Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cats on Twitter

It was after I followed @Sockington that I realized Schwartz should have his own Twitter account.  In case you don’t know, @Sockington is a gray and white cat on Twitter with just under a million and a half followers. Lately, he seems to tweet about once a day, and I’ve never heard him offer up anything that wasn’t 100% cat. I’ve never found him laugh-out-loud-funny, but he is what I would call cat-droll; he tweets about cat things like naps and snacks, and uncomfortable changes to routine, and terrors like the vacuum cleaner. Eschewing punctuation, @Sockington resorts instead to an alternating lowercase/ALL CAPS also employed by other funny pets on Twitter, like the deranged urination fountain know as @Frankie_Wah.
@Frankie_Wah is incredibly clever with language, occasionally creating spit-out-your-coffee moments for a casual Twitter feed reader.  He is a fully-fleshed out knucklehead of a feisty little dog, both terrified and aggressive, with a weakness for marking things with a little squirt of dog piss. 
If you go on Twitter and look, you can easily figure out that @Frankie_Wah’s ghost-writing owner is fantasy and science fiction author Tad Williams, and that @Sockington is the brain-child of Jason Scott. You will also discover that @Sockington’s followers are collectively known as Socks Army, and that Scott uses his renown to raise a lot of money for animal charities on Socks’ website.
There are a whole lot of cats on Twitter.  Of course I know that they are people, but they are not tweeting as themselves, they tweet as their cats. Schwartz only follows animals, and most are cats and dogs. There is a young elephant in the Taronga Zoo in Australia that tweets as @MisterShuffles .  There is an atheist tortoise in the UK called @Flo_Tortoise. There are some stuffed rabbits, like @theBaxterBunny and @ZackRabbit, and some stuffed bears, @thisBear and @TheBackpackBear, and some effusive Norwegian rubber finger puppets tweeting as @Happpiii.  
If you hit “Browse Interests” on Twitter, you will see their list of categories:  Art & Design, Books, Business, Charity, Entertainment, Family, Fashion, Food & Drink, Funny, Government, Health, Music, News, Science, Sports, Staff Picks, Technology, Travel, Twitter. No pets. I have tried for several months to get someone at Twitter to answer questions about how they define themselves as a social network platform, but have only so far been rebuffed with automatically generated emails.  
Conventional media sources all dutifully refer to Twitter as a “micro-blogging site.” The persistence of the use of this term tells me that Twitter does have some sort of PR department.  I would argue, though, that Twitter is more of a massive, multi-player game.  The point of the game is to gain as many followers as possible. One of the great things about the pets on Twitter is that if you are a pet and you follow them, they will follow you back.
Someday I will write about the #wlf, the Twitterati, some funny bots, dreadful misuses of Twitter, and what happens if you mention Ayn Rand.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Good Neighbors

I got back from Canada earlier than expected yesterday, and having seen that the sky was ominously gray thought it a good moment to pull out the lawn mower and induce some real rain. The mowing was extra slow going. First, our neighbor to the south stopped by, full of congratulations and advice about the move. It turns out he didn’t know what, if anything, Otto did for a living. Somehow the fact that he worked, and he worked at Microsoft, had never come up in our conversations. It makes me profoundly happy to tell this, because these are our favorite neighbors, and I have always appreciated knowing people who care more for who we are than what work we do.  This neighbor admitted to Googling Otto on his phone and being very distracted with the results.
Next, my neighbor from two doors to the north passed by, with a letter for the mailbox in his hand. He had seen and read the actual article about Otto in print in the newspaper on Wednesday of last week.  We exchanged news of who is graduating this spring, and how many  graduation ceremonies we will be attending. This neighbor is a retired college English professor; many teachers of all levels spend one day each June sitting in a nylon robe and a silly hat for several hours, listening to the drone of Elgar’s graduation march “Pomp and Circumstance.”

