What Ants Know

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There are ants that tend to their injured
by licking their wounds,
slowly transferring their own health
into fallen soldiers,
sealing fresh lesions against lethal bacteria.
Who can say why a creature as small as an ant
with so many hardy brethren,
would bother to stop—an hour if need be—
and help a troop.
In that tiny helmet of a head
are there neurons of compassion, of pity,
or are these ministrations automatic, instinct,
like the urge to tunnel or serve a queen
(what is instinct anyway
but a word for what we can’t explain?).
Some ants will even evac a battered brother,
not the terminal—those who have lost too many limbs
to the brutal jaws of termites—
but the ones who, with proper attention,
may fight another day.
The medics sense the difference
and do what they can
before moving farther afield,
gifted with the knowing
there is not a moment to spare.

Inner Critics

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It was the 70s.
No one had cell phones,
and cameras were for
travel, holidays,
bigger things.
“Selfie” wasn’t even a word.

So when you came across
that ancient photo
tucked in a book,
your stomach jumped.

There you were,
sitting on your dorm bed
hunched over a small typewriter,
looking up, surprised.
Younger, prettier—
that’s to be expected.
It’s the details that fascinate.
The blue eye shadow—too blue,
and eyeliner—too much.
You’re wearing jeans and one of those silly
peasant blouses—all the rage for half a minute.
Long straight hair parted down the middle,
same as the rest of the herd.
A poster on the wall of naked lovers,
red satin sheets. Good god.
A really ugly desk lamp.

STOP!
You can do that now,
tell your censor
to shut up,
leave this innocent alone.

She dogged you then too,
that old nag;
nothing you did
pleased her.
She was with you
from the start,
braiding you with doubt,
cloaking you with dread.
Not anymore.

Age has carried off
what you no longer need,
left you something
to fight with instead.

Now you have your critic
pinned against the ropes.
Let her rail all she wants,
you don’t need to listen,
you slow walking,
white-haired champion.

Snow

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I used to look up
at snow coming down,
as if for an explanation, an origin,
but there were no answers,
just a gray cotton blanket
and those wheeling white crystals,
each perfect star
a chance in a million.

Fields of snow,
glinting on a cold clear morning,
mounded here and there
over ordinary things,
turning them into secrets.
Snow so clean and deep and pure
that just gazing at it
returned your innocence.

Snow that hardened to a crust,
ready for a boot to break through.
Ponds that splintered under your skates,
puddles you could crack and bend.

Snow on a roof,
sliding off in a sudden whump,
or melting slowly,
one drop finding another, and another,
falling and freezing and falling again,
turning to daggers
that glistened in the sun,
before plunging themselves
in the drifts below.

Snow
as far as you could see,
claiming all,
hugging even
the first daffodils
before shrinking at last
to dirty heaps
along the roads,
against the buildings,
waiting for spring
to carry them off.

Photo by Lutz Koch on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Defending Alabama

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Tell people you’re moving
to Alabama and their mouths
drop open.
You might have said
Afghanistan.

“AlaBAMa! Why?”

You rush to explain:
family, first of all,
then the Gulf, so close—
dolphins, sea turtles!

Hurricanes, they counter.
Humidity.
Trumpers!
And, always,
“How can you leave Napa?”
as if this thirsty valley is an unparalleled paradise,
as if, beyond grapes and wine bars,
there is nothing at all,
just a drop off
to the end of the world.

Surely I will miss the valley slopes,
tawny in the summer,
emerald after the rains,
the tidy cascades of vineyards
wrapped with morning fog.

I want more.
I want to dip into my past,
become, in my seniority, a kid again
steeped in a world of fresh wonders:
anoles with ruby dewlaps
eyeing me from my porch light,
frogs no bigger than a thumbnail
tucked in the curl of a leaf;
fireflies sparking the night,
painted buntings
I thought were long gone.
Sting rays skimming the shoreline,
hermit crabs swapping one shell for another.
Powder white beach sand borne of granite.
Sea monster fossils sixty feet long.

How much time do I have left?
How can I stay where I am?

Love and Lilacs

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When I smell lilac blossoms, I am fourteen again and lying in tall sweet grass with my boyfriend. His hair is blonde and curly, and when he smiles, which is often, his blue eyes turn into twin crescents. There are summer cottages just a few yards away, and people moving back into them, but we are tucked behind a tall hedge and no one can see us. We kiss one long last time before getting to our feet and then, laughing, we brush the telltale grass off each others’ back. At the end of my street he pulls me close and kisses me again—this boy loves to kiss—and then he turns and starts walking down the dirt path along the railroad tracks. I do not take my eyes off him. Twice, maybe three times, he turns and waves, and though I can’t see his face, I know he is smiling.

Back east, where I grew up, lilacs grow like weeds. Each spring their branch tips burst into bunches of light lavender flowers that droop and nod in the breeze. On warm days, you live in their perfume. Tender and persuasive, the scent is like no other. There were roses in my youth, big dew-covered blooms lolling over white fences, but smelling them now does not take me back in time. Roses are not lilacs.

We were fourteen and in love. While I appreciate nature now, back then it was clemency, a place to disappear, and this boy and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain and wind.

Scientists tell us that memories are stored at the connection points between neurons in the brain. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, each one potentially connecting to 10,000 other neurons. As information moves through the networks of the brain, the activity of the neurons causes the connection points to become stronger or weaker in response. This process, synaptic plasticity, is how the brain stores information. Once a memory has been created, aromas are potent triggers for recall.

This boy lives in me, my memories of him clear and true because they are welded in place. His wife has him now, but his boyhood belongs to me, as I presumably live on in him. I only need lilac blooms to bring him back and give our sweet youth another moment in the sun.

