Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘seasons’ Category

405. Not So Grinchy

In Books, Childhood, Food, Music, seasons on November 27, 2017 at 1:10 am

Perversely, I’ve rather prided myself on being a Grinch at Christmastime. The adult I, that is; as a child I loved the whole season, from St. Nicholas’ Day to Twelfth Night, when the tree came down and we stopped singing carols: the anticipation, list-making, decorations, card-counting, opening each new window of the battered Advent Calendar, carol-singing (Good King Wenceslas with Dad roaring “Bring me flesh and bring me wine”), Mum’s sausage rolls and shortbread on Christmas Eve, waking up before dawn on Christmas morning, the  tree (magically decorated overnight), the specially embroidered (by Mum) pillowcases that were our stockings with whole walnuts and tangerines (rarities in India in those days) down at the bottom. It was Mum who made Christmas, though Dad was her willing helper, Mum who maintained a childlike delight in it and passed on that delight to us. I kept up her Christmas spirit, or tried to, throughout Nikhil’s childhood; but in recent years, now that he and his generation have grown and gone and all seasons are the same to dear Mum, it has become more and more of a strain, and I find myself wishing, with hardly any feeling of guilt, that I could just take off on my own and hide away until it’s all over.

Nowadays, as the frenzy of the season gets underway, I resist it actively. Some of that resistance comes from sheer hatred of shopping and consumerism; some of it from sheer busyness: with end-of-semester grades due a couple of days after Christmas and my biggest annual conferences just after New Year, it is an extremely hectic time for me; and I can’t deny that some of it is down to a mildly depressive frame of mind in which I question the point of it all—Christmas, that is, not life itself.  Nevertheless I persist, trying, albeit in small ways, to quiet the cynic within and quicken instead a sense of wonder.

This year had been no exception. I resolutely shut my eyes to the holiday hype that began even before Halloween. Then, after Thanksgiving as always, came the weirdly-named Black Friday, the day the Christmas shopping season officially begins, and one on which I usually observe the buy-nothing rule. This year, for once, I did venture out, with Andrew for support against the feared onslaught of Black Friday shoppers; but it was all very low-key (though admittedly we didn’t stake out a spot in line at midnight or darken the doors of any big-box stores), and I surprised myself by not only not hating it, but actually beginning to feel downright cheery.

We made a beeline for our favorite thrift store, the Hospice Shop of the Fisher Home, all done up for Christmas. I browsed at a leisurely pace, picking up a hundred things, putting down 95 of them, and coming home with a handful of treasures—nothing especially valuable, but little things that made me smile, like a soap dish for the olive-and-argan-oil soap that our old friend Tamara brought us back from Crete. The place was crackling with Christmas cheer, with a retinue of volunteers carrying in large, colorful gift boxes reminiscent of scenes from A Christmas Carol after Scrooge’s transformation.

We kicked it up a notch and went into the discount store, T.J. Maxx. Andrew was tasked with checking out their supply of Christmas crackers, but we rejected them all in the end because of the miserable quality of their prizes; still, we did find one thing we needed there, and emerged unscathed into the bargain.

Trader Joe’s was our last port of call—just for food, nothing more. It wasn’t particularly crowded but there too the atmosphere was electric, with everyone wreathed in smiles, scents of fir, rosemary, and pine, piping hot coffee on the go, and the shelves groaning with spiced cider, specialty cheeses, and boxes upon boxes of chocolates and pannetone. Despite my innate Grinchiness, I was moved. Not to buy anything, you understand; that would have been an unrealistic transformation. But I came home with a spring in my step, put the soap in the new dish and washed Mum’s new baby-blue flannel sheets with snowmen on them.

Come to think of it, the season had actually begun in earnest the previous week with my favorite church bazaar, always the weekend before Thanksgiving, where in the past I have been known to find most of my Christmas presents (which pleases me, but not necessarily my hapless victims). This year I picked up only a few little bits and bobs (as my Auntie Angy would say), but the big find was at the jams, jellies and pickles table, where I bought a small jar of shimmering violet jelly and a larger one of pear mincemeat with nuts and rum from a courtly old gentleman who told me that the violets were from his garden and advised me on how to make the mince tarts. He had just sold his last jar of Madras eggplant pickle or I would surely have borne that home as well.

Now it’s nose to the grindstone until classes are over and final grades are in. But now I am committed to washing my face and making mince tarts with custard. You’ll be seeing no transformation (to quote Fagin) but I can think I can report with some confidence that the plans for stealing Christmas are officially off. It’s beginning to look a little less Grinchy.