We agreed that graduation ceremonies for elementary school children are strange and unnecessary, and that high school graduation is more of an expectation than an achievement.  Reader, no matter how wonderful your children are, their graduation ceremonies are boring.
My third neighbor to visit came from the house to our immediate north. She had learned our news chatting with her older son on the phone. While her son read it in the paper, our neighbor told me she looked Otto up on Google.  We ended up having a good long chat out on the front lawn. By the time I actually was able to squeeze the handle of my electric lawnmower, I was enthusiastic about cutting the grass.
You might find it interesting to know that the last division of Microsoft Otto worked in was Bing.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


A little girl in the 1970s may have been a tomboy, but she was expected to play with dolls.  I had three large dolls and two baby dolls.  The babies came in matching yellow dresses and had bunk beds with a ladder, and all you did with them was put them to bed.  The larger dolls included a bride, a blond in a white pinafore, and a more glamorous flaxen-haired doll in a pink dress. If I had other dolls, I gouged out their eyes and cut off their hair and they did not survive to be remembered.
After I went off to college, my mother had my room repainted and redecorated.  She befriended someone who made beautiful hand-sewn doll clothes for fun, and she sent my dolls to the doll hospital to get the ink removed and their eye-lashes replaced and their hair untangled and re-styled.    At the time, I wondered if the dolls were made-over because I was the one wanting the make-over, but no one had the courage to say. In any case, the next time I visited, there they were, lined up on a shelf, more terrifying than ever.
Some people are afraid of clowns. I am afraid of dolls. They have glassy, unblinking eyes. They have no elbows. They don’t wear underwear, and if they do, it’s doll underwear. Their faces have unchanging, blank expressions. They always seem like they are up to no good, and you never catch them doing anything.  As a kid, I could not sleep if they were sitting up. I would lay them all down so their creepy floaty eyes would close. Sometimes I would also bury them under a nice thick, safe layer of stuffed animals.
I had Barbies too, and I played with them a lot. Barbie wasn’t scary. She was a tiny mannequin. She had a convertible and camper van and friends. Baby dolls don’t have friends. You could make clothes for Barbie and you could carry her in your fist the way you might grip a flashlight.
Stuffed animals were the best though, and the more you had the better it seemed. May of my stuffed animals survived to my adulthood, and were shipped to me to live in this big messy house I’ve called home for the past 17 years.  In September of 2008, a young dog we call Captain came to live with us, and he loves stuffed animals.  Captain really loves stuffed animals. First, he chews off their eyes and their noses, and then he pulls out all their stuffing. Once, we had a mountain of stuffed bears, dogs, rabbits, and ponies. Now, we have none.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Friday, May 27, 2011

Things I Find in my Basement #25

When I lived in Vermont, I thought I would always live there.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Things I Find in my Basement #24

I think I was not very optimistic about our chances as a species in 1988.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Busy Day

Yesterday, around 1:20 p.m. my husband Otto submitted his resignation from Microsoft, effective immediately.  
He texted me at 1:21, but I was having lunch with a couple of former students of mine, and I did not see his message until about 2:10.  It was a one-word message, “Swordfish.”  When I did see it, I burst out laughing (so much for the sneaky glance down at my iPhone). 
At 1:22 p.m., local technology journalist Brier Dudley’s blog post went up. 
At 3:37 p.m., Otto got a text from my brother’s ex-wife saying, “The ex-sister-in-law is always the last to know…” For at least part of the afternoon yesterday, it was the lead story on the Seattle Times online. I feel perfectly terrible thinking about her sitting at her desk at work, opening another browser tab to check the news, and seeing Otto.
Of course, it has been in the works for a while. Otto is leaving a company in which he has invested his last 18 years, and a decision like this came after months of uncertainty.  Until we were absolutely sure it was happening, we had to assume that he would stay at Microsoft and life would continue as before.  
I imagined the outpouring of goodbyes and good wishes from colleagues and former bosses, including a whole bunch of people who left Microsoft a year ago or five years ago. I did not imagine that four or five new articles generated by paraphrasing the original would appear by dinner time.  
The interview with Brier Dudley states “Berkes is leaving for another company outside of the Seattle area but he wouldn't say which one.” At 5:51 p.m. Tom Krazit of mocoNews.net reported, “He’s leaving to join a Seattle-area startup, according to the Times.” At 6:10, Todd Bishop wrote on GeekWire.com “Berkes plans to work for another company, based in California, but he isn’t saying yet which one.” I am not at liberty to tell you which one of these is true.
His phone burbled with texts through dinner, his email inbox kept refilling, and he was still receiving calls at 10 p.m. At 10:33 p.m., Otto’s most best-known former protégé showed up at our front door with his girlfriend, and we all went out and I watched them drink martinis until last call. 
Our youngest son, who is 13, was baffled by the interruptions to dinner and the article in the local paper. “Why are they making such a big deal about you?”  he asked. “You’re just you.”

