Thursday, October 10, 2019

Maggie




            We have a dog named Maggie. She is a bronze statue that we purchased years ago at an art gallery in Sawyer, Michigan. The owner of the gallery bought it in an estate sale in Chicago. The artist is unknown, but that doesn’t matter to us. What matters is that Maggie is very well behaved, never barks, does not shed, and does not require walks in bad weather. The only downside is that people sometimes stub a toe on her.



            Recently a couple was touring our house (folks we met at our garage sale), and when they spotted Maggie, I said, “She’s our last dog.” I was trying to make a weak joke about our aging – that you go through a series of dogs in your life, and when you get near the end you are on your last dog. What our friends heard, however, is that we had our last dog bronzed after she died – you know, like what you do (or used to do) with baby shoes. I guess they thought it was similar to what you might ask a taxidermist to do, only more durable.

            Once I cleared the matter up, it occurred to me that having our last dog bronzed makes for a better story than finding a statue in a gallery, so why not stick with it? After all, we have learned from reading the news that we are living in a “post-truth era” where a statement that grammatically sounds like a statement of fact can and will be taken for the truth. And besides, Maggie might have been made from someone’s last dog.

            To test out my new approach, I told another garage sale couple that Maggie had been bronzed from our last dog. I received looks of sympathy seasoned with horror, and the couple decided not to ask any follow-up questions, so I feel that my alternative version of reality is successful.

            My task, now that Maggie is inhabiting that alternative reality, is to populate it with other stories. The world has suddenly opened up for me – stuff in our house, but also the scar on my hand, my previous career as an astronaut, the crime I got away with, the assumed name I use to publish my best-selling books.

            But, of course, everything I write in this blog is and will be true.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Pet Peeves


            Last week a friend asked me if I have any pet peeves. No, I said, not really. Then I got to thinking about it. I know this makes me sound like an Old Guy, but so be it:

            Packaging: I was struggling to open a package of bacon, but the plastic would not peel apart. Maybe it’s just another example of Me Getting Older, but I find myself in more and more frequent battles with plastic packaging. Especially difficult/annoying are those labeled with something like “E-Z Open.” Part of the blame goes back to the S.O.B. who tampered with Tylenol containers, but it’s hard not to blame the plastic itself. Nobody would ever tamper with bacon in order to make it unhealthy. I’m glad CDs are no longer sold so I don’t have to wrestle with them any more.
            It’s not always the packaging. Our daughter, Genne’, knows a lot about wine. She recently reported on a long and frustrating struggle with a corkscrew before she realized that the wine bottle had a hidden screw-off cap. No doubt a lot of my struggles are similar.

            Smoke Alarms: I know, I know – we have to have them, they save lives, etc., etc. And we need to have battery back-ups, and we need to change the batteries once a year, etc., etc. But still, sometimes the batteries do need replacing, and the smoke alarm always decides to tell us about it at 2 a.m. Most recently it was the alarm located at the highest point in our bedroom, the one reachable by the extension ladder in the garage. That one stopped chirping after 20 minutes, during 5 of which it announced that we were on fire, but its cousin out in the hall took up the cry, accompanied by a voice that said, “dead battery.” Kim and I decided to sleep in the guest bed in the basement.
            The next day I replaced all the batteries. Most of the alarms had 9-volt batteries, and I was feeling fairly competent as I clicked them into place. Two alarms, however, had two AA batteries, but when I replaced them, the chirping and dead battery alerts continued. I tried every possible battery orientation, and then I bought a new set of batteries in case my replacements were also dead. No help. I called the electrician who had installed the alarms, and he told me that those two also doubled as carbon monoxide detectors, and they frequently were defective. He told me how to unhook the alarms, warning me that they sometimes kept chirping anyway, that his guys would sometimes hide them in each other’s truck, so I should probably store them out in the garage. I thought of a neighbor whose porch might make a good resting place, but I went with the garage option. They were replaced a day later. I’m glad they did not come in plastic packaging. Wasn’t there a Friends episode about this?

            Phone Trees: I’m not sure I have the right term here, but what I have in mind are my struggles, when attempting to call just about any kind of business, to reach an actual human being. You are forced to go through all these choices in an attempt to get help with a problem that may not fit the categories in the phone tree. I’ve learned to hit to “O” key from time to time, or to guess the choice most likely to get you in touch with a person – sometimes “sales” or perhaps, “discontinue service,” but watch out for that last one. Years ago I could pretend to have a rotary phone, but I was outed when the recording said, “If you have a rotary phone, press 2.”

