The part where she discovers she dowses

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Dowsing, the idea that two disparate objects can find one another based on mutual attraction, is much like the belief in love at first sight: one person holds his or her heart in hand, feels it bending toward another and discovers the person who will make one of two.

 

Practitioners of dowsing swear that by using a tree branch or rod, they can find water, minerals, or other objects buried in the earth. Love-at-first-sighters believe the heart needs only a glance to find true love.

Courtesy of Wikicommons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

I believe in dowsing as much as I believe in love at first sight, which is not at all. Dowsers have been subjected to testing and come up equal to chance. Love at first sight is the same. Chances are it will work out; chances are it won’t.

 

After I heard about dowsing when I was a child, I found a y-shaped tree branch and searched for water in the yard. Nothing happened. It turns out I didn’t need a stick to find the water that had already been discovered and conveniently came out of the outside faucet and through the garden hose into my thirsty mouth. I was as unlucky in dowsing as love at first sight. I did, however, later experience like at first sight, which led to love, but that is a different story.

 

I hadn’t thought of dowsing for decades until the other day when I realized I was a master dowser and had been for years. My dowsing is unique in that with my handy tool I find not things, but people; and not under the earth, but atop it.

 

The object used to find these people is a wheel with about a 15-inch diameter, and once it is in my hands, I achieve 100% accuracy in finding a particular kind of people: idiots.

 

The wheel I use is conveniently attached to my car, so I don’t have to carry it about. Once I pull out of the garage, the wheel instinctively leads me to idiots in other cars who don’t use their blinkers, who tailgate, who are clearly texting while driving, and who drive too much above or too far below the speed limit, or weave in and out of traffic curious to find out if everyone’s brakes still work. Unlike traditional dowsers who are looking for a desired object, I don’t seek these idiots out; my steering wheel finds them.

 

Unlike this steering wheel, mine is attached to a car. Courtesy of D-Kuru on Wikimedia Commons

Unlike this steering wheel, mine is attached to a car. Courtesy of D-Kuru on Wikimedia Commons

I don’t use the term idiot lightly. A person has to commit driving acts that jeopardize lives to fit the category. Drivers who take the parking spaces I want are not idiots, they are merely selfish.

 

Idiot dowsing is equal parts uncanny, unnerving, annoying, and disturbing (much like the extremely long sentence that follows). Idiocy here in northeastern Wisconsin is clearly on the rise based on the numbers I discover as I white-knuckle through traffic, using my blinkers; leaving space between me and the car ahead, which is immediately filled in by a speeding, lane-jumping lunatic, which causes me to create more space, leaving room for yet another lunatic, and so on until I am back to where I started even though I’ve been driving for half an hour – much like Wonderland Alice who was told by the Red Queen, “…here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place”); obeying (or practically obeying because what’s an extra 5 miles over) the speed limit; eschewing* phone use because I need both hands on the wheel to avoid the swervers; and identifying each nitwit by calling out loudly, “You idiot!”

 

I want, as is my wont, to remain positive and to avoid letting them figuratively and almost literally drive me crazy, so I have decided to keep a notebook like birders do. Yesterday I saw three red-hooded idiots, two Toyotan morons, a brown-headed blockhead, and a silver Cadillacan cretin. Imbeciles and muttonheads are almost too common to mention, but I intend to record them all. Mark my words (or at least my errors), future idiotologists will find my records valuable in tracking the increase of dunderheads in cars in Wisconsin.

 

*Each time the word eschew is used on this    blog, both the writer and reader are granted  one piece of dark chocolate. If you don’t likedark chocolate, please let me know and I will kindly eat your piece.

 

 

 

What’s cooking?

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Barbecue season in Wisconsin begins once the top of your grill is visible above the snow drifts and ends when the snow is so high it’s impossible to find your grill out on the deck.

 

 

Take a walk around the neighborhood on a Wisconsin summer evening and you are bound to smell steak, brats, venison burgers, salmon, hamburgers, hot dogs, or lake perch smoking on planks of cedar, sugar maple, black cherry, or golden alder.

 

 

Last week after our own non-grilled dinner, I sat on the couch reading a book while my husband relaxed in the recliner working on his computer, and the grandchild conducted a physics experiment in the bathtub to discover how much sloshing was needed to saturate the bathroom rug.

 

 

The next thing I know, a sweet smell saunters into the house, sits right next to my nose, and says, “Get a load of me.” So I do, and I say to my husband, “What smells so good?”

 

 

He takes a big whiff. “Must be Ray grilling.”

 

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The smell grows stronger and I get curiousier, so I walk outside to see what Ray is grilling in front of his garage. He isn’t. So I check out in the backyard, but he’s not on his deck either.