Things I Find in my Basement #23

This is apparently the resume of The Guy with the Sign. I hope that someday people get the St. Stiffly Marching Silent Band back together for a reunion tour.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Things I Find in my Basement #22

Today is the 18th birthday of one of my biggest fans. He laughs at most of my worst jokes, loves most of my cooking and almost everything I write, and he gives really nice hugs when I'm sad.  The nine months I was pregnant with him we lived near the beach in a house with spiders and ants, and I could go to town in my pajamas and be the best-dressed person at the Post Office. Many days it was foggy, but you could hear the surf when the wind was right. 
Happy Birthday, Max.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Things I Find in my Basement #21

I think I started drawing The Guy with the Sign in about 1981. I think I always found him more hilarious than anyone else did. This drawing is from 1988, before I learned to sew or make quilts, but you can see that I knew how to make a space-filling curve.  I still draw The Guy with the Sign sometimes.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A List of Reasons Why You Are Not Going to Work on Monday

1. Rapture disappointment
2. Backlog of shoes that need polishing
3. Still depressed from Saturday’s prison grey skies
4. You just can’t find your glasses
5. It’s that, or quitting altogether
6. Need to get caught up on new Dr. Who episodes
7. Swing dancing injury
8. Practicing for next Monday’s day off
9. Going to go picket KUOW about the firing of Cliff Mass
10. Bad clam
11. You don’t actually have a job

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Sugar Story: Trouble

Sugar was a very outgoing cat, unafraid of strangers.  He greeted visitors at the front door, the way the pet of the house should.  If he happened to be on patrol outside, he would escort a visitor down the front walk. He always knew which people were afraid of cats, or allergic, and took special care to vigorously and relentlessly rub their ankles, leap unexpectedly into their laps, and leave extra tufts of loose fur in the air as he was escorted away.  I vividly remember seeing him leap onto the hair of an acquaintance of my mother’s.  She had a late-sixties style puffy salon hair-do, the kind the takes a full head of curlers, finished with a generous spray of Aquanet. Sugar had a particular fondness for certain smells: cantaloupe, cigarettes, and hairspray. I remember the way she screamed, but more my mother’s pained expression: my mother had very careful good hostess manners, and not only was this embarrassing, it was hilarious.
The house I grew up in was built in about 1930, of brick, with hardwood floors and plaster walls.  The bathrooms had all the original tile work and original fixtures.  In my mother’s bathroom, she had a hose attached to the faucet so she could lean over the tub and wash her hair.
Our cat Sugar loved to watch dripping water, as do many cats. Once, while we were out of town, Sugar took the hose out of the tub so that he could watch it drip water onto the floor.  After a few days of this, the water had made its way through the floor and had saturated the kitchen ceiling, below. By the time we got home from our trip, the wet plaster of the kitchen ceiling had collapsed.
My mother called her homeowner’s insurance company, and an adjuster was sent out.  He examined the damage from below and took a couple of pictures. Then, he and my mother went upstairs to see it from the bathroom. Sugar followed. When they entered the bathroom, which now had a gaping hole in the floor, they paused to allow the adjuster to carefully position himself for a picture.  Sugar rushed ahead, and leapt into the tub, and sat himself at the faucet.  He turned his face to the insurance adjuster with that yellow gleam in his eyes. If a cat could do it, he would have said “Cheese.”

Friday, May 20, 2011

Just Not Good

Can you evaluate this double integral?  Even if you can’t, isn’t it a smart-looking thing? I have a laundry list’s worth of crackpot ideas, and one of them is that we don’t do enough real, challenging mathematics on a regular basis to appreciate how beautiful and amazing it is.  People think math is arithmetic, which is like saying that novel-writing is spelling. People also think balancing their checkbooks is math, and that’s simple accounting, based on arithmetic. In countries like Romania, there is no gender gap in mathematics achievement because mathematicians are revered. Everyone wants Americans to study more math and do better in math,  and I think the only way we  get there is to change how we as a society view math.  We have to get to the point where everyone thinks math is cool.
Pay the best math teachers like professional athletes. Put problems like the one above next to the Wednesday crossword puzzle in the New York Times. Stop letting adults and teens and children say, “I’m just not good at math.” Dogs are not good at math. People invented math. Everyone can do math.
Before I was a math major in college, I was an English major. I believed I was meant to write fantasy novels for teens about horses and cats and angry apples.  I kept a journal because an aspiring writer is supposed to keep a journal, filling it with drawings and story ideas and names of characters, interesting phrases and words, and page after page of complaints about the imagined injustices heaped upon me by my bad, unlucky life. I wrote short stories, and they were never very long, and bit by bit they got shorter and shorter until I wrote the shortest and best short story I ever wrote: “The drummer died.”
That is the whole of it.
I don’t think I’ve gone a day in my life without at least one inventive thought, yet for all that creativity, I suffered from writer’s block so intense that I even made a writer’s block. All of my ideas seemed boring. Everything serious I tried to do was actually silly or just embarrassing. Stories had no endings, plots never went anywhere. The drummer died.
I changed majors in college, temporarily alleviating the crushing guilt of wanting to do something but not figuring out how to do it.  I got an advanced degree, a job, had a kid, had another, and so on.  I like everything I wrote six years ago and nothing I wrote six minutes ago.  I still struggle with the voice that asks, “Who gives a shit?” Maybe I’m just not good at writing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Things I Find in my Basement #20

