Turkeys in (sloppy) snow

It’s been a rainy winter, without enough snow (so far) to plow or shovel. Every time it rains, J and I comment that in the past, this rain would have been snow…but in this age of climate change, we don’t get as much snow in November, December, or even January as we used to.

Turkey in snow

Today’s forecast called for rain, snow, and freezing rain, and what we got was rain that occasionally fell as sloppy snow. This sludgy substance accumulated on the grass and shrubs but mostly melted on streets and sidewalks.

Tomorrow’s high is supposed to be in the 40s, so today’s slush will quickly melt, and we’ll return to an ongoing trend of cloudy, unseasonably warm days. In the meantime, today’s messy weather was a perfect excuse to stay inside, read, and sip tea and hot chocolate…at least when I wasn’t walking the dog, who this afternoon had a face-to-face encounter with a rafter of turkeys braving today’s precipitation.


Yanny lounges

We’ve lost three cats to old age over the past three months: Nina in October, Luigi in November, and Frankie in December. We euthanized Nina and Luigi after they each were diagnosed with a laundry list of ailments: pancreatitis and kidney failure for both, neurologic issues for Nina, and cancer for Luigi. In Frankie’s case, she died suddenly at home after having struggled with diabetes for years and mobility and incontinence issues more recently. Some pets save you the choice of deciding when it’s time to say goodbye by checking out on their own.

Whereas Luigi lived alongside the rest of our cats, Nina and Frankie lived in a spare bedroom with one-eyed Yanny. We’d established this “quiet kitty room” years ago when we’d adopted Gumbo, who had congenital heart problems and needed a calm environment. Gentle Nina was a perfect roommate for Gumbo, so when he died we adopted Frankie then Yanny to keep Nina company: three mellow cats who thrived in a quiet space away from Luigi’s big and sometimes bullying personality.

After both Nina and Frankie died, Yanny was the lone survivor in the “quiet kitty room,” and although a room of one’s own might be desirable for prospective writers, cats accustomed to roommates get lonely. In the past, we would have adopted new cats to replace the ones we’d lost, treating our household menagerie like a sports team where a new player gets called up whenever a roster spot opens.

But…after Nina, Luigi, then Frankie died in rapid succession, it became clear that neither J nor I wanted more cats. The emotional rollercoaster of adopting and acclimating a new pet, spending lots of time and energy on their care, and then saying goodbye is draining. After years of being the “crazy cat couple” who intentionally adopted cats with medical needs and then centered our lives around their care, both J and I want to spend less time on pet-tending and more time on travel and other pursuits.

So this week, we freed Yanny from the solitude of his room and introduced him to the housemates he barely knew he had: gregarious Hillary and Larry and secretive George and Gracie. We’ll care for these five remaining cats until the end of their natural lives, then we’ll transition to being (just) dog people. When Henry David Thoreau left Walden after living there for two years, he said he’d realized he “had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.” After shepherding so many cats through medical challenges and end-of-life care, J and I are approaching a place where it’s time to live another life.


Hillary aglow

Today is New Year’s Day, and with the day comes the energy of new resolve. It seems hopeful that so many folks start the New Year with intentions to change for the better: this year, we tell ourselves, things will be different.

On the one hand, this is the definition of insanity: here’s to another year of doing the same things and expecting different results. But on the other hand, this is a perfect illustration of the old axiom “Hope springs eternal.” They say that second marriages represent the triumph of hope over experience, and every New Year’s Day, many of us choose hope, again, despite past experience.

We are the same person on January 1st that we were on December 31st, only one day older. But this widespread determination to turn a new leaf along with a calendar page is both hopeful and encouraging. I heartily approve of renewed resolve not because we’re likely to achieve our New Year’s resolutions but because there is something wholesome about trying. The stretch demanded by reaching is itself salubrious.

My goals for 2023 are the same as most other years. Every day, I want to write in my journal, take and post at least one photo, meditate for at least five minutes, and walk at least 17,000 steps. Every week, I want to blog at least three times, write at least one letter, and go on some sort of Fun Outing. Every month, I want to go to the Zen Center and to a museum or botanical garden at least once, and over the course of the year, I want to read at least 50 books.

In 2022, I faithfully kept some of these goals…but others, not so much. To me, what’s important isn’t so much the perfect keeping of a goal but the dogged determination to keep returning to it.


Flu humor

Last night I woke with a surge of symptoms: body aches, chills, and an intermittent, feverish heat more intense than any hot flash. Instead of fretting whether I had COVID, the flu, or an incipient cold, I snuggled into my pillow, reassured that yesterday’s second-dose shingles shot was working.

I am a big fan of vaccines. Over the past few months, I’ve gotten a flu shot, bivalent COVID booster, and my first then second shingles shot. Although I’ve had mild side effects from each of these jabs, I prefer the predictability of side effects I’m expecting versus a spontaneous eruption of illness.

I’ve been wanting to get a shingles shot since I turned 50, but my former doctor was a shingles-shot denier. He said getting shingles was no big deal, and he insisted the vaccine against it was nothing more than a ploy for pharmaceutical companies to make money. So while my insurance company wouldn’t cover a vaccine administered at a pharmacy, my then-doctor refused to give me the jab in his office.

I have no doubt pharmaceutical companies make a pretty penny from vaccines. But everyone I know who has had shingles has said it’s no fun–certainly more than “no big deal”–and I am happy to use my insurance benefits to pay Big Pharma if it protects me from a disease I don’t want.

Vaccines are a scheduled form of sickness. Instead of being surprised when a long dormant virus suddenly causes symptoms, I’d prefer to schedule a vaccine for a time I know I can take the next day to lounge in pajamas and nurse side effects.

