This Poem Made Me Laugh Out Loud

Mind you, I might have a really low bar for humor in poetry. I simply do not expect poetry to be funny (or even humorous), so maybe in the field of poetry, a little humor goes a long way.

I hope you at least crack a smile.

Of Martyrs

Emma Burns is a martyr
    And stays with Jimmy
Only because she feels sorry for him, her folks like him,
    The neighbors expect it.
    And he takes their two boys fishing every Saturday.
Emma survives by a furtive affair with Frank Harris
    Every other Thursday afternoon.

Jimmy Burns is also a martyr
And stays with Emma
    Only because he feels sorry for her, his boss likes her,
    The neighbors expect it.
    And she is teaching the boys how to play the piano.
Jimmy survives by a furtive affair with Frank Harris’s wife
    Every other Wednesday morning.

The Burns boys are also martyrs.
    They hate fishing,
        But feel sorry for their father.
They also hate the piano,
    But don’t want to hurt their mother’s feelings.
They survive by smoking dope with the Harris kids.

Sin sure does have a way of keeping families together.

James Kavanaugh
(From, Walk Easy on the Earth)

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August Theme Reading

A new month and a new reading theme. The August theme is books titled The _____. That would be just one word. Okay, yes, this sounds absolutely silly, but it arises from a past theme: Last year we did one-word titles, specifically excluding books titled The ______. Note, we don’t have much in the way of rules for our book themes, but that was a rule we agreed on. There was no lack of one-word titles, so the rule in and of itself wasn’t a problem. But there were just so many good books that were The ______. Thus, this August theme.

So far I’ve finished two books, The Enchanted, by Rene Denfield, an oddly mesmerizing, dark yet redemptive novel; and The Unicorn, poetry by Anne Morrow Lindbergh (and some of it quite fun). I’ve just started The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, by Natalie Angier; and The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. I’m about halfway through The Goat, by Mervyn Taylor (poetry).

There is much to look forward to. High on my list in fiction (these are all books I’ve gleaned from my shelves; that is one of the things I love about the reading themes—they make me take a new look at my bookshelves, and I find myself getting excited to read books that have been waiting for years):

  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
  • The Penelapiad, Margaret Atwood
  • The Bees, Laline Paull
  • The Soloist, Mark Salzman
  • The Blindfold, Siri Hustvedt

On top of The Canon and The Gift (both just started and dense enough reading for a good portion of August), these nonfiction books have also caught my fancy:

  • The Orchard, Adele Crockett Robertson
  • The Quartet, Joseph J. Ellis (loved his book Founding Brothers)
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin

But August. Who knows what August will actually bring? Maybe I won’t read any of those books, and turn to mysteries instead (much as I turned to graphic novels in July).

The July theme was proper nouns. I had planned to focus mainly on geographic proper nouns, but books got in the way. Here are my proper nouns of July: Istanbul, Anya, Lumberjanes, St. Paul, Mars, Camelot, Xena, Crampton Hodnet, Trump, Magdalene, Greta Wells, Lahaina, Vermont, and Adam Smith. I managed to read 5 graphic novels, 3 regular novels, 3 poetry books, and 4 nonfiction books (the best being Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, by Katrine Marcal).

And if you’ve never read Barbara Pym, you couldn’t go wrong starting with Crampton Hodnet. It’s the first book she wrote, but the last published. I found it her funniest, and it’s the first glimpse at a couple of characters who appear off and on throughout the rest of Pym’s books. Also, it’s my new favourite Pym (though I still have two to go).

Happy summer reading! And please, do consider reading The _____.

