First Maine Sandal Day

DSC_0017First Sandal Day–reminds me of  “First Neighborhood Bank.” Somewhere, there actually IS a “Second Federal Bank and Trust”–I think I’ve even seen one, and being made of brick and plaster, surrounded by the trim bushes that marked out financial institutions in the Southern town of my teenage years, it couldn’t have been a joke. But which sad people would CHOOSE Second, or Fifth, Federal Bank and Trust if they could deposit their hard-earned savings in the First? In the same way, we all know that the rest of elasticated time will never be as memorable as the first day we do something.

Here in Maine, we think the winter will never end. I refuse to go along with those glass-half-full people at work who like to declare, “This is it! It’s not going to snow any more after today!” I’d rather harrumph and carry on in my tired salt-soaked hiking boots, dragging around my even more tired feet, than have my hopes dashed. “Of course it’s going to snow. Whaddaya want? Freezing RAIN?”

That’s why it’s important that despite little temperature fluctuations through the day, my toes are out in the sunshine along with the first forsythia and croci this week.  It’s the 3rd day in a row that my shriveled brown toes, like potatoes brought into daylight from a root cellar, have been out in the air and sunshine. Even when I was wearing some kind of jacket on my upper body. Yes, there was a count-down of sorts: first day without boots (which is to say that I wore normal shoes and socks all day, even outside, even to drive around in, not caring that there was still a bit of mess on driveways and parking lots–we could WALK like regular people, almost). There was the first day in closed shoes without socks. I looked for wilder and brighter socks, just to make the point to myself. First day in sandals. I felt like a renegade, a rebel, an assertive wild thing–although it is an unseasonably warm April by now. I spill water and tea on my feet. They even get dirty.

September Sweat and Whimpering

Ending the first week of school with a toast to new students, clean desks, new notebooks, new socks, etc. is my idea of fun.  Instead, the sweat, coughing and bleary eyes I would have happily attributed to unpacking box after edifying box of Representative American Authors in my hot 2nd floor classroom turns out to be influenza–the special new bug influencing far too many young students this week. And I, refurbished biplane of a teacher, now of the the 10th and 9th grades after several zigs and zags up and down the pre- and post-secondary strata of the educational skies, am down with it in the worst sense. I have prided myself on my immunity to pre-K through college germs, but the latest had two or three tries at me and finally won.

After a couple of days either lying in bed or noodling around the computer nervously, I ventured outside into the dappled sunshine today–seeing it out the window is almost painful, because you know that its very falling on the grass this way is allocated just some hours now. Coolness slices under the rays and the leaves rustle happily, being done with their prodigious growing of the last few months.  A couple of ripe grape tomatoes hang like bells against the barrel planter’s neglected side. No more palavering with the mate about which one of us is going to mow the lawn: it’s not growing much more at this point and I pick some long grass to weave into a seasonal memorial. The hydrangeas, so nice about yielding a few flower-balls for me to take inside–even when I haven’t brought the clippers on my dreamy 5-minute tours of the overgrown backyard–are starting up their dried-flower stalls for the harvest fair. Teachers don’t get to spend enough time outside in the fall, and sick teachers practically none at all. So while the novel illness is gradually relinquishing its hold on my lungs, throat and head, my mind is still hearing a soundtrack of tragic classical compositions addressed to the waning of the light. There’s a small dog yipping and barking a few yards away, though, who doesn’t seem to have been taught such mournful human associations.

Coconut Oil Thermometer

The original name of this blog, Waterchili, came from the frozen green chilis we keep on ice to add to our cooking.  To keep with the transported-tropical-produce theme, let me note how a jar of coconut oil in our kitchen serves as a sharply accurate marker for the seasons.  I am surprised that the appropriate technology people haven’t made an actual oil thermometer–but perhaps they don’t need to.  People who keep jars or bottles or cans of coconut oil in their house as a regular thing would notice on their own how attuned it is to the temperature.

Even up here in the North of the Northern USA, our household uses coconut oil as a hair and head conditioner (though some people cook with it too) the way that traditional South Asians do.  You get it into a liquid state and rub it through your scalp and thirsty remnants of a mane before you bathe.  Shampoo and hot water wash out the excess, leaving your hair soft and your scalp more soothed than it might be otherwise.  Never mind that for a while my provocatively original 13 year old was applying it to her dripping locks AFTER taking a shower–one of the several notable instances of members of my extended family applying printed advice in unprecedented and impractical ways.  For South Asians, hair oil also has all kinds of mental health connotations, and is supposed to help preserve your hair as you age.  Coconut oil is mixed into fancier hair condiments in South Asia–ones with fragrance and color and poetic names–which will register the cooling of the season with their own uncooperative partial solidification, but these patent mixtures do not (perhaps deliberately) have the spot-on temperature honesty of pure coconut oil. Around here, we need to melt out the little bit we use each time; that is why we keep it in the kitchen.  Besides, my nervous sandwich-generation imagination can too easily see the glass jar slipping from young or elderly hands and smashing to bits on the hard tile floor of the bathroom; shards of glass lined with white fat just wouldn’t have the charm of the broken coconut fragments, white fruit lining the hairy and hard brown shell pieces, that were childhood treats on our West Bengal veranda.

