Monday, September 28, 2015


I was gone from the house only a day and a half. Two nights. When I drove up, I felt that something wasn’t quite right. The dogsitter was parked in front of the garage so I couldn’t go in the normal way, but that wasn’t even it. I parked and grabbed my weird bundle of stuff (half a loaf of bread, a sweater that needs new buttons) and trundled in.

I didn’t have to look directly at the hornets’ nest to know that it had been violated. My stomach twisted in recognition before my eyes had registered what had happened. The nest was a damp, wet color, dark and greasy. It was quiet and limp. A dead hornet clung in the entrance, its body curled and its wings aloft. All around it on the siding of the house a great wet stain, glistening with poisonous wasp-killer.

While I was gone--and without my permission--someone came and killed them.

My dog sitter was in the kitchen eating her lunch. I was early, and had taken her by surprise, and I didn't feel like ruining her lunch, so I said nothing of the stain on the house or the carnage it marked. We talked instead about the dogs. Her puppy brought me toys from the bin. I told her about Captain’s Hanukkah dog; the puppy brought me a Kong. She finished her lunch and left. 

I sobbed for the dead queens.

I realized that I was holding out for the promise of the queens emerging to get me through October. We are leaving. It's true. October promises to be busy and includes a yet-to-be-scheduled move and packing and the long lists of things to remember. We don’t even have a place to go yet. The landlord has put someone to work scraping and painting outside, so I can no longer go out and see sunset o'clock without getting chips of paint stuck to the bottoms of my feet. No wonder the hornets’ nest was spotted. Someone was helping out.

I texted my husband a string of unintelligible nonsense, but including the word “hyperventilating,” correctly spelled, two times. The hornets were dead. The queens were dead. All their work was for nothing. All my hopeful waiting wasted.

I texted various other people who I knew would sympathize. I sighed a lot. The nest had been almost done. There was no reason to soak it in poison. The nights are getting colder, and the workers were dying off already. The whole future of these bald-faced hornets was in the few queens that were meant to emerge last. They would be over-wintering in the trees. I loved that hornets’ nest. I thought people knew. I talked about it a lot, I took pictures, and now the pictures are all I have.

I avoided going outside, but I couldn’t pack without crying. Finally, I resolved to run an errand. Two errands! I thought. I could do two at once! I exited by the patio door and walked the long way around the garage. I arrived at the drugstore and realized I didn't even have my wallet. So I had to come all the way back. I finished the errands and collected my basket to go get veggies at the CSA. I played music loud on the way. Really loud. 

Sometimes, the flowers are the best part

At the CSA we got three pounds of potatoes. They are loose in big wooden boxes and coated in a layer of dry dirt. This time I tried to pick ones about the size of hen’s eggs. I got two heads of lettuce and ¾ of a pound of carrots (which was four) and a single head of garlic and a cucumber and a head of cabbage. A bunch of rainbow chard and a bag of arugula (I took less than my allotment since I won’t eat that much in a week). 1 1/2 pounds of onions. I chatted with someone about weighing the 3/4 of a pound of green beans and chose 3 red peppers (that I won’t eat). I went outside to pick 25 flowers and 30 cherry tomatoes and as I tucked them into my overflowing basket I heard a child screaming in the parking lot. Last of all I had four pounds of tomatoes to choose, so I headed to the front where the tomatoes were.

There are several mothers with young kids who also go get their CSA allotment on Tuesdays: one who speaks German and has her hands full with little blond M. who runs away when she calls to him, and another with an earnest four-year-old with large, dark, wet eyes and a mop of almost black hair. They must have reasons for bringing their young children here at the end of the day on Tuesdays and not coming on Saturdays. The hour before dinner is usually the hardest with youngsters. I saw M. disappearing behind a tractor when I came back in with my flowers.

I was weighing my tomatoes when the woman next to me turned to the dark haired boy and his mother, now choosing their carrots, said, “I can see it.”

The small child was flushed from crying, with a tear still balanced on his lashes, and turned and gestured up with a single open palm. “It's going higher and higher,” he said.

