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.

Absentminded Snow

I wore high-top boys’ basketball shoes to school today.  The ground was clear enough of ice and my ankles were enjoying the relief from day after day of wearing those heavy adult slip-ons with the driveway treads. The brown slip-ons sit like giant underbaked loaves on your feet, and you wear them because they obviate the constant changing of footgear that an indoor job in this climate requires.  You won’t fall quite as quickly on the ice and snow with them on, but you can get away with them indoors as long as there is a mat or towel to catch the melting mess you carry in on your feet.

My hightops were all about adolescent playfulness and strutting.  Yes, I feel the raw tug of desperate symbolism–the day long responsibilities of middle age brightened by the possibilities of youth– as we head into that grim late-winter early-spring stretch of work and home life. People have begun to give each other little packets of seeds as token gifts at the end of formal events. I think I see green under the melting snow and don’t know if I’m dreaming.  On the other hand, the basketball-playing girls who wanted prior notice so we could all wear our high-tops together (seeing me wearing them seems to a spectacle  akin to seeing E. T. break dance in the school entrance)  are weary champions now.

On these worn out days, sleepiness puts its soft arms around me for after 11 am.   At lunch I cross paths with another English teacher and quip that I am Sleepy, Hungry and Dopey all at once–she offers Creaky (denoting my joints) and Cranky (all of us with too much to do in too little time are)  for our Seven Dwarfs roster. My teenager has been asleep or huddled under a blanket almost every day this week when I arrive home in the late afternoon.  I was wondering what was wrong with us even as I’m wondering what kind of civilizational damage is being aided and abetted by our constant turning to coffee, the anxiety-breeding potency of which I’m just managing to avoid.  Wait, that worrying about civilization must itself spring from caffeine use, no?  My partner reminds me and I realize that there is another reason for the fatigue:  oh, it was that Spring Forward thing!  It should be called Curl Up and Cope instead, for our house at 4 pm, curled up pet and teenager being sniffed over by a barely-awake den mother in from a meager hunt, is like a cross-section of a hibernating animal den a few feet underground.

On my drive home I noticed that the snow remaining at the sides of the road is mighty dirty? I cringe when children exclaim proudly that they’ve thrown it at each other. Remaining at the roadside is the kind of fossil snowbank out of which,in another Northern state,  a fluffy rainbow-hued synthetic clown wig once emerged during the slow thaw. It added real mystery to the usual spring revelation of dog toys and poop.  Standing in our boots staring and laughing, we could only wonder what had transpired outside our cramped rental house some night, months ago, in the deep of winter. 

As I pulled up to our inland Maine house today after chuffing like a moderately courageous engine through another day at school, an absentminded light snow swirled through the air but did not deign to set its fairy feet on the ground.  I paused for a second and wondered, when it started, barely visible, if it might be “something else”.  What else? Apple blossoms for crying out loud?  Ticker tape for the coming parade of spring, so far nowhere to be seen as we sullenly refuse to crane our necks around the corner?  I hope it’s not a futile pursuit to keep asking the snow for a hint of something that is not snow.

Red Buttons

DSC_0042It was a crackling cold day outside, and inside the partitioned hangar of the junk store, I felt woozy from fatigue, caffeine and the space-port feeling (“Loading buses for Planet Q”)  shed by ranks and ranks of blueish neon tube lighting high up in the metal rafters. My serious work–finding a few hand-me-down letter trays and storage racks for my 10th grade English classroom–was done. Then I noticed a jar and several tiny drawers full of old buttons on a metal shelf.  Nothing I needed for school, certainly, and I had been doing a little better giving away junk rather than collecting it. . . but, buttons that have lasted through the wear and tear, washing, and finally, separation from the clothes they held on long-grown or long-gone bodies deserve a look.  Besides, even if one were to acquire a few, they wouldn’t take up so much room. I decided that as far away from home as I was, a few minutes of indulgence would not cause a complete collapse of the known universe. 

