Looking For A Good Time

Last week I enjoyed a video a friend sent me of gorillas romping in heaps of fallen leaves. Riding the exercise bike a few minutes later, I turned on the television and landed on an enchanting nature show featuring animals at play—lion cubs, penguins, puppies, dolphins. After that, on my way up the stairs, I was ambushed by my spring-crazed cat. He had been hiding behind a door, waiting for me. I took these events as a sign, a reminder that I had a whole day ahead of me in which to have fun, or not.

At the plant nursery where I work there is an arching wooden bridge. In the winter it spans a river of rainwater; in the summer it turns whimsical, serving no function other than to delight the children who are compelled to run over it, again and again. Another attraction are the fountains. Children are charmed by water and will head for it like baby sea turtles. Their joyful shrieks carry across the nursery as they thrust their hands into the basins and splash the water this way and that. Color enchants them, too. They always make a beeline for the water wands, which come in an assortment of delicious colors. Product designers understand that color is fun, and even adults can’t resist that rainbow display. We sell a lot of water wands.

Children are masters of play. I’ve often wondered why this is so, why we lose the capacity for fun as we get older. We have our grown-up games of course—Scrabble and poker, Wii and Xbox, tennis and bowling. But these are games with an end point, a goal. Even individual sports like hang-gliding or cliff jumping require planning and risk assessment, a competition with oneself.

Children don’t pause to consider themselves; they just plunge into whatever catches their attention. They do not know that being alive means being in peril. They have no idea that their chances are slimming, that summers are not long, that one day they won’t be here. When they start skipping, when they make stone soup, when they build forts out of chairs and blankets, they are living in the only realm they will ever own. Running without reins, they are free because they don’t know it.

While we may no longer feel the urge to build forts or splash in fountains, we adults still lose ourselves now and then. Alone in our homes, we might break out in dance, or grab a spatula and start singing into it. In quieter moments, we can disappear into our passions: fossil collecting, product design, painting. As a writer, I lose myself not only in composition, but in research as well. There are many way to escape the tyranny of time, if only for a few hours.

It is said that a person who is living well makes no distinction between her work and her play, and this is certainly true for those lucky enough to love their jobs. Most of us can’t make that claim. We labor to pay the bills, and then we labor at home, and what free time we have is spent driving from one store or business to another. After a few months of this, we reward ourselves with a vacation that never feels adequate because we have leveraged too much on it.

I’m wondering if we can trick our stodgy selves by wringing more joy out of our daily lives, if, like children, we could make our own fun? We could start small, maybe with accessories, adding a scarf, a lapel pin. We could pour our coffee into china instead of a mug. Taking a cue from Martha Stewart, we could decorate the dining room table with fall leaves and fruit. We could smile at everyone we encounter and see what they do. We could make it a game.

There’s a woman in town who drives an old Cadillac on which she has glued hundreds of tiny toys. There is a couple down the street who have turned their front yard into a fairyland of handmade stone castles. The woman next door takes photos of neighborhood dogs, then turns them into Christmas ornaments she gives to the owners.

How hard could it be to have a little more fun each day? A child can do it.

Last Words

I was not with my mother when she died. No one was. She slipped away from this world during the night, leaving on her own terms, unaccountable into eternity.

I don’t think she passed away in her sleep; I’m not sure it’s even possible to cross the cosmic threshold with no awareness. In any case, I know she would have wanted to be there, eyes wide open. She always said she was more curious about death than afraid. Which impressed me.

I wish there had been more warning, time enough to get on a plane. My sister reported that my mother was seeing and talking to people who were not there, behavior we interpreted as confusion caused by her poor circulation. In fact, she was actively dying, moving farther and farther away from us as she journeyed on alone.

No one had told us that the dying often see what the rest of don’t, will speak to these phantoms in a manner so earnest we begin to doubt our own senses. Is heaven real, has a corner lifted? Or do the minds of our loved ones, unmoored from the task of living, fall back to the beginning? It must be boundless, that realm, a place of infinite odds, free of time and fact and meaning.

What we wanted, my sisters and I, was a tender farewell, a few moments of clarity culminating in the absolution of mercy. Isn’t that what we all want at this point, a last swipe at honesty? 

Rarely do these Hallmark moments arrive. Sometimes death is swifter than anticipated. Sometimes we are denied access, for any number of sad reasons. There are those who take their grudges with them as if, at the end of life, there might be a prize for bitterness.

Often the dying will drift into a comatose state, unable to see or speak. They may still be able to hear, but what they understand is anyone’s guess. Essentially, they are walled off, immune to our needs. My partner’s mother, May, died in this manner, leaving me shortchanged, stranded, unable to plead my case. I will never know why she didn’t like me—not that I would have asked, not that she would have told me. There was no way to access May’s inner workings. She shunned any real conversation, refused to spill a drop of herself.

