In the photo of my father in his 87th year
he blows out the six balloon candles
on his beribboned German chocolate cake.
He sucks in air
as much as his liquid-filled lungs allow,
sucks twice more
to fill his arsenal.
His cheeks bulge
and he lets fly
his life force expelled
in celebration
of his birth,
a defiant exchange
to say he is still here
with something to trade
in search of joy.
He throws caution to the wind
that may not be here

When I was small my father used to sing a song he learned in the oral tradition, “Oh the Duke John was a mighty fine man, he had ten thousand men, he marched them all up the hill, then he marched them down again.” He also used to sing, “The bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain, the bear went over the mountain to see what he could see. And all that he could see, and all that he could see, was the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, the other side of the mountain, was all that he could see.”
As kids, we just learn the songs and sing them because someone taught us. It’s only later that we start to think about what those songs could really mean. I think the first song was really about King George and how he was a nutcase who was sure he could see Italy out his bedroom window. He (and most monarchs and even some presidents, sadly) made his armies do things simply because he could and no one could complain, at least to his face. How the name got changed to “Duke John” I don’t know; words often change in the oral tradition and maybe my assumption this is about King George originally is incorrect, after all. Be that as it may, the point is that we all are involved in activities that occur over and over and are just as nutty and non-productive as marching up and down the same damn hills. The story of Sisyphus is a myth for a reason.
In the second song, we learn that no matter where we go, there we are. Our nature is the same no matter our place. Traveling doesn’t change that. Perhaps Emerson was right when he said we need to develop who we are where we are.
Although the birds in my backyard sing interesting and often lovely songs, it’s too bad they don’t have the benefit of reflecting upon my father’s songs. Week after week, all summer and long into the winter, they end up taking a joyride down my chimney and end up in the fireplace batting about, not enjoying, as none of us do, coming to a bad end. If I don’t hear them, they spent hours there in the dark, learning despair. What do they think when they find the bones of those I didn’t hear; the ones who came when I wasn’t home to hear? The cats, intrigued at first by the new sound of flapping wings in the stovepipe, become bored, stretch, and pad away. If they can’t pounce, don’t bother them. The birds are on their own, shortening their lives by all the frantic flapping.
I wonder, just as I do with humans, what makes them choose this downward slide? Do they fall in by mistake, a product of clumsy bumbling? “Oops! AIEEEE!”
Is it curiosity? “Hmm. What have we here? A black hole? Let’s investigate!”
Fatalism? “The hole is here, I’m here. My plunge is meant to be. I’m not going to live that long anyway.”
I see parallels here, don’t you?
Once or twice a week, I’m called upon to be compassionate, to rescue these misguided, winged wonders from the gloomy tomb in which they find themselves. I cover the pipe opening with a long plastic bag in which I once brought home seafood on ice. (It’s not easy getting a bird out of a home with multitudinous windows and vaulted ceilings, not to mention the superstition that a bird flying in the home signals death—hence the bag.) Finally, I open the flue and wait for them to come into the light, like some proselytizing prophet. Sometimes, it’s a long wait, as any prophet knows. Once they are safely inside the bag, I walk to the door and release them. They chatter a bit as they fly off. Maybe they are saying thank you. Maybe they are shouting relief.
I wonder how many times I rescue the same bird.
I wonder why I’m the one chosen to rescue them. Is it my destiny to be an avian avatar, the chosen one to show them the way?
Or am I just being who I am where I am, climbing up and down that mountain, trying to make some sense out of the journey?

Playing “Homework”