So I was thrilled when I went to my annual checkup with a new doctor who actively encourages patients over 50 to get the shingles shot. Shingles can be triggered by stress, and I can’t think of anything worse than having to deal with nerve pain and an itchy rash when you’re already stressed about something else.

So when I woke last night feeling mildly uncomfortable, I didn’t lose any sleep. Side-effects are proof the vaccine and my immune system are working. Better to suffer at my own convenience than to let shingles call the shots.


Japanese barberry

Sometimes when a new acquaintance asks me what I do for a living, I say I teach panic management strategies.

Writing is a form of controlled panic. There is that sudden sinking feeling when you face the blank page, again, and wonder how you’re ever going to fill it. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve started from scratch before: there’s always a flash of panic that this time, for the first time, the words won’t show up.

Writing isn’t about getting rid of this perennial sense of panic; it’s about managing it. You befriend the Inner Critic who says you’re a nobody with nothing to say. You silently nod, smile, then ignore this voice, treating it as an annoying but ultimately innocuous stranger sitting next to you on the bus. No need to heed the opinions of someone who doesn’t even know you.

Managing panic means learning to live with it, recognizing it as a burden that doesn’t slow or stop you. Panic is like an albatross around your neck: annoying, yes, but neither final or fatal.

Writing is about scribbling on even though panic is screaming in your ear: in time, with practice, you’ll learn to overlook and overcome it. “Oh, yes,” you’ll say to yourself. “You again.”

***

In my first-year classes at both Framingham State and Babson, we start with five minutes of freewriting. Students are free to write about whatever they’d like, but I post three random words to give students a nudge if they have nothing else to write about.

Today’s post comes from yesterday’s five-minute entry in response to the word “Panic.”


Towering

At this point in the semester–at this point in my life–I’ve given up on chasing the mirage called “catching up”: like a dog’s own tail, “catching up” is an impossible thing to grasp. But I still believe in getting ahead of the curve: a point where you are still running but not hopelessly behind, staying one step with or even ahead of your to-do list. You’re neither behind nor ahead, but right in step, right on time.

I don’t know what the term “ahead of the curve” literally refers to: for years, I’ve assumed it referred to the curve of a racetrack, with the horse that is ahead of the curve turning into the backstretch ahead of the others, rounding the curve ahead of the herd.

These days, I keep another image in mind as I chase the tail of my to-do list. I picture a line of figure skaters locked arm-in-arm as their line rotates like the second hand of a watch: an on-ice version of snap the whip. The skater in the center turns slowly, anchoring the line, with each subsequent skater moving fast and faster to keep in line. I picture myself as the last skater who has to rush faster and faster to catch the line…but once I catch it, I can coast on my own and my line-mates’ momentum, finally ahead of the curve.


First light

When the days are longer than the light, you cherish every sunlit moment. Today J had to get up at 5:30 am for an early morning meeting, so I took this week’s yard waste to the curb just past dawn, with hints of sunrise peeking through a mottle of clouds.

I’ll use the extra hours to walk Roxy, write in my journal, and chip away at my paper piles before heading to campus. Years ago when I lived at the Zen Center and got up at 5:30 am every day, I used to say that like the Army, I did more before 9:00 am than most people do all day.


5:30 pm, after dark

It’s common knowledge that winter days are the shortest of the year, but that’s not true. In late autumn-into-winter, the days last much longer than the light.

By 5:30 pm, it’s been dark forever, and it feels like ages–a lifetime or two at least–since morning light. By 5:30 pm, it’s been dark forever, and my to-do list is as long as ever, there being many more tasks than there is available light to do them in.


Meet the Beetles

I’m currently reading Rachel Joyce’s Miss Benson’s Beetle, and although it is a novel, the humor of the story is reminding me of Bill Bryson’s dry, self-deprecating wit in A Walk in the Woods.

Middle-aged Margery Benson–a hapless home economics teacher who wants to find the fabled golden beetle of New Caledonia–is as ill-prepared for a natural history expedition as Bryson was for a hike on the Appalachian Trail. Both Benson and Bryson do extensive research before their respective expeditions, and both discover their research did not prepare them for the reality of back-country camping.

You can’t have an adventure story without a loyal but annoying sidekick: both Miss Benson’s Beetle and A Walk in the Woods are ultimately buddy books. Miss Benson’s assistant, Enid Pretty, is as absurd as Bryon’s fellow hiker, Stephen Katz. Both Enid and Katz have shady backgrounds, both know nothing about hiking, and both are perpetually on their “buddy’s” last nerve with their irreverent indifference toward the presumed goal of the journey. But since buddy books are an intrinsically upbeat genre, both Enid and Katz prove invaluable, as teamwork and camaraderie are just as important as comic relief is.

I don’t know if Miss Benson will find the beetle she’s looking for, but I’d argue it doesn’t really matter. At the end of A Walk in the Woods, Bryson and Katz disagree about whether they achieved their goal in hiking the Appalachian Trail: Katz says they did, Bryson says they didn’t. Is an expedition’s success judged by its product, its process, or the simple fact of living to tell the tale? I suppose every adventurer must decide for themselves.


Hemlock cone

Today is a gray day. There was rain earlier–the sidewalks were damp when I took in this week’s grocery delivery–but it did not rain while I walked Roxy, except for a sprinkle or two right as we arrived back home.

While we were walking, I heard a flock of Canada geese honking overhead, far above the reach of anyone’s holiday dinner table.

Today J and I will take our usual afternoon walk around the neighborhood, followed perhaps by a short drive. Yesterday the streets and sidewalks were mostly empty, more of our neighbors choosing to travel for the holiday than in the past two pandemic years.

Still, we saw and noted groups of pedestrians who were obviously visiting for Thanksgiving: large multi-generational groups including multiple dogs and bored teenagers who looked like spending time with extended family would kill them.