The Nature of July

I am a heat wimp. I’ve spent much of July sitting at the dining room table reading under the ceiling fan. I have read 14 books so far this month. Let me quickly note that five were graphic novels (Anya’s Ghost, Camelot 3000, two volumes of Lumberjanes, and Xena, Warrior Princess). Three were poetry (average length, 113 pages). Let’s just say that heady reading has not served a large part of the July reading menu, though I do still hope to find out Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

But one can’t sit in the dining room 24/7, so when a cool morning blew in a few days ago, Kathleen and I went birding. There were not a lot of birds to be seen (in part because the cattails obscured our view of the marsh). There was one particularly noisy resident; I searched and searched for this persistent singer to no avail. Later, the same sassy song taunts me on the other side of the road. Again I seek but do not find. Finally the poor bird took pity on me, and the marsh wren flew to the top of a cattail and sang and sang and sang. It was one of those I-love-birding moments.

Another sighting: A small bird was mobbing a red-tailed hawk, and every once in awhile, it would land on the hawk’s back and ride along for a few of the hawk’s wing strokes, and then go back to its pestering. It landed and sailed along three times while I was watching. Not for long, but definitely riding on the back of the hawk. I’ve never seen such a thing.

The lack of birds wasn’t much of a problem, because I kept getting distracted by the butterflies. One beautiful butterfly in particular I memorized, and then sketched it (badly, but captured size and color) as soon as I got back to the car. When I got home and looked it up, I found it was a painted lady. I had never even heard of lady butterflies. I spent hours perusing my butterfly book. Coppers, Checkerspots, Sulphurs, Fritillaries, Hairstreaks, Commas.

I have always thought of butterflies as inhabitants of sunny grasslands and prairies. But I’ve learned that some butterflies prefer moist woods, others like to be near water, others like woodland edges, some prefer shaded forest, and a whole subset favors roadsides. They seem to be pretty much everywhere. Not just sunny meadows.

In addition to thinking butterflies mostly hung out in prairies, I also thought they pretty much flew the same. You know—like butterflies. But some fly low to the ground. Some fly erratically, others sail. Some swerve from side to side. Some are fast, some slow.

And the names! Part of my enjoyment while flipping through the butterfly book was appreciating the fine names of some of these butterflies: Sleepy Orange, Fatal Metalmark, Crimson Patch, Question Mark, Mourning Cloak, Common Wood-Nymph, Confused Cloudywing, Dreamy Dustywing, Black Dash, Whirlabout, and California Sister. I would love to see a California Sister.

I decided to start a butterfly year list (which of course means I have a life list but I only started it last year and I forgot about it because the butterflies have been gone so long). But it is July and the butterflies are back, and I have remembered the up-side of birding in July. Butterflies.

So far I have 7 butterflies on my year list. I am hoping to get to 20. A whole new world awaits me.

July Reading Theme: Proper Nouns

One-third of the way through July, and I have barely made a dent in the stack of proper noun books I’ve been so excited to read. I have mostly focused on geographic proper nouns (Istanbul, Aberdeen County, California, Sicily, etc.) though a few names that I couldn’t resist have crept in (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, for example; also Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, and Casanova Was a Book Lover).

But mostly I am focusing on proper nouns in terms of location. High Tide in Tucson. RFD Vermont (bonus points since I’m visiting Vermont this fall). My favorite potential theme read is Greene on Capri (being a double theme read, for Greene and Capri)—a memoir by Shirley Hazzard, which also seems like bonus points since I’ve not read her but have wanted to for years.

And while I have all these really good books just waiting for me, I have hit the reading slump of the decade. Okay, perhaps an overstatement. Everything I’m reading suddenly seems to be a slog. A chapter in Oliver Sacks (An Anthropologist on Mars—I so want to skip ahead to the last chapter, which is focused on Temple Grandin—but I tried, and I just couldn’t do it); Naomi Klein’s new book; two poetry books that I have going, and the recent fiction book I finished.

The one thing that has totally captured me is Anya’s Ghost, a graphic novel which I finished today.

The dog days of summer. I’m not sure if it’s the heat or just other stuff going on, but I seem to find myself drawn to graphic novels, comics, mysteries, and memoir. My usual heavy fare of politics, economics, and science feels a burden. For the nonce.

