Sunday, September 23, 2007

Saturday, Sept. 22

It looked like a perfect early fall afternoon, mostly sunny, cool but not cold, no breeze. I got out the electric hedge trimmer and cut back the ivy that was encroaching over the rockery onto the path. It was like giving the rockery a quick, neat haircut, and I could feel I’d made a major contribution to the tidiness and well-being of the yard in a mere half hour.

Part-way through the job, I put the hedge-trimmer down and went inside to knead bread dough and put it in a pan to rise. For the briefest instant, I remembered what it had felt like when this act had meaning, when making bread was part of a life in which my actions impacted other people. The life was changeable and unpredictable and could easily fall but it was also full of warmth and solid goodness—just like the process of making bread.

When you’re clearing up a yard or baking bread only for yourself, you have to invent meaning. You have to believe there’s something worthy and satisfying in this work. Mostly you have to invent the belief that what you are doing matters in a way that goes beyond just you. Otherwise it’s difficult to keep going.

The darkness of the day is the impending death of my 9-year-old Airedale, Keeper. She has an inoperable mast cell tumor on her right front foot and one lymph node affected. The veterinary oncologist gave me a Sophie’s choice (see the novel by William Styron) of treatments that might keep her alive for a few months with one or a few more with another—maybe--at varying high costs financially and emotionally. This is not a cancer that can be cured.

People generally ask for more life. I don’t know if dogs do because they live wholly in the present, able to accept what comes along more easily than we can and never subject to wishing they had done something differently. The question of what is morally right for the dog is more compelling to me than the question of what I want, yet it’s nearly impossible to separate out what I want. Too often when people talk about what is best for the dog, they mean what is best for themselves.

It is Yom Kippur today, a day of reckoning, of summing up the past year and resolving to do better in the next. A day, a season, a life, ending.

The thought keeps coming to me, “Just let her go.” That would be to give palliative care and let the disease run its course. The death from this kind of tumor, the vet told me, would not be painful. But I don’t know if that’s my wisdom or my fear speaking, don’t know how I’d manage the guilt afterwards. Humans are social creatures. I’d compare myself to those who spend thousands of dollars to give their dogs a few more months and feel guilty that I hadn’t done the same. I won’t know what I’ll decide until we’re back at the clinic Tuesday morning.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

fallen tree

The first gust of wind and a tree falls. There were no crack, whoosh, thud noises when it happened sometime last night, so I didn't even know until I went out back this morning. The tree didn't break--it was rotten at the base. So why couldn't it have fallen before I moved in?

I hadn't even had a chance to find out what kind of tree it is; it's not an ordinary one found in every back yard. I took a close-up of its "fruit." If someone happens to know what this is, please leave a comment.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Matilda's Dinner

Friday night I was talking to a friend on the phone when Matilda the cornsnake slid her head and a few inches of body out of her Kleenex box house. She lifted her head and opened her mouth wide in a yawn. I interrupted the conversation.

“Matilda just yawned! I never knew snakes yawned!”

“Wow,” said my friend. “Wish I’d seen it.”

We paused for a moment. I watched Matilda look around, find nothing interesting, then retreat back inside. “That’s it,” I said. “That’s my excitement for Friday night.”

Even more anti-climactic was the later thought that she might only have been adjusting her jaw the way a snake does after eating. They dislocate the lower jaw to swallow large objects—anything from newborn mouse to a pig, depending on the snake—then gape their mouths wide to resituate the jaw.

Matilda has been off her feed for nearly three weeks now, a terrible waste of mice as I offer her one each week, not knowing when she’ll get her appetite back. I tried feeding her again tonight. She’s big enough for adult mice now. I thaw one in warm water, blot it in a paper town, and lay it in her tank on top of the paper so that she won’t get aspen shavings mixed with her dinner. She always comes out to investigate, flicking her tongue all over the mouse and the paper. She really checks out that paper towel, maybe trying to figure out why it smells like mouse when it isn’t a mouse.

