Cobwebs

The cobwebs in the basement are thick and clammy. They hang like wet strings from water pipes and electrical wires running along the papered ceiling where, along the edges, you can see the 100-year-old 2 x 4s that are the bones of our house.

The plaster on the walls, reapplied every ten years or so, is peeling again. It curls in thick strands, suspended until the weight becomes too much and the plaster drops and shatters on the floor. Under the plaster is the brick foundation, each brick mortared to the next so carefully you think you might see fingerprints.

The floor used to be dirt, just dirt. Our three-story house with the brick foundation rested on dirt, brown and packed so hard it could be swept with a broom, but still dirt. We changed that though because it was unnerving, it seemed risky to have a house built on dirt, primitive, although the house with its dirt basement had already lasted a long time before we moved in. The house wasn’t going anywhere.

The basement holds many of our things including a black trunk of baby clothes I haven’t opened since my now 46-year old daughter became a toddler. Don’t ask me why. Part of me thinks her tiny undershirts and corduroy overalls may have mouldered after all these years and if I open the trunk and see just the remnants of her infant wardrobe in moldy shreds, it will break my heart. The trunk sits on an old wooden desk in the room where we keep all the old paint cans and vast stacks of record albums that we brought to our marriage but then never played anymore, the music on them tuned, I guess, to our private lives before we met.

There is a tiny bathroom in the basement. It is very narrow with just a toilet at one end, it has been decades since the toilet flushed and would have been nearly as long since anyone ventured into the bathroom at all if my son hadn’t gone in searching for rats. You see, I had found a dead rat in the yard and called an exterminator. He came the next day, armed with a clipboard and a flashlight, and walked around the house and through the basement pointing out the countless ways that rats could get into our house, the tiny bathroom being one. They will swim up toilets, you know, a disquieting fact if there ever was one.

We threw out newspapers and magazines, old furniture, and anything that would be food or shelter to a rat. That is a long list of things, though, so the mound of debris in front of our house was enormous. It felt like we were unpacking a hundred years of secrets and mistakes for everyone to see. Vast quantities of dirty laundry, you might say. But we rid ourselves of rats, in the narrow bathroom and everywhere else in the basement.

Now we have a new washer and dryer and a new freezer. There are shelves for the big pots and cookers that we rarely use. Tools are stored in a set of red drawers, each with its own lock, and the birdseed is in sealed bins. In the back of the basement, though, is our old dining room table. It lies on its side with five chairs. We bought it new after years of using an old farm table that sank in the middle; the new table was a luxury, beautiful and glowing, but over the years, there were scratches and water marks, scorches, and other abuses. So one day we bought a new table, much like the old, but perfect, and when the men came to set it up, they looked at the old table, about to be taken to the basement, and said, “This should have lasted a lifetime.” And the words stung, even though I was paying them and not looking for their opinion, so I’ve kept the old table and chairs in the basement all these years, the cobwebs draped on them like streamers from somebody’s birthday a long time ago.

The Peculiar Zen of Meal Prep

Every now and then, on no particular schedule, when I think I should or when I feel the need for total immersion in a task that is immediate and elemental, I do meal prep.

Meal prep is what Street Angels calls preparing and packaging hot meals for the homeless people on our outreach route. So depending on the time of the year, anywhere from 40 to 120 hot meals are needed for each night of outreach – Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

Volunteers do this. They buy, cook, package, and transport hot meals to the Street Angels bus by 5:45 p.m. on outreach nights. It’s both a science and an art. Food has to be generally appealing, nutritious, but most of all, hot. The food has to be hot. There’s a trick to that. I haven’t perfected it yet but liquid is key – sauce, gravy, soup, chili – liquids stay hotter than solids. Cold food won’t do for a hot meal plus there’s the matter of food safety.

I’ve taken to doing meal prep as a sort of meditation. For me, it is a zen experience. I can’t think of anything else during meal prep except the barbecued drumsticks or mac and cheese or tuna casserole, how to multiply a recipe for 20 to one for 60, what pans to use, how to coordinate my oven and Nesco cooker, and how to keep everything hot. Very hot.

For a while I was doing meal prep with a friend and then I realized, oddly, that I wanted to be alone in my kitchen. Talking disrupted the zen, consultation scattered my focus, what I gained in companionship, I lost in the clear sense of purpose and utility that meal prep can bring.