            Randy: We have a neighbor, let’s call him “Randy,” who has repeatedly stolen our garage sale signs, to the tune of $80. Yes, I did steal signs in my younger days, but it was cool then, right? I fondly remember stealing signs to detour traffic into the driveways of my friends. But it’s an entirely different matter when a neighbor – not a 16-year-old kid but a man in his 60s – is attempting to settle some imagined wrong we must have done him, perhaps moving into his neighborhood. He’s done it 6 times. We called the sheriff, who spoke with him (he denied it), and he stole one last sign before heading south for the winter. Good riddance. I’m peeved about the stolen signs, but mainly by knowing that people can be such assholes. Same goes for people who steal stuff from our garage sale (over $1,000 worth). (Time here for a witty remark, but I’m not there yet.) It can’t be a lot of fun to wake up every morning, full of anger, looking forward to a day of being Randy.

            People Who Ask About Pet Peeves: I think I was a happier person before I was asked to pay attention to the above.

            On the other hand, this Old Guy is grateful for some counterbalancing items:

            Our New Neighbors: Ted and Karen, Rick and Sandy, Don and Nancy, plus some potential friends we met at our garage sale.

            GPS: We’d be lost without it. And neighbors, you should be honored to be on the same level as our GPS.


OK, readers – What are your pet peeves? Email them to me at dstring@ix.netcom.com or stringer.david13@gmail.com. They may be part of a future blog post, unless you forbid it.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Dead Bird


            Last week we discovered a bird, a red-eyed vireo, that had crashed into our window. It was lying on the ground, still alive, panting rapidly. We waited about half an hour for it to recover and fly away. Then Kim put it into a cardboard box to bring it inside, not wanting it to be harassed by other wildlife. We could tell it was seriously injured, possibly a broken wing and foot. Outside again, it tried to fly but immediately crashed into the lake. We pulled it out using a rake, and then Kim held it gently in her hand, stroking its head and talking to it until its labored breathing eased. Kim felt an immediate bond with the bird. We returned it to its box while we ate dinner, and after dinner it was dead. We buried it in the woods.

            Alas, mortality. We felt helpless. That’s part of what it means to be human. William Stafford understands this helplessness:

Traveling through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car   
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;   
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,   
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;   
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;   
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,   
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

            I have to point out the beautiful and subtle music of this poem, where Stafford uses near-rhymes (e.g., engine/listen, swerving/river) to capture the poignancy of the moment. There was nothing he could do to save the faun. Sometimes there are no perfect solutions, though my students worked hard to come up with one. We are all traveling though the dark, doing the best we can. But we can also pause to bear witness to the moment, as Kim and I did. And we, too, felt “the wilderness listen.”

            The death of our bird was rich for another reason, one that Gerard Manley Hopkins understood:

Spring and Fall 
to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving 
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! ás the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you wíll weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It ís the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.

           The music here is more explicit, especially with the accents to indicate how the poem
should sound, the music leading perfectly to that conclusive last line. Margaret, watching
the leaves fall, is unknowingly weeping for her own mortality, which she “ghost guessed.” Her 
heart senses that mortality “is the blight man was born for.” Stafford’s speaker, more
consciously, paused and “thought hard for us all,” as did Kim and I with our bird. This
appreciation – for that’s what it is – provides a richness to our lives, especially as we grow
older.

            But we were not entirely helpless in the face of mortality. Kim held the dying bird, gently
stroked its head, spoke softly to it. One possible response to our helplessness in the face of
mortality is to offer comfort when and where and however we can.           



Thursday, September 19, 2019

Ethical Wills


            My friend Peter recently sent me a talk he wrote on the subject of “Facing Our Mortality,” and among the many rich and valuable ideas there, I discovered the concept of “ethical wills.” Apparently this is a well-established part of Jewish tradition, but as one living outside that tradition, it was new to me. Peter described it this way:

In our tradition Jews are instructed to leave ethical wills as they would leave wills for the distribution of their property. Ethical wills grew out of the yearning of parents to consider, write and talk to their children directly about the values they wanted to bestow upon their offspring, the identity they would choose for their children and to make it clear what mattered in their, the parents’ lives.

            Kim and I are familiar with the “distribution of property” kind of will. In addition to our formal documents dealing with house, savings, etc., I have a file on my computer titled “Who Gets What” where we make explicit who gets the dining room table that Kim’s dad made, who gets my swept-clean computer, who gets my faded t-shirts, my grandfather’s books, etc.

            But what about values and identity?

            My first response was to toss out some words – you know, “honor,” “integrity,” and the like. Somehow, that seems too easy. I looked up the Boy Scout Law that I memorized and forgot years ago: A Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Good stuff, but reciting a list of words does not go deep enough. (And I wonder what “clean” is doing on that list. And “thrifty” might not belong in the top twelve.) Looking over the Boy Scout list, I think I can narrow it down to two values: being kind and being reverent. Enough has been written lately about kindness, and I have little to add.

