Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dream Cycle: "Re-Imagining the Lovelier Helmet"

Remember those computer programs at the Science Museum that let you try out different hairstyles or see the effects of aging?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

eating right won't save your life and other sad truths

Biopsy season is nearly upon us once more.  We don't mean to be, but we are shorter-tempered, stupidly forgetful, irritable, suddenly and increasingly disorganized.  I think I'm handling the details just fine.  Then realize I've forgotten a friend's birthday cake event.  Completely.  Even despite choosing a gift earlier in the day.  Am I going crazy?  I mean, getting there faster than usual?

I am, aren't I? 

I'm afraid to call my mother-the-therapist because this time she may not just laugh with me.  Maybe this time she'll say, "Hmm."  And then ask me unusual questions about what I think I may be feeling.  And what I think I may be needing.  And how I think I might best go about giving myself the things I need.  She rarely prescribes as a counselor.  Psychology as practiced in my mom's discipline* is very Socratic - everyone contains within them the truth and the true therapy arises naturally.  Her questions are meant to help the counselee peel away the obscuring distractions of panicked/despairing false patterns of non-thought.  I think.  Anyway, I am afraid of that "Hmm."

Fritz and I, trying to schedule a biking weekend away,  keep coming up against the medical schedule. 

"But after that we're free and clear for any weekend, yeah?" I am flipping pages of the calendar, hoping we can luck out with a rain-free three days.

"Well, unless it's -- if there has to be a surgery."

"Which there won't be."

Fritz doesn't answer.

"There won't be."

He lifts eyebrows.

"Please just say there won't be."

"I can't say that.  I don't know."

It is not too strong to say I hate that exasperating exactitude about him.  Of course you can say things you don't know.  There's a power in saying to make things so.  Isn't there?

Isn't there?

Did I love him the first time I said I did?  Or was I just answering?  How did I even know what that love you would mean? 

Should I have said, "Well I don't know if I actually love you.  For example, would I stick with you if you woke up tomorrow brain-dead?  would I give you a liver to save your life?  And would it be because I truly loved you or just for general humanitarian purposes?  Do I even know you well enough to love you?  But I think I am willing to begin the process, okay?  If everything continues as it has . . . so far . . . "

Couldn't he have just said:  "Hope so anyway."

Eldest invited a friend over yesterday. To cook carrot soup. Her friend had had some private sorrows that needed assuaging. To Eldest, cooking is the answer. Not baking, but soup making. Which delights me almost as much as it confuses me. I don't actually hate cooking (secretly I find the textures and smells and colors of fresh food exquisite and ravishing and the small routines of chopping and stirring mind-cleansing) but I grew up into a young adult who believed I hated to cook, was a bad cook, a bad seamstress, that I hated keeping house. Cooking, sewing, shorthand -- bah! Women's work! Become a nurse? a 3rd grade teacher? a nutritionist? These were not career paths open to someone with my test scores.

Or maybe I was crazy then and am just now getting saner. If so, it is an unsettling process. And painful.
I was telling Eldest, after she'd laid out her evening of comfort-soup-making plans to me, how I'd realized that one of the reasons I'd found it so hard to cook lately -- really cooking, as in planning out weekly menus, ensuring the plentitude of leafy greens, soaking beans, kneading bread, that kind of cooking -- is that all my years of learning how to cook the Healthy Way! have let me down.

I have been betrayed by broccoli's false promises.

Fritz was never going to have the health problems of his parents because he was not going to eat out of boxes.  And organic eggs!  Yes, and organic kale as well!  With his active biking and all the beans he'd eat  -- cancer, heart disease, pills and doctors would just be syllables in other people's sad stories.

What's the point peeling broccoli stalks and stir frying bok choy if he's going to go and get himself tangled up in biopsies every eight months or so? 

I ask you.

*As well as crazy, I am also inaccurate.  My mom (who called just to say, "HMM!") does not actually practice "Rogerian" psychology with her actual clients, she says.  But with her children, she figures we are not so interested in therapy as in being heard, and not interested in getting advice but in figuring it out for ourselves.  Regardless, I always do feel fully therapized after pouring out my woes and perplexities before her -- even when she hmms.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

net of riches

I was standing in the hallway, listening first to Daughter A and then Daughter B, back and forth, two different topics that gradually converged into one - their eyes shining with persuasive glee.  Standing there, listening, I watched the expressions flickering over these faces I've been reading for years. 