After I package up all the meals and deliver them to the bus, I drive away worrying about things I could have done better. I made pasta with sauce and Italian sausage and it was beautiful but had no Parmesan cheese. The tuna casserole was too dry because I’d panicked and added more noodles. Not all the barbecued chicken legs had a nice sear on them.

One night, though, I made chicken soup from scratch, simmering two big chickens for hours and then adding carrots and celery and noodles. The soup was a triumph but I delivered it on a night of the Polar Vortex so I knew it wouldn’t stay hot. I wished I could load a cauldron of soup on to the bus and ladle it out person by person. Instead I dropped off my cups of soup and went home, later that night getting a message from a homeless woman relayed to me by the outreach worker, “The soup was divine.” I almost cried. She said the soup was divine!

People all over Milwaukee, all over the country, do things like meal prep. I watched a man in a warming room kitchen dump three canisters of quick-cooking oatmeal into a huge foil tray, pour boiling water over it all, stir it, and scatter raisins and cinnamon over the top and then stand back to admire it like he was presenting a Beef Wellington at Christmas dinner. I know that look, I thought. It’s his Zen.

For those of us who come from go wash your hands, it’s time for dinner, this is what we have, we’ll have to make it stretch, who came to the table where meatloaf and mashed potatoes were waiting, steam rising, who listened to their parents talking in the kitchen while dinner cooked, who hated but loved family dinners because it was proof you belonged somewhere, meal prep has a lot of meaning.

Swirl

There were 200 dogs in the dog yard. Each one was tethered to a raised wooden platform with a big plastic cylinder that worked as a doghouse. Each dog’s name was on a sign on his platform, some had sleds parked in front. The platforms were arranged in rows that mimicked the rows of trees at the end of the yard. The sound was wild and deafening and weirdly joyous, the dogs leaping on to their platforms, barking, jumping down, each dog more handsome than the last. We were at Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, Michigan, deep in the woods of the Upper Peninsula. We were there to pick up our new dog, an about to be retired sled dog named Swirl.

Dog Yard at Nature’s Kennel

“I’m going to unhook him and he’s going to take off,” said Tasha, the kennel owner, and then she yelled “Dog loose in the yard!” All of this happened before it sunk in that we were standing in front of our new dog. Swirl bounded off his platform and headed for the driveway, the woods, the kids, the car, the puppy yard, and back. He was huge. Probably twice as big as I’d imagined him, having watched a ton of sled dog racing. He was a big, beautiful, exuberant dog.

Swirl at Nature’s Kennel

Tasha told us about him. He was born in a litter of four. As is the habit in mushing kennels, litters have themes. Swirl’s litter’s theme was bread. So there is Pump, Rye, Hallah, and [Cinnamon] Swirl. Later, driving home, we looked at the paper with his family tree and saw that his grandparents were dogs owned by Iditarod royalty – Deedee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey. Back even further was a great, great grandparent from the kennel of the first woman to win the Iditarod, Susan Butcher. But Swirl had never been an Iditarod dog.

He raced some but he was mostly a touring dog. Teamed up with eleven other dogs, sometimes in the lead, sometimes not, he took tourists on rides through the forests around McMillan. And he was happy doing it, Tasha said, until he started to look less excited about going. Oh, he still joined the team but he didn’t have that sparkle and so she decided it was time for him to retire. He wasn’t having fun anymore.

We walked around the driveway, talking about Swirl and what he was like. Sweet, gentle, friendly, totally trustworthy with children and other dogs. “You will never have to worry about him.” This was great because I’ve done plenty of worrying about dogs I’ve owned. And then she said this, “You just have to say no to him. Anything more than that and you’ll break his heart.”

He had been raised that carefully.

It shows. He trusts people. He’s not afraid or shy or aggressive in any way. He is quiet and sure-footed, able to nap anywhere. He’s gone from sleeping in his dog house on top of a wooden platform to sleeping on the rug next to our bed. He seems to sleep a dreamless sleep, he may have yearning for the dog yard but it doesn’t show. He seems at home here, as at home with us as we are with him. Our dog. His people.