Sometimes the last words we hear from someone are careless, unfortunate. A friend of mine was engaged in a minor family squabble in her mother’s hospital room. Annoyed, her mother muttered, “Shut up, Donna,” before falling silent herself, forever. Donna told me it felt like being given a sharp-edged stone she couldn’t put down.

The words we most long for at the end are among the most hackneyed and abused. Surprisingly, “I love you” and “I’m sorry” still hold their value and work like magic. Hearing them restores and empowers us, wipes the slate clean.

I never heard my mother apologize for anything, and I don’t believe she would have broken with tradition on her deathbed. She held her four children at arm’s length, as if intimacy was a gamble not worth taking. “Cope,” she’d say when we came to her with our problems, a response that became her signature. We laugh about it now, my sisters and I, tossing the word around like a ball. 

She was funny, resourceful, unquestionably smart. She decorated for the holidays, painted Easter eggs, put underwear on the dog for amusement. She sewed like mad, ironed our clothes, made the best boxed lunches ever. The fun leached out of her when we grew into adolescents—perhaps we reminded her of her lost youth—but back then she fulfilled her duty. There was only one rule she ignored: she did not keep us safe.

It is difficult for me to believe that my mother didn’t know what my father was up to, at night in our rooms. He was that reckless, that lawless. And cruel too, in ways too hideous to relate. I shed him when I was 15, molted everything but the damage and moved on, even changed my last name for good measure. He died a few years ago, news that made no difference to me. I did wonder what I would have felt had I felt anything at all. That’s how good I was at erasing him from the life he left me with.

Last time I saw him was in a store, over 50 years ago. I was searching through blouses and there he was, dangerously close, his face a sudden, chilling fact. We said whatever we said and then I got away, something I couldn’t do when I was a child, when wonder and terror were my only options: one moment gaping at clouds, the next hiding in the woods. From behind the trees I could see our house, knew he was in there, prowling. I used to wish I had seen him before he died and told him what a waste of life he was. But you can’t wound a sociopath, so I guess it doesn’t matter that I never got my say.

Frankly, I can’t see any point in fathers, and what’s a mother love if it doesn’t have teeth? Fathers, mothers, children—maybe we’re all expecting too much and failing under the pressure. Are we ever what the other had in mind? Maybe we should go back to living in tribes and avoid these unhealthy bonds.

My mother wasn’t big on hugs. She had no interest in her grandchildren. She wasn’t concerned about Roe v Wade being overturned because she was past the age of fertility. Still, when I saw a little old woman yesterday bent over her shopping cart, peering through thick glasses, her short hair flattened to her skull, her thin legs in navy blue sweatpants, the pain took my breath away.

Recently, I found a photo of her I had forgotten. She was smiling at someone, or something, the answer to that question glinting off her glasses. I thought I knew her face and all its guises, but this was a smile I had never seen. There was her youth in it, and a weary sort of contentment, as if her battles were behind her, or so she believed. It was a smile that knew nothing of the years to come, and all the things she could have done, would have done, differently. She was her own woman, not easy to know or love, but each time I look at this picture I want to warn her, to show her a path more yielding, and if that’s not love what is?

If I had reached my mother in time, if I had held her hands in mine and looked into her fading eyes, what would we have said to each other? I can’t imagine I would have asked her the question I wanted to ask all my life. Her answer would not have been reliable and what use was the truth anyway?

“I forgive you,” I might have whispered, washing the slate clean myself. But she was dying, and those were not the words I would have her carry into the hereafter. “I love you,” I would have said and left it at that.

Fossil Identification

When I am not writing or painting, you can often find me hunting for fossils. I found this specimen in Northern California. 3″ long, 2″ wide and high, it is extremely dense and partially agatized. Several fossil enthusiasts have weighed in but it remains unidentified; it may not be a fossil at all. I would greatly appreciate anyone’s guesses.

New Poem in Shot Glass Journal

My deep thanks to the editors at Shot Glass Journal for publishing my poem Some Days in Issue #38.

“Shot Glass Journal is an on-line poetry journal devoted to short poetry. Where other poetry journals publish poems of various lengths and forms, Shot Glass focuses on both free verse and form poetry of 16 lines or less. Shot Glass Journal believes in fostering emerging talent as well as publishing well established poets. Why only short poetry? It is far more difficult to capture a message in fewer words and still have an effect on a reader. Shot Glass is dedicated to those poets who have much to say in the fewest words possible. As William Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘…brevity is the soul of wit…'”

Time Enough

How we view time can be a source of comfort or pain. Many people, particularly eastern cultures, adhere to the belief that we live any number of lives: time is seen as cyclical and forgiving. Westerners tend to see time as linear, something we use up, something we never have enough of.