I turned and looked up to see. There in the sky I spied the fast-disappearing pink dot that had been the boy’s balloon. He must have lost it when his mother opened the car door to help him out. And somehow because of what this woman said or what his mother said or because he's filled with the miraculous bravery of being 4 or because watching things fly is magical and amazing, he was just able to watch the balloon rise impossibly high into the sky, away and away and up and up and up, until it was gone.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Black Jacket, Yellow Jacket

This summer, when we weren’t looking, a huge, paper nest blossomed and fruited and swelled, large and ripe in the doorframe of the house we’ve been renting. I may have noticed it when it was the size of a plum, but the next time I looked, it was the size of a cantaloupe, and abuzz with life. It’s now bigger than a watermelon. The residents are fat and black with creamy white tiled faces and three matching stripes on their abdomens. I idly recognized them as “paper wasps,” because of their oblong, gray and brown striped paper nest. After a couple of weeks I realized the denizens were fatter than the wasps I’d thought were “paper wasps,” so I did a little investigating. There are perhaps 1,100 kinds of “paper wasps.” Our guests are bald-faced hornets, and actually in the same family as yellowjackets. Some folks call them blackjackets.

Depending on the site, Internet searches will either reveal these busy and meticulous nest-builders as aggressive or defensive. Some exterminators say you can’t safely get within three feet.  Others say they’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone. On sunny days, I like to stand a few feet away and watch them fan the entrance.  One or two guards will whizz past my ears when they’ve had enough of me. I can watch as long as I like from the safety of the inside of the garage and get very close. Inside the great gray-brown striped football are many layers of corridors just big enough for the wasps. I have read that they’ll be all gone after the first frost, in mid-October. Only the new queens will survive, overwintering in the bark of nearby trees.

I am practicing being calm and tolerant of them. From what I’ve seen, the advice that only a professional should remove one of these nests is quite sound; because this nest is against the glass of a window, I’ve peered into the chambers. There are many hornets inside, and they are not asleep at night.

The paper nest of  bald-faced hornets

The sky bright and the afternoon just beginning to wane, we pulled our minivan into the long, single-file line of parked cars to wait for the ferry to Anacortes. There was once a snack bar here, a shack of weathered wood with a small deck in the shelter of a grove of towering douglas firs. The kids had piled into a bench on the far side of the table. The youngest was first in. He was 3 or 4 years old.

Those late summer yellowjackets in the Pacific Northwest sting without provocation. They dive into a can of soda. They eat unattended hamburgers. They land on your arm and sting you while you’re standing at a party and not swatting them. They are a known menace.

As we discussed who was getting rootbeer and who was getting 7Up and how many fries we ordered and whether we’d get ketchup, a yellowjacket landed and lingered on my youngest child’s cheek and was crawling towards his eye. He, like all of my kids, was very afraid of being stung.

In my calmest voice, I said, "Hey, dude, there's a yellowjacket on your face, so close your eyes and hold very still."

He closed his eyes and did not move. I promised him, with the certainty and truth of adult logic and the power of all mothers, everywhere, and every mother that ever lived, that if he held very still the terrible stinging yellowjacket wasp would fly away on its own. It crawled all over his sticky little face, its abdomen pulsing as it explored the pale tender flesh and even ventured up and tickled his eyelashes.

My other kids were aghast. They were witnessing their worst nightmare, unfolding slowly next to them. They wanted to scream. They wanted to climb across the table away from their lost brother. It was more than they could bear to witness. One had to pile both hands over his mouth to keep from shrieking.

Even my husband wanted to do something-- blow on it or swat it. I calmly and silently insisted that it would leave on its own. My husband and I disagreed so strongly on this point that we exchanged ten thousand angry words and ideas, rapidly, fluidly, and without a single sound.

The previous summer I was stung four or five times by one yellowjacket on Lopez Island; it had flown up my pant leg while I was weeding and it had gotten trapped. I ran to the house, tearing my overalls off as I went. I had swatted my leg without looking, and it was the swatting that provoked the stings.

But then, on the deck of the ferry station snack bar, all of our faces agrimace in the various rictus of frozen panic, while the youngest persisted, quiet, relaxed, calm and serene as the terrible yellowjacket prolonged the threat of a painful sting. And as suddenly as the wicked little thing had appeared, the nasty, venom-filled, late-season yellowjacket finally paused in its pulsing and crawling and tasting of the face of my child, whirred its transparent lacy wings and lifted itself into the air. It flew away. No sting. We cheered.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


I was heading out of the barn on a trail ride in July when I found out I was moving.

“P. says you’re moving!” said L., the charming boyfriend of one of the other boarders at the barn.

I was confused. P. owns the barn, and is my landlord. It stands to reason that he’d be in a position to know if I was moving.

I stopped my horse, and said, “Uh…well…uh…actually, my husband did get a new job. But it’s in New York.”

L. smiled warmly. “So, you’re not moving?”

“No,” I said. “We will certainly be here through the end of our lease in October.”