This little story of the coconut oil thermometer really began one morning in June,  when we noticed a jar of straw-yellow liquid on the kitchen counter.  Around our devil’s workshop of a house, I keep everything from colored glass bangles to dried chrysanthemum flowers in old spaghetti sauce jars.  These jars are so handy, in their wide-mouthed, measured-capacity ways.  Nevertheless, I, who can sniff the difference between two year old ground cumin and coriander–when to most other people both resemble aged sawdust– jumped in slight alarm at the pale translucency in the clean jar and asked my husband What’s that?  Leftover wine? Kerosene? Less pleasant substances had also streaked through my mind just then.  He didn’t know either, but after our tea and coffee we finally realized that the intractable white solid that we occasionally dug at, and had to microwave or heat in a saucepan to thaw during most of the year, had liquefied completely overnight due to the short and furious Maine summer finally arriving at our typically un-air-conditioned house.

All summer my daughter (the hair-aficionado, or -nada) and I poured spoonfuls on our head directly from the jar, reveling in the ease of application after the jabbing and scraping that just about made us give up the stuff in colder months.  Friends as we are with the people who cut our hair, we could only get them to nod sympathetically, as if at two permanently confused and inarticulate people, when we described our own hot-oil treatment to them while they worked on our respectively salt-and-pepper and richly auburn-brown heads.

Suddenly, two days ago, the first cool breeze of September blew back to front through our cluttered house, and the next morning part of the coconut oil was white again.  I said, We could use this as a thermometer.  Panting in the car on the way home from work in late afternoon Portland traffic, I could not imagine my kitchen as a cool place, but I guess it had been all day:  this afternoon even more of it was white and solid, leaving just a sneaky smile of liquid yellowish oil in the middle layer.  Not just a thermometer–this jar could serve as a calendar too!  I called my spouse and he said It’s supposed to go up into the 80’s again; let’s see what it’s going to do.

If the stuff melts, which it might not for a brief quirk of weather, I’ll get my paint-splattered shorts out again (the pair that got left on the deck railing for a week one summer and was thus three shades lighter on the outside than inside) and go for a walk around the neighborhood in my flip flops, denying the inevitable even as my bag of schoolwork to grade gets heavier by the day.  The coconut fat did partially become oil again, but only on one side of the jar, as if to keep its slippery feet firmly planted in seasonal reality.

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I am finally posting this on an early October day when sweaters have begun to come out of their shady summer hiding places and it is out of the question for even the teenager to go out in flip flops.  In fact, gathering cold-season supplies from various malls this weekend, we noticed a bizarre wall hanging on sale:  painted tin flip flops nailed to a rectangular panel, an object that I’m willing to bet no full-time tropical person would actually decorate their wall with. Meanwhile, our coconut oil pet is sitting tight in its jar, creamy white and stubborn.  The heat coming on in the house might make it manageable for cosmetological purposes, but liquid oil? It won’t be that until the awe-inspiring movements of the solar system bring us around to June again.

Hello world!

September 16, 2010

Time to notice the world appears as calm, sharp, sunshine through a cold window, and a blush at the top of maple trees–aren’t they supposed to wait a few weeks?  No, we will not turn the furnace on yet, though some would, and the cat keeps asking about it by parking his generous self on any dark appliance with a cord.  (He was looking into a large black ring binder last, but it didn’t have a plug, so he left harrumphing).  We don’t quite want to give in to socks either, though we are loathe to let go of our cozy pets–our shoes and slippers–now even inside the house.  This blog is going to be a couple of paragraphs per post from some moment during living, hearing, seeing, in mostly ordinary moments in central Maine.

Some years ago–my first year in Maine,when my lanky child was a toddler yanking at the hem of my sweater–I tried my first hand quilting on a yard-square scrap-salvage piece for my mother, and called it Winter Sunshine.  I quilted standing up in front of a pile of boxes by a window, and the latter poured in every day, surprising me so after a number of dreary grey winters in in a midwestern town.  The sunshine made me awake and warmed my hair and face, despite the grimness of the scene outside–“inner city” Maine, where borderline characters rode their snowmobiles up and down the sidewalk under the scowling brows of the police.