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398. This day . . .

In reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, Work, writing on May 24, 2017 at 3:48 pm


This day is the first day of the rest of your life, proclaims that 1960s poster once plastered ubiquitously on college dorm walls across the country and intoned, infuriatingly, by any number of 1970s self-help gurus and popular culture figures from John Denver to The Walking Dead. But being banal doesn’t make it untrue; quite the contrary.

Every spring, as I teach my last class of the year, and again a couple of weeks later, when I turn in my students’ final grades, I tell myself: This day is the first day of the rest of your summer. Make the most of it, start as you mean to go on. Walk and write daily, wrap up long-postponed and unfinished business, work steadily to make inroads into those large, looming tasks that take time to complete, and have plenty of fun: take trips to visit friends and family, thrift-store shop to your heart’s content, and do a whole lot of entirely extraneous reading (what Andrew used to call, in that interminable last six months of my doctoral studies, reading unrelated to my dissertation). On that first day, as the whole summer stretches before me, I am utterly exhausted, but simultaneously filled with pleasurable anticipation and resolve.

Here it is, though, a week since I turned in the grades, more than three weeks since I taught my last class, and I have precious little to show. Already I have that sinking feeling, as if the whole summer, and then some, is already spoken for. Former students with Incompletes are still turning in late work, students from this just-finished semester demanding to know why their grades haven’t shown up online; prospective students asking for the syllabus of one of my fall courses (answer: I don’t have it; the course is yet to be designed), editors asking after that book chapter that I have yet to complete, creditors asking why I haven’t paid (and never will pay) that last ambulance bill for Dad. And now, here I sit at the dining-room table with my second cup of tea, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of nothing.

For the first few days of the summer, I always tell myself—despite my resolution to work slowly and steadily, to start as I mean to carry on—that it is okay not to do much of anything, that I need to catch up on lost sleep, unwind, and generally be kind to myself. But in my heart of hearts I know that I am simply postponing the inevitable: there is no substitute for getting started.

The trouble is that inevitably, the instant I finish teaching my last class, either I fall sick or crisis strikes at home. There is no time in-between to take a deep breath. It’s like when Nikhil was a baby and went down for his 45-minute nap (unlike my friends’ babies who regularly took two-hour naps during the day, sometimes two of them), I would immediately start rinsing out his dirty nappies (because of course I used cloth diapers rather than disposable) and inevitably, the instant that I had finished the last one, he would wake up as if on a timer. So it was this year; so much has happened since that last day of classes in early May that I can’t account for it all. Through the blur of these past three weeks I seem to recall that, among other things, my eyeglasses broke in two during the last, desperate hours of my final grading, the air conditioning failed during an unprecedentedly hot mid-May heatwave, more students than ever before failed to complete their final term papers on time, and, of course, the nation has been teetering on the brink of a Constitutional crisis. All I know is that I feel as if I’ve been continuously and furiously busy, but seem to have nothing to show for it but a lot of late nights where I fall asleep on the couch and so many rounds of Canfield’s Solitaire (called Demon in England because it is so notoriously hard to win) that my hands ache with the repetitive stress. My hands actually ache from doing a whole lot of nothing.

The cure for doing nothing seems obvious: just do something; make even a little headway with it, and you will begin to feel better. But what to start on first? Perform triage, and then start with the most urgent task. But there are so many urgent tasks; it’s overwhelming. This is where the deck of cards comes out for yet another round of Canfield. If I lose, I play again: just until I beat Canfield. If I win, I play again: why quit when you’re ahead? (Wait, isn’t the maxim Quit while you’re ahead? No matter.) You get the picture, and unless you’re superhuman, or one of those Highly Effective People, you’ve probably struggled with your own version of it.

But the summer is young yet, and despite my sinking feeling that it’s already over, it really isn’t. It is. Not. Over. So let me take stock, and come up with a game plan; just for today.

First, open that unfinished book chapter and get back in the groove: Where was I when I last worked on it, and what do I need to do next? Actually get to work on it for a short period of time, setting a timer and stopping when it goes off; but not before writing myself a brief To Do note for the next time I sit down to it.

Second, take a brisk walk; it doesn’t have to be a long one. The 40-minute loop down through the old cemetery is perfect, but the shorter leg-stretch up to the Town Line and back will suffice.

