Jumping works, bridges
Reasons knit into new paths
Thin rivers snaking
My friend Karen is reading How Democracies Die. She told me this in the locker room after our swim and shower. It was so like her to be toweling off, her skin red from the world’s hottest shower, and talking about the slippery slop of authoritarianism which, in her view, we are sliding down on greased flying saucers from the old K-Mart.
I waited for a break in her analysis, almost not wanting to interrupt her enthusiasm but I thought it only right to tell her, “I’m reading The Trauma Cleaner.” She laughs, she’s always so cheery, and says she reads books like that; she alternates a hard book and an easy book. I don’t alternate, though.
There, you see, is the fundamental difference between us. I’m smart enough but I quit adding to the pot decades ago. Whatever was there the last day of college is pretty…
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The dog next door barks to go out and barks to come back in but I don’t know what he does in between.
I have been waiting for something to happen all day – a good thing, not a bad thing – but it hasn’t happened yet and I now believe it never will.
While we were driving home, we hit a small deer and when I got out to inspect the damage there was little bits of deer fur on the front of the truck but I will write more about that another time.
I am wondering about whether being engaged in bureaucratic conflict keeps one young.
We have become a household with no potholders because there is a dog who lives here with an intense love of fabric.
People I thought were way younger than me are turning fifty which was surprising at first until I remembered how old I am.
The cat is having an episode of protest peeing.
The mailman brought a bucket of mail that had accumulated since we were gone but all of it was either bills or ads, making me wonder if anyone will ever write a letter to me again in my lifetime.
I have been reading the same book for two weeks.
I’m writing a short story about a woman who splits up with her husband and drives their RV over the Mackinac Bridge – not off the bridge, just from one side of the bridge to the other – but it still gives me the willies thinking about how that bridge can sway in the wind and how, if you look down, you can see the water through the steel mesh.
I texted Branson to reschedule my appointment. There had been an ice storm which seemed a good enough reason to cancel, but the truth was I didn’t feel like getting my hair cut. It could wait a few days so I asked if he had an opening later in the week.
“Sorry,” he texted back. “We have rules about cancelling on the day of your appointment.”
I was startled by this, embarrassed, but I remembered reading on his website about the cancellation policy. There was a price to pay, a surcharge added to the next haircut, a required timeout, shaming, some kind of punishment. One cannot just capriciously cancel one’s appointment. It wasn’t done.
When I was younger and always in a hurry and convinced that my time was more precious by miles than anyone else’s, I would have pitched a fit about Branson’s scolding. But I’m mellow now, an old lady, increasingly conflict averse, so I texted back in the cheeriest way, “Ok! See you soon!” I considered adding the sweet little emoji of me wearing a hoodie that my daughter created but it seemed too apologetic.
Branson was watching through the salon window as I stepped and skated across the solid sheet of ice that was the street. Shaming works, I thought, as I slid through the door.
“Hey. You were right to call me out on cancelling. I respect that.” Saying things like this was part of my new persona, the kinder, gentler, mentoring person I wanted to become now that I was in my seventies.
Branson nodded, smiled slightly. He then embarked on a long explanation of why cancelling is bad. He couldn’t fill a suddenly empty hour, he would just be out that money, and, plus, he said, if you let people start cancelling on you, they do it all the time and it’s horrible! I wanted to hug him and tell him it was okay to have reasonable expectations, that I was working on the same thing myself.
This was the fourth time I’d come to Branson for a haircut. The first time was a month after I’d received my Covid vaccination. It was my first haircut in two years, my normally short hair collected up in a wee ponytail, the effect being that of a woman coming to town from the farm after two years of relentless drought and failing crops.
Branson wore a black mask. His hair hung in a long wiry halo around his face. He wore a black t-shirt that showed the tattoos running up and down his thick arms. On one wrist was a diamond tennis bracelet, silver rings were stacked up on all his fingers. He seemed a mystical figure – not clearly male or female – the first human being besides my husband to come near me for months. When he reached across my face to snip and arrange, I studied his arms, so close to me, and I felt encircled, embraced ever so gently by a long-haired, tender stranger.