 

 

I look up and down the street, determined to find the source, but now I can’t smell it. I go back inside to check our oven. My husband is now as old as me and like so many people his age, forgetful. But it’s not that either. I check the basement, the back rooms, the laundry room, and the garage. I can’t catch a whiff of that pleasant smell anywhere except the living room.

 

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That’s when I noticed my hat. Earlier in the day I had been going in and out to work in the yard and had set my hat on top of the floor lamp. When I sat down to read after dinner, I turned on the lights and started slow cooking my hat.

 

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This method of cooking hemp hats allows the aroma to infuse the house.

 

Four years ago I bought that hat for my first trip to Europe and wore it the following two summers from England to France to Hungary to Russia. I have always counted on it to be on top of things, usually my head, but I counted wrong when I put it on top of the lamp.

 

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My smoking hot hat.

 

The first words of the grandchild after completing the bathtub science experiment were, “What’s that good smell?”

 

That sweet smell, child, is my hat, my hemp hat.

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Oddly a hat is also called a lid.

 

I ordered a new one, identical to the first, and will save my smoked version for fishing and gardening. I learned two things from my own experiment in hat cooking: one, a floor lamp does not make a good hat stand; and two, the saying “Put that in your hat and smoke it” can be as literal as it is figurative.

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This hat is still raw and crunchy.

Trickery and taxation

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The word sounds like a barroom brawl: Bam! Booze! All! But that’s part of the con because we’re talking about bamboozle, which means pure trickery or flimflammery.

 

 

The word shows up in England at the turn of the 18th century around the same time as the window tax – one of those not so transparent laws enacted by government officials to increase revenue, which turns out to be a pain for the taxpayer.

 

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At the time, the British people considered one’s annual income as personal and private as the number of one’s underpants and certainly none of the king’s concern. The only way for the king to get a peek at how much money people had was to empower the taxmen to become peeping Toms and report on the number of windows each dwelling had. More windows meant larger dwellings, meant people had more money, meant more tax revenue. To reduce their tax burden, people stonewalled the king by boarding and bricking up some of their windows. Darkening their dwellings seemed preferable to the government lightening their wallets.

 

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Oddly (at least to me) in 1694 two years before the window tax, An Act for the More Effectual Suppressing of Profane Swearing and Cursing passed, enacting fines on swearers and cursers everywhere. Without any historical evidence to back me up, I think the lawmakers were acting preemptively since they must have known the response the window tax would elicit.

 

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But back to the word that started this post.

 

 

No one knows exactly where the word bamboozle comes from. Its first written appearance is in a comedy performed in 1703, so it must have been used on the streets of London sometime before that.

 

 

In 1710 Jonathan Swift, best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, wrote a protest in the Tatler, a literary journal for gentlemen, lamenting what he perceived as the corruption of the English language, evidenced by “pretty Fellows” using only the first syllable of a word and leaving out the rest, omitting vowels, and inventing words like bamboozle. Swift claimed this “natural Tendency towards relapsing into Barbarity” would not end well for the words of the English language and says, “I am sure no other Nation will desire to borrow them.”

 

 

Swift is not the first language lamenter to be bamboozled by history. For several centuries now, English has been borrowed, taken home and let loose to swim in the Caribbean, play ice hockey, sport tattoos, ride elephants, wear a headdress, and dance the bomba — all before breakfast. It spends the rest of the day roaming the world, mingling with a thousand other languages, and borrowing a few words of its own.

 

 

English itself is a trickster, an ever-changing shape-shifter, untamable, as full of surprises as it is of annoyances (like like as a reporting verb), yet ever my own ears’ delight.

 

 

Bamboozle has never enjoyed the kind of popularity its close cousin cozen had in the early 1800s, but there’s something I love about those two pops of b’s exploding from my lips, ending with z’s flow of turbulent air suddenly blocked by the letter l and the tip of my tongue, as if to say, “Hold on there a minute. Where are you going, and what are you up to?”

 

 

And the answer? Spending the morning boarding up windows with the common folk, and the afternoon counting windows for the government.

Mother’s Day: In praise of benign neglect

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Mother

My mother breathed for me until I could breathe on my own, though apparently after I reluctantly squeezed through the channel into the outside world, I needed a slap on the bottom to start doing things on my own. This was to be a recurring pattern in my childhood.

 

 

Forcing me to breathe on my own was the first of mother’s insistence that I take responsibility for myself; she had her own life to live. Her job was to carry me through babyhood into childhood, where I could fend for myself.

 

She did her best: training me to sleep through the night by adding a bit of coffee to my bottle to keep me awake during the day, having me inoculated for the diseases she could and nursing me through the ones she couldn’t, teaching me to eat solid foods, introducing me to boxed cereal, dressing and shoeing me until I could make bizarre clothing choices on my own, and drilling in the necessity to shut the door when I went outside.

