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A Serious Question

September 7, 2015

IMG_3432Is there anything prettier than an orange kitten stalking a white butterfly through the summer grass? I don’t think so. I was trying to remember poems I’ve read about kittens and butterflies, but this children’s poem is the only one I found:

A Serious Question
by Carolyn Wells

A kitten went a-walking
One morning in July,
And idly fell a-talking
With a great big butterfly.

The kitten’s tone was airy,
The butterfly would scoff;
When there came along a fairy
Who whisked his wings right off.

And then–for it is written
Fairies can do such things–
Upon the startled kitten
She stuck the yellow wings.

The kitten felt a quiver,
She rose into the air,
Then flew down to the river
To view her image there.

With fear her heart was smitten,
And she began to cry,
“Am I a butter-kitten?
Or just a kitten-fly?”

This poem makes me think of the Catwings books, by Ursula K. LeGuin: Catwings, Catwings Return, Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings, and Jane on her Own. These winged cats don’t cry over the semantics of their situation, but use their wings as any properly curious cat would, to see what they will do and how far they can take them.

When I posted the photo of Pippin about to pounce on the butterfly to Facebook, a friend of mine who is a dog-lover made a comment about the Heart song Dog and Butterfly, which is now a persistent earworm every time I go outside with Pippin:

See the dog and butterfly
Up in the air he likes to fly
Dog and butterfly
Below she had to try
She roll back down to the warm soft ground, laughing
She don’t know why, she don’t know why
Dog and butterfly.

FullSizeRender (1)Pippin and I have a new routine now that Eleanor and Walker have moved out. He keeps me company on the desk or the table when I work at home in the morning, and sleeps when I go to the office in the afternoon. I get home around 5, change clothes, put on his collar, get myself a glass of iced tea or wine, and we go outside. Usually I start out sitting on the glider. One day, after exploring, Pippin decided to hop up and join me for a while.

There are lots of caterpillars inching themselves around the lawn furniture, and sometimes I hum the “inchworm” song to them, about measuring the marigolds. When Pippin gets too far away, especially when he’s up a tree, I sing his song to him, two lines of melody copied from somewhere with adapted lyrics that go “They call him Pippin, Pippin, Lord of the Trees…”

The baby birds that were raised in a nest inside my begonia have all flown away. IMG_3420Earlier in the summer, I went to water the begonia on the side of the nest, as I had been watering it for weeks, and one of the babies had gotten out of the nest and flew/fell out of the plant onto the deck. Eleanor caught it several times in a butterfly net and tried to put it back into the plant, and it would propel itself out again while its parents shrieked and I tried to keep Tristan and Pippin away from it. Finally she took Pippin to the other side of the house (Tristan had lost interest) and I picked it up in my hands and put it far enough back inside the begonia that it couldn’t jump out again immediately. I think all the babies learned to fly in the next few days, though, because the next time I poked the watering can in there, very hesitantly, the nest was empty.

Empty begonia and empty house. Time enough to let the kitten lead me through the spiderwebs around the shady side, to hear the crickets and watch the ants running back and forth in the late afternoon sun. It’s a good end to the day, the part where I don’t have to know why about anything, but just follow where the kitten leads. Soon he will get big enough to go outside on his own. Then I guess I’ll have to make an extra effort if I want to do something aimless.

The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior, The Oracle’s Queen

September 4, 2015

During my end-of-the-summer travels I was reading Lynn Flewelling’s trilogy that begins with The Bone Doll’s Twin, mostly because all three of them are small, packable paperbacks. I don’t remember who recommended The Bone Doll’s Twin to me, but it must have been because of the mentions of necromancy.

In these three books, there is a race of hill magicians who hide their powerful magic because they have been called (unfairly) “necromancers” in the past. They get that label because they can do things that the people and even the more classically trained magicians in the fictional country of Skala don’t understand. In fact, Skala is getting more suspicious of magicians in general, thanks to the nefarious plottings of Niryn, a sort of grand inquisitor of magicians and Grima-like advisor to King Erias, a royal usurper whose throne is traditionally held by a female.

The real heir to the throne of Skala must be hidden, because Erias kills all the royal girls. So in the first book, we learn about how the heir is born with a male twin who is killed right after his birth in order to provide her with a male “skin” as a disguise against her royal uncle. The twin has drawn a breath before he is killed, however, and so he becomes a ghost/demon that mostly only his mother and his twin can see. His grieving mother sews some of his bones into a rag doll, and after her death, the surviving twin, named Tobin, learns how to control the brother’s ghost with a simple spell.

