The Best of All Possible Weather

A good friend once apologized when it rained all weekend at the remote-ish coastal place he had invited us to. We are always floored by the shining extent of water, islands and neighboring fingers of mainland you can see from his impressive bit of Maine.  We are also greeted by an army of windblown and spooky, droopy, juniper trees with distinct personalities when we turn into the meandering track of a driveway off a very forgettably named road.  It’s not a trip to the beach for us–it’s a trip to the ocean.  So, as I explained to our friend, rain and wind are simply a part of the visit. The rainstorm at the coast shut out the world.  I welcomed the day and a half away from our harried daily lives, and the “nasty weather” relieved us of too much activity after the considerable drive.  Our friend’s ancestral summer place afforded a long and wide view because the lot ran down a grass-covered slope punctuated with many kinds of trees and scrub.  There were plenty of things to look at out the glass patio doors.  There were assorted living things for the rain and wind to mess with, and when you got tired of comparing one swaying pine tree to a madly scrambled smaller one, you could watch the sheets of rain billowing out on the ocean’s surface, towards the fuzzy green humps of islands.

So all that is an introduction to what those recent brilliantly sunny fall days this very September did to me.  They made me crazy.  Overloaded with work, I still could not stay inside.  I’ve tried working outside in my reckless youth, and that was just a way to lose papers or get them wet. (I have blurred and food-stained thirty year old notes on medieval poetry to prove it.)  No, don’t say I was driven out by the weekend’s special coffee, or by the frantically busy and never-ending desk- and classroom work I had been doing already:  I just couldn’t stay inside.  For several weekday mornings, driving due South to my school, I had noticed squirrels running Left to Right across the two-lane–i.e. from the ocean side to the woods side, and had wondered if they were going home with their edible finds or going abroad (to the other side of the road) to find more.  And then last weekend I started noticing dead squirrels everywhere:  the imperative to stay alive through the winter by gathering bigger food hoards had caused them to disregard the speeding metal monsters humans use for transportation.  That’s also got something to do with how sunshine drove Junior (my strapping young teenager) and me outside last weekend when usually we would have been happy cultivating our bookwormy little habits indoors.  Winter’s coming!  Winter’s coming!  The acorns we are hoarding are intangible ones:  first, there’s the acorn of going out in just shirt, pants, and regular shoes, which will be buried deep until May next year; then there’s the brilliant and shiny acorn of not having to yell at anyone to get their warm hat on; there’s another acorn of not having to shovel the drive or scrape the car in order to go into the city. I rashly put off entire segments of my desk-bound work so Junior and I could amble aimlessly around downtown Portland, feast on bits of sheer nonsense, drive a little distance and do the same thing all over again.

ImageWhen I showed up at work on Monday morning and confessed to a colleague that sunshine had put me behind, she calmly concurred that there was no other sensible way to react to such fine weather, not with winter coming…

It should keep–the 47 or so North American falls that I have experienced, but it doesn’t.  My first fall I was in the 4th grade in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and walked gaily home from school through leaves, park ducks and friendly older people who said Hello.  Each fall is hair-raisingly thrilling in a way I have to make myself stay quiet about.  Compare that to the first day of classes, which I have experienced so many times either as a student or a teacher that (while I do experience a certain tightening of the neck muscles) it doesn’t surprise me any more.  Unlike Junior, I have no “first day outfit” picked out long in advance.  I just wash and iron a few things so I’m covered in those seven minutes between packing my bag and slurping down the healthful “super egg” Mr. Spousal Unit has invented for me.  I have to force myself to remember that some of my students have hardly ever dealt with a building the size of a high school or with footnotes, and are probably very excited about whom they’re going to sit with at lunch.

So tonight, with rain varnishing the few fallen leaves right into the driveway’s surface, I am glad.  The thrill of fall can be too much, and the reassuring buffer of rain allows us to get on with things.


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.


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.

Sitting in the Dark

One evening in July somewhere in Maine, my spouse wouldn’t wait until morning to look at the creaking, shuddering, fan/light assembly hanging over the dining room table and he turned off the electricity.  Now our dining room was too hot to sit in, and our aging brown wicker-patterned friend–its perpetual summer circling arrested–needed some tinkering with. Actually, I got my valiant spouseto turn the whole house’s electricity off so he wouldn’t hurt himself; he often rushes into the home maintenance jobs he loves because he has so little time after commuting and working.  Not endowed with feline vision, I decided to stay out of the way and seize the opportunity for a bit of rest.  Lying on the sofa during our own little load-shedding (the term used in India for when the electricity goes off for a while because the supply cannot keep up with the demand) with my head towards the big living room window framing the fluttery tree, I noticed the pink edge of the sky you don’t see in our tree-laden suburban neighborhood unless you’re outside walking.  It came back to me that during my childhood in the arid little town of Hijli, in West Bengal not far from the Bihar border, my parents would let twilight grow through the house most evenings.  They wouldn’t turn the lights on right away, just to enjoy the gradual fading and displacement of the harsh sunlight of the day.  We would sit on the veranda or in the living room and just let it get darker and darker, chatting or playing.  Our street of small university houses was still surrounded by grazing fields for cows and goats and a palpable stock of uncanny quiet.  A car or jeep might go by once a week, and most movement was by foot, bicycle or cycle-rickshaw.  In the evening, the voices of passersby–families strolling together, or friends in ones and twos hailing us from the front gate–carried into the veranda of our little cement house with the smooth floors, or through the wide open living room windows, long before we could see them clearly.