In yesterday’s “Blondie” comic strip, Dagwood asks Elmo if he ever plays “homework,” with the assumption his answer is no. The present creator of “Blondie” must be younger than I to have presumed that no child would do such a thing. The truth is, I played “homework” for several of my elementary school years and I loved it, longed for it, looked forward to it. There was no television in our home to distract me and that was wonderful.
My Aunt Benny was an elementary teacher and she brought me old teacher’s editions of textbooks her school was throwing out. I was ecstatic. Here was information on every topic imaginable. I loved learning and now I could indulge myself. I could take the tests after each chapter and then I could check to see how much I‘d retained.
These books took me out of my everyday world of home–where there were difficult and dirty chores to be done in all kinds of weather– and school—where there were boys with beastly behavior. The world of textbooks thrust me into a space where all the wonders of the world were divulged and explained. In the world of textbooks, there were correct answers. Sure things.
I remember the science textbook especially because of the chapter on constellations. How the ancients saw those drawings in the arrangements of the stars was beyond me. While I admired their imaginations, I found their artistic skills lacking. No way did the stars look like that to me. Still, I memorized the names of the star groupings and tested myself nightly to see which ones I could find. That ships can sail guided by stars alone still amazes me. Cassiopeia, Orion, The Big and Little Dippers (or Big and Little Bears if you live in France)—all led me to the stories of the characters upon whom the names were based and I began to learn ancient mythologies. The mythologies took me into other short stories, novels, poetry. They took me into the history of western civilization and geography.
I read and read, answered the questions and soaked up knowledge like a sponge. I entertained myself for hours and I realized the world was bigger than my sphere alone. I concluded that life might not be so dismal, so painful, so mean in another spot under those same stars. I understood that knowledge could get me to that better place and it was the only hope a poor girl such as I had for such transport.
Looking back now, I thank that stellar grouping “Lucky Stars” that Aunt Benny brought me books when she did. Hitching my ride on that constellation has brought me to where I am today.

If Wishes Were Horses

“If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”

Listening to my mother’s cautionary proclamations was like being on a verbal treasure hunt. For every situation, she had a warning to impart, thereby ensuring her children would grow up socially correct, at least in her world view of what was acceptable. The only trouble was, much of the time we children found it difficult to discern exactly what these tidbits of social dictum actually meant.
Let me give you an example: When her intention was to deride us for behavior that was childish, she said, “Too sweet and fat to pity all day for muzher.”
If we stopped our pouting, it was only to consider what the hell she meant by that statement. What about that sentence makes sense? I’ve been decoding that pronouncement all my life. Now, I sensed the emotional intent of the phrase was to convey, “You poor thing,” and mean the exact opposite. I understood the tone. But what about the words?
Later, as I studied French, I deduced that “too sweet” could possibly mean “tout suite” and “pity” could mean “petit” but what about “fat”? “Muzher” I’m reasonably sure meant “mother.” Still, that sentence means nothing to me and I may go to my grave pondering its derivation.
Another of her momisms was “Like it or lump it.” Again, the intent we children could understand. “That’s the way it is whether you like it or not.” Why not just say it clearly? What does “lump it” refer to? Where did that come from and whoever uses “lump” as a verb?
Her clearest decrees were known proverbs such as, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” All of us knew the message was that we could wish all we want but our wishes were fruitless expenditures of energy. That was harsh enough but it took years to piece together what wishes and horses and beggars all had to do with each other. We lived in the world of cars where beggars usually walked or bummed a ride—in a car, not on a horse.
I remember my sister challenging my mother who had told her, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” No one we knew lived in a glass house and why would they throw stones at it my sister wondered. “Just think about it,” my mother said. Obviously, she didn’t know either.
I suppose deciphering Mother’s dictums helped somewhat when we got to the analogy section of standardized tests. My scores were always high in that section since I’d been forced to figure out abstract meanings all my life.
As a mother, however, I chose to be as succinct and clear as possible in delivering my edicts. Having suffered from thinking so hard I walked into door jambs and walls while pondering various meanings, I came to a realization. A good parent needs to think before speaking and acting rather than relying on that parental tape in the head based on old and sometimes flawed information.
In all forms of communication, it is crucial to be as clear as possible so that misunderstandings and confusion do not arise. Pondering takes up valuable time and brain space. To that end, as far as I’m concerned, “Because I said so,” is as good as it gets.

Angry White Boys

Today I followed a black sedan with the words “White Boy” printed in large black letter on the back window. I wondered why, though the racial designation may be true, any sane person would want to proclaim this for the world to see and respond to. The sign wasn’t made to define, but to provoke. In some places the driver could get shot for his sign.