I have reason to believe this was written by my brother, since it looks like his handwriting. The cat in question is no doubt Sugar

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Cat Story

Because I got my first cats when I was only in first grade, they were subjected to a socialization process that included being captured imperfectly, being lifted inexpertly, being carried in strange positions, being put inside things, being dressed in doll clothes, and wearing socks in all the ways a cat might wear a sock. When I was in my early 20s and got my second set of cats, I believed that a certain amount of this kind of handling was necessary to raise a well-adjusted, happy, friendly cat.

To some degree it is true. If you want to be able to roll your cat onto his back and trim his nails without a struggle, you’ll need to practice this with him when he’s a kitten. 
In the case of our white cat, he was perfectly docile for me to handle in any way. I could cut his nails, give him a pill, put him in a bag. 
Other people were unacceptable to him. Other people who sneezed were growled and hissed at. Other people who tried to pet him might have been scratched. Many people visited our home and never saw him. Cat-sitters, who came to feed him while we were out of town, called us on the third day to say they still hadn’t seen him. My half-brother visited, and saw him in the dark and declared he was a “Mummy-Cat.”

Our current cat, Schwartz, tolerates all manner of handling, including nail trims, being carried in awkward positions, rude dog inspections, and meeting strangers.  At his most recent vet visit, it took three of us holding him down to give him his shots, but no one got scratched. Schwartz was fostered by a volunteer for Purrfect Pals, a no-kill shelter in Arlington, Washington.  His mother was feral, so he needed to learn not to bite and scratch, and some volunteer I can never thank did the job.

The most docile cat I ever owned came from the Burlington, Vermont animal shelter in 1985.  I was a college student in my senior year. She was a stray tuxedo cat.  I was told she was found in a dumpster. My professors were frustrated when they heard I’d adopted a cat. “Cats live a long time,” they said. “You’ll move around. What will happen to the cat?”
My boyfriend and I moved with the cat from Vermont to Utah and back to Vermont.  We moved with the cat from Vermont to California.  We moved with the cat from California to Washington.  She saw us get a second cat, get married, have a baby, get a dog, have another baby, get another dog, and have another baby.  The biggest excitement she ever had was in the summer of 1986, when she got trapped in the ceiling of my mother's house. 
No one ever bothered her: not the other cat, the dogs, or the kids.  She lived to be 19.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Message for that Baby at the Grocery Store

Babies of the world,
Reach up with your chubby arms and grab that little hat with your tiny fingers,
Pull as hard as you can and throw off the sun-bonnet or the knit cap.
Throw it to the ground.
Wrestle free from the nylon safety straps of your stroller,
The belt of the shopping cart,
The five point harness of your approved child safety car seat.
Climb free of the sling.
Burst forth from the adjustable, front or back facing baby carrier.
This is the only time in your lives you cannot get in trouble,  Babies!
You will have no time-outs, no pink slips, no additions to your permanent record, no detentions, no penalties, no garnishing of wages.
Scream and cry for all you’re worth because someone will quickly come and take care of whatever little thing is wrong.
Kick free of your diapers and pee in the faces of your caregivers.
Crawl off, pausing only to poop on the floor.
For today, Babies, you are no more than pets,
Milk it for every moment that you can.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Last Pluto Story

