BETTER WEATHER

ImageThe people who live around the lake punctuate my daily walks. They are my neighbors but I don’t really know most of them. There’s the man with two squat dogs that bark incessantly as I pass but never leave the edge of the property. The man waves at me and tells the dogs to shut up. There’s the grandmother who picks raspberries where I like to pick and we’re engaged in a mild competition. There’s Milly with the not-too-subtle anti-abortion stickers plastered across her bumper, like Abortion is Murder. Milly has been walking the dog of another neighbor, who I call the troglodyte. He used to only come out of his house early in the morning but now he’s ill and housebound. Milly has one of those baby blue Virgin Mary statues in her yard that seems to comment on the passerby’s as much as the owner does. I feel conflicted about Milly but I still say hello when I see her.

I say hello to everyone except three men who live on the opposite side of the lake. They are always parked outside their shabby house. They sit on folding chairs clustered around a small, cracked plastic table. The yard is mostly brown spots worn bare by their countless shoe rubbings under the table. One of the men wears a Korean silk bomber jacket with a dragon embroidered on the back even if its eighty degrees. So I started referring to them as “the veterans” just as a way of identifying them in conversation.

Initially I pretended to be talking on my phone when I passed by. Then I started to jog staring straight ahead. I thought if I could pass quickly, they wouldn’t notice me. But it felt like their six eyes were trailing me. My daughter found a new route that avoided their house altogether. I started complaining to my son.

“I tried getting up earlier but they’re even out at 6:00 AM smoking cigarettes and drinking tall boys.”

“What do they say to you?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? Maybe they’re lonely,” my son suggested.

These men weren’t belligerent or offensive but they made me uncomfortable. I felt like a bad person for ignoring their existence. What was stopping me? Fear? Korea? The Korean War ended five years before I was born and I’ve sort of overlooked it except when I watched M*A*S*H in high school. Unlike the Vietnam War or WWII, I never knew anyone who fought in it or died there. 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, which would make these men at least 78 years old. I don’t think they are that old but the truth is I don’t really know anything about them. I just know what I perceive to be true.

The next day I passed by Milly’s and the blue Virgin Mary smiled at me. I scowled back. I had drawn a line in the sand with myself and now I was determined to cross it. I had helped fuel the animosity my daughter was feeling.

As I approached their house I shortened my gait and turned towards the men.

“Good morning,” I said, waving casually.

The man with the dragon bomber jacket smiled. “Good morning,” he said, waving back.

The following day I said hello and I mentioned the oppressive heat.

“It is hot,” one of the men agreed.

“Damn hot,” another said.

“But better weather is on the way,” the third man said.

“That’s right,” I said, “it is.”

Advertisements

LOST AT SEA

I set a goal at the beginning of the summer to swim across the lake every day. You might think that with all this hot, hot weather, this would prove to be a snap. So far I’ve made it about half the time. Trouble is, too much hot weather makes the lake too warm and it ceases to be inviting. This hasn’t happened since 2002 when slipping into the water really did feel like a bathtub. The good news is that a heavy rain will alter the temperature back to normal levels, and we had rain yesterday and today.

Swimming without a lane across an expanse of water alters your perception of where you are in the universe. You can try counting strokes to measure your progress or you can simply lose yourself in the cadence of the swim. If you fail to look up from time to time you can find yourself far off course. Once you prop your goggles on top of your head and collect your bearings you immediately have to push the distance out of your mind or you’ll drown just thinking about it. If fatigue sets in, which it always does with me on the return trip, you simply flip over on your back and float. My mother taught me this when I was a young, struggling swimmer.

“If you get tired float on your back,” she instructed.

“And do what?”

“Rest.”

“Rest?” I asked. “Rest in the water?”

“Of course.”

It seemed odd. Then I found out almost every swimmer knew this trick. There is absolutely no better way to de-stress. Find a lake, swim to the very middle, flip over on your back and stare up at the clouds.  Keep your hands fluttering occasionally so you don’t sink and then let everything melt away. Try to watch a least one cloud dissolve before you swim back.  You will return a different person. Just setting off from the dock to be alone on the planet will begin to lower your blood pressure.

When my daughter was in the fifth grade and eager to swim across the lake, I agreed on the condition we stop halfway over and float. This had the added bonus of allowing me to take a break from watching her swim.

“What do we think about?” she asked when we arrived near the center and we were treading water in a bicycle motion.

“Nothing.”

“Oh,” she said, seemingly unsatisfied.

“You think about how the earth is supporting you.”

“How nice,” she said.

WRONG DIRECTION

Every morning before breakfast I walk-run around the lake. There are seven hills and the course is two miles. After I pass my house once I switch directions and do it again. It’s amazing what you miss if you only walk in one direction. I was walking with my daughter one morning when I commented on a house we were passing. “They’ve almost finished tearing that house down,” I said.   “What house?” “That one.” I pointed to the charred remains of a burnt bungalow. She gasped in surprise. “I never noticed that before.” “What?” It turns out that if you walk in the opposite direction and you’re not looking for it you just might miss it. But anyone who lived here the night it burned down last February wouldn’t overlook it.  That night we turned off the lights and peered out the picture window, across the ice. There was a lot of smoke and then it exploded becoming engulfed in flames that shot fifty feet into the black sky. Our fascination was soon consumed by an utter horror that the firemen had no hope of saving it. Was everybody okay? Usually we watch houses rise up and mark the progress. Last week, when the outer walls of this house came down I peered into the owner’s bedroom closet. All their smoked filled clothes were exposed to the street but still neatly hanging on a rod and their shoes were lined up on racks like they were waiting for their owners to return. I felt like I was looking at something very private. Today with my daughter, only the fireplace remained. It stood tall with a few wood beams clinging to the blackened stone.  It resembled an ancient ruin left behind by a civilization that owned a lot of stuff they didn’t need. If you lose everything in a fire, what’s the first thing you would buy when you started over? And what would decide to do without this time around?

Every morning before breakfast I walk-run around the lake. There are seven hills and the course is two miles. After I pass my house once I switch directions and do it again. It’s amazing what you miss if you only walk in one direction. I was walking with my daughter one morning when I commented on a house we were passing.
“They’ve almost finished tearing that house down,” I said.
“What house?”
“That one.” I pointed to the charred remains of a burnt bungalow.
She gasped in surprise. “I never noticed that before.”
“What?”
It turns out that if you walk in the opposite direction and you’re not looking for it you just might miss it. But anyone who lived here the night it burned down last February wouldn’t overlook it.
That night we turned off the lights and peered out the picture window, across the ice. There was a lot of smoke and then it exploded becoming engulfed in flames that shot fifty feet into the black sky. Our fascination was soon consumed by an utter horror that the firemen had no hope of saving it. Was everybody okay?
Usually we watch houses rise up and mark the progress. Last week, when the outer walls of this house came down I peered into the owner’s bedroom closet. All their smoked filled clothes were exposed to the street but still neatly hanging on a rod and their shoes were lined up on racks like they were waiting for their owners to return. I felt like I was looking at something very private.
Today with my daughter, only the fireplace remained. It stood tall with a few wood beams clinging to the blackened stone. It resembled an ancient ruin left behind by a civilization that owned a lot of stuff they didn’t need.
“Did anyone die?”
“Just the parrot.”
“Oh.”
If you lose everything in a fire, what’s the first thing you would buy when you started over? And what would you decide to do without this time around?

Link

THE PICKLE DROUGHT

THE PICKLE DROUGHT

It’s raspberry season on the lake. Each morning my daughter and I venture out to collect the now ubiquitous fruit. It will last for two weeks and then vanish for another year. The bounty produces homemade pies, jam and fruit for our morning cereal. Making these things reconnects me to the land, myself and my family. It makes me want to make other things from scratch too.
Last week the New York Times published an article in the dining section about making your own pickles. After purchasing a large bag of Kirby cucumbers from the local farmer’s market I made three jars of pickles in under an hour. I called my son and told him.
“But you hate pickles,” he said.
“No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do,” he insisted.
“Well not anymore, I don’t.”

My first job in high school was working at McDonalds.  The giant cans of pickles dumped into a metal bin each morning sickened me. A greasy teenage boy with bad acne flipped the burgers and dropped on the pickles before wrapping them in paper. That image stayed with me and I started to avoid pickles.
In college I read about pickles in Back to Eden. What I read scared me. It made me think my pickle phobia was justified.
Pickles are indigestible; they resist the action of the gastric juice as would pebbles, and cause great irritation and chronic diseases.-Jethro Kloss
I stayed away from pickles for all of my adult life. When my husband ate my pickle from my plate at the local diner I warned him time and again about the dangers of pickles. “They sour in your stomach,” I cautioned him, but to no avail. Soon my children were enjoying pickles. They laughed at my fears and bought quarts of pickles, every variety, from a local flea market stand. These pickles had exotic flavors like cheddar and black pepper pickles or spicy garlic ruby pickles. They smelled enticing and everyone looked like they were enjoying them but I still stayed away.

Then I read somewhere about the benefits of sauerkraut. The fermentation was good for digestion. If sauerkraut was healthy why wasn’t pickles? I decided my fear of pickles was absurd and I started to eat them again after thirty years. I haven’t tasted my own pickles yet but just like the raspberry pie, I can’t wait.

 

Image

BONDING

BONDING

When my son came home for a weekend visit he  announced he had purchased a fishing license and went out in search of fishing spots on the weekends from his job with the city of Baltimore.
“Fishing?” I exclaimed. His interest surprised me because he had grown up on a lake, which we still live on, and hadn’t fished since his first catch.
His previous abandonment of fishing occurred about a week after we moved into the new house, which he had practically begged us to buy precisely because of his ten-year-old dreams of pursuing this hobby. My husband took him out in the rowboat with their freshly purchased poles and lore, and they caught a small bass.
They brought it up to the house for dinner and all of us stood speechless as my husband demonstrated the ruthless process of just how to clean and filet a whole fish. He then dropped a hunk of butter in a cast iron pan and fried it. My son looked down at his plate, up to the water, and declared that he would never fish again. “So much for living on a lake,” I said.
But now with his renewed grown-up interest I was eager to join him. We went on a rare trip to Wal-Mart on the Fourth of July. I looked around at the losers walking around Wal-Mart on a holiday and realized that I, too, was now lumped into this category. My son came to the store with what he called a well-researched list of supplies and carefully selected each part necessary for his new sport. Just before we went to pay I noticed a shrink-wrapped package boasting “Everything you need to lake/pond fish” for only $29.99. I bought it. If my son was going fishing, then by god so was I.
My equipment was inferior, but was worth the resulting mother-son bonding—time spent in the boat looking for shady spots and continually untangling my line. We talked about our lives and I held my breath each time he had a nibble. I didn’t catch anything but he had caught about twenty small Sunnies that I admired as he held them up until each were unhooked and released back into the cool, dark water.
Invigorated by this experience, the next morning I suggested an outing in the Bear Mountain region because I knew he liked to hike. He took me up on it and we ascended a path labeled “challenging.” I willed every last remaining muscle in my core to heave my middle aged body upward; he would look back and say, “You okay?” to which I replied, “Great! I love hiking.” The truth was I never hiked even though we live a stone’s throw away from the Appalachian Trail.
After the hike we went to a local farmer’s market and purchased two whole black bass for dinner. True we hadn’t caught them, but it felt like we might have. Or we should have. It seemed that we finally liked all the same things. That evening as my husband started up the charcoal, my son showed me how to season, grease, stuff and score the fish for the fire. I had never actually taught him to cook but I realized that he had picked it up over the years by watching me and through trial and error.
The next morning he had to catch an early train back to Baltimore and I woke eager to drive him to the station. My husband was already dressed and had made him toast and tea when I showed up in the kitchen. I wanted to make him a big breakfast to keep him in good stead until he arrived back at his apartment but he declined. The toast was all he wanted.
I thought that all my feelings of separation anxiety had long passed with the ceremonial freshman year drop off, the ceremonial graduation, the ceremonial move into the first apartment, first job, etc. But suddenly those recently buried and laid to rest emotions all came rushing back at me and I saw both a grown man and a ten-year-old boy converge. He was showered and shaved and neatly dressed with his tidy bag packed at his feet and a fishing pole in one hand.
The only difference was that my arguments for a good breakfast and against flagging a taxi with a six-foot long pole to make a connection at Penn Station went unheeded. I decided against joining them on the ride to the station. It was better like this where I was unable to fret as he maneuvered the bag and pole out of the car and onto the commuter train to Grand Central. We hugged and he left. I watched the car pull away as the sun rose over the trees across the lake. Then I went fishing.