Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Other


            This week, while I was pulling up my pants, I saw a large eagle land in a tree just outside our bathroom window. It was grasping a large fish, gashed open on its flank. I ran to call for Kim to see it, effectively scaring it away.

            That evening we switched off the television to sit on our sun porch (heated) to enjoy some grapes and cheese. I saw a large deer approach the cracked corn and potato skins that we had set out for them. Kim told me she thought it was pregnant, and she advised me not to move at all. I didn’t, and a few minutes later, two more deer appeared – a small doe and a young buck sporting spikes. Kim had seen deer there before, but only when her sleeping problems had her up and looking at 5 a.m. Seeing them at 10 p.m. saved me from an early wake-up.

            Thrilling it is, but what’s the thrill?

            We have been watching birds at the feeders for months now, and we've been birders and bird photographers for several years, but this was somehow different. Birding puts us in touch with nature, and except for our shots at our feeders, it takes us out into nature. But the birds at our feeders – the chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, woodpeckers – have become members of our family. We take meals together, separated only by a bit of glass. Family.

            The eagle and the deer are different. They are part of The Other.

            (My thoughts here are under the influence of The Overstory by Richard Powers, a marvelous novel.)

            We live in an enclosed world – our houses, our cities, our friends and families, pets and livestock and gardens. Cars, smart phones and the Internet. It’s a human-centered world that we have dominated, tamed and domesticated. As Powers shows, we are in the process of making our whole planet subservient to what we see as our human “needs.” Every once in a while, however, we glimpse The Other – the larger, wilder, more mysterious and majestic world beyond our humanscape. For Powers, it’s the community of trees that comprise our disappearing forests. For us, we see an eagle with a fish. We see deer – though we may be domesticating them by feeding them. In whatever form it takes -- and there is a flash that makes us realize that there is indeed something larger than the web of civilization we have created. That’s the thrill. For some, it can be a religious thrill.

Sunset, St. George Island, Florida
Sunrise, Everglades
Sunset, from our back yard in Gainesville

Sometimes we see The Other in a beautiful detail going about life oblivious to us.

Coral Hairstreak on Butterfly Weed

Bee on Sunflower

Sandhill Cranes were doing their thing long before our self-important human drama.

Mating Dance

Grooming

Preparing to Migrate


Some we saw just dealing with the daily struggle of existence.

Red-shouldered Hawk and Friend

            At the same time, however, I realize that the Other is not really Other. We are part of that world, despite all of our artifice. It’s only a matter of looking, listening, appreciating. Photography is just one way to make that connection.

Sunset, Merritt Island, Florida
Not a Chickadee

Comment from Tom Jacobs:
Dave:  Janice and I live in suburban NJ, only 7 miles from the George Washington Bridge, but we too are awed by the frequent deer families which come through our yard, and especially of the reaction of our Golden Retrievers, who sit and stare at them without chasing or barking.   The dogs are a little harder on the bunnies during the warm weather.  In addition to all the little birds, we have wild turkeys and across the street, several huge turkey vultures who hang out near the top of the chimney of the church.  We only feed the small birds at our feeders, but the others seem to find enough to eat themselves.  There is something satisfying about the sense that all these creatures live here with us and don't seem too afraid.


Thursday, January 10, 2019

Identity


            I wrote last week about sudden changes. Well, I had one.

            For the last two years I have defined my identity, in part, as Kim’s caretaker. This means I still probably do for her about half of what she does to take care of me, but let’s not let the facts get in the way of perceptions. I feellike a caretaker, largely because it’s a bit more than I was doing for the first 25 years of our marriage. To use the current language, I identify as a caretaker.

            This took a sudden, and I hope brief, change this week. I had what I thought was a pimple on my chest. It got a bit bigger and did not pop, so I thought it might be a spider or tick bite. When it continued to grow without popping, I decided (Actually, it was Kim who decided.) to have a doc have a look and remove the tick. Wisely, as it turned out, I had resisted the urge to hack off the top and drain it.

            A Saturday trip to a walk-in clinic was, to say the least, sobering. The doc took a quick look and said, “That’s not a tick. It’s cancer.” He suggested I contact my primary care doc, or my dermatologist who had examined me less than a month ago, for a biopsy.