Third, Destination Henion Bakery: sit with a cup of tea and a little something (okay, a jelly doughnut; although they now make these light, not-too-sweet little French things called choquettes; if feeling righteous, substitute a couple of them for my JD). Keep wireless internet connection resolutely turned off so as to continue to work on essay without distraction for period of time not to exceed 45 minutes. Slow and steady is the way to ease into this.

Now the hard work of the day is done. If energy permits, knock off one of those Incompletes: reread, regrade, recalculate, and resubmit the grade to the Registrar.

What next? Front porch, feet up, and—oh joy!—Extraneous Reading.

After dinner, repair to living-room couch. Get required daily dose of Professor Robert Reich’s Resistance Report, and laugh at opening monologues from last night’s late-night comedians.

This day is the first day of the rest of my life. From the standpoint of now, it is the only day. It is.

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351. Slow Food from Way Back

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, seasons, Stories, United States on November 25, 2015 at 3:06 am

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Dad always eats the food put in front of him without complaining, but the effusiveness of his appreciation when I serve even the most basic Indian meal of rice and dal bespeaks his craving for it. As a painter, he occasionally clips photographs of dancers or other elegant female forms from the New York Times, but three years ago as Thanksgiving approached he cut out a recipe and casually mentioned to me that it looked like a good use of leftover turkey. I glanced at A Dish for Pilgrim or Maharajah, noting mainly that it looked elaborate and time-consuming, but, since it was so unusual for Dad to actually suggest that I make something, took it under advisement. That is, I added it to a pile of papers, where it soon got buried, while Thanksgiving came and went.

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A month later, though, when Nikhil’s birthday and Christmas-New Year came around, I happened upon the recipe again, and this time decided to give it a go. It was indeed elaborate, but I made sure I had all the ingredients and decided to give myself over to the task, however long it took. As the house filled with the mingled fragrances of onions, cashews, and raisins fried in pure ghee and basmati rice cooked in spice-seasoned broth, all my earlier reservations were swept away. If leftover turkey is capable of inducing a flow state, I was well into it.

The turkey biryani was such a hit that my double batch was completely devoured before the evening was over, and I made it all over again just two days later by popular demand. That too was polished off in short order. The recipe was posted proudly on the refrigerator door, where it sat until the following Thanksgiving, when I prepared it again. That was two years ago now, and I confess that since then my cooking hasn’t extended much beyond the same old everyday fare, and quick-and-easy frozen dishes. As for anything new or experimental, just thinking about it makes me tired.

Let_s_not_eat_up_our_climate1-350x245During the same period of time my friend Anna has become interested in the Slow Food movement, which emerged in the late 1980s “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.” She starts from scratch, making nutritious bone broth and simmering the food on very low heat for hours, until it is saturated with goodness. She has drastically reduced the quantity of food that she eats but dramatically increased the quality, buying nothing but the best ingredients and taking great pains—no, tremendous pleasure—in its preparation. Joining her for dinner is always deeply relaxing, as we eat in her kitchen by candlelight from her mother’s old china and savor each precious spoonful.

But of course until only very recently all cooking was slow, of necessity, since everything was made from homegrown ingredients. In our twenties and thirties, before children and when the children were small, we emulated the old ways, growing and canning our own vegetables, buying whole grains and beans in bulk, fresh-grinding the grains, and soaking the beans overnight, then cooking them for hours on the woodstove. Nowadays I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I buy my beans in cans, already cooked, and make my cornbread from a mix.

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (npr.org)

photo: Bill Hogan/TNS /Landov (from npr.org)

My first cookbook was an American one that that my mother found, circa 1962, while we were living in Greece. It was a hardcover children’s cookbook, lavishly illustrated and printed on glossy paper, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. But when I set out to make some of the recipes, I was completely stymied: all the ingredients were processed foods, and all the steps involved opening a can of this or a packet of that, none of which were available in any of the shops we frequented. The only recipe I was able to make with the ingredients I had available to me was homemade potato chips (crisps), which turned out wonderfully well and made me inordinately proud. I was reminded of that cookbook today while listening to a pre-Thanksgiving radio program which described green bean casserole, a horrible-sounding dish that is apparently a beloved American seasonal staple, made entirely from canned and packaged ingredients.