I began to notice in the brown- and white-flecked jumble of the jar a number of jostling reds calling out, their gloss slightly, poignantly, dulled by decades-old grime. Most vintage things in stores are pretty picked over these days, so someone like me with no spare time usually does not stumble upon lucky finds.  Some of the wee denizens in this partly sorted (someone had begun and also given up) stash were clearly more than fifty years old.  I would allow myself to touch.  I set my bags down and told the cashier lady that I was going to take a bit of time now–she could hold my other stuff if she needed to.

I got stuck–I mean time stood still and my afternoon fatigue was either suspended or it actually helped me to forget about the rest of the afternoon’s obligations.  I began picking the tiny things out one at a time, and setting aside the less interesting “modern” shirt buttons, predictable pink pearly swirl sweater buttons etc. I woozily swerved into an uncharacteristically simple decision to collect the old red ones.  I could almost hear my mother’s voice telling me that red was always the most cheerful color, a fact inescapable in this warehouse chock-full of somewhat worn and shabby things.  I was middle-aged now, so my youthful scorn of a color so basic and popular as red was finally gone.  Red was now the joy in the midst of practical drabs, of hard-bitten workaday blacks.  I no longer saw red as gaudy and suspect, i.e. the color of self-advertisement, as I had in my cynical decades.  So my fists were filling up with little red plastic raspberries, jewels, and swirls, when the cashier lady decided something too, and offered me a plastic baggie for me to collect my treasures in.  I kept picking out red ones until I had picked through all the buttons the store had–the deep red of un-self-conscious yesteryear, with a few green ones thrown in–yes, we were coming up on Christmas and I was giving in to all kinds of traditional compulsions I usually resist. The  snub rounded shapes tended to fly out of my winter-chapped fingers, and so I started making tiny piles of the buttons I was “still thinking about” on the edge of the metal shelf that was the small stage for my small drama of impulse. I could swear I recognized some of the cake-like shapes from coats and pants my brother and I had worn as children, rather long ago.  I could remember the roughness of plaid wool, of thick corduroy–the lower tech fabrics that we still wore in the colder months in the 1960’s, mingled with exciting new nylon jackets with zippers.  I could remember being an actual child (before my young-Turk cynicism came to roost on the family’s shoulder like a brooding vulture) and cherishing those few bright red things we owned–skirts, book satchels, sweaters–as life rafts of sartorial confidence, brazen boldness!  Red buttons and red piping could exalt a plain white blouse or dress into a beloved favorite. My then-little brother considered red his special property too–no one would get a red car or a red pencil away from him.  (Even as an adult, hasn’t he had some red cars??)

Then I poked around in the little drawers on the thrift shop shelf–meant for nails and screws, or alternately, cufflinks?–where the unknown organizer had indulged in some mysterious classifying and picked out some of the larger and distinguished blue or brown buttons.  I believed some of them would cost as much as a quarter, so I tried to be thrifty!  I muttered something to the cash lady about the “creative clothing”  I made when I can steal a couple of hours. I use the phrase to prepare people for the colors and fabrics I combine.  With kind incredulity, she declared “You’ll have to show me one of those things next time!”

It’s nice to think that the possibility of cutting and sewing exists at all, after four pounds of English papers are graded, after the water for the chickpeas is measured and corrected, after homework completing, vitamin gulping and boot-wiping are supervised, and after the cat who just won’t listen has been cleaned up after; but even then, I’d probably just gaze at my bagful of old buttons for a while, reliving the sensations and associations that each one evokes, and not just jump into a new sewing project.  But look at the photo, such as it is:  can’t you see the ebullience amid the practical simplicity that red buttons still suggest?

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.

