Thursday, October 25

Being and Smelliness

I moved back here with my old, old dog. Verifiably fifteen years old, possibly, says the vet, as much as two years older. Translated by the popular equation to Human Years, he's 105 years old or maybe 119. When he pants heavily and his breath lunges my way, the foulness of the smell convinces me 119 is probably assessing his age on the young side. Doggie breath. There is absoutely no way on earth I'll subject him to the canine version of periodontics at this point in his life nor any way on earth I could possibly afford to pay for it.

My old, old dog seems quite content here in our new home, except for the fact, lamentable to me as well, that there are no young people living here with us. He can't make it up the stairs to the second story, but he does well enough with the six porch steps if he takes them slowly. His interests have dwindled a lot of late, but we still make it outside for two walks every day. Some mornings he just looks up at me as if to plead, "Do we really need to do this again?" but once he's out the door the smells of a Midwestern autumn are so ripe and rife they afford generous compensation for any ardors of four-legged walking. He barely makes it around the block some days, but that's only partially due to his arthritic limbs and weakening cardiovasculars; the smells here distract and detain him prodigiously. All around, the rich dank earth exudes olafactory evidence of decomposition. It's a medley of smells my old doggie finds utterly irresistible, possibly heavenly. It's probably the same smell other dogs pick up from him when they come up to sniff salutations. It's the smell of death, reborn, death, as alive and well among us every fall as birth is in spring. It's a smell with which I feel uncomfortably and increasingly familiar since moving back here.

Somehow I find it funny that people here in Madison have composting systems in their backyards. The whole of southcentral Wisconsin feels like an enormous compost bin to me, arrived from the dessicated soil and air of the Southwest. There, you practically needed to send out engraved invitations to lure out an earthworm; here, you just turn over any stone. My skin is softer than it was when I moved to Colorado back in my thirties. My hair feels more abundant and full of body. And my body smells like a whole new creature. A creature, I might add, I'm not so sure I actually like. This creature perspires, and sometimes reeks of effulgents we called as youth and completely without affection: BO. I sweat, therefore I am. Am a Wisconsinite. I find this very unsavory. It, this BO, this Body Odor, is nearly sufficient in itself to compel me back to Colorado. It makes my own body feel alien to me.

I suppose I always perspired, but truthfully, I didn't realize it . I lack any scientific knowledge of the process, but I imagine, when I ponder this now, that it must have evaporated immediately upon meeting the dry air during my prior existence as an arid dweller. I do know for a fact that the transevaporation rate approaches the incredulous in the southwest, that snow more often evaporates than melts. Soon after I moved to Colorado, we had a typical fall snowstorm. You know, a foot of snow in one day in October, similar to what they had just last week. The next day was sunny and dry and the children complaining that I made them wear sweaters to school. Once they were at school, I set about some fall gardening: digging holes for trees bought at the fall clearance sale. I thought the ground, after such a snow, would be dampened and softened for my shovel. And it was, for nearly two inches of depth. The moisture never went deeper because it evaporated into the air, explained my new neighbors, instead of melting into the ground. Ditto, apparently, for perspiration and its uncomely companion, Miss Malodor. Here in Wisconsin I am face to face and nostril to nostril with the unavoidable and unpleasant truth: I am damp and human and sometimes I smell as badly as my 119 year old dog. I am, it seems undeniable, every day mortal. Nuances of fecundity and rankness waft around me as though my familiars. My dog, deaf and nearly blind, recognizes me by scent, and I wonder if my friends do, too, now that I feel like something out of the compost bin.

I'm adjusting. I rummaged around in all the old toiletries I brought with me across the country and found a stick of antiperspirant, never used. I tried using it, but it seems antiperspirant not only turns hard and yellowy when aged, it also turns gluey, and my armpits not only perspired all day but stuck to my clothing. I have since gone organic, and it seems to be better. I may still be mortal, but unlike my dog, at least I don't smell like it any more.

The smell of dry leaves is a sweet part of fall, like pumpkin pie and hot cider. That is what I choose to remember, and the banks of brilliant foliage as I drive from Madison to Minnesota on a sunlit afternoon in October. I am not dwelling upon the layers of wet leaves compacting underfoot, relinquishing their scarlets and ochres and bronzes to the blackness of rich dirt beneath cloudier skies. But I'm fully aware of them, oh yes.

Today, I noticed the city has set up long lines of snow fences across the parks which border the major arterials. I shivered as I hurried by them in my running shorts and tee shirt.

Sunday, October 14

Unbearable Niceness of Being

My favorite card of this past year was a pale green birthday greeting with a small nosegay of daisies its only illustration, neatly drawn and pleasingly simple. "On your birthday," reads the cover, "remember: Smile and the world smiles with you." Opening, the admonition concludes, "Unless you smile too much. Then it's just creepy." I bought at least four copies of this card when I discovered it, knowing it would bring a laugh to several of my friends, young and old, mostly female.