Indian cooking is slow food from way back. While living on the farm in Winchendon in the 1980s, we would take it in turns to cook. When it was my turn I would frequently make a full-course Indian vegetarian meal, with rice, dal, chapattis, and at least two vegetable dishes. The preparation would take most of the afternoon, and Charlie, tired of waiting, would invariably lose his patience (and frequently, his temper) and make himself a hefty cheese sandwich just as I was entering the home stretch. A dismissive comment by one of my housemates about my “Third-World” cooking still rankles, and probably only strengthened my commitment to the stubbornly, pleasurably slow process of conjuring up a simple banquet from scratch. But with Charlie getting hypoglycemic, the babies getting tired and fretful, and the frying spices filling the whole house with their heady fumes, I can see how my insistence on slow cooking must have tried my housemates’ patience.

I took the yellowing turkey biryani recipe off the fridge today, considered it for a moment or two, then shook my head. Slow cooking is just not on this Thanksgiving, when, for the first time ever, I have succumbed to the idea of buying and re-heating a pre-cooked turkey. But at least I’ll be serving fresh steamed green beans. And the biryani still beckons as I promise myself the pleasure of slowing down for Christmas. Thank you, Dad.

Evan Sung for The New York Times

Evan Sung (New York Times)

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307. Deadline

In blogs and blogging, Media, reflections, seasons, Stories, Words & phrases, Work, writing on April 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm
Times New Roman

Times New Roman

There are literal deadlines and metaphorical ones, hard deadlines and soft ones, met deadlines and, sadly, many missed ones. But is the deadline itself a given, as inevitable and inexorable as Death itself? Or is it a function of certain kinds of technology, on the one hand, and certain ways of living, on the other? What would life look like without deadlines?

But I get ahead of myself. This is D, on Day 4 of A Printer’s Alphabet, and so I must begin with the term as it was used in the printing—specifically, the newspaper— industry in the 1920s, where it began with a literal meaning and developed a metaphorical sense which crossed over into general use.

Humphrey Bogart as a New York City newspaper editor in Deadline U.S.A. (1952)

Humphrey Bogart as a New York City newspaper editor in Deadline U.S.A. (1952)

The literal deadline was the point on the bed of the cylinder press after which the type would get smashed or would otherwise fail to print properly. On an offset press that used metal plates, it was the point on the plate beyond which the image would not print properly. There is a maximum page size for any press and once it is filled, there is simply no more room. One-page newssheets or the front pages of major newspapers would be held for late-breaking news but once the deadline had been reached, that was it: the paper had to go to press.

Limits of space soon translated into limits of time: the deadline for copy to be included in the morning edition of a given newspaper was set at midnight or thereabouts the night before, after which any further news would have to wait until the afternoon edition of the next day (that of course being in the times—not so long ago—when major dailies had two print runs).

Most dictionaries will tell you that the word deadline originates in the American Civil War, when guards had orders to shoot to kill prisoners who ventured out into or beyond a area demarcated, often by a makeshift, or sometimes an imaginary, line around their temporary enclosure. Ted Haigh suggests that the term might have entered the printing vocabulary, not without a sense of irony, because the reporters, editors, and printers of the day were frequently the same person.

photo credit: Corbis

photo credit: Corbis

Having scrambled to meet deadlines for most of my working life, I still can’t say whether they are my saving grace or whether they’ll be the death of me. One hears the stories of the great writers who wrote some of their best works just a step ahead of the deadline, wrapping up the week’s instalment of their serialized novel while the printer’s boy was waiting impatiently to carry the copy back to his master. In the past, deadlines lit a fire under me, when I was young, at any rate, when the pressure to produce a paper by a certain time forced me to sit down and get the job done, sometimes remarkably well, at other times as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Nowadays, however, a deadline merely heightens my anxiety without necessarily sharpening my wits. And missing a deadline—even if, as is often the case in the digital age, it is an entirely arbitrary one—takes the fizz right out of any head of steam I might have built up while under pressure.

Now that so much news content is delivered digitally on the internet, the idea of a copy deadline is rapidly becoming obsolete, for good or ill. For my part, I have reached the point where I’d rather do without deadlines. I need the sleep and most certainly don’t need the stress. Still, most institutions and workplaces, public or private, are governed by them. The best way that I have found to deal with them is to work at the given task steadily and single-mindedly while one has the energy and focus; when one’s mind begins to wander, to switch gears and do something completely different for a while; and when one’s head begins to nod, to simply call it a day and go to bed.

