A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: day 4, cranberries and canning

I’m a fan of fresh cranberries, but they’re only really available for a couple months each year. When I see them in season, I admit I get a little excited. I like to make cranberry sauce, and a quick cranberry-walnut cake, and cranberry cinnamon yeasted bread. I like to use the cranberry syrup in drinks, like lemonade. Or a cosmo, which is what I’m enjoying right now. Tonight I just dropped an actually cranberry from a jar of sauce into the top of my drink. So pretty and red, like the pupil of an evil eye.

This past summer, I finally got a proper canning pot and rack. We put in some new garden boxes last spring, and I fantasized about putting up food from my own dirt for winter. I was no doubt inspired by feelings of looming apocalypse, in the face of COVID-19. I anticipated some extra tomatoes from our garden and I thought I’d make salsa, and can some whole tomatoes for winter, and that sort of thing. I never did put any tomatoes in jars, but I made a bunch of pickles with cucumbers from the garden. A fruit truck pulled through town and I bought a couple huge boxes of peaches and blueberries from Georgia or someplace like that (no fake blueberries or fraudulent peaches in the lot, I swear, they were legit), so I made blueberry jam and blueberry syrup, and I canned peaches in syrup and also canned some of the peach syrup.

When cranberries appeared on my grocery produce shelves a few weeks before Thanksgiving this year, I experienced my usual excitement. I bought some and made cake and bread, and I wondered what special odd ingredients I would put in my cranberry sauce this year. A good week or more passed before I realized that I could… CAN MY CRANBERRY SAUCE.

This epiphany made me giggle and clasp my hands together and hop up and down, as I imagined grilling a steak in summer and putting my own, actual homemade cranberry sauce on it. So that’s what I did around Thanksgiving time, I canned a bunch of cranberry sauce and syrup.

Here, let me show you how good they look.

Canned cranberries in dank cellar closet

Oh oh, here are a few more that didn’t fit on the top shelf, and next to them are some of my other home-canned goods.

Pickles, canned peaches, blueberry jam, cranberries, and some nasty rhubarb paste. In dank cellar closet.

You might notice that there’s a one-off jar perched atop beautiful peaches, looking awfully gross. That, my friend, is rhubarb jam. Maybe it’s rhubarb peach. I don’t remember, and I’m bad about labelling. I better work on that. Anyway, I’m afraid to open it and try it, because it looks nasty. But we grew the rhubarb in our yard, and I suspect it’ll taste fine. I think I also spy some mango chili jam. Huh. I forgot about that. Good thing I took this pic.

Right, so I’m grateful today about the canning equipment and cranberries and the canned goodness in my dank cellar. I’ll probably forget what I canned and when I canned it, and someday a few years from now I’ll probably pop one of these babies open and give myself salmonella poisoning, or botulism, or whatever it is that kills us when we eat badly canned foods. But until then: grateful.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: day 3, tech savvy

Back in 1986, as a junior at Oberlin College, I got a work-study job as the secretary’s assistant in the Chemistry Department. This was a prized position. I would no longer have to to put on a hair net to tend the lunch salad bar at the African Heritage House dining facility. Never again would I be part of the breakfast dish crew at Dascomb dining hall, dipping my frozen-numb fingers into half-drunk cups of warm coffee coming through the clean up line (a common practice for our cleaning crew), while the rich students who didn’t need to work headed off to their glorious job-free days. The breakfast crew was fun, but the work sucked. (Thankful Anthony doesn’t mind doing dishes these days.)

The secretary and the chemistry professors were delightful and kind. They quickly learned that I was a piano performance major, and that I could type about 160 words per minute, and that I could do some basic coding in Pascal and knew how to use WordStar on the library mainframe. They had a Mac – one of the early boxy things – and they encouraged me to learn how to use it. I touched my first mouse, and I experienced the magic of stuff on the screen looking exactly like what would come out on the printer. I became the chem department’s go-to person for putting their exams into a computer document, complete with complicated equations using symbols and greek letters. It was not easy at first, but I got good at it. (Thankful Anthony knows how to word-process his own equations these days.)

In my year off between college and law school, I moved to Silicon Valley and found contract work – back then we called it temping. I quickly landed a long-term temp position at Apple, of all places. I suspect they chose me because I actually knew how to use a mouse. I learned about Apple and its products, and I got my own Mac. Having a mouse made me pretty cutting edge. And I made FOURTEEN DOLLARS AND HOUR! In 1988, that was pretty darn amazing. I don’t know if I could find a job in 2020 that pays me that well. (Thankful I don’t have to job hunt right now.)

Decades have passed since then, and it has been all downhill on the tech front. I am officially that middle-aged person who really hasn’t moved forward with technology. I mean, I know how to use WordPress at some basic level, but look at this blog. It’s not a site; it’s shite. (Thankful I’m not trying to make a living by blogging.)