I have a single card left, and I'm keeping it. Or maybe I'll be able to send it on its way after I expunge a few related thoughts from my system today. You see, I've been living here in Wisconsin for two months now, and I just have to say something about the way everyone is so invasively and instantaneously intimate. It's related to the card. It's related to phoniness. It's related to excess. And it has something to do with the fact that I've actually been hugged here by people to whom I was introduced with the basic and impersonal manly handshake just a brief half hour before. It's too much. There's an element of restraint amiss around here and a subsequent lack of respect. You don't invade other countries, and you don't invade other persons. You wait for an invitation or a (substantial and subtantiated) provocation.

I just started a new job, adding another fresh batch of strangers to the cookie dough of my life. On Day One, within minutes of our mutual supervisor leaving our presence, a seemingly reserved coworker told me all about a scandal that had forced him from his last job. Until then, he'd seemed relatively normal and I reasonably clear of any prejudice toward or against him. Another coworker, the next day, within mere hours of shaking my hand for the first time not only shaved my name to a diminutive as if we'd known each other since childhood but was fluently progressing from a detailed enumeration of his wife's ailments and health conditions to his own when I politely pleaded work on the other side of the building. Quite frankly, I was starting to fear I was soon going to be hearing about the size and consistency of their respective bowel movements, a little bit of personal knowledge I rather like to keep for a little later in a relationship, like right before divorce or death and also to reserve for those with whom I share either blood or bed.

Over familiarity seems incredibly pervasive here. On the many and labyrinthine bike paths of Madison, people routinely smile and wave as they pedal by in the opposite direction. At first I thought the difference was due to the fact that bicyclists here seem to favor upright handlebars to racing drops and hence came face to face more often. After a few more weeks' experience, I concluded that the upright pedaling was actually favored just to facilitate the inexorable smiling and greeting while riding! It may even be that it's one of the reasons bicycling is such a popular means of transportation here. It's a lot harder to interact personally with automotive passers-by. During running, too, it's fairly normal to greet people as you pass them: I've even seen it done in races. As for hugging, well, while it seems to be slightly out of control everywhere I've been in the last several years, here in the American Midwest, our ever-emulating children are hugging so much at the end of recess that a nice suburban school just banned it, as the "hug lines" were holding up classes!

Perhaps it's partly the fault of our language. Civilized languages have both a personal pronoun and a more formal and respectful pronoun, both connoting "you." It's nice. You acknowledge age, respect, relationships, prominence, intimacy or the desire for intimacy all in the pronoun and verb conjugations you use. You don't use the personal pronoun for "you" unless "you" agree or you are a child, basically. This allows relationships to grow and change and, what I like best, it allows us to keep a little distance until we no longer require it. Cold as it may be, I just don't really want to hug you until I like you, and I don't want you to smile and wave at me with good old Midwestern warmth as you pass me in the last tenth of a kilometer of a race. Especially not in the last tenth-kilometer.

Here in nice, friendly Madison, I'm acquiring the habit of locking my doors even during daylight hours, although I'm something of a fresh air fiend. I think I'm becoming more diligent about locking doors here than I was in Denver, where my neighborhood was actually vaguely dangerous, gangs and gunfire not totally unknown. Why lock my doors here? Because people have been entering my house uninvited! Not thieves, not salesmen, not even religious proselytizers: people I know. They knock. If there's no answer, do they go away? No. They try the door. If the front door is locked, they go around to the back door. There is no privacy here. They walk in. "Oh, there you are! I was knocking!" These are not my real friends. My real friends respect me enough to call before they come over. Stopovers are for family and next door neighbors, categories full of innocent people who are pretty much doomed to see you and your house sooner or later without your hair swept into a clip or your hairballs swept into a dustbin.

Yes. You've been knocking and hugging and smiling way too much, and I'm sorry, but it's creepy. Some day I would like to be awakened by you, maybe. Someday, it might bring a slow, soft smile to hear your footsteps entering the front hall while I'm tucked away writing upstairs. But these days would all be when we're close, when we matter to each other, when I've offered you the key to my house because I want you to walk in freely and without notice and to call me pet names like my family does. Right now, it all just pretty much freaks me out and makes me jumpy.

It may be true that we're all more interconnected that it seems and have more in common than we have differences, as most of the Presidential candidates seem intent on demonstrating as they all seek to consolidate one unanimous, indistinguishable, and meaningless position on everything, hence nothing. But does this really mean we have to instantly share the same interpersonal space? Even weak-kneed Democrats managed to sound distinct from the Republicans for a couple of months after last year's elections, when Pelosi first took the podium. But you, whom I just met, do you really automatically get to call me the same name my beloved grandfather did? Are you born with the right and desire to pull me to your ample chest and hold me there, just because we encountered each other in the checkout line? When I answer the door and say, waving my brush, "Oh, I'm busy painting," is it really altogether normal that you breeze on in, clamoring, "Let's see what colors you're using?" and charge up the staircase to the bedrooms?