In a recent newsarticle a psychologist stated that people with bumper stickers and window signs are dealing with unresolved anger; that these are drivers of which one should steer clear. While I fail to see how “Baby on Board” is indicative of flaming rage, I do understand the gist of the expert’s statement and agree with it in general.

I have seen a van about town, its windows sporting unkind statements about our current president and his administration. Since the statements change almost daily, to witness them is like scanning the headlines of one’s newspaper. While most citizens agree with the sentiments expressed, some do not and therein lies the rub—or the angry phone calls. I know this driver and I know he has received threatening phone calls suggesting that he keep his windows bare or else. We live in a rural town, but if he lived in a larger city, he might well be deceased by now.

He’s angry and is wearing his heart, not on his sleeve, but on his van. If you drive anywhere, you see his fellow signmongers. We live in a world that has not taught us how to deal with conflict by compromise or in a peaceful manner. We carry that anger around with us, our own personal powder keg ready to explode. Playing nice most of the time, we don’t realize the powder is tamped down nicely, all the better to ignite. Why someone wants to add fuel to the fire, especially in a vehicle full of gasoline, is beyond me. I’m told that some people just love drama but isn’t getting through daily life drama enough?

Everywhere we have images flashed before us that shows us the way to deal with conflict, with people who don’t think like we do, is with violence–to hit, maim or kill the offender. When your kid talks back or doesn’t do the dishes, you smack him one. And you keep smacking him because, by God, that’s what your parents did and look how well you turned out. When your neighbor builds a fence you hate, instead of negotiating, you sneak over in the dead of night and demolish it. When a country won’t let you steal its natural resources and its port situated for prime trade, you start a war there under false pretenses.

It’s not hard to see then why some people respond to the anger on bumper stickers—road rage of the printed sort–with anger.

We don’t always get our own way. People don’t act or believe the way we want them to. We need to vent in a way that leads to right action. We need to learn conflict resolution. We need to put on our big boy and girl panties and learn how to deal with anger in a way that’s positive and healthy, a way that doesn’t damage a child’s spirit, a way that doesn’t lead to more conflict or death. Just a warning: Bumper stickers and car window signs may not be that way.

BEWARE! Bird Poop, Klutz of the Year attempts involving sharp objects, and other Unwanted Turns of Events

There are ledges atop many of my windows outside which this time of year become perfect (in their birdbrains) nesting places. As a result, this also is the time of year my windows are streaked with bird poop. Since I don’t choose to go out every day and hose down my windows—usually because it’s pouring down rain that never comes sideways enough to wash off the poop—the offending material becomes hardened and, if it’s been sunny (sometimes miracles occur), even baked-on.

Take my word for it, this effect is not in any way attractive to those on the inside, looking out. Or the other way, for that matter. To make my surroundings more palatable without actually doing anything strenuous or involving hoses, I simply keep the blinds down. What you don’t see isn’t there, right?

This May, however, we’ve had an added avian feces festival in that a small bird with a lot of spit and determination has built a mostly mud nest on the front facing roof crossbeam of our porch. Usually I spy the nests early on and knock them down so the birds go elsewhere, but my timing was off this spring. I don’t know if eggs are up there yet, but she’s been sitting there day and night lately. She’s also been—add an “h” to “sitting” continually as well. Now an artistic arrangement greets our ins and outs as well as the arrivals and departures of our guests. If we catch them in time, we warn them to step to the left or right when ascending our porch steps and hope they remember when later descending. I could solve the problem and knock down the nest, but I just can’t. Mama (and Papa, for all I know) worked so hard to get it up there. And there are babies to consider.

All of this to say, if you are a visitor this summer, your visit will not all be pretty. Beware.

The world can be a dangerous place as I found out last night. Hence, my second warning. Beware of technology. Not so much the use of technology, actually, which is in itself quite frightening and frustrating, but the packaging of technology. I bought a zipdrive on which to store my works of writing because I had a scare earlier this week when my computer shut off all by itself and wouldn’t re-start. Obviously, too late, I realized I should have back-up. When the computer mysteriously (thankfully) started up again I knew I could have a small window of opportunity in which to save my work.