Photo by Breelynne on Foter.com / CC BY

A Streaked Window

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A child needs a father like a fish needs a bicycle. That’s the conclusion I came to somewhere in my teens. Now, decades later, the notion persists despite the heartening anecdotes I’ve heard. It’s not that I don’t believe the people who tell me their fathers are or were gems; I just can’t envision that Father Knows Best kind of world. Were these men Fred McMurray nice? Did they sit cross-legged on sofas, pipe in hand and gently listen to their children’s gleeful chatter? Did they grin and tousle their hair like Brian Keith in Family Affair? Did they teach hard lessons in a tender fashion, a la Andy Griffith of Mayberry? Or did their good qualities simply edge out the bad? Society holds the bar lower for men than women as if, expecting the worse, all we ask of fathers is decency.

My father, as you may have gathered, was not a nice man. He was a sadist and a tyrant and worse. There are too many similar stories, too many women abused by a father, uncle or grandfather. I know that these men do not represent their gender and that good men are plentiful, but my view remains smudged, a streaked window I cannot wipe clean. Each time I see a father with a young daughter I look for signs of trouble. I want to save whomever I can, now that I have the power.

Two friends of mine, women happily married to each other, are raising a boy and a girl. I have observed their family dynamic for many years, and what strikes me most about these women is their keen awareness of the colossal responsibility they have taken on. These two have made a solemn commitment to motherhood, parsing every detail and possible consequence of their parental decisions in a continual quest to keep their offspring out of harm’s way and reasonably content. The same can be said of another couple I know, married men, who are also raising children. Perhaps this level of dedication comes from hard-won victories: the right to marry, the right to adopt. Perhaps it is borne of suffering, whatever ridicule or injustice these men and women endured growing up in a culture that did not include them. Pain depletes some people, breaks open the hearts of others.

There are communal families, as in the Scandinavian countries, and there are transgendered couples raising children; there are those who, through divorce or tragedy, are compelled to parent without partners, and there are those who deliberately choose that arrangement. Love being fluid and accommodating, families can be cobbled from whatever is there.

I admire these devout parents. I never wanted children—the idea makes me woozy. Motherhood requires resources I must have been born without.

I live in the suburbs, where traditional nuclear families still predominate. The notion that such environments produce the healthiest children is religious propaganda with no supporting evidence. Sometimes I stand at the window and watch the kids across the street playing with their dog while their father washes the car. I have no idea what goes on behind their front door, but the children appear well-adjusted, and I have no reason to believe they’re in danger.

I want this to be true. I want them to grow up as they should, so that the sight of children at play will bring them nothing but joy.

 

Photo by Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton on Foter.comCC BY-NC-ND

Blood Thirst

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Who can forget Sean Connery as 007? Smiling, square-jawed, never had a scratch on him. James Bond was spring fresh in every scene, ready for a cold martini and a hot babe. And Robert Vaughn, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Wasn’t he a smooth operator? Calculated, restrained, just the right amount of derring-do. And how about Robert Conrad, that gorgeous gunslinger from The Wild Wild West, effortlessly slipping in and out of trouble and relishing every minute of it. And Mission Impossible, the original, with solemn Peter Graves and shrewd Barbara Bain. I loved that self-destructing tape, the quiet gravity with which the missions were accepted and the grace with which they were accomplished.

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One of the features that distinguished these TV shows was how neatly the heroes sidestepped bodily harm. 007 was on the brink of annihilation in every movie but used his wits, and often some thrilling gadget, to elude his torturous predicaments. Robert Conrad availed his gymnastic prowess, along with the futuristic features of his luxury train. The men from U.N.C.L.E employed smarts, hi-tech communication devices and a versatile firearm known simply as “The Gun.” The Mission Impossible agents were endowed with a protective canniness and a spectacular range of disguises. There was violence in these shows, to be sure, but kills were bullet-clean, and the camera did not linger over them. Gore was not the point.

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Fast forward to the Mission Impossible movies starring Tom Cruise in which Ethan Hunt plunges repeatedly into brutal protracted slugfests. The first 30 seconds of these battles would put any mortal in ICU, or worse, but Ethan keeps coming back for more, enduring multiple lacerations and contusions before emerging in the next scene with just a few tidy scars to remind us of his durability.

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Another thing we didn’t see much of in those early TV series were explosions. Now they’re everywhere, one colossal deafening fireball after another, coupled with billowing black smoke and flying chunks of mortar and steel. The challenge, I’ve heard, is to see how enormous these explosions can appear on screen while maintaining relative safety on the set.

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And then there’s hyper-speed, the most overused special effect of our time. From knife fights to space ship battles, overdrive is the numbing norm. That these scenes are too fast to follow and too numerous to sustain interest doesn’t seem to matter.

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What is next? What is the follow-up to bloody beatings, fireballs and warp speed? What is left on that big screen to bowl us over? Not those flimsy “reality shows” with hoarders and naked survivors and duck hunters. And not the next tier, where people dare each other to eat pig eyes or throw themselves onto giant obstacle courses or brawl inside cages. Those games will no longer suffice.

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We will have to have the real thing. Real contestants fighting in real time with real consequences, the same entertainment Roman emperors used to placate the swollen, restless masses before the inevitable fall of the empire. We will sit not in amphitheaters but in our living rooms and sports bars. We will cheer for our brawny idols and watch them attack each other with increasingly frightening weapons, and how far we let these contests go will determine the speed of our own demise.

After a while, even this entertainment will not satisfy us, and we will turn to each other in bewilderment and despair and bottomless need, and slowly we will find our way back. Or not.

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Photo by ЯAFIK ♋ BERLIN on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA