In a humdrum


Popping up like mushrooms

Monday was a gray and damp day, with thick fog and misty drizzle in the morning. For the first time in a week, it was cool enough for the dog and me to walk to the Place of Pines and back. Few dog-walkers were out because of the threat of rain, and it was too cool for bugs.

Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) fruit forming

There’s a solitary American wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus) I see blooming every year near where the trail forks toward Puritan Road, just past Beethoven Street. Right now, this shrub is done flowering and is forming green fruit that will in time ripen to red and burst. I stopped to take photos of these fruit in formation, but it was difficult given the paleness of the hanging globes and the lack of a contrasting background.

Solitary ghost pipe

I also photographed a solitary ghost pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It was odd to see just one blooming, as they usually grow in clumps. But I know now to look for others: if there is one blooming, there are presumably more, and the first appearance of ghost pipe always comes as a surprise, a reminder that it is later in the year than I think.

Mostly, these moist and steamy days are good for fungus and fern. There is a sensitive fern spontaneously sprouting by our back door, and dead stumps along the Aqueduct Trail are frilled with shelf fungus. Today there is a stand of mushrooms where there were none yesterday: a bit of fungal magic brought about by weeks of almost-tropical humidity.

Lime Bikes

Dockless bike-sharing has come to Newton, Massachusetts, which means our neighborhood is dotted with eye-popping green and yellow LimeBikes that people can rent via a smartphone app and then leave anywhere, with no need to return to a central location.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

When the city’s LimeBikes were first deployed, they were seemingly everywhere, prominently placed in front of stores, banks, and City Hall: anywhere people are likely to congregate. Now that people have been (presumably) riding them, the bikes are less visible. Instead of being parked in prominent packs, they now have scattered singly: a bike here and there, parked in front of houses or at residential intersections where riders have left them for their next hire.

Needham Street Lime Bikes

This means my daily dog-walks and routine errands have turned into a kind of Easter egg hunt: where, in a word, will I spot another Limey?

Although it’s been years since I’ve ridden a bike, I used to ride regularly. When I lived in Cambridge in the 1990s, my then-husband and I didn’t have a car, so my chief modes of transportation were my own two feet, the T, and my bike. Back then, I was young and fearless, riding in Cambridge traffic with nothing but a helmet and my own confidence to protect me.

Avalon Lime Bikes

These days, I wince whenever I drive past a cyclist, their bodies seeming so fragile and small. But I remember from my biking days that my sense of personal space was different then: as long as I could find an open area to maneuver my bike and myself, I felt shielded from larger, more lumbering vehicles, zipping in between cars and looking out for my own safety since I (accurately) assumed no one else was looking out for me.

City Hall Lime Bikes

Part of me would love to hop on a LimeBike: is it true when they say you never forget how to ride? But my older, creakier, more settled and sturdy self observes that I don’t have a helmet nor a definite destination: I have no need, in other words, to ride a bike when I can either drive or walk anywhere I’d like to go.

Hyde Playground Lime Bike

Recently, LeBron James explained how having a bike changed his life when he was a poor kid growing up in Akron, Ohio: “If you had a bike, it was a way to kind of let go and be free.” I remember the rush of freedom I felt when I was old enough to ride my bike to the library, pool, or even a movie all by myself. Remembering that breezy freedom of being on two wheels, I wonder whether the sassy confidence of decades past would reappear as soon as I straddled a seat.

Skyline from Scioto Audubon Metro Park

It’s been over a week since I’ve written in my journal, and two weeks since I’ve posted here: busy days. The week before last, I had jury duty and ended up serving on a two-day trial, and this past weekend, I flew to Ohio to visit family.

Scioto River

Before and after any trip or commitment, there is the necessary work of prepping and debriefing. Before I leave, I hurry through long to-do list to make sure J and the pets have enough food, medication, and supplies to last while I’m gone, and after I return, there is laundry, unpacking, and yet more laundry.

Egret and distant blue heron

I arrived home from Ohio yesterday morning after my flight the previous evening was cancelled, and both yesterday and today have been devoted to re-entry. I’ve resumed the household chores J did while I was gone, and I’ve re-acclimated myself to the daily routine that had been interrupted.

Under the bridge

All day today I’ve felt like a fish that has breached the surface, flashed quickly in the alien air, and then splashed back into its liquid realm. The ordinary world with its regular routine of laundry and chores is where I live, so returning to it is like (literally) coming home.

The photos illustrating today’s post come from a quick walk at Scioto Audubon, a new-to-me Metro Park that skirts the Scioto River right near downtown Columbus, Ohio.

Lounging with my fur-shadow

Our house doesn’t have central air, so during heat waves J and I hunker down in the rooms that have window AC units. Our bedroom, which doubles as my office, has an air conditioner, so Toivo and I have been spending a lot of time this week inside: me with my books, notebooks, and laptop, and Toivo with her chew bone and dreams of rabbits.

Hydrangea in shade

We’re having a heat wave here in the Boston suburbs, with 90-degree days forecast through the end of the week. I walk Toivo in the mornings, before the heat of the day, but we still had the neighborhood almost entirely to ourselves this morning, as even then it was too humid for all but the most intrepid dog-walkers.

Hydrangea

Toivo and I walk a bit more slowly on steamy mornings, and I try to steer us into the shade as much as possible. We’ve walked to the place of pines two days in a row, and we’ve had the trail to ourselves: just me, Toivo, and a cloud of mosquitoes hovering like a veil before my face.

Our backyard hydrangeas are blooming and looked a bit wilted in this afternoon’s full sunlight. A neighbor has a different variety of hydrangea planted in a shady corner of their yard, and I stopped Toivo long enough this morning to snap a few photos. In the middle of a New England heat wave, you have to take any excuse you can to linger in the shade.

Bobbi in the window

Last week, our credit card company contacted us, suggesting our card had been compromised. There were no unauthorized charges on the account, but apparently there had been a breach at a business where we had used the card, so the company cancelled our cards and sent us replacements just to be safe.

Where's breakfast? #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

I’ve often thought my credit card account must be incredibly boring to monitor for fraud, as I typically go to the same places again and again, often on predictable days and at predictable times. I go grocery shopping at the same store every Friday afternoon, for instance, and I typically stop for gas on the way. During the summer when I’m not teaching, J and I frequently go to lunch at a handful of places, always at the same time. I frequently buy things on Amazon, I take one or another pet to the vet every few weeks, and I occasionally buy shoes on Zappos. Any charge outside those predictable parameters was Probably Not Me.

In Frankie-speak, this translates as "Please scratch my head, but don't you dare touch my belly."

Spending habits aside, J and I are predictable by nature: I’ve always thrived on routine, and recent circumstances have only deepened that already-existing rut. Tending a houseful of pets, for instance, is good reason for regularity. Dogs in particular thrive on routine, and we’ve trained ours to rely upon a religious schedule of meals, walks, and exercise times that is almost monastic in its regularity: a domestic liturgy of the hours.

Bobbi chills out. #catsofinstagram #bobbithecat

Having three diabetic cats–our Insulin Girls–only underscores the need for predictability. Whatever else might be happening on any given day, J and I know that one of us has to be at home to give Bobbi, Hillary, and Frankie their meals and twice-daily insulin injections at the proper time. This routine has become so regular, the Insulin Girls are trained to follow me into the kitchen when I sing “Breakfast” or “Dinner” while our non-diabetic cats stand back, knowing they get second-dibs at mealtime.

She knows she's queen. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

When we adopted Hillary, the shelter said her previous home was chaotic, with a constant coming and going of roommates who were never quite certain whose responsibility it was to feed and give her insulin, or when. An erratic meal and medication schedule is disastrous for a diabetic of any species, and Hillary, Bobbi, and Frankie have all thrived under the steady routine of our household.

Bobbi in morning light

Last week, J and I rented The Incredibles, as we wanted to watch it again before seeing its sequel sometime this week, when J has time off from work. After revisiting the animated adventures of Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Violet, Flash, and Jack-Jack, I announced to J that we too are superheroes. “We’re The Predictables!” I declared. “Our super power is extreme punctuality.” J laughed and ran with the joke. “Our uniform is matching T-shirts with Red Sox hats…and no capes!”

It's been just over a year since we adopted Frankie. She has one eye and twice the attitude. #catsofinstagram #frankiethecat #oneeyedcat #SNELovesPets

Imagining oneself as a superhero is fun, but being the king and queen of dependability has its downsides, too. J and I can’t (and don’t) drop everything for spontaneous social events; if we want to be away from home for an evening, we have to gradually adjust both the Insulin Girls’ medication schedule and the dog’s exercise routine accordingly. Because of our pets’ special needs, it’s been years since J and I have traveled together. Like farmers who can’t leave the livestock for long, we can’t trust the household to just anyone, so we take turns going places so there is always one of us here tending the pets.