That first haircut was transformative. When I got back to my car, I took a picture of myself, posted it on Facebook, and waited for the likes to come pouring in. It was a new me. I had come to town from the farm and triumphed.
Today, Branson looked different, so much so I wondered if it was really him. He’d cut his brown hair very short and bleached it white on the top. He’d added a diamond necklace and tiny hoop earrings to his jewelry and though it had been raining ice all day, he wore just a white t-shirt, thin cargo pants, and slides with no socks. He showed me to his chair, fastened the cape around my neck, and looked at me in the mirror.
“And how are we feeling about this cut? Did it work out?” He studied me in the mirror, admiring his last cut when he’d swept my bangs forward from the crown of my head. The effect was startling and wonderful. “And what are we thinking about this time?” I loved this conversation. I loved sitting in the chair, looking at him in the mirror, all of the fancy products in the open cupboard, metal flowers in a grey vase, a tiny box holding his cards “Branson’s Beauty Room” on the counter in front of me. The salon was empty except for us, no other customers or hairdressers, everyone apparently spooked by the ice storm. But I was there, I had braved the weather for this, for Branson to worry about my hair and my hair alone, for him to cut my hair like it was his art, each strand shaped to take its place on my head. It was worth all the time and the money and the careful stepping back across the icy street to my car.
The week before I went to Branson for the first time, I walked out of an appointment with Sal, the woman who had cut my hair for twenty years, because she wasn’t wearing a mask. I saw this through the glass doors of her salon as she was fluffing the hair of a customer, also unmasked. I turned around, went to my car in the parking lot, and texted her. “I have to reschedule. I’ll call.”
She answered. “Is it because I wasn’t wearing a mask? I’ll put one on.”
But right then, after a year of the pandemic and just have been vaccinated and feeling still every nerve in my body attuned to the risk of disease, it wasn’t enough. I knew, too, that there was more behind her not wearing a mask, there was politics, differences that we’d had for years but never discussed. I drove away.
Thus marked the end of two decades of haircuts, color, and eyebrow waxing. And the end of the cushioned respite of her salon – the floor to ceiling windows reflecting the late afternoon sun, the greenest, most robust plants, the old prints of Hedy Lamarr and Ginger Rogers in the bathroom advertising lipstick and shampoo from the forties.
I’d met Sal when she was pregnant with her youngest son, now a high school graduate. She knew about my kids’ accidents and accomplishments, she told me about her husband’s health problems and her business challenges. She talked so much about her life that I felt like her best friend. I knew she talked to all her clients that way. She was gifted in creating girlfriends.
Sal was tall with stiff bleached blond hair. She wore short black skirts with black tights and knee-high boots. When the bell rang on the salon door to announce my arrival, I’d hear her boots clicking on the tiled floor as she came to greet me. “Hi Jan!” she’d say, and then ask if I wanted a soda or a glass of wine. The salon shelves held candles smelling of peppermint, balsam, and rosemary, and expensive containers of mousse and hair spray and mysterious products that I would sometimes buy at her suggestion.
Sal studied my hair – its shape, texture, and color. After every haircut, she’d stand back to admire her work, especially during the years of the very short spiky cut that made me look hip and fearless. I’d say it was a great cut and she’d agree. “Just perfect. Beautiful.” I admired her faith in her own abilities, her lack of self-doubt. When I was in Sal’s hands, she owned my head, I ceded to her judgement and almost always left glad.
Sal had large hands with long fingers and beautifully manicured nails. Her hands would smooth my forehead when she inspected the state of my eyebrows. Once she determined what needed to be done, she’d apply hot wax, position the waxing strips, and pull hard. After waxing, she searched for renegade hairs to pluck, intent on creating the perfect arch. Laying in the waxing room, Sal’s hands tending to my face was my indulgence, of being with someone whose only concern was how to make me look better. I loved being with Sal. Even now, I can’t believe I threw her over because of a mask. But it would be hard now to leave Branson to go back to Sal.