Smell and taste become the same thing with a snake. They smell by catching the scent molecules on their tongues and I assume we smell things by catching the molecules in our noses. We taste with our tongues but we can’t taste without smelling. A snake has all the same equipment; it’s just streamlined, sort of like tossing out all the extra belongings we don’t really need and getting by on the essentials without wasting anything.

Once again she didn’t eat it, though I wriggled it a bit to get her interested. Snakes can go a long time without eating and it’s not a problem. For them. I just wish she’d come up with some way to signal that she’s ready to eat so that I don’t have to keep throwing away mice. I hate wasting perfectly good food.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

the dreaded paint question

The basement room that is going to be my book room was a boy’s bedroom. It’s painted in an irritating combination of dark red on the lower half of the walls, bordered by white chair railing, and Laura Ashley blue on the upper half. There is one window a little above ground level. All week I’d go in there to unpack books and stare at the walls instead, give a shudder and leave. The bookshelves won’t hide all the walls unless I buy more shelves to fit the areas where the ceiling is lower. Could I live with this a few years? Which is worse, the red or the blue? Red is the most difficult color to paint over. There’s so much else to do and I’ve been really suffering without my books. But if I shelve the books, I’d have to take them all down again next year to paint the room. Maybe I’d just get used to it? (I run downstairs to take a look. Nope. Won’t get used to it.) I don’t even know anybody who has faced the same problem.

The other colors in this house are fine—the right shade of butter yellow in the living room and a soft sage green in the kitchen that looks surprisingly good. I wouldn’t have known how to choose a green like that for walls and am grateful to the previous owners for it. But they really slipped up in that boy’s room. Maybe the kid chose the colors.

I spent yesterday evening wrestling oak bookcases around in that room, having convinced myself not to paint it—some unwritten rule about living with it for a year first. I might break the rule. I needed to cut out a rectangle in the back of one of the bookcases to give access to an outlet, so I got my electric saw and realized it has been so long since I used it that I couldn’t remember how to insert the blade. Had to consult the directions. Lugged the saw downstairs. Lugged the new vacuum cleaner downstairs. Roughly figured out where to cut the opening and got a couple of vertical lines easily enough. When it came time to cut the horizontal lines, all the saw did was vibrate noisily against the backing, shaking the whole thing without cutting anything. I can cut up and down in this wood veneer and backing stuff but not side to side. The late spouse was able to cut neat rectangles for the outlets. I wound up with a pear-shaped hole with rough, ragged sides. As long as you only need access to the lower outlet, it’ll work; and its ugliness can be concealed behind books. This is not an auspicious start to “this old house” type repairs.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Meeting the house

The process of buying a house in this country is insane. You visit the house a few times, poke around—but not too much because, after all, this is someone else’s house and you were raised not to poke around in other people’s things—and then you sign over your soul and first-born child to buy a house you barely know. Marrying a complete stranger is probably less scary and expensive as long as you do a pre-nup. You can’t do a trial run with a house, can’t stay there a while to see how you get along together. You move in and you’re stuck.

You discover there are all kinds of planes and extra surfaces that will need to be dusted. You find all the little non-working things the house inspector didn’t find, like the faucet-thingies for the washing machine that need to be replaced and the fact that the hot and cold tubes are switched. I’m afraid to undo them in case I can’t get them back together. There’s the little room off the main bedroom into which I put two oak four-drawer file cabinets. It used to be a child’s nursery. After I put the files back in the drawers and know I will have to hire two strong men if those cabinets are to be moved again, I discovered the smell of urine embedded in the carpet somewhere. I restacked the boxes and sprayed all over with the enzymatic cleaner I use for the dogs. This stuff should be sold in the baby supply department, not just in pet stores. Everybody knows that dogs get house-trained faster than kids.

Then there’s the oven. I’ve never seen such a scary oven with so many controls. I’m used to cooking by turning a switch for the stovetop burner and turning a switch for the oven. Not here. I have to decide among lower oven, upper oven, convection and regular, burner size, warming zone, front burner and bridge burner, probe. So far I’ve cooked some lentils. I put the lentils and broth on the stove, brought them to a near boil, turned down the heat, and went off to do some unpacking. When I remembered the lentils, half had stuck to the pot but they hadn’t burned. That went well.