I Hate This Notebook

(revised from an earlier, secret, blog)

I hate this notebook. It’s fat, almost 2 inches thick. A little brown brick of paper and temptingly leathery binding material.  The first time I saw it in a big chain bookstore, in the self-indulgent “Journals & Blank Books” aisle, the price was marked at $10.  Our baby was new and we weren’t spending much on ourselves since I was staying home–with no salary–to look after her; I fondled the notebook, and thought, you could travel months without having to buy a new journal, you could go and go and go, if you had THIS.  500 pages!  Cool quadrille, like the paper my German friends cover with their spidery handwriting.  Never mind that I wasn’t going on any solo trips any time soon, and hardly had the chance to take a shower or comb my hair, let alone write 500 pages.  The most writing I had managed so far—and I felt gleeful about that–was sending emails with the baby on my shoulder.

Several years later, when the baby had become a child, I spied the same notebook, this time wrapped in cellophane, in another big chain bookstore, in another state far away; I thought, ok, this will be my souvenir from this road trip–notebooks often are, along with a couple of postcards I buy to keep for myself.  My long-held desire for a child had been fulfilled, and I bought the brick full of other big desires: to write all the time, to set down all the things I hadn’t taken the time to (did I have the time?) when my girl was a toddler. I thought, I’ll scribble and scribble and catch up.  It will hold lots, I’ll carry it everywhere…

But The Notebook, my brick, feels like it weighs about five pounds, and its dense, rounded, just-above-handbook size is a factor of its tumbling off your lap, out of your tote bag, and of its generally taxing waywardness.  I have wished many a time that I was a bigger, stronger, wider-shouldered person, all so I could use this notebook with ease and happiness.  I had just spent a couple of years lugging around a roly-poly baby who demanded to be held all the time; I could wrangle an 18 lb deaf cat into its hated pet taxi.  But this notebook was going to break my back, because I wanted to have it with me all the time, everywhere.  So I could become the Herculean writer I wanted to be.  At the beginning (and now, at the end, with only 8 pages to go), when you open the notebook, one side is thin and wimpy; you have to rest the remaining right-hand pages on another book to write on them.  In the middle of the journal (and oh what it takes to get there in one of these stubby contenders!), it won’t lay open.  It wants to close up sluggishly, mid-thought, like a brainless sea creature whose nerves are set off by drifting oceanic chemicals you can’t see.

Writing a LOT had been the initial idea with The Notebook, and cramming it, being economical with paper and copious with words.  When I began writing in it, I used each and every quadrille line and made myself a little blinder than I already am.  Then the light bulb went off and I began to skip a line, but I felt like a lavish and wasteful Big Capitalist, sure to be swallowed up when the earth turns in on itself like a dried stoneless peach.  (Where would thrifty recyclers, among whom the Aristotelian ideal of my soul dwells, be?  Sitting up there on the branches of the heavenly tree Yggdrasil looking down at me in their long, natural, green-cotton robes?  They would be barefoot of course, but their feet would be CLEAN.)

The brick notebook is filled now.  That feels strange to say.  It happened only a few days ago, in the interstices of the cataclysms of our moderately sized emotional world:   we finally decided to go abroad as a family, finally decided to get our little house painted to sell (we are do-it-yourselvers very reluctantly giving in to the realities of jobs dominating our lives and to our limited physical capacities), and monitored Hurricane Gustav as it passed over my parents’ Louisiana home.  I kept writing in the margins of the brick’s filled pages, trying to make sure it was “complete”.  How could it be?  It wasn’t a novel with a beginning, middle and end.  I at least wanted to write R. I. P. or Om at the end.  It just filled up, sitting on my big cluttered desk, like a stomach filling up with odds and ends rather than with one hefty meal.  Then the nervous ritual of searching for a new notebook to continue in began.  I decided it wouldn’t be a fancy new one, because writing is what I do every day and I didn’t want to encourage myself to be arch or prim or special about it.  I found a simple spiral school-supply notebook in my desk drawer at work, and put it in a macho black executive-looking cover to disguise it for day-job purposes.  Only a few entries in it so far, but one includes the words “this is the right kind of notebook to have–flat and wide”.

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.