Thursday, January 31, 2008

Activating

It’s funny, I’ve been reading Twittered and live-blogged accounts of tonight’s democratic debate, after watching the end of Sicko. I’m feeling immersed, and it’s bringing back some older stuff.

Last election, I mentioned, I took some vacation time and drove to Cleveland and went into the ACT office and said “put me to work.” It burned so bad, that dirty-feeling defeat…it’s still as easy to conjure as most of seventh grade. I had to pull over during the drive home—on election morning, driving eight hours home to haul my son into the voting booth to pull the lever for the better choice—I had to pull over, unsure why, and I sat there for a minute until I found myself praying, literally, praying to the people of the United States to do the right thing. Somehow, we didn’t.

So this year I’m looking at the field and I’m thinking about the country and letting the basic message of Sicko sink in, and I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to pull it together to give a rat’s ass. Just the effort required to care feels like too much. I’m tired, dammit. I’ve marched a LOT. I’ve canvassed, and phone-called, and letter-wrote, and donated, and volunteered, and continued to pay my taxes and read my newspaper with my nose held. It’s tiring, knowing what’s required. It’s tempting, so tempting, to just commute and come home and turn my eyes inward and keep an eye on the bank account and make sure the schoolbus comes on time, and let that be enough.

I won’t, though. I can feel the fight quickening in me.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Seasoned

I was washing our cast-iron skillet tonight and noted the surface, which is a little rough. Not sandpaper rough, but it’s not super-smooth. My parents’ two cast-iron skillets—I think they got them for their wedding fifty years ago—have interior surfaces that are the envy of baby’s cheeks, so smooth they are. If you enlarged the cooking surface of one of these pans ten thousand times so that it was 2.36 miles across, the largest imperfection would be the size of a grain of sand. That’s smooth, brother.

Years of cooking for a spouse and five children and uncountable relatives and friends will do that to a pan. Scraping hard steel spatulas across the comparatively softer iron wears slowly away at the dark metal. Mountains of eggs. Continents of tomatoes, zucchini, hamburgers, grilled cheese. How many turns of wrist, how many flips of pancake, to burnish the metal until it becomes that featureless iron plain?

At Weight Watchers we talk about how easy it is to equate food with love and acceptance and how easy it is to make food the shortcut to feeling loved and accepted. And how that’s not the best way to go about things. But look at the evidence of the skillet. How many hours, how many accumulated years spent before that hunk of metal, scraping, scraping, scraping it smooth in order to provide for loved ones? How is that texture not a message of love?

Our pan is new, just four years old or so. The tiny jags in its surface make the steel spatula ring like an old Western Bell telephone when I cook. It’s already incrementally smoother than when I bought it. But I’m in no rush. It’s not about always being able to cook on a perfectly smooth surface. It’s about making the surface smooth.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

"Intellectually, I'm a caveman."

Thanks to everyone who kindly tried to help me find the origin of this quote today, which I sought for some vague, pointless reason. Since those of you who are still curious are doubtless finding this blog entry now, I'll tell you what one intrepid Googler was able to discover (thank you, Drew): it was most likely Sly Stallone, around 1976.

It's not much of a quote, but no one else seems to have said it.

UPDATE: There are a number of interesting hits on a Google search for intellectual caveman.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Haliaeetus can wait

Today the children and I drove this big loop, about forty miles, on the trail of eagles; down one side of the river, across, up the other side, across again. We were the only people outside, and that for just a few foolish minutes at a park in Peekskill near the train station. We stood facing the water, looking upriver in the direction of the Worragut and World's End, into the teeth of a hellacious north wind that drove whitecaps into breakers into the shore a hundred feet before us.

Flickr had told me to look there for eagles. Why do I listen to the Internet?

It was an arctic wind, too, twenty degrees, like Skadi’s own air conditioner. In the first minute the kids mounted an enthusiastic assault on the vast Structure-for-Play that's there beside the water, but the lad was hunching into his coat and the lass was crying before very long. My instincts told me that they were learning valuable life lessons through suffering. Except I was also freezing my ass off, so I let them get back in the car. Eagles be damned.

I'm a desperate tour guide on such excursions, rushing to tell my son everything I can about the world, as though there won't be enough time, as though I want to fill him up and leave none of his knowledge to chance. So I babble. Every stray memory, landmark, historical or scientific fact sparked by the landscape comes out. "You remember there we attended the Shad Fest, and the precision skydivers from West Point came down? You met Robert Kennedy there. You were one." He's thinking about air hockey, and how thirsty he is. "That's Breakneck Ridge. I climbed most of it with Uncle Larry once. I couldn't finish because I was too heavy and out of shape. That's Bannerman's Castle, but the island is also called Pollopel." He knows this, knows it was an ammo dump. He's seen it on Google Earth.

We pull over in Cold Spring, looking north through the Wind-Gate between Storm King and Breakneck. Route 218 cuts across Storm King's face. It's the northernmost of the Highland peaks on the west side of the Hudson, to our far right as we face the river from a parking lot near some condos. Strung out to the south are similarly rocky, majestic peaks, directly across the narrow fjord. There are no eagles, but they'd look right against those icy cliffs. We sit there a minute. The little one is sucking her thumb, eyelids heavy.