The Dance of Death: woodcut by Hans Holbein (Cygnet Press, 1974)

The Dance of Death: woodcut by Hans Holbein (Cygnet Press, 1974)

Life without deadlines? I don’t think there is such a thing. There will always be projects that must be wrapped up and put to bed in a timely manner. Not all deadlines are artificial ones; there are entirely natural deadlines—the first hard frost, for instance—that will always require a spurt of work to be done, often at the very last minute. To return to the printing industry, wedding invitations must be printed on time if the wedding preparations are to go according to plan; tickets must be printed in time to be sold in advance of an event; and a book’s production must be completed to schedule if it is to meet the publisher’s Spring or Fall publication dates. In the end, it’s not that, like the Federal prisoners of war, we will die if we breach the deadlines; more accurately, death is this world’s ultimate hard deadline. Perhaps we set arbitrary ones to spur us on to make greater efforts while we still can.

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atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

302. Brooding*

In Nature, poetry, reflections, seasons, Stories on March 13, 2015 at 9:23 am

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When

a pair of pearl-grey mourning doves brood plumply on the feeder’s green roof
streaming morning light invades the overwintered spaces
two glorious days dispense with months of snow
and this morning, Mother rises from her warm bed all of her own accord;

Why, then

when Chaucer’s smale foweles maken melodye
do the cicadas of late summer hum in my ears,
as on that Labor Day weekend a quarter-century ago when we moved into our new home,
and endings, only endings, occupy my mind?

 

* See Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur and ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend’

 

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301. Babysitting

In Family, India, Nature, parenting, seasons, Stories, United States on February 27, 2015 at 12:43 pm
Jamun tree (telegraphindia.com)

Jamun tree (telegraphindia.com)

(from chennaiNature on youtube.com)

(from chennaiNature on youtube.com)

My parents have always loved birds. In India, Mum would look up and identify all the birds that came to feast in our jamun trees when the purple-staining fruit was ripe. After immigrating to the U.S., they always maintained a well-stocked, squirrel-proofed bird-feeder and kept the water fresh in the bird bath. One spring they rescued a baby bird which had fallen out of its nest, keeping it warm overnight and returning it to the base of the tree the next morning, when its parents managed to coax it back up to safety.

(from thepioneerwoman.com)

(from thepioneerwoman.com)

In their retirement Mum and Dad have remained avid bird-lovers, keeping binoculars handy for distant hawks and eagles, and checking off in their Massachusetts bird book every new variety that they spot in the garden. Especially in the spring and winter, during the nesting season and the bitter cold, their trips and outings have been seriously curtailed as they have watched anxiously over the eggs and worried about who would refill the feeder if they went out of town.

I remember one spring day in particular when I dropped by to ask my parents if they’d like to accompany me on an errand. They were both a bit agitated, and told me that they couldn’t make any commitments just then because a pair of birds (not being a birder, I can’t remember what kind) had built and laid eggs in a low-hanging nest just under the eaves of their deck, and the eggs had just hatched. They explained that they had been watching over the nest while the parents were out getting food, and on this occasion it had been unattended for some time. With the open fields behind the house, the nestlings were exposed to all sorts of predators, so they couldn’t think of going out.

They were babysitting.

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287. Anywhere, anywhere

In 1950s, Books, Childhood, Family, Nature, reading, reflections, seasons, Stories, travel on October 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm
Spring Morning (illustration: E. H. Shepard)

Spring Morning (illustration: E. H. Shepard)

Some years ago Mum told me that one day, driving down a road not far from home, she suddenly realized that she didn’t know where she was. This must have been about the time when she first began to notice that something was wrong. It wasn’t very long before this and other signs of disorientation in time and place gave the rest of the family cause for concern, too, and we began to take steps to make sure that Mum didn’t go out in the car alone. But every time I drive down that road I too have a moment of wondering where I am; I think it is because that particular stretch of road could in fact be anywhere.

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It is in an area of farmland between our town and the next, with cornfields on either side and wide open sky in all directions as far as the eye can see; no other markers of place except for the tell-tale turning of the leaves in the Fall, and unusual for New England in being a long, perfectly straight stretch of road with no twists and turns or ups and downs, and no houses. Only corn, which, in the late summer has grown as high as an elephant’s eye, leads one to believe that one is in Oklahoma, Kansas, or just about anywhere in the American Midwest. So after my initial panic, I take a deep breath, relax into that timeless moment, and drive on, trusting in the road itself, and knowing that soon, all too soon, I will be back on track, fully re-oriented, and saddled once again with my long list of errands and uncompleted tasks.

Increasingly, every moment of the day is another check mark on the To-Do List. Even on our days off, perhaps especially on our days off, that list seems to be never-ending. A person is seen as unmotivated if she or he does not have clearly defined goals and, in our fast-paced society, being self-directed, “in the driver’s seat,” is considered a necessity, even a virtue. But how much are we really in control when we are at the wheel? More often, we seem to be harnessed and driven by pressures and goals set elsewhere and by others.

