frame.

Slowly, patiently, she had rekindled her nascent exercise regime, subjected herself to a compassionate but honest daily weigh-in, and had sacrificed the most heinous habits of her daily diet, step-by-step. The ritual paid off. She was now at a healthy weight, and hoped to stay in that space of glowing wellness for the rest of her life.

She made her way to the public shower and then approached the pool. She was in good luck. Four of the pool's lanes were open for lap swimmers, and two were unoccupied.

As she started to contemplate her route, she noticed a middle-aged woman in the pool balancing a kickboard on her head and staring at her with what seemed to be a hint of disapproval.

Shakira shrugged, and then she noticed that the woman's gaze was traveling down her body taking in her neck, her bare shoulders and arms, and her breasts.

Shakira closed her eyes and shook her head. Why would this woman be looking at her so intently? Shakira used to get a lot of stares, back in the 1960s and 1970s when seeing a dark-skinned woman at a public pool was something of a novelty. Years later, she would read of how civil rights activists in her own hometown in the middle of America where the Ku Klux Klan once ran City Hall began a push for equality in the 1950s by forcing a desegregation of the local pool. A coach accompanied three African American male swimmers to the pool and kept watch on the water as the youths dove in and began swimming laps. The presence of the coach most likely kept the act of civil disobedience from turning into a violent altercation between the boys and the pool's other occupants, until police arrived.

Arrests were made. A lawsuit was filed. Protests ensued. The pool was closed for several weeks as city officials wrestled with the issue before doing the right thing and reopening the pool to all members of the public, without regard for race.

Still, Shakira had been swimming since she was six, and some four decades later often felt like a dark speck in a crowd. She had learned to build a barrier between her heart and the eyes watching her, to the point that she no longer really noticed stares. The problem with the barrier, though, was that the hurt inside her heart had no space to heal. The pain permanently lay trapped like two flies buzzing helplessly between two panes of window glass.

She decided to conclude that the woman wasn't really looking at her. She focused on her workout plan and within seconds forgot about the gaze. Until the woman hailed her from the pool.

"Miss, miss."

The hailing seemed like a sound of distress. Shakira stopped in her tracks and walked over to the woman's lane.


"Yes? Do you need some help?"

"Miss, you really need a new swimming suit. You're terribly exposed."

Shakira felt confused.It was a one-piece suit, faded from use, hanging a little loose, a little worn down in a few places, but exposed? Had the suit torn somehow? Fumbling for an answer, she began running her hands over her body, trying to feel for a hole.

The woman's stare turned into a frown.

"Really now," she said.

"Oh, it'll be okay," Shakira said carelessly. "Tomorrow's payday. I'll look for a new suit then."

She could feel her heart throbbing, as her pain radar kicked on. Best to stop the conversation now, she thought, and get into the pool.

She could feel the woman's eyes boring holes into her back as she walked away.

Jumping into the shallow lane of the lap swim pool, Shakira adjusted her goggles and forced herself to smile. The smile turned into laughter as she contemplated the possibility of the swimsuit suddenly disintegrating in the chlorine, leaving behind only patches on her body. What would the woman think? Shakira began swimming but couldn't find her usual groove. The woman, she noticed, continued to stand in the shallow end of the non lap lane holding her head up regally with the kickboard balanced on her hair.

What is this anyway? Shakira wondered. Practice for debutante night? Who stands in a swimming pool anyway with a kickboard balanced on dry hair?

Between breaths, Shakira noticed the woman twirling her body in circles, and stopping every so often to look at her, inspecting her swimsuit perhaps for further wear and tear.

Slowly, the stares had what was perhaps their intended effect. Shakira's righteous indignation over being singled out for wearing a shoddy swim suit evolved into shame for owning just that suit. Guiltily, Shakira remembered how she had bought the swim suit at T.J. Maxx's on a Memorial Day Monday following a similar swim. As she had climbed out of the pool, the suit she had been wearing -- its once supple fabric crusted stiff from repeated exposures to salt water and chlorine -- had ripped along the side. "That's the end of that one," she had declared, and even though money was tight, she had headed for the T.J. Maxx, figuring she could find a replacement there for under $15.

Shame became humiliation as Shakira thought of her current bank balance. She was in the red. Would it have made a difference, she wondered, if she hadn't had the bag of Fritos from the vending machine the day before?

Counting down the hours until payday, Shakira wondered where best to shop for a new suit. T.J. Maxx? Ross? Or online?

She was an athlete again. Maybe she could splurge on a $65 Tyr Razorback, but would there be $65 left after bills, groceries, gasoline for her car, feed for her hens, flea treatment for her cats? What about the books she wanted to buy, as well? The last suit lasted two years and cost $13. But now it was worn down and shoddy. Could she dare repeat the act?

The woman was still in the pool balancing the kickboard on her head when Shakira hoisted herself out, fifty minutes and 2,000 yards later. Excess water caused the suit to sag around her hips a little further. Quickly, averting the disapproving gaze, Shakira grabbed a towel, wrapped it around her waist and headed for the locker room.

Another woman stood underneath the public shower. Shakira smiled a half-smile as she pushed open the double-doors to exit the pool area.

"Miss," the woman said. "That suit has got to go."

"Apparently, you're not the first person to think so," Shakira said. "I thank you for your advice and your prying eyes."