As I headed out into the bright July sunshine to walk the property, I wondered how this misunderstanding had come about.  I frankly felt grateful to L. for asking. But, who told P. we were leaving? Did I say something that was misunderstood?

Ten or thirteen years ago, when I was at a horse show, I was walking back from the show ring to the temporary stabling for my barn. It was sunny and bright, and a little dark inside the big tent. Another one of the riders from my barn, seeing both my trainer and me walking up, waited for me to disappear down the next barn aisle so he could ask my trainer how I did.

His query seemed as loud as if he were standing nearby. I was miffed. I felt then (and still feel) like this person wanted to know about me without bothering to know me. Like he collected friends so he could make trades in the currency of gossip. As I hung up my bridle and groomed my horse, I reconsidered whether this person was really my friend at all.

Barns foster odd social interactions. There are the staff, who do the hardest work and serve long hours.  There are the owners, who are sometimes very accomplished riders themselves. In the interest of maintaining their business, some trainers become close friends and confidantes with their paying clients, while other trainers seem more like haughty professors.  I’ve witnessed a couple screaming matches at barns (trainer at client, client at client, trainer at staff), a bona fide diva storm-out, affairs, and down and dirty competitive sabotage. I’ve made close, life-long friends who I will stand by forever. I don’t think the swirl of gossip is unique to barns at all.

The first time I recall hearing a bit of devastating gossip was when I was in first grade and someone said that D.’s mother had died. He’d been my best friend in pre-school and kindergarten, and we used to do a lot of things with their family. I hadn't known his mom was dying, and had to pretend I did. I felt so ashamed to hear it at school instead of from my parents that I never asked them about it.  We hadn't seen them in a long time. Was that why?

On a day in October of my 11th grade year, we showed up for school and were sent to a large study hall to spend the morning taking a standardized test. I was very good at standardized tests as a child, but had more recently discovered that I was behind in specific math skills, like long division, that shook my confidence in myself as a smart person. But this test was a complete surprise. I was delighted to find that I actually had two Number 2 pencils, sharp and ready to go, and took my place next to D. and dug in. I must have assumed it was akin to the Stanford Achievement Tests we took in the cafeteria every year in elementary school. We never knew how we did on those, and they didn’t show up on our report cards. I liked filling in the bubbles and progressing through the questions and remember finishing early and drawing mice in the test booklet.

The test on that October school day turned out to be the PSAT. I had taken it in a state of complete relaxation, with no regard to whether it mattered. When we got the scores a few weeks later, I had little to no understanding of what my scores or even the percentiles meant. That night, when I got home from play practice, I told my mother about my scores and she already knew.

In fact, my mother had gotten a call from the mother of G., and G. wasn’t even a friend of mine. G.’s mother was all excited because I’d done well on the PSAT. What assumptions about my abilities as a student was G.’s mother making, and why? And why did G.’s mother know my scores? I didn’t carry a backpack and probably folded the scores and stuffed them into the back pocket of my corduroys. Had I dropped them?

I spent the next eight years of my life secretly measuring my intelligence against others, and viewed with suspicion any inquiries into my grades or test scores. I assumed no good could come from people knowing I was smart, and studied in noisy student lounges, legs and arms sprawled over the arms of a chair, instead of the library. 

At the Bacon Provider’s new job there are two rumors circulating that have gotten back to him. One, which is being discussed by folks who work in the west coast office, is that we are moving to California. The other, which is circulating in New York, is that we are staying in New York.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Broken In The Move

It was one of those country farmhouse mornings where the chores I’d been doing half-assed caught up with me. There have been houseflies buzzing around, and I’ve been after them with a vacuum cleaner when they land on the windowsill, but you can’t get them all and you can’t even swat them out of the air with the hose when you lose patience trying to suck them up. That morning the trash was filled with wriggling maggots when I opened it, and, yes, I did scream.  Maybe it was just like 5 or 6 maggots, but the one I crushed with my fingers when I lifted the liner out of the can? That’s the last maggot I ever hope to touch. Certainly the last maggot I ever hope to squish. So while the dogs were out doing their business and the water was on for my tea, I took the trashcan out to the yard to rinse it with the hose.

After hosing out the can and trying to think about anything but maggots (at which point I could think of nothing but maggots), I did a little watering. And thought about maggots. I hate growing vegetables and especially dislike weeding and watering, so I do the watering only in the event of an emergency. Sometimes the emergency is noticing that something is dying, like The Graduate’s jalapeño plants that he transplanted from our over-planted garden plot. The poor jalapeños are not doing well in their pots, and are always thirsty and sad.