Remembering how I once read their fleeting first expressions, watching them fall asleep at the breast,  heavy violet eyelids drooping, flickering up, dropping down with only a glimmer of light still beneath their lashes.  

Watching the conscious shaping of a mouth around those difficult Rs and Ls - a small hand feeling my mouth while fighting to make a stubborn tongue turn and fold. 

These same faces coming to me to have their teeth wiggled, just checking, then the freshly blooded gap between the perfect small squares of baby teeth, the serrated edge of the new bigger tooth growing in. 

Feeling foreheads for fever, checking for pink eye, examining strange bumps.

Applying whiteface and glitter for the year they were snow fairies,  gold powder and rich purple liner for the first prom.  Watching them put on lipstick. 

Or rub sweat from sunburned faces, leaving grimy fingerprints above wide grins. 

Flush with embarrassment up on-stage, ear-tips beginning to glow. 

Exult at victory, eyes flashing and proud chins. 

My hands wiping tears around those peach-soft cheeks. 

The reluctant grin tugging at a stubborn sullenness. Eyes hot with outrage or soft with sympathy. The sideways glance right before laughing.

And I felt my heart squeeze.  So many rich years.  So many tears and shouts of laughter.  So many notes slipped under my pillow. 

So many in-jokes and repeated irritations. So many words and braids and backrubs.  So many manifold muchness that my heart just can't contain.

There are things I would change if I were to do it again.  But only if I could be guaranteed to end up here, standing in the hallway, reading these faces, caught like I am with them in the same rich net of years.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Virtual Blogging

Which doesn't leave much for you to read but does wonders for peeling wallpaper and ugly holes in the wall. 

And as well this week has been a series of days like this:

 . . . which required much riding of the bike for every conceivable errand (and even a few inconceivable).  Not to mention the wearing of the Happy Shoes -

No.  Wait.  Have I really fallen so far that I would show you a picture of my happy little piggies in their favorite red sandals?  Have I no pride?

Apparently, only the smallest smidgen: no pictures of the piggies, but wouldn't these make any feet dancing feet?

And in case you're wondering (if not, please scroll ahead very fast before reading what follows . . . ) - Yes, these 3 inch heels are, in fact, a cinch to bike in.  They are, in fact, a fantastic motivator to bike all the way up the hill without stopping because what they're not so much a cinch at is climbing, hiking, et al.

However days of blue sky succeeding blue sky means that any scraping, nailing, painting must be done by lamplight.  And all in all, there has been no time left for other more webby pursuits.


Ben Johnson, who breathed the same bad London air as Will Shakespeare, described his son (in "On My First Sonne") as "Ben. Johnson his best piece of poetrie."

And I'd have to say, in my book, this refurbished wall is a hot contender for Emma J's Best Post.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Reading the Signs

Last month, before Fritz's parents came out here to the land of moss to live near us, I worried.  "I just hope they'll like what we've done, setting up the apartment."  Meaning more than that.

Said my listening friend, "You know they won't."  Which left me gasping with a sudden absolute acknowledgement that she was right. 

Not that she was absolutely right.  When the time came and my in-laws, too, they smiled clear smiles voicing open pleasure in the bedspreads and lamps, stacked towels and shelved cans of food - taking all our efforts as it was meant - evidence of care for their comfort. 

But my friend's words were right on a deeper level.  She herself a grandmother, a mother of grown children, and a mother-in-law.  She knows the tugs and snags and undercurrents those varying relationships must sail their way through. 

"You've got to know it's going to be hard for them to leave their home and come here where they know no one."

And so her words freed me from having to make everything just right, as if the success of this new plot-wrinkle depended on my efforts only.  Freed and reminded me that there were issues at play here that had nothing to do with how many hangers we hung in the bedroom closet.  As friends' words do, hers let me loose from the tight boundary of myself  and let me walk out into a wider field. 