One day, Pluto followed me out on the front porch, just as he usually did when I got the paper. I picked up a tennis ball and headed down to the sidewalk in front of our house to throw the ball for him for a few minutes, just as I had done every morning for many years. Pluto watched me earnestly, and sat down at the edge of the porch, just at the top of the stairs. I knew immediately something was wrong. 
Within the next twenty-four hours, he was suffering from a set of strange and painful symptoms, including a huge swelling. The veterinarians treated him with steroids, which rapidly made him more comfortable, but within a couple of weeks he came down with acute pancreatitis. At this point, he was hospitalized, and given IV antibiotics. After a number of days he was doing well enough to come home. Right before his discharge, an attending vet heard him coughing, and did not like the sound of his cough. An ultrasound revealed that his lungs were full of metastasized tumors. We brought him home having been told that the next medical crisis would be his last.
Over that week, he enjoyed a modified version of his normal routine, with short walks and lots of naps. When Pluto left for the hospital, our other dog Wheatie frantically searched the house for him, anxiously barking and whining. The excitement and relief when Pluto returned were strong enough to trigger a seizure in the young dog. We were all playing outside, and he fell into a small depression in the grass. At first he seemed stuck in a hole, like a turtle on his back.  He was such a goofy dog we did not recognize it as a seizure until we touched him and realized he was not really awake. We did call the vet, and kept him under close supervision the next few days, but Wheatie was fine and never had another seizure for the rest of his life.
The day before Pluto died I was headed out for a longer walk with Wheatie.   Pluto begged to come along. I followed his lead and let him join us. We made large, concentric circles around our neighborhood, since I wanted to be able to take him back to the house when he was done. We saw all his favorite places one more time.  The next day, Pluto could no longer get up, and had to be carried up the stairs. Wheatie was looking for him before he even went to the vet. 
Pluto struggled at the very end; we had to carry him from the car into the vet’s office. He was dehydrated, so a vein was hard to find.  I held him in my arms and calmed him down, they found a vein, and then he was gone.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Name of this Blog

For a long time I waited and hoped that someone would ask me about the name of this blog. No one did. 
A few months ago, an acquaintance and Facebook friend had a status that read “…knows how way leads on to way.” It made me very happy.
Before I left for Italy in August of 2009, I made a loose commitment to take pictures on my trip and post about the experience. I wanted a title that might allude to a journey, but not necessarily a trip in particular. I imagined that I might write about scenery and food and my traveling companions, and I wanted to keep it up when I returned. I did not want the blog to be yet another unfinished project. I have plenty of half-knitted sweaters and pieced but unquilted quilt tops.
To me, Robert Frost is a quintessentially American poet. Arising not from academia but emerging from a string of professions (teacher, shoe-maker, newspaper editor), Frost reminds me of that 20th century American guy who reinvents himself a couple of times before he decides on the domain he plans to master. Frost lived and worked in his adult life in New England, and wrote a lot of poems I find cold and scary and sad and mostly inaccessible—not unlike New England itself. This line—“…how way leads on to way…”— comes from his most famous poem— a poem my mother believed has been misunderstood by several generations of readers.
Because it was the one poem I remembered talking about with my mother, I almost chose to read it at her memorial service.  I knew I could not remember enough of her thoughtful analysis to do her justice, especially not in front of English professors and a bunch of Deans.
What do you read at your mother’s memorial service, in front of all the deans and the provost and the chancellor of Washington University? My older brother and my step father each wrote a speech. I wanted to make a gesture. A poem is a gesture. I started in the room where my mother kept her books. The shelves held not just her books from graduate school, but all of her books from when she and my dad were still married. He did not take much when he moved out. It would have been a grand gesture to read “Death of a Pig” aloud to a captive memorial audience, knowing the story is funny and sad and entirely too long to be appropriate. Something about my mother inspires me to long to do inappropriate things, like writing the word “fuck” anywhere I please, or getting a tattoo, or wearing muddy jeans.
I read “This Solitude of Cataracts,” by Wallace Stevens. 
I found it in a book of my mother’s. I enjoyed reading it as much as I was going to enjoy reading something at my mother’s memorial service, which was not at all. I like the poem. I do not totally understand it. I think one of the most important things about great poetry is not quite grasping all of it, or even most of it.  I quit being an English major in college because of this: because the analysis of poetry was killing it for me. It had become as if I was studying frogs, but I had to kill every frog in the process, and I wanted the frogs to live.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Doing Stuff with Dogs