"What's that, like, path across Storm King?" the boy asks from the back seat. I tell him it's a road. There's a pause. "It looks like a lizard," he says.

"What does?" I turn to see what he's talking about.

He's talking about the entire ten-mile swath of the visible Highlands on the west bank of the river. He explains, starting with the head, Storm King, and its slash of a mouth, then the Crow's Nest forming the back, Target Point a forelimb. The ridge declining southward is a tail where it descends toward West Point. Of course it's obvious, once he points it out. Lizard, check.

We have different frames of reference, different senses of scale. He has no problem with a ten-mile-wide canvas. There's nothing so giant that it can't be made into something familiar and small. He's unspoiled by any notion of his own insignificance. On that we agree; he and his sister are the central objects in our landscape. Their small forms bear Jupiter's gravity and the encoded wisdom of generations. How can I possibly teach them anything?

Later, at home, he asks me if a crocodile is as big as a school bus. "No," I lie, knowing that some salt-water crocodiles are longer than the bus he takes to kindergarten. He clarifies. "No," he says. "Not end to end. I mean, could a crocodile eat a schoolbus."

Ah. "No," I tell him. "Absolutely not."


Friday, January 18, 2008

The Eagles Are Coming! The Eagles Are Coming!

Actually, they’re already here, at least two of them, over down there by Camp Smith. The other morning, one, a juvenile I think, was wheeling low over the water where you cross the Jan Peek Bridge. Stopped at the light, I looked around for others and saw a burly, white-headed grownup perched on a tree on the slope just above the road, so that it was about fifty feet over the crowd of cars stopped three ways at the light. As far as I could see, I was the only driver craning my neck forward and up, and the otherwise secret juxtaposition of the mighty symbol of American dominance with the scrum of commuters wishing they didn’t have to go contribute to the wellbeing of the homeland this one day, was funny.


Monday, January 14, 2008

How I Envy Those with Certitude, and the Wealthy; also, Otters

I often find myself believing that doubt makes people more interesting; that those interesting people who are interesting because they display no doubt (not that everyone who displays no doubt is interesting, are you following me, but that some people are interesting because they engage in doubt-worthy enterprises but display no doubt, outwardly) are, in fact, hiding vast reservoirs of doubt and that is what actually makes them interesting.

In case that’s true, I hang on to doubt the way my parents hang on to old newspapers and magazines, and you’d be hard-put to get me to sell it off or, worst of all, throw it away.

Which is why it’s so very very strange that I envy those who are certain. Certain of anything, really, I don’t care what, although I feel most envious of those who are certain about things I disagree with. Because those things would have to be really really hard to believe in the first place. Can you imagine how rock-solid one’s certainty would have to be to be so very very convinced of such things?

I imagine that the Certain Person’s day goes something like this: upon waking in a comfortable bed he or she richly deserves under a roof that could belong to no other, the Certain Person puts on clothes that look terrific and heads downstairs to greet the smartest kids in their class and to eat a perfectly normal breakfast after taking a shower using the infinite supply of hot water. Picking up the keys to the exact right car, he or she leaves his or her hard-won and well-deserved house—a house that fits his or her personality and makes him or her feel a rich sense of achievement—to drive to work at a job that pays the bills and offers a dose of personal pride; this is no fly-by-night outfit, either, but a trusted, benevolent employer where he or she pictures him- or herself advancing into the golden glow of a fulfilling career. Driving to work listening to the news, knowing that we’re fighting for freedom someplace where our enemies live, he or she is comforted by the knowledge that our leaders know best what’s safest for all Americans and will do their utmost to see our lives made even better. And that the Lord is looking out for those leaders, and for the troops, and for each and every one of us. And that criminals are bad bad people, worse than him or her, and deserving of punishment of all kinds. After working really hard at that fulfilling job and doing the best work of anyone in the whole department, he or she heads home with the expectation that the nutritious, prion-free dinner he or she is going to eat will be one of many in an uninterrupted string of healthy meals of great deliciousness. And after the dinner and a dose of very funny and realistic medical television, he or she will go to bed and enjoy the hottest marital relations anyone is having anywhere with his or her immortal spouse, then drift off into what is sure to be a sound sleep, knowing that the next day will be more or less the same, a beautiful necklace of sunrises and sunsets stretching into a restful retirement and a secure old age, followed at last by the eternal reward of the afterlife.

Ahh, the Certain. What a joy it must be to be you.

And then there are the wealthy, who, it is well known, can purchase happiness. And otters are extremely good swimmers and very cute.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Technicalities

I was an English major, did I mention? So when I say things like "I have changed my feed to a Feedburner feed and if you currently subscribe to my feed you might have to change the settings in your RSS client or Google homepage or what-have-you to be looking at

http://feeds.feedburner.com/exurbitude

...instead of whatever you were looking at before," you should rest assured that to me it sounds like "Έχω αλλάξει την τροφή μου σε μια τροφή Feedburner και εάν προσυπογράφετε αυτήν την περίοδο στην τροφή μου εσείς να πρέπει να αλλάξω τις τοποθετήσεις στον πελάτη RSS ή την αρχική σελίδα Google σας ή τι-έχω-εσείς."