Where I could do what needed to be done as a way of saying "I love you" to Fritz.  Which he understood. 

And for the immediate pleasures within the tasks themselves - a Saturday morning with Middlest poking around the secondhand store for pretty lamps, finding cheerful kitchen curtains.

There were other things said, things that helped. (No need to repeat any others . . . if once be once too many . . . )

Most helpful of all was what my mother said  (after wild imaginings of all impossible worst scenarios and our laughter dying down into hiccups).  My mom said, gently, into the phone, "So then, just do what you would do if it were me there.  If it were your dad and I."

Which gave me permission I hadn't known I'd been needing  - to enjoy these other parents and stop wishing it were mine moving so near.

And it helped, too, my dad getting teary-eyed (yes, it was over the phone, audio only, but I do know what that throat-clearing sound means . . . ) when I told him the other day how it was working out just fine and what Mom had said to me and how it opened the door for me, how I had gone into Portland for an appointment with Fritz' father and then gone wandering around the streets with him - "like you would have done, Dad.  Scouting out the terrain.  And it was easy."

A pause. "I'm so glad," he said, throat-clearing with a vengeance, ". . . yeah."

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dream Cycle: "Joy of Riding #2: The Basket"

Last week I stuck my head around the office door when I heard the voice of a friend of mine - "I thought that was you!"

She looked up and laughed, "You crack me up, by the way."

"Why?  Because I'm so weird?"

"Yes, but that's why I love you so much."

"So what lately is so cracking you up?"

"Well, I was reading your biking blog."

"Ah . . . "

Apparently I am obsessed. 

And this week it is to my bike basket that I sing the praises.  I love my basket.  I think everyone ought to have one.  Whether they bike or not.

That's all.

Unless you want more?  In which case, you'll just have to click. . .

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Craziness

panel from the tomb of Sancho Saiz de Carillo in Burgos

I never have been great at telling jokes.  I always forget the punchline.

Have you heard this one?

A woman walks into the middle of the room
carrying a large pan of water.
Suddenly she empties it over her head.

Oh, wait.  Maybe that was the punchline.

Let me try that again.  My little sister's oldest daughter was four last year.  In their house, "shut up" is a bad word.  And "stupid."  Last year my sister had occasion to put her little daughter in time out.  My sister stood  her darling in a corner and walked away, coming back a few minutes later to her unrepentant offspring doing a spiky little dance and singing with acidic sweetness, "Shut up.  Stupid. Shut up.  Spam . . . " - because someone (okay, yes, her Auntie MJ) had told her in a moment of jest that "Spam" was a bad word, too.  And she didn't want to miss any of them.

Ah, daughters.  And mothers of daughters.  If you're one too, you know what I mean when I say I love my daughter - and this is not a cliché  - more than life itself. 

You also know how little choice I had in the matter.  I was remembering yesterday, talking with a friend who is just beginning this motherhood gig, about the time I slipped down the icy back steps, my feet flying up into the air, my body landing flat on my back.  I did nothing to protect myself from the fall, no self-preserving reflex kicked in - but my baby daughter clapped her hands and gurgled, strapped snugly in her carseat, still held up a few inches in the air, never touching ground. 

Hard-wired protectiveness with no thought on my part - probably the closest I'll ever come to utter selflessness.

I found this automatic reflex reassuring at the time.

Less reassuring was the time when I had two small daughters - one floating on a raft with the slightly older daughter of a friend, my other daughter still a bundle in the crook of my arm.  The raft tipped.  My two-year-old daughter plunged into the water of Lake Powell.  Bobbed back up thanks to the little orange life-jacket I'd just buckled on her.  I ran to get her.

But - remember - my other daughter was still a bundle in my arms.  I turned back to put her down.  But where on that slanting sandy shore could I put her that she wouldn't roll in?  I turned back to the water.  Turned back to the shore.  Turned back to the water.

If my friend hadn't been there to jump up and fish both her daughter and mine back onto dry land, I'm afraid I would have worn a trench down to the molten core before being able to break that mindlessly desperate loop.

When my oldest daughter was barely born I remember staring deep into her dark wise eyes, vowing to be the woman I could see reflected so tinily there.  Oh, I would be so wise and careful and I would show her everything.  I would be the mother she deserved.