If you have a dog that you have taught to sit and stay for a long time (even after you disappear), you can teach him Hide-and-Seek.  Pluto loved to play Hide-and-Seek, and would seek treats, toys, and hiding children. Sometimes, we could get him amped by telling him, “Pluto! Go find it!” He would excitedly start looking, even though he didn’t know what he was looking for.
Pluto could also heel off-leash, and really was easier and more fun to walk this way than on a leash. Of course, Seattle leash laws are very strict, and I did once get a ticket for walking my dogs off leash in an empty park.  I made my dogs come and sit and stay while I snapped on their leashes. My son, a toddler, slept in the stroller while the Animal Control officer explained to me the infraction we had committed and the associated fines I had incurred.  I paid the fine, but do not remember changing how or when or even where I walked my dogs, and did not get caught again. 
Today I do not let my dogs off-leash in the city. In part it is the dogs themselves, one being unreliable with strangers and big dogs, and the other being an incredible goof-ball and unreliable in the common-sense department.  The other piece is that I have now encountered one too many grouchy persons in Seattle, and I am tired of apologizing.
Pluto liked the dog park, but with young children it was hard for me to get him there. Mostly, he just wanted to swim and fetch. Wheatie enjoyed the dog park, too, but he enjoyed almost everything.  When he was young he was often the target of humping by the humper-dogs, and he never minded at all.  Sometimes a dog like Wheatie will end up with a cluster of humper-dogs humping his head or his rump, or even humping the other humper-dogs, and he did not mind that either.  Cherry seems to have mixed feelings about the dog park, since she is actually afraid of really big dogs. Sometimes she will go ballistically bitchy on a dog she does not like the look of, and I cannot say for sure what it is that sets her off.  She looks and sounds a lot nastier than she actually is, having the rounded teeth of a retriever, but these days, even dog-owners themselves do not always seem to know the difference between a real dog fight and a bitchy dog scolding another.
Captain brings love of the dog park to a whole new level.  I am a stickler for good behavior in the car, the parking lot and at the unleashing area of the off-leash area. I insist that they sit and stay and hold still when we arrive and leave, but as soon as Captain is unclipped from the lead and given permission to do so, he explodes with excitement.  He spends the first ten or so minutes vigorously scratching and kicking the grass with his long hind legs and barking. Sometimes the enthusiastic barking goes on for quite a while.  He gallops around the park, greeting every available dog, and always has an eye peeled for any short-haired dog that particular shade of red-brown he knows to mean Vizsla.  They say the best toy for a Vizsla is another Vizsla. In Captain’s case, it is true.  He came from a home with a lot of dogs, and he loves to chase and be chased and wrestle.
As for Hide-and-Seek, Captain understands how to wait for the hiding part, and is happy to go look, but his attention span has not yielded good results in turns of actually finding anything.

Friday, May 13, 2011

One thing that really happened

After Dad died I called the hospital and asked if they knew what had happened.
I had been there the day before and seen him
And he was bad but he had been bad for such a long time.
So I just called and asked.
The nurse on the phone told me to wait while they got his nurse
And this is what his nurse said:

            Apparently he was alone in the house
            And he was pretty upset
            And he had a gun
            He shot himself in the head
            But he’s still alive

Now Dad had not been home in weeks,
He had not been off the ventilator,
He was fed through a tube
And he never had a gun
And he wouldn’t fire it
And he couldn’t have lifted it
And he was dead.

But you don’t argue with nurses,
Especially the ones that confide in you when you call long-distance,
And I had been snuffling and crying on the phone,
And those nurses had no doubt forgotten about Dad who was in the ICU for so long,
Lingering and dwindling,
And moved on to the newest tragedy
And I stopped crying upon hearing this new tale of someone else’s father
Which I certainly should not have been told
And I said a quick Thank you to the nurse on the phone
And I hung up
And I laughed and laughed

Before Dad got really sick he would have loved this story
But once he got really sick he got scared and he lost his sense of humor
Which was really how we knew he was going to die.

13 March 2002

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Ray E. Barber

In March or April of 1979 or 1980
My younger brother, who was little
And I, who was not,
Found an attaché case
In the hotel lounge
Of the ski lodge in Winter Park, Colorado.
It was a large square case
Black, with gold letters by the handle:

I don’t know who read it, or who said it out loud, but
We chanted all around the room

We marched out chanting

We chanted in the elevator

We paraded down the hall back to our room

Today my mother works at
Washington University and she says there is a facilities manager there whose name is
She says he is from Colorado.