(A summer interlude of Lumberjanes, Ms. Marvel, Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Red Sonja does have a high appeal. I think I will give in.)

The June theme of celestial objects didn’t cover as much space as I expected. I encountered the moon (3 times), a galaxy, a world, Earth, the universe (twice), the sun, a star, and a satellite. Mars is so intense that it is hanging on into July. My favorite theme read was The Universe Versus Alex Woods, a novel that I read compulsively, and it so captured me that I regretted that it was from the library because I wanted to underline several bits.

Dog days. Sometimes the reading is iffy. Give yourself wiggle room. Sink into a genre. Read a few comic books. Reread a childhood favorite.

Oh dear. I’ve just thought of a childhood favorite that I haven’t read yet (but happens to be sitting on my shelf): Anne of Green Gables. Another double theme read. Hmmm.

The dog days are starting to get a lot more interesting!

If a Tree Falls in a City….

Today the city cut down one of our boulevard trees. It wasn’t mine, it was my neighbor’s, but only a few feet from my property. I feel the loss keenly. (Ach! I have realized we have an uncommon use of the word boulevard in Minnesota. The boulevard refers to the space of grass [usually about 3’ wide] that separates sidewalks from streets.)

It was a big tree, a majestic tree. A tree of spirit. I will miss it dearly.

But it was dying, and had been for several years. Last Friday (a day of no wind to speak of) I was on the front porch and heard a loud crack and a thunderous crash, quite close to the house. A very mighty limb had given up the ghost and fallen to the ground. I was first on the scene, and the large branch was blocking the entire street. I tried to move it (fat chance!) and was happy to see three neighbors arrive (the crack and crash really was quite loud) and we moved the branch and cleaned up the debris in a couple of minutes. So we knew the tree was a goner. But seeing it dying and seeing it gone are two different things.

I watched the removal almost from the get-go. The noise woke me at 7:00 and I was on the front porch by 9:00. In spite of myself, I was absolutely fascinated. How do you cut down a tree that spreads over several houses, without causing damage?

First, you post no-parking signs. Then you close the street at both ends of the block. Then you unload the equipment (which included something very like a bobcat except it was designed to move logs—it completely fascinated me), park the equipment (truck for the logs), and move the equipment into position (the cherry picker—I’m sure it is not a cherry picker by name, but this is the lift that gets the sawyer up in the tree).

And while I mourn the tree, watching these men (I saw only men) work was almost like watching ballet.

(And I must say this just as an aside: Many people complain about lazy government workers, long breaks, and a lot of standing around. I am sitting on the front porch reading the paper, waiting for them to take a break. I don’t think they ever took a break.)

The linchpin seemed to be the guy up in the cherry picker. I have never seen an entire tree dismantled (I do hate to use that word for a tree, but it is still most appropriate from this perspective). There is a complete and total science (possibly also a bit of intuition, but I am only intuiting here) on taking down a tree. Some limbs you can let free-fall (this is what I saw mostly when I first arrived). This freaked me out for a bit until I realized that they only did it when they (the sawyer, actually) knew that it would fall directly on the road. He was never wrong.

So while I sing the praises of the sawyer, there was also this amazing ground crew, the rest of the ballet (because really, a ballet with only one person is hardly a ballet). When a branch dropped, the souped-up bobcat swooped to grab and move the logs; others gathered smaller branches and debris; and I kept waiting for them to take a break, to just stop for awhile, but they never did.

Back to the sawyer. I was particularly keen to know how they made sure these huge limbs don’t fall on people’s houses (having one hang above my very own house). It took me a little time (and a little coffee), but I finally realized they were using ropes. I watched one large branch, in particular, and as the sawyer made his final cut, I could not imagine how this would not damage something (my house, my neighbor’s house, or foliage at the very minimum). But I watched the limb, and the ropes, and it landed exactly in the middle of the street.