You know you want to pet me. #catsofinstagram #hillarythecat #SNELovesPets

What J and I lose in spontaneity, however, we make up for in reliability. There is a great security in routine, as any monk would tell you; when Thomas Merton entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, for example, he described himself as taking shelter in “the four walls of my new freedom.” J and I lead a fairly boring life, but we see more of the outside world than a cloistered monk does. We’ll go see Incredibles 2 at a movie theatre as planned this week; we’ll just make sure to go to a daytime showing so we’re back home in time for the Insulin Girls’ dinner.

Birdbath peonies

This past weekend while I was visiting A (not her real initial) in western Massachusetts, we played a seemingly interminable game of dominoes. Each night, we’d sit in A’s sunroom playing another few rounds over snacks and cocktails, and the train of our conversation grew as as long and meandering as the lines of tiles on the table.

Rainy day peony bud

Over the course of that weekend-long conversation, A and I decided why it is that old men around the world play dominoes on porches, in cafes, and in public parks: anywhere, that is, where old men congregate. The game is slow enough to allow for conversation, it requires a modicum of strategy or at least attention, and it is equally a matter of luck.

Ornamental mint

These three things, of course, could also be said of life in general and old age in particular: a truth that groups of old men would be especially mindful of. Yes, health and longevity are largely a matter of choice and attention: cultivating good habits and taking care to avoid obvious risks are smart strategies. But health and longevity aren’t entirely within one’s control. Healthy habits and avoidance of risk won’t prevent you from getting hit by a bus, and even the most skilled and strategic player of dominoes can be brought down by a poor hand.

Two books I’ve recently read explore the role that chance plays in our lives: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer and Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Rainy day iris

Ehrenreich observes that we as a culture are addicted to the belief that we can control our destinies through wise choices: we are conditioned to believe that with proper diet, adequate exercise, and the miracle of modern medicine, we can fend off (or at least quickly treat) illness. Ehrenreich argues, however, that this belief is misguided, as even the most healthy-seeming individuals sometimes succumb to diseases like cancer. Whether or not you make healthy choices, Ehrenreich reminds us, we’ve all gotta die sometime.

Bleeding hearts

Kate Bowler addresses this same issue from a theological rather than scientific perspective. A scholar of the prosperity gospel–the belief in some evangelical circles that leading a pious, prayerful life will lead to both wealth and health–Bowler finds her own faith questioned when she is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. As a wife and mother to a young son, Bowler and her husband both grapple with the unavoidable (and unanswerable) question, “What higher meaning or purpose could a good God have in killing a good woman in her prime?”

Begonias

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler address in their separate ways the importance and limitations of faith. Ehrenreich argues that our trust in medicine is itself a kind of religion where doctors visits and other forms of medical treatment serve a ritual purpose. Whether or not it’s statistically true that annual mammograms lead to increased longevity, for example, we wrap ourselves in the reassuring belief that they do.

Rainy day begonia

For Bowler, prayer and religious fidelity serve the same reassuring purpose: instead of trusting your doctor to make you whole, you trust in God. The problem with both kinds of faith, however, is the inevitable disillusionment that comes when faith eventually ends in death. Both healthy people and prayerful people ultimately die: there’s no fighting the inevitable. No matter how many times you go to the boneyard, there’s no helping a truly bad hand.

Rainy day peony

Both Ehrenreich and Bowler describe the unfortunate shaming that comes when good people get sick. Well-intentioned friends and family who believe in either medicine or religion try to explain (and thus justify) a bad diagnosis, suggesting that illness or disability is somehow the sufferer’s fault because of poor life choices or imperfect piety. As a middle-aged women with several chronic conditions, I know firsthand the judgmental looks and unhelpful advice sometimes offered by folks who think slimness, stamina, and perpetual youthfulness are guaranteed by their preferred diet, workout, or devotional regimen. It’s too unsettling even for onlookers to admit that some afflictions don’t happen for a reason.

Rainy day roses

Every old man playing dominoes knows you can do only so much with the tiles you’ve drawn: whether you complain about, try to strategize with, or ultimately resign yourself to the hand you’ve been given, there’s no fighting the luck of the draw. The secret that happy old men learn isn’t how to win the game but how to enjoy it no matter how it ends.

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