Motherhood, above all, has taught me how to fail.  Over and over again.

But there are some mistakes I've never made. 

Yet.  Until this past year. 

I've never squabbled with my children.  Power struggles?  Ridiculous.  I knew who was three and who was thirty.  I knew my child was a child.  I was the adult.  I knew the great project of childhood was developing autonomy.  I knew how to step back and allow that advancement.  I had had six younger brothers and sisters.  I was a champion babysitter.  The hours of actual motherhood were a strain for me - but knowing how to urge and jolly, when to be firm and when to laugh with a complicit twinkle, how to beam out acceptance and love while giving correction at the same time?  Child's play.  Literally.   I had the knack.  Strangers in public would compliment me on the reasonable and gentle way I had with my children.  Who were often enough well-behaved to elicit the preening reflex in their mother.

Oh, here's the punchline, I remember now:

A woman goes up to her mostly grown daughter.
Wanting to apologize, she says,"I was being immature."
The daughter says, "That had crossed my mind."

The truth is, I never had power struggles when they were three or eight, because I was older than three.  Or eight.

I was seventeen all this time. 

And honestly, my seventeen year-old self has a hard time remembering to be motherly sometimes lately.  Motherly meaning reasonable, measured, kindly.  My seventeen year-old self also wants to be going off to college.  Is prickly about imagined slights. Doubts her value.  Stays up too late.  Resents the eagerness of the real seventeen-year-old to go off and leave the old mother behind.  Resents the unrequited grief she feels. 
Wait, wait - I just remembered - the joke goes like this . . .

A woman has gone to the store
to fetch butter and bagel chips and who knows what else
especially requested by her nearly grown daughter.

 I forgot to say -

First the woman had said "No.  I don't have time
to run all over the place running your errands,
when you won't even . . ."
But then the woman thought better of it.
So she went to the store.

 etc., etc.

And when she comes back her daughter is coming out the driveway.
"Where are you going?" says the mother.
"I'm on the way to the store."
"But I just went to the store."
The daughter rolls her eyes.
"Well, there's no food in the house," says the daughter.
"Of course there's food in the house," says the woman
which is true and reasonable,
and the woman feels

that this is a criticism
of her lack of ______
and recent housekeeping _______

which it is.

The woman begins in, "Do you realize . . . ?  Do you have any idea . . . ?"
and unravels into "You are so . . .  !  I can't believe how utterly . . . !"

The woman doesn't say "Spam." 
But that is because she knows that just because something is obscene
doesn't mean it's really a bad word. 

By now the woman and her daughter are in the kitchen.
The woman is filling a pan with water to cook pasta.
She puts in too much water.
And because even in a rage,
even in the ruins of her seventeen years of motherhood,
in face of her utter failure to be the woman she meant to be,
still she is eco-friendly.

So she carries the too-full pot toward the plant in the front room.

It is not just the pot that is too full.
This moment.  This bitter grievousness.
This inability to shut herself up.

this is not how this moment feels . . .
vintage postcard - chicks 57

"Don't do that again, okay?" says her husband.
"It ruins floors, you know, all that water."

Are we all laughing yet?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Utopian Visions: Bikes, Books, and Better Living

photo by The Oregonian

When Fritz and I first moved to Portland, Oregon (on whose outskirts we first rented and now within the last lingering rays of whose aura we still reside)  we found the one place we could both agree to rejoice in. 

We had long suspected Portland would be this place.

When first deciding we wanted to spend the rest of our lives together, we had debated valley width (wide, said I, and wooded, thinking the places I had loved in Ohio and Wisconsin; narrow and high, said he, even though -or maybe because?- his "stomping ground" had been the wide dryness of the agriculturally Magic Valley in Idaho).  We debated altitude (the higher the better, said he; I want neighbors, said I, and not those with an unhealthy interest in chainsaws), which led to discussions of population size (which fell out in lines you may easily imagine), access to libraries, universities, art museums vs. mountain trails and bikable country roads, whether we should go west or east (Vermont, said I; Montana, said he) . . . 