This sitting around in the twilight was a less self-conscious form of relaxation than the fun activities we pitch ourselves into these days—bike rides, bookstore browses, and so on—because we are so aware of needing them.  When the lights finally came on in our Hijli house, it would have been for a 9 o clock supper, and it was always a blazing shock after the softening into the dark our eyes had enjoyed.  The idea then was to stay awake until the rice of our late meal was eaten, but I was a slow child, and mine would always get cold.

(July 2011/September 2012)

Them Bootsies

There is a horrid word advertisers are trying to make us say these days–“shooties”. “Little” or “ankle” boots wouldn’t do? But I suppose they assume that teens and 20-somethings have such a tenuous grip on the English language that you can convince them to say anything, especially if it’s the name of of something to place on one’s body.  Because, to utter that peculiar name while pointing at someone else wearing the item is important too.  “Oh my God, she wore her ______ to volleyball practice!”

A couple of years ago I stunned my fashion-conscious middle-schooler (she was then at the bossier end of the elementary grades) by showing her the ankle-high cowboy-boot-shoes I wore when living as a single professional in a state far to the south and west of here–in another life, really. “Whose are those?”–I’ve gotten used to this response to the few remnants of pre-motherhood still to be found in my closet. This week I gave my cowboy (cowgirl) ankle boots the final tryout–nope, my feet will never be that size again. A little due to rainstorm shrinkage on the boots themselves–the streets of that arid state really flow deep when a sudden thunderstorm comes–and a lot due to the burdens of childbearing and child-carrying, my feet are permanently bigger and flatter now.  There is no hope that I could even walk a few steps in these wishful allusions to (for me) an exotic lifestyle.

When I could wear them, so long ago, I loved them because they gave an edge–and a pointy toe–to my extremely bookish life.  The word “shooties” didn’t exist, thank ye gods, and if anyone had called them by that word, I’m sure I would have stopped wearing them that day, after retorting that, yes, they were cowboy boots of a sort but that the steel-capped beak did not, in fact, shoot bullets.  Except figurative ones at such awful little compromises.  You may be wearing part of a boot that might be warping your foot slightly, and enjoying it, but calling it by a name that tramples over the daily delights of language…makes my toes curl.

Hall Pass

I’m a substitute teacher these days, and usually my students are taller than me.  But yesterday I was at the elementary school, and a second grader with shiny brown eyes took a little something out of his pocket during morning round-up, and excitedly declared “I found a coconut on my way to school today!” In his small, sweaty, palm was a triangular piece of dark coconut shell. I agreed that it was a wonderful find indeed, for a humid September morning. Then, I remembered “curriculum”–“Do you think that grew around here, in Maine?” Several kids articulated their more or less completed thoughts– no, coconuts grow far away, in warm places. I joked with the boy who brought it, that since *I* was born far away in a warm place, that this bit of coconut shell could be used as a hall pass if anyone needed to leave the classroom I was supervising.

Then we launched into the day’s lessons and activities–sitting around the story-mat (which turns out to be the math-mat as well), or sitting at our small tables in small colorful chairs:  listening to Jack Prelutsky’s poetry, opening apple juice boxes, chasing and then (finally, because they were so excited and upset and carrying it out on a piece of paper did not work at ALL) sending a rather large spider on to its next reincarnation with a dainty pink plastic clog; also handling and washing little rocks of three different colors, giving pep talks to our little blue math calculators, and so on. The day did indeed fly by, as the notes from the classroom teacher promised it would. Most of the kids took the time to give me high fives when they left in batches to catch their well-spaced out buses.

A day later, emptying out my pockets, I found the little triangle of coconut shell.  The boy with the shining brown eyes– the same little guy, who during morning Science Time, had demonstrated a “tough” stance with one hand on a hip and helped me to explain the difference between /tuff/ the volcanic rock and being tough–had given me my “hall-pass”, to keep, at the end of the day.  In the flurry of goodbyes after the bell rang, I hadn’t taken much note of it.  At home, nursing my aching feet (a second-grade teacher doesn’t sit much), I had forgotten about it altogether, until this morning when I went flouncing about the house picking up laundry.