In the second book, Hidden Warrior, Tobin learns, to his surprise, that he is actually a girl, hidden by magic which isn’t strong enough to entirely hide the first menstrual period, although Tobin visits the hill witch and she patches the spell so he can live longer as a boy and survive to take back the kingdom. In this second book he has to gradually come to terms with thinking of himself as “she” and figure out what this eventual transformation will mean to his close relationship with his male squire, Ki.

Tobin is still working on those feelings when, at 15 years old, he is required to publicly address the garrison at his home estate and tell them that he is a girl and the heir to the throne of Skala. To do this, he must cut the bone out of the doll, strip completely naked in front of the crowd, and cut the piece of bone that reinforced the spell out of his own breastbone. Once he does this, “white fire engulfed him, so intense it was icy cold” and then he finds
“strange skin covering his arm. From fingertips to shoulder it hung in loose colorless shreds like a rotted glove. His whole body was the same; his skin was in tatters around him, flayed by the horrendous magic he’d unleashed. He rubbed gingerly at his left forearm and the skin fell away, exposing smooth, whole skin below….Tobin was dimly aware of a growing murmur as she stood and looked down. Her boy’s genitals had wizened to dried husks. She pulled at the loose skin above them and they sloughed off and fell away.”
One of the first things she decides is that she must take a woman’s name, and so she takes the name of Tamir, one of her ancestor Queens.

In the third book, The Oracle’s Queen, Tamir gradually takes control of the kingdom, doing good where she can and trying not to do evil, although the magicians know that “evil will always lie at the heart of all she accomplishes” because of the killing of her brother. She proves herself a brave warrior and a capable leader, making peace with the hill magicians and bringing together people who fought for Erias and his son until none are left to oppose her and everyone, especially Ki, realizes they have fallen in love with her.

It’s a good heroic fantasy tale with a trans-formative and trans-gender hero, and good reading for traveling.

Are your summer travels over? Mine are, and I’m just now finishing the initial organizational activities for the Writing Center and the class I’m team-teaching this fall.

Mason Jars by the Window

August 25, 2015

So after a summer of having both kids home, I set off with Eleanor to drive her car to Arizona last week. IMG_3244

We drove to Cape Girardeau, Missouri first, to spend the night with my mother. From there, we planned to spend the next night in Oklahoma City (where we arose and dutifully sang every song we could remember from the musical Oklahoma, starting with “Oh what a Beautiful Morning”). The next day we drove to Albuquerque, and on that day the terrain started looking gratifyingly different from what we were used to—much drier, and with different vegetation. On the fourth day, we set out to do some sightseeing. Originally, we’d planned to see Chaco Canyon, but the car was so heavily loaded and I am such a short-distance hiker that we decided to give that up in favor of going to see Sky City, an Aconda pueblo village, and driving through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest on our way to that night’s destination—the Grand Canyon.

IMG_3321 (1)Walker Percy was right about the Grand Canyon (in “The Loss of the Creature” in The Message in the Bottle). When we got there just before sunset, hardly anyone was looking at it. They were all busily taking and posing for pictures so they could look at it later. When we came back soon after sunrise the next day, we had more luck being able to experience the canyon, especially since we found a trail with no handrails, just rocks marking the edge of the great yawning chasm.

We got to Tucson at the end of our fifth day on the road. It was like another country… Saguaro cactuses and palm trees. Dry heat. Dust obscuring the top of the mountains on the horizon.IMG_3331

I stayed a few days, and then I left Eleanor there with her friend and all her things and the promise of adventure. I flew home, where the cats and the guys were glad to see me.

It ended so quickly! She is living beyond our happiness, with someone else who I can only hope will always be on her side. It might be as Alberto Rios, an Arizona poet, has imagined:

Mason Jars by the Window

Yes, but beyond happiness what is there?
The question has not yet been answered.
No great quotations have issued forth
From there, we have no still photographs
Full of men in fine leather hiking boots,
Women with new-cut walking sticks.
So yes, it is the realm of thin tigers
Prowling, out to earn even more stripes;
It is the smell of seven or eight perfumes
Not currently available in America.
Maybe this is wrong, of course.
The place may after all be populated,
Or over-populated, with dented trash cans
In the streets and news of genital herpes
In every smart article in every slick magazine
Everywhere in the place.
But everybody there smiles—
Laughs, even, every time a breath can be caught.
This is all true.
Beyond happiness, it’s all the same,
Things come back to where we are now.
Of course maybe this is wrong,
But don’t believe it: a happiness exists,
All right, I have seen it for myself,
Touched it, touched the woman
Who with her daughter together keep
Ammonia in Mason jars by the side window.
They will throw it all in his face God
Damn him if he ever comes close again.