Whatever our beliefs, we all know that the lives we are living now will one day end. This knowledge is the ultimate spoiler, the price we pay for having a neocortex. Other animals are not saddled with this awareness—at least I assume, I hope, they are not.

In 1777 the British explorer Captain Cook gave a newly hatched tortoise to a royal family in Polynesia, who kept the creature as a pet until it died of natural causes 188 years later. That turtle pulled its heavy self across the ground, presumably the same well-worn ground, for 68,620 days. Was it weary by then? Bored? Might it have opted for a life half as long?

On the other end of the spectrum is the mayfly, a creature whose adult life amounts to less than a day; in some species, just a few minutes. The larval versions, naiads, can live up to a year, during which they hide in aquatic debris and progress through several stages—instars—before growing a pair of wings and becoming immature adults. The winged juveniles last no longer than the final version and are not sexually viable until a few hours later, when they emerge from their last molt with features unique in the insect world, paired genitals: two penises for the males and two gonopores for the females. They do not feed: their mouths are useless and their digestive tracks are filled with air. This day, their first and last on earth, all they do is mate—little wonder our creator doubled up on their genitalia.

Like locusts, mayflies “hatch” in stupendous numbers, trillions at a time. The males begin swarming over a river and the females fly into this mass. With specialized legs, the male grab a female and copulation takes place in mid-air, after which the female falls to the water’s surface and lays her eggs before dying. The spent females cover the water, providing a feast for the fish below. The males fly off to die on land, a boon to local birds.

Even the waiting wildlife cannot keep pace with these mayfly windfalls, and in some municipalities snow plows are deployed to clear away the mountains of corpses. While Americans consider mayflies a nuisance, tribes in Africa make nutritious patties out of them.

It would seem that a mayfly’s fleeting life amounts to nothing more than sustenance for larger creatures. Mayflies, all 2500 species of them, are designed as sacrifices, put here for the greater good. Twenty-four hours is all the time they are given and all the time they need.

The ancient Greeks had a saying:

“There is not a short life or a long life.
There is only the life that you have,
and the life you have is the life you are given,
the life you work with.
It has its own shape, describes its own arc, and is perfect.”

A whole life in one day. It must be glorious.

Lyme Ticks and Ladybugs

For nine to ten months each year the male bowerbirds of New Guinea work on their bowers. The style of the bower depends on the species. “Maypole” builders place hundreds of sticks around a sapling, winding up with a great mushroom-shaped structure. Other birds create “avenue” bowers, vertical rows of twigs imbedded in the earth between a narrow passageway. After construction, some of the more fastidious males will use their sharp beaks to paint the inside walls with plant juices. Finally, the birds begin to decorate, using whatever strikes their fancy: hunks of moss, red berries, silver snail shells, golden leaves, flowers, feathers, stones. Their whimsy extends even to manmade items: discarded batteries, toothbrushes, coins, nails, rifle shells, pieces of glass, strips of cellophane. Color is important. Some bowerbirds favor blue tones, while others prefer white or orange. Work is never quite finished; the birds spend weeks rearranging their treasures and adding to the plunder―stealing from one another is a common practice.

And the purpose of these sylvan palaces? It’s the same old story: seduction. Year after year these indefatigable birds give everything they’ve got for the chance to spend a few glorious seconds on the back of a female. Rich in suitors, the female bowerbird flies from one endeavor to another, assessing and rejecting, till she finally lands on the threshold of the bower she likes best. Sometimes she obliges the waiting male right away; other times she requires coaxing and the frenzied male will offer her gifts, a blue paperclip, an orange leaf. If these fail him, he will strut back and forth, extending his wings and chattering loudly so that she can see what a superb specimen he is. Many females end up selecting the same male and returning to him the next year, paring the chances for the other males whose efforts are nonetheless worthy.

So what becomes of all the bowers that don’t make the cut? Do they fall into disrepair, victims of time and weather? Or do the builders themselves do the dismantling, starting from scratch each fall, their bird brains brimming with fresh ideas?

I have no trouble believing that the initial impulse to build a bower is a reproductive imperative. At some point, though―perhaps after the forty-eighth golden leaf, the first dozen blue parrot feathers—I think this primal urge is forgotten and what drives the male after that is his own enthusiasm, craft turned to ecstasy. For what difference would it make to the no-nonsense, time-constrained female that there are thirteen parrot feathers instead of twelve, or that the interior, which she may not even bother to inspect, is freshly painted?

Only to the builder does every leaf and feather matter; each year, from fall through spring, nothing matters more. That his work may be in vain is something he is not prepared to ponder.