When I was five, my Uncle Ted gave me a blue hardcover copy of A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, one of the few books that I have managed to carry around the world with me and still hold and treasure. It has long-since lost its dust-jacket, some of its pages are torn, and the young me dared to color in E. H. Shepard’s classic illustrations. But battered as it is, it is still wonderfully intact. Whatever its condition, the poems in it have become part of me, and give recourse and expression to moods that overtake me as much as an adult as they did when I was very young. One of my favorites is Spring Morning, in which the child, wondering where he is going, knows deep down, that he, certainly, does not know; and furthermore, that it matters not one whit. The world is alive and full of wonder, and she can float through it like a cloud on invisible currents, safe and free. If we all knew this, then we need not panic when we are suddenly overtaken by that strong sense that we don’t know where we are or where we are going. We don’t.

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Note on punctuation: In many of the versions of this poem I found on the internet, the punctuation was wrong. A.A. Milne wrote, “Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know. “ Note the period after the second ‘anywhere,’ and the italicized ‘I’: both are essential to the reading of that line, which comes at the end of the first verse and again at the very last.

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286. Foxfire

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Nature, seasons, Stories, United States, Work on October 12, 2014 at 1:56 am
(from foxfirefood.com)

(from foxfirefood.com)

. . . a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months (The Foxfire Book)

This evening, feeling melancholy, hard done by, and inclined to self-pity, I went for a short walk in the damp night air. With invisible mists rising all around me, I was in that kind of mood where one begins to wallow in the miserably pleasurable certainty of being misunderstood by the whole world. Slipping on a peacoat and wrapping a woolen shawl several times around my neck, I flung myself dramatically out into the dark, stomping up the hill to the border of our town, where both the sidewalk and the streetlights end abruptly, and marching back down again, like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme.

On the way down I paused for a moment at the quince bush, where one small but perfect specimen the size of an apricot came off in my hand without the slightest resistance. Velvety-cold, it glowed yellow in my cupped palm as I bore it home. Just about hitting my stride as I was coming back into the house again, I reflected that if it had been a different time of day—more likely, if I had been at a different stage of life—I might have gone on walking almost indefinitely. My legs were aching, but from disuse rather than overuse, and I craved adventure, defined, on this Saturday night in October, as just about anything other than grading papers or working on my deferred taxes.

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Still bundled up in my outdoor clothes—for in this ornery mood woe betide anyone, myself included, who dared suggest that I might turn up the heat—I huddled in front of my glowing laptop as if it were a fire in a cave of yore and scanned my Facebook feed, prepared to take exception to just about anything. There was a review of a new book about hoarding (which has just been added to the latest DSM) which purported to “depathologize” the practice. After all, one person’s hoarding is another person’s collecting. DSM-5 defines hoarding disorder as characterized by the persistent difficulty of discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. I curled a misanthropic lip at those “others” who failed to value the items I chose to keep, pathologizing my perfectly harmless predilection for printed matter. Defiantly, I posted a link to the review on the page of my Facebook decluttering group and hoped, like the man in the Monty Python skit who wanted an argument, that someone would take the bait. But no one did; all it drew was a disappointingly cheery Like.

As I glared round the room in search of something else to focus my wrath on, I was overtaken by the thought of what my bookshelves would look like five, fifty years hence if the house were to be abandoned. Years ago Andrew and I had stumbled upon one such scene, in a broken-down barn in Concord in the woods of Old Road to Nine-Acre Corner (the longest street name I have ever encountered, by the way; the street sign reads, “Old Road to N.A.C”), where we retrieved a rain-soaked old medical manual and attempted to restore it, but in vain. With my eyes in soft focus, I contemplated the wall of books in the dining room, considering how rarely I actually opened any of them, and wondering what they really meant to me. It was then that the Foxfire books shimmered into view.

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I plucked the first volume from the shelf and opened it—after how many years! Re-reading the introduction reminded me of the project, begun in 1966 by an idealistic and highly educated young English teacher who started a magazine in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in which high-school students interviewed ordinary Appalachian Mountain folk. These were hard-working people who eked out a subsistence living, doing everything, but everything, themselves. Their matter-of-fact accounts of their lives lit up a generation of young people who set out to learn their skills and carry on their tradition of self-sufficiency.

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie was an elderly woman who, since the death of her husband Ulysses, had lived by herself in a log cabin with no running water, working, working, all the livelong day. The interviewer asked her:

Doesn’t being here alone bother you sometimes?