Last night I was going to copy all my documents onto the zipdrive, but first I had to get that out of its hard paper and unbendable plastic container. Taking my red-handled desk scissors in hand, I made a forceful cut. Right into my finger. I have no idea how I did that, but I was faced with a spewing red fountain emanating from a bone-deep divot to deal with. Whenever I do something inexplicably stupid which involves my own pain and blood, I first think, “Sh..t!” and then beat myself up with my mental bat.

After I used up an entire box of kleenex and most of my energy in an adrenalin rush, I realized this fountain would have a longer run than those at Versailles. I ran downstairs, grabbed a clean white rag, washed out the wound, then wrapped it tightly. Neal arrived home from teaching his last criminal justice class, and transported me to the emergency room for wound clean-up, a tetanus shot, and stitches. It was a busy night and a long wait. I answered the same questions four times, the most inane of which—as it seemed to me in the midst of shock—was, “What time did this occur?” Does everyone immediately after causing themselves injury look to establish the precise moment it occurred? I was really more concerned about blood loss and tetanus, silly me. Today I have a sore upper left arm, eight stitches, a white bandage the size of the bottom of a golf club and serious sleep deprivation. I was warned that the numbing shot would wear off around noon today.

Consider yourself forewarned on these two accounts.

Because the above afflictions are not all I now sport. I rototilled a new area of herb garden yesterday and the vibrations caused a blister on my right thumb and palm and one under my ring finger on the left, plus aching shoulders and neck. Consequently, today I will be taking a shower with a plastic bag over my left hand. When I prepare dinner tonight, in the spirit of leaving well enough alone, I won’t be chopping anything. I will not be attending my water aerobics class, typing my memoirs sans typos, practicing playing the guitar, or washing up the daily dishes.

Unwanted turns of events, indeed. Well, except for the dish thing.

A Lesson from Liz and Melinda

Yesterday, Liz, Melinda and I met to celebrate Melinda’s birthday last week. I don’t recall which one it is for her. It really doesn’t matter as much as celebrating her entrance into the world where she’s done so much for young people as a former teacher. In fact, all three of us were teachers and today, Liz told us a story about the cook in the new restaurant we visited, the cook, H. who had been one of her students.
Liz had been to one of the furniture stores in town where she encountered H., a young mother with two children, trying to establish credit to buy a washer. The landlord of her apartment refused to repair the washer that came with the rental unit. We all know how much laundry must be done when you have two young children. Having access to a washing machine that works is crucial.
After their catching-up chat, Liz told H. to give her a call if she didn’t get her credit. Liz was hatching a plan. I have to insert here that Liz is one of the kindest people on the planet and the plans she hatches reflect that. She had an unused washer and dryer at her house she’d been planning to sell, but now the Universe had plopped down another option right in front of her.
H. did not get her credit and tough as it was to do, she called Liz. Liz told her about the washer and then asked her if she could use the dryer too. Of course she could. H.’s kids got clean clothes. What did Liz get?
What she got was happy because it’s a rule of the Universe that when you give from the heart where there’s a genuine need, you get back tenfold—or maybe more—who’s counting?
Melinda shared that when she had given a range in much the same situation, she too ended up feeling happy. Both my friends said they were sure they felt much happier than the persons receiving their generous gifts.
I’m positive that this is one of the lessons we’re meant to learn in our lives. Giving is more blessed than receiving. Didn’t someone say that? It’s a law of the Universe. Science has proven by doing brain scans that human beings show more happiness when they give than when they receive.
Need seems to be escalating daily. Food, clothing, shelter, medical attention, reading to a child, teaching an adult to read, compassion, a hug. You don’t have to look far to find the need. Your gift doesn’t have to cost a lot. If you’ve been feeling a little down recently and could use a boost of happiness, then my question to you is, “Given all the evidence right in front of your eyeballs, what are you waiting for?”
Oh, and while you’re busy giving, how about some gratitude for two retired teachers who have never stopped teaching. Liz and Melinda, thanks for the lesson!


She walks into the waiting room
the telltale aura of her life
wafting after.

Be still; concentrate.
Like a bloodhound
you can sniff it out.