We decided the best we could do would be to visit each other regularly.

Which of course we didn't do.  We married and lived in a tiny little house just behind the liquor store and Cullins Electric Supply in a small town over the hill from our Happy Valley university and dreamed of other places. 

Portland, Oregon, was the only place we could agree to dream about together.  After seven years telling each other  our dreams (and yes, sometimes arguing over same), we decided we could at least go North by Northwest on a visit.  I set about planning the trip.

What is Portland famous for?  asked the guidebook I bought.  Books.  Bikes.  Beer.  Very promising, considering the first two were our separate personal obsessions and as for the third . . . even for the non-fermented like us, Portland's numerous idiosyncratic microbreweries suggested the kind of inventive, local, artisan culture we had both decided was necessary for a livable place. 

photo by Miles Hochstein at Portland Ground: Pictures of Portland Oregon

Then high-tech lay-offs played their serendipitious magic and a change in employment changed all our plans.  Suddenly we were here, flying in from our parched high desert summer to green trees and wild pink sweetpeas growing along the highways. Not on a visit. But looking for a place to live. We drove into the city in the early evening with the lights twinkling on the river and the bridges shining.

Portland and its environs have proved wonderfully livable.  The greenness, the roses spilling over the overpasses, the prehistoric sense of  only slightly dormant volcanoes appearing and disappearing in the mist amazed us from the first - and more subtly and steadily, the sidewalks alive with people walking - old ladies walking fluffy dogs and daddies with babies on their shoulders as well as street musicians, brisk business suits and the down-and-out lined up at the Lighthouse Mission for a hot meal. Chefs in white hats stepping out to smoke behind the cooking school.  College students in retro dresses and tights and hiking boots.  Cyclists riding right through town.  This was not a city like others we had lived near - and never in - Dayton, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Salt Lake, Indianapolis, D.C. - all interesting places in themselves, but not for us so appealingly livable.
Nearby the suburbs of Hillsboro and Beaverton are crowded and . . . well, suburban . . . but they keep the rest of the areas around more real.  Real country.  Real city.  We chose country, but have sometimes wished we'd realized at the first how good life in a city like Portland could be. 

photo by Miles Hochstein at Portland Ground: Pictures of Portland Oregon

Bikes, you know by now, I have caught the contagion for from Fritz, and it happened here in Portland.  My first ride as a grown-up was around the block by River City Bikes past a greengrocer's painted (aptly) with huge fruit & veg (see Corno's Food Market above - sadly gone now).  

Books I have infected Fritz with.  "You thought I was saying books, I thought you were saying bikes," he used to tease me.  But in Portland we found not only the Multnomah County Library, but also Powell's, a city block of books from which we have had to gradually wean ourselves away (shelves at home being a finite quantity, books infinite):

In those early years, we found ourselves wandering around the stacks of books with starry eyes every other weekend I think.  And then Fritz found a bookly treasure of his own,  "I bet you won't be able to find a book you like here!"

Oh, he of little faith!  Three of the most satisfactory books I've read I found here while Fritz trolled slowly through the physics and biochemistry and meteorology aisles. 

The first, found within five minutes of that ill-fated prophecy:  The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander, which I admit I picked up for its lovely yellow cover.  A philosophy of design and city planning - this is a book I have thought up college lit and writing courses to teach around.  It has great black & white photographs and a free-wheeling Zen-like writing style.

The second, Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature by William Jordan, convinced me once and for all that science writing was more than stale non-fiction.  Witty, incisive, sharply observed.

The third, How to Live Well without Owning a Car by Chris Baylish, made me wail that we hadn't thought more carefully before buying a house so far away from work and other necessities.  We had briefly discussed the idea of living close enough to bike everywhere we needed to go.  But our experience of living in and near cities (full of crime and asphalt) and suburbs (identically soulless) had left us both with a desire for a town that was small enough to know itself and be known.  A desire for green fields and ungroomed roadsides full of wild vetch and blackberries. 

Since reading this book I have wanted to take part of what is looking like a shift in paradigms - slow food, slow travel, the slow bike movement.  Something is changing.  And for the better.