The sad thing is, I’m trying to have a new webpage created for an organization I’m involved with, and the poor friend who agreed to help me (aka, to actually do it) may be getting wise to my incompetence and technology-terror. I hope he’ll bear with me. (Thankful for friends who put up with me.)

Fortunately, I don’t need to be tech savvy to use a lot of 21st century tech. I love my iPhone, which has become a binky filled with my contacts, calendars, casual games, shopping apps, photos, music, audiobooks… and instant access to a veritable universe of information. I love Zoom, which allowed us to see our extended family on Thanksgiving. I love my integrated Apple products, even if they do all go off when someone calls — my Macbook laptop, my phone, my iMac, and an iPad mini ding-a-linging madly all over the house, like the imagined cacaphony of a clockmaker’s shop on every hour. It’s occasionally unnerving, but I’ve mostly grown used to it. I love that I can break or lose one Apple device, and my entire life’s worth is still available to me on all the other devices. I love our Roku box, which magically allows us to stream just about anything we want without watching ads. I love my fitbit watch, which gives me my heart rate and uses GPS to map my routes and distances when I exercise. I love our electric car, with a winter range of less than 100 miles, because anyway, who needs to drive any further than that during winter in Wisconsin?

In this pandemic year, all this technology that people rail at intermittently — with various claims that it destroys our lives and brains and relationships — seems to be pretty critical to keeping things going, from jobs to school to shopping to relationships to a lot of things in between. (Thankful my kids’ schools have gone mostly virtual.)

Oh! speaking of destroying brains. Anthony announced yesterday that his fitbit literally recorded him as being asleep a couple nights ago, when we know he was awake because he was sitting next to me watching a movie. I think there’s something delightfully meta about one piece of tech declaring that a different piece of tech has put Anthony to sleep.

Anyway, I know I’m selling my information soul to a bunch of tech devils all over the world, but I’ve plugged my nose and jumped head first into this stuff. I may not know how to use modern technology and software in any sophisticated way, but that’s okay. I’m grateful that Big Tech has dumbed it all down enough that even a fool like me can get a lot out of it.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: day 2, Pooh

For the past couple weeks I’ve been reading the Winnie-the-Pooh books to Nick at bedtime. At eleven years old, Nick was mortified when I pulled out the large “complete works” hardbound collection. Pooh is for little kids, he explained, as he rolled his eyes in embarrassment. He sighed and groaned through the first chapter or two, but by the time we got to the Heffalump hunt, he was snorting and giggling along with me. We’re in the midst of getting to know Tigger now. Tonight, Tigger got stuck in a tree. What a goofball.

There’s such silliness to Pooh and gang. For me, that silliness was lost in the Disney animation, which unfortunately defines Pooh for too many people. The movie failed to give Pooh the growly voice and Piglet the squeaky voice described by Milne, in my own mind. It deadened the creative imagination inspired by the stories.

I first read the Pooh books aloud in college, to Anthony as we droused in bed in the evenings. I also read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to him, and a few other novels. But it was Pooh who first unveiled something in Anthony that I never anticipated in a grown young man — a silliness, a love of childhood, and an acceptance of the simpleton in me. We giggled together, we pondered human nature, we shed a few tears when Christopher Robin grew up. We fell deeply in love in those days, and the Pooh stories are woven into our love.

I gave those ridiculous creatures the voices I imagined: Pooh growled, Piglet squeaked, Roo squeaked even higher. Owl spoke in a deep English hoot, Rabbit in a Georgia accent, Eeyore in a groaning existential drone. I composed tunes for Pooh’s poems, and sang them to Anthony when we read together.

As I was reading aloud to Nick tonight, we came to a poem Pooh was humming, and I sang it. The tune was simple and old — one I composed 35 years ago in college, as I lay in bed next to Anthony. I still remember most of the tunes. They burble up unexpectedly as I cross paths with the poems in the stories, deep memories bridging back to a time when I discovered that friendship and love could win over loneliness. And so I realize that, when I read these stories of Pooh to Nick, I’m also sharing with him his parents’ love story.

Quite a gift from a silly old bear.

A month of grumpy gratitude 2020: day 1, getting started

Does it count as an annual tradition if I do something two years in a row?

I hope so, because calling something an annual tradition gives it so much more heft. So, it’s time to begin my annual tradition of daily grumpy gratitude during the month of December.

It hardly needs saying that this is a hard year for gratitude. 2020 sucks.

I don’t want to feel too grateful for the really big things. I don’t want to be too grateful for evading COVID19 so far, because nearly one and a half million humans have fallen to it. I don’t want to feel too grateful for the financial and familial stability I’ve been lucky enough to maintain, because so many humans have not been so lucky. That sort of gratitude feels more like… rubbing less fortunate folks’ noses in it. It feels less grateful and more grating. It feels ugly to experience anything more than simple relief.

So never mind that.

As I start this year’s gratitude journey, I was expecting it to be much easier, given how well therapy is going and the amount of energy I put into working on the gratitude thing. (Granted, it’s not a huge amount of energy, but it’s definitely non-trivial.) Gratitude would flow from my fingers and lift me in billowing clouds of puffy joy and beatific peacefulness. La la la la happy happy love love.

Yet as I sit here, stewing, I find myself right back where I’ve always been: feeling kind of pissy about the whole gratitude thing. It’s still a graft on my more permanent state of mind, hard-wired to cynicism, bitterness, and a general sense that people suck and I hate people. How can one look at the state of affairs in 2020 and feel any differently?

Well, there’s nothing for it but to wade in. Today I will raise my white flag of gratitude into the whistling winds of 2020 and say… I’m grateful that I haven’t screamed at my kids as much as I might have during this pandemic. In fact, I’ve hardly screamed at all, which is a significant bit of anecdotal evidence suggesting regular therapy really can change a person. I’m grateful that, although both my kids have expressed some heart-breaking existential thoughts involving their own potential (and in their own minds, possibly desirable) deaths, neither has attempted anything; and I’m right here, stuck in this house with them in quarantine lock-down, ready to pounce if any scary shit goes down.

There. Day one is done.

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 19: anniversaries

Today is my 27th wedding anniversary, and this year both Anthony and I turn 54. So we’ve officially been married half our lives. To say the wedding was an afterthought isn’t quite right – it was a profound event in which we celebrated our love with friends and family (and some strangers), and we had fun and cried and all that, but it didn’t change our devotion.  We had made our lifelong commitment to each other, in our hearts and behaviors, long before a wedding.

A half-life ago, the US economy was just starting to think about pulling out of a deep recession in the wake of Reagan’s devastating trickle-down economic policies. Institutionalized apartheid still existed in South Africa.  I was never going to have kids. Newt Gingrich was talking hypocritically about “family values” and really getting me riled up.  We were listening to Rage Against the Machine and the Cranberries and Soundgarden and Billy Bragg. 9/11 hadn’t yet happened, and the US hadn’t yet been dragged into a long-term war on false pretenses.  Dreamers couldn’t dream legally. It was unimaginable that a conservative justice would write a Supreme Court decision declaring a constitutional right to marriage for all humans, LGBTQ and otherwise. It had been only three years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  I could never have imagined a silver-spooned, half-baked business man-turned reality TV star becoming our president by blowing racist dog whistles.  And I had never heard of Juneteenth as an important date. I had no idea I was getting married on the celebration day for the end of slavery in America.

Somehow, despite knowing of Juneteenth for some years now, I never made that date connection until this year. I don’t even understand how in the world I missed it.  I guess I just wasn’t paying attention; but also perhaps American education and news hadn’t brought it to my attention, or even worse had hidden it. But I know it now.

COVID-19, and the anti-police-brutality peaceful protest movement that’s sweeping across America, have made 2020 one crazy year.  I hope we’re all listening, growing,  and eventually healing.  I hope I’ve thought about race issues with an open heart through the years, and now I hope I can think more deeply and more clearly about these things.  I hope I’ve done right things to support social justice and parity and to fight discrimination and hate and violence, and now I hope I can do more and better right things in pursuit of a better world.  I hope I’ve believed in and supported our individual responsibility to community, in terms of social justice and physical and mental wellness, and now I hope I can learn to do more to be a responsible human being.

I’m learning slowly, ever so slowly, that I can be a good and useful person already, and also be a person who needs to improve and change in fundamental ways. This is apparently a hard lesson for a lot of us, especially when it comes to race in America.  But of course, we can’t grow into wisdom without admitting to our ignorance and mistakes. I can be strong enough to listen when someone tells me I’ve messed up — in the words I’ve chosen, in the actions I’ve taken —  and then work towards a more informed, more effective space.  I’m working on it.

Meanwhile, in the microcosm of my personal life, COVID-19 quarantining has created space to rediscover my husband.  Anthony and I have used the extra time we’ve had in the past few months to jump into old sandboxes together.

We’ve started hitting golf balls again — after a 16 year hiatus on my part! — and even have played a couple of 9-hole rounds on a par-three course. Anthony and I used to be avid, passionate golfers. Every weekend we played, weather permitting.  We would hit the driving range at least a couple times a week after work.  Our vacations were often golf vacations.  We would go to Myrtle Beach, an east coast golf Mecca, and play 14 courses in 7 days. When we visited family, we brought our clubs.

A round of golf was space away from all the worries of our jobs and world news.  We could spend 5 hours on a course together, pottering about on green surfaces, whacking balls, chatting and holding hands. Nothing could really come between us except our own grumpiness.

I felt surprisingly anxious about swinging a club again, but it turned out to be a lot like riding a bicycle. Being out there with Anthony has brought up an unexpected sense of peaceful contentment in me.  (When we’re out there. Still grumpy elsewhere.)

We’ve also been working in the yard like mad. We’ve built and filled raised vegetable bed boxes; hauled 18 cubic yards of fill dirt, garden dirt, and mulch from here to there; dug trenches to drain a huge temporary pond that forms every spring, and built a walkway into the middle of said pond so Anthony can use a sump pump on it; split plants, moved plants, and installed new plants in old and new beds; cleared half an acre of invasive buckthorn and garlic mustard; and weeded and weeded and weeded.

A couple days ago, we spent four hours digging up a bed of hostas on a steep hillside out back.  The soil there is pretty poor and weedy, and we had a couple cubic yards of bulk garden soil waiting to find a final resting place.  So we dug out about 50 mostly-mature hostas in an area that’s about 15- to 20-feet square, and carefully weeded. Then we carted the new soil from out front into the back yard, one heaping wheelbarrow trip after another, and spread it all over the area.  Then we put all the hostas back.  As Anthony said in the evening: four hours of exhausting labor, and nothing has changed.

But it was still a good four hours.  Anthony and I trooped around together, dug together, stared at our beloved plants and gardens together, paused for water together, grumbled together about our various middle-aged aches and pains, chatted together about politics and culture and life in 2020.  It was a pretty good metaphor for our marriage — getting shit done, one moment at a time, mostly right by each other’s side, content to be together.

As with the wider world, in the little world of my love story with Anthony, I’ve learned that I can be a good partner and friend while also being profoundly imperfect. I’m lucky to have found a mate who understands and accepts that about me.  I’m working on being strong enough to listen when he tells me hard things. I know Anthony is too.

Twenty seven years after I got married, and 401 years after slavery arrived on the shores of my nation, there’s still hope. I guess.  In this Age of Trump and racist dog whistles, I have to work hard to remind myself that we have taken small steps forward. But I’m ready for us to leap.

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 18: fatigue

Some time in the last week or two, I’ve hit a wall.  More often than not, I feel more tired than I should, more grumpy, more impatient, more blank, more frustrated, more disheveled, more disorganized.  I’m getting angry at the kids when I shouldn’t.  I’m not organizing solid activities for them, and I’m feeling guilty about pushing them to do anything because life is already so stressful for them right now.  Making healthy meals feels like a heavy chore instead of a joy.  Most evenings, I stick in my AirPods and try to disappear from my family for a while – listening to music and sewing masks by myself, lying in bed by myself and staring at a device.  I don’t even want the dogs around me in those moments.

Oh sure, we still do fun stuff. We’re gardening, we’ve got flowers and vegetables sprouting aplenty. We’ve been hitting the driving range, we ride our bikes, we go to the lake. Yadda yadda.  But it feels often like I’m just going through the motions.

I remember this feeling from a few years ago, when I was in a deep depression and couldn’t get out of bed some days. It scares me. I don’t want to go through it again.

I am blessed with solid health insurance and the means to continue working with my therapist, Dr. G.  We talk every couple of weeks by phone, in the age of COVID-19.  I told him yesterday about how I’m feeling. It’s a change, because up until now I’ve been feeling pretty solid in 2020.  After I blathered for a while, he said, “It’s a common feeling right now.”

Mental health people are calling it “coronavirus fatigue.” It’s a thing. People are exhausted emotionally.

Coronavirus. The divisive and hostile state of American politics, and a president with no capacity to lead with empathy and compassion. Distance learning for our kids, and all the frustrations and changes that has entailed. The armed protests by white cammo-people over quarantine, met with a patient, restrained police response. The largely-peaceful protests inspired by Mr. Floyd’s killing, met with police and paramilitary violence. Families stuck together for unreasonable amounts of time without access to other important friendships and colleagues… There is a whole lot to process right now. It is legitimately overwhelming.

I stared out the window as Dr. G spoke about the phenomenon of coronavirus fatigue. I finally remarked, “So I don’t have to feel like a failure right now? I can give myself a break for feeling this way?”

Silly Carla.  All the years and all the reads and all the therapies and all the workshops and all the advocacy and still, it’s so hard to give myself compassion.

Dr. G reminded me of the basics.  Continue with self care, even if it feels selfish. It’s not.  Get rest. Find space for yourself. Continue teaching your kids your values. You have the authority as a parent to do that.  Continue trying and doing.

I will keep trying and doing, I told myself.  I am telling this to myself this morning, as I sit here. Technically, I know this sort of self talk can make a difference, but it feels silly and hard when I’m stuck in a rut.  Still, I will keep trying and doing.

A few weeks ago, Jesse put her foot through a window in her bedroom and gave herself a wicked cut that required a trip to urgent care.  The kick was the expression of an obsession and a tic.  As she said to me later, “That window has been bothering me for a long time now.”

She tried to hide the gash on her foot, but there was so much blood it was impossible.  Even as we rushed her to urgent care, she insisted that we shouldn’t. “I don’t deserve it,” she said. “I can take care of this myself.”

She was stoic and pretended it didn’t hurt.

When we tended to the wound in the days that followed, she would often remark to me that she didn’t deserve the attention. She did it to herself. She deserved to suffer.

I told Jesse over and over, you don’t deserve to suffer.  I love you.  I want you to stop hurting yourself.

It is very, very hard to see my daughter express such thoughts.  It is even harder to recognize in them a reflection of my own habit of self-punishment, but I have to stare into the mirror and ask big questions.  I’ve done my share of weeping about it.  I know that this hangs over me and is one of the reasons I’m low on juice and resilience these days.

And I know I’m not alone in this vast world of a million-billion-zillion human beings.  We are all suffering together right now, but also we have the power to carry each other through.

Hey listen, if you’re suffering, please don’t do it alone. Don’t harm yourself, don’t tell yourself that your humanity matters less than someone else’s. Don’t let your rage and exhaustion own you, if you can fight it. Don’t let false shame stop you from seeking help. Call someone, anyone. Here are some numbers.

National Hopeline Network
(800) SUICIDE

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
(800) 273-TALK (8255)

National Youth Crisis Hotline
(800) 442-HOPE (4673)

Poison Control
(800) 222-1222

National Institute on Drug Abuse Hotline
(800) 662-4357

National Help Line for Substance Abuse
(800) 262-2463

National Domestic Violence Hotline
(800) 799-7233

National US Child Abuse Hotline
(800) 422-4453

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 17: don’t worry, be happy

I took Jesse over to her school today, to drop off the past month’s work. Before I pulled out of the driveway, I grabbed my phone, brought up her playlist (which I have named “Young teenage POP Angst”), and  put it on shuffle.

I did not remember that Bobby McFerrin was on the playlist.  If you don’t remember him? Don’t worry, be happy.

Here, if you must, listen to the song that shuffled into our ears:

Bobby’s happy tweety harmonies blasted through the car’s speakers. In this pandemic age, where some noisome people are more worried about getting haircuts and a drink at a bar than about helping each other stay safe, and the voices of racists are being amplified by the American president, and protests against police abuses have been going on for more than a week now, and a small cotillion of provocateurs are using this opportunity to turn to violence and looting, and right-wing media sources are wrapping them all up unfairly with people legitimately seeking justice and equity, and a president is insanely threatening to invoke the Insurrection Act to throttle peaceful protesters, and an entire fascist-minded apparatus is falling in line behind that mindset, and people are feeling angry and hopeless and filled with a good deal of despair… Bobby didn’t sound cheerful and optimistic.  He sounded sarcastic and shrill, like it was a big lie, like the whole time everyone thought he was selling an upbeat vibe, he was actually dying inside.

These thoughts passed through my mind in a very brief second or two, and then I glanced back at Jesse through the rear view mirror.  The look on her face as she stared out the window said what I was feeling, which, boiled down to essentials, was this: WTF BOBBY.

After just a few measures of wheedling happiness, it became too painful to listen to, without amendments.  I started singing along, with my own lyrics.

A 12-year-old plays with a fake gun
The cops come and shoot him down
But don’t worry, be happy

Jesse grunted.  “He must have been black, they wouldn’t have done that to a white kid.”

I replied. “If any white boy in America had been shot by the police for playing with a toy gun, Fox would never stop talking about it and I’m sure they’ve tried their level best to find a story like that.”

Ooh, ooh ooh ooh oo-ooh ooh oo-ooh, oo-oo- oooh
Don’t worry, be happy

Jesse snorted. “Yeah.”

A black man runs away from a cop
He’s scared cuz he knows he’ll be shot
Don’t worry, be happy

Jesse rolled her eyes from the back seat and scoffed. I needed to keep drowning Bobby out.

A white cop puts his knee on your neck
Nine minutes later you just drop dead
Don’t worry, be–

“MOM, STOP IT OKAY? JUST STOP IT! I GET IT, I GET IT, OKAY?? I’M UPSET ABOUT IT, OKAY?? I KNOW I HAVE IT EASY, OKAY??”

I hollered back. “WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I’M TRYING TO SEND YOU A MESSAGE? I’M PROCESSING A LOT OF FEELINGS AND ANGER TOO AND MAYBE IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU!”

Jesse hollered back. “THEN DO IT QUIETLY, OKAY? JUST DO IT QUIETLY.”

Said my daughter who yells her feelings at me every day.  I heard my words in hers, the echo of me telling her to quiet down, day after day, to find a way to hold her huge feelings and needs in silent check. In that moment, I felt intense regret. Don’t quiet down, I thought, casting the feeling out across my nation.  Don’t do it quietly. Keep making as much noise as you can.

But I was stuck in a car with Jesse, so I didn’t say it out loud.  We finished the drive in silence, as Bobby’s self-reflecting overdubs shrilled to the bitter end.

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 16: protest ants

I don’t hate ants. When I was a kid living in California’s central valley, we would get lots of those tiny little garden ants in the kitchen.  Some mornings I would come downstairs and flip on the light, and the counter next to the sink would be absolutely blanketed in them. They moved about in thick waves like those weird flocks of birds.

Fine, I looked it up, because I think “weird flocks of birds” doesn’t capture the image I’m going for. Here’s what I’m picturing:  STARLING MURMURATIONS.

Only it was ants.

After the initial terrors, I learned to just sweep the ants up with a sponge and wash them down the sink.  Sometimes a few would manage to crawl onto me during this ant-ocide and I would get jumpy, but they were so little and helpless, really. In the battle to the death, I was victorious every time.

* * * * *

Once I came downstairs into the kitchen, bleary-eyed in the early morning, and stepped on what my mom called a “water bug.” This was a euphemism for “oh sh** that’s the most enormous cockroach I’ve ever seen.” I felt that nearly-2-inch-long creature squish under my bare foot; I heard the sound of its exoskeleton crushing, and I felt the warmth of its goo. I screamed and hopped into the adjoining room, arms flailing meaninglessly. I calmed down by making “ew ew ew” sounds in diminuendo, as I hopped to the bathroom to wash my foot off.

This is an aside, but I offer it as some context for my eventual relationship with ants.

* * * * *

When Anthony and I bought our first home, it was on roughly 19 acres of woods on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. We got it cheap, a good-sized modern timberframe kit-build with two bedrooms. For the same amount of money, we could have purchased a tiny, badly-appointed one-bedroom apartment/condo in a mediocre neighborhood in DC, where we worked and lived.  We decided to keep renting in DC and buy the house and big land instead, as a weekend getaway.

Since the land was basically wooded wetlands, we shared the space with a lot of creatures — skunks, possums (one lived under our back porch for a while), snakes, frogs, wolf spiders, birds, squirrels, raccoons, deer, mice, the usual.  We also had a lot of mosquitos.

This was when I learned that I have a terrible allergic reaction to mosquito bites.  After many bouts of cellulitis big and small, including a few that required oral antibiotics, I asked my doctor: how do I prevent things from getting this bad? He answered, verbatim, “Don’t get bit.”

Thanks for nothin’, doc.

So this is when I started wearing a lot of DEET whenever I went outside. We also consulted with Anthony’s father, an organic chemist who had made good use of pesticides during his life. He recommended malathion, sprayed not just on the cleared yard around the house but also on the foliage of all the trees nearby, as this is where the mosquitos would likely rest and lay their eggs.  He further recommended we spray for 4 weeks in a row, early in the morning, to break the cycle of life.

What can I say, it was the 90’s and we were in our twenties.  The first week we went ahead with the spraying. I don’t know how much poison we used, but we covered a good acre of land. We felt sick for a couple days afterwards, and that was disturbing.  But we are nothing if not persistent. We bought thick rubber gloves, tyvek suits, and double-canister asbestos-style rubber-gasket masks.  We suited up and sprayed the hell out of our yard for 3 more weeks in a row.

Sure enough, the mosquitos were much better after that.  Probably lots of other creatures were also “better.”  We definitely didn’t have many ants.

* * * * *

We’ve learned a lot of things since those years, about birds and bees and ecosystems and the art of not using products that require us to wear tyvek suits and gas masks to avoid feeling ill.  Nowadays, I mostly only spray water and the rare gentle fertilizer and I mostly don’t use traps or poisons  – but we’re not righteously bound to false perfection.  I keep wasp spray around to kill nests, I inoculate the land with milky spore to kill the dratted Japanese beetle, and every few years Anthony sprays the lawn to kill the creeping charlie, typically on a day when we are literally leaving for a several-week vacation.  We do things with vinegar, and I have a little flame thrower that I’ve been itching to use.  Otherwise, we live with what comes.  This creates moments of bug-based crisis, but honestly, we don’t have many pests in our house.  Spiders seem to take care of most everything. Except the ants.

In the spring every year, around this time, ants return to our kitchen.  I’m not sure where their nests are – maybe in the crawl space right below the kitchen, maybe under the stones on the patio next to the kitchen, maybe in the walls? I try not to think about it too much.

The little ants tend to stick to our counters and kitchen desk. I can’t blame them – thanks to the kids, there are always tempting treats to be had, often sweet and sticky.  These ants look like the wee ones of my California childhood, but they do it Wisconsin style – sparsely populated, stubborn. I find individuals here and there, rather than big swarms, and I kill them with a press of a finger.

When I was little, I would watch my grandma do this and wonder how in the world she could use her bare finger to squash a bug. Gross. It didn’t occur to me to feel bad for the ant.

Now that I’m over 50, killing a living creature feels bad. But I do it because I’m practical. I can’t have ants roaming happily on my kitchen counter, and I have no way to inform them of this fact except through their deaths. So I smash where I find.

At least, with the little ants.  The big ants are another matter.

The big ants come to our kitchen garbage and recycle bins, which hide behind a pull-out cabinet door. We don’t know how or whence they arrive.  They just appear in our bins, and more rarely on the floor or counter.  These ants range up to about a half inch in length, I kid you not. I swear they try to make eye contact.  They always surprise us when they first show up.  Anthony or I will pull out the kitchen garbage slide, and LO! 15 ants are crawling around in the garbage and recycling. It is really, really creepy because they’re so big.  I can’t kill one of those things with my bare hand, it would make crunchy noises and be gooey.  Even stomping on them with a slipper often doesn’t result in immediate death.  They’re tough, they fight for life, and they suffer to the end. It makes me really sad. 

Since I don’t want to spray poison, we’ve taken to using diatomaceous earth. This is not actually earth.  It is instead the grey powdery ground up fossils of some ancient little sea creature, and it has a variety of uses. As my brother Mark says, we’re so lucky these creatures lived 5 million years ago so that we could someday use their tiny little bodies to control ants and clean swimming pools.  A life of meaning after all, for the little empty-headed diatoms.

D-earth apparently is very painful for tiny little ant feet. I don’t know if it injures them to the point of death, but apparently it’s like walking on ginzu knives. I do know that I’ve observed ants coming up to the D-earth, touching it, and turning tail to run. I could almost hear them yelling, “ouchies!”

D-earth is also completely non-toxic. I read that some people use it as a dietary supplement for dogs. Which is weird, but I don’t judge.  What I do is, I spread a thin but extremely unattractive sprinkle of the powder along the counter edges where ants typically travel, and on the edges of the cabinet frame that holds our garbage and recycling bins.  After I do that, it takes a few days for the ants to become less numerous, and then we’re able to survive in our kitchen without having raised hackles every time we open the garbage.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a compromise I’ve learned to live with. If I see a big ant on the floor or a counter, I’ll smash it with something at hand – paper, slipper – and I’ve learned to live with the guilt. It’s better than listening to Nick and Jesse hollering at me all day long.

MOM THERE’S AN AAAAAAANT.

MMMMOOOOOOOOOOOM THE ANT IS SOOOOOO BIG!!!! KILL IT PLEEEEASE!!!

OH MY GOD I DON’T KNOW WHERE THE ANT WENT, MOOOOOOMMMMYYYYYYYYY HELP MEEEEEEEE.

* * * * *

In the early summer, we get an ant bloom in the living room.  These are medium ants, not as big as the garbage-monster-ants. So, not quite as scary, except for the wings.

The flying ants seem to happen as some sort of a hatching.  Suddenly they will arrive, in the course a day or two. I’ve never tried to count them, because there are too many. They crawl and fly around the living room, starting at the big window. Within a week or so they’re all gone or dead. We bring out the vacuum cleaner and clear their corpses. Do over in 12 months.

* * * * *

What I’ve learned from ants is that being relentless is both an admirable and an irritating quality. Ants just keep going and going, en masse, in community with each other, year after year.  The carnage Anthony and I inflict on them doesn’t even make a dent.

As I sat here at my kitchen desk, typing about ants and occasionally extending a finger to kill one, a remarkable moment of synchronicity arose. Jesse was nearby, doing her government schoolwork, and she literally asked me this: “what does it mean that JFK was the only president who wasn’t a protest ant?”

This led to many giggles, a tiny amount of education about religion and pronunciation, and a couple drawings. Our house is full of protest ants.

IMG_5258IMG_5257

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 15: soundbites

What’s being said in my house doesn’t seem any more crazy than what’s being said by Wisconsin’s legislative and judicial power-holders. Here’s a sampler from my home.

* * * * *

Try to kill him with a helicopter! Try to kill him with a helicopter!  [long pause.] Yeah you killed him. Okay cool.  I’m still on my hunt for toilets, by the way.

Deadpool with a mask on just killed me.

* * * * *

I’m too fat to take my meds.  See? Drinking water makes me feel so fat.  THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT.

[In a screaming whisper:] Your father is in the basement trying to record classes!  Please stop yelling! Stop it now! Stop it!

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGAAAAAAAAH

[Now yelling:] BE QUIET BECAUSE YOUR FATHER NEEDS US TO BE QUIET.

* * * * *

[Nick makes farting noises for a long time.] You know what it’s called, mom? Realistic butt scratching simulator.