The card's right. Remember. Smile and the world will smile with you. Be a friend to find a friend. But don't be an instantly intimate friend. It's sort of like coffee. What would you rather have? A cup brewed from boiling water drained slowly through aromatic and freshly ground beans, maybe with a little splash of half and half? Or a cup of microwaved instant, with Cremora? Intimacy is not meant to be instant, anymore than milk is meant to be made of coconut and palm oils and artificial scents and flavorings.

Saturday, October 6

Post Season Play Offs

The first week of October in my renewed home state in my renewed hometown. Safely past the unprecedented monsoons of late summer, we are, by and large, enjoying what used to be called Indian Summer. Temps in the eighties, abundant sunshine, old men with fragile bowed legs so white they look porcelain still tiptoeing out of the lake behind my house from their daily morning dip. I'm not sure what happened to the term Indian Summer; it seems to have been banished from the lexicon of weather forecasts. Perhaps it is somehow insulting, like tribal names for baseball teams. I mean, I really do understand why some of those team logos are insulting, but I am, you must know, a childhood Braves fan. Milwaukee Braves, that is. Hank and Tommy Aaron Braves, Warren Spahn Braves, Joe Torre and that ultimate heart-throb of heart-throbs among 8 year old girls in 1960's Milwaukee suburbs: Eddie Matthews. Ah, yes. Hank is still up there in my personal pantheon; Barry Bonds, meanwhile, is relegated to janitorial duty, sweeping up dustballs in the most remote corners of baseball history, with those preternatural muscles of his.
But back to Indian Summer, as it was. It is, of course, the MLB play-offs. Back in my recently relinquished home of Colorado, the Rockies are more astonishing than even Mr. Bonds' neck. They are, in short, behaving like champions. They are winning, and they're filling the end days of summer with champagne filtered sunshine out there at the foot of the Rockies where sunshine knows how to be its most resplendent self. Coloradans have waited long for this post season sunshine, fourteen years. When the Rockies first arrived back in 1993, we enjoyed a couple of years of full seating in the impeccable new stadium with the tainted name Coors Field, stands and hearts full of hope. My son, at 5 already an inveterate Yankee fan, occasionally experienced enough misgiving to don, for a day, a Rockies cap.

Here in Wisconsin, I feel the furthest echoes of the tumult of joy emanating from Coors Field, like the last visible rings from a rock dropped into water. My friends are ebullient. It makes me wish to be back there. There is nothing better than the end of summer in a pretty baseball field, the green grass so painstakingly mowed, the white lines, the brick and the iron and the lusty, swaying crowds. Even the hot dogs. I could be a vegetarian and still lust after ballfield hotdogs. Only hardware store hotdogs come close, another ancient American ritual, and one that makes home improvement projects nearly worthwhile.

This week I used what I feared might be the last absolutely dry and sunny day of the year to wash and wax my car. I have been here about six weeks, and a few days ago I was alarmed to notice the first speck of rust on my eight year old Civic. I cleaned that speck with diligence this week and dabbed on a spot of clear nail polish. It is not an advertised use of nail polish, but I have hopes of patenting the process if it works. Once I find a new mechanic who can switch the antifreeze from its presently wimpy freeze level to the subzero version recommended here, my little car will be as ready for a Wisconsin winter as I can make it. I wish I could do more. I wish I could do more for my drafty and thin skinned old house. I wish I could do more for me.

This week, big blue barrels appeared silently on the street corners, as if someone had pushed a button to make them rise from the cement. They are the sand barrels. For those of you who fail to comprehend, they are there so when your car is spinning its tires on sheets of slick ice or packed snow, you can use city-supplied sand to throw on the ice and provide some traction. The sight of these big blue barrels on the street corners makes me gulp and wonder what I've done here. In the distance, I hear the cheers of my friends from Coors Field.

Meanwhile, it's Indian Summer here, though, and I think I'll walk down to the beach now and wade out into the water of Lake Monona one more time today before the tall orange pennants are inserted into the tops of the fire hydrants. Yep. You guessed it. Marking the location of the hydrants in case the snow mounds hide them from the fire fighters this winter.

My local friends assure me winters here have become milder with indisputable global warming. They no longer count on cross country skiing on the city's golf courses in January. "We hardly get snow any more," they assure me. Still, there are the big blue barrels standing sentinel on the street corners and soon I anticipate the waving pennants on their thin and flexible sticks. At my neighborhood hardware store which doesn't sell hotdogs, I gather up armloads from the prominent display of plastic sheeting used to weatherproof windows. But once home, I fling open all the windows wide, because it is sunny and eighty today.

If it's insensitive or just plain wrong to call this Indian Summer, maybe we could just call it the Play-Off Season. The Rockies versus the Phillies, eventually (or maybe not!) the Yanks against the Sox, the Cubs disappearing again, as is their wont. The blue skies playing off against the blue barrels. The pennants of the teams waving with just a little more snappiness than those of the fire hydrants. It's the play-offs; it's the best, the moment of enhanced awareness of what we have enjoyed in summer and what we expect from the winter. On the fulcrum, waving wildly.