            Reverence, to me, is more interesting, though not necessarily in a religious context. I think it’s important to feel reverence for something – the natural world, your spouse and family, humankind, artistic creation, whatever. Something. Something for which you feel awe and respect because it is more than you, beyond your ego and your little ego-world. But I will save this for exploration in a future blog post.

            The hard part, for me, is not to come up with a list of the values I want to pass along to my children – or to anyone else who is interested. It’s the “talk to their children directly” that makes me pause. Nobody wants to hear that kind of lecture, especially when it can easily be taken as a criticism of what they are doing wrong. I’m not sure that direct talk is the most effective medium for values and identity transfer, especially that now, for many young people, texting counts as “talking.” I’d like to think that living by those values would be enough to do the job of transfer, but that’s a lazy way out, isn’t it? No, it will have to include talking directly, though the word “write” in Peter’s talk might give me a way out.

            At this point, I’m not sure what to do. How do you create an effective ethical will? Suggestions? How do you do it?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Fruit Flies


            Kim and I often enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. Lately we are not the only ones enjoying that glass of wine.


            Don’t get me wrong – Kim and I enjoy the natural world, even insects, as Kim’s photographs illustrate. Fruit flies may be an exception. I’ve occasionally wondered whether St. Francis would swat a mosquito, and now, how he would deal with fruit flies who attack his wine.

            I have some experience with fruit flies. During my sophomore year in college I took a course in Evolution, and I recall doing some sort of experiment involving fruit flies. I’m not sure it was the same species as is harassing my wine, but it’s close enough. I’m not sure what we did to them in the lab back in 1962, but I probably put some sort of bad karma into the insect world, and it’s circling back at me now, possibly as delayed revenge.

            What to do? I tried clapping my hands over the wine glass, hoping to smash a few as they lifted off, but they are quick and elusive, and the few that I squashed would drop into the wine. We picked up some of the plastic lids you get for to-go drinks, but that compromises the elegance of the wine experience, which, as I learned from Kim, involves the quality of the glass as well as the wine. At the suggestion of a friend we set out a plate that combines vinegar and dish soap, and that got a few of them. Then we purchased a pair of table-top fruit fly traps that look like small plastic apples. Pour in the liquid that comes with the kit and you have something that captures and kills a few more – though it does not add to the elegance of the dinner table. Nor did the dish of soap and vinegar sprinkled with fruit fly corpses. I suggested lighting the candles on the table, hoping they would be drawn to the light, but they were too smart for that.

            Why so many fruit flies? For one thing, they are small enough to squeeze in through the screens in our windows, something it took us a while to understand. Also, our neighbor, Karen, did some research that suggested that cherry growers in Turkey were undercutting our prices here in northern Michigan, so growers were just leaving cherries to rot on the trees, leading to the population explosion. It might be time for another tariff . . .. Nancy, another neighbor, said it happens at this time every year, and her husband said that fruit flies like his Southern Comfort as much as our wine. Fruit flies appear to be alcoholics.

            After a week or so, the plague of fruit flies has abated somewhat. It may be those red plastic apples, or it may have to do with the cobwebs that I have been removing with less enthusiasm. It may be a result of their flying while drunk. 

            I believe that my fruit fly experience qualifies as a First World Problem, a step or two behind hurricanes, starvation, war, global warming, and mortality itself. Fair enough. But part of my spiritual growth includes a commitment to “being present,” and this week, that means being present with fruit flies.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

Icarus and Mortality


            Lately I’ve been thinking about the fall of Icarus. The myth is usually taken as a lesson about the danger of flying too high, as the sun will melt the wax holding your wings together, and down you go. Moderation is best.

            But there are other ways to see the story. First, Pieter Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus:


(You can see the legs of Icarus just below the stern of the ship.)

            Auden’s take on the painting:

Musee des Beaux Arts 

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 

Our suffering, even our death, takes place, for the most part, unnoticed: “how everything turns away.”

            And from William Carlos Williams:

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

The landscape is “concerned / with itself.” Not us.

            But then there is this, from Jack Gilbert:

Failing and Flying 

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It's the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

            I sent this poem to a recently divorced friend. He said it didn’t help. But it’s not about marriage and divorce – like the other two poems, it’s about how we see our endings. Everything will “turn away,” and the world, natural and human, is “concerned / with itself.”

            None of this, however, diminishes the triumph. The challenge is to identify and appreciate our triumphs.

            I showed a draft of this post to Kim. “Shit happens,” she said. “Get over it.”