Anyway, I was also baking bread that morning, the sourdough having spent the night in the fridge. I’ve done enough loaves now that I no longer need the book or the recipe at all. I have been having good results doing the dough the afternoon before, shaping it before I go to bed and having it accomplish the final rise overnight in the fridge. It’s a small, compact, gooey dough mass that goes in the oven, but then it rises in the oven, and gets the big holes I’ve been working for. I’m fussy about the oven settings now, too, preheating to 505F, baking in my biggest heavy enamel pan with the lid on for 5 minutes (because this is supposed to create a humid environment), lowering it to 475F for another 15 minutes, removing the lids then and finishing at 470F for 25-30 minutes. Maybe I’m fussing too much with the temperature adjustments. I will keep experimenting.

While the bread baked, I fed the dogs, and stopped thinking about maggots. The kitchen warmed up and I noticed it was quiet and this meant the AC was off.  Did the circuit breaker blow again? What the hell? I went down into the basement and there discovered that the circuit breaker was fine, actually. I guess I turned off the AC last night before I went to bed; which made sense.

Down in this basement are the boxes of Xmas stuff and out-of-season sporting gear and empty suitcases and dusty exercise equipment and boxes of books and boxes of CDs that were stored in the basement of our Seattle house. I had forgotten the maggots, and headed back up the stairs to turn the AC back on and wait for the oven to beep, but there was a chair down there and the sight of it stopped me on the stairs. The chair in the basement is dark, and wood, and used to have a woven cane back. It came from my mother’s house, when she died and we split up her things and took them to our homes, my brothers and stepfather and I. The chair in the basement had been in my middle child’s room in Seattle and certainly spent more time having things like shiny capes for dress-ups and sand-filled dragons from the Pike Place Market and sparkle gel pens without their caps and empty salt-water taffy wrappers piled on it than it did having a kid sit quietly in it and do homework. The chair in the basement’s legs are strong and intact, but its back is now broken. The chair was broken in the move.
Broken in the move
I set its value at like $200, and made a claim to the company that provided the insurance for our move. I do not recall if they paid for it in full. Since the chair sits idly in the basement it’s obvious I don’t need the chair. The chair would not be mine if my mother were not dead. The chair would not be broken if we had not moved. The chair could probably be fixed, but certainly would cost more to fix than it was worth. It needs to stay in the basement, out of everyday view. It’s mildly upsetting to see it. I neither want to fix it nor throw it away. Chairs like this are why we need basements.

Later, it became the hottest day of summer so far. I stepped outside and the heat hit me from all sides, stronger than normal, wetter than expected. It was the kind of roasting heat that seems impossible, unreal, temporary, like how hot it is when you first get in a car that’s been parked in the sun, only more damp. It was heat that seemed manipulated for optimal cooking conditions, so the bread will achieve a perfect crust. It was applied heat, not of us but on us. It was heat less like what happened in today’s weather and more like the arrival of a temporary, oppressive condition, but something that was being done to us, by a large, powerful, unnatural force, so great that it could obliterate me and the porch and the kitchen and the house with the swipe of a big, impatient hand, ready to throw us away and start over.

I stood on the porch marveling at the heat. When was the rain going to come? I could see no clouds at all from where I stood. The day before, we had been threatened by thunder all afternoon, but when it came down to it all the rain we got amounted to a few, brief, noisy, celebrated drops--drops that I found disappointing in their small number.

And then I heard the slightest “pip!” and the layer of sky above me up to the height of the roof and a bit beyond was alive with birds, mostly swallows, their unusual tail points briefly visible as they darted and rose through the air. It was a number of birds more than I could count, and though I couldn’t even see what they were eating, they must have been eating a lot of it. Then they all rested for a few seconds on the roof, and went at it again.

I went inside.

On the shady side of the house the roof was liberally peppered with resting swallows and the old dog Cherry stood at the bank of windows up at the top of stairs, her tags jingling with excitement, her ears pricked, her tip-toed stance lively and shifting with the slightest movement of the birds outside. There were so many of them, blue with rust-colored chests, and those funny little u-shaped tails, with two points. They seemed to do a lot of resting, and then a lot of flying about, diving and dashing into the air. Cherry whined just a bit, under her breath, like she was whispering a secret to me, knowing as a good hunting dog does that being quiet would prolong her delight in watching. Schwartz joined her, his uncanny cat sense telling him when there’s something good to do. But he hung back, having been scolded all summer by the loud squeaks of titmice. He had learned to stay where he could see and watch but not alarm the performers.

They saw the swallows on the roof