People, on the other hand, expect reward. The formulas we are taught—hard work equals success, healthy living ensures longevity, good deeds bring good luck―these ideas die hard and not without bitterness. Our house is blown away; the tumor is malignant; the dog we adopted gets hit by a car. “It’s not fair,” we cry; moreover it doesn’t make sense. Why would God allow such things? Why are we sharing our home with polio and salmonella and brown recluse spiders? Where is the virtue in poisonous toadstools and powdery mildew? Indeed, our madcap inventor seems to have as much interest in the growth of a fungus as he does a fetus.

Whatever your religious views, one thing is certain: a long time ago this ball got rolling and a force we can’t fathom gave it the nudge. From that point on, life never looked back.

Consider the extravagance of species on this planet: 140 kinds of sparrows, and every one of them changing, each generation bringing better beaks, designer tails, new come-hither stripes. So many versions of a small brown bird, all of them vying for a little more time. Why not, say, a dozen species? Wouldn’t that be a sufficient sparrow allotment? Why is the earth burdening itself with this colossal balancing act?

Watching children play or dolphins leap or eagles soar, it’s easy to conclude that life is fun, that we are put here to enjoy ourselves. Take male lions, which spend their days on grassy plains, dozing in the sun, dining on warm fresh prey, thanks to the prowess of their harems. Then take a look at male emperor penguins, which spend long winters on open ice, huddled together for warmth, risking starvation, a single precious egg balanced on their frigid feet. A tortoise trudges along for well over a century; a mayfly gets less than a day. One bird scores a mate with just a couple songs, while another must build a palace. Not one of these creatures knows the difference. “Why” is a question we might all do without.

To be born is to have worth. Lucky or not, lovely or not, everything on this busy blue orb gets a fighting chance to do its best. Rust and roses. Slugs and swans. Lyme ticks and ladybugs.

Does it feel good to be a ladybug? We can’t say. All we can witness is the effort: one tiny being earning its life.

It hurts to be alive, too much and too often for pleasure to be the point; much of the time we manage without it. Now and again we are taken by surprise. In the oddest moments—spreading mulch, washing a plate, buttoning a child’s coat—we are suddenly, inexplicably, happy. For the bowerbird, whose life amounts to little more than labor, the joy is built right in.

Consider the Sloth

Two-toed sloth hanging from a tree in the jungle in Costa Rica.

Do animals think? Countless experiments have been undertaken to answer this question and the consensus is: Yes, they do.

I guess I’ve always considered this answer fairly obvious. How would creatures survive if they couldn’t evaluate situations and make appropriate decisions? Lionesses form collective hunts. Crows drop their walnuts into the path of vehicles. Beavers adjust the logs in their dams to control water levels. Plovers fake a broken wing to lure predators away from their nests. God knows what chimps and parrots are capable of.

When they are not trying to acquire food or protect their young or get attention, what do animals think about? When a lion has finished his dinner and is gazing out on the African plain, what is going on in his feline mind?

The sloth. Now there’s an animal with plenty of time to mull things over. Looking at a photo of a sloth—the big eyes, the gently smiling mouth—I am certain that something astonishing is going on in that short, flat head.

Sloths spend their lives hanging upside down from tree branches. In this pose, they eat, sleep, mate, bear young and die; even after death a sloth may hang from a branch for days, as if the divide between death and its sedentary life does not much matter. The world’s slowest mammal—an average clip is six feet a minute— sloths move only when necessary so as not to tax their minimal musculature. On the ground they are awkward and vulnerable, long polished claws serving as their only defense. For this reason, they stay in the trees, descending just once a week to urinate and defecate, digging a hole and covering it up afterward. While slowness might be considered a detriment to survival, this trait is actually an advantage for the sloth, whose lack of motion draws no attention. Another advantage of a slow pace is the chance it gives other life forms to take hold: algae blooms freely on sloths, serving as perfect jungle camouflage, as well as a handy food source.

Nocturnal creatures, sloths forage on their trees from dusk to dawn, methodically eating the fruit, leaves and bark. This roughage is then effortlessly digested, albeit slowly, with the help of multi-compartmentalized stomachs that comprise two-thirds of the animals’ body-weight.

Once a year the female lets out a few loud shrieks, which the male dutifully answers, and after great time and effort, they manage to arrive on the same branch.  The mating itself occurs over a period of several minutes, and in what seems to be a tender fashion—sloths are the only mammals other than bonobo apes and humans that mate face-to-face. The baby sloth appears six months later and spends much of its first year clinging its mother.

Research shows that sloths spend about ten hours a day sleeping. In the hours the animal is awake but inactive, it hangs from its limb and regards the jungle canopy, moving its flexible neck in increments, blinking now and then. Hidden among the leaves, making no sound or movement, these mute little beasts seem to want just one thing: to be undiscovered.

The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, is some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.

It is estimated that people have 60,000 thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These 60,000 thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day to day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and, other than single visit from a single mate, has no company. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. A hundred? Twenty? I would trade my 60,000 for a glimpse of them.