Wednesday, April 29

Spring Porch Poem

Today was the day the Spring poem went up on the front porch. This has nothing to do with anything, except the return of Spring, and this poem from Mary Oliver, which is only one of her poems that I love, so enjoy:

From The Book of Time

I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk.
But it's spring,

and the thrush is in the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass.

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the word, without us,
is the real poem.

Sunday, April 26

Ducks at the Door: April Rituals in the Wetlands

I finally sent in my taxes right before April 15, taking a deep breath and closing my eyes and stabbing at the keyboard to send them off to the IRS. They've been done, in some fashion, since February, since the day right before another Deadline of Financial Dread: FAFSA Due Date, but since you don't have to actually submit your taxes for that filing, just to know the figures, I hung onto the cyber-1040 for another two months. To me, who has lived in dread of audit ever since my accountant/husband walked out on me, procrastinating filing is as natural and sensible a decision as putting off serving a jail sentence and, possibly, even the very same thing.

You see, I am one of these people, yes, "those people," who have absolutely no interest or skill or really any desire to gain either interest or skill in matters financial. It made my former husband crazy, it makes my department's benefits advisor crazy, it makes my taxes crazy. In the years since I lost my personal accountant, my taxes have varied like the temperatures of Colorado: I'll pay thousands one year, receive thousands back in refunds the next. Some years I have actually packed an overnight bag and kept it near the front door so when the IRS suits appear at my front door I am ready to go docilely to prison. There is no way on earth I could ever defend anything I have written on my tax forms. Going to prison would be much easier and probably a lot more interesting, too. Think of the reading and writing time you'd get! I have to assume they would allow me a pen, even if if it is mightier than a sword; they even allow them on airplanes despite their lethal potential. I wonder if the TSA people have considered this.

But I started this blog after darting out to pluck my Sunday Times out of the rain puddle below my front porch. If you scroll through the photos to the left on this page to the one of my house, you may notice that the front porch is ample, big enough for several bikes, a glider, a deck chair, a massed clutter of dead plants in ceramic pots, a cluster of shovels and rakes and ice picks, and even a cooler for the neighbors' milk delivery every Wednesday, since their porch didn't have room for it. You'd think the newspaper delivery man could get the newspaper onto this kind of porch, but apparently it is easier to target the puddle just below it, the one that is approximately two square feet in size. He reliably gets the paper exactly into the puddle and only when the puddle's dried up does the paper ever make it onto the porch. Whatever happened to newspaper carriers anyway? When did they turn into middle aged men who've long since lost their throwing arm?

I started this blog today because it is pouring again, and it poured all day yesterday, too, and the lakes and rivers are all up to their banks again or a little over, and the ducks are very happy with all this, but we humans are a little sick of ducks' pre-emptory attitude of entitlement at this time of year, crossing streets regardless of crosswalks, making cars come to complete stops in the middle of rush hour. And nesting, nesting everywhere. In backyards and brush piles. On porches, sometimes you'll see them, pecking like jackhammers until you open the door to them: "Quack, quack, now cut the small talk, girl. Don't pretend you don't know. Yes, the pond in your basement. We heard you called the Pump-It-Out Squad again last night, and we want in on it, too." This is not a time of year to mess with the ducks. They are all strutting around in pairs, the drab female waddling first, the green-headed male pacing a frantic zigzag course behind her, glaring at each and every comer with eyes malignant with hostility: "Don't mess with her, fella. She's mine, she's all mine." They are extremely territorial right now; when they show up at your front door and ask the way to the pond in your basement, you just step aside and wave them on in. Sort of like G-men in this, I imagine.

So,yes. Back to the G-men. Back to taxes. Back to the flooding that seems to go on here as a matter of fact every springtime now that global warming is a way of life. Last year, it was particularly bad; in fact the southern third of the state still bears its footprint, a footprint filled with water (several new lakes, that used to be low-lying farmland) or not (the absent Lake Delton, which emptied last year when a dam on the river broke loose). And apparently, the floods still exist in our financial memory, too; after hitting my SEND button and going off to work to brag about my improved sense of self-worth now that the miserable deed was done, my co-workers asked if I'd received the doubled education credit for college education costs.

What doubled education credit, I had to ask blankly, regretting already having so blithely hit ENTER when there were at least ten hours remaining til the deadline. Apparently, since we lived here during last spring's flooding, part of an official federal disaster recovery plan along with my personal disaster recovery plan, we get extra money credited to us for our dependent's college costs. I, of course, did not, but all the attentive, responsible, and erstwhile good people of the state did, which is the greater part of Wisconsin's population, and I am vaguely happy for them in their newfound, largely undeserved wealth. I just hope all those poor victims of Hurricane Katrina had some benefit like this when their lives were truly destroyed, because our lives were in fact, hardly affected at all by last spring's flooding, unless you consider things like the ducks at the door and the ponds in the basement, which are, after all, to be expected when you live in a place as soggy and full of lakes and rivers as is Wisconsin.