She fries food.
There’s a dog and a child.
A dry shower stall,
unused shampoo.
Sex an hour ago.

He loves monster trucks
and “Jackass.”
She hides the remote sometimes,
gloats when she knows the answers
on “Jeopardy” and he pouts.
Hoping to trade up
he sees other women on the side,
won’t marry her..

She knows.
She hungers for something
and doesn’t know it.

Hurt holds her captive
with the strong arms
of a rapist.

She searches your face
for a shred of nice,
eyes pleading,
“Don’t judge.”

Our stories surround us.
You can smell them
like an open book.

c. 2008 KK

The Chemistry Set, or Too Late I Think of Consequence

I don’t know what Mr. Lovely was thinking the recess he left Barbara Hyde and me alone in our classroom with an unlocked chemistry set. It was newly purchased and so enticing, a little suitcase filled with glass vials of elements to be explored. I am sure Mr. Lovely had intended to have us perform scientific experiments with the contents under supervised study. He probably imagined our eager little minds intrigued with testing to see if a substance were an acid or a base, a classroom full of engaged, hormonal 7th and 8th graders. He never banked on how powerful an urge is curiosity; how it overcomes reason in a young brain as yet unfettered by consequence.
Barbara and I read over the contents, which while interesting, were mostly unknown to us since we’d had no instruction in their usage so far. That might have been a good thing since sulpher was in one of the vials and we could have made stink bombs had we known. As it was, thanks to me, what we did was awesome and scary enough. I recognized the contents of two vials as we read: nitrogen and glycerin. Something sparked. Ah, yes, thanks to TV and its depiction of building railroads in Westerns, I knew things were blown up with nitro-glycerin. I didn’t know the exact recipe, which can no doubt be found today on the internet, but this was waaaay before personal computers. I reasoned that maybe if we combined some of that nitrogen with some glycerin, we could make some home-grown dynamite. I think it’s safe to ask what was I thinking.
My mad scientist buddy agreed this experiment was one worth doing, and so we poured, sloshed, jiggled and combined and there was our result. Now the frightening reality hit us. What were we going to do with it? If it really was dynamite, we couldn’t just throw it anywhere because it would explode—us, for sure, maybe the school and everyone in it. This was when Barbara got really angry with me and started yelling. That brought Mr. Lovely back from the teachers’ break room with its cigarette haze and day-long burnt coffee stench.
We had to tell what we’d done. I did not volunteer it was first my idea because I didn’t think I’d get any gold stars for brillance in this case. Besides, I didn’t want a whipping either. I swear that a look of fear passed over his face when he heard what ingredients were in our concoction, but maybe that was projection? Surely he had enough of a science background to know what we’d done was harmless? Surely he realized the makers of the chemistry set would never include ingredients that could kill schoolchildren? I’ll never know because he looked panicked to us.
He took the vial, slowly and carefully, as if it were the deadly substance, from my hands. “I am going to throw this down the sink,” he said. “You look out there on the playground,” and he pointed to a specific place. “That’s the septic tank. If you made dynamite, the whole place will blow up and you will be in more trouble than you can even imagine.” Not to mention, dead.
His footsteps faded and our heads turned toward the septic tank. Time stopped and our short lives with it. Images of what could be gushed through our brain. Silence reigned except for kids on the playground shouting and laughing.
Nothing happened. When it became clear nothing would happen, we breathed again. Barbara started yelling at me. “I hate you now and I always will.” She remained true to her word, too, for the rest of our school career together.
We were punished by having to stay in for a number of recesses, her glaring at me and making nasty comments, the chemistry set safely locked away somewhere for the rest of the year.
That Mr. Lovely hadn’t made the kids get off the playground or emptied out the school should have been a clue to us that our dynamite really wasn’t. That he just threw it down the sink should have been another. That we hadn’t already blown ourselves up with all that jiggling and fumbling, another. Because, really, had it been real, he wouldn’t have made all those bad decisions, would he?
Mr. Lovely died quite early and I hope our experiment had nothing to do with that. I don’t know what happened to Barbara after high school. Myself? I never did take a chemistry class.