That is all.

UPDATE: Okay, I think I figured it out. DO NOTHING.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Thank You, Big Government

For: garbage collection, schools, parks, pools, libraries, police, fire departments, retirement insurance, medical care for my poor neighbors, snow plowing, paved roads, streetlights, building inspections, ferries, trains, postal service, national defense, courts, trade regulations, etc.

Where the private sector provides those things, the cost of any one of them is about equal to my entire federal, state and local tax bill.

This post sponsored by the debate over Governor Spitzer's tax cap promise.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Boiled Down

Reading books and magazines had to go. There was just no time. Now we're down to running, commuting, working, doing chores, telling made-up stories about a frustratingly finite group of cartoon characters, blogging/reading blogs, catching up, sleeping.

I guess the weird thing is that we still actually have the same amount of time that we always had, but we made all these choices, coupled them with commitments to ourselves, and managed to completely fill the time up with activity related to those two facts. Any spare time is taken up thinking about how to solve drainage problems.

With one additional hour per day, I would: run more regularly
With two additional hours per day, I would: pitch more stories to magazines
With three additional hours per day, I would: take up reading again, and write longer pieces
With four additional hours per day, I would: plan and execute drainage projects, train for another marathon, put my kids in daycare less
With five additional hours per day, I would: take half-day trips in the region

...Although what's stopping me now?

You're Probably Wondering What's Under the Overhang Next to the Garage

1) Plastic "lawn bench" 2) paint cans 3) plastic basketball net 4) folded 20' x 20' vinyl banners printed with paintings by Degas and Modigliani 5) sawhorses 6) snake containment equipment (old kitty litter container, stick) 7) plastic flowerboxes 8) planting trays 9) bucket 10) recycling bin containing broken vintage glass 11) plastic bucket containing rusty, dangerous old bits of metal 12) plastic flowerpots 13) chaises longues (plastic) 14) bricks 15) box labeled 'eBay' containing various kitchenware.

What's under the overhang beside YOUR garage? he asked, in a transparent attempt to garner comments.


Monday, January 7, 2008

Root Viewer

I was composting autumn's mums the other day, but of course I'd delayed too long and the potting soil was frozen solid in perfect flowerpot forms. No hope of just sliding the root masses out, I broke the plastic, which cracked in the unruly manner of overly boiled eggshell, flaking off here, sticking stubbornly there and requiring multiple cracks against the railroad-tie wall to come off completely. Inside their glassy shell, the roots were a cross between undersea tentacles and leftover lo mein.



For Christmas we'd gotten the boy a Root Viewer planting kit -- three plastic vials in a wood stand, some peat moss, and seeds: carrot, radish, onion. You plant, then thin down to the one seedling that looks most promising, and watch as it grows a root veggie in the tube. Sounds cool.

I grew up about 58 miles from where I live now. A well-traveled woman who lives with me started out about 11 miles away. This region has always had allure for me; something about the romance of northward, something about the river's origins in the "forever wild" mountains. It seems so natural to live here. It's also not far from my roots, not so foreign that I can't understand it, but just different enough -- a little wilder, a little older -- that it feels like my own place.

How far are you from your roots?






Sunday, January 6, 2008

I Done Fixed up the Garage

When we moved in, June '06, I vowed to clear out the garage enough to set up the treadmill, since there was no place for it in the house. Today, DONE and DONE.

Before:


After:



Thursday, January 3, 2008

Flow

In which the author alludes, in a wry manner, to the
horrific tension wrought by a continuously running sump pump

l=l

This morning I ran while it was eleven degrees; more important, the sump pump ran this morning while it was eleven degrees. Why is there liquid water when the temperature is so far below freezing? What can this mean? The pump has been running ("Thank the manufacturer," as a certain cartoon eighteen-wheeler might say) since, what, the 23rd? Whenever it was that we had the snowstorm and then the 45-degree rain a day or two later and the whole world melted.

The ground uphill from the house is dry now. There is no more snow on it, really. No more standing water from the deluge. No flood breached the berm behind the shed. No one else's pumps are running -- the usual crew down in the low spot at the main road all seem dry.

Pssssssshlllt, says the pump every few minutes. Ordinarily I would connect a black corrugated hose to it and route the water down to the driveway, to prevent it soaking into the front lawn and trickling its way into our downhill neighbor's sunken living room -- but ice was forming in the hose so I have to let it jet onto the grass, where it is forming a glacier. Pssssssshhhhhhlt.

One theory -- not mine, mind you! -- is that our house was built over an entry to hell, and that the water is running because Satan's fires are well-stoked with the emaciated souls of Bush supporters, thus melting the ice in the surrounding soil. That sounds unrealistic to me, because it would be warmer in the living room.

So, no, it's probably something simpler, like that the subterranean creek on our property runs below frostline. Neighbors tell me that the water trouble began on this side of the nearby town property only after a couple of parking lots were paved over there. That makes sense...the alternative theory is that a hundred years ago someone dug a well here and then decided What the hell-- let's just put in a whole house.