But April's nearly over. Baseball's begun. And the name of Madison's minor league team? Of course! The Mallards.

Friday, April 24

God's In Her World and All's Right With This Heaven

There is absolutely no place on earth I'd rather be on a beautiful day like today than a college campus. You know, the old part of a college campus, the part that has grass in a quadrilateral shape among old buildings made of brick and stone, the assurance that knowledge really does pass from one generation to the next, is not blown away with an easy puff of whimsy or a vicious blast of fate. On the UW campus, it's Bascom Hill, and I have the privilege of working in a building right on top of that hill, my office overlooking Lake Mendota, my students overlooking my weak and warped sense of humor and my predilection for poppish music.

I love being here, there, on this campus that once did its best to educate me. When I was interviewed for the job I now hold last October, I left the second round of interviews on a gorgeous Fall day, perhaps the seasonal equivalent of today's Spring perfection, and vowed to myself that I would be forever happy if only I could walk up Bascom Hill every day. Arguably, I could have done so, I suppose, whether or not I got the job, but somehow the feat seems more likely when there's a reason to make the trek up the big hill. Because it is a big hill. And I have been happy every day when I walk up that steep hill; it has now been six months.

Tomorrow I get to run up that hill Tomorrow is Crazylegs, the biggest race in Madison's busy race season. I'm running in it for the second time, hoping to beat last year's time by at least a few minutes, which I think is very possible if my recent injury doesn't flare up again. This is Madison's closest approximation of Boulder's great 10K, the Memorial Day Bolder Boulder. The fact that Crazylegs is only an 8K is a fairly good comparison of the two events; Crazylegs is maybe 4/5 the race that the BB is: MAYBE. The two biggest things they have in common are wave starts and stadium endings. That, and thousands of runners.

And all this brings me back to the enormous beauty of this perfect Spring day, a day to make everyone happy, except the young man fron Nigeria who was in my office twice today, wearing long pants and a heavy sweater and both times perspiring profusely from his march up the difficult hill. You never want to be so maternal or personal as to suggest in a kind tone of voice, "You might feel better if you removed that heavy sweater, dear," especially when the person you're addressing is from a foreign culture; I mean, who knows on what customs or circumstances you're trouncing? But for everyone but him, today Madison was absolutely perfect. By the time I rode my bike home from work, all the restaurants had set up their outdoor dining areas for the season and they all were full of happy, sunburned people.

And it makes me think of Ann Patchett's fifth novel, "Run," which came out last year. I can't cite this exactly, because I promptly sent off my copy of the book to a friend I thought would like it and am still waiting for it to return to me, but there's this wonderful secondary character in the story, Father Sullivan, I believe was his name, who is at the end of a long and devoted ministry of Catholicism, about to face his own death after administering the Last Rites to many others. And he wonders if he was wrong. "What if this is Heaven, right now, right here?" he wonders, in effect (I can't be sure since I don't have the book any more). "What if I've missed the chance to enjoy Heaven right here because I was so focused on life in some hereafter?"

That is all paraphrased and probably not very accurate. But in the proper context and language of Patchett's book, the agony of the dying priest is acute and moving, and resonated loudly enough that I am still trying to quote it though I only read it once and perhaps never will have the book back to read again. This earth is heaven, for me at least, and on no day is it more clearly heaven than on a day like today, when the first fleet of sailboats zips across the white-capped lake, and earnest TAs are gathering their crops of young undergraduates around them in circles on the lawns next to all the classroom buildings, and everyone's in love and everyone feels sexy, and God is in this very heaven and all's, for this one moment on my son's twenty-first birthday, all's right with the world and with me.

Wednesday, April 22

The Good Earthday Birthday

Earth Day. What a great day to celebrate. Why don't we celebrate it more? Many school districts in Wisconsin still let out students for Good Friday, but the best we get to honor the ground under our feet is a school assembly, perhaps, in some uncomfortable overheated gymnasium followed by a litter pick-up of the school yard. And this is in the state where the great Gaylord Nelson lived, the founder of Earth Day and one of the greatest political men to grace this century. Nelson is to Earth Day what Santa is to Christmas, what Jesus is to Easter, what Zorro is to Masked Champions of Justice Day, Al Gore is a small man next to Gaylord, and Al Gore is one heck of a big man by all earthly and ecological standards.

Why don't we have a real holiday on Earth Day? Couldn't we maybe combine Veteran's Day and Memorial Day into one super parade of soldiers day? No one really knows what to do on Veteran's Day, anyway. There are so many amazing ways every single one of us could celebrate a national holiday honoring our planet. You could even pick litter out of the hedgerow round the school yard if that really was what you thought important. Or you might plant your garden or your starter peat pots, depending on your climate. Go all day without using a motor. Go all day without using electricity. Hang your laundry outside and remember what it smells like to sleep between sun-kissed linens. Now there's a fantastic cure for insomnia!