Before Sal, in the years after I was married for the second time at age 35, there was Elvin. Elvin was his made-up name. He told me what his actual name was, it was a secret he shared with me, but I’ve forgotten what it was. He was so emphatically Elvin.
Elvin was a kid from the south side of Milwaukee who found his way to an elite suburban salon but kept his streetwise ways, his hipness, his so obviously self-aware dark good looks, his black t-shirts and tightest jeans for all the north shore ladies who missed the old days when they were out looking for fun or want to remember that they were.
Elvin was very popular. He scheduled client simultaneously so he would run from one chair to the next, snipping here, coloring there, checking the heat in the hair dryer on another. I came for a perm. This was a long, complex, and very smelly process that involved constant checking to make sure the perm didn’t go overboard and fry my hair. I loved Elvin’s perms because when I walked out of the salon, I had an enormous mass of red curls instead of the long straight hair I’d had for years. Elvin untamed my hair and it was liberating, identity-changing, and wild-making. So, whenever my hair gave the slightest hint of straightening, of my identity weakening along with my perm, I’d call Elvin to see if he could restore me any time in the next few weeks.
Elvin and I talked a lot. Mostly, we talked about how he wanted to go to New York and work in a big salon there. He longed for famous clients and making a name for himself among the stars. He was biding his time doing perms and flirting with the north shore ladies. He was meant for bigger and better things. He knew this deep in his heart as he told me at every visit.
The last time I saw Elvin, he told me he was heading to New York in a few weeks. “This is our last time,” he said, waiting for me to be sad and I was and said so. I wasn’t ready for anyone else to perm my hair. On this last visit, Elvin decided I should shorten up, get rid of all my split ends, so he cut off several inches, and then proceeded with the perm. He fluttered among his many simultaneous clients as I sat stewing in my perm juice for what seemed a dangerously long time.
When the perm was done, rollers unrolled, hair dried and fluffed, I looked like a TV mom from the fifties. I blinked at myself in the mirror, near tears, while Elvin shrugged about having miscalculated the perm’s timing. In the car, I pulled on the curls but they snapped back like rubber bands. That night, standing in the shower, the third soaping up and hot water pouring on my steel wool head, I knew Elvin had left me in the rear-view mirror. It was my last perm.
The person who washes your hair, who massages your scalp with exotic smelling shampoo and rubs your temples like they were taught in beauty school knows you, knows your head, how your hair still has red highlights and how it naturally parts on the left or right. They know what you need to feel beautiful in the world, and because they know this secret, buried thing, they become dear to you and unforgettable no matter how much time has passed or how much hair is swept off the salon floor.
The cat has become a metaphor for everything, mostly our children who were all only marginally under our supervision, our job seeming to be to keep them alive despite their many efforts to tempt fate, be on the brink of something that made us rush to their aid only to have them right themselves with no assistance much like the cat who managed to leap to the top of the very high cabinet and then pace from side to side convincing us that he’d overestimated himself and so we began considering alternative methods of rescue and talking to him in the patient, reassuring, but underlyingly anxious way that we used to talk to our children until he mentally measured the distance and, pleased by his own figuring, made the leap and walked away with his tail in the air.
We just met a guy who goes by the name Camping Russ. That is what he has painted on the side of his trailer in which he hauls all of his equipment which he then unloads and assembles as extensions of his truck. He has a shower and a toilet and a kitchen and a bunch of other extremely high end, Rube Goldberg like accouterments. We met CR on our walk because, of course, he wanted to know more about Swirl because he is so handsome. Punchy runs small circles around whoever is holding his leash during these conversations. It is the behavior of a homely kid brother.