Aunt Arie freely acknowledged that it got “mighty lonesome”, that she was afraid of snakes, and that the foxes had never allowed her to keep any of her chickens: “they catched th’last one of ‘em.” She did not downplay the difficulties, but neither did she have any regrets:

We made a good life here, but we put in lots’a’time. Many an’many a night I’ve been workin’ when two o’clock come in th’mornin’—cardin’n’spinnin’n’sewin’. They want me t’sell an’move away from here but I won’t do it. It’s just home—‘at’s all. I spent my happiest days here (Foxfire 1: 30).

I looked over at the little quince, still glowing, in the wooden fruit bowl with two pears from my father’s pear tree. Tomorrow the rest of the pears had to be picked and put by before they fell to the ground and rotted. I would make pear sauce for the winter. What was the point of my anger? There was no argument to be had and no-one to have it with.

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285. Sometimes a Coincidence

In 2010s, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Nature, places, seasons, Stories, United States on September 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm
(from twowheeltripping.com)

(from twowheeltripping.com)

I live just west of the Quabbin Reservoir, a massive manmade body of water that serves as a major water supply for Boston. It was created in the 1930s by flooding four small towns in central Massachusetts, whose former residents still gather to remember their homes that are no more. Today the Quabbin is a pristine jewel, a home for endangered bald eagles and a haven for wildlife of all kinds.

My regular commute to work takes me round the Quabbin’s northern edge. On the way my carpool partner and I often encounter great blue herons, wild turkeys, deer, foxes, and occasionally even moose. It’s a beautiful ride that makes the longish drive a positive pleasure, at least when I’m not on automatic pilot, just trying to get there or back as quickly as possible. After some early experimentation, I decided that this route was the most enjoyable of my three shortest options, and now I take it all the time; that is, unless something unexpected happens.

On the Thursday before last, the 18th of September, I had left work early to attend a lecture at UMass Amherst to be delivered by R. Radhakrishnan, an old mentor of mine who is now at UC Irvine. The topic of the talk was “What’s Wrong with Humanism?” and I was looking forward to it very much. At the halfway point on my drive, realizing that I wouldn’t have a chance to eat anything until quite late at night, I stopped to pick up a quick sandwich; which turned out to be a mistake, since when I went to restart the car, my key wouldn’t turn in the ignition. When the kind owner of a nearby repair shop sprayed some graphite in the lock to no avail, and told me that the entire lock would have to be replaced, I gave up on what was wrong with humanism, called AAA, and waited resignedly for the tow truck to arrive.

Because I was out of my immediate area, AAA had to send a tow truck from Ware, a town that had been cut off and left behind by the creation of the Quabbin. (I think of it as rather like the child who got left behind when the Pied Piper of Hamelin led the rest of the children into the mountain, never to return. It seems—admittedly, to an outsider—that it has never since been able to thrive.) The driver was a lean, handsome man of about my age who took the whole thing in his stride and allowed me to ride back home in the cab with him once he had secured my car on the flatbed.

We took a different route from my regular one, a long, slow drive down Route 32 from Petersham through Hardwick, New Braintree, Ware, and Belchertown, hugging the eastern length of Quabbin and then coming round the southern edge. It was lots of fun taking in Route 32, little more than a country lane, from high up in the cab of the tow truck and as he pointed out notable landmarks along the way, I marveled at the fact that I had never travelled this particular stretch of the road in more than 30 years of living in the region. It turned out that he too was an immigrant and had come to the US at the same time I had, nearly 45 years ago; also that he was a Scot and was looking forward with great anticipation to the results of the referendum that night. As fellow-immigrants we talked about our parents and children, dual citizenship, belonging and unbelonging; and as country-dwellers we compared notes about the night-time low temperatures in the past week, guessing at the date of the first killing frost, while the beautiful scenery of rural New England rolled on by, conjuring up inevitable feelings of late-summer nostalgia.

That weekend, my car back on the road now, I had the occasion to take a Sunday drive up the western length of Quabbin again, to visit old friends in Royalston, one of the nine towns in the North Quabbin region. On the way back, my mind full of my To Do list for the coming week, I was suddenly brought up short by a road block. They told me that there had been a bad accident up ahead and that the road would be closed for approximately five hours, so motorists were advised to take a different route. I had only two choices: to return home by a more westerly route or to go all the way around the east side of the Quabbin. Since I had neither a map book nor a global positioning system in my car (just the other day, I recalled with some embarrassment, I had been staunchly defending my choice not to purchase one) and the days were getting shorter, I didn’t want to risk going west through a warren of tiny unmarked roads in the gathering dusk. So I took the easterly option, which involved turning around and going up and around the northern boundary of the Quabbin, and back down and around its western and southern borders—guess what, by exactly the same route I had taken the previous Thursday.