After all the limbs were cropped, the cherry picker moved, and they started sawing from the bottom. They sawed and sawed. The rest of the workmen were around, cleaning up bits of this and that, sweeping and raking up debris. One even sat down on a brick wall, for a moment. A bit of a lull. But the bobcat was moving and workers in the picture (though always at least two watching the tree and the cutting, which I found very reassuring). And then, the street is empty. No workers.

At the same time, spouse comes home and says the street might be blocked off all day, just as I say they’re almost done taking down the tree. Nah, he says, and goes out the front door to check it out. He gets 10’ from the door, and is warned back by the sawyer himself. The rest of the tree was down less than a minute later.

Right in the middle of the street.

I will miss the tree greatly. I’ve cried (several times now—it was very nearby and quite old, and I have a particular fondness for trees) and I have put flowers and some fresh currants (that the birds must have spared for this exact purpose) on the stump.

But I must also give kudos to the crew that arrived this morning and removed a tree that needed to be cut down, being in the city and dropping limbs as it was. They didn’t just take the big parts of the tree; throughout the process, they went around and picked up branches and twigs in the street and on neighboring lawns. One of the workers picked up a chunk of wood the size of a baseball. And then they swept the road and sidewalks after they were done.

Except for some sawdust and a few leaves and a stump, you’d hardly know they were here.

I will miss the tree, but I am thankful and slightly amazed at this ballet team that works together so well to do something so difficult.

Coffee Break

This morning when I plugged in the coffee maker, it made a huge sparky flash and then a fire. Not a big fire, a small, 2-3” fire from the outlet (I thought). I pulled the plug, the fire was gone. I’m sure it was less than a couple of seconds between the spark and the end of the fire, but it seemed like a long time to me—one of those times where your brain shuts out everything else and 100% of your attention is focused on this flame that could burn down your entire house.

I wasn’t sure if it was the outlet or the appliance. I toyed with plugging something else into the faulty outlet, or trying the faulty coffee maker on a different outlet. And then I decided I needed to have some caffeine before conducting any kind of experiment that might involve fire (and a spouse with a fire extinguisher nearby might not be a bad add).

I looked in the fridge, hoping for a Coke, but no colas to be found. I settled for iced tea, and went to read the morning paper on the front porch.

Halfway through the front page, it occurred to me that I could boil water and pour it into the coffee filter myself. It was not quite as fast as pouring it into the reservoir, but it took less than 10 minutes, and I had fresh coffee to accompany the morning paper.

In the way that one does, as I was reading the paper, I was wondering if I should get a new coffee maker at a Kitchen Window kind of place or a Herberger’s kind of place. Then I remembered a friend who has several coffee makers (I found this out when I was helping her clean out her basement, and when I suggested she get rid of these excess coffee makers, she wanted to keep them for friends who might need said coffee makers). I texted her this morning to see if she still has this abundance, but have not heard back.

In the meantime, after a cup or two of coffee, I took a closer look at the coffee maker. Holy cow! (We actually do say this in the Midwest—at least some of us do.) The cord (rubber/plastic) was half severed. The miracle of caffeine. No need for an experiment or fire extinguishers, the culprit is the cord.

I love this little coffee maker. It’s the mini size you often get in hotels. It has no frills—no timer, no clock, no auto-off; it doesn’t even have an on/off button. And while it’s true, I do need to make sure I unplug the coffee machine before I leave the house, I don’t have to reset the time/programming every time the power goes out.

Also going on in my background is a Wendell Berry book that I recently finished, Our Only World. God bless Wendell Berry, reminding me that reducing consumption is a good thing.

I love this little coffee maker. It has a broken cord. I called a couple of nearby hardware stores and one of them said they would take a look. I brought it in today. They estimate it will cost $25 or so to fix the cord.

I know I can get a new coffee maker at Target for less than $25, with a clock, auto-off, and possibly an espresso feature. But I don’t need any of those things. I just want coffee in the morning.

And while I’m 99% sure that they’ll be able to fix the cord, the other 1% of me is not uncomfortable with spending 10 minutes in the morning making coffee.

Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.