We still just have our pop up tent which always smells hideous when we first set it up but is lovely after a few hours with the breeze humming through the screen windows. We are camped on the edge of a small lake that we’ve canoed many times. Once when we were here, we sat in our old green canoe in the middle of the lake and watched two eagles fly about for close to an hour. No canoe today. Too much camping equipment. We could only have brought the canoe if we’d put it on top of the truck. The thought alone makes me hysterical even if we could lift it which I’m not sure we could. Instead we usually put the canoe in the truck bed, like an oversized sofa, and tie a scrap of red material to the canoe’s rear to conform with the law. No one up here cares though. We could have purple sheep roaming around our open truck bed and nobody would say a word.
We are camped about thirty miles from our house on Lake Superior. This makes no sense since we have the world’s best view and a full larder, but camping has become the way we trick ourselves into thinking we’re still able to do things which may appear to others to be difficult. Most things are just heavy, not hard, but today we had the challenge of assembling a new cot. This required the use of an ax as a hammer which I dislike because of the obvious risk of maiming. We only have small bandages in the first aid kit, I thought to myself, as my husband pulled back the ax to give an essential locking piece a good whack. What would I use to staunch the bleeding? My hoodie? I only brought the one.
For dinner, we packed a frozen pork loin the size of a children’s baseball bat. By mid-afternoon, it showed no signs of thawing in time for us to cook it, although to roast it, I’d have had to pitch it directly into the fire since there is no rack for the firepit. So, when we went to a tiny ‘party store’ (as they call them in Michigan), I spied an eight dollar jar of homemade sauerkraut which I bought along with a package of bratwursts, the price of which I avoided seeing, along with four cookies, also homemade, and a bag of cheddar/sour cream chips made at the Ford factory in Detroit that closed in 1976.
So, dinner on the Coleman stove it is. With beer from Wisconsin and red wine from St. Julian’s winery in SW Michigan, a place where they pour free shots at the bar for people pulling off the interstate for a little rest and rejuvenation. The wine is not great, though as a box wine drinker, I hardly qualify as a judge, still, it seems rushed wine – what one would make in one’s kitchen if grapes grew in the backyard and special people were coming to dinner.
The wind is picking up. It occurs to me that I may have to put my pajamas on under my jeans. It is always colder camping than you think it will be unless you are in the great Southwest, then it is too hot for words and there is no way to cool down except to pray for sleep and a dawn that might include dew. Either way, the sitting in it -the heat or the breeze or the cold – is good and important for its own sake. It makes a person settle down and not think of 10,000 things at once and just reflect on Camping Russ and what all he’s got going at his pumped up camp down the path a bit.
How’s the lake? Been swimming yet?
No, not yet. It’s pretty cold, you know.
Yeah, I get that Lake Superior is so special stuff all the time.
Well, it is enormous and deep and very cold. All that’s true.
But, I thought it was part of your “persona'” to swim in Lake Superior.
Is there some reason why “persona” is in quotation marks?
Well, you know, everybody’s got an image of themselves they want to project.
And you’re saying mine is that of an old lady who swims in Lake Superior? Like I’m a tough old broad in a thrift store bathing suit who swims with her sneakers on because of the rocks?
If the shoe fits!!! Ha ha ha!
How about we put the shoe on the other foot, as they say. You ever been swimming in Lake Superior or anyplace else without a water slide?
I’m not the one being interviewed.
Well, it’s for certain that I will swim in Lake Superior this summer. I’m just waiting for a hot day with a gentle wind, not out of the south, with no flies, and very calm seas. No waves. I am opposed to waves.
Why’s that? Waves can be a lot of fun. You need a boogie board!
Waves can suck me over to Canada, baby cakes. You ever heard of the undertow or riptide? They’re big huge deals up here. Happy people celebrating summer end up dead and gone far away. I don’t swim unless the lake is like glass.
So we wait.
Yes. We wait. Threadbare bathing suit and old sneakers at the ready. The person that I am will go swimming in Lake Superior this summer.