            I am no stranger to skin cancer – melanoma on my cheek, three basal cell carcinomas treated with Moh’s Procedure, a few squamous cells and many “suspicious” growths zapped off with the ice gun. So part of me said, “O.K., let’s just deal with this so I can resume this great life I have with Kim in our bark house.” But another part of me remembered what a previous primary care doc had told me – the melanoma cells are circulating in me, waiting for an opportunity to cause trouble. I recall a brief celebration in a dermatologist’s office when I was told that I had a basal cell carcinoma on my face. Celebration? Yes, because I was worried that it was melanoma. The dermatologist said that mine was not the usual response to such news. The doc on Saturday said it’s “probably” not melanoma. How reassuring is that?

            My current anxiety is not centered on my mortality. I died once, when I was 17, and it was not a big deal. No, my anxiety has more to do with the shift in identity from giver to receiver of care. (Language note: a giverof care is called a caretaker.) If I am disabled, for whatever reason, who will dispatch my caretaker duties, primarily driving, unscrewing lids, reaching stuff on high shelves, carrying heavy boxes, and telling Kim to rest? Kim still does all the cooking, laundry, etc., so she is the real caretaker, but this thing on my chest, starting to resemble a third nipple, will change how I identify, a somewhat different issue. 

            But this is not about me. It’s about how we sustain and undergo changes in identity. Kim has invented her identity – an artist – even as she continues to identify as homemaker, mom, wife and grandma – a caretaker. As I write this she is creating a wall sculpture using twigs and insect-mounting pins. She refuses to identify as a cancer survivor. For years I identified as a teacher, then as a writer, then carrier of boxes, then caretaker of Kim and now as a partner with Kim in looking after our new home. I may, for a while, become a patient – an apt term for this identity, as it requires a lot of patience. A lot of you have probably been in the situation of waiting for biopsy results – show of hands, please? Thought so. Kim goes through this every few months – not biopsies, but various kinds of scans and blood tests – but she does not let her cancer define her.

            I realize, when I stop worrying, that identity is largely a matter of choice. I choose to identify myself as an unscrewer of lids and high-shelf-reacher – Kim’s partner.
            

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

NYE




            New Year’s Eve is unique among our holidays. It’s truly global, though many people wisely celebrate the Winter Solstice instead rather than an arbitrary product of the strange history of our calendar. But NYE (abbreviated to emphasize its brevity) is the only holiday that is focused equally on looking back and looking forward. It does not commemorate Something Special that happened on that day – such as Christmas, Easter or my birthday. It does not detach itself from its historical antecedents to take on a life of its own, like Hallowe’en or my personal favorite, April Fool’s Day, though for some NYE becomes just an excuse to stay up late and party. No, at the stroke of midnight and the times that frame the stroke, we look at the year gone by (who died, best movies, etc.) and the year to come resolutions – I’ve written about them before - http://www.dhstringer.com/2017/01/my-resolutions.html. It’s really a dimensionless point in time. Almost a nothing. That may be why we have made New Year’s Day the actual holiday – at least it has 24 hours, unlike the sliver of time when we move from one calendar to the next.

            Heraclitus said, famously, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Let’s assume that this is also true for women.) Profound, right? But Heraclitus did not take it far enough. None of us can step in the same river once, because, as he noted, the times they are a-changin’, and it ain’t the same river the moment you step into it. And what, similarly, isn’t changing in our lives as we move from one point in time to the next?

            We can look at NYE as a celebration of change itself. No, you probably won’t fulfill your resolutions, but the intention behind our resolutions is a celebration of change, or at least the possibility of change. And looking back at those who have died does give us a brief victory over time through the act of remembering, but for me the victory is subsumed by the sense of loss, death being the Ultimate Change. NYE is a point in time, perhaps a pivotal one, less than a moment long. It’s the moment when future becomes past.

            As I see it, we have three choices about how to deal with the fact of change: ignore it, lament it, or celebrate it. (There are other options, of course – deny it, mock it, or my favorite, change it. But let’s stick with the first three.) Most of the time we just ignore change because we are too busy washing dishes, driving to the store, or checking our email. Occasionally we slip into the lamentation mode, especially when looking in the mirror or at an old photograph, or lamenting a death. Hard to escape those moments. Celebration of change is harder to come by in our daily lives. We learn of a birth or marriage. Election results sometimes lead to celebration of change, though it’s often premature. Celebrating birthdays, as we get older, often move to the lamentation zone, though sometimes we are proud and pleased to have survived another year. Watch out, though, when friends and family treat your birthday like a Memorial Service, you know, a “celebration of your life,” – now, the unspoken phrase, pretty much over.