 

The trauma of getting me through my early years and up to the door-closing phase caused mother to forget the circumstances surrounding my birth, so the door drill was always accompanied by the question, “Were you born in a barn?” For all I knew or remembered I was, so if she couldn’t remember for me, how was I to know?

 

By the time I was four or five, I was free to leave home. I knew where the sugar-coated cereal was, and I knew that one coat was never enough; so after making sure the cereal was adequately dressed, I would eat my fill, find a mismatched pair of shorts and top, and go outside.

 

Childhood, I learned, took place outside. When adults were awake and in the house, we were told to go outside and play. Mother’s interest in what went on outside the house was limited to injuries involving a lot of blood, my own or others (if I were the cause of the blood-letting.) Other than that, I was free to roam around, engage in rock fights, create plays with my sister in the backyard, ride my bike around the neighborhood, experiment with smoking, set fires, and reassign the neighbors’ mail by taking it from one person’s mailbox and putting it in another’s.

 

For my major crimes, I was caught and punished, which kept me from careers in smoking, arson, and mail fraud. For the rest, I lived a life of my own choosing, a life largely unknown to my mother, as hers was to me.

 

Mother never felt the need to entertain me, hover over me, or know what I was up to. I discovered most of the world on my own – learned how to make and break alliances, how to climb a tree and watch the world, where to hide when I didn’t want to be found, how far I could go without losing my way, and when to come home.

 

Like so many mothers of that era, mother left me on my own for much of the time. I think of it as benign neglect, but it was really the freedom to find my way. I’m still doing that – finding my way, still making mistakes, and still watching the world.

 

Next month will be ten years since mother last breathed. Had I been able to breathe for her and keep her longer, I would have gladly done so. But that is something only the mother can do for the child.

 

Today, on Mother’s Day, I want to breathe life back into her memory and thank her for telling me to get out of the house, shut the door behind me, and go outside so I could discover the world on my own.

Spring is supposed to be the season when feathered hope sings

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Spring is supposed to be the season when feathered hope sings, yet the mother was alone with six little ones to care for. All of the responsibility for food and shelter rested on her. She found a small place not far from where I live, barely big enough for one, yet they all squeezed in. It was little more than a place to sleep, but it sheltered them. It would be easy to judge her for leaving the little ones alone when she went out looking for food. She always waited until dark and stole most of it from the neighbors.

 

 

A female alone at night has to think about personal safety. She did, but care for her offspring compelled her to take chances.

 

 

She managed, at least for a while. Two weeks or so ago, she didn’t come home. The six she left behind waited, used to her absences, yet confident she would return. She never did.

 

 

Then several days ago the last of the snow melted, and the half-past-cool of the thermometer lured my grandchild and me outside to pull up the dead plants in the garden box. Tugging the skeletal remains of last year’s petunias unearthed tufts of gray and white rabbit hair mixed with cut grass placed carefully over a small indentation in the earth. When we began to move away the hair and grass, we uncovered six small but perfectly formed bunnies nestled together. In spite of the carefully built nest, not one was alive.

 

 

Their fur-covered skin showed they were at least eight days old; a week later they could have left the nest and started eating the remaining plants in my garden like their mother.

 

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I laid out their small bodies on the dirt; and the two of us, grandchild and a grandmother, marveled at the grandeur before us. Such exquisite beauty hidden beneath the weeds. Life buried, created to rise up and live. All around us, life busied herself, greening the grass, sending up worms for the fat robins to tug out of the ground; and at our feet, death.

 

 

Last summer at the petting zoo, the two of us spent a good amount of time holding bunnies, feeling their hearts beat rapid and strong against our hands, like small drums calling us to dance, to breathe, and to embrace the sky. In the growing cold of this day though, no drumbeats were heard, only the grandchild wailing for the music that should have been.

 

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I could offer no comfort; we each must face this horror alone. Death attends every banquet life throws. We don’t always see her, but she’s there; and when you least expect it, she shows her gaunt face and stares at you with those eyes. Like black holes in space, you feel their power to draw you in, sense the pull of that ravenous hunger, intent on swallowing up the world. What can you do except wail?

 

 

After I gathered up the grass and tufts of hair, plucked by the mother from her own body, I placed them in a small bag. Then I gently laid the kits, as bunnies are also called, and put them in the garage. It was a small concession to the child, who believed that if we kept them, they would forever remain as they were in death.

 

 

This stubborn hope of the child made my heart ache and at the same time strangely comforted me. We are creatures of hope, living in a world of unspeakable wonder. And this stubborn hope is the ancient hope, as ancient as spring itself.

 

Winter is that boy your mother warned you about

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You know the one that can’t keep his hands off you. Always trying to touch your bare skin. Winter always goes too far; you can ask him to stop, but he never will.

 

He’s like that wild boy in high school that spent all his time trying to be cool. Every minute of every day, as if being cool was all that mattered.