We will need photo evidence.
A lost and found story from a few years ago.
It rarely happens but our dogs, Swirl and Punchy, got away from us on the beach this morning.They generally go on ahead when they are loose but then stop every fifty feet or so to turn and look at us. If we are walking toward them, they continue, keeping one ear cocked. We call them back to fuss over them and pet them, thinking that this will keep them from taking off, that reminder that we are their people.
But sometimes, their running joy cannot be tempered by anyone’s callback. They fall in love with the run all over again. And then they are gone.
That’s what happened this morning. Turning back from our long walk east on the beach to return home, they lit out further west. We could see their tails wagging above the ridges of small dunes, between the big logs that can be seen even from…
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We still have physical custody of our son’s cat, Hercules. That means that when we decamp the big city and head for Lake Superior, he comes along in a cat carrier that sits between us in our truck. He meows at least half the way. The rest of the time, he sleeps with one eye open. Now that we are here, he pads around, sits in windows (pushing the screen out of one this afternoon), and curls himself on the bed belonging to the son whose cat he is. We contemplate taking him to the beach but fear he would find the surf unsettling.
Yesterday it was 55 degrees up here on the shores of Lake Superior, today it is 79 and it feels like noon in Nicaragua. When it is hot here, the flies come out, flitting merrily as if they are glad to fly about without their sweaters. I sat for an hour with my feet in the vastness that is this lake, just sitting and looking, and thinking of the list of dozens until there was nothing left but the rocks beneath my toes.
Kansas pro-choice organizers and voters are the heroes of the week. Since the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, I’ve been buttoned down, not wanting to once again haul my own grisly experience out of the closet where it hangs with the mohair sweaters and matching knee socks of my youth. Election night, though, was cause for celebration. Lord, I thought, there is a ‘we’ here. I am part of a ‘we.’ I didn’t cry but I could have.
I think about my age almost all the time. I don’t think this is healthy but that is the way it is. I am fascinated by my age like I might be a carnivorous plant, watching its spiked leaves trap a fly. If you take your eyes off the plant, you might miss that moment when the leaves clench and the fly is doomed. Not a worry for me, since I literally think about my age – 74 – practically every minute of the day. This is nutty and likely to get worse because, you know, I have a birthday coming up in about six months and it’s a notable one.
With age comes great slyness. If you are a normal person with average exposure to the world and the ability to digest what you experience into themes, aging, insofar as it involves the accumulation of a vast amount of experiences, will make you a genius. Right now, this minutes, I am there. I am a genius. It may be fleeting but it’s real. Like a firefly.
I am wearing my old black jeans tucked into my ancient wool socks because a writing friend reminded me this morning that this is what one does when going into tick country which is where I was just a bit ago, picking blueberries in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
But, oddly, I am not afraid of ticks when I’m blueberry picking. I am afraid of bears. I think that, at any moment, I could lift my head and see a bear twenty feet away glaring at me. Or feel a bear’s heavy breathing at my back. Or see steaming scat next to a blueberry patch. Paw prints.
Years ago, we took our kids to a campfire chat at the national park near us. The ranger talked about bear safety. I remember everything he said. The rules about bear prevention are tattooed on my inner wrist. We adhere to all those rules when we’re camping. But it was the advice about bear encounters that confounds me.
Look big! Wave your arms! Back up, don’t run away! And this: If all else fails, punch him in the nose!
So I think of the ranger’s advice every time we are in a place where a bear could also be.
Would I have the gumption to punch a bear in the nose? Or would I yell for my husband to come punch the bear on my behalf?
Sometimes, I think it would be better to just run into a bear and see what happens. Then, at least, the worry about seeing a bear would abate. I’d know, once and for all, what I’d do. Know I could handle it. Or not.
That’s the deal with fear. Once you know you can punch the bear in the nose, you’re afraid of nothing. You can just pick the damn berries.