            All of which leaves NYE as a clear celebration of change. The numbers on the year change, but it’s not a measure of the march toward death. And since change is omnipresent, you don’t have to stay up to midnight on the 31stto celebrate. Kim and I didn’t. Everymoment is pivotal, or it can be. Pause and celebrate. If you celebrate a few days late – so, what?

            We woke up on January 1 to discover six inches of new snow.  Our world had changed again.






Thursday, December 27, 2018

Chain Saw


            I bought a chain saw. I am not a guy whose father taught him how to do stuff. The guy doing some work with doors and shelves inside our garage was working with his daughter, teaching her how to do the carpentry. That was not my father, who taught me to save money, stay out of trouble and hide my emotions.

            My new chain saw, I confess, is battery operated. This was very appealing to me because I would be able to start it without going through all the gymnastics of starting a gas engine with a pull cord. So yesterday I attempted to start my chain saw, but nothing happened. I retreated indoors to read the manual more carefully, learning that I was required to push the button labeled “Start.” This stuff does not come easy to me.

            But soon I was out in the yard doing my interpretation of Paul Bunyan. I trimmed a couple of dead branches off a tree. I leveled a stump – twice, for the first cut was not really level. I took down a tall almost dead tree that was ensnared in the branches of a potentially picturesque white pine. This proved to be a bit of a challenge. I cut the trunk, but the tree did not fall. It was ensnared, remember? So I started to cut the lower ensnared branches, one by one, so I could pull the trunk down. This worked well until one of the branches pinched the chain, stopping the motor. My chain saw was stuck. I tried to remove it by force, but I worried about damaging my new toytool. So I left it hanging there and fetched my hand clippers to cut the branch and remove the pressure on the saw. This worked well, after a lot of effort, and the saw fell to the ground undamaged. I was not so lucky, as the branch I cut sprung toward me and smacked me on the lip, drawing a bit of blood, and I had a hockey goalie flashback. But I swallowed my pride, along with the blood, and proceeded to cut up the trunk into firewood-sized pieces. I learned to be more careful, thanks to a jolt of negative reinforcement not currently practiced in our schools.

            Paul Bunyan, of course, did not use a chain saw. Not to be outdone, I found an axe I had not used in twenty years and split a bunch of firewood. How manly is that!!! Splitting the wood will help me cultivate another manskill: building a fire that my sweetheart can sit beside and read. No, I have not yet taken up deer hunting, but that does appear to be an Up North requirement.

            Kim is pleased by my new self – I heard her bragging about me to a girlfriend on the phone (though I did note the tone of surprise in her voice). Chain Saw Man! Did Paul Bunyan write haiku on the side?

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Hope


            I confess that I’m a Word Person. I am interested in how language works. Some of you, when reading these opening sentences, will decide that it’s time to turn off your computer and match up socks in your sock drawer, or maybe take a good long look out a window.

            I am especially interested in the word “hope.” What’s the difference between “hope” and “wish”? As I use the words, “hope” suggests the expectation that the future you imagine might, in fact, become a reality, where a “wish” is more akin to a Hail Mary pass without Mary’s actually being available to help. “Hope,” carrying the expectation, actually is in a way self-fulfilling. The act of hoping for something actually helps make it happen, while a wish is more passive. That’s why the sarcastic response to an imagined future, “You wish,” suggests the unlikelihood that it will come to pass. I think there is a similar distinction between “faith” and “belief,” where faith is a trusting attitude and belief an accepted view or doctrine.

            Self-fulfilling? Shortly after my years-ago divorce I went to see a counselor. I told him that I am one of the most optimistic people I know. “But then,” I added, “maybe I’m optimistic because things always seem to work out for me.” The counselor paused a moment before noting, “I think you have it backwards. Maybe things work out for you because you are optimistic.”

            I’m not sure how hope works. I’ve never believed that an attitude such as hopefulness can generate some kind of energy that pumps into the universe to alter the physics of what happens - though who really knows? When a basketball player crosses himself or herself before shooting a free throw, is the expectation that Jesus will nudge the ball into the basket if it’s balanced on the rim? Doubtful. More likely, the player is appealing to his or her best self, which is the self that is calm and centered enough to make a free throw. And perhaps this is how hope works. A hopeful self makes things happen.

            These meanings, of course, are not built into the words “wish” and “hope.” They are meanings I give the words, and you can do it your own way.

            I realize as I write this that this essay is not about language at all – it’s about my life with Kim. We built this house despite Kim’s cancer. We discuss what we might do with next year’s Christmas cards, and what we might do with next year’s tree. We are planning the landscaping we will do or have done in the spring, including trees that will take years to give us the look we want. This is hope, and it keeps us going. At the same time, as we sit on our porch looking east at the sunset and finishing our dinner wine, Kim says that if she has to sleep in a hospital bed again, she wants it right here, where she can see the lake, the birds and the woods. We talk about the inevitable endgame, but in a hopeful way.