 

 

Sure, he brings you lovely presents, like that a line of snow-covered trees glittering in the sun, pretty as a rhinestone bracelet. But he’s cold-hearted and time after time leaves you out in the cold.

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He likes to keep you guessing. One day he’ll warm up to you a bit, and the next day he’s standing in the street, shouting sleet at you, wearing that white muscle T-shirt and pushing you around.

 

He’ll chase you in and out of buildings; stalking you and moaning like a lovesick calf.

 

The relationship seemed so charming in the beginning when he would throw down that sparkly white carpet every time you walked out the door. For the holidays, he filled the sky with confetti, and you loved it. These last few months, though, you’ve been living in denial, telling yourself you can get used to it. But you can’t.

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Winter has a cold and bitter heart. He thinks that pinching your cheeks and fingertips so hard you almost cry is acceptable. If you’re not careful, you’ll start believing that his behavior is normal. That, my friend, is a slippery slope to slide down.

 

When you finally tell him to get lost, he will wait on your porch every morning and blast you when you walk out the door. And as if that weren’t enough harassment, at night he’ll come by and rattle your windows, huffing and puffing like the big bad wolf that he is.

 

Fool that you are, you think you can reason with him. You decide on a date that he will move on and out of your life. You get out your calendar and circle the day, embellishing it with flowers, hearts, and butterflies. (I really don’t know what your mother would say about that.)

 

Then on the very day marked for his departure, he shows up at your door, stomping his boots and flashing his icy blue eyes, as if to say, you are mine forever. Then he points to the trees he has decorated, and you have to slam the door shut because as mean as he is, he really is a great decorator.

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Me? I’m done with him. One of us has got to get out of town. If he’s not gone by the end of April, I’m going to have to leave or get some counseling.

 

Click the links to find the photographers: 
Snow pond   Firs   Rime

 

 

 

 

 

The strangeness of mercy

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One way to look at it is that I was born a child of mischief; one who rebelled within the womb, refusing to appear as the long-expected son of my father, and arrived as a girl instead.

Probably taken after I got caught doing something naughty. That's me not smiling.

Probably taken after I got caught doing something naughty. That’s me not smiling.

In the narrative of my own creation, a bad-natured fairy sprinkled me with fairy dust composed of curiosity, naughtiness, and a bit of bad luck. How else explain that I rarely got away with anything, and my older sister almost always did.

 

I disliked getting caught and punished and tried to cover my tracks, but sooner or later my sins found me out, barking and baying until someone in authority – parents or teachers – nabbed me.

 

None of my punishments lessened my curiosity or desire to explore the forbidden – cigarettes, the sugar bowl, other people’s mail, or the contents of my parents’ dresser. Curiosity, which killed the cat, just gave me a sore bottom.

 

Years later I realized how I had mistaken mercy for bad-naturedness on the part of that fairy. If I had had the bad luck to get away with all of my naughtiness, I would probably be writing my blog from a jail cell. (Of course, there’s no way to be sure I’m not; you’ll just have to take my word for it.)

 

Getting caught helped me understand consequences in a way nothing else could. I thought of this last month when someone sideswiped my car in the campus parking lot.

 

The first thing I noticed when I approached my car as I was leaving school was a rectangular piece of black plastic lying on the ground near my bumper. It was a car license plate sheathed in a plastic holder lying upside down. I picked it up to place it on a snow mound so the driver could see it when he or she returned, and that’s when I noticed the damage to the side of my car.

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I contacted school security, explained the situation, and gave them the license plate number. It didn’t take long to track down the individual, based on his school-parking permit. He assured the security officers that he had written me a note and placed it on my windshield.

 

In this tale, the wind, angry with him perhaps for some long-forgotten curse against its coldness, tore the note away, carrying it far from the parking lot. And while he was placing the note on my windshield, no doubt taking full responsibility for what he had done and overcome by remorse, his tear-filled eyes apparently failed to see his fallen license plate, black on white, doing its best to be seen.

 

This story made me smile, and would have even been plausible if there had been any wind that day, or if the snow which wasn’t falling that day had temporarily blinded him so he couldn’t see  the license plate lying there in plain sight, letting all the world know where to find him. Nevertheless, I agreed that it was a good story that could have happened and not too bad for a first draft.

 

His insurance paid for the damage; and one hopes, next time he really will leave a note. I didn’t report him to the city police. Had I done so, he would have been charged with leaving the scene of an accident.

 

He’s a young man yet and has a chance to learn that the best stories are true whether they really happened or not. I like to think we were dusted by the same fairy, fated to get away with nothing.

 

Though he may view me now as a bad-natured old woman, who uncovered his furtive deed and caused his insurance rates to go up, I have hope that one day he will see me as a merciful old woman who helped him get caught – just in time.

 

License photo: Alias 0591 from the Netherlands