What were the odds, I asked myself, that, not having taken that route ever before, I would be traversing it twice in a three-day period? Suddenly I had a powerful feeling that this was something I was meant to do, even though I had no idea why. I turned around very deliberately, and with a strange sense of the convergences of fate, drove up, around and back down those stunningly beautiful country roads, straining to pay attention to every little detail along the way in case it turned out to be significant. Nearly an hour later I was back home, having seen nothing of note—at least nothing that I was aware of —and still wondering what it had all been about. Surely this was too odd to have been nothing more than a random coincidence?

Over the next couple of days, as late summer pivoted into fall, I shared my story with a couple of my friends and asked them the same question. They too marveled at it, and the eminently sensible explanations they offered were eye-opening for me, but were both more and less obvious than the esoteric answer I had been hoping for. Susan said, “Maybe you needed to have taken the route the first time, on the tow truck, so that you knew the way home the second time round.” Carlos said, “Maybe you should pay closer attention all the time, because you never know when you are going to need to notice something.”

It is often said that there is no such thing as a coincidence. But it is a fact that I drove that never-before-taken route twice in a three-day period. I paid attention the first time, as the friendly tow-truck driver pointed things out to me all along the way, and I certainly paid attention the second time, as I strained to find meaning in what had happened. Both times, I was forced to turn off my usual automatic pilot and take in the beauty of my region with fresh eyes. Both times the experience was worthwhile for its own sake. And both times it took me home. Riffing on Freud, one could suggest that “sometimes a coincidence is just a coincidence.” But is any coincidence ever just a coincidence? Was there something I was meant to learn and have I learned it? The answers are probably staring me in the face.

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262. Oh, to be in England

In 1960s, Britain, Immigration, Music, Nature, places, seasons, Stories, travel on April 17, 2014 at 9:39 pm

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Robert Browning’s poem, Home Thoughts, from Abroad (read here by William Hurt), written in 1845 when the poet was visiting Northern Italy, has been voted one of the U.K.’s most popular poems. The speaker is clearly longing for England (which for British colonial civil servants always remained Home, no matter how long they were away), and imaginatively seeing and hearing the beauty of an English spring as unsurpassed by any other. In my view, though, the last line is jarring, the line in which he describes the humble buttercups as far more beautiful than “this gaudy melon-flower,” as if English flowers naturally had an unadorned, unassuming beauty, while the Italian flowers were gaudy—showy in a tasteless or vulgar way. Nevertheless, the poem’s language and images are quite moving in their simplicity, even if they do tend toward the sentimental.

P1050913Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

But if Browning’s poem is sentimental, the take-off “Oh, to be in England” (also known as “Aachaa England”) is a hilarious corrective. According to the blog, Black South Asia, few people know that the person who sang the song in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy, The Party, starring Peter Sellers (see TMA #123, That Funny Accent for more on Peter Sellers’ Indian accent), was in fact Bill Forbes, born in Ceylon in 1938 and living in Britain since 1955, who recorded it under the name of Kal Khan. It’s not only Forbes’/Khan’s exaggerated accent and the ability to laugh at himself that is funny, but the way it turns the tables to observe strange British customs from the perspective of a South Asian immigrant.

P1050914Yinglish people sleeping in the sun to get a tan
Pouring oil upon their face just like a frying pan
Funny thing about it is they all go rosy red
Next day when the peeling starts they are crying in their bed.

Chorus: Oh, to be in England
Now that spring is here
Oh, to be in England
Drinking English beer.

Boiled potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding too
That is all you’ll ever find upon a set menu
They don’t know that I can make an Anglo English Fry
Tell me have you ever heard of Snake and Kidney Pie?

Chorus

British people watching television every day
When the kiddies go to bed they show a sexy play
They don’t know that washing powder showing on the screen
Turning coloured clothing into white you’ve never seen.

Chorus

Funnily enough, I am visiting England at the moment, and in April too, after many years of home thoughts from abroad (although for me, “home” and “abroad” are by no means settled or singular). Spring here, even in London, is beautiful, in a distinctly English way. These photos, taken on the streets of North London, may give you a little taste of it.

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