            And I, of course, continue to be immortal – at least, I hope I am.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Solstice

       I did not get a lot of responses to my survey, perhaps because, as Alice said, it’s not a great time of year to assign homework. But the responses I did receive were of high quality.

From Barbara Woodmansee:

Best Gift I ever received:  the gigantic styrofoam T Rex skeleton I got when I was 6. My Dad and I built it together and after several years only the head was left and we hung it over my bed.  It scared my sister so much at night that my parents moved her into my Dad’s study and I got to have my very own room.

Which Christmas Song Do I Hope Never to Hear Again:  Santa Baby.  Please God!!

Unusual Christmas Tradition:  listening to Dylan Thomas read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and then “Fern Hill” at night when it’s cold, with all the lights off every year.  All those perfect, perfect words spoken in that splendid voice...Time held me green and dying, though I sang in my chains like the sea will always make me cry.  This tradition will die with me because my kids Just Don’t Get It.

Not Christian, but Christmas means to me:  the earth-based celebration of the returning of the light.  Knowing that even though it’s cold and dark (but not really in Florida), the sun will come back and we’ll all try again to rise and bloom for another year.


     And from Dawn Hewitt:

       What is the best gift you have ever received?
       An accurate watercolor painting of my beloved dog Eddie, who had died a few months prior.

       Have you ever given or received a partridge in a pear tree?
       Serious birder that I am, I have never even seen a live partridge, unfortunately. (Both partridges 
       found in North America, chukar and gray partridge, are native to Asia, anyhow.) 

       Which would you rather receive as a gift, a thing or an event?
       An event, absolutely. I have way, way, way too many things. It’s embarrassing and shameful how
       much stuff I have. 

       How do you feel about cash as a gift? 
       Not for me, thanks. No. Give it to a worthy cause: The Nature Conservancy, or a local land trust, or
      The Humane Society, or a food bank. 

       Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?
       “Christmas Story.” Somebody needs to make a winter solstice movie!

       What Christmas song to you hope never to hear again?
       “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which suggests date rape.

       What, if anything, makes you sad this time of year?
       Consumerism and its role in climate change. But I feel that way year ‘round.

       How has the Christmas season changed since you were a kid?
       Even more commercial than ever. 

       What are you planning to do to make this holiday season different this year?
       Nothing. I am content with my solstice traditions.

       Do you or your family have any unusual or amusing holiday traditions?
       My tree is the 11-foot tall Norfolk Island Pine that I received as a high school graduation gift in
       1976, when it was 4-inches tall. It is my solstice tree! I am not a Christian. I am not religious. So, I
       celebrate winter solstice! I celebrate the darkness, and the return of the light!  Winter solstice
       welcomes longer hours of daylight—and can’t we all agree that the return of the light is worth
       celebrating? Thus, I decorate my house with lights, and decorate my 42-year-old solstice tree. My
       outdoor (LED) lights stay up from late November through late January, the darkest period of the
        year. 

       Who would you like to come down your chimney?
       Donald Trump. He’d get stuck, and he could just stay there for a few years. 

       If you are not a Christian, what does Christmas mean to you? 
        I often feel excluded—people assume I am a Christian, or at least that I celebrate Christmas. I
       don't. I don’t make a point of telling people that I’m not until they ask about my plans for
       Christmas, etc. To me, Christmas is a time for obligatory transactions of gifts. We exchange gifts like
       they are trading cards. I hate that. Gift-giving should not be obligatory. Maybe I’d do a better job of
       finding gifts for people I love if I wasn’t obliged to do it by a certain date. I wish Christmas was just
       a time of year that Christians would celebrate the birth and life of Jesus, and his wonderful
       teachings, and skip the commercialism. I would happily endorse an annual celebration of the
       wisdom of Jesus. But what does that have to do with consumerism? 

       I relate to Festivus, for the rest of us, but I am content to celebrate solstice as my winter holiday!


             From David Lake:

       Maybe you should add a category: Favorite Family Comment About Christmas. My granddaughter's
       father is Jewish, her mother is not. At age 5 she explained that she was half Jewish and half
       Christmas.