Comment from Charmaine Stangl:

Wow! I thought I was tired, but I wanted to check e-mails before getting ready for bed.  This removed all traces of weariness from my brain, if not my body. "Musee des Beaux Arts" has always been a favorite, and the other Icarus themed poems were a treat, especially "Failing and Flying."  Most of all I liked your idea of the challenge being to appreciate our triumphs.  That started a little waterfall of ideas.  First i thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay"s words, "My candle burneth at both ends -- it will not last the night.  But oh, my friends and ah, my foes, it gives a lovely light."  Then I thought of Sara Teasdale's words: "...for one white, singing hour of peace count many a moment of strife well lost."  Then I thought of the agonizing pain of the end of a relationship that you don't want to end.  As bad as it feels you wouldn't for a moment choose not to have had the glorious moments.  Last (so far), regarding the way we just move on, i thought of the Seinfield episode where George's fiancee dies from licking the cheap wedding invitation envelopes George bought.  Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine say a few polite words as they walk out of the hospital, then one of them looks at his/her watch and says, "Let's go get something to eat!"  Everyone responds with enthusiasm.  Please excuse my unwillingness to look up spelling/punctuation.  I had only enough energy to get the thoughts down.  Thanks for the wake-up!


Thursday, August 29, 2019

Garage Sale


            Kim and I have always enjoyed having garage sales. The analogy I use is that it’s like taking a crap and someone else hauls it away – and they pay you for it! But there is more to it than that. Garage sales are a way that we connect with people, both neighbors and strangers. 

            As a guy, I don’t make those connections easily. Most of my friendships, except those dating back 55+ years at college, come on the coat tails of Kim’s girlfriends. (This means you, Manny, Bill, Rick.) I’m not very good at initiating friendships on my own. These garage sale connections are a lot less than friendships, resembling more what I learned to do as a Starbucks barista, initiating a conversation based on the customer’s clothing (“Is that a University of Wisconsin hat?”), or accent (“Boston?”) or book they might be carrying (“Shades of Gray? Really?”), [Note consecutive punctuation marks.] I’d form a brief 30-second relationship while making change, and then on to the next person. Perfect.

            My garage sale relationships last a bit longer. In fact, most of the time I’m standing out in the driveway talking with the husband while Kim is in the garage explaining some of our weird merchandise to the wife. I figure that the longer I can engage the guy in conversation, the better chance Kim has to sell something – though half the time she is just discussing health or grandkids with the wife. I’ve learned that people are a lot more interested in themselves than they are in me or anyone else, so that is where I take the conversation: “Where are you from?” “What did you do before you retired?” “Have you always been this fat?” (Just kidding with the last one . . ..) Some of our “customers” stay for over an hour. One guy insisted on showing me photos of his dog, and several times Kim has invited couples into our home. A few couples have come back to visit, though they pretend to be looking over our stuff again.

            We enjoy making money at our garage sales, but Kim also enjoys trades. She traded one neighbor some kitchen stuff for banana bread and rhubarb sauce, and a stranger returned with an oriole’s nest that she somehow learned that Kim fancied, and Kim gave her a bedspread in exchange. But making money is important. It allows us to pay for trees and flowers without feeling bad. We do not put prices on anything, as Kim prefers to engage in conversation with customers (“How much do you want to pay?”). If anyone asks me a price, I say, “Let me ask my wife,” and they immediately understand.

            I did accidentally come up with one marketing strategy that I have not yet tried. We had a garage sale in Saline where we were selling some tools of Scott’s. I wrote the word “tools” on our sign, and I noticed a lot more cars stopped. Why? Not to stereotype, but usually when couples drive around, the guy is behind the wheel. Guys behind the wheel tend to see Garage Sale signs better when the word Tools occurs on the sign. So, I’m going to try using the magic word, even with no tools, explaining to the guy, while his wife shops with Kim, that I just sold them all 10 minutes ago. We’ll see how that works.

            Another advantage of garage sales involves multitasking. We have yet to advertise our sales, preferring simply to put our signs when we are doing yard work. We rarely have a lot of traffic – one car every 20 minutes counts as “busy” – so we get a lot of planting, weeding and watering done. I’m not very good at multitasking, but I take pride in my ability to squirt a hose at a tree while glancing at the garage.

            Many of the people who stop at our garage sale ask about the bark siding on our house, and usually we invite them to take a closer look. Some of these folks are or used to be builders, and others are looking for cottage ideas. Occasionally these people neglect to check out the garage sale, but that’s OK. We are proud of our Bark House.

            Our next official garage sale will be the last weekend in September. We hope there will be no snow on the ground. I’ve started working on the ad for the local weekly paper and various internet locations I will have to find. Most of the summer people (sometimes called “fudgies” because they are drawn to the numerous Up North fudge shops), and their money, will be gone, but that’s OK. We are looking forward to the 3-day garage sale event. We may serve cookies and call it a party.