Have you met my
Younger brother?
He teaches second grade.  

This was written about ten years ago. It does not include what may have been the best part of the story, which was that after we stopped, a group of little kids we did not know picked up the chant, and were heard echoing in the halls of the hotel for days afterward: Ray E. Barber, Ray E. Barber, Ray E. Barber

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Letter to my Mother

This letter was written  five days after my mother died.  At her memorial service, I read a poem written by Wallace Stevens. 
My mother was always very careful not to criticize me, saying nothing even when she might have wanted to say something.  Yet I heard her tell me I had on too much jewelry or the wrong shoes or that a sentence ran 0n or that I parked too close to the wall in the garage or that she did not like one of my friends.  With what ears do we hear what people are thinking? 

18 April 2004

When I should have been composing the lines of a poem to you,
I was stuck on a word
And the big idea got away from me while I chased down the little thought.
Instead of twenty lines of measured prose readied in a file,
Or ingredients and cooking technique jotted on an index card,
Or a ledger whose columns sum you up,
I have no formula or calculations to sum you up.
I might have made a song with it, the words set to a stolen old folk tune we already knew.
And I didn’t.
I don’t finish things.

I think we drove you nuts when we were little,
But you liked us,
And you liked that we were funny and smart and good at things. 

When we grew up,
You found we were interesting, which was worth something,
And maybe even a revelation.

I learned some good curse words from you.
I know you wouldn’t want people to know that.
I also know that you knew I would tell, because that’s what I’m like.

Grandpa remains
A remarkable specimen of improbable endurance.

The day your mother dies you are unchained from the shackles of your cruelest critic
And you will hear her criticisms in your mind
Until you yourself die.

I can now chew my food
Like the surf chewing rocks.  

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Letter to my Dad

17 August 2002

Ddddddddddddear Dad,

In the first dream, you were trying to call me on the phone,
No, in fact, you did call on the phone, and I answered.  But you didn‘t know you were dead.  So I talked to you for a while and you never got a clue.  I told you I was fine and you seemed glad.  I am fine, by the way.
The other night I dreamed about you again.  This time you were around, and you still didn’t know you were dead, even though you’ve been dead now for more than four years.  You were solid, three-dimensional and all, but starting to fade and become transparent.  You had on brown corduroy pleated slacks and a plaid shirt and a woven belt and loafers.  You might have been tan. 
Why do I dream that you don’t know you’re dead?  Did you fool yourself so well in life that it has spilled over into your afterlife?  Isn’t this the only afterlife you’re getting?

24 August 2002

Dear Dad,

You are still dead.  Today I got a lot of scratches on my arms from pulling scotch broom, wild roses and blackberries.  I used a tool that I think is like a pick axe and I nearly broke it.  The tool is old and the handle loose and now cracked.  I thought of you because I was using the tool incorrectly and you liked to yell at us for using tools incorrectly even though you really were not a handy guy. Now that you are dead, you don’t have to be handy.

2 September 2002

Dear Dad,

Andy wrote a poem the other day and mailed it to me.  He thinks you died not knowing my phone number and since we’re unlisted you’d have to call Mom to get it.  You’d have to promise her a check.  I also think that if you called her she would pretend she didn’t know you were dead.  Here is my poem:

Dear Dad,

If you call Mom for my number, she’ll pretend she doesn’t know you are dead.  She hopes that way she’ll see some money out of you, somehow.
And she doesn’t want to have to be the person who breaks the bad news to you. 
You might have to call Mom at work.  She has the same number as ever.  Do you  know it?

If you call me, what will the caller-id say?

Love, Mag

P.S. If you call Mom and John answers, he will know just what to do, because he’s the kind of guy who has dealt with stuff like that before.

When I walk down stairs and the house is quiet, I hear my joints popping and snapping like yours did. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Poem about my Mother, a Year before her Death

Our mother needs a monkey
She needs a small pale monkey
The kind of monkey that organ-grinders had on their shoulders
The kind that threw pies in Three Stooges movies
She needs a pet monkey
To bite her and scratch her
To poop all over her house
To climb her drapes and swing from the chandelier
To toss tchotchkes at guests and bite the heads off the Kachina dolls
To give her something to do,
Other than having surgery and getting sick and losing the use of an arm or a leg or both
Other than radiation and chemotherapy
Other than second opinions
Other than to die.

June 2003