It appalls me that Wisconisn schools quietly continue observing Good Friday as a holiday. Oh, they don't call it that, but it is, and sometimes, even here in the liberal hotbed of Madison, they sneak in something called Easter Monday, too. My neighbors, both educators and moms of grade school kids as well, told me that this year, when it struck me as odd that they all were at home on a Monday. Apparently, Madison, in true liberal style, vacillates on religion along with every other issue, using an every-other-year formula to schedule its Spring Break: one year following the University's irreligious calendar, the next the church calendar. Is this what is meant by the separation of church and state? And Easter apparently includes this day I've never heard of before: Easter Monday. I mean, what happened on Easter Monday? Is it sort of like Boxing Day? Do we pack up the schnibbles of green plastic Easter grass that have escaped from the baskets of Easter eggs and insinuated themselves not only into every corner of the house, but to the sleeve of every sweater we own as well? Easter Monday? It makes me think of a Jesus coming out of the grave, looking around, and seeing no one of particular interest, going back into the grave, giving us another month of winter. No one likes going back to work on Monday, not even the Savior, I guess.

So Happy Earthday Birthday. My son turns 21 in two more days, and when he was a first grader, we celebrated with an Earthday Birthday party. We played "Clean Up My Backyard" over a badminton net, with wads of old newspapers batted and flung over the net from side to side in a race to clean one team's lawn space completely. We played a variation of my childhood game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey by directing blindfolded children holding big sopping wet sponges toward an Evil Ecological Villian I'd painted on the wooden privacy fence in my backyard. We swung on "vines" draped off the crabapple tree branches over a small swimming pool filled with blue jello and crocodiles in danger of extinction. Oh we had fun and so could we all..if Earth Day were not a work day and Good Friday was left for religions to celebrate, not school children.

It is our Good Earth we should celebrate; our Good Earth we need to protect. Taking a day off on Good Friday does very little for Jesus, whose fate seems relatively decided already, but taking a day off could be amazing for the Earth, especially if we all declined to drive for a day or to use our dishwashers for a day or we prepared our gardens to grow vegetables that will feed us without chemicals this summer. Our earth. Our good earth.

Which brings to mind another great Wisconsinite: Edna Ferber, who went to high school in the same little northern city I did: Appleton. I'll have to write about Edna another time. More on Gaylord, too. Meanwhile, Happy Earth Day.

And thanks, Gaylord, if you're listening somehow.

Tuesday, April 21

Of Springboards and Seesaws Somehow

Seems no matter where you live, the locals love to remind you, "Don't like the weather today? Wait until tomorrow!" Some day I'm going to visit sub-Saharan Africa, and if I find anyone who speaks any of the same languages I do, I'm going to complain about the weather, whining in passable yet somehow excruciating French, "La chaleur ici est vraiment insupportable!" and then bat my eyelashes winsomely from under the shroud of my hijab. Uncharmed, my guides will stare back at me evenly, and respond, in perfect English, "Don't like the weather today? Wait until tomorrow!" Frankly, I have never been entirely sure whether this response is meant as a threat or a consolation.

But here, in Wisconsin, in April, it's simply God's own truth. This Saturday, I spent the whole day outside. A long, tiring, exhilarating run through the incubator of conservatism (Appleton) which turned me into a full-blown youthful radical, a run in a seasonal first: running shorts and that hottest of enduring fashion items, the racing singlet. The rest of the day was spent cleaning up the lawn and gardens at my parents' home. The temperature reached seventy. I reached a pale nuance of amber, if you look closely between the freckles and mottlings of middle age.

The next day the temps plummeted thirty degrees and it rained all day. When I arrived at my own house, back in Madison, little Gemma from next door was splashing around in stylish red rainboots and a bright yellow slicker. Together, in the downpour, we managed to save the tree fairy's house on my terrace strip from flooding. Spring rain storms don't get much better than that, unless your parents are careless enough to let you play in the street gutters, blocking the water flow with dams beyond which all leaves inevitably float all the way to McElligot's pool. And if you don't remember McElligot's Pool, well, shame on you and go back to kindergarten: do not pass GO or collect $200. Some parts of childhood, like the appeal of shiny rubbery rain boots and Dr Seuss books, should never be forgotten.

And today it is snowing. Yep. Snowing. Not like they had in Colorado last week, reminding me all too sadly of the Spring Break trip to Italy that was cancelled one year when I lived back there, the tonnage of wet spring snow on the spires of the DIA terminal roof ripping under the pooled wet of a similar spring snowstorm. But still, it's snowing. I had to dig out my mittens again. And what do I say when a colleague complains of it? Like the truly reborn Wisconsinite I'm slowly becoming, I extricate the toothpick from the bite of my teeth, yawn widely and unabashedly, and mutter, in that hard to master speech of a population always reluctant to move their lips too much, "Just wait until tomorrow."