IMG_3336What can happen beyond the happiness of this summer, of my family being together? I guess I’ve got to keep moving to see.

What did you see this summer?

Summer Reading

August 10, 2015

The books I talk about here are usually the ones that elicit some kind of strong response, but there are lots of other books I read and reread. At the beginning of the summer I started to pile some books on my desk that I’d read for the first time and which elicited some response, if not a strong one, because I thought I would get around to writing about them sometime. Now the end of the summer is drawing near, and the desk has to be cleaned off.

The end of the summer is nearing fast because of my road trip to Arizona with Eleanor. We’re spending the night in Cape Girardeau, MO, Oklahoma City, OK, Albuquerque, NM, at the Grand Canyon, and then in Tucson, AZ. I will fly back to Ohio the week before classes begin. She will be working for Americorps.

I’ve decided to make a clean sweep of it and put all these books back on the shelf without saying much about them except that if you’ve read one of them and want to talk about it, I’d be delighted.

The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
Pig Tale, Verlyn Fleiger
The Changeover, Margaret Mahy
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
Seraphina, Rachel Hartman
The House of Paper, Carlos Maria Dominguez
The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon
The Dead Lands, Benjamin Percy
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Mort, Terry Pratchett

More Than This

August 3, 2015

I expected More Than This from Patrick Ness to be as interesting as his series that begins with The Knife of Never Letting Go, and I was sorely disappointed, perhaps because the beginning is so promising–a boy wakes up dead. He remembers dying. He can’t figure out why he’s in a deserted house he lived in years ago. He can’t even remember his own name until Chapter Five.

The boy’s name is Seth, and he believes that his dreams, of his former life before he killed himself, are his torment in hell. He begins exploring the neighborhood beyond the deserted house and finds two other children, hiding from a man who cruises by in a black car. Their names are Regine and Tomasz, and they believe that the man will kill them if he catches them.

It really didn’t help my suspension of disbelief that Seth’s younger brother is named Owen. An innocuous-enough name, except that the kids and I made up a fish story once about the size of a blue crab that got away and decorated it with details that eventually included its murder of their made-up younger brother, Owen Mort Griggs (note the initials). There’s a terrible story in More Than This about Seth’s guilt about something he did when he was very young that resulted in his younger brother Owen’s kidnapping. We find out eventually that the kidnapping led to murder.

Here’s the big plot twist, though. In the fictional world that Seth’s parents created for themselves and him, Owen never died. They’ve all been lying near the deserted house where Seth finds himself, plugged into a future, nightmarish version of the internet which can create an entire reality and is branching out to include human reproduction. The three children have woken up from this, and the man in the black car is trying to plug them back in.

The virtual reality is not a paradise, as we know because of the events that led Seth to kill himself. Seth does make a few attempts to discern between appearance and reality. He thinks that
“Tomasz was a lot like Owen, just like a helping figure his brain might have conjured up to help him…accept death or move to a different consciousness or whatever the point of this place was, if it even had a point, then that might have made sense.
But he wouldn’t have made Regine up. She wasn’t like anyone he knew, not anywhere. Not that accent, not that attitude.
No, they were real. Or real enough.”

The three children have to fight to save each other, and to find out what has become of the world, and what their choices are. In the end, Seth decides to try to make his world different.

I think Cory Doctorow would have done the internet parts better, and Patrick Ness could have left the interesting spooky parts alone, without trying to explain everything by calling the alternate reality a virtual one. It struck me as a cheap trick, like having the characters wake up at the end of the story and say oh, it was all a dream.

Dots Everywhere

July 31, 2015

11751775_10207096092101265_4733294270456325403_nIMG_3143Walker gave me a copy of Richard Siken’s volume War of the Foxes for my birthday, so I’d been reading those poems before we went off for our long weekend without the kids. We flew from Columbus directly to Cancun, spent a few days at the beach and the pool, drinking tropical drinks, and then gathered our energies on the last day to visit Chichen Itza and Cenote Ik Kil.