            From Janet Parker Hebbel:

What is the best gift you have ever received?
An ermine muff when I was 6

What is the best gift you have ever given?
A 1918 gold coin in a leather and velvet box to my Mother

Have you ever given or received a partridge in a pear tree?
Do 25 George Washingtons on a tree count?

Which would you rather receive as a gift, a thing or an event?
A gift in my hot little hand

How do you feel about cash as a gift?
What’s wrong with cash?

Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?
The Preacher’s Wife  (1947)

What Christmas song to you hope never to hear again?
The Chipmunk Song

What, if anything, makes you sad this time of year?
Knowing that there are folks who struggle all year long

How has the Christmas season changed since you were a kid?
It is still a wonder to me.

What are you planning to do to make this holiday season different this year?
Serving pulled pork from our local football barbecue joint

Do you or your family have any unusual or amusing holiday traditions?
Winning the Funny Gift contest...there is an ugly rotating trophy at stake

Who would you like to come down your chimney?
Jesus. 

If you are not a Christian, what does Christmas mean to you?
Giving, creativity, kindness, beauty, family

            Miguel Palaviccini wrote that the best gift he ever received and gave (in a way) was his three-year-old daughter, Penny. He also noted that while he had never given nor received a partridge in a pear tree, he needs a photo of one because it’s missing from his Life List. Miguel went on to explain about an unusual Christmas tradition:

It’s a tradition that was passed down from my mom’s side of the family. From what I’ve been told, they didn’t have a Christmas tree growing up so Santa had to find clever ways to deliver gifts. I’m glad my mom passed the tradition on to us. On Christmas morning, my brother, sister, and I all woke up early and started our task of finding our presents around the house. This wasn’t as savage as it sounds - there were rules! Santa could only hide presents inside the house and was limited to the downstairs (all of the bedrooms were upstairs). And of course the garage was off limits. Santa also left us a list with the number of presents and their size. The latter would help us determine possible locations to search. If we found a present that didn’t belong to us, we weren’t able to tell our siblings where it was - at least not for the first hour or so.  Santa was clever with his hiding locations, but there were always staples that we could count on: under the couch cushions, within dog food bag, inside the dishwasher - to name a few. Childhood gifts are now tied to their hiding location for me. The super nintendo under the couch side table, a fishing pole behind couch cushions, a ninja turtle blimp inside the oven. When I couldn’t find a present, my parents would guide me with a game of hot/cold. I never questioned how they knew where Santa hid presents - but I’m guessing he probably left them letter with the key.

As the years passed and we all learned the truth, our parents decided that placing the presents under the tree would be good enough. Wrong! At least that is what my brother and I decided. On Christmas Eve, we each had 30 minutes to hide the other’s presents. As we hid, we made a list of the item, the size, and its location (for reference since we inevitably forgot by next morning where we hid one or two of them). The next morning it was a race to see who could find all of their presents first. As the years passed, the hiding locations got more intricate. Presents found their way to the inside of couch cushions, taped to the bottom side of tables, delicately placed on the top portion of a ceiling fan blade, inside of used cereal boxes, … and in 2010 (the final year) … I topped them all by building fake back to a kitchen cabinet that would be the hiding place for a present that measured over 3 feet long and over 1 foot wide. That year, in order for my brother to get the present, he had to sign a paper that stated that he resigned from the present finding competition - making me the reigning champ.

Penny is three years old this Christmas - she’s not going to miss out.



However and whatever you celebrate, don’t miss out. Even if you choose to celebrate missing out.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Festivus


            It’s that time of year again, a time when many of us give and receive gifts. Of course, I’m talking about the month of the Winter Solstice. With that in mind, I am offering up a brief questionnaire to help you through the month. I’d love to hear your responses, and I hope to put them together in next week’s blog. No need to respond to all the questions. No need, in fact, to respond to any of them – but what’s the fun in that?

·     What is the best gift you have ever received?

·     What is the best gift you have ever given?

·     Have you ever given or received a partridge in a pear tree?

·     Which would you rather receive as a gift, a thing or an event?

·     How do you feel about cash as a gift?

·     Do you have a favorite Christmas movie?

·     What Christmas song to you hope never to hear again?

·     What, if anything, makes you sad this time of year?

·     How has the Christmas season changed since you were a kid?

·     What are you planning to do to make this holiday season different this year?

·     Do you or your family have any unusual or amusing holiday traditions?

·     Who would you like to come down your chimney?

·     If you are not a Christian, what does Christmas mean to you? 

·     If you are a Christian, is your faith an important part of how you celebrate Christmas? In what way?


That’s it. Please email your responses to me at dstring@ix.netcom.com.