But I feel a strange urgency now - is it because my darling Eldest is leaving in months, not years, to live elsewhere and who knows where after that?  Or is it that I feel there are changes in the wind.  That our nation is maybe waking up to what the Good Life really is.  I know I want to see livable towns - safe, green, walkable, bikable - with little cafes and bookshops and local greengrocers - everywhere and anywhere any of my children and their children may ever end up living.  Which makes me hope there are many other livable places than Portland.

(for more great photos of Portland check out Portland Ground)

Friday, February 5, 2010

Dream Cycle: "Joy of Riding #1: Cycling in a Skirt"

 . . . or Definitely Schizophrenic

I'm not sure this multiple blogs thing is going to work out.  I can't seem to decide whether a post is a Dream Cycle post (all-bike) or one for the Imaginary Bicycle  (bikes and other cycles: life, epic, Krebs, wash, pop- . . . )

I am certain sure that most bike readers don't want to hear about the other cycles that are making me dizzy, but do you, my  dears, want to hear about my bikely obsessions and raptures?

Would you like a link you can click when I post on the all-bike blog?

Or should I treat the all-bike blog as a digest and publish everything here first and just extract the bikely stuff to publish over there?

Please advise soonest.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Young Son: "This is my new home."

Emma J: "Okay."

YoungSon:  "I mean it.  I'm not coming out.  All I need are some rations."

Emma J: ?

YoungSon: "And a pillow."

The house is full of builders. 

That's not accurate.  Downstairs, for example, there are no builders. 

They are not puttering around the kitchen.  They are not curled up in the book nook napping.  They are not jumping out of closets.

They at least are not hiding in the laundry cupboards. 

But the sound of sawing and hammering do fill the house.  All that industry and progress where there was water-damaged laminate tile and swollen wood: it does my heart good.

How can I myself  not leave off idleness (i.e. all the other things I do rather than writing) and commence again on those very very uncommon days when I do my proper work.

Blogging is too often a distraction.  (I first wrote "Blagging" - Freudian?)  And yet, for me, here in the hinterlands, otherwise far away from scribbling companions, the blog has been a lifeline.  How to balance the good I get from reading and writing more immediately in the wider world with the time and effort each moment on the blogosphere takes from the deep delving and inward mining that is writing my real writing?

Divide and conquer, I thought, looking at the unwieldy vehicle that this Imaginary Bicycle has become and so I divided:

Dream Cycle  for two-wheeled adventures,
more action, fewer words

Matter | Pattern for Living with Poetry
in a more formal sense

a table in the wilderness for mostly whole, local and fresh
"Recipes for Abundance" 


why eye  for daily photos

Am I the conquered or the conquering?  Does division make me focused or schizophrenic?  Only time will tell.  But for now . . . back to the real writing (of which I hope to give you good report in the coming days.)

Monday, February 1, 2010

"Landscape with Farmer," by Henri Rousseau

Steering Wheel
by Jorie Graham

In the rear-view mirror I saw the veil of leaves
suctioned up by a change in current
and how they stayed up, for the allotted time,
in absolute fidelity to the force behind,
magenta, hovering, a thing that happens,
slowly upswirling above the driveway
I was preparing to back clear out of—
and three young pine trees at the end of that view
as if aghast with bristling stillness—
and the soft red updraft without hesitation
aswirl in their prickly enclosing midst—
and on the radio I bent to press on,
a section with rising strings plugging in,
crisp with distinctions, of the earlier order.
Oh but I haven’t gotten it right.
You couldn’t say it was matter.
I couldn’t say it was sadness.
Then a hat from someone down the block
blown off, rolling—tossing—across the empty macadam,
an open mouth, with no face round it,
O and O and O and O—
“we have to regain the moral pleasure
of experiencing the distance between subject and object,”
—me now slowly backing up
the dusty driveway into the law
composed of updraft, downdraft, weight of these dried
                                                           mid-winter leaves,
light figured in too, I’m sure, the weight of light,
and angle of vision, dust, gravity, solitude,
and the part of the law which is the world’s waiting,
and the part of the law which is my waiting,
and then the part which is my impatience—now; now?—
though there are, there really are,
things in this world, you must believe me.
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