I thought of the happiness of this poem:

Dots Everywhere

I erased my legs and forgot to draw in the stilts.
It looks like I’m floating but I’m not floating.
Sometimes I draw you with fangs. I tell you these
things because I love you. Some people paint
with whiskey and call it social drinking. Some people
paint drunk and put dots of color everywhere.
In the morning the dots make them happy. I am
putting dots of color everywhere and you are sleeping.
Something has happened in the paint tonight and
it is worth keeping. It’s nothing like I thought it
would be and closer to what I meant. None of it is
real, darling. I say it to you. Maybe we will wake up
singing. Maybe we will wake up to the silence
of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.

IMG_3180I think that the experience of seeing big, gray iguanas and a gray and brown fox as we floated around in the pool will stay in our memory for a long time. We’ll remember the band that played one day out at the beach, a really good band playing mostly 70’s songs including “I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shot the deputy.” We’ll remember Marco, who drove us to Chichen Itza and back and told us about his family. I hope for a little while we can remember how hot the sun was, and how nice it is to wake up to “the silence/of shoes at the foot of the bed not going anywhere.” During the long Ohio winter, I hope to remember the color of what Marco told us is a “flamboyance tree,” flaming tropical orange blooms against green leaves.

Did you get to travel this summer? Where did you go?

Dream Song #70

July 22, 2015

IMG_3119Big events are in the offing. Ron and I are going off to the beach for a long weekend with another couple and we didn’t invite the kids. This is the first time we’ve gone on a pleasure trip without them. Part of it is that Walker has chess and we’re still taking turns staying home to play with and take care of the kitten, Pippin. So Eleanor will have a last bonding experience with him. I have Pippin scheduled for his last vaccination on Aug. 12, rabies. He has to weigh five pounds before he can get that one, and he can’t run around outside like our other two cats until he has it. I also don’t want him to run around outside much before he’s neutered, but we’re going to have to schedule that after I come back from Tucson, and I suspect that as soon as he reaches five pounds, he’s going to be able to push open the cat door. Eleanor and I start our road trip on Aug. 13 and I’ll be flying back sometime the next week, before Kenyon classes begin on Aug. 27.

IMG_3115Finding my balance with two adult children at home has been interesting this summer. I think we’ve done okay at trying to be spontaneous, especially with planning and fixing meals. We’ve not done as many of the summer things we usually look forward to, like cookouts and trips to the lake, because the weather has been too cool and rainy and we haven’t wanted to entertain on the deck too much in the damp, mosquito-y shade with the kitten left lonely inside the house or on his leash and halter (yes, he puts up with it to get to go out). We’ve all had fun playing with Pippin and occasionally (during those rare moments when he’s calm) petting him. I was reading (in one of the books about cats I had out from the library) that we don’t often think about the fact that we’re not breeding many of our pet cats for desirable traits like being cuddly. Instead, by neutering and spaying our pets, we’re developing new generations of cats from feral toms and stray females, cats who are fierce and clever enough to survive on their own. Pippin certainly demonstrates that. This does not mean that we’re not getting him neutered as soon as we can find a day to stay home with him while he recovers. He’ll be six months old, the recommended age, at the end of September.IMG_3121

On the eve of our long weekend at the beach, which is itself on the eve of our 33rd wedding anniversary, I am rattling around the house trying to work through some of the stacks of books and papers so I can make more organized stacks for fall, and thinking about John Berryman’s Dream Songs, particularly #70:

Disengaged, bloody, Henry rose from the shell
where in their racing start his seat got wedged
under his knifing knees,
he did it on the runners, feathering,
being bow, catching no crab. The ridges were sore
& tore chamois. It was not done with ease.

So, Henry was a hero, malgre lui,
That day, for blunder; until & after the coach
Said this & which to him.
That happy day, whenas the pregnant back
of Number Two returned, and he’d no choice
but to make for it room.

Therefore he rowed rowed rowed. They did not win.
Forever in the winning & losing since
of his own crew, or rather
in the weird regattas of this afterworld,
cheer for the foe. He set himself to time
the blue father.

The summer seems like it is racing away from me already, and planning a 3 or 4 day trip across the country seems so perilous, all that highway driving with chances of accidents or falling asleep or actually getting to our destination and having to say goodbye to my oldest child without any definite plan about the next time she’s coming home. College has breaks. Life…not so much.

Have you had a child leave home? How do you manage to “cheer for the foe” of her burgeoning independence while feeling she’s “in the weird regattas of this afterworld,” racing competently away from you?


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