* * * * *

Mom, what is multiplication.

Nick, stop.

Multiplication defies reality!

No, multiplication describes reality.

What? No, multiplication defies reality! Because some things you can’t multiply, like babies!

MULTIPLICATION IS A HUMAN CONSTRUCT. JUST DO YOUR MATH.

* * * * *

Mom. Can I file a law soup against the president?

* * * * *

Wanna ride a skateboard, mom?

No.

Why?

Because I don’t want to die.

I ride a skateboard.

Even I rode a skateboard when I was a kid.

Then why aren’t you dead?

* * * * *

The Golden Gate Bridge is a Suspicious Bridge.

* * * * *

[Anthony, focused on the Nintendo switch, thumbs busy:] If I’m gonna play any more of this game with you, I’m gonna need a beer.

Now THAT’s the dad I wanna play with!

* * * * *

[Jesse sings to the theme song from Lion King:]
It’s the ciiiiiircle of liiiiiiife
and death is inevitable.

 

 

 

adventures from the homefront, COVID-19 edition, episode 14: petty guilt

Since the coronavirus shutdowns, I’ve been having a tele-session with my shrink every two weeks or so. The first time, I did it while I was cooking dinner and the kids were wandering around and the dogs were barking. That was distracting.

I’ve refined the process and now I get shrinked while sitting in the car in the driveway, chatting with the doc through my AirPods (apple’s fancy wireless earbuds), staring at the garden and touching random things in the car, or rubbing my face weirdly, my head lolling back against the headrest in a way that would be entirely inappropriate in polite company. I have to admit, I think I may prefer this to showing up at an office and sitting on a soft dust-mite-filled sofa that smells faintly of other people’s perfumes and butts and takes me to OCD code red. I also don’t have to shower for tele-health.

This week, I said to Dr. G (that’s what I’ll call him) that I feel like I have nothing real to complain about in this COVID-19 era.  I hate wasting his time in these strange days.  All my concerns are petty and non-existential and selfish.

I have claustrophobic panic attacks in a mask, while I shop at Whole Foods. Millions of families are starting to look at food pantries to source food for free. One out of five American kids doesn’t have access to enough food.

Some days I go crazy about my kids following me around; I just want to be alone. All around the world, people are trapped in quarantine in their homes alone, desperately lonely and in need of support.

I feel displaced from my basement desk and computer, because Anthony has necessarily taken it over for his income-generating job, and I’m displaced at the kitchen desk as well because of my kids schooling from home, and I have to wander around looking for somewhere to plop myself with my laptop, and it just makes me grumpy. Some people don’t have homes anymore, let alone a portable laptop.

I have sensory issues with my hair and it’s just driving my batty; I could sure use a haircut.  My regular stylist has had no income for two months.

I desperately miss my elderly mom. I worry this pandemic won’t end until it’s too late for me to see her again.  For nearly 300,000 people in this world, it’s already too late.

The only really big thing I’m coping with right now is a strong feeling of guilt.

Dr. G did The Shrink Thing:  “Why do you think that is?”

Sigh.

Side benefit of tele-health: he didn’t see my eyes roll up in my head.  Very rude. I said aloud, “I don’t know.”

We’ve been at this long enough together that Dr. G seems to know I like to go home with something to work on. He also knows I’m not lacking for ideas. When it comes to psycho babble, I’m a random idea generator.

He paused just long enough and went on. When we have strong persistent feelings, they’re usually an indicator of something else.

He paused again. I random idea generated. White guilt? Well, half-white guilt. Elite liberal guilt? Guilt as a way to avoid other feelings of fear and grief? Honest, well-deserved guilt over having so much wealth and security and not doing enough to help other people? Guilt over not being able to be in California to help my mom and a brother who just got out of the hospital? Guilt over not earning any nominal income?

He didn’t say anything and eventually I stopped generating and waited for him to explain to me what’s behind my guilt.

He said, so that would be something good to meditate on, and try to figure out what’s behind the guilty feelings.

OH FINE, thanks for NOTHING! 

Sigh.

We went on to chat about these things, the feelings of guilt that have always nipped at my heels. Dr. G gave me the basics, of course, on the “guilty for all my riches” front: you worked hard for what you have, you don’t have to feel badly about having built a safe and secure life for yourself and your family, you don’t have to feel badly for being healthy, you don’t have to feel badly for making choices that potentially protect your mom from infection.

Yes yes, I know. But also I know that plenty of other folks have worked harder than me, they just didn’t have certain demographic advantages that made it possible for their hard work to pan out.  So I really can’t pat myself on the back too much for success.  There are a lot of other backs to pat too. It all feels pretty random. Yada yada.

Maybe my guilt is as petty as the petty things I feel guilty about.

Huh. I have my homework from Dr. G. I will meditate on why I feel guilty.  If and when I have some answers, I might let you know.