Alpenglow Friday Round-Up

Superior’s edges are rough with the end of winter. I was careful walking not sure what was firm and what might be floating.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan could be Norway but it isn’t. Parts of it are very foreign, other worldly, but fundamental in a scrappy way.

I may have just turned 71 but I want the world to know that if need be I can still fry it up in a pan. Or barbecue. Same difference.

I followed a friend with a flashlight into the woods. She shone the flashlight behind her so I wouldn’t trip, not having thought to bring my own flashlight. And in the woods, we gave a man some dinner. We hugged him and I walked behind her back out to the street, feeling many layers of taking care.

My son left a pie for us on our porch last night. Key lime. My husband said it was an homage to the many years when Good Friday marked the start of our mad dash to the Florida Keys where we would eat piles of shrimp and fat slices of pie and argue about when it was time to go to bed.

The Lead-Up

People have birthdays everyday, for heaven’s sake. So no reason to get all intense about it, right? Wrong.

71 is some business.

You try being 71 and come tell me birthdays are mundane, everyone has them, and, oh, age is just a number. 71 is some shit.

Earlier this week, I read in the morning paper about a colleague who had died. He was 82. I went in the shower and did the math. Just 11 years older than me. Just 11. I have shoes that are 11 years old. And they look like new. Time flies. Go figure.

It depressed me mightily, thinking about my dead colleague and my rapidly advancing age. I fell quickly into thinking like a patient with a terminal illness, my days are numbered, I thought, but whose aren’t? Living is a fatal illness when you get right down to it.

My dad died when he was 89. So if I’m my dad’s girl, I might live another 18 years. And I could be tooling around the two lanes just like him in his big Oldsmobile, hitting the hills in the Michigan countryside like Steve McQueen sending his Shelby Mustang flying over the hills of San Francisco. Honest to God, I sat in the passenger seat and heard the bottom of my dad’s car hit the pavement on the way down. He was no piker when it came to driving. All in, the man was, all in.

Growing up, I heard the term “hell bent for leather” a lot. My dad was often hell bent for leather but I hung back. It wasn’t my nature. First of all, you have to be pretty out there to be hell bent. And secondly, there’s a fair amount of risk implied being hell bent for leather and I never liked risk unless the odds fell entirely in my favor which is contrary to the whole notion of risk.

But I’ve changed. I’m not afraid of risk anymore. I don’t know what happened. The only thing different about me is age. A lot of age. A lot of age got me out from behind my safety glasses. And it’s great. I can see better and drive a lot faster.

The definition of “hell bent for leather” uses the term “recklessly determined” which I think is impossibly perfect and beautiful for what I want to be in my remaining minutes or 18 years. Recklessly determined to be healthy, to be strong, to make change, to show up, to drive like a wild woman who scares the passengers.

Tomorrow is my birthday. Here’s to 71. It’s the shit.

Rings

[I’m taking an online flash nonfiction class. First assignment this week: 10 minutes on the prompt: The telephone rang.]

The telephone rang but I didn’t answer it. I thought I knew who was calling but figured I’d only know if the phone rang again. It did. It rang again, long and hard, until the caller gave up, waited a few minutes and then called again. There were ten more calls and ten more times the caller gave up after many rings. The whole while I sat on the sofa across the room, smoking cigarettes and calculating the odds.

Was he calling to ditch me or was he calling to tell me he’d ditched her?

I eventually figured a man wouldn’t be so persistent just to deliver bad news. Heck, most men I knew then wouldn’t even bother to call, that’s how they’d send the message. Disappear. A man who called eleven times in a row and let the phone ring and ring was on a mission. I decided that he was on a mission to tell me good news and I ought to be brave enough to pick up the phone and hear it. 

I wasn’t that brave nor was I ready to call him back because, after all, it could have been someone else, a bill collector, an old boyfriend, my parents thinking I was dead because I didn’t answer. There was no voice mail then so telephones had magic and mystery. You never knew anything for sure unless you picked up. 

The next night he showed up at a small party I was giving for fellow students in my graduate program. He wasn’t a student but he brought a jug of wine and sat on the floor with us, listening to our stories of lament and overwork. And at the end of the night when everyone else left, tired and talked out, he stayed. He is still here thirty-five years